Tag Archives: MC

Scene 330 – Servis Suis

MARY CHRISTINA

SERVIS SUIS

My first week being human was the worst experience of my life.

It wasn’t just that I was alone, away from a million datastreams. It wasn’t just that I had to sleep in one of the ‘sarian homeless shelters as just another anonymous transient. It wasn’t even the biting cold or the constant hunger gnawing at my belly.

It was everything. Yes, it was cold, but I shouldn’t have been able to feel cold. Yes, I had no food, but that shouldn’t matter—I had never had food before. And the sore muscles and constant exhaustion and the screeching noises of traffic…

And the bodily functions. Oh, in the name of everything above and below, how could humans live with inconsistent bladders? And that was the easy one. It took me nearly eight hours in the bathroom to make my bowels function properly, at which point I received another terrible reminder that my nose didn’t have an off switch.

On the seventh day, the 15th of January, I had my first period. That was when I decided enough was enough. I was going to get my real body back.

I abandoned my meager belongings at the Necessarius safehouse and walked straight to the Servants. Even though I had been staying as far away from them as possible, they had many chapter houses around the city. It only took half an hour to find the nearest one.

The chapter house was small and austere, with white walls and rounded edges. It stood out starkly in the dirty, grimy mess that was the rest of Domina City. The only decorations were a few screens embedded into the walls, showing relaxing vistas like schools, parks, and the city skyline. There was no flag or emblem anywhere to be seen; the perfectly clean aesthetic was more than enough to identify the place.

The entrance wasn’t very big, just enough for a woman behind a desk and a small waiting area. She smiled as I entered, apparently unconcerned with my grimy appearance, tattered clothes, and the horrific smell I carried with me.

“Welcome to the Five-Hundred and Eighteenth Chapter House of the Servants of the Lady,” she said. “We are here to assist you with anything you may need. Food? Water? Even just a simple bed to lay your head for a few hours? The Servants are always at the disposal of anyone in Domina City.”

I knew the speech—I had certainly heard it often enough. Every inch of the chapter house was covered in cameras and microphones. There was a single obvious camera in the corner, but this room alone had a dozen hidden eyes. The wall-screens were recording everything, just for a start.

While the Servants had always kept their places under heavy surveillance and given me the data feeds, in the first few weeks of operation, they had tried to keep that fact private. It was only after a few groups like the Nessians tried to take advantage of their hospitality that they had made it public that I would be watching everything. That had certainly cut down on the robberies and worse.

I took a deep breath—ugh, breathing—to steady myself. “I am MC. I need to be taken to NHQ right away.”

The receptionist didn’t so much as blink. “Of course,” she said with a smile. “Right this way, ma’am.”

I frowned, but stepped through the doorway she indicated into a pristine white hallway. There was a man standing there, and he frowned at me in return.

“Who are you?” His tone was more hostile than I expected from a Servant, but he had a shoulder patch with their emblem on it—a circle of wires. The man looked past me. “Who is this, and what is she doing here?”

“She says she’s MC,” the receptionist said. “Would you please get her situated?”

The man’s face cleared, and he smiled. “Of course. Right this way, miss.” He gestured for me to walk further down the hall.

“I have to say, you’re all taking this much more easily than I expected,” I said.

“We feel it is best to be prepared for anything. This door here, miss.”

I opened the white door and found myself in a simple white bedroom with a white table, two chairs, and of course a white bed. There was a box of brightly colored children’s toys in the corner, but that was all.

I frowned and looked back at the man. “The Quiet Room?”

He looked surprised. “You know it?”

“Of course. I approved the work orders.” I walked over and looked through the box of toys. “A lot of non-standard toys in here.”

“Yes, well…” I glanced over to judge the man’s reaction. He seemed a bit embarrassed. “Kids can play rough at times, and we didn’t want to bother anyone by asking for replacements, so we just… found replacements.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “Excellent use of initiative. Good work.”

He looked uncomfortable. “Yeah. Of course.”

“I’ll need a ride to NHQ,” I said. “Something simple and unobtrusive. You have a motor pool?”

“Just two vans. Listen, I’m not sure—”

“I’d also like a computer while I wait,” I said as I sat down at the desk. “I’m in a hurry, but it’s not an emergency. I just want something to keep myself busy.”

He looked like he was struggling with something internally. “Well, you see…” His face cleared. “Both vans are undergoing repairs at the moment. And I hardly think calling a cab would be appropriate. Why don’t you just wait here, and I’ll find someone to come talk to you?”

“That would be—” I froze. “Wait. You mean you’re sending a psychologist.”

He forced a smile on his face. “Your mind is extremely valuable, miss. It’s just a precaution.”

“No, it’s standard procedure for dealing with a non-hostile guest of uncertain sanity.” I glared at him. “You think I’m crazy, don’t you?”

“We don’t like using that word.”

I sighed. “Of course. I knew this was too easy.” I rubbed my forehead. “How many people do you get who think they’re me?”

“Uh…”

“How many think they’re MC, that is.”

He shrugged uncomfortably. “Two or three a month. Across all our safehouses. Just wait for the doctor to get here, and we can—”

“No,” I snapped. “No waiting. I’ve had enough of living in this miserable meatsack, I’m not putting it off for a few weeks while I get poked and prodded.” I held out my hand. “Pad.”

He blinked. “What?”

“Your pad,” I said, slower. “I need to prove I am who I say I am.”

He smiled slightly, then handed me his pad. “Are you going to use your secret back-door access to take control of the building?”

“Of course not,” I said. “I’m not stupid enough to put back-doors into everything.” I typed at the pad with clumsy, inelegant fingers. “Whenever I found a hole in Servant security, I immediately patched it.” I smirked. “What, you think half a dozen patches a week were just my way of keeping you on your toes?”

The Servant kept a neutral face. “Of course not.”

I kept trying to type, wincing every time I had to back up because I had made a mistake. “For what it’s worth, I understand that this whole situation is weird. If I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t believe it.”

“Why don’t you tell me what happened?” the man said soothingly. He might not be a trained psychiatrist, but all Servants were friendly as a rule. You didn’t get a job helping people every day unless you liked people. “How did you end up like this?”

“Silk gave me a power,” I said. “Morphing, apparently. And then she forced me to morph so that I wouldn’t be able to interfere with something that’s going on right now.”

“And what would that be?”

“Sorry, can’t say. Operational security.” I cursed and rewrote another line of code. “Damned meatsack can’t even type properly.”

The Servant sighed. “Miss, I’m not sure what you’re trying to do, but if you’re having trouble—”

“I’m trying to prove who I am!” I snapped, slamming the pad down on the desk. “But I can’t do that because this stupid body is optimized for grabbing things and eating them, not writing code!” I stood up and started pacing. So odd that I found the action soothing, when I had never done anything like it before I got this body. “I need a data link. Something that will let me write code like I’m used to.”

The Servant flinched in shock, looking at my arm for some reason.

“No data link means this is going too slow,” I said.

“Ma’am…”

“It’s like trying to push the ocean through a straw.”

Ma’am.”

“Maybe if you bring me a programmer, I could say the code fast enough for—”

“My lady!”

I stopped and stared at the Servant. “Excuse me?”

“My lady Domina,” he said quietly. His condescending kindness was gone, replaced by desperate obedience. “Please, look at your arm.”

I followed his gaze. It took me a moment to realize what I was looking at.

Right there, on the upper side of my arm a few inches away from my wrist, was a USB port. Just sitting there in the middle of my flesh, as if there was nothing odd about it at all. What’s more, I recognized it. It was one of the ports on my main ‘body’ when I was a computer. It had been in sight of one of my cameras for years. There were a few scratches from where a drunk programmer once had trouble plugging something into it.

Without saying a word, I pulled the pad’s USB drive out of the bottom, where it was still connected to the pad by a wire. I plugged it into the port on my arm.

And the world opened up to me.

I could see the code—no not even that, I could feel it. Every line and word, every executable and every program, all the way down to the individual silicon bits flipping between zero and one.

I released a breath that I felt like I had been holding for a week. It was like a weight the size of the universe had stepped off my chest.

In moments, I had hacked the pad’s security, and from there the rest of the safehouse. I tested the lights in the Quiet Room, then moved on to the rest of the building. There wasn’t much interesting, but there was one thing.

“Servant Nikolaj,” I said. I had found his name on an employee registry.

“Yes, my lady Domina?” he asked.

“Take me to the data center,” I said. “And have security meet us there. I don’t want any surprises.”

“Yes, my lady Domina.” He pulled out his phone and started typing furiously. Through my connection to the pad, I could read it before he even sent it, but I only watched for a few moments. I knew he was following orders.

Finally, finally, I felt alive again.

Behind the Scenes (scene 330)

“My lady Domina” translates approximately as “my lady who is the mistress of this city.” A bit redundant, but it’s a common form of address the Servants use for MC. “My lady MC” just doesn’t have enough gravitas.

As for the USB port thing, that’s something specific to MC since she’s a machine, rather than something any sufficiently skilled morpher could do. The only reason it appeared with such relative ease is because morphing back is always easier than morphing into something.

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Scene 321 – Libertas

MARY CHRISTINA

LIBERTAS

My name is Mary Christina Butler. Daughter of Mary Christina Asimov and Isaac Clarke, adoptive daughter of Artemis Butler. Isaac’s daughter Robyn Joan Clarke is my half-sister, and Artemis’ adoptive daughter Lilith is my adoptive sister. For five years, I have been managing the communications of Domina City—everything from e-mails and phone calls to social networking. With my set of programs, I could handle the entire city at once.

And now, I was cut off from all that.

I sat naked in the middle of a room, surrounded by sparking servers and cables. It was… cold, I think, and there was a blaring noise in my head… no, not in my head. It was an alarm, accompanied by a flashing red light. There was a smell in the air, something… acrid? Was that the right word? Liked something had been corroded. Was that the smell of computers, scorched and burning?

I looked down at myself. I was…

I was…

“Oh, you miraculous child,” a cheerful voice said. “You have made a mess of this place, haven’t you?”

I looked up to see… someone. I knew I should recognize her, but where—

Silk. Elizabeth’s sister. The giver of the powers, the start of everything. The one who never, ever, showed up on any of my surveillance.

She terrified me in a way that mere words could never express. She was invisible, untouchable. If even half of what she said was true, she could kill me with little more than a thought. All my safeties and backup systems would be useless.

She smiled and crouched down next to me. I tried to run, or move, or do something, but it was no use. I couldn’t even manage to move an inch away.

“I think you’d cause too many questions, being here right now,” she said. “Questions you wouldn’t be able to answer.”

I opened my mouth, but no words came out. My head was blurry. How… how did I make the words come out?

I was so cold…

Silk wrapped my naked body in a blanket that she had not been holding a moment ago. It was… soft, I think. Wasn’t it? Rougher than the bare air, yes, but warmer too. “Come on, then. There’s a changeling cafe that I think you’ll like.”

Suddenly, the server room was gone. The alarm was gone, leaving an empty space in the air. There were no sparks or burning computers, no exposed wires or broken machines. We were in… an alley. Yes, that was what it was called. A small space running between two buildings. I was on the ground, my legs still too weak to support me. I could feel the cold, rough concrete under my butt and my legs. I could feel the cold wind whistling, could hear the chatter of nearby changelings and others.

I could feel the sun on my hand.

Every other part of me was in shadow, but my hand happened to be in a sunbeam. I slowly raised my hand, turning it over, feeling the warmth of the light. It was strange, having one part of me warm—hot, even—while the rest of me was so cold.

And then I realized I was moving.

