Tag Archives: MC

Scene 225 – Draco Interficientis

DRACO INTERFICIENTIS

ADAM

Four minutes later, MC texted me back. “Okay, got it!”

I blinked in surprise. “You figured out a way for me to get past the guy guarding the only exit without shooting him?”

“No. He left. I saw him when he passed the lobby camera.”

I peeked around the corner again; she was right, he was gone.

Well, that made me feel stupid.

“Tell me if he’s heading back,” I said as I holstered my weapon and made my run towards the stairs.

It was easier than expected; it seemed like there really wasn’t anyone down here. I guess I should have realized that—the boiler room and the sewer entrance were in the sub-basement, where not even the elevator went to. The only way in or out was to use the bare concrete stairs, which weren’t even connected to the main stairwell.

The stairs came up behind a thick metal maintenance door. Opening that brought me into the laundry room, where banks upon banks of washers and driers sat, ready for the dorm students to use them at any time. A few of them still had clothes in them, and one of those was actually open and half-emptied. Apparently, someone’s laundry had just finished when the attack hit.

“Anyone on the stairs?” I asked, as I carefully scanned the room. There weren’t too many corners to hide in, but still, I couldn’t be too paranoid right now.

“Maybe. There are no cameras up there, and I think the majority of the screamers in the building left their phones in their rooms.”

Of course they did. It probably made sense because of something about… I don’t know, they were home, so they didn’t bother to keep their phones actually on them at all times, but it still just felt like the universe was screwing with me.

Screwing with me and the four hundred million zombified people, that is.

No. I had to stay positive, as much as possible. Or at least not depressingly negative. That kind of thing slowed you down, got you killed in this situation. There was still a chance we could find a cure.

A cure that the greatest scientists in the city couldn’t find in months?

I shook aside my doubts and focused on what was in front of me. I might not be able to save the city from Elizabeth Greene, but I could climb a freaking flight of stairs.

The first two floors passed slowly, but uneventfully. The stairwell was self-contained, with doors leading off to the dorm rooms on each floor, so I didn’t have to worry too much about screamers coming to investigate strange noises.

The stairs were just concrete though, with no carpeting to absorb the echoes, so even though I couldn’t hear my footsteps myself, I knew I had to be careful.

Evidently, I wasn’t careful enough.

On floor four, I almost ran headlong into an angry girl with a bear’s button nose. The kemo screamed soundlessly and launched herself forward, but I had spent the last day and change surviving ambushes. Even with her power package, my reflexes proved faster than hers; I dropped to the cold ground, and she flew over my head and went tumbling down the stairs. Before she could recover, I turned and spat two rounds in her direction.

She went down quick, falling down the stairwell like a rag doll, but MC was quick to point out something I had forgotten in my haste to defend myself. “The other screamers heard the gunshots. Run.”

Shit.

Couldn’t run up; a quick glance told me more were coming. Down? No, they’d corner me. Then that just left…

I ripped open the door to the fourth floor and dove down the hallway, past a couple startled screamers who didn’t seem to know what to make of me. Thankfully, they didn’t pursue; I guess they really were that surprised.

While I was busy thanking every single lucky star I had for that little turn of fortune, I blasted around a corner at breakneck speed, until I found myself right in front of the elevators.

Then I hit the call button and waited.

THAT’S YOUR PLAN?” it wasn’t hard to imagine MC screeching at me, even though it was just text. “We talked about this! The elevator is too slow and loud!”

“I know,” I said as the doors opened. I reached inside, hit a couple of random buttons near the top, and ran like the wind before the doors could even close behind me.

“Is it working?” I panted as I ran, looking desperately for an open door, and wildly praying that I wasn’t about to run into any more screamers and invalidate my entire distraction.

“It… seems to be,” MC texted slowly. “What’s your plan here?”

I ducked into an open dorm room—one not much different from mine, I noted—that seemed to be empty, and swiftly closed the door behind me. A quick scan of the room confirmed that it was indeed empty. Now I just had to hope the occupants wouldn’t come back any time soon.

“Once it’s clear, I’m going to run to the stairwell on the other side of the building,” I managed to get out between breaths. “And… woo… and climb up to the ninth floor, and get my guns. Can you tell where that elevator is going?”

“Floors twelve, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and thirty-two.”

Huh. Well, a bit random, but it would work well enough.

After a half an hour of carefully climbing the stairs, I reached the ninth floor without any further incident. Although MC couldn’t be completely sure, it certainly seemed like all the zombies were off chasing the bait. Even the hallways outside my room were empty.

“Getting out is going to be fun,” MC texted. “And just to be clear, yes, that was sarcasm.”

“If you have to say it’s sarcasm, you’re not very good at it.”

“That’s because this is text. You know I’m good at sarcasm when you can hear my tone.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

Text or not, I could practically hear her sigh in defeat. “Yeah, whatever. The point is—you do have a plan to get out, right?”

I couldn’t suppress a smile. “Of a sort.”

“I’m not sending a helicopter.”

“I wasn’t expecting you to.”

“It’s just you kinda had a ‘you’ll have no choice but to send a helicopter’ tone in your voice.”

I paused as I fished my keys out of my pocket, hand on my doorknob. “Really?”

“Okay, maybe not, but I’ve had people ask for helicopters before. In this case, I would do it, but I can’t guarantee I could get any airborne without help, and they’re all too far away anyways.”

That drew a chuckle out of me. I opened the door.

And was immediately tackled by a demon.

I didn’t have time to see anything more than a whip-like tail when I was head-butted in the chest with short, stubby horns, and felt my back slam into Ling and Akane’s door.

I fired my Sault Crisis at it, but the angle was horrible, and I had no idea if I even hit it. The screamer did release me for a moment, giving me a chance to spin out of its reach, turn around, and get a better aim at it.

It was Lily.

The small, round face I knew so well, with gentle red eyes and short, silky hair.

Only now her face was a mask of rage, her eyes were the narrow glare of a predator, and her hair was disheveled and dirty as a mop.

She opened her mouth in a silent howl and dove at me again.

I scrambled back, into my room, and tried desperately to shut the door on her. She broke through it like it was made of cardboard, sending splinters of wood flying everywhere.

Sweet, peaceful Lily, the only pacifist in Domina, was screaming like a beast and trying to claw my eyes out.

I couldn’t deal with this. I could not kill Lily. I just, I just…

Well, I had to deal with it, because my girlfriend clearly wasn’t about to stop any time soon. She was already stalking forward, cornering me by my bed. She was too aggressive for me to—

Wait.

She was aggressive.

Every screamer I had seen since Elizabeth’s attack had started had been defensive. They were intelligent. Violent and dangerous, but intelligent enough to use group tactics and swarm me. A couple had even retreated and come back with friends.

Lily was just attacking, head on, without any thought of the consequences. It could just mean she was confident in fighting me, but considering the caution a lot of the others displayed…

I needed to test this. Something simple. I was on my bed, literally backed into a corner, I didn’t have a lot of options. I scanned the room—trying to keep her in my peripheral vision so I didn’t get blindsided—trying to find something I could use.

She lunged at me.

I hadn’t found anything.

But thankfully, my combat instincts kicked in at the last second.

I dodged off the bed, pulling the blankets off with me and throwing them at Lily, wrapping them around her for good measure. She thrashed wildly, but didn’t seem to be able to free herself. Stupid or not, though, it wouldn’t be long until she just tore them to shreds.

Rushing past her, I found something I could use. Akane and Ling’s door had been splintered at some point, probably when I had been thrown into it. I hadn’t heard it for obvious reasons, but now I could see that it wouldn’t take much to break it down the rest of the way.

A few solid kicks did the trick, and I quickly glanced around the room, looking for something I could use. Akane would have more military hardware—ah hah! Smoke grenades above the fridge! Those would work!

Then I was tackled from behind, sending me tumbling to the hard floor.

Apparently, Lily had managed to free herself.

I struggled around in her iron grip enough to see her scrambling madly on top of me, clawing at my clothes and exposed flesh with her nails. It hurt, but not as much as my injuries from Elizabeth.

With effort, I managed to flip over, sending my girlfriend spinning into Ling’s side of the room. Before she could recover, I jumped onto Akane’s bed, in the same position I had been moments ago in my own room.

This was a stupid move, and if I was wrong—

Lily, mouth open in a mad howl I could not hear, lunged at me in the exact same way as she had before.

I dodged off the bed, in the exact same way as I had before.

And wrapped the blankets around her, exactly as I had before.

It worked, perfectly. As if this was the first time this had ever happened to her. That was a level of stupidity that even an animal would be able to outwit. That was the stupidity of a screamer, stuck in ‘aggressive’ mode.

But why was she aggressive, when no one else was? I mean, maybe I had only run into the defensive ones, or only noticed them, but you’d think there would be a few more, hunting me like animals. Why just Lily?

I didn’t have time for this. Once again, she was only moments from escaping from the blanket. I needed to act fast, and didn’t have a moment to think.

I grabbed the smoke grenades I had noticed earlier, pulled the pin on one, and chucked it at what seemed to be Lily’s head struggling under the blanket as hard as I could. It seemed to explode into red smoke the second it struck her, but I wasn’t in the mood for being cautious. As I was backing out of the room I pulled the pin and threw another, then another, until I had thrown all six, and Akane’s dorm was literally filled with smoke.

That’s when I started to feel drowsy.

I cursed under my breath and held my shirt up to my face, trying not to inhale. Clearly, at least one of those grenades had sleeping gas. That was actually a good thing, but I wish I had known that before I used up all of them.

Whether or not they were going to knock her out, I couldn’t stick around to find out. I ran back into my room, pulled out the case with my guns in it from under the bed, and ran down the hall.

The fire sprinklers started spraying water before I had gone ten steps. The alarm was probably blaring too.

“Adam?” MC texted. I briefly saw a whole bunch of older texts on the screen that I hadn’t noticed during the fight, before she deleted them to make way for the new one. “What happened?”

“You… couldn’t tell?” I panted. I was in good shape, but talking while running after an exhausting fight, with at least a little bit of sleeping gas in my lungs, would have been hard for anyone. Not to mention my injuries still hadn’t had a chance to heal.

“The video feed isn’t very good, and you were moving a lot. I heard a screamer. Female, right? Did you kill her?”

“NO!” I was at the stairs; I stopped to catch my breath. “No. I just… are there more screamers up, or down.”

“Up,” she replied promptly. “But that’s not gonna last. They’re evacuating the building.”

“What? Why?”

“Because I set off the fire alarm.”

Oh. Heh, that was the good thing about the smart screamers—you could outsmart them. It still counted if you did it on accident, right? “Get me a path out of here.”

“Done. Use the sewers again, but go north this time.”

Escaping the dorm building proved easier than expected; like MC said, all the screamers were running away. By the time they realized there wasn’t really a fire, it actually worked in my favor—they all returned to see what had happened, rather than combing the sewers for me.

About a mile away, underground, I sat by the river of sewage and put my back up against the wall. “Phew. I was not expecting that.”

“Not expecting what? Tell me you weren’t stupid enough to think your trick with the elevator would mean you wouldn’t have to fight any screamers.”

I felt a pang in my chest that had nothing to do with my stab wound. “…no. That’s not it.” I rubbed my forehead, trying to find a way to explain. In the end, I took the coward’s way out and changed the subject. I really didn’t want to have to tell her about Lily. “Have you gotten a hold of Derek yet? Or anyone?”

“No. I was hoping they’d have the satellites up by now—or set up some sort of auxiliary link-up—but no luck. Honestly, I think people are only going to come down when they notice the fires.”

I closed my eyes. Shouldn’t do that, shouldn’t do that… “How are they? I mean, how is the city? The screamers causing too much destruction?”

I opened my eyes a moment later to see her response had arrived. “It’s… bad, certainly, but it could be worse. Not all the screamers have destructive powers, and even those that do are just in engaging in some petty vandalism and looting rather than anything major. In some ways it’s actually better than normal, since no one’s fighting each other.”

That gave me pause. “Wait, seriously? No one at all?”

