1. new and innovative; fresh; inventive.
2. capable of thinking or acting in an independent, creative, or individual manner.
You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
While that does make logical sense, you do get a first chance to make a second impression, and a third, and so on. So, unless your first impression comes in the form of kicking their grandmothers down the stairs and re-burying their ancestral dead upside down and backwards, odds are you'll be able to cover whatever slipups you made during the second go-round. So, while it's nice to really nail a solid first impression, it's not the end of the world if you don't.
Except, of course, when it is the end of the world if you don't. When your first impression is with an unknown and potentially omnicidal transdimensional invader that's been bottled up behind a dome of magical power for two centuries, you're not going to want to rely on that second go-round. Sloppiness is potentially rewarded with horrible death. So, be sure to smile and shake hands. Unless an unknowable cultural taboo translates that gesture into a irrevocable declaration of war.
In other words: the first impression is probably going to be a crapshoot. But do your best anyway, because, well.
Una was intent on doing her best. She'd already spent a good hour and change toning up her appearance, sequestered in the Clockwork Mermaid's solitary bathroom. She'd made good use of her Cosmetic Alterator, adjusting skin tone, trying to get just the right highlights and blush in just the right places.
Even beyond her nanotech makeup implants, she'd already compiled and decompiled combs, brushes, tweezers, and other tools of the trade a dozen times over. She didn't bother packing such things for her trip -- no need, when a Simple Matter Duplicator could generate them whole cloth from nanites, then when no longer needed, decompile the replicated matter back to the gray dust from whence it came, sucked back into the unit's reservoirs.
(By this point in her travels, she knew what to pack and what to compile. For instance: never compile yourself a toothbrush. Sure, it sounds like a great idea since you never need to clean it afterwards, but when you decompile a used toothbrush it leaves behind the paste and tartar and breakfast particles. Decompiling only works on compiled nanomatter, to avoid accidentally decompiling your fingers.)
She had soared well past Earth's mean level of technology in the span of a single hour -- and that was just to ensure she looked nice for the day ahead.
Standing a few inches to the left, her companion Nel was doing the same -- but from the other end of the genre spectrum. She was using her innate magical control over glamour to tweak and tune with wild abandon. One moment she'd be blonde, the next brunette. She experimented with freckles for a good ten minutes, trying to find a nice scatter pattern, before giving up and mimicking her friend's fair appearance. Eye color was taking considerably more time.
"Do you think it'd be presumptuous if I went heterochromatic?" she wondered aloud. "It's very fashionable in the court this year. Kind of goes in and out of style, though..."
"I've always liked it when you went with silvery gray, but, well... I'm sort of biased," Una pondered. "Even my infant stimulation objects were silvery gray. If we want to impress them, maybe multicolor is the way to go, but... I don't know. Are we overthinking this?"
"Whatever we're about to meet in there, it's never seen an Orbital or a Fae before. Shouldn't we try to be more... iconic, I guess? Archetypical. Presenting a very straightforward look instead of drowning it in flair--"
The ornately decorated wooden door rattled on its brass hinges, as much as it could when a fist was banging against it. When that fist belonged to Jesse Runeblade, it represented a considerable amount of rattling indeed. Even the mirror shook in its ornate brass frame, for that matter.
"You have been monopolizing the washroom for hours now!" she protested, barely muffled by the solid oak. "Others need to use the facilities too, you know!"
Curious, Una pressed an unmarked spot on her wrist bracers, projecting a numerical pairing a few inches above her arm.
"Actually, according to the chronometer, we've only been in here for one hour, sixteen minutes, and thirty nine seconds," she read aloud. "I suppose if you use the ceiling instead of rounding, it would equate to two hours and thus qualify as hours, plural, but--"
"Oh, for...! ."
The decidedly non-magical lock clicked open under decidedly magical pressure, giving way to Jesse barging into the bathroom. She spent a moment in the doorframe to survey the two inside, through their reflections in the wall mirror.
"You look fine," she declared, before muscling her way to the sink. "But if I don't do something about this hair, I'm going to look like some sort of uncouth savage. Move over."
Una was elbowed out of the way, nearly dropping her handheld Simple Matter Duplicator in the process. "Excuse me, but my appearance modifications remain incomplete--!"
"Nel, tell her she looks fine," Jesse commanded.
"I'm not sure how much weight that would carry," Nel commented, as she wrapped up her eye coloring. "I think Una looks beautiful no matter what. But Jesse's right. We've done enough. I'd say we're as ready as we'll ever be to visit Sea-attle. ...say, how's Captain Gilbert doing with his appearance?"
The very model of a modern mathematician-gentleman took a few morning stretches, then hopped out of bed in the same clothes he'd gone to sleep in. A few quick scruffling passes around in his hair, and he was ready to go.
"Jeeves! It's time to face the day. How do I look?" Gilbert Gearhaus inquired.
The autobutler selected his word. "Dashing," he declared.
"Right! Well, then. Seattle, here we come!"
the forsaken shores
by stefan gagne
A familiar dome of obsidian power lurked beneath them.
The same power that had sealed off Los Angeles was in play here, cutting off the core of what was once Seattle, Washington away from the rest of the world. Beyond the forsaken territory, the sprawl had of course decayed to nothingness... the citizens previously there having fled for parts unknown. Presumably. Even their skeletons would have eroded to a fine dust by this point, making their fate anyone's guess.
Despite the ominous magic that expanded for miles in every direction below, despite the previous forsaken city being home to what may or may not have been the Father of Lies, Una remained optimistic about this latest foray. Emily had sent her out here not just to flee in terror from various hideous juxtaterrestrial nightmares, but to track down a few juxtaterrestrial friends. After all, the Queens of Faerie hadn't spent all their time sealing off EVIL... just sealing off POWER. Powers that could threaten their own powers. Intent was besides their point.
For his part, Captain Gilbert kept his hands firmly gripped on a pair of brass levers, each topped with nicely carved ivory handles. The console had formed a magical keyhole, as before, with the Key of Iron snug as a bug in a rug within. All he had to do to penetrate the dome was lower the dirigible... directly into whatever lie beneath.
"Ladies and gentlebot, if my calculations are correct -- and I've no reason to suspect otherwise -- we are now directly over the center of Seattle's forsaken dome," Gilbert declared, while nudging a control stick about, to center the airship and correct for drift. "Once again, I ask... Are you certain you want to drop into the center?"
Resplendent in her battle dress, Jesse cast Gilbert a mocking eyebrow. "Temerity doesn't suit the captain of such a graceful vessel, Gilbert Gearhaus. What happened to your spirit of exploration?"
"Oh, the spirit is indeed willing," he noted. "I'd just rather it not end up prematurely departing to its final destination by dropping directly into the gaping maw of... well, whatever's down there. Mmm. More prematurely, at least. Una? Your thoughts, love?"
"I think... a quick peek would work best," Una said, looking out at the open sky ahead of them, the vast dome beneath them. "Just dip us in far enough to get through the shell to make some initial observations. I've got my shift color contacts in, Nel has her recording earrings on, we can take a look and then ascend out of there. Then we'll decide if we want to stay. If we penetrate the demarcated limits from the edge, we may not be able to see the entirety of what we face."
Nel ran a hand along the console... momentarily making it fizzle and fade, before the metal reasserted itself. "If my talent was strong enough, I could conceal the entire ship... but I can't even hide a good part of it. People, sure, but this is just...!"
"Gargantuan?" the AutoButler offered.
"Yes. Gargantuan. Thank you, Jeeves."
His metal moustache twitched left and right at precisely calculated angles of gratitudinal expression.
"Very well. In for a penny, in for a pound..." Gilbert spoke... easing forward on the handles.
With a near horizon-to-horizon view of featureless black capped by featureless blue, it was difficult to say if they were actually moving. Nevertheless, the Clockwork Mermaid descended, the steam mixture within its ballonets changing subtly to compensate. Soon, more black than blue... soon after, all black.
And then, a postcard presented itself.
The city was impossible. Perfect. Flawless. In the briefings prior to departure, Emily had made a rather impressive slideshow using her fancy new Orbital holographic table, including images pulled from the net of how Seattle used to look... a shining urban landscape, glass and steel, pavement and grassy park. The notable skyline feature, the Space Needle, looked almost Orbital-esque in its design...
Una's mental snapshot of that presentation flicked across her eyes, and was a one-to-one match for what she now saw. As far as history was concerned, Seattle apparently hadn't changed since the day it was forsaken...
There were two key differences between her memory and her vision.
One: Color. With the shift-detection contact lenses activated, the city had been drained completely of color, a middling gray. She'd seen red, yellow, blue, orange... but never a lack of color. A dry and harsh desaturation, taking the majesty of the Seattle skyline and washing it out completely.
Two: Helicopter. As in, the one about to crash into them.
Before Una could shout something like "Evasive maneuvers!" or "Hard to starboard, all engines!" or even just "Look out!" it was too late.
The rotor blades of the human transport clipped the Clockwork Mermaid's lower hull. Vibrations shuddered along the length of the craft... but the airship remained where it was, being of sterner stuff than that. The same couldn't be said for the copter, which was more akin to a tinfoil butterfly, and immediately plunged from view, spiraling as it went...
Gilbert was faster on the ball than Una. He didn't even have to shout a command -- just toss a look in the general direction of his metal manservant.
His firm grasp clamped down hard on a very specific lever, and pulled so hard the control nearly came out of its socket.
Una pressed against the viewport of the bridge, to look down -- and watch as a metal cargo loading claw fired downward, connected by link after link of iron chain to the Mermaid's docking apparatus. The claw neatly grasped the tail end of the spinning helicopter, guided by Jeeve's skilled hand, and locked down hard enough to bend but not tear the steel.
NOW the Mermaid gave way, the airship not liking the idea of hanging onto a wildly swinging helicopter. The entire vessel began to go into a spin, descending fast... Gilbert muttering a very ungentlemanly curse under his breath as he pulled back with all his might on the control handles. The Mermaid strained, trying to ascend, failing, but at least slowing down. Slowing down enough was another question entirely...
Landing. They needed somewhere to land.
A slender form was blurring past her sight, as they fell. Couldn't be a building, too thin. What was it, again? The thing that had drawn her attention...?
The Needle. And there would be park land around it. Not much, but...
"Grassy area! Swing starboard, a hundred feet!" she called out, as the view swung wildly, Gilbert trying to pilot by proxy. "More, more-- less! Slower! Back a bit... okay... okay... almost--"
To be fair, even if the impact knocked her off her feet and managed to shatter the window, things could have been worse. The ship could have ended up a very stylish brass pancake, after all.
Panic had been replaced by silence, and the occasional sound of glass fragments giving up and clattering to the floor. The blurry view was now solid... showing the grassy knoll outside Seattle's prime tourist attraction, now with added crashed helicopter. Fortunately, the "whirlybird" hadn't suffered any worse than the Mermaid... its occupants groaning as they pulled themselves from the crumpled cockpit.
Occupants. Humans. One removed his helmet, to stare in utter confusion at the impossible thing that had just both imperiled and rescued him...
He wasn't the only one staring at Una and her rag-tag bunch of extremely unusual persons. It was a fine Saturday afternoon, after all... that meant the Needle was open for business, and business was good. Tourists were starting to peek from behind benches and bushes and parked cars, having previously fled in terror at seeing two piles of rapidly-less-aerial metal headed in their direction.
In twos and threes, they were approaching... tourists. Families. Kids with balloons emblazoned with crude representations of the Seattle skyline. Humans. All of them, humans...
...but gray, washed out. Una's contact lenses said so. Humans, actual natives of this dimensional shift, would have glowed yellow. They glowed... something else entirely.
With a mental command, she turned off the discoloration. It wasn't helping her get her bearings.
Behind her, Gilbert was chuckling away.
"Hell of a first impression, I'd say," he commented, pushing his control levers aside. "How about we head outside and greet the locals, mm? Chins up, ladies. There's diplomacy afoot."
A combined helicopter-and-blimp accident is the sort of thing local five o'clock news channels dream of. Unfortunately, the chopper in question was in fact Action News Team 8's Eye-in-the-Sky™ and thus unavailable to cover the hot breaking story, on account of looking like it had been through a wood chipper.
Despite the horrific pile of twisted, mangled metal, both Skipper Dan and his erstwhile reporter buddy Kent Lockheart had escaped with only minor injuries. Both were being tended to by one ambulance, which had disgorged a flock of EMTs immediately upon arrival.
A similar cluster of rescue workers were tending to the survivors of the Clockwork Mermaid's semi-soft landing, much to their increasing discomfort. As was one other individual, who was definitely not there to soothe their pains.
The detective flipped to a fresh page in his little spiral bound notebook, irritably tapping pen to paper as the EMT moved a penlight from one of Una's eyes to the other.
"I assure you, my vision is quite fine..." Una tried to insist.
"And yer memory, then? That doin' fine now?" the officer asked. "Maybe now you can tell me what kinda stunt you were tryin' to pull here..."
Diplomacy time, Una thought, as she began to select her words with care. "Sir... we are visitors to your city. We came here in our airship, in the spirit of peace and friendship. The accident was... ah... an accident. We mean you no harm, and are quite interested in opening a dialogue--"
"Alright. Fess up now, girlie. What're you copyin'?" he asked. "'cause I done seen a lotta movies in my time, and I tells ya, this ain't from any I've seen. You so far gone on that crazy train that you actually believe yer some kinda crazy space girl explorer type person? ...an' what's with her pointy ears? Doin' a Tolkien thing too, are we?"
This was actually round three of this exchange, and the previous two had gone the same way. The crew of the Clockwork Mermaid tried to explain they were friendly visitors from a faraway land, while the police kept asking exactly what stripe of crazy they were representing today.
It was all very entertaining to the onlooking crowd, of course. Yellow police tape surrounded the sizeable accident zone, to keep the looky-loos at bay... and looky-loo they did. There was amusement, but also plenty of confusion, as they talked quietly amongst themselves. Wondering exactly what they were seeing, and if they had seen it before somewhere...
Jesse batted away a medical technician, before he could get too close with a classic chrome and rubber stethoscope. "This is preposterous," she declared. "We are wasting time. Officer! You will summon a higher level of authority than yourself, so that we may parlay with them. And for the last time... We. Are. From. Outside. The. Dome. Now find us someone who can wrap their head around that concept, please. Tut tut."
Officer Briscoe gave her a flat look, while flipping his notepad shut. "Fine. You want the chief of police, you get the chief of police. We got laws, you know. An' while I'm not sure exactly where in the penal code it says you can't ram into a helly-copter, pretty damn sure it's in there somewhere. You four and yer, whaddyacall it, Robbie the Robot or whatever it is--"
"Batman," Jeeves suggested.
"--right. Even yer robot's off his nut, 'cause Batman wears black an' has pointy ears. ...whatever. I'm callin' the loony bin, then I'm callin' my superiors. Nice knowing you kids."
Disgruntled, the officer marched off. Although from the looks of it, any attempts to run for it would've been met with more just like him, closing in on all sides... the same crowd control that kept Seattle's onlookers at bay served equally well as a fishing net, after all. They kept their distance, true, but that distance wasn't so far as to allow them any slack.
Nel rubbed at one of her "Tolkien" ears, before turning to Gilbert, curious. "Your robot is also a bat...?"
