–noun or -verb
1. a plant, notable for its blossom or cultivated for its floral beauty.
2. to emerge into full development; to mature.
The city was frozen. That one word encompassed the sum total of it.
There was ice, of course -- it slicked the roads, it formed icicles on signs, it added a layer of frosty haze to the windows. Nothing moved, everything locked in by the permafrost that had settled over the entire city; a solid layer of glaze applied by God's brush. It made the city resemble some sort of 1:1 scale model railroad, full of carefully designed little buildings that were both real and unreal.
But ice brings water with it. Any ordinary city, under assault by wave after wave of permafrost, would have collapsed on itself by now. Food would spoil, batteries would corrode, glass would shatter, and buildings would be reduced to mere skeletons. It doesn't take much time for nature to reclaim its territory, and two hundred years would be more than enough to reduce any city to an unrecognizable pile of twisted metal and collapsed structures.
This city hadn't collapsed at all. The buildings were pristine, the cars unrusted, and the food in the grocery store windows looked fresh if a bit chilled. That's because the city of Edmonton, in the consumed nation of Canada, was frozen in more than ice. It had been frozen in time.
When Scout started exploring, he knew right away what was going on here. He dared not make a salvage and supply run until he talked to the one who had laid claim to this eternal place.
He found her bouncing along merrily on a pogo stick down a central highway, between long-abandoned taxis and city buses.
Her ponytails bounded along with her, as did the frilly little olde-worlde style dress she wore. She was, however, also wearing an MP3 player complete with little white earbud earphones, the dangling wire bouncing up and down as she pogoed across the impossibly slick ice surface, somehow able to keep it from turning into a bone-breaking disaster. The earphones were neatly plugged into a set of pointed Faerie ears.
Scout stepped carefully into her field of vision, hands raised. Fortunately he had no weapons -- there weren't any in Esrever's copy of a Frontliner bunker, just uniforms and flak vests.
The girl pogoed in place a bit, considering him, before she hopped off her toy, and pulled out the earphones. Upbeat acoustic guitar from some long-dead Canadian comic book author silenced as she tapped the pause button.
"You're dead, aren't you?" she asked him, cocking her head to the side, one ponytail dangling.
"Winterhound," Scout clarified. "And you're Halcyone."
"I like Hally," the Winterfae who called herself Hally corrected. "I don't like Winterhounds much. They snarl too much and get annoyed that there's nobody here to kill."
"I don't snarl, and I'm not killing anybody today."
"Living people are messy. I don't like messy. I like tidy and pretty and cold, just like I made this city," she said, with a gesture and a little smile of pride. "Do you like it? When I first got here it had lots of noisy, noisy people. I got rid of them. Now I have all the toys I want. I watch a lot of their movies. I eat ice ice cream. There's even a building here where they made games with dragons in them, I like those games a lot. They remind me of where we came from."
Scout shrugged, noncommittally. "I didn't come from there."
"Yeah, you were human once, weren't you? It's a funny sort of thing. Lady Winter never makes humans into her pets," Halcyone said, cocking her head to the other side, now. "You're special. I bet she has all sorts of plans for you. If I give you ice cream, will she owe me a favor for treating you nice?"
"Probably not," he said, honestly. "We don't get along well. She thinks I'm going to marry her one day. She's wrong."
"You're not afraid of me, are you? You aren't really one of us, and you don't like our Mistress much, but you're not scared I'm going to get rid of you like I got rid of the other humans."
"I'm dead. You only turn living people into nothing. Dead people aren't a bother."
"That's right! You're smart!" she said, clapping for his cleverness. "I think I like you. Where did you come from?"
He pointed off to the east.
"Oh," the Faerie said, disappointed. "The living place. I don't like that place. Summer had no right, invading my city like that. When that silver thing fell on part of my city, I decided to keep it because it was shiny and looked like it'd fun! Especially after I got rid of all the people inside it. It was mine for a long time before they came here and filled it with those stupid things. Didn't have the decency to get rid of them when they left, either. Now I can't go there. Isn't that sad?"
Scout decided not to tell the truth about how he felt about her killing everybody who used to live there. He needed to stay on her good side, after all.
"How long ago did you say that Summer invaded...?"
"Oh, I don't know. A few years? Time isn't something I like very much, so I don't allow it to do anything," she said, with a beaming smile. "Nothing changes here. Everything stays as perfect as it should be. Not like those other yucky rotting cities! Hey, hey. You should stay here. You'd like it, it just goes on and on, forever. There's nothing to hunt, but we could play hide and seek. I'm REALLY good at that..."
"Would you mind if I take some things from your city?" he asked, wanting to get on with this. "Some food, supplies, things like that."
"...why would you need that stuff? Sure, Winterhounds like to eat because it keeps their tummies from hurting, but you'd be okay."
I need to tell her. She could find out anyway, if watched from afar, he thought. "Got people with me. Humans. Don't worry; they're staying in the living-area. Just for a little while, I promise. They won't mess up your city."
"Ewww, messy people! Why would you wanna hang around-- oh, I get it! They're your pets, right?" she asked. "Winterhounds do that, sometimes. They drag away the silly humans and enthrall them. Then it gets REALLY messy, which is stupid, but hey, if it makes you smile... okay. You can feed your pets. But don't bring them into the city, okay? Unless you want me to get rid of them, I mean, like, if you're bored with them. That could be fun. I once knew this Winterhound who had a dozen females, and--"
"I'll just be about my business," Scout said curtly. "Thank you for your hospitality, Halcyone."
"Hally," she reminded him. "I'm bored now. Goodbye."
She plugged her headphones backed in, cranked up the music, and bounced away.
What a strange Winterhound, she thought, as she pogoed her way through the business district, heading to her favorite toy shop. Why would Lady Winter coddle him and let him have so much free will and keep little human girls, if she was going to marry him?
Hm. Maybe she's waiting for him to come around. Lady Winter's playing a game with him, a really long one. That's like her. So many pawns placed on so many spaces. One big forever game, so her children will always be happy and perfect.
Just like my city.
by stefan gagne
The icy winds that rushed past him chilled him to the bone. It also kept the food and supplies he was hauling away in a pair of thick paper shopping bags chilled... probably for the best. Once he got back to camp, he wouldn't have long to cook them.
Around him, Edmonton gradually shifted from pristine ice to askew, damaged buildings, right up to the edge of a blast crater.
The weather shifted, as well. The icy winds warmed up the instant he crossed from the city proper into the circular zone of the Summer Court's lingering influence. Within 50 feet, the dead and blasted ground around him had sprouted grass. Then, flowers, vast fields of butter-yellow flowers, in a ring around the enormous silver dome...
One city had crashed into another, long ago. The original city was Edmonton, one of the many shining jewels that Canada used to own, a towering metropolis of steel and glass. The icy touch of Halcyone had preserved it nicely.
The other city was an Orbital Arcology. An alien city, fallen to Earth from the skies above.
Its vast silver dome was covered in flowers, vines, and other mossy overgrowth... but here and there, silver peeked out, like a vast mirrored hemisphere. It was through this gleaming surface that they had emerged this morning, emerging from a patch of metal that was iced over for only seconds until they had arrived, before the frost had evaporated into the air. After all, in the flower-fields around the Arcology, the temperature was a sweltering 99 degrees fahrenheit.
Camp had been established at a sealed airlock door, one Una had been unsuccessfully trying to gain access to for the last few hours, while Scout was, well, scouting out the human city that surrounded the crashed Arcology.
"Can't set foot outside the crater," he warned them, after setting down his shopping bags. "There's a powerful Winterfae out there who hates all living things. She'll leave us be if we leave her be, no sense pushing it. I got food, tents, other gear."
Emily was unsuccessfully fanning herself with her left hand, the heat causing her multiple layers of clothes to stick to her in a huge sweaty clump. "Please tell me you found some decent clothes," she begged. "Not all of us have all-weather techno fetish dresses..."
"If I could only open this external port, we could go inside and obtain you a hypertech laced garment," Una said, without much cheer. Her upbeat attitude had faded after the fiftieth attempt to open the doors via the remote keypad and display. "Until then, I could always remove mine and allow you to borrow it, but that would not solve the issue of having only one set of suitable clothing. --blast! Another layer of lockout! I thought I had it that time..."
Emily dug around in the shopping bags, while Scout gave his report.