“Not that I can see,” she confirmed. “These screamers are a little different than the normal ones—they seem almost exclusively defensive, for one thing—but they share that zombie-like alliance as the stupider ones you were fighting before Elizabeth was outed. They don’t fight each other.”

I thought for a second. “Speaking of Elizabeth, do you have any idea where she is?”

“Sure. She’s at Zero Forge. She’s been there the entire time, ever since she first starting singing. She hasn’t slept, or eaten or drank anything, or stopped at all.”

A plan was beginning to form. “…wait. She hasn’t stopped singing since yesterday morning?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Remember when Laura killed that singer and that changeling, what was his name—”

“Loga’ha’shanar.”

Was that how it was spelled? Why were there so many apostrophes? “Yeah, him. She killed the singer, and he was freed.”

“Maybe you missed the part where Elizabeth is immortal.”

I refused to believe that she was literally unkillable, but that wasn’t the point right now. “Maybe, but you said yourself she hasn’t stopped singing. Maybe if she’s interrupted, everyone goes back to normal!”

“Doubtful. Last time, Loga was the only one freed by killing the singers. I suspect whatever time limit there is on this, it has already passed.”

Which meant Lily was permanently a screamer. But I pushed thoughts like that away. “Humor me. You said yourself that these screamers are different. At least let me shoot her in the face, see if it helps!”

“You just want to shoot her in the face.”

“Well, I will admit, it’s part of the appeal.”

I could practically see her rolling her eyes and sighing. “Fine. Go off on your suicide mission.” An arrow appeared on my eyepiece, pointing off to the northeast. “Zero Forge is in that direction.”

I nodded. “Thanks.”

“Out of curiosity, what are you going to do when you get there? She has shields like Derek, a pistol isn’t going to do much good.”

I grinned and opened my gun case, admiring them for a moment before beginning to strap the weapons on in the old, familiar places.

“I have some ideas.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 225)

Yes, there is a reason Lily is the only obviously aggressive screamer. It’s not too complicated, but I’m not sure you have enough information to deduce it right now.

Scene 224 – Infestatione

INFESTATIONE

ADAM

Clearing out the building of screamers was easier than expected, once I decided the first floor (with its wide open picture windows that were already shattered) was a loss. I just had to barricade the staircase off, and start shooting everyone who was left.

Dinner was some cold chicken from the fifth-floor barbecue place. The power was out in this building, so I couldn’t use the oven or even the microwave. MC said there were only a couple buildings out, and that somebody had probably just blown a fuse box or downed a power line. The point is, I knew better than to go searching for something to heat my food. I’d live with it.

Once I finished eating, I double checked all my security precautions, set an alarm with MC, and got to sleep.

Sleeping was hard, though. Not just finding somewhere I could expect to remain undisturbed for the night. That was difficult, but one of the shops sold a bunch of containers and plastic crates and that sort of thing, so I just found a big one and hid inside, hoping that no one would find me. And if they did, hopefully they’d wake me up in the process, and I could shoot them with the Sault Crisis in my hand.

Mostly, I just couldn’t sleep because of the crisis going on outside.

Domina City had a population of approximately four hundred million people—though I couldn’t remember whether or not that counted the Dagonites.

Four hundred million people, caught in the Composer’s song.

Four hundred million people, screaming for my blood.

I… had no idea how to respond to that. No idea how to even think about that. This was a fight with odds that no one in their right mind would bet on. The odds had probably never been this bad in the entirety of human history.

My chances were literally four hundred million to one—and that was rounding down. That was rounding way down. If one of the screamers so much as spit on me, or bled on me before they were dead…

Well.

Then there would be four hundred million and one screamers.

And I had no idea how to go around fixing that.

I mean, I had a plan. Go to my dorm, get my guns. But then what? One St. George wasn’t going to do much against an entire city. What was I going to do, go through the city block by block, killing zombies by the truckload until they brought me down with sheer weight of numbers?

That’s the cheery though that sent me off to sleep, and my nightmares followed that theme.

I woke up in the morning, surprised to find myself still alive and sane, with the eyepiece buzzing on my chest incessantly. My back ached from the weird angles the stupid box had forced me to sleep in, but it could have been a lot worse.

Yawning, I put the eyepiece on and noted that the alarm I had set earlier had gone off. “Hey, MC. Anything interesting happen while I was out?”

“No,” she texted quickly. “Although I still can’t get a hold of Derek. I was hoping the satellites would get fixed, but I suppose that was just wishful thinking. You all right over there? No one got into your hideout?”

I glanced around the store, and found my barricades still solid and unmolested. Even the food I had left on a nearby table was untouched. “No problems here. What about you? I never did ask you about your security set up.”

Please. I’m in a steel bunker under NHQ, with enough guns that I could probably literally take on the entire city if I had to.” There was a pause. “Well, not counting powers. I’m not quite as confident any more. But anyway, I haven’t had more than a few stragglers getting into range of my turrets. I’m fine, I promise.”

“Good.” Wouldn’t that be the cherry on top of all this, to lose MC. I did some stretches, then went over to eat breakfast—more cold barbecued chicken, this time preserved in a lunchbox packed with ice. Hey, at least it was edible. “Anything else I should know?”

“Well, there is a bit of good news. Your dorms are mostly empty. The screamers seem to be spreading out a little, thought I don’t think they’re looking for you, just scrounging for food and so on.”

“That is good news,” I admitted through a mouthful of chicken. More weirdness: I knew it had to be muffled by the food, but I couldn’t hear it. I had been getting used to talking and not hearing myself speak, but somehow that was just even stranger.

If MC had trouble understanding me, she didn’t show it. “The bad news is that, even mostly empty, you’ve still got hundreds of screamers in your building.”

I thought for a moment as I washed down the food with some soda. Heh, my mom would kill me if she saw me drinking soda this early. “Where are they in relation to the stairs?” I shook my head and rephrased the question. “I mean, are the stairs mostly unguarded?”

“Not really. Why?”

I frowned. “I’ll need to use the stairs, that’s why. There’s no way I can use the elevator—they’ll hear it and come running.”

“You could just stay where you are and wait for Derek.”

“You shush.”

Ten minutes later, after finishing my meal and using the bathroom, I was ready to make the trek to the AU dorms. Fortunately, it wasn’t too far, and the rooftops carried me the block or two without any major incidents.

Unfortunately, the building was too tall for any roof hopping tricks, so I’d have to descend to street level and get through the front entrance.

Really unfortunately, that’s where all the screamers were.

“MC,” I muttered, scanning the intersection from my perch on the roof to give her the best possible view. “Please tell me there’s an easy way through that door.”

“I can think of a couple, but they mostly involve ramming trucks through the lobby.”

I considered it. “…no. It would attract too much attention. Maybe if I had a tank I could do that safely, but otherwise—”

“There are tanks in Dis.”

“What? I was just joking! That’s great—wait. Isn’t Dis in West Inner? Without the light rail, it would take forever to get over there.”

“Hey, I was just mentioning it.”

“Okay, okay… ” I bit my lip. “The front door is out. Maybe I can get some sort of… grapple… thing? To jump straight to my floor?”

“Doubtful. There are no balconies, and the windows only have a lip of an inch, according to the blueprints. Even if you could find the equipment to clamber around safely, it would be loud, and most of the kemo screamers would still be better climbers than you. You’d be a sitting duck.”

I stepped away from the edge, rubbing my forehead. “Right, I knew that was a stupid idea the moment I said it.” I thought about it some more. “Actually, if I could get some sort of powered grapple, that could take me straight to the roof… ”

“Hm… ” MC texted slowly, letter by letter. “Maybe. Let me check something.” There was a brief pause before more text appeared. “You’d need about two hundred feet of line to do it, which is far from impossible, but it’s a bit unlikely. And the closest rock climbing store is on the other side of AU.”

“Of course it is.” I didn’t even both mentioning a helicopter. We had discussed that earlier—there were a couple remote piloted choppers she could send to me, but they’d be so loud, they’d attract every screamer in the city. And more than a few of them could fly. “Can you blow a gas main or something a couple blocks away, draw their attention?”

“Not without your help. I could point you to some demo charges.”

That might actually work. “They wouldn’t have a timer though, right? You’d just be able to activate them remotely.”

“Sure. But I want you to think long and hard about doing permanent infrastructure damage like that. I wouldn’t be able to shut off the gas, so it would be burning for however long it took you to personally fix it—and you might have to run around the sewers and shut off a dozen gas valves across the district.”

I blinked. “Wait. The sewers.”

“Yeah, I—ooh. Yeah, that might work. I just need to find the blueprints.”

The sewers were one of the few constants of Domina City. Unlike most cities and towns on the mainland, it hadn’t sprung up naturally, it had been very carefully conceived, using modern technology and techniques, from the ground up. That meant that it had an extremely extensive sewer system.

We had found Elizabeth in an old pumping station, and apparently the fey played down there too, but the important part was that a big residential building like the AU dorms would need equally large sewers.

The only question was, what was down there?

“Just find me an unguarded entrance,” I said decisively. Yes, there were probably monsters down there, but Laura and Clarke had determined that animals couldn’t become screamers. It would be marginally safer.

Well, unless I ran into a gargant. My guns could handle the basic stuff well enough, but nothing with armor plating. Or swarms, like those jumpers. Or I got ambushed by something, like those little hairless cats.

Okay, maybe this wasn’t the best of ideas.

“Found one!” MC replied, the text sparkling on the screen. “A couple buildings back, the big gray one. That’s a water testing facility. It will have an entrance. And, there were only three people there when the attack hit.”

“How many now?”

“Not sure. None, but that’s assuming they still have their phones. There’s nothing in there a screamer would really want, so it should be fine.”

I knew how well ‘it should be fine’ usually went.

But it wasn’t like I had a whole lot of other options, so I backtracked a bit and found the building she was talking about, a squat concrete edifice that made no efforts to be visually appealing.

To my surprise, it was fine. There were no screamers in the main area or the hall, and I was able to get the sewer open pretty easily, although turning the giant wheel would have been easier with two people. MC told me it was loud, so I dropped down into the exposed pipe and closed the hatch behind me before any screamers could come to investigate.

This wasn’t the sewer proper, just a large water pipe, about five feet tall and wide, for something or other to do with clean water. It was mostly empty, but there was still enough water to wet my feet through my shoes, and the pipe was small enough that I had to stoop. Apparently the only reason it was this big in the first place was to make maintenance easier. Go figure.

Well, thankfully, there wasn’t a single screamer in the pipe, but when I reached the exit hatch after about a hundred yards, I discovered another problem.

“MC, there’s no way to open it from the inside.”

“One second,” she texted quickly, and I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that I was able to get a signal in a metal pipe underground. I had seen a couple small devices sprouting from the ceiling; were those cell repeaters, or just some sensors she had re-purposed to communicate?

“Right,” the hacker responded. “Good news and bad news time. Good news—see that switch under the handlebars? That’ll open the hatch.”

I found the small, recessed switch quickly, hiding under the short and simple ladder to help me get out of the pipe. I reached forward to flip it.

DON’T TOUCH IT!” she texted instantly, the text flashing incessantly to make sure I got the message. “It will set off an alarm that every screamer in the sewer will hear!”

I snapped my hand back quickly. “What’s the reason for that?”

“To catch people trying to sneak in through the pipes, obviously.”

I kneaded my forehead. “There has to be a way around it. Some override.”

“Yeah, but I think they’re all on the outside of the pipe. So that hostages and stuff can help their friends sneak in. But let me see what I can do.”

Waiting for her in that cramped pipe was not a pleasant experience. The smell actually wasn’t too bad; mostly clean water went through this pipe. Once again, it was the lack of sound that really got to me. The longer I waited, the more I became aware of the fact that I should be able to hear anyone coming, hear dripping water echoing down the pipe, footsteps splashing in the water…

But I couldn’t hear a damn thing.

If I spent too long deaf, I was going to go insane.

“Adam? Still there?”

“Of course,” I grunted, closing my eyes. “Where else would I be?”

I sighed and opened my eyes again after a moment to see her reply. “Good, because I got the alarm turned off. Probably.”

