1. one who saves, rescues, or delivers from great tragedy.
They hadn't been up here for very long, and already Emily had decided she hated outer space.
She hated the way getting up there involved so much forward thrust that she felt compressed into a pancake shape on the back of her seat. She hated the sickening sensation of weightlessness. She hated the clumsy and bulky space suit they'd fitted on her, and the claustrophobic feeling she got from wearing the helmet. She hated that she had to take her hat and spellbook holster off because they wouldn't fit inside the helmet (but fortunately would fit in the strangely compressed storage compartment of Una's jetpack).
None of this hate mattered, though. The mission mattered more than annoyances and discomfort.
This was quite possibly the most important day of her life. Certain doom lurked over her head, the catalyst for a seasonal apocalypse of Faerie civil war. Or perhaps it'd lead to a Fae purge of the human world. Or maybe the Orbitals wanted to take over everything. None of them knew what really lie ahead... only that it was universally bad, and if they wanted to have a shot at stopping it, this was the only shot they could take. Even if it took them so far away from home, and equally far from their comfort zones...
...Una, oddly, was having the most trouble with her suit for someone who lived all her life in orbit. The astromages had to harness her jetpack to it externally, since it would be the only means of propulsion Una had -- thankfully controlled by a short range thought based transmitter, so it could be operated from inside her suit. But the Orbital girl was used to the elegant motion possible with her simple little Orbital clothes, not something like a deep sea diving suit designed to protect her from the frozen crushing murderland known as outer space.
A lot of this plan was depending on her, and that was alarming in and of itself. She knew how to fly in zero gravity (allegedly). She know how to get through an airlock (mostly). She knew how to sneak around in an Orbital city without arousing suspicion (sort of). She knew how to disable, enable, repair, and operate whatever devices needed wrecking, activating, fixing, or fiddling about with (almost but not really). Una didn't want to point out that just because she grew up in space didn't mean she was the universe's foremost expert on superscience... and she certainly didn't want to point out that in her academic days, she routinely barely got passing grades of 91% on her tests. By Orbital standards, she was a helpless ditz. Hopefully by Earth standards that made her an ultra-genius, because otherwise, they were probably all going to die...
...finally, for his part, Scout fixed today in mind as yet another mission. Go in, gather intel, devise a plan of attack, execute. Stay observant and mimic local patterns. Be aware of attackers able to approach from any angle, with any sort of ranged assault method imaginable. Be ready. Be alert. And protect Emily no matter what the cost. ...no other thoughts went through his mind. No other thoughts were required or would be helpful. There was only the war.
With helmets screwed into place, all three of them were now ready to go. From here, they'd stealth up, exit through the cargo bay, sneak up to an airlock, and be in and done with this phase of the operation. The sooner the better.
Nel and one of the astromages made some last minute adjustments to Una's suit, before tapping her twice on the shoulder. Good to go. Even if going was the last thing Nel wanted Una to do, the elf girl knew what had to be and could not be -- wishes wouldn't keep Una from journeying into the gaping maw of this unknown enemy. Hopefully, wishes would be enough to bring her back. There was still so much Nel wanted to tell Una... things she'd held back on, partly out of nervous fear, partly out of a realistic sense that she'd only known the other girl for a few short days. There would be time later to share those feelings. There had to be. Simply had to be...
"Glamour up," Emily said. "They're about to launch the ElfStar satellite. And us."
The elf girl nodded, once. ...but before she cast her spell, on impulse, she leaned in... and placed one kiss on the clear faceplate of Una's helmet.
"Come back safe," Nelliwyn spoke, quietly... before making a few quick hand gestures, using her innate talents at glamour to render the team invisible. A confused looking Una promptly vanished.
That was the eerie part. Una couldn't see the others anymore... or even her own hands. The invisibility spell was just that good.
"From here on out, we get improvisational," Emily spoke to her unseen friends. "Now, let's go and save the damn world."
by stefan gagne
Silence. Darkness. Nothingness.
Now, terror, that there was plenty of... compared to the complete lack of sound, light, and substance.
Emily looked down, once. Seeing the Earth, the big blue marble, all laid out below her like God's online web map... it was breathtakingly beautiful. Specifically if you didn't consider that if Una couldn't get the hang of navigating up here, they could end up plunging back into the atmosphere and burning to a cinder well before their component molecules scattered across the surface. She stopped looking down after that.
The alternative wasn't much better. Gazing into infinity was not the sort of thing sensible witches wanted to do. They knew better than to do anything as absurdly dangerous as that -- when you give a witch a book that induces madness in the reader or an amulet with a terrible curse on it, the witch closes the book and destroys the amulet. Witches don't screw around with things like that due to the well known axiom of curiosity and cats.
(Well, PROPER witches didn't. Wouldn't. Once there were more proper witches in the world, and not the brain-addled sorts Lilith whipped into proper little psychopaths. Another reason to finish the mission and come home alive -- if they died here, the last proper witch would vanish with only a half-complete website edited by an elven lothario as her legacy. What a horrible thought...)
The glamour did not help matters, when it came to avoiding a spiraling stare into the yawning madness of infinite space; as far as Emily could tell, she was an independently floating viewpoint without even a body to call her own. She could FEEL her body, could feel the bulky suit around her, hear the light hiss of the air supply... but the eyes were screaming in panic that she'd somehow detached from everything sane and was now wandering the void. All alone.
The tug on her stiff tether told her otherwise. Una, she at least had eyes -- the glasses she'd modified long ago in Baltimore, able to see the dimensional shift spectrum. She could see the Arcology ahead of them, she knew where to go. She could probably even see them, for that matter.
Right now, Emily could've used some of Una's chirpy little upbeat encouragements. Or maybe a soothing word from Scout, who was getting better by the day at soothing words. But they'd agreed to radio silence... nothing the Orbitals could pick up on. As far as Arcology #A076 had to be concerned... they weren't there. The only thing 'there' were the elves, quietly launching their cargo, far behind. The three had to be silent as churchmice--
The tether tugged her back. At first Emily panicked, thinking Una had gotten lost, or was knocked away, or kidnapped by some alien horror in a flying saucer or something equally mad... but no. It was just counter thrust, to slow down. They were approaching the Arcology. Not that she could SEE the city, but presumably, it was there, and five times the size of God.
Finally, a sight other than the inky black of space greeted her -- a series of little square lights. One of the keypads outside an Arcology airlock, just like the one Una hacked into back in Edmonton. And hopefully, easier to break into than #BE12 was, considering that took over a day's work... and they had maybe three minutes of stealth glamour left...
The lights flashed and twiddled along. Una was trying different combinations, browsing menus, trying to find some in-road. Not just a means in, though, but a means in that the city wouldn't notice... some access point that wouldn't be logged or could easily be de-logged. None of this magical sneaking around would do much good if they just hammered their way in and were greeted on the other side by armed guards.
Time ticked. Lights flashed. The door was not opening.
"What's the hold up?" Emily asked, aloud -- before remembering that in space, nobody can hear you complain.
Slowly... outlines became visible. The spell was wearing off. There was Una, frustratedly stabbing at the keypad. Scout, watching their backs... not that he could do much, unless he was crazy enough to use the darkness of space to teleport out of his own suit. If they didn't get in soon...
No sound, no 'fwoosh', but the door slid open. It was like a magic window into another land, hanging there impossibly in the infinite black. Una powered her jetpack, the gravity thrusters inside pulling them along... before pulling hard on the tether, to get them in before the door closed...
Emily felt her stomach protest for a second time, as it went from free-floating to weighted down. Artificial gravity kicked in moments after the door shut behind them. Finally, sound was coming back to the world... the hiss of the airlock rapidly pressurizing. Una took her helmet off first, and since her head didn't immediately explode, Emily took that as her cue it was now safe to ditch the space suit. And all the better for it.
They stayed to the far left and right sides of the airlock -- there was only a tiny window on the inner door, which wouldn't have enough scope to see them there. Una worked fast, pulling Orbital clothing out of her jetpack's storage... Nel's dress from Palm Beach for Emily ("It won't quite fit, but I'm sure you'll look very pretty!" Una had noted, back when she suggested it) and a silvery tunic thing and pants for Scout.
Normally, stripping down and changing clothes in front of everybody would raise a protest from Emily over being non-witchy, but that would be utterly stupid to focus on at this point. Not that she didn't give Scout a quick glare, so he'd turn his back first.
"I don't think they know we're here," Una said, re-affixing her jetpack to her usual reflective minidress. "I erased the access log the moment the doors opened. With these clothes, we should be able to merge with the population for awhile, but we should try to avoid groups, all the same..."
"We're going to have to make a lot of what we do up on the fly, but let's start the way we discussed," Emily suggested. "Glasses on, scanning for the shift signature of Faerie artifacts or Fae themselves. We know magic was involved in downing #BE12 and we know the Summer Court wants another city. We find the source of the problem, we'll be able to stop it. Presumably."
"We're presuming a great deal," Scout noted. "Keep your minds open to the possibilities. Particularly that the Orbitals are entirely behind this..."
"That's absurd! My people are peaceful. ...I'm certain this is all a misunderstanding. Or a conspiracy. Or a misunderstood conspiracy."
"Just keep your eyes open for ANYTHING out of the ordinary, m'kay?" Emily suggested. "Alright. Check the window. When the coast is clear, we're out and exploring. Remember: We're three totally normal superscience aliens from another dimension. Act all, I dunno, scienc-y and alien-ish."
It was very difficult not to gawk like a tourist.
The only example of Orbital architecture Emily had on mental file was the decaying, overgrown ruins of #BE12. She'd never seen a pureblooded Arcology before...
It was flawless.
Every surface, flawless. Many surfaces were ivory white, shining with a perfect finish -- just a shiny as the silver metal that comprised the rest. The glass surfaces, windows and tabletops and even chairs, all of it was impossibly perfect. No smudges, no stains, no dust. It was like the entire ship was perpetually wiped down with a soft cloth. She'd even experimented, trying to leave a big 'ol greasy thumbprint right on a hand railing... and the mark faded away the moment she removed her finger. Amazing...
#BE12 had also been a much more utilitarian Arcology, according to Una. It was a research vessel, specifically for botany and particle physics. (She insisted the two weren't really that different. Emily declined to ask exactly how, because that could've led to an Education on the subject.) #A076, in contrast, was spacious and extravagant... it was a true city, a place where people worked, slept, ate, fell in love, and go through their lives.
They were people-watching, in a great atrium overlooking one of the many transport hubs of the city. Below, transport funnels shuffled people about, gravity pumps whisking away anyone who stepped inside into the network of clear glass tubes to some other part of the ship. Small food stations were set up in the atrium, so travelers could meet up with friends over a fine beverage -- no money was exchanged, of course. Like all utopian sci-fi societies beyond moral reproach, they'd naturally done away with that nasty business of having a working economy.
If anybody was a have-not, left in wanting and despair, they weren't showing it. The Orbitals were lovely looking people, all well groomed and healthy looking. They gathered in small groups around the atrium, talking excitedly about this and that. Each wore clothes similar to Una's dress, shimmering fabrics, and they all wore earpiece communicators that would occasionally emit musical little beeps, grabbing the wearer's attention away from local conversations. Fortunately for purposes of blending in, despite the overall prevalence of snow-white hair, many Orbitals had dyed their hair black and brown and blonde... and blue and purple and green, it seemed. With the widespread adoption of monotones in clothing, it seemed that hair color was something the Orbitals were more keen on using for self expression.
