1. An instrument of war; an offensive or defensive combat tool; anything used, or designed to be used, in injuring, defeating, or destroying an enemy.
It's a good place, Emily thought.
This was partly what drew her to magic in the first place. They'd said the Fae were devious, cunning, evil-minded. You can't trust them, not ever. Universally horrible and wicked, and so on, and so forth. They'd talk and talk about the dark of the forest... but Nana hadn't much to say in response, except to say that men could be devious, cunning, and evil-minded. Didn't mean you couldn't trust them, not ever.
Pix was one Emily could trust. It wasn't that he was an innocent -- good and evil were concepts he had trouble with, complicated thoughts for a simple creature. But that was just it, they were just concepts. All that mattered to him was who he did right by and who didn't do right by him. Everything sorted itself out in the end.
When Emily first visited this glade a week ago, bringing with her a catatonic witch with severe hypertech induced brain damage, she didn't have a doubt in her mind about the decision. True, Pix was Summer Court through and through, a diminutive denizen of the dewdrops of ... Spring, since Emily couldn't find a proper word starting with D to complete that phrase. True, the Summer Court had been her blessing and her bane. But like the world of men, there'd always be someone to disprove the hard and fast rule of distrust.
It was hard to see Pix within his aura, the wellspring of green light that danced and flickered around him everywhere he fluttered. And he DID flutter, never quite holding still, darting in and around Emily, even if he generally tried to hover in front of her eyes. It was only polite.
"Can't say as such, afraid," he replied. "The Archmagus has her in custody. Don't think she was suppos'd to be attackin' that Human-Log. But that's Runeblade for ye, always itchin' fer approval, to show off her skill with some new toy. And a frightful toy it was!"
"Speaking of toys... anything more on that?" the young witch asked, trying to keep her eyes on her tiny friend. It was only polite, in return. "We're trying to track down the source of those... shiny silver toys." (Language she knew wouldn't confuse him.) "Where did Jess... where did Runeblade get her toy?"
"Ach, it's a thing as I'm not knowin'," Pix said, shaking his head sadly. "We're low in the court, Emily-Friend, low indeed. Scuttlebutt and whispers through the grasses, those we have, but I'm thinkin' the toy was mighty High-Knowing. Too high for this simple Log-Dweller."
Emily sighed, having a seat on said log. (She was the only human they'd allow to do that, without going into a frenzy of blinking lights and vicious swipes with near-microscopic daggers. Emily knew how to balance herself while sitting, to not disrupt the pixie's homestead.) "I was hoping it was just something she plucked off the ground. Stumbled across it, nice and simple. It still could be, in fact... or, it could be some vast secret within the court that accidentally saw light of day. Mighty High-Knowing..."
"Aye, aye," Pix agreed. "What with the eternal war-in-peace thing with her sister, to say the least of the troubles with yer kin, My High Lady Summer keeps her sneaky power plays pretty close to the chest. An' what a chest it is! Hoohah!"
The light flickered in what could be considered a bawdy gesture. Sort of the pixie equivalent of a sly wink. It made Emily smile... something she did so rarely, these days. The pixies could do that for her. Eternal optimists, to balance out her more realistic view that nothing quite goes the way you want. Funny thing.
"Funny thing," she said, turning her internal thought outward, as she tended to do.
"You guys. Low in the court. Pounded on and kicked around by both your own kind and the humans," she said. "Too small for anybody really to care about. But I haven't seen you unhappy, not once, not even when... y'know."
Pix fluttered and swooped, his cheer multiplying. "Aye, aye! Oh, a bedraggled lot we are, tiny things, aye. But the way of it is that gettin' nine kinds of snot pounded out of ye on a regular basis builds character, it does! Teaches you that ye can work through the worst of it. To be puttin' a case on a point, or a point in a case... I'm thinkin' the knowing of it that Runeblade'll be just fine, if not better from bein' shown she's not the top dog she thinks she is."
Emily snorted out a derisive laugh. "None of them were top dog, Pix. Lilith fed their egos, encouraged them to show their superiority over me... but she also took every chance to point out that they were still humans playing with Fae toys. Lilith was the true Fae, the only one that really counted. Head of that pecking order."
"An' yet Lilith's gotta answer to the Summer Lady, don't she? An' Summer answers to Winter and back and forth in turn in their peculiar sisterly way. Oh! Oh! And BOTH of them answer to the forces of the universe itself, an' I get the feelin' THAT'S gotta answer to somethin' in the end. Hah! That's High-Knowledge if it's anythin' but! Point is, nobody's safe from a good kickin', and that's as it should be!"
As if words weren't enough Pix kicked and kicked at the air, to the point where he twirled himself silly and had to pause a bit to recover his wits.
"Ahh... why, yer livin' proof of my theory!" he continued, clearly on a roll now. "No matter how many times Emily gets laughed at, bullied, arrested, or tossed into lake, she comes out okay in the end!"
"...yeah, thanks, I feel special now."
"Why, you could throw 'er to wild dogs and maul her to little bits, pull out an eye and chop off a leg, and she'll come up swingin'! You could set her to a burnin' pyre--"
"I. Get. The Point," she said, with additional hiss for emphasis.
"Happy to help!" Pix said, saluting and completely missing the anger. "So! Where're ye off to now?"
Emily the Witch rose from the log, smoothing out her skirt and brushing dirt from it. Wouldn't do to look TOO much like a road-worn country girl in front of her fancy new companions. "We're going to Baltimore," she explained. "Ah... the big Human-Log on the edge of the Crab-Sea. You know the place?"
"Oh, aye. Snuck in there a few times, just 'cause I could. Hah! Anti-Fae Spark-Eyeballs can't spot the likes of me!"
"Pix, no! Don't... don't do that, okay? Seriously. Listen to me here," she said, trying to emphasize. "That place is bad news for Fae. Humans hate you guys!"
"Yer human, you don't hate us."
"...yeah, well... humans hate you guys. And if they DO catch you in there, you're pretty easy to squish. ...and for god's sakes, if you see a big zappy blue light in a cage, don't investigate. Okay?"
"If'n it's a Horrible-Horrible, why're ye goin', then?"
"It's the blasted hypertech," Emily grumbled. "The.. shiny toys, like Runeblade had. Remember what I was saying earlier? About tracking them down? My companions?"
Pix fluttered in befuddlement. The hovering, glowing stream-of-consciousness philosopher Fae was bad at remembering the little details.
"We got a lead yesterday," she explained. "A Human-Thief. One of his goons had a shiny silver toy. He claimed he got it from some old soldier from Baltimore. We're going there to track him down, and see where he got his toys from. ...and yes, it's definitely a Horrible-Horrible, especially for a human like me, because I'm chummy with you. I'm going to need to stash my things before I go there, or they'll be on to me in a second."
"Yer-- ooh, I know this, I know this, wait... right. Witch-Hat! Witch-Book! Witch-Broomstick!" the pixie counted off. "Hidin' them, are ye? Well, nobody hides things like ole Pix. Except maybe Pix. Oh, and Pix! But not Pix, ole Pix is better than that codger."
(This was one of the problems with every single member of your race having the same name. Somehow they could tell one Pix apart from another, but Emily had to go by their colored lights and voice pitches. Names were useless once they filtered to English.)
"Pass me yer Witch-Things, and I'll watch over them proper," Pix offered. "Log-Safe. Give ye my Truth-Word on that. An' if yer ever needin' them, ye just give a whistle like I can hear it. Good-Deal?
Assuming they don't drift from his memory, Emily thought. But she knew where the log was, and after she left that stinking city, she could spend a few hours cajoling Pix's memory easily enough. She held out a thumb, which Pix latched on to as she shook it up and down. "Good-Deal," she agreed.
No hat. The hat had no power, but it was her hat, and she liked it. It was Nana's hat. No book... she'd be putting a few key spells on papers hidden under her clothes, and if the city folk wanted her to strip off her clothes, well, Pix HAD pointed out that nobody was safe from a good kickin'. And the broomstick... she preferred to fly, but surely taking conventional transport wouldn't be TOO rough...
She could endure. And then she'd be back, and have her things, and everything would be fine. No trouble at all.
by stefan gagne
One foot here, a dirt road. One foot there, gleaming paved asphalt. Just like that, one ends, another begins...
They'd re-paved a ruined road, one that had long since broken up and given way to nature. It was still used, still a clear-cut through the wilds, but more than a century without proper repairs and it had given up the ghost. Only this one last leg had been saved, or rather buried and then a fresh road laid over its corpse. A tin sign proudly declared it to be the Theodore Roosevelt Highway... serving only to ferry people from this waystation on into the mighty city of Baltimore.
The money from taking on the Crimson Arrow Gang had paid for food and lodging, but there was enough left over to also buy bus tickets. Not very good ones, they had to hike down the country road to get to this terminal which was practically at Baltimore's territorial limits anyway, but Scout had suggested they'd look less suspicious rolling in through the bus line than they would flying in on broomsticks and jetpacks. The anti-aircraft guns at the top of the Freedom Walls would probably agree with him.
That meant an hour of bumping along on a manmade road in a manmade metal vehicle that belched smoke and puttered like an old man with whooping cough. Old media had predicted shiny flying cars in mankind's future, but post-post-apocalyptic mankind was content to let technology roll on without much improvement... Una's people had apparently ate their future for lunch instead.
Despite coming from a civilization that soared above the clouds in flawless cities of chrome, Una was way too thrilled with the trappings of "modern" society. The bus fascinated her. The rubbery grips on the floor down the aisle to keep you from slipping fascinated her. The hard faux-leather seating with its barely up to code seatbelts fascinated her. And above all, the power windows fascinated her.
She pushed a little button -- and the window went up. She pushed another little button -- and the window went down. Not very far, not enough to let in but a tiny wispy stream of air, but the mechanism itself was the point.
"Servos and motors! Clockwork gears meshing together, and probably belts and fans and sprockets and... oh, it's just so amazing!" she was trying to explain to a nonplussed Emily. "It's all so physical, so mechanical! I bet there's hardly any energy transfer in play beyond the raw kinetics needed to slide the plastic-glass. And you say they're called 'power windows'?"
"Mhmm," Scout replied, not paying more than the minimum amount of attention. He also was busy not paying attention to the outdated newspaper someone had left stuck to their bench-like seat with chewing gum.
"Truly, yours is a civilization of wonder. It's amazing you've survived this long using such primitive methodologies!" Una said in a manner that was actually not insulting in the slightest if you understood that she meant nothing unpleasant by it. "Of course, I've seen much of this in our observations of Eastusa, and the few recordings we've found. Roll up, roll up! Roll up for the mystery tour!"
Emily grumbled and tried to sink into the uncomfortable seat, which only made it more uncomfortable. "There's nothing mysterious about it. It's just bits of metal and things moving around. It's ugly, it smells, it hasn't changed in centuries, it's like a coffin on wheels. And the sooner we're off it, the better."
"This is a thing I cannot comprehend, Miss Emily the Witch--"
"IXNAY! Ixnay on the itchway!" Emily hissed.
"Ixnay? Who is this ixnay? I am simply stating that your society has endured, and that is wondrous. I have read the archives of other worlds visited by my people, and have read of worlds under less strain than yours that collapsed far sooner. So many succumb to conflict and self-annihilation! But even if you have not solved your problems, your world has persisted despite them. So amazing! So very is that the city?!!"
Even if the power windows weren't wide enough to let her crawl out, she gave a good try at it. Giving up, she simply pressed herself up close against the plexiglas, eyes wide in delight.
Baltimore was up ahead.
And it was ugly. It would be bad enough if the sky-high Freedom Walls were their usual faceless cliffs of gray stone, specially designed to resist even the strongest assault by the Faerie Court. Instead of being plain, however, a mural had been painted entirely around the length of the city's siege wall.
It was done in an ancient manner, bold lines and stylized people standing at odd angles. They were looking to the horizon, over the seas of Baltimore Harbor and its mighty kraken-resistant warships... towards a sunrise that was blue with white stars, radiant beams of red and white surrounding it.
That might have been inspiring if Emily had the slightest bit of patriotism, but not as much as the designers would have hoped, given the way the paint had peeled and cracked and weathered away in many places. The stalwart guardians of the American Way had melted slightly with years and years of neglect.
Did they ever consider they'd need to touch it up? Or had they just painted it and decided it would stand for a thousand years? she wondered, with some bitterness.
"A city. A real city, and from ground level," Una whispered. Almost reverent. "My father and I only saw New York from above, descending right into it under concealing shields. I saw the stone rings around cities from above. They were just... lines. Lines inscribing the communities within. From here, they are manmade wonders... truly, I shall feel safe behind those walls!"
"You'd be wrong to do so."
Both girls looked to their companion. He hadn't bothered looking up from the articles he wasn't reading.
"Lived in cities most of my life," he stated. "Eastusa thinks that the cities are how everything should be -- walled in and safe. It's an illusion. Even cities can fall. Walls just help them forget anything beyond exists. They're blinders and nothing more."