“Really? How’d you manage that?”

“Cleaning robot. But I can’t actually see through the stupid thing, so I just had to ram it into the switch a couple dozen times until it broke.”

“The robot broke, or the switch broke?”

“Hopefully, both.”

I waited a few more minutes in an attempt to allow any screamers who had been drawn by her display time to disperse, then flipped the switch under the handles.

As promised, the hatch above my head cracked open with a smooth pneumatic motion, letting in a blinding amount of light. I had to shield my face with my hands and avert my eyes.

When I opened them again, the tone of MC’s text was urgent. “Hurry. The alarm didn’t go off, but it’s still loud. Go!”

I jumped out of the pipe, shook my feet to get some of the water off them, and ambled down into the sewer itself.

Domina’s sewers have a strangely old-fashioned style for such a modern city. They’re mostly built with what looked like brick, like an ancient Roman aqueduct or something, with twin paths to either side of the river of sewage.

I guess it was possible that it was just a thin layer of bricks and whatnot on top of more advanced steel pipes and so on, but that seemed like a really odd aesthetic choice. Who would even care about looks down here? The fey and their monsters?

Actually, now that I thought of it, it would make sense if the fey were the ones making the effort to make the sewers look all properly ancient. It was something they’d do, not to mention they had the manpower for it—for a certain definition of the word, anyway.

Five minutes later, I stumbled into an ekolid nest.

That’s what MC called it, anyway. They were some kind of bug demon, led by the warlord Obox-ob. There were so many subcultures, I could never keep track of half of them, but apparently these guys spent more time in the sewers than even the fey. There were rumors that the Composer killed their boss and took his domain, but that was mostly just because no one had seen him in a few months.

The… nest, if that was what it was called, was deeply disturbing. On the surface, it wasn’t really anything to write home about—there were a few bridges, made of rope and cheap metal planks, suspended over the river of sewage, and a few grime-encrusted lock boxes scattered around. It didn’t even look like a home, really, just like someone randomly decided to put bridges in this spot for some reason.

Then I looked up.

Suspended from the ceiling were dozens of hooks, most of which had a rotting corpse hanging from them. Hammocks hung too close to the corpses for comfort, with bags of food nearby—food that twitched and writhed in captivity.

But what really got me was when I took a closer look at the corpses.

None of them were just dead. They were all covered in pustules and boils, with flies and other winged insects crawling out of their orifices and wounds. With a nauseating churn of my stomach, I realized that they were hives for the insects, colonized and feeding the next generation. I could only hope they were dead when the process started.

Thankfully, other than the insects and the moss, there wasn’t anything living that I could find. I quickly hurried out of the nest, muttering old Catholic catechisms that I hadn’t even realized I still remembered.

Thankfully, I came out of the tunnels and into the basement of the dorm building after only half an hour or so. Not to mention I didn’t have to deal with a pipe again; the door from the sewers led straight into the building’s boiler room.

“Not that I’m complaining, but why does the dorm have a direct door to the sewers?”

“Didn’t I mention it earlier?” MC responded quickly. “Big residential building has a pretty big effect on the sewers. When it was first built, they thought it would be useful to be able to run directly into the sewers if something went wrong.”

“Has it helped?”

“Well, a little. The only time anything major happened was when a knot of alley crawlers got into the pipes down here, and yeah, having the door right there helped make clean up go faster. But I’m not sure it was worth the expense.”

“I think it was worth it.”

I could practically see her rolling her eyes. “You shush. You are hardly an unbiased source.”

I peered around a corner, then dodged back and squashed my smile. “I’ve spotted a screamer. A student, I think. He’s my age, anyway. You know his power?”

“Uh… no. I don’t know who that is. He doesn’t have his phone on him.”

I cursed under his breath. “Then I’m just gonna have to shoot him before he has a chance to do anything.” I checked the magazine on my St. Jude, slammed it back into place, and prepared to strike.

“WAIT” my distant ally texted urgently. “Just hold on.”

“MC, I do not have the luxury of mercy here,” I hissed. “I don’t know what this guy can do, and you know what happens if I get any of his blood or spit or anything on me.”

“You never did find a silencer! You’ll attract every screamer in the building!”

I paused. Okay, that was actually a really good point. “What do you suggest?”

“Go around him.”

I ground my teeth. “How? He’s standing in the only hallway out!”

“You’re… you’re right. Okay, before you start shooting, just give me five minutes to find another way out. Just five minutes, all right? That’s all I ask.”

I sighed and stepped back from the corner, putting my back to some of the machinery of the boiler room, and keeping my eyes on the only other exit. “Five minutes. I can give you five minutes.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 224)

I’ve been having a lot of trouble with these concurrent Adam scenes, but I think they’re flowing as well as they can.

Scene 223 – Arma

ARMA

ADAM

Once I managed to get my act together, I started moving again. Sticking to the rooftops proved to be the best plan. That didn’t mean it was perfectly safe, though. It just meant that there were fewer screamers, and I could physically toss most of them off the edge.

“I wish you would stop doing that,” MC texted to my eyepiece. “These people still might be able to be saved.”

“I understand,” I said through gritted teeth as I used a zipline to cross a larger-than-average gap between two buildings. “But I’m outnumbered here something like four hundred million to one. I don’t have the luxury of doing anything but fighting as hard as possible.”

There was a pause, where I could imagine the hacker rolling her eyes and sighing. “Fine. That makes sense. But you are not allowed to kill Artemis, all right? Or Isaac.”

“Why would I? I’m not going to be anywhere near NHQ.”

“Yeah, speaking of which…” The text on the screen faded until it was barely visible, and a translucent map appeared. “This is your current position.” A blinking dot appeared. “Estimated. The satellites are proving frustrating.” A red arrow pointed roughly in the direction I was going, just at a slight angle. “And this is where your dorm is. Although I still think going back there is a bad idea. It’s crawling with screamers.”

“I need my guns.”

“No, you need guns. They don’t have to be your guns. Actually… if you get other guns first, you’ll have an easier time getting yours, if you still want them.”

I nodded. She had a point, and it was a testament to how tired and stressed I was that I hadn’t thought of it myself. If I was going to survive until the others got back, I needed to get weapons as fast as possible.

“Point me towards the nearest gun shop,” I requested firmly. The red arrow instantly turned at a ninety-degree angle, and I changed direction to match. The roof was connected to the next building by a disturbingly precarious bridge made of a handful of wooden planks.

“By the way,” MC texted when I was still concentrating on crossing the bridge. “I still haven’t been able to get a hold of Derek and the others.”

I bit my lip as I tried to balance, but found a reply for her anyway. “What about anyone outside the city? Shaohao, or Tsiolkovsky station?”

“No, we use the same satellites to communicate with anyone outside the city. With those three disrupted, we’re cut off. Though I wish I knew how we were disrupted. You’d need a jammer the size of a small moon to cut them off completely.”

“Think simpler,” I advised as I stepped onto the relatively firm ground of the roof, and found my heartbeat slowing back down to healthy speeds. “My dad always says that while everyone’s looking for some complicated solution that involves hacking and high technology and so on, they never think to ask if maybe just a few guards got bribed instead.”

“Uh… okay. Not quite sure what you’re referencing there, but there are no guards on the satellites. They’re completely unmanned. 5 o’clock.”

I threw myself to the ground, causing the baseline girl coming up behind me to tackle nothing but empty air. She howled in rage as she scrambled to her feet, a very strange sight in the soundless half-world I currently inhabited. She raised a pistol, but before she could do anything smart, I ran forward and kicked her as hard as I could in the chest, sending her tumbling over the edge.

Screamers with guns. I had seen more than a few of them, but they were still disturbing.

“That’s… hoo…” I was breathing hard; I knew I should have grabbed a bottle of water or something, but there hadn’t been any safe places to stop. “I’m all right… so, what I meant was, just try and think simple. They couldn’t use a jammer. So what could it be?”

A long pause.

“Mechanical failure,” she finally texted. “Probably not natural, but yeah, if she was careful, she could have rigged an explosion on all three simultaneously.”

I had no idea how Elizabeth Greene would have gotten into space, slipped past the orbital defenses, and slapped a few C4 charges on three different communications satellites, but I was tired of arguing about it. “See? Doesn’t that make more sense than managing to sneak a moon past your sensors?”

“Well, they’re Tsiolkovsky’s sensors.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Fine, you’re right, your way is easier. Occam’s Razor. This is the gun shop.”

I stopped dead; I had been in the middle of a run-up to try and leap to another building, one only ten feet away but without any easier means of reaching it. I glanced around for the stairwell down, and found it. “Which floor is it?”

This one. The roof.”

I blinked, hand on the door. “What, seriously?”

“Yes, behind you. Under the awning.”

Huh. I had noticed the shadecloth strung up in a corner of the roof, but had assumed it was just some ghoul’s nest. “Anyone in there?”

“Not that I can tell. But I just have phone GPS to go on, so be careful.”

As it turned out, we were both paranoid; there was nobody there. But I’d much rather be paranoid than dead or screaming.

The shop was tiny, basically a street vendor except for guns. Well, there were a half-dozen handguns and a rifle, but mostly there were just boxes of ammo. Cheap, reliable stuff, nothing like Canian incendiary rounds or god slayers for my St. George.

I picked up a tiny little gun with a barrel that was only a hair longer than the grip. “I’ve seen this somewhere before.”

“It’s a Hellion 87-609 Six.”

I nodded in understanding. “Right, Mitchel had one—wait.” I tapped the eyepiece. “You can see through this thing?”

“Barely. Is that really a problem?”

“No, but…” I was frustrated and indignant, but couldn’t come up with a good reason to be angry. “…I’m a private person, that’s all.”

“Whatever. You’re pragmatic enough to get over it. What other guns are there?”

Now that I knew she could see through the thing, I was careful to give her a good view of the wares through the eyepiece. “I recognize the Occisor—”

“That’s actually an Occisor Mk. 3, not a Mk. 2 like Derek and Laura have.”

“Well, close enough. I recognize that, and this thing—” I picked up a heavy pistol, etched all over with fanciful designs of gears and other industrial symbols. “—seems familiar, but I can’t put my finger on it.”

“That’s a Black Knight ZF740.”

“…that’s not the one that explodes, is it?”

“You’re thinking of the ZF750.”

“Okay, good.” I pulled out a magazine, looking for a label. “It’s 4.5, right?”

“Yeah. The Occisor is 6.00 mm, though, and the Hellion is 3.00 mm.”

I frowned. “No swapping ammo, then.”

“Not with those, but that St. Jude is 4.5 mm.”

I spotted it immediately. All Necessarian weapons were sleek and slender, with an ergonomic grip and a digital ammo counter right under the sights—even if it was just using iron sights, like the Jude.

I put that next to the Black Knight. “Anything else 4.5?”

“No. That Crisis 09091949 is 4.4, though.”

“…that’s not helpful.” Guns from BOB’s Crisis line were pretty distinctive, what with having a large quote regarding the individual crisis in question engraved on the barrel, but the number alone was virtually indecipherable, and there were two Crisis pistols in front of me.

“You want the Sault Crisis,” MC texted. “The one on your left. The Crisis 04181976—sorry, the Reiner Gamma Crisis—shoots poison microflechettes. I doubt that will be much use, even if you can find some ammo for it.”

Yeah, she was right. “Okay, what about this thing?” It was an assault rifle of some type I had seen before, a sleek, streamlined design that tapered down to a point for the muzzle of the gun. In fact, if you ignored the magazine and the grips, it almost looked like they wanted it to look like a sword.

“That’s an Oplo Xifos. A Dagonite weapon. Well, when I say Dagonite… Oplo used to be a Dagonite company, and in many ways still is, but they’re expanding their operations to people with more normal needs, and their original customer base is shrinking.”

“MC, I don’t need a full history of the company or whatever.” I checked the mag. “6.0. Huh, that should work. It’s interchangeable with the Occisor, right?”

“Well, Occisor ammo won’t work underwater, even if you put it in a Xifos, but otherwise yes. Should still work if filled with sand, though.”