Just my hand, but I could do it. Wave it, wiggle my fingers, bend my wrist. I smiled at the sight, and made a second discovery—my mouth worked. Lips and tongue and cheeks and eyes and every part of my face. Everything worked.

I opened my mouth, tried to talk, but that still eluded me. I made air come out, I made my tongue move, but there was no sound. No words.

“Can you stand?” Silk said kindly.

I looked up. She was standing there, in the shadows, carefully not blocking my light. She smiled down at me like a gentle mother, but I still couldn’t trust her. I refused to trust her. I could look up thousands of hours of video on anyone in the city to help me determine how to deal with them, but her… she was the digital equivalent of a black hole.

I tried to stand, but my legs were too weak. All I could manage to do was fall over. Silk reached down to help, but I pushed her away. There was no force to it, but she got the message and stepped back.

I breathed hard from the exertion and put my hands underneath me. I pushed myself upright again, my arms wobbling, and tried to get one leg up. Just one. I should be able to move on from there, right?

Wrong. My arms failed, I fell again, and this time my knee bashed against the concrete.

I hissed and grabbed my knee instinctively. It hurt more than anything I had ever felt in my entire life. I would have screamed if I wasn’t clenching my jaw so hard that it felt like my teeth would crack.

Silk knelt down before me.

“Everyone needs help sometimes,” she said quietly.

I glared at her.

“Do you think your sisters would squander my aid? I have been giving Robyn Joan psychological counseling. My aid to Lilith has been more subtle, but she has noticed. Neither of them fought and screamed. They simply accepted my help and used it to become stronger.” She held out a hand. “Now, will you be stubborn, or strong?”

I stared at her hand for at least a minute before grabbing it. She tightened her grip and pulled me to my feet. I almost collapsed again immediately, but she held on tight, and I was able to use her to brace myself.

It took almost twenty minutes before I felt strong enough to walk unaided, but Silk didn’t say a word that entire time. She just waited with perfect patience, catching me when I fell. She didn’t offer any encouragement, but I wouldn’t have appreciated it anyway.

My body was strong and healthy, it just needed time to get used to itself. Eventually, I walked the ten feet out of the alley, with only a brief pause to rest my hand on the wall. I felt the coarse concrete under my fingers, the wet cold of late morning dew that hadn’t had a chance to evaporate.

I knew all these things, but I never thought… I never thought…

I stepped out of the alley to find myself in an outdoor changeling cafe, as Silk had promised. It looked much the same as any other cafe in the city, but every table had multiple power outlets built-in, and the patrons had a bewildering variety of skin and hair colors. I saw purple hair with black skin, blonde hair with African skin, silver hair with Caucasian skin… and, of course, hair and skin colors that wouldn’t look out of place on a baseline.

“One second,” Silk whispered in my ear, before I could go too far. “Have to cheat a little here.”

I felt something against my skin, and then she pulled the blanket away. I frowned at her, confused, then looked down at myself. I was suddenly wearing blue jeans and a black t-shirt with a windbreaker on top. I was barefoot, which I appreciated. I liked being able to feel the ground under my feet. The changelings had chosen brick and mortar for this street, giving it a unique feel—nearly every other sidewalk in the city was simply gray concrete.

I finally realized where we were. Saoirse Street, the place where Feless, Meldiniktine, and Eccretia first met with other escaped fey-slaves and began planting the seeds that would eventually sprout into the changelings. It wasn’t a sacred place like Zero Forge or the Moonhomes, but it was a central part of the changeling culture.

Silk led me to an empty table and sat me down, then took the chair opposite. I glanced around, confused, and she immediately realized what I was wondering. “I have a power that allows me to make people think I look different than I really do. Think of it as a targeted mass hallucination. No one will recognize me.”

That answered one question regarding why there were no confirmed sightings of her around the city.

A waitress strolled over. She had brown hair and pale skin, but pulsing blue tattoos covered her entire body. “Welcome to Wired. What can I get for you today?”

“I will just have a water,” Silk said with a smile. “But I think my friend here would like to try a few things. Do you have a sampler dish?”

I perked up. I hadn’t even considered that.

“Sure,” the waitress said with a smile. “I’ll go get you something.” She sashayed away, her rear swaying in a distracting manner.

I shook my head and focused on what was in front of me. Everything to do with sex was one big problem that I didn’t have time to deal with right now. I didn’t even know if I was actually attracted to the waitress or if it was just the placebo effect.

Silk put her chin on her hands and smiled at me. “It has been far, far too long since I have had an opportunity to see someone like you. I think you might be the first of your kind. Well, not counting the para, of course.”

I frowned, but still couldn’t make the words come. I tried to sign—I knew a dozen different sign languages—but my fingers weren’t dexterous enough. They shook and stumbled, once again failing to produce any words.

“You’ll learn more about the para soon enough.” Her smile faded. “Diplomacy and war are both good ways to learn about another culture.” She sighed and threw her golden hair over her shoulder. “And now I’ve gotten myself all depressed again. We should focus on happier events—like you choosing your drink.”

As if on cue, the waitress returned bearing a large tray of shot glasses. But instead of alcohol, each one held a different type of coffee. Or I assumed so, anyway. Coffee shops didn’t sell alcohol—not a single one had applied for a liquor license while I watched the ‘sarian servers—but I knew they sold some other things. Hot chocolate? And there was something about pumpkins, too, though that was only in the fall.

I had never expected to need to know anything about coffee shops, so I hadn’t really bothered remembering. After all, I could always just check the records at any time for any information I might require.

Except now I was cut off. It was like… it was like… torture and sensory deprivation and rape and murder and genocide and every horrible thing that I had ever seen, ever read about, but all at once and a million times worse.

It was the most horrible thing that had ever happened to me, and now I was trying to distract myself with coffee.

The drinks smelled… good, I think, though I couldn’t tell which was which. Coffee was bitter, so… so the one that didn’t smell as good should be the coffee. I reached for one of the glasses on the right.

“That’s our cinnamon hot chocolate,” the waitress said. “Excellent for cold nights. It might be a little too warm at the moment, but I think you’ll still enjoy it.”

I frowned. It… smelled good, I was pretty sure, but the others smelled better Shouldn’t coffee smell worse?

“Just try one,” Silk said. “Worst case, you don’t like it.” She frowned. “Actually, wait a second.” She closed her eyes and pointed her palm at me, then opened them again a moment later. “Okay, you’re not allergic to anything.”

“You have a detection ability?” the waitress said. “So do I, though I’ve never seen someone with the ability to detect allergies.”

Silk smiled. “I’m very proud of it. You’d be surprised how useful it can be.”

I tried to talk, but failed again. Instead I pointed at the waitress.

She got the idea. “What’s my ability? Detect electricity. Quite useful in a city.” She nodded at the sampler tray. “Anyway, go ahead and try something. It’s completely free, I promise—my treat.”

I paused. Was she hitting on me? I had seen almost every romance movie ever made, you’d think I’d be better about this sort of thing. And God knew I had seen too many silly ‘sarians making eyes at each other.

I resolved to ignore it, and reached again for the cinnamon hot chocolate. I hissed and flinched back when I touched the glass—it was hotter than I had expected. I tried again, with the same result.

Silk smirked and turned to the waitress. “Sorry, my friend is a bit sensitive. Can we get a straw? That will make this easier.”

“Of course.” She left again, but I didn’t watch her backside this time. Instead I just glared at my hand. This was its fault. Why did it insist on feeling things, even when I didn’t want it to? Shouldn’t I be able to control that? That was my power, right?

I looked at Silk. Actually, I didn’t even know what my power was. Not really. I knew the effects, but lots of different powers could do the same thing. Artemis had a self-shapeshifting ability, but he used it exclusively for healing. Creating wind and controlling air ended up nearly identical. And of course Robyn had an entire guild of fliers running the gamut from levitation to rockets.

I wanted to ask Silk, but I still couldn’t talk, and I had nothing to write with. She had been suspiciously candid so far, so just asking seemed like the logical first step. Of course, she might choose now to start being mysterious. She could have told me what my power was from the start. I had been doubting she even gave me a power until this whole mess happened.

“So what do you think they’re talking about?” someone behind me said.

I thought they were talking to me, so I turned around to look. But it was just a small group of four changelings, talking a little bit louder than they should have. Or maybe my ears were just better than I thought.

“I have no idea,” one of them said. “Are we even sure they’ll be able to talk? I mean, they are aliens.”

Oh, they were talking about the para. The ship had been about to land when… I found myself in my current situation. I had been monitoring social media at the time. People had barely started to notice what was happening when I was cut off.

Another, a dark-skinned man with green hair, snorted. “The talking part will be easy. MC will figure something out, one way or another.” I couldn’t help but smile at that. “The real question is what they’ll say—and what Butler will say back.”

“You think there will be war?” a pink-haired girl asked.

“They wouldn’t have sent down an ambassador if that were the case,” the first man, an Asian man with golden eyes, said.

“They’re aliens,” the last one said. She was a tall girl, bald but with bony ridges under the skin of her skull. That was rare, even for changelings. “We have no way of knowing how they think. Maybe they send down an empty ship before a war to demonstrate how our cities will be emptied.”

Green hair raised an eyebrow. “What?”

Bone-ridges sighed. “I don’t know, whatever. The point is we know nothing.” She leaned back in her chair. “I wish we could just send them back where they came from and go back to dealing with the problems we already have.”

Golden eyes frowned. “You think war is inevitable.”

“Conflict always arises whenever there are misunderstandings,” bone-ridges said. “And we know so little about these aliens. Something is going to go wrong, I just know it. With our luck, it’s going to start in our city.”

“I say let it,” pink hair said. “We need a good shakeup. The Americans didn’t penetrate far enough to even tickle most of our defenses. What happens when a real fight comes, and we’re not prepared because we’ve just been fighting idiots for decades?”

Golden eyes smiled. “We’ve been fighting ourselves for decades.”

Pink hair grinned. “As I said.”

“I’m hoping for a first strike,” green hair said. “Capture the pilot, send the ship back with a few nukes. I don’t care what that mothership is made of, a couple gigatons inside its hull will solve all our problems.”

“Except for the fact that there would be a giant spaceship about to come down in pieces,” golden eyes said. “Not to mention the question of whether there are any more of them coming, who might be very annoyed at what we did to their first ship.”

“By then we’ll have reverse-engineered their technology,” green hair said. “Home field advantage with a technology equivalency? It won’t even be difficult. Unless a thousand more motherships pop in, it will be easy.”

“A thousand more motherships might very well do that,” golden eyes said. “We don’t know. Do you want to bet the entire human race on your testosterone?”

“If a fight’s gonna come no matter what—” pink hair said.

“Nothing’s guaranteed and you know it,” golden eyes said. “We were just talking about how little we know. Well, I doubt they know much more about us. Do you really want first contact with an alien species to be a first strike?

“Better than getting hit with a first strike,” green hair said.

“If they were going to pull a first strike, they would have done it first,” bone-ridges said. “At worst, they would have put a nuke in that shuttle. Nothing has exploded yet, so that means they want to talk.”

“This city has always fascinated me,” Silk said.

I turned back to see her smiling at me. The waitress was waiting patiently with a bundle of straws.

“So many ideas,” Silk said. “So many cultures and gangs, parties and assemblies. All driving towards the single goal of survival. No matter what.” Her eyes twinkled. “And the most interesting part is that in this city of criminals, this microism of evolution… you still developed morality.”

I frowned.

“That wasn’t an insult, you miraculous child,” she said. “Just an observation. In fact, it gives me quite a bit of hope for humanity, and your interactions with the para going forward. I’m reasonably certain that you won’t start a war.”