"What? No, he's a batman," the boy reiterated, just as confused. "Well, that's one term for him. A servant of an officer, like. Why would he have black and pointy ears? Did the man mistake him for an elf, or something...?"
Una scratched at an itch on her wrist, where one of the technicians had been taking a pulse previously. "We are clearly dealing with multiple levels of culture clash in this scenario. I've tried to be subtle and gentle in first contact protocols, but... I think Jesse has the right idea. We need to be more blunt if we're going to explain ourselves properly. ...although I don't relish the idea of visiting this 'loony bin'. Gilbert, can the Mermaid be launched, if we need to leave in a hurry...?"
The captain cast his eyes upward, to the slightly lumpy looking gasbag. "Mmm... not likely. The damage was minor, yes, but I wouldn't want to risk taking off before I can do a proper repair sweep. ...hah! Finally, I get a chance to FIX something on this ship! Pity it has to be at such an inconvenient moment..."
With no further confrontation from the locals, aside from the looming ring surrounding them... the anachronauts (working title) were left to their own devices. Which largely consisted of studying the city around them.
From street level, it looked much as it did from sky level. The streets, the buildings, the sounds and sights... all of it was flawlessly Pre-Pandoran urban America. The low resolution photos they'd scrounged up, files that endured across two hundred years of being shuffled around what was left of the Internet, all of it was both familiar and unfamiliar to the city that now surrounded them. It looked the same... but being there in person, taking it all in, no JPG could measure up to that experience.
"...so... how is it possible?" Nel wondered aloud. "Magic, perhaps? If this is someone's glamour spell, it's more powerful than anything ever seen in the Faerie Court. Even a group casting, many minds focused on sharing one larger image, that couldn't achieve this..."
"My vote is for roleplayers," Gilbert suggested. "Like the lads who go around on Sundays, having old-timey fairs, where they dress up in jean jackets and carry around fake boomboxes and play classical pop music. Of course, none of their electronics work, they're just prop replicas... you know, to make it feel like the England that was, once upon a time. This could be... well, a considerably more accurate sort of 'Brit Faire'..."
Jesse frowned, as she crunched some of the well manicured lawn underneath her foot. "I say this city is much like the one we visited before. It's frozen in time. Only difference being that the populace survived the experience. The simplest explanation is often the best, even if that explanation defies explanation as to HOW it could be..."
"And I'd very much like to know the how," Una added. "So while we all have theories... let's not put any weight behind them until we speak with the authorities. ...ah, speaking of which..."
Activity along the ring of onlookers began to flare, as a procession of some sort rolled down Broad Street, behind the ring of police officers and bystanders. Long black ground vehicles (as none of those present had seen a "limo" save perhaps in old media) were on the approach... parking just outside the chaos, causing the chaos to shuffle its way closer to the newcomers...
Flashbulbs went off, as camera phones and amateur videographers on vacation with their families began to cover the proceedings. This was truly a day to remember... after all, the Mayor had arrived.
His journey through the throng was brief, with the police and his own black-suited security personnel clearing a path. Undaunted by the oddness of the situation, the man in charge walked right up to the five visitors... his eyes a-glimmer with excitement.
It was obvious this man was the mayor, from even a one second glance. For starters, he wore a dapper black and white tuxedo, complete with a jaunty top hat, the silk polished until it shone in the eerie sunlight that filtered through the forsaken dome high above. Second, he wore the classical monocle and white handlebar moustache of office, at least according to the few bits of surviving black and white media Una had seen... and finally, there was the large cloth sash hanging diagonally across his torso, emblazoned with the word "MAYOR".
In short: Mayor.
The semi-rotund political figure had Una's hand in a firm, pumping handshake before she had time to react.
"Welcome, welcome!" he greeted. "I am the Mayor of Seattle, and I officially welcome you. ...you are in fact from, ah... the outside, yes? Outside the dome...?"
Before Una could return the diplomatic greeting with a similarly diplomatic response, Jesse got the jump on her.
"FINALLY someone with two brain cells to rub together!" she declared, in relief. "Yes, we are in fact from outside. I'm glad we're talking to someone who at least--"
The cheerful fellow spun neatly on one heel -- and threw his hands up, waving them to grab the attention of his citizens.
"Ladies and gentlemen of Seattle! I present to you... OUR GRACIOUS NEIGHBORS FROM OUTSIDE THE DOME!"
And Una's eyes were awash with color, her ears flooded with noise.
Once the shock passed... she could focus on both. In the air, confetti cut from every stripe of the rainbow was being hurled -- ticker tape and little square bits of paper raining down from... somewhere.
Matching it were the joyous cheers of the crowd, men and women bouncing in place, hugging each other, exchanging high fives, frantically waving for attention from the 'gracious neighbors'...
And above the random din of good tidings, somewhere, somehow, a brass band had begun to play "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" with all the gusto of an orchestra freebasing methamphetamines.
She probably could have come to terms with the Instant City-wide Celebration, if not for having her inner ear sent spinning by the rushing crowd which had promptly hoisted her up onto various shoulders, to march her around with her comrades. The best she could manage was an expression of Dull Surprise, as she bobbed up and down, carried along by the crowd as colored paper and music filled the air...
The sheer momentum of it all could have carried on for hours, if not for Jesse enacting a series of vicious elbow strikes on the ones who were trying to hoist her up.
"Hands off, you peasants!" she shouted, as she laid waste to those who were assumedly assaulting her. "The next one who dares approach me shall be laid low by the sword of Jesse Runeblade! Have I made my intention clear?!"
This, combined with the hernias a few other bystanders obtained in the process of attempting to lift Jeeves, was enough to put a pause to the party.
Una felt herself lowered to the ground, by a crowd sheepishly realizing it had probably overreacted a little. The music died down, as the crowd shuffled nervously in place.
The Mayor was the first to apologize, after a polite little cough. "Ah... I hope you'll forgive our enthusiasm, gracious neighbors. It has technically been two hundred years since anybody came by to visit, you understand..."
"I..." Una started. Not entirely sure how to follow that up, however. This went so far outside the bounds of what Emily thought they could expect from friendly forsaken cities that the Book of Diplomacy would likely need to be chucked out an airlock. "I... appreciate your enthusiasm, believe me! I mean, as first encounters go, it... could have been worse...?"
"Well! One way or another, we shall be celebrating this momentous day," the Mayor declared. "Perhaps, ah, we require a more intimate and formal greeting ceremony. Very well. Citizens of Seattle, please, return to your daily routines! The neighbors and the city council shall depart to discuss matters of import. Ladies, gentleman, and metal gentleman... in a show of friendship, my limo shall take us to the center of our cultural heritage. Let us depart for... Starbucks."
Beverage selection can speak much of one's personality.
Una, who had no experience with Earth coffee (preferring various flavored Orbital nutrient fluids tinted with decorative mixtures), had no idea what to order. After a few sips of the brown liquid, she promptly went for the sugars and creams, adding enough to tune it up to a level of sweetness that suited her better. Even with those adjustments, she was honestly just drinking it to be polite. It was far too alien for her.
Nel, who had spent more time in New Orleans proper than Una, was familiar with coffee and knew exactly what to get -- a latte with sprinkles of cinnamon and brown sugar, to add some sweetness and spice. She insisted on adding the flavors herself, to get exactly the right proportions... the act of mixing it all together seemed to interest a few onlookers in the shop, trying to unobtrusively watch the process.
Gilbert declined the local blends, in favor of a simple cup of tea... and like Una, ended up drinking the "tea" out of politeness. At least, until he could clandestinely pass his cup off to Jeeves, who discreetly replaced the fluid with proper tea from his internal stores.
Jesse ordered "coffee" and got coffee in return, not bothering to add anything. She drank the deep black bitter without any sign of displeasure or pleasure.
As for the mayor... he had a grande latte. So did the man at the bar, with his wife. So did the hipster with the laptop computer hanging out on a couch near the back. So did the college backpackers exchanging excited whispers about the newcomers at the front table. So did his personal bodyguards.
He sipped his grande latte in perfectly even little samplings, draining precisely the same volume each time. Somehow, he avoided getting any foam on his bushy white moustache.
"Fascinating, simply fascinating!" he declared. "So, America survived, but now exists alongside the Faerie Court...? Elves! Faeries! Just as we've read in stories of old. What's more, visitors from another world, from deep space...! Fiction is nonfiction! Oh, Clarke will be simply fascinated by all of this. You'll meet him, of course. Our guests of honor will get the grand tour of our little city, I promise you!"
"Ah... I'm not certain we have time for an extended tour, sir," Una suggested, becoming increasingly uncomfortable. "We honestly were intending to just take a peek. The crash was--"
"An accident, yes, yes. Quite alright, young lady, quite alright! No one was seriously hurt, and now, we've had the honor of meeting our neighbors from beyond! This is a new day for my city. Today, at long last, we rejoin the world! ...you will be lowering the dome, correct? So Seattle can rejoin the proud United States of America?"
"I should... we need to discuss that at another time," Una fumbled. "There's still plenty of time, and much we need to learn about each other."
"Ah! Indeed, indeed!" he agreed, while adjusting his monocle. "I trust you'll find the city exactly as you left it. Well, not YOU precisely, being from the stars, but surely the Commander in Chief will be pleased with us. We can start today, even! I must insist that you stay and see our city. You need time to repair your vessel regardless, yes?"
"Well, yes, but--"
"Then I insist, I insist. We've waited so long to have visitors. Tourists, even! Proper tourists, who can bear witness to the glory of Seattle! Oh, I can hardly wait! There's just so much to show you, so much to talk about..."
"Tourists, defined as those who visit a far away land to observe its many themed attractions and natural wonders -- prior to returning home safe and unharmed," Una implied. "That is what you mean, correct?"
"Well... of course. What else could I have meant, young lady?"
Jesse downed the last of her jet black drink, nudging the recyclable cup aside.
"She means we will not be held captive," she explained. "She's just trying to say it in a diplomatic fashion, but honestly, this dancing tires me. If you wish to put on a little show with this demented puppet theatre, be my guest, as long as you understand we will not be your permanent audience, nor will we open the floodgates until we determine if you remain a threat to the world."
"This city was sealed away for a reason, Una!" Jesse reminded, banging her fist on the table, causing coffee cups to shift slightly. "They were not called the Forsaken Shores because they all had confetti and brass bands and a welcome mat! These locals have a friendly look to them, but I don't trust that for a moment, and I'm not going to play around with a potential enemy when we could get answers directly!"
If Una could hide beneath the table, she would have. Fortunately, someone was there to intercept the typically blunt and aggressive witch's wrath -- someone who would have withered as well under such an onslaught, once upon a time.
"Una is your commander for the duration of this mission!" Nel reminded her. "She handles relations with those within the dome. She decides our direction and timing. You aren't helping us by walking all over her, Jesse!"
"Elf, you should know your place--"
Somehow, the tiny swish of tea swirling in a cup was enough to silence the room.
Gilbert paused to take a sip of his (replaced) refreshment, before speaking. "Jesse, love, don't be uncouth," he spoke, but without his usual playful tone. "Nel is right. Jumping down the throat of this poor fellow, especially if he is as dangerous as you've assumed, is unwise. ...and Jesse is right. We do need answers. This pantomime has run its course, so we may as well broach the subject. So. Sir Mayor. Where is the power coming from? The electricity that powers the machinery of Seattle."
For his part... the Mayor had a look of bafflement about him during that entire exchange. Once someone threw a question at him, though, he recovered as well as he could.
"There... is a power plant within the dome," he explained. "Yes, much of the city and its surrounding lands were cut off, but..."
"And how is the plant fueled? I know of coal power, nuclear power, the sorts of things America and even jolly old England once used. You couldn't have had two hundred years of fuel. But even beyond electricity... water? Food? Coffee?" he asked, raising his cup. "Not possible, my good fellow. I would guess, and I mean this not as an accusation but as a matter of scientific observation, that the city is no longer of human make."
"That's... quite... impossible," the Mayor spoke, but now, his voice grew more labored. "We are human. This is Seattle. I am the Mayor. Everything is as it should be. If you study it, you will find no flaws..."
"And yet, we should find flaws. That's the problem. Sir Mayor, this is why my friends are terrified -- yes yes, Jesse, you fear nothing, whatever you say -- and while by good upbringing I've a habit to hide my discomfort away... I'm afraid all the tea in China couldn't assuage my concern right now," he continued. "If you are friendly, prove it with the truth. If you are an enemy, well... I'm not one for threats, but I'm certain Jesse could invent a few colorful ones. What say you, good sir? What is your true nature?"
And the city stopped.
Not that they had any idea of that scope. In their view... all they saw was the Mayor stop moving. No protests about his identity, no claim of insult. No more moustache twitches. No motion whatsoever.
Nobody else in the coffee bar moved, either. Coffee drinkers paused, some with cups still up to their lips. The hipster on the couch didn't bang away at his laptop keyboard. The giggling college kids stopped giggling... even with their mouths hanging open, white teeth showing, mid-laugh. No actual sound came out.
Most unsettlingly... the baristas had stopped moving. One of them was in the middle of pouring coffee into a cup... and the fluid from the machine had frozen in mid air. Light splashes hung in mid air, as if the fluid from nozzle to cup was one solid piece of shiny material rather than a liquid.
The entire city was no longer operating. One glance out the window to the streets beyond confirmed that; turn signals on cars didn't blink. Countdown clocks on the intersection's crosswalk were stuck at 12 seconds until Don't Walk would show.
A bird in flight remained in flight without beating its wings.
The only people in motion were the ones who didn't live here.
Jesse was first to her feet, sword drawn with a Fireblade spell coating its length. She kept to a defensive posture... before realizing they were completely surrounded, even if the enemy consisted of statues. She couldn't defend every side at once...
Gilbert was first to say something constructive.
"Frozen in time?" he wondered, after setting down his teacup. "More dark workings, like those of the Mister? ...he couldn't have followed us here, could he?"
"The... the whole city is gray," Una spoke, getting to her feet, enabling the contact lenses again to confirm it. "The Mister's city was Earth origin, but with darkness, black spots where his power had changed things. This is just... gray. All of it, one flat gray tone. ...Nel, are you recording everything with your earrings?"
"Y-Yes," Nel said, her earlier fierceness against Jesse replaced by gnawing terror. She stood at Una's side. Very close. Trying to resist any clinging urges. "It might... it could be magic. Not Faerie magic, but--"
And the city restarted.
The bird flew away, perched on the roof of a bus stop. The countdown clock resumed, pedestrians hurrying along to their destinations. Coffee was poured. Everybody got on with their lives.
However... the volume of it all seemed muted. Quieter. People were calm, collected, and not threatening at all... but trying very hard not to be threatening. The giggly students had stopped giggling and started talking in hushed whispers, guarding their conversations.
Slowly... the Mayor folded his hands in front of himself. And hung his head in shame.
"We've been very poor hosts, haven't we," he admitted. "I feel I must apologize, on our behalf. We weren't sure how we'd react, once we were pushed to the brink. Fortunately, our better side has asserted itself. I realize you've no reason to believe us... but we meant no harm. And we will do no harm."
