1. an extraordinary event or effect that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is often ascribed to a supernatural cause.
Two jackets weren't enough. Three, now, three might've done it. Even with multiple layers, flying at night and so far to the north meant freezing your butt off. Not a good thing to do when your butt was riding a broomstick.
Transportation options had dried up completely. The trains out of Eastusa didn't run this far out, not one time zone over and so close to Canada. No major roads went where they were going, save for the ruined ones that had fallen into disrepair, connecting dead towns to other dead towns. Ground level was too dangerous to walk through, with numerous Fae settlements to deal with... Emily could probably negotiate safe passage, as the forests were primarily Summer Court, but after tangling with Jesse/Runeblade she didn't want to attract any major attention from the Fae.
So, flying it would have to be. She could tough it; she'd covered hundreds of miles on her own, before. At least this time she had Una to fly with. Una, who could wear her shiny dress with plenty of perfect, perfect skin exposed and oddly not feel the touch of cold darkness that came with northern nights. Hypertech, of course.
Note to self: Research a damn body warmth spell, Emily thought bitterly, not liking being shown up by Future Girl.
Still... it wasn't her showy friend or her own chill that was worrying her most. It was the third member of their party... the one somewhere below them, on foot.
Scout had assured the girls that he would be fine, that he could cover great distances "shadow stepping" between one patch of darkness and the next. He'd be able to match them for speed, and would meet them at the city limits by dawn... but that didn't keep Emily from worrying. Scout, alone in the deep woods, letting his Winterhound instinct carry him. Not a good formula.
"He'll meet us there," Emily muttered to herself. "It'll be fine. Quit worrying..."
"You are.. concerned for Scout?" Una replied, hearing her mumblings despite the rushing wind around them. "You care for him, yes?"
"He's just a hard luck case, that's all. I take hard luck cases. That's all," Emily repeated, waving a hand dismissively. (She'd long since mastered one handed broom flight. It made reading during long trips a lot easier.) "Plus I don't like him relying on the Winter's Gift to move around like this. It distances him from his humanity. ...y'know... I've been wanting to talk to you about this. I need your help with Scout -- we need to encourage him to accept his humanity. It's high time someone made an effort at humanizing him instead of treating him like a wild animal. You should engage him socially."
Una pondered this. "Social engagement...? A manner of which you mean...?"
"Y'know... interaction. Like he's a normal, healthy human boy," Emily replied. It was hard to put in words, especially words her outer space friend would understand. "Make him part of the group. Don't let him retreat into his little dark room, don't let him fade into the background. He needs to make an attachment to us. I think I've got a good rapport building already, but there's not much there yet with you two, right?"
"Yes... I see your meaning. ...and this is your suggestion, as his 'mentor'?"
"Uh, guess so. Yeah. I'm a professional human, I'd like to think I know a thing or two about being normal. Despite the pointy hat."
"You are simply his counselor, then?"
"...right. What do you mean, 'simply'--?"
"Very well!" Una decided, with instant cheer. "For the sake of our companion, I shall engage him on a healthy social level! I have been considering doing such, to achieve a similar emotional investment in him as I have in you. In fact, since we last discussed him, I have given the matter further thought. I have ideas I am eager to pursue which expand upon the concept, and may assist his ongoing development!"
The witch gave her companion a puzzled look. Which in itself was quite common; Una was often a puzzling person. "Uh. Yay? Una, you sure you get what I'm saying? See, what I mean is--"
"The city is ahead," Una said, pointing it out. "We should adjust speed and enact a safe landing at the designated meeting point. Let us rejoin Scout and resume our journey! Oh, I am excited about the days ahead!"
...that excitement was concerning. They were only a few days removed from one of the worst experiences of Una's life, after all -- tortured at the hands of a sadistic little army brat. She had awoken the next morning visibly shaken, nursing a cup of milk provided to her while repeating a mantra: "Optimism is to see hope in spite of counterexample."
At Emily's encouragement, she talked about what that meant, about the Optimistic philosophy of the Orbitals. It seemed to cheer Una up to explain how Optimists would let the light of hope guide them, no matter how dark the scenario before them. Specifically, that "One foul example of Earth's offerings should not cloud her judgment of the entire culture." If you gave up that hope, allowed prejudice and mistrust to bleed through, then that would lead you to see life in bleakest terms and relationships as risks. A good little Optimist apparently would sooner chew ground glass than stop looking on the bright side of life. (In Emily's interpretation, anyway.)
After that, it was smiles out of Una. Even her FaePlace room had been restored to its usual luster. Still, Emily had to wonder if the pain of that night was merely being masked, rather than dealt with.
...but that was the past. This was now. They had work to do.
Emily had to squint to see in the pre-dawn light. They had picked the spot out on a map (after Una had figured out how to find it on an Internet kiosk at the last train station) because it was out of the way, but by a landmark -- an ancient toll booth, no longer in service, near a stream. The tiny dot squatting next to the structure quickly resolved itself into Scout, much to her relief.
Much not to her relief, as she tugged back on the broomstick to bring it in for a slow landing, Scout was washing blood off of his hands.
As she came in for a landing, she must have been staring in horror, eyes wide. She didn't WANT to be looking at Scout like he was some sort of terrible thing to be feared, but human instincts had a nasty habit of overriding human desires...
"I was hungry," he explained. It was a prepared answer, one he'd no doubt been ready to present. "Just a deer. That's all. I didn't even notice it happen until it was done. But it was just a deer."
Not good. Not good at all. Both that he'd given in to his predatory nature so easily, so simply -- and that she was involuntarily treating him like an outsider. Right, then. Emily cleared her throat, composing herself, and reassured--
"There is nothing to be concerned about," Una said, moving to Scout's side. "It is a logical course of action for someone used to hunting for food, and there is nothing unacceptable or unusual about it. However, I suggest we settle your stomach with properly balanced breakfast foods after checking into the hotel. I know I myself am famished! Shall we proceed, Emily?"
"Uh.. yeah. That's what I was thinking," Emily said.
Dawn broke over the tall buildings of the Twin Cities, beckoning them onward.
by stefan gagne
The Twin Cities sat on the ruins of what was once Minneapolis and St. Paul. The few buildings that were salvageable had been salvaged, and new ones had been built on top of the rubble of old, but plenty of hollow relics of those old townships remained. There simply wasn't enough money, time, or manpower to replace all the dead structures with new ones.
There was no good reason to resettle in this city, after the post-Pandora Event power structures shuffled the world map around. The Twin Cities were in a terrible location... surrounded by the magical forests of the Summer Court to the south, in middle America, and the barren lands of Canada to the north where the strange ones of the Winter Court played and preyed on anyone foolish enough to wander into their domain. They were too far from Eastusa to be of any value to them, and their independent status meant no government help in the form of Frontliners. They were alone, isolated, and surrounded by enemies.
Something in the citizens, though, refused to let go of the city. They rebuilt, steadfast and determined to make something of the rubble they lived in. Twin Cities had a fine industrial center now, not so good for the environment with cancerous pollutants, but very good for the economy as they produced everything from war vehicles to motor-assist carriages for horse drawn cargo hauling in the Fringe. Getting that cargo to buyers was difficult, given the collapsed infrastructure, but those who managed it reaped the rewards.
In later years, there was even a push for tourism -- the long abandoned but essentially intact structure known as the "Mall of America" being reborn as a center for trade and shopping. Since they were an independent settlement, there were no bans on Faerie visitors or Fae artifacts, which meant stores were as likely to sell talismans as they sold handbags or hand grenades. (Twin Cities citizens were a very survivalism-focused people.) None of the stores were owned by Fae, however. It was still a human town to the core.
Despite their successes, Twin Cities remained under siege. The pamphlets given to them by the security checkpoint / tourism officer explained in no soft words that they were to remain indoors after sundown, that the curfew would be enforced by roving teams of the citizen watch. Anybody outside during the dark would be escorted to the nearest safe location.
Winter crept down these streets at night, after all. And the Winter Court was very clever, very dangerous, and very alien.
What crept down these streets in morning was, in this case, a very grumbly witch and her two companions. Emily flicked irritably at the little tag, imprinted with the Twin Cities Watch logo and an identification number. It was dangling from her broomstick, whipping around whenever she took a step to smack her on the back of the head.
"At least they did not confiscate your Fae artifacts," Una suggested several times, trying to cast an Optimist's view on the harsh grilling they had given Emily at the checkpoint. "You can even wear your hat without fear! Truly, this city has a futurist's perspective on racial integration!"
"Oh, yes. I suspect next they'll be giving all witches little bar code tattoos on their arms and sending us off to camps," Emily muttered.
"I have read many fine tales of summer camp! I would very much enjoy canoeing and crafting macaroni art."
Ignoring her, Emily stepped up to their hotel room door, flipping her spellbook open to the chapter of FaePlace pages. (She had to clear the use of FaePlace with management. They charged extra for that, apparently, but it beat being kicked out when housekeeping tried to come in to change the sheets and stumbles across a magical homestead.) Speaking the Word with the Way, the door flickered briefly, and then settled down. Done.
"I'm too hungry and too annoyed to go rest my heels," Emily decided, holstering her spellbook. "I'm going to go find us something delicious to eat even if it kills me. Then I am coming back here, chowing down, and sleeping for hours. We'll find this mysterious 'Doctor Z' that Graves told us of later tonight and drop in on him tomorrow. You two settle in. Scout, crossword puzzles."
Scout nodded once. Since Baltimore, every day Emily had him do some 'homework', some sort of challenge to keep his instincts sharp without having to stalk anything living. It was a way to express his aggressive side in a controlled manner. Chess, checkers, sudoku, and recently, word puzzles. He didn't enjoy them very much... but usually found himself quite engaged in the activity shortly after starting.
"Please, take your time!" Una suggested. "We will be fine. Come along, Scout! I shall be your backup option if you require assistance with your crossing words."
Una grasped his hand, pulling him into the room. The door shut behind them.
Huh. Odd, Emily thought. But hunger jumped up and down in her stomach waving little flags, calling for attention, and she gave it no more thought.
Six across was the blood enemy of the Scout.
He frowned, tapping the page irritably with his pencil. It was just FaePlace stuff, a crossword from the magically-formed memories of Emily... part of her bookshelf by the fireplace he sat in front of. The fire wasn't real. The heat wasn't real, although it was welcome to his cold body. But the crossword... real or unreal, it was vexing.
"Hunting prey" was so easy to him. The art of stalking, of following, flanking, pouncing, making the kill... it was like breathing. He simply did it, and it satisfied him. Perhaps satisfied too much, too easily lost in the brutality. He had to make a conscious effort to dampen his less pleasant emotional surges, and focus his instincts on those who (by some ill-defined moral meterstick) deserved his special and very violent attention. But even with those self imposed limits, there was freedom in it, and the wonderful feeling of closure he felt when he conquered the enemy...
When the enemy was a series of white and black boxes on a page, taunting him, daring him to fill them in with letters... it wasn't as enjoyable. It was enjoyable to figure out the word, to fill it in and know that he had triumphed in some small measure -- but figuring out those words meant thinking in ways he didn't usually think. Which was the entire point of the exercise, of course; he was aware of Emily's goals in making him jump through these hoops. ...not that he had said much on the subject, but they were agreeable goals. But the words..!
"Six across, aptitude," Una indicated, tapping the paper, box by box. "It intersects with Stimulus and Parry, as you see. ...ah. I apologize; this is your puzzle to solve, I should only be providing support upon request."
"It's fine," Scout said, jotting in the answer. There, yes, that did fit. That felt better, seeing that part of the puzzle locked down, regardless of who did the locking.
There was another puzzle here that was proving just as confusing to him, however -- specifically, Una's attire she had chosen, prior to sitting alongside him before the fire.