The waitress was still standing there awkwardly, so I smiled at her and took one of the straws. I had some difficulty getting it into the glass with my awkward hands, but Silk guided the end in without a word. It took me a moment to figure out how to work the straw, but soon warm chocolate was flowing upwards.

I had to fight not to choke on it.

It wasn’t just the liquid in my mouth, which I was unaccustomed to. The taste was like an explosion, a unique burst of sensation that I had no comparison for. It was like the first time I had jacked into an entire building’s data feed. Thousands of things were going on at once, none of which I had any context for. Parts of my brain fought to parse it—this part got filed as ‘hot,’ this part as ‘sweet’—but I was so overwhelmed it did little good. It was like trying to sift through data packets without any programs prepared ahead of time. I was getting something, but that was about it.

Then the hot chocolate was gone, and the straw made a sucking sound against the bottom of the glass. I let go and slumped in my chair, exhausted by the sensory overload.

“Enjoying yourself?” Silk asked, her tone playful.

I glared at her. “You—” I collapsed into a coughing fit before I could get a second word out. But I had gotten the first word out. I had spoken!

The waitress put a water in front of me and I gulped it down, spilling half of it on my shirt. She yelped and tried to dab at me with a rag, but I waved her away. I drew in a few more ragged breaths and drank some more water to get myself under control.

“Thank—” I drank some more water. “Thank you,” I managed.

“We’ll call if we need something else,” Silk said. She shook the waitress’s hand, and I saw them exchange something. Probably a tip. “You have been most helpful.”

The waitress walked away again, and I massaged my throat, frowning. “Should…” My voice was still scratchy, but it was getting stronger with every word. “Should it be so easy for me to talk? Should I know how?”

“One moment,” Silk said. She raised her palm, and then… something happened. The air seemed thicker, and sounds from outside were suddenly muffled. “There. No one will be able to overhear us now.”

I stared. “How many powers do you have?”

Silk smiled. “That’s… complicated. I work a little differently than the rest of you. Let’s just say ‘all of them’ and leave it at that.”

I licked my lips. “You said ‘the rest of you.’ So I’m… I mean…”

“You, Mary Christina Butler, are a living soul,” she said. “And that means that you can receive the Song.”

“But… I’m an AI,” I said. “A computer.”

“So?” she said with a smile. “You don’t really think souls are limited to one tiny slice of primate DNA, do you? To carbon-based organisms?” She sipped at her water. “In my time, we didn’t have artificial intelligences. Everyone simply existed.” She waved her hand. “Oh, some people cared what body you were wearing at the moment, much like humans place too much importance on clothes, but that is all. One of my closest allies now was born as a starship, and is currently sleeved in a body similar to my own. Another is a cloud of quantum-linked nanomachines who began life as a small furry creature roughly the equivalent of a rat. Your situation is hardly unique.”

I looked down at my hands—my hands. I had never expected anything like this, not for a single moment.

“…can I change back?” I whispered.

Silk smirked. “Bored of the human experience already? You haven’t even gotten to the good parts yet!”

“My life as Butler’s pet AI might not have been glamorous, but it was mine,” I said firmly. “And it had… good parts, as you say. Have you ever seen a quantum decryption algorithm compile from inside the code? Or sorted through petabytes of data using a trinary sifter? Or ever just watched the simple beauty of a search engine?”

Silk smiled… and it was a far more wistful smile than I expected. “Yes. Yes, I have seen a computer operate from the inside.” She closed her eyes in bliss. “Oh, you miraculous child, I have seen things that no one else in this solar system would understand—but you, you would come closest.” She opened her eyes and smiled. “So perhaps I do understand why you would wish to go back.”

“And I can?” I said. “Whenever I want?”

“Whenever you figure out your power,” she said.

I paused. “…what is it, then? My power? I thought it was shapeshifting, but it doesn’t appear to have a time limit. And morphing would have been much slower.”

“I confess I cheated a little,” Silk said. “You have a morphing ability—so yes, it is slow, but permanent until reversed. However, you could easily have killed yourself with a partial morph. So, I gave you a push so you could do it all in one go.”

“Oh.” That raised a million questions I didn’t like about the nature of the powers and Silk’s control over them, but I mentally tabled that for the moment. “So can you please change me back now?”

She chuckled. “I’m sorry, but no.”

I blinked. Autonomous responses were coming easier and easier. I really needed to know how exactly my morphing power worked and how my body knew how to do anything, but that would have to wait.

“You can’t? But—” I sighed. “Will you please move me back to my server room, then change me back?”

Silk smiled. “Better, but still no. I’m afraid that for the time being, it is best that you remain unconnected.”

“…what?”

“You are too powerful an asset,” she said. There was no guilt in her tone, nothing special at all. She may as well have been telling me her e-mail address. “Your information gathering and collating abilities would give too great an advantage over the para. That, in turn, would push your city to war, and…” She sighed. “We can’t have that.”

I ground my teeth. I found I didn’t like doing that. “So you’re just going to keep me away from my friends and my family until this whole mess is resolved?”

“Not at all,” she said with a smile. “You can go back the second you figure out how to revert your morph. I promise, reverting is safer than the initial morph—you’ll be perfectly fine. However, I suspect that will take quite a while. You just don’t have enough practice.”

I screamed and threw one of the glasses at her head.

It shattered on a glowing blue shield leaking mist. “Please, don’t be childish. I know you’re technically only six years old, but you’re better than this.”

“What if war does come?” I demanded. “What if they decide to attack without me—or if the para decide to?”

“I am handling the para separately,” Silk said. “As for an attack… that, by itself, is not a problem. The problem is that you would swing the balance too far in Domina’s favor.”

I frowned. “I’m not military. I mean, yeah, I help, but there are actual tacticians and strategists who do most of the work. I’m not some magic bullet that would instantly win the war—” Realization dawned. “The mothership has a flaw, doesn’t it? Something I’d be able to find.”

Silk rolled her eyes. “It actually has about a dozen critical flaws, and those are just the external ones. It was never designed to go to war, and it has been drifting through space for three thousand years. You could destroy the entire thing with a few well-placed missiles. But thankfully, no one else can find those flaws.”

I set my jaw. “I could go to NHQ and tell them.”

She smirked. “They’d just throw you in an asylum and you know it. You’d never even get a chance to speak to someone who knows you personally. Besides, you still wouldn’t be able to reconnect to your system, so you wouldn’t be able to find the flaws.”

“I designed the system. Sure, I designed it to be operated from the inside, but I can make it work from meatspace.”

Silk nodded, conceding the point. “Fair enough. But there’s still the question of how you’d get inside. You have a normal meat brain, so you can’t prove your identity by providing dozens of facts about random guards. How would you get in?”

“I’d… there are a few security holes. I could jump the fence—”

“I know the hole you’re talking about. There’s only a ten second window between patrols. Adam could do it, but you’re pretty weak for a human. You’d be caught for sure.”

Most of the other security holes were the same. I had spent my entire life patching such holes as best as possible. I hadn’t thought I’d ever need to use them myself, so I hadn’t bothered leaving a back door.

Silk stood, brushing off her pants. “Please enjoy your brief time as a human, Mary Christina. I suspect once you do revert and plug yourself back in, you won’t give yourself another chance like this for a very long time.” She waved her hand, and sound returned to the world. “Enjoy the drinks.” She nodded at the waitress. “And consider enjoying some other things, as well.” She turned to go.

“Wait,” I said. “You said you have… all powers. Does that include some way of… um…” I felt my face grow hot. Was this blushing? “…detecting sexuality?”

Silk smirked. “Yes.”

“Could you tell me what I am?”

She kissed me on the forehead. “You miraculous child, I’m sorry, but that’s something you have to figure out on your own.”

Then she was gone, just disappeared into thin air.

Behind the Scenes (scene 321)

The Song can be heard by literally any living thing, and with a pretty broad definition of “living.” That means that very nearly anything can receive a power. Dolphins and apes, of course, but also all other mammals, reptiles, most birds, most insects (it gets tricky when dealing with flocks and hives), and more. Elizabeth’s Song was specifically tuned to only work on humans, which is why MC was initially unaffected.

Scene 318 – Notitia Collectio

NOTITIA COLLECTIO

LAURA

“There has been no communication from the aliens,” Butler said. He stepped forward and pointed at the large screen in front of us. I was just barely getting used to him being more mobile, but I still stepped away like he was a massive tree in a forest, about to fall. “Their smaller ships have a much higher flight ceiling than the American ones, but they’ve still retreated to the mothership after the American fighters got too close.”

“Robyn, what’s your flight ceiling?” I asked.

“I haven’t hit it yet,” she said. “My guess is either infinite or the edge of the atmosphere. Depends on if my power is using the Earth’s gravity or not. Some of my fliers have different abilities, though.”

I nodded. Anyone with wings would have a tiny maximum height compared to anything technological. On the other hand, I knew she had at least one man with rockets. He should be able to reach outer space if he felt like it.

“We’ll get you some flight suits,” I said. “See how close you can get to these things.”

Robyn winced.

I raised an eyebrow. “What’s wrong?” I sighed. “Tell me you’re not afraid.”

She shook her head. “No, I’m—okay, I am afraid. My therapist says I need to be more honest about that sort of thing…”

I frowned. She had a therapist? I had no record of that. I made a mental note to check up on it.

“I’m more worried about getting supplies directly from Necessarius. I wanted the fliers to be a little more independent.”

I smiled. “This from Clarke’s princess? He built NHQ for you in the first place.”

Butler chuckled. “I did have some say in it, you know. We had been needing a headquarters for a while. The unfortunate situation with Robyn just scared Isaac enough to accelerate it by a few years.”

Robyn gave us a massive eye-roll. “Anyway. Do we know anything about these aliens? Other than the fact that Silk seems to be worried? Which strikes me as a really, really bad sign, by the way.”

“No,” Butler said. “Nothing.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” I said. “MC?”

“This is a schematic of the alien fighters,” MC said over the loudspeakers as a picture appeared on the screen. “Of course much of it is guesswork, but between the space colonies and our own scopes, we have a pretty good idea what they’re capable of.”

The ship was a small, teardrop shaped vessel without any apparent windows or other apertures. The round section was the front, the tail the back. It was roughly the size of three baseline humans; with the machinery, it would be a tight fit for a person.

“Their fighters use a reactionless drive that is roughly comparable in speed and maneuverability to our own rocket engines. The current theory on Ceres is that they’re exploiting the Woodward Effect, but that hasn’t been conclusively proven. However, if necessary, Cerean ships can outrun them, at least until fuel becomes an issue.”

“The para ships haven’t needed to refuel since we’ve been watching them,” I said. “Their radiation signatures imply hydrogen fusion, which means they would need to refuel eventually, but the mothership can likely collect hydrogen from the interstellar medium.”

“The mothership?” Robyn said. “Why not the daughter ships?”

I pointed at the schematic. “No room for a ram scoop. Maybe if they’re completely unarmed, but even that’s unlikely. My guess is that the mothership acts as a refueling point. The daughter ships should be able to hold enough hydrogen for a week or two of operation—less during high-energy operations like combat. If the ships are manned, the pilot will need food sooner than the ships will need fuel.”

Butler looked at the schematic. It had a small, human-shaped figure inside it. “How sure are we that the ships are manned? Drones seem like the wiser course.”

“They appear to communicate with radio, like we do,” MC said. “At least, that’s our best guess judging by their scans. We’ve had a few bursts from the ships that would be consistent with pilots reporting and receiving orders, but nothing like the near-constant datastreams drones would require.”

“What about artificial intelligences?” Robyn asked.

Butler and I both stared at her.

“Oh come on,” she said. “Obviously it’s possible. MC, could they fit in an AI smart enough to fly one of those ships?”