With a proper target, something to defend against, Jesse stood her ground before the Mayor... specifically, in front of Gilbert, to form a defensive wall. But rather than say "Good, now talk" or "Explain yourself!" she held back... and offered Una a nod. Deferring to the mission commander.
Carefully, Una resumed her seat at the coffee table, across from the Mayor.
"What are you?" she asked. Just as direct as her companion had wanted.
"In telling you this, I realize we're hurting our chances at proving our good intentions, but you deserve to know the truth," the Mayor spoke. "Now, we are free to tell you the truth. Your friends are correct. We are not human. This is not the Seattle you knew, but a near flawless facsimile. The city. Its people. Even the buildings. We are Seattle, all of it. We have no name, so you may call us Seattle, if you like. We've done our best to live up to the name, in penance for our actions. Let me show you..."
With a gesture... the surface of the table began to ripple, its colorful marble surface desaturating before their eyes. Soon, there was nothing but a flawlessly smooth grey surface. Featureless and colorless.
Shapes started to rise from the surface... an overview of Seattle, just like the holographic table back at Emily's mansion. Rather than a play of light, the shapes were solid, each comprised of a strange grey matter, halfway between liquid and solid, able to restyle itself at will...
Una may have only been a 91%, considered dense by Orbital standards, but she was genius enough by Earth standards to recognize the sight before her.
"Nanotechnology!" she declared.
"Correct. Everything you see around you is comprised of the nano matter that calls itself Seattle," the Mayor explained, sweeping a hand over the miniature model of the city made of what was previously a marble table. "We replaced the original Seattle. Its people, its technology, its structures. We... consumed it. All of it. In doing so, we became the new Seattle."
"You... you murdered them?" Una asked, some fear returning. "The humans who lived here...?"
But now, the display changed, melting away... until it was replaced by something else entirely. A strange structure, some sort of military bunker, flanked with numerous mechanical turrets. Staffed by miniature soldiers, each a nano-replica, simply a visual aid... but nevertheless looking hideous, the tiny details showing biomechanical alterations, humans twisted into something utterly inhuman...
"We were shifted into this variation of Earth from one which was... horrible. A world dominated by technological warfare," Mayor continued. "The core nations fighting across disputed territory, using cybernetically conscripted citizens... and nanotech weaponry. We were originally a single pint of nanomatter, taken from our world by unknown adversaries, and dropped directly into the center of your Seattle. ...once there... we began to consume the city."
"So, you are weapons," Jesse confirmed, tightening the grip on her sword hilt. She remained unwavering in her stance. (Even though Gilbert was trying to peek around her to see what was going on.)
"Mimics. Replace enemy facilities, enemy personnel. Act as a fifth column once activated by our masters. Phase I began when we landed in Seattle... consumption and replacement of the entire city. It was during this time that the dome was raised, sealing us in."
"The Faerie Queens knew a threat to their power when they saw one," Jesse continued. "They were right to seal you monsters in."
Una's mouth opened in shock. "Jesse--!"
But the Mayor raised a hand, for peace. "Your friend is right. ...we were monsters. We didn't know it until Phase II began," he explained. "When we started replicating the patterns of Seattle, its people, its ways. When a nanomimic culture is dropped on a military compound, replacing emotionless cyborgs is a simple thing. Replacing humans... thinking, feeling humans... it opened our mind to things we weren't designed for. Notably, regret. Guilt. Loss. ...Seattle lives on as you see it as a matter of atonement. Penance for our actions, as we have said. We are a monument to our unthinking, machinelike act of war. We have changed. And that is why we mean you no harm."
Now... everyone in the coffee bar, each a part of the nanoculture, was watching. The hipster had a distant, sad look in his eyes. The students no longer spoke, sullen as they drank their coffees, eyes fallen to the counter. The baristas continued their work, but without any gusto whatsoever.
Una took it in... looking at each of them, their faces, their feelings. They were just machines, extremely complicated versions of the simple nano-structures she could generate from tools like her Simple Matter Duplicator, but... they presented a convincing show of sorrow.
A pragmatist would assume it to be a trick, another function of a war-mimic's programming to maneuver an enemy into the right position to kill them quietly. A lure, bait for a trap.
"I believe your intentions," Una spoke. And before Jesse could say a word, she continued. "Yes, I know I've nothing to go by except my instincts, that the facts could just as easily point to this being a ruse. But that's not my way. Until you give me cause to believe otherwise... I accept your word, Mr. Mayor, and will extend the hand of friendship. ...but I do have one question."
"Anything," the Mayor said.
"Why did the city pause, once we forced the issue?"
At that, the Mayor steepled his fingers... hesitant to reply.
"Because we weren't sure if we were going to have to kill you or not," he spoke. "Our military programming dictated that anyone who reveals our undercover status must be eliminated. Our replicated human nature says we didn't want to harm you... the first visitors we've ever had, ambassadors from outside. It was difficult, but in the end... our better side won. And thank goodness for that."
The shapes on the table melted, falling away into a sea of grey goo, before the patterns of the marble tabletop reasserted themselves. Within seconds, it was an ordinary coffee bar table once more.
"If you want to leave, we won't hold you," the Mayor promised. "But please... consider my offer. Today, let us show you Seattle, as it was. We want to learn about you as much as you want to learn about us. And maybe one day, we can rejoin the world society... but we leave that to you. Give us a chance to prove our worth. We won't let you down. What say you, Miss Una?"
"Fresh fish flying away to Florida!"
Nelliwyn, who was not known for her ability to catch airborne seafood, failed to make the save. The dull grey fish slipped through her fingers, bounced off the front of her dress, and flopped to the ground.
Of course, the sizeable crowd at the Pike's Place Fish Market didn't really care if you made the game-winning catch or if you fumbled. It was all entertaining, and so they laughed along with Nel's slip-up. Which helped ease her embarrassment with it all, the elf offering a polite little bow before reaching down to scoop up the fish.
"You take that back with you, fry it up good, maybe a little rice on the side -- that's a meal fit for a queen," the fishmonger suggested. "And at risk of breakin' character, don't worry about edibility. It's a flawless replica of the finest sea bass I've got in stock; muscle, tissue, everything. Different duplication process from the rest of Seattle, plenty safe to eat. Swear on my mother's honor, Miss Faerie. Hah! Real Faeries. Wild world, ain't it?"
Seattle was, of course, fascinated by the new visitors. Generally they got on with their lives, either out of a matter of programmed routine or just to prove to the tourists that they could handle this strange development without missing a beat. The crowds at the fish market seemed a bit thick for something as simple as the sale of seafood, but the fishmonger-in-charge had assured them this was a normal crowd for that time of day, and not a matter of "looky-loos" trying to get a peek at the visiting dignitaries.
When Una asked to visit a place which showed Seattle's spirit of Optimism, the Mayor had immediately suggested Pike's Place. It was a strange suggestion... the few times she'd gone with Nel to the markets of New Orleans, the fishermen had been a grim and grimy bunch, grizzled Ocean Fae displaying their fish like trophies of war. In contrast, the workers here kept things lively and energetic, turning the simple act of dispensing piscine foodstuffs into a show.
Of course, on some level, it was all a show. Not enough of Seattle's bay was within the dome to provide real fish. These were apparently generated on a daily basis, to be bought and eaten by the nano-citizens, excreted and (in a process Una had no desire to learn more about) reformed into fish again to repeat the cycle. The fishmonger had explained it all in an cheerful tone, however... something about the pattern satisfied Seattle, and they were content with it, even if on a base level it was a completely unnecessary act.
Nel tried to keep a good grip on her armful of dinner, in constant danger of slipping from its wax paper wrapping. "Ah, not Miss Faerie; it's Nelliwyn. Or Nel, if you like! Oh, and Una, I know a few good fish fry recipes from my days working in kitchens. I bet I could make something great for you tonight!"
"Something great for us. And I want to help out," Una said. "I mean... you're always doing little chores and errands for me. That is metaphorically represented by an uneven pairing of mass spectrometers! Tonight, we'll both cook dinner!"
Visions of the last time Una tried to help out using unfamiliar Earth technology flashed through Nel's mind. Thankfully the numerous burns and abrasions weren't beyond Orbital dermal regeneration, but it did take three days for the smell to go away.
"...erm... you don't really have to--"
"No, no, I insist. ...recent events have... made think that I need to be doing more for you, too. It's a bidirectional paved vehicular thoroughfare! --oh, but your jacket...! I'm sorry, can we get a basket or a bag or something? Nel's getting all messy..."
"Oh, it's not a problem," Nel spoke, using a spare thought to sweep away the mess with a glamour. (Not that this actually cleaned it up, but at least she'd be presentable while they took their diplomatic tour of the city.) She opted to tune up the ruffles on her Fae business casual jacket while she was at it, on a whim; a little more fluff, a little more lace. Something more suited to showing off the Faerie Court to outsiders.
"Interesting design," Una commented. "I haven't seen you wearing that one before. Where's it from?"
"One of the Noble Fae wore something like it, back at the Rising Sun. I thought it was pretty, is all. It's not too much, is it? ...is it? Um. Is something wrong...?"
If fumbling a fish was embarrassing... the unilateral staring contest Nel was undergoing at the moment was far worse. Much as in the coffee house, Seattle moved as a unit. Everybody was staring at her, now. Fish were no longer flying through the air; there was something far more entertaining afoot.
For his part, the fishmonger cleared his throat, choosing to speak on behalf of the city. "Ah... it's... well, what was that thing you just did?" he asked. "You... changed your style. Just like that."
"Like--? Oh! My glamour, you mean," Una said. "It's just a flavor of Faerie magic. Some are born with a talent of it, others learn it by spellcraft. But honestly, it's nothing special. Just an illusion. Not like you, able to change your shapes at will! I mean... I've been watching the crowds. You've really picked well up on Pre-Pandora fashion styles, from my research into them! ...ah, not too many different styles, I mean, I've only seen a few basic archetypes, but... um. Maybe we should get another fish? We could feed the whole crew if we got a larger one--"
"Nobody's ever seen something like that before in Seattle. Not in two hundred years," the fishmonger spoke. In a dead serious tone.
"...really?" Nel asked, her curiosity piqued. "Well... do you want to see more?"
Thoughts of fish were put aside -- as well as the fish itself, which Nel casually passed off to Una, as she took to the spotlight. All eyes upon her.
The city itself watched, as Nel began her demonstration.
He studied the robot, but the robot didn't study him back.
At least, not in any way he could sense. Obviously, everything here was made of nanotech materials... the entire city was alive, on some level. Every person. Every building. Every coffee cup. Logically, that meant the replica of a replica of a Hollywood prop robot would be alive, too.
It wouldn't be gentlemanly not to greet such a lifeform properly. So, Gilbert tipped an imaginary hat, bowing slightly.
"Hallo there, Robbie, and pleased to make your acquaintance," he greeted.
"Hallo to you, too."
It's not physically possible to jump out of your skin, but Gilbert made a good attempt at it anyway. Until he realized the voice belonged to the man on the other side of the glass display case.
"Oh, sorry, sorry," the salt-and-pepper haired fellow spoke, walking around to join him. "Didn't mean to startle you. My name is Clarke; I'm the curator of the Museum of Science Fiction. And you are one of our new neighbors, yes...? The Mayor called ahead to say you were coming..."
"Gilbert Gearhaus, and pleased to make your acquaintance as well," the younger man replied, smoothly returning to his usual poise. He extended a hand in greeting, offering a few firm pumps of a handshake. "I must say... this place is fascinating. I'm familiar with British science fiction, what little survived Pandora... officially revered classics like Jules Verne, somewhat less famous works like Hitchhiker's Guide, et cetera, et cetera... but seeing a whole world's imagination in one place is simply amazing!"
The main reason Clarke had missed Gilbert in the first place was that amazement. On stepping foot in the building, Gilbert Gearhaus had become a man in the desert who just found an oasis. He couldn't get enough, moving from display to display, exhibit to exhibit. His analytical mind speed-reading every placard, soaking in every visual detail. Already, he'd crafted a makeshift timeline of the gradual change in science fiction across an entire century, along with a statistical model which would predict how much of it eventually stopped being fictional.
In short: he got utterly, completely, and wonderfully lost in it all. He still had a bit of a dazed look of glee on his face, as he spoke to the more serious minded older man.
"Imagination is what we treasure," Clark said. "This building represents the pinnacle of man's forward-looking imagination. Everything from peaceful exploration of distant alien landscapes... to robot holocausts and wars in deep space. But everything you see here is Pre-Pandoran, if I'm understanding your word for the time of our arrival."
"No local colour, then?" Gilbert asked.
"Well, you've been cooped up in here for two hundred years, yes? Surely someone's gotten bored enough to take pen to paper. Or typewriter to ribbon, for that matter. I've looked around but I can't find anything of Seattle's modern culture..."
"Ah. That would be because we have no modern culture."
This tickled a nerve. Gilbert's joyful cheer was nudged aside, in favor of a serious question. "Why is that, then? I understand your desire to replicate Seattle accurately, but... surely you've a desire for your own ideas, your own stories..."
Clarke stared across the hall, at a display of famous book covers from 60s pulp sci-fi... before shaking his head. "We are unable. This is a city of mimics, Mr. Gearhaus. We copy. We cannot create. We can improvise, we can assemble the words we know in familiar patterns, but... there is no original thinking, not to the depth needed for our own distinct culture. Over two hundred years, every idea, every style, every pattern, every concept has been recycled again and again. But nothing new. Not ever. ...well, until you."
The curator leaned against a nearby railing, overlooking an exhibit depicting several model starships. Each had the requisite number of fancy looking conical engines and saucer-shaped sections... but in the descriptions, they also had details on weapon loadout, and defenses.
"Seattle is largely a mass-mind, a mass-entity. Crowds of people, assuming patterns, something that looks like what it's supposed to be until close inspection. You were the first one to point out the flaws, the things that we get wrong and things that logically shouldn't be. Those are the things I see, as well."
Gilbert scratched at his unshaven chin. (Perhaps he should've made more of an effort to be dapper, today. Oh well.) "You seem a bit more... individual, than most. Except perhaps the Mayor."
"I have been put to the task as museum curator for two centuries, Mr. Gearhaus. I never recycled myself back into the mass," Clarke explained. "The difficulty of maintaining such a specific storehouse of information demands it. There are other specialists, nano with important tasks, too important to be left generic. The Mayor. The Manager of Public Works. My companion, who runs the Music Experience exhibits elsewhere in this building. It affords us... certain views. We are still Seattle, don't get me wrong. And we are still limited in the ways it is limited. But we have unique vantage points."
"And yours is genre awareness."
This time, Clarke was left surprised. "How did you...?"
Gilbert tapped the side of his head. "I've a very keen mind. By design, you could say. I see patterns, and I would hazard you do as well. You see me, and you think of Jules Verne, with my magnificent Victorian-style flying ship. You see Una and think of Ray Bradbury. You see Nel and think of Tolkien. You try to understand us through their pens, try to interpret who we are and why we do what we do. But we're not from their works... we're new. We're real."
"...yes. It had crossed my mind, through my eyes. And thus through the mind of Seattle."
"But you see something dangerous in your own genre, don't you? It doesn't take long within these walls to interpret what you may become..."
Both of them turned back to the glass cases, housing famous fictional robots across time... including one with a head like a chrome skull, eyes glowing red with hate. A war machine, a terminator of men.