Emily paused a bit. Unsure if she should point this out, if she should break the magic spell.
"That's the first time you've really talked about your past."
He gave a shrug, and folded the newspaper under one arm.
"You want more words, I can give them," he said. "You won't feel safe inside those walls, Una. People inside are just as dangerous as people outside. More than enough predators to fill two different forests. Adapted to their environment, they use buildings as underbrush, skyscrapers as the high leaves, but walk unaware and they'll take you all the same. Kill you, or worse. Still want more words?"
"...not especially, no," Emily decided. "Don't scare her like that, alright, Scout? Even if you're right -- even if people are basically scum and they'll use you at the drop of a hat -- there's no call to--"
"You're both wrong."
That got a funny look. But Jetpack Girl was all smiles, from within the hood of her cloak.
"Society is the act of gathering together for a common good. It's a pooling of resources, allocating towards both survival and satisfaction with life. By definition, cities are good, because they represent that hope for a safe and superior future. Laws exist to curb selfishness; the act of misdirecting resources and depriving people of what they require. As a result, on the whole, people will be kind, and will pull together. You'll see. --oh, the security checkpoint is ahead!"
While they were busy staring open jawed at their newcomer compatriot (well, Emily was, anyway) the bus had approached the Freedom Wall gate. No more time for chitchat, Emily decided, fidgeting in her seat, the smuggled spellbook pages around her waist starting to itch. Her gear was with the Pixies, Scout's weapons buried nearby as well -- but Una's was somehow "cloaked" from human perception as well as hidden beneath her actual cloak. (Lucky her.)
They would get through the checkpoint just fine. Had to. Then they just had to survive the big city.
For their sakes, Emily went against her expectations and hoped Una was right.
The money had gone to food, lodging, bus rides, and now city lodging and city food. Spreading it that thin meant you couldn't get the best food (not that Una was any less amazed) (not that Scout cared) (not that Emily didn't complain anyway). It also meant you couldn't get the best lodgings.
The Brickstone Inn was a recent addition to Baltimore. All the buildings generally had been razed in the first Faerie Wars following the Pandora Event... rebuilt rapidly, ignoring building codes, to pump some lifeblood back into the city... and then rebuilt again, this time for good, to show that Eastusa was back to normal. Most of the corporate brands were gone, including the big hotel chains, replaced by new ones. Even so, the Brickstone Inn wouldn't have rated more than two stars in any tourist's guidebook.
The elderly woman at the clerk's desk barely offered a grunt, swapping paper money for a metal key. There was no elevator; if someone was supposed to wander around town enforcing disability support building codes, they'd passed over this dive. Up three flights of stairs to a door which thankfully fit properly in its frame... if the inn had been THAT bad, the FaePlace might not have worked.
FaePlace was a complicated spell to read from its squared diagram, and one Emily had in short supply due to the difficulty in recopying it. But it proved utterly invaluable in the first nights they had spent together on the road...
On the evening after Olney, when they had first joined up on this little journey, the next settlement they stopped at only had two rooms available to rent. Obviously, they would have to divide by gender lines, Emily had announced -- Scout would get his own room to be all dark and broody in, and the girls would get the other one. She'd read by lamplight and copy her spells for the night, while Una turned in early. Simple, straightforward.
The first hint of problems was when upon entering their room, Una stripped naked.
Logically, Emily shouldn't care, she had thought. We're all girls here, ha ha, nothing we haven't seen before. Problem was, she grew up in a traditional farming village where the height of throbbing, glistening human eroticism was exposing your ankles. Anything more lurid than removing perhaps one layer of petticoats and leggings that would burn you up under the collar, and running around stark naked even in the privacy of your own home was only something you did very briefly when washing up.
While Emily engaged in a very admirable effort not to look at her, and not to say anything too alarming beyond the "GOOD GOD!" she exclaimed in the first place, she inquired as to why her road buddy had decided to get into bed in the buff.
"Is there a reason I am not supposed to?" Una had asked. "Perhaps some cultural difference? It is quite common back aboard the Arcologies, due to the way our beds work. Granted, there is also finer climate control... you appear to be uncomfortable with this, however. Hmm. Very well! I have designed a solution!"
"Yes?" Emily croaked.
"As the initial spatial allocations are resulting in your discomfort, I'll simply go sleep with Scout."
Now Emily couldn't avoid staring at her in abject horror. "WHAT!? You can't go trotting off to bed with Scout! What are you thinking? For decency's sake, you just MET him!"
"What does the length of our mutual knowledge have to do with resting quarter allocations?"
"A woman's got to have standards, okay?" Emily protested, feeling the urge to fold her arms in front of her chest, as if this might reduce the overall level of Yikes in the room. "I mean, come on! Just... If you just take off your drawers for every boy you meet--"
A light went off in her head like the reading lamp at her bedside.
"Wait. Resting quarter allocations?" Emily repeated. "You mean... you were going to sleep NEXT to him, not WITH him?"
"Well, of course. What else would-- ohhh! Yes, I see now!" Una said, a similar light going off in her head (but likely one powered by those strange 'mass capacitors' she was talking about). "It's a twist of the language, correct? That despite being the same core concept of proximity, one term involves sharing of comfort resources, and the other term implies sexual relations during a nocturnal period."
"...yes. Yes, that is what I meant," Emily said, praying she wasn't redder than her hair right now. "I'm.. not sure if the way you put it is horribly proper or horribly improper or both, but..."
"Well! If it is of concern to you, I have no strong interest at this time in heterosexual copulation with Scout," Una declared, holding up a hand of honesty and promise. "Given your reaction earlier, if I have interpreted its proper context correctly, rest assured I have no interest at this time in homosexual copulation with you, either. Although, if my understanding of the social guidance documents called 'teen date movies' are correct, then it would seem--"
Emily was busy looking up the FaePlace spell before Una could finish her theory about naked human interaction, and that had settled that.
The FaePlace was probably the most showy spell Emily kept in her library -- and the most useful. Enchant a doorway, preferably a wooden one in a strong frame, and you could link it to a magical pocket of space that wasn't quite entirely unlike the World of Faerie, yon legendary lost land of the Faerie Court. That meant it was like a waking dream... a place that shifted and molded itself to your thoughts. Sure, in a sense you were still physically in a rundown little inn room, but in another sense... you were home.
Whenever she cast the spell for herself, it would resolve to be a near perfect copy of her old bedroom back home. Cozy and warm, with a nice fireplace hearth, a soft bed of goose feather and plenty of books. If you tried reading them, they might be a bit sketchy or simply consist of a brief outline followed by plenty of blank pages -- this was a memory room, sculpted by desire and emotion, after all. And the things in here didn't really exist, so they couldn't be removed. Food would only nourish until you walked out the door. Bathing you could do, and handily enough, dry yourself the moment you stepped out. (Preferably clothed.)
Of course, that had been when the FaePlace was only reacting to her. From her research into the spell, Emily knew it would change based on designated occupants, growing new rooms to accommodate their needs -- giving Una all the private space she wanted to laze around without pants, if that's what Little Miss Rocket Girl so desired.
After the three of them had entered, the FaePlace reconfigured itself. A new common room had been added, for starters. It was, of course, cozy... but three kinds of cozy. It had a comfortable wooden rocking chair padded by an old quilt, next to an extensive bookshelf, this time full of tomes on magical theory. (She never had real magic books as a child.) But there were also strange silvery lumps of metal that couldn't possibly be comfortable to sit on... until you tried, and then felt like you never wanted to get up again. A simple, cleanly designed metal table would serve for dining, playing cards, or whatever you wanted to do. ...and there was shadows. Shadows in every corner, where the light didn't seem to want to reach.
The bedrooms, those were far more personalized.
Through a wooden doorway was Emily's old room... just as welcoming, just as delightful as she'd left it. Perhaps a bit more organized than it had been in childhood, more tidy, more functional. Trying to look its best for the visitors.
Una's room, now that that was something. Emily had her own imagined ideas of what their "Arcology" sky-ships were like, and they didn't go nearly far enough, it seemed. Everything in there... gleamed. It shone. The light faded in from nowhere, always so bright, always so clear. The bed was a metal slab, and yet, it was comfortable and warm and yielding to the touch. (Which almost, ALMOST made Emily see the appeal of lying starkers on it. ...almost.)
And... the view. The view of Earth. From above. There were no words to describe a sight nobody of her race had seen in hundreds of years, not like this. Even trying to put a description to it would be a disservice to the entire world. So, Emily had to pull her eyes away from it, to pretend to be aloof rather than be a slack-jawed country bumpkin in front of her super-perfect companion. But she swore she'd sneak in and get another look, another time.
...and then there was Scout's room.
It was probably not empty. There might be a cot in there. It was impossible to say, given it was completely dark, with no light sources whatsoever. The thick shadow refused any light in from the open doorway, refused any attempt to illuminate what lie within.
That would be terrifying enough by itself... but when she caught Scout's expression as he first laid eyes on his FaePlace home away from home... the relief on his face chilled her to the bone.
Arrive. Settle in. Food? Food could wait, Emily had decided. They were here for a purpose and the sooner they got their business done, the sooner they could leave. (The kicked puppy look on Una's face when she realized they wouldn't be staying to see the sights was kind of embarrassing, but Emily knew she had to keep pressure on to get the job over with. This wasn't happy vacation wacky fun time.)
Una was twice disappointed to learn that unlike the old "Sam Spade" movies she saw, whatever those were, they wouldn't be having shadowy conversations with stoolies and informants and hitting the pavement to explore the city, hunting down their lead. They were simply going to look him up in the "phone book".
"An acoustic communications device? Analog signals over copper wires? Oh, how very fascinating!" Una exclaimed, finding something to distract her from the business at hand, as always. Emily ignored her fawning over the ancient, battered telephone booth -- which someone had helpfully scrawled the names of various women who could offer a good time if you dialed their numbers. Of course, Una wanted to dial those numbers and enjoy these supposed good times, which is why she was outside the booth while Emily was inside, pawing through the yellowed pages.
"It's primitive," Scout described, thankfully heading off Future Girl for Emily's sake, so the witch could focus on pouring over the book. "We should have something better than this by now. Got the eastern pocket of the Internet back up, improved on it a little. But for intra-city, nobody bothered using anything other than what was already there. Years and years, all the same."
"That is the impression I have been getting in my studies," Una said, eager to engage the boy in chat. (Scout was quite talkative today, for a change. Ever since getting to the city. Hm.) "I have access to very limited media, only recordings brought back by anthropology teams. But even though the media is new, the content is hundreds of years old, and those city-images look very similar to modern cities..."
"Ain't broke, don't fix. If it works, don't change it. Don't think of anything new. Go with what you have. Simpler. Easier. Cheaper. War economy. Nostalgia. Desperation. Pretending everything's still fine, nothing's different," he said, in his usual clipped way of speaking. There was some bitterness to the quick phrases, though. "This city is dead, just stagnant water. Nobody notices. Nobody cares."
Emily leaned out of the booth, holding up a torn yellow page. "And on that cheerful note," she interrupted, "I've found our lead. He's in an apartment on the west side of the city."
Una clasped her hands together. "Excellent! So. As flying would draw attention from the authorities, how shall we travel? On foot? By bus, taxi, underground tram, gyroscopic vertical takeoff aircraft, zeppelin, or perhaps biplane?"
"...a taxi will be fine," Emily decided. She had a feeling she was going to be The Decider for this band of misfits, in the days ahead.
The topography of the city shifted rather dramatically, when they left Harbor Place.
Even the Brickstone Inn, as run-down as it was, at least had been built in the tourist-friendly section. The part of the city that had been polished up and made amicable, an ongoing reminder of the strength of Eastusa, the might of its coastal-locked naval power and its commercial interests. But go a few blocks away from Harbor Place, deeper into the city, and that tune changed considerably.
Here, buildings that were destroyed and rebuilt were never re-rebuilt. They were ramshackle arrangements of sub-code building materials, designed with an eye to hopefully not falling over and little else. Pavement cracked and sank into potholes, sidewalks split where weeds were growing, and steam from manholes delivered a pungent reminder that there was an entire underlayer of badly maintained urban support pipes down there.
Being a country girl at heart, Emily could only go by limited urban knowledge. She'd been to a few cities before, even this one... but only under duress, only when she had no other choice. Beyond that, she just assumed they were full of cutpurses and hoodlums and drug dealers and prostitutes and doomed homeless people. Odds were not EVERY person the taxi rolled on by was some sort of active urban sinner, but all the same, she was glad she was inside the cab and not walking the streets.
In what would clearly grate on her nerves in the days (weeks?) ahead, Una had precisely the opposite reaction. When she saw someone selling golden watches (stolen or replica, no doubt) from a portable tray, she commented on how wonderful it was to see citizens pitching in to assure a common temporal standard. When they passed those phone booth accessible good-time girls, she commented on how colorful and individualistic their costuming was, although she was puzzled as to how it could provide protection from the elements with so little fabric deployed. And so on, and so on.