She explained that after flying all night, she needed to relax, and this was traditional attire for relaxing at home. It seemed a bit too... frilly and lacy and see-through and so on to be comfortable, but she wore it comfortably. With Una, Scout had decided, clothing was more about how aesthetically appealing it was and not about its social context. And clothing was something she had plenty of, having taken every opportunity to go shopping, on every stop they'd made since leaving Baltimore. Somehow, all of it fit within the storage compartment of her jetpack.
Perhaps it was what she said it was. It's not like Scout had much understanding of clothing. He preferred his uniform. It was the suit he died in, after all. It was... purpose.
So. Back to the fight.
"I don't like fighting words," he admitted aloud. "I don't have the right weapons."
"The words. Weapons. Haven't read a dictionary. Never did well in school..."
"That would put you at a disadvantage," Una agreed. "Perhaps you could study the lexicon of your language? I may be able to access the Orbital communications network. My reports to my father take some time to upload from this distance, true, but surely I can retrieve a study guide--"
Scout set the crossword aside, rubbing at his tired eyes. His tired mind. "This isn't me. Not what I do. Emily'll just have to find something else for me to try. ...I'm not able. I'm not like her."
"You are.. concerned your intellect does not measure up?"
"I leave the thinking to you two," he admitted. "You're better at it. Point me at the enemy, and I'll fight. It's all I'm good for, in the end--"
"Untruth!" Una accused -- poking him playfully in the nose. (...which made Scout go cross-eyed, momentarily.) "You have many admirable virtues, many talents beyond simply destructive ones. You are clever, as is expressed by the ways you fight. You use what is available to you to achieve your goal quickly, effectively. Decision making is indeed a strong suit for you, even if you have not had to apply it outside a battle context."
"Except when I lose control. Part of me wants to ignore all my training, and just... tear into the enemy."
"Ah, but training is something you have, yes?" Una asked. "You can have control, when you try. Like when you stopped Miss Runeblade, and that horrible Graves person -- or when you demonstrated at that shooting range. You can be very efficient in your tactics!"
"...tactics in war are not the same as tactics in life."
"But they are similar! I feel you will see this, in the days ahead. And aside from that, you are... adamant," Una said, selecting the word carefully. "You stand. You defend what you believe in... and who you believe in. ...when I was captured by that... by Dennis of Quicksilver Security, you were there. You saved me."
"I was hunting a killer. That's all."
"That was coincidental. I believe that you also sought to protect. That is a Frontliner, yes? Defense. Protection. Strength against the wrongs of the world, a beacon of hope! You have that strength, of character and of arms. ...a fine physique, a sharp mind, a strong personality. You are... highly admirable. I have taken note of these traits and find them very.. acceptable. Pleasing, even. ...and, if this is a subject you have ruminated upon... is your evaluation of my own traits acceptable as well? Pleasing?"
Slowly, Scout turned his eyes from the fire to the decoratively attired girl at his side. Something akin to the shape of a word, trying to fit itself into little white boxes, was dancing around his mind. What was this puzzle shaping into, now...?
"I don't understand," he said, honestly. "Una, what are you asking...?"
Una took a deep breath... came up smiling brightly, ready to explain. "I am engaging you socially via the standards of courtship, of course!" she confessed. "As noted, you are an attractive male with an outstanding number of qualities. I have found myself intrigued by your mysterious factors, as well! I would very much enjoy undertaking a romantic liaison with you, in hopes of forming a lasting emotional attachment."
"..." Scout replied. His mouth did indeed open without making a sound.
Una's cheeks tinted slightly red, before she could continue. "Provided you find me physically suitable for your needs, this may involve mutually enjoyable sexual coupling as well," she suggested. "I understand that my current attire is suitable for the purpose of enticement, provided that the intention is honest. The, ah, practice of such things, I have always been curious about experiencing firsthand. ...if that is a thing that interests you, of course! So. Are you accepting of my proposal of 'dating'? ...my dearest?"
Once, when Scout was stalking through the forest after a particularly cruel hearted Summer Court baron, he not been paying attention to his momentum as he flashed from tree-shadow to tree-shadow and slammed headfirst into a large boulder, stopping him cold. He didn't 'die', but the shock of it, the transition from something known and comfortable into a bewildering state of helplessness... it had stunned him. Stunned in the same way he was stunned now.
Una patiently waited, clinging to his arm. She might've been perfectly happy to wait like that for his reply all day, for all Scout knew.
".......I'm dead," Scout reminded her, because he had absolutely no idea what else to say.
"Yes, as you explained the day after we left Baltimore," Una said, recalling. "But your biological status does not seem to impede your lifestyle. In addition, I would be keenly interested in applying science towards finding you relief from this unfortunate condition--"
"While I am not a biologist, I do ultimately have the resources of Arcology #A076 at my disposal, which would--"
"No. ...I'm not yours," he said, pulling away from her, freeing his arm from her tender clutches. "I'm not anyone's except for one person."
"...would that be Emily?"
Boulder stun again. He evaded what that could mean, trying to stick to his original point.
"No. Lady Winter," he explained. "I am her pet. My existence belongs to her."
"I am not seeing how your current employer affects your ability to enjoy the company of the opposite sex. Provided that is in fact your preferred orientation--"
Even a predator knows when to retreat. Mind spinning, head having hit numerous rocks along the way, Scout quietly got his feet, and walked away without a word. Back to the comforting darkness the FaePlace offered him as his room.
Una was left sitting on the rug, blinking repeatedly, wondering what had just happened. ...she had approached this incorrectly, clearly. Her attempts to engage Scout socially, as Emily had suggested and as she had been pondering for some time, were unsuccessful. Some nuance, some subtle practice in Earth's socialization methods escaped her grasp. Perhaps she should explain what had happened to her friend Emily, and ask for suggestions on how to improve...
...no. She should not tell Emily. Una wasn't sure why, but she felt extremely nervous at the prospect. Una would simply have to figure out this puzzle on her own.
For now, she would retire to her room, to contemplate. Breakfast would arrive soon, and then the investigation into the hypertech source would continue. There would be time later. She could hold out hope.
Graves had a simple explanation for where he got his hypertech.
"Some little bastard up in Twin Cities. He goes by the name 'Doctor Z'," the cowed mercenary had claimed. "He sold me the weapons. Had a weird smuggler's route to get to his source... but when we got there, he doublecrossed me. We were lucky to get out alive with as much hypertech as we did after he sicced his freaks on us. You want to know where he's getting his fancy alien toys? You go ask the man up north."
There were the requisite number of back and forth threats -- i.e., if you're lying we're coming back here, I make it a habit not to lie to crazy bitches I'm sorry I meant witches, what was that I dare you to say that again, Emily this isn't helpful, etc, etc. ...in the end, with no other leads to follow, the group had decided to look into it.
Finding Doctor Z was both difficult and hard. It was a cheesy alias, like a mad scientist in an old movie, clearly not something you'd find in the phone directory. But any doctor using hypertech would stick out like a sore thumb, presumably, so a little inquiry into the medical community would work... call up a small clinic, say you're from out of town and have heard of some famous doctor, a Doctor Zed, or Doctor Zee, or something--
The very first clinic they called, the receptionist was quite... informative.
"That little witch doctor!?" she had said, with a scoffing snort. "You don't want to see him. I don't care WHAT his clinic promises they can do, there's never been any real scientific study into his methods. It's HIS clinic, you know. They just pretend it isn't. You're better off visiting us instead for your health needs blah blah blah blah..."
To verify, they'd called one other clinic and had a similar reaction. Go to the clinic at Twin Cities General. If you wanted something that was one step removed from circles of salt and headless chickens and dancing about, that is.
Given Graves's description and the low opinion held by every medical professional they had talked to, Emily was taking no chances. They flew up to the roof of the hospital late afternoon, on the shadowy side of the building. Once confirming the rooftop was clear (save for an empty helicopter landing pad and an unused basketball court) they armed up, got ready.
"It's real simple," Emily explained again, flipping through her spellbook, to get a Shock ready. "We sneak in, find the nearest unoccupied room. Una hacks the intercom system and requests Doctor Z report to the room. He grabs a Shocked doorknob, Scout pulls him in and restrains him. We interrogate him for the location of his cache, and--"
"I do not approve of this plan."
Emily groaned. "Una--"
"We are dealing with a biologist, yes? A man of compassion who apparently has been using hypertech to heal. A man of reason and sensibility!" she insisted. "There is no need for such aggressive maneuvers. If we are honest with him and forthright, I believe he will--"
"The last person you were honest with nearly tortured you to death!"
"Optimism is to see hope in spite of counterexample," Una recited, crossing her arms defiantly.
"Optimism is to fall into the same stupid trap over and over again," Emily countered. "And let's not forget how this guy uses smugglers, and tried to kill Graves!"
"I was under the impression you did not believe Graves's accounting of those events entirely...? And someone who opposes Leonard Graves' mindset is likely someone who would be right-thinking."
"Likely, LIKELY! You don't know Earth, okay? This world is brutal, the people in it are bastards, this entire city has been honed to a brutal, bastardy little point by a bunch of brutal bastards lying north AND south of here, and I don't trust this Doctor Z any farther than I could fly without a broomstick!"
The three turned to face the white-haired young man who had just walked out the rooftop access door, a basketball tucked under one arm, balanced against the side of his white lab coat. One very confused looking young man, given he was looking at someone in silvery techno-dress complete with jetpack, a broomstick carrying witch, and a boy in a military uniform.
"Can.. I help you?" he asked. "The roof isn't really for patient access, you know..."
Before anyone else could react with shouting, violence, lies, schemes, or anything she disapproved of... Una stepped up and took charge of the situation. She didn't draw her energy weapon, didn't make any aggressive moves. She simply held up one hand, and repeated a traditional greeting, from deep memory.
"In the name of tranquility, may starlight brighten your path," she said, smiling tightly.
"...and the mysteries of space remain endless," the young man replied, too stunned to do anything but reply in the proper manner.
"Friends, let me introduce Doctor Z," Una said, turning around to face them. "Or, if I am correct, 'Doctor Zee', Z-E-E. Doctor, I am Una, of Arcology #A076."
The basketball bounced a few times, then rolled away.
"This... this isn't fair," Zee said, looking small and afraid, despite being as tall as Scout. "Not now. I've been here for years and only now do the Orbitals find me? ...I'm not leaving! You don't understand, I can help these people! I know it's against the rule of non-interference, but they're in such need of help, I can't sit idly by and--"
"Peace, friend! Peace," Una protested, trying to calm him. "Let us find a more comfortable surrounding to discuss. There is much information to share between us, which will clarify all matters at hand. We are curious about your use of hypertech, it is true, but... we will hear you out. I humbly request your trust on this matter--"
"Didn't we come here to destroy the stray hypertech?" Emily reminded her.
Una spoke quickly, disarmingly. "Father left this journey and its matters to my decision process and you will abide that," she commanded... nibbling her lip after saying it, as it was the first time she had outright commanded Emily to do anything. It may erode their friendship, but... it had to be said to put Zee at peace.
"I.. guess we better go to my office," Zee suggested. "I have some time before my next surgery. We'll discuss. And hopefully, you'll understand."
From birth, it was clear Zee would become a biologist. He was from a long patriarchal line of biologists, it was true, but even beyond that he had a fascination with the lifeforms catalogued within the Orbital data cores, creatures of a thousand worlds. Even the ordinary biology of an Orbital was fascinating to him, how it could be mended, adjusted, made whole after hardship. Granted, hardship was rare in the Arcologies, but accidents and disease were not unheard of. Zee's natural empathy combined with curiosity gave him a desire to know as much as he could about the healing sciences.
Even at a young age, he was acting as field medic when his family made an expedition to Earth. They were in the frozen wastes of Canada, tracking down the elusive Wendigo, a Winterfae of strange biology that his father had obsessed over ever since first seeing it through high powered sensory scopes from high orbit over the northern reaches. He wanted to study them in the wild, and if possible, capture one.