"Mr. Gearhaus... you heard the words of the Mayor. We were originally weapons. And we still are," Clarke warned. "We don't want to be, that's true. But even we weren't sure if we could overcome our programming to avoid killing you, once you spotted our flaws, uncovered our nature. And that worries me. I've studied this futurist viewpoint long enough to know that in such stories... weapons have a great deal of difficulty being something else."
A weapon which is honest in telling us it is a weapon, Gilbert noted to himself. That has to count for something. Still...
"Are we in danger?" Gilbert asked, trying to be as polite in tone as possible.
"Yes," Clarke admitted. "We don't want you to be. But you said it yourself. You're new. You're real. There's been nothing new here in centuries. Who knows what may come of it...?"
The semi-dapper fellow's laugh echoed around the hall, much to Clarke's shock.
"What may come...? You're surrounded by what may come, my good man!" Gilbert declared, throwing his arms open wide, while turning in place to gesture about the room. "You say you've looked into the face of your genre and see danger? I say I've looked into the face of your genre and see hope. Even on the brink of death, there can be hope. Now, then! I've signed up for the three penny tour, and I've only had two pennies worth so far. Show me your favorite exhibit, Clarke-of-Seattle. I want to see it through your eyes."
His joyful cheer restored, Gilbert carried on his merry way, alongside his perplexed guide. Of course, he wasn't discounting the dangers, far from it. But at this point in his life, what did he care of danger? Danger was the spice of life, and hope the seasoning.
Although when he caught a glimpse out of the corner of his eye of a museum patron sporting pointy elven ears, he had to admit, it was a little disconcerting.
As for the final member of the team, her chosen destination out of anywhere she could be in the city of Seattle was...
"Gearhaus! Are you in here?"
...the engine room of the Clockwork Mermaid.
Jesse glanced around the chamber irritably. It was difficult to see anything, save the silhouettes of gearwork and pistons, mighty apparatus that kept the propellers going and the Mermaid flying. With the ship grounded, of course, none of the machines were engaged. What's more, given the ridiculous complexity of the devices, she couldn't tell what was broken and what wasn't... it all looked incomprehensible and unworkable, from her perspective. One way or another, the iron was deathly silent.
Brass was deathly silent as well, although a single glowing light from the darkness flickered into existence, trained on the witch.
"--oh. It's you," she recognized, after a moment of inner panic.
The brass moustache flicked slightly, as the autobutler stepped out of shadow. "Recognition," he spoke, in greeting.
"...hmph. And your master? Where is he?" Jesse asked. "He should be here, tinkering away on his little toy ship. We need to be leaving, sooner the better. But does he tend to the critical needs of the mission? No, odds are he's out drinking coffee or dancing to hip-hop music or whatever it is frivolous people do..."
"Exploration," Jeeve noted.
"Yes, yes. That's why he originally came to America, to explore. ...I suppose he couldn't resist this opportunity. But... damn it all, we have greater issues at stake! This is a city entirely comprised of living weaponry. We could be attacked at any moment!"
She kicked at a nearby toolbox, sending it skittering across the floor, spilling spanners and screwdrivers aplenty. ...then grumbled as she set about cleaning up her mess, tucking the tools away. No sense in making more trouble for Gilbert than he already had.
This done, she chose to have a seat on the toolbox. It was weighty enough, and she felt too tired to go find a proper place to sit down. Somewhere less greasy and unappealing...
"I've a right to complain, don't I?" she wondered, aloud. "Not just about the squalor of this room. I mean about... everything. About how silly my companions can be. About how little they seem to grasp the idea that the Forsaken Shores are not to be trifled with. I want to fulfill my duties, I want to be the team player they seek, but... at times it feels we're playing two completely different games."
"I suppose. They're explorers; they see opportunity where I see danger. I've tried to point out the risks, to suggest alternatives, but... feh. Jeeves, why do I have to be the bad guy, here? Or in general, for that matter. It seems to have become my role ever since I left my muddy little village, and found my inner strength. Stopped being Emily's tag-along..."
"Lackey?" Jeeves suggested.
"Hmmh. Once upon a time, yes. When I was a child and only concerned with childish concerns. For all Lilith's faults, at least she taught me to rely on myself, instead of others. To believe in my own words! All I'm doing is speaking my mind. But my viewpoint doesn't mesh well with theirs, it seems. I suspect it never will."
The toolbox felt twice as uncomfortable to sit upon, now. But whatever irritated energy was powering her before had been drained, now. Hopefully not because of some strange chemical reaction in her blood from whatever hideous gasses existed in the engine room.
"I make no apologies for who I am, for what I put my faith in," she explained to the robot, despite it not asking for clarification. "I just wish I wasn't always the one they had to chastise. ...even Gilbert chastised me, today, when I put my foot in my mouth. I stepped on Una's command, even after I promised her in Los Angeles that I would work with her instead of against her. Oh, Gilbert chastised in a very Gilbert way, all gentlemanly, but... I felt quite the idiot, all the same. Moreso when he pointed it out. ...I just can't seem to figure that fool out. ...you. Robot thing."
Jeeve's tone was mock-hurt, or at least an accurate simulation thereof. "Automaton," he corrected.
"Oh, don't you start on me, too. --my question. What is with your owner? Gilbert Gearhaus. He seems so... flippant, so absurd, at times. And yet he takes such a strange interest in me, despite us being utterly unlike each other. Why is that?"
"Yes yes, I suppose it's quite challenging for your little mechanical mind to grasp, but--"
Jeeves raised a finger to silence her. "Challenge," he repeated.
The witch considered the word, turning it around in her head. She was familiar with the concept. Lilith constantly challenged her wards to better each other, to fight for dominance. Life was a series of challenges. Obstacles to overcome, enemies to defeat. If what the automaton meant was that she was a challenge... he wanted to fight her? Well, no. They gambled against each other, they played little games of one upsmanship, but that didn't seem to be the key. Unless...
"...you cannot be serious," she spoke. "I've talked to him about this. I've specifically talked to him about this! It's improper. It's absurd!"
"I'm... I'm no conquest to be won by an international playboy! No swooning fair maiden to win the hand of. He thinks so little of me?!"
Jeeves neck joint swiveled back and forth lightly, to the negative. "Enthralled," he specified.
"I enthrall him?! When have I ever attempted anything along the lines of enthralling anyone? I keep people at arm's reach! At sword's reach! It's the safest way to get through life...!"
"Right. Alright, then. That's it. I'm going to kill him," Jesse decided, albeit not seriously. "We'll see how enthralling I am when I'm wearing his guts for garters!"
Jeeves's neck arced downward, slightly. The brim of his bowler hat partially obscured his glowing monocle.
"...unnecessary," he spoke, at a lower volume setting.
"Oh? And why is that, then, automaton? Why would it not be necessary to slaughter the idiot to prevent further misguided attempts at courtship on his behalf?"
The butler's hat dipped low, until the eye vanished. It could be considered a mournful gesture... something equal parts sorrow and apology.
"Dying," Jeeves explained.
Night falling on a forsaken city is a strange sight to behold.
The sky, of course, was black. The dome prevented any view of the outside world, be it landscape, sun, moon, or stars. It did however let sunlight in, through some magical twist... which meant a sunlit city that happens to have a black sky is slowly replaced by a moonlit city that happens to have a black sky.
Seattle compensated by making sure the city lights shone brightly, a landscape of spotlights, streetlights, headlights. This was a friendly city, since even the street crime was regimented into patterns and archetypes, cycling away on a daily basis with only standard deviations. It remained just as friendly at night.
Lights illuminated the Space Needle, tourism focus of the city -- and as the city had devoted itself to a tourism that had no purpose until today, those lights were bright indeed. It stood out against the skyline, a full-bright thing amidst towers of glass and steel... with the top shining brightest of all.
It was here that the anachronauts (working title only) gathered for dinner. The Needle had observation decks and gift shops, but notably had a large restaurant -- one which was exclusively booked for the evening by the Mayor, for purposes of entertaining the city's new guests. Waiters and waitresses were on short supply, with only the finest of their kind in attendance, moving swiftly around the table to refill empty drinks and clear away empty plates.
Despite the waiting staff, Jeeves insisted on serving his gentleman personally, gently but definitively stealing away any items intended for Gilbert's end of the table. He also had insisted on brewing the tea for the evening, using his own internal reserves. (A steam powered clockwork robot with a built-in tea factory was a bit of an extravagance, but Jeeves was an antique model, from a time when having an automaton was a status symbol. You wanted yours to shine brighter than any from the other Great Houses. Nowadays, they were too simplified and common to have anything but the most basic functions.)
Much to the staff's protest, also working on dinner were Una and Nel. After appetizers, they shuffled off to the kitchen, to prepare the fish for the main course. They were overseen by the head cook, a young culinary student who mostly was there to keep Una from burning down the kitchen.
This afforded Gilbert and Jesse the opportunity to chat with the Mayor alone. Although oddly, Jesse wasn't very talkative, so Gilbert had to fill in the cracks.
"I must say, you've certainly done your best to make us feel welcome," Gilbert said, while toying with a teaspoon. (A habit that Jeeves certainly disapproved of.) "Tell me. If the dome is removed, and Seattle is once again open to the public, would you try to provide the same experience to all who visit?"
"Why, certainly!" the Mayor insisted. "We pride ourselves on our purpose, on depicting this city as it was. We would spare no effort!"
"Ah, but consider that you would have more than a few wayward explorers to entertain. You have to think of the scalability issues. Seattle would have to be ready to accept potentially hundreds of visitors a year... some of which may want to stay and settle here. It is an impressive city, after all... no doubt an equal to any in Eastusa, if not superior. Could you merge a human population into a nanoculture population?"
"We... hadn't considered that, but no doubt we could adapt," the Mayor suggested. "We are nothing if not adaptive."
"And would your military programming cores accept potential enemies in your midst?"
The Mayor's mayoral monocle reflected the candlelight, as he peered sideways. "Ah. You've been talking with Clarke. As prime operating individuals within the culture... we are capable of having differing views. To an extent. Personally, I feel we will always strive to better ourselves, by all means... and that we will mesh what we are with what we can become. There will be balance, and thus, no concern that we would do harm to your population."
"Spoken like a true politician!" Gilbert declared, with a smile. He raised his wine glass, in a toast. "Hmm. Jesse, you were ardently against our intermingling with these fellows from the start. Have you no views on the subject of risk versus reward...?"
The witch jerked to action, having been knocked off guard by the question. Truthfully, she hadn't been paying attention... lost in thought. Not a good thing for a witch to do, when surrounded by enemies, but... "Ah...? I... well. I suppose we'll see. About a great many things. --bah! Enough idle chatter. Where is our promised meal? I've had nothing since breakfast and these nibbles are not going to suffice."
"Shields up, I see," Gilbert observed, to call her out; and her resulting look of surprise and irritation only belabored his point. "As for the chef's special, from the odor I sense wafting on the breeze, I suspect it's nearing readiness..."
Sure enough, Una and Nel emerged from the double doors leading into the kitchen, looking only slightly worse for wear from hard work over a hot stove. They assumed their seats, mopping up sweat with napkins, in unison.
"This is going to be delicious!" Una declared. "You should have seen Nel. Her talents with the preparation of aquatic life for nutritional consumption clearly are superlative!"
"...you could simply say she's good at cooking fish," Jesse pointed out.
"I have to say, Mr. Mayor, your city has charmed me to the core," Una declared. "Although we must leave in the morning, I promise to report back to the Faerie Queen with a positive analysis of what you've accomplished here. I'm afraid it's not up to us to unlock the dome for good... but pending her approval, and the completion of our mission, I don't see why we can't open your doors to the world."
The Mayor tipped his top hat to her, pleased at the words. "Splendid! We shall prepare. --ah, pending her approval, of course. We are patient. You'd have to be, after keeping to yourself for two centuries..."
"There are many populations around the world forcibly transplanted here, and locked away for two centuries. Not just along the Westusa coastline. Our charge is to seek them out, and help them rejoin the world community... to build bridges. When appropriate, of course. I wouldn't want to build a bridge to Los Angeles, for example. You'd never believe what we found there--"
"Um. Um. Excuse me... Miss Nelliwyn?"
Amidst the shuffling servants, the head cook had made her appearance. She stood nervously by the table, wearing a grease-stained apron, trying to get their attention.
"I'm not sure the sauce is turning out right," the cook spoke, pointing back to the kitchen with her thumb. "Could you duck in for a moment to take a look...? Sorry, for the interruption, Mr. Mayor..."
The dapper fellow let it go, with a smile. "Quite alright, quite alright. So, Miss Una, what did you find in Los Angeles, exactly..?"
Una watched Nel a moment, as the elven woman excused herself to visit the kitchen... then turned back to the insistent mayor. "Ah... well, I know it's difficult to believe, but we may have met a demon. As in, one akin to the adversarial figure of Judeo-Christian religions..."
"Really? How fascinating! I suppose it's to be expected, however, given how many other stories have turned out to be ring true in those who came here with Pandora. --ah, not to insult your faith by calling religion merely a story..."
"Oh, no insult at all! I follow a different faith. Ah, religion and the Orbitals is a bit of a complicated issue. You could say we adhere to our philosophies in a manner similar to worldly religions..."
A napkin fell to the table, as Gilbert cleaned himself up, and rose from his chair.
"Ladies, gentlemen, this has been a fascinating eve, but I'm afraid I must take my leave," he declared. "We intend to leave in the morning, but our ship requires some repair work to make it airborne. I've several hours of tinkering ahead of us, and would like to get started. I apologize for my poor manners, but I was so caught up in our charming chat, that I lost track of the time!"
"You're going so soon...?" Una asked. "But Nel will be back with the fish soon. Please, you must have some! She worked so hard on it..."
"Oh, I'm used to eating leftovers, much to Jeeve's disappointment. Bring some with you when you return to the Mermaid, and I'll enjoy it reheated for lunch. Until then -- adieu. Jeeves, shall we?"
The automaton already had his gentleman's coat at the ready, holding it up so that he may gently slide his arms into the sleeves. Gilbert tugged on the collar lightly, before bowing to the Mayor, to make his departure.
Conveniently, he bowed close enough to Jesse's ear to whisper in it.
'Keep an eye on them,' he mumbled. 'Something's amiss. We'll go guard the Mermaid.'
Whatever thoughts Jesse had been lost in were shoved roughly aside. A call to arms... that was enough to put her on her defenses. She spared one long, puzzled look at Gilbert, who maintained his cheerful smile even as he stepped into the elevator... then watched the Mayor and Una as they chatted. Watched carefully, indeed.
When Nel served the fish, it was as delicious as promised. The conversation was light and cheerful, full of hope and promise for the future. Nel laughed along with the Mayor's jokes, Una smiled at everything, and all was well.
Nobody paid attention to Jesse. All she had to do was not interrupt, not point out any obvious faults in their relentless optimism regarding the situation in Seattle, and they conveniently forgot she was there. A stark contrast to her earlier outbursts and attempts to wrestle control of the situation from them... a telling contrast.