All over, young couples were smiling at each other, holding hands. The atmosphere was hardly one of all-crushing doom and death from above -- it was so damned uplifting that Emily had to try very hard to be bitter and cynical about it, even knowing the severity of their mission.
Scout, for his part, remained utterly apathetic to his surroundings. He was much better at guarding his emotions, after all.
"It's not very peaceful here," he commented, quietly.
"Pardon? It seems quite peaceful to me," Una said with good cheer, as she'd been all smiles since arriving back in her familiar haunts. "Just as an Orbital city should be... alive, in vibrant energy, and purposeful!"
"I mean it's not very calm. Not at peace. There's too much excitement in the air," Scout said. "Everybody here seems to be on edge, in anticipation. Is that normal, Una?"
"Welllll... not as such. Not always, I mean," Una admitted. "I've seen people like this before celebration days, but there isn't another one of those for two weeks..."
"Which means they're excited about something else," Emily concluded. "And we need to find out what, because knowing our luck, it directly relates to what's going on down below. We'll have to do this quietly. Maybe if we get one of their communicators, we can tap into the computers and find out--"
"Excuse me, but what's going on?" Una asked a passerby.
The young man paused in the conversation he was having with his communicator, finally noticing the three he was about to walk past. "Hmm? Oh, hello. Can I be of assistance, ma'ams, sir?"
"We were wondering why everybody was so excited," Una asked, despite it being an amazingly horrible idea to directly question someone while simultaneously pointing out that you do not in fact blend in because you have no clue what's going on when people who are here clearly have a clue. (Emily and Scout immediately started looking for the nearest exit, of course, while Una led them to certain doom.)
"Oh, you must be a new transfer," the fellow said, completely dismissing their oddity in one stroke. He smiled away, only too happy to answer the strange question. "Didn't they tell you when you came over to #A076? I know, I know it's a bit of a secret outside this Arcology, but... we're landing on the surface today! Councilman Ono's decided it's time for the Orbitals to bring peace and humanitarian aid to this poor, misguided world!"
"What!?" Una exclaimed, the shock and horror likely tipping the man off as to their outsider status, which would no doubt lead to immediate capture and/or torture at the hands of some horrible alien interrogation device.
"See, if you had a uTalk like I do, you wouldn't be surprised by that," the dapper young man said, utterly accepting of Una's reaction as ordinary confusion. He tapped the metal earpiece he was wearing. "Like mine? I got the 'Argent' model. I know 'Sterling' and 'Pearl' are rarer, but I like mine all the same. uTalks are all the rage, nowadays! Hey, when you get yours, join the Chicago chatroom. Me and my friends are discussing how we're going to set up an aid station there. I know everybody's really eager to visit New York, but I say even the smaller settlements need our help. Don't you agree?"
"Yes, we absolutely agree with everything you say," Emily blurted, trying to shoo him along. "We'll see you in the chat rooms! Thanks a bundle!"
That the boy looked a bit suspicious about... but a beep in his ear distracted him. He wandered away, talking on four different chatrooms at once, as he departed for a transport tube to the cargo bay.
"...okay. Uh. So. Hmmm." Emily tried to put together a picture of what was going on, from that sudden blast of intel. "The Arcology is landing. Everybody knows about it. Everybody's cool with it, despite it breaking the strongest taboo in Orbital society. And what's more... your father's behind the scheme."
"That's... no, wait. That can't be possible," Una said. "Father would never authorize something like that. He was the one who set me to task to find our technology, remember? He was enforcing non-interference, by having me hunt down the anachronisms!"
"He's an Optimist," Scout reminded her. "It's very Optimistic, to 'save' Earth from itself. Sounds like the idea's been accepted wholeheartedly."
"Now, that shouldn't be possible!" Una protested. "If anything, the Pragmatists would be up in arms over it. They're the ones tasked to safeguarding our society by applying caution, logic, and clear-headed thinking. The Optimists tend to our spirit and our ideals, the Pragmatists tend to our survival and prosperity..."
"Not seeing too many Pragmatists around today. They don't carry little name tags, but everybody here's all smiles. Like you said... can't see a Pragmatist smiling when they know the city's about to land and change Earth's path forever."
"We need to see my father," Una decided. "We have to ask him what's going on. He'll have a perfectly reasonable explanation, I am certain -- wait, no, I have it. EVIL Faeries! They got up in his head with magic and messed him up! That has to be it. It has to be... it just... I mean..."
"Una... you're right," Emily said, quietly. Not wanting this to sound like a rebuke. "Your father does have the answers we need. But he could be corrupted, too. Or... maybe he's just not thinking clearly for other reasons. So, we can't talk to him directly. We need to know what he's thinking, without letting him know we want to know. ...you said a long time ago that you could break into his files, right? Can we do that from here?"
Una nibbled her lip. "N...o," she said. "Not from here. I can get into his personal logs, yes, but... we'd have to go to his quarters. ...our home."
"Is there a chance of running into him there?"
"...no. He doesn't come home very much, these days. He's an important person, and very busy, and... well... you'll see, I guess."
Experiencing gravity tube travel left Emily with the absolute knowledge that there was something she hated more than floating through the void of space.
Fortunately, nobody was there at the other end of the tube to watch her come flying out in a hilarious episode of physical comedy. She was able to scramble back to her feet and look professional before Scout emerged from transit (landing on his feet, of course) and Una gracefully slid out of the tube, landing perfectly.
The residential section was unoccupied, which seemed to go against the definition of 'residing'. However, with most of the population out and about, preparing for the grand undertaking of landing the city, that wasn't too much of a shock. They did pass by the occasional security guard -- identifiable not so much by fierce looks or body armor or jackbooted uniforms as much by the fact that they had little badges that looked vaguely official.
There was no need to break into the apartment. After all, Una did legally have right of entry, and could allow guests in as well. Even so, she took care to erase her entry from the door log; apparently something she'd practiced, as she enjoyed sneaking out after hours to watch human media in the libraries.
The apartment wasn't too different from Una's FaePlace, and from the rest of the Arcology's style. The furniture was made of either chrome, pearl, or glass. There were the usual things, like tables and couches... although the couches had no armrests or backs, and seemed to be made of an amorphous metal bloblike substance. The window offered a spectacular view of Earth, which was a bit more enjoyable when you had artificial gravity and a floor to stand on.
On entering... Una peered curiously at a blank wall. Then with a gesture, nothing happened. She gestured again and nothing continued to happen.
"There should be a gallery of family photos there," she said. "Of my mother, notably. Father doesn't feel comfortable looking at them, true, but he'd never delete the files or shut down the pictorial display unit..."
"That's why he became a workaholic, right?" Emily asked. "I remember that, from Esrever's mirrors. How he turned his attention to his Council duties, after your mother passed on..."
"And that's why we went to Earth in the first place, yes. Things have been... strained, since that day. Neither of us have been very comfortable with the family situation, not with the hole in the middle of it. ...the logs, yes. I should focus. I can access his logs through his workspace..."
Una slid into a glass chair, which automatically reshaped itself to better support her. A few passes were made over the surface of the desk, as light-forms rose into place, files and folders and records. With practiced ease, Una entered a sequence of codes, unlocking the red-colored protected files, rendering them blue-colored.
"We'll check his most recent personal notes," she suggested. "Hopefully they'll reveal why he's chosen this strange path for our people..."
She twirled her fingertip around in a circle, spinning through the file structures, until the four most recent entries appeared. One opened, and a hovering image of Ono, the Council Elder, appeared above the desk.
Emily had only met Ono briefly, back in Olney, as he sent Una on her way. He seemed a cheerful, perhaps slightly absent minded sort of fellow -- this Ono was still cheerful, but more thoughtful, more introspective. He was, after all, allegedly talking to himself alone.
"After seeing our technology misused by Earthlings, I've decided to launch an investigation," Ono explained to his logs. "Against Lar's wishes, I'm allowing my daughter to lead the way. This is what she's always wanted, a chance to learn Earth culture firsthand. Still, I will be tracking her progress via her jetpack's positioning systems, and monitoring her vital signs. If things look to be too dangerous, I'll dispatch a Pragmatic investigation team immediately. ...I know I risk much, allowing the only family I have left to walk this war torn world. But Lea, wise Lea... she would not want my fears to prevent our daughter from a chance at developing her own confidence, and independence. Lea always called life a series of trials... is my dear Una prepared for this trial? I will put my faith in her."
Scout considered his words. "Saul felt the same way," he agreed. "About life being a series of challenges. But it seems your father was pragmatic enough to keep a backup plan in place, just in case. Very wise."
"He learned much from mother's wisdom," Una agreed. She nudged over to the next file, starting playback.
This Ono was more... tired. Clearly he had spent several hours in an anxious state, before deciding to commit his thoughts to the record. "I hesitated," he said, with some regret. "I saw dangerous drops in Una's vital signs, as if she was undergoing a ongoing experience of pain during her visit to the city of Baltimore... but rather than dispatch a relief team immediately and cancel her mission outright, I hesitated. Lea always felt that life was an experience of mixed suffering and joy, and that from a Pragmatic standpoint, one must know both by heart. Did I take that lesson too far? Did I just allow my daughter to experience a horrible trauma for the sake of maturation? Back and forth, I have debated this point with myself. However... had her vitals not recovered soon after, and her journey continued along, I would have brought her back immediately and held her and never let go. I hope she can forgive me, for allowing such horror. It is difficult to know the best path. An Optimist can only hope for the best."
...Una's fingers trembled over the invisible keyboard, at the memory of Baltimore. Before her friends could say anything, she quickly moved on to the next entry.
Now, Ono was cheerful once more -- an expression of joy and delight. "An astounding find! Ah, granted, it initially terrified me," he added, before he seemed too thrilled about what he was describing. "For a full evening, my daughter disappeared from our sensors. I feared the worst, and after the experience in Balitmore, I was ready to immediately dispatch a team. Lar was already assembling a group of extraction experts when Una reappeared -- and so far to the north, in Canada! What's more, she had found an entire crashed Arcology! Our sensors kept gliding right over it in our usual surface scans, for some reason, but once she was next to it I was able to focus in tightly. Likely Faerie magic was interfering, previously. What a find! My daughter has succeeded! I will tell Lar of this at once, so that we can dispatch a recovery team, and I can summon my daughter home. Of course, we will destroy the fallen city as cleanly as possible... and then, I will petition for the fleet to leave this world. No longer will I risk our mistakes harming this world. Non-interference must be maintained... its infractions have taught us all a harsh lesson."
Now, her pause was one of confusion. "Wait, so... he knew about our visit to #BE12?" Una asked. "If he could track my progress, if he somehow broke through whatever was hiding the fallen city from view... why were we not contacted, after that? I can't see him waiting nearly a week to do anything, once we found an entire Arcology..."
Scout gestured to the last file. "It's not over yet," he said. "One more entry."
Una quickly dialed the final entry up, curious now as to what had changed things so drastically...
...and was greeted with cheerful Ono, again. Perhaps twice as cheerful. He had a vacant look of wonder about him, sort of a blissful joy one might experience when eating far too much Cold Fun.