"Wendigoes?!" Emily exclaimed. "Are you cracked? You voluntarily were seeking people possessed and mutated by the Winterfae spirits of cannibalism?"
"They had a unique digestive biology that made my father curious," Zee had explained. "At the time we didn't give a thought to the dangers."
The Pragmatists of his home Arcology called the expedition foolish. They were, unfortunately, quite correct. Even straying off course considerably from their planned route, well beyond the eyes and ears above, they found nothing but ice, snow, and ruined cities buried in the magically enforced tundra. Father was about to give up, when in the ruins of Toronto, they encountered their prey... and found themselves the true prey.
"I don't recall much of that day, except the factual outcome of losing my entire family," Zee had said quietly. After a pause, he had continued.
Zee himself would have fallen to this ravenous spirit as well... he'd already taken several wounds, bleeding profusely. Death would have come swiftly, if not for slipping on a patch of black ice. Somehow, he fell THROUGH the ice... into a dark reflection of Toronto.
That was how he met Esrever.
"Ez-rever?" Una tried to pronounce.
"A Winter Court Faerie," Emily recognized. "Mirror-Lord, walker behind the glass, master of reflections, the one with no self image. Creepy."
Esrever came to him in the shape of a long-dead Canadian boy, near his age. He had been following them, curious about these people who bore technology like mirrors, silver and shining... and had decided to introduce himself before there were none of them left to introduce himself to. That might still have been the case, if he hadn't departed for a moment, returning with an Orbital dermal mender. Zee was able to save his own life with that device.
"He said it was from a secret place that only he knew of," Zee explained. "A place of mirrors, and mirror-devices like mine. Our typical visual aesthetic of polished metal apparently appealed to him, and he'd found a cache of hypertech somewhere in Canada. He never told me exactly where, though. Fae can be secretive, even to their friends."
Friends they had become, as Esrever brought him to a human settlement... the Twin Cities. There was no other option. Having gone so far off course, the Orbitals wouldn't be able to find him, and he couldn't get a message up to them. He was a young boy, lost in our world, with little chance to get home.
"I had to repeat to myself that Optimism is to see hope in spite of counterexample. This phase of my life, this terrible phase of loss and pain, would pass. There was hope ahead of me. I took strength in that, in knowing that as bleak and lonely as matters seemed, with strength I could build from there into something better."
A teenager in the Twin Cities, with only a vague working knowledge of the culture he had hung over all his life, had few prospects. He took shelter in abandoned buildings, found food where he could, and healed injuries of the other homeless drifters using his precious dermal mender.
That was where the idea came from.
"I could not just drift through my days. I could not weep for loss. I had to make something of myself. I was skirting non-interference already, by healing the sick who lived with me in those abandoned structures... and one day, I decided that non-interference was causing me an ongoing pain. I could not sit idly by with the knowledge of healing I had, in a city full of pollutants, full of cancers, full of industrial accidents. It went against everything I believed in to let people suffer when I could DO something."
He needed to establish a healing center. A hospital. A clinic.
But he had no money, no paperwork, none of the things he needed to pull himself out of non-person status. Investors would be required, from what little he knew of this world's economy. So, using the library's free Internet kiosks, he posted a request for investments in 'miracle injury healing methods'.
"It was a word that my fellow drifters used, regarding my methods. 'Miracle'. A dangerous word, I knew; all Orbitals were taught the risks of interference in a culture, in how hypertech could rapidly develop into a false godhead, making us seem like saviors. It was anathema. But I knew the word would serve well as bait. It would draw out the curious."
Curious people, like Leonard Graves of Quicksilver Security.
Immediately, he did not like the man. Clearly he only responded to the ad because he happened to be in town, and was curious as to what sort of miracle 'some dirty little hobo boy' could come up with. But a demonstration of the hypertech dermal mender snared Graves's interest right away. At first, he offered to buy the device, but Zee refused.
"I made the mistake of telling him I had access to more devices like it, and I only needed money to help me start my clinic," Zee said. "I should have just given him the mender. I baited the hook too well."
The problem was one of confirmation. Now Graves knew that Zee was an Orbital.
He knew of them, apparently. It was a hobby of his, following the conspiracy theory of the Orbitals from trace incidents when they had visited Earth. "Just a little investigative work to pass the time between jobs," he'd dismissed... but Zee could see through him as well as Graves saw through Zee. This wasn't about seeking the truth of a mystery, it wasn't about medical devices. Graves wanted whatever weaponry such an advanced civilization could have created.
Zee attempted to cut off the deal immediately. It didn't matter if Esrever could actually find hypertech weapons from the crashed ship; allowing Earthlings to access such things would be inexcusable.
Graves then politely informed the boy that there were a dozen soldiers in the room with him, he was armed with nothing but a glorified first aid kit, and this was not a request. Either Zee would provide access, or they could make him provide access, or he could simply die on the spot and be the subject of an alien autopsy.
With little choice left, Zee called to his closest friend in this world, Esrever, by a ritual means they had agreed to before. Seeing Graves keeping Zee hostage at gunpoint did not endear him to the Winterfae. However, not wanting the 'Child of the Mirror People' harmed, Esrever complied.
"The way through his strange reflection-world had been darkened, from the few times I had visited. The way to the hypertech source was slow, unlike the rapid travel I undertaken in Esrever's kingdom previously. He was planning something, delaying the travel. Despite wanting no violence, not even against these dangerous men, I dared not show Esrever's hand."
The group arrived at their destination, dimly lit, but definitely a large chamber filled with hypertech.
"Esrever told me he couldn't connect his realm to any of our Mirror-Cities in the sky, they were too far away... so I assumed this was a crashed exploration vessel, what little could be seen of it. He didn't have the right words, and guarded the secret too closely for me to make a more accurate guess."
On arrival, his comrade's gambit was revealed immediately.
Shadowy, crouched figures had been lying in wait. They were Fae, wearing tattered clothing and possessed of an animal cruelty, lips curled into snarls. Winterhounds all, hunting beasts of the Winter Court, and Esrever had bargained for them to deal with the men who would threaten his friend. This he explained after pulling Zee back through the mirror and away from the mercenaries, leaving them to their fate in that dark place.
"They survived, unfortunately," Emily noted.
"It both relieves me and saddens me to hear that," Zee admitted. "Relief that I had not led men to their deaths. Sadness to know they got what they wanted in the end... weaponry of my people. You say you destroyed their hypertech?"
"It will not trouble this world any longer. Do not blame yourself for this," Una insisted.
With the humans 'dealt with', Esrever and Zee made a deal. No investors, no outsiders, nobody the pair couldn't trust. Esrever would simply steal human money for him, using his ability to connect through any reflective surface to make the thefts simple. Zee didn't like the sound of that, but went along with it only if they could 'pay back' the money with interest, once his clinic was running and turning a profit. He kept accurate logs of every place across the country that Esrever had stolen from, and within a year, the money was paid back.
"...and that's where I am now," he said. "The clinic has been running for two years. We've helped dozens of terminal cases, preventing death, extending life. The money we make helps fund our free health care programs, so the homeless of the Twin Cities can get adequate medical attention. Optimism is to see hope in spite of counterexample -- to make something wonderful out of something terrible. This city still has its problems, and I cannot save everyone... but I cannot sit by and do nothing. I would like to think my father would be proud of my accomplishments. ...I would like to think that Orbital society could overlook this interference in Earth's culture. Will they...?"
Una absorbed the story, taking a half a minute to consider. Not much more than that.
"By law, by every standard we live by, this is abominable and must be stopped. True, you are healing rather than harming, but those lives should have ended and would have ended naturally without your interference. You have reshaped the course of this world's progress. There is no tolerance for that act allowed. ...which is why I am not seeing any reason why the Orbitals need to be informed of this data. If the report of your crimes is simply lost, then it is as if they never occurred, yes?"
Zee sank back into the chair behind his office desk, visible relief washing over his body. "...yes. I suppose that would be true. ...thank you, Una. I am glad you were the one to find me..."
But Emily shook her head, no relief present in her expression. "I'm sorry to break up the festival of hugs and back patting, but I feel a burning need to play devil's advocate here," she said. "If all of this is on the level, if this guy is some kind of walking saint trying to heal the sick out of pure goodness and shiny rainbows and sparkles and such, okay, fine. I'm okay with that. Rules are meant to be broken when they're damn stupid rules."
"Ah, Miss Emily, I assure you that I--"
"Not done talking," she interrupted. "I'd just like to remind my starry eyed companion that in the course of hunting down the source of this hypertech, we've been given completely plausible and heartfelt stories designed to endear us to the teller, which turned out to be a load of crap. How can we trust this guy? Oh, I know, he's part of your enlightened heavenly society, totally truthful, and so on. I'd like to buy that. But I want more proof than a long and winding tearjerker of a tale."
Una actually looked upset. A rarity, for her. "Emily! I--"
"No. She's right."
Doctor Zee rose from his chair, waving off Una's attempt to defend him.
"She's right, Una. One thing I've learned since coming here is that Optimism is hard to maintain when lies are one of the great lubricants of Earth society," he explained. "But I find truth to be a good counteragent to lies. I would be happy to show Emily how I am using the hypertechnology, to soothe her concerns. I have a surgery this afternoon which she can observe, if she desires. I won't hide anything from you and I won't take offense to your doubts. Agreed?"
"Agreed. Also... we need to get in touch with Esrever. The whole reason we came here was to trace down the source of the hypertech. As you've seen... men like Graves can and will exploit it, even if you're not being an evil little bastard. The source has to be eliminated or this planet's going to see interference the likes of which you can't imagine. THAT Una will agree to, right?"
Una nodded, slowly. "She's right. We can overlook this hospital... but we have to destroy the source. Will Esrever take us to it? Knowing how he seems to idolize our 'mirror society'?"
Zee considered. "I.. think we'd better ask him directly. If you don't mind going to the bathroom with me...?"
Crowding four people into the doctor's personal lavatory was tricky business. It was a very bare bones bathroom... but with a very large mirror, well beyond what would be needed just for washing up and making sure your tie was on straight. Clearly it had been designed for the purpose of maintaining the link between the good doctor and his Winter Court backer. It was a private bathroom, allowing him to converse without being spotted, and with a heavy sink you could step up onto if you need to... walk through the looking glass, really.
Not that they were doing that now. This was just a getting-to-know-you session.
Zee removed an ice-blue candle from his medicine cabinet, which sat alongside a dozen similar ones. He placed it on the lip of the sink, a spot normally used to hold a soap tray, but clearly intended for the candle. It lit itself, casting a cold glow around the room, not a warm one in any respect.
"Esrever, Esrever, Esrever," he chanted. "I would have words with thee. Please, hear your friend."
"...y'know, I haven't met any particularly friendly Winterfae," Emily noted. "Are you sure this guy is--"
The mirror clouded over with frost. Not completely; just a large oval patch. Soon, a 'finger' traced out words in the ice.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE, it noted.
"They're friends, Esrever. It's okay."
WINTERHOUND. SUMMERWITCH. AND
--the writing paused, as if the unseen eyes were gazing upon Una.
hello mirrorchild, it continued.
"Ah, hello, sir," Una replied, bowing politely. "I am Una, of the Orbitals. We come in friendship, although our request may seem unusual..."
The ice, which had started to evaporate, reformed. I WILL ASSIST FRIENDS OF ZEE, the mirror traced out, letters resuming their previous boldness. WHAT IS YOUR REQUEST, UNA MIRRORCHILD?
"It's the hypertech, sir. We need to visit the source, and destroy it. You realize how dangerous it is, having those items in your world."
"I agree with this," Zee added. "It's okay, Esrever. I have everything I need already from your secret place. The rest can and should be done away with. It'll also help keep me secret, keep me safe."