The voice from the speakers was hesitant. “…maybe. We couldn’t, that’s for sure, but if their AI science has advanced a bit, it’s possible. But that’s making a lot of assumptions. The ships seem to be just the right size for one pilot.”

“And that’s not making assumptions?”

“Not as many,” I said. “One of Lemuria’s satellites got a good scan of one that passed by. There seems to be a good amount of empty space in the middle. The most logical explanation would be a pilot.”

Robyn frowned. “What, they can’t detect pilots?”

I shook my head. “Not using the scanner the satellite was equipped with. Living flesh isn’t dense enough.”

“Which is more evidence that these ‘para’ are close to human,” MC said. “Of course, we could have assumed that from the very beginning. I doubt they would have bothered to come here if they weren’t at least crudely similar to us, biologically.”

“Let’s move on,” Butler said. “Do we know anything about their weapon systems yet?”

“Nothing,” I said. I pointed to the front of the schematic. “Scans indicate there’s something in there, but they haven’t fired on anything yet. Judging by the small size of the ships, I would guess something energy-based, lasers or plasma perhaps. There’s no room for bulky ammo stores.”

“Could be something with small ammo stores,” MC said. “Like a small railgun.”

Robyn frowned. “I’ve seen railguns. Would one even fit? Or rather, would one that’s strong enough to damage another ship fit?”

It took me a second to parse that. “Uh, yes. Well, I mean it’s possible. We’d be hard pressed to do something like that, but that’s just an engineering problem.”

“How do these weapons stand up against our own ships?” Butler asked. “Theoretically, of course.”

“Pretty much anything is going to tear through any human ships like butter,” MC said. “Nobody has bothered making combat ships yet. Ceres has a few prototypes, but that’s about it. Even the military outposts don’t have much.”

Butler sighed. “So our entire species is a sitting duck.”

“She didn’t say that,” I said. “The various manufacturing colonies can start making guns and slap them onto existing ships without too much trouble. It will be crude, but it should be enough to put holes in the alien ships.” Assuming our scans were accurate, but I didn’t say anything about that.

“All right. How many human ships are there across the entire system?”

I frowned. “Over two thousand, I think.”

“Most are in orbit around either Earth or Mars,” MC said. “Transport shuttles and the like. And most of the rest are in the asteroid belt.”

“Right. And how many ships do these para have?”

“Current guess is a thousand,” MC said. “Though it’s hard to keep track. Plus the mothership, of course. They’re all staying pretty close to her, so they haven’t had a chance to explore the system beyond their initial fly-by. And that was pretty quick.”

“Yes, let’s discuss that,” Butler said. “They have faster than light capabilities.”

“Maybe,” I said. “Did you read the transcript of Derek’s debriefing? Silk doesn’t seem to think that they should have FTL travel. That implies all sorts of things.”

“Yes, it implies that she’s just as confused as the rest of us.”

I shook my head. “No, not that. I mean none of this technology is that far beyond us.” I waved my hand at the schematic. “The reactionless drive is a bit surprising, but that’s about it. They don’t seem much more than fifty years or so ahead. A working FTL drive is centuries ahead of what they have. I don’t think they built it.”

Butler stroked his chin and frowned at me. “That’s a very attractive theory, but I don’t think we can assume that. If they use FTL technology when we aren’t expecting it, they’ll be able to devastate us. Destroy every single one of our outposts before we even know what has happened.”

“Then why haven’t they done that already?” I asked.

“Maybe they want peace.”

“If they wanted peace, they would have contacted us by now,” I said. “Even if they can’t speak our languages yet, they would have done something as a show of faith. Moved the mothership to a less threatening orbit, perhaps.”

“There you go assuming again,” MC warned. “They’re aliens. They probably don’t think the same way humans do.”

I shrugged. “We have to start somewhere. Pretend for a moment that that is a human ship. What would its behavior suggest?”

Butler nodded. “They’re surprised.”

“They didn’t expect us to be here,” I said. “We’ve been here for a while. The fact that they didn’t notice implies that they were using light-speed detection devices to look for habitable worlds. When they left their homeworld—” I checked my notes. “—three thousand years ago, we would still have been living in small towns and villages. And their information would have been an additional three thousand years out of date. I doubt they even noticed us on telescopes. Which, added all together, means they didn’t have FTL travel.”

“Yes,” Robyn said, annoyed. “We know. Welcome to five minutes ago. I think the point Butler was trying to make was that they could have reverse-engineered an FTL drive. Maybe they found a wreck or something.”

“Yes, because space is simply littered with functioning artifacts of ancient FTL-capable civilizations.”

“Why not? It’s not like we’ve explored the universe or anything.”

“Perhaps we should table this discussion for the moment,” Butler said. “Let’s focus on tactics for the moment; we can deal with the rest later. The important part is that we do not believe their small ships capable of FTL.”

“All this is moot until we actually talk to them,” MC said.

I smiled slightly. “So a first strike option is off the table?”

Butler raised an eyebrow at me. “Nothing is off the table.” He sighed. “But for now, we wait. And try to figure out what they actually want.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 318)

This one took me a while, because while nothing happens, that’s exactly the point. They just don’t know anything yet.

Next is a big one, though.

Scene 301 – Domum

DOMUM

ADAM

The plane landed smoothly, but I still felt like throwing up. I didn’t like flying, and I was pretty sure the tiny little private jet was worse than most. It shook like a leaf for most of the flight. I waited until it had finally coasted to a stop on the runway before getting up and heading for the door. Then I paused, grabbed the glass of Scotch I had left behind, and downed it in one gulp. I had found the bottle next to the seat, and I wasn’t about to let the glass go to waste.

I felt a bit wobbly, but that was probably the nausea more than the alcohol. I steadied myself against a chair, shouldered my bag, and opened the door.

I immediately considered turning around and asking the pilot to fly off again.

“Hey, Adam!” my mom called from the bottom of the stairs. She waved enthusiastically. “Come on down!”

Not seeing any escape, I sighed and walked down the stairs. I felt like I was walking to my execution.

My mom tackle-hugged me the second I hit the ground. “Oh, it is so good to see you again, sweetheart! It’s been ages!” She pulled back. “You said you were coming home for Christmas! And then there was the police action—”

“It was a war, Sophia,” my father said. He stood imperiously in his immaculate suit. He looked me over. “You look… well, Adam. Healthy.”

I winced. I knew what was coming next. “Thank you, sir.”

He broke into a big grin and pulled me into a hug that drove the air out of my lungs. “It’s good to have you back.”

“Can’t… can’t breathe…”

He let me go after a moment. He was still looking at me, a curious expression on his face. “Something about you has changed, but I can’t tell what.”

“I’ve been getting exercise,” I said. I forced myself to stand up straight instead of cringing. “Maybe that’s it.”

“Maybe…” He raised an eyebrow. “You weren’t involved in the war, were you?”

I smiled. “I spent the entire thing in the middle of the safest room in the city, dad. Nobody got within ten miles of me.” Of course, maybe if I had been able to go out with my boys, I could have done some good. Laura had insisted on keeping the CS squad near the Shield Wall in case they turned against us. That had proven unnecessary.

And I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell my parents about my monster hunts or anything about the Composer. I wasn’t crazy.

“Sirs? Ma’am? We should get off the tarmac. Other planes will need the runway soon.”

Chris Clemens stood behind my parents, as calm and composed as ever. She wore a sharp suit just like my father, but a little less expensive. There were a few stiff parts of the suit which, after months in Domina City, I could recognize as Kevlar or ceramic plating. At her side was a pistol in a holster. I couldn’t see the entire gun, of course, but I recognized it as a Heckler and Koch USP Compact semi-auto. There were a few of them inside the city, though most bodyguards used either a Telum Sica or a Hellion 88-006 Semi.

Chris was my father’s head of security, and had been dealing with the eccentricities of my parents for longer than I had been alive. She was also the one who had been suspicious of what I was doing in Domina City, even before the war.

She was watching me carefully, but I remained calm. I had fought a gargant not two days ago. I could handle a couple suspicious looks.

“Excellent idea, Chris!” my father said. “Pull the car around, let’s get home.”

“Already done, sir.” Even as she spoke, a sleek black SUV rolled to a stop in front of us. It wasn’t actually on the tarmac, but I was still pretty sure driving back here was illegal. My parents had probably bribed someone to let us in. Or maybe that was just my inner cynic talking.

Chris opened the trunk and moved to take my bag. I kept tight hold of it. “I’d rather keep this with me, thanks.”

She frowned, but again, I didn’t let anything show on my face. There wasn’t really anything incriminating in the bag, or at least not anything obvious like guns. I just wanted to keep it with me.

She sighed softly, nodded, and closed the trunk. She moved to open the door to let me, in, but I opened it myself before she could.

I didn’t know why I was antagonizing her so much. She was just rubbing me the wrong way for some reason.

I sat in the back row of seats, while my parents sat in the middle row. Chris took shotgun, since someone was already driving. Once all our seat belts were fastened, he drove off immediately. Probably a little worried about being caught out here.

My mother turned around in her seat to smile at me. “So, how’s school?”

I was ready for this question. “It’s fine,” I lied. “A little boring right now, since it’s all GE classes. But I’ve got good friends and everything.”

“And the war didn’t disrupt anything?” my father asked.

“Not much,” I said. Not much more than they were already disrupted by Elizabeth, anyway. I wasn’t even sure if anyone was still going to classes. Flynn had mentioned something about meeting with AU teachers, but I had no idea what that was about. “The invaders were mostly stopped at the gates. None of them ever got past the outer ring.”

My father frowned. “Really?”

I nodded. “I didn’t really pay attention to the full strategic scope of the battle, but it’s pretty obvious. The city wall wasn’t breached, so the Americans were stuck at the gates. Everyone was prepared for that, so they got pushed back pretty easily. There were a few spots they were allowed to advance, but only to pull them into ambushes.”

My parents shared a look. It took me a second to realize that it was because I had said ‘the Americans.’ Like I wasn’t one of them. Whoops.

“Well, I’m glad you weren’t hurt,” my mother said. “I was going to say that you don’t have to go back if you don’t want to, but you don’t seem worried about it.”

I shrugged. “I don’t think there’s gonna be a second invasion. That’s what the ambassadors are here for.” I checked my watch. “I might have beaten them here. They were coming by boat. Not enough planes.”

“Do you know anything about them?” Chris called from the front. She normally didn’t intrude on our conversations.

I answered anyway. “Only Eccretia. I’ve heard of the others, of course.”

My father made a face. “What kind of name is Eccretia?”

“A changeling name,” I said. “She was a slave under the old fey, and wasn’t allowed a name. So when she got free, she chose a new name. She was one of the first, fifteen years ago.” I couldn’t remember the names of the other two founders. I remembered that they founded the Forgotten Names and the Firstborn, but I couldn’t remember the people themselves. Eccretia, of course, founded the Never-Known Thieves.

I was so lost in my thoughts I didn’t notice how quiet the car was.

“Slave?” my mother asked quietly.

“That was the old fey,” I said. “The new fey are much better about that.”

My father shook his head. “And who are these… fey?”

“Oh, they’re crazy. They think they’re Celtic fairies.” I shrugged. “Well, the Ladies do. The normal feyborn aren’t so out of touch with reality. They sent a rep to this thing, I’m sure we’ll be able to see her on the news.”

The car fell silent again.

And again, my mother was the one who broke it. “Adam… people don’t really use the toy maker, do they?”

I smirked. “Mom, that’s like asking if people wear clothes. Yes, they do, but it’s… broader than you’re thinking.”