I wanted to ask for details an that little tidbit, but decided against it. “…right.” I started grabbing guns and stuffing them in a backpack that was under the cabinet. “I’m taking the Black Knight, the Occisor, the St. Jude, and the Xifos.” Even as I started dumping ammo into the backpack, I paused. “…and the Crisis.”

“The Reiner Gamma? I told you, you won’t be able to find ammo for the 04181976.”

“No, the Sault Crisis.” Crisis guns were reliable, according to Kat, and I could afford a few boxes of 4.4 ammo. “Just a quick question though—that one is named after the Sault-au-Cochon bombing, right?”

“Of course.”

“Okay, just checking. Shortening the name was throwing me off.”

“I’m surprised you even know about it. It’s not exactly a well-known event.”

“My mom’s Canadian.”

“Ah. Yes, as I understand it, that’s where the name came from.”

I stopped shoveling ammo, blinking and re-reading the text three times. “…the name comes from my mother?”

“No! One of the designers is Canadian. Or was.” Even deaf, I could practically hear her laughing.

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, yes, that makes much more sense.”

“Anyway, there are a few restaurants in the building below you, and only about a dozen screamers. If you clear the place out and barricade yourself in, you can hold out until I get a hold of Derek and Laura.”

“All right, that sounds like a plan.” I was too hungry to do long-term thinking right now. I needed food, and maybe a bit of sleep. At least rest—my wounds were aching again. “Where’s the nearest screamer?”

“On the floor directly below you.”

“All right.” I slipped the backpack on, checked the magazine on the rifle, and cleared the chamber with a satisfying click.

“Let’s get to work.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 223)

Yes, there is a logic to the number designation given to Crisis line guns. No, Adam doesn’t know what it is. He really doesn’t pay as much attention to the history segments of his Applied Firearms class.

Scene 222 – Discrimine

DISCRIMINE

ADAM

As we walked away from the airport—if you could call it that, there was only one runway—with the other Paladins flying towards New York, I frowned to myself. “Is it weird that I don’t really know what to do without Derek and Akane around?”

Lily smiled as we walked down the street—a street significantly more populated than I had seen of late. The Composer’s capture and the outing of the Paladins had alleviated a lot of pressure, even considering that Wild Hunt thing the fey had pulled last night. “I think it’s cute.”

“I don’t know—maybe I should have gone with them. We could have stayed at my place.”

“I thought you said you didn’t want your parents to know about…” She waved her hand vaguely. “…everything. Besides, you’re still injured.”

I winced a little as she reminded me of the pain I was in, but soldiered on. “It’s not that bad. It wasn’t as bad as it looked. The stab missed pretty much everything important, I just needed blood.” Lots of blood. Normally the toy maker could clone—was that the right word? Clone?—up liters upon liters of blood at the drop of a hat. As a clay, that wasn’t really a viable option for me, but at least I had a relatively common blood type. Clarke just cloned up blood from a matching donor and gave me a transfusion. It worked pretty well.

“If you really have nothing else to do, you can spend the day with Flynn at NHQ if you want. Just stay on the sidelines and don’t strain yourself.”

“I thought no one was going to his classes any more.”

My girlfriend shrugged as we boarded the light rail. “Participation has been swinging back up recently, and Elizabeth’s capture will only help with that.”

“Well, I will think about it,” I promised. “But I think I’m just going to stick around South Central and AU for a while. Maybe buy some real armor.”

She gave me a look. “You can’t try on armor while you’re injured. I said no strain.”

“Okay, okay, fine.” I thought about what else was in the area. “George said he knows some good game stores. I can get something for Derek. A ‘thanks for not letting an entire skyscraper fall on my head’ present.”

Lily laughed musically. “Well, I guess that’s as good a reason to get someone a present as any. You have anything specific in mind?”

I shrugged. “Not really. I mean, I know what genres he likes and stuff, so I’ll talk to the clerk and then make sure to get something he doesn’t already have.”

“That’s certainly a good start.”

“Yeah…” I sighed. “Remind me again why you have to be with Doctor Clarke all day?”

“You know why. Surgery.”

“Not that. I know that. I mean why are you getting a freaking heart transplant? Didn’t you get one like…” I thought back. “A week ago? No, it was longer than that…”

“Adam, I…” She leaned against my shoulder, clutching my arm. “This city has done so much for me. Helping Doctor Clarke test out the newest toys is a small price to pay. Besides, if he can make my heart work, he can make anybody’s.”

“Yeah, he said that before,” I murmured, mostly just enjoying the warmth of her next to me. “But you said your system is already unstable. Is adding more toys really a good idea?”

The train stopped before she managed to answer.

“Necessarius Headquarters perimeter,” MC’s fake voice announced over the speakers. “Necessarius Headquarters perimeter. Please have your passes ready by the time you reach the checkpoint.”

Lily stepped up on her tip-toes and kissed me on the cheek. “This is my stop. We’ll talk later, okay? I’m gonna be busy all day, but if you stop by tonight, we might be able to have dinner. Or maybe I’ll meet you at your place.”

I smiled as best I could. “Looking forward to it.”

She waved goodbye as the doors shut between us.

I sighed as the train started up again.

Lily was wonderful, in every sense of the word, but sometimes I just took a step back and realized that I was dating someone who had invested about as much money in her body as America had in its army. I was never sure how to feel about that.

As I got off the light rail near the dorms, I knew the retinue would be nearby, but decided to deal with them later. When I had met with them earlier, they were a little overprotective, probably because they had barely been any help at all when the people they were supposed to be guarding got caught between the fey and the Composer. I just didn’t want to deal with that right now.

So, instead of calling George for the location of that game store he had mentioned earlier, I just returned to the dorm and tried to strike up a conversation with Emily, the RA, who was sitting behind the counter reading a magazine.

She looked up lazily when I asked my question. “You want to know if there are any game stores nearby?”

“Yes,” I said as patiently as I could muster. It took an effort of will not to add something snarky along the lines of that’s why I asked. “You’re the RA, you should know the area pretty well, right?”

“So should you, considering you’ve been here a while.”

I smiled painfully. “…yes, well. I’ve been busy these past few months. Haven’t really had time to just stroll around town much.”

She gave me a dull look.

“The faster you tell me where one is, the faster I leave.”

“North side of AU, across the street.”

“Thank you.” I headed upstairs to put down my guns and grab my wallet.

When I came back down ten minutes later, Emily hadn’t moved an inch. I don’t think I had ever been in the lobby and not seen her. Seriously, did she sleep down here?

Either way, the directions she gave me were simple enough. Once I got to the school, I followed the Springfield wall until I reached the north side, and immediately spied the game store across the street.

Inside, it was… I don’t want to say crowded. There were two or three people in there, plus the clerk behind the counter, but considering the current state of the city, maybe that was crowded. Sure, things had improved since last night—

I was over thinking the whole thing. I put it all in the back of my mind and walked up to the counter, managing a smile for the young man working there. He was probably fourteen, maybe fifteen, but work laws were more relaxed in Domina City, considering the fact that most people didn’t live to twenty.

“Hi,” I said pleasantly. “I’m looking for a strategy game for a friend of mine. Anything you can recommend?”

The clerk shrugged. “Well, that depends. What—”

My phone rang. Five simple beeps.

I sighed. “Just give me one second…”

“No, it’s fine,” he insisted. “I’m sure it’s important.”

I nodded in thanks, and answered as the tone started to repeat. “Hello?”

“She’s sprung.”

“What are you—” I checked the screen; yes, it was the real MC. “Okay, slow down, who…” I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. “Right. I know who you mean.” I was careful not to say the name aloud; everyone in the store would panic. “What happened?”

“She rusted through the wall or somesuch!”

“Wasn’t that Mitchel’s ability?”

“Yeah, thought it nixed with him. Not a spinward portent, to say nothing worth hearing.”

Nothing worth hearing sounded right. “Slow down and speak English. What’s the situation?”

There was a pause, where I could imagine her taking a deep breath. “If she has the same powers as the renegades, that’s bad. She’s out, I have no idea where. She already killed Doctor Henry and his guards, I don’t know—”

She was interrupted by a loud screechy noise, echoing from outside the shop. Everyone I could see—both on the sidewalk and inside the store—winced at the sound. It was like the noise you get when you’re having trouble adjusting the microphone.

“Wait,” MC muttered in my ear. “Hang on—”

“Attention, Domina City.” It was the calm, somewhat mechanical voice of MC’s programs, coming from somewhere I couldn’t quite identify. Oh, wait, no, there were some speakers I could see installed on the street corners and alleys and so on.

“This is a message from MC,” the announcement continued.

I frowned and spoke into my phone. “Hey, what are you—”

“THAT’S NOT ME!” she shrieked in my ear. “That’s not my system! It’s broadcasting throughout the entire city, and I can’t stop it!”

My brain flashed back to the burner attack. When we first saw the singers.

Everyone in an entire building had been turned through their PA system. MC had taken measures to make that impossible, to make it so that no one could use her system in that way again.

But if someone set up their own system, physically installed their own speakers…

My body felt like it was moving on its own. I slammed my phone down on the counter, ignored the surprised look from the clerk, and grabbed two cheap pens from the jar.

Then I stabbed my own eardrums out.

Suddenly, the world was empty. Like a house with every single appliance turned off. Just a dull white… lack of sound. I only distantly registered my own mouth opening in a scream.

My hands were wet with my own blood, my vision… blurry, disjointed from the pain. But the world was… silent. Completely and absolutely silent, quiet as the grave.

I looked up and saw the clerk through my tears. He was saying something, but God only knows what. He looked confused and scared, which was understandable. Even in a city this crazy, people don’t normally go around stabbing themselves in the ears.

I opened my mouth to explain…

Then the clerk’s expression shifted.

First in confusion.

Then in bliss.

Then in rage.

Mother of fire, why couldn’t I have been wrong? Why couldn’t I just have been paranoid?

The screamer opened his mouth, screaming a blood-curling cry that I couldn’t hear. I had the presence of mind to snatch my phone off the counter and run for the door, but it didn’t do me much good. The skinny little fifteen year-old kicked the counter, shattering it from the bolts affixing it to the floor and sending it crashing across my path.

The main entrance was out, which meant I needed to find another exit, and fast. I glanced behind me—

Just in time to see one of the customers roaring towards me, as silent as a ghost to my ears.

I dove under the demon’s grip, knocking him to the floor as I scrambled to my feet, wincing at the pain in my side from the strain.

Tactics. Needed to think tactically, or I was dead. There were four screamers in the store. Couldn’t fight them hand to hand with my injuries, didn’t have my guns. Needed to—

A hand scratched at my arm. I pushed it aside and kicked the woman in the chest, sending her careening through a display.

First rule: Keep eyes on everyone at all times.

I put my back to a wall, a spot where they couldn’t sneak up on me but I could survey the whole store. The clerk was eyeing me from a distance, considering the best way to attack, the two I had disabled were already recovering, and the fourth was—

Where was the fourth?

I turned just in time as a kemo of some furry subculture I couldn’t identify leaped from the top of the stairs at the back of the shop, aimed straight at me with claws outstretched and mouth open wide and screaming. I hadn’t even considered they might attack from there; it was too big a jump for your average person, even your average person with a few buffs.

But the buffs combined with the increased athleticism of the power package made it very possible indeed.

I dove forward again, but the first screamer, the demon, had learned his lesson. He anticipated my move and tackled me as I tried to slide across the ground. I did still manage to avoid the kemo, but the demo slammed my back into the sharp corner of the wall.

I cried out in pain—I think—grabbed the demon’s head, and slammed it into the ground. He pulled back his lips, either hissing or snarling, and I slammed it again, and then again, and his grip finally loosened.

Kicking him away as fast as I could, I pulled down a rack of merchandise behind me to deter pursuit and ran up the stairs.

Like most buildings in Domina City, each floor was a single shop, with the stairwell in the back left open so that customers could easily find their way to the higher levels. I skipped the next three floors altogether; I needed to gain some distance on the zombies, and hopefully the trick would work and they’d waste time searching those floors.