The mirror's frost faded away, leaving only the reflection of the four looking at themselves. The Fae was considering it. Eventually, the oval reformed.
THINGS HAVE CHANGED. FINDING A NEW PATH WILL BE DIFFICULT. IT WILL TAKE TIME.
He added, A HEAVY PRICE MAY BE REQUIRED.
"Well, there you go. That's the Faerie Court for you," Emily half-groaned. "I'm surprised he did as much as he did for free. Usually you're up to your neck in debt and favors before you get a crumb from them..."
Extra frost formed, for a longer reply. IT IS NOT MY CHOOSING, SUMMERWITCH. IT IS SIMPLY HOW IT IS, NOW. I WILL DO WHAT I CAN. I WILL BE READY IN A DAY'S TIME. BE HERE. BE READY. O-K?
"O-K. Thank you, friend," Zee replied. "Be well. ...hmm. It's for the best that we have some time to wait. I have a patient visit and surgery to prepare for, which Emily has taken a keen interest in. Ah... I can likely sneak her in as a visiting doctor from out of town, but I doubt I can pass that story off for all three of you in the same place..."
"Oh, that's quite fine!" Una said. "I have other interests. Doctor, do you have access to a bioscan unit? I recently underwent some neural trauma, and would like to perform a self examination, to be certain there were no long lasting effects."
"Well... yes, there's one in special examination room three. But I can't spare time to help with a scan..."
"I am not a biologist, but I have used such tools before during a seasonal apprenticeship. I will be fine for a simple task such as this! Come along, Scout, let us not take up the good doctor's time. We shall reconvene in the eatery on the ground floor, later today!"
...oh yeah, Scout's in the room, Emily thought. I did it again. I let him fade to the background. Una didn't. I guess she's taking my request seriously to engage him more. ...I wish I hadn't ignored him ...wait, BRAIN scan?
"Scanning your brain is a simple task?" she asked, incredulous.
"I think you'll find, Miss Emily, that much you consider to be difficult is a trivial matter to an Orbital," Zee said, smiling. "So. Shall we see my patient, so I can demonstrate this fact to you?"
Zee had provided Una with a lab coat. It was enough of a disguise to get her around the hospital unimpeded, and given he trusted her not to cause mischief, she endeavored not to keep her curiosity about human medical centers from running wild. Just a quick inquiry about the location of 'special examination room three', followed by a brief journey there. While tugging Scout along.
He'd been quiet, far too quiet today. She wished he would speak, if only to hear his voice, but also to ensure his well being. Which indirectly played into her request. A little lie... or rather, only part of the truth.
The room was a fairly ordinary medical study chamber, human technology dominant... save for a simple silver disc on the floor in the corner, with a glass display screen nearby. It had been affixed to the wall by a metal arm, but Una knew that was a disguise. It would have floated there without issue if left alone.
"Excellent! I am familiar with this model," she said aloud, after closing the examination room door behind herself. "Its controls are simple, and I have some training in processing the output. Very well! We shall begin. Scout, would you please step upon the scanning unit?"
"...me?" he asked, puzzlement crossing his features. "You're the one with the neural damage."
"What, this little thing?" she asked, tapping the side of her head. "Honestly, I suspect no damage at all, and it would only take a moment to confirm that. A trifle I can attend to in time! First, I am curious as to your biology. Recall that I stated I was keen on assisting with your healing, yes?"
"There's nothing you can heal," he said. "Useless to try. I'm dead."
"Yes yes, so you say. If that is the matter, if it is so useless, then my attempt will be harmless, yes? So, up up, up you go!"
Scout found himself pushed along by the girl, who was actually muscling him over to the platform. Not that he was fighting back... he was too confused to really put up any sort of defense to it. He wobbled in place, before finding his footing on the small disc.
An ethereal series of tones sounded, as the unit began its scan. Silver light snaked up his body, a strange warmth that he hoped was indeed harmless (and useless). From his toes to the top of his head, it moved slowly... and then a warbly, broken clonking tone sounded as the display unit came to life.
"...well, clearly the Fae magic is confusing the display," Una said, trying to make sense of the strange symbols presented to her. "It seems to be telling me that there is both a massive system error and no error whatsoever. The pictographs are contradictory. Still, the basic scans are functioning! In my admittedly unskilled interpretation... your heart is not beating. You are indeed dead, in that regard."
"Told you," he reminded.
"But you are also alive!" she exclaimed, as if this was some huge revelation worthy of celebration. "Yes, your heart has been stopped, but somehow every other vital sign pulses with life. Your neural pathways are untroubled. Your digestive system is processing biomatter. Your reproductive system is healthy and functional."
"If I had to theorize... I would say you exist in a selective form of stasis," she decided. "Frozen a moment before true death, in a way that keeps you in a sort of... life-in-death."
Life-in-death. Just as Lady Winter had enjoyed calling his miserable state...
"You do not exhibit the biohazards of decomposing flesh. You are, for all intents and purposes, alive -- and despite your heart not beating, you are mobile and healthy. Much to your protest, I will declare you to be a living person; albeit one with magical maladies that are beyond my capabilities. Likely beyond Zee's, from what I know of our standard practice in case of terminal illness. Still... there is good news within the bad! ...does this not relieve you?"
"Doesn't really matter," he said, with a shrug. He stepped away from the machine, uncaring. "It is what it is. Alive, dead. I continue at the whim of Lady Winter. Science won't change that."
"That remains to be seen, Scout. I shall hold out hope!"
"Yeah. You tend to do that."
"Well, to unfortunately be callous, someone in our traveling troupe needs to do it," Una said, resting one hand on her hip, defiant. "Emily's mistrust and your despair require balance. I shall carry enough hope for all three of us!"
"...I'm not in despair," Scout mumbled. "You of all people can't know what--"
"You think I know nothing of pain and loss!?"
The sharp way she said that, without her bubbling upbeat tones, threw Scout for a moment. It was as if someone else was speaking. He considered replying, but had nothing of value to say in response.
Una glanced aside. "...apologies. I did not mean that to sound cruel. But... as much as I uphold the core of my belief, I think... sometimes you and Emily feel that I have nothing else but glee. This is not accurate. ...I have had unpleasant REM sleep cycles surrounding those events of Baltimore, as an example."
"Yes, that is the word. Intellectually I know that the event is over and done with... and I self-reinforce by putting the experience aside, in Optimist tradition," she said, meeting his eyes again. "But it may take some weeks for me to fully move through this. I have experienced pain and loss before. I recognize the patterns. They will make me stronger, in the end, if I allow despair to be a transitory state. ...I fear that you have decided the end of your process will be despair. That you will see nothing beyond it, Scout."
I think I'm learning, Emily.
Yeah. I think you are.
His body was not naturally very warm. Which made the warmth he felt quite strange. It couldn't exist, not truly, and had to be some sort of psychological effect. Nothing more. It would pass.
Scout found he didn't want it to pass.
A different warmth came as Una squeezed his hand. When had she held it? How long ago? Did he not notice?
"I will not despair for you, nor let you stay within despair if I can do anything about it," Una promised. "My dearest."
"...I think you should scan yourself now," Scout suggested. "We will want to catch up with Emily soon."
Una released his hand. She was looking away again.
"Yes... yes, I suppose that is true," she agreed. "It makes sense."
This must be what it's like to be Scout, Emily thought.
She was in the background. A figure that was accepted into the scene without question, but no attention paid to her. The white doctor's coat with the questionable status as a visiting physician it granted her was accepted by all those around her, by virtue of their completely ignoring her. No pointy hat to draw the eye. No bossy voice to command attention and respect. She was the wallflower, for a change.
For that matter, Doctor Zee was practically a wallflower as well. His "patient visit" was already in progress when he arrived at the comfortable hospital room. The child herself, chemotherapy having killed off her hair, was wearing a colorful knit cap to keep her head warm as she played with a stuffed giraffe.
But the doctor doing the consult was not Zee. From the badge, he was Doctor Stevens, a man in his fifties with salt and pepper hair and a serene disposition. Doctor Zee was, from the brief introduction Stevens offered, "an OR intern."
It was Stevens who explained that the therapy was not a guarantee, that they wouldn't know for sure if the cancer could be processed until the surgery was underway. Not that this mattered, the mother said in quiet tones, because there was no time and they were out of options. (She spelled the words, to obfuscate them, while her daughter played contently with Doctor Zee, who had brought a stuffed panda with him and kept the patient distracted in the mythical Background.) Nevertheless, it would be covered by the clinic's free treatment program, please sign these forms, initial here, and so on.
Emily followed the two doctors and various orderlies as the bed was wheeled down the hallway. Some faces grim, some with hope. The 'miracle' of the terminal case treatment center was always tempered with realism. Which seemed strange to her; surely this hypertech cure was infallible? Zee had said that what seemed difficult to a human would be trivial to an Orbital. Why the concern...?
In the background she remained, through elevators, through freshly renovated hallways. Deep into the building, past numerous other operation rooms where more routine surgery was taking place. Into a room with dim lighting... plenty of medical equipment around, but it was scattershot, almost like window dressing. The light had been focused on an egg-shaped bed, a silver egg. Hypertech.
After the anesthetized girl had been transferred into the egg, the orderlies left. And so did Doctor Stevens. The transition from background to foreground was practically tangible, when they were the only people left... aside from a set of six OR assistants, in full scrubs with concealing surgical masks and eye protection. They were the new background.
"I'm too young," Zee explained, once they had emerged from the fog of non-person. He was busy scrubbing up in the side room, illustrating to Emily how to do the same. "They'd never believe I was the one behind the core of this clinic's work. Stevens and a few others help me maintain the front. It's all camouflage."
"Otherwise it'd be like walking into an Eastusa city wearing a pointy hat," Emily realized.
"Exactly. People only put trust in what's familiar to them. It's strange... humans have lived alongside Fae for over two centuries now, but they don't turn to Fae magic when their health is failing. My science would likely be mistaken for magic, so I hide it behind mundane technology."
"People don't trust magic. There's no promise that a clever enough person could take magic apart and figure it all out," Emily explained, as she washed up. "It's bunk, of course. Magic has a science to it, maybe right even down to the, what's it called, subquartomic level or some such. But it's got a mystique around it, one the Fae gleefully enforce with all sorts of glamour and silly business. Keeps the yokels spooked."
Now properly sterilized, they entered the operating room.
Doctor Zee didn't have much to do, physically; the technicians handled the heavy work of making connections between the egg-bed and an identical one wheeled in from another room. They connected various 'mass capacitors', from the looks of them, much larger than the tiny thing that Una had once unplugged from her jetpack to show Emily. All Zee had to do was play orchestra conductor... fingers tapping at buttons on a glass control panel, making adjustments, preparing.
"In interest of being honest, I'm going to tell you the secret of my so-called 'miracle'," Zee said. "I can't cure cancer. Not a lick of it."
"Most Orbital healing technology is focused on two areas. One, remediating simple ailments and injuries. Two... full body biological replacement. Clone growth and consciousness transfer. When something like cancer or grievous injury occurs, we don't fix what's there, because often times we have no idea how. Why would we need to know, when we can simply dodge the issue...?"
"Wait, wait," Emily protested... even as her fears were confirmed, a pinkish mass starting to form in the second bed. One taking on human shape. "You... GROW a copy of someone, then dump their brains into it!? That's the trick?"
"No, no. ...let me be very precise, because I realize how offputting the idea is when you don't have all the facts," Zee quickly began. "Growing human biology, even brains, is a simple matter. But all you get is inert flesh, capable of absolutely nothing beyond involuntary life processes. Consciousness can't be created from nothingness. Artificial intelligences are just that, artificial, not truly alive. Do you follow? A clone is empty. It is only alive in the sense a tree is alive."
"I know some trees that would object to that," Emily said dryly.