"Got a guess as to what happened," he said. "The Arcology crashed into Edmonton awhile back. Halcyone, the Winterfae who owns the city, killed everybody inside. ...she doesn't have much perspective on mortality or morality, for that matter. Then, some years after... the Summer Court invaded."
"This far north? No way," Emily disagreed. "Even with the alliance in place, making them all cooperate -- which in Faerie terms means wider smiles while hiding the knives behind their back and lying in wait -- I can't see the Summer Court venturing this deep into Winter Court turf."
"Flowers," Scout reminded her, pointing a thumb over his shoulder to the ring of fields that covered the downslope of the crater. "Deep Faerie magic, certainly not Winter's. ...besides, I know how it went down. Summer insults Winter by coming up here. Winter exacts revenge and kills Austin, Texas... a city Summer had wanted for years, thinking it was hers by right. ...Lady Winter said she attacked my city because of a Summer trespass. This is the place."
"So... Summer risked breaking the alliance when they found out Lady Winter had a hidden cache of off-world technology," Emily speculated. "Presumably after the incident with Graves. Hell, odds are Graves crossed over Summer's turf on the way back to Baltimore with his stolen hypertech, and that's how Lady Summer found out about this place. They come up here, seal off the place against Halcyone's influence, do their research... uh. That could mean they're still in there..."
"I rather wish they would allow us access, then," Una protested. "I feel quite silly, poking away at this. I am not much of a security expert, even knowing father's Council codes. ...ah, I wanted to find out what he got me for Life Day one year and looked into his acquisition logs."
Scout had a seat nearby. Normally he'd just stand at ease, but even with his stamina, the heat was oppressive. "Halcyone said they left. The flowers are just a defensive measure, in case they want to return, I suppose. ...guess Lady Winter was gracious to let the insult slide."
"Uh... Scout. She killed everybody in Austin, remember?"
"She was balancing the scales. Alliance could've collapsed otherwise. A full-on Faerie civil war. World might not've survived that. ...not that I forgive her. Ever."
Emily pulled a tissue-paper wrapped bundle of cloth from the bags, starting to unpack it. "So, we go in there and figure out what they were up to, report it back to Una's dad-- Scout, what the hell?"
She held out the too-wide shorts, glaring at him. "I told you my waist size, yes? Please tell me this was the only thing you could find."
"Thought you were exaggerating. Don't girls do that? Didn't want to have to make another trip, figured bigger could at least be worn, but smaller would be problematic..."
If the temperature were any lower, Emily would be fuming. As is, she didn't have the strength to bother, already boiling internally. She shoved the clothes under an arm. "I am going around the long way to find somewhere I can change in decency," she informed him, as icily as the heat would allow. "And you will see how svelte and ladylike I am, or will poke your eyes out. Ahem. Excuse me."
He watched her go, with no small amount of confusion. If Una was the sort to kick puppies, and she wasn't, she'd have recognized the post-kicking look. Sort of a What'd-I-Do? expression.
The befuddled silence was interrupted by Una letting two sneezes out in succession.
"...guh. Pollen, I believe," she said, trying to discreetly wipe her nose. "The plant life is quite thick here. ...ah, I believe I may need a full day to gain access. Some sort of security protocol is in place, a bit like father's authentication systems, but... not quite. ...perhaps therein lies the key to this mystery."
"Key?" Scout asked, wanting to shift to thinking about something other than Emily's disappointment.
"Something is very strange here. An entire Arcology has crashed on your world! That should not be possible!" Una said, pushing the fold-out keypad back into the surface of the ship for now. (It sealed itself, leaving behind only a smooth and seamless surface.)
"Machines break," Scout suggested.
"True, but... this is a catastrophic failure! We have systems and subsystems and more designed to prevent this sort of thing. In addition... I would have known if an entire Arcology fell on your world. Even if it happened before I was born, it's so impossible, so unheard of, that it'd be common knowledge in the fleet, yes? And it certainly wouldn't be left here to rot; it would be recovered or destroyed immediately. Otherwise..."
"Hypertech leaks. Just like the ones we traced here."
"Exactly. This is the absolute worst case example of interference in another world's progress! It... ah... achoo! Ah, it is beyond reason that this could have happened, or if it did happen, could have stayed here like an unexploded explosive! ...although... ah..."
"...although?" he prompted.
"It could have shifted in from another world," she suggested. "Another cataclysmic failure, if it shifted onto the surface instead of into high orbit. ...but the crater suggests it fell! So... I'm uncertain."
"Oh, yes. It's how we move from world to world," Una explained. "Arcologies are fitted with shift drives, like the kind my mother attended to. It crosses the divide between worlds in less than a second. Whenever a fleet moves from one world to another, they shift. When a new ship being built on the surface of a world is sent along on its mission, it shifts. It's quite impossible to move from world to world using the gravity thrusters, after all!"
"But... the crater. Couldn't have just appeared. Might've appeared through the ground, but still wouldn't be a crater..."
The two looked over at the... well, you could tell she was a witch from the pointy hat. Emily refused to take that off, no matter how hot it was.
She'd taken the too-large shirt Scout got her and tied it up in the middle, making an impromptu halter. The shorts, (simultaneously too baggy and too short for her tastes) had been secured in place by tightening her spell-holster belt several extra notches. This, plus the sweat from the sweltering "summer" sun, resulted in a lot more of Emily being shown off than usual. Notably, far more than head, ankles, and hands.
The only sensible part of the ensemble was the footwear, tramping along the flower-covered grasses beneath them.
"...not one word," she warned, up front. "Not one damn word. It's functional and that's all there is to it. ...I do approve of the hiking boots, though. Good call there, Scout, considering the terrain. I might keep these when we get the hell out of here. ...so. Una. Your culture teleports from world to world?"
"Ah... sort of, yes," Una continued, despite distraction. "I guess shifting could be considered a kind of teleportation. Not that I have seen it done -- I was born well after we came to your Earth, and our mission of cultural observation was to last another seventy years or so before we moved on. ...I suppose shifting is irrelevant to this mystery. Please, disregard. ...ah, we have food, yes? My physiology is strongly demanding proper nutrition..."
On cue, Scout opened the second of the shopping bags -- revealing an array of plastic-and-styrofoam wrapped steaks, some small bottles of seasoning, fresh vegetables, and more. "It's safe to eat. The city they were in is locked in time. I also brought utensils and cooking tools."
Emily peered in the depths of the bag, at the assorted groceries. "What, no military rations for you?" she joked.
"...thought I'd try something with a bit more flavor today," Scout explained. "For a change."
Emily knew how to cook various varieties of Nomad's Vittles... simple dishes that took whatever you could get your hands on and made it edible. Back home she was too busy reading books to bother learning how to cook, despite chowing down on a number of country feasts prepared for her whole village... and when you wander the Fringe, never quite sure where your next meal is coming from and occasionally having to make do with the old hunter/gatherer routine, gourmet cooking was a rarity.
Scout, on the other hand, had a few years with Saul to learn not only military tactics and weapon proficiency, but also the ins and outs of good Texas barbecue cooking. It was one part of the union that absolutely knew what to do with a slab of meat to make it more than chewable, but delectable.
"Haven't done this in a long time. Haven't bothered," he forewarned them, before dinner was served from the simple cooking pit he'd crafted up. "Don't know if I got the mixtures right or anything."
It turned out to be needless humility. The food was utterly satisfying, especially after a tiring day in the baking sun. As that sun started to sink below the horizon, with bellies full, the three fell to repose... Una turning in early, complaining of headaches, while Scout and Emily sat and watched the sunset, eating from two small cups of yogurt with plastic spoons.
"What I don't get," Emily said, between spoonfuls of yummy goodness, "Is why you don't cook more often. I mean, why forage? Why eat raw deer, for that matter?"
Scout sat back a bit amidst the flowers, considering. He'd barely touched his yogurt, in contrast to Emily gobbling it down. "Never wanted to. A Winterhound can eat nearly anything to make do. Don't have to eat at all, really, we can survive even when starving... just do out of habit and to silence any hunger pains. So, I didn't bother with anything fancy after... y'know."
"I didn't make that steak for me. I made it for you. Us. ...y'know."
Emily nodded. Sh'knew, indeed. She had one last helping, emptying out the little cup, and set it aside while watching the last gasps of sunset.
