|sf01 the ascent|
Beyond the end of the world.
Alone, in the fire. It burned away her eyes long ago. The tears she sheds now are wispy ashes, drifting away in the eternal maelstrom of summer's inferno.
Alone, and yet... far away, so far away... he is with her. Frozen in the ice, on the other half of the world. He wears a crown like hers, but different. His lips cannot move, frozen shut. His eyes are solid now, unblinking. Incapable of even tears.
They'd seen everything they worked for, gone, whisked away into the void. Leaving only them. God and goddess, over a dead and shattered Earth.
Forever and ever and ever and ever like this. All their friends, gone. Their daughter, gone. Forever and ever and--
--and awoke with a start. Not with a scream; she'd had this nightmare often enough that she could recognize it in the split seconds after waking, could get ahold of herself. Screaming brought in the guards, worried the staff. Made Susie nervous. Better to hold the terror in until it fades, than to subject them all to her problems.
But she couldn't keep the one who slept beside her from noticing. He awoke on his own, quietly. Ready to be there for her when she fell back to the pillow.
"It's not going to happen," Scout assured her, just as he had every other time the dream took her.
"I know. I saw the Earth's future. I KNOW there is a future," Emily Moonthistle whispered. To him, and to herself. "Our daughter has a future. Humanity's going to survive. ...so why do I keep having the dream? Same dream, for fifteen years, now. A dead and lifeless world. Doesn't make a damn bit of sense..."
"You're only seeing possibilities. Seeing what might be, not what has to be..."
"We don't know that for sure. We don't know anything for sure. And the only person that does, well..."
"You could go ask her," Scout suggested. "Use Hindsight. Look back to when Lady Winter was still alive. Ask her how it works."
"If history can change, I am not gonna risk giving her any more details into what's going on," Emily said, with a grumble, as she turned on her pillow and tried to relax again. "Besides, she loves being playfully cryptic. I'd rather not give her the satisfaction of making us dance on a puzzle box again. ...that's a stupid metaphor. I can't make up good metaphors when I'm half asleep..."
"So, sleep," her husband suggested. "Sleep. It's okay. It's an ordinary evening. Everything's ordinary and fine. We've had years of peace and we'll have years more to go."
"Hmph. Not like you to advise being off your guard..."
"Been a soldier for a long time. Hunter, long before that. Now, a father, a husband. Suits me better. I've a right to a good night's sleep, just as you do," he suggested. "Now, shhh. We can talk in the morning about what's to come."
Emily didn't want to sleep. She wanted to grumble and grouse, to worry and fret. The dreams had been coming more frequently; she wasn't willing to write that off as a coincidence. But... the pillow WAS inviting, now that she was down, and her husband was whispering platitudes in her ear. A pleasant dream of peace. Peaceful years to come...
Soon, both slept soundly. They would wake minutes later, but for that moment, there was that promised peace.
by stefan gagne
She'd finished packing ages ago. Not like she had much to pack, given her spartan existence, but she felt that packing in a slow and attentive manner was an important psychological process.
Kas two point three would be leaving her home of the last ten years, Arcology #A076, in the morning. Technically, she could've hopped the conduit this morning; Esrever was ready to convey her across the bridge formed between himself and his bride Anu, ferrying her to her new home on Arcology Luna #01. But Kas was determined to finish up her last round of experiments before migrating on to new duties.
Long past the point where the dwindled population of #A076 had turned in to sleep, she was awake and in the Mass Capacitor lab. Watching the latest batch of experimental capacitors compile in the simple matter duplicators. She'd promised to turn over Project Lite to Tye point nine nine, but would've felt unprofessional if he took over mid-experiment. No sense staying in her quarters and sleeping the night away without finishing up.
Kas made a flick gesture in the air, to resume recording of her log.
"The last six variants were all failures," she announced to the air around her. Keeping her voice down, on instinct, despite the thick metal of the walls between her and the nearest residential districts of the city. "I think we've pushed Orbital science as far as we can go, here. If there's an answer to creating capacitors that don't rely on massive spatial compression of planetary mass, a truly 'lite' capacitor, it lies in other technologies. Tye, I think magic may be the way to go. I've asked Emily to give you access to her notes on the Pandora spell. It's been kept secret due to the dangers involved, so treat it with extreme caution-- oh, sorry. Did I wake you, sir...?"
The elderly man laughed it off.
"Go on, go on," Primary Councilman Ono said. "And don't be silly, I couldn't hear you from my quarters. I was... well, I simply couldn't sleep, and felt like I'd take a walk. Heard you in the hall. ...isn't this work Tye's concern now?"
"I don't like leaving jobs half-finished," Kas explained, cutting off the recorder with another gesture. "Bad enough that we've made no headway at all on Project Pangea, to find a world without human habitation. Sure, I repaired the shift engines, but we've nowhere to go. I wanted to at least close a chapter on Project Lite before I left."
"You could have done this work in Florida, you know. The labs at NASA are just as extensive as the labs here at home," Ono suggested. "Most of your contemporaries have already migrated outwards, to live in the lands of Faerie and Eastusa. Even my daughter Una."
"Doesn't Una live only a few kilometers away, sir...?"
"My point is that they've left the nest, to use an avian metaphor," he clarified. "But you've always lived here. Why is that?"
"It seemed a waste of energies to relocate, when everything I needed was right here. Plus... I get my fill of 'seeing the world' on my various outings and vacations and working trips. I cannot ask for a better travel agent than Yew, although I suspect the journey she booked for me to the Temples of the Mouse was some elaborate practical joke..."
"It's not the same as living out there. Migration is a phase of growth, Kas," Ono suggested. "Babies leave their cribs. Young adults leave their childhood homes. Humanity explores the corners of all available space. It's what they do -- they must travel, they must transition, they must explore. It's in our nature..."
He brushed a finger along a deactivated workstation, calling up a map of the Earth. And another Earth. And another, from the shift databases...
"Our people once lived on a single world, you know," he mused. "We grew and outgrew its limits. True, the way in which we expanded was unethical, but... there will come a time when another Earth will see a civilization that expands as we did. I wonder if it'll be this one. This world is a strange blend of peoples and technologies and cultures. It's primed for achieving wonderful things..."
"I do feel that magic and science should merge disciplines," Kas agreed. "To surpass the limits each holds alone. You may be right, sir. But before we... I mean, they... well, I suppose we is appropriate as well... can explore the multiverse, we need a better way to do it."
"Mmm. Yes, quite true. Lar and his ilk led us down the wrong road," he agreed. "But problems can be solved, in time. One day, this world will be too small for those who live here, and they WILL have the means to move on. Imagine the wonders they'll find, as they explore the multiverse with new eyes...? Ah, but I stray. My point is that I think it'll do you good to live in Luna #01. To experience what few Orbitals have experienced; true life on another world. It will enrich you greatly."
"And you, sir?"
"Why have you not migrated?" she asked. "The Council that oversees our people's affairs exists here, yes, but 'commuting' is a plausible concept. I am to understand many of your advanced years enjoy the communities of Florida, where restaurants offer discounts, and there is a popular game of chance known as Bingo."
His laughter was confusing, since she wasn't telling a joke.
"Too old, far too old," Ono said. "Too set in my ways. I was born in #A076. I fully intend to die here as well."
A wall slammed into Kas's side before she could reply.
Alarms woke her. Not the chime of her apartment's internal clocks, telling her it was time to awaken -- these were the other sorts of alarms. The dangerous ones.
Kas noticed her arm had been broken in two places. The pain was so intense that she couldn't properly give it a context, so she chose to ignore it. This was normally called "shock" but she didn't have time to consider the implications. There were far worse things afoot than a personal injury...
A glance to her workstation confirmed she'd only been out a minute. The bulge in the wall suggested something terrible, and the holographic windows filled with error messages confirmed the worst.
Typing with one hand and multiple injuries was extremely difficult, but she had to be sure. Had to make sure the errors weren't false positives...
For a senior citizen, Ono proved durable indeed. Blood was pouring from his scalp, but he was at her side, and ready to take charge immediately. Briefly, Kas felt pride at the rationality of her Council representative.
"What's the situation?" Ono asked, quickly.
"Mass containment breach," Kas confirmed -- surprised at the hoarseness in her throat. Her throat DID hurt. How deep were her injuries...? "Two small Mass Capacitors burst at full strength. Several tons of planetary material decompressed in the middle of the arcology..."
"I'm only a politician, but... isn't that impossible?" he asked. "In the event of containment failure, the mass should cease to exist immediately, leaving behind a small amount of sludge, no more than that..."
One error window replaced itself with three. Then twenty. Then they had to resize themselves automatically, to fit the hundred and sixty-four more that were all letting Kas know exactly the same thing.
"Almost every one of the capacitors aboard #A076 is about to burst," she announced. Factually. Stating what was happening, because if she thought about it too hard, fear might have become a serious impediment.
"Advise me. Please. What should we be doing?" Ono asked.
It took less than three moments for her to decide.
"Evacuate immediately," Kas suggested. "Everybody get as far away from #A076 as possible. Exits, shuttles, use everything. Call Esrever to funnel people to safety; he'd be the fastest way to reach everyone, since everything is reflective here. Do it fast. We've got minutes."
Ono moved to a tertiary workstation, flicking through the menus, pushing aside experimental test data to bring up communications. "Right. And New Orleans?"
"Not an issue," Kas decided. "Because when the city bursts, it'll put 2.478 Earths worth of matter in the space where only one should be. We aren't evacuating them to a safe distance. There is no safe distance. We're abandoning the city completely."