"Only a full-scale neural transfer will turn an empty clone into a truly living person as you or I would define it. To put it in religious terms, since those invariably arise... we aren't God. We can't create a soul from dust, and to pretend otherwise is unthinkably dangerous. But we can move the mind around, pouring from one extremely similar vessel to another, to save it from falling away. One vessel dies in the process, unable to sustain without its neural matrix; the other truly comes alive as consciousness takes root in a new home. ...look! It's happening now!"
The process was rapid. Now, there were two of the patient... one unhealthy, failing. The other pristine but lifeless. She even had her original hair back. Red, like mine, Emily thought absently.
Doctor Zee keyed in a final sequence of codes... and a white flash of light made Emily see spots. The healthy girl was now breathing, and sleeping peacefully... while the other lie still at last.
"...I can't... I mean... okay," she said, trying to figure her way through this. "I can't even begin to fathom the bottomless pit of philosophical horrors you just described to me."
"To be fair, neither can the Orbitals," Zee said. "It's a frequent topic of debate. But when given a choice between the abyss and continued life... many choose this. Some don't. Either way, the decision is respected."
"So you DO inform your patients of what they're in for, right...?"
"Absolutely. I am being fair with you, Emily, honest and forthright," he promised. "I cannot be anything but honest and forthright with my clients. They sign non-disclosure agreements, of course, even if they decline the procedure. The miracle needs to remain a secret. But many have already turned to other failed methods, some adventurous ones even looking to the Fae. In the end, the ones who are desperate enough or determined enough will proceed. None of them have complained of feeling like anything other than who they are afterwards."
No matter how uneasy the prospect of the 'cure' made her, Emily was glad to hear that. If he was creating Frankenstein's monster without informed consent, well, that'd drop him squarely into the same category with cackling mad scientists that the peasants typically attacked with pitchforks and torches. As is, he was merely highly suspect.
"...what do you do with the old body?"
"It varies, depending on patient request... but most of the time, respectful incineration. The organs usually are unsuitable for donation to patients in need. I certainly don't harvest it for crazed genetic experiments, if that's what you're wondering."
"Thought hadn't crossed my mind," she lied. "Alright. Two more questions to determine if you're a psychotic madman drunk with power or simply someone with good intentions and amazingly spooky methods. One... why did Doctor Stevens say the procedure isn't always effective? Do some bodies reject the transfer?"
"Uh. Then, why...?"
"Camouflage. The need for secrets. Because--"
"Because a miracle can't be too miraculous, or else people will start asking hard questions," Emily finished, Insight suiting her. "I get it. Some have to die. Otherwise, they'd worship you like some kind of saint, or they'd steal your hypertech and control it like Graves did, or who knows what? ...but... if that's the case, if you need some failures-- no. Wait, you said you didn't want to sit idly by--!"
"I don't! I wouldn't... no. I would never pretend someone was incurable when I could cure them. I wouldn't let them die," Zee clarified. "Instead... I find patients who want to start a new life. I can sneak them out under another name, and say the original patient expired -- complete with a dead body as flawless proof -- and compensate as generously as I can manage for the trouble. ...the failure rate is still lower than I'd like, drawing attention, but the alternative is unthinkable. Unacceptable."
"Alright, then. It's your problem to deal with, as long as you aren't being neglectful. The last thing I'm wondering about... are them. The oompah loompahs."
"Sorry. Old movie my Nana loved. I mean them," she said, gesturing to the multiple O.R. techs who were, in the background, tidying up the room... including wheeling away the sealed egg that contained the former shell of the patient. "Because I can't help but notice they're all the same height and the same build. Oddly enough... your height and build."
"...ah. That is.. another matter."
"Honest and forthright," she reminded him, waving a finger.
"No no, I will be. ...you've seen the lengths I go to to conceal the secret. Even my colleagues who pose as me in the 'front office' I keep carefully in the dark, at great expense. That does not mean I can go without help in the 'back office'. Without them, I could not--"
"You cloned yourself to make your little helpers."
"I.. suppose that would be accurate," Zee said, fidgeting in place.
"You said you couldn't make a soul!"
"I can't!" he protested. "But I did say artificial intelligence was possible. Artificial, but possible. They are... organic machines, nothing more. They have the most limited task-focused intelligence I could create using these tools... they know nothing beyond how to assist me in my work."
"They're six inches away from lightning coils, neck bolts, and cackling during a thunderstorm!"
"I know not of these 'neck bolts' of which you speak, but they are totally harmless. It's my genetic code to do with as I please -- I exploit myself, and no one else. A dozen or so of them stay quietly in special quarters the rest of the time, and need only subsist on a specially prepared cube of compatible biomatter now and then. It is the only way I could ensure a fully trustworthy, secret-keeping staff to handle the hypertech. ...I have always intended them to be temporary, once I could find trustworthy persons. But I worry. I play it very conservatively. You have seen the dangers when hypertech ends up in the wrong hands. I will not cause any more pain than I already have!"
Emily rubbed at her forehead, feeling the headache coming on. This was beyond her, completely beyond her...
"I'm not gonna bother passing judgment on what you're doing here," she decided. "There's fifty glittery little failure-points where it could collapse around you, but... I'll admit that if we shut down your operation, it'd be worse than a failure. Failure means you tried and screwed up. We stop this, and you don't even get to try -- people simply die because they never get a chance at a future. Jeez... this is craziness incarnate, but... fine. I'll thumbs-up your freaky experiments into what horrors man hath wrought. Just don't expect me to ask for a new body when I get the sniffles. That's not my way."
"It's your decision, of course," Zee said, swinging the glass control panel aside. "We should rejoin your companions. So, you will recommend to Una to leave my hypertech be...?"
"Hey, it's your bed to lie in, not mine," Emily said. "We've got bigger fish to fry. It's the original cache that worries me. ...Esrever said 'things have changed'. Did you know that a Summer Court witch had access to hypertech? This isn't just about the infection vector linking Graves to you, no way. So, I'll leave you to tend to your own soul. There's something nastier afoot. ...oh. One thing. You know the boy we came here with?"
"The quiet one? Yes, what of him?"
"Don't try this on him," Emily said, gesturing to the cloning eggs. "I'm hoping Una has more sense than to suggest it, but if she does, turn her down. It's probably just my Insight, but I think we don't want to see what happens when the darkest magic of the Winter Court butts heads with the science of the Orbitals. Not unless we're three miles away and behind lead shielding."
Unease is a common feeling in a hospital. Patients waiting for test results, doctors trying to pin down the cause for an ailment, visitors hoping all will be well with their loved ones. To be in a hospital is to be in an ongoing state of unease about your immediate future.
Scout was uneasy. Even aside from his issues of self control over his Winterhound self, issues he was trying to grapple with now that he wasn't hunting solo and had good reason to pay attention to them... Una seemed keen on unsettling him, on pushing those boundaries of emotional control. But beyond her prodding and poking, there was that odd moment where he felt what she no doubt would immediately label as "hope"... and his first instinct was to flee and rejoin Emily.
Una was uneasy. She had been trying, trying and trying to reach Scout, as she had promised she would to Emily... and as she wished to do so, herself. A wish growing in impatience by the hour, it felt! But something about it wasn't ringing true. The awkwardness wasn't just in his skewed reactions... something inside her told her it was wrong for other reasons. --no! Hope for a wonderful tomorrow, that is the way! Any feelings of wrongness are just Pragmatic conservatism. The bold move forward! ...even if they feel strange when doing so, like they must tiptoe forward.
Emily was uneasy. First of all, an alien had just challenged everything she knew about existence, consciousness, and even the human soul. Of course, such 'transfers' were possible with some of the stranger and darker Fae magics, but... that didn't make them any less strange and dark. Was it right? Was it her place to declare it right or wrong, when she wasn't the one staring down the barrel of a tumor-loaded gun? Shove it all and flee back to what she knew, that was the only way...
Zee was uneasy. He had to prove his life's work to these strangers, had to justify the things he had done... when even he himself never felt fully comfortable with it. There was no choice, he had to go on, because to do otherwise would be to remove what little safety net he could provide this world. Such a waste it would be, to do nothing when he could do something! They would let him continue, he trusted, even if they had reservations... but having to reveal so much, to face up to it and need to examine it again himself, wasn't comfortable by any means.
The unease was not helped by macaroni and cheese and hospital gelatin from the cafeteria they were currently sitting in. The desserts wobbled with uncertainty, for instance. The cheese looked suspect. All was bleakness and despair, particularly the pasta, which was tough and rubbery. It was a grim metaphor of microwaved dining, truly.
Una was the first to break the silence.
"This is unacceptable!" she declared.
"I know. It's a mortal sin to charge five bucks for this crap," Emily grumbled, letting some of the orangey-yellow starch tubes plop off her spoon back into the bowl.
"The unacceptability extends beyond the food," Una clarified. "I speak instead of the mood that has settled about us. Friends! We are united behind good causes, and what's more, I have discovered one of my countrymen! This should be a time for joyous celebration, not misgivings! ...I would like to make a proposal, which should assist greatly."
"The fish special?" Emily guessed.
"No! I speak of... THIS!"
And the cheaply printed flyer she had torn off a community bulletin board outside the cafeteria was slapped down on the table, like the throwing down of a gauntlet.
Emily leaned across her dinner tray, to read it. "One night only, post-curfew horror movie marathon at the Theatres at the Mall of America. Doors close at eight PM sharp, reopen at eight AM. You'll scream until you drop. ...uh. I'm not really in the mood for screaming, Una."
"Ah, but horror movies are part of the lexicon of teen relations, and our varying ages from eighteen to twenty fall within the proper brackets for such activity!" Una said, seemingly brightening the table itself with her sudden cheer. "Horror is false danger, which helps us process and deal with real dangers in our lives, in cathartic reaction. It is tension relief, and you no doubt agree that there is far too much tension here. So! We shall journey forth, and cavort with our demographic peers, as teens of old once did in ancient times!"
"I was never a teen from this world's ancient times," Zee reminded.
"I hate movies with rubber monsters," Emily grumbled.
"I don't have fun," Scout noted.
"Given the alternative is to return to our respective residences and mope while waiting for Esrever's reply, I myself am going whether you are or not," Una declared, folding her arms. "I originally came to this planet to enjoy its culture up close, instead of from afar, and I intend to do that even amidst the 'Serious Business' as your Internets describe! Emily, you wish to help Scout transition from being a lone wolf to a social creature? This is the method! Zee, no doubt your life consists of little aside from your work, yes? This is an escape! So! Friends! Are you with me?!"
The shells slumbered in their steel crypt. Empty bodies, warm and inviting... not hollowed out, not exactly. They were never filled with the spark of life in the first place. Such ideal conditions!
It was so easy, like slipping into a suit of soft clothing. The Hungry Ones took hold effortlessly. They were shown the way to their new accommodations, channeled through the spirit-sky on this eve of chill and darkness... a path illuminated by the one who rules over all things frozen and dead...
Tonight, there would be eating, and murder.
"I can see the zipper," Emily complained.
"Shhh!" a girl in the row behind her hissed.
"Look, they didn't even blend the makeup in at the edges. You can see his ears--"
Emily grumbled, and sank deeper into her seat. No amount of popcorn and icy beverages was worth this, she had pre-decided. "The People Eaters" was so deep in the hole that if she had three thumbs to rate it down with, she would.
The problem wasn't just with the movie, though. It was the company. Somehow, in the darkened theatre, they had managed to get split up, with Una and Scout sitting alone two rows behind and Zee and Emily off to the side. That meant she was surrounded by her so-called 'peers'. Emily rarely felt like she had peers. Not in a "I'm more awesome than you" sense, just in a "I can't relate to you" sense.
The girls from her ye olde country village weren't her peers... not anymore, at least. They were barely at the edge of memory now, anyway, aside from Jesse. Nobody from her Witching School counted, absolutely, positively not. Especially Jesse. Few folks she'd met along the way when she journeyed out on her own counted... most of them were either running in terror from the pointy hat, trying to light her on fire, or throwing rocks. Whee.
