Scene 88 – Taberna

TABERNA

LAURA

It was a full week after Lizzy’s little stunt with the calciophage. She hadn’t promised to not do anything like that, no matter how much I asked, so I had decided to distract her with shopping instead.

“We also need something for Robyn,” she said as we walked out of the sushi place. “We forgot last time.” She chewed her tongue. “Hm…maybe a gas mask?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Why a gas mask?”

“Didn’t she say something about going down into the sewers?” Lizzy shrugged. “I’m sure she’ll find some use for it.”

Well, she was always better with gifts than I was, so I didn’t argue.

“We also need to get something for Derek,” I reminded her. “Something big. His birthday is next Saturday.”

She frowned. “No, Saturday is the 22nd. His birthday is the 29th.”

I sighed. With my power on, I knew she wasn’t lying, just an idiot. “I know that. Next Saturday, Lizzy. Next.”

She blinked those beautiful golden eyes of hers, then nodded. “Right. Right. So what did you want to get him?”

I couldn’t really think of anything. “I dunno. He has pretty much everything he needs. His mom will be getting him more grenades. What else is there?”

“Food, I guess. Him and Akane spend all their money on school, healing, and mercs, in that order. We could get him some of those giant slabs of fish jerky he likes.”

Well, now that their power level had taken a bump, I doubted Derek would be spending much money on mercenaries any more, but I didn’t feel the need to explain that to Lizzy. We were still hiding the whole Paladin thing from her, and bless her heart, she wasn’t asking questions.

Either way, there weren’t many options. Jerky might work, but it still felt like a cop-out.

“Ooh, here’s that French place I told you about!” Lizzy cried, pulling me inside a small clothing store. “Let’s get you a purse.”

“There’s a meat vendor down the street,” I reminded her. “Let’s get Derek’s present first.”

She held up a little black bag to my arm. “Don’t you think this contrasts nicely with your skin tone?”

I sighed. There was no talking to her when she got like this. So I just smiled and nodded as she squealed and went to find clothes for me to try on, and let my mind wander to more important things.

We still hadn’t made any real progress on the sleepers, which worried me. Blood tests did show a few minor chemical abnormalities in the ones we had caught, but they were so small they could have also come from drinking some bad mineral water.

“Ooh! I found a little black dress in your size!”

The Composer was good. It seemed that just like with the empowered, it was impossible to use our current medical technology to identify the sleepers. Considering that Domina was the bleeding edge of medical and bio-tech for the entire human race, that was really saying something.

Lizzy ran out of the clothes racks, held a dress up to me, and frowned. “No, that’s not…” Then she fled back to her cloth jungle.

We had to find a weakness. Some way to turn his weapons against him. A way to control screamers was a possibility. Clarke and I were beginning to think that the Paladins might be able to pull that off, but it was mostly still a theory.

No, our real hope was in researching the sleepers more. They were clearly just hypnotized, albeit to an extreme extent. If we could just find a way to identify them, we would learn so much.

The blood tests would help, if only barely. It would help eliminate suspects, at least. I made a mental note to start taking samples and performing the tests without Clarke’s knowledge, just in case. Of course, I’d need someone to get the samples…

Lizzy grabbed my hand and started dragging me to the changing room. “C’mon, tell me if you like this one.”

She came into the changing room with me and handed me a small, simple black dress with spaghetti-strap shoulders. I touched it lightly; it was made out of silk. Very nice silk, if I was any judge.

I sighed again. She kept derailing my train of thought. “Lizzy, just…no.” It ended at six inches above my knees, which was about twenty-four inches too short for me.

She pouted, in a way that reminded me why Derek was in love with her. “Something else, then?”

I rubbed my forehead. “Yes. Something else.” Almost anything else would do, but if I said that she’d come at me with lingerie.

She ran off, and I was able to think again.

I shouldn’t treat being with her like it was a chore, but it was, really. When I shopped, it was simple and easy. Grab what you need, buy it, leave. But Lizzy…well, she shopped like a girl. She spent hours playing in stores she had no intention of spending money in, bought things for no good reason, and altogether wasted time.

She had been like this even when we were kids. At least now she actually had money to spend. Before, Derek and I had always been forced to buy her out of the holes she had dug. Who the hell extends credit to an eight year-old?

We really did need to get Derek something, and food wouldn’t cut it. Well, we were in a clothing store. Maybe that would work. Okay, it was woman’s clothing, but it was still an idea. Maybe a t-shirt. He wore shirts.

Lizzy skipped back into the changing room, holding another dress. “Okay, do you think this is better?”

It was pretty much the exact same dress as before, but much longer. It had a replaceable bottom hem, the kind for when the dress is expected to drag on the ground a little.

“We’ll see.” I shooed her out so I could try it on.

After putting it on, I found…I liked it. It’s pretty rare for me to like something Lizzy grabs for me, but this seemed wonderful. It fell over my body loosely, not too tight at all. Normally she tries to get me clothes that are practically painted on.

I turned a few times, checking how I looked in the mirror, and found myself pleased. She did have a good eye for color. And it would be nearly impossible for me to screw up the look by wearing the wrong pants or whatever. That was the benefit of a one-piece.

I looked at the price tag. Too much, even though it was on sale. Five percent off wasn’t much…

Five percent. A very specific number. An impossibly specific number.