"But can't you just contain the--"
"No, I can't. No time to explain the physics behind why. Move fast, time's running out. I'm going to the shift engine room," she announced.
I'm going to die, Kas realized.
She ran as fast as she could for the engine room, anyway.
Two and a half minutes later and her lungs were burning. Something had gone wrong inside her body; a broken arm was the least of her problems. Her feet felt like lead, but she ran. She kept running until she was where she needed to be.
Her experiments had been held in two different labs. The capacitor lab for Project Lite, and the shift engine room for Project Pangea. Her attempts to find new shift signatures, new Earths, where they could ethically mine without harming human civilizations...
Kas's first impulse was an emergency upload of all her notes to Yew. Her good friend Yew, the one who had improved her life in so many ways. Tomorrow they were going to go to the moon together... she was asleep in New Orleans beyond, unaware of what was going on. And good for her. She'd only worry, and needlessly, over things she couldn't prevent.
With a shaking hand, Kas keyed in a signature to the file. Sorry. Goodbye.
Ageless eyes looked back at her, in the reflection of a metal control panel.
Almost done evacuation, Esrever the Mirror Lord spoke, his voice coming as misty letters, quickly painted across the mirrored surface. Fingertips brushing words into mist. Time for you to go.
"No," Kas said. "Someone needs to control the engines. I have to send #A076 into the void, to a random shift plane. And hopefully not land on an occupied world in the process..."
Time for you to go, he re-wrote, tracing over the letters firmly.
"Get Ono out of here," Kas suggested, as she flicked at gestural controls, one-handedly signaling the engines to bypass all safeties and spin up to speed. If they blew, they blew, but there'd be no chance at all if she didn't force them. "Hurry. Less than a minute. GO."
Fifteen seconds. Engines working. Thank science she'd fixed them up, after years of dormancy, after the way they were misaligned and reassembled by the Faerie Queen of Summer. The things done to them should have rendered them inoperable. If only Kas had more time to study the changes, maybe she could've...
No. No time for regrets. No time for anything except one last experiment, one last work task, one thing to do so that her friends would be safe.
She picked a shift frequency completely at random, verified it wasn't in the database of known Earths, and activated the drives just as Ono walked out of a reflective metal wall.
"Come on!" he urged, waving. "Esrever's holding open the way! You've done enough! COME ON!"
Running. One last flicker of hope, dancing in front of her. Maybe she wouldn't die. Maybe she'd see Yew again, and--
They gathered, despite the late hour. They came from all over New Orleans. Fae, stirred from their beds by the shaking of the earth. Orbitals, many of them here to enjoy the jazz clubs, some because they'd taken up residence outside the city. Traders from Eastusa, who'd come to barter with the Faerie Court for favor...
The Lions of Summer kept a ring around the scene, to keep people from getting too close. It wasn't clear what had happened, or if there was still danger afoot.
All that was clear was that Arcology #A076 was gone.
A round crater had formed, or more specifically, had been emptied. The crash site where Lady Summer had pulled down the star city was once again entirely devoid of giant metal spaceships, as it had been fifteen years ago.
Minutes later, the survivors joined the crowd. Esrever had sent them to a reflecting pond on the far side of the city. Most of them had gotten out in time. Most of them. None of them knew what had happened, beyond some sort of accident.
Hours later, Yew found the documents in her mail. The scientific legacy and final farewell of her best friend.
Long after she was dead, history would remember Kas two point three to be the martyred savior of the Orbitals. The one who found an ethical way to carry on living, and would be forever remembered for that, rather than remembered for the tragedy of her short life.
On the first day, science did its best to prove the hypothesis that everything was going to be okay. Sadly, the scientific method resolved out their worst fears: #A076 had indeed suffered massive, supposedly impossible Mass Capacitor failure, and shifted away seconds before being torn apart from within by expanding mass. A solid lock couldn't be made on the dimension of its destination due to a lack of Aleph radiation, as well as massive debris and gravity distortions from the resulting event. There was virtually no chance of survival. The fact that, statistically speaking, a 97% evacuation success rate under such a short time limit was quite impressive did not help anyone's mood.
On the second day, magic gazed into the looking glass, to try to find survivors. Perhaps they'd escaped at the last second, lost in the connecting corridors of the strange Winterfae's realm. But scryers, spellweavers, mages, witches, and even the Archmagus could find nothing within the crippled remnants of Esrever's domain. Nothing but lifeless ruin and fractured reflections... and a widow, drifting, mourning. Unresponsive to any attempts to reach through her cloud of despair.
On the third day, Kas, Ono, and Esrever were declared legally dead.
Funeral services were scheduled to be held in New Orleans. Orbitals from all over Eastusa migrated back home for the event, as details reached the news feeds of the Internet. Some came on jetpacks, some drove in automobiles, some took trade caravans from the Fringe communities. The House of Thistles, as Emily's noble Fae family had come to be known (despite being human in origin), would handle all the arrangements.
But as house servants and friends of the family busied themselves with preparing the manor house grounds for the funeral, the Queen herself wasn't seen. She was secluded, half for reasons of security, half because she was in her own sort of mourning.
Which consisted of using the lidless eye with wild abandon.
Undying, with a bitter taste of ash where logic once held sway.
Warm life and cold death twice over, on the hunt anew.
Water from a far away empire, in which mermaids now swim to distant shores.
Glowing golden eyes of rage, an awakening summer sleep.
They will no longer lie down, after one falls.
All together, speaking in one magnetic voice.
His merciful punishment, carried on artificial winds.
Faintly flickering satisfaction within the burning metal wheel.
Three eyes looking to different horizons, but only one can see the promised land.
A shattered and murdered world, half in flame, half in ice, the crowns divided.
Undying, with a bitter taste of ash where logic once held sway...
Over and over, the same images. Flashes, nothing coherent, nothing she could put her finger on.
Foresight was being unusually temperamental. The few times Emily had used it in the past, it had shown her coherent events, even if they were taken completely out of context. The future had a tendency to only reveal aspects that were of no practical use, but at least it showed you things that could be grasped... even if grasped incorrectly.
This was different. Here, no matter how hard she focused her Will, no matter how deep she delved into the winter crown, all she could pull back were distorted and incomprehensible concepts. She'd tried sketching the visions, with all the art talent that she didn't actually have. She tried writing the words, but they always came out the same, weird metaphors and allusions that held no meaning. And no matter how hard she pushed, all she could find were the same ten images. No more, no less...
A knock at the door was likely a maid, trying to bring her queen dinner.
"Beat it, I'm being goddess-y," Emily called out.
Scout entered anyway, carrying the dinner tray he'd retrieved from the nervous house elf who'd carried it up three flights of stairs. He set it in front of her, the ornate enchanted brass of the tray immediately forming legs, extending down... a sort of arcanist's TV dinner tray-table.
"Time to throw in the towel," he said. "And eat something. You're helping no one, yourself included, by carrying on like this."
"I'm not hungry. I am fueled by the energy of the seasons, or something," Emily lied. "I just need to... I don't know, poke BEHIND what I'm seeing, turn it around. There has to be a way. If Winter could see hundreds of years into the future clearly enough to scheme her way into the mess she left us in--"
"Emily... Susie's getting worried."
That was the magical word. Emily closed the lidless eye... closed all her eyes, for that matter, sinking back into her rocking chair throne. Tired and weary old bones. Which was absurd, considering she was thirty-three years old, hardly ready for hip replacements and arthritis medication.
...her thirties. She was an adult. She was a mother. She was responsible for keeping an entire people focused on the future. When the hell did that happen, anyway? Just yesterday she was a wild teenager on the lam from a sham witching school, trying to keep herself alive and keep the people around her from dying horribly if at all possible. One eye blink later and she was a responsible adult. Maybe the strange relationship the Faerie Queen has with time was to blame. Or maybe she was just tired. And hungry.
Probably the latter, given she was already noshing down on her peanut butter and jelly sandwich before realizing it. Children's comfort food, for a child long lost. So she could focus on the child who was here.
"I think I'd better spend some time with her tonight," Emily decided. "She barely knew the victims, but she likes the Orbitals. She feels the same sense of loss they do. She's kind in that way... even if it means suffering when she didn't even have to."
"She's got witching academy homework you could help with," Scout suggested.
"I don't get how Susie can be the living incarnation of Spring itself and not be very good at magic spells," Emily mused.
"Said yourself, spells are different from that. The crown, you just... do things. They happen. Spells, you have to train and develop your skills. ...it'd be good to be a normal family tonight. Tomorrow's funeral service is going to be draining."
"You've been a rock through all this. Don't think I'm not appreciative of that. My lovely stoic warrior spirit husband..."
"Soldiers mourn a different way," Scout suggested. "I'll miss them, but mostly, I'm proud. They did what was right. Reports say Ono and Esrever were clear, but went back in to try and save Kas. Even if it didn't work, even if we lost all three, you don't leave a man behind if you have a chance to bring them back. The Summerlions have suggested granting an honorary title to them, for that. Which is something, considering their distaste for all Winterfae."
Emily nodded along, in agreement. "Absolutely. Get the wheels turning on that, for Esrever. Uh. For Ono, though, check with Una first. Make sure there's no odd Orbital cultural thing about honor titles from other races. I don't want to offend her... anyone, I mean. Orbitals in general."
"Doubt it'll be an issue. ...you could ask her yourself, though."
The last of the sandwich hovered, as Emily froze over the very thought.
"I don't... I'm not sure I'm ready for that," she admitted. "After all, I'm the one who failed her. I didn't foresee her father's death."
"Nobody's expecting your inheritance to be reliable, Emily. Una doesn't blame you. ...in fact, she asked me if you could do her a favor, tomorrow."