...actually, in retrospect, this crowd had treated her nicer than most of those people combined by virtue of ignoring her in favor of watching the screen. Here she was, surrounded by young adults from all walks of urban living, and she was just another one of them. ...kind of comforting, actually.
Dammit. Emily hated it when Una was right.
Even Zee was relaxing, judging from how he whispered to Emily about why the (obviously latex) organs being pulled out of someone's abdomen by fleshy claws had been arranged in all the wrong places and were all the wrong colors. ...a play-by-play which was kind of fun, actually.
Dammit dammit. She didn't WANT to be having fun! It had been a day of stress and decisions and strange new concepts that needed heavy thinking, not... not sitting around with the bread-and-circuses crowd cheering as naughty teenagers who snuck off to drink and smoke and have sex got beheaded by lawnmower blades! (Even if they totally deserved it for being a bunch of ill-dressed strumpets chasing after empty headed manwhores.)
Like it or not (she didn't want to like it, even if she did in fact like it very much) this was going to be her activity for the next eight hours or so, between naps in a special crash room in Theatre Three. The curfew had fallen shortly after the four of them arrived; the streets would be barren now, patrolled by roving citizen watch vehicles.
Staying indoors for an all night movie marathon was how young people in this town defied both the city authority AND the nebulous menace of the Winter Court, who occasionally stalked the streets at night. It was a way they could feel alive, together, in the dark.
...which made her like it even more. Curse you, Una. She made it hard to get properly witchy and grumbly about things.
Speak of the devil.
"Have you seen Scout?" Una whispered, leaning over some movie patrons to talk. She was holding a box of popcorn in each hand, one clearly intended for him. "He is no longer in his seat... did he leave?"
"Well... maybe he had to use the bathroom?" Emily guessed. "Look, go back to your seat before someone steals it, and I'll head out and look for him. He can't have gone far, the mall's a big place, but it's shut for the night. This won't take long."
"Are you sure? Maybe I should come with you--"
"I need a break, anyway. ...oh, and, uh. ...um. ...thanksforsuggestingthemovie."
"I said I'll be back before the next movie's up. Zee, don't go nowheres, either."
Slip through the canyons of metal and stone. Not yet, not yet, they were warned, the leash tugged away whenever they were drawn to the lights that skittered about. The one you want is not there. You will be shown where the one that slipped away is hiding, so that you may finish a meal begun long ago...
The theatre playing endless scenes of teenage wastrels being gnawed on by toothy things from the grave may have been as dark as the night beyond, but the Mall itself was alive with light.
It was the largest manmade structure Emily had ever been inside, and it made Harbor Place in Baltimore look like a sad little flea market. Four floors, shaped like circular rings around a giant open-air amusement park in the center, were lined with shops and restaurants and more.
In fact, Una had spent the time prior to the curfew shutdown of the mall shopping rather than heading straight for the movie festival -- she felt less of a need to hide her jetpack and its questionably larger on the inside than outside luggage storage compartment when several of the shoppers were visiting Faeries.
Una looked downright normal next to them -- the Fae were also young, which meant flamboyantly human clothing, anti-authority punk against the pomp and circumstance of the higher Court members. Unfortunately, they dressed worse than Una did, and this was a woman who picked out clothing based on how "interesting" it was rather than how appropriate it was.
(Emily had even picked up a "WELCOME TO TWIN CITIES" snow globe when nobody was looking, ringing it up at the register after Una had moved on to obtain yet more shoes. Not that she could keep the fragile thing when flying about on a broomstick from city to city, but she'd have enough time to memorize it so that it could appear in her FaePlace. Why she wanted to remember this filthy pit of a city she didn't know, but she'd bought it anyway.)
So, even though the mall spanned four circular floors and one basement featuring a massive walk-through aquarium... once curfew went up the only place actually open was the theatre. The rest had been shuttered down for the night. Given he wasn't in the theatre lobby, or in the restroom (although she only dared a peek, not proper to stare at boys like that), he was likely downstairs by the one entrance that remained unbarricaded. Not that anybody would be leaving, but sometimes the kids would step outside to have a smoke anyway.
It felt good to be out in the light. Something about the theatre's dark had given her a sudden urge to relocate.
One quick elevator ride later, and she was with Scout. He was leaning on a railing, looking out at the still-life amusement park, its roller coasters depowered and its various whirl-and-puke attractions neither whirling nor puking. She stepped up next to him quietly, assuming a place on the railing as well, propping up one leg against it.
"Colorful, huh?" she observed. "Bet it'd look cool in motion."
"Ah, right, you don't have fun," Emily smirked to him. "Y'know, if we end up in town more than today, I should drag your ass back here in daylight. Roller coasters can be exciting, I'm told. Always wanted to try riding one. I'm sure it doesn't compare to stalking wild zebra or whatever it is you do in the forest, but you never know..."
"...why do you two keep doing this?"
"This," Scout repeated, gesturing to the fun park. "Trying to make me do human things."
"Uh. That'd be because you're human, Scout. This is one of those A to B logic things--"
"I'm not. I'm dead. I'm something else."
"Something you don't want to be, yes? I'm pretty sure we covered that ground."
The boy had no reply to that, likely because it was true. Instead he resumed gloomily looking at the kiddie funpark.
"Y'know, you don't get to have it both ways," Emily chided. (Scout needed a guiding hand, but a firm one. She'd decided that days ago.) "Either you're some 'graarghraafllesnarl!' beastie of the Winter Court that tears things apart on a whim, or you're an aspiring human who wants to do what it takes to man up. Dancing around in the middle's worked well for you so far -- 'I'm not a wolf' letting you stay true to your code, 'I'm not a human' letting you avoid anything uncomfortable. You can be whichever you feel like. Well, I'm not gonna allow that anymore, got it?"
...did.. Scout just smile? It was a brief flash. Maybe it was just the glaring lights of the mall.
"You're very different from Una," he said. "Similar, but different. Rougher."
Emily scoffed. "Yeah, well, we can't all be Little Miss Pretty Perfect Panties..."
"She's not like that. She hurts."
"Oh, really? Pull the other one, it's got bells on--"
"I'm serious. I'm always serious," he reminded her. "You shouldn't look down on her."
"...I don't. Honestly, she is a friend, I just... y'know. I'm just being flippant," Emily apologized, backing off. "Let's bring this back to you, okay? You want to be human, yes/no?"
"Yes." No pause, no hesitation, just confirmation from Scout.
Emily stepped away from the railing. "Then let's get your ass upstairs and engage in horrible, horrible movies with your fellow humans. I swear I'm gonna get you a life even if it kills me."
Scout didn't move. Not a muscle.
The young witch rolled her eyes. "Oi, let's get going--"
Not a command, not a rebuke, just... what had to be. Emily silenced quickly.
Something was wrong. She could feel it without knowing how or why. Scout had picked up on it before she had, that's why...
...nothing should move that quietly. Moving that quietly was almost like a siren's wail in and of itself. She could see the figures running at the glass doors, the only unbarricaded entrance to the mall, clearly pounding feet on pavement of the parking lot hard enough to leave dents. Gaunt figures, emaciated, horrible... and all bearing the same face...
Scout was in action a moment before she was, as before. He slammed his shoulder into a long bench, shoving it up against the doors just before they impacted, sending fractured chunks of safety glass into the mall. And THEN the howling was finally audible.
Her spellbook snapped open in an instant, instinct bringing her to the section she needed. "!!" Emily yelled, touching the nearest trash can with her free hand. Garbage spilled out as it flew through the air, guided by a thought, to add itself to the barricade Scout had begun. " ..." Chairs. Tables. Anything within reach, anything with some heft to it. She had to be careful to maneuver the objects around Scout, busy using his own blinding speed to stack item after item...
Soon, the wiry arms of the Wendigoes were trying to pry away the objects. Unsuccessfully... for now. Only for now.
"Winterfae," Scout recognized, stepping back to join her. "A dozen of them. All identical humans. They look like--"
"I know. And I know why. Dammit, DAMMIT. I hate being right as much as I hate being wrong," Emily hissed. "We need to warn the others. Then we've got work to do if we're going to survive tonight."
There wasn't enough time for a proper council of war -- they had a matter of minutes, hopefully in the double digits, before the enemy stormed the gates. Still, this was going to take coordination. Step one was to pulling Zee and Una out of the theatre into the quiet lobby, and then tell them in honest and reasonable terms exactly what was happening.
"The Good Doctor's clones are here to eat everybody in the building," Emily explained. Her glare at Zee could carve holes in sheet rock. "You say you fed them 'compatible' biomatter, correct?"
"...er.. what? Wait, what--"
"Y-Yes, it's.. well, for maximum concentrated nutritional needs, I created their protein supplements using my own genome," Zee explained quickly. "Um. ...is that bad?"
"Oh, gee, let me check. You create a dozen empty, soulless human bodies, you feed them human flesh or some scientific equivalent thereof. A pack of pissed off Wendigoes -- spirit Fae who possess and mutate cannibals into walking murder machines! -- Wendigoes who you escaped years ago for some reason drop in on you tonight, and what do they find but the most flawless weapon of revenge imaginable. Yes, that is bad! Didn't your father study these things?! Were you paying attention?"
"Wendigoes? Here?! ...we'd heard about the whole 'evil spirits' myth, but figured it was... err, primitive superstition..."
"Right. Well, now we've got a dozen superstrong, lightning fast primitive superstitions here to eat Zee and likely everybody else that they happen to find, including a theatre full of horror movie buffs," Emily continued.
"Run for it!" Zee suggested.
"They're pounding on the mall entrance doors right now. No dice."
"The mirrors, then! ... except Esrever's busy searching his reflection space for us and won't be back until... oh, no..! Can we fly out the window? Una, your jetpack--"
"And leave behind a theatre full of human popcorn for them, Doctor?"
Emily paused in her scorn, when she saw how much Zee was shaking. Okay. Maybe she'd been a bit harsher than she should have. This was his fault, yes, but at the same time this was the menace that ate his entire family...
Taking on a more reassuring voice, she got down to business. "I have a plan," she said up front. "No arguments, no panic, no TALKING, just listen to me. We can sort this out. Scout and I are going to kill-- no. We are going to try to kill these things and likely just slow them down a bit."
Una spoke up. "I have my defensive firearm in my jetpack's storage. I will assist you in the fight, correct?"
"No. You can do more good here. In the time we're buying while holding off the nasties, Una, you are going to personally jetpack as many people as you can to safety through the nearest window. Next, Zee... you know this city's people and you're a more accomplished liar. Can you impersonate a Citizen Watch patrol type guy and keep the crowd calm while Una does her work? Make sure they don't try to get out through the mall itself?"
Zee worked his mouth up and down. "I... I don't know, I mean--"
"Yes or no!"
"Y-Yes. I mean, not much choice, so... yes. ...assuming I can keep myself calm. Yes. I'll do it."
"Good. We'll --SCOUT! Atten-SHUN!"
The boy froze, in the middle of slipping away.
"You are not going to try and solo these bastards in hand to hand combat," she ordered.
"...this is what I do," Scout reminded her. "The Wild Hunt. I can feel them, Emily. I must hunt the hunters. It's--"
"Yes, that's very nice for you, but use your damn brains! This is a puzzle, not a brawl! Let's say you play bloodcrazed Lone Wolf and gut a few Wendigoes with your bare hands... then one rips you in half. You lie dead on the floor while the rest of them nosh on our spicy brains. Oh sure, YOU wake up awhile later fresh as a daisy, but I prefer my brains unnoshed! Scout, think less like a Winterhound, and more like a SCOUT. Be your own master!"
One set of words led to another set of words within his memories, ones spoken years before. Despite their age, they rang out just as pure and true as Emily's wisdom.