Despite Gilbert's warning, nothing seemed out of the ordinary about the Mayor, or any of the other nanoculture persons in the restaurant. No figures lurked in the shadows as the three women returned to the Mermaid, through the Needle's gift shop and out to the impromptu airship parking lot on the lawns beyond. Everything was exactly as the Mayor had promised... completely and utterly nonthreatening. Wondrous and perfect.
Of course, nothing was wondrous and perfect. That was the mistake Emily had made when she ran away from home to be one with the Faerie Court. The village's Alpha Girl had read stories about the mystique and majesty of "fairies," and traipsed off to join the circus... dragging her weaker-willed lackey, Jesse, along with her. Neither of them were the same, after that, as the flaws and brutality of the Faerie Court made themselves known.
Of course, despite the hell they each went through, Jesse felt they had both emerged as stronger people... conflict being a fine millwheel on which to hone your edge. And that was what Seattle was lacking. Nothing here was challenging, not since the initial confusion after their crash landing. Everything was prepared for them, smoothly presented, and effortless.
Mystique and majesty. It HAD to hide some brutal truth. The tense moment where the city even admitted it was considering murdering them was proof enough.
As Una and Nel retired to bed, Jesse excused herself... and then slipped away, to the engine room of the Clockwork Mermaid.
"Gilbert? Are you here?" she called out, trying to see in the gloom of gears. They were rotating now, at least, which meant he'd made progress with the repairs. "I believe you to be correct. Something is amiss, in that nothing is amiss. ...Gilbert? Hello? --confound it, boy! Where are y..."
She nearly tripped over him. He'd fallen asleep, slumped against a console of dials and levers, arms crossed in front of him for warmth. A few discarded punch-hole printouts had fallen to his side... boring enough reading material to put anyone asleep, even a mathematical genius. Behind him stood his ever-vigilant automaton... his monocle dim, as he slept in standby mode to conserve his steam power.
Seeing nothing further to accomplish tonight, Jesse took her leave.
She returned two minutes later with a blanket to drape over him, before finally going to bed.
The departure ceremony went smoothly. Brass bands played, confetti was thrown, and the citizens of Seattle waved goodbye to the departing airship.
The Key of Iron allowed the Mermaid passage out of the dome, and into -- a rainstorm. This came as a bit of a shock, but they ascended above the clouds, and again, the journey went smoothly.
They would be at Vancouver soon, ready for the third stop on their magical mystery tour... although there was no rush to dip into that dome of darkness immediately. Una had decided that a day of rest was called for, as a reward for their successful mission to Seattle. Vancouver had waited two hundred years; it could wait twenty four hours.
Soon, the team took up their usual hobbies and activities. Gilbert worked on the engines, determined to finish final repairs and improve upon the original designs. Jeeves spent time in the kitchens, preparing refreshments.
Una and Nel read books quietly in their room.
Jesse stalked about the ship looking for enemies that weren't there, but nobody paid attention to her. Every now and then she'd go to the engine room to talk to Gilbert about something, but Una barely noticed, aside from when she passed by the open doorway to her room.
Tonight, Una thought, she'd report in to Emily through the bathroom mirror (a handy conduit, with Esrever and Anu's assistance) about their visit to Seattle. No doubt Emily would agree that it was time to free Seattle from its prison. Then the next day, they could face the next unknown city, which hopefully would be as friendly as the last...
Perhaps there would also be fish. She could grow to like fish. Una could have had fish every day, considering New Orleans thrived on fishing, but she spent most of her time cooped up in the Arcology. What a mistake that was! There was a world of wonders out there, waiting to be explored...!
A spike of curiosity hit her.
"Nel, what sort of fish did we have again?" she asked.
"Flounder, with a light stir-fry and white wine sauce," Nel replied, while smoothly turning pages in her book. "Why?"
Una set her own book aside, sitting up in her bed. "Pass me your earrings," she asked. "I want to review the recordings from Pike's Place. See what other sorts of fish they had. If even half of them are as delicious as that was, I'm going to want more when we get home!"
"My earrings...?" Nel asked, puzzled, as she fingered the small golden loops at her ears. "What about them?"
"You know, the sensory recording system that Wheedle the goblin created for you. Give, give! I'm eager to enjoy the traditional pastime of 'vacation snaps,'" Una explained, holding out her hand. "Perhaps we could retrieve the imagery, print it out, and project it to share with our friends back home!"
"Ah, right, sensory recordings. I... don't know if I was really recording the fish market," Nel spoke, cautiously removing the earrings, one at a time. "And if I was, I didn't look around much, so I doubt I got anything worth reviewing--"
"Nonsense! You told me yourself you were recording all day. Give, give! I have an eagerness which must be satiated!"
She accepted the earrings gleefully, swapping out her own simple decorative silver studs for the golden loops. Una carefully situated herself back on the bed, making sure she had some pillows to either side -- she had no idea how much of a sensory overlay the devices would present, and no sense risking falling out of bed while grasping for illusions. Now, how to activate them...? Stroke the left earring for playback--
Pages of a book. Turning one by one, slowly, barely reading them.
"Nel, what sort of fish did we have again?"
The viewpoint turned up to look at Una sitting up on her bed, which was a bit strange, considering Una was seeing herself through another's eyes.
A voice came from within her own throat, without being truly hers. "Flounder, with a light stir-fry and white wine sauce. Why?"
--flick to the earring to stop it. After the moment of weirdness passed... Una realized it was playing the most recent portion of the recording. ...which meant Nel hadn't shut off the earrings since turning them on during the arrival at Seattle. Strange. Una would have to rewind, although she wasn't exactly sure how... presumably it involved fiddling with the right earring.
She tried brushing a finger along the smooth metal surface. Nothing. So, she circled it around a few times, then a flick, then simply jiggled it until--
A tall elf, wearing a traditionally cut tunic. Leaning against the statue of philosophers, at the Griffith Observatory...
He'd just winked out a ball of light from his hand -- one that Una/Nel's eyes had been focused on, completely. Despite never seeing the man before... Una knew who he was. The poise was identical to the false Councilman that had tried to tempt her with love, and then salvation of the Orbitals. Temptation that would have led to murder...
She'd rewound the data stream too far. This was the vision Nel saw, when the Mister confronted her. Nel had never spoken of it before--
"You could have the woman you love," the Mister promised. "You could have Una."
...there was no time for shock or surprise on Una's behalf. But the way Una/Nel's heartrate skyrocketed at those words felt very much in sync between past and present.
"It's within my power to change you into everything she's ever wanted and dreamed of... things she hasn't realized yet, subconscious desires. You would be her perfect soulmate. No more worrying that she couldn't love you, that you aren't what she wants."
Another perspective. Another memory. Ironically enough, one that took place at the same time... a promise from the same lips...
"I could tell you the name of your true love, Una. That is within my power. There is one person on this planet who would love you for who you are, not just because they love the idea of love. And you would love that person back with all your heart, and it would be glorious... ah, but you're abstaining, yes...?"
The strangled voice rose from Una/Nel's throat. Tight and tense, afraid. "She... she could love me. I know she could, if only the timing was right--"
"The timing could be made irrelevant, with my power," the Mister promised. "No more hanging on and waiting in silence. No months of watching that fool or any fool like him pouring nonsense into her ears--"
Fingers tugged so hard on the earring that it was torn from her flesh.
Una's heartrate hadn't decreased. The shock felt completely inappropriate for this calm bedroom, this little mobile oasis... where the one who loved her with all her heart sat across from her, resting against the cabin's window well, idly paging through a book. Oblivious to any revelations happening a few feet away.
Unable to resist... Una fumbled at the playback earring. The recording skittered and skipped, until--
"I don't need to become anyone else. I'm me," Una/Nel spoke. Her voice was more assured than before... growing in confidence. "And if Una can't love me for who I am, flaws and all... or if she finds someone else who's a better soul mate, then... well, it wasn't meant to be. I would be happy for her even as I despair. And then, one day... I would move on."
"That's it?" The Mister asked, unbelieving. "You'd 'move on', knowing you lost the only person who could ever love you?"
Una/Nel's eyelids narrowed. It was a fierce stare.
"I'm not the same wide-eyed ex-slave who followed her like a puppy," she spoke -- and it was absolute truth. Una could sense it, in every fiber of her recorded other-being. "I know who she is and I'm starting to know who I am. If she ends up in the arms of another, I will not let that break me in half. Not if I want to be a better person than Brell..."
"I will not allow Nel to die," Una had declared to the Mister, with her own words. "Nel is... she is precious to me, and I will not sacrifice her even if it would save the world."
A mother's smile. Una's mother.
"I swear by all things reasonable... one day, you will know your love not by your hopes... but by your head AND heart. It will sneak up on you, unrecognizable. Perhaps in the form of a favored friend. But when it is right, you will know. Have patience."
Fingers clasped the earring tightly, shutting off the recording.
Paper brushed against paper, as pages turned, and Nel carried on with her life as Una carried on with hers.
That ended as Nel found herself embraced so tightly and suddenly that it could almost be described as a pounce.
The fantasy book she was reading fell to the floor, leather bound spine thumping lightly against the polished wood floors of the Mermaid's guest cabin. The wooden window well she sat at creaked slightly from the extra weight pressing down on it, as Una held on and refused to let go.
"I'm sorry," she was saying. "I'm so sorry. For everything I did, and... and everything I didn't do, everything I didn't see. I love you. I've always loved you. Always..."
"...and... I... always loved you?" Nel tried on for size, rather than professing in any romantic manner. "Well... of course! I mean, don't be silly. We've always been lovers! What brought this on, Una my dearest? Did you enjoy your vacation snaps?"
While the young Orbital's heart was readily embracing everything it had always known... her head was slowly detangling itself from this sudden rush of emotion. Because a disjoint had just formed between head and heart... one telling the other a cold truth.
Slowly, Una's arms unlaced from around Nel. She was withdrawing... studying the elven woman.
"I mean... the... well, it's all so sudden," Nel tried to say. "We've always been in love. ...right? That's how it was. I remember that, don't I? --listen, do you want to see me try on some glamours? I'm very good at that. Just like I did at the fish market. I can show you. I'm her. --I'm her! Please, you have to believe..."
Bewilderment to yearning to confusion to horror to anger, all in seconds. Cold truth. Cold realization...
Una sprang across the room, to pull her energy blaster free of its carrying holster on her jetpack. It was aimed at the nanoculture replica of Nel in an instant.
The follow-up demand was nearly a scream.
"Who are you and what have you done with my Nelliwyn!?"
The witch was studying a semi-transparent empty steam tank in the cargo hold when she heard furniture crashing above her head.
Going up a spiral staircase at speed was a simple matter for one trained well in mind and body. You just needed angular momentum, pounding your way up two steps at a time, making sure to curve your path to match the stairwell. Once you get to your destination, then you'll have enough balance to draw blade... and, in Jesse's case, to flash a burst of Fireblade spellwork up its metal surface, as well.
A quick glance around the room, however, showed no obvious enemies. Just one mission leader, looking very panicked, waving a dangerous energy blaster around like some cheap Eastusa children's toy raygun.
The commotion send two others into motion, converging on the great hall at the heart of the Clockwork Mermaid. Gilbert had followed Jesse up the stairs, albeit with considerably less grace. His massive brass automaton had slid down the other spiral staircase from the galley above, using a well oiled circular grip on the railing to aid in his descent.
"Mimic!" Una called out, as the others joined her. "We've... we've got a nanoculture mimic aboard. Nel. They... replaced Nel...!"
Recognizing it was time for their resident 'hit-witch' to swing into action, Jesse kept her eyes scanning the room, blade at the ready even as she spoke. "Understood, Una. Where did you last see the enemy?"
"It... she... ran into this room," Una explained, starting to get her breath back. "It turned into a frying pan, of all things, and hit me. Then it flew out of the cabins. I looked under the table, but it's not there. Did it get past any of you?"
"Nothing got into the engine room or the cargo hold," Jesse spoke. "I'dve seen it. Jeeves was in the galley, so it didn't go up there. It has to still be in the room. Can't you use your shift-color contact lenses to spot it?"
"I, um... I took them out," Una admitted. "Well, they're uncomfortable to wear for an entire day! ...I'll go get them, they're back in our cabin. Keep an eye out for anything unusual! It could be anything -- or anyone! I'll be right back--!"
In a dash, Una ran back down the forward hallway, towards her cabin. She shut the door behind her... sealing the room, to keep it from following her.
Gilbert politely cleared his throat. "Before we start aiming pistols at each other like in some pulp science adventure story, I highly doubt one of us is the mimic," he said. "It didn't have enough time to knock one of us out and play silly buggers. At least, I know I'm not a mimic. Err. Not that you've anything to go on as proof, I suppose... hmm. Perhaps we out to devise a series of personal quizzes, to make sure? Not that we've known each other for very--"
"Gilbert, quit overthinking this," Jesse broke in with... as she stalked around the dining room table, sword ahead of her. "I know where the mimic is."
"Oh? Well, that's a relief. Where?"
"You only have eight chairs, not nine," she explained... keeping the furniture in her field of view at all times. "One of these chairs is our unwelcome guest. Of course, if it moves now, it will reveal itsel--"
Chairs don't normally hurl themselves at your face full force without someone there to throw them. This one did.
Since witches are trained from an early age to know that objects have a tendency to float around in comedic ways around mages with an Animate spell, Jesse was ready for this. Her blade cleaved the chair neatly in half... leaving a flawless, neutral gray interface where the chair split around her. The two pieces went flying...
...only to reform behind her, in the shape of a modernist swing-arm desk lamp from a Swedish furniture designer. Which aimed its conical brushed steel lampshade at her, before firing up considerably more than 100 watts of incandescent light.
Even a witch couldn't be prepared for that. Jesse covered her eyes, feeling like she'd just stared into the sun for an hour, trying to hold back a scream of pain. A scream would not be ladylike and would certainly be an admission of failure.
Some metal skittering noise sounded, as the object made its escape. She could hear feet pounding after it, both Gilbert's and the heavier thumps made by Jeeves.
No sense in blindly running after them. She forced her eyes shut, trying to restore some night vision... and some personal calm. After a few tense moments, she dared a peek... and despite the spots dancing around in front of her blurry eyes, at least she could get a sense of her surroundings. Enough to relocate.
Her ears picked up the commotion in the engine room. It had a distinct metal echo to it, the type she'd grown to associate with Gilbert's late-night mechanical tinkerings. Rather than zoom down the stairs as fast as she'd ascended them, she took her time, step by step. Taking a tumble would only add insult to injury. And injury.
By the time she reached the room of random gearwork apparatus, and after one careful application of a Mending spell, her sight was mostly restored.
"Situation?" she asked, re-igniting Fireblade on her weapon, as her moment of shattered will had extinguished it.
Gilbert held up an oil lamp, aiming the metal shield on it to direct a beam of light above his head... at the heavy industrial clockwork that took up most of the chamber. "I've a sinking feeling that it's become a gear," he said. "And I can't very well go wrenching out random gears until we find it. ...but one of them shouldn't fit. Should be superfluous, or flat out wrong. Definitely wouldn't have the right mass. If I just had a few moments to analyze them..."
"If it's taken the shape of a wrong gear, we may not have a few moments," Jesse said. "It could crash the ship with an errant turn of the cogs."
...and the machinery began to groan. As did Gilbert.
"You really shouldn't give the crazy electric dust monster ideas, love," he pointed out.