These guys weren’t like the screamers I was used to fighting. They were smart. As smart as they were before they were turned, or close enough that it made no difference. Normally, the defensive screamers were rare, and could switch to aggressively stupid at the drop of a hat, but that didn’t seem to be happening here. Was that a sign of some core difference, or just a coincidence?

On floor four—a clothing store—I abandoned the switchback stairwell and dove into the relative safety and concealment of the broad racks of garments.

I didn’t see any screamers, but that didn’t mean much. I found a wall, one with a window, and stayed low with my back to it, scanning the room. At that angle, I could see under most of the hanging clothes, and didn’t see any enemies. Still, I wanted to be sure before I—

My phone vibrated in my hand.

I nearly yelled, but kept quiet by physically clamping my hands over my mouth. When I was sure no one had heard anything, I peered at the device I still held in a death grip. Once again, I found myself glad Derek had insisted on the armored version.

The screen proclaimed I had a text from MC.

I flipped it open instantly, reading the message like it was a lifeline.

It was… more difficult than it had any right to be.

A3 liv? + RUN

I closed my eyes—a bad idea, considering sight was my only reliable sense right now, but chatspeak gave me headaches.

Okay… was it a set of instructions? ‘Liv?’ was one, and ‘RUN’ another, so… live and run? But run was capitalized, what if it was an acronym? That could mean… a billion things and more. What if—

No, wait, ‘A3’ was the acronym. And the internet liked more advanced ciphers than just using a plus sign for ‘and.’ So, translated, the message was…

Adam Andrew Anders alive? If positive: RUN.

Would it really have been that hard for her to just type that out? Seriously.

After scanning around the store to make sure I wouldn’t get ambushed while typing, I hurriedly composed a reply:

Alive. Hiding. Deaf on purpose. Help. Don’t chatspeak.

The answer was immediate:

I’ve turned on your speakerphone. You can speak, and I’ll hear it, and I can hear things sneaking up on you. For now, go up to floor nine. There’s no one there.

Okay, go up to floor nine. Got it, that was a simple enough plan for me.

I noticed that she hadn’t said there wasn’t anybody on the floors between four and nine, so I was very careful as I snuck up the stairs. Whether I was stealthy enough or if there just weren’t any screamers, I had no idea, but the point is I got to the designated floor without running into anyone.

It was some sort of electronics boutique, a gadget store advertising a bunch of obscure devices I had never heard of. It was also far more open than the clothing store, with most of the merchandise confined to the walls and a few lonely sales racks. One glance was enough to confirm that the place was empty.

“Okay, MC, I’m here.”

My phone vibrated in my hand.

Get a cell phone holster (behind register). Get an eyepiece (on rack near window).

I found the first in about two seconds, and quickly separated the leather thing from its packaging and clipped it onto my belt, where I could put the phone safely. If I was forced to pay for it later, I might be a little annoyed—fifty bucks for a leather pouch?—but I could live with it either way. The eyepiece proved more difficult to find.

“I can’t find an eyepiece,” I whispered. “I don’t know what it is, and nothing says eyepiece on it.”

My phone vibrated again.

Small clip with a glass screen. Common brands. Might say ‘hands free.’

I grabbed one of the more expensive ones. Hey, it was the end of the world, I could splurge. “Okay, got it.”

Get batteries. Watch size (behind register).

“Got them, and I’ve put them in. The eyepiece is glowing in a couple spots now.”

Follow the instructions on the phone.

As promised, a moment later my phone proclaimed that an unregistered eyepiece was nearby. It took ten rather frustrating minutes to get the two devices to synchronize properly, but when it was done, the phone was back in the holster, and the eyepiece was clipped to my right ear, with the screen covering my right eye.

“MC, I’m done.”

This time, the text went straight to the eyepiece, which made talking to her feel a bit more natural, considering the circumstances.

“Good. Now hurry to the roof. You should be able to escape there. But be careful—there are screamers in a couple of the stockrooms.”

I nodded silently in approval of the plan. Once I got to the roof, Necessarius would be able to send a chopper to pick me up—or, failing that, at least direct me to other survivors.

Despite the hacker’s warnings, once again my flight up was cheerfully uneventful. Sure, it took almost an hour to go twenty-one floors, but I’d rather be stealthy and a little slow than fast and attract every screamer in the building.

The first thing I did when I emerged onto the roof was close the door behind me and shove a crowbar through the handle. It wouldn’t stop anyone for long, especially if that one with super strength was involved, but it might slow them down long enough for me to survive.

After scanning to make sure I truly was alone, I sat down, my back against an air conditioner unit, and took a few deep breaths. “All right MC, I’m up here. Any chance I’m getting a chopper?”

“Uh… no. Why would you think otherwise?”

I closed my eyes—again, bad idea when you’re deaf, but I had the mother of all headaches. “Because hope springs eternal.” I opened my eyes so I’d be able to read her response. “Anyway, where’s the nearest batch of survivors? If they have spare guns, I can go meet them.”

Her response was slow.

“Adam…”

“MC, it’s Domina City. If you’re trying to tell me they don’t have a few extra weapons to hand out, then I think you’re—”

“There are no other survivors.”

I had to read that line ten times before I could formulate a response.

“What?”

“The Composer’s signal got everyone. Absolutely everyone, including the fey and the Dagonites. She’s been planning this since the beginning, if not before.”

I shook my head. “No, no, come on, there have to be other people. I can’t be the only one who thought to deafen myself.”

“Thought of it? No. Succeeded in doing it? Also no, but that number is smaller. However, you are the only one who was not turned within moments anyway, due to being caught off guard by screamers.”

“The signal couldn’t have reached everywhere. People who were in, I don’t know, soundproof rooms or something should have been safe.”

“There were one hundred and seventeen people in soundproof rooms at the time the Composer’s signal started broadcasting,” she replied promptly. “Mostly in the music and voice acting industries. The screamers broke through the walls or simply opened the doors. Three of them are dead, the rest screaming.”

I rubbed my hair. No no no… “The deaf. The naturally deaf, I mean.”

“The toy maker is a miracle. The naturally deaf do not stay that way for long in this city. Throughout the entire city, there were two-hundred and seven people who were deaf for whatever reason. Six died. The rest are screaming now.”

No. God, no. This was not… I couldn’t…

When I opened my eyes again, there was another message waiting for me.

“You are currently the last living, sane person in Domina City.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 222)

Adam refers to blood produced by the toy maker as “cloned” blood. This is incorrect; normally when someone needs their blood supply restored quickly, they are given a few select chemicals produced by the toy maker, which vastly increase their body’s natural ability to produce blood. Unfortunately, this is not a viable option for clays, but it wasn’t difficult to find someone of Adam’s blood type, give them the chemicals, and then siphon off the extra blood for a transfusion.

Scene 199 – Nihil

NIHIL

LAURA

October 30th. Tuesday. Nine days since Ling had gone missing.

Nine days and we hadn’t found so much as a hair.

All the evidence we had was the presence of the Blackguards. Fillip Ritter, Ziba Brannigan, and Mitchel St. John. MC had found Ritter’s apartment, but he was long gone by the time we got there, and General Brannigan had disappeared as well. Mitchel had been a real stroke of luck…but Derek had killed him, and his corpse hadn’t told us anything useful. He hadn’t had a phone on him, so MC couldn’t go by that, and he didn’t have any matchbooks or business cards or anything else that generally acted as a clue in this situation.

I wanted to be mad at Derek for killing him, but I knew he hadn’t had a choice. Alone, he might have been able to capture him, and with Akane it wouldn’t have even been difficult. But with me there…he couldn’t afford the luxury.

Which is why I was at NHQ right now, and had no plans of leaving any time soon. Noncombatants should stay out of combat. Any idiot knows that. So why had it taken me so long to actually do it?

Whatever, no use crying over spilled milk. It could have all gone worse. Right now, all we had to go on was my stupid seismograph—which told me nothing—and a bunch of scared birds who had no idea where their boss had gone.

Still, the aves were a better option than staring at a computer screen, waiting for a digital needle to jump. “MC, can you patch me through to G’Hanir?”

“Sure thing.” The monitor in front of me flickered briefly. “Aaand…done.”

A face appeared on my screen, a hawk anthro. Female, judging by the delicate curve to her features. She had dark brown feathers, a sharp black beak, and keen eyes. And I recognized her.

“Delia?” I exclaimed in surprise. “The leader of the warhawks? I assumed you were with your King.”

She snorted in annoyance. “I’ve been out of the loop, because of my capture. She thinks I might have flipped. Besides, I kinda had a really strong reaction to that Sauron Field or whatever…” She shrugged uncomfortably. “I, uh, might have tried to kill a few other aves who wouldn’t let me near it.”

“Yes, well…I don’t suppose you have any idea where Soaring Eagle is now?”

The ave narrowed her eyes. “No. I keep telling you people, I don’t know anything. Seriously, it was a miracle I was allowed back into G’Hanir. No one told me anything before they all left.”

I drummed my fingers on the desk, thinking. “But you’re in charge of the domain now, correct?”

She rested her chin on her hand. “Yeah, with the King gone, I was one of the highest-ranked Hunters left. Then Monday—not yesterday, last Monday—when the Blackguards press-ganged everyone to fight you guys, they killed a lot of people, including everyone above me. So…”

“Well, that’s one way to get a promotion.”

“Yeah. Not exactly my preferred one, though.” The warhawk sighed. “Anyway, we done? There’s a thousand things I have to do today.”

“No.” This was one of the most important aves still alive. She had to know something worth looking into. “You already told Necessarius about all the old labs, right?”

“Not that it did you guys any good. They were all cleared out by the time you got to them.”

“Yes, I am well aware. But…” I frowned, struggling to come up with something to ask. “How did she pick them?”

The hawk blinked at me. “Uh…what?”

“How did she choose the labs?” I pressed. I was on to something here, I could feel it. “Did she prefer out of the way locations, affordability, what? Did she have a favored agent? Anything like that?”

“Well, I mean…nothing special. Secluded spots, that kind of thing. She didn’t use an agent, she just checked to see—” Understanding dawned in her eyes. “She checked to see which buildings would be abandoned for a few weeks, and camped out there before moving on.”

“Perfect,” I practically purred. I was grinning now—we had something, we were close. “Anything else? Anything that can help narrow it down?”

“Uh…” the warhawk closed her eyes, concentrating. “She didn’t like short buildings…but she used them anyway, so that’s no help…uh, there was…ah! She tried to get buildings in abandoned sectors as much as possible. Ones recently hit bad by the Culture Wars, or—”

“Or screamers,” I finished. I should have known. The only reason more people weren’t moving to take advantage of all the empty real estate was because they were paranoid that the Composer may have left surprises behind. Obviously, Soaring Eagle didn’t have that problem.

“That’s all I can think of for now,” Delia babbled. “But I’ll call if I remember anything else.”

“Please do,” I said firmly, before cutting the connection. “MC? Can you—”

“Collate the data and find likely spots? Working…aaaand done. On the map now.”

I quickly rose from my chair and turned to the map in question, a large monitor built like a table. It showed a map of the entire city, including Whitecap Bay and all four Fusion Islands. In addition to the white lines marking the districts, there were now colored flags, presumably labeling the likely lab locations.

There were hundreds of them. Maybe even close to a thousand.

“Okay,” I muttered, trying not to let myself get discouraged. “MC? What’s your color coding here?”

“Red are the most likely locations. Secluded buildings in abandoned areas not scheduled to be inspected for months. Yellow are less likely, and green are only abandoned buildings, but still in inhabited areas.”

Hm. “Remove all yellow and green flags.” Over half of the markers disappeared, but there were still a lot left. We needed to narrow it down more. “Okay…if any are within, say, five blocks of previous lab sites, remove them.” A bare handful disappeared. “Any ideas?”

“There are only a dozen red possibilities in screamer areas,” she noted, and twelve of the flags turned black. “That’s the best I can do.”

I nodded. “No, that’s good. Organize a couple strike teams—silver and gold.”

“Laura?” MC asked. “What’s wrong?”

“We have to attack as many of them as possible at the same time,” I muttered. “Or Soaring Eagle could hear about it and start moving her lab around.”