Not for the sale. That wasn’t important. No, it was the sleepers. At the battle with the skins, exactly five percent of the soldiers had gone crazy. The implication was obvious; the Composer had more sleepers that he hadn’t activated.

But why unveil them then? That was what we were having trouble with. There were plenty of other, better opportunities he hadn’t used. The bats, with the Nosferatu, would have been a perfect place to use the sleepers. We had enough difficulty even without rioting. Suborn a few key drivers of the Necessarian reinforcements, and the cavalry would never have arrived. The entire area would have been turned, and we wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it—there weren’t even any air units in range.

None of this made any sense. There was so much the Composer could be doing, but wasn’t. So many things that would make taking control of the city easier. The only logical conclusion was that he had a different goal in mind.

But we couldn’t figure out what that was. Jarasax had theorized that he was like the fey, seeking only his own amusement, but I didn’t like that idea. There was so much chaos, but it was still under control. The fey and people like them would want more than this.

The body swapping idea would make the most sense. The Composer could fight and die in as many different scenarios as he liked, then just take over a new body and play again, all without killing the golden goose—the city, in this metaphor.

No, no, no. I needed to stop focusing on the simple solutions. I had to ignore Sax’s theories, and assume the Composer was an intelligent, rational being. Because I am an intelligent, rational being, and it’s the only kind of person I can really understand.

Fact 1: The Composer was not operating at full capacity. No matter how singers and screamers are created or controlled, there were tactical solutions that he was ignoring.

Fact 2: The Composer had sleeper agents, at least five percent in nearly every militia. None had…

And there it was.

None had revealed themselves among Necessarius.

It wasn’t much. It wasn’t anything, really. It could be data scatter or a deliberate false lead. But if the ‘sarians were somehow resistant or immune to this type of control, it would explain everything. The reason the sleepers only played their hand at Bombed Alley was because that was the first time non-Necessarian troops were involved in force.

But five percent…something was still bugging me about that.

What made the ‘sarians different? About a thousand things. They were better trained, more tightly controlled, got more regular medical check-ups…silver and gold, even their diets were more uniform. It was the same reason that Malcanthet hadn’t had much luck getting her own sleepers into their ranks a few years ago.

It was…

My brain came to a screeching halt.

It had taken a long, long time to discover the masking agents Malcanthet used to hide the drugs in her sleepers’ systems. Before that, there was no way to tell who could be one. In the end, the numbers were nowhere near as bad as anyone expected, but the fear nearly broke the city in the meantime.

But we hadn’t tested any of the new sleepers for the masking agent. We’d checked for some, of course, but not Malcanthet’s specifically. It was a complicated process, which was the point. It was difficult to detect even if you knew it was there.

But if it was…

We might know the identity of the Composer after all.

And I didn’t think Necessarius would be able to just carpet bomb her skyscraper this time.

Behind the Scenes (scene 88)

Sushi is one of the staples of the Domina diet, along with other kinds of fish. The other staples are mostly the kinds of vegetables that can be grown on the wall-farms, and meat. Spices are very common, and most Domina dishes make heavy use of them. Everything else pretty much has to come from space, including bread and sugar.

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Scene 87 – Invidentia

INVIDENTIA

SEENA

“So,” I said, glaring at the blonde demon as she stumbled out of my brother’s room a few hours after lunch. “You’re a succubus.”

Yolanda turned bright red. “Th-that’s none of your concern…”

“Uh-huh. How many people were involved?”

She blinked. “What?”

I met her gaze levelly. She turned away.

After a second she blushed even more deeply, if that were possible, as she realized exactly what I meant. “OH! Just, uh, the two of us.”

I had my daygoggles off; the corridor was dark enough that while it was still uncomfortably bright for me, my nightvision was useful.

Yolanda didn’t look like a succubus, that was for certain. She looked like a demure flower without any experience in men or related areas. But my sources didn’t lie. I was still a Mal, after all. I just hadn’t seen the need to mention it to anyone until my stupid brother kissed her.

“Miss McDowell, I don’t know what pheromones or whatever you’ve got…”

Her eyes snapped up and met my own. “That’s not fair, Seena. Don’t throw the rest of us in with Malcanthet. Most of us believe very strongly in not using methods like that. Velvet hell, the kind of things we’ve had to go through because of her…”

I raised an eyebrow. “I notice you didn’t get insulted when I accused you of polyamory.”

She fidgeted with one of the buttons of the over-sized shirt she was wearing; with a bit of a start, I realized it was one of Simon’s. Maybe she wasn’t sneaking out on him after all.

“It’s just…” she shuffled her feet. “You see, we believe that everyone needs love, and love can conquer all, and—”

“I don’t need the sales pitch,” I interrupted. “I get the picture. I’m willing to assume you have my brother’s best interests at heart.”

She smiled weakly. “Thank you.”

“Of course, I’m not the only one you have to worry about. Jelena is angry at you for muscling into her territory.”

The demon frowned. “Wait, I thought she was a lesbian.”

I shrugged. “Well, I’m pretty sure she’s joking. But Pam really was interested in him; once she finds out about this she’s gonna be pissed.”

She brushed her golden hair back from her horns. “Velvet…she might actually kill me.”

“It’s probably not that bad. Pam’s caustic, but there’s kindness hidden below that.” I paused. “Deep below.” I bit my lip. “Okay, so I haven’t actually seen it, but I’m sure it’s there.”