Black roses were the traditional flower for a Summerfae funeral; they signified death-in-life, a thing to be feared and respected. In contrast, white roses were the traditional flower for a Winterfae funeral; they signified life-in-death, a thing to be admired and cherished. Both were in abundance, to honor Esrever's status in the Winter Court, and the Orbital's home in the heart of Summer's lands.
But Orbitals... well, they had no specific flora or fauna appropriate for the passing of life. The closest thing the Orbitals had to a funeral was an obligatory day free from duties to construct a memory palace in honor of those who passed, a collection of their personal recollections, media artifacts, and relevant community data. All that they were, all their work, all their community bonds, all that was noteworthy about them was compiled into a simple and tasteful holographic projection cube.
At the funeral, these cubes were arranged in front of freestanding projected images of the departed. Yew took on the responsibility of constructing one for Kas, using the files sent to her as well as extensive documentation of the vacations they took together. Una gathered together a fine memory palace for her father, which certainly had minutes and notes regarding his political work, but was dominated by media... photographs and videos of his family life. Of Una, Ono, and the long departed Lea.
For balance, Esrever's monument stood between the two Orbital cubes. His was a cube as well, to signify his close ties to the Orbital community, but one made of completely flawless polished mirrors and given a permanent levitation charm by Archmagus Elriel. The mirrors would never stain, would never shatter. It would be an eternal reminder of the one who never set foot in the material world, living forever in borrowed reflections.
The gathered sat in a semicircle around the monuments. Weddings were done in full circle, to represent continuity; in funerals, the circle was broken. Friends and family sat at the forefront, but in Esrever's case, his only family was represented by a full-length mirror, wheeled into position before a chair... one which showed the splintered and hazy image of Anu, his beloved, now stranded on the surface of the moon. Even if she wasn't fractured in ways even the Archmagus couldn't fathom by the death of Esrever, she would have been too distant to properly see or hear. And yet, there she was.
Three simple and short eulogies were delivered.
Scout, who still held favor in the Winter Court from his legendary days as Lady Winter's chosen hound, spoke for Esrever.
"We asked of him on a perpetual basis, and never once did he complain," he stated. "He was giving of himself and asked nothing in return. His loyalty to the Faerie Court was absolute. We took that for granted, calling on him to be a confidential operative, a secured escort, and eventually along with his beloved wife, the backbone of Orbital salvation. He accepted every burden we put on his shoulders. For that we owe him a steep debt we can never repay. He will be given the honor he was due long ago, and named both an honorary Knight of Winter and Knight of Summer. It's a title that hasn't been used in generations, given to each queen's finest champion. We will bury that title with him, so that he can be the end of the tradition, and remembered for all time."
Yew, leaning heavily on her companion Tillman for support, spoke briefly for Kas.
"Kas saved all our lives. All of us, at the cost of her own life. She would've considered it a perfectly reasonable trade," she said. "She was always thinking of others first, even at the expense of herself. It took my friend a long time to learn how to balance her life against her work. And it's not fair that... it's just not..."
If she had anything else to say planned, it was cut short, as Tillman escorted her away in tears.
But then... much to everyone's surprise, the one to speak for Primary Councilman Ono was Emily Moonthistle.
"Una asked me to speak on her father's behalf," Emily explained, up front. "She felt that what needed to be said would carry a bit further if it was coming from me. The fact that she feels that way is proof enough: I wouldn't be here if not for Ono. None of us would be. I mean... dammit. Look, fifteen years ago, the lot of us were kids who stumbled through one of the strangest episodes in human history and came out the other side as the heirs to the Second Age. But nobody had to give us the time of day, after that. Nobody had to believe in us. They could've laughed us off, brushed us aside.
"But like the Lady Winter, Ono did believe in us. He thought we could pull this off, and so he threw his weight behind us. He supported our efforts at outreach into the communities of the Orbitals and Eastusa, he finagled the Council, he drew up concerns, he made things happen. He lent skill and expertise to the initial years, building up New Orleans. He encouraged efforts to find the new power source and enabled Kas to make the discoveries she did. He worked with Eastusa to fortify their decaying infrastructure, to keep them going strong. He was a sitting member of the United Nations, an organization he helped us found.
"Ono didn't have to do any of those things; the Orbitals could've closed their doors, fixed their engines, and gone on their merry way. After all, their fleet is still out there, somewhere in the black. Instead, #A076 stayed on our world, and followed Ono's passionate idealism to help heal the wounds that drove the nations of Earth apart.
"All of us owe him for that. Faerie, Orbitals, humans, everybody on the planet. Without him and people like him, we'd still be scratching away in our isolated little corners of the world, yelling over our fences at our neighbors, and quietly falling apart.
"He didn't HAVE to take on the problems his ancestors caused. He did anyway, because no matter where you hail from or what shape your ears are, there's such a thing as true moral strength. He did right by us and for that, I'm going to be eternally grateful," she concluded.
With words spoken for the dead, there was nothing more that needed to be done. But because Emily didn't want their passing to be a one-and-done fifteen-minute ceremony, there would be punch and pie.
A funeral reception was a decidedly more somber affair than a wedding reception, and yet, there was some mirth to be found.
By the sandwich table.
"She kept calling me up every hour or so," Yew was explaining. "Like, 'Have you heard this? How did I not notice its well-constructed metaphorical text before?'. Poor girl never really connected with pop songs about breakups before, and here she was, enduring a full block of them on that music stream..."
"I really do wish I'd gotten to know her better," Emily admitted. "We crossed paths a few times, but just on an official basis. Like last week, when she was asking about magic and dimensional shifting..."
"Yes, ahh... about that... I've made a decision. I want you to have Kas's memory palace," Yew said.
"What? I thought those box things go to friends and family..."
"Oh, I already made myself a copy of it. I know it's a bit tacky to do so, but I think in Kas's case, she wouldn't have minded at all. It'd be more important that her work ends up in the right hands. She was asking Tillman and I all about magical integration with science for the last month, and if anybody can see to it that this finds the right ears in the Faerie Court, it'd be you. Besides, maybe you could get to know her this way, right?"
"I, uh... thank you. Thanks. I mean, I'm honored," Emily admitted. "I doubt I'll be able to make heads or tails of her technospeak but I'll be sure to browse it some."
In a darkened corner.
"You spoke well today."
Scout nodded in thanks to his darker-skinned companion.
The Winterhound named Taamusi toyed with a weenie on a stick. Meat impaled on a weapon. And yet, distasteful. He ate it anyway, to show thanks for the animal that gave its life and to take its offered power.
"The others have asked me to speak on their behalf," Taamusi said, in his typically soft and serious tones. "They want to accompany you on the hunt."
"Esrever was murdered, yes? We have seen the news reports. They say what happened was impossible, that the Orbital powers should not have been capable of bursting. This was sabotage. Our brother was slain by one who is now a blood enemy of the Winter Court. Blood calls for blood."
"Don't know that for certain," Scout pointed out. "Scientists say a capacitor failure is just highly implausible, not impossible..."
"One failure, perhaps. One thousand failures is suspect. A member of the Winter Court, one of such high honors, has been murdered. There must be a hunt. It is piqujait, that which has to be done. Even his widow has expressed the need for exacting justice."
"Anu? She hasn't said a word since the accident--"
"The murder. And no, she has not. But I saw her eyes, through the winter haze in her mirror today. She is filled with a hate that will one day ground itself like lightning from a clear sky. If she could speak, perhaps she could say why, but... until then, there should be a hunt. It would do me great honor to be involved, Scout. ...it would do me dishonor to carry on with gentle words like accident when you know the truth."
At this, Scout cursed internally. He showed no outward expression, as always, but... in the past, he wouldn't have minced truths. Was his default stance to take the safe political route, as a noble king would do? Concerning.
"We... have evidence that the conspiracy wasn't broken. The ancient Orbital conspiracy that tried to destroy this world and did destroy the World of Faerie," he explained, lowering his whisper to a sub-whisper. "Even after being exposed to the rest of the Orbital fleet, they've had enough power to support the Braid of Dawn and the Federalists. Their goal is to drive wedges between the races. If this were a murder, it would've been them; they've hunted Kas before, since she helped unite the Orbitals with the rest of the world. But this isn't the right time, Taamusi. We've no clear prey and no line of sight to the target. I promise you... when the time comes, even if I'm no longer a Winterhound... I'll take part in the Wild Hunt. And so will you."
Far from discussion of vengeance, the survivors of those who would be avenged felt the day wearing thin.
Una flexed and unflexed her knees, trying to work some blood back into her ankles. Standing around all day, acting as an informal greeter for the funeral and receiver of countless condolences... it was hard work. And as the hours piled on, she was finding it harder and harder to adopt a grateful but subdued mourner's smile. Only with Nelliwyn at her side was the experience tolerable; the elven woman in a black Summer Court mourner's dress, while she wore Orbital silver. There weren't any 'black' clothes in the universal Orbital laundry hamper, it seemed.
"It's selfish of me, isn't it?" she pondered aloud.
"Hmm?" Nelliwyn asked.
"This is my declining stamina levels talking, so please forgive the emotional insensitivity of the statement," Una warned. "But... part of me wishes that Father hadn't gone back to try and save Kas. The city was doomed, Kas made her choice, and he didn't have much of a chance at saving her. If he hadn't, Father and Esrever would be alive today..."
"If your father hadn't tried, he wouldn't be your father," Nel stated, to turn that around.