You master yourself, and you'll be able to find peace one day. Swear it on my honor.
...Scout pushed through the battle-instinct, the pulsing of his unpulsing heart that sang kill kill kill, and... agreed. "...a puzzle. We can use traps. Ambushes. Frontliner strategy. There's a wildlands survival supply shop on the third floor. I'll get a scoped rifle; Scouts are trained snipers. Precision weapons. But we'll also need some munitions, explosives, nothing incendiary or the mall burns around us... right. Good. I've done this before. This will work. Wait here, and--"
"Nuh-uh. I'm coming with you."
"No. You'll die," Scout noted. "I won't let that happen."
"Well then, if you won't let that happen, I've got nothing to fear, do I? Besides... you haven't seen me in my element," she said... cracking her knuckles, before flipping through her spellbook. "You give a witch enough time to prepare, and she can hold off an army of angry villagers waving torches!"
The inside-space the food lusted for was awkward to them, confining. The Hungry Ones already felt confined enough in these fleshy forms, even after adapting them to their needs. Confinement-withinin-confinement would be agonizing. Hunt on the plains of their ancestors, across the frozen wastes, that was the way of the Wendigo -- but their long lost food lie within the inside-space, this vast shaped cave. The hunger mattered more than the discomfort.
The Whisper of Ice told them the way, led them to the flesh-eater forms they now wore, spoke of how to avoid the food that would fight back and delay them, instructed them to hide in shadows until they reached this place... and at last, to enter this place, and devour the missing meal. If only they could get IN--!
The barricade gave way after a half hour of scrabbling, pushing, and ramming the doors at full speed. Copies of Doctor Zee, twisted by the Wendigo curse, poured into the gap. Despite being "human" in shape, their limbs and joints were hypergrown, bones visible through taut-drawn skin, fresh blood pooling around them from the cuts received during the gateway assault... dripping red as they prowled the foyer, sniffing the air.
The meat was high above!
Climbing was out of the question; it might have been possible, but to do that you'd need a working knowledge of man's architecture, where the footholds could be, where you might be able to grasp and swing. It was all a pile of incomprehensible stone and metal to them. Even the elevators were foreign and unrecognizable (not that this had stopped Scout from slicing the cables with a torch from the hardware store, dropping them to the ground floor as a precaution.)
But the primitive sloping inclines, the 'stairs', these could be used. The pack howled in joy, spotting the way up, loping and lumbering and scampering--
On setting foot on the stairs, they flew out from beneath the mangled feet of the Wendigoes. The stairs, more aptly named 'escalators' ignored their default mechanical state thanks to a well placed Animate spell, and were now running downhill at Unsafe Speed. Wendigoes piled up at the bottom, hurtled backwards each time they tried to climb... until finally the mechanism gave out, and the escalator failed in a catastrophic manner, parts and step segments and belts flying free.
It was a momentary distraction. Which was all it was meant to be, really.
The Animated products from the fine people at Sweet Cravings Kitchen waiting for them on the second floor, now, THAT was more of a threat.
With the Wendigoes in 'sight', they became a deadly cloud of stainless steel. Knives advertised as being able to cut a tin can in half were able to slice right through arms and legs of the gaunt beasts -- a cloud of carving blades slammed into another Wendigo's chest, turning it into a glittering pincushion. Even the crockery got in on the action, cookpots slamming over heads to obscure vision, soup ladles banging mercilessly on them to drive a ringing clamor eight feet into the Wendigo's eardrums.
This had more of an effect. One Wendigo, its left leg lopped off at the thigh and right foot chopped away at the ankle, dropped and started thrashing on the floor helplessly...
...until the fallen one was devoured on the spot by the remaining beasts, their flesh healing itself when supplanted by the meat of scientifically grown clone bodies. Knives were pulled out, pots knocked aside. Now, there were eleven of them.
The next wave of defense came from Just Play It! Sporting Goods. Animate bowling balls were first, one bounding off the tile floor and impacting into the chest of a Wendigo hard enough to shatter its rib cage; others simply tripped or stunned the monsters. Lawn darts were next, little vicious things that went right for the eyes, tiny geysers of blood spurting on impact. Jumpropes snarled around legs, while croquet mallets beat down anybody on the floor, some taking time to pound sharpened U shaped gate stakes into their backs.
The assault disabled only one of them, too blinded to proceed. He was promptly devoured. All told, the chaos and the eating did slow them down enough for Emily to finish one last trick up ahead, before flying off the edge on a freshly stolen and enchanted broomstick, to rejoin Scout above.
Snarling in anger, the Wendigo loped forward, picking up the pace. It was perfectly clear between here and the next staircase, with only the black and white tile floor of the Food Court in their way. The first one took a step in that ring of culinary workstations--
The Shock enchantment spell is applied to discrete objects, and the electricity only discharges when the object comes into contact with another living thing. Much to Emily's delight, it seemed that each little square tile of flooring counted as a discrete object.
The effect was like walking into an electric minefield. She'd left no recognizable pattern to which square was "lit" and which one was safe -- she didn't have to, since she had been hovering on a broom while setting the traps.
Watching from one floor up, Emily let out a cheer to see the blue sparks of lightning snarl from Wendigo to Wendigo. This, now THIS worked well. It was an attack to the nervous system, the core of the bodies they used. With voltage rammed up your spine to fry your brain, the meat would be useless, even if the Fae spirits could've gone on. Two of them dropped dead on the spot, limbs twitching and crisping up nicely. The others caught on, leaping past the minefield, onto the stairwell itself. And thus, there were eight of the original dozen remaining.
The third floor seemed clear. The pack moved on, more cautiously this time, instinct-minds finally cluing in that the opposition was devious and a clear floor may not mean much.
The braincase of a Wendigo splattered across a wall, the explosive-tipped sniper round fired from across the mall's open courtyard taking off half its head.
Howling in rage, the creatures broke into a run. More shots snapped off, hitting arms, one scraping a back, but they were moving with superhuman speed now. Explosions triggered around them, grenades on tripwires, which knocked them about even with the rapid movement through these death-gates. One Wendigo was hurled over the railing, screaming as it flailed through the air -- crashing spine-first against the indoor roller coaster track, an audible CRACK sounding as it was broken in half.
The final series of blasts toppled a portion of the fourth floor onto their heads. 'A portion' meaning a full fifth of the Mall of America's fourth floor. The dust cloud kicked up by falling rubble, the deafening noises of collapsing structures, those alone would've been enough to knock them flat... being buried under hundreds of pounds of debris did the rest.
Emily peered up from behind the sandbags, while Scout kept his rifle trained on the cloud.
"Did that do it?" she asked, immediately wishing she hadn't said that, because people who say that usually see that it did not in fact do it.
Six shadowy shapes were slowly pulling free from the wreckage. Scout picked off one of them with his rifle, then set it aside, out of the expensive explosive ammo. Regular bullets wouldn't do much here.
"It'll have to be enough," he said. "They'll be up to the theatre soon. We need to fall back."
"...Scout? I don't have a Plan B," Emily said, in a smaller voice. "I was kind of counting on Plan A here. Can you fight off five of the things by yourself...? Maybe with Una providing fire support?"
I want to, Scout thought. He still had the itch to go tangle with them in true Winterhound fashion, even when his Frontliner training told him that would be suicide. I want to fight. Want to kill. Bathe in their blood. Howl. Dominate and conquer--
"No," Scout said. "You were right. I could take a few and then I'd be killed. ...we need a Plan B? ...hmm."
"We could burn down the mall?"
"It'd take too long. Una might not have all the hostages out yet."
"The building has a basement aquarium. We could let the sharks eat them."
Scout looked at her. "You want to face Wendigo-sharks? The fallen ones still have spirits out there, seeking ravenous flesheaters to possess ...Hmm. Drown them, maybe. Or..."
His eyes drifted down to the Food Court, and its enchanted tiles.
Two minds clicked as one. The snarling, murderous Winterhound and the calculating soldier. There was possibility for slaughter here that would satisfy them both.
"Theatre, now. We need Zee. And you need to copy a spell," he said.
Eat them! Devour them! Curse them!!
A Wendigo is not naturally an angry thing. It just moves and eats. Its body language is easily interpreted as rage, when really, it's just ravenous hunger.
When you've got them ravenously hungry AND utterly enraged, then you're really in for it.
The five remaining Wendigoes devoured what parts of the bodies they could find in the mess. They would need the strength to carry on, to finally assault the food they had been waiting years for. Other food was around the main course... it would be a feast. Blood to drink and muscle to tear and bones to crack...! But they would eat slowly, keeping the food alive and in pain, for the pain that they felt right now. It would be glorious...
Picking their way out of the mess, they reached the stairs to the fourth and final floor. The dark-caves ahead had the food--
The meal! It flies!
"H-Hey! You!" Zee called out, sitting on the broomstick behind Emily... with Una hovering next to them on her jetpack. They had zipped across the open courtyard, hanging in the air, luring the Wendigoes. "Here I am! Come get me, you.. you bastards! You ate my father, you ate my mother, now come EAT ME!!"
One Wendigo jumped the gun, leaping, trying to cross the distance in a single pounce... and came up two feet short when Emily hastily made a course correction. It plunged to the ground, neck snapping in an instant against the floor below.
The last four, they would not make that mistake. They scrambled down through the obstacle course again, "following" the three flying meals, which for some reason were slowly descending as the Wendigoes descended. Were they offering themselves willingly? Unusual. Not that it would grant any mercy, but--
When they reached the ground floor... all three meals were off like a bullet. They fled!
The remaining clone cannibals roared, breaking into a full run across the funpark in the center of the mall. Follow! Chase! Straight through the mall... to another staircase, this time leading down into the ground. They ignored the signs reading "UNDERSEA ADVENTURE" and "World's largest tunnel walk-through aquarium!" and "Closed for renovations"...
They were underwater. --no. They were in some sort of air-space, a long, long bubble under the water. A transparent surface surrounded them, keeping millions of gallons of water from crushing them. ...and at the end of the tunnel was the food. Standing. Waiting.
The pack moved faster than ever before. In less than two seconds, they-- slammed headfirst into a glowing dome of light.
"The shields are charged, but the kinetic impacts are draining my capacitors quickly!" Una spoke to her companions. "What is the signal? How will we know when Scout is in position? I cannot see anything through the water..!"
Scout flashed a thumbs up through the plastic tunnel, slapping a small wad of C4 on its glass surface, before swimming away with a powerful kick of his legs.
"That's it!" Emily said, looking down at the hastily scrawled spell on the back of her movie ticket. "We're gone! !!"
--the Wendigoes staggered forward, the barrier they were pushing against having vanished in a flash of light. The FOOD having vanished in a flash of light.
If they'd run for it, rather than stand around howling in rage, they might have escaped before the explosives shattered the tunnel. They were buried at sea... an artificial sea, but a sea nonetheless.
And just to be absolutely sure... because it had worked so well on the tile floor... Scout unplugged the mainline trunk of the mall's electrical system from the central aquarium filtration unit, and held onto the cable as he dove into the water.
Escape wasn't a reliable spell. All it did was remove you a good distance from the current danger... where it dumped you was scattershot, beyond that. Fortunately, luck was on Emily's side tonight. The spell sent her right where she needed to be.
Safely standing on the roof of a building two blocks away, the rescued moviegoers and their rescuers waited to see what would happen. None of them knew what was actually going on -- back at the theatre, Zee had told them the situation was in hand, the Winterfae were being contained in the mall, and then the girl with the "experimental personal flight pack" brought them here, one by one. Then Una flew off, and didn't return. What was--?
A flash of light signaled the arrival of Emily, Una, and Zee. But that wasn't what caught their attention.
The teenagers, human and Fae alike, were now staring out at the shopping mall as all the lights in the building flickered, then went out for good.