The temperature had started falling, as the sun slipped over the horizon. From the lower vantage point inside the crater, the 'setting' was a bit early, but the effect could be physically felt. The night wasn't going to be as cold as the dead city around them, but it would bring welcome relief all the same. As the light slipped away, the flickery, badly damaged battery lantern Scout had brought back would have to make do -- although that was fine by her. It reminded her a lot of the candlelight she usually read by, back home.
"Probably for the best that we're getting a night to unwind. Once Space Girl gets that door open we'll be in full forensic investigation mode," Emily thought aloud. "After that, I guess Una'll call her dad and they'll send in cleanup crews. She can't tidy a city-sized mess all by herself."
"Right. And then...?"
"...then... I don't know. I guess we go after whatever tech the Summer Court took, although I'd rather face Graves again then that lot," she said, with a grimace.
"Aren't they the 'good' Faeries?" Scout asked, as his experience with the other court was quite minimal.
"Aren't you and Esrever the 'bad' Faeries? There's charlatans and saints in every camp. If you're very lucky you'll find the latter before the former, but nobody who gave Jesse that hypertech counts as a saint in my book. Honestly? This could get bad. And I don't have the foggiest idea how to approach it beyond just stomping around the giant expanse of middle America looking for Faeries with zap guns."
"I'm sure you'll think of something. ...and after we deal with the Summer Court? What then?" Scout asked, tentatively.
"Uh... I don't know. I guess that's it. Una goes home, maybe the aliens fly away. It'd be over."
"What will you do...?"
Emily shrugged, not quite picking up on Scout's implied concerns. "I haven't thought about it much. Same as I always do, I guess. Wander around trying to help people, run away from mobs with pitchforks and torches. Try to find more spells. Do witchy things."
"...you wouldn't have to worry about the torches, if you didn't want to."
"Why? You know how to make hats fireproof?"
"No. I could go with you," Scout said, quickly, to get the words out. "...if you want me to, I mean. If you don't mind."
Emily slowly turned to look at him, curious. She leaned on one arm, lying back a bit. "So... what, as my bodyguard...?"
"If you like. If you want me to be," he suggested.
"...it's damned boring roaming around by myself. Lonely, too. And you cook a mean steak," Emily justified.
"I could be your chef, if you want me to be."
The wandering witch offered a playful grin. "So, what, you're saying you'll cook for me for the rest of my life?"
"...if you want me to," Scout said, his seriousness now sharply contrasting that amusement.
The difference in his voice hit Emily a bit too late. She quickly shook off the giggles at the idea of Scout in a chef's hat, realizing the mental joke image of a "Kiss the Cook" apron had... other implications. ...but after a moment's consideration, she had an answer.
"I.. could go for that. I think it could work," she decided. "You and me, I mean. Us. --wandering around. Two beats one for long journeys, after all. Right."
Something was different about him.
No doubt it was in aftermath of the mirror experiences, of course. That didn't take much Insight. But he seemed... more connected, maybe. Less likely to sink into the background. Maybe this was just because Emily didn't have some mercenary king or miracle doctor to yammer on with, someone to distract her while Scout slipped away from them, but... it didn't feel like he'd do that again, even if they were distracted. He was here. With her.
And, according to his suggestion, he'd be here with her for a very long time. It was an idea she found it unusually easy to get behind. Before starting Ye Grande Adventyre, she'd been perfectly happy to shuffle from village to village by herself, but... the prospect of returning to that, now that she'd had a moment to sit down and consider it, wasn't very appealing.
...of course, that also brought up why Scout was with them in the first place, when (until now) he hadn't particularly seemed to enjoy having company. Why did he tag along with them after they left Olney? At the time, the best he could offer was one of his dismissive shrugs, and Emily hadn't bothered pursuing it. If asked, he'd probably just ignore the question, she felt.
Maybe he wouldn't ignore it now. Although... it could also break whatever strange spell was in the air tonight, if she asked...
Nuts to that, Emily thought. Sentimentalism shouldn't get in the way of being informed.
"Scout, why did you join us on this trip in the first place?" Emily asked him.
"...Lady Winter ordered me to."
Night had brought calmer climates to them, but a chill deeper than that ran through her.
"I don't know why," Scout said. "She never explains these things. Winter wanted me to follow you. At the time I didn't know or care why, it didn't matter, so I did as she commanded. ...I won't hurt you. I don't care if she orders me to. I'm good at saying no, lots of practice. But if she wanted you dead, she might be able to force me to do it. Told you one day she'd probably destroy and remake me, to be her consort. ...do I need to point out I'm dangerous to you, again?"
"No. Absolutely not. Obviously I'm not going to turn you out over a thing like that," Emily said, firmly. "Neither of us will let that come to pass without fighting it with everything we've got. Besides... that's an assumption, that she'd want us killed. There were plenty of opportunities to do it before now, after all."
"Which we overcame. I don't think that was an assassination attempt, it was just... some sick kind of test. Like the mirrors. She's playing silly buggers, is what she is... not trying to stop us, but... I don't know. Trying to mess with us? ...egh. No, no. Now I've gone and ruined the mood, see. And it was such a lovely evening until now--"
"I found a blueberry in my yogurt," Scout said, pointing his spoon to the plastic cup. He'd been eating it more slowly, in little bursts. "There's a big one in here. You should have it. I don't need the vitamins as much as you do. Say ahh."
Plop. Emily went crosseyed a moment, the fruity nugget having been placed on her tongue by the boy's spoon. Instinct kicked in after that.
"Good?" Scout asked, simply.
"...muhhh. Umm. ...yeah. It is. Thanks, Scout," Emily replied, a smile coming back. She shook off the last of the rattled nerves caused by Lady Winter's vague schemes, getting to her feet, stretching arms over her head. "Y'know, I'm pooped. Think I'd better turn in. Thanks for bringing sleeping bags, by the way."
"Mhm. I'll keep watch. I don't need much sleep."
Although his eyes covered the horizon of the crater's edge, he did linger whenever he passed over Emily, back turned to him as she slept on her side. Visually checking now and then to make sure she was sleeping well, soundly, no bad dreams.
It was all a lie, of course. Wandering with her forever. Eventually, Emily would die. And well before that, Lady Winter would grow bored with his antics and recall him to her side, to shatter him like ice and rebuild him to be lover to the Crown of Ice. She'd promised as much when he was brought back from the dead. It would simply... be.
But hopefully, that day would not come for a very, very long time. Long enough to explore the new feelings that the animal side of him promised he could now safely access. Feelings that very much involved his new companion.
This wasn't how Emily had envisioned a Shiny Jetpack Future City would look like.
Everything should be made of gleaming, flawless chromed metals, white plastics, colored glass. There should be light everywhere, maybe with holograms or something, like in old sci-fi movies. And people... there should be equally shiny people, flawless and pretty like Una, wandering around talking about high intellectual concepts without a care in the world...
This was rather the opposite.
From the moment Una broke through the complicated security on the airlock, they were hit in the face with a heat wave MORE intense than the one outside. Like the flowers outside, the inside had been completely overgrown with plants... vines, this time. Moss. Ivy. Covering every surface, choking the air thick with their scents. The power was on (otherwise the airlock would never have opened) but nothing was shiny, nothing was lit up properly -- plants had broken most of the overhead lights, others left flickering away, still others strong but so covered in fungus that they were dimmed to nothingness. The only consistent light came from Emily's handheld light spell.
As for people... if she didn't know about Halcyone's fixation on 'cleaning up' messy people, she'd have assumed the place was never occupied. No people. Not even bodies...
Una coughed violently on the pollen and junk in the air. Wading through the ankle-deep indoor swamp was not helping her allergies. "The... guh... the Council Chambers will be not be far now," she said. "A half hour's walk, hopefully, at most. We are halfway there already. Every Arcology configuration is different, but the engines and the chambers are always in the center. Judging from the size of the ci... the ciii... ahhh... ghkk. ...I believe I have swallowed a sneeze..."
"Maybe we should get out of here," Emily suggested. "We're hardly crime scene investigators, you know. Just call your pop and have them take over..."
"No... no, this is my task. I want to know how this... this impossible thing has happened," Una said. "I'll be fine, friends. I love... ghlrk. I love plant life. I used to take picnics in the arboretum on Arcology #BE12, remember? Plenty of floral lifeforms there, from all manner of worlds, and they never bothered me. I'd run around watering them, and I'd give them names, and we'd have Earth-style meat sandwiches, and..."