"I suppose not. His Optimism was unshakable. ...my mother might've chastised him for being so impractical. But both of them are gone, and for what they believed in. And I find it hard to maintain those high ideals when all I have today is bitterness, my love. Hence my ponderance that such thoughts are utterly selfish and unbecoming..."
The woman at her side leaned against her, offering a comforting and light embrace.
"Don't punish yourself for your wishes," Nel insisted. "You know they're foolish wishes, but we're only mortals. We're entitled to be fools, from time to time..."
"Do you ever worry if you were foolish to marry me?" Una wondered. "Elves have one and a half times the lifespan of humans. It is inevitable that you will face a day like today, in time. And without me here to help you through it."
"That's silly, Una. Even on that day, you'll be here. Just as your father is here, in spirit," Nel suggested, with a smile. "I'll mourn, and be sad, and likely sour. But I'll remember the good times, as well. The good times are worth the sadness at the end."
And meanwhile, off near some potted plants which had gotten suspiciously tall, another conversation was sort of happening. Although the girls didn't feel as chatty and merry as usual.
They were all of varying years, varying sizes. Certainly varying backgrounds. But one thread kept them together over the years... they were the next generation of the ones currently hosting this funeral. The children of important people. That meant they saw a lot of each other whether they liked it or not, so it was better to be friends than indifferent.
"This is gonna be us in like a bunch of years, isn't it?" Princess Susie Moonthistle, age thirteen, asked. "I'll be where Mom is, shaking hands and being sad, 'cause being queen isn't all that great some days..."
The shortest of the four gave a little snort. "It's much ado about nothing," Lady Camille Runeblade-Gearhaus of the noble House of Gears, age nine, declared. "They fell in battle. That means we should be having a great big party! I don't get why everybody's weepy 'n stuff. This Esrever guy was a great hero!"
"Doesn't matter if he was rescuing orphans from a burning building while simultaneously fighting off killbot hordes and balancing the national budget, which is something I actually saw Captain Capitalism do at one point," Carrie Lane a.k.a. Astro Gal, perpetually age fifteen, said. "When someone dies, it's always sad. ...my mother died while defeating the worst bad guy ever, and got a great funeral. But I was sad about it for a long time."
A sneeze, and wiping on the sleeve. "Don't really remember my dad," Maria Morales, age sixteen, offered. "So I don't know what it's like to lose anyone. ...barely know what it's like to KNOW anyone, what with Mom constantly moving us around. I wish she never took that stupid job from Mr. Petersen. I'm supposed to be dating and going to parties and having fun, and instead I'm moving from school to school every few months! I mean, when's the last time I got to see all my friends like this?"
"Funny how these days, we only get to hang out at weddings and funerals," Susie said.
"And birthday parties!" Camille reminded. "You were at my eighth birthday and you got me a dolly. It was an inadequate dolly but I said thank you anyway because that's what friends do. And I got a glamour amulet from Aunt Nel, and a book of puzzles from Father, and Mother enchanted a bouncy castle to play in! You forgot that party already? I'd be offended if you weren't one of my best friends so instead I shall forgive you because you're my friend!"
"Uh... thanks, Cammy--"
"Lady Camille!" the pint-sized carbon copy of her mother insisted.
"Lady Camille, right. ...hey. You guys wanna bail on this?" Susie asked. "I don't think Mom'd mind. I could use the plants to cover our escape. And speaking of gifts, I got some awesome stuff for Christmas; Nel got me a singing parakeet, and Una got me some weird robot building kit... oh! And video games. There's one where you have all these colored blocks and you have to match them and rotate things and they go 'poof!' and then I totally dominate the leaderboards and I'm all like 'Yeah, in your face!' and the stupid boys in voice chat say things that Mom says I'm never allowed to say and it's really, really funny."
Cammy, who approved of merciless domination and mockery of one's enemies, insisted they immediately depart and wage puzzle war.
Before they could go, Maria felt a familiar hand on her shoulder. And knew it was over.
"Sorry, guys," she said. "I gotta go. Have fun, okay? Oh, and message me the name of that game, I wanna get a copy so I can play with you online later."
The three said their goodbyes, and vanished behind a row of ferns, which tangled themselves up behind them to allow for a discreet exit.
"...so where are we going this time?" Maria asked, glumly.
"Back to Seattle," Elisa Morales said. "It's not safe here. I'm sorry we can't stay longer so you can play with your friends, but--"
"Yeah, yeah, duty calls. I know the drill, Mom," Maria said, rolling her eyes. "At least we're moving back to Seattle. I like Seattle. For a bunch of nanobots, they're okay people. And I was getting sick and tired of San Antonio..."
"San Antonio's bad for your health. Too hot and dry and dusty," Elisa suggested. "Now, c'mon. Mr. Petersen's got the car warmed up. I'll get you some elvish takeout on the way back to the Quantum Mermaid."
Hours later, and the event wound to a close. Everything was said that needed to be said. High Fae nobles had finished doing the mingling and game playing and dealmaking required of any official gathering; funeral or not, they had standards to live up to. The visiting Orbitals who didn't depart for their homes in Eastusa and the Fringe were taken in by various hotels around town, as they had nowhere else to go. They were now officially a people without a homeland, as much as a city-sized spaceship could've been considered a homeland.
After the cleanup, after kids were tucked in, after everything that needed doing on that day... they could get to business.
Emily's situation room hadn't been used in some time. The corners of the globe had largely been explored; representatives from all friendly nations had been invited to the United Nations long ago. There wasn't much need for her anachronauts program, which never went beyond a working title, anyway. If she ever used this room, she typically was here alone to review documents #A076 sent to the manor house, as her holographic display table was the only way to view their files.
But today, the silver conference table was packed. The old guard was sitting in, to discuss what would happen next.
Emily Moonthistle, unlikeliest Queen of Faerie. Scout, who had gone from human to Winterhound to human to Summerlion. Jesse Runeblade, who found her true calling in magic and battle. Gilbert Gearhaus, immigrant from foreign lands, and master of the odder sorts of technology. Una point zero one, an Orbital who never found one specific role in life, and instead became a sort of Ombudsman between her people and the rest of the world. And Nelliwyn Myfanwy, ascending from slavery to quietly become one of the premier illusionists of her time.
Despite all their talents, all the adventures they had been on, all the cleverness they had to develop to survive to this day... none of them had an inspired plan for what to do now.
"We've got a dozen shamans and technicians trapped on the moon, along with a seriously wounded Anu," Emily recapped. "We can evacuate the staff of Arcology Luna #01 using the emergency Apollo-II shuttles, but we're not sure if Anu is strong enough to be retrieved with Esrever gone. Also, the shuttles aren't capable of repeated trips to continue the solar energy program. Governor Kennedy says that NASA can probably get a slow-boat-to-China going, but it may take months, or years. Until then, there's no way to recycle the remaining Mass Capacitors. President Waller's already calling me asking for projections for how long before the Orbital tech Eastusa's been relying on starts shutting down, and I've got no idea. Una?"
"I... ah, I think..." Una mumbled, flipping through files on her data pad. "I... have no idea. I'm sorry. I didn't want to bother any of the Engineers after the funeral, but I can get an estimate for you tomorrow. Kas would know off the top of her head, but..."
Emily didn't groan. At least not outwardly. No need to make Una feel any worse; this was outside their control, all of them.
"Let's assume it's not going to be pretty. Before the recycling project, I think I recall that #A076 only had like a year and a half of power left... and that was with everything they had at the time. A lot of which went kaboom, leaving behind whatever happened to be outside the Arcology already. ...yeah. Waller's gonna hate this."
"Waller is a problematic person," Jesse commented. "The lout asks for more and more help from us, then turns around and preaches isolationism and racism to his followers. I say he's finally getting what he wanted -- no more spacemen and no more elves in his business. It's proper justice that he gets what he craved so much."
"And it breaks down what we've been working so hard to build: a global community," Emily reminded. "Even with Waller being a douchebag we at least had established ties between all three of our peoples thanks to the recycled capacitors and increased trade. If this is the... the, ah... dammit, what metaphor am I looking for... what's that stupid party game where you yank out little wooden bricks and whoever topples the stack loses and then it's annoying to clean up? It's that thing. We could be looking at that thing. That would be bad."
Una shrugged, helplessly. "There isn't much we can do, though. Kas couldn't find a replacement for the Esrever-Anu conduit. Until NASA comes up with something... that's it. We have what we have, until it's gone."
Admitting defeat wasn't something that came easily to this group. But re-solving the biggest problem they'd faced in a decade with zero expertise on hand simply wasn't happening. Emily pushed it aside, for now.
"We're going to carry on like we've always carried on," she decided. "We fill the gaps, work the problem, but otherwise get on with our lives. We've got responsibilities and duties to attend to that existed before this disaster, and will exist after. So, tomorrow, Scout and I are still going to New York to talk to Benny the Bastard. If anything, getting that contract is twice as important, now. We'll contact Esrever and let him know we'll need him to help with the transport, as planned, and..."
She'd said it before realizing what she said. The reminder hung in the air, heavy and unpleasant.
"...and we'll find some other means. We've got Faerie contacts who can make an impromptu stone circle in New York, if need be," she corrected. "Una, I'm guessing you'll want to step in as the Orbital ambassador to the U.N.--"
"Ahhh... that's... not how it works," Una spoke up.
"Why not? You're ridiculously qualified. You've been the interface between all three camps for a while now on all sorts of projects."
"But I'm not really in charge of anything, Emily. I was appointed by my father to head up those official Concerns, but... now, well... it's up to the Council. The remaining members of the Council," she added. "They have to decide who's the new Primary Councilman, and who's the new ambassador. I mean... you could put my name forward, but..."