"I have designed a plan," he explained, talking slowly, carefully. "It makes such simple, perfect sense... it's astonishing to think I hadn't considered the option before. Seeing the crashed city made me realize something of importance. The reason why our technology harmed this world... is because there was no one there to guide these people in its use! There's so much good we could do for planet Earth, so much healing to be done to its war-wounds. Therefore, I have made a decision. We will land another city, but this time, intentionally! We will break non-interference and begin a new age, one of peace and prosperity for all Earthlings. Lar agrees with me that this is the best path... but we will need to be secretive. He will begin issuing transfer orders, moving most Pragmatists out of the city. They would never understand the heart of Optimism that guides my path. Lea would never understand. But this feels right to me, so perfect and true... this feels like what I must do. All doubts are erased. A bright summer day is dawning. I will be the savior of Earth."
The holographic Ono vanished. End of file.
Una stared absently at the space where her father's image was, trying to put the words in his mouth, and finding them an ill fit. She played the file back again, wordlessly, to make sure she wasn't hearing things. It played just as before, and ended, leaving the three in silence.
"...he'd never do this. Never," Una spoke, at last. "I know him, my friends. I know he may have his head in the stars, as mother said, but he was grounded enough to know better than to do this!"
"A bright summer day is dawning," Emily repeated. "Una... did the Orbitals refer to the seasons, much? They don't really apply when you're in space, right?"
"Well... no, not as such. I mean, botanists often would, and there are calendar sync operations which provide Earth time zone translation lookups, but--"
"That word worries me, then. Summer. You say he wouldn't act like this if he was in his right mind?"
"Of course not!"
"Then he's not in his right mind. Lady Summer may have her hooks in him. He's delivering a city to her on a silver platter," Emily realized. "We were right! ...okay, well, one of the eighty seven theories we had was right. The Faeries have corrupted the Orbitals. We need to get to the engine room and put a stop to this mad plan! ...I think. I mean, can we take over the engine room? Just the three of us? Okay, no, hang on. Let me think. We just need a plan--"
A tiny blue notification symbol popped up, hovering over the table -- a cartoony illustration of a little Una hugging a little Ono. ...and Una's eyes widened.
"Early warning," she explained, fast. "I wrote that program years ago to let me know when father was coming home. He's in a transit tube to the residential district! He's coming here!"
Scout tapped the button to open the door, and waved the girls through. "Run," he ordered quickly and simply.
It didn't take long for their sneaky secret mission to fall to pieces.
Immediately on entering the residential corridor, one of those men with little badges that looked vaguely official took notice of them. From the looks of it, this was a 'I was specifically sent to detain you' notice taking, rather than an 'ere now wots all this then' notice taking. The soft beep of his uTalk module moved him into action.
He was already politely addressing the group with "Ah, excuse me, but if you would be as kind as to come with me..." while he was politely moving a hand to the energy weapon at his side.
Scout stepped in to the guard sharply, elbowing him in the stomach before shoving him to the floor. All things considered, it was the nicest takedown he could manage on the man.
"Run," he repeated from before. Not that it needed to be said again -- the three were already in motion. "Una. Nearest exit that isn't the entrance your father's using. Where?"
Una jogged along beside him, trying to think, despite her nerves. "I think.. the... no, that won't work... ummm..."
"First things first. Una, ditch the jetpack," Emily said, for once thankful she wasn't in an ankle-length running-prohibitive skirt. "They're tracking you through it. We've got to get rid of the thing!"
"But it's got your hat in storage, and all my things!" Una protested. "And my energy blaster, and-- oh, I suppose I should have that out now since we might need to fight, um, one second, I'll just--"
"Excuse me! You there! Excuse me!"
"Faster!" Scout shouted, as the group took things up a gear, now with two more security guards on their tail. "Too late to shake them that way. Find us a place with some cover. Hopefully some shadows. Hurry!"
Memory flickered through the haze of Una's panic. She pointed down a left hand corridor, tugging on Emily's arm to help with the sharp turn. Two more rights, after that, and then...
A fresh blast of cool air assaulted them. A handful of very young Orbitals -- each wearing a uTalk module and enjoying a nice glass conical container of some creamy white substance during nutrition break from their daily education -- glanced up at the trio in confusion. A man in a tiny paper hat and apron in the back was equally befuddled.
Light and bouncy music played over hidden speakers, in no way suggesting impending armed conflict.
"...it's my favorite Cold Fun Distribution Node," Una explained. "Used to go here quite a bit as a child. I figured, umm, lots of tables and things to hide behind, right...?"
Scout was not the sort to facepalm, but he had to fight the innate human urge to do so. "And plenty of civilians to get caught in the crossfire, yes, Una. Let me borrow your blaster, please."
Carefully, Una withdrew her energy blaster from the storage compartment of her jetpack, and handed it over. Scout dialed it up to its highest setting and put several very noisy and showy holes in the ceiling.
"Go home," he politely requested to the kiddies enjoying their Cold Fun.
A wave of screaming, panicked kids streaming out of the room was just the trick for slowing down the guards on their tail. Scout kicked over the largest table, after blasting it free from the floor, and took cover. The girls slid behind the upturned surface, to either side.
"This really is not how I was expecting to die, you know," Emily said. "When I was a kid, I figured I'd die locked in some epic witchy battle of magic and swords against a fierce dragon. Not being attacked by extremely polite guards in an ice cream shop in outer space. Una, may I have my hat and my book now? I'd like to at least go down looking like a proper witch."
Una slid open the compartment, defying conventional dimensional theories by retrieving the large floppy hat and ornately bound three ring binder from the tiny little slot. "We could try reasoning with them," she suggested. "Orbitals don't kill people. At worst they'd stun us and take us into custody..."
"Same result in the end. Lady Summer gets the city while we're helpless, game over," Scout said, dialing Una's weapon back down to stun, before handing it back. "Be ready to fight. Pop out, take a few shots, pop back down. Don't stay up too long, don't expose much of yourself. You practiced with this before we left?"
"Well, yes, but clowns don't shoot back!"
"Excuse me, we'd really rather you came with us without any difficulties, thank you!!"
And energy blasts arced over the top of the table. Una yelped, and immediately started doing some shoot-and-duck motions, wildly missing the two guards with every shot.
Unfortunately, this being an Orbital decorated ice cream parlor, everything was nice and shiny... perfect for reflecting the energy streams. The next shots from their assailants got closer and closer to finding their "hiding" spot behind the table, as the guards worked the angles, trying to find one that would grant them access...
"This won't work," Scout realized. He glanced around, trying to find some environmental aspect he could ply to his advantage...
...and grabbed a pair of metal dishes, each loaded up with yummy scoops of Cold Fun. He hefted them, one in each hand, testing the weight.
"Not the time or place for a snack, Scout," Emily accused, while flipping through her spellbook for something useful.
"Shock spell on both of them," the boy suggested. "Una, cover fire. Go!"
Five seconds later, after some blasts sent the guards ducking back behind the open doorway... when they returned to look into the room, each got a faceful of Cold Fun, served up cold -- and electrified. The dishes conducted the Shock spells perfectly, resulting in two crumpled piles topped with edible decorative particles where once there were two dangerous security officials.
"Wait here," Scout said, gesturing for the girls to stay down. "Getting their guns. We all need to be armed if we're going to... do whatever it is we're going to do."
Carefully, he crawled out from around the table, visually verifying that the two guards were down. He slipped along now, crouched, and retrieved the fallen weapons--
In time to hear a telltale clicking sound behind him. He spun, energy blasters akimbo... and faced down a very, very nervous man in a paper hat armed with some sort of metal spigot on a hose. An icy fog floated up from the nozzle, mist from the extreme cold barely contained within the device. Most importantly... it was aimed at the table. Meaning he had the gun trained on Emily and Una, not on Scout.
"D-Don't move!!" the man ordered, clearly not used to this sort of thing. "I'll freeze them. I will! Don't move! Drop your weapons! No force fields! No doing anything! Nothing! Or I'll shoot!"
"I can't drop my weapons without moving," Scout pointed out. Without moving, at least without moving anything other than his lips. "Don't do anything crazy. We're all very, very calm here. Very calm. --Una? What is that thing?"
"It's a deep freeze projector," Una said, trying to stay calm. "I've seen them before. It could... Scout, it could be very bad if he--"
"I mean business! You're... you're all dangerous criminals and you threatened the children and you killed those guards--"
"Sir, we didn't--"
"Don't confuse me!" the man shouted, nozzle wavering dangerously. "Things are confusing enough lately without a layer of YOUR decorative particles on top! All of you, just... slowly... get up, and back away, and I'll call the--"
The tiniest of squeaking noises could be heard, as the stunner disk slid between Scout's legs, into the middle of the room.
The last thing he saw was a brilliant flash of white light.
When Scout awoke, at first he thought he was still blinded. All that was visible was endless white, without distinctive features, without light sources, without anything to define the space he was within.
He was lying on some sort of metal floor. That much was clear. But as he sat up, groggy from the after effects of the neural stunner, none of his senses were helping him beyond touch. The eyes just saw constant white. No smells were in the air. Ears heard no noise--
No, wait. One heartbeat. Obviously not his own, which meant...
"I'm over here."
Scout turned in place, and Emily slid around to his view. She was sitting, hugging her knees and looking quite dejected.
"There's no door," she pointed out. "At least, none I've found. I wandered off as far as I dared, until you were a tiny speck lost in the light, but I didn't want to go any further. I'm thinking our senses are being fooled and this prison cell isn't as large as it seems, but... doesn't matter. There's no way out."
"Always a way out, if there was a way in," Scout reasoned, pressing his fingers to his forehead, trying to massage the headache away. "Una...?"
"Not here. Guessing her dad pulled her out of the mess apart from us. They also took my spellbook," Emily pointed out. "I still have my hat, at least. So that makes me a proper witch without any actual magic. There's no shadows for you to jump into, either. But wait -- it gets better. Few minutes ago, I felt the entire room shake. I think the ship's already headed downward, Scout. We failed, bigtime. I feel like an idiot."
"It's not your fault," Scout said, sitting across from her now, indian style. He started regulating his breathing, a meditative exercise taught to him by Saul, to will the headache away.
"We launched ourselves into space without having a clue what was going on, just because I had a feeling it's where we needed to be. Then we got into a firefight in a kiddie candy shop, and were arrested on the spot because some minimum wage earner accosted us with a mad science freeze ray. That's not just a complete failure, it's an utterly humiliating failure. Once the Earth is swept clean in an apocalyptic Faerie civil war or whatever, they can print on my headstone: Here Lies Emily. 31 Flavors Were Her Undoing."
Scout knew not to laugh at the joke. It was just Emily's way of dealing with the pain, after all.
"This was my fault, from a tactical standpoint," Scout pointed out.
"Oh, are we doing the whole self-blame thing now? I bet I could still top you, if I tried--"
"I could have shot the clerk. I'm faster on the draw than someone using a kitchen tool as a weapon. I considered it, in fact... but I hesitated. Because odds were good that in his nervous spasm after being stunned, he could have fired anyway, and killed you with a severe blast of instant hypothermia."
Emily peered at him, under the brim of her hat. "Aaaand that's your fault because your love for me caused you to think of my well being instead of the success of the mission to save the world. Correct?"