Scout... well. Scout was quiet again. Emily focused on watching him, instead of analyzing the concrete blight. The city was making him moody, and considering over the past week his primary operating mood was "unreadable / lack of mood," that was quite a change.
"You hate cities, I take it?" Emily asked him quietly, while Una prattled on.
The boy rolled his head to the other side, towards her, away from the window. "I don't hate them. I don't love them. They're just... what they are. ...I'd rather be in the forests. Gotten to know the forests."
"But you said you grew up in a city."
"Bad memories, huh...? You... y'know... wanna talk about that yet?"
A shrug. "Not really. No. See it this way -- you're not comfortable here. I'm not comfortable here. We're out of our elements. That's all there is to it. Think we've arrived."
Indeed, the taxi had stopped. Emily, who was keeping track of the money because it would likely vanish in Una's hands, counted off some of the few remaining bills for the driver, and they were promptly left to their own devices.
Una was craning her neck back, trying to stare directly up the face of the apartment building's seven stories. "Behind which of these outward glass viewing windows is Mr. Clay?" she asked.
"Welll... the phone book said apartment 45, so... probably fourth floor?" Emily guessed. She stepped up the tenement's stoop, pulled on the door -- and it was stuck. Defective? Rusted? She tugged again, and again, to no avail...
...while Scout smoothly stepped behind her, and pushed a small button with a label of "45 CLAY" on the call box. Oh, right.
There was a long pause, before a crackly electric speaker rattled off a curt greeting. "Yeah?" it offered. "Who's there?"
Emily cleared her throat, ready to lay out the fiction she'd composed in her head, the cover story that would get them the information they sought. "Hello, sir. I represent the--"
"I am Una, from Arcology #A076 of the Orbital cultural investigation order!" Una introduced herself, waving politely to the little audio speaker. "We are here to inquire about hypertech weaponry which you gave to a Mr. Teak of the colloquially named 'Crimson Arrow Gang.' Can you tell us where you obtained said item?"
A horrible silence followed. Emily's mouth worked up and down soundlessly, seventeen or eighteen different admonishments all bumrushing the gates of her speech center, jamming it up completely.
A buzz sounded over the door, the lock disengaging.
"You'd better come on up," Clay had decided.
His apartment was sparsely furnished. It was hardly up to the standards of a FaePlace; it was barely up to the standards of being a home, despite his claim that he was retired and mostly just sat around here all day. You'd think he would've wanted to sit around all day in finer surroundings.
The inside was just as shabby as the outside. Peeling wallpaper of unimpressive design, a pattern of dots and lines that existed only to say Hey, There Is A Pattern Here, Honest. The floor was bare concrete, with one simple oval rug covering the center. A kitchen off to the site... standard fridge, standard oven, standard cabinets, standard table. Living room had a television and a netbook casually shoved aside on a desk in the back. Clock on the wall to count the hours.
No pictures of family, no posters of old movies, no decorations of any kind... except a single star-shaped medal, hanging on a ribbon within a glass case.
"For valor against an incursion by the Faerie Court," Andrew Clay explained. "Back when I was with the Frontliners, before I quit. It was the pay, see. I had a family to raise, at the time, and the pay just wasn't good enough. Government work rarely is."
The old man continued to sip at a nondescript cup of coffee, coffee as dark as his aging skin, from a mug just as gray as his hair. He leaned back in his chair... lost in a thought for a few moments, before continuing.
"PMCs offer more money. Always have, always will; it's specialty work, more of a scalpel rather than a broadsword. You go to the Private Military Contractors when your job doesn't suit the government's Frontliners. Pay was better. Hours better; sure, I could be on extended assignment, but in my downtime I'd spend plenty of time with my boys. Quicksilver Security seemed too good to be true. Hah. You know what that means, right?"
"No, what is the meaning of it?" Una asked, genuinely wondering.
"You're not from 'round these parts, I take it," he said. "I'd always wondered where the metal came from. The others had theories, and I liked the space aliens one the best. Had some romance to it, some mystique... that one day we'd meet the little green men who made our toys. Hm. Does your entire race resemble young human girls? That'd be a hell of a thing. Bet they'dve flipped if they knew..."
"She's just a tourist," Emily broke in with. "And I'm sure she'd love to jump the next rocket to the moon, once we find where her technology is coming from."
Una blinked a few times. "Rocket? Huh? I've never been to the moon..."
"Your friend's right, miss alien. I'm an old man, now. Likely to ramble your ear off if you let me. I'll stick to what I know," Clay promised. "What I know about the hypertech. We figured out that's what it was called, but we just called it the metal, or the toys. It was.. safer. But we never found out where Graves got the stuff."
"Owner of the PMC," Scout supplied.
"Got it in one, son. Commander Leonard Graves, owner and leader of Quicksilver Security. Hell of a handshake on that man. When he clasped your shoulder, told you you were doing good work, you felt it right down to the core. He was the one who convinced me to jump ship, that I could do more good for America with QS, that the Frontliners were an old and tired pack of dogs. Sure, they innovated and got us out of hock at the start of the Pandora Event and the Faerie Wars... but now they were stagnant. Like the rest of Eastusa, always looking backward, relying on tech from the past..."
"While Quicksilver had tech from the future," Emily understood. "Or at least, seemed like it."
"The metal was something outta this world. Guess literally, now," Clay said, with a chuckle. "The power of those things... energy beams that could carve through rock like it was nothin'. Explosive blasts that could clear out a whole cluster of Fae beasts in one shot. Ordinary explosives do the same, of course, but these were... cleaner. Simpler. Point and kill. ...a lot of killing. Seemed that's all we did, just hunt and kill the Fae, some days. I was never put on guard duty, or assigned to install automated defenses like the Frontliners did. Quicksilver never installed any toys, never left any behind, it always came with us when the job was over."
Una considered this. As bubbleheaded as she might have been today, she could analyze with the best of them. "The technology resource was clearly limited; Mister Graves could not afford to lose what he had obtained. That means he had one set amount, and either very little was coming in, or he'd lost access to his source."
"That was my guess, miss. They had the metal stored at headquarters. I don't know where, exactly; I wasn't high enough in the company for that. But you had to sign for it, had to keep track of it, and if any was missing at the end of the day it came out of your pay. They hoarded those killing tools somethin' fierce. ...the killing. Yes, I was talking about that. It's what led me to quit. What led my wife to leave me. All the killing..."
The soft spoken old man shuddered, once. Twice. He looked up to his Frontliners medal, apparently drawing confidence from it, enough to keep talking.
"Graves loved it, of course," he said, almost spitting the name out. "I suspect he turned down the more defensive contracts in favor of ones where they could really cut loose with the toys. Shock 'n awe. I killed ten times more Fae in my time with Quicksilver than I ever had as a Frontliner. ...and then we started taking the contracts on human settlements. Outside Eastusa jurisdiction, indie towns that had water disputes or other rivalries and needed hired muscle. I did one job like that, swore to myself I never would again, ended up doing a second job, and a third..."
Now Emily had the shudders. She was sitting in a room with a man who had killed... murdered at least three people. Assuming it was nice enough to be a simple one-person assassination, but if the Fae count was accurate...
"You can think badly of me," Clay suggested, as if reassuring Emily. "I don't mind. It's no less than I deserve, young one. Eventually I couldn't take it anymore. I don't remember exactly when I left... but I just dropped my gear, and walked away. Kept walkin'. Eventually I wandered back home to Baltimore, since I didn't know where else to go."
"That's... in accordance with what we were told," Emily said, trying to get her nerves under control. "That Teak had grabbed the stuff you dropped. He read your uniform name tag. Andrew Clay, Baltimore Division. That's how we knew to find you."
"So, someone's carryin' on with the killing with my metal," Clay said, not liking the sound of that... but giving into the idea, in short order. "Doesn't matter. It'd happen anyway, if I checked my gear back in with Quicksilver. Someone will always pick up a gun. ...miss. Why are your people, your Orbitals, so warlike? Why would you make those things?"
On the spot, all eyes turned to Una... who was clearly pinned under those gazes, unsure how to respond. "I... we... there is, I mean... --defense. That's all. We don't.. there actually are very few weapons in my society, and they are rarely needed. ...I don't know how Mister Graves got so many of them. If he had a representative sample of hypertech it should have been maybe five percent weaponry, at best..."
"Well. That's a question you can take up with him, because I don't know. All I know is we had a hell of a lot of shiny space guns, and we put 'em to a hell of a use," Clay said. "When I dumped my gear and came crawling back to the city like a yellow fool, Graves was livid. Fired me on the spot. I used what little money I had left from the divorce to settle here, and... just... be. That's all I do. I just be, children. And that's all I have to say. ...I'm tired. If you don't mind, I'd like to be left alone now."
"Ah... right. ...sorry," Emily said, although she had nothing specific to apologize for. She just.. wanted to apologize. "We'll be going now. Una, Scout--"
"If you don't mind, though, I'd like a minute with the boy," Clay requested.
"Er? ...well. Alright. We'll be out in the hallway. Una...?"
Emily led the slightly puzzled looking space explorer out of the apartment. No questions asked, just cleared out.
Clay sat back, studying the boy who sat back on his sofa. A mutual studying.
"Reckon you've seen the things I've seen in my years," Clay guessed. "You're young yet, but you've seen the things soldiers eventually see, nice and compressed."
"...yes, sir," Scout agreed.
"It hits everybody differently, and everybody the same. It's a funny thing. When all you've ever done, at least all you can remember, is killing... everything's killing. I'm a weapon without a holster. I could hit you over the head with my television, kill you. There's knives in my kitchen, I don't use them much for cooking, because they're also good for killing. There's crack dealers on the street, they could be killed. I've thought of ways to do it. I could go right on killing and never stop, especially if I found people who 'deserved' it. A little self chosen justification, to soothe the pain. Then maybe I'd eventually even kill ones who didn't deserve it. ...those're the kind of the eyes you're looking through too, huh."
"And the girls? You worried about killing them?"
Scout had to pause, before responding. "...yes, sir."
"You can control it, son. Get the sense you know that, even if you've wandered from the idea. Take that killing power and focus it, redirect it, reshape it. You could stand guard over them, like a true Frontliner guards his community. It's harder than cutting loose, and many folks just end up eating their own bullet rather than walk that hard road. ...I'm stuck in the middle. I don't have what it takes to use it for anything else, so I just don't use it at all. I sit here. I'm waiting until I die, I guess. You're not, you're movin' around, so presumably you're gonna be facing the choice by virtue of that alone. To just carry on as a killer, or to become something else with it."
The clock ticked quietly.
"I don't want to kill them," Scout whispered, barely above the ticks of the ancient clock. "And they don't want me to kill. They aren't killers and I don't think they'd like me if I continue being one. ...don't know why I should care, but for some reason, I don't want them to hate me."
Clay nodded, softly. "A hard road, then."
Luck was with their little quest -- hailing a cab to get out of the nasty side of town didn't take very long at all. This time around, Una was less prone to fiddling with the power windows or declaring the manifold joys and wonders of human society. In fact, all of them were less prone to fiddling, glancing around, or talking about anything at all.
Eventually the silence was broken by rumblings deep within the tummy of the space girl.
"Aliens get hungry too huh?" Emily said.
"I should have brought food pills with me," Una replied. "Plan ahead, be prepared. Pack twice the money and half the clothes. Stay in three star hotels for maximum ratio of comfort to price. Ah, that's from a tourism guidebook I found once in an anthropologist's lot of retrieved items."
"So, is Earth living up to your expectations? Knowing the sort of people that live here, now?"
Una started to reply. Paused. Considered. But came up smiling.
"Very much so," she said. "I.. realize I must seem quite strange to you, so entranced by things you find to be common. But what is common to me is rare to you, and 'viced versa'. So! Let's enjoy the afternoon by sampling the foodstuffs of your native people!"
"You may have to settle for fried greasy objects in a wax paper dish, with our budget," Emily warned. "C'mon. Let's get to the Food Court of Doom."
Historic Harbor Place had been kept the same for decades. Rebuilt, redesigned, but the original purpose of it -- to provide food and shopping to the few tourists that were visiting Baltimore -- that spirit remained even if the tourists themselves were uncommon. Sadly, along with that reincarnation of the facility came the Food Court of Doom.
That wasn't the official name, of course. Last time Emily was in Baltimore (not of her own volition, of course; she was dragged there by a particularly gung-ho human fanboy of an elf who wanted to 'see the sights' while in town) they had nicknamed this pit of burned meat and sloppy foodstuffs the Food Court of Doom based on the horrible gastrointestinal cramps experienced afterwards. Fortunately, this meant she knew what restaurants to avoid, and which ones were (hopefully) safe. In the end, plastic trays loaded with potato skins and bits of seafood coated slick in Chesapeake Bay Spice came to a rest at a distant table in the largely empty food court.