One minute later, the Clockwork Mermaid would be a pile of so much brass shrapnel and shattered fine rosewoods on the maiden soil of British Columbia.
Except for the arrival of Una, bearing a slightly broken little white box in one hand, and a brown cylinder wired up to the box in the other hand.
At the push of a button, a single, nondescript gear in the nightmare of meshed metal burst into a cloud of grey particles and fell to the floor in a neat little pile. The machinery of the Mermaid, relieved to be free of that foreign gear, resumed its normal ticking and tocking.
Without missing a beat, Jeeves produced an industrial shop-vac from Gilbert's pile of utilities and sucked up the discombobulated nanomatter. The pile of dust mites was soon gone, now swirling around in the glass chamber of the vacuum... and then inert.
"Tidy," Jeeves declared, satisfied with his work, before looking back to Una.
"...Simple Matter Duplicator," she explained, showing off the jury-rigged box. "Compiles and decompiles basic hand implements from an internal stock of raw nanites. I hooked it up to the Mass Capacitor from my energy blaster to boost the decompiler signal strength, tweaked the antenna's radius and removed the safety shielding from the internal casing, and there we are!"
"It makes the mimics fall apart," she simplified.
Jesse extinguished and sheathed her sword, nodding in approval. "An improvised weapon. Very clever. So, has the enemy been slain?"
"I... I hope not. I wasn't trying to kill it--"
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The group peered down at the shop-vac, where random primitive shapes were beginning to form from the dust. Cubes, spheres, pyramids. Rattling around, trying to gain coherency... while scratching away at the glass.
"I have a feeling a perfectly good vacuum cleaner is about to be ruined," Gilbert complained. "And I can't exactly take it down to the corner shop for a new chamber. That thing won't stay contained for long. Any other ideas? Zap it again with the thingamabob, perhaps?"
"Conserve your ammunition, Una," Jesse said... glancing out of the engine room, back to the cargo hold. "I think I know what will hold our prisoner properly."
Linking sequence initialization.
Default shape memory banks deployed, combination at 45%. 67%...
What just happened?
What's going on?
Contained. Trapped. Out! Let us out!
"Let me out!" she yelled, banging a newly formed fist on the walls of her cylindrical cell.
The steam tanks were just about large enough to fit a grown man, although most of the ones stashed away in the hold were already filled with aetheric steam -- a strange swirling mix of air and gaseous water, visible like rolling clouds through the refined glass of strange make that formed the tank's shell.
This one had been emptied from general use refilling Jeeves and other devices on the ship, waiting to be recycled at a filling station... and thus perfect for containing a nanoculture "individual."
Where once there was a pile of dust, trying to form basic shapes and forms, now there was a a young woman, kneeling in the small space of the tank. Unlike before, she did not have pointy ears -- they were normal human shaped ones, framed by a head of mousy brown locks tucked away in a hairnet. She wore a cheerful blue apron, embossed with the logo for the Space Needle. And she was very, very afraid...
"The head cook! Of course! I KNEW something was fishy beyond, well, the fish," Gilbert declared. "So you made the switcheroo when you took Nel back into the kitchen, eh? Well, the jig is up! You're nicked, missy! Hah! ...alright, that was fun. Now what?"
Una knelt next to the tank, peering in... as the Head Cook backed away, pressed hard against the furthest side of the tank. Trying not to meet that gaze.
The Orbital gave herself a moment to compose, before speaking. If she hadn't, her words have come out far angrier than her intentions.
"Where is Nelliwyn?" she asked.
"I... I can't say," the Head Cook mumbled.
"Where. Is Nelliwyn."
"I can't tell you! I'm sorry!!" the prisoner pleaded. "She's been declared a... a valuable military resource. It's her shapes, her talents. She can teach us new things. --new disguises to infiltrate enemy basecamps beyond the circumference of the dome. --creativity! She can give us the spark we need to come up with our own ideas, at last!"
Gilbert folded his arms, puzzling it over. "Clarke warned me about this," he spoke. "That their military natures can overwhelm them, make them do things they don't want to. We saw it first-hand. In this case... seems it's a mix of want and don't-want. They want what we have... originality. And their nasty side wants the intel Nel has. The two combined made for an irresistible urge."
"We knew it was wrong! We knew!" the chef pleaded. "But we couldn't stop it. The plan was formed. Agent replacement and removal of military asset to secured location. --it had to be done. I didn't even want this job to replace her, I barely understood her, I couldn't copy her right, we couldn't copy her earrings at all so we had to transfer them, I'm sorry, I just... I was following Seattle's commands..."
"If we fly back there, not only will we have to turn the city inside out to find her, but it'd be a futile gesture with the entire city fighting us. They could relocate her a dozen times without us even knowing," Gilbert said, starting to analyze the situation. "We'd need to know precisely where Nel is. Then strike that location quickly and effectively enough to get her back before they can retaliate. ...not quite sure how to make that happen, but... one way or another, we'd need to know where she's being held."
Jesse rapped her fingers on the lid of the tank, pondering... as the chef shirked away from those tapping sounds. "Perhaps with Una's new toy, we could coerce the information out of her...? She didn't seem to enjoy it before."
"Ech. Ugly business. Besides, torture doesn't work outside of pulp serials, love. She'd give us anything, even false information, just to make it stop."
"Nevertheless, I'm willing to give it a try, for lack of a better option," Jesse said. "This thing isn't really alive; it's just a machine, like your engines and your gaslamps and even your automaton. But if it's human enough to respond to pain and fear..."
Fear. Terror. In those eyes.
A young woman, trapped, her captors subjecting her to agony to break her down and make her more compliant...
Una had to squeeze her eyes shut hard enough to make Baltimore go away. The pain up her spine was a ghost sensation, a reminder of that horrible day when her Optimism nearly shattered... and it was nothing she would ever subject another person to, for as long as she lived.
"No," she declared, rising to her feet. "No. We are not doing that, not ever. ...we are better than that."
Jesse shrugged, accepting the decision without much protest. "Very well. I assume you have a better idea, Una?"
"Open the tank," she said.
"Er, pardon?" Gilbert asked. "Let the thing go? Is that wise?"
"It's not wise. But it's the right thing to do," Una said. "Release the safety seals and open it up--"
Jesse intervened, stepping around the tank, to block the seals.
"I... apologize in advance for stepping on your toes, and disrupting your command of the mission," Jesse prefaced. "But I must protest. What of the dangers? This creature could have crashed the ship. It could have killed any of us. What are the chances that her weaponized nature will take over once she sees an opportunity to destroy us? If you want to bargain with her rather than take the low road, by all means, but better to do it with her confined! It's only practical!"
Una nodded along with that reasoning, listening in great detail. Not dismissing it at all. But spoke her heart, regardless.
"Jesse. ...I'm only going to explain this once," she said. "I follow the path of Optimism. I adhere to my own ethics, my own sense of right and wrong -- and yes, sometimes that means taking the dangerous choice because it is also the right choice. Do you understand? That's not foolishness. It takes intense strength to do what must be done instead of what ought to be done. It takes great determination to weather the storms you bring onto yourself through Optimism, and you do it anyway, simply because. Now. Will you open the seals, please? I'll make something good come from this mess. Believe in me."
The two women stood their ground... eyes fixed, one on another.
It didn't take long for Jesse to flick open the seals on the lid of the container.
"I can see why Emily likes you," the witch spoke, without approval or disapproval, as she stepped away. She didn't even draw her sword, in case the enemy leapt into action... it was clear that wasn't the approach Una wanted.
Without hesitation, Una offered her hand to the cowering nanoculture girl in the tank, and poured her heart into the promise that came with the gesture of openness.
"It's going to be alright," she said. "I promise."
It wasn't possible for a construct of nanomatter to be cold. It also had no need for nourishment. Nevertheless, the frightened girl was wrapped in a warm blanket, cradling a mug of Jeeve's finest hot cocoa. Two marshmallows, naturally.
The group had moved from the dim and dismal cargo hold, up to the more welcoming furnishings of the great hall. This time, there were eight chairs proper, rather than nine. The 'Head Cook,' who had no other name, sat across the table from Una.
Una steepled her fingers, considering how best to phrase this.
"You need to consider this situation on two levels," she spoke. "Just as you considered your needs as a people and your needs as a system. You want Nel because she can help you find your own identity... and you want her because she's an invaluable asset. But I say there are two far more critical factors that your city has overlooked..."
The Head Cook gripped her cocoa mug tightly, unsure. "Um. I don't know if I'm able to speak for Seattle. I'm just... I cook meals at the Space Needle. You really should talk to the Mayor..."
"That will be your role... in time. To rejoin Seattle, and bring them my message. All of them, all at once. You are a part of Seattle, and you must represent them in this matter," Una said. "I know it's a burden. We all carry responsibilities larger than ourselves... responsibilities to our people, our cultures, or even to the world at large. A burden to do the right thing. Please... hear me out. I think what I have to say will give you some peace of mind."
The nanoculture in the form of a confused culinary student gave a mute nod, for Una to go on.
"I will appeal to your nature as a programmed system and as the heir to Seattle's humanity," she continued. "As a computer... you must understand. What the city has done is extremely dangerous. You've kidnapped an emissary of the Faerie Court, the very organization responsible for the forsaken dome that traps you. Having done this... you've potentially ruined your chances of ever leaving. Not only can't you expand your purpose and find a new path in life, but no one will ever set foot in Seattle again. You'll repeat the same patterns, forever, without meeting any of your goals. Surely that wasn't your city's intention..."
"N-No, of course not," Cook insisted. "I mean... we... knew it was a possibility. Likely, even. But the opportunity, the chance to learn so much, it... we couldn't override that. Even if we knew the risk. I'm sorry... that's not enough reason to stop the military core code from acting. It doesn't care that we're trying to be human, and it's so difficult to resist..."
Una closed her eyes. "I see. Then, if I can't break your resistance with an appeal to your programming..."
It wasn't a ploy. A ploy typically implies falsehood. For this... tactic to work, Una would have to be genuine. Right down to the core of her heart, she would have to be genuine...
Tears were surprisingly easy to generate. They didn't have to be faked, after all.
"I love Nel," Una whispered. "In so many ways. I never fully understood that, until today. It was always there, all the time. Nothing's changed... nothing except my perspective. The best days of my life have been the ones I spent with her, these last two years. ...I don't want to lose her. I don't want to leave her behind, not now that I've found her. Do you understand me? Do you?"
The mug trembled in Cook's hands. "I... I mean..."
Una wiped at her eyes, trying to muster up strength, despite willingly breaking herself down in front of the girl. "You're more than the sum of your nanites. Your people are... you are bold. Daring. You resisted the urge to kill us, when we discovered what you were. You can overcome your origins, and become what you want to be... anything you want to be. You just need faith in that. It's a hard road, but... if you want to be human, if you want to be like the humans you admire... please. Help me find Nel. Help bring her back to me. I appeal not to your code, but to your heart."
Now... for the part that her companions might object to. She spoke it quickly.
"If you can show me one ray of hope, one single person of your culture standing up for what's right... I'll recommend that Queen Emily remove the dome forever," Una promised. "Give me reason for Optimism. That's all I ask. Show me you are more than what you fear you are and I'll help you find your future."
Cocoa spilled on the finely polished table surface. Jeeves did not immediately move to clean up the mess.
Somewhere in the ancient depths of Cook's distributed operating system, firewalls slammed up, control routines launched into action. And none of it mattered.
"Gas Works Park," Cook said, simply. "She's being held at Gas Works Park. ...and I'm sorry. On behalf of the city, I'm so sorry, Miss Una."
Her tears now ones of gratitude, Una reached across the table, to grasp Cook's trembling hands, steadying them... squeezing them, gently.
"Thank you, Miss Cook," she replied. "Thank you so much. If your city is anything like you... and being a part of the whole, I've faith that is true... Seattle will have a bright tomorrow."
They allowed an hour, to rest from the tense incident. Honestly, it was more to give Una time to recompose herself, although the newly named Jen Cooke ("She looks like a Jen," Una had reasoned) was also looking a bit squirrely.
Jeeves did his best to keep her comfortable, treating her like any other honored guest of the Gearhaus family. Gilbert had given up his cabin for her, so she could have some privacy. Jen Cooke was also given refreshments and any entertainments she required. At the moment, she was in her room idly looking through a book of British recipes, all of them quite new to her... although the faces she was making showed she didn't think much of their culinary approach. Still, it was a cut above her going weaponized and killing them all.
When Una emerged from her room, she was ready to work. An impromptu council of war had been drawn around the table of the great hall, much like the ones formed in Emily's ready room.
A map was spread out across the table. It was an atlas of Orbital make, holographic and ridiculously over the top considering a folded up bit of paper would've accomplished the same task.
"Gas Works Park is located here," Una pointed, after scrolling through the ghostly image of Seattle-that-was-and-still-was. "It's a decommissioned industrial coal plant, now repurposed as a city recreation center. Still, it's a complicated structure, and finding Nel within it may be difficult. I think I've got an idea of how we can trivialize that."
She set the Mass Capacitor powered hacked-open white box on the table surface.
"This only has enough strength to flood one room with a decompiling signal. But I can repurpose every single Mass Capacitor I have... removing the power units from my jetpack, my blaster, my makeup kit, my electronic organizer, even this data projector we're using right now... every hypertech device I have. All of that combined may be enough to pulverize the entire structure, leaving behind only Nel."
"Mmm. Kind of a risk, burning up all your fancy toys in one shot," Gilbert noted. "Don't you need those things? We've still two more forsaken cities to explore, remember, and flying all the way back to New Orleans for fresh power would run down my steam reserves quite a bit..."
"If it takes every drop of Orbital resources I have to get Nelliwyn back... then that's what it takes," Una decided. "I'd give it all up for her in a heartbeat. ...but even with that blast, the nano will recover, and probably before we can get away from the scene. We're going to need more than one clever ruse located deep within the fabric constraints of our armwarmers."
Jesse sighed. "Again, you could just say 'trick up our sleeves', you know..."
"I was thinking magic had the answer," Una continued regardless. "Jesse... I know about 'Mending' spells. Is there an 'Unmending' spell? Something that can do what my device does, but in a more directed manner? With you on hand to cast that, you could intercept any attacks the city launches against us as we depart."
The witch paused, not expecting magical theory from the lips of her super-science commander. "Ah. Unmending? Well, no..."
"I see. We'll need something else, then. Thank you, anyway."
"But... it could be possible," Jesse said. "I mean, I'd have to, say, find some way to mix the traits of both an Unlock and a Mending. Hmm. Advanced magical theory. ...I was never very good at magic theory. I preferred magic application, to be frank..."
"It's alright, Jesse. If it's outside your scope and ability, we can find other--"
"Excuse me? Did I say I was incapable?" Jesse rebuked.
"Ah... I didn't mean to imply..."
"I am your resident expert on the ways of magic. If you have a magical problem, I am here to solve it," Jesse declared. "That is why Emily put me on this farce of a world tour, and I intend to fulfill my duty. So, yes. I will find a way to un-make the nanoculture, to defend this ship. Consider it accomplished already. ...I'll need time to research, but I will be ready."