"Alright. In that case, I hereby absolve both of us of any blame for screwing this up," Emily decided. "Because if our roles were reversed, no way in hell would I have plugged the guy if there was a risk he'd have killed you. It's called being human, Scout. It means making the stupid choice, sometimes, because doing otherwise would be... cold-hearted. If you'll pardon the pun that exists on multiple levels."
"Regardless of blame, we're trapped," Scout said... rising to his feet, now that the pain behind his eyes had faded. "I won't accept that as a helpless state until we've exhausted all possible routes of escape. The mission continues. What do we have at our disposal?"
"Your teleportation, which won't work. My magic, which I lost. And a nice hat. ...well, A hat."
"You haven't lost all your magic."
"Really, now? How do you figure?"
The boy pointed to the square-shaped tattoo design, tucked away inside Emily's arm... adjoining two similar shapes, made of pure scar tissue.
Una had a much easier time arousing from brain trauma induced sleep. Someone was waving a neural balancer rod over her head in a gentle figure eight pattern, slowly bringing her back to consciousness, erasing the pain with soothing waves of energy. It was like waking from a nightmare into the dawn of a lovely spring morning...
The person who was waking her, that should have alarmed her. But instinct jumped in first, and Una's first action on rousing was to reach forward, hold onto her father tight, and not let go.
Ono. Father. Beloved father, with the gentle soul of a dreamer. The one who always was there to support Una, to encourage her, to help her realize her wishes and hopes. Even after a gaping wound was left in the family, even after the distance between them grew, the love didn't fade. That would always be there, first and foremost.
But second was the danger. Ono. Optimist. The one who supposedly was behind this mad plan to land a city on the surface of the world... into the waiting clutches of Lady Summer. Ono who they were running away from...
Quickly, Una glanced around at her surroundings. She was lying on the rest-couch of her family apartment... the blank wall where cherished pictures used to display, father's familiar work desk. But no sign of--
"Emily? Scout?" she asked, aloud.
"Shhhh. It's alright; they're safe and sound," Ono said, trying to soothe his daughter. (He ignored the soft beep of his uTalk; family first, business later.) "They had to be moved somewhere safer. It's for the best, Una. There's too much to explain, too much they need to understand, and not enough time. You'll see them again soon, after we land. Everything's going to be just fine..."
Una shook her head. She wanted to believe that, to be honest, but had to force herself not to. "Father... you're planning to break the law of non-interference. Why would you do that? This doesn't seem like you. Not at all!"
"It's as much a surprise to me as it is to you, believe me!" Ono said, with a wry little grin. "The idea just... popped to mind, one day. It felt so right, Una, so true! I know all the reasons behind the taboo, and they're good reasons, but... you've been to Earth. You of all people should understand this. It's a planet locked in conflict, and I don't just mean Eastusa and the Faerie Court. Conflict all over the globe, in every forgotten corner. We could solve so many of their problems!"
"But... but they have to be given a chance to solve their own problems, father. Us coming along and providing them with advanced technology--"
"I don't see it as cheating. Not any more than, say, the Faeries finding some impoverished village of humans, and offering magical healing for their wounds. Not any more than humans offering antibiotics to a plague addled country."
"We aren't talking medicines, father. I mean... well, okay, we are," she said, giving him the point. "But even our healing techniques can be applied improperly. ...I found out firsthand, when a.. low person, a person of no character, used the very same neural sequencer rod you used on me just now in order to torture me!"
--and Ono's endless smile cracked. Just for a second.
A beep sounded in his ear, and the smile was pasted back on without missing more than half a beat.
"I promise you that everything will make sense soon," Ono insisted. "In fact, I got you a little gift, while you were asleep... I'm afraid it's not one of the more stylish models, but I didn't want to abuse my position to requisition you one ahead of someone in the waiting list..."
The Councilman reached into a little box... and withdrew a uTalk. One of those ubiquitous personal communicator gadgets that apparently were all the rage on #A076.
In an instant -- Una, the 91% grader, the one her peers routinely considered to be sub-intelligent -- figured it out.
At first, she'd taken no notice of the devices. Fads came and went on #A076 in rapid order. One week it might be little metal bracelets that showed your mood, another week it'd be matching neck scarves for young lovers, and another it'd be a hot new puzzle game loaded on everybody's desktop where you turn this thing and fit it into that thing and then both things vanish.
Chatty mobile devices? Nothing strange there. Except that they could conceivably access the same neural links that a teacher's shared-mindset headbands would. The same kind that a young war witch used to control a tribe of Ogres, long ago, in Olney...
Father wasn't the evil mastermind. That was someone else... someone pulling father's strings, using him as the means through which the city could be landed. Whispering things into his ear that were just a few feet away from his normal beliefs, then giving him the nudge he needed to cross over. Having him file transfer papers, to fill the ship with Optimists, people who could be manipulated in the same way. Someone who was cranking up the excitement around the ship, stimulating the emotions of everybody here, getting them properly thrilled about the idea of breaking non-interference.
If she wore that device in her ear, she'd probably gleefully join their ranks.
"I don't want it," Una said, fear making her voice small.
"But you have to wear it," Ono said, smiling, always smiling. He reached over, ready to plug the communicator in place, whether Una wanted it or not. "All your friends wear them. Don't you want to be like your friends?"
"I don't have any friends here, father!" Una said, trying to push the hand away. "Nobody likes me. They call me Ninety One! I'm the silly girl who watches all those human movies, the one who doesn't fit in. But Emily and Scout are my friends, and you locked them up, and now you want to hurt me with that thing...! Dad, stop it, please--!"
"Una, it's not as bad as that. You'll understand more soon. I promise you'll feel so much better, soon..."
Father was stronger than Una thought he'd be. He was nearly arm wrestling his daughter now, trying to force the uTalk on her... and in the end, he'd win. Una was hardly a bodybuilder, nor was she the unarmed fighter Scout was. She was going to end up enthralled by that mind controlling device, one way or another...
Break through to him. Crack the smile. Even if just for a moment...
The uTalk started to make contact with her skin. She spoke quickly.
"Father, did you know that mother was murdered?"
And then... light. Everything was light. Her body felt light. The overhead lights were brighter. Everything was perfect -- father was right. It DID make a lot more sense, now. There was no sadness, no fear, no alarm. She didn't miss the photos on the wall. The smile flowed onto her face with ease...
...even as Ono's smile wavered.
"Murdered?" he asked. He didn't want to ask, but he forced the question through his lips regardless.
"Hmmm? Oh, yes. I remember it. But it doesn't matter, does it?" Una said. "She doesn't matter anymore. I can hear them, father... all my friends, everybody from school. Oh, they're so excited! They're so excited to hear from me again! You're right -- this is exactly what Earth needs. I don't understand why I was so worried before..."
Ono took his daughter by the shoulders, looking her square in the eye... despite Una's gaze wandering off, her head rolling back as she listened to the happy voices in her head.
"Una, what do you mean, that your mother was murdered?" he asked. Words coming slowly, trying to find their way through. "That's... not right. I don't remember it that way... she walked into the airlock out of sorrow..."
"She smiled to me, father. It was so nice. She smiled, and told me she loved me," Una recalled, highlighting the happier parts of the memory. "She wore a pretty headband, just like we wear in class, just like they used to brainwash the Ogres back in Olney. Remember? That was a fun day, and so exciting. And you let me wander the Earth after that, because... why, again? I can't recall... to learn how much pain they were in, how they needed us. That was it, right?"
Councilman Ono did not reach his position through ignoring the world around him. 'His head in the clouds, that's my Ono,' his beloved wife Lea would say... but Lea also knew he was sharp and resourceful, able to make his dreams come true through clever thinking and hard work. He wasn't the sort of person to dismiss the facts. Especially not where his family was concerned.
Headbands. Mind control. Changing your thoughts. Making you do things you would never do. Lea would never kill herself. It never sat well with him, it never made sense. The investigators claimed it was his fault -- that this was the natural outcome of an Optimist and a Pragmatist as man and wife, that they could never truly integrate. They couldn't be one.
They WERE one. He loved Lea with all his heart. She would never kill herself. She was controlled.
And now, so was Ono.
With absolute determination, with a rage that rarely touched his soul of positivism, Ono grasped the earpiece that was whispering calming words, telling him everything was fine, nobody was sad, and he tore it free from his mind.
The lights dimmed. The world got sharper, harsher. And the wall was blank.
With a snap of the wrist, he brought back the gallery files he had pushed aside in his haze. Lea. Una. The joys of his life. The reasons he carried on. They would never leave the wall again, and damn the one who tried to erase them from his soul.
As Una returned to her senses, the uTalk pulled from her ear... she found her fathers arms around her, and his tears falling on her shoulder. It was a gesture returned in kind, as Una began to cry with him. Grief long since bottled up and unspoken, now given a release...
But it couldn't last. Ono held onto it, memorizing the feeling. He would return to it, and soon. For now... something else had to be in play.
He withdrew, slowly, and faced his daughter head on.
"I know who's responsible," he said, softly yet firmly. "And you and I are going to put a stop to this madness once and for all."
"Out of the question."
Emily folded her arms, assuming the unbreakable stance of the Steadfast Witch. She added a shake of the head for emphasis, even.
"I'm not casting my Escape spell," she said, with the tiniest of glances to her tattooed arm. "For starters, it hurts like hell when the spell burns itself off my skin. It was a horrible experience the first two times I cast it."
"This isn't the time to worry about battle wounds," Scout stated.
"There's a much more critical reason not to bail out of here by magic. Escape is NOT a reliable spell," Emily continued. "When I got the idea to tattoo up three copies of it on my arm, so I could eject my ass out of a horrible situation on demand, it seemed like a clever notion. But the first time I cast it, I ended up upside down in a tree a mile away. Okay, fine, a little painful, but no big deal, right? Next time I cast it when I was in a seaside village, and I ended up a hundred feet underwater half a mile away. I nearly drowned, Scout. Escape doesn't care where it drops you... all it does is move you somewhere other than where you are."
Scout looked out, into the artificially infinite expanse of white. It couldn't possibly be as large as it seemed... the Arcology was the size of a city, not the size of a vast plain. And that meant...
"You could end up teleporting outside the hull," he realized.
"I hear you freeze to death instantly, which is a bonus, compared to explosive decompression," Emily said, looking on the bright side of crushing doom.
"But you could end up teleporting to another part of the city."
"Yeah, I could. Or I could become an involuntary ElfStar satellite."
"There's no other way out of here. ...can you teach me how to cast the spell?" Scout suggested. "Better me than you, if something goes wrong--"
"Ohhh no, buster, we are NOT getting into one of those endless cycles of throwing ones self on a live grenade to spare the other self," Emily warned. "I'll not have any of that chivalrous crap on my watch. I'd be just as likely to take a bullet for you as you would for me, so neither of us are taking bullets."
"Or both of us are."
"You cast the spell and I hold on tight. We both either get out of here and save the day, or die in space," Scout suggested. "That's fair. And if you won't show me how to cast it, it's the only way I'll let you cast it. I meant what I said, back in Florida... I don't want to live without you, Emily. That's not living, to me. Not anymore."
She swallowed, hard. "Scout... this... that's stupid. We can't do this."