She didn’t seem exactly encouraged. “I don’t think this is the kind of situation that will bring it out.”

“Yeah…just let me talk to her first, okay?” Honestly, I shouldn’t have told Yolanda about Pam’s crush. I was still surprised she had even told me.

The demon smiled a little. “No worries there, I promise.” She coughed. “Ah…can I get past you? I need to go to the bathroom.”

“Of course.” I stepped aside, and she rushed past quickly to the women’s restroom at the other end of the hall.

Now that I was reasonably certain Yolanda wasn’t going to try and slit my brother’s throat in his sleep, I had to attend to the other half of the problem. I slipped my daygoggles back on, took a deep breath, and knocked on 1312 three times.

“Yolanda?” my brother called. “That you? The door’s open.”

“It’s Seena,” I said gruffly. I didn’t open the door.

Wisely, judging by the sounds I could hear. He seemed to be rushing around the room, putting on his clothes. After a few minutes, I heard a weak “Come in.”

It wasn’t as bad as I had expected. The windows were open (proving my use of the daygoggles), and other than his bed being rumpled, the room was mostly the same as ever. A bit of junk strewn around, but it was the dorm room of three college boys. The only thing out of place was the small pile of cloth next to Simon’s bed; judging by the pink I could see poking out from under the jeans, it was Yolanda’s cast-off clothing, hastily retrieved from wherever it had been flung earlier.

“Seena,” the purple sibriex greeted me from where he sat primly on his bed. “What a wonderful surprise. What’s up?”

I didn’t bother with small talk. “She’s a succubus, Simon.”

He met my gaze evenly. “She did mention that, yes.”

“People are still sore about Malcanthet.”

His eyes didn’t waver. “She’s not Malcanthet, now is she?”

I frowned. “Dammit, you know what I mean. Why do you think she was hiding it? Word gets out that you’re dating a luster, you’re gonna be fending off assassins left and right.”

“I’ve survived assassins before.”

I snorted and leaned against the door frame. “That did not count. She thought you were someone else, and was expecting to fight a vampire.”

He waved his hand. “Fine. Discount that. More importantly, if anyone sends an assassin against her, they’ll go through the Mals, right? And you can talk them out of the contract.”

I opened my mouth to retort…then stopped. It was actually a pretty good point.

The bastard grinned, knowing he had me. “In fact, maybe you should just talk to them first, make sure there are no misunderstandings…”

I walked over and sat next to him with a sigh. “Simon, you can’t just—”

“Can’t what?” His face was hard again. “We’re not hurting anyone, you know that. I remember you giving me a very long lecture on that subject last time I tried to interfere in one of your relationships.”

I groaned and flopped backwards onto the bed. “Do not bring that up again, please…”

“I wasn’t going to,” he said quickly. A little too quickly. Normally he liked rubbing my nose in stuff like that. Why would he…

Bah. I was overthinking it. He probably just didn’t want to get on my bad side.

There was a dainty knock on the door. Yolanda, unquestionably. Simon frowned down at me. “Are we going to be okay? If you really don’t want me to date her, I’ll break it off right now.”

“No.” I straightened into a sitting position. “By the Black Gates, no. I’m worried about you, but it’s not your fault or hers. You two shouldn’t be punished for it.”

He grinned. “Good. ‘Cuz I wasn’t gonna break up with her anyway.”

I cursed and grabbed for him. “You little weasel, I’m gonna—”

He jumped out of my grasp, still grinning from ear to ear, and rushed over to the door before I had a chance to do anything else. As expected, when he yanked it open, Yolanda was standing there.

The demon looked a little bewildered at our antics. “Ah…is this a bad time?”

“Not at all,” Simon said, a little breathlessly. He stood aside. “C’mon in.”

She brushed back him a little too quickly. “I’ll…just get my clothes. I’m sure you two need to talk…”

“We’re done talking,” I promised. “It’s your turn now.”

She blinked. “What?”

“You barely ever talk around everyone else. I feel like I don’t know anything about you. Tell me something.” I waved my hand. “Like…what’s your favorite class this semester?”

The succubus sat down on the bed next to me a little reluctantly. “Ah…Applied Firearms, I’d say. I’m taking it every Friday. I’m doing really well, actually.”

“Is that one of the classes your uncle asked you to take?” Simon put in.

She shook her head vehemently. “No, I wanted to take it. I love guns. My dad had a gun shop when I was a kid.” She smiled a little sadly. “He always said I’d inherit it one day.”

I knew an orphan’s story when I heard one. “How’d he die?”

To my surprise, Yolanda rolled her eyes. “Mom blew up the workshop while they were inside.” She shook her head. “It was attached to the warehouse. Most of our product—and my inheritance—went up in smokes, but at least only two people died.”

Although she wasn’t at the angst and tears portion of the story yet, Simon and I both knew from experience that these always ended up there sooner or later. He quite wisely stepped in to steer the conversation back on track. “You never mentioned if there was anyone in the Applied Firearms class you were getting friendly with.”

She brightened. “Oh, yeah! There’s a baseline from outside the city, Adam. He’s fifth in the class, even though he never fired a gun before he got to Domina.”

“What about you?”

The demon cocked her head. “What about me?”

I smiled a little. “I mean, what place are you?”

“Oh! Third. Second is Merrevian of the Hereafter Notes, and first is an angel named Hoshea.”