“But we already knew she would do that. That’s how she’s been staying ahead of ‘sarian inspectors.”

“Yeah, but if she figures out what parameters we’re searching under, she could move to a basement or somewhere else non-optimal.” Word was that the Animal King had a phobia of underground, which is why I hadn’t even considered it until now. But if we made her desperate enough…

“Then we won’t let her figure it out,” MC said firmly. “It won’t be hard. I’ll have a dozen elite squads in a few days, we can hit all the black sites at once. I’ll talk to Butler, see if he has ideas on who to tap for this.”

“I don’t like rushing in blind…” I rubbed my forehead. “But it’s better than nothing. Can you call Derek? Get him over here? I want to hear his opinion on all this.”

“Done. Sent him a text.”

“Thanks.” I sighed. “At least this feels like progress.”

“It is,” she insisted. “Trust me. In a few days, we’ll be closer to finding Ling. Maybe even have her safe and sound again.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 199)

A bit on the short side, but it flowed well.

Scene 194 – Recenseamus

RECENSEAMUS

LAURA

“How’s Akane doing?”

“Still in the toy box,” MC responded from a wall speaker. “Her shoulder is mostly repaired, by Doctor Clarke wanted to keep her in for a while longer just in case.”

He fixed a shattered shoulder after just one day? That was pretty impressive, even for him and the toy box. “Okay,” I muttered. “That’s one crisis dealt with. What about those renegades who she was fighting? Any word on them?”

“No, not after they trapped the retinue and Adam. Butler has put G’Hanir under lock down, though.”

“For what good it will do. No way are the Blackguards going back, and the aves there are just bureaucrats and low-level guards plus a few independent contractors doing maintenance and installations.”

“Elizabeth thought they were important enough to send three renegades,” MC pointed out.

I nodded grudgingly. “Okay, I’ll give you that. Have interrogations turned up anything?”

“Nothing useful. A few of them were stealing office supplies and having affairs, but other than that, they’re innocent. We did get some info on previous labs where the toy box had been stored, but it was mostly stuff we already knew.”

I brushed my hair back, eyeing the map in front of me. “Let’s take this from the top. Derek has had Dispater’s warbloods running around the past couple days. Where have they checked?”

“The lab where we think Ling was grabbed, of course, but that didn’t do much good. There was no scent trail for Tecumseh to follow.”

Silver and gold, I had hoped the old wolf would have been the magic bullet to solve this in a heartbeat. But it seemed Soaring Eagle knew how to keep herself from being tracked that way. “What about Dispater’s CSI guys?”

“They found a few weird chemicals in the lab, but nothing really relevant to Ling’s disappearance. What little data they scrounged just leads back to G’Hanir. Dead end.”

“Well…what about that earlier lab? The one Adam and Ling destroyed?”

“Even less. Too old to get much of anything, and what they did get just pointed at the other lab.”

“I refuse to believe that she disappeared two days ago and we have found literally nothing in the meantime.”

“The aves are nomadic, Laura,” MC said soothingly from the wall speakers. “They always have been. That means getting a fix on their position is going to be near impossible.”

“They’re gods-damned anthropomorphic birds. They stick out in a crowd. This shouldn’t be so difficult. Everyone in the city is looking for them!”

“Everyone in the city is looking for the ones who stole the toy box,” MC corrected. “But they’re not looking too hard. The reward for finding it is substantial, but they know the aves will defend it to the death. Most people don’t think it’s worth the trouble.”

I closed my eyes. “Tell me you’re not saying we should announce that one of the Paladins has gone missing.”

“Well, even if it doesn’t help us find Ling, it will probably bring Elizabeth out of hiding…”

“Yes, and for good reason. One of our heavy hitters is gone, and we’re distracted looking for her. Now would be a perfect time to strike, and she’d know it.”

“Fine, fine, we’ll come back to that later.”

I nodded in thanks. “What have the orcs been up to?”

“The usual. Trying to coordinate between the demons and vampires. Other than that, not much, but they’re doing their best. On a related note, the Kellions were quick to offer their assistance, as I understand it.”

“But they’re soldiers. They’re not really useful here.”

“Ah…yeah. They’ve kinda been getting in the way more than actually helping.”

Silver and…of course. This was probably the first time they had ever worked with kemos or warbloods. Neither side had any idea how the other operated, and it was hard to tell which one was worse. The Kellions were a young and arrogant subculture, but Dispater was the most paranoid man on the planet. His men weren’t exactly allowed to mingle with others on a regular basis.

At least there was one bright spot in all this. “But Tecumseh’s smoothing things out, right?” The lupe had a reputation for being a surprisingly good mediator. Sure, he was blunt as a hammer, but in this city, a lot of problems could be solved with a good strong whack. Between him and the orcs, we had a chance.

“He’s doing his best,” she assured me. “But he’s busy with the actual tracking. There’s only so much he can do.”

“Right.” I closed my eyes, searching my memory. “Well, what about the retinue? Alex is a tracker, right?”

“While they’re eager to prove themselves after yesterday’s debacle, they’re having even less luck. They’ve searched everywhere anyone can think might involve the Composer, with nothing to show for it.”

I pulled out the digital pen for the map in front of me. “Where did they search, exactly?”

“The roof of your dorm, where you were ambushed. That alley where Elizabeth was captured. The bar where Mjolnir was murdered. The remains of the warcage, and the South dock on the Ring. Even her old lair, in the sewers.”

I paused as I went to mark that last one down. “The one where we found her, or the one Akane found after the Ring?”

There was a slight pause before MC answered. “The first one. No one’s checked the second yet.”

“Checked ever, or—”

“Just since Ling went missing. We sent a few squads down shortly before Elizabeth was caught, and they didn’t find anything useful. But we didn’t send down CSI’s and trackers.”

We might be onto something now. “Send in the warbloods first. They might not mix well with Alex.”

“Agreed. Anything else?”

“You said G’Hanir was on lock down. Besides the interrogations, what have we gotten out of there?”

“Not much. There’s only so much we can do, since it’s still a sovereign domain.”

I groaned. “It’s a crime scene! Tear the whole place apart to the studs!”

“It’s not that easy. Technically, only the floors where Robyn fought the renegades are the crime scenes. Everything else, we have to stay away from or we’ll hear from the Eagle’s lawyers. Who, before you ask, don’t know where she is. But they’re still on retainer.”

“She’s guilty of grand theft, conspiracy, at least a half-dozen counts of murder she hasn’t paid retribution for—”

“But she’s not the only one who lives in that domain,” MC insisted. “In fact, it wouldn’t take the aves long to point out that she spends so little time there, it shouldn’t count as her residence at all. Yes, we can nail their warlord to the wall once we catch her. But the entire culture is not complicit.”

As I finished marking the map, I slumped into my chair. “You know, I really hate all this legal stuff. Sometimes I think the zombies were easier to deal with.”

“Speaking of which, any luck with the captured ones?”

I waved my hand dismissively. “Haven’t had time recently. But last I checked, Clarke hadn’t found anything new. A few new theories, but…” I frowned. “Shouldn’t you know better than anyone?”

“He doesn’t allow cameras or speakers in those labs. He’s kinda paranoid about the screamers.”

“Huh. I hadn’t heard about that. When did that start?”

“Back when you brought in the very first burner. The dead one, I mean. He didn’t tell you?”

I rolled my eyes. “You know how he is. Sometimes he kinda forgets about other people.”

“Yeah, I guess…anyway, I texted Kelly. She’s at G’Hanir right now, doing what she can, but she’ll check on the lair once the warbloods are through.”

I nodded. “Good. And who’s with her?”

MC sounded confused. “What do you mean? The retinue, of course.”

“No, I know,” I said with a nod. “I mean, are Adam and Flynn with them?”

“Oh. Lemme check…yes.”

“Good, then—” I paused as a thought occurred to me. “You do remember that Adam asked you not to track his phone, right?”

“Er…yes?”

I sighed. “What are we going to do with you? Does Lily need to give you another lecture on privacy? Especially in regards to her boyfriend?”

“Hey now!” I swear the speaker shook with the ‘sarian hacker’s indignation. “I keep an eye on him because he’s a Paladin, not Lily’s boyfriend! I never spied on her other boyfriends, did I?”

“Did she even have other boyfriends? I know she only dates people from outside the city, and even then only baselines.”

“Well, she had a few. There was that one guy who she dumped when he became an angel—”

“Wait—you don’t mean the outsider who ended up assassinating Baal.”

“Technically, he wasn’t an outsider at that point. I mean, not by Lily’s definition, anyway.”

“You know what I mean! She dated him!?” What was with that girl and sociopaths?

“Only for like a month.” She sounded embarrassed that she had brought it up. “Anyway! We’re way off topic! Did you have any specific orders for the warbloods?”

I wanted to argue more, but just sighed and waved my hand. “No, it’s fine. They have more experience with this than I do. Just tell them to be thorough.”

The hacker giggled at my indecisiveness. “As you wish, Honored Paragon.”

I groaned. “Oh, come on, not you too.”

She giggled again. “Sorry. Just kinda need a laugh right now.”

That made my anger evaporate faster than ice in a desert.

“Yeah,” I muttered. “I guess so.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 194)

These basic recap scenes are annoying, I know, but they’re important.

break

Scene 185 – Dies Comitorum

DIES COMITORUM

ADAM

After our attack on the ave lab this morning, Ling found the goblins, and she dragged me to the meeting. Goblins were these monkey-demons who liked to nest at the top of skyscrapers and stuff like that. I thought it sounded pretty cool, actually. The problem?

I didn’t have the buffs to get to the nest.

So now I was stuck on the street outside, feeling like an idiot, while Ling tried to see if she could talk to Turgay, or at least get his location. He had apparently been negotiating with the goblins today, and he was the last lead on Mitchel St. John.

I could have probably let Ling go alone, both here and earlier, with the lab. But I…something about it just didn’t feel like a good idea. My guns diffused a tense situation with the aves, and I had figured I might be helpful here, too.

Of course, I had also assumed I wouldn’t be stuck a few dozen floors below the action.

After a few more minutes of waiting, my phone rang. Not Ling’s ring tone, or any of the other Paladins or the retinue, or even my mom’s. Just five simple beeps. MC’s ring tone

I nearly dropped the stupid thing as I scrambled to answer it as fast as possible. It might not be an emergency, but it usually was. And with Elizabeth still running free…

“MC? What’s up?”

“Adam Andrew Anders?”

“Um…yes?” It definitely sounded like MC, but why would she not know who she was talking to?

“Due to petitions about your local senators, South Central Senate is holding a vote of no-confidence today,” she said calmly.

Oh…I recognized it now. This was one of MC’s programs. I talked to the real one so much, I had almost forgotten. Besides, the fakes usually only called when I had asked for something before.

“Back up,” I said. “To start with, are you sure I’m even registered to vote? I’m not really sure how citizenship works in this place—”

“I registered you myself,” the computerized voice interrupted. “And you were given citizenship by Artemis Butler.”

“Oh. Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” Sort of. From a very skewed perspective like his. I scratched my head. “So…how does this work? I’m a little busy right now, so I can’t really go to a voter’s booth or whatever.”

“That will not be necessary. You can do your voting over the phone.”

I blinked. That seemed…like a bad idea. “Uh. Don’t I need a password, or anything?”

“If you like. But none is required. Do you want to set up security now?”

“No. No, that’s fine. I’ll deal with that later.” Lily, or maybe even Laura, could help me with it. Hell, I could just talk to the real MC, if she had time. “Just tell me what I’m voting on.”

“A vote of no-confidence has been called on Senator Evangel McDowell, for his handling of the screamers and the Composer.”

…huh. “What exactly did he do wrong?”

“His opponents claim that by bringing in Necessarius, he failed to coordinate the local cultures properly, leading to unneeded deaths and destruction.”

“Okay. And what does he say?”

“That the cultures would have just bickered and argued while the screamers rampaged through the district.”

I licked my lips. From what I understood of the way senators worked in Domina, the point was kinda that he should have forced them to work together anyway, and that he was being lazy by pawning it off to the ‘sarians.