Emily sighed, and pulled a hanky from her back pocket. (A good witch is always prepared, even when she's abandoned her nicer clothes in favor of Deep Jungle Harlot Shortpants.) "Una? Less talking. Just... wrap this around your mouth, breathe through it. We'll go on if you insist, but no sense not taking precautions. ...Scout? You holding up okay?"
The boy glanced to her sharply. He'd been twitchy ever since they got in here... seemingly.. prowling, at their side. Keeping his gaze flicking left and right. "I'm alert," he said. "I'm fine. ...Summer Court. This place is thick with it, even thicker than outside. It disagrees with the lesser half of me. That's all."
"This is over the top, even for the Summer Court," Emily recognized, tugging a vine away from the wall, trying to find some sort of shiny under it. All she got was mottled, slightly crumpled metal paneling. "Sure, they like the whole green motif when doing interior decorating, but they rarely go for the entire Creature From the Black Lagoon flat pack kit..."
"...thought you hated rubber monster movies."
"I do. You have no idea how many I had to watch as a kid. All the boys in my village loved them," Emily grimaced. "I think the whole big ugly woogums bonking teenage girls over the head and dragging them away thing appeals to the male trouser jockey mentality. ...um. No offense."
Scout didn't take any. He was too busy being squirrely. "There's a reason Winterhounds are usually male," he agreed. "And I know better than most. ...I've come to terms with that, though."
"Keeping the Big Bad Wolf on lockdown, huh?"
"...not completely," he admitted.
"Eh?" Emily asked. Not alarmed, not shocked, just... not expecting that answer.
"Long story. I'll explain later. No danger, though. I swear it."
"We've got time for long stories, I think," Emily said. "It was the mirrors, right? The introspective ones. I know my own was enlightening, if a bit nutso crazy bonkers..."
"Talking's too risky for you, not just Una."
"You should stop talking and breathe through a mask," Scout indicated. He tore part of his sleeve off, offering the thick fabric to her. "Hold this over your mouth. Una's an alien, not used to Earth plant life, but it is could hit you soon enough. Better not to inhale the junk as much."
She couldn't argue with the logic. She accepted the cloth, nodding once before pressing it to her mouth with her non-lit hand. Soon, the only sounds around them were the squelch and splash of their feet tramping through the hallway muck.
On the whole, Emily would've preferred conversation to that sound of life amidst the dead.
The air within the vast Council Chamber wasn't quite as musky and horrid-smelling. Instead of cramped corridors, the oval-shaped room was spacious with a high domed ceiling... it showed the sky above the Arcology, although clearly this was a projected illusion, as the sunny skies flickered now and then like a television screen on the fritz.
Everything here was just as ruined as the rest of the ship. Chairs were knocked aside, the table they previously surrounded sagging after one of its legs had been corroded through by a heavy strain of mold. Holographic displays showing current system states were fuzzy, indistinct... ghost numbers tallying up themselves forever, with nobody to relate their info-dumps to.
Fortunately, the walls hadn't taken the plant life very well. Whatever the ivory-colored metal alloy was, it resisted the corruption that had soaked through the rest of the city.
Acid-etched carvings of some kind crawled along these walls instead. These depicted proud looking Orbitals, gazing and/or pointing towards the bright future horizon... vast sky-ships soaring through the stars... and worlds, endless round planets representing the eternal journey of knowledge the Orbitals had chosen to undertake.
Una couldn't resist describing the history to her friends, despite a promise to keep it brief.
"Ages ago, we launched from our homeworld," she explained. "The shift drives were the invention that freed us from a solitary existence on one little world. Now, all worlds were ours to observe, to learn from, and to contemplate. It's a quest for infinite knowledge. An Observation fleet hovers over a world for some time, learns what they can from it, stores it in our vast networked databases -- that's depicted here, in the mural, with the fleet surrounding this world, see?"
"...I see," Emily said, studying the shape, the lines etched into the wall. "And... how do you find these worlds?"
"Oh, we have Surveyor fleets for that," Una continued. "See, this one here shows them shifting into orbit over a new world, rich with life, vast untapped potential knowledge! It takes some time for them to find life-sustaining new worlds for Observation. We come across many lifeless worlds, or ones where life perished long ago-- here, here!"
She moved along the edge of the Council Chambers, pointing to a world that was... no longer circular. It had been broken down, disassembled into precisely geometric chunks.
"Even dead worlds can be put to good use. It's a cycle of life!" Una said, beaming with pride (despite the watery, red-streaked look in her eyes from the pollen around her). "Mining fleets shift above these expired planets. From there, planetary mass is extracted, compressed down, and stored in capacitors, to become a wonderful source of energy! Continuing in this way, the Orbitals will never lack for worlds to observe. Our scientists have predicted there to be an infinite number of life-sustaining worlds out there... so many opportunities for learning! ...friend? You look.. unsettled. Is the pollen getting to you, too?"
Emily looked left, right... up and down the span of the mural. She had to be sure, before she brought the point up.
"Okay... this world on the very far left. That's the original Orbital home planet, right?" Emily asked, pointing to the engraved image.
"Ah... yes. As I said."
"Right. And this one here, representing a typical Observation fleet. That's a different world, correct?"
"Well, of course! What use would observing our own world be--"
"And the one being broken down by the miners, that one's yet another different world."
"...er. Yes? I'm not sure I understand. Why would it be the same?"
A finger traced along the wall carving, following the grooved lines in the metal. Tracing around, a lumpy sketch of a coastline. South, and west... then around a little outreaching peninsula...
"Una," Emily said. "All three of those supposedly different worlds have the same exact continents on them. They ALL look identical to Earth. Look, there's Eastusa, and there's Florida... that other one, that's showing Africa. The mined planet, I think that's Australia in the corner of what's left... for crying out loud, the one being 'Surveyed' is showing Eastusa again!"
She could have pointed out that water was wet and the sun was bright, for all the shock and surprise that registered with Una. "Yes, and? Why is this strange?"
"They're ALL Earth!"
"Well, of course not! Your world is Earth. The others almost always have different names."
"...almost always...? Una... are you saying every populated planet in the Milky Way is identical to Earth, just with funny names?"
"Milky...? --OH! Oh, I see! The name you have attributed to the galaxy itself. Ha ha, I see, yes, just like your science fiction movies!" Una exclaimed, happy to have figured out the puzzle. "No no, there's only one planet in this galaxy that supports life, as far as our scientists can tell. We don't cross interstellar distances -- we shift through layers of reality, visiting different incarnations of the same world. I suppose... yes, I see! I am indeed from a version of your Earth, and thus biologically human, despite being of the Orbitals. ...well, technically, I was born in orbit over your world, so that does make me an 'Orbital-Earthling' native to this reality, I guess--"
Emily stamped her foot in frustration. Fortunately, there wasn't an inch-thick layer of floral sludge here to splash around.
"You said you were an alien from outer space!"
"Well... I am," Una said. "Our ships remain in high orbit, which is under scientific definition 'outer space' in relation to the surface. Obviously I am not from your country, nor an immigrant with proper paperwork, and therefore I am an illegal alien visitor. It seemed a more appropriate word than 'foreigner', and less vague than 'outsider'... did I choose the incorrect term? Is it important? Sometimes I have difficulty with Earth language..."
"Is it important? Is it important!?" Emily raged. "IS IT--?!"
...and she paused.
"...actually, I'm not sure if it is important, but it feels like it ought to be," she said, catching herself. She was tumbling the idea around in her mind, now that the surprise had already popped out of its little box. "I mean... I guess it doesn't change much of anything, being a 'shifter' instead of a 'deep space alien' or however you'd call it, but... agh. I don't know. Now I'm getting a headache."
"Could be the pollen," Scout reminded her, speaking up for the first time since offering his sleeve. "Let's get the information we came for and go. Doesn't matter right now how the Orbitals move around. Matters more how and why this Arcology crashed, and what's become of it since the Summer Court took over."
"Right, right," Emily said, shoving the revelation aside, ignoring her intellectual bafflement at it. "Gotta stay focused. Thanks, Scout. Una, you have your dad's council codes, right? Can you dig up, I don't know, meeting minutes or logs or something out of that table's computers...?"
"Ye-- yuhghkaaaff," Una gurgled, the cough she'd been trying to keep down finally rising to the surface. She moved her hanky back to her mouth, muffling herself slightly as she moved to the table. "It shoulf be eafier than the airloff doorf, I hope..."