Simon winced. “Ugh. He’s probably fun to be around.”

His girlfriend—Nine Hells, I’d have to get used to that—rolled her eyes. “Oh, its not that bad. I mean, he’s a little preachy about everything, but they’re getting better, really. There’s actually a vampire in our class, and they haven’t tried to kill each other even once.”

Simon sat down on the bed between us, forcing us to scoot apart to make room. “Wait, what time is your class?”

“Ten hundred hours. The drake has to wear daygoggles.”

His face scrunched up. “Huh. I would have thought he’d just get a night class.”

She shrugged. “I dunno. I think he wanted to learn how to shoot even when he was at a disadvantage.”

I had to lean over to see her past my brother. “How is he?”

She grinned. “Bad. Seriously bad. I’m not sure he can even see three feet in front of his face.”

We all laughed, and talked about school and so on for a while longer. When I left the two lovebirds alone a few hours later, I was beginning to accept that the succubus might not be as bad an influence as I thought.

Yolanda had earned a chance, but only one. I wouldn’t let anything bad happen to my brother.

Behind the Scenes (scene 87)

Succubi (and their male counterparts, the incubi) are actually still a pretty strong subculture…but they hide that as much as humanly possible. Malcanthet made a lot of enemies, and not just for herself. Seena is not exaggerating when she fears for their lives.

Scene 86 – Electus

ELECTUS

SIMON

“Strange?” Seena asked, taking a sip of my drink before I could stop her. “Strange how?”

I gave up trying to rescue my beverage from my sister and just shrugged. “I don’t know…like halfway through talking to me, he realized he was saying something he shouldn’t.”

It was the morning after my little talk with Steve and Kevin; it was the earliest I’d been able to meet with Zusa. She’d decided to bring along Seena, Delphie, Veda, and Yolanda, which I approved of, especially Yolanda. The blonde demon sat to my right, with my sister to my left. It was a good brainstorming group, as long as we didn’t get off topic.

Unfortunately, she’d also brought Jelena.

Zusa apparently hadn’t gotten the memo, and looked at the Glasyan with concern. “What’s wrong? You’ve been scratching all morning.”

Jelena grimaced, her arm arched behind her head to get at her back. “Got an itch on my spine that won’t go away.”

“Have you seen a doctor?” Seena asked with well-faked innocence.

As expected, the pale girl nodded. “Glasya herself checked me out. Said nothing was wrong, it was just a psychosomatic reaction to my capture.”

I felt for the poor vampire, but there was nothing I could do. Glasya had explained to Seena that Jelena’s spine was now a large radio transceiver, similar to the ones the fey used in their homunculi. It wouldn’t allow for any kind of direct control, but all her sensory data was being piped directly to one of the crazy naked bitches.

Jelena didn’t know any of this, of course. Which was probably why she was scratching the back of her neck, a frown on her face.

“Then I’m sure that’s all it is,” I lied with as straight a face as I could muster. Luckily, she didn’t seem to be paying much attention to me, otherwise she would have seen right through the ruse.

“That’s not—” Yolanda blushed as everyone turned to her, but still managed to stammer out “Simon was saying something about MC.”

I brushed my hair back. “Uh…yeah.” I didn’t really want to talk about it in front of Jelena, though. “I just need to figure out how to convince her to talk to someone really paranoid.” Then I shrugged. “Well, I guess I really need to find a way to get him to talk to her.”

“It’s MC,” Jelena noted. “If he can’t trust her, who can he trust?”

I winced. “Yeah…this guy is paranoid enough that that’s not a good argument.”

“Bah,” Veda said with a wave of her hand. “That part is easy. You give him an ultimatum. Tell him he can talk to her or…” she waved her hand again. “Or something bad happens. I don’t know the situation. No,” she leaned forward eagerly, her furry ears twitching. “What I’m interested in is your suspicious roommate.”

Seena put my drink down. “Why? What’s so special about him?”

“Well, your brother thought it was worth mentioning. I’m curious as to exactly why.”

I shrugged again, a little uncomfortable at the attention I had heaped on Kevin without his knowledge. “I don’t know, I just thought it was weird. He seemed so confident, and then just did a complete 180.”

“You probably said something stupid and didn’t notice.” Delphie didn’t even bother looking up from the mouse she was feeding in her lap. “You do that sometimes.”

I sighed and put my face in my hands.

“Aw, you broke him,” Veda crooned. “Be nice, mousie.”

“This from you? You’re the one who almost got us killed yesterday when you called those orcs ‘retarded vampires.’”

“I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Didn’t…you spend too much time on the internet. It’s desensitized you.”

I looked up and interrupted before Veda had a chance to respond. “So, there was another screamer attack the other day.”

Seena quickly jumped on the opportunity to switch subjects. “Yeah, five days ago. That was…Tuesday?”

Jelena leaned forward. “Yeah, that’s right. Reports are scarce, but I heard that the Composer unleashed some kind of secret weapon. Killed most of the ‘sarians.”

Zusa frowned. “The screamers just hardened their skin, right?”

The Glasyan shrugged. “That’s what the official report says. But does that sound like something that could kill ninety percent of the Necessarians involved?”

“Hellions and Thors,” Yolanda corrected quietly. The blonde demon blushed, but continued. “My uncle said most of them weren’t from Necessarius. The General and the Hammer sent men to support the Paladins.”