Emily left her food largely untouched; she was waiting to see if Una doubled over in agony and made a run for the restrooms after wolfing down the assorted crabmeats. Instead she focused on another stolen phone book page, this one for "Security Services".
"Security is only one of those services," Scout was explaining, having opened up again. (He seemed to do that when they talked about something up his alley, like cities or the military. But what else would he talk about, once they'd exhausted those topics...?) "PMCs are usually involved in dirty work. Black ops, wet ops. If you just want pure security, the Frontliners'll do it for you, especially if you have Eastusa ties."
"This is the aspect which confuses me," Una admitted. "From our data gathering, we have determined the 'Frontliners' are your government's military. Yet they seem to work for a sort of hire. Is that correct?"
Scout considered how to phrase it. "Yes and no. Different before, different now," he explained. "Frontliners were once a private industry think-tank, right after the Pandora Event, after the Fae arrivals. Military equipment makers and some PMCs getting together, trying to find new ways to fight an enemy that was already saturated across the country. They had good ideas. Good tools. NEW ideas. Frontliners supplied and trained the military in anti-Fae techniques, eventually beating the Fae back and reclaiming the coast, ports of call, the important roadways. Contained them in the middle of the country."
"So... Faerie Court in the middle, then fringes between, then Eastusa. And Frontliners guarding the border?"
"Not at first. No. They were still just a think-tank, grunts did the heavy lifting. But people trusted Frontliners, they were the heroes, the big name. The brand name," Scout emphasized. "Folks put trust behind a strong brand. So eventually 'the army' was rebranded, redesigned. They ate the old Frontliners company and became the new Frontliners military. Kept hope alive."
"A puzzling way to run an army, but... I suppose it's worked well so far," Una said. "Your people have survived longer than many other worlds in conflict that the Orbitals have observed from afar. So, why are there still these PCMs?"
"PMCs. And because, said before," the boy continued, bringing it around. "Dirty work. Black work. Frontliners won't do that. They guard, defend, sometimes strike to reclaim lost land, or to expand. But they won't attack human settlements, won't deliberately provoke the Courts. Won't work with anyone who doesn't pay taxes to Eastusa. Need to hire your own miniature army for the hard stuff. PMCs. There. See?"
"And... one of these PMCs, one of extremely unpleasant leaning, is using my people's legacy to harm others."
Scout took this break in conversation to eat some of his seafood, while Una considered the options.
"The proper course of action is to locate the technology and neutralize it," she stated. "I can accomplish a deactivation, but we do not know the specific location of the hypertech cache. Mr. Clay stated it was in Quicksilver's corporate headquarters--"
"--which is here in Baltimore," Emily said, tracing a circle around the tiny printed phone number. "Of course, they could have caches elsewhere too, but we have to start somewhere. I doubt they'll let us waltz in and trash the stuff, given they built their rep on the backs of the Orbitals."
Scout shrugged. "Broken into places before," he said. "Locked doors, alarmed windows, security systems, traps of any kind. ...armed guards. Doesn't matter. I can get in. I can remove any obstacle in my way."
"That's very badass of you, Soldier Boy, but you're forgetting a few things," Emily said, pocketing the page for now. "One, we have no idea where in the building the hypertech is being stored--"
"Search for it. Find it."
"It'd take too long. That's a lot of building to cover for just one guy. And that's the other problem -- if you want to play mister stealthy secret agent, we can't follow in behind you, and you need Una in order to deactivate any hypertech you find. Maybe you could sneak us in with you, but not if you have to search the whole facility room by room. And third, and finally... removing armed guards? How, exactly?"
"By killing them," Scout didn't say.
"..." he did say.
"Oh dear, and I almost forgot point number four," Emily said, sinking in her plastic seat. "The authorities. You know, the ones that will come poking around when all hell breaks loose, because there's no way to get us in there without drawing attention, because we'd be combing through the whole building, because Scout wants to play army fun time. The authorities who just LOVE tossing little witches into fires and dissecting aliens on network television. No. No, a thousand times no. We're going to have to approach this from another angle. We need to be smart. ...Una. Would you know the hypertech if you saw it?"
"Well, clearly yes--"
"This is me making a guess, but... would you know the hypertech if we were simply NEAR it, as opposed to staring right at it?" Emily asked. "Like... I don't know... scanners, sensors, tricorders, spinny laser radar dishes, fancy goggles--?"
"Goggles!" Una exclaimed, nearly knocking her tall lemonade over in surprise. "Yes, goggles! I can... yes. I can adapt my frequency-shift tracking system to project a visual display, and... hmm, I would require a pair of glasses, and some time to set up a connection between... yes. Yes, I think so. As long as I was within fifty feet of the hypertech, even through walls and floors, I would be able to spot it."
"Okay. Here's what we do," Emily said. "We don't bother sneaking in, or rather, we sneak in right under their noses. Pose as the cleaning crew or something, putz around through the building legitimately, find the stuff. THEN Scout can do his thing, since we'd have pinpointed the location and could be in and out in minutes. And then we get the hell out of Baltimore before anybody notices and starts warming up the stakes you tie witches to. Sound good?"
"Subterfuge!" Una exclaimed. "Sneaky plans and schemes! Just like a heist caper documentary film! We can be 'Una's Three'! Oh, this will be an activity that is most exciting in manner!"
"...right. Whatever disguise we make up? Una? You're not having a speaking role," Emily said. "So. We go, I dunno, mug some janitors, take their stuff, walk in. Make sense?"
Scout was the one doing the heavy thinking, now. Leaned back a bit, looking across the harbor.
"Passcards. Identification. Company association. Janitors need security clearance, and we can't get that," he said. "We need to be people who would not require clearance. ...or would be given clearance despite being total strangers. People a PMC would welcome... people promising them money for murder. Clients."
Emily nodded, slowly. Made a lot more sense, she had to admit. "That's great, except we don't have enough money to interest them," she said.
"Will this do?" Una asked, pulling out a two inch thick wad of one hundred dollar bills.
...Emily looked at the massive handheld fortune.
Then she looked at her $3.49 value crabcakes.
Then she thought about how she had to animate a bunch of chainsaws and fight off bandits and dryads just to get enough money to eat said $3.49 value crabcakes.
Maintaining as much control as possible, firmly pushing herself down in her seat to avoid leaping forth and throttling Little Miss Shiny Pants, she politely inquired, "Where.. did you.. get that much money, Una?"
"Oh, it's replicated from my Simple Matter Duplicator," Una said, showing off a tiny gadget from her pocket.
Her vision tinted slightly red. "Why.. did you NOT.. USE THAT BEFORE?!"
"Because duplicating local currency would lead to artificial inflation of your economy due to surplus monies being introduced without sufficient financial drains to accommodate the extraneous bills," Una explained, blissfully unaware of her impending death. "The Orbital rule of non-interference applies very strongly to the economic well being of your people. However, as we will no doubt not be actually paying this money to the Private Military Contractor, it is safe to use it as a prop in a subterfuge-- Emily, you appear to have broken your dining tray."
"Yes. Yes, I have," Emily said, her white-knuckled hands gripping two halves of a shattered tray. "Well. Okay, then. Let's go get Una's Three ready for battle. Before they end up as Emily's Two."
It took some cajoling to get Una to part with her ill-gotten gain.
The problem was in their chosen disguises. A cleaning crew could be simulated on the cheap... but they'd have more hurdles to jump to get access to the hypertech. Rich clients looking for a hired gun would be ushered in through the front door and shown the facilities... but they had to look rich. A girl in frumpy country clothing, another wearing a cloak over a Super Future Minidress, and someone wearing the world's worst Frontliner's uniform would probably not get the job done.
To be representatives of an indie settlement with a lot of green to throw around, they had to throw a lot of green. Una protested, wanting to minimize her interference in human culture, but eventually caved. It had to be done.
Of course, once she DID cave, "Getting Ready For Battle" turned into "Una's Super Ultra Exciting Earth-Style Shopping Adventure." Harbor Place had clothing outfitters aplenty, usually of the slogans-on-shirts variety, but a few upper crust boutiques existed to ensure visiting businessmen had somewhere to grab a new suit.
Scout was easy to outfit, even if he was reluctant to part with his, well, outfit.
"I wear my uniform," he had said.
"You can't look like a Frontliner," Emily had explained.
"I wear my uniform," he emphasized.
"You're not wearing your uniform. Now get in the changing room before I shove you in there."
In the end, he had given in, and was now wearing an Intimidating Black Suit. He was a bit too young to be properly scary beyond, well, his usual level of scary... but with the requisite dark sunglasses and a tiny wireless earpiece, he'd pass as a bodyguard for a visiting dignitary.
At first, of course, Una wanted to be the visiting dignitary.
"Absolutely not," Emily had denied. "Una, you talk like someone who ain't from 'round these parts. As in, several million light years away from these parts."
"Actually, Orbital Arcologies don't so much cross interstellar distances as they in fact--"
"You're going to play the part of my executive assistant, and that's final."
Fortunately, this role required Una to look pretty and stylish, and that seemed to placate her. It was her first non-shiny, non-ratty-cloak ensemble, and she took great care in putting it together. Finding exactly the right shades of white, gray and blue to go with her hair and makeup took longer than the other two outfits put together.
In the end, she went with a nice business jacket top, a skirt that was entirely too short for Emily's tastes, and pantyhose ("This material is quite unusual, in that--" and then Emily just tuned it out). She'd forgotten underwear the first time around, but Emily was VERY quick to point out that particular issue. Finally, a sensible pair of flats; Space Girl couldn't walk in heels and there was no time to teach her.
"Hmmm," Una evaluated, studying herself in the reflective mirrors of the boutique. "I am concerned that this assemblage of fashions have the negative side effect of distorting the overall body-shape of my posterior. Scout, what are your thoughts on this?"
"Eh," Scout mumbled, not really paying attention. Much to Una's mild disappointment.
As for Emily...
"...you look the same," Scout summarized.
"I do not," Emily protested. "See? New blouse. New skirt. Silk, see? Expensive. Trendy. Whatever. I'm fine. Let's go."
Setting up the meeting wasn't very hard. So many elements of this could have collapsed -- they may not have taken a Little Girl barely approaching twenty seriously. They may have turned them aside without an Eastusa-backed bank account to prove they had a line of credit. But fortunately, the cover story Emily had thought up proved to be a juicy enough bait for them to take the hook... no doubt they'd need more buttering up at the meeting the next day, but they could burn that casserole when they came to it. ...the cheapo crabcakes had obviously not filled Emily's stomach up enough to avoid excessive food metaphors, so once the shopping spree and nerve-wracking phone call to Quicksilver Security were through, takeout and a return to their FaePlace-assisted hotel room were in order.
Scout had declined additional chow, preferring to turn in early. Which meant walking into that abnormally-dark room of his, closing the door behind him. Una had insisted on changing into her 'relaxing casual sleepwear' on returning home, which now fortunately consisted of clothing -- provided the ridiculously fancy lingerie from her Executive Assistant disguise counted.
"...casual sleepwear? Seriously? And exactly what cultural artifact did you learn THAT from?"
"It appeared to be a travelogue about a cheerleader named Debbie, who--"
Emily sighed, and munched on her french fries. "Nevermind. Forget I asked. ...Una, seriously, we need to coach you on how this planet REALLY works. I'm just glad Scout seems to have a negative libido, considering all you've learned in your years in space is how to be a walking cliche of male sex fantasy..."
"It.. is not THAT bad, is it? In a manner of honest speaking, I do not wish to be making improper selections," Una insisted. "Although I do find the decorative aesthetics of these clothes appealing--"
"There's barely enough of it to be called 'clothes'!"
"Emily, please consider the alternative I have been utilizing for my lifespan. My people dress in very simple garments, hypertech-integrated, but hardly a fashion statement beyond 'shiny'. I am able to recognize this, now that I have your culture to compare it against. Such freedom you have, to personalize, individualize, express self through self-decoration!" she said, bouncing in her seat at the table (causing other things to bounce). "I cannot comprehend why you would not revel in such things. You did not even alter your mode of dress when we had ample opportunity."
"Why should I? Simple. Tasteful. Works. It's me. Doesn't get me much attention, and I like not being noticed, on account of how lately people who notice me usually end up trying to kill me."
"Such a negative view! You say I require an education about this world, but I would say you require an education about Optimism," Una suggested, being sure to capitalize the O.
Emily looked dubious. "I need to learn how to be cheery?"
"Well, I suppose, but I meant the philosophical standpoint," Una continued. "You see, with my people, two viewpoints prevail -- Pragmatism, and Optimism. Pragmatists see what needs to be done to endure and thrive, Optimists see what should be done to excel and exceed. Both have a role, one balancing the other. But pessimism has no place in either viewpoint; it pulls you backward. It says, 'this cannot be done' or 'this is how things always will be'. You assume that everybody desires your gruesome, horrible death, and thus it is so!"