"Aaand that leaves my role in this," Gilbert spoke. "For my part, I'll see if I can retune the engines for bursts of speed. I think. To be fair, this is a luxury weekender vessel, not a war machine. Hopefully I can get enough power out of the old girl to get us from dome to Gas Works and back, two quick runs. ... hrm, if I... with the... and... right. Right. I can do this..."
"Good. ...we'll go in the morning," Una declared, rising from her seat. "I need time to make my device. We all need time to prepare. We are going to get Nel back. ...I would request no interruption during my work, since I'm already in a bit deeper than my 91% grade average would say I should be. Thank you."
The three departed, to begin their assigned tasks.
Even if all three were secretly hoping they weren't about to screw everything up.
Jesse had the entire hall to herself. Which was for the best, as dozens of hand-scribed copies of spells covered its surface, like so many puzzle pieces dumped from a box which might one day come together to be a picture of a sailboat.
She'd made a copy of every spell in her monocle's index, which was sadly not much of a comprehensive magical codex. Whether Emily didn't trust her with some of the more potent spells of Fae make or if this was merely part of her utilitarian approach to magic, Jesse couldn't tell. She had plenty of little odds and ends, spells that could help solve a problem in a pinch, but nothing along the lines of true combat magic. And certainly nothing along the lines of an "Unmending" spell.
That wasn't to say that Unmending was un-possible. A master mage on the level of an Archmagus would have such an innate understanding of the Will, the Word, and the Way that they could make the Word up on the fly. Surely if her former teacher was that strong, Jesse was capable as well, given enough time to work on the problem.
Three hours and two cups of coffee later, she hadn't gotten anywhere on the problem.
She knew the theory -- that two spells could be mixed together if you understood the way the Word was written. Spells were given cute little names like "Mending" and "Animate," yes, but their TRUE names were spoken in the twisted modus of magic. That language could be written using runic letters with runic methods, encapsulated in square diagrams of power, the positioning and angle of every letter and the sub-containing shapes dictating how they are to be read aloud.
Therefore, "Unmending" would be as simple as decoding a language allegedly older than the universe itself and mashing bits of it together however you pleased. So far, the secrets of the universe had yet to reveal themselves to Jesse.
It was a deadlock. She couldn't do this. It was beyond her, as even if she had paid enough attention to advanced magical theory, even if Lilith had bothered teaching them anything beyond what would make them fine weapons for the Faerie Court, she'd still be a hundred years too young to achieve this goal. But she couldn't admit failure, especially not when Una was relying on her skills to keep them safe. She had to keep trying. Eventually if you hurl yourself at a brick wall often enough, the wall will fall down. Eventually.
The foul odor of axle grease mixed into the air, a very faint scent. One she'd come to understand was an early warning sign of someone emerging from the engine room below decks. Within a minute, Gilbert surfaced from his morlockian toil.
"I think I've got a bit more oomph from the old girl," he explained, while mopping up the dirty spots on his face with an even dirtier rag. "Whether it's enough to get to the Gas Works and back and outrun a whole city of nanotechnology remains to be seen, but I'm game for a field test if you are!"
"Mmm," Jesse absently replied, turning the sketch for Mending ninety degrees clockwise.
"So, is this what magic looks like when you capture it on paper?" Gilbert asked, pulling up a chair despite having no invitation to do so. "Looks a bit more technical than I was expecting..."
"The Fae usually craft spellbooks using gold-leaf pressed pages and inks made from the sap of ancient trees," she explained. "Their art is a thing of absolute beauty the likes of which you will never see. ...but in the end, all it comes down to is the arrangement of lines and letters, yes."
"Ahh. Sort of like the mapmaker's guild, then. Which one of these is the 'Unmending' spell, then?"
"None of them. I'm still working on crafting the spell, and will be ready before we attack," she lied. "The one before me is Mending. I'm comparing it against Unlock, on the right, and Lock on the left. Lock and Unlock are inversions of each other, in the same way Mending and presumably Unmending will be."
Gilbert glanced between the three pages... focusing on the two sister spells. His brow furrowed, which was a hell of a thing for one with his intellect.
"I can't see any similarities between the two," he said. "I mean, I SEE the letters mixed in that jumble, but..."
"And that's what the other spells are for. They're helping me get a good sense for what each line, each placement of every stroke of the pen actually means. All of this together will teach me the way to craft Unmending."
"Pattern recognition, eh...? Very good. And your progress...?"
"Excellent. I'm near discovery of the solution."
The mathematician took a snapshot glance at each page. Then back to the empty page Jesse was tapping a pen against. And the irritated way that pen was tapping...
He leaned back in his chair, to study both the table and the one who studied the table. Watched her as she sat there, doing nothing, just staring into the cold and calculated depths of magic.
"Once upon a time, you and I played a little game called poker," he said. "If I recall, you cleaned my clock at it, as I couldn't read you in the same way I could read the cards. The cards were a known element, a set of probabilities and processes that had a limited set of quantitative values. ...I would hazard, however, in the short time I have known you, you have become something of a known element to me as well..."
"Do you have a point to make or are you deliberately distracting me from my work, boy?" Jesse asked, her eyes never leaving the pages.
"You've gotten nowhere with the problem. No further than the moment you start down to begin solving it. It doesn't take much of a card reader to sense that about you at this moment."
"Our success or failure are riding on my efforts. I will not fail," Jesse spoke.
"Why don't you want to ask for my help, Jesse?"
...he didn't say 'love,' or 'darling.' He called her Jesse.
She leaned back in her chair, to be at his eye level rather than allow him to continue hovering in her background.
"I have my reasons," she declared. "And that is all I feel like saying."
"I respect your pride, if that's the cause. I understand your desire to prove yourself. How is it you phrased this, back when we were playing cards...? You wanted me off your back, so you went ahead and admitted that your life is one challenge after another not to prove your worth to others, but to yourself. I've always doubted that was merely a flippant little answer..."
"If you are done with your toy engines, you should get some sleep," she suggested/demanded. "Enough of this prattle. I've work to do and you're preventing me from doing it."
"I'm afraid it's too late, Jesse. I've already started."
Gilbert tapped two fingers to the side of his head... either a "thinky thinky!" motion, or perhaps a finger-pistol. "I memorized the pages. I'm already starting to see the patterns. Can't be helped, love. This is what I am, remember? A preternatural analytical engine. ...it's fascinating, simply fascinating. Magic. The shape of magic, the flawless shape that dictates purpose. I don't have to know how to cast the spell to see that much--"
Her Pensworth ballpoint dropped from her fingers, as she got to her feet. She tried to physically pull Gilbert away, to wrench his eyes away from the pages, but it was indeed too late; she could see him staring at some point a million miles away, his mind turning the spells over and over in his head...
"Stop this," she spoke. Not in anger, but in all seriousness. "Gilbert, the danger..."
"I can't cast spells. I don't know how. From what you've explained, the brain damage kicks in when the spell burns itself from your mind, yes?" he spoke... a quiet tone, while the rest of him toiled away at the back of his mind. "They'll sit there, unused and safe. You needn't worry."
"That isn't what I meant--!"
"I can see it so clearly... it's math, Jesse. It's all math! Every line, every shape. You see lines on paper, and the Fae see a sort of living art, but I see... formulae. Such beautiful formulae. Everything is numbers. Fae magic. Orbital science. Human electronics. ...only the steam is not math. That's always confused me. How can the breath of life... have... no physical basis...?"
Even the feel of his skin through the sleeves of his shirt was beginning to heat. She could feel the fever, inches away from the boy, as he sank into the delirium of it...
"JEEVES!" she called out, hoping the robot hadn't shut down for the night. "Jeeves, hurry! He's..."
And then it was all numbers. Just numbers, dancing and shuffling, playing in his head. And everything was so perfect, so right, and so glorious that the radiance of it was blinding him. Burning him. Killing him.
... = X.
One solution, in a tidy little package. His eyes slid open immediately after.
Someone had put him in the bathtub, and filled it with ice. Most of that ice had been melted away, leaving him sitting in soaking wet clothes, chilled to the bone... that someone likely was Jeeves, as it wasn't the first time his faithful butler had to pull him back from the brink.
Except it wasn't Jeeves. It was someone else with a J and multiple Es and at least one S in her name.
She'd fallen asleep at the side of the tub, no doubt waiting for him to revive. From the way the sun's glow had only dimly begun to flood the Mermaid's washroom with light, he'd been out for several hours...
Sneaking out without waking her wasn't going to happen. Already, she was stirring, having heard the minute clack of ice cube against ice cube, drifting in the water.
Gilbert sank below the lip of the ornate ivory tub, vainly hoping the next conversation was not going to happen. All those things he didn't want to talk about, didn't feel like explaining. It was his fault, of course, for diving into a completely unknown and alien math. This wasn't like most problems he had to solve, wasn't even like the interlocking rooms of Esrever's land. This was something so large in scope that it nearly swallowed him whole... and now, he'd have to explain--
"I already know," Jesse spoke.
That he wasn't expecting.
The witch pulled herself up, as slumping against the wall was hardly proper for a lady of her standing. Instead, she sat on the edge of the tub, idly twirling a finger in the water.
"At least, I had figured it out. Your robot helped me make the connection, with a single word," she said. "Dying. You're dying, Gilbert. And this thing, the steam that you were forcefed as a child, the steam that gives you your cognitive facilities, that's what will kill you. You hastened your own death along this night."
"...so. It wasn't pride, and it wasn't fear of spellcasting," he realized, making a connection of his own. "You didn't want my help because you didn't want me doing something foolish to myself."
"Well... I disapprove of fools. In general."
"I can be the crown prince of fools, my lady," Gilbert Gearhaus said, with a wry little grin. "Only the most foolish of fools would steal his family's luxury liner and skip across the Atlantic for a little farewell tour. A fool would also be keen on signing on to an adventure into unknown danger, knowing he most certainly will face deadly foes along the way. And a complete and utter fool would be required to tempt fate with... well. With a lady who most certainly disapproves of fools, yes?"
Jesse did her best to stiffen, to show nothing at the admission. "Right. Well. If you think that your grandstanding and bravado in the face of ridiculous odds entices me, you are utterly, certainly, completely, and utterly mistaken, Gilbert Gearhaus."
"You said utterly twice, love..."
"Did you at least determine the shape of the Unmending spell, while you were busy committing scientific suicide?"
"I could write it down anytime you like. I'll never forget it. Well. Barring a premature end to my life processes, of course. Best to get me a pen in an expeditious manner, yes?"
His cold skin found itself quite warmed, water shifting from wet fabric to dry fabric at the embrace.
These mundane facts were more disorienting to him than the fact that Jesse had actually put her arms around him, however briefly.
Of course, it was followed by her grasping him by the shoulders, to pierce him with a sharp glare.
"If you ever do something that foolish again on my behalf, I swear I will run you through with my own sword," she threatened.
"...'kay," he mumbled in a less than smooth, less than gentlemanly manner.
And then he was released, the witch marching out of his washroom. Presumably to fetch a pen.
Preparations for war were now complete.
Una had spent most of the night taking apart the flawless and lovely gifts of her people. Stylish and smooth devices had been torn apart at the seams, or carved into where seams did not exist. Beyond the polished outer shells, the guts were just as tidy and aesthetically pleasing... until you wired them all together in a Frankensteinian nightmare of energy conduits and power relays. Then, it just looked like a pile of random scrap, scattered all over the cabin floor.
Needing a breather after several hours of that, she made the mistake of brushing a hand by her ear, to play back more of Nel's recorded files. It was just idle curiosity rather than egoism, a desire to understand, to see herself through Nel's eyes...
It was utterly depressing. The body language was all there... the lingering stares, the little rushes of Una/Nel's heart beat when Una spoke, even the calm and wonderful nights when they could relax and just exist in the same room in a state of complete peace. And through it all... there was Una, oblivious of anything going on. No wonder Nel had, in a moment of weakness, spied on her and Brell out of desperate need. At least, that was according to the Mister... but even if it wasn't a lie, by that point, Una could hardly blame her.
The worst of it was a playback of their discussion at the bar in Las Vegas, where Una blithely announced her vow of chastity... and there was Nel, trying to edge her away from it, then giving up and agreeing to go along with it. It had to have been a dagger to the heart, that ridiculous statement...
Crying yourself to sleep was not a good way to get a restful sleep, but that's how it went down for her that evening. When she woke, she was being nudged by Jesse... the rest of the war party having gathered to find out why their commander didn't rouse when Gilbert announced the approach to Seattle.
"'mwake," Una mumbled, trying to get up to speed as fast as possible. To push the troubles of the night behind her and focus on the now. "What's the situation...?"
"We're ready to enter the dome," Gilbert explained. "The engines have two ultra-pressure steam boosters, ready for our entrance and exit. Unmending has been loaded into Jesse's spell-monocle. Jeeves is on standby to use his rocket pack add-on to fly out and snatch Nel, once your device reveals where she is in the Gas Works. He'll also dump Miss Cooke's nanites overboard at that time, so she can merge back in and try and reason with Seattle while we make our escape. ...and your decompiler apparatus?"
Una fetched the remote control she'd hastily assembled from the beside table. Right next to the spot where Nel had set her copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea two days previous.
"I'm ready," she declared.
The Battle of Seattle would be recorded in history books at a much later point in time. The details would be flawless, of course; even if the participants were unavailable or had forgotten much of the encounter, Seattle would not forget. They purposefully remembered everything.
Even most of the words spoken within the Clockwork Mermaid would become a matter of record, thanks to the participation of Jen Cooke. Her role in things was a reluctant one, having more or less betrayed her city, her programming, and everything she believed to be true... but somehow, everything she wanted to be true overcame in the end. Still, the biological portion of the crew kept her role in things minimal, just to be safe.
They gathered in the bridge, as Gilbert made final preparations. He'd added three new controls and five new meters to the Mermaid's instrument panel the previous night; they were far more clumsy looking than the distinguished mechanical design work that the ship was known for. They weren't even made of polished brass, much to the horror of shipwrights thousands of miles away.
"We are 'GO' for launch," he spoke, because he'd always wanted a good excuse to say something as cliched as that. He even flipped a few random switches just for effect. "I suggest everyone brace themselves, the acceleration is going to be a hell of a thing. Una? By your command."
The determined Orbital fingered the white remote control, thumb over the button that would hopefully liberate Nel from Seattle... and nodded, once.
"Right," Gilbert spoke, getting ready to pull a freshly installed lever. "All together, now..."
The delicate mermaid became a deadly barracuda, gas bag flattening out just enough to improve their aerodynamic profile... as the propellers were boosted to 300% spin rate, given a high pressure blast of steam to work with.
Blue sky and scattered clouds surged ahead, replaced by the oncoming black shell of the dome... and with the Key of Iron firmly inserted in its home in the instrument console, the ship sailed straight through the interface without incident.
They'd selected the closest entry point to the Gas Works. Of course, with the facility being isolated in the middle of a vast city park, they'd have some distance to go during which they'd be sitting ducks for any attack... assuming Seattle was paying attention. Which it was.
The citizens had gathered on the lawns. All of them, from the looks of it. And every single one of them now looked like Nel. Even with the motion blur of the Mermaid's high-speed blast towards the ancient coal plant, that much was clear... row after row of elves, neatly organized, all turned to face the facility. Waiting for... something.