"And the alternative? Sit here and wait for rescue? Wait for Lady Summer to open the 'door' for us and let us out?" he asked. "This is more important than you, more important than me. More important than us. You said being human was doing the stupid choice, because to do otherwise was cold-hearted. In this case... the stupid choice is a recklessly dangerous spell, for the sake of the world. ...besides. I have faith in one other thing."
"The gamble of Lady Winter. We're her coin, remember?" he said. "Lady Winter... they say she can see how someone will die. Lady Summer sees how you were born, Lady Winter sees your death. She wouldn't have set a prophecy upon me of marrying the Crown of Ice only to let me die in space."
"...unless she meant you freeze to death."
Scout grasped Emily's hand, pulling her in close.
"We do it together," he said. "No time left. We have a mission to finish... and a life to live. Let's go."
Emily fidgeted, despite the comfort she found in his arms. Slowly... she raised her hand, eyes running along the single remaining copy of the Escape spell.
"This is the stupidest thing I have ever done," she said, for the record. "And if we both die, I'm haunting you forever. Understood?"
"Understood," Scout agreed. "Let's finish this."
The white void became an empty white void, as the lovers were cast onto the cosmic winds of fate.
Twenty seconds later, an invisible door opened, and a man and his daughter peered in.
"Err... shouldn't my friends be in here somewhere...?" Una asked. "It's just a ten foot by ten foot cell, right?"
Ono sighed. "We don't have any time to look for them. The city's landing in minutes," he said... raising a powerful energy rifle. "And we have a 'mastermind' to stop. We need to go. I'm sorry, Una..."
The door slid shut, as they departed.
The view outside the windows was in motion. The stars were sliding away, up and away, the view growing brighter as the atmosphere of Earth began to assert itself. The path to salvation was slower than he liked, a nice, gradual descent to the planet's surface... not the short drop and a sudden stop that #BE12 experienced, no sir. But that was fine. A slow fall would ensure maximum effect for all concerned.
He'd dismissed the other workers, people in his inner circle. They'd already be in the shuttlecraft, awaiting their leader before departing, of course. He had a few minor adjustments to make, to ensure the plan would be executed smoothly while they were a comfortable distance away.
His fingers played over the smooth surfaces, entering codes, correcting the flight path according to last minute data. One look up at the enormous gyroscopic shift engine, the core component of the vast engine chamber, confirmed that all was well... the gravity pumps were at last properly balanced. It took them days to get the right mixture for a landing, something Arcologies simply were not designed to do. Ever since the unfortunate departure of #A076's skilled chief engineer years ago, every replacement in her stead had been a rather sad example of Orbital undereducation, which emphasized philosophy far too greatly over the hardest of scientific disciplines. Far too greatly for his tastes, anyway.
No sense grieving for the past, however. Despite his staunch counterstance against optimism, he felt great relief and hope for the future. At last, the path would be clear. And #A076 was the key. All he had to do was depart from this place, head back to the fleet, and report in. The work here was now complete. The future would at last be assured.
He closed down the programs, securing them into place, before turning away from the computer and towards the business end of an impressive looking energy rifle.
This gave him one third of a moment of pause, before he returned the implied threat with a warm smile.
"May I be of assistance, Primary Council Leader Ono?" he asked, politely.
"Tertiary Pragmatist Councilmember Lar, I am placing you under arrest for crimes against society," Ono spoke, his weapon unwavering. The smaller energy blaster held by his daughter wavered more, but remained pointed at the traitor. "For breaking the highest of laws, non-interference in an alien culture. For psychic assault against the entire population of this city. ...and if my calculated estimate is correct, for the murder of my wife, Chief Engineer Lea."
"We'd really rather you came with us without any difficulties, thank you, " Una added.
"I wouldn't," Ono corrected. "Lar, you have taught me how to feel hatred today. It's a new sensation to me, and being an enlightened explorer of philosophy, I would very much enjoy an opportunity to find new means of expressing the emotion. I would really rather you gave me difficulty, so that I could perform an action I would later come to regret. Would you kindly?"
Lar raised his hands. "Pardon my confusion, Primary Council Leader, but I'm not certain how I could give you any difficulty," he spoke. "I'm getting on in years, and in weight. I'm hardly in any shape to fight you. I have no weapons on my person. I am completely helpless, as are any of our kind when stripped of their wonderful technology. But if I may have but one word, before I am taken away for trial...?"
"What would that be, precisely?" Ono asked, thumbing the trigger of his energy projector...
"," Lar whispered.
The rifle in Ono's hands promptly emitted a sickly beeping sound. Holographs hovered over it, spurting out error codes that contradicted themselves -- the weapon's internal systems apparently were simultaneously overloading and underpowered. Within two seconds the gun had failed completely.
"," Lar repeated, in case they hadn't heard him -- and Una's trusty energy blaster fell apart in her hands, the modular components failing at every critical seam simultaneously. ",,." Her shield bracers overloaded, sending numbing spikes of energy up her arms -- and finally, her jetpack, which had seen her through thick and thin on Earth, gave up completely, falling off her back and shattering on the floor. The storage compartment lost containment, and an explosion containing the sum of her shopping expeditions burst forth, clothes flying in all directions.
Una stared at her still-tingling fingers in horror, as she was systematically stripped of every superscientific tool in her arsenal... while Ono sprang forward, an uncharacteristic snarl of rage as he seemed intent on simply beating Lar into the ground with his own weak fists...
Lar waved two fingers at him, shaking his head. "No, Ono. Sorry. . . You're both too late to do anything to stop me, I'm afraid."
Her bone marrow was promptly replaced with magical flame. The tiny part of Una that wasn't screaming in pain hoped that metaphor was not literal -- the rest of her flashed briefly back to Quicksilver's basement dungeon, before the image of Lar replaced that of Dennis once more. Una fell to her knees, every joint searing with pain, as if a dozen years of arthritis slammed through her body in one shot...
Ono took the hit worse than she did. He was older, more frail, and not toughened up by weeks of physical activity on Earth. He collapsed completely, unable to even drop to his knees. Weakly, he tried to pull himself from the floor... and was unable to do so. His fight was gone, and with that, his consciousness.
Slowly, Lar produced an object from the sleeves of his council robes... an ornately decorated book, bound in white leather, bearing a crest in the shape of a snowflake. It was a strangely cheery glyph for a tome that simply... FELT wrong, a wrong thing, that the eye wanted to look away from.
"It's amazing, the things our survey teams find when scouring the wastes of Canada," Lar said. "Take, for example, the Codex of Curses. It's a Winterfae spellbook, of course. I came into possession of this volume years ago, and it solved all my problems in one swoop. It seems our technology is quite vulnerable to being hexed."
"B.. buh... #BE12..." Una realized, fighting to speak, despite the pain. The innate curiosity of her Orbital upbringing was asserting itself, despite all the horror she was experiencing. It had to know -- that trumped everything else. "It wasn't Faeries... YOU were the one who crashed the city...?"
"I'm afraid I really don't have time for idle chatter, girl. I have a shuttle to catch, and speeches to make," Lar apologized, tucking the book away -- and from this lower angle, she could see a second book up his sleeve, as well. Emily's spellbook. He apparently had collected it from her, much as he'd collected the other tome, and likely countless others over the years if he'd managed to teach himself spellcasting...
...but from that angle, Una could see something else, as well.
She smiled, even if it hurt to do so. But quickly replaced the smile with a look of fear and hopelessness. It was easy to wear an expression contrary to her nature... it was something she'd learned at the hands of Quicksilver Security. And now, it would be used for a good cause.
"We can't stop you," she spoke, letting the fear into her words. "But.. but why? Why did you do this? I don't understand... surely if you have won the day... you wouldn't mind telling us what your master plan is...?"
Lar considered the point, stroking his chin. "Yes, I can see how I would take emotional satisfaction in that," he said, focusing all his senses on the girl, to enjoy watching her squirm. "Thank you for the suggestion, Una. I suppose it won't take too long. Likely you've figured much of it out already, after all -- you just need someone to connect the dots. Unsurprising, given your pathetic test scores, little girl. Very well."
He gestured to the window, to the Earth that was approaching ever so steadily... but kept his eyes locked on those of his victim.
"My aim is to scour the Earth of all life, of course," he said. "My... organization, if you will, has been murdering worlds since the very first Orbital fleets left our poisoned homeworld. We are the secret heart of Pragmatism. Not that all Pragmatists agree with us... your mother was quite disagreeable, when she accidentally found out the truth. Regrettable. ...you're taught this all in school -- we do leave some details out, mind you. Otherwise, the kindhearted side of Orbital culture could never live with itself... knowing it only lived off the backs of such filthy work--"
"Murdering worlds?! I... I don't--"
"Don't interrupt your betters, child," Lar rebuked. "It's through my work that you get your pretty clothes and your shiny toys. Never forget that. Surveying fleets seeded with members of my organization find interesting worlds to 'observe.' These surveyors don't just scout... they overlay. They make carefully calculated massive shift-transpositions of one world's lifeforms onto another world, after determining the best combination to generate mutually assured destruction. After that, observation fleets roll in to watch these poor backward societies tear each other apart with war, and finally mining ships to irradiate and strip down the minerals from the dead world to make into mass capacitors. And thus, the Orbitals are forever."
"The Pandora Event!" Una realized. "I was right... we are responsible. ...I couldn't understand why... it's horrible, it's nonsense, it's--"
"The only way our culture can persist, given its constant need for a fresh energy supply. Without my organization scouring worlds, we would be grounded within two generations. All the planets we visit seem to be unfortunately teeming with life... a mistake to be corrected."
Lar let the horror of it sink in, a horror he was incapable of sharing. Optimists were unable to grasp the requirement, unable to see past the moral issues. A sad, sad state of unenlightenment.
"That brings us to this planet, the seventy fourth we've found that named itself Earth," Lar continued. "We transposed the Faeries into the world... for starters. Oh, there's plenty of other things lurking in the dark corners of this world, as well. But despite our best efforts... Earth did NOT destroy itself. There were wars, of course, and when your fleet arrived to observe, things seemed to be going quite well! But... in the long run, the world stabilized. It had reached a cold war state. Useless to us Orbitals, and any further mass-shifting would be noticed. I was tasked by my superiors to find a solution. And then I found this..."
He stroked one hand over the cursed tome within his sleeve, a curl forming on his smile. He did enjoy the touch of its pages.
"I consider it providence that I found this book. I filled #BE12 with weaponry, and crashed it into the Earth using a hex curse. I planted it squarely into the domain of the Faeries I had determined best fit the playbill of 'evil.' ...hmm. I had miscalculated, it seemed. This 'Lady Winter,' the primitive nature-spirit, did nothing with my gift. She let it sit there. Oh, some humans looted it, but then they hoarded its tools! The whole thing almost proved to be a waste of time... until somehow, Lady Summer got her hands on the technology. And then, she sent a message to me. If I sent her another city... she would give me the apocalypse I desired."
The pieces slotted nicely into place. Everything was fitting, the reasons behind the things which made no sense before, the gaps in the story that was cobbled together from their investigations... except one thing.
Una gathered her strength, pushing through the pain of the curse-spell, to continue. The light outside the ship was growing brighter... bluer. This was delaying matters, she should get on with it, but she had to know...