She carefully brushed aside a layer of pollen and dust from the surface of the table, sure not to sweep it up and into the air, just push it aside. Fingers played over the featureless surface, somehow finding buttons that Emily couldn't spot upon the smooth and flawless metal surface -- lights flared at each touch of her fingers, the only indication she wasn't uselessly poking at the table randomly. It took several minutes of this poking, judging from Una's muffled curses of "Oh, shoot" and "Darn!" and "Such a bother!" before--
The image was 3-D. It was a slice of the room itself, or rather, a narrow viewport into the council chambers, a perspective turned around and replayed in midair. It focused on the head and shoulders of an elderly Orbital, the rest of his body not in the recorder's frame. He was bleeding from a gash on his forehead, raised and swelling, and the distant sounds of panic and alarms could be heard beneath the tinny representation of his voice...
"Elder Pwq's errata to the day's logged decisions," he spoke. "Our city has fallen to the world below. We don't yet know what has happened -- we were on schedule to leave the fleet, a routine shift of resources. But instead of shifting into the orbit of another world, we shifted directly into this world's atmosphere. We have Chief Engineer Tyr to thank for his quick work using the gravity thrusters to prevent massive damage to the ship, but both thrusters and the shift engine were severely damaged on impact. I'll append more errata when I have more information to append."
The image flickered. His forehead wound was now gone, although the alarms were still going... figures in the background were attending to the wounded, sharing information on small square tablets of some sort.
"Elder Pwq's errata, continued. We are unable to contact the fleet for assistance. The same unusual, contradictory error messages we get when trying to access the engines are popping up on our communications arrays. Tyr says that the error is completely illogical, and should be quite impossible, but somehow it crippled every failsafe in place to prevent this sort of disaster. Councilwoman Rew is suggesting we send scouting parties outside of the city, but I've decided to seal the airlocks, for the time being. Non-interference must be held -- our people cannot leave, and the natives cannot be allowed inside. ...I fear how far I may need to take this ruling. Message ends, for now."
Hovering pictures faded away. Una worked the keypad, trying to find the next one. "There is a gap -- no missing data, but no further logs. I, ah, aahh... ACHOOGhhk... excuse. I assume they were too busy to sit around recording--"
The next log entry appeared. The imaged version of the Council Chamber was darkened, now... and Pwq had fear in his eyes. Other men, in more tattered silver clothes, were hunkered down behind fallen chairs, with energy weapons drawn...
"If someone finds this entry, I want it known that I have done what I have done with no regrets. I support the highest law of Orbital culture," he spoke, quickly. There was some echoing sound in the background... some sort of pulsing electric sound. "We must remain sealed. No one in. No one out. The risk to this world is too high. Pragmatism dictates that if we are stuck here, if the city will never move again, at the very least it must remain an unbreachable artifact that will never yield its secrets. The Earth city beyond appears to be empty, and the surrounding terrain frozen and lifeless, but we cannot take chances. I have heavily encoded the airlocks, and should the... factions within the city now that insist on leaving ever breach them, they will self-seal moments later."
A sinking feeling began high in Emily's throat, rapidly dropping to the bottom of her stomach. "Self-sealing airlocks...?"
"I have locked down all shuttles, although if they are taken, I suppose an exit could be blasted through the walls," Pwq spoke, some bitterness now in his voice. "Assuming my fellow Orbitals have truly gone mad, mad enough to attempt such a thing. ...why did we have so many damned weapons lying in our cargo holds? I've held a seat on three different Arcologies and I've never seen one so well armed! I can't find the supply transfer logs for these terrible things. Suppose it doesn't matter now. This is a war, a war for our ideals, which must--"
"Sir! They've breached an airlock!" a voice from off-camera shouted. "They've... what's that noise--?"
All went quiet.
And then... a little girl's giggle.
The recording ended.
"...Halcyone," Scout said, darkly. "That was her. She ended their civil war. I see, now. They crash, reasons unknown. Sabotage, likely. Seal up, pick sides, fight each other, kill each other--"
"No. NO," Una declared, weakly pounding a fist on the table, kicking up some of the mold. She resumed typing at the keyboard, intense, trying to search for more files. "This... this can't be. A war? It's preposterous! Even if there was disagreement, there would be... discourse. Analysis. Reasoned contemplation! We are not savages!"
"Nobody's saying you are," Scout spoke, voice far calmer. "But anyone can kill, in the right circumstances--"
"Impossible! We are.. we are enlightened. Not like the worlds in conflict and strife that we have observed! Orbitals do not murder! They... they..."
...her mother, the silver headband, the nosebleed...
Una's breathing was rapid. Her handkerchief had been left aside, now using both fingers to type. There had to be a file, had to be some data which disproved Scout's theory, something that would make all of this fit in with everything she knew to be true about her people...
The keyboard was closer, and closer still. Was it rising from the table? No. She was falling to meet it. That was the more logical conclusion. Yes, she was in fact falling, hitting her head against the table, because gravity was a law of physics. Consistent, reasonable, sensible.
At least something makes sense, she thought, before falling unconscious.
"...the thingy is below the other thingy now. And it's beeping in a way I do not approve of, not one bit..."
"What would happen if we pushed--"
"No pushing anything! Not that thing, or the thing below it, or the other thing. We've got no idea what would happen!"
"Gotta do something."
"I know. I know! I'll do something. Just give me a moment to think, okay?! Give me a moment, here!"
"I should've taken some damn notes. I saw Zee do the whole procedure, end to end, and I was so busy pondering the morality of it I didn't bother learning anything useful! I wouldn't even know where to start, or if it'd even work..."
I'm scared, Una thought. She heard voices, distant -- her friends. Help me. I'm scared. Emily, please...
A shadow crossed her vision. It was a person, she reasoned, simply between herself and a light source high above. Above? Yes, she was lying on her back. A medical bed. They'd found a medical bay, and brought her here, she remembered that now through the fever pounding in her head...
"We're going to help you," Emily declared. "Don't be afraid, okay? I'll fix you. One damn way or another. A witch makes things work out, in the end. It's what we are."
"I'm not afraid," Una mumble-lied.
Emily declined to correct her. Odds are, the girl didn't even remember saying it aloud.
She wore the confidence of the witch, despite knowing it was false... even if she was trying to avoid those pretensions, after her little mirror experience, she knew they had a purpose here. They would reassure her friend that everything was being taken care of, even if nothing was in fact being taken care of. Hope was the cornerstone of Una's life, and Emily was not going to dash it to little bits if she could help it.
Mending spells did nothing to stop the infection. The rash, the same green color as the plant life around them, had started spreading the moment Una collapsed and wasn't stopping. By now, it had nearly covered half of her perfect, pretty skin, leaving Una mottled and sickly looking. And if Mending wasn't doing a damned thing to repair the damaged tissues... that meant this wasn't some ordinary malady.
It was magic.
"Scout, I want you to look around the ship, and in your own speedy little shadow jumpy way," Emily decided.
"Understood. Looking for a way out? The hole Graves made when he left, maybe?"
"Not yet. If we get her out of here that won't change anything. She's been exposed to whatever this is. So have I, but I'm not sick in the slightest... I have a feeling it was put here specifically to take out any Orbitals who dropped in on Summer's little project," she explained. "There's got to be a source. Find me a plant. Something large, growing, living. The root of everything that's filled this city. Trust me... you'll know it when you find it. It's gonna positively reek with Summer Court magic and set all your Winterhound hackles a-risin'. Come back when you've found it -- don't take any action. We'll go confront it together."
The Winterhound stretched, flexing his joints, ready to move... and moved. He stepped into a dim corner of the lab, and was gone.
Emily didn't loosen up, in contrast. She was wound tight, but a good tight. The sort of tight she felt when there was a problem to grapple with... a situation that needed the wise witchy wiles she had in surplus. This tangle could be untangled. Una would survive this. There had to be no doubt whatsoever, about that--
"I'm going to die, aren't I?" a weak voice spoke from the egg-shaped medical bed.
"Absolutely not," Emily quickly replied. "This is magic. I AM magic. We'll fix it."
"I've never been loved. Not like you are."
That made Emily's coiled internal springs creak slightly. "Huh...?"
"I tried, and I tried, but nobody wanted to love me," Una spoke, quietly, in an odd and sad calm. "I never looked in the right places. I made mistakes. All I wanted was the kind of love my mother and father had. And I'll never feel it, now. I'm so scared, Emily. I don't want to die unloved..."