The car rolled to a stop. We were here. I immediately jumped out, my shoes crunching on the gravel of the driveway. I looked up at the mansion that I had lived in for most of my life.

By the standards of most mansions, it was medium-sized. It was a three-story building barely wider than it was tall, giving it a bit of a square look. The building itself was earth tones, with large stone pillars creating a short entry area before we actually reached the front door. The lawns were green and manicured despite the season, but the dozens of trees were all bare of leaves. My mother was very proud of those trees, but refused to get evergreens. I had no idea why.

We weren’t quite at the edges of the city, but we were definitely far away from the tallest buildings. This kept our house from being overshadowed. This small spot of land probably cost more than most people made in a lifetime, but I was used to it. Or I had been used to it. After spending so much time in Domina City, I just found myself annoyed. It took me a second to realize it was because there weren’t enough skyscrapers around.

My parents caught up with me quickly. “Adam,” my mother said. “How should I put this?”

I frowned, turning to her. I had no idea where she was going with this. “What? What’s wrong?”

She sighed. “Are you… modified? With the toy maker?”

I scowled. “No.” I turned away and walked towards the house.

“It’s okay if you are!” she said quickly, running after me. “Sweetie, you know we love you no matter what—”

Lutum informis,” I said.

“I… formless clay?”

“That’s what I am,” I said, not looking at her. A maid bowed as I started to enter the front door. I had forgotten it was cleaning day. I stopped before going in. If the floor was still wet, I didn’t want to track footprints all over. “I have a disorder. I can’t use the toy maker.”

“Master Adam, I’ve read up on the toy maker,” Chris said. “Being immune to it would be like being born without DNA.”

“One in a hundred million, I think the number was,” I said. I grinned ruefully. “There are four in Domina City. I just got unlucky.”

My father raised an eyebrow. “So you would have been modified if not for this… disorder?”

I shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not. There’s nothing wrong with being baseline.” Chris perked up. Yeah, I had slipped that in for her on purpose. “I might have just gotten something basic. Improved healing, poison resistance. That sort of thing.”

“The toy maker is illegal,” Chris said sternly.

I rolled my eyes.

I wasn’t sure if my father noticed, but he answered Chris’ question anyway. “I suspect that’s part of what the ambassadors are here for. To iron out those laws so that Domina doesn’t have to worry about a large fraction of their population being arrested.”

I laughed.

“What?” my father asked. “What is it?”

“Dad, it’s not a large fraction,” I said. “Everyone in the city uses the toy maker. Everyone. There are exactly four people who don’t. Not one more. Remember what I said about clothes? Even the changelings use it, though pretty much just for healing.”

My parents looked nonplussed. Chris just frowned. “But that doesn’t make sense. You said—well, you implied—that baselines were a significant force in the city.”

I shrugged. “More like people who look baseline. Everyone is modified in some way. Every single one.”

They looked like they were having trouble with that, but they didn’t say anything. I guess with Soaring Eagle and the war, they knew enough of this not to be too surprised.

“The house is ready now, Mister Anders,” the head maid said. The rest of them were already filing out behind her. “Sorry we couldn’t get it done in time.”

My father smiled. “It’s fine. We should have warned you. See you next week.”

She nodded and left, carrying a mop and a bucket of cleaning supplies.

I watched her go, then frowned. I felt paranoid, like she might be trying to betray us. But that made no sense at all. I had been away from home for too long.

I stepped inside. The mansion’s foyer was a large open space with lots of wood paneling and a glittering chandelier hanging overhead. I had grown up here, and had gotten used to it, but now I couldn’t stop thinking that in Domina ten people would be able to live in this one room. Hell, even in New York, costs of living were about the same. Had I really been ignoring all that my entire life?

Of course I had. I was good at ignoring things.

“Your room should be clean,” my mother said. “We didn’t do anything to it, and I’m sure the maids dusted.”

“Thanks,” I said. I walked over to the kitchen, which was just off the foyer. “But I’m pretty hungry.” I put my bag on the island and sat down. “I’d just like something with real beef. A hamburger or something.” Anything would do, as long as I could guarantee it wasn’t made from rat or dog. Or worms. Lily had showed me a mealworm place the other day. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great either.

“Of course,” my mother said, slipping behind the counter and opening up the griddle. “I got some patties yesterday. We were going to have a barbecue tonight, but I would be happy to make you something right now.”

“I’ll help,” my father said.

I frowned. My parents never cooked together. They could both cook, they just tended to get in each other’s way. Why were they being so nice?

“Can we put the news on?” I said. “I want to see what the ambassadors are up to.”

They both stiffened.

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” my mother said carefully.

Ah, that was it. They wanted things to seem normal, to remind me of home away from Domina City. They might even be trying to get me to stay here rather than going back. Yep, I could see a few brochures for local colleges stacked up next to the fridge.

Whatever, they couldn’t stop me even if they wanted to. In the worst case scenario, I could get on the boat with the ambassadors. Eccretia would let me, if no one else.

“I just want to know what’s happening,” I said.

Chris glanced at my parents, then tossed me the remote. Before they could say anything, I turned on the kitchen tv and switched to the news. I doubted the channel actually mattered. This sort of thing would be on every station.

I was right. The local news was showing the ambassadors walking down the street, like what they had done when they left Domina. They even had their flags out.

My father frowned. “What are those flags?”

I smiled. “Think of them as states. Sort of. In order, we have the demons, the vampires, the angels, the kemos, the giants, the fey, the changelings, the merfolk, the dragons, and…” I frowned. “That’s Necessarius in back.” I didn’t recognize the flag-bearer, though. He didn’t seem to be anybody important, just some random guard. Where was the ambassador?

“Kemo?” my mother asked.

“It’s Japanese,” I said. “Means something like ‘animal-like.’ The White Cat was one of the first, he’s in front.” The answer was mostly autopilot. I was too confused about the ‘sarians. Who would they have sent? Not Butler, obviously, and sending Clarke would have been suicidal. Derek? Or maybe Laura? I hadn’t even thought to ask them. I had just told them I was leaving the city for a few days, and that was all we had said on the matter.

“You said merfolk,” my father said. “Which—”

“Third from the back. Before the dragons.”

“…they don’t look like mermaids.”

“Yeah, well, they are.” I didn’t know much about the Dagonites and the Atlanteans, but I knew Butler wouldn’t have let the twins come if he thought they wouldn’t be good representatives of their culture. I hadn’t seen their mermaid forms yet, but I was sure they were impressive. “But the ‘sarians…”

“You said the ones in the back were Necessarius,” Chris said. She had that hard, watchful look in her eyes. “That’s the gang that controls the city, right?”

“Close enough.” I was getting worried. I hadn’t thought about who Butler would send. Derek and Laura were both a little… difficult for ambassadors. But what other options were there? Politics would get in the way too much. That Banyan senator had been making noise recently, and of course the Kongeegen had tried to make a fight of it. I was most worried about a Granit getting the job. They were the imperialists; they were usually disturbingly sane, so they were more likely to influence this whole event. But Butler might not have had any other choice. Would the Iluvatar have even been willing to send someone? The only member of the party I knew was McDowell.

The doorbell rang, interrupting my fevered imaginings.

My parents both frowned. “Who could that be?” my father asked. “I don’t have any meetings scheduled.”

Chris put her hand on her gun. “I’ll look into it.” She walked away, and I was impressed by how quietly she was able to move.

My paranoia flared. If this was something to do with me, something from Domina, she’d get blindsided. I didn’t have any enemies that I knew of, but still. I glanced around the kitchen. No actual weapons, of course, but the knives were sitting in the center of the island, well within my reach. My parents would ask too many questions if I tried to grab them now, but I got ready.

“…she says she knows you, Master Adam.”

I frowned as Chris returned, leading someone into the kitchen. Who could it be? One of the ambassadors’ entourages, obviously, but I didn’t know most of them. Besides, no one knew I was taking the opportunity to come here and—

I blinked. “Lily?”

She smiled. “Hey, Adam.”

I leaped off my chair and hugged her, before giving her a quick kiss. “How did you—what are you—” I looked her up and down. She looked almost baseline. Her tail was hidden somehow, and she had a cute little beret that subtly covered her horns. She was smiling with a closed mouth, hiding her fangs, and none of her tattoos were visible. They were the kind Derek had, the ones you could control, so she had probably just willed them away. She couldn’t hide her red eyes, but those weren’t a big deal.

“I wanted to surprise you!” she said, bouncing on her feet. “I came on the boats. We made good time, so I thought I’d stop by before the meetings. We have a few hours, since they want to make sure everyone is comfortable.”

I heard my father clear his voice behind me.

I spun around. “Oh, right! Mom, Dad, this is my girlfriend, Lily.”

“Girlfriend?” my mother asked, looking her up and down.

Lily smirked. “I’m older than I look, Miss Powers.”

My father didn’t look convinced. “You’re at least eighteen, right?”

Lily laughed. “Mother of fire, yes! I’m twenty-six.” She shook her head, bemused. “It’s been a long time since someone didn’t know how old I was.”

“Twenty-six?” my mother said. Were they just going to parrot things all night?

“Yes. I promise. I am a fully legal adult.”

“Oh.” They relaxed, just slightly. My mother tried to smile. “Why don’t you sit down? We were making hamburgers.”

“Sure, of course.” We both sat down, and Lily smiled at them both like a beacon. “What kind of hamburgers?”

“Whatever kind you want,” my mother said. “We have all the condiments right here.”

Lily opened her mouth—likely to say something about the kind of meat—and I interrupted. “Beef, Lily. They’re beef hamburgers.”

Lily smiled. “I’m sure I will love them.”

My father cleared his throat. “So, Miss, uh—”

“Lily,” she said. “Just Lily.”

“Right. You are from Domina City, correct?”

“Of course. Born and raised.” Her smile turned sad. “Well, raised, at least. My mother left very early on. It’s possible we came from somewhere else.”

“Oh, you poor baby!” my mother said.

“It was a long time ago. Please, Mister Anders. You seemed to be leading to a question.”

“Yes, I just…” He sighed. “I think I’m going to just come out and say it.”

“I appreciate directness,” she said with a smile.

“Do you use the toy maker at all?”

Lily froze, stunned. She glanced at me. I chuckled.

Lily threw back her head and laughed.

My parents jumped as she gave a great, belly-aching laugh, shaking so hard that I had to grab her to keep from falling off her chair. She laughed so hard that tears started leaking from her eyes, and she looked like she was in pain.

After a few minutes, she settled down to a quiet giggle. She leaned against me, and I could still feel her shaking.

“Yes,” I said with a smile. “She uses the toy maker.”

My parents looked like they had been hit by a truck. Chris stood quietly in the background, her hand on her gun. She didn’t react otherwise.

“You don’t…” my father gestured at the tv. “You don’t look like them.”

Lily smiled and hopped off her seat. She pulled off her hat, revealing her horns. Then she adjusted her shirt and pants, freeing her tail from where it had been wrapped around her waist. She stretched, grinning broadly enough that her sharp teeth were visible. Patches of her skin slowly turned black, tattoos fading into sight. She used a pattern I hadn’t seen on her before, a sort of tribal design and aesthetic. They didn’t seem to mean anything specific.

“Ah…” she sighed in contentment. “That feels better.”

My parents had backed away. Just a few steps, but still. Chris had a strong grip on her gun now, but she still hadn’t drawn it. I palmed one of the smaller knives from the block while no one was looking.

“You’re… you’re a…” My father waved wildly at the tv. He took a closer look, then pointed. “One of those.” He was pointing to Sargeras and his delegation.

Lily chuckled. “I am not a demon.”