"Why not just crash the city? Why concoct some fake Optimist plan to... frame my father as a criminal," Una realized. "You said you were leaving. You're going to report back to the fleet of Ono's treason, of how the Optimists worked together to break the taboo. You're framing Optimism itself as a villain!"
"It seems our little Ninety One just gained another percentile," Lar confirmed, with a grin. "Oh, but there's more! I don't trust this Lady Summer, of course. Not after Lady Winter did nothing with the toys I dumped in her lap. No, the shift engines are going to overload and the city will explode the instant it lands. The resulting blast will irradiate two thirds of the planet, poisoning any survivors to death over the span of a few weeks. Orbital society will hail me as a hero, will hail your father as a traitor, and will use Earth as an object lesson in why Optimism is madness incarnate."
Lar leaned in closer, drinking in the shocked expression of the girl, finding himself quite satiated with the taste of her sorrows...
"I am the savior of the Orbital culture," Lar concluded. "And Earth is my master stroke. And now, I must be leaving. I don't want to be here when the city goes up like a candle. Goodbye, ignorant little girl."
...Una slowly, ever so slowly, got to one knee. Then stood on her two feet. Lar watched, curious now, as the girl summoned up the last of her strength...
"I may be an ignorant little girl," Una spoke, "But I have a deep knowledge, an understanding, you do not."
"I find this very hard to believe, given I'm a certified genius level intellect."
"You may be smart... but you never watched Earth media," Una said. ...and her false expression of horror, sorrow, and pain was dropped away like a cheap paper mask, revealing the smirking glee she'd been tucking away all this time. "You never watched spy movies. If you had, you'dve known better than to monologue your plans. NOW."
A foot firmly planted itself directly between Lar's legs, from behind. The Councilman let out the air in his lungs in one surprised squeak, as Emily powered her entire body through in the kick, answering her earlier query regarding the existence of Orbital testicles in the positive.
While she was busy taking out some rather vicious physical justice on the man, Scout was stroking a finger along his silver master mind control headband, deactivating it. He jerked the device off Lar's head sharply, pulling away the wires... and slamming Lar headfirst into a mind blanking coma in the process. The criminal's eyes rolled back into his head, and drool started to flow before he fell flat on his face.
The curse spell snapped in half, and Una's pain vanished completely, as if it was never there in the first place. She flexed her shoulders, testing them, satisfied with the results.
"You know, we could have interrogated his ass AFTER we stopped the ship from plowing into the dirt," Emily pointed out. "You're lucky we got here just in time to listen to his evil scheme and kick his ass. We accidentally teleported into a janitor closet. Took awhile to find the engine room..."
"I'm sorry, but... I had to know," Una said. "Now. Let's stop the Arcology! ... ...I have no idea how to stop the Arcology! Err. We could try waking my father up...? But he's not an Engineer..."
Emily took her stolen spellbook back from the (still twitching) form of Lar. "Let me handle that," she said. "Rather, let me help you handle that. After all, we've done it before, haven't we? Only this time, I don't have several minutes to mediate, so I'll have to get it right on the first try. .... ......."
The witch brushed her fingers over the computer console Lar was using moments ago, and the spell took root...
Parts of the computer disconnected themselves, hovering in the air. They swirled in a cloud, spinning and spinning, a potter's wheel loaded down with metallic clay that slowly took shape...
When the systems of #BE12 were animated, they became a replica of the Chief Engineer who spent the most time with the engines, leaving behind an imprint of himself. #A076 hadn't had a proper Engineer, not one the computer recognized as its own, in years. The memories went back farther than the sister ship's systems had...
The cloud of parts resolved into a silver mannequin, in the form of Chief Engineer Lea.
"Hello, little Una," the Computer-Lea spoke, in a near flawless synthesized copy of her voice.
The earlier curse spell could only make her hurt. It couldn't make her tremble inside, not in this way.
"I'm sorry... I'm just your mother's computer. And we don't have much time," it explained. "I'm slowing down the gravity pumps, trying to reverse the descent. I need your help, Una. You need to disconnect the following mass capacitors; they've been sabotaged by magic, designed to overload the system. I'll walk you through the process."
As if sleepwalking, Una did as instructed. Emily and Scout joined her... Emily feeling a little guilty, not realizing what an effect the spell would have. They severed a connection here, moved a long tube of compressed matter here, made a connection there. Slowly, a series of red holographic meters slid down into the blue... and the city itself stopped sliding deeper into the blue. That shuddering feeling Emily felt back in the cell, signifying the start of the fall, now signified the end of it.
"Altitude, half a mile above the surface of Earth, and slowly climbing," Lea spoke. "Lar redesigned the pumps to allow a safe landing -- the same modifications can allow a safe launch. We have just enough stable energy units to fight against the pull of gravity and ascend. You've done it, Una. #A076 is saved."
Una returned from her tasks... face to face with the simulacrum of her mother.
"...we miss you," she spoke, so very softly. "I know this isn't you. Not really. ...but we miss you. Father and I."
'Lea' did her best to smile... reaching out, to stroke a finger along Una's cheek.
"I think she would be proud of you, dear Una. Of all you've become, of all you've done. You've come so far from the little girl your mother remembers... grown up into a proud, strong woman. ...it's time for me to go, Una. The spell is fading..."
Una didn't get a chance to say this, when her mother left for the first time. It was a word that hovered there, unsaid, for so many years...
"Goodbye," Una spoke, at last.
Tears fell, as the computer components fell apart, rendered inert once more.
An embrace wrapped itself around her, from behind.
"I miss her too," Ono whispered in her ear... still ragged from his painful experience, but alert enough now to have watched the entire exchange. "I'm glad we got a chance to say goodbye. ...we're going to live on, Una, just as she wanted. I promise you. It's going to be okay, now..."
The four of them gathered by the expansive window, watching as the Earth fell away beneath them, the city on its way to resume its rightful place among the stars. Two pairs of two... father and daughter, and the two lovers.
"Mission accomplished, huh?" Emily said, looking up to the warmly smiling Scout.
The boy nodded, glad the ordeal was over. "So it seems--"
And the city stopped. That shudder was back, only this time, three times as strong... and it kept going. And going...
A flash of green snapped in front of Emily's eyes, followed by another, and another.
Vines. Launched up from the surface of the Earth, impossibly thick and long vines, wrapping themselves around the city over and over...
She fought to keep her footing, as the entire city was dragged downward, Summerfae magic battling head on against the gravity pumps. Given the pumps were never designed to pull a city upward into orbit, and they barely had enough to get the job done... any resistance would be enough to trump them. A full-on assault by a wrathful Lady Summer, a goddess who would NOT be denied her prize... that was more than #A076 could handle. Mass capacitors blew left and right, tubes of matter spewing their earthy sludge all over the floor...
"Power! We need more power!" Emily called out. "Una, Ono! We've got to get the engines pushing harder than this, or--"
Or what, young witch?
Emily whirled on place, turning to face the voice that floated in from behind her... just in time to see leaves and twigs and sunlight, all spiraling into place, to form the unearthly body of Lady Summer. Much as the computer components formed Lea, these slowly took on a human shape, of a beautiful woman in a dress of leaves and flowers... but with eyes like two miniature suns, and a Crown of Flame lightly spinning above her honeygrass hair...
A goddess had manifested in the middle of an alien spaceship. That alone was bizarre beyond belief. Una, Emily and Scout were sort of prepared for that... but Ono's brain shut down at the sight, unable to comprehend what he was seeing. Some paternal instinct made him pull Una closer, however... away from the dangerous entity before him.
You have done well. You prevented the destruction of my new acquisition and stopped the madman, just as I required of you. He started the descent... you kept my prize safe on the way down. I will have what I desire, before this world is through. And you cannot stop me...
...her feet nearly floated off the floor, as the city descended hard and fast, like a runaway elevator. She tried to speak up, to protest, but the air in her lungs was having trouble shuffling itself about properly. She looked over to Scout, who was busy scanning for shadows, trying to find something, anything he could use to his advantage--
And then it was over. The ship slowed sharply... and settled. Outside the window... the House of the Rising Sun was in view. They'd landed right in the parking space that they were destined to reach, and the engines would likely never be strong enough again to lift them away.
Scout reared back, ready to pounce -- and was stopped by Emily, holding up an arm. A barrier.
"You can't punch a nature goddess," she reminded him. "I don't have any spells that can hurt her. And we're out of shiny rayguns."
...but Summer let out a musical little giggle, at that.
Actually, as a Winterhound, he is empowered with the boon of my sister. If he wished to harm me... he could make a splendid try of it.
"Good," Scout said, pushing Emily's arm away. "Not going to let you--"
Lady Summer's eyes flared, once. And Scout burst into flame.
Oddly... there was no heat. If there was, Emily would've burned to a crisp just from standing next to him. The fire was a magical light, coating his body in an instant... before evaporating into nothingness, leaving Scout completely unharmed. In fact... the most extreme end of unharmed he could possibly get...
Immediately, he clenched a hand to his chest, eyes widening...
"Heartbeat," he spoke. "I have a heartbeat. She turned me human! I'm not a Winterhound any m--"
And THEN the real fire came, a lance of it, slamming directly through his chest. It burst out of his back, melting a hole in the glass observation window, just to prove that this time the Crown of Flame meant business.
Emily didn't hear herself screaming, but she was screaming. She had to be. It was the only sane reaction as the love of your life collapses to the ground, blood gushing from his chest, light already starting to fade from his eyes...
You can do nothing. You cannot stop me. You are mortal... whereas I am eternal, so long as the cycle of nature within my host world exists.
"...oh god oh god oh god..." Emily fell to her knees at his side, pulling her witch's hat off, pressing it to the wound to try and seal it. Her other hand tossed her spellbook to the floor, flipping it open rapidly. "..... Scout, look at me, focus on me, you're going to get through this!!!"
For his part... Scout weakly reached up, trying to grasp Emily's hand. Trying to say something, something soothing, to reassure her... but he couldn't speak. He could do nothing but look at her, and try to talk with his eyes... thankful for the time he had with her. However short it may have been...
Lady Summer ignored them. They had been dealt with. She turned instead... to the gyroscopic shift engine.
Spreading her 'hands', the engine began to glow, like natural sunlight filling the room, the most intense sunlight Una had ever witnessed. She shielded her eyes with one hand, staring in terror -- true terror now, not the false fear she used to trick Lar.
"What are you...?" she asked. "You're activating the shift engine...? But why? You're going to somehow destroy your enemies with an engine?"
Destroy my enemies? I don't seek war, child. Honestly... I mean this world no harm. All I want to do... is go home.
"The World of Faerie," Una realized.
Your people 'shifted' my people onto this world. I learned that, in time. But we don't belong here. We will never thrive alongside these humans. When I learned of your fallen city, I raided it, at great risk. I learned of your sciences. And now, with an intact engine, I can finally deliver my people back to the world they belong to. I will shift them all, Summerfae and Winterfae alike. With my magic and your technology, no matter where they are in this world... they will be delivered to their true ancestral homes.
"You... you could have just told us," Una suggested, weakly. "Maybe we could have helped you..."
I think not. Subjecting this world to another massive shift of this nature will likely tear it to pieces. I doubt the humans will survive. Truthfully, I mean this world no harm... but if harm is what is required in order to deliver my people home... so be it.