For a moment, Emily wondered if Una needed to go to the bathroom or something, they way she was fidgeting.
Then two things dawned on her:
One, she was getting way too used to autocratic rule. Emily wanted something to happen, so it happened. If she wanted someone to go to New York and play ambassador, they were there by morning. She was a queen and a goddess and her people hopped when she said jump. She had been saying jump quite often lately, compared to the first days when she was terrified at the idea of being conscripted to run this circus.
Two, Una didn't want to go to New York and play ambassador.
Of course. She had her own life; she had a cottage in the city, she had a wife, she even had an adoptive daughter. They had roots here, and after years of jumping when Emily ordered them to jump into danger and chaos, maybe, just maybe, they'd done enough. Not that Una would've seen it that way, or want to see it that way, but...
"I'm sure the Council will pick a fine representative, no matter who he or she is," Emily said, to take the pressure off her. "And you'll continue to find ways to serve your people, regardless of who's calling the shots. ...okay. I think we've done what little we can do tonight. After Scout and I get back from New York, we can--"
And then her holographic display table died.
The familiar soft hum of the Orbital tech pitched itself lower and lower, and then was too muted to hear. The touch-sensitive control panel winked off, glowing keys and buttons vanishing into thin air. The table had run out of power, and shut itself down.
They hadn't even been using the table for anything. It was just instinct; walk into the room, turn on the table, just in case you need it. She'd let the thing run down the batteries and hadn't even bothered putting its last moments to good use.
"This... is not symbolic of anything," she declared openly, because if you wish something were true, sometimes it was. Except when it wasn't.
There were three Fae stone circles in New York City tied into the henge network. Two were legitimate, used by trading houses to move Fae goods into the city; former President Petersen's lifting of the ban on most Fae artifacts had kept, even through President Waller's reforms to the reforms. The third was a smuggler's circle, but Emily was too tired from a restless night to bother doling out punishments after finding out about that one.
The noble Queen of Fae and her honor guard husband ended up taking a taxi to the United Nations, instead of simply emerging from the mirror in the Faerie Court's diplomatic offices. The taxi smelt like vodka and puke. Seemed that the local sports team had put the balls through the goals and touched them down more than some other sports team or something, because the city was still cleaning up from the apparently legendary victory party.
Frankly, the mundane form of transport was suiting Emily just fine. She felt bitter and angry at herself, for all the pride and power she'd been tossing around, and having a good portion of it jerked away was good for building character. Using the henge network? Paying ridiculous sums for a taxi ride that hit every single red light in Manhattan? Probably for the best.
...the alternative, after all, was to shift into a sunbeam of purest summer light and be there in seconds, wafting in with a warm breeze. Or she could become an icy gale, chilling those she passed by down to the bone, filling them with a brief moment of dread. Tap one crown, or tap the other. Reach for more power to replace the power you had, embrace the godhead, and lose a little more of the ordinary girl you once were in the process...
Vodka and puke were the way to go, in comparison.
While she stewed in self-induced glumness, Scout remained expressionless. Her husband could be a hard read, sometimes. In private, he could smile and even laugh... but in his role as her personal champion, he was all business. Even when more or less alone with her.
(More or less, because even though they rode together with the cabbie... a pair of Winterhounds had been following them the whole way, from rooftop to rooftop, keeping them in sight at all times. A phalanx of Summerlions was way too high-key for this business trip, but nobody had to know that they were quite secure thanks to the pair of assassins lurking just a shadow's edge away.)
"Maybe we should've brought Susie," Emily considered, as the taxi lurched around, starting and stopping between every intersection. "She loved it last time we brought her to the Big Apple. Even if she was disappointed there wasn't, in fact, a big apple tree..."
Scout shook his head. "She's got classes today. And, frankly, she's safer at the manor house, surrounded by Lions of Summer, than she'd be out here. After all... the disaster may have been premeditated. And we know what targets those enemies favor."
"Ugh. I really don't want to believe that's true, Scout..."
"We lost the privilege of believing things a few days ago, Emily. Now there is only what there is," he spoke, evenly.
"I just keep thinking about her. Worrying about her. With everything going nuts, I just... I feel better when she's in eyesight," Emily admitted. "I know she has a future, despite the supposed lack of a future we all have. Feels like everything's going to be all right, when I can see her smile..."
"We'll be back by dinner," Scout promised. "Assuming, of course, negotiations with Benny go well."
"That's not an assumption I can believe in," Emily complained.
This was the end product of all their hard work.
Long ago, when the Queens of Faerie had dumped two loads of burden on her head, she decided she was going to make the most of it. She'd seen the end result of years of war and misunderstanding; Fae and human at each other's throats, and the Orbitals blissfully unaware of the chaos they'd seeded on the Earth. The only way through the mess was to get people talking. Talking proper.
Nana Moonthistle had a way of making folks who had disagreements talk proper. Specifically, she'd beat them about the head and shoulders with a stick until they agreed to sit down and talk proper. Fortunately, Emily didn't need to provide the stick; the world had done that already, pushing everybody right to the brink of survival. They maintained and scraped and got by, but nobody was prospering. Not until folks agreed to work together, to talk it out, and rebuild the world community.
The United Nations was the reason she started the anachronauts in the first place. Find your neighbors, make connections to them, get them back on the map. Get them to the table and talk proper. Granted that the original United Nations wasn't wholly effective, from the books Emily had read on the subject, but it was at least a start. Without that start, they'd have nowhere to go.
Every nation that signed onto the charter was allowed to send up to a dozen representatives. (That number would have to be lowered as more nations were uncovered, but for now, it was needed to make the building look more occupied than it was.) As a result, as they stepped into the lobby of the building with their sneaky Winterhound guards slipping through the shadows cast behind them, they saw a wild assortment of people.
The next session wasn't going to start for a few hours, so representatives were busy 'relaxing' in the lobby. Of course, this was also part of the constant dialogue that kept the nations interacting with each other -- deals were still being struck and connections made, even in a casual environment. In one corner, Orbital representatives were discussing the changing guard with Eastusa diplomats in sharp-looking suits. Even sharper garments could be seen on a trio of ambassadors from the British Empire... Victorian finery was a few centuries out of date, but had become a deep tradition in their lands, one which came with them across the pond.
The fringe players were represented, as well. Japan, after a bit of an initial miscommunication involving a cow, had eventually decided to send representatives. Of course, which of its nomadic kaiju-hunting tribes got to send someone was constantly in flux, and depended on who held power. Their grouping kept to itself, mostly consisting of serious-looking men staring angrily at each other. Similarly, China had three kingdoms, all claiming to be the true seat of God's chosen people -- and their rifts were so deep that their bureaucrat underlings had to coordinate to ensure all three were never in the same room at the same time, to avoid losing face.
Strangely, the Kingdom of Atlantis only had a single representative, despite being one of the most critical players in the game. Nobody could safely travel over Kraken-infested waters without Grey Box technology and the official authorization of Atlantis. They had become more and more lenient to international shipping, provided the sanctity of the waters remained undisturbed... and had sent a single man to make those arrangements. A fish-man, really, in a full-body water bubble, which maintained a few inches' depth of ocean water around him at all times by some unknown means. His real name was unpronounceable in human tongues, but apparently Benny the Broker could say it with ease. ...which pointed to the problem Emily was facing right now, but it was one that could wait.
Finally... there was the representative from Moscow. Years ago, they had reached out to the odd city of Moscow, which seemed to be a flawless 21st century copy of itself, much like NanoSeattle. But on arrival, the residents simply screamed at the newcomers. And screamed. And screamed. Without breathing, without moving, without rest. They only went back to normal after being left alone.
And yet, here was a bald man in a red power tie, hailing from Moscow. They hadn't even sent an invitation to the city, and somehow he knew where to show up as the first diplomats began arriving, years ago.
He still screamed, of course. Constantly. His jaw hanging open, eternally howling into the wind. A Fae illusionist had to tag along with him during working hours, muting his screams, to keep ambassadors from getting serious hearing damage. The Moscow man didn't seem to mind, and attended sessions and meetings and special committees regularly, listening attentively, seeming quite content in his role. He filed dockets and papers, all filled out in nothing but vowels, which no linguist had been able to translate. He even took the podium sometimes to say a few words. Well, one word. Which was "AAAAAAAA." And then he'd sit down, satisfied with the points he hadn't made.
Into this chaos and chatter and diplomatic discussion came Fae royalty. And they were still the least important people in the room, since they had nominated someone to speak in their stead.
Emily was used to appointing her friends to positions of power, but her favorite old witching teacher had already been appointed Archmagus, and the inspirational governor of the Transitional State of Florida was too busy governing a mixed Faeusa/Eastusa territory. There was Nel, but she was busy working on Orbital-Fae liaison duties with Una. So, she had no idea who to nominate to the United Nations to speak on behalf of the Fae, and had actually consulted the Noble Fae houses for suggestions.
Which was for the best, really. If Emily was getting too used to the nepotism of pushing her friends and family towards glory, reaching beyond her immediate circle could only be a healthy act. Plus, if anybody knew how to find the best schemer and hand shaker and schmoozer, it'd be the Noble Fae houses.
They chose Puck.
The name alone nearly made Emily reject him out of hand. She agreed to meet with him anyway, to get an honest evaluation of the man.
Her evaluation was that he was the both the most and least honest man she'd ever met. He wore a perpetual smile, spoke with a silver tongue, and knew the arts of flattery inside and out. He'd managed to schmooze his way into having deep favor from the Noble Houses, to the point where he became a nobleman without actually having a house of his own, just from the sheer weight of the debt he'd finagled out of them.