"...Una, I don't think my attitude is bending time and space to change my destiny."
"No, but the attitude does mean that you cannot trust, cannot bond, and cannot achieve. Society is only as strong as the members willing to look to the future and shape it rather than be shaped by it!"
Emily groaned, setting her hamburger down. "HOW exactly did we get from 'You should put on some pants' to 'Emily's mindset is destroying civilization'?! I'll have you know that I... I mean... look, this isn't about me! We've got a BOY in here, you know! You need to have some self respect!"
"But I respect myself as much as is appropriate without pushing beyond the line of hubris," Una countered, puzzled at the suggestion.
"No, no, I mean... I... look, you're a girl, he's a boy, and if you keep this stupidity up you're gonna get him all hot and bothered, or... something..!"
"I have yet to detect any trace emotional responses of enticement from Scout. Are you concerned that he will force himself on me?"
"Please, I don't mean to offend! I'm genuinely confused as to where the problem lies!" Una protested. "I just want... I want to understand, Emily. ...I desire your friendship and for that there needs to be understanding, yes? Help me. Please."
Emily started to bark out a response, and stopped.
"Friendship?" she squeaked out, the word having tripped her up completely.
"Ahh... well... we are companions for the duration of this adventure... yes?" Una said, trying to find the right words, talking slowly. "I believe, as an Optimist, that we should have an understanding and mutual trust. A camaraderie, yes, that is what is needed! It will not only improve our performance at the task... but it will make the undertaking a pleasant one. ... but... I may be misinterpreting, and if so, I apologize... I am not certain that you... like me. Because I am misunderstanding things like casual sleepwear and the enticing of boys."
...slowly, Emily sat down. When had she gotten to her feet? When had she pushed her food aside, so she could lean across the table and shout angrily at the nervous looking girl? ...when had she started shouting?
"...y'know, I've always had this crazy idea," Emily said, swerving onto a tangent, intent to come around to the road again. Talking quietly, now. Seriously. "I thought... wouldn't it be great if Fae and humans understood each other? I wrote a book, once. It made its way to the internet. But it's not enough to fix the world's stupidity, and each time I tried to point out when people weren't bothering to even try to understand each other, they didn't even bother to try to understand that they weren't trying to understand. ...I gave up, after awhile. ...not a very Optimistic point of view, huh?"
"Ah.. no. No, that would not be," Una said, unsure. "This.. is a very personal description of your mentality and past activities. Are you comfortable telling a.. total stranger such things?"
"Oh, hell no. I don't spill my guts to strangers. ...guess I wouldn't mind telling a friend, though. And the point I'm trying to make is: if I want those two groups of whackos to sit down and understand each other... I need to practice what I preach and do my best to understand the crazy alien girl," Emily said... with a grin.
"I.. suppose so, yes," Una said, returning the smile -- with her own thankful, relieved one. "That would be appropriate."
"So. Let's back up a bit, and try again, this time without the yelling. ...no, I don't think Scout's going to, ah, force himself on you. ...frankly, I'm wondering if he's gay or something..."
"You are wondering if he is a colloquial internet insult against someone or something that is highly inadequate?"
"Let me put it this way," Emily said, trying again. "The reason humans take off their clothes around each other is usually to.. entice, as you put it. We'll turn this around, and ask -- are you trying to entice Scout?"
"Ah! That was not my intention, no..." Una said... pondering the idea.
"Right. Well, then. Acting in an enticing manner without intent confuses people, makes them uncomfortable. ...although Scout sure hasn't even noticed, much less acted uncomfortable, it's the principle of the thing. You should stick to REAL casual wear. And I'd be.. happy to help you find some, tomorrow. Deal?"
"Ah! Yes, this is a deal I am very much in approval of!"
Emily picked up her neglected burger, and took a big bite. Satisfying, and not just to her hunger. Una had a point... this whole madcap journey would be a lot easier if they weren't constantly getting on each other's nerves. If they could, to put it in sickeningly sugary and cliche terms, be Best Friends Forever. All she had to do was try to see things from Una's sky-high point of view, and have some patience. It'd be easy--
"What if I was in fact trying to entice Scout sexually?"
If the burger had gone down her windpipe by accident, odds are Una wouldn't know the Heimlich Maneuver, so some physical instinct managed to swallow it down sharply before her outburst burst outward.
"To speak in hypothetical terms, of course," Una clarified. "You said that the problem lies in a visual message that conflicts with the underlying intent. But if the visual and the intent were synchronized, would that resolve the difficulty?"
"I... I..." Emily stammered, trying to think of what to say. Logic bubbled up first. "I.. guess...?"
"Oh, good! Then I have a complete understanding of the issue. Thank you for your assistance, friend!"
Cheerfully, Una began to finish off her supper.
Confusedly, Emily slowly worked her way through her own food. And wondered why she felt so alarmed just now. Had to just be a gut reaction of shock to Una's usual bluntness. That's all.
The next day was not one for comical misunderstandings, hamburgers, and lingerie. It was time to get to work.
Getting her game face on took longer than Emily thought it would. She'd talked so smoothly on the phone, to the anonymous secretary of Quicksilver Security. But holding that cover story up when face to face with whatever representative they sent to meet her, that would be another story. Her uneasy sleep that night didn't help matters much, either; she'd gone to bed well fed and spinning a bit in the head. Not good for keeping a sure footing the morning after.
The taxi ride to Quicksilver Security was uneventful, dropping them off in front of a squat three story structure. That was a relief; Una wouldn't be able to detect the hypertech cache that Mr. Clay had predicted would be here if the building was a skyscraper. The range was limited.
As they waited in the lobby to meet with a QS representative, with only a clerk tapping away to cut the silence, Emily paced a hole in the fine red carpeting. She'd made a mistake.
She wished she'd picked nicer clothes.
Una looked her part perfectly; she'd even added a clipboard to jot notes down on, and a pair of glasses with a thin hypertech coating that would let her identify the "frequency-shift" of alien technology, whatever that meant. (Emily made a note to ask Una to detail all the little gadgets and toys tucked away in her jetpack. It seemed to be a bottomless pit of tiny bits of hypertech, despite being far too small to store it all.)
Scout held his costume up well... he wasn't comfortable in his suit, which made him stand up stiff and straight. Good for a towering bodyguard type, the dark glasses and dark demeanor making him look a few years older than he actually was. You could believe he'd be the sort to come down on anyone who assaulted his 'boss' like the descent of man.
But Emily... well, she just looked like a slightly higher grade of prim 'n proper country girl. Nothing special. Nothing impressive beyond a silk blouse instead of a rougher backwoods fabric. She'd have to rely on oratory skills to get her part in this charade to work... and that worried her. Hopefully, whatever representative was going to meet them would be easily duped. Some stuffed shirt who handled potential contracts, and only cared about the numbers being waved in front of his face...
Ding went the elevator, and a muscular pile of a man stepped off, chewing on a cigar. His buzz cut would have buzzed audibly, that's how flawlessly army-minded it was. And a tag on his uniform shirt read GRAVES.
The easily duped representative was in fact Leonard Graves, CEO of Quicksilver Security, the bloodthirsty mercenary who personally led a number of ethnic cleansing purge missions.
They should beg off, find some excuse to go, and bail before they got one more foot into the building. But it was too late now. He was bearing down on them... all smiles. He'd grasped Emily's hand and was tearing her arm out at the socket -- no, wait. Just shaking her hand. It only FELT like dismemberment.
"Good to see you, good to see you!" Graves said, pouring the enthusiasm out like thick syrup. "Leonard Graves. You can't call me Lenny. Hah! I own this merry band of misfits, ma'am, and when I heard about your contract, when I was told you were waiting down here to talk to that stuffed shirt of a sales representative, I said to myself, 'No way, jose! This little lady deserves the star treatment!' So, how the hell are ya? How can we help you today?"
"Ghhk," Emily replied.
"Hah, don't know my own strength, sorry," Graves said, releasing her crushed appendage. "So. I hear the apple of my eye got hassled by ogres, is that right?"
"Apple? Eyes? What?"
"Olney, girl. Your hometown. MY hometown, too! I read the work order my executive assistant jotted down when you called last night. Any hometown girl deserves my direct attention. So, how'd it go down?"
He. Grew up. In Olney. Oh crap, Emily thought. She quickly gathered her wits together again, did the throat-clear, tried to grasp the situation again. Be the serious-minded, vengeful girl she'd invented last night...
"The Fae, sir. They drove ogres towards Olney last week," she explained. "Those filthy Grimms have always wanted to get their hands on our land. I TOLD the villagers, over and over, but nobody believed me! Well, I'd say the Fae proved their intentions, didn't they?"
Graves nodded, gravely. "I checked the headlines after reading your work request," he said. "Acres of forest mashed flat. One Frontliner dead. The army turned back, though..."
"We can thank our Scout for that," Emily said, half-truth being easier than a pure lie. "We don't know what the poor guy did, but whatever it was, sacrificing his life turned the tide. We were inches from being wiped off the face of the Earth by the... by the stinking tree-huggers of the Faerie Court!"
"That's the Fringe for you," Graves scoffed. "If the Fae had their way, we'd be pushed all the way into the Atlantic by now, eaten alive by the krakens! I say they're just lulling humanity into complacency by not aggressively moving on us... at least, not overtly. I wouldn't doubt the Olney incident was a dry run of some new war method of theirs. If we don't fight back, if we just sit around with the blanket over our head, we're doomed. The Frontliners are gonna lose the species for us by sitting back and defending instead of going on the offensive."
Emily forced a smile. "Looks like we're on the same page. You know my request. I want vengeance. I want to strike back, and show them what happens when they even look at us funny. ...I understand you're the sort of person who can do that. You're right about the Frontliners; they sat on their asses and waited for the Fae to arrive. That Scout had the right idea, striking out at them. I want you to do the same. Punish them."
Perfect! The bait was even better than Emily thought it would be -- Graves had a personal stake in this. They wouldn't have to win his trust with money alone. A few more situations like this, and Emily might end up an Optimist, after all...
"You know what? Your money's no good here," Grave said, to add even more flawless victory on top of the victory the group already had pocketed. "You keep it. Olney's too poor to afford our fee -- I know you said you had plenty of green, but I'm not taking food from the mouths of babes. This one, this we do for free. You just say jump and we'll be on them like flies on a corpse. Nobody threatens my species, nobody threatens my HOME and lives."
"Ah... that's good, but I need to warn you," the not-actually-from-Olney witch said, trying to steer things back to the script. "Those ogres are bad news. If they've got more in the wings, you're going to need stronger ordinance than the Frontliners have. ...one of the selling points of Quicksilver Security is your... special hardware, correct? The ones you pose with in the ads? I've heard good things about it..."
Graves puffed out his chest, with pride. "Don't you worry. We bring enough gun to the fight."
"Even so... I'd like a demonstration," she said. The original plan was to be skeptical, to force them to prove their worth; she'd need a new tactic now. "Because... I don't want to throw you to the wolves, not an Olneyite. I want to make sure I'm not just making things worse. ...can you arrange that? I've just been itching with curiosity about your technology."
"Hrrmmmm..." Leonard Graves considered, chewing his cigar more, scratching chin stubble. "I can free up a few hours. Take you to the range, in subbasement two. Show you the works. Why not? Anything for a countryman. Phyllis?"
The secretary looked up from her typing. "Yes, sir?"
"Have Dennis meet us downstairs at the range, have him bring the samples from storage. We're gonna put on a show," he said, grinning. "Little lady, you know how the ole song goes, the rockets red glare...? Get ready to see those ole fireworks put to shame."
"Right! ...ah, my bodyguard and my assistant--"
"Hell, bring 'em along!" Graves said, waving a welcoming arm, gathering them towards the elevator. "More the merrier!"
Perfect. It's going perfect, Emily thought. We're going to do this. Everything's going to work out fine.
...why does part of me refuse to let go of the idea that it's all going to end up in tears and disaster, then?
A shooting range is a dangerous place. By definition, live firearms are being discharged there -- safety gear and proper procedure must be followed to avoid accidents. Even the most gung-ho kill-em-all mercenary type knows better than to disrespect the weapon in his hands by treating it like a toy.
Of course, most ranges are designed to withstand very small metal pellets being fired at high speed. Simple kinetic energy. This one had to deal with high yield energy weapons that were capable of melting sheet metal into white-hot slag... which was in fact the current demonstration.
Graves wasn't doing the shooting himself. Instead, his younger right hand man, identified only as "Dennis," had the large shiny silver rig strapped around himself, bracing the energy spraying nozzle against his forearm as it pumped a stream of destructive might bright enough to blind, if they hadn't been wearing eye protection. But even with goggles (thankfully large enough to go over Una's hypertech-scanning glasses) and hearing protection... the flash was intense, the roar hideous.
And Una's society built this horrible thing, Emily grimly thought.