"Whoa!" "Did you see--?" "Cool!" And the sound of tiny portable camera / phone / music player gadgets snapping pictures followed. The shots would be on the Internet in microseconds.
Emily did not think it was cool. She only had one thought on her mind. "It had to work. It had to," she whispered to herself. "It was so crazy it just might work, which means it had to work. He'll be popping out of a shadow any second now, giving me a big 'ol thumbs up. Mission accomplished. ...any second now."
And nothing happened.
Nothing continued to happen.
"He was to meet us here, yes?" Una asked, joining Emily at the edge of the rooftop. "Assuming that the monsters were slain, I mean. ...you don't think--"
Emily mounted her broomstick, flying off without a word, and without sparing the speed. Wordlessly, Una fired up her jetpack, its localized gravity manipulation carrying her off into the air to join the rescue.
The Light spell could barely penetrate the smoke. Parts of the building were on fire... Emily held a cloth to her mouth, coughing as she proceeded. Una turned on the personal buffer she normally used during high speed flight to improve aerodynamics, giving her some breathing space.
The basement aquarium had been flooded. Only a small platform, the top of a large turtle display tank, was safe to stand on... the water was still electrified, judging from the way the fried Wendigoes twitched now and then, floating upside down in the dead sea.
Judging from the way the fried Scout twitched now and then, floating upside down in the dead sea.
Emily fought back her panic, using very, very controlled motions to poke at his corpse with her broomstick, trying to nudge it towards this island in the electrical storm.
"I.. ah... I will attempt to turn off the power," Una said. "Please don't touch him yet. ...he will be fine. He will be!"
Emily stayed there, sitting on the top of the turtle tank, eyes locked on the body. His uniform had been fried, smoking strips of cloth... exposing his scarred back. So many whip lashes... one for every time he 'failed' his mistress, she knew, as all Winterhounds had. So many--
Another one snapped across his back, the crack inaudible, but blood welling. Scout screamed underwater, returning to life -- only to be electrocuted anew, his limbs thrashing in the water. ...and going still again.
Another whip crack. More screams. Another death.
"Stop it," Emily said, her knuckles white as she grasped her broomstick. "Stop it. STOP IT!!"
He is mine to do with as I please.
The voice was speaking to her now. She'd never heard Lady Winter before... but knew immediately whose voice it was.
This is the heavy price he pays because you will not leave things be. You were forewarned of that. Do you remember? Words in a mirror...? He suffers for you. And simply because it suits me, naturally. He should have hunted as a true--
"STOP IT!" Emily screamed again, getting to her feet, as if shouting at the ceiling would somehow reach the ethereal queen of ice's ears faster. "I command you to leave him alone!"
Command? How amusing! But as said: my pet is not your concern. Fly away, little witchling, while you can.
"I'm MAKING him my concern," Emily... warned. "Mine. Not yours."
You would defy a Queen of Faerie...? For this little scrap of manflesh? Interesting. What is he to you...?
"Th-That's none of your business," the little witch replied, instinctively.
...and Emily... HEARD a smile, from the nonexistent lips of Lady Winter. Felt the icy delight in her bones...
I chose my pet well for the trials that lie ahead, it seems.
...and it was over. Not that she was ever really there, but Lady Winter had withdrawn. Scout no longer twitched in pain.
Three minutes later, Una returned, slightly smeared with grease and soot. "Wonderful news, friend!" she announced. "I have disabled the building's power gr..."
Una stopped in her tracks at the sight of Emily cradling Scout's unconscious body tightly in her arms, rocking back and forth. Sobbing.
The remainder of the evening was a bit of a blur for Emily.
Scout recovered in mid-flight to the rescue rooftop. The shock of pain as he awoke nearly sent Una's flight path spinning away. ("He cannot safely ride your broom in his state, Emily. I will carry him." Una said, when Emily had tried to insist otherwise.)
Upon returning to life... he groaned. "...I liked my uniform," were his first words, on seeing the tattered and burnt remains of his clothes.
The teenagers had cheered their heroes on when they returned. Zee played his part, still pretending to be a government official, thanking them and telling them to wait here until dawn before heading home.
Zee was then silently returned to the roof of his hospital under cover of darkness. The basketball he had dropped when he first met them was still here, having rolled up against the wall.
Three very tried adventurers landed on the roof of their hotel, making their way to their FaePlace'd rooms. Scout slumped off into the eternal dark of his strange room. Emily said "Just give me a minute" before sitting in the rocking chair by the fireplace and passing out.
Una returned to her room and did not sleep.
This is wrong.
I want him!
The timing is bad. We're all completely exhausted. I shouldn't make decisions within such an emotional state.
I need comfort. I'm alone tonight, tired, and afraid. I want him to hold me.
She cares deeply for him. I've known it for days, and tonight, I saw it myself. That's why it felt wrong.
She's made no actual claim. She has not acted! I could be his! I could find love, at last!
Neither of them are very good at expressing their feelings. Neither am I.
Optimism says I must persevere in the face of hardship and failure. I must try!
There is something dangerous in him. I want to find the human in him, just as she does, but I could risk much by disturbing the hound at this hour.
It is a mystery that intrigues me, a fear I want to conquer. Like a horror movie. I want him!
I WANT HIM!!
Back and forth Una went, unable to rest.
She'd made her attempts at alluring Scout, at finding that bond she now craved so. She had been awkward, sloppy in approach. This wasn't like the Earth romances she had snuck several looks at in the anthropology databases, the ones recovered by cultural studies teams. Those seemed easy. (Certainly easier than her failed attempts at Orbital romances over the years.) On Earth, there were the requisite fumblings and misunderstandings, especially in the comedies, but in the end it simply... happened.
The idea had come to her right as she was trying to forget the night's chaos, trying to slip away into unconsciousness. The idea prevented that sleep.
It would be so easy to give in to that impulse to slip over to his room, and...
...and in the end, she couldn't resist. Curiosity led the way, mystery and desire mixing up in a way that felt more intense than childish poking at cultural databases. She wanted to know, to experience, to feel. Letting an opportunity to learn slip went against her core self.
But what she saw in the main room of the FaePlace nearly stopped her. Emily was still asleep in her rocking chair by the fire.
She's made no claim. She claims to the otherwise every time I ask her!
Lingering might stay her hand. Her bare feet pressed her onward. Just a few short, silent steps. Una steeled herself before walking through the magical darkness of Scout's room... but in the end, it wasn't cold or terrible as she had assumed it would be. It simply was... dark. Comforting, in a strange way.
Still, it took a few moments before she could raise more than a mere squeak in her voice.
A sniff. Breathing. He was still awake, as she was! But where was he in the room? --behind her. He was behind her. When did that happen?
"Why are you here?" he asked.
"I.. ah..." Una trembled as she stood, finding herself unable to speak.
Another inhaling noise. "I see. That's why," he decided. "Can smell it on you. Smell your need..."
It was in his voice, Una realized. That lower tone, moving around her body, as if stalking her... That's not the voice of the Scout I know. It was... huskier. Inflected with something else, something that could relax in this room of darkness, when nobody was around.
"I'm.. not afraid," she insisted.
"Yes. You are. I'm dangerous."
"...I won't run from you," she decided, even if she did tremble at the thought. Whether this was from fear or excitement or both, she wasn't-- both. It was definitely both. The danger was enticing, pinning her where she stood, ready for what would come...
Hands grasped her shoulders, her cry was one of surprise, and then he--
You have my blessing, pet. Take her.
--paused. Not that Una could have heard that voice, that death-whisper in his ear. She wouldn't feel the chill breath of Lady Winter, but he certainly did.
Long have I waited for you to find a mate. She's clearly willing and ready to lie with the 'big bad wolf'. Your hound-self is eager, as you see! Claim her. Today you denied yourself every other pleasure of being a Winterhound, but there's no reason to deny yourself this. Break her down and make her the alpha male's pet. It is the way of the thing you are.
...you know I don't want that. I don't want that any more than I want to enjoy killing people!
This is destiny, boy. Sooner, later, you will want it. You will one day be Consort of the Winter Queen, as I told you long ago. Consider this your training to please your destined bride, if you like. You will WANT to pleasure your Lady, one day.
NO. I will never want that!
But you will! And you do have such needs, even now. You desire the Wild Hunt just as much as you desire this one's delicate form. You resisted the hunt so long tonight, you have little will left to resist this with... so do not. Use her! So very pretty, these people of the stars! Do you not enjoy her with your eyes?
That is not the point at all--
Or perhaps you crave the Summerling outside? You find such relief in her compassion. You could find relief in her flesh, as well! Her fire-red hair, her smile, her simple folk beauty. A fine pairing with the other's exotic touch! Make them both your playthings. It is our way. I would do the same, in your place.
Leave her be!! Emily is no threat to you!
Amusing. Did I threaten her? You are the threat to them both, boy.
...this is a sick game. You're tempting me. Or phrasing it in a way you know will shock me back to reason.
I simply explain the facts of your death-in-life. The choice ultimately is one I leave to you. Be thankful for that; I could force you to save yourself for your bride. Very well. If you are so certain... do as you truly want.
--and he carefully, carefully distanced her away from himself. Turned her around, to face him. Somehow, the light level of the room raised ever so slightly, just enough to make out his features. His sad eyes...
"The danger," he explained, in a much calmer voice, "Isn't just to you. It's to me. Both of us."
"Y-you have nothing to fear from me," Una insisted.
"This isn't what I want."
"Am.. am I not pleasing? I have made myself pleasing for you! I think. I have done my best--"
"Not what I mean. You have no idea how hard it is to resist," he explained. He had to find the right words, had to make her understand... "Do you remember Zee describing the Fae who ambushed Graves...? They were Winterhounds. Fully Winterhounds, given over to the hunt forever. ...I give in sometimes, when my control slips during a fight. But it's not just violence. It's... everything. Dominance. Cruelty. Power. Control. ...if I did this with you, keeping that from leaking in'd be nearly impossible -- and it'd leak into you the other way. Breaking you down. Reshaping. Wouldn't even realize until it was too late and you were... made passive and adoring, diminished. Both of us twisted up into something else..."
The fear returned now in Una, pushing past the allure of the mysterious and dangerous. It was just fear. But not fear of Scout himself... fear of the consequences he was describing.
"I.. believe I understand," she said. "Beyond the biology of your condition, it's the magic. The nature of what it wants you to become, yes? It doesn't affect you alone... you maintain control of it for our sake as well."
Scout sighed. It seemed to deflate him. "Yes. That's why this can't be. ...sorry."
He expected her to leave, to abandon him. That would be the best outcome, after all. It would preserve both of them. It was one of the many justified reasons he had for keeping himself apart from people, and if she understood that, she would leave.
"...I believe my resolve to help you is redoubled," Una said, standing her ground, but smiling at last. "You deserve happiness. A true happiness, not the cruel pseudo-happiness you describe. As you wish, I shall withdraw and leave you in peace, but I will not withdraw fully from your life. ...I suppose this silliness I attempted tonight, however, was indeed the wrong thing. I should have trusted my reasoning rather than my instincts. Pragmatism has its purposes as well. I apologize for that. Good evening, Scout."
She started to moved past him... and paused.
"...a hypothetical situation," she proposed. "If somehow my science was able to lift this strange curse, if you could love and be loved without it turning into something terrible... would you love me?"
It was the first actual use of the word 'love' he'd heard all day, even through Una's strange interactions with him.
"I, ah... it's..." Scout's voice fumbled, failed. "I don't.. know. She... I mean..."
One finger pressed to his lips.
"I think I understand," Una said. She was still smiling, although for some reason, there were tears in her eyes as well. "Very well. I suppose you shall not be my dearest... but you shall be dear, nonetheless. And with her help, I have no doubt we will find a way for you to be happy. There is always hope, Scout. Always. Please don't forget that."
to be continued
copyright 2009 stefan gagne