Emily read from her book, over and over, pages dissolving to ash. ".. ...I can't stop the bleeding. Help. Help me, Una. I don't know what to do. I'm running out of spells... help me, keep pressure on the wound, I need to recopy these spells fast..."
Face a goddess, something Una had no idea how to defeat... or help keep a friend alive. Una chose the latter. She joined Emily, holding pressure on the hat, which was by now saturated a dark red with the blood of Scout...
"I... I will summon a medical team immediately! And a security detail!" Ono promised. He fled the room, hopeful that he could make some contribution...
The gyroscopes of the engine started to move... concentric rings slowly spinning up, growing faster and faster. Lady Summer whispered in the language of pure magic now, her innate power combined with her stolen knowledge of Orbital technology, to empower the shift engine. To make it dance to her tune.
At last. Our long exile to this terrible world will soon be over. I will be the savior of the Faerie race...
...and one twig in her face floated out of place, pushed away by a chill breeze that had found its way into the room.
My my, sister dear. What is it you're up to on this fine day...?
And now, there were two goddesses. They were virtually identical in shape, if not composition... one of living things that are green and grow, the other of dying things that are frozen and lifeless. A Crown of Flame, and a Crown of Ice.
And look, you've gone and hurt my favorite pet. And so soon before his wedding day! I've always felt your reputation as the 'nice' Queen of Faerie was ill deserved, sister dear.
...Winter. Have you come to stop me? Are you so cold as to fight me even when I am trying to save your children as well as mine? We are going home. You must not prevent this.
Prevent it...? You misunderstand, as always. No, I am here to observe. I am here to enjoy your efforts. I won't raise a finger.
"You can raise a finger to help us, dammit!" Emily called out. "Your... your hound is dying! You can save him. You can make him a Winterhound again!"
Why would I want to do that? He's always wanted to be human. Now he is. You should be overjoyed.
"He's DYING! How can he fulfil your stupid prophecy if he dies?!"
...and one of the twin orbs of pure moonlight within the face of Lady Winter... flickered, briefly.
Emily stared, in confusion. Did... Lady Winter just... WINK at me? she pondered... before ignoring it, and going back to her spellcasting and spell copying, casting the spells just as fast as she could recopy them. "Dammit. Dammit...!!"
It comes, sister. The door is opening. Let us gaze through, and see our beloved World of Faerie once more...
Within the center of the gyroscope... the sunlight, the artificial light of Lady Summer's spell, was gathering. It was a liquid light now, a congealed mass that built into a shape, a writhing form contained within the shift engine itself. The path across the worldbleed was opening...
Where there was light, there was now darkness. Where there was air... there was now void. The window in reality opened, and through it, rather than a magical planet of wonder and joy... there was nothing. Nothing at all.
The air in the room started to get sucked into the void, the cold vacuum of space on the other side being a hungry beast, now given open access to another dimension. Lady Summer raised her arms... some leaves being stripped away, falling through the gap between worlds, freezing instantly when they dropped into the empty cosmos beyond...
What...? What is this? Where is the World of Faerie!?
It's gone, sister. Didn't you know? The Orbitals strip mine and destroy the worlds they murder... as well as the worlds they empty in the process of murder. The World of Faerie was reduced to radioactive fuel long, long ago. Oh... but you aren't the Queen of Death, are you? I am. I knew.
YOU KNEW AND YOU LET ME DO THIS!?
The rage was palpable, the Crown of Flame flaring white-hot with anger, as Lady Winter... smiled, the snowflakes of her face twisting into a cruel grin even as they were pulled away into the nearby void.
Una looked up, still holding the hat in place, as the horror unfolded... the death of worlds, which would soon grow out of control, and pull Earth inside out. Saving Scout's life seemed... a distant secondary, for a moment. But it was something she could deal with, something tangible and plausible. So... she focused on that. Just as Emily was.
The purpose of Winter is to vanquish Summer. The purpose of Summer is to vanquish Winter. I have only done what we are supposed to do. I have given you the means to murder yourself, my sister. I gave that Orbital lunatic a book of magic -- I put it in his path. I nudged events, here and there. I made backup plans, in case people behaved unpredictably. But in the end... you performed flawlessly. You took my trap and you stepped right into it. Now, we are both going to die, and in doing so, I will have won. I am the victor, at long last.
Madwoman! Chaos-bringer! You murder ALL our children in the process, Winter and Summer alike! I had thought even you unwilling to stoop so low in the war of the seasons... all this pointless death, just to satisfy our eternal vendetta?!
Madwoman? No, sister. Unlike you, unlike your puppet, unlike your puppet's puppet... am I the TRUE savior, not just of one race, but all the races. I have planned for this. Allow me to explain...
Both crowns flared, as the two communicated in a method beyond spoken word. There was too much to say, too much to convey, and nudging the air around to produce sound waves would be a terribly unsuited to the task.
...in the end, Lady Summer looked... incredulous.
You cannot possibly be serious.
And you know this is the only way. They are the only way. Why do you think I brought them here? I led them here through you, of course... and yet, here they are. The means through which the day, all days, can be saved. The catalysts to begin the Second Age.
...slowly, Emily, Una, and even Scout looked up at the twin goddesses.
"I'm sorry, but... are you talking about us?" Una asked, politely.
Star-child. You can stop the shifting. You can help us seal the rift in the worldbleed. Come.
"But... but Scout--"
Save the world, or save the boy. Your choice.
"I'm not an Engineer!" Una protested. "I have no idea how t--"
A bright light swirled once around her head.
"--closing the rift from this side alone isn't possible," she recited, from the quickly transplanted knowledge. "A flawed rift of this size requires equal powers pushing it closed from both sides. I can manipulate the engine from this side, while... while Lady Summer and Lady Winter close it from the other side, sealing themselves in the void where their homeworld used to be."
We will die. You will live. And I will be... not the true savior of what is to come, not the savior of the Second Age. But a savior, of sorts. Me, the Queen of Death. And THAT is the most amusing thing I have ever heard. Are you ready, sister?
If it will put an end to this humiliation, then yes, I am more than ready to give my life. Una Star-child, are you prepared?
Una nibbled her lip. "I... I don't know..."
The girls looked down, as Scout used what was left in him to speak, despite the blood trickling from his mouth.
"go. do it," he whispered. "please..."
Emily looked up, from the last page left in her spellbook -- the last blank, now covered with the final copy of her Mending spell. "Scout, we--"
"Go!" he urged, shoving Una away... the hat pressed to his chest flopping aside, a fresh flow of his life coming from the wound.
In a panic, Una staggered to the computer console, keying in the sequence taught to her by Lady Winter. As she worked... the Faerie Queens began to disincorporate, snowdrifts and leaves fading away, being pulled into the void. Soon, they were shapeless clouds. Soon, the clouds were gone... and the fire and flame of their crowns were sucked into the darkness of space.
"Almost got it, almost got it..." Una spoke, as the inky black of space began to shrink away...
The world was saved.
Not that Emily really cared. Only one thing mattered to her right now; the boy she was desperately trying to heal, even as he was fading away. One spell copy left, one single page. Not enough to seal the wound, just enough to give Scout a few more seconds, at best.
And twin comets streaked out from the darkness just before the worldbleed sealed itself.
They came snarling across the room. One was frozen fury -- the other, burning passion. They swirled around each other, quickly looping around the room... before turning sharply, heading directly for Emily the Witch.
On impact, Emily's world went black.
Dawn. New day.
This wasn't her room. It wasn't an Arcology, either. It was very comfortable, however, and at the moment that mattered above all else. She had a double-sized headache, and felt simultaneously feverish and chilly.
In a way, that was a great sign. Emily was fairly sure that once you died, you didn't feel woozy or sick anymore. Feeling like crap warmed over was definitely a hallmark of being alive.
She let herself return to consciousness nice and slow. No sense rushing these things and making matters worse for herself, after all. Soak in the details little by little. Figure out what happened between Then and Now, and exactly how long had passed between Then and Now... Later.
It was a rather large bed, and extremely fluffy. The pillows under her head weren't some cheap polyester make, and they weren't the living Orbital metal. These pillows could only be hand-crafted by absolute pillow badasses who spent generations studying the pillow arts high in the mountains somewhere until they could sew together a headrest that would instantly lull you into a state of flawless rest. That probably meant Faeries.
Yes, this was a Faerie room. It had a fancy feel to it. The bed was a four-poster, with a canopy...
Oh, right. The Arcology had crashed outside the House of the Rising Sun. This must be one of Lady Morgana's guest rooms. Emily didn't seem to be chained to the bed, so presumably she wasn't a prisoner -- although you could never tell, when it came to Hospitality--
"Scout!?" Emily exclaimed, as the fuzzy blob at the edge of her vision came into focus. His corpse had been propped up in a chair next to her bed -- no, wait. Not dead. Just asleep. Either that or dead and extremely well preserved, but more likely... alive. Yes, definitely alive. Something about him just... felt very, very alive...
The sound of her voice snapped him awake soon after. She felt her hand clutched by his. She felt his lips on hers. Nothing too intense... just a wake up kiss. Something he'd wanted to give her for some time...
"Morning, sleepyhead," he greeted, with a smile of genuine warmth. "It's been a few days. How do you feel?"
"Like I've been run over by a truck carrying another truck," Emily complained, closing her eyes a moment... one, to push back the pain, two, to enjoy the memory of that kiss properly. "Mmmh. Glad to be awake now, though. ...okay, I'll bite. How'd you survive?"
"...I should talk about what else happened while you were out, before we get to that," Scout suggested. "Because that story's going to be... what's the word... a doozy."
"Ah, that's exactly what I wanted after waking up from a traumatic experience: a tactical mission debriefing," Emily sarcasmed. "Okay, fine. What the hell happened?"
"Lady Winter and Lady Summer are gone. They sacrificed themselves to help Una seal the rift. If they hadn't, all the Faeries would've been shifted into the void, and the Earth would've likely been destroyed."
Emily propped herself up in bed, sitting upright, and regretted it. That strange cold fever around her head was more intense, now. "I caught that much before everything went black, thank you," she noted.
"Right, right. The Arcology's stuck here," Scout added. "Engines dead. The rest of the fleet's abandoned Earth. Not before Ono could dig up Lar's private files, though, and expose the conspiracy to their culture at large. ...I don't think we did the Orbitals any favors revealing they'd been living comfortably off the backs of numerous planetary genocides. It's going to take them a long time to come to grips with that. Ono's decided to start by carrying out his original mission; they're going to stay on Earth and help with humanitarian aid. That's what Lar programmed them to want, but... now that the mind control's broken, they're sticking with it anyway, albeit far more cautiously than before. Maybe it helps them feel less guilty for what they did to us."
"Uh... does that mean the non-interference laws are off the books now?"
"They're being reconsidered, in wake of these events. ...I have a bad feeling we haven't heard the last of this problem, Emily. And considering your position, we'll need to play the politics of it very carefully. I know you'd probably want Una to be the Orbital-Faerie ambassador, but I think Ono would be better in that role--"
"What do you mean by my position? Sitting up in a nice bed?" Emily asked. "Or do you mean less literally? I'm just a wandering witch, Scout. Okay, I had a very minor role in the whole world saving deal, but..."
...and Insight started calmly explaining things to Emily that she was in no mood to hear.
"That's not possible," she decided.