In contrast, Why are they using a mineral salvage drill as a weapon? was crossing Una's thought. Her modified glasses showed a dull blue glow around the drilling unit, compared to the yellow glow around the other persons and technologies in the room. The blue roughly corresponded to the shift frequency she was looking for... as if the demonstration itself wasn't indication enough they had found powerful hypertech.
The all-clear bell rang after the metal target block began to cool. Headphones were removed.
"A beauty, isn't it?" Graves said. "We call it 'Big Bertha'. And that's not even the biggest bang you'll be getting for your buck. Honestly, we could dust an entire Faerie commune in one shot with the bigger toys... but what's the fun in that? And the practicality, for that matter. You want survivors. Otherwise, nobody's left to tell the tale and let the sparkly nature princesses know humanity's not to be screwed with."
"Oh, absolutely," Emily agreed, doing her damndest not to look completely horrified by the man's words. "Yeah. That's what I want. Absolutely."
Given it was the first sound Scout had made since they entered the building, that merited all eyes turning to him. He leaned against the back wall, slouched, hands in pockets of his suit jacket. Not exactly the model of an at-attention guardsman. Seemed he was getting used to his clothes, now.
"Not impressed, boy?" Graves asked... but was still smiling. After all, this was an opportunity to show off. "Kids these days, nothing adults approve of lights their fire. You're a bit young to be in the security business. Get a few years under your belt, you'll come around."
"Didn't have to aim. Stand and spray. That's a fire hose, not a weapon."
"I'd say that's a selling point of this particular model," Graves said, watching as Dennis unstrapped the mining unit, returning it to the push-cart rack of various hypertech weapons. "Very little training needed. Even a complete meathead can do some serious damage with that thing to the enemy."
"Useless for close range. Useless for small targets. Useless for anything other than demolitions," Scout explained, coming quite close to Una's quiet objection in the process. "The ideal is precision. One shot, one kill. Even the strongest Fae can be stopped in a single blow if you know where to strike. Open the brainpan, the throat, plenty of spots will work. Quick and effective. Destroying everything in a two meter radius is sloppy."
"Being a bodyguard, no doubt you're keen on the fast takedowns. But we fight wars, boy, not muggers after your rich client's pretty little hide," Graves spoke, his smile slipping slightly. "Know what? Let's see your chops. There's an ordinary target board on the left side of the range. I wanna see this precision you're bragging about. Pick any toy you like from the mobile rack. Heh... Dennis'll show you where the trigger is, if you can't find it."
Clearing her throat, Emily tried to interject. "We.. we really don't have time to fool around," Emily said. "There's plenty left of your facility I'd love to get a look at. For instance, these weapons; you have more than just this cart, right? Maybe if I brief you on the size of the commune, we can pick out--"
"I'll need a pistol," Scout said. "Standard reconfigurable sidearm, silencer modifier. It's my standard. All I need."
Without missing a beat, Graves selected a weapon from the locked display cases on the wall. "Normally we only give these to trainees," he noted. "They're not worth a damn in a real fight..."
Scout accepted the weapon, careful to keep it pointed away as he locked and unlocked the modular parts into a new configuration. It was a standard issue gun for military work -- one of the new models to come out of the original Frontliners think-tank. With a few tweaks it could be adapted for longer range work or for a faster rate of fire up close, depending on the situation.
"...a Frontliner Scout config?" Graves asked, curious as the last piece was secured into place. "Good for range and silence, but hardly any stopping power..."
"It has enough. Enough is all you should need. That's why it's called enough," Scout said, sliding his ear protection back on. The others followed in suit.
He stepped up to the line. Very relaxed. And
stepped back. Emily blinked a few times, not sure if she even saw him raise his gun...
After the all-clear, the paper target winched its way along the track, back to them. Scout ignored it, busy disassembling the weapon, to hand back to Graves.
"Looks like you missed twice, son," Graves said, smirking. "I only see one hole there. A well placed shot, but..."
...the hole was ever so slightly larger than a single bullet would have made. All three had gone through the board in the same exact place.
Graves took down the paper, verifying this, poking a finger through the hole. Nodding, slowly. "...fancy trick," he admitted. No smile, now; he was serious, as he looked up to the disinterested Scout, who had gone back to power-loitering. "Of course... doing that in the field, in the middle of a real life or death fight, that's different."
The boy shrugged, noncommittal.
"Tell me, boy," the merc leader ordered/asked, curious. "Could you really keep your cool and be Mr. Sharpshooter in the heat of battle? When the adrenaline kicks in, when the battle itself takes over...? Maybe you've seen some action. Got the feel of it. I bet you it's another story when your blood starts pumping..."
Another shrug would be the only reply offered.
I've SEEN him when his blood starts pumping, Emily thought, some Insight lightly poking at her through her nervousness. When he was fighting Jesse, he was brutal, fierce. Only commanding him to stop broke him out of that rage before he went too far. But this... this is what he could be like if he's able to maintain self control. Which one is scarier, though...? A wild beast, or a precision murderer?
...doesn't matter right now. We're wasting time, the witch thought-muttered to herself. Una needs to scan more of the building, and these two getting into a swordfighting contest is--
"Ah... pardon, sirs?" Una asked... meekly raising her hand. "I am vastly entertained by the war theories being presented, however... I would like to inquire as to the location of the.. privy?"
"--eh?" Graves asked, distracted from his slow, creeping evaluation of the 'bodyguard'.
"The smallest room?" Una tried. "The lavatory? The elimination chamber? The room of little girls?"
Emily groaned. "Bathroom. Where's your bathroom, Mr. Graves?"
"Ahhh. 'fraid we don't have a 'little girl's room'," he said, his smirk resuming. "Dennis? Escort the lovely lady to the little boy's room. It'll have to do, afraid. When you're done, bring her on up to the my office, then check the mobile rack back into the supply cache. So! I'd say it's high time we negotiate the contract. If that's alright with you, ma'am?"
Not optimal... they hadn't covered enough of the building. Hopefully, Una realized that, and was using this as a ruse to scan more of the subbasements. Without many other options... Emily nodded, agreeing. "Right. We'll sort this out so we can all get home before dark. No need to keep you after hours."
A solo mission! So exciting!
No, no. Not the right attitude to have. This was serious. Emily was performing admirably, holding up her false personality even under duress. Una owed it to her new friend to do the same -- to maintain her front. ...even if she wasn't quite sure what her character's motivation was, beyond looking at the walls to scan for hypertech behind them, and not drawing attention to herself. ...which she had done when she hit upon the idea to wander around and look, but... no! She was helping, she was doing the right thing. And at worst, she would simply visit the waste facility and return empty handed. No harm done.
Her temporary guardian, the young soldier named Dennis, was not talking. Talking was important, Una felt; it established rapport and understanding between two peoples.
"This certainly is an impressive facility you have!" Una said, looking at the featureless and completely uninteresting walls they walked by.
"If you say so, ma'am."
"And such, ah, fascinating weaponry! Quite unusual compared to what everybody else would have ownership of for purposes of defense," she continued. "It's quite--"
"It's horrible stuff."
"That thing I was showing you? That's nothing compared to the stuff in the cache," Dennis said... his voice oddly grave. "Thirty seconds after we get to Olney our work'll probably be done. I can already tell what the boss wants to use, I've seen him use it before. ...hope you hate those Fae a lot. Hate them a LOT."
The tone was familiar. The sense of regret, of fear of the weapons...
Just like Andrew Clay.
"So, you... do not approve of the use of these technologies?" she tested.
"...you didn't hear this from me," Dennis said, pausing in their march. "But I'd rest a LOT easier at night if it all, I dunno, vanished. Gone. ...I've considered quitting, you know. After the things I've seen. But I've also seen how he feels about people leaving the company. I envy that old bastard who somehow got out with his skin, years ago..."
This is the opportunity! Una could see it, clear as day. Here was someone who felt as she did -- that the use of these devices, many of which were being horribly misused as murder tools, had to stop. Here was someone she could trust. She could find the cache with his help, maybe even neutralize it all right here, right now!
She dropped her voice to a whisper. "If I said I could make it all vanish... would you approve of this?"
"Pff. Right, lady. And maybe I'll grow wings and fly."
"I do not see spontaneous genetic mutation as a likely outcome, but I assure you of my sincerity," she said. "Please. I am just as disturbed by what we have seen today. I have the means to eradicate the hypertech your company has in holding. If you take me to it... I can solve your problem."
Dennis gave her a look... exploring, pondering. Wondering if this was for real.
"I can decompile the alloys they are made of. It's a simple procedure," she promised. "It would take moments. Please... help me. No one else has to die at the hands of Quicksilver Security. Together, we can win hope for the future!"
The younger technician bit his lip. "...third door. The third door, down that hallway," he said. "Access code 7734. I'll.. I'll buy you time. I'll run interference. But after that, you have to run, alright?"
"I shall run like the mighty sombrero wearing mouse, my friend," Una promised, offering the young man a bright smile. "Thank you. I knew that Earth had decent people, ones who could be trusted. Thank you so much."
With promised speed, she hurried down the hallway -- and there was the door, just as described. A numeric keypad would allow access, and behind that, the goal they had sought out. The legacy of her people, a wrong thing she would make right...
The door slid open effortlessly, the four digit number entered without issue. Sitting in the cavernous room was a large pile of gleaming, silver devices... glowing bright blue in the lenses of her modified glasses. The hypertech cache!
She took three steps and then collapsed in a shockwave of unbearable pain.
Vision blurred, neck muscles still jittering from where the hypertech device had been pressed directly between her shoulder blades, she tried to look at her attacker... but only saw Dennis, with a smiling expression. That could not be. Dennis was trustworthy. Why would he be holding some sort of weapon? Why would he be touching it to her skin again? And again? And--
Her mind gave up, collapsing on itself, falling straight into the dark of unconsciousness.
Paperwork should not be this hard to find.
"I'd forget my own head if it wasn't attached," Graves joked, still rifling through folders on his desk. "I asked Phyllis to leave a blank contract on my desk, but I swear, that woman clocks out sharp at quitting time whether or not she's got any tasks left. It's so hard getting good help like my main man Dennis these days..."
The office was tastefully decorated, cavernous, and with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the city below. The sun had already started going down... twenty minutes they'd been up here, while he rummaged, told little jokes, tried to keep them engaged...
Tried to keep them distracted. Notably, from the fact that Una hadn't returned yet.
"If this is a problem, we can just come back tomorrow," Emily quickly suggested. "There's no rush. Those.. stinking Fae will still be there a day from now. I'll just collect my personnel and be out of your way."
"Oh, don't worry about your Orbital friend," Graves said, never losing his friendly smile. "We'll be taking care of her. Unlike my secretary, I believe in getting things done. No loose ends at the close of the day. It's just good business, you know?
The paintings on the wall were hung crooked, Emily noticed. When did that happen? When did the room start to tilt, for that matter...?
Graves waggled a little silvery disk between his fingers, pulling it from a desk drawer. "Hypertech. Is there nothing it can't do?" he asked. "Take this little gadget, here. Good radius of effect, nearly irresistible. Destabilized the inner ear, throws off your balance, unless you're in physical contact with it. Even that big boy of yours can't make a move, can he?"
When did Scout get a combat knife? Emily had specifically told him not to bring any weapons..! Not that it mattered, as it clattered to the ground, the boy staggering forward. Trying to make it to the desk, trying to reach his enemy... his normally passive features peeling back to a snarl.
She recognized the snarl. The same one he had right before he nearly killed Jesse the witch. His control was slipping...
"Sooo," Graves continued, casually stepping away from the desk even as Scout crashed into it, bent over the surface, scrabbling to reach him. "You two, in league with the Orbitals. I knew I was right to secretly bug Clay's apartment. We used the same type of scanning tech that your little 'executive assistant' used... just in case ole Andy was fibbing when he said he dumped all his gear, years ago. Who knew it'd lead us to a living, breathing alien specimen?"
"Yyy.... yuuuuuh..." Emily tried to curse, fighting for air, fighting to stay on her feet...
"You two are nothing more than blood traitors to your species, your country, your planet," Leonard Graves accused, no longer smiling. "Here's what happens next. The alien, we'll hang onto her. But you two, you get the standard penalty for treason to the state."
Effortlessly, he drew a silver sidearm, and put a killing beam of energy directly through Scout's skull. Dead. Instantly dead.
He slumped against the desk, limp... with a hole in the back of his head that Emily could actually see through...
Only one option. He was aiming at her next. Her steps were lurching, wild, running as she did not towards the desk... but towards the window.
Throwing her arms in front of her face to protect her, Emily ran straight through the glass window, soaring five stories above the city, plummeting to certain death in the streets below.
Somehow, despite the wind whipping through her hair, despite the falling glass all around her, despite seeing her protector killed before her very eyes... she focused enough to whistle sharply.
It was sincerely the first time Una had screamed out in physical pain in her entire life.
