Tag Archives: Artemis Butler

Scene 284 – Obsidio

OBSIDIO

RICHARD

“We’re running blind here!”

“All three echoes are down! We need backup! That giant—”

“We do not have South Gate contained, I repeat, not contained. Need—”

“We’re holding the dock, but that’s about it. We’ve been pushed back—”

My phone rang. Five simple beeps cut through the cacophony of screams from my soldiers. As if they were nothing but mist.

That’s what they felt like. Mist and shadow, something distant and unimportant.

I might have been in shock, but if so, so was everyone else. The tactical map showed multitudes of enemy units ambushing our soldiers quickly and professionally. They took out specialty units like the echoes with speed and precision.

Everyone in this room—even myself and the senators—had fought wars before. We’d been in the war room while the generals and admirals made the tough decisions.

But no one had ever seen this level of resistance.

The generals were on their radios. They shouted at captains, ordered retreats here and reinforcements there. It still felt hollow. It still felt a million miles away.

My phone rang again. Five simple beeps.

I pulled it out and raised it to my ear, not bothering to switch it to speaker this time. “Hello?”

“Please hold for Artemis Butler.” It was that same pleasant female voice as before.

A moment later, another voice took over. “Mister President.”

“Mister Butler.”

“Your forces are doing well.”

“There is no need to be snide.”

“I’m not. They are attacking an entrenched position with limited reinforcements and no intel. Considering that, they are doing beautifully. Your men at East Gate, especially, deserve a commendation. The vampires are very good at terror tactics, especially when combined with the angels.”

I glanced at the map. East Gate was where our men had penetrated farthest. They were still getting slaughtered and ambushed. At least they were taking a reasonable amount of the enemy down with them, though.

“It seems Sele didn’t tell me everything.”

“I did warn you.”

“How are you doing this?” I asked. “Your numbers far exceed what we expected. We were expecting dozens at a time, maybe hundreds at the most. But South Gate informs me that the streets are filled with those… demons as far as the eye can see.”

“Ah, yes, Sargeras and his hellions,” he said, his tone fond. “Not to mention the Erlking and his goblins. They’re working well together.”

How? These gangs—”

“The gangs are dead, Mister President,” he interrupted. “I killed them years ago. These are cultures. You may as well be fighting entire countries. That was your mistake.”

I knew he was right. All the special abilities that they seemed to have weren’t important, in the long run. Nightvision and ambush tactics? Please, any random second-world country could manage that. No, it was the numbers that were getting us.

And the will. The will to defend, to drive out the invaders. Gangs didn’t have that. You put force on a gang, and they run like rats. But these ones stood strong. The vampires retreated to set up new ambushes, the demons retreated to set up new barricades.

They were acting like soldiers defending a homeland.

“I would like to give up,” I said quietly.

“I expected as much.”

“I’m not going to.”

“Yes, I expected that as well.”

I took a deep breath. “Please order your men to surrender, Mister Butler.” There was no pretending he wasn’t in charge, at this point. If Domina City was its own country, he was its president.

“I’m sorry, but no.”

I nodded. “I expected that. May I ask why not?”

His voice was stone. “Because it is necessary.”

I found myself nodding again. “Necessary… yes, I think I understand that. And I think I understand the reasoning behind the name of your organization. Finally, I think I understand you, Mister Butler.”

“I am not a complicated man.”

“Yes, that was my mistake.” I closed my eyes. “The kid gloves are coming off, Mister Butler.”

“And I say the same to you, Mister President. Numbers are not our only advantage.”

I hung up, and placed the phone on the table. I cleared my throat.

All conversation stopped. The generals and admirals froze, radios held up to their heads in mid-order. The senators and various aides seemed to be jolted out of their shock.

“General Hoshi,” I said. “Do you read me?”

“Loud and clear, Mister President.”

“New orders to all captains: Weapons free. Support our men, and put some more holes in that wall. I want more landing sites.”

“Yes sir.”

I took a deep breath. This was a war against an entrenched enemy nation. It was time I started treating it as one.

Behind the Scenes (scene 284)

I really like the conversations between Richard and Butler, and hope to have more of them in the future. Assuming Richard’s artillery doesn’t vaporize Butler, and assuming Butler’s ghosts don’t assassinate Richard.

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Scene 277 – Bellum

BELLUM

RICHARD

It was Christmas. My first Christmas as president. The White House was decorated, my wife was directing the caterers, and my daughter was getting under everyone’s feet with her new toy sword. I was going to kill my brother for buying that thing.

It was a beautiful, wonderful day, not even lunch yet, and I was stuck in a dark room, about to enact war on a city that was supposed to be under our protection. This was the kind of thing world leaders got beheaded for. Being the first US president to die to a rampaging mob might get me in the history books, but I had been hoping for something a little more positive.

“Mister President?” Silk said quietly.

I looked up to see the generals and admirals waiting for me. There were even a few senators, Grain and one or two others. I had expected them to dodge the actual work, never mind the fact that it was on Christmas.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you for coming, everyone. I know this is a difficult day. I had hoped we’d be ready to launch sooner, but complications arose.”

“We understand,” Grain said.

“We’ve all looked over the numbers,” Ward added. “This is the best time to move. Unfortunately. It’s a miracle that we even have enough men on the boats.”

I took a deep breath. “Then if there are no objections…” No one spoke. I reached forward and clicked the radio on. “General Hoshi?”

“I read you loud and clear, Mister President,” she said, her voice crackling only slightly.

“It’s time, General.”

“Yes, sir. Launching all ships.”

We all watched on the wall screen as two carriers, four battleships, and a horde of smaller assault craft launched from the New York coast line. It was almost certainly overkill, but I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. The more men we sent, the greater chance the city would surrender without a fight.

“Let’s go over the city’s defenses while we wait,” I suggested. “Fitzsimmons, tell me about the Fusion Islands.”

He bobbed his head. He used a remote to switch to a rough map of the city with the four islands at each compass point marked. “Domina has four large nuclear fusion reactors, set a good distance from the main island. They channel power through undersea cables, which results in a good deal of power lost in the transfer, but the original designers were quite paranoid, and were worried that—”

“Fitzsimmons,” I warned.

He got back on track without missing a beat. “The islands are where their space cannons are located, and with proper calibration could be reformatted into long-range artillery. Doubt they’d be able to hit anything closer than a mile, though, and definitely not anything actually moving. Likewise, using the islands as bombs would be inefficient and ineffective.”

Everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief.

“However, the amount of power the reactors produce does give them some very potent defensive options. With the amount of time they had to prepare, they could easily have set up laser turrets.”

“Lasers,” Grain said flatly.

“Not enough to damage any but our smallest ships,” Fitzsimmons assured him. “But they’d be a real danger if any planes get too close, and more importantly could easily shoot down any missiles before they get close enough to do any damage.”

I closed my eyes. Great. That meant the carriers were basically useless. Would have been better to just leave the stupid things to rust.

No, there must be another way to use them. Hoshi had been working closely with Fitzsimmons, he must have mentioned this to her. But she had still specifically requested the carriers. She must have a plan.

“Other than that, the city has no meaningful defenses. Just two mid-sized patrol boats.”

“Ward,” I said. “Tell me about our infantry options.”

He shook his head. “We don’t have much data, and what we have isn’t good. Breaching that wall could take hours, even with the ships. And that’s assuming you’re willing to accept the collateral damage.”

I wasn’t, and he knew it. I let him continue.

“We’ll have to go through one of the four gates.” He clicked his own remote, and the map changed to one highlighting four points on the edge of the city’s wall. “Getting through the gates won’t be too hard. Our men our equipped with lock-bombs. They’re designed to magnetically force open blast doors. We’ll need a lot of them, but we can get them open.”

“Which gate are you attacking?” one of the generals asked.

“All of them,” Ward said. “We have the men for it. It will help counter the fact that they’ll force us to bottleneck and make us easy pickings. Even if one or more of the beachheads is defeated, the others can serve as staging points to push forward.”

The generals nodded, satisfied.

“Do we have any real numbers?” I asked.

Ward shook his head. “None. There are several hundred million people in the city, but we have no idea how many of them are combatants. This would have been easier with Sele rallying her people.”

Somehow I doubted that they would have been happy to see her. The woman ran away with her tail between her legs and then sent an army to attack their home. “No use crying over it now. Worst case scenario, what are we looking at?”

“Worst case, we’re going to be killing a lot of people. Our men will be using corpses as sandbags.”

“We’ll win, though,” one of the generals said firmly.

“Of course we will,” I snapped. “But forgive me if I don’t think slaughtering an entire city counts as saving it.” I shook my head. “Sele wasn’t able to give me much detail on the state of affairs. We know the toy maker is in wide use, but that’s about it.”

“Our men can handle weird crap,” the same general said. I really should try and remember his name. “A few bird or dog people aren’t going to faze them.”

“I know.” I shook my head. “But this whole thing just feels… off to me. Like we’re missing something important.”

“Butler,” Silk said.

I nodded slowly. “That’s it. Sele said he was the de facto ruler of the city. That means he has men and guns.”

“But if we kill him, his gang collapses,” Ward said. “That could be checkmate right there.”

“Could be,” I agreed. “Except we have no idea where he is or what he even looks like. I doubt he’s going to stand on top of the tallest skyscraper and politely wait for us to snipe him in the head.” I waved my hand. “Killing Butler simply isn’t feasible. But…”

An idea was tickling my brain. If it worked…

“Mister President?” General Hoshi said through the radio. “We’re in position.”

That was fast. But then, I had ordered them to redline their engines. The point was to try for a surprise attack. Well, as surprising as it could be. I clicked my own remote, showing a map of Domina with our ships surrounding it. They were giving the Fusion Islands a careful berth.

“Should we attack now?” Grain asked hesitantly.

I shook my head. “No, not yet.” I clicked the radio again. “Hoshi, are we ready?”

“We are, Mister President.”

“Patch me through.”

There was a brief pause. “Go ahead, sir.”

“People of Domina City,” I said, using my deepest speech voice. “This is President Richard Martinez of the United States of America. I am speaking to you through the fleet that is currently surrounding your city.

“We are here to negotiate the surrender of the gangs and other criminals currently plaguing your streets. We hope to solve this peacefully, but it is more than likely that they will refuse. We will have no choice but to remove them violently. Please, stay in your homes. You will be safe there.”

I gave it a moment. Hoshi took the hint. “I turned it off, Mister President.”

“Thank you, General. Patch him through when he calls.”

“Yes, Mister President.”

Grain looked at me oddly. “You really think he’ll call after that?”

“If half of what Sele told me is true, I would be shocked if he didn’t.”

My phone rang. Five simple beeps.

I frowned as I fished it out of my pocket. “That’s odd. I thought I turned this off.” I pulled it out and glanced at the caller ID. It just said ‘MC.’ I turned it onto speaker. “Hello?”

“President Richard Martinez,” a pleasant female voice said. “Please hold.”

I stared at the phone, then at the others at the table. None of them seemed to have a better idea of what was going on than I did.

“Mister President,” a strong, controlled male voice said over the speaker. “I think it is time we had a conversation.”

I felt my blood chill in my veins. “Artemis Butler.”

Grain visibly choked.

“Correct.”

“How did you get this number?” Most of the people in this room didn’t have this number. Only my immediate family and Silk, actually.

He ignored the question. “I would like the discuss the toys you currently have floating outside my city.”

I took a deep breath. “Domina City is a United States city that has flagrantly defied all laws almost since its inception. If you order your men to stand down, we can clean this all up very quickly.”

“Even were I inclined to do so, I do not command all the guns in this city. These people will defend their homes. Sending battleships instead of diplomats was not a wise move.”

“Diplomats? To a bunch of gangs and warlords? We do not negotiate with terrorists.”

“Neither do I. Ask Soaring Eagle what I do to terrorists. Ask her what happened to the Black Bird, or the White Skull, or to Malcanthet and Belial.”

It took me a second to realize who he was talking about. “You mean Sele? She’s dead.”

There was a pause.

“Unexpected,” he said, his voice betraying no emotion. “But I will not shed a tear for a jealous traitor. Regardless, here is what she would tell you about terrorists in Domina City: They don’t last long.”

“We are hardly terrorists.”

“You are using violence and the threat of violence in an attempt to terrify the populace into acquiescing to your will.”

I closed my eyes. The bastard had a point. If not for the whole ruthless gang lord thing, this might be someone I could get along with.

“If I sent a negotiator over, would you accept him?”

The generals and senators looked horrified, but I quieted them with a raised hand. This was important.

“Yes. What terms did you have in mind?”

“We’ll move our forces in to corral the gangs. You’ll help with that, and be officially named mayor of the city. Use of the toy maker will be limited, and guns will be brought down to a more reasonable level through basic licensing. Trade with New York City will be opened up, especially food and other expensive materials.”

There was a pause.

Then he laughed.

Not a quiet little chuckle, a great booming laugh that stressed my phone’s speakers.

I ground my teeth, but didn’t interrupt. I wouldn’t look like the immature one here.

“She really didn’t tell you anything, did she?” he gasped out. “What’d she do, paint a picture of a dark pit, filled with people hiding from roving gangs and mercenaries?”

“She told me enough,” I said icily.

“No. No, she did not. I guarantee that.”

“She told me you wouldn’t give up power. I suppose you would rather be warlord of the city than something real and legal.”

He barked out another laugh. “I would gladly give up my job. But they keep voting to keep me in, and I don’t have it in me to step down without a successor I’ve groomed personally.”

I frowned. Voted? He probably meant something informal, like the gang leaders agreed to follow him.

“It is a reasonable offer, Mister Butler. More than reasonable.”

“No, Mister President, it is not.” His breathing had returned to normal, the laughter subsiding. “Your bird wanted to kill our city. She thought your terms would do that, one way or another. Either we agree and die, or disagree and are killed. Simple but effective.”

“It sounds like you’re between a rock and a hard place.”

“No. Soaring Eagle always did look down on everyone else. She underestimates this city.” The last vestiges of humor and cheer disappeared from his voice. “We will hold against all comers. If you insist on making this a war, I guarantee that you will regret it.”

“Our military is the strongest on Earth.”

“Maybe. But we are Domina City. There is nothing that you can do to us that we haven’t already done worse to ourselves.”

“When all this is over, remember I tried to negotiate.”

“No. You tried to threaten. You just did a terrible job of it.”

I shut off my phone and looked up. Everyone else seemed to agree with how I had handled the situation, which was a nice change of pace. Some of them looked more than a little rattled, but it would be fine.

I clicked the radio.

“Hoshi. Launch the assault.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 277)

And the war begins. Been waiting for this for… the entire time I’ve been writing this story, now that I think of it.

Scene 264 – Dicio

ARTEMIS

DICIO

“You could have given us some warning!”

“At least an hour!”

“Or more than five bleeding minutes—”

“The people are panicking. My constituents are actually talking about leaving the city.”

“It’s only a matter of time before riots start. There’s widespread looting—”

“There’s always widespread looting!”

“I meant more than—”

I slammed my fist against the desk hard enough to crack the wood.

The large television, an entire wall filled with hundreds of arguing faces, instantly fell silent as each and every one of those faces shut their babbling mouths. I had always been able to project a presence when I wanted to. My ability to stand strong on my own two legs without a cane was only enhancing that.

“Warlords. Senators,” I said calmly, once I was sure I had everyone’s attention. “I do apologize for the abrupt and unforeseen announcement. I would like to lay this blame on the American president—his address was quite a surprise to his nation as well as our city—but he has enough to answer for already. No, this was my fault. I could have delayed the announcement, at least until the senators and major warlords knew. I chose not to.”

“Why not?” the Dragon asked. He seemed largely unconcerned, even amused, by the turn of events. But then, when you’re one of the strongest things in the entire city, it was hard to feel threatened by anything. “I’m not trying to undermine you, Knight Butler. I’m genuinely curious why you made this decision. I doubt very much that it was rash and spur of the moment.”

The rest of the members of our impromptu virtual meeting waiting patiently for my answer.

I paused, considering my words carefully.

“Domina City has never been united,” I said slowly. “My rule is largely based on allowing everyone to do whatever they want. You all bicker and grumble about my laws, about my ‘sarians, but you comply because your lives would not be significantly improved by overthrowing us in any capacity. It simply isn’t worth the risk.”

“Don’t underestimate your importance, Butler,” Eccretia of the Never-Known Thieves noted. “We might fight amongst each other, but this city is no longer a killing field filled with roving gangs of blood-thirsty murderers. There is law, and there is order, even if neither are traditional.”

I inclined my head in thanks. “Perhaps. But you bring up an important point: We fight amongst each other. The Guruhi and the Nictuku were nearly wiped out because they couldn’t stop fighting during the bats attack. Days, hours after the Rampage, the war between the sasquatches and the yetis was back in full force. All it took was the death of Mjolnir to destroy years of friendship between the trolls and the Thors.”

“We survived Elizabeth Greene,” Ulr, a senator from North Outer, said confidently. “We can survive this.”

“Greene was a fluke,” Mephistopheles said with a bitter laugh. “She was supposed to fail. You can’t expect the same to be said of the United States military. They are still the greatest military force on this planet.”

“So you expect us to just lay down and die?” Hextor, Power of Scourgehold, hissed through razor-sharp shark teeth.

“No,” I cut in before anyone else could speak. “That’s what I was getting at. We fight. We always fight. We can win this. We just have to work together.” I smiled grimly. “We are Domina City. We do far worse to each other on a daily basis than anything America can dream up.”

The warlords and other city leaders pondered my words, sitting in their distant domains and offices, considering whether or not I was right—whether or not we actually had any chance of fighting a war apparatus that could probably conquer the entire world if need be.

“They won’t be able to use tanks,” Dispater said. “Not until they establish control of at least one port. And even then they will be heavily limited by the gates. They’re not going to be able to knock down the wall with anything less than a battleship.”

“The Dagonites will be able to handle any oceangoing vessels,” Ambassador Georgia promised us. “But we can’t do anything about anything in the air. What happens if they decide to just carpet-bomb the city? We’ll be fine; you won’t.”

“They want to capture the city, not level it,” I assured her. “That’s also why we won’t have to worry about artillery shelling us from the mainland. If they get sea superiority, they might make a few pinpoint strikes with their ship cannons, but nothing major.”

“If we annoy them enough, they might decide to make a very loud and dangerous example,” Chronepsis, the Wyrm of the Dispassionate Watchers, noted. “Do we have any form of point-defense, anything to shoot down enemy missiles or shells?”

I shook my head. “None, unfortunately. We can talk to our space-based allies, but they won’t have much to offer, and depending on when the attack comes, might not be able to get here in time anyway. Our only hope is to keep them from taking such drastic measures.”

“The Heavens and a number of other angel outposts can have their lasers reconfigured for defense,” Sealtiel, the Defender, offered. “Nothing strong enough to take out an artillery shell, but a couple missiles shouldn’t be too hard.”

Nemeni of the Blood-Doused Hunters looked thoughtful. “Lots of ‘scrapers have turrets on them, especially now that fliers are… ” She waved her hand. “Flying around. Shouldn’t be too hard to point those at the sky and shoot down anything incoming. They’ll need some new target programming, but the changelings can provide that easily enough.”

“So it will turn into an infantry battle,” Gruumsh grunted. “We can fight infantry battles.”

“If the general in charge has any brain at all, he won’t try to take the whole city at once,” Juan Keller cut in. “He’ll focus all the men he can spare on one gate, try to establish a foothold as fast as possible. We will be fighting at least dozens, more likely hundreds of soldiers at once. None of us have any experience with that sort of scale.”

“But we have been fighting in urban warfare our entire lives,” Laura said as she stepped up beside me, into camera range. I had no idea how long she had been there, but knew better than to act surprised. “This isn’t going to be easy. But we have the homefield advantage, not even mentioning our powers—which the Americans will have no ability to anticipate. Soaring Eagle fled before the MEE, and might not have even mentioned the screamers and Elizabeth.”

“Speaking of the traitor,” Tiamat, one of Chronepsis’ sisters, spoke up. She was specifically the warlord of the Unholy Ravagers, which was pretty much everything you needed to know about her. “When do we get to take revenge on Soaring Eagle for betraying the city? The outside world has never cared about us; seeing an ave anthro wouldn’t change their minds. She had to spin up quite the tale, promise that president a lot, to make him do her dirty work for her.”

There were murmurs of agreement; I silenced them with a single raised hand.

“Soaring Eagle is outside our reach at the moment,” I reminded them all. “Outside the reach of anyone and everyone affiliated with Domina City, even our ghosts. For now, we must focus on more important things.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 264)

Short scenes never sit well with me, no matter how well they come out. I was actually seriously considering removing this one completely, but I needed to show some planning.

Scene 243 – Tutus

TUTUS

DEREK

After a long discussion with Butler about what Io’s son was up to, Laura stayed behind to talk about the sewers, and how the disappearance of Obox-ob, the ekolid warlord, would affect the city’s plumbing. I couldn’t exactly contribute to that conversation, so I took a walk.

A few quick questions to the ‘sarian guards told me what I wanted to know, and it only took a few minutes to find the place I was looking for.

The prison.

I had never seen a prison before. Domina didn’t have any, in the same way oceans didn’t have baths. The entire city had been designed as a prison, and in many ways it still was one. Sure, ever since the screamers had appeared, Butler had been forced to create a large number of temporary holding cells, but those were more like cages for animals than anything. Regardless, I had tried to avoid those anyway.

Since this was a Necessarian prison, it was clean and orderly, with guards carefully placed where they could keep an eye on the prisoners, the entrances, and each other. Alarms and intercoms were always within arm’s reach, and cameras watched every inch, occasionally with gun turrets for muscle.

There was a small corner that acted as a waiting room, which had a pair of posters: One contained pictures of every single guard working here, and the other all the prisoners. If anyone tried to impersonate a guard or escape, they would have a hard time of it.

It felt like overkill, considering that there were only fourteen prisoners, but when you stopped and thought about it, the two hundred cells Butler had managed to put together on short notice would probably be filled very quickly. At our current rate, we had seven new prisoners per day. I had a feeling that rate was only going to increase.

“Honored Paragon,” the guard at the information desk greeted me, even making the effort to stand up and salute me through the bulletproof glass. “It’s a pleasure. You can go right in; no need to sign the book.”

I smiled and pulled the pen and pad towards me. “Nice trick. If I was an impostor, do you really think that would work?”

She shrugged. “Eh, maybe. We’ve got other ways of verifying your identity, anyway.” As she spoke, I followed the instructions on the pad and allowed it to scan my hand for fingerprints. “You know how it is.”

“I do,” I admitted as I finished the process. There were almost certainly a few more besides the fingerprint and signature that I couldn’t see. Thermal imagers in the walls, perhaps, maybe even some sort of X-ray backscatter device. “Where are the power suppressors?” They required line of sight, but I didn’t see them anywhere.

“You mean the silencers?” She grinned, and pointed up. I frowned and followed where she indicated, squinting, but didn’t see anything besides the lights in the ceiling. “They’re in the lights. Each individual emitter is pretty small, but altogether they work fine, and they’re easier to hide. Try it.”

I did as she suggested, attempting to use my power, but it didn’t work. Well, no, that wasn’t quite right. I could feel something happening, and could still sense my reservoir and everything, but I couldn’t conjure any shields, and my reservoir remained full.

I shrugged. “I guess I’ll just have to take your word on it.” I headed off, before stopping and stepping back to the counter. “The suppressors—silencers—are on a different circuit than the lights, right?”

She nodded. “They have their own power supply. With an individual backup for each that can last up to six hours.”

“Good. And who has the key to turn them off?”

“No one. They don’t turn off.”

That might be a problem when they needed maintenance, but until then it certainly sounded clever enough. “Thank you. Tell Clarke I’m impressed with his security arrangements.” I thought about it. “I mean, the Big Boss.”

“Lieutenant Colonel Vovk is the one in charge of the prison.”

That name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it. “Well, then pass my compliments on to him.”

Another nod, and I headed in.

Finding the cell in question wasn’t hard. In addition to being one of the only ones occupied, it was the only one with a visitor. Or rather, four visitors. Akane, Flynn, and her nephews Yuuki and Yuudai. I was still having a little bit of trouble remembering which name went to which.

The boys didn’t have any swords, and I was surprised to find that Akane had one. Her previous one, the one I’d bought her years ago, had been destroyed by Silk, and she still hadn’t gotten around to replacing it. Or I thought she hadn’t, anyway.

She turned as she heard me coming, the blue ribbon in her hair briefly getting caught on her shoulder. She fixed it without even noticing. “Derek. What are you doing here? You should be with Laura.”

“They started talking about sewers, so I left.” I stepped up to the cell. “Hello, Saki.”

She looked so much like Akane. The same shape of the face, the same tint of the skin. Even her annoyed glare was the same, her eyes tilted at just the right angle. Akane had said she looked like her mother, Murasaki, but I had never met any of Akane’s sisters, so I couldn’t make the distinction.

She didn’t say a word, just sat on her cot, knees pulled up to her chest, glaring at me like I had done her some personal disservice. The prison uniform that had been provided for her sat in a carefully folded pile on the floor. She was still wearing some ratty street clothes, dirty jeans and a tattered brown shirt with some faded band name scrawled across the front.

The cell itself was immaculate, with the exception of a few pieces of trash that probably represented things they had tried to give her, and that she had refused to take. The place simply hadn’t been occupied for long enough to become dirtied.

“How long has she been like this?” I asked, not taking my eyes off the girl. Everything I knew about the Akiyamas told me that she would be planning her escape. The question was, could she escape without her power? She didn’t appear to have the training necessary to slip through the bars or subdue the guards.

“Ever since she woke up,” Flynn said quietly, likely hoping she wouldn’t be able to overhear. “Akane and the boys have been trying to reach out to her, but she’s not responding. It seems like she still suspects it’s all some trick, and they’re not actually related.”

I frowned. “That makes no sense. Why would anyone go to such lengths to pretend to be her family?”

“She’s been on the street for her entire life,” he reminded me. “I’m not sure why her grandparents didn’t adopt her when her mother died, but I guess that could give you a pretty strong trust issues.”

That made me wonder. “Who raised her, then? If she was born in NHQ, she should have gone to one of Mary Christina’s orphanages. But if it were that simple, it wouldn’t have taken Akane so long to find her…”

Akane turned away from the cell and led us a few steps away, where we could talk in private, while Yuuki and Yuudai continued to try and reach their cousin. “She was sent to one of Zaphkiel’s orphanages in West Middle. Parents never told me why, and I’m not going to ask my mother.”

“Where in West Middle?”

“East of Maladomini, west of the Troll Bridge. But it burned down a year after she was moved there, anyway. That’s why it took so long to find her. No one was even sure if she had survived for the longest time.”

I peered back at Saki, who hadn’t moved an inch, and was eyeing her cousins with wary disdain. Even in this city, it seemed extreme that an eleven year-old could be so world-weary. It left a sick pit in my stomach, like a bad joke.

“Well,” I muttered. “She has to talk sometime.”

“Not really,” Flynn noted. “She’s mute.”

My head snapped in his direction. “Why didn’t you mention it? We can get Clarke in here—”

“It’s not physical,” Akane interrupted tiredly. She sounded like she had already had this conversation. With Clarke, most likely. “It’s the price of her power. She’s extremely strong—probably as strong as us, if not stronger—after only a day and change, but she can’t speak. At all.”

“Baftis says she thinks she might not be able to write, either,” Flynn noted. “She certainly won’t.” For the first time, I noticed a few pens and papers scattered around the small cell. “But obviously, that’s a lot easier to just fake.”

“I don’t know a Baftis.”

“The Mal’s only scientist,” Akane grunted.

“Noble Nyashk lent her to us as a show of cooperation,” Flynn elaborated. “She’s proven very adept at puzzling out the way the powers work. Clarke loves her.”

“Clarke loves everyone,” I noted. Or he pretended to, anyway. It was hard to tell how much of his personality was part of his ‘affable mad scientist’ act. I also made a mental note to thank Seena for the help. “But I’m guessing you’re impressed with her, too?”

Flynn nodded. “She’s been working on classifying the powers. Right now she’s got an interesting theory that the stoneshaping power that Ling had is actually the same as Robyn’s flight. Two different types of kinesis, controlling things, just with vastly different applications.”

“That seems like a stretch. If you’re going to define things that broadly, then maybe you and Akane are also the same. After all, you’re just controlling speed, right?”

Flynn shrugged. “I don’t know. But it goes with how everyone is describing how their powers feel. The speedsters all seem to feel the same as each other, while the kineticists—including Robyn Joan—are something else.”

I raised an eyebrow. “The speedsters all feel the same? It’s just you and Akane, right?”

“And—”

I whacked myself on the forehead. “And Yuuki and Yuudai, of course. Completely forgot.”

“And Sefu,” Akane noted.

It took me a second to realize who she was talking about. “You mean… that thief you caught?” I glanced around the small prison. “Isn’t he here somewhere? I remember you said something about the ‘sarians coming to get him…”

“No. I paid off his debt and hired him.”

“Oh.” I frowned. I knew she had a decent amount of money—I was the one paying her, after all—but she never really went out of her way to spend any of it. “All right. What are you having him do, anyway?”

She shrugged. “Remember that courier job you gave to me this morning?”

“Yeah, it was just delivering a letter, but—” I stopped as I realized the implications. “Wait, you gave that job to a thief? That’s crazy! He’s completely untested, we have no guarantees of his loyalty, and—”

“And he performed perfectly,” she interrupted calmly. “No problems.”

I rubbed my forehead. “Akane, you can’t… just hand something off to some random guy without any supervision. What if he had decided to take the package and run? Or gotten stopped by the ‘sarians, or—”

“It was a minimal-security operation,” she reminded me dourly. “It was just delivering a love letter from a paranoid idiot. Sefu had no reason to steal it, and no one else had any reason to stop him. You need to learn to trust a little.”

“Quite right,” a cheerful voice declared.

I turned to see my mother and Victor Medina, Laura’s father, walking over and smiling. Victor ruffled Yuudai’s hair as he passed; the boy brushed him off with a grin. Apparently, they had already met.

My mom gave me a quick hug. “Oh, it’s been too long, dearest. I think it’s been… a week? A very long week.”

I swallowed nervously. I… hadn’t seen them since capturing Elizabeth. Capturing her during the fey’s little Wild Hunt, that is. We had left the city without saying goodbye, or telling them what was going on, or anything of the sort. Sure, they were old friends with Butler, so they probably had a better idea of what was going on than I did, but still.

She released me before pulling Akane into another hug. She kept her eyes on me, though. “Seriously Derek, you make us worry too much. Akane was kind enough to bring her nephews over, and you couldn’t find time in your schedule to do the same?”

I sighed, and decided to dodge the question. “I don’t have any nephews, mom.”

Maria Huntsman ignored me, instead looking Akane up and down with a critical gaze. She clicked her tongue. “Silver moon and golden sun, you still look like a damned skeleton. You haven’t been eating enough. Derek, you’ve been pushing this girl too hard!”

I rubbed my forehead. “It’s been a very long week…”

“We should go to Veronica’s,” Victor suggested. “I think she needs help with the re-building, anyway. Apparently they did a lot of damage during the Rampage.”

That was a name I had heard bandied about for the MEE, for people who thought acronyms were silly. At least they hadn’t insisted on choosing a Latin word.

“Fine,” I said, though I wasn’t really in the mood. It was important to spend time with your parents. Everyone in this city knew that very well. “Akane, Flynn, you guys coming?”

They both nodded.

Yuuki, the older brother, looked at my mother, wide-eyed with faked innocence. “Can we come too?”

If she noticed that it was faked, she didn’t mention it. She just smiled and patted him on the head. “Of course! You two haven’t met Veronica or Obould yet, have you? It will be good for you. They’re nice people, with good food.”

As we turned to go, Yuudai, the younger brother lingered at Saki’s cell for a brief moment. “We’ll bring you back something, okay?”

His cousin just glared at him.

Behind the Scenes (scene 243)

The “curse” that Saki is under is not uncommon, just more obvious than most. Taking a penalty to increase your power (officially referred to as a “discord,” but no one in the city is aware of that term) is something that happens to pretty much everyone. For example, Derek has the power to create force fields, and technically could create the blades or knives Elizabeth used. However, his discord means his talent is limited to shields, which also means they are far more powerful than they would be if he tried to be capable of everything.

You’ll see other, stranger discords like Saki’s soon. A pyro who needs a wand to channel his power, a hydro who can’t manipulate water while dry, a shifter who automatically changes form based on light level. There are all sorts of drawbacks like which help turn the powers into something more unique than the stock ones we’ve been seeing so far.

Scene 242 – Collegium

COLLEGIUM

LAURA

“We really should have seen this coming.”

Butler dropped a pad on the desk and resumed pacing. Silver and gold, I was never going to get used to that. “Yes, well, we didn’t. We’ll have to figure out how to move from here.”

“I think you two might be overreacting,” Derek said from his own chair in front of Butler’s desk. “Why can’t we just leave well enough alone and see what happens? It worked out fine last time.”

I rubbed my forehead. “…Derek, we currently have groups of people with similar powers banding together and forming gangs to fight each other. You should remember the last time gangs had a hold in this city. It took years to crush them. The Rahabs are still around.”

“It’s better to strike quickly,” Butler agreed. “Rip out the weed by the roots before it has a chance to get too established.”

Derek shook his head. “No, no, you guys are are looking at this wrong. They’re not like the gangs, they’re like the cultures. Groups of people with similar interests banding together for the common good.”

“You choose to be a part of a culture,” I reminded him. “Don’t want to be a demon? Pull off the horns and get some nighteyes. These, these… ” I searched for a word to describe them. “…colleges aren’t the same. They’re more like the old gangs, split along racial lines.”

“Okay, so they’re not cultures. But they’re not gangs, either. They’re just… people.” He turned to Butler pleadingly. “There’s no need for this to turn to violence, especially so quickly. If you treat them peacefully from the start, it will go a long way.”

The Big Boss sighed. “Fine. You have a point. I will give them a chance to prove themselves reliable and safe enough, rather than just bands of criminals. But I suspect you will be disappointed.” He started shuffling through the pads on his desk. “For now, let’s get a better idea of what we’re dealing with. Where’s that list?”

I pulled out my own pad and paged through it. “Here. There aren’t too many, as is to be expected.” It had only been a day, after all. “The Kytons control metal and prefer chains. A demon named Vucarik is leading them.”

Derek looked up. “Isn’t Vucarik the guy who lasted a couple hours deaf during the MEE? He was fighting against the entire city of zombies, and he survived longer than expected.”

I nodded. “Yes, but you’re missing something important. He didn’t just survive, he was actively fighting against them. Cut through them all like so much wheat. Judging by the cameras, he only got turned when he had the bad luck to get hit by some blood.”

“Other than that, not much is known about him,” Butler rumbled. “Mary Christina is looking into it. He will either be a valuable ally, or a blood-crazed psychopath.”

We all knew which one he thought was more likely.

“Anyway, what else?” Derek asked as he leaned over my shoulder to read the list. I tried very hard to ignore his close proximity, but it was more difficult that I would like to admit. “…Lilitu? Lilith started one of these college things?”

“Of course not,” I snapped, more angry at myself for my reaction to his closeness than anything he’d actually done. “The word means roughly ‘female spirit.’ They have the ability to turn incorporeal for a time. And they are all women.”

He leaned back, clearly a bit confused at my unexpected aggression, but he didn’t say anything about it. “…right, okay, I guess that makes sense. They have a leader, or are they like the Nosferatu and so on?”

“They likely have a leader somewhere,” Butler said. “But for now, we don’t know who that might be. She will be a top priority once she reveals herself. With their powers, these Lilitu could be more dangerous than Elizabeth in some ways.”

Derek chuckled mirthlessly. “I doubt that. But I see your point. For the time being, we need to just take advantage of what Silk has given us.”

“The anti-power device?”

“Elizabeth’s absence.” He shook his head, smiling. “Can you imagine how difficult this would be if we still had her running around attacking people?” He frowned. “Actually, we probably should have asked how long she’d be gone.”

“Long enough, I’m guessing,” I said, thinking back on the annoyingly helpful woman. “I have a feeling Elizabeth will find her way back here a few days after we have everything stabilized. It seems like the sort of thing Silk would do.”

Derek shrugged. “Probably. It’s hard to tell. For now, our only choice is to do our best.” He poked at my pad, though he couldn’t read it from his current angle. “What’s this last one? We only have three of these colleges to worry about right now, we should know as much as possible about all of them.”

I frowned and shook my head. “I haven’t the slightest idea. They were actually the first… college, but I don’t know anything about them.” I thought about it and shrugged. “Though, in fairness, they were only founded about four hours before the others.”

“Well, considering the timeline…” Derek trailed off with a smirk.

I rolled my eyes at the poor joke. “Anyway. As I said, we currently don’t know anything about these ones. We don’t know their powers, their organization, or their goals. All we know is that they call themselves Gravers. Their leader is a complete enigma.”

“Does the leader have a name?” Derek pressed.

Butler, having finally found his own pad, answered. “Grave.”

“Well, that sounds promising,” Derek muttered darkly. “No one ever calls themselves the Giver or Light or Life or whatever.”

“Actually, one of Lady Titania’s titles is the Lady of Light and Life.”

He rubbed his forehead. “She’s the… Summer Queen, right?”

I nodded. “The Queen of Earth and Light, the Matron Titania.”

“Wonderful.” He glared at Butler. “And you let them become an official culture.”

The lord of Necessarius weathered the glare without flinching. He had survived worse.

Derek sighed. “Whatever. There’s not much anyone can do but wait and see.” He pulled out his own pad. “For now, I’m more worried about Io.”

“Wait,” I interrupted with a frown. “I heard he died. Yesterday, was it?”

“Yeah. But his children—”

He was interrupted by the door slamming open.

“Sir!” a kemo in the armor of the CS squad said to Butler by way of greeting. His silencer, as people were calling the anti-power device, was on, and another two of his squad members were following close behind. “We have a bit of a situation.”

Butler raised an eyebrow. I noticed that he was leaning a bit on his desk. Due to the way his power worked, the silencers wouldn’t instantaneously revert the enhancements he made to his body to defeat his many physical maladies, but he would still notice their effect.

“This better be important,” he rumbled.

“It is,” the ‘sarian guard promised. He nodded to one of the others, and the door was opened again. This time, Akane and Flynn came in. Akane had a small Asian girl asleep in her arms. her face was even more unreadable than ever.

“A child?” Butler murmured, brow furrowed. “Explain.”

“Niece,” Akane muttered, before falling silent again.

Flynn continued for her. “This is Akane’s niece, Saki Akiyama. She has a very dangerous power that allows her to charm most people she comes in contact with. She needs to be contained until she learns she can’t use this on everyone she meets.”

“…you want to know where the silenced cells are?” I asked. “They should be in the new wing. Look for the signs of construction. Or better yet, ask someone. Pretty much anyone who works here will know where it is.”

Flynn blinked at me. “Laura? And Derek? What are you doing here?”

He had only just noticed? Well, Butler did tend to dominate the room. “I’m helping advise on a variety of different topics as a general consultant,” I explained. “Derek wandered in while looking for snacks.”

Derek rolled his eyes. “You’re a jerk.” He turned to Flynn. “I’m sure you had a better reason for being here—especially bringing a dangerous power into the heart of NHQ—than to ask a question any random worker could have told you the answer to.”

“They need permission.”

Everyone turned to the Big Boss, who had rumbled like a mountain.

“They are planning to put a child into a small, uncomfortable cell, where she will be guarded day and night for an indefinite period of time,” he continued. “They needed to make sure I wouldn’t have them shot.”

Flynn inclined his head. “Your attitudes toward children are well-known, sir.”

Butler sighed and turned away, looking at the wall. “These powers are still barely more than a day old, and our society has not had time to adjust. We have no laws in place to counter them, no rules on how long we may hold someone with a dangerous power.” He shook his head. “If we are not careful, we could end up with more filled cells than when the screamers were running around.”

“There might be an alternative,” I said. “Clarke is working on a variant of the silencer device that can be worn on the wrist, and will enable us to lock down one person’s power without affecting those around them. If we just—”

Butler raised a hand for silence, and my mouth clicked shut mid sentence.

“That is good news,” he admitted to the quiet room, still not looking at anyone. “And it bodes very well for the future. But as of this moment, that is simply not an option. We have to make do.” He finally turned to face his men, as well as Akane. “Put her away. Make her as comfortable as possible, then write up a report. I want one from each of you, as detailed as possible. I need to know what we’re dealing with here.”

The squad filed out slowly. Akane bowed deeply—careful not to drop the girl in her arms—before following them.

“Are you sure that was a good idea?” I asked in a warning tone.

“There was no other choice,” Butler noted. “Especially since the girl was awake the entire time, just waiting for an opening. Combined with what your Akane said, she is clearly too dangerous to leave wandering around right now.”

Derek smirked. “Akane didn’t say much.”

Butler waved his hand. “What Flynn said. Irrelevant.”

Derek turned serious again. “It’s unfortunate that she had to handle this herself, though. I realize no one expected things to turn out this way going in, but it would have been nice if Flynn could have handled it alone.”

“Or even her nephews,” I mused. “She treats them like kids, but they are almost as old as she is. And they have the same power.”

He nodded. “That’s definitely interesting.”

Very.” I turned my attention back to Butler, who was standing strong again now that the silencers had left the room. I wondered how much of his apparent weakness had been psychosomatic, or even an act. “Which is why we need to get a census done as soon as possible. Figure out how the powers relate to families and so on.”

“Agreed,” the man said with a nod. “I have Mary Christina performing an internal one of Necessarius as we speak. But that will take at least a few more hours, more likely days.” He tapped one of his pads. “For now, I’d like to talk more about Io, and his dragons.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 242)

Spoiler alert: Those devices Clarke is working on will become relevant later.

Scene 234 – Mercor

MERCOR

LAURA

Everything about Silk disturbed me greatly.

I had thought I was used to Elizabeth. A cackling monster, a walking bloodthirsty stereotype hiding under an extremely convincing facade of friendliness and stupidity.

So when her sister strolled up, all smiles and as helpful as could be, I was more than a little wary. It was a trick. It was obviously, undoubtedly a trick. There was nothing else in the entire world it could be.

But every word she spoke passed my lie detection ability with flying colors. And unlike Elizabeth, she wasn’t dodging the questions or twisting the words to confuse the issue. As far as I could tell, she was just actually, genuinely telling the whole and absolute truth.

It rubbed me entirely the wrong way.

Who had ever heard of an enemy who just walks into your base, takes out your heavy hitter, and cheerfully gives you everything you could possibly want? Okay, not everything, but far, far more than I would have expected.

She claimed she wasn’t our enemy, and she seemed perfectly friendly. But every single instinct screamed at me not to trust her. To pull out my gun and shoot her, then lock her away somewhere and throw away the key.

But I had seen her casual defeat of Akane. I had very little doubt that she would be able to take out everyone in NHQ without much more difficulty.

As our little party walked through the halls of Necessarius, minor soldiers and functionaries dodged away from us like rats before a flame. Doors slammed in our wake, dropped papers people were too slow to collect abandoned… the rumors would be flying thick and fast, but no matter what the truth was, everyone knew better than to get in our way.

Silk slid up to me with a smile. “Something wrong, Highlander? You seem distracted.”

Her voice… her voice was exactly like Lizzy’s. Elizabeth’s. Warm as melted chocolate. But there was something else there. Something genuine, perhaps? Or was she just a better actress than her clone?

“I’m fine,” I said through gritted teeth.

She tsked lightly. “Now, now, a truthteller shouldn’t lie.” She winked with a good-natured golden eye. “Old saying from my home galaxy.”

I had a feeling she was trying to draw me into a conversation, giving me hints she knew I’d latch on to. “That’s nice.”

“I understand that my presence is unsettling,” she admitted slowly. “But I wanted to be sure not to mislead you all in any way. And while my face does have an upsetting association with Elizabeth’s, it is mine. It was important I bear it.”

I grit my teeth. “That’s nice.”

“And as for your relationship with the little hero—”

Look,” I interrupted, still not turning in her direction. “I kept my mouth shut during our little interview. But I don’t trust you, and we’re giving you the most dangerous person on the planet. So just shut up before I decide to chain you up and use you for target practice.”

Silence.

Then, after a moment, there was a gentle hand on my shoulder. Silk didn’t say anything though, just gave me that brief touch of encouragement and then increased her pace to meet up with Doctor Clarke and Butler a few feet ahead.

Once again, her actions didn’t make much sense. She must have been manipulating me, but it certainly felt genuine, like a friend accepting that I needed some personal space and granting it. Though that was the point, I suppose.

It wasn’t much longer before we reached the cold room, one of Clarke’s specialized labs under the fortress itself. Normally, this was where he kept monsters and limbs with odd toys or mutations on ice, where he could study them at his leisure. It also had a small chemical factory attached, but nowhere near as large scale as Zero Forge, or even the sulfur foundries of Dis.

Now, it played host to Elizabeth Greene.

She had been dragged over from Zero Forge complete with the liquid nitrogen vat Adam had dropped her into. No one had wanted to risk pulling her out for even a second. Once we got her here, though, we had some other options.

Now, while the vat was still there, we had cooled it enough so that the nitrogen was now a solid block. As I had done every time I came down here previously, I immediately crossed over to the nearest control panel and double-checked the numbers. Nitrogen melted at 63.15 degrees Kelvin, and boiled into gas at 73.355 Kelvin. We were keeping it as cold as possible.

As always, the instruments read it as holding solid at 27.9 degrees above absolute zero. I would certainly have preferred for it to drop about twenty-seven degrees, but this was the coldest we could reasonably keep it. Even like this, no one could get within ten yards of the thing without getting frostbite.

Adam peered through the mists caused by the unspeakable cold, trying to get a good look at the vague shape in the mist. “I see… something.” His breath fogged as he spoke. “Please tell me that’s her.”

“I have a camera that can give us a clearer picture—” MC began, even as she sent the feed to the display I was standing next to.

Silk didn’t even look at it. “It’s her,” she insisted, stepping forward and placing her bare hand on the metal side of the vat as she gazed past it into the ice. It should have ruptured her skin as all her blood froze and burst her veins, but she didn’t even seem to notice. “You finally managed to slow her down, tin man.”

Adam crossed his arms over his chest and glared in her direction. “Was that referring to me? I do have a name, you know.”

Silk strode back out of the mist, apparently none the worse for wear despite entering an area only a few dozens degrees warmer than deep space in nothing but a thin black dress. In fact, she was grinning.

“I’ll tell you what,” she said to Adam, still smiling. “In recognition of your impressive achievements regarding my sister, I will grant you one wish.” Her golden eyes twinkled like stars. “Just name your price. I will not give you anything, but merely asking will not use up your wish.”

I frowned. Every stupid story I had ever heard about genies and the consequences of dealing with them was springing to mind. Depending on what Adam asked for, she could screw with us in a million ways and more. I glanced at him.

He just chuckled. “So, what, if I asked for a billion dollars, you wouldn’t be offended?”

“Of course not,” the tall woman, cloaked by the mists of the machine, replied smoothly. “Is that your wish?”

Adam blinked. “You… could do that?”

Please. That’s not even mildly difficult.” She nodded at Butler. “Hunter could do it. Though it would put a larger dent in his coffers.”

There was a pause.

“And… what if I asked to no longer be a clay? To be made able to use the toy maker?”

“Is that your wish?”

“If… I wanted to be… ” He seemed to be thinking as hard as he could, to come up with something that would offend her. I had a few ideas, but he didn’t have the same mind for cruelty I did. “…immortal. Like you and Elizabeth.”

Silk did not so much as blink. “Is that your wish?”

Another, much longer pause.

“Can I think about this?” Adam asked quietly.

Silk nodded politely. “This offer does not expire. Take as long as you like.”

A little shaken, Adam nodded in thanks.

“Miss Medina,” Butler grunted. “Let’s please get this done.”

I coughed. “All right. There are four passkeys that will need to be put in simultaneously. I have one, MC has another, and Butler and Doctor Clarke have the others. It should take about half an hour to fully thaw her out. Most of the equipment will be fried in the process, though.”

Silk clicked her tongue. “Oh, you people insist on complicating everything. Let me handle it.”

“Handle it? What do you mean, handle—”

Fire belched forth from her hand.

Even though I was only standing a couple feet away from the white-hot flame, I could barely feel more than the slightest tinge of heat. The mist in the room fled away from the golden woman, with the cone of fire stretching in front of her like a dragon’s breath, but that was all.

Except for the effect on the target, of course.

The metal vat filled with nitrogen ice, one of the coldest materials we could conceive of, melted before Silk’s onslaught like an ordinary ice cube tossed into a bonfire. In less than a second, the vat was gone. Not even liquid, gas, already steaming away into nothingness though the vents in the ceiling as I watched. I covered my mouth and stepped back in case the metal got into my lungs.

In moments, the only thing indicating that the block had ever been there were a few small black flakes of ash, spinning gently in the slight breeze of the room. Even now, they were beginning to float down to the floor.

But before they had the chance to hit the ground, they began to move.

They clumped together as if drawn by a magnet, creating a tiny black ball of ash. Within moments, that ball began expanding and gaining color. Faster than I had ever seen before, I saw the white of bone, the red of muscles, and finally the bronze, all building on top of each other like a three dimensional painting, being made layer by layer.

And then, there was Elizabeth Greene, standing naked in the center of the cold room.

She saw Adam, and she immediately stepped forward, her face contorted with rage.

“Elizabeth,” Silk said calmly.

The naked girl stopped dead.

She turned, ever so slowly, to see her twin standing there, as coolly as if they had just run into each other at the convenience store. Seeing them standing next to each other, it was easy to tell the difference between the two—and not just because of the clothes. Silk stood with the regal bearing of a goddess, an entity who knew from experience that she had nothing to fear. Elizabeth was half-crouched like a wild animal, ready to attack at any moment.

“Silk,” the naked girl whispered softly in shock. To my surprise, she immediately fell out of her attack stance, clasped her hands in front of her, and bowed her head before her obvious superior. “Geesmasni Iar, Dagrienpa ojpa’Silk. Itenpa leis Ipa sangli—”

Gel,” her sister answered.

Elizabeth blinked in disbelief. “Gel?

Gelmasni,” Silk amended.

D-dagrienpa,” Elizabeth said, pointing at Adam. “Ipa sangli—”

I kalb-dra gel.” Silk snapped her fingers, and before Elizabeth could object any further, the naked golden woman was gone. Just disappeared, as easy as… well, as easy as snapping your fingers, I suppose.

There was a long, long pause.

“…what just happened?” MC said after a moment.

Silk sighed. “She wanted permission to kill you all. I said no, and when she insisted, I teleported her under Mount St. Helens. It will take her a while to crawl her way out of there.”

“Was that your plan this entire time?” Butler demanded.

Silk made a face. “Well, I was hoping for both of us to walk out of here peacefully, but I will not pretend that I did not anticipate this ending.” She nodded to him in thanks. “Suffice it to say, you will not be dealing with Elizabeth Greene or her renegades any time soon. Good day.”

And then she was gone, leaving only a quiet riff of song to mark her departure.

Everything about Silk disturbed me greatly.

Behind the Scenes (scene 234)

Once again, the language Silk and Elizabeth use here is one I invented, so don’t bother trying to translate it. Though for the record, “Dagrienpa” is a female-only honorific that translates roughly to “Honored.” The male version is Dagriensa. Oh, and “gel” (“no”) is pronounced with a hard g.

Scene 233 – Silk

SILK

DEREK

“I still think you should be more aggressive with the power lists,” I said firmly.

“My stake in this isn’t quite the same as the rest of you,” Adam said from his spot leaning against one of the walls in the exercise room. Well, former exercise room. All the mats had been removed for some reason or another, so now there were just bare concrete floors. “But I agree with Derek. People will feel much safer if they know MC has access to an entire database of powers.”

“Now there’s an idea,” Robyn Joan agreed with a nod. She was still playing some childish game that involved poking Akane in the shoulder, as if to see how long it took for Akane to get annoyed and attack her, but I could tell she was paying attention regardless. “Package it as MC’s thing, and that will help with public relations.”

Butler shook his head. “No. That will just earn us too many enemies.”

I sighed. “I’m not saying steal the things, I’m just saying offer to buy them for a reasonable price, rather than simply asking—” My phone rang. “One second.” I checked it; it was Kelly. “Yeah, I should probably take this. It’s the retinue.”

The Big Boss nodded, waving his hand magnanimously, and resumed pacing the room, as if he was testing out his legs. Even though I had been with him most of the day, it was still really weird seeing him walk around without his cane.

Laura checked her own phone. “Huh, I wonder why they didn’t call me…”

I shrugged as I flipped my phone open. “Who knows. Kelly? What’s going on?”

“South Gate!” she yelled into my ear, making me flinch away. “She’s at South Gate!”

“What? Who’s at South Gate?”

“I… I don’t know, just—” Gunfire sounded from her end of the line. “Futu-i! Everybody’s—” I could barely hear her over the sounds of combat. “Everybody’s shooting!”

“Kelly, calm down, who’s firing at you?”

No one! They’re firing at—”

The line went dead.

“They’re firing at me,” a cool, friendly voice like milk chocolate said from behind me.

I turned slowly, not willing to believe I recognized the voice.

It was Lizzy. Not… I mean… Lizzy. Not Elizabeth, the Composer we had on ice back at the Zero Forge. Not the predator, the enemy, who we had fought and died against these past few months.

This was Lizzy. The girl I had grown up with, who I had gone to school with. The stupid girl with the beautiful smile—

Wait.

Her smile… was different.

I couldn’t quite put my finger in it. Something… warmer? No, no, not the smile itself, but her face. There were creases, subtle smile lines etched onto her face, all the way up to her eyes.

And her eyes were different as well. Smarter, sharper. Not the dangerous, animal cunning of the Composer, but a twinkling intelligence, similar to what Doctor Clarke had.

No time to think about that. “Akane,” I spat.

I didn’t need to say another word. She sped forward faster than I thought possible, leaving behind nothing but the blue blur of her ribbon, her blade launched at our unexpected quest with the speed and precision of a lightning bolt.

It didn’t matter.

The bronze-skinned girl caught the blade with one hand, with all the apparent effort of leaning lightly against the wall.

“First,” she said with a friendly smile, her voice like warm honey. “You need to understand that I am not my sister—in temperament or power.”

The sword began to rust, like a thousand years of decay happening in a moment. Before anyone even knew what was happening, she had snapped the blade off at the hilt.

And then Akane was flying through the air, and the wall next to us exploded in dust. My heart skipped a beat for a moment, until she reappeared, glaring daggers at her opponent.

Elizabeth’s lookalike—and I knew now, whatever else she was, she was not Elizabeth Greene—clicked her tongue. “Red, please. Don’t give me that look. I am sorry, but you needed a new sword, and you know it.”

Uh… what?

Not!Elizabeth smacked herself lightly on the head. “Ah, but where are my manners? Please, all of you, sit, sit!” She motioned for us to do so. “We have much to discuss.”

I raised an eyebrow. There were no chairs here—

But even as I wondered what she meant, a couch slid out of the floor. A large, three-person couch, the kind you’d see in a family living room. Molded out of the concrete as easily as if it were clay being shaped by a master.

Then pillows and cushions appeared. Frilly white pillows and cushions, like you’d find at a grandmother’s house. Just popped into place an inch or so in the air and flopped down.

When I turned back to the woman, she was making herself comfortable in a concrete armchair with similar furnishings. Noticing that we weren’t sitting, she smiled with good cheer. “Well, you don’t have to, I suppose.”

A little awkwardly, we all gingerly sat on the surprisingly comfortable couches. A second had risen up when I wasn’t paying attention. Akane, Laura, and I took one, while Adam, Robyn, Clarke, and Butler squeezed into the other.

“Everyone comfortable?” Elizabeth’s doppelganger said cheerily. “Good. As I said at South Gate before the bullets started flying, I am here for my sister.” She folded her hands in front of her. “Obviously, I do not expect to receive her for free. I am willing to negotiate a trade.”

“What kind of trade?” Butler demanded.

She smiled. “Patience, my dear hunter. Let’s start with introductions, shall we?” She indicated herself. “I am called Silk. Elizabeth Greene is, for lack of a better term, my little sister. I do apologize, but she is necessary for my plans, and I will require her to be returned to me.”

Laura narrowed her eyes. “It was you. You were the one she was answering to, all this time.”

“That one does not answer, Highlander. I loosed her like a poorly trained dog, trusting that she would do what she did best. And in the end…” She spread her hands wide. “Everything worked out perfectly.”

“You… meant for the Rampage to happen?”

Point of order,” Clarke interrupted. “I thought we were calling it the MEE?

Silk ignored him. “Yes. The end purpose of this city was always for everyone to receive a song—a power, as you call them. It was either that or send every single one of you into a black hole and then fish you out again.” She made a face. “It’s more annoying than it sounds.”

“You… built this city.”

I glanced at Laura. “What? She can’t be much older than us!”

Laura just gave me a look.

“Little hero,” Silk said gently. “As your Highlander is silently reminding you, my sister is immortal. Our personal appearances mean absolutely nothing. She is right. I did build this city. Or rather, cause it to be built by carefully manipulating world affairs.”

“Why?” Laura demanded. “I don’t mean the Rampage. You could have done that anywhere.”

“I needed a closed circle. Besides, this city has had other uses.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

Silk sighed. “I am very, very, very old. I simply wish to improve the quality of life of every single person in existence. There will be some pain along the way, but things are looking up, I promise.”

I glanced at Laura. She wasn’t showing any sign that Silk was lying.

“Why now, then? Why not hundreds or thousands of years ago, or however old you are?”

Silk smiled. “An excellent question! It could be said that I am from a dark and distant land—”

“You’re from the future,” Laura said.

We all stared at her, before slowly turning to Silk.

She was smirking. “I was getting to that.”

“I’ve been thinking about it for quite a while,” Laura said. “I knew it was the only thing that made sense. Doctor Clarke and I have been researching the powers ever since the start, you know. We knew that they were either technology from an extremely advanced civilization, or magic.”

Silk nodded. “Quite right, Highlander, quite right. Though I should note that where I’m from, we crossed the Singularity so long ago that the word ‘technology’ does not quite apply any more.”

“Well, I wanted to be clear for everyone else.”

“Fair enough.”

I raised my hand with a meekness that surprised even me. I was just getting so overwhelmed by everything, that I couldn’t help it. “Uh, excuse me? This is all coming a little… fast. When exactly did you come from?”

Far,” Silk said firmly. “I was born millions of years from now, and came back from a time even farther.” She met my eyes. Staring into her golden orbs, I understood, to the core of my being, how unspeakably different she was from her sister. Elizabeth’s eyes held nothing. Silk’s held everything.

How old are you, though?” Clarke asked, breaking the moment.

She turned her attention to him and smiled. “My dear doctor, my life has been exceedingly complicated, and there are many possible ways I could answer that question. Suffice it say that at the youngest estimation of my age, I am older than every single human being in existence combined.”

Laura blinked. “There… there are fifty billion people in the solar system. And that’s assuming the census is accurate. It’s probably more like seventy billion.”

“Yes,” Silk acknowledged, smiling calmly.

But Laura wouldn’t let this go. “If the average age is twenty—”

“It’s twenty-four, actually.”

“…you’re nearly one point two trillion years old?”

Our golden guest chuckled. “Of course not. I am far older than that.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense! The universe itself is estimated to only—”

“Laura,” I interrupted, placing a hand on her shoulder to calm her. She glared at me, but let me speak. “Just let it go. There’s no way to prove or disprove her assertion. Trust her, or don’t.”

She leaned back in her seat and crossed her arms over her chest.

“I have another question,” MC piped up from the wall speakers. “When did you get here?”

Silk nodded. “Good question. The answer has two parts—”

“Thirty-one years ago,” Laura muttered. “In 1970.”

Silk chuckled. “Oh, you are a clever one, aren’t you? But no credit if you don’t show your work…”

“1970 is when all the big changes started,” Laura noted. “The Chinese and African Diasporas, the second American Baby Boom, followed by the Mexican, Canadian, and European Baby Booms, Domina City, the space colonies, perfectly efficient electrical engines…” She narrowed her eyes. “I imagine you either got here right before Apollo 13 launched, or soon after. Then you sabotaged the flight, and used it to whip up American and Soviet interest in space again.”

Another nod. “Correct, except for one minor detail. I did not sabotage Apollo 13. I didn’t save the astronauts, either; both of those would have happened regardless. What I did do was use the event to, as you noted, trigger the Second Space Race. In the original timeline, Apollo 13 was largely the death knell for space travel for a century or so.” She shrugged. “Too much danger for too little benefit.”

“Too little benefit?” Robyn asked, wide-eyed. “I have a list as long as my arm of all the benefits of space travel. I mean, even ignoring the technological advancements, the metals in the asteroid belt alone…”

Silk chuckled. “You don’t have to convince me, Princess. I was quite surprised when I realized what was going to happen, and took swift steps to correct such an obvious mistake.”

That made me raise an eyebrow. “You realized what was going to happen. Meaning you didn’t know until you landed?”

“Yes. History is beautifully detailed in the time I was born, but it had still been millions of years. Details were lost.” She shrugged. “Actually, I believe the problem was that it was simply glossed over. Even man’s first flight was little more than a footnote in the history books; we were never required to learn about the precise details of a single disastrous space flight. There were, to put it bluntly, more important things to worry about.”

“And the second part of your answer?” MC prompted.

Silk nodded. “Yes, thank you for reminding me. I arrived on Earth in 1970—April 15th, to be precise—but arrived in this timeline in 1969. It took a year to reach Earth.”

Where did you arrive?” Clarke asked. “In this timeline, I mean.”

“Andromeda,” Silk quipped. She shrugged. “The closest galaxy to the Milky Way, if you didn’t know. Stopped by a couple pre-industrial worlds and dropped off some things to help them along, but I knew I’d be able to make the most difference on Earth.”

I wanted to say something about faster than light travel being impossible, but, honestly, didn’t see the point.

“Let’s get down to the details,” Butler said before Laura had a chance to ask any more questions. “What exactly is it you are offering?”

“A countersong,” Silk replied instantly, turning her golden gaze on him. “Yes. I can provide my dear doctor,” she nodded at Clarke, “with the blueprints for a small device that uses a harmless form of radiation to shut off any powers within a limited radius. The radiation is invisible, but blocked by anything solid enough to block light.”

Clarke leaned forward, frowning. “How—”

Butler silenced him with a raised hand. “Sounds wonderful. What’s the catch?”

“If I give you this device, I will also give it to every warlord in the city.”

There was a long, long pause.

“It’s still worth it,” MC insisted from her wall speakers. “Even if it is only used for temporary holding cells, we need some way to shut down powers. There’s just such a broad base of them, it would be impossible to account for them all.”

“For the record, I agree completely,” Laura added.

Butler closed his eyes in resigned defeat. “…fine. I see no other option.” He snapped his eyes open and glared at the woman sitting across from us. “But I had better not regret this.”

Silk met his gaze without fear. “I make no promises. The device will work as advertised, and I have already told you of the catch. That is all.” She turned to the rest of us. “Any last questions?”

We all turned to each other, but no one spoke up. “It looks like—”

“Wait,” Laura said suddenly. “Elizabeth hypnotized Derek.”

A brief flash of annoyance crossed Silk’s face. But was it annoyance at Laura, at Elizabeth, or at me for breaking free from the hypnosis? “Yes, she did. What of it?”

“He’s still hypnotized.”

I shuffled in my seat. “Just a few headaches. Nothing major.”

“Yes, about that… ” The woman shrugged. “He’ll recover soon enough. Depends on a number of factors, but it will work best if he discovers the solutions on his own. If I explained exactly how to do it, it would likely slow the process dramatically. If he’s still not cured within a year, call me.”

Laura frowned. “…call you? How?”

“Literally,” she insisted. “Call out ‘Silk, I wish to speak with you,’ within range of any electronic device in the city with a microphone. I will hear.”

That was more than a little disturbing.

“Now, if there are no further questions… ” Silk stood, her chair molding back into the concrete floor smoothly and seamlessly, the pillows disappearing as well. “I think it is time we thaw out my sister.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 233)

I rewrote this scene at least three times, cutting out more and more every time. Silk was willing to give them basically any information they wanted, so they really should have asked more. On the precise nature of the screamers and the Composer, the relationship between Silk and Elizabeth, and what exactly they are, that looks so close to human but isn’t. I’ll have to find a way to add those later; it just didn’t work here.