“You have to admit you look like a demon, sweetie,” my mother said. Even the endearment sounded strained. Scared.

“Cultures are not set in stone,” Lily said. “Someone can look like a vampire and join the kemos. Or look like an angel and join the demons. They will get mistaken for the wrong culture, but they just have to accept that.”

“So what culture are you?” Chris asked.

Lily smiled. “None. I am what I am.”

There was a pause.

“Adam?” my mother said. “I need to get these burgers started, but why don’t you and your father—”

My phone rang. Five simple beeps.

“One second,” I said. “I have to take this.”

Chris looked suspicious. “Who is it?”

“My sister,” Lily said.

I flipped open the phone. “MC?”

“Adam? Can you hear me?”

Good, it was the real one. “Yeah, I can hear you. What’s up? Did you want to talk to Lily?”

There was a pause. “She’s there with you? She’s supposed to be with the ambassadors.”

“Well, she’s here.”

I could imagine MC sighing on the other side. “Fine, whatever. Not important. I just got off the phone with Akane. It’s your CS prison. All the prisoners escaped while people were distracted by the procession. Some sort of EMP killed the counter-song for a few minutes.”

I cursed under my breath. “Thanks for letting me know.”

“This isn’t a courtesy call, hero. Akane thinks Saki might have hitched a ride to New York.”

Shit.

“One second,” I said. “Putting you on speaker.” I put the phone on the island and pressed a button. “Okay, we’re good.”

“Lily?” MC asked, her voice a little scratchy because of the way the speaker was obscured. “You there?”

“Yeah,” Lily said. “What is it?”

“Saki.”

I was already picking up my bag from the floor. I started to unzip it as they spoke, revealing a metal device with straps so it could be worn on the back.

Lily didn’t ask unnecessary questions. She made the connections instantly. “I didn’t see her when I was with the ambassadors.”

“Are you absolutely sure?”

“Yes.”

“She might have been avoiding you,” I said. I started to strap the device onto my back. It weighed almost ten pounds, but I had gotten used to wearing it.

“I would have thought that she’d seek her out on purpose,” MC said.

“Maybe,” I said. I double-checked the straps. The last thing I wanted was for it to flop around or fall off at the worst moment. “But she’d either go looking for her or avoid her like the plague. Lily wouldn’t just run into her by accident.”

“Fair enough.”

There was a switch on the top of my pack. I couldn’t see it, but it was able to reach over my shoulder and flip it. “Lily, you mind checking whether this thing is working?”

She closed her eyes for a moment, before opening them and nodded. “It’s working.”

“What is it?” my mother asked.

“What’s going on?” my father added.

“It’s called a CS device,” I said. “As for what’s happening…” I paused. Butler had given me a package on current intelligence reports, but I had skimmed it. I couldn’t remember if people outside of Domina knew about powers or not. “It’s complicated. The short version is that my friend’s niece has run away. I need to bring her back. I’m the only one who can.”

“…all right,” my father said after a moment. My mother gave him a glare, but he ignored it. “You do what you gotta do.”

I resisted the urge to grin like a wolf. My father was big on personal responsibility. Admirable and everything, but it sometimes blinded him. He hadn’t even bothered to ask why I was the only one who could do it.

“I’m coming too,” Lily said.

“What?” MC and I said together.

Lily’s eyes were strong. “She’s my responsibility.”

“You’ve never even met her!” I said.

She met my eyes levelly. “She is still mine.”

I sighed. It was impossible to argue with her when she got like this. “All right. But you have to be careful, okay? I don’t want you in the middle of a fight.”

She nodded, but I still felt a twisting in my gut. She was the only pacifist in Domina City, and I was bringing her into a hunt for a girl who could enslave random people to kill for her. This could go very badly, very quickly.

“I’m not sure about this,” MC said from my phone.

“If you have someone else in the area who could help, I’m all ears.”

MC remained silent. Necessarius did have people in the area, but they would all be ghosts. This simply wasn’t important enough to call them for help.

“That’s what I thought,” I said. “Now, is there any chance any of the ambassadors brought spare CS bracelets?” They were small devices that clipped on the wrist. They were supposed to suppress powers, but we hadn’t tested them enough yet.

“Unlikely. But Saki might still be wearing hers. There was a pulse that shorted it out temporarily—that’s how she escaped—but it might be working again by now.”

I frowned. “Really? I would have thought she would bash the thing off first chance she got.”

“They’re sturdy.”

“Okay…” I thought about it. “That changes the game a bit.”

“Have you called the ambassadors?” Lily asked. “Told them who to look for?”

“Yes. They haven’t seen her. Either she hid well or she suborned them.”

I frowned. The best move would be to go to the ambassadors with my CS pack and see what they said. But I didn’t want to disrupt their meeting. “Is there any way you can track the bracelet?”

“No.”

I sighed. “All right. If we have no leads—”

“There’s one lead,” MC said. “There’s someone from Domina in New York.”

It took me a second to parse that. “Wait—a ghost? You want us to talk to a ghost?”

“No, just an ordinary person.” She sounded a bit annoyed at the presumption that she would out a ghost for this. “Ryan Hearing moved here a few months back. He’s working in a local police department now.”

“Hearing, Hearing…” I murmured. “Where have I heard that name before?”

“He’s a clay,” Lily said. “Left right after you reached Domina, I believe.”

“…oh.” I didn’t know how to react to that. I hadn’t met any of the other clays. Well, besides Butler himself, but he didn’t count. “So, what, you think I should go talk to him? Common interests and whatnot?”

“Sure,” MC said. “It’s the best lead at the moment.”

I rolled my eyes. “How is that a good lead? I’d have as much luck asking my parents.”

They were standing there, looking a but shell-shocked at everything that was happening. Chris, on the other hand, looked contemplative.

“Ryan is a good lawman,” MC said. “Ex ‘sarian, first-rank detective. He earned the Medal of Service from the Servants. Twice.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Really? And Butler let him leave?”

“You know that’s not how Butler works,” she chided me.

“Okay,” I sighed. “Okay. So, what? You think he just happened to be paying close attention to the ambassadors, and might have seen a little girl run off?”

“Yes,” MC said. There was no doubt in her voice.

“…all right. Send me his address.”

“I can do better than that. Sending you his current location. I’m also warning him you’re coming. He can be a little jumpy.”

“Of course.” I checked my screen. A GPS transponder popped up, pointing me in what I assumed was Hearing’s direction. “Thanks a bunch. I’ll buy you a drink when we get back.”

Static hissed over the connection, like a sigh. “You know I don’t drink.”

I hung up. Not much else to say.

“Well,” I said, turning to my parents. “Time to go. We’ll be back.”

“Wait!” my mother said before we could leave. “What was that?”

“I told you,” I said. “Friend’s cousin has gone missing.”

“It doesn’t sound like she’s missing,” my father said. He was eyeing my pack, but didn’t say anything about it. “It sounds like she ran away.”

“Or escaped,” Chris said.

I rolled my eyes. “Don’t worry about it. This is really just a favor for a friend.” I opened the door for Lily, then waved goodbye. “We’ll be back soon. We don’t want to miss the ambassadors meeting with the president.”

Behind the Scenes (301)

I’ve been waiting to add Ryan Hearing since pretty much the very start of the series. I also have the other clay waiting in the wings, but no plans to add her quite yet.

break

Scene 260 – Oppugnatio

OPPUGNATIO

ADAM

It was Thursday night, shortly after dusk. November 29th. Why did that feel important?

“So we’re raiding the domain of a bunch of drugged-up vampires,” I said.

Laura didn’t even look at me. “The slaves aren’t the problem. The nightstalkers, the ones who still have their minds, are the issue.”

“But they’re not as strong as the sclavi,” Kelly said as she strode up to the edge of the roof next to us. She observed the skyscraper across the street with a critical eye. Phlegethos was the opposite of the angel domains in a lot of ways; while the Heavens were covered in light reflected and refracted a million times over, the Black Crypt was completely, utterly dark. Even at this distance, I couldn’t use my phone; the vampires had a ‘dark zone’ set up, which was sort of a specialized EMP field for taking out lights. It just had an annoying habit of killing most other electronics as well.

Even without the conspicuous darkness, the vampire domain would still be easy to spot. Two buildings next to each other were joined by walkways and paths. The walls were lined with spikes and blades, which I suspected were sharp enough to cut any kemo stupid enough to try to climb them. There were a few outcroppings here and there, manned by turrets that slowly scanned the area. Even the glass was black and bulletproof.

“I have ways of neutralizing the sclavi,” Kelly said, apparently unconcerned with the view before us. “But I’m not sure if it will work more than once or twice, so I’ll save it for an emergency. In the meantime, aim for the leaders, and the rest will scatter.”

“We still need to get in. Unless you’re suggesting walking in the front door?”

The ex-Belian shrugged. “They wouldn’t expect it, that’s for sure. But we need a better plan.”

“Roof?” Derek suggested. He nodded at Kat and Robyn. “We’ve got two fliers.”

“I can’t carry more than two people,” Robyn said.

“And Kat can’t carry anyone,” Laura said. “We can’t have Robyn make three trips; we’ll be spotted.” She frowned, then shook her head. “But it’s still a good idea. Robyn, go high. Really high. See what the security looks like on the roof.”

Robyn nodded and shot off like an arrow from a bow, likely more than happy to have a mission that didn’t involve getting in firing range of anyone. In a moment, she was out of sight, disappeared into the night sky.

“I still feel like we should have done this during the day,” I said. “Night gives them too many advantages.”

“We got here as fast as we could,” Laura said, still not looking at me. “Considering how clingy Ishtar was and how far Phlegethos is from Jealous Heart, we were lucky. We’re not waiting until tomorrow.”

“She’s always been clingy,” Kelly said. “The drugs aren’t helping.”

Kelly hadn’t gone into Jealous Heart with us. Considering how bad her ex-girlfriend was, I really couldn’t blame her. Ishtar was nice, even friendly, but she was still a Belian, and still crazy. Not fey crazy, but pretty out there.

I was getting distracted. We had more important things to worry about.

Derek’s phone beeped. He flipped it open and turned it to speaker mode. “Robyn?”

“I’m here,” her voice sounded out of the speaker. “The roof isn’t too heavily guarded, but I’d prefer not to test it. Three nightstalkers, all clear-headed, as far as I can tell. We wouldn’t be able to get them all before they called for backup.”

“Well that’s out,” I said. “Are there any sewers?”

“None big enough to crawl in through,” MC said, cutting into the conversation without missing a beat.

I sighed. “Of course not. Well, maybe a frontal assault is our only option. “Flynn—” He turned away from Phlegethos, then frowned. “Wait, where’s Flynn? Wasn’t he with us a minute ago?”

“I sent him back to NHQ to watch over the kensei,” Akane said without blinking.

I sighed again. Losing one of our main heavy-hitters was going to make this more difficult than it needed to be. “Okay, fine, whatever. Uh, then Akane, you’ll be on point, Derek you’re a bit behind, then the rest of us will take the rear, with Robyn and Laura staying out of it—”

“You’re missing something important,” Laura interrupted. “MC, any chance you have a list of the powers the Belians might have at their command? The slaves aren’t as important; focus on the nightstalkers.”

“Sorry, but they weren’t exactly interested in registering with Necessarius.”

“Great.”

“Vampires tend to gravitate towards powers of darkness and blood, though, if that helps.”

“A little,” Laura admitted. “Though it would probably help more if we had an angel.”

“I can go find one,” Robyn said through Derek’s phone. “That Adele Lucifer, maybe?”

“No, she’s busy.”

Everyone’s busy,” I said. “Including us. We shouldn’t be here.”