Veda shook her head. “No, that doesn’t make any sense. They aren’t exactly on the best terms with Butler. Actually sending troops out under his command would—”

“—would take something major?” I finished. “Like, for example, a zombie apocalypse?”

The cherve shut her mouth quickly.

“Simon’s right,” Jelena noted. “The cultures were all gearing up to work together.”

Seena sipped at my drink. “Were?”

The Glasyan smiled grimly. “They lost a hundred men or more each the first time they tried it. You think they’re going to keep it up after that? Everyone’s digging in, fortifying their bases. No one is sending Butler men anymore.”

Veda regained her courage. “That’s good. The fortifying, I mean. Before, they were basically just milling around, waiting to get attacked.”

“I don’t know…” I said slowly. “Is that really a good idea? It seems like this is exactly what the Composer would want.”

Zusa smiled. “Oh, come on. You can’t pretend to understand what he’s thinking. It’s like the fey; they’re all crazy.”

“The fey can be dealt with,” Jelena pointed out. “The Composer might not even exist.”

The cherve nodded. “Yeah, I’ve heard that theory. They say the hackers are just screwing with everyone.”

“The ‘sarians definitely think he’s real,” Yolanda whispered. “Wouldn’t they have a better idea than anyone else?”

Jelena shrugged. “Well, it makes them feel better if they’re getting their asses kicked by an actual person, rather than just a mindless horde of zombies. I don’t know if you noticed, but they stepped up the whole ‘Composer’ thing after this latest debacle.”

I finally grabbed my drink back from Seena. It was mostly gone, but there was still some left. “So, what, they’re just blaming someone convenient and running scared?”

“Everyone’s running scared. I’m sure Headlights can attest to that.” Veda glared, but Jelena just grinned back. It faded after a moment, though. “But yeah, they’re scared. Everyone’s scared. The warlords are pulling back, the ‘sarians have their hands full with captured screamers, and the Paladins are still only five people.” She shrugged. “I know I’m thinking about packing off to one of the other parts of the city.”

“That’s a panic reaction,” Seena admonished, as I carefully dodged her attempts to retrieve my drink. “That is exactly what the Composer wants.” She waved her hand. “Or if there is no Composer, it will still play into the zombies’ hands. It’s herd mentality. If we bunch up, that just makes us juicier targets.”

“She’s right.” Delphie’s mouse had disappeared when I wasn’t looking. “Trust the assassin to know a thing or two about killing.”

My sister buried her face in her hand. “I told you, it’s not like that…”

Delphie waved away her complaints. “You work in a bookstore, you learn how to read. You work around assassins, you learn how to assassinate. You overhear stuff. I’m not insulting you, sweetness, I’m just acknowledging you know what you’re talking about.”

Seena readjusted her daygoggles for the umpteenth time. “Yeah…it’s just not something I want to be known for.”

Zusa wisely steered the conversation back on topic. “So what are we supposed to do, then? If bunching up will get us killed, then—”

“Bunching up is different from herd tactics,” Veda interrupted. “Herds run away. The cultures are fortifying.” She shrugged. “I guess that’s the right idea.”

“They need to make friends,” Zusa corrected. “Fortifying is all well and good, but if the cultures united, no one would be able to touch them.”

“Right now, the cultures are just slightly harder targets,” I mused. I was more determined than ever to make sure Aramazd and MC allied. It was in everyone’s best interest; I had to be able to convince him of that.

“Not really anything we can do, though,” Delphie grumbled. “Like Jelena said, no one is willing to take a chance right now.”

The Glasyan in question leaned back in her chair, a pained expression on her face. “Maybe it will get better in a few weeks, but I have a feeling someone is going to get hit pretty hard before then. Probably the demons.” She turned to Yolanda. “None of your domains have been hit yet, right?”

The girl shook her head. “No…and I have a feeling you’re right about us being next.” She grimaced. “I guess there’s a decent chance this will be the last any of you see me.”

Death is a fact of life in Domina. More so since the screamers appeared; two of my friends had died at Triple I, and another one was screaming. It’s rare to really have a good idea of when you’re going to die, though. We don’t have much disease, and bullets kill faster than sickness anyway.

So this left us all with a very unique opportunity. We could try sequestering her in the domain of a culture that had already been hit to reduce her chances of getting caught in an attack, but in the current political climate, that probably wouldn’t work. Besides, what about all the other demons?

I could see it in her eyes; she was planning to stay with her culture, probably die at the next attack. She was stronger than she looked.

We could have a party, or something. Not a funeral, since that would jinx it, but even just spending more time together would make her happy. It was the least we could do, and from the looks on everyone’s faces, they all agreed with me.

So I pulled her close and kissed her.

Behind the Scenes (86)

This is…eh. I had difficulty writing it, much more than I had any right to. But I still think it came out okay.

Oh, and about Simon’s comment: Disease isn’t anywhere close to defeated in Domina. It’s a little better than our world, between the disease-resistance buffs and just general higher-quality medicine world-wide, but deaths from disease are still extremely rare. Generally, if someone gets sick enough so that their life is actually in danger, they’ll be killed by someone—maybe an old enemy, maybe just a thief, whatever—long before the disease has run its course. It’s to the point that if someone recovers from a life-threatening disease, they are often assumed to be a doppelganger, an identity thief who murdered the original after using the toy maker to disguise themselves.