"Cut that out, NOW, girl. You'll be up and eating New York pizza in no time! ...look... we love you, okay? You're our friend. We've had some bumps on the road, but all the crap we've been through, it'd be impossible not to come out the side caring about each other--"
"That's not the kind of love I mean, and you know it. ...you have to make me a promise, Emily. Please. This is very, very important."
Emily bit her lip. "If this is some kind of cheesy melodramatic deathbed promise, forget it. It won't matter--"
"You have to love him."
"Scout loves you," Una whispered, very carefully, very quietly, trying to make sure she got the right words through the fever-haze that was blurring her senses. "Not me, you. He'll never find peace until you return that love. If you two go on without me then you have to do it together, with love. Please. Promise me that, Emily. I can't die without knowing he'll have what I couldn't have. Promise me."
"I," Emily started.
"Uh," she continued.
"..." she failed to say.
Well, he DID want to cook for you for the rest of his life, some no-nonsense part of her recalled. To journey with you even after your business with the Orbitals was finished. And you liked the sound of that. A lot.
"I found it."
If it was physically possible to jump out of her skin, she would have. As is, she simply knocked over a tray of silvery medical tools, arms flailing in surprise.
"The plant. It's definitely Summer Court magic," Scout confirmed, leaning his head towards the door. "Not far. It's in some kind of preserve. Let's go."
"--right. Let's go," Emily agreed, straightening her pointy hat. Witch time. "Una, we'll be back in minutes, and we'll have the solution. All three of us are getting out of this deathtrap, or my name is not Emily Moonthistle, Witch at Large. Lead on, Scout."
Una tried to raise a hand, to protest. To say something. Too weak. Don't go. You need to promise me. You can't leave until you promise me...
And they were gone.
Her head rolled to one side... eyes falling on a silvery handheld device, that had been knocked onto her bedside by Emily's panic reaction.
Even with her blurry vision, she noted two things about it. One, exactly what it was used for, based on her early internship as a biologist. And two, the serial number, indicating which Arcology medical bay it was assigned to.
Pouring all her hope into the action, she forced her arm to move, to reach, to grasp. To thumb the button at the end of the stimulator.
If the Council Chambers were vast, this new place was vastness upon vastness.
It was pressed up against the surface of the Arcology, near the top... Emily could tell because several of the windows high above had been shattered high above, bringing in fresh air. They weren't simulated skies, like the Council Chambers had... no flickering, no telltale signs of images. Just the rush of air and true sunlight. Both were quite important, considering the plant life.
While the entire Arcology had been stuffed to bursting with plants, this room WAS plants. Emily couldn't even see the walls. Various bits of Orbital technology were strewn about, often tangled up in the layer upon layer of twisted plant life that ran through the mulch beneath her boots, but that was about it when it came to artificialness. Nature had found a haven and taken root to it, quite literally.
The pair approached the center of the room cautiously. A good idea, when a gigantic, mouthed flytrap the size of a Baltimore city bus was writhing and slavering and waving menacing looking tentacles with vicious barbs on them. That's not something you want to bumrush. Unfortunately, it also wasn't something you could sneak up on, given it was the centerpiece of the entire room.
This was definitely the right place; Emily could see, as Scout led the way, how the vines and ivy through the halls all seemed to originate from here. The lines of life followed straighter paths the closer they got to this Faerie vision of Eden... emerging through open hallway entrances to join the chaos of nature, all roads leading back to that one giant plant...
"Talk or fight?" Scout asked, in a low whisper.
"Talk first," Emily suggested. "Assuming the thing is sapient, I mean. I'm... really not relishing the idea of trying to 'fight' that thing. Let's see what we can manage through diplomacy alone--"
The pair stopped in their tracks. It would've been bad enough if the giant flytrap had lungs and vocal cords; instead, it spoke directly into their minds. Never a good sign.
[Winterling-out-of-favor. Smell of beast, but not-smell of anti-life girl,] the flytrap continued... its leaves twisting outward, unfurling, angling as if to 'watch' them. [Summerling-out-of-favor. Smell of human-mage, but not-smell of Archmagus. Both fall outside of the Lady-geas. Not-welcome. Not-unwelcome. Uncertain.]
"Ah... hello there, Sir Plant," Emily said nervously, falling into a curtsey despite having left her nice skirts behind. "As a wanderer, one familiar with accorded bonds of wild forests, one respectful of nature's innate power and with respect due in turn, I hereby request peaceful parlay until--"
[Not-dryad, witchling. No-code. No-parlay. Only the Lady-geas.]
So much for that idea, Emily grumbled internally. New tactic. "Explain the Lady-geas," she said, simple and direct.
[Life-reward, mind-reward. Unfurling leaves. Unfurling mind. Favor-exchange, Lady-geas,] the plant continued, its broadcast thoughts like tiny green shoots emerging through Emily's senses, ordering themselves into simple patterns. [Silver-people, if-return, not-leave. Must-purge. Spread-self, spore-cloud, grow within. We-grow. We-grow.]
"You were ordered by Lady Summer to kill any Orbitals who come looking for their fallen city," Emily translated, in case Scout didn't pick up on that. "Correct?"
Scout looked upward. "Sunlight...?"
"It means yes," Emily explained to the side, before turning back to the plant. "We haven't found any bodies. Halcyone got rid of them all before you were animated by Lady Summer. ...hrm. Have any returned, since then?"
[One. Silver-girl. Returning to soil now.]
"Right, then. Silver-girl is with us. We'll leave, peacefully," Emily promised. "No trouble, no fuss. Pull back your spores from her, leave her in good health, and we'll be out of your, er, leaves. I swear it by the laws of magic, by Court Doctrine, with--"
[Lady-geas. Sun-above-all. No other laws, nothing. Unfurling leaves, the favor, the price. No. Silver-girl returns to soil.]
Emily nibbled her lip. "...I'd threaten you, but I'm guessing since your marching orders come from Lady Summer herself to defend this place, we can't scare you into letting Una go, can we?"
"You're a living thing, with its own mind, now! You have free choice. Favors can be defied," Emily tried to reason. "Even ones owed to her. Granted, there's repercussions, but you don't have to do this!"
[Darkness. Favor, mind unfurling. Gratitude. Will obey Lady-geas.]
Scout braced one foot back, ready to break into a sprint. "Fight?" he suggested, again.
"Go for the roots," Emily said quickly, drawing her spellbook from her belt. "I'll put darkness around it to shut it off from the sun. Move!"
The fight was on.
Scout took eight steps and promptly collapsed, screaming in pain. Emily was casually knocked backwards by a flailing vine, the thick green cable striking at her arms, to knock the spellbook away before she could manage a single syllable of casting.
The fight was off.
Emily tried to scrabble for her book -- overriding an instinctive urge to rush to the fallen Scout's side, to see what was wrong. But the single vine that disarmed her had been joined by its brothers now... a dozen of them, snarling and twisting, forming a living blockade. She tried to push through it anyway, only ending up tangled up in the mess for her efforts. The vines effortlessly lifted her off her feet, holding her aloft, far away from her book, far away from the boy...
Screams of pain slowly silenced, as mushrooms began to rapidly grow from Scout's open mouth. The ever-present pollen, spores, and microscopic bits of plant life had found something new to take root in -- his body.
[Dead-flesh. Good-soil,] the plant said. [We-grow, we-grow. Fill death with life. Incapacitate the Winterhound. Summerling, questionable. In-exile but still Summerling. Hold. Call-Summer. Lady-children will know what to do with the witchling.]
This can't be happening, Emily thought for the first of what would prove to be two times that day. She struggled, pulling at the vines, which now had completely immobilized her. She couldn't even talk -- one had been wrapped around her head, to gag her, preventing spellcasting from memory. (Not that she was capable of spells memorization.)
There had to be something she could do, some way out of this. A witch is never helpless. A witch can't afford to be helpless when her friends are in trouble...
Emily instinctively tried to twist to see the source of that voice. She could barely move... but managed to turn just enough.
The silver-girl, Una, stood uneasily at the edge of the room. In her hands, she held one of the many fallen pieces of Orbital technology... a small, gleaming garden watering can. Even the simplest of machines were flawlessly chromed in Orbital society, it seemed.
"Bad flower. Put her down now," Una commanded.
...and the vines slackened around Emily, just a bit.