His real name wasn't even Puck; he'd adopted the moniker in honor of the Pucks before him, and the Pucks before them. But unlike the trickster of the bard's tales, he was steadfast in one regard: Loyalty. He was loyal to the Faerie Crowns, and had even run errands for both seasonal monarchs, during the years of strife and madness.
He was honest when it would be most ironic to be honest, treacherous when it would provide him the most gain, pleasant and gentle when it was called for, and brutally sneaky when he sensed a reward lying unclaimed. He could be the world's finest thief, if he didn't take finer delight in earning everything he had, by various screwball but legitimate means.
And, most importantly, he would provide the perfect counterattack to England's decision to make Benny the Broker their ambassador.
"My queen, and the good sir Scout!" Puck greeted, walking right up to them, weaving through the lobby crowds like a snake through the grass. "And the two of whom I will pretend I didn't see. Greetings to you, greetings to you! I'm so glad you could come--"
"Where's Benny? I want to get this over with," Emily said instead of hello.
"No smalltalk, no springberry wine, no conversation? As you like it -- Puck likes to play, but he can be businesslike when the trader's bell rings," the elf said, tugging at the lapels of his fine white suit. "My delightfully infernally angelic counterpart is in his offices, awaiting our arrival. Although I should warn, he is in a mood that is like unto granite. Stoic and unmovable. Even granite can be worn away by sands in the wind, so given time, I can ply him..."
"We don't have time. We need to make this deal now, more than ever."
"Yes, yes. The unpleasantness of the silver city's disappearance," Puck said, non-playfully. "I was saddened to hear of its passing. Both on a personal level, as I've made many a fine friend there, and on a professional level, as it's quite the game changer. I understand. I fear we'll be talking to the granite wall today, but... needs be when the devil drives. Come along, come along."
The most lavish offices in the United Nations belonged to the delegation from England. The British Empire had, once Benny forced the issue on them, joined the world stage reluctantly... but in time, and with his counsel, they came to see this for what it was: an opportunity.
Eastusa was isolating itself, under President Waller's regime. It was even having trouble with Westusa, which had started to feel like its own nation, in more than just name. America may have dominated politics in earlier centuries, but this would be a new century, one which England could embrace with all the industrial might they had used to dominate their previous home world. And so, they tapped Benny the Broker as their representative, gave him a squadron of Brokers-in-training to work with, and unleashed him upon New York.
The office was a statement. It told visitors that England was here to stay, and in a big way; it resembled a lavish penthouse more than the four walls and filing cabinets other nations had. Supplicants had to walk up three steps to reach the oaken desk of the Broker, and beg him for considerations.
Emily wasn't in a begging mood.
Particularly not when Benny made a show of being too busy to talk at first, raising a single finger to make them wait, while he signed documents with his other hand.
He'd left his net radio stream on, playing some traditional British classical music... a light waltz, something you might leave spinning lazily on a victrola in the corner of your study. It was proper for an office of the Empire to be dignified at all times, and music set a certain dignity to proceedings.
"And... there," he said, with a flourish of his pen. "Done. Emily! I'm glad you could make it. I haven't seen you in some time; far too long. You know, Prince Edward and my sister still want to have dinner with you some time at Buckingham. If you want, I could talk to Atlantis about putting you ahead of line for travel clearance..."
"I think we could put that to better use than dinner and a movie," Emily suggested.
"Right, your... hang on, I have it here somewhere..." the Broker said, sorting through papers on his desk. He pulled out the file from exactly where he knew it was. "Your proposal. An investment of Faerie steel, in exchange for industrial machinery to create some of our famous tillers, tractors, and agricultural apparatuses."
Puck stepped in. Not literally; it wouldn't be proper to stand in front of his queen. But he did interject.
"The Faerie Court has a rich farming tradition, but it was never designed for mass production," he explained. "It's as I told you over drinks, my fine counterpart -- ripe fruits, delicious vegetables, and the most succulent meats you will ever taste! But... only enough to suit our needs, not the needs of an entire continent, coast to coast. The old ways aren't quite up to that challenge. We have the fertile lands; Eastusa and Westusa are pushed to the coastlines, and the Fringe can only generate so much. We intend to become the breadbasket of America."
Benny nodded along. He knew all the talking points already, of course. "And you think you can somehow mesh Fae farming tradition with the ruthless efficiency of British agriculture?" he asked. "Hey, if you think you can swing that, more power to you. I suspect you'll get a foul ball rather than a home run, but I'm not the one making that call."
A thin trickle of relief poured into Emily's heart. She refused to feel a great swell of relief, knowing who she was talking to, but this was a good sign.
"I'm glad you understand our situation," she said, with her best smile. "So, what we need from you is the machinery to get the Faerie Court up to the industrial age. We're willing to pay in exchange for--"
A hand, held up. To stop her.
"I didn't say I was agreeing to the deal," Benny the Broker noted. "True, we could use Faerie steel. It's a terrific substance, able to bend the laws of physics in useful ways. But... what we could use more than that, I think, is the Eastusa food market. Tell me, why should we enable you to feed a nation, when we could ship our OWN food to them instead?"
"Uh... because it'd cost a ridiculous amount of money and take a lot of work to ship massive amounts of food overseas in your airships?" Emily pointed out. "Seriously, Benny? You'd be soaking in loss if you tried to feed America all by yourself like that."
"Not if we charge enough to make up the difference and turn a profit. Delicacies from the farms of England is terrific marketing spin -- and with our agreements with Atlantis, we could keep a continuous stream of food coming into the shores of Eastusa, to keep up with demand," Benny illustrated. "Sure, they'd have to pay far more than they'd have to pay for your crops. But when you're the only game in town, well, you pay the piper, don't you?"
The thin trickle of relief shut off immediately, its valve twisted shut.
"Benny, Eastusa is about to hit serious skids when the Orbital tech they've been revitalizing themselves with turns off," Emily said. "They'd barely be able to afford your prices..."
"So, they pinch some pennies. It beats starving. And since you can't provide for them--"
"Only because you won't give us the technology we need!"
"Why should England help out a competitor?" Benny asked. "Emily, you don't get it. This is how the Empire's worked for centuries; it allows no rivals. It plies every bit of leverage it has to push them out of markets, to take their lands, to turn them into More Empire. And why invade when you can just buy them out? ... yeah. I know it's a dick move, I know my sister wouldn't approve, and I know that look of reproach in your eyes. But I was hired to do a job here, and this is how it gets done. Sorry. No deal."
"Of course. Why should I have expected you to do right by your neighbors?" Emily asked/accused. "We only enabled you to find your long-lost sister and, oh, redeem yourself in the eyes of the Lord. I guess asking to buy a few tractors is totally out of the question, huh? Benny, I realize this is damn near impossible for you, but put selfishness aside for a minute and think long term. This world's future survival depends on us standing together, not--"
None of them had hurled a glass to the ground in rage, of course. The shards that scattered from the edge of Benny's desk previously belonged to a snow globe, a bit of tourist kitsch some diplomat had given him a few days previously. Its sparkle-loaded water was seeping through the carpet, and down the three steps from Benny's dais...
He hadn't pushed it. It had pushed itself, from the rumbling of the building.
From the rumbling of the ground, of the entire city of New York. A rumble that was growing louder, to the point where Benny's classical music stream had automatically turned its volume up to compensate. The song playing was, of course, something operatic and ominous. Of course.
A great shadow cast over the streets beyond the U.N. building, before they could see what was casting it. It went on, and on, before the edge of the thing came into view through the office windows.
An Orbital Arcology.
An Orbital Arcology was now hovering over Central Park.
It was smaller than #A076, but that wasn't the first difference Emily noted. This one was armor-plated, rather than smooth and reflective. A flat and tapered great metal cylinder rather than a traditional flying saucer or disk.
Periodically placed around its surface were logos. The Orbitals she knew didn't go for branding, but apparently these ones did.
They were rising stars.
Benny's radio stream ceased playing music, and switched to the Emergency Broadcast System.
The Arcology was kind enough to wait for everyone to run screaming away from Central Park before it landed. It crushed a good portion of the trees and bike paths and such in the process, but having it touch down rather than hover ominously was a tiny, tiny bit of comfort.
Within minutes of its arrival, the city-ship had been surrounded by Frontliners. Eastusa hadn't given up on its military after peace with the Fae was declared; if anything, the brief scare of invasion by the British Empire caused a ramp-up in recruitment. City defense was an art they had perfected over two centuries, and even if the enemy was already inside the gates, they were on hand and ready to contain the threat.
If it was a threat. So far, the ship had done nothing but sit there, looking like a gleaming steel fortress. No obvious weapon turrets or other armaments had pointed menacingly in anyone's direction. It seemed content to squat down in Central Park for a good half hour, biding its time, waiting for the Frontliners to set up camp...
But that wasn't the only Arcology.
The diplomats, bureaucrats, personal assistants, staffers, janitors, security guards, and an unlucky gaggle of school kids on a field trip were gathered in the great assembly hall of the United Nations. Someone had set up a large Orbital-designed video stream receiver above the speaker's podium, and tuned it into one of Eastusa's news networks.
"Repeating our top story, a squadron of Orbital Arcologies have landed on Earth," the newscaster spoke, surrounded on all sides by ticker crawls of text and live streams and photos. "Confirmed sightings of these city-sized spaceships include New York and London. Another just touched down moments ago in the crater that formerly housed Arcology #A076, outside New Orleans. According to unconfirmed blogger reports, three more ships may be involved -- one heading towards South America, one towards Africa, and one hovering at some point over the Atlantic Ocean--"
The newscaster's left ear twitched, as someone spoke in her earpiece.