Scene 85 – Iacet

IACET

KEVIN

My name is Kevin Irwin.

I am a Jotuun spy.

I don’t have any buffs or cosmos, but that’s the point. It wouldn’t be very subtle if I was three feet taller than everyone else. Passer is the common term, but I hate it. It implies I’m an assassin.

I was in my dorm room, with a depressed Simon and jolly (as usual) Steve. I had difficulty paying attention to Steve; despite his height, he was just baseline, and years of training forced me to memorize Simon’s every word, since he was the enemy.

Well, enemy was a bit strong. He wasn’t a Jotuun, and thus a potential threat. I was ordered to observe his movements—and those of his sister—but nothing more.

“Let me get this straight,” Steve said with a slow chuckle. “Your culture has some weird monster thing watching over your servers.”

“Correct,” Simon confirmed, sitting on his bed calmly. I was perched on my own mattress, the top bunk bed, where I got a good vantage of everything. Steve’s bed was under mine, but he was standing by the window.

“This creature didn’t know about the screamers or the Composer or anything.”

“Right. He seemed to be on bad terms with the Power.”

“Right, right…and he was scared of MC and the Servants for some reason.”

“I think he was just paranoid.”

Steve was smiling at some private joke. “Whatever. The point is…you agreed to talk to MC on his behalf. Quiz her on how far the ‘sarian research is coming, all that.”

“That’s about the size of it,” our sibriex roommate admitted calmly. He took a sip of his drink, as though we weren’t discussing anything more important than sports.

Steve laughed and rubbed his forehead. “Kevin, help me out here. Explain what an idiot he’s being.”

I shrugged nonchalantly, doing my best to quell my pounding heart. This was the most important discovery I had made since I found out Simon was working with a fey. If he used the same laptop for his interviews, the bug I’d planted would turn out to be completely invaluable.

“I don’t think its really that big a deal,” I lied smoothly. “Every culture has secrets. His talks.”

The large black man frowned, a rare sight. “No, I don’t mean about telling us about it. I mean the fact that he’s trying to screw over MC.”

“Hey, I’m not screwing her over!”

“Steve has a point,” I admonished. “Letting someone listen in on your conversation without telling her will be a breach of trust. You should consider just telling her.”

“Somehow, I don’t think Aramazd will appreciate that.”

“Hey don’t worry!” Steve said, slapping our roommate on the back jovially. “You said he was completely cut off from the outside world. He has to work with you.”

“Besides, it’s not like you have to tell MC you’re working with…” I waved my hand. “An abomination. If she would even consider him that. Just say he doesn’t get enough contact with people to feel comfortable talking to her.” I shrugged. “It’s true enough, right?”

Simon rubbed his forehead, finally showing some consternation at what was coming. “I really don’t want to trick MC at all. I mean, its MC.”

I snorted. “Five minutes ago you were willing to lie outright. Now a little bit of subterfuge is out of the question?”

“That’s different,” he insisted. “That was me fulfilling a promise.”

I shrugged. “You can make distinctions like that if you want. Doesn’t change what you’re doing.”

He threw up his hands. “So, what? I have a choice between screwing over someone who hasn’t seen another living soul in a month, or the most important woman in Domina?”

“Or just talk to the monster again,” Steve suggested as he sat down on his own bed. “Just explain that you don’t feel comfortable messing with MC.”

“Somehow I don’t think it will be that simple.”

I sighed again. “You have your choices laid out in front of you, Simon. Pick one, and accept the consequences.”

The purple sibriex nodded. “You know what? You’re right. I’m going to tell Aramazd it’s off.”

That was about when I realized that I was in the middle of convincing him to turn down a priceless espionage opportunity.

I sat bolt upright on my bed. “Wait, you can’t do that!”

Simon stared. “Wait, what? You just said—”

“I know what I said,” I snapped. “Look, your ‘rex buddy wants to discuss things with MC, right?”

He nodded slowly.

“And MC like debating with intelligent people, right?”

“Well, obviously, but…”

“So you just have to convince both of them its in their best interests to work together.” I shrugged. “Take the third option.”

He put his face in his hands. “Okay, okay. That’s…that actually makes sense.” He shook his head. “But leaving aside your schizo behavior, I really don’t think it will be that easy. Aramazd is really paranoid.”

I really needed to keep him from thinking about my actions. “Well, you only met him once, right?”

He frowned. “No. Didn’t I…no, I forgot to tell you. I met him last Friday. Talked to him a couple times since then, tried to work out a better solution. Didn’t work. He’s definitely scared of what MC will do to him.”

I heard Steve giggle. “But c’mon. It’s MC. What’s she gonna do? Cut off his cell service?”

I smiled grimly. “If you think that’s the worst she can do, I invite you to see what happens if you piss her off.”

Steve laughed, and I heard rustling from his bed. Judging from Simon’s reaction, he was gearing up for a full-blown argument.

“Settle down, guys,” he advised. “I’ll figure something out.” He bit his lip. “I’ll talk to Jelena. She’s good at politics.”

“Yeah, but she’s a spy for the fey now, right?”

“True. Even though no one has the heart to tell her.” The sibriex frowned at me. “Wait, how’d you know that?”

Inwardly, I cursed at my own stupidity, but I kept my calm and just shrugged nonchalantly as I quickly came up with a believable lie. “You mentioned it earlier.”