[...Water-girl?] the plant asked, confusion in the way its psychic tones grew through Emily's mind, not sure what to make of this strange thing...
"I gave you your name!" Una reminded the plant. "I came here every weekend with my family. I watered the plants and I gave them names. You looked like the funny plant in that movie father showed me, so I named you Audrey. I cared for you when the garden workers didn't really care, when they just went through the motions of their assigned tasks. I left crumbs behind from our picnics, for the insects, for your soil. You are a good plant, Audrey of Arcology #BE12, and you are going to release my friends right now!"
One silent pause.
Emily felt her feet make contact with the ground. The vines that had caged her were retreating now, carefully, gently. If she could read floral body language she might have interpreted it as apologetic, even.
The heaving, sickly noises nearby indicated Scout had a less pleasant time of it, on the other hand -- he was coughing up plant matter and mushrooms, emptying his stomach on the ground. Fortunately, the soil soaked the sick up, to put it back to good use afterwards.
[...Water-girl. Remembrance. Care. Comfort. Nourishment,] Audrey recalled. [Like Summer-Lady, care and comfort. ...but... Lady-geas--]
"Do you want me to die, Audrey? Because once this stimulant I have pumping through my body wears out, I think that's exactly what's going to happen," Una said. Already, her limbs were starting to twitch, the color in her face was starting to drain. Whatever she'd found in the medical bay may have given her the strength to walk all this way and confront the plant, but it would do little beyond that...
[Darkness! Water-girl must grow!]
This time, Emily didn't have to resist the instinctive urge to rush to the fallen Orbital's side, as Una sank to the ground. (Even collapsing and near-death, she managed to be graceful.) Scout was there, as well... despite looking sickly and horrible himself, he found strength to join them.
Una's purging process made Scout's look like an impolite sneeze in public. Emily tried to reason that plant life had no problems with massive expunging of waste matter and bodily fluids, that in the end it was all part of the cycle of life and death, and therefore a beautiful process of the natural world.
The rest of her just felt like it was going to be violently sick from the sights, sounds, and smells of Una's body being cleansed of the corruption that had infested it. It was like having a terrible stomach flu coupled with irritable bowel syndrome and slamming your way through a full week of the experience in the span of a single minute. By some divine miracle, none of the combined biological horror managed to splash on her beloved pointy hat.
If there was any mercy, it was in a large flower opening up high above them -- pouring out accumulated rainwater, washing all three of them down after the episode was over, cleansing them fully of the aftermath. The water actually smelled vaguely sweet and perfumed, like daisies.
Carefully, Emily and Scout helped Una to her feet.
"...I need new clothes," Una decided.
Audrey was silent, after that. Whether the plant had been subdued by the effort of restoring Una's health -- or perhaps as punishment for going against Lady Summer's wishes -- was unknown. The three had bigger concerns at the moment, regardless.
"We need to get the information we came for and get the hell out of here," Emily decided. "All those in favor?"
"Aye," Scout spoke, after coughing up another mushroom.
"I want new clothes," Una insisted. "I still smell like a waste reclamation unit."
"You'll live. I say we go to the engine room, figure out why this place went splat, then find a shuttle and leave. Notify Una's father of what happened here, then if there is a just and righteous God out there, we'll be able to retire somewhere sunny and pleasant to rest for awhile before we look into what hypertech the Faerie Court's snatched up. But right here, right now, I have no intention of spending one more minute in this stinking pit of doom than we have to. Again. All those in favor?"
With a sigh, Una raised her hand in consent. "The engine room will be in this direction," she indicated, nodding down the hall. "It may take some time to access the security logs, however..."
"Screw that. No more pushing buttons. I have Plans," Emily declared.
Apparently, the fallen remains of what was (also apparently) Arcology #BE12 had three rooms that could be described as vast, and they had now visited all three. Council Chambers, the Arboretum, and finally, the Shift Engine Room.
Of course, it felt a lot more vast with critical portions of the central machinery missing.
"There should be a large gyroscopic device in the center!" Una exclaimed, moving from computer display to computer display, surveying the damage. (Despite losing a portion of her body mass recently, she'd managed to regain some energy. Probably Faerie magic again, Emily reasoned.) "And this... the mass capacitors, most of them are gone. There's a few left, but half of those are damaged. There's no way to shift the ship away, it'd be too much matter to transport at once..."
"There goes the idea of beaming the wreck into space to clean up the mess," Emily said. "Drat. We'll definitely need a team from your home Arcology down here to deal with this. We'll have to figure out how to keep Halcyone from eating them, but--"
"And look, look here! All the navigation systems, and the error logs, everything's under encrypted lockdown," Una continued, furiously pounding at invisible keyboards. "It's definitely going to take me hours to unlock this. It's just as bad as the security the Council put on the airlocks..."
"Yeah, well, we're not doing that," Emily spoke, pulling out her spellbook and flipping to the section she desired. "Stand back, both of you, and hush. I have no idea if this is going to work. I guess at worst, we'll just have computer dancing and flopping around the room..."
Curious, Una stood back -- so she could look over Emily's shoulder. Scout stood on guard, just in case something went horribly wrong, ready to intervene between the computer and the two girls.
This is going to take one hell of a Will focus, Emily considered. Especially since I want a specific effect, not just some spoon floating through the air or something...
She closed her eyes for three minutes. Odds are Una was saying something, sort of an "Ooo, what's that, what's happening?" but Emily ignored it.
Magic wasn't like pushing a button on a missile launcher and watching it blow something up a mile away -- pick your implements of destruction, do one simple gesture, and kablam. Magic was more like shooting an arrow... it took skill to make the arrow go as far as it needed to go, to make sure it hit the target you were aiming at. Strength in the pull of your arm. Focus and talent to direct the energy. Give an identical bow and arrow to a half-trained archer, or a skilled one that was in a rush or putting in a sloppy effort, and you wouldn't get the same results.
The Word was the same, always. The Way of speaking it was the same. It took the same amount of time to cast. But the Will Emily poured into this casting was another matter entirely.
With a voice of absolute confidence, she cast a spell upon the computer banks.
It felt like someone punching her in the brainpan, when that spell fired off. She reeled on her feet, wobble left, wobble right, wobble-- into Scout's arms.
"Uhh.. thanks," she said, trying to get back on her own two feet. "Did it work? I'm all blurry for a few seconds after a heavy duty casting like that--"
"Excuse me, but... what's going on?"
It was a man's voice.
Emily shook her head lightly, forcing it to clear. Her eyes would remain sharp.
They settled on a gray figure... a man made of machine, looking slightly perplexed, as he studied hands assembled from various bits of hypertech... super science equivalents of diodes, wires, and circuits.
"This is a very strange experience," the computer spoke. "I seem to be sentient at the moment. I don't recall any sort of AI installed during past program operations..."
"...you animated the shift engine control systems?!" Una exclaimed. "That's... that's...! ...well, that's actually quite clever, really. Hello, Computer!"
"Er, hello," the computer replied, waving his hand before realizing he was waving. "Odd. A social greeting gesture. I suppose I absorbed quite a bit of Chief Engineer Tyr through his customizations and tweaks to my software over the years, didn't I? Yes, that makes sense... this is his voice, from the voiceprint files, and the shape matches as well. ...oh, no. Am I going to need to eat and breathe like an organic lifeform now? I'm not sure how to do either of those things..."
"It worked?" Emily asked, slower on the uptake. "I mean, ah, of course it worked. I AM a witch, after all. ...so. Tyr, is it?"
"Well, not really, but I guess that'll do for now," Chief Engineer Tyr / Primary Shift Control System replied. "Can I help you, miss...?"
"Emily. That's Una, that's Scout," she introduced. "We need to make this fast, because the Animate spell won't last long, especially not after such a strange casting of it. Uh. Sorry about that."
"You mean... this state of advanced consciousness will end and I will return to non-sentience? Oh, thank goodness!" Tyr exclaimed, relief on his silver face. "Here I was worried I'd be like this from now on! Thank you. How may I be of assistance today, Miss Emily?"
"We need to know why #BE12 crashed. Yes yes, there are security protocols... but you're a living thing, with its own mind, now. ...for the moment, anyway. You'll find that you have have free choice. So, if you want to help us, you'll be able to. Right?"
"...huh. Funny, that. Yes, I can open the files for you. But that's not the real problem -- the reason for the Arcology's fall is not something I know for certain," he said. "There was some odd evidence, some theories, but he Council could only speculate..."