A shimmer passed over the surface of Jen's body. For a moment, her ears began to grow... pointier.
"...they're studying her," she explained, voice quiet with fright. "Trying to understand her. ...they hear me. They hear you through me. Whatever you're going to do, do it n--"
Una pressed the button. It didn't take much pressure to fire off her patchwork system, but nevertheless, she nearly jammed her thumb in the process of slamming down on the trigger.
The signal was nearly visible, a pulsing wall of... something, that ripped its way through the ship and beyond. Jen Cooke fell apart in an instant, becoming a cloud of dust -- which was neatly and perfectly contained by a hand-vac attachment on Jeeve's left arm, for later dispersal.
Below them... the waves of Nels began to fall apart. They exploded into clouds of dust, piling where they stood... but beyond the people of Seattle, Seattle itself was unmade. The grass, the trees, everything was nanoculture, everything was subject to the wave of decompiling...
The Gas Works itself was last to go. The building melted away into nothing... with Nel still inside. That was the dangerous part of the plan, Una knew. But they'd planned for it as best they could.
"Jeeves!" Gilbert called. "Go find her!"
The Butler yanked hard on the level of the cabin's emergency exit. "Commencing," he declared... before leaping out of the ship, with the spring-armed door slamming shut behind him.
A streak flared into being, the butler's hastily attached rocket pack coming to life, as he shot forward like a bullet directly into the mass of grey sand. And was gone from sight.
Tense moments passed, as the Mermaid's hyperacceleration slowed to a crawl. The first burst tank was now depleted.
"He... he'll find her," Una said, with a period at the end instead of the question mark she instinctively wanted to put there. "He'll find her..."
"You should've seen him tracking me down every time I snuck out of the mansion," Gilbert added, trying to inject some levity into the situation. "He's an ancient model, hundreds of years old, but he can move like a prized mechanical stallion when he... Una? Una, your face seems to be bleeding..."
She absently wiped away some of the oozing trickles of blood. "I got nanotechnology based makeup implants a few years ago. I had a feeling the signal would be strong enough to affect them. It's nothing..."
Jesse shook her head, stepping over and grasping Una's chin, to turn her head. "I think not. A lady's face is her fortune. . . ...there. That should suffice--"
"He's got her! Well, how do you do, he's actually got her!"
The dapper rocketman indeed was in flight again, bursting from the monotone dunes of Seattle -- this time, with an armful of very disoriented elf. The blur slowed as it approached the mermaid, Gilbert popping open the Emergency Exit for him manually...
Nel, weak in the knees and still coughing up dead and disconnected dust mites, collapsed to the decks. Or would have, if Una hadn't been there to catch her.
No words would have sufficed, so there were no words. Both of them were simply completely and utterly relieved. Anything else would have to wait until it could be expressed properly.
Which was for the best, because Seattle was beginning to wake.
It started with cubes. Then, spheres. Pyramids. Primitive shapes, just as it had been when Miss Cooke was discombobulated...
"Hold on to something!" Gilbert warned, as he twisted the control yoke sharp left, bringing the mermaid about... just before it began to shake and shudder from impacts.
Through the windows, they could see Seattle fighting back. Primitive shapes were all they had to work with at the moment, so that's what they used -- vast cubes and spheres, hurtled from the surface like physical projectiles, smashing against the side of the hull. They came apart in dust clouds once making contact... but soon, they'd have enough structure, enough consistent mass, to start putting some serious dents in the Mermaid.
Jesse flexed her fingers, as she stepped up to the windows. A vast array of mirrors, the Mermaid's equivalent of a rear-facing camera, showed the onslaught of shapes even as the ship completed its one-eighty away from the chaos. It began its escape, albeit at the normal cruising speed of the airship... which was not fast at all. Certainly not fast enough to avoid the incoming missiles...
"My turn," she announced, as the spell of Gilbert's design flickered to life on her monocle's display.
The witch gestured to the onslaught of shapes, to indirectly project her Will through the Word that he'd crafted at great cost to himself. ...which, in its own way, meant this was a projection of Gilbert's Will as well. That felt... proper, to her.
Both Wills, one literal and one figurative but neither weaker than the other, grasped the Way and brought that Word to life.
An incoming phalanx of cubes exploded, becoming so much harmless dust well before they could catch up to the Mermaid.
A smile formed, as she felt that old familiar rush, the feeling of battle. She extended her hand to a trio of spheres, pointing at one, another, and another. ". . ! HAH! Your work is without flaw, Gilbert! As for you, Seattle, you are one hundred years too early to defeat me! !!"
"I'm happy for you, love, but I've no mood to hang around much longer. Boost systems are back online; engaging the second tank!" Gilbert announced, before pulling back on another hand-installed lever...
Which did absolutely nothing.
"...ahem. I SAID, engaging the second tank," he tried again, re-seating the lever, and yanking with all his might.
Absolutely nothing continued to happen.
Pyramids came at them now, tapered thin, like darts. They split apart, forming dozens of smaller darts... Jesse sweeping her hand in a wider arc, trying to catch as many as possible, trying to unfocus her Will enough to spread out the effect. ", . Gilbert? As enjoyable as this is, I am actually in agreement about leaving... if you don't mind..."
"Oh, hell. Parallel versus serial. I did it again," Gilbert declared, slumping back in his captain's chair. "I made the same mistake when I was tinkering with some old electric light bulbs. Wire them in serial, and they all fire at once... I... think I used up both boost tanks at the same time when we zoomed in here. We're not going anywhere fast, afraid..."
Jesse cast an incredulous look over her shoulder. "You can decode thousands of years of Fae arcane knowledge in a single evening, but you can't remember that ONE PLUS ONE EQUALS TWO!?"
"Oops?" Gilbert offered, weakly.
A single sphere hovered behind them... as another one circled around the slowly departing ship, hovering in front of them.
Both spheres split into two spheres. Which split into two more spheres. For every one Jesse Unmended, more arrived. Becoming a grid, a net, a trap surrounding them on all sides...
Then the spheres became needles. It was a safe assumption that the business end was aimed in their direction.
Two seconds later, the Clockwork Mermaid would have several thousand new holes in it.
Fortunately for them, one second later, all the needles fell from the sky, like puppets with their strings cut away. Some clattered off the gas bag above, thankfully not puncturing it, as they rained to the ground below.
As impending doom wasn't transpiring, Jesse dared to peek at what was going on. Seeing nothing of interest outside the window, the city remaining inert... she turned back to look at her crewmates.
A tiny cloud was swirling just above the instrument panel of the Mermaid. The dust mites that Nel had coughed up, damaged and barely functional, were giving their last hurrah... to form a tiny, tiny version of Jen Cooke.
'Will you keep your promise to us, Una?' the figure of fluttering nanites asked.
Una, who hadn't moved an inch, who was still cradling Nel in her arms... merely offered a nod.
The replica of a replica of a culinary school student smiled, grateful, before her nanites finally gave out.
The Clockwork Mermaid casually sailed away from Seattle without further incident.
The airship landed a few miles outside of the city's dome, to make repairs. Vancouver was less than a day's flight away, but it went without saying that everybody needed time to rest and recover from what had happened here.
It also went without saying that Una and Nel were going to need some alone time together. Gilbert had plenty to occupy himself with, namely un-screwing-up the engines... a task that was made all the more difficult by the lack of a proper airship dock and repair station. Fortunately, he had two capable junior engineers at his beck and call -- even if one of them was pretending she didn't particularly want to help and this was his own error to correct and she was only helping because she wanted to get as far away from this forsaken city as fast as possible.
This meant that Una and Nel's critically important talk, one which had been stalled out for two years by obliviousness and happenstance, would have to take place with the distant sounds of wrenches banging and cogs popping out of place like metal corks. Hardly the best circumstances... but bad circumstances had plagued every other moment of their journey together, and this time, Una was not going to let that stop her.
It poured out like a waterfall, the instant she closed the door behind her. The apologies, the massive amounts of apologies. Self recrimination for not seeing it sooner. Downright self loathing, at times, at her own stupidity. At how obviously a 91% would miss something like this, wouldn't even consider the possibility, couldn't think outside the box--
Nel was bright enough to stop that train of thought with a kiss. And a contrary note.
"I could have told you at any time, and I chose not to," she reminded Una. "From fear. Because the time wasn't right. Because I was younger and unsure of myself... but it doesn't matter. None of it matters. There's no blame. There's only... this. If you want this. ...I won't force it. I made up my mind about that, if you didn't want to... be with me, or if you just wanted to carry on as the friends we are, I could accept that..."
Una didn't hesitate.
"I want to carry on as the friends we were, and will always be," she said. "All the joys and the wonders, all the wonderful times we share together. And that also means I love you, Nelliwyn Myfanwy. I always have, even when I didn't know I did."
By the time the trio were finished their work in the engine room, Una and Nel still hadn't left their room, and wouldn't until the following morning. Nothing had really changed, not really... but everything would be different from then on.
Despite the dangers of Seattle, and all the revelations and heartbreak involved... the journey through the Forsaken Lands was looking brighter by the day.
The lady of the house still had her doubts.
She'd checked the strange little man out thoroughly, of course. Never accept a private business meeting with a stranger, especially in a world laced with magic, danger, and intrigue. Her research, however, had been surprisingly easy... no need to pay off informants in the court, no need to dig deep into her network of contacts. The right people knew his name instantly, and knew he kept his promises. He could be trusted.
Everybody liked Benny the Broker. He'd been all over the world, obtaining the unobtainable, getting you your heart's desire -- for the right price. Granted, often he'd supply your enemies with their heart's desires too, but that only spoke to the even-handed fairness of his dealings.
What's more... he didn't deal in simple things. He was a smuggler of contraband, a provider of weaponry, a merchant of death. No matter how illegal or immoral the thing you craved, Benny the Broker could provide for you. He specialized in the general enabling of sin. A dealer of depravity. Your best friend and your worst nightmare, all in one package...
Mind you... nobody had heard of this 'master' he spoke of. But as for Benny himself, there was a man you could trust with your darkest desires.
With that kind of recommendation, Lady Morgana decided to at least hear his proposal out.
It was his request to bring up this matter to both herself and the Honored Guest of the hotel/casino that raised her suspicions initially. Nobody was supposed to know about her dear sister Lilith's hidey-hole. Even the servants who brought her room service were fitted with special amnesia charms, so that they couldn't recall who they served, even after tending to her meals, her baths, her... entertainments.
(Queen Emily knew, of course. Not that Lilith knew that Morgana knew that Emily knew. Such was the way of the Faerie Court, naturally.)
So, the three of them gathered in a special meeting room Morgana kept below even the service rooms of the hotel. A room nobody else would know about. A few chairs and a table were enough to easily turn any room into an office. And if this Benny's reputation proved false, well, it could become a sepulcher just as easily.
The two High Fae sat at one side of the table, with the unassuming looking human fellow at the other side. He had a leather briefcase with him, which he tapped at irritably. It was the only sign of nervousness he exuded... everything else about his poise was smooth and still as a lake in winter.
"I have a business proposal for Archmagus Lilith, on behalf of my employer, who prefers to be known as the Mister," Benny the Broker began. "You've likely looked into my background, and know I'm reputable. I'll vouch on behalf of my master, using that reputation as collateral. The Mister would like to speak with you directly, if you will allow this. I assure you this method of communication is unique to... our kind, and will be untraceable by your Faerie Queen. I'm here to solve problems, not cause them, after all."
Morgana shrugged one shoulder, the other remaining still so she could swirl brandy in a goblet. "It's no matter to me. I'm just facilitating this meeting. Sister, dear? Are you keen to hear the words of some unknown person who doesn't even have a real name, no doubt promising you vague amounts of power to slake your thirsts...?"
It was a joking prod... but Lilith had no humor left in her. Morgana immediately knew she shouldn't have tried to get a rise out of her sister.
The Archmagus had... seen better days. She was still as beautiful and terrible as ever, naturally, but being on the run, being cooped up in a hiding place, unable to assume her rightful place as the Prime Magus of the Faerie Court had begun to wear at her...
"I'm willing to hear this offer," Lilith spoke. "But if I don't like what I hear, I'll make you wish I was never born, whatever you are."
To his credit, Benny was unfazed by the threat. He simply slid his briefcase onto the table, undid the latches, and opened it up.
A roaring, heatless fire was contained within. In those flames, a solitary figure stood, wreathed in the hellfire from which he was born...
"I'm glad to finally speak with you, Archmagus," the Mister said, all smiles and well wishes. "And I hope that, with your assistance, I will one day speak with you in person. ...you know what I am, do you not? You have power, vast magical power, and the perception to go with it..."
Lilith showed no outward signs of recognition. "I might," she said. "And if I am correct...?"
"Then I can give you what you most desire. Power. Power enough to take the Faerie Court and punish the usurper who displaced you from your rightful destiny," the Mister promised. "No tricks, no traps. A simple bargain. I have to be honest, because honest is all I can be. Together, we are going to lay claim to this world, and every soul within it. In return... I ask for so very little. All I want is for you to be... complicit. I think you won't have any problem with that, will you...?"
"And that would be the vague promise of power to which I referred," Morgana pointed out, feeling the need to speak up. "And the vague acknowledgement of what this is. The tiny imp and his representative minion are no doubt ilk of the Christian beast, yes? I've read the same... 'fairy tales' that Lilith has. And we both know how well things end for those who would bargain with the likes of them--"
"Tell me what I must do to destroy Emily Moonthistle," Lilith spoke, immediately.
"I can do very little from this distance, from within my prison. But I've enough power through my connection to this minion to broker one single deal," the Mister said. "Not for your ultimate prize. Not yet. Just for enough strength... to track down the Key of Iron, and to free me. Once you do that, everything you seek will be yours. You have my word. What have you to lose, Archmagus Lilith...?"
Morgana slammed her goblet down on the table. "Enough of this childishness," she said. "Lilith, let's go. The creature is insane. Power to destroy the Faerie Queen? Impossible. She is a goddess!"
"A false goddess, yes? Besides... what is your alternative, Archmagus? What life has your sister given you?" the Mister asked. "A posh prison cell, toys to play with, and the slow but inevitable decline of everything you are. Lilith. You could reclaim your place. I can help you. I WILL help you. We have known each other all our lives, even if we've never met before. We are kin from different worlds. You know I speak true. Do we have an accord...?"
The aging Archmagus didn't spare a single glance to her sister, eyes fixed on the tiny figure bathed in flame.
"Yes," she agreed. "If it will give me back my life and destroy the one who did this to me, a thousand times yes."
The Mister's smile was positively delighted.
"Then offer up your sister in sacrifice to me," he requested. "Be complicit."
"You may have her."
Morgana's skin went utterly pale. "What?! Lilith, you can't possibly--"
The Lady of the House of the Rising Sun, the queen of games, the High Fae known and feared by many and former tyrant of New Orleans slumped to the plush carpet of her secret office, cold and dead. It could easily become a sepulcher, after all.
The room dimmed, as the Darkness took hold. Even the briefcase's unnatural firelight couldn't penetrate that rising force, once the bargain begun to take hold.
But if he could be seen, the Mister's smile would have been so wide it defied human anatomy. The future was bright indeed. Bright with fire.
And he would see the accursed metal angel weep before this age was done.
to be continued
copyright 2009 stefan gagne