"We now have confirmed reports from NASA of the three additional ships," she said. "They appear to be hovering over the ruins of São Paulo in what was once Brazil, the former site of the city of Cairo in Egypt, and... yes, the third is directly over the underwater city of Atlantis. So far, these... visitors have made no attempt at communication and have taken no hostile action. President Waller is scheduled to speak within the hour regarding--"
A clamor raised in the U.N. hall, as the news feed winked out. At first, it was assumed to be a connection error... until the screen was filled by a sterling white logo. The rising star within a triangle, the same logo seen on the outside of the new Arcologies.
Triumphant synthesized orchestral music began to play.
Sitting in the middle of a crowd of political power players and grade schoolers, Emily squeezed her husband's hand tightly. Flanking them were Puck and Benny... the entire group having come down to the ground floor together, to see what was going on.
Any enmity they had over agricultural transactions was officially backburnered. Possibly forever. Bigger concerns had pushed their way to the forefront of Emily's mind.
"She's still in New Orleans," Emily mumbled to her husband. "And since one of these things landed there..."
"Archmagus Elriel, Pensworth, Tinker and the other teachers will keep the students safe," Scout assured. "Jesse and Gilbert and Una and Nel too, for that matter. For that matter, the entire pride of the Lions of Summer are on hand. Susie won't come to harm."
Benny frowned. "Ik'ai better have rounded up the palace guards, too," he said. "I put that useless old man in charge of defending my sister while I played dealmaker in the Big Apple. If anything happens to her..."
"But why now?" Emily asked. "Beyond whatever the hell they want, why right here, and right now? The rest of the Orbital fleet had fifteen years to come looking for their lost sheep--"
As if to answer her, the music wound down, the scene changed... and in a slow dissolve, a young man smiled outward to the people of Earth.
He was an Orbital, indeed. Snow-white hair, a silver desk to sit behind, and a general radiance of healthy adult perfection. But unlike the simple and reflective clothes of a Council Representative... he wore a white uniform, immaculately tailored, complete with epaulets lined neatly with silver. Fingers in white gloves were intertwined, hands folded carefully before him.
"Hello," he greeted. (His voice echoed -- not intentionally, simply the result of so many streams in the building carrying his words, down hallways and from office to office.) "I speak to you from Arcology Plato, currently located outside the Faerie Court city of New Orleans. This message is being broadcast across the Internet, overriding all major news streams, translated into all appropriate languages. It is being heard in the lands of East and Westusa, the various European districts, and any other nation with the capability to hear it. We are reaching far and wide, to ensure our message is heard..."
His smile widened. It was now edging somewhere between friendly and unsettling.
"I am Proctor Lar six point seven," he declared. "And I represent the Ascendancy, the rising stars of the Orbital fleet. We have come in peace. We have come to help your world."
There was no rousing wave of cheer and delight at this news in the United Nations. Worried whispers were the order of the day.
"Lar died in #A076," Scout declared. "He was brain-dead for fifteen years anyway, but we confirmed that none of the evacuees went back for his comatose body. That can't be him..."
"It's not. Our Lar was four point one, and a cranky old fat bastard. Only so many three-letter combos out there... I once met an Una seven point three, completely different person from Una point zero one," Emily said. "But... I can't say the name is pleasant to hear, regardless..."
Now... Lar's smile faded, somewhat. His head bowed.
"We heard the distress call of our stranded fellow Orbitals, a few days previous," Lar continued. "We regret that we were unable to mobilize quickly enough to save #A076. Its loss is felt across the entire fleet... the sacrifice of some of our best and brightest is regrettable. It seems that the advanced power technologies developed there unfortunately backfired..."
At this, Puck snorted back a laugh. "High comedy to suggest such a thing," he said. "A lovely coincidence, every one of the pretty little capsules going pop at the same time due to a design failure..."
"However, all is not lost. The Ascendancy has come to fill in the hole made by the loss of #A076. We have improved our power methodologies, as well. We are ready to supply you with our technology -- far beyond what your current Orbital friends are capable of. We have near-limitless resources at your disposal. Imagine it, Earthkind... an end to war. An end to disease. An end to poverty. We are here to solve your problems and usher this world into a new golden age... eventually, as a fully represented member of the Ascendancy.
"Now, I understand your suspicions. Long ago, it was uncovered that a secret sect had perpetuated a vast, unthinkable crime... using our technology to induce genocide on many worlds, to strip mine them, to power our efforts. Those days are over. Shortly after this conspiracy was exposed, the traitors were identified, put on trial, and executed."
"...what? Since when do the Orbitals kill criminals?" Emily asked, aloud. "Ono told me even if our Lar recovered, he wasn't going to face any sort of death penalty..."
"The Ascendancy is our way of making amends for their crimes. We are reaching out to many Earths, embracing them, helping them. Showing them the way--the way out of the darkness of their backwards thinking, into a new age of enlightenment. My friends, you stand on the precipice of the true and everlasting future... to join us, in the stars, as the forever people.
"But words are always inferior to actions. Let me show you what we have already begun to do to improve your lives, and to clean up the mistakes of our ancestors. Today, we shall grant you three gifts, which will pave the way towards your transformation into a world of peace and safety..."
The video feed changed. Emily had to blink a few times, to clear the blinding white of Lar's uniform away, as the scene was replaced with a verdant rainforest...
"This is the unfortunate fate of the South American continent. Lush with life, and natural splendor... but completely overrun by unthinkable creatures. You know them as Los Muertos. Your culture once called them zombies. They have turned this paradise into a wasted and useless land..."
Swooping down, the viewpoint dropped close enough to the ground to make out figures... shambling parodies of human beings, emaciated and dried out. A few of them glanced up, apparently noticing whoever was holding the camera, growling and rushing towards them--
Only to be completely obliterated in a sweeping beam of light.
The beam cut a broad swath through the herd of zombies. Organic matter was melted into nothingness in the haze of that energy... both Los Muertos, and the grasses and trees they wandered through. All that remained was blasted and purged earth...
"Our first gift to you," Lar spoke. "We will eradicate this menace. Completely. No longer will you need fear the spread of their disease into your lands; they will be gone within a year. In addition, we will use this continent in our mining efforts -- our power technologies require very little mineral matter, and the advanced 'Essence Capacitors' we create here will empower the Ascendancy and your own world for generations to come!"
Finally... there was applause.
Tentative, at first. Despite all the gentle and honeyed words, this was a frightening situation. But... seeing the problem that the United Nations had yet to find a solution to, the menace of Los Muertos, dealt with in such an effective manner... that was enough. Soon, the assembly was applauding, relieved that someone else was going to solve that sticky scenario for them.
Emily wasn't applauding. Neither was Scout, or Benny. (Puck applauded wildly; he appreciated a good snake oil salesman's pitch.)
"Our second gift to you," Lar continued, his confidence swelling, as if he could hear their reactions. "Similar to the first. An entire land torn to shreds by pointless, dehumanizing war. A place of danger and horror the likes of which you cannot imagine, which actively steals away your children, your families, to sicken and corrupt them and turn them into so much gristle for its engine of destruction. I speak, of course, of the African badlands. Now, watch as they are purified..."
A new camera, now. Overlooking a mutant village, on a clear, bright day.
Before Emily could gasp, the same cutting beam activated, from behind the camera.
In less than a minute, the entire makeshift town had been obliterated. Men, women, and children. They were barely recognizable as men, women, and children from all the tumors and radioactive cancers, but...
The applause was still there, but... more hesitant, this time. Except from the British delegation, who had once nearly been exterminated by the fresh mutant hordes, after Pandora. They applauded with vigor.
The civil wars, mutant tribe on mutant tribe with every other unfortunate ramshackle civilization living there caught in the middle, that was another problem nobody had an answer to. The Ascendancy had swooped in and answered it for them, with the same ruthlessness they were applying in South America.
Her stomach turned. Twice.
"And finally... our third, and most important gift to the peoples of Earth," Lar declared. "You have struggled against the closing of your borders for generations. Trapped within hostile shores, and why? Because of the Kraken. The Sea Dragons. The Great Entities. Many names for the same thing... a dangerous, useless species, which only exists to prevent you from safely visiting your neighbors overseas. Today... the Ascendancy solves your problem."
Next... open water. Some ripples could be seen, telltale signs of underwater beasts, circling and getting ready to leap from the waters, to snatch prey from the sky, the noisy and annoying prey that disrupted the perfect harmony of the oceans which allowed their sonar to work...
A simple green sphere was extended on a robotic arm. And dropped.
It fell into the water with a soundless splash.
And slowly... the ripples faded. Replaced with the corpses of the massive Kraken, bobbing to the surface.
Nobody wanted to applaud this one. Or rather, many of them absolutely did -- the Kraken were something you had to constantly work around with technology like Grey Boxes, and even then you had to have authorization from Atlantis before violating their territorial waters and disturbing their Great Entities. Eliminating that stumbling block would mean no more shipping tariffs, no more dealmaking, no more Atlantis controlling international affairs...
But applauding that would also mean applauding genocide. Especially tasteless, considering the sole representative from Atlantis was present and accounted for.
"Now, we count the peoples of Atlantis as one of our many friends. That's why our biogenetic euthanasia compound specifically targeted a single species; the waters all across the world will soon be Kraken-free, and their bodies will harmlessly disintegrate in short order, without harming the citizens of Atlantis--"
A hurled blob of water splashed against the video stream projector, harmlessly. It did cause Lar's image to distort slightly, as the ocean salt dried against the warm surface of the screen.