If not for the nightmarishly intense pain, which left her little ability to think straight given it was being applied via nervous-system stimulation, she might have found the sensation curious and new and fascinating and terrible and something she never wanted to face again. As is, it was only the last two of the five properties that mattered to her now.
Dennis twirled the shock rod once in his hand, studying it. "I can't believe how great this thing has been," he explained. "I know, I know... raw torture doesn't get much in the way of results. So sayeth the Frontliner manual on interrogations. Good thing I'm not one of those weak sisters. I say it works great as a punitive measure... and it leaves no marks! Your culture really came up with some great stuff, 'alien'. My complements."
"it-it-it-iit..." Una chattered, trying to regain some control, to not see double and speak quadruple. She nearly was thankful for the primitive restraints that kept her in her chair, as they also kept her from collapsing to the floor. "It's not that's n-not what it is, it's for healing neural damage, it's on the wrong setting, you have to--"
"Wrong setting? I like this setting. It gets so much work done! But don't worry, we've had enough practice with this bit of metal to know how much can be applied and over what period of time without leaving permanent brain damage," Dennis assured her. "We need your shiny brain undamaged, at least in the short term. This is just encouragement, that's all."
"You said you wanted it destroyed!" Una shouted at him, not intending it to be so loud, but unable to stop. "You hated it, you wanted it gone, you said, I trusted, you said--"
"Hello? I lied. You HAVE heard of 'lying' in that chariot-of-the-gods space station of yours, right?" Dennis asked. "Or has your enlightened culture evolved beyond such petty things as lying, money, power, desire, and so on? I hadn't thought all those crappy old science fiction books about pansy-ass peaceful interplanetary beings were really true."
Because he felt like it, he applied the shock rod for more emphasis. Just a little, this time, just enough to make her jump.
"You... you do not have to continually hurt me," Una tried to suggest. "It serves no purpose. It has no function!"
"It's softening you up. You're going to be our new golden goose, teaching us all about the hypertech we've recovered but never figured out the user's manual for," Dennis explained, gesturing to the piles and piles of gleaming technology in the cache room with them. "There's plenty of it in here, as you see. We don't know what it all does. You do. And you'll tell us everything. Today we're just, you know, flexing the muscle a bit. Pointing out how this is going to work. We own you now. Soon you'll want to tell us everything."
Emphasis needed? Yes, very much. He applied it. ...then, straining to hear... nodded once, satisfied at the choked back sobbing he was hearing.
Listening in so closely did mean he jumped as if shocked himself when the video intercom clicked to life.
A grainy image of Leonard Graves flickered onto the screen. "Dennis. I take it the 'Guilty Good Guy' gambit worked?"
"Yeah, boss. We're already getting great data out of her, in fact... you won't believe the results of the biometric scan I took while she was out cold."
"Our little wayward alien? She's human. Human anatomy, human genome. She's got the blue-tinted shift frequency of hypertech, but there's nothing alien to her. I wonder if she's told her friends...? I wonder if she even knows?"
"They're both dead now, so it doesn't really matter," Graves said. "You think she's ready to start talking about the unidentified metal?"
"Mrmm.. I've been going a LITTLE overboard on the persuasion," Dennis admitted. "Sorry, sir. I suggest we take five, then resume. This cupcake's not used to playing rough; I think she's probably done, but more couldn't hurt. Mind if I take a smoke break, meanwhile?"
"This is a non-smoking building, soldier. Take it outside. I'll be down in a few minutes to assist... just wrapping up with our other guest. Graves out."
The intercom flickered off as loudly as it had flickered on, with a crackle of an old, unreliable speaker.
Prick, Dennis thought, rolling his eyes. He glanced sideways at the girl, whose head was hung low indeed. "Don't go anywhere," he politely asked, before wandering out.
In the dark, Una was glad he'd left and couldn't hear her crying.
It's very hard to cast magic while you're crying. Pronounce the sounds wrong, any deviation from the twisted Fae-speak of the Way and the Word, and the spell will piffle out.
Emily the Witch wiped her nose with the shredded tatters of her blouse sleeve, before resuming her work, trying to close up the few remaining major cuts and gashes with page after page of mending spells. Not that squatting in a damp city alley at night was a suitably sterile environment to work in... but she didn't dare leave. They might find her. They might find her and...
She was lucky to be alive. Luckier than Scout, who had been-- she was lucky to be alive.
It was the first chain of thoughts to come to mind, when she knew she was about to die. In trouble? Magic. Need magic? Call for it. Where was it? With Pix.
There was no way he should have been able to hear the tiny sound made by a human whistling out a tuneless tone. But he was a magical creature, no matter how minor, and loyalties ran deeper than distances. In an instant, she was on her broomstick, desperately trying to slow down her descent... and landing in a dumpster one block away from Quicksilver Security as a result. Again, very bad for numerous bleeding wounds on your arms...
So was crying into them, dammit. Dammit. Dammit dammit...
The unflappable cheer of Pix had been firmly flapped, when he circled down to join her. He stayed with her, quietly, while she patched herself up. Eventually, he dared to break the silence between them.
"Ye'll bounce back," he assured her, trying to assure her. "Ye always do--"
"So what? Who cares?!" Emily snapped back, glaring at him as she snapped her spellbook shut. (His light dimmed a bit, under that withering look.) "Hose her off and she's good as new, but so what? I screwed up. I always screw up! He's dead, and it's my fault!"
"Ach.. Emily, it can't be... look, yer intentions were noble! I know ye. You do the right thing..."
"Hooray for me, I do the right thing! I get involved, I do the right thing, and it never goes the way I'd planned. ...for crying out loud... Pix, I DESTROYED your colony, remember? The bulldozer?"
"Ach, that place?" Pix said, his smile returning, as he gave a dismissive wave. "Bah! Wasn't close enough to the water, got poor sunlight. Ye did us a favor bulldozin' it accidental-like. Found a MUCH nicer hollow log to call home."
"That's.. not.. the point. My friends are... were in there. I don't know what happened to Una. --and Scout's dead!" she repeated. "...he wasn't as bad as he thought he was. There was something wrong, something broken in him, but if he'd just TALK more about himself maybe I could've helped..."
"See? Seeee? You want to help. That's good, that is!"
"I'd probably have just broken him worse by trying. There was some sort of fight inside him... and he's been losing it, lately. I could tell..."
"Well, certainly wouldn't have gotten better if ye DIDN'T try. ...Emily. Look," Pix said, getting serious again, while Emily mumbled mending spells under her breath. "Yer tenacious. I keep tellin' ye that. We admire ye, me pixie kin. Ye move forward. The Fae, we stay put, we shuffle aboot, we run in circles, but yer always' movin' forward. ...don't think ye want to just sit here and keep licking wounds. Don't think ye want to just run back to the Fringe and read books all day. Do ye...?"
"...I can't rescue Una. I'm not a combat mage."
"Hah! See? Ye want to rescue the lass. Like I said, bloody TENACIOUS!"
"And HOW? How do I do it!?" she asked him. "No, really, tell me how someone like me can pull of that kind of stunt. I don't know anything! I have parlor tricks, that's all! Stupid little screwy tricks that don't do anybody any... good..."
She was a block away, hidden from view in the darkness. Far enough, secluded enough not to be seen... not that the figure stepping out of Quicksilver Security, in the distance, would've even bothered to search for her. He was too busy searching his pockets for a packet of cigarettes, and lighting up.
Dennis. The one who had taken Una away.
Shakily, Emily got to her feet-- no. No, shakily would not do. She firmly got to her feet.
"Pix. Am I still bloody anywhere?" she asked, not taking her eyes off the bastard.
"Ahhh... well, yes, yer hands--"
She smeared the blood around, especially on her right hand. Then, for added effect, left some bloody trails on her face with her fingers... maybe like war paint? That'd be good. Made sure to adjust her proper and beloved witch's hat with the less bloody hand, though... the same one she then used to snap open her book of simple utility spells.
Simple utility spells, nothing of any major threat. Not that the tin soldiers would know that.
The light aura was a very ordinary spell -- a similar effect to the one pixies had around themselves by nature. Make an object, even some part of yourself, glow. Adjust the color and intensity with a thought... for instance, turn it into UN-light...
Dennis was lighting up when a walking spirit of bloody vengeance emerged from living shadow.
The nightmare approached slowly, so slowly that he wasn't sure if it was a trick of the poor lighting in this part of the city, his own lack of sleep, or what. When the shadows took on human shape, the darkness turning to a burning red light of anger focused in the woman's outstretched hand, instinct took over. Scary figure with doom in its eyes, therefore, shoot it--
Several mild shocks of electricity snapped across his body. His chest, his right hip, finally his right hand. Numb fingers dropped the pistol he had drawn, clattering to the concrete sidewalk. Before he could scrabble for it, the arm was within touching range.
It was the stupid little girl from earlier. Only it wasn't the stupid little girl from earlier. It was a woman wearing a witch's hat, covered in blood and rags, holding a spellbook and what looked like some kind of murderous malevolence boiling away in her hands.
"I am a witch of vast, unimaginable power," Emily the Witch quietly spoke. "I can turn your bones to jelly, your blood to acid, and your brains to paste before you can blink. I am the Faerie Court's Young Mistress of Pain, chosen prodigy of Archmagus Lilith, and you have wronged my friends."
The namedrop did its job. The Archmagus... the most powerful spellcaster of the Summer Court. Even Graves knew better than to tangle with the likes of her. It was told to be as fatal as insulting Lady Summer herself...
"The only hope you have to survive this night against the rage of the entire Summer Court is to lead me to the Orbital. Do you agree? Nod for yes, or shake your head and die where you stand for no."
"Y-Yes," Dennis agreed, before realizing the witch wanted a nod. He nodded hard enough to give himself a neckache.
With a twirl of a finger, Emily urged him to march right back inside the building, staying behind him with her oh-so-deadly light spell at the ready. ...when his back was turned, she allowed herself a shiver. If the earlier failed gamble was over the top, this one was so far over the top and down the other side she might not come back again from it.
Coming back from the dead to death-in-life was never enjoyable. It was one of the few times the one who now called himself Scout felt genuine physical pain.
It was akin to a lash across the back from a magically bound whip. There was no whip physically present, but that didn't matter. The pain was real. Nobody can sleep through that, even the sleep of the dead...
He snapped awake, jerking forward from the standard punishment for failing to live up to the standards set upon him-- and was jerked backwards, numerous chains holding him down to the medical examination table. Immediately he was straining against them, the cold iron staying firm, wrists and ankles but also additional loops and strands crisscrossing his bare chest.
Graves was taking no chances. He didn't even stand near the table, preferring to stay near the door, in case he had to bail out of the brightly lit medical chamber in a hurry. Not that he looked worried. He'd even taken time to fetch a fresh cigar for himself. (Being the owner meant you were the exception to every rule.)
"I should have believed the hype," Leonard Graves said, nearly apologetic. "I'd heard stories of an unkillable boy with Fae powers in a Frontliner's uniform. Someone given over to the Wild Hunt. A vicious bastard who's killed Fae and Human alike, a slaughtering madman. That sound familiar, boy?"
Scout bared his teeth, growling... then quickly worked himself down to normal. Apathy. Detachment. All the emotional controls he'd developed for himself. "You're incorrect," he said, his voice calm again, as if nothing of interest had happened. "I hunt those who hunt. Nothing more. I keep control."
"Uh-huh. I'd give you the whole 'we're more alike than unalike' thing, but obviously you'd disagree. Frankly? It doesn't matter what your reasoning is, or what mine is. You kill out of some weird sense of brutal justice, I kill for money and kicks, whatever, I'll concede the point. But I know your kind -- I've fought your kind. You're as much a killer as I am. Far too dangerous to let live. Which is a problem, given you already lack a pulse, from what the biometrics tell me. You're supposedly just as dead that redheaded twerp I blasted through my window. Bet she made a real nice splatter on the street below... "
...that managed to twitch through his emotional control. One hand made a fist.
"But with your kind, being dead doesn't seem to matter much, does it?" Graves asked. "The hole I melted through your head -- and my desk, you know, a damn good desk ruined -- it only temporarily killed you. The wound sealed up a minute later. After that, I knew what you really were: a miserable little hunting dog for the Winter Court. I've dealt with your kind before."
"...you know a lot about how to kill the Fae," Scout said. "But not how to kill me."
"Yet. Yet, boy. I've always wanted to find a way to put one of your lot down for good, and now I've got you to experiment on. So, you'll stay here, nice and secure while we work on you. But I don't want to learn your magically enhanced nature, your self-revival power, beyond learning a way to stop it. I don't trust Fae weapons, I trust science and human engineering. I'll get the power I want from the alien instead. Nighty night, boy."
His fingers reached for the light switch.
"You're about to make a serious mistake."
...Graves paused, smirking to him. "Oh? That so?"