Simon waved his hand. “Whatever. You’re right, she’s out. I guess I’ll have to deal with it myself.”

“The ferret girl might be helpful,” Steve noted, snapping his fingers as he thought of the idea. “The one rooming with Delphie.”

Our roommate cocked his head. “You mean Zusa? She didn’t strike me as the type to have any experience in this area.”

“Well, she’s the friendliest of the bunch. Might be able to give you a little advice.”

“Better than you two, at least,” Simon muttered. “At least she’s sane enough to not do a complete 180 halfway through the conversation.”

“Don’t be so sure about that,” Steve cautioned with mock seriousness. “She is a woman.”

The sibriex sighed. “That makes one thing easy, at least.”

I raised an eyebrow. “What’s that?”

“I was considering bringing you guys along for advice when I talk to her.” He smiled grimly. “I’ve changed my mind.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 85)

Oof, this one…not the best. But it serves.

Scene 84 – Sapientis

SAPIENTIS

RICHARD

My name is Richard Martinez. I am the President of the United States of America, ever since last year, when I was sworn in after winning in a historic landslide election. I pledged to defend this nation and its people from threats both within and without, to improve the standard of living of everyone under our domain.

Yeah, that’s not working out so great.

I had a whole laundry list of problems—the Chinese, Soviets, and Koreans all sponsored terrorists against anyone who looked at them funny, ninety percent of my country’s budget was earmarked for a military which was completely useless against anything in space, and my two predecessors had spent the past twelve years pissing off the sorts of people who could throw asteroids at my new house.

And yet, I still found my attention continuously drifting to Domina City.

‘The City of the Lady.’ A lot of religious groups—including the Vatican itself, if my memory wasn’t too foggy—had been involved in the original project, so they got to pick the name. It was Latin, and was supposed to refer to the Virgin Mary. The idea was that the name was supposed to foretell the city remaining pure and unspoiled.

Nope.

It was a writhing cesspool, a horrifyingly dangerous stain on American soil—even though it was on an island. Sending spies was dangerous, sending anyone else completely suicidal.

Or so everyone said.

But we didn’t know. We barely ever spent any spies, and those that did got killed within days of arriving. The rare new immigrants never talked about conditions there, and they usually died soon too. All evidence pointed to the city being exactly what we thought it was, but we simply didn’t have enough evidence to really know.

The thing about Domina was that it shouldn’t be important, at least not as anything more than a symbol. Thirty years ago, it was the first international attempt to see if we could make colonies of criminals and a small guard population that would set up infrastructure on their own.

That didn’t work, which I could have told you when the project was first announced (note: I was eleven at the time), but everybody learned all sorts of valuable things that they should have known already, and when the space colonies were launched, other than the Reiner Gamma crisis, everything went smooth as butter.

Still, something had to be done with Domina, so all the heads of state at the time got together to figure it out. Instead of just giving up on the stupid city and letting the inmates/civilians kill each other, our esteemed leaders came up with a different idea. ‘After much debate and deliberation,’ the history books said. All things considered, I think that’s code for ‘snorted lines off the table.’

Because what you’d think should be done is that they would either send in a bunch of humanitarian aid, or let everybody die like I said. What they actually did was decide to send more criminals to the stupid island. Not a lot, really, just anyone who qualified for one of the space colonies, but who didn’t actually want to go into space for whatever reason. I still didn’t have the exact numbers, but it was looking like a million or so a year.

And like adding more fuel to a fire, Domina City kept burning. What else could you expect, when every single person there was a criminal? Or the children of criminals, which was practically the same thing in that environment.

But I had a chance.

I could save Domina City. That would be something worth doing. That would get me chapters in the history books, instead of just some name nobody remembered on a list nobody cared about. Hell, that would get me entire books, written about me and my decisions.

I had a few proposals I was chewing over, but right now Senator Grain’s was the one I was focused on. He had an idea about building an internet hardline to the city, but I wasn’t sure how much success that would have. It might work, but I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to throw a few million dollars at something I didn’t understand.

“Mister President,” my aide, Ms. Silk, said as she walked up. “You wanted more information on Domina?”

“On their internet specifically, my dear,” I corrected her, something I rarely had to do. It was no exaggeration to say this woman ran my entire campaign and cabinet. More useful than my stupid vice president, that was for sure. “We can deal with the rest later.”

“Well, perhaps this will help.” She turned on the TV, flipped through the channels, and fiddled with the settings to rewind ten minutes or so.

It was a news program, the interview segment. A young newswoman was talking to an old, bearded man. The screen proclaimed him to be ‘Professor Lake Sage,’ right next to the line ‘September 14th, Friday.’ They were too close, actually. It looked like the date was his name or something.

“Now, Professor Sage,” the woman said. “You claim Domina City simply does not have an internet?”

“That is correct, Stacy,” the man rumbled slowly. “The only internet there is a few separate systems, each controlled by an individual corporation. These are the networks that connect—occasionally—to our own internet.”

“That’s horrible!” the woman cried. “Doesn’t that violate the Internet Freedom Act?”

“Actually, no,” the professor admitted. “You see, the corporations are not charging anyone to use their networks. They’re not offering it for free, either, but by not charging, they don’t violate the IFA.”