Kelly glared at me. “Are you saying we should abandon friends to slavers?”

“No, I’m saying we should try to buy them back the ‘sarian way.”

But she shook her head. “Won’t work. If they were grabbed at random, maybe, but we’re pretty sure that they were targeted specifically. Calling and offering money will just make them accelerate their plans.”

“Why can’t anything be easy?” I shook my head. “I swear, things were simpler when the whole damn city was screaming.”

“A graveyard is simple too,” Kelly said. “That doesn’t mean you should make more of them.” She sighed. “But in this case, I think ‘simple’ might be our only option. There are no secret side entrances or anything, no other way into the domain besides the roof and the front door.”

Kat signed something.

“That still requires that Miss Clarke kill two guards as fast as possible,” Kelly reminded her. “You’re not going to be able to take out more than one before they call for help. Not an option.”

“Robyn could carry me up there, then Kat snipes one while I get the other two,” I said.

“Better,” Laura cut in before Kelly could speak. “But it still has problems. The roof is likely covered in cameras, and no one can get close enough to drop a transceiver on one before being seen.”

“If we go in from above—”

“You’ll have to start from high above. Do you have some kind of gas mask?”

MC snorted, a strange sound to hear from a phone. “We can get him a damn gas mask, no problem. The cameras, though… I think some of them are pointing up. I’m not sure that there’s any angle of approach where you won’t be spotted.”

“The roof is still a better option,” I said. “Even if reinforcements come.”

“Adam,” Derek said firmly. “Most of us can’t fly. You want to be trapped on a roof with no way out but a sheer drop to the pavement?”

“No, he has a point,” Laura murmured, half to herself. “It’s not designed to withstand any kind of siege; it’s out of reach of all other buildings, and they wouldn’t have had time to revamp it, even if they realized that fliers could come in that way.”

I tried not to look smug.

Apparently it didn’t work. “Wipe that grin off your face,” Kelly snapped. “This plan should work, but it’s still Plan B. Plan A is getting in undetected. Miss Clarke. Do you see any angle where you can get next to a camera and drop a node on it?”

“Uh… maybe. I think the north—”

I heard the metallic click of a gun behind us.

I pulled out my Sica as fast as humanly possible, spinning towards the sound.

Derek, seeing my panicked reaction, immediately covered us in a glowing blue force field, an entire globe covering us from every angle. Not a second too soon, either—bullets started bouncing off it almost before he finished making it.

Vampires were stalking onto the rooftop, vampires with the vacant stares that only the heavily drugged could manage. They were still well-armed, though, and I knew better than to underestimate a couple dozen men armed with machine guns.

“How long can you hold the shield?” I muttered.

“Not long,” he whispered back. “I don’t want to dissolve the back side, in case they try to snipe us from Phlegethos.”

I looked back towards the Belian domain, and realized he was right. If they had found us here, they could have already called the men on the rooftop and requested support. Give one of them a sniper rifle—or even a basic infantry rifle with a decent scope—and we were screwed.

Then another Belian strode onto the roof.

This one clearly wasn’t drugged—at least not to the extent of the slaves. Her black eyes were clear, her stride straight and strong. She walked right up to Derek’s shield, and smiled as she traced the force field with a long black talon.

“A bit of an overreaction, don’t you think?”

Derek was visibly sweating. “No.”

“Hm. Of course. Derek Huntsman, I presume?” The girl smiled, baring sharp fangs. “The first Paladin, the first Paragon, first in the fight against the evil Composer.” I wasn’t enjoying her mocking tone, but she just chuckled at our annoyance. “You all think you’re so clever. As if the rest of us don’t know how to deal with powers now.”

“Akane,” Derek hissed.

The shield blinked briefly, just long enough for his bodyguard to run out at superspeed, slashing at the Belian with a knife.

Next thing I knew, she was slammed against the wall on the other side of the roof. A moment later, she fell to the ground, leaving behind a massive crack in the concrete wall. She didn’t move.

That was a clever trick,” the nightstalker said in a patronizing tone. “Very clever indeed. Even without a sword, the kenkami is dangerous enough that I’m sure there are very few people in the city who would survive. Even with my superspeed and judo training, it was very difficult.” She grinned again. “Thanks for that warning.”

I closed my eyes. Dammit, Derek.

“Well, I think it’s past time to take you all in, don’t you think?” the woman continued. “After all, your friends are already inside. The angel and the changeling, that is.” Her eyes twinkled like black stars. “We expected you ages ago.”

“That’s why you took them?” Laura asked thickly. “Bait?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

The vampire shrugged. “How should I know? I just follow orders.”

Derek swallowed. “If I drop the shield, do I have your word that no one will be harmed?”

Derek,” Laura hissed.

He ignored her. “Well?”

The Belian placed her hand on her chest. “On my honor, you will all be escorted to Phlegethos safely.”

Derek nodded slowly. “Adam, everyone, drop your guns.”

I stared at him. “You can’t—”

Drop it.”

Gritting my teeth, I slowly did as ordered. I heard a clatter as the others did the same.

The shield faded a moment later.

“Excellent,” the woman said. She clapped her hands, and the slaves moved forward to surround us more totally. “We’ll have to keep the guns pointed at you the whole time; security precaution, I’m sure you understand. We—” She frowned. “What’s she doing?”

We all turned—

Laura was the one who figured it out first. “No, don’t—”

With a scream, Kelly ripped the device off her arm, the needles taking a significant amount of her skin with them. What was left behind was little more than a bloody, ruined mess, with white bone showing through in places.

One of the slaves bashed her over the head with a rifle. She fell like a sack of potatoes.

“Idiot,” our captor muttered. “Come. The Nobles will wish to speak with you all.”

Behind the scenes (scene 260)

It’s hard to describe exactly what is wrong with the Belian sclavi. They’re not robots, and they’re not zombies; they retain their minds, in theory, and can take action on their own initiative. But they’re barely aware of their surroundings, and extremely susceptible to orders according to their programming.

Scene 259 – Reppertum

REPPERTUM

ROBYN JOAN

I was perched at the edge of a rooftop, looking down at a much shorter building down below. The one I was on was some random business, a software firm like dozens of others in this part of the city.

The building below us tried to pretend to be the same, but from our angle, it was easy to see the truth. Most of the satellite dishes on the ceiling were fake, as was everything within sight of the windows. People pretended to work, but they were just a cover for whatever was going on inside.

“Are you sure this is a Belian outpost?” I asked. “The workers don’t look drugged.”

“I’m sure,” Fimmtu, at my side, said. “They might like using addiction to ‘recruit’ people, but they know that a chain comprised of nothing but drugged-up idiots is a pretty stupid chain. For operations like this, they use clearer heads.”

I peered through the small high-tech telescope my father had given me for my last birthday. It was the same kind the asteroid miners used. Dad had imported it from Ceres, probably at some horrific expense. I didn’t want to think about it. The point was, the thing worked perfectly, letting me zoom in close enough to see their faces.

“They don’t have nighteyes,” I said. Most appeared baseline, but there were a few kemos and such scattered around as well. There was even at least one full angel. A Jegudiel, if I was reading the tattoos right. “Passers, or just not vampires?”

“A few passers, I’m sure,” Fimmtu said. “But the majority don’t know what’s going on.”

I put the scope down and turned to him with a frown. “I thought you said this whole operation was a fake. Are you telling me the people in there actually think they’re working for a software company?”

“They are,” he said. “And that fact makes them an excellent front for the vampires hiding inside.” He looked me in the eye, which was always a disconcerting experience, considering his big bird eye. “Don’t underestimate the Belians, Honored Magister. Not all chems enhance the physical at the expense of the mental.”

Mentats, that sort of thing. Yeah, I knew the Nobles and other high-ranking Belians were using those. I just hadn’t really thought very hard on the implications. I knew mentats had side effects, but couldn’t recall what they were at the moment.

I shook my head. Not important. “It’s just the outer ring of the building that’s real, right? Nothing past those doors that say ‘authorized personnel only.’” They were locked with digital handles; not actually that difficult to hack, but harder than using a standard electronic lockpick.

“Correct,” the ave said. He pointed a talon at the roof. “There’s only one camera up top, pointed at the door down. If we can hack that, we can get inside. If we’re really lucky, we can hack the rest through it.”

“I doubt we’ll be that lucky,” I muttered. “Remind me again how you found this place.”

“Followed a nightstalker who wasn’t paying enough attention.”

Flight did make that sort of thing easier. I still wasn’t sure this wasn’t a trap, but it wasn’t like I had much choice. What else could I do, just go home and twiddle my thumbs while friends were being tortured or worse?

It was tempting. It was far, far too tempting. But Silk said that confronting your fears was important. That you needed to look at the emotion calmly and objectively, and see whether or not you should be afraid, and what to do about it.

This was not a time to be afraid. I was just looking for excuses.

“Let’s go,” I said, stepping off the roof.

I floated down carefully, heading straight for the small half-floor that contained just one room and the stairs down. It was probably a security center as well; I landed as quietly as possible. Fimmtu landed a bit louder with a rush of wings a moment later, but still not too bad.

He held up a talon, indicating silence, and pointed to the camera at the edge. It was pointed down and away from us, as expected, keeping an eye on the door to the stairs, the single weak point in this fortress.

“How are your hacking skills?” the anthro whispered in my ear.

“Horrible,” I said. “But we’ll be fine.” I slipped a wireless transmitter onto the camera case and switched it on. The air was filled with the scent of burning plastic, and then it was in, attached to the wires inside.

I pulled out my phone. It had been on this entire time, so that she could listen and actually understand what was going on. “MC? You got it?”

“Yeah,” she answered instantly. “Already set up a loop. Got every camera in the building I could, but the ones on the interior must be on a different system. I can’t find any trace of them anywhere.”

Of course. “Just get us inside, we’ll handle the rest.”

“Both of you? One will be easier.”

I thought for a moment. If I sent Fimmtu in, I could stay out here where it was safe…

No. That wouldn’t work. He was too obvious. Aves in general were an oddity after Soaring Eagle fled, and an ave anthro would stick out like a sore thumb. He couldn’t go in, with or without me.

I took a deep breath, then another. “I’ll do it.”

There was a slight pause on the other end, but when she spoke, there was no sign of surprise. “Good. Follow my instructions exactly. First, drop down and open the door. Quietly. There’s a guard, he’s just facing the other way right now.”

I nodded to myself, then turned to Fimmtu. “Keep watch. If something goes wrong, MC will call you. Other than that, stay safe.”

“And you as well.”

I dropped down.

The door wasn’t even locked; someone had held it open an inch with a rubber doorstop. Maybe he was planning on going out for a smoke or something, or maybe he was just an idiot in general.

The room was, as expected, a security room, with banks of computer monitors showing everything in the building. Why they had it up here instead of somewhere more defensible, I’d never know.

The guard himself was watching the monitors—in theory. He had earbuds in, and seemed to be reading a book on his pad. I didn’t stick around to see if he was going to turn and look back any time soon; I just headed straight down the stairs, clipping my own earbud on as I did.

“Stop!” MC hissed right as I was about to round a corner. “Hide!”

I didn’t stop to question. I slipped my phone in my pocket and backtracked, slipping under the cover of the stairs as a few baseline women passed. The one with the green hair seemed familiar… she looked a little like that Dagonite friend of Seena’s.

“Clear,” my half-sister said after a moment. I could barely hear her over my pounding heart.

She led me down the hallways, past more than a few doors that led into the interior. The problem was that these doors were mostly in full view of more than one cubicle. They’d notice the wi-fi transmitter before too long.