"Yes. I hunt the hunters," Scout reminded him. "I leash the Wild Hunt, and usen it only to murder the murderers. You say you killed 'the redhead'? All you've done is kill yourself. But release Una, and I'll force myself to show you the mercy Emily would've wanted from me. ...do what you're about to do... and I'll do what I do. I won't bother trying to stop it."
"Those are iron chains, race traitor. You can't break them with Fae magic. I know a bluff when I see one."
"Choose now. Live or die?"
Graves flicked the examination room lights out with the flip of a finger, and closed the door behind him.
The room plunged into shadow.
One minute later, the empty chains clattered to the surface of the examining table.
The two marched in near silence down the gray corridors of the building. Gray was a fine color, very properly military, except when only being lit by a glowing red fist of rage. Then it's the exact opposite of what you want, as it results in returning a sickly dull glow of menace.
So far, the witch hadn't blasted him to kingdom come. Dennis knew she'd have to speak in order to launch a spell, but he'd have no chance to silence her with a caster hold or anything of the like before she could turn him inside out... not if she was in with the Archmagii. Because he very much enjoyed breathing, compliance with her demands would have to do, until he could get the upper hand.
"You know... I'm glad you came here," he tried. "It's Graves. He's gone crazy... you know how many people he's had me kill with those horrible weapons? You don't have to threaten me; I'd be happy to help you get rid of--"
"I don't recall asking for crocodile tears," Emily spoke, continuing to trail behind him, spellbook at the ready. "I don't believe a word you say. You work for scum, you are scum. If you weren't you would've gotten out of the business like Clay did."
"You don't think I've tried?!" Dennis exclaimed, giving her a desperate look over his shoulder. "He'd kill me. He'd kill my family. My high school sweetheart, my baby boy..."
"Oh yeah? Where's your wedding ring?"
"...we're a modern couple. We don't believe in material--"
"I bet you pulled this act on her. You exploited her trusting nature," Emily glowered, Insight hitting her at a foul time. "You say one more word that's not in the subset of 'Here', 'is', or 'Una', and I tear you into component molecules, then I tear THOSE into atoms, then I tear THOSE into bits that will make physicists scratch their heads. Keep walking. And silently."
Dennis nodded once, and complied. Go along with it. Don't try the usual tricks, just roll, and wait for your opening. Then kill her. No, take her down, shock her, hurt her. This insolent race traitor was gonna get what she had coming... and he was going to enjoy it--
Drat. They had arrived.
"Here is Una. ...I'm just keying the number into the pad to open the door," he said, quietly. "That's all. Okay?"
"If gas vents open up or a turret pops out, my Death Curse will not be the end of you," Emily warned.
"No. You'll only spend rest of your life wishing it was. Now open the door."
He keyed the sequence in, gritting his teeth. "You are one scary bitch, you know that, right?" he grumbled to her.
"Not really, but I'm learning."
The door slid open... and Emily saw what the soldier had done to her friend.
I don't believe in killing, she reminded herself. So she contented herself with rearing one leg back, and swinging it forward with all the might she had in her body.
Her foot sank inches into his crotch, from behind. Dennis actually lifted off the ground several inches, his high pitched scream of agony cut off a moment after it began -- his brain simply gave up trying to process the pain and shut down. He slumped to the ground, unconsciously clutching between his legs, curling into a ball. Which made it a lot easier for Emily to roll him into the room and shut the door behind her.
She was kind enough to roll him on his stomach, so when he inevitably threw up, he wouldn't choke to death. She was a merciful witch, after all.
Emily holstered her spellbook and rushed into the room, producing the lockpick-charm from around her wrist. A familiar gesture, shaping it in her fingers, getting it primed and ready for an escape. She worked the handcuffs that held Una to her chair, trying to contain her anger long enough to get the job done. Remove the cuffs, help Una to her feet, use the cuffs to secure Dennis. Try to get Una together long enough to deactivate the hypertech. And then run, and run, and don't stop running until you're out of the concrete jungle and into the safety of the forests...
But Una wasn't in enough shape to stand properly, much less perform some mysterious scienc-y type ritual. Her legs were wobbly, shaking, muscles spasming like her nervous system was misfiring. "E.. em em em em..." she tried to say, in a jittering voice. "Hurt. He hurt he didn't have to but he..."
I DON'T believe in killing, Emily had to remind herself again, glaring at the crumpled form of Dennis. She put on her most compassionate face possible before turning back to Una. "I know. ...I'm sorry. But we've got to work. Can you deactivate the hypertech, Una? Just do that and I swear I'll get us out of here, and you can sleep for a week--"
"Here's another option -- sleep when you're dead."
Emily twisted her head around, staring down the business end of a long barreled energy weapon. Graves.
Escape? She had one copy of the Escape spell left, tattooed on her forearm... on the arm she was using to support Una. She could drop Una and bail. Not that she would, but she could. And she could... not do much else.
This time, Leonard Graves wasn't keen on taunting before shooting. ...at least, not any more than he had.
Exactly one second before he would have pulled the trigger, all power to the building went out, plunging the room into absolute darkness.
Cursing loudly, he fired anyway -- the cutting beam of light providing a flash-snapshot shot of the room, of Emily diving for the floor, pulling Una with her. The shot had missed wide.
Another shot, at where Emily would've hit the ground... but she'd already rolled out of the way.
The third shot went wide when he realized there was someone standing right in front of him, face to face.
"You were warned," Scout reminded him, in a voice no louder than a wolf's breath.
There was no light, only the sound of it, the meaty noise of fists pounding on flesh. Feet running, bodies hitting walls, then... the door sliding open. Graves had found the exit, and from the squeaking sound of Scout's fancy suit shoes on the floor, he would not be getting away unchallenged.
Emily pulled Una in close, but leaned up, trying to call out as loud as she could.
"Scout? SCOUT! Don't... you don't have to do this! You don't HAVE to kill him!!"
Next week, next week he would install more locking doors. All sorts of them, sealing doors, airtight doors, doors with combination locks. Riot barriers. Just the thing for cutting off pursuit. Just the thing he hadn't the foresight to include in his high tech underground military compound, of course.
By now, Leonard Graves had pulled on a pair of night vision goggles. He always kept them in his utility pack, always kept the utility pack on. A day at the office could very well explode into a firefight, and very well had. One thing that had gone right today, at least.
This meant he was no longer running into walls -- he was running for his life, cutting a path to salvation. The parking garage. Plenty of cover, plenty of space, just the spot for a fight. He knew the place well, and the whacko chasing him did not... he'd punch the Fae-fanboy's ticket in short order, chain him up again, and be home in time for a midnight snack. No problem. Right.
He burst into the garage, rolling behind a company car, firearm at the ready...
...and nothing came out of the open door behind him. The brat hadn't given up, no way, not that one. So where was--
Graves turned on instinct and fired. It took a split second for his goggles to compensate for the flash from his energy weapon, which meant he couldn't see the fist that slammed into his rib cage. Feel it, sure, that was a given.
What he COULD see now, that was a horrible thing to see. It wasn't.. QUITE the Scout. It was a thing in his shape, but all tooth and claw, all eyes. Some hideous thing spawned of the darkness, stepping through shadow, emerging wherever it pleased...
He rolled with the hit, spinning out of the way and between two cars, evading again. The deformed thing appeared on the other side of the garage, then perched on top of a car, then gone again...
"Freak!!" Graves shouted, enraged at the sheer... unfairness of it. "Monster!"
"Yes. Freak. Monster. Both of us."
Center yourself, dammit, Graves thought. You know his type, how they move. Shadow-step. It uses the darkness. That means...
He changed hiding places. Instead of crouching next to the car, which would've provided cover in a firefight... he used his company key ring to remotely start up the car and unlock the doors. Waved the ring around madly, triggering every company car in range. The light sensors in the cars would detect night-like conditions, and automatically turn headlights on...
He timed it well, sliding his night goggles up just as the lights were coming on, casting one wall of the garage as broad daylight.
"Can't jump at me through the light, can you? You move in the dark," Graves pointed out, weapon drawn, lying in wait in the brightness. "You know, any second now the emergency generators will be on. This whole place will be like Christmas. I can wait you out--"
A hand grasped his ankle, reaching from the shadows beneath the nearest car.
Graves vanished from sight. His weapon went flying through the air, spinning end over end... clattering to a halt on the concrete near the door.
At Emily's feet.
"SCOUT! Listen to me!" she shouted into the garage, hoping it wasn't too late. (She had to help Una along, not wanting to leave her behind in the same room as that little bastard Dennis.) "If you kill him, we can't ask him where he got the hypertech! --if you kill him you'll just be what Lady Winter wants you to be!!"
...she hoped the lack of bloodcurdling screaming meant he was considering this, rather than tearing Graves limb from limb.
Two figures emerged from under the car... Scout, looking considerably less wild now, despite still being stripped to the waist and holding Graves in a vicious looking locking hold. "...you knew?" he asked, simply, as if engaging in a boring conversation.
"I.. I figured it out, yeah," Emily said. "The scars on your back. I saw them for a split second, back in the cargo room. Marks from the Queen's whip, whenever her Winterhounds displease her. ...jumping through shadows and surviving being shot in the head were also big hints."
"Then you know I have to kill him," Scout explained, as Graves's face started to turn blue. "He's my prey. If I don't hunt the hunters, if I don't focus on that, my control could slip and I could start stalking innocents. I could end up hurting you..."
"I'm... going to choose to believe you won't do that," Emily said. "I trust you. And you should trust yourself, for a change."
...Scout noticed Graves raising his hand politely, as if asking teacher if he could speak during class. He loosened the hold... not enough to let the man go, just enough to clear his airway.
The elder soldier spoke quickly. "I-If you let me live I'll tell you all about where I got the hypertech and I'll let you destroy what I have! ...there. There, you HAVE to let me live, like the lady says. You win, okay?! I lose! Hunt's over! ...please?"
There was one sickening pause... before Scout slammed him up against the nearest car.
"Talk," the boy ordered.
Una had just enough strength in her to deactivate the hypertech cache. All it took was a series of precision touches to their featureless controls... with that, the metal weapons and things-used-as-weapons went away, some crumbling to dust, some falling apart, others melting into slag.
Graves gave his testimony. Emily recorded it in her book. There was no more hostility, no more anger. All of them were tired and wanted this incident behind them as fast as possible. Scout helped Emily ease Una out of the building and into a taxi... and soon, they were back in their FaePlace apartment. Risky, not leaving the city, but Emily refused to move Una any more than they had to.
They left the door to her room open, as the Orbital girl slept in her clothes, uncomfortable and still twitching occasionally with a muscle spasm. Emily spared a glance occasionally... making sure Una was there. And willingly feeling a twinge of guilt each time she did so.
...something about the FaePlace reflected Una's pain. Her room was still the super-amazing place of space wonder... but wasn't shining quite as brightly. The metal had been dulled. The overhead lights were dimmer. The place reflected the owner, sullen, hurt.
"I hope she'll be okay," Emily wished aloud
"She doesn't seem permanently damaged," Scout noted, shuffling one piece on the game board forward.
"That's not what I meant. Earth was... a big vacation, for her," Emily explained. "Play dress up, scheme little schemes, use her toys. Danger, sure, I don't but think she ever considered people would WANT to hurt her. Or would actually hurt her, for that matter."
"...getting hurt doesn't matter. We learn. We adapt. We endure and hunt again."
That could make the witch smile. "I'll agree to that one. ...ah... hm. I'll move my bishop... here. Your move."
Scout frowned at the arrangement of white to black pieces. (Naturally, he was fielding the black.) "I don't like games," he said for the third time that night, as he took a piece with his knight.
"No, but some part of you likes to compete and conquer. It's the whole reason you're afraid of yourself," she said. "So, we're going to funnel that constructively rather than fatally from now on. No more hiding from who you are, and no more hiding from us. I'm not turning my back on you."
"Because I could kill you?"
"No, I mean... I mean I'm not turning my back on your problems. Because -- and you may end up regretting being subjected to my personal idealism -- I want to do the right thing and help you. After all... you don't enjoy it, do you? Being a Winterhound."
"...I could enjoy it. She wants me to," Scout admitted, lowering his voice a bit, as he stared at the board. "But... you're right. I don't want to enjoy it. I get... lost, when I slip into the Wild Hunt. I need to constantly control myself, contain the instincts... "
"You know, Lady Winter doesn't usually turn humans into her hounds. Care to tell me how this happened to you?"
"...no. Not yet."
"I'll get you talking yet, boy. You cannot hide from my witchy ways," Emily warned, waggling a pawn at him. "Mark my words. Oh, and check. Hah! Get out of that one--"
"Checkmate," Scout replied, before he even swapped the final pieces. "I win."
"...what? No no, wait, hang on, you... that... oh. Damn."
As soon as one game had ended, he was setting up for another, lining up his pieces. "Guess I'll play again," he decided. "I think I'm learning, Emily. "
...she gave him a bright smile.
"Yeah. I think you are."
to be continued
copyright 2009 stefan gagne