"Sooo... speculate. Time's ticking," Emily reminded him.
"Right, right, sorry. Well. We were intended to change fleets, but the shift drives sent us into this Earth's atmosphere instead," he explained. "A program was injected into the system, source unknown, which redirected shift navigation. That should be impossible, of course, we have extensive safety logic to prevent this. Tyr attempted to figure out how they breached those protocols, but every time he did, he got a strange and illogical error message..."
Una spoke up, next. "Ah, the error, right..! Can we see it?"
"Oh, certainly. Here, I'll display it for you... "
Holograms flickered above Tyr-Computer's head. Red error symbols appeared, one after another, in a strange encoded machine language -- glyphs that meant more to Orbital engineers than they would to anyone else.
"Oookay. Una? Can you read those?" Emily asked.
"...no," Una said, staring up at them.
"But I've seen them before."
Una pointed. "These two, they're contradictory. Errors that shouldn't appear at the same time, like, 'a thing has occurred' followed by 'a thing has not occurred'. I... think I saw this before. I was scanning Scout using Zee's equipment, back in Twin Cities... and when the machine tried to parse the spells that kept him animate... it threw up the same symbols. The same pattern."
"Uh... so... that's not normal, is it?"
"Emily... I think that Faerie magic crashed Arcology #BE12," Una concluded. "This is the same signature."
Tyr started to look nervous. "Er. Excuse me, but--"
"That's crazy. The Faeries can't even reach high orbit," Emily argued. "Esrever said that the Arcologies were out of his reach! ...I don't... THINK Lady Winter could've reached out and touched someone that far away... I can't say I know for sure, but..."
Scout spoke up. "Winter's a goddess of nature," he reminded them. "Manifests where she likes, in person or simply touching one's mind. Bet the cold, bleak death of space vacuum'd be within her grasp, even if one of her children couldn't reach that far."
"Exactly! This makes much more sense! What happened here wasn't strictly some Orbital internal affair. I KNEW my people were incapable of this kind of madness!" Una said, latching onto the idea, anchoring hope to it. "There was an external influence -- the Faerie Court! Somehow, they hexed the engines! But... why? Once the Arcology crashed in her lands, Lady Winter didn't exactly do much with it... that we know of, I mean..."
"Ah, I don't mean to be a bother, organic persons, but..."
"Relax, you'll go back to normal soon," Emily dismissed. "Alright. I'll take it as a given that Faerie magic was somehow involved; you know this tech more than I do, you know how it'd react. But we don't know enough to guess who really did this, or why. Just how. Okay. So, we leave through either the Arboretum ceiling, or better yet, go find a shuttle, and--"
"I really must insist that I speak up at this point, ma'am!"
The three looked at the panicking computer. The computer was not enjoying the fact that it was now capable of panic.
"I.. ah... I was trying to point out, the moment I displayed the error to you, I believe some dormant self-defense program injected behind the error codes activated," Tyr-Computer said. "In fact, I'm sure of it. The shift engines are activating. Worldbleed opening within twenty seconds. I strongly suggest you run in order to preserve your lives. Eighteen. Seventeen--"
Una glanced around at the ruined equipment, unbelieving. "But... but there's hardly anything left of the engine! It can't possibly move the entire Arcology--"
"The navigation sensors have been inverted. It's like nothing I've seen before. Something is coming here," Tyr said, "And I highly recommend your swift departure. Eleven. Ten. Adequate hostility levels to destroy intruders determined, subject lock complete. Seven... oh dear, and there goes my sentience. Good luck, all."
The silver components of the computer man fell apart on the spot, parts and bits collapsing into a less man-shaped pile.
Scout stepped in front of the girls. "We can't run fast or far enough," he said. "We fight here, where we have open space. Get ready."
Spellbook and energy blaster were drawn. Emily tried very hard not to let her hands shake as she flipped through the pages, trying to find something that would be of any use in a fight. "Scout... we've gone through hell today. We're not exactly in fighting shape--"
The flash was not blinding. It was a spray of misty light, a featureless white cloud of illumination... accompanied by a sound of displacing air. Like a cork coming out of an ancient bottle...
The room may have been yet another in a series of vast rooms, but the creature that now stood before them made it seem positively cramped.
Emily had seen one before, in her book on mythological beasts. Strong hind legs, leathery skin, a head with massive jaws filled with razor-sharp murdering teeth. Tiny little arms...
It was a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Wearing a leather military overcoat, emblazoned with a symbol like twin jagged lightning bolts.
And carrying what looked like a gunmetal gray plasma rifle, already charged with the wide nozzle glowing a sickly green light.
This can't be happening, Emily thought for the second of what had proven to be two times that day.
"Was ist dieser platz!?" the beast growled, in a voice like thunder scattering the clouds. "Wer sind diese entgangenen Zootiere? ACHTUNG! Alle feinde fallen vor dem Reptilreich!!"
The rifle began to make a loud hissing noise.
"Scatter!" Scout shouted, diving to the side. Instinct kicked in, and Emily ran the other way, looking for something reasonably sturdy to hide behind.
She came up a foot short, forced to scramble along the ground, before tucking into a ball behind a metal computer console. The room rocked, green light flaring all around, but she dared not peek out to see what was happening...
Other worlds, other versions of Earth, Emily's Insight mused, heedless of the encroaching doom. Of course. Presumably there would be one where dinosaurs became the dominant species, adopted values of the ancient Nazi regime from those old war movies, and then developed super science weapons. It stands to reason. IT IS COMPLETELY INSANE but it stands to reason.
And if I don't do something, we are all going to die at the tiny, tiny hands of this completely insane thing.
Blast marks scored the wall in front of her, as the dinosaur fired high. It howled in rage, stomping around the room.
"SCHMUTZIGER AFFE!" the monster roared, twisting this way and that... Emily daring to peek out from her hiding place, only to see Scout on its back, having looped some stray computer cable from the ruined machinery around its neck. Not that this seemed to be having much of an effect, other than enraging the already enraged beast... but it did leave the creature wide open to attack.
"Una! Shoot its weapon!" Emily called. "It can't possibly have a good grip on that thing!"
...Una hesitated, her gun wavering. "I've... I've never actually fired my blaster before," she admitted, knowing full well what horrible timing it was. "It's just standard issue for surface excursions--"
"No time like the present to learn! SHOOT!"
The Orbital energy weapon fired.
It wasn't a particularly impressive effect, not like the weapons demonstrated long ago in Baltimore. There was a quiet hum, and a beam of pure white light lashed out from the wobbly tip of Una's blaster... smacking not the rifle in the T-rex's hands, but his hands themselves.
The creature howled in pain, limbs going limp from the stunning energy shot. The plasma rifle clattered directly to the ground at its feet.
Swift as a wolf, Scout released his leash, sliding down the leathery body of the dinosaur -- landing on the ground in a crouch. Within a single bound, he sprung between the beast's legs, twisting around as he grasped the fallen weapon... ending up on his back beneath the enemy, with the business end of a plasma weapon pointed up from above...
Green fire lashed out, and the alien tyrant's head went away.
Melted fleshy slag sprayed out in all directions... before the headless creature slumped forward, collapsing to the ground with an impact that shook the entire room.
Scout rose from the floor, keeping the plasma rifle aimed away, before wiping some splatter from his face.
"I think we should leave now," he suggested.
They decided to take jetpack and broomstick out through the Arboretum ceiling. True, they had no way of leaving Canada yet, but the consensus was that they didn't want to stick around to search for transport.
However, transport was awaiting them on arrival at the airlock campsite.
The mounted knights rode war unicorns -- two of them had lions on leashes, snarling and ready to tear out throats on command. Apparently Audrey had indeed managed to send word to Lady Summer about the "stray witchling" before being pacified.
"By order of Lady Summer of the Faerie Court, you are charged with trespass upon her grounds," the Faerie Warchief declared, reading from an official scroll of decree. "As payment for this insult, the Winterhound, Witch-in-Exile, and Orbital are to be shown Hospitality. In short... you are hereby required to attend Her Majesty's Solstice Ball. You will come with us."
"Oh, we're going to a party?" Una asked. "How exciting!"
We are now officially boned, Emily thought.
In a flash of sunlight, the entire group vanished from the flowery fields, leaving them rustling in the wake of their departure.
Once more, Edmonton and Arcology #BE12 fell to silence.
to be continued
copyright 2009 stefan gagne