“What happens if he loses?”

“The other senator from South Central, Senator Odin, will cover his duties until his replacement can be sworn in. The next election is December 10th, and the replacement will be sworn in by the end of that month.”

Right, that all made…some kind of sense. Was there anything else I needed to know? “Who’s running against him?”

“No one is running, this is a vote of no-confidence—”

“No, what I mean is, who will be running, if he gets booted out.”

“Erebus Argyris for the Iluvatar party. Gawain Jernigan is the Banyan candidate. Nahum Avner is the most likely to run for the Kongeegens. The only Granit of note in the area is Laima Ozoliņš, so she will likely be running as well.”

I rubbed my forehead. Dad always said not to get involved in politics. Said it was a bad investment, a zero-sum game. On the other hand, he also said to make sure I had all the information when making a decision. Okay, that was advice I disregarded pretty much all the time, but this was a time I could actually stop and ask questions.

“Iluvatar, Banyan, Kon…Kon…”

“Kongeegen and Granit,” MC’s fake voice finished. “Those are the four major political parties of Domina City.”

“Right. I guess I kinda assumed the cultures just ran everything.”

“The cultures tend to be too chaotic to hold actual political office. Senator Odin, the other South Central senator, is one of the few exceptions.”

Well, I could certainly understand that reasoning. I let out a breath. “Why don’t you give me the cliff-notes version of the parties. Not their entire platforms or anything, just…what do they stand for?”

“The Iluvatar are the isolationist faction. They wish to keep the city from interfering with the outside world and vice versa as much as possible. Senator McDowell is a member of this party, as is Artemis Butler.”

Huh. That was interesting. I was guessing they were the guys in charge of all the propaganda I had been hearing from my mom and security chief, too.

“The Banyan—more properly referred to as the Great Banyan—are the expansionist party. They wish to make peaceable inroads with friendly nations, who will respect Domina City’s status as an independent city-state.”

Those guys would be the ones who arranged for the treaty with Shaohao and the other space colonies, I assumed. I could check that later, but right now I was content to just let the fake MC continue.

“The social Darwinists of the city are represented by the Kongeegen party. They believe in survival of the fittest.”

…aaand they would be the guys who thought it was a good idea to let the cultures run around killing each other.

“Lastly, the Granit are the imperial party. They wish to carve out a place for Domina in the world by force.”

I blinked. Wait, what?

“Back up,” I said slowly. By force you mean—”

“War,” MC replied without any extra emotion. “Several battle plans have been proposed, but none have passed through both the Senate and the House. The most popular, which called for a first-strike attack on key military bases using modified diseases—”

“Stop. Just…stop.” This goddamned city. “I’m voting to keep Senator McDowell in.” I had known I was going to do that from the start. I might not have spent as much time with him as Derek and Laura, but he seemed sane enough, and I was friends with his niece—even if I hadn’t seen her in a while. “Please e-mail me links to the parties’ websites, and set a daily reminder telling me to study them.”

“Done and done. Anything else?”

I almost said no, before stopping myself. “Actually, yes. Can you tell me where Ling Yu is right now?”

“She is on top of the building you are standing in front of.”

Well, I was sitting, but I guess the GPS wasn’t perfect. “And is there anyone with her?”

“There are twenty-two registered goblins on or near the roof.” Near the roof? Oh, they were probably in some sort of structures built on top of the skyscraper. Ling had mentioned they liked making elaborate clubhouse things. “Would you like an individual list?”

“No, that’s fine.” I definitely wouldn’t have been able to get that much information if I wasn’t a Paladin. Those security passes were good for more than just ‘sarian checkpoints. “Who is she standing closest to right now?”

“Kolman Hoffman. He is the highest-ranked goblin in the area.”

That would be who Ling was talking to, trying to get info on Turgay. Oh, speaking of which… “Is Turgay up there?”

“Turgay Corvi’s phone has not been used or even moved in five weeks. It is assumed that he abandoned it.”

Well, of course. When you steal from an organization that employs the girl who invented your phone’s user interface, that’s pretty much your only choice.

“Ling Yu is now moving,” MC amended. “Based on her trajectory, it appears she is falling off the building. Should I call an ambulance?”

I looked up to see that Ling was indeed floating down from the rooftop, using the armor she was still wearing under her clothes to slow her fall. “No, she’ll be fine.” I thought for a second. “Do you ask that for everyone, or…?”

“Ling is tagged as capable of surviving such a fall,” the program explained. “In normal circumstances, I would have simply called the ambulance.”

“Ah, gotcha. We’ll probably need directions soon, but for now we’re good.”

“Have a good day, mister Anders.”

I snapped my phone shut just as Ling landed lightly on the sidewalk in front of me.

“Who was that?” she asked immediately.

“Just MC, calling about voting. More importantly, should you be flying in plain daylight?”

She shrugged. “No one’s really around. Besides, I told the goblins I just have a bunch of buffs and stuff, and that’s why I could jump ten feet straight up and stuff.”

I scowled. “I doubt they’ll believe that ‘a bunch of buffs’ lets you slow down your falling speed.”

“Whatever. Not really important right now.”

That made me perk up. “You found Turgay?”

“Maybe.” She bit her lip. “I found a lab where he’s supposed to be. But he won’t be there until Sunday.”

That was weird. It was still Friday. “What’s he doing til then?”

“Wandering around the city, I guess. The aves were always pretty nomadic, and a lot of them basically abandoned G’Hanir after they stole the toy box. He’s probably meeting with high-ranking aves and stuff.”

“Hm. Soaring Eagle?”

“Probably. Maybe it’s a status report.”

I had to smile at that. “’Dame Eagle, I regret to inform you we have made no progress on the toy box. Also, an old friend of mine ripped one of our labs in half. We’re going to need more money.’”

Ling punched me in the shoulder, hard. “Ass.” But she was smiling too. “C’mon, we got a couple days to kill. Let’s get something to eat.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 185)

This is one I’ve been meaning to do for a while, to give more insight into actual Domina politics. I think it came out pretty well.

Scene 182 – Status

STATUS

ARTEMIS

I disconnected from Kelly after only a few more words, mostly about her brother. I probably shouldn’t have mentioned that I expected Derek to kill me eventually, but I…

I definitely shouldn’t have mentioned it. Kelly was not only fiercely loyal, but she had the power to be able to fight the man quite effectively. And the nature of that strength would mean that he, in turn, would kill her without hesitation.

Wonderful. It seemed I had just signed the poor girl’s death warrant. And possibly Derek’s too, I suppose, but if she kept underestimating him, he wouldn’t be in too much danger. Small favors.

“Mary Christina?” I called. “Are you there?”

There was only a brief pause before her voice crackled through the wall speakers. “Yeah, sorry, was talking to Lily. What’s up?”

“Call Jarasax, have him keep an eye on Kelly. I fear she might do something stupid soon.”

I could almost hear my assistant raising an eyebrow. “That’s specific. What exactly are you worried about?”

I waved a hand. “It’s not important. She’s just too loyal for her own good, is all, and I don’t want anyone getting hurt.”

“Okay, sure, whatever. Oh, by the way, you know Sax is spying for his ‘Mother,’ right?”

I snorted. “Please. I knew before he did.”

“Just checking. You never mentioned it.”

“I never saw the need. Though, I have to ask why you didn’t mention it either.”

“Eh.”

Now it was my turn to raise an eyebrow. “Eh?”

“C’mon, all she wants from him is to make sure we’re following the humane treatment plans she’s set down and all that. It just didn’t seem important.”

“Until now?”

“Well, now you’re asking him to be a spy. Kinda. Anyway, it just seemed like a good time to bring it up.”

“I suppose that makes enough sense. Is there anything else?”

“Nope. Call if you need anything else.”

I smiled. “Will do. Say hello to Lily for me.”

She disconnected, and I turned my attention back to the task at hand. Now, what did we know?

The Composer…was a predator. An extremely dangerous predator, but a predator nonetheless. She had proven more than once that she preferred to fight from ambush whenever possible, even though she was to all appearances immortal.

Did that mean that I should keep the Paladins from going off on their own? Probably, but I doubted they’d listen to me.

I turned to my computer, brought up my maps. For now, I’d just try and check to make sure they were all relatively safe.

Akane was with Flynn at NHQ, probably giving him a few fresh new bruises after he misinterpreted something she said to be more flirty than it was. His class would be soon, so she might leave before that. The guards would inform me when she passed the checkpoint.

Adam and Ling were still at the ave lab, interrogating the poor birds. I should really intervene, but I was having a hard time summoning sympathy for the thieves. Besides, they might actually get something useful out of them.

According to a report that was…ten minutes old, Derek and Laura were still in his room, talking strategy. I checked my clock. They’d be leaving for breakfast soon, I expected. Hm, that was odd. The report said one of the Lancasters, the girl, had been spotted around them.

I checked her file. Yes, she had definitely been spending most of her time at Maladomini after she killed the sibriex warlord. It was odd that she’d return to the school dorms after dropping out. There wasn’t any evidence she had made contact with them…maybe she was just stalking around, checking to make sure her friends were okay.

Speaking of the Lancasters, Simon was still at Shendilavri with his girlfriend. I didn’t have too many spies among the succubi, so I couldn’t be sure, but I doubted he was doing anything worrying. He didn’t seem the type to—

Hm. Actually, I had said the same thing about his sister, before she became Nyashk and killed Narek Nhang.

I redirected a couple spies from Acheron to the pit. It would take a while to get any good intel, but if something big was about to happen, I’d hear about it.

Robyn Joan was…location unknown. Of course. She and Mary Christina were practically sisters. Even though they weren’t particularly close, Robyn still valued her privacy, and Mary would be happy to provide it.

Was there anyone else? The retinue were all in their van near AU, Isaac was still working on that damnable heart, Maria and Victor were at home, Lily was at work…

I blinked in surprise.

Was…was everything actually going according to plan? No unexpected enemies popping out of the sewers, no escape pods crashing down from the sky…other than a few minor turf wars, nothing was going wrong?

I set all my spies to high alert. Clearly, if I hadn’t found anything wrong, that just meant there was something really terrible I hadn’t seen yet.

Behind the Scenes (scene 182)

Another short one. This is one of those scenes that works better as a pair though, so it’s okay.

Scene 150 – Perdidit Familia

PERDIDIT FAMILIA

AKANE

“It was dangerous,” MC said breathlessly in my ear. “Illegal, too. If Artemis finds out what I did—”

“Don’t let him,” I suggested. “I guess.”

“Yeah, I figured as much, thanks,” she snapped back harshly.

I started. MC never snapped at me. “I—uh…”

She sighed. “Sorry. It’s been a long couple months.”

“Yeah.” That was the truth. Since…August what, the 24th? Yeah, that sounded right. That was when the first screamer appeared, and everything went all sideways.

Of course, my life had been a complete cluster since the moment I was born.

“Still,” I managed. “Thanks.”

“Hey, you’ve done enough for this city, even before the screamers.” She chuckled. “Of course, you’ve also caused a lot of property damage.”

I bristled. “Most weren’t my fault. It was just—”

“I’m just teasing, Red, no need to fuss.”

I closed my eyes, gripping my phone so hard I heard it start to creak. “Please…don’t call me that.”

“What? Oh…right. Elizabeth called you that. Sorry.”

Wait, she had? Well…thinking back, yeah, I guess she did. Usually, she went with ‘Ken-chan,’ but when she was talking about me in English (not to me, she always used Japanese for that), she did call me Red.

That wasn’t why I disliked the nickname, though. No need to tell MC that.

The woman continued quickly, trying to dodge the awkwardness. “I figured breaking a few privacy laws was the least I could do to return the favor.”

“Yeah, and I appreciate it.” I swallowed my anxiety as best as I could as I looked over the orphanage I was standing in front of. It was the same as any other orphanage in West Middle; fifteen stories tall, with walls covered in trellises and potato and tomato vines. “I-I’m going in.”

“Good luck,” MC said earnestly, and hung up.

I put my phone away slowly, still desperately searching for some way to delay this even a moment more. Musashi’s sword, I couldn’t possibly do this. Why had I ever thought this was a good idea?