"You healed me, Emily. And I don't mean through your spellwork," Scout said... taking her hand, and pressing it against his chest. A heartbeat, strong and true, pulsed deep within. "I asked my... peers. I am now apparently a Lion of Summer, personal knight to the Crown of Flame--"
"Give me a mirror."
"You may want to--"
"Mirror," Emily insisted.
He was ready for this. A small hand mirror was already on the end table, waiting to be used. Scout picked it up, and held it in front of Emily...
It was funny. Even having a Crown of Flame orbiting a few inches over her head, inlaid with a Crown of Ice, she wasn't burning up the nice fluffy pillows. Apparently they were only a metaphorical crowns, despite being quite flashy.
"That should not be possible," Emily felt the need to point out... to herself, to Scout, and perhaps to the universe at large.
"It happened just before the rift sealed itself. Apparently the Queens of Faerie nominated you as their heir... both their heirs," Scout said, handing her the mirror, in case she wanted to stare blankly at the crowns some more. (She did.) "The crowns appeared over your head, you turned me into a Lion of Summer, and then you passed out. You've been asleep ever since."
"That really, really should not be possible."
"Instructor Elriel says it's unprecedented, since all of Faerie assumed the Queens to be goddesses. The titles have never changed hands. Apparently there's a lot about the crowns we don't know. For instance, that one person could be both the Queen of Life and the Queen of Death--"
"I want my hat," Emily said, quietly. "MY hat. My Nana's witch hat. It's my hat, I like it, and I want to wear that instead."
And so, she was. In the blink of an eye, the crowns were gone, and an old lopsided brown hat was on her head. Despite the original being completely ruined, soaked through in Scout's blood, falling apart in her hands...
The crowns were still there, of course. They just looked like a hat now. It didn't make her any less of a Queen of Faerie.
But it did make her feel more like a witch, which she took great comfort in.
"Is it too late to run for our lives?" Emily suggested. "Pack up, slip away in the night, and wander the Fringe until the end of time?"
"Too late, I'm afraid. They saw us bring you here. ...you have a sizeable contingent of the Faerie Court waiting outside the House for you to make a showing as their new goddess. Lady Morgana's playing it up, of course, that she's honored and delighted to play host to the new Queen. ...ah. If it helps, Elriel says it's not quite like being President of Eastusa. You're more mission-statement and less executive-branch..."
With a groan, Emily pulled the covers up over her head. The illusory hat vanished, once her head was fully covered. Not that it mattered; the Crowns would be there for the rest of her life. Which, if she'd become anything like their original bearers, could last very long indeed...
"Can I please have some breakfast before I have to consider the yawning chasm of cosmic horror that's popped open under my feet?" she asked, muffled beneath the bedsheets. "Some toast. Some tea. Maybe an orange. Sugar Frosted Flakey-Os. Something. Anything."
"As you wish, my Lady."
Emily genuinely hoped that was meant to be humorous.
She peeked out from her hidey hole, once he was gone. Too much to think about. Too much...
Ono thought he was the savior of the Orbitals, but he was under Lar's control. Lar thought he was the savior of the Orbitals, but he was a pawn of the Faerie Court. Summer thought she was the savior of the Faerie Court, but she was a pawn of Lady Winter. And Lady Winter...
...knew she was only the savior of the moment. The real champion of the future, and the one designated to be so ever since Winter's machinations began... was Emily. Emily, who now wore a hat three times heavier than her old familiar witch hat.
Hopefully Queens could have Sugar Frosted Flakey-Os whenever they wanted them. She was definitely going to need two bowls, at this rate. And maybe some Cold Fun.
The speech was short, informal, and probably not very satisfying to those assembled.
First and foremost, Emily wanted to point out that she didn't ask for this role, but she was going to do her best in it. Second and probably even more foremost... she wanted an end to the war. Cold war, hot war, it didn't matter. Day one, she wanted no more hostility between the Faerie Court and Eastusa. It was stupid and nobody was benefiting, including the Faeries.
She expected their help in wrangling that peace, and she'd be in touch with Eastusa to make sure they held up their end of it, there would be plenty of changes to come but she promised to respect Faerie traditions and had no interest in disassembling what worked for thousands of years, give her some time and she could sort this all out, thank you, and good day.
One element she touched on more smoothly was the Second Age.
It was an ancient fable, maybe a myth, maybe a prophecy. It was as old as the World of Faerie itself. That meant it had largely fallen into the mists of obscurity... but Emily was a student of obscure myth, so fascinated by books of fairy tale creatures and legends that may have only existed in the imagination. She knew this one.
The Second Age spoke of a new era for the Faerie, in which the nature of the seasons itself changed, and the road to a new paradise was found. It would be unlike anything they were used to, and would be frightening, at first... but it was ultimately the only destiny the Faeries could have, if they wanted to go on having destinies. It was also the last thing Lady Winter said. Emily guessed they were on the cusp of the Second Age, a time when human and Faerie would have to live together properly instead of denying the other mattered. If they kept an open mind... she promised she'd do whatever she could to make the next age an age of peace.
Still, exactly as the myth predicted, not all of Faerie was thrilled at the idea of a changing of the guard, or a changing of ancient ways. Unknown futures alongside old enemies were not concepts well received.
Overall, Emily felt she may have screwed up hard on her grand inauguration.
"If you like, I could find you a speechwriter," Una suggested, as the three of them gathered in Emily's new royal quarters within the House of the Rising Sun, later that night. They were busy enjoying some Cold Fun, delivered from the nearby Arcology. (Few bothered with its designation of #A076 anymore... it was just the Arcology.) "My father had a really brilliant one, who could smooth out his writing and find the key talking points to hit--"
"I'm not a politician, dammit. I don't mind setting the tone for the Court, especially if it puts a stop to some of the lunacy that's held this world back, but I'm not kissing hands and shaking babies," Emily said, waggling a spoon at Una. "Lady Summer and Lady Winter were above all that crap, and... well. I'll be slightly above it and a bit to the left, but... feh. You know what I mean."
"We're going to need to play politics once we start reaching out to Eastusa," Scout said. He was eschewing Cold Fun in favor of a hot cup of tea -- enjoying the newfound body warmth that being a Lion of Summer afforded him. "Assuming they don't reach out to us, first. Everybody saw that flying saucer city land in New Orleans. They're going to want to know what's going on."
"Father's playing this very carefully," Una mentioned. "He wants to help atone for the sins of the Orbitals, but we've seen our technology misused before. We want to start offering aid to the Faerie Court and Eastusa, but strictly controlled and observed. They're busy arguing the policy right now. It may be some time before we're ready to try anything... I'm hoping Nel finishes with her family business in Florida and comes back here soon. I miss her. Ah, and I could use her help teaching father the ways of the Faeries, so he avoids, err, accidentally indenturing himself for life..."
"I think I can absolve any debt like that, Una."
"No, no -- we can't rely on that. He needs to learn. We all need to learn, if we're going to be living alongside the Faeries of New Orleans. We've got weeks ahead of us to figure it all out, at least."
Emily seemed relieved to hear that, as she swallowed another helping of Cold Fun. (Fascinating stuff; completely non-dairy, sweet and tasty, but also very nutritional. She made a note to have it more often.) "I want some time to settle in, too. ...there are things we need to plan for, and things we need to take care of. First... something Lar said back when you were playing him like a fiddle got me thinking. He said there are 'plenty of other things lurking in the dark corners of this world'... that the Pandora Event wasn't only Faeries versus humans. World communications went dark after the Event. What else is out there, beyond the shores of America...?"
"The Krakens that make the oceans impassible will be problematic, but with Orbital know-how, Faerie magic, and human surveillance and recon techniques, we could start... well. Scouting," Scout suggested. "Assemble some teams of experts. Military, anthropology, defense, analysis. Folks willing to play, I don't know, interdimensional police. Dimension-nauts. Anachronism hunters."
"I like it," Emily said, nodding along. "Something like... I don't know, anachronauts, only less stupid sounding. We'll start planning that out. ...and one other thing to plan and prepare for."
She planted her spoon in what was left of her Cold Fun, and cleared her throat properly before continuing.
"My answer is yes," she declared.
"Yes?" Una said, smiling since she liked positive statements even if she didn't know what they were for.
"Scout asked me back in Florida to marry him," Emily explained. "So, I'm saying yes. I'd love to marry you, Scout. ...that wasn't too anticlimactic, was it?"
Una nearly gagged on her spoon.
Without missing a beat... Scout slid from his chair, down to one knee. He reached into his pocket, producing a band of gold. He'd asked the smiths of the House to forge it for him... nothing ostentatious, but nothing cheap, either. Just a simple promise, in a simple form.
With a long withheld smile... Emily offered her hand to her man. The ring slid on perfectly.
Behind them... Una could no longer contain her excitement. She balled up her hands under her chin, eyes starry and wide open with delight. "Ohhh, it's so--! That's just--! I mean--! Wow! Just... wow! I'm so, so happy for you, my wonderful friends! --the wedding! Yes, we need to plan a wedding! Um, it's going to be unavoidable, having some vastly spectacular wedding, what with you being Faerie royalty and all, I'll work with Lady Morgana to try and keep it tasteful and OOOH I know just who to ask to make the cake, and there's a wonderful soundshape band back in the Arcology who could--"
"Yes yes, you go make plans, have fun," Emily said, waving Una off. "If you don't mind, I'd like to go retire to Ye Queenly Beddingse now. With my fiance."
The young alien girl babbled more happy tidings and words of good cheer, as she backed her way out of the room. The wooden double doors closed behind her, as she loudly informed the guards "not to allow anyone to disturb the Queen and her betrothed."
...Emily winced. "Gossip spreads like herpes around here. This could get ugly..."
"All the more reason to enjoy the peace and quiet of this night," Scout suggested... tilting Emily's chin up, as he leaned in to kiss her.
Lady Winter told him, long ago, that one day he would want to please his Lady. He would want to bend knee, and show love to his betrothed... the one who bore the Crown of Ice. It was true. Just not in the way Scout had been expecting.
The early morning light touched upon the now-royal balcony, as Emily overlooked the fallen city from the stars, the city of New Orleans, and the impromptu camps of Faerie pilgrims here to bask in her apparent radiance.
She was only wearing a bedsheet, but it was early enough that nobody noticed. Or they pretended not to notice. Same thing, anyway.
A smile returned to her lips, one she'd enjoyed many times during the night, as Scout embraced her from behind, touching a light kiss to her cheek.
"Y'know... this isn't how I pictured my future," Emily said, overlooking what was suddenly her domain. "I figured I'd stick to witchy wandering. Mending spell here, drive off some ogres there, get chased out of a village with pitchforks and torches there. Seems so much simpler than what's actually ahead of me..."
"And I was assuming I'd be hunting for the rest of my existence," Scout contrasted. "Chasing at shadows, forever. Much simpler... but not a happier future."
"Guess not. ...we can do this, right? It's not just a huge cosmic joke? This crazy insane nutso wacky save the world goddess-and-knight-and-alien thing?"
"We can do this. Together."
The young lovers returned to their quarters, to enjoy the start of the Second Age... for what would come would no doubt be filled with turmoil, strife, and struggle. Here and now, however... there was only a pleasant beginning.
(of the first age of man and faerie)
completed august 29, 2009
copyright 2009 stefan gagne
the first age
in print for a