Without further word, the Atlantean representative stormed out of the building. His protective bubble of water left a trail behind him, as he moved with the grace of a fish... and the rage of a shark.
"We are here to remove dangers. We are here to bring order and peace to your world. We are your friends," Lar continued, unaware of the incident. "Today, I will be meeting with your national leaders, to discuss how best we can help you on the path towards proper civilization."
"This is a truly wonderful day. You will be telling your children and your grandchildren about it -- the day you saw your Suborbital cultures take the first step into the future."
mommy help please
"I welcome you, friends. I welcome you to the Ascendancy. Hand in hand... we will see the stars rise."
Emily's senses snapped into sharp focus. They had been focused on the screen, but... the sound pulling at her ears, that was a sound a mother paid attention to, no matter what the situation.
help me they're hurting me mommy help me please
"Susie?" she asked, aloud. Glancing around the assembly hall frantically, trying to figure out where her voice was coming from...
they took me from the school I'm in their ship they're hurting me they keep hurting me please mommy no no not again not
Scout was saying something. Emily wasn't listening.
"They're torturing Susie," she declared.
No debate, no discourse. No diplomacy. No rallying the troops for a great rescue. No time. No interest.
If there were one lever that could be pulled to make Emily throw all human caution to the winds and embrace the godhead of the Faerie Queen, the Ascendancy had found it and given it a good yank. All the problems of the day, all the confusion and fear and mortal ambiguity, all of it boiled down to two simple thoughts: My daughter is in danger. We're going to save her. Followed immediately by the icy venom of they will pay for this.
The Crowns of Flame and Ice burned with absolute rage above Queen Emily's head, as she converted herself and her husband into a howling gale of summer sunlight and winter's harsh solar glare. It blasted through the doors of the United Nations building hard enough to melt the steel from their frames, before kicking off skyward, and arcing down hard through the atmosphere towards New Orleans.
Built to withstand the cold of space and pelting by meteorites. Apparently not built to withstand the power of a mother scorned.
A hole the size of a truck melted through the armored plating of Arcology Plato. It took only moments, by the speed of light, for the parents of Susie Moonthistle to go from New York to New Orleans -- and only half a moment to find a weak spot and blast through the spaceship, into an internal chamber.
As Emily's eyes reformed as ordinary organic constructs, she was able to see in a mortal sense where they'd ended up.
And, for one brief moment, she was able to think a mortal thought through the hazy cloud of divine wrath.
Specifically: Wait, whoa, slow down -- what am I doing?
It made perfect sense only seconds ago. Someone had hurt her daughter; there would be a reckoning. The Queen would not be denied her anger... a direct application of her Will through the crowns was all it took to find and punish her enemies. Leaving behind their Winterhound escort. Failing to consult with the armies at her beck and call. Not even checking to see if the whisper in her ear was legitimate...
Not realizing that if someone DID want to trap her, this was the perfect way to do it. Which explained why seconds after arrival, the pair was surrounded by Orbitals in extremely shiny, extremely armored suits. Carrying extremely shiny blasters.
There was no forewarning, no called-out demand that they surrender. The soldiers opened fire immediately, upon the targets they were fully expecting to greet today. Or rather, target, specifically.
He looked like an electric wagon wheel, with spokes connecting him to the men pouring ridiculous amounts of plasma fire into his Summerlion body. His dress uniform immediately burning away, along with most of his flesh... regrowing instantly, wounds mending as quickly as they were made. The regenerative gift of the Lions of Summer was to simply not die, as opposed to the Winterhounds, whose gift was to return from the dead perpetually.
And before Emily could move to intervene, not that she had any idea HOW to intervene, her world went white.
She wasn't unconscious. Her world just... went white. She rushed towards where she knew Scout was, and kept rushing. And running. Until she was out of breath.
The Orbitals had a technology they called the "White Room." It was their idea of a humane, escape-proof prison; a pocket dimension construct, similar to the bigger-on-the-inside storage compartments in jetpacks, or even their Mass Capacitors. When they wanted someone out of the way, into the oubliette of science they went.
Emily closed her eyes.
"Fine," she declared. "I've gotten out of these before. And this time I don't even need a spellbook, or a tattoo on my arm. ."
And re-appeared in another part of the White Room.
"!" she tried, again.
Nothing. If she was even going anywhere, and it was impossible to tell, it wasn't anywhere outside the dimensional envelope.
They'd taken the goddess of nature and put her where she couldn't hurt anyone. Where she couldn't help anyone. While her husband was under assault just a few virtual feet away. While her daughter's safety was in question. And Emily could do nothing, absolutely nothing about it...
The crowns flared. They raged. She shifted to light, to ice, to fire. Pushed and pushed at the invisible, nonexistent walls of her cell. And absolutely nothing happened.
A tiny white cube floated in the room, one meter by one meter by one meter. A technician checked subdimensional stress levels, using a miniature console mounted on his arm.
"Confirmation, Proctor Lar," he said. "Target One is contained. The advanced White Room is keeping the specimen under control with minimal stress. Essence Capacitors should provide six centuries of containment before the need to change them."
A holographic projection of the man in the tasteful white uniform nodded, satisfied.
"And Target Two...?" he asked.
The technician wrinkled his nose, trying to push out the smell of burnt flesh. A team had been dispatched to try to peel Scout off the deck plates, but so far, it was looking like they'd have to slice away a section of the metal flooring to move him.
"Confirmed deceased, Proctor Lar. Looks like your predictions about the limits of a Summerlion's regeneration were correct."
"Good, good," Lar said, with a smile. "I leave the remainder of the operation in your capable hands. I have a number of meetings to attend today, to finalize arrangements for this world's ascendance. ...tell me, what's the sub-shift frequency for the pagan's container?"
"Tau six sigma, sir. Why...?"
"No particular reason. The stars will rise."
"The stars will rise," the technician returned, with a nod, before the feed cut off.
He made the mistake of inhaling. Smelted corpses were still not a pleasant thing to parse through the olfactory senses.
"Have the remains sent to the Biology lab," the technician ordered. "Lar wants the creature dissected. Have the pre-weakened armor plating reinforced. And will someone please contact Environmental? I don't want our fair Arcology smelling like a graveyard."
A woman sat, alone, hugging her knees. Feeling like the little girl who wandered away from home to chase down a fairy tale, rather than like some powerful goddess and queen who was shaping the world's future.
At the core... Emily Moonthistle was a pile of worries, concerns, and hopes. Anything you dumped on top of that was window dressing, or at worst, a dangerous distraction. Cosmic power didn't change who she was, but it certainly had made her stupider.
Over the last few days, she'd lost friends, seen everything she was working for fall apart, and now may have lost her entire family. And she hadn't done anything that helped in the slightest, amidst her meddling. If anything, she'd made it worse.
She almost wanted to take it all back. Go back to Olney, and instead of stopping by that tavern to warn about an incoming ogre horde, just keep flying. If being the world's foremost meddling busybody was going to end in futility and failure, maybe everyone would've been better off without her playing at being a savior...
Unpleasant thoughts were all she had left, in the White Room. Couldn't escape. Every time she tried to tap the crowns, she felt herself slipping, felt primal emotions like her earlier rage trying to assert themselves and overlap sensibility. Mundane mortal magic was just as useless in this situation. She couldn't even physically pick the lock on her cell, for there was no lock to pick.
How long had she been in here? Hours? Minutes? Days? Impossible to say.
And THIS was the Orbital's idea of a humane prison? What sick mind thought this was humane--?
"And to think, last time we met, you'd given me a humiliating kick in the crotch."
Immediately, on her feet. Trying to figure out where the voice was coming from. The nonexistent walls. Empty space, miles away. A voice from inside her. From everywhere...
"I'm guessing that right now, you're trying to find me," it continued. "No point in that. I'm broadcasting into your prison, from outside. One-way communication, I'm afraid. We can't risk even letting a particle of light out of your container. So, you're going to have to remain there, for the rest of your days. I'm assuming that a pagan goddess can't starve to death, but... if you do, I guess we'll never know, will we?"
Anger had gotten her into this mess. She shouldn't have embraced it again. But dammit, she was angry.
"Show yourself, you son of a bitch!" Emily shouted into the void. "Show y--"
"It's justice, I'd say, to leave you to rot. You left me brain-dead within a White Room, a criminal to my own people," he continued. "Only thanks to my true friends was I able to secretly transfer my consciousness into a new body, and escape undetected. Normally a procedure reserved for cancer patients, but I wasn't one to complain about my new lease on life. I had a... what's that word you liked to use? 'Conspiracy?' Yes. Such an ugly word for the patriots and saviors of my people. They needed me back. Phase two had to begin; all hands on deck for its implementation. And I needed to warn them about the danger you and your world represented..."
She resisted the urge to shout back. If this was one-way, it would be useless. Futile. A failure...
"As you've guessed, Proctor Lar is indeed the Lar you know, now in a young man's form. And yes, I faked the cry for help from your offspring. A simple bit of acoustic engineering and psychology was all it took to destroy you. Oh, your daughter...? She's right where you left her, huddled under her school desk, surrounded by nervous teachers and guardians. They have no idea what's to come. But I do. With you contained... and your husband dead... and all the various in-roads we've already made into your world... we are finally ready to bring order to your chaotic planet. You should be thanking us. We're going to save you, when honestly... I wanted you dead. All of you."
"I tried, I really tried to only trigger my Hex spell on a limited number of capacitors in #A076. My goal was to eliminate the Orbital presence, and perhaps even wipe New Orleans off the map. I guess my hatred affected the channeling of my Will, and sabotaged all of them. Fortunately, your darling Kas found a solution -- and a good thing, or I'