I should go home. Turn around, get back on the train, and go back to the dorms. I had…training. And homework. Lots of homework. All sorts of things I needed to do other than—

“Who are you?”

I nearly jumped out of my skin at the quiet voice. I hadn’t even noticed the front door open, but a curious little demon girl, maybe nine or ten years old, was staring up at me with bright orange eyes.

Thankfully, I’m generally good with kids, otherwise with everything combined I probably wouldn’t have been able to speak. “I-I’m…” I coughed, and started again. “I’m here to see Yuuki. Is he in?”

“Oh, yeah!” she chirped cheerfully. “Come on in!” She stepped aside to let me pass.

“Thank you,” I said as I stepped over the threshold. “I hope he’s not busy…”

“No, he just got back from work.” Of course. He was…sixteen? Thereabouts. Of course he’d be working.

“Well, I don’t want to interrupt his leisure either…”

The demon waved her hand as she led me through the building. “It’s fine! What gang are you in?”

I blinked at the sudden change of subject, but managed to regain my bearings quickly enough. I had a lot of practice from Lizzy. “Uh, I’m not in a—”

“Sure you are! You’re wearing your colors!”

Oh, right. The ribbon in my hair. I guess I could see how someone could mistake that for a symbol of allegiance to one of the surviving gangs. “Well, you see—”

“Which gang is it? The Greenhearts? The Smiths? Or maybe the Ajellos?”

It wasn’t like when I was growing up, and the gangs were all bloodthirsty psychopaths in the middle of being exterminated by Necessarius. These days, the gangs were more like businesses and companies.

Which gave me an idea.

“I’m with Huntsman.” A perfectly true statement, if a tiny bit misleading. Two people wasn’t exactly a gang, but…

The little girl frowned. “I haven’t heard of them. What do they do?”

“We do mercenary and protection work. Monster slaying and the like.”

“Well, that’s nice. Matron says people like you are the only ones standing between the city and total annihilation.”

“Uh…” At her age, I’m not sure I could even pronounce ‘annihilation,’ let alone knew what it meant. “I think that might be going a bit too far, but thanks.”

The door in front of us opened, revealing a tall, gangly teenage boy with soft Asian features. His black hair was cropped short, and he was dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt, so there was really nothing to mark him as unique or special. If he had any toys, I didn’t see them.

He did, however, have bright green eyes, a color that was virtually impossible for a full-blooded Asian.

“What’s going too far?” He frowned at me, then turned to the girl guiding me. “Who’s this?”

She just shrugged. “Dunno. She said she was looking for you.”

The boy’s frown deepened, and he turned his attention back to me. I noticed his hand slip behind his back, likely to grip a weapon in case I turned hostile.

“Well?” he asked bluntly, after it became clear that I wasn’t going to volunteer anything. “What do you want?”

I licked my lips, trying desperately to find the words. I couldn’t just…

“If you don’t have anything to say, then get out. I have things to do today.” He started to close the door.

“Y-you’re Yuuki, right?”

He opened the door again, eyebrow raised. “Yeah, so what?”

“Son of Midori? And your little brother is Yuudai?”

His eyes narrowed, and I heard the very soft sound of a knife being drawn from a sheathe. “Yeah, what of it?”

I smiled shakily. “I’m Akane Akiyama. Midori was my older sister.”

Yuuki’s knife clattered to the floor as he stared at me in shock.

“I’m your aunt.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 150)

For the record, Yuuki is actually half Japanese and half Vietnamese.

Extra update Wednesday.

Scene 140 – Quarens Auxilium

QUAERENS AUXILIUM

ADAM

“Thank you,” Akane said genuinely. “For coming.”

I shrugged. “It’s no big deal. You’ve known her longer than I have.”

I’m not sleeping with her.”

“If that’s what you need her help with, then I think we need to have a nice long talk about boundaries. How does meeting on a rooftop at dawn sound?”

The samurai rolled her eyes. “Not that. I just…” she looked away. “Ling is having a hard time.”

“With what? I can’t imagine anything Lily would be able to help with.”

Akane glared. “No way to talk about your girlfriend.”

“That’s not what I mean. Lily’s a pacifist, and one who’s too busy to watch any type of entertainment—sports, anime, whatever. I just don’t see any overlap between their skillsets.”

She thought for a moment. “Pacifists the ones who don’t fight?”

I sighed. This god-damned city… “Yeah, pacifists don’t fight. Sometimes they’re called ‘conscientious objectors.’”

“Whatever. We’re here.”

Oh, she was right. I hadn’t noticed, but we had arrived at Lily’s apartment while we were talking. I slipped past a maintenance man installing a speaker on the corner, pulled out my key, and unlocked the door, stepping inside before Akane.

She gave me a funny look. “You have a key?”

“She gave it to me yesterday,” I explained. “Maybe she knew she’d be unavailable the next few days? Not the best of signs.” I closed the door behind us, and locked it for good measure. “C’mon, let’s look around. Lily? You here?”

My girlfriend didn’t respond, not that I really expected her to. She hadn’t answered her phone, which meant…something. It was hard to tell what.

Her apartment was only about twice as big as my dorm room (plus a bathroom), and was completely filled with boxes. Cardboard boxes, plastic bins…even a few steel crates with a variety of warning labels plastered over them. They covered everything but the unkempt bed in the corner, and the chest of drawers against the wall. The bed, of course, because it had been used recently. The drawers because it was covered instead in old-fashioned pictures in frames, as well as a few devices.

There was no order or organization that I could discern; it would take weeks to find anything. Well, anything that would fit into a box.

“Not here,” Akane muttered. “You said she’d be here.”

“No, I said she might be. She has so many jobs, she barely even stops by.”

“Waste of time.”

“Not quite.” I walked over to something that looked like a radio, and tapped the large button on top. The response was immediate.

“What’s up?” MC’s cheerful tone crackled a little brokenly through the speakers. There was a loose wire or something, and Lily hadn’t gotten around to fixing it. “You never call me from your apartment any more.”

“Actually, it’s Adam,” I apologized. “I’m here with Akane. We’re looking for Lily, but she’s not answering her phone. Want to help us out?”

“Wait, when did you get a key to Lily’s apartment?”

I sighed. “Yesterday.”

“Right, okay…give me a couple minutes. Her phone seems to be switched off.”

Akane frowned. “Off?”

I understood what she meant. Lily never turned off her phone. She had too many people trying to get in touch with her at all times. I had assumed she had lost it.

This could be a very bad sign.

“Got her,” MC chirped after five minutes, before we could freak out too much. “She’s waiting tables at Nervi’s right now. Her phone broke earlier.”

I groaned loud enough for the hacker to hear. “Then we were worried for nothing.”

“Well, it did break while she was being chased by a superpowered angel.”

I did a double take. “Wait, what?

“Uh…nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

Nothing?” I grabbed the radio, and that loose wire made it briefly shriek with feedback. “One of the lasers was chasing her? Is she okay?”

“Yeah, she’s fine. Just had a fall, and apparently landed on her phone.”

That was a relief, but still… “Why was she being chased anyway?”

“Well, um, it was one of the ones we hadn’t captured yet, so…”

“But why was she even in the area? It should have all been evacuated.”

The hacker on the other end sighed. “This didn’t happen at the Heaven, Adam. The screamer was wandering around about a mile north, past the barricades, and she happened to run into him. But don’t worry. He’s captured and everything, so it’s all fine now.”

I took a step back and plopped onto the bed. For a second I had thought…she might get infected.

For a second I had imagined having to shoot Lily.

“How?” Akane asked.

I looked up. “What?”

“How did he get past the barricade? Necessarius is very good at defense.”

I could almost hear MC fidgeting nervously. “Um…we’re still not sure. I mean, we know the path he took and everything. We’re just…we think the Composer may have been piloting him. Personally.”

“Hm,” I muttered. “Like when she communicated with me through Zaphkiel?”

Exactly like that.”

I laid back on the bed. “God dammit. I was hoping that was just a one-time thing.”

“She can’t do it easily,” Akane mused. “Otherwise that singer couldn’t have warned me.”

I rolled my eyes. “I still think that might have been a trap.”

The samurai shrugged.

She had a point. We had survived, which was enough for now. Now…

Now what? With the Composer captured, was everything over and done with? I mean, we had killed most of those renegade guys, the Blackguards. Maybe the rest would just go into some sort of sleeper mode, waiting for orders that would never come.

No sense worrying about it now. I jumped off the bed and headed towards the door, past a surprised Akane.

“C’mon,” I told her. “I don’t know how to get to Nervi’s from here.”

“Train,” she explained. “Few miles south-east.”

Thankfully, Domina’s trains have a pretty easy schedule, and we managed to get to the central city restaurant with an uneventful hour.

I suppose with anyone else, the silence would have been awkward and uncomfortable. But that’s one of the nice things about Akane. She doesn’t give off that need to fill the silence. It’s just there, and there’s nothing wrong with it.

So it was a bit surprising when we got off at our last stop, and she chose to strike up a conversation.

“You going to class today?”

I blinked, then shrugged. “Eh, probably not. I’ve been spending most of my time at the shooting range, practicing and testing out new loads for the Saint George. They’ve got some ridiculous stuff.”

“Not worried about skipping class?”

“Not really. I mean, turns out I have a marketable skillset already. In this city, I can go pretty far.”

“Hm.”

“Well, it’s the same with you and Derek, right? You don’t really need to worry about getting degrees.”

She shrugged. “His mom insisted.”

I raised an eyebrow. “But aren’t you guys paying your own way?”

“Yeah, but she insisted.”

Oh, okay, Derek didn’t want to disappoint his mother. I guess I could understand that. Although… “I’m still not sure why she cares.”

“Not sure who cares about what?”

I turned to see Lily, holding a pad and an empty tray of drinks, standing a few feet away from the tables belonging to an outdoor restaurant. I hadn’t realized we had come this far already.

I kissed her on the cheek by way of greeting. “Derek’s mom making them go to college. With the money they’re making, it seems like a waste.”

My girlfriend shrugged, her tail twitching. “She wants them to hedge their bets. Otherwise if they get injured, that’s the end.”

“But they can still act as advisers and so on. I just—”

“Enough,” Akane interrupted. “Not why we’re here. Lily, I need your help with Ling.”

Lily looked bewildered. “What for?”

“She’s having trouble killing people.”

Blunt and to the point.

Lily looked pained. “I’m not…really the best person to talk to about that.”

“You are,” Akane insisted, taking a step forward. “You’re the only one who can give better advice than ‘get over it.’”

The demon rubbed her horns nervously. “Look, I’m the only waitress here right now, I don’t have time—”

“You only have three customers,” Akane pointed out.

Lily winced. “Yeah, but—”

“What’s the big deal?” I asked, genuinely confused. “You’re usually more than happy to help random people.”

“Yeah, but that’s before I found out she—” Suddenly her mouth snapped shut like a steel trap. “Nevermind. It’s not my place to say.”

Well, that certainly wasn’t odd. I put my hand on her shoulder. “Lil, whatever’s wrong, we can talk—”

She shrugged off my arm, surprising me. “Can’t Laura talk to her about it? I know Derek is one of the ‘get over it’ crowd, but Laura should be better.”

Akane shrugged. “Maybe. But we don’t know where she is.”

Lily looked at us both in turn with those big red eyes…before shaking her head firmly.

“No. I’m sorry, but…no.” I opened my mouth to protest, but she placed a finger on my lips. “Please, Adam, for me. Just…don’t ask any questions.” She kissed my cheek and sashayed away.

“That was weird,” I muttered.

“You want to grab something to eat?” Akane asked.

I turned to stare at the swordswoman. “That’s random.”

She shrugged. “Hungry.”

I shrugged too. “Sure, why not.”

“There are seats over here.”

As we sat down a thought occurred to me. “Say, its been bugging me…”

Akane looked up expectantly.

“Where is Laura, anyway?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 140)

Lily is a fixture of the city (especially the inner city), but she rarely talks about her personal life. Which is why Akane didn’t know where her apartment was.