‘Stacey’ just looked confused. I’m sure that like a lot of newscasters, she had been chosen based on her looks and voice rather than her brains. I had been in Sage’s shoes before, and I didn’t regret not being there now. Being interviewed by idiots was never fun. “I’m not sure I understand. Are they exploiting a loophole somewhere?”

“Far from it. You see, their networks are completely private. Corporate secrets are stored there, so anyone even trying to access it would be violating international law. They do, sometimes, need to connect to the outside internet for business, but that is using completely private wireless networks. The only connection to Domina we have is—legally, I must note—controlled by corporations. In fact, if they tried to give the public access, they would be the ones breaking the law.”

“Ms. Silk,” I said, musing, “how reliable is this man?” He looked like that guy who played Father Time on those commercials for digital watches.

She frowned and adjusted her glasses. “Well, he did work for one of the city’s corporations for about five years, and only came back six months ago. The fact that he was able to return at all speaks volumes.”

“Not many boats go in, and fewer come out,” I remembered. Prisoners were their primary import. Plus the spies the various governments slipped onto the boats.

Very few,” she emphasized. “Only five or six a month, both ways. Planes are even worse.”

“I’m just not sure I understand,” the newswoman continued. “Unless the corporations are actively suppressing infrastructure, why don’t the civilians just start up their own internet?”

The professor nodded slowly. “Good question. That puzzled me at first as well, but I quickly discovered the reason. The cultures disrupt any attempts to create new infrastructure—such as internet.”

Now this was interesting. We had very little information on the cultures, other than the fact that they existed and were some type of gang…thing. There were rumors that they had something to do with the toy maker, but nothing concrete. Personally, I assumed it was just the mixing of rumors, since that annoying machine had come from Domina in the first place, but it would be good to hear it from an actual resident. Ex-resident, whatever.

“Cultures,” Stacy said slowly. “I’ve heard that word in relation to the city before. What are they?”

“The simplest explanation would be to call them giant gangs,” Lake admitted. “But that is inaccurate. They do not have leaders or organization. They are simply a number of gangs united under nothing but their fashion sense.”

The newswoman raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“Basically, calling the cultures a gang is like calling goths a gang,” he explained patiently. “There are gangs within the cultures, many of them quite violent, but they are not gangs themselves.”

“So, what sets these cultures apart?”

The professor waved his hand airily. “Oh, all sorts of things. The demons put plastic horns on their heads and paint themselves red or black, the vampires only come out at night…that kind of thing. Mostly, its just a bunch of crazy kids, but they get extremely violent when given half the chance.”

“So any time anyone tries to set up a high-powered wi-fi tower…”

“One of the cultures firebombs it. Drives off the workers. They do the same thing with new factories and anything else that might change the city.” He shook his head sadly. “They’re kids. They’re lashing out.”

“Is there any way to solve this problem?”

“In my professional opinion? Not without sending in the army. And sending soldiers against people aged fifteen to twenty would cause truly horrific public backlash.”

I indicated the TV should be turned off, and Ms. Silk complied. I leaned back in my chair and sighed.

Ms. Silk didn’t say anything. She was very good at just letting me think. Honestly, that was most of the reason I kept her around. Most of the assistants I’ve had ever since getting out of the army won’t stop yapping.

“Raziela,” I said slowly after a few minutes. “What’s your take on this?”

“Well first, I’ve told you to call me Raz, Mister President.”

I rolled my eyes with a smile, and made a ‘go on’ motion with my hand.

She was quiet for a for minutes more, her face furrowed in concentration. She kept her hands busy organizing papers.

I didn’t prod her. You don’t rush a genius, whether they’re an artist or a bureaucrat who can organize a party for six hundred people with only an hour’s notice.

When she had the coffee table in something resembling order, she spoke up.

“I…think the Professor had the right of it,” she said slowly. “Sending troops against young people—even very violent and dangerous young people—is only going to cause problems.”

“Hm.” She was right, of course. “So we need to solve this problem indirectly. Without violence.”

“And without spending much money, either,” she noted. “Remember most of the budget we had free went to the USP.”

I sighed. Stupid space program. Trying to buy back Shaohao hadn’t been a good idea in the first place, and now that word was out it was completely out of the question. The media had painted it as an under the table hostile takeover, which had led to massive public outcry. The fact that it basically was a hostile takeover hadn’t helped. It’s hard enough cleaning off mud when it isn’t true.

“Okay…what about that gang leader? The one who’s bribing the senators to stay out of the city?”

Ms. Silk hastily dug through the papers to find one in particular. “Ah, yes. Here it is. It says his name is…Butler. Artemis Butler.”

I chuckled. “Right. The girl’s name.”

She nodded. “Not a good idea to say that to a gang lord, sir.” She flipped the paper over, reading the back. “Analysis says he’s just another violent opportunist. He was on the first ships of workers, and has been building his gang for the past thirty years.” She shrugged. “Looks like he wants to keep others out of his playground.”

I sighed and came to a decision. “Well, it looks like he’s getting his wish. At least for the time being.”

My aide frowned and pushed at her glasses. “Sir?”

“We can’t send in troops. We don’t have the budget to make a hardline, and no guarantee it would stay open even if we did.” I shook my head. “Call Grain. Tell him his proposal is rejected. Domina City will remain cut off from the outside world for a little longer.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 84)

Ah, propaganda.

Extra update Wednesday, since this one is so unconnected to the main story.