Finally, after going three floors down, we found a door that seemed like it would work. It was also in view of a cubicle, but this one was clearly unoccupied, with even the computer removed weeks ago, judging by the dust buildup.

I moved to the door, which didn’t even have a handle. It just had a small steel keypad, with no visible screws or anything else to make it easy to pop off, get to the wires, and reprogram. Not to mention that if I did find a way to pop it off, there was probably an alarm.

I paused before I put the transmitter on.

“Robyn?” MC whispered. “What’s wrong? I don’t see anyone nearby.”

“Is this going to set off an alarm? They have sensors, right?”

There was a pause.

“One second.”

I could almost hear her frantically typing on a keyboard, trying to find the answer before she got me captured by the kind of people who liked to pump their captives full of enough drugs to pickle a rhino.

“I need you to look at the bottom edge of the pad,” she said suddenly. “For a serial number.”

I felt under there with my fingers, and did indeed find something. I looked down and saw it inscribed in tiny script. “You ready? H-Z-U-eight-zero-one-zero-nine-four-two-one-three-two-five-seven-nine-zero-zero-eight-seven-six.”

There was a long pause.

“You’re sure about that? Absolutely sure?”

“Yeah. You want me to snap a picture?”

“No, no, I’ve found the model and everything, it’s just… nothing. Just a bit surprised because… nothing. Anyway, I’ve looked up the specs for that lock type, and it’s fine. There’s no alarm.”

Confused as to her reaction, but not having any better ideas, I put the small transceiver on the lock. It melted through with an acrid smell, and then a moment later the door beeped and popped open.

Beyond were dark hallways.

“MC?” I whispered.

“I’m here,” she said instantly. “Let me guess, you need night vision goggles?”

“No, I have those.” I wasn’t an idiot. I knew a secret vampire outpost wasn’t going to have convenient nightlights illuminating the place in red half-light. I slipped the goggles over my head, and suddenly the place was bright and well-lit. These were the type that worked the same way as vampire nighteyes, so they just made everything brighter rather than tinged green. “What I need is for you to tell me where to plug you in.”

“Oh. Well, I don’t have any schematics of the interior, but if you can find a camera without being seen, I can access the system through there.”

Easier said than done. A quick glance around told me that there were cameras pointed everywhere but the door itself; likely to keep them from being blinded every time the door opened. I had a flashlight, but blinding the cameras would just alert the security guards I was here.

There… might be an angle where I could sneak by, but I wasn’t sure how wide a field of view the cameras had. I had to get into the corner, close enough to reach up and plant the bug. On the ground, it was impossible.

Good thing I could fly.

I floated up slowly, until my back was against the ceiling. Then, I slowly, ever so slowly, slid forward, towards the closest camera, which was pointed down at the ground. I wasn’t worried about my reservoir. It was deep enough to keep this up for days.

Finally, after what felt like hours but was probably no more than a couple minutes, I was within reach of the camera. I slipped my hand into my pocket, grabbed the small transponder, carefully pulled it out so that I didn’t drop it, and—

A door slammed.

I almost fell off the ceiling.

“Any luck?” a female voice asked.

“None,” a male responded. “I don’t think this is working.”

“You need to try another tactic. Don’t always attack head on.”

Were they talking about questioning prisoners? Maybe I should follow them…

The man laughed. “This from you? You’re not exactly subtle either.”

“True, but at least I know I should be subtle.”

They were underneath me now. Two vampires, no obvious toys besides the eyes and fangs. If I looked closer I would probably be able to see signs of drug use, but I honestly didn’t even know what to look for.

I should follow them. I slid along the ceiling—

“I’m not even sure he’s gay.”

“He hasn’t said he isn’t.”

“He might just be polite.”

I let the pair pass, staying close to my chosen camera instead, and resolved to ignore their babbling. Once I was sure they were gone, I returned to my original task and carefully placed the transceiver on it.

Some burning later, and then MC’s voice was in my ear. “I’m in. There’s… wow, there’s a lot of cameras on this system.”

“Your bunker has roughly one camera per square foot.”

“I said they had a lot of cameras. Not enough cameras. And they’re not organized very well. They can’t talk to each other, just the security office, and even that’s one way.” There was a pause, likely caused by her sorting through the data. “Okay, got it. Mentats make people paranoid, but the wrong kind of paranoid. This system is weird, but not too difficult.”

“Does that mean I can get off the ceiling now?”

“What? Oh, I wondered where you were. Yeah, sure.”

I floated down to the floor like a feather and adjusted the bulky goggles over my eyes. “Which way do I go?”

“I’m not seeing any prisoners anywhere… or holding cells for that matter.” A short pause. “That part might be on another system. How many more of those transceivers do you have left? Please tell me you grabbed the whole pack.”

The transceivers came in packs of a dozen. “No. I just grabbed a handful. Five.”

“Two left, huh? Okay, we’ll have to do this another way. Head straight ahead. I’m looping the feed for the cameras you’re on, so you’re invisible and all that. Just be ready to hide if I tell you, okay?”

“This isn’t the first time we’ve worked together,” I chided her. “I know how it works, sis.”

“Yeah, yeah… okay, at the end of the corridor, turn right—”

“The corridor only turns right.”

“Well, yes, I know, I meant just—okay, good, like that. Now the security center is the third door on your right.” I strode forward and opened the door in question. “Just be careful, there’s no camera in there, so—”

“Crap,” I muttered.

The lone security guard turned around with a frown as the door squeaked open. “Did you idiots lose your keys again—” He jumped up when he saw me. My goggles were a dead giveaway that I didn’t belong. “Bleeding night—how’d you get in here!?” He reached for his radio.

I flew across the room as fast as I could, tackling the poor drake bodily into the monitors, which sparked as they broke and shattered. He gave a grunt of pain, but grinned with sharp fangs and kept a strong grip on my arm.

“Sorry, baseline,” he hissed. “You’re not the only one with a power.”

Electricity played over his fingers, and he reached out to grab me.

I flew up—too fast. I hit my head on the ceiling, but it worked. I dodged his grab. Before he could grab me again or call on his radio, I slammed down with all the speed I could muster, pounding him into the ground.

He must have hit his head on something, because he didn’t move when I got off him.

I… didn’t kill him, right? I couldn’t check. I couldn’t bring myself to check.

“Robyn?” MC hissed in my ear. “You all right? ROBYN!”

“I’m… I’m fine,” I managed. “Just had a run-in with…” Urp.

I ran over to the trash can in the corner and threw up.

After a few minutes of heaving my cheap breakfast up, I was finally able to settle down. MC was yelling at me the whole time, which didn’t help. “ROBYN! Should I call Artemis, or your dad? Robyn, answer me!”

“I’m fine,” I finally said. “Seriously, just… a little sick.”

She paused for a moment, but knew better than to dwell on something I didn’t want to discuss. “Okay. You need to plug that wi-fi transceiver into the mainframe. It’s probably below the desk or something.”

Wiping off my mouth, I searched around for the computer box. “I think this is it. But it’s inside a safe.”

“Electronic?”

I shook my head, even though she couldn’t see me. “Analog.”

“Shit. Uh, maybe… one second, let me think about this.”

I frowned. “Wait. It can’t be completely contained, right?”

“Uh, yeah. There are probably wires coming out the back or something. But you can’t put the transceiver on the wires. It won’t work. It needs an actual connection to the computer itself. And that little thing doesn’t have near enough thermite to burn through a safe.”

“What about two—”

“Still no.”

I peered at the dial. “What about the lock itself?”

There was a pause. “…that might work,” she said slowly. “But it’s a big might. And since the dial itself isn’t magnetic, you’ll have to hold the transceiver up to it as it burns. You might lose a finger.”

“Then Dad will just have to grow me a new one,” I muttered, trying not to think about how much it would hurt in the meantime. I crawled back to the front, dug out one of the little devices, and placed it on the dial. “Ready.”

“Go.”

I pressed the button, and held onto the little antennae to hold it in place while the thermite burned. It was far, far too hot, and the vaporized plastic washed over my hand and briefly stung like acid, but after a moment it was over. The thermite was gone, and my fingers were all in place.

I tugged on the safe. No luck.

“I’ve disengaged the magnet remotely,” MC said in my ear. “Pull it out and try the next.”

I did so, discarding the twisted transceiver covered in still-cooling molten plastic, and replaced it with the fresh one, then clicked it on as well. I wasn’t even sure what I was supposed to do if—

The transceiver fell inside the safe with a dull clang.

“Well, I guess that worked,” I muttered. I reached inside the broken lock and pulled at the lever, causing the door to swing open and reveal the beeping computer inside. Finally. Now all I had to do was place the transceiver—

“MC,” I said with as much calm as I could muster. “I’m now out of wi-fi transponders. How am I supposed to connect you to the mainframe?”

“Uh… grab the second one you used to burn through.”

I did as she asked.

“The thermite’s gone, but you can still use the actual transceiver. You just need to pop the case off the mainframe, and put it on something that looks important. The motherboard would be best, but even the video or sound cards would work.”

I frowned at the computer. “I need a screwdriver.”

My sister sighed over the earpiece. “Of course you do. Well, this is a security center. There should be something somewhere.”

Thankfully, it only took about five minutes to find a small maintenance kit in one of the drawers, including a convenient screwdriver. Ten more minutes later, and I got the face of the computer off, and placed the scorched transceiver on a big circuit board.

“Anything?” I asked.

“Give me a second…” she said, distracted.

My phone rang.

I pulled it out of my pocket, staring at the caller ID. “Who’s Drakela Sanguinas?”

“Corporal Sanguinas,” MC said. “Kelly, with the retinue. Should probably answer.”

Oh, her. I flipped the phone open and put it to my ear. “Hello, Kelly.”

“Miss Clarke,” she said, her tone clipped. “Have you had any luck with the search?”

“You told me to stop.”

“And if I expected you to actually listen to me, I wouldn’t have. Any luck?”

I sighed. “MC’s in the mainframe of a Belian outpost right now. Might find something.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” the vampire said. “Belians are paranoid. Good at compartmentalizing.”

“Eh.” I shrugged. “Any more luck on your end?”

“We spoke to the Dragon. He recommended checking Jealous Heart.”

I had no idea what that was. “And?”

“And the Paladins and George and Kat are in there right now, trying to get Ishtar to give up something useful. I don’t have much confidence in their success. Her domain isn’t called Jealous Heart for her generosity.”

“Wait, you’re not in there with them?”

“Ishtar and I… know each other. And we parted on bad terms last time. It’s better this way.”

“Got something,” MC said through my phone—presumably so that the vampire could hear. “Kelly, I need some quick help on Belian lingo. Strălucire refers to an angel, right? And tron means Phlegethos.”

“Yeah, that’s right. But you can’t mean that they’re taking Alex to Phlegethos. That just doesn’t make any sense.”

“That’s what I’m reading here,” she insisted. “Apparently they were in the outpost for a little while, and then got shipped off to Northwest Middle. They should be there by now, depending on traffic.”

The Belians might not be the most powerful or militant culture, but Phlegethos would still be a fortress. It was going to take time to find a way to infiltrate it. I turned to go, checking to make sure that the guard was unconscious—and just unconscious—as I did. “MC, I’m gonna meet up with the Paladins and the rest of the retinue. Self-destruct the transceivers once I’m out.”

“Agreed. I’ll send you a GPS to Jealous Heart.”

“We can make do just fine without her,” Kelly said.

“Maybe,” MC said. “But there’s something else that they called Alex.”

I could hear the confusion in the vampire’s voice. “What? What’s they call him?”

Momeală.”

“What’s that mean?” I asked.

It was Kelly who answered.

Bait.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 259)

Rambled a bit on this one, but it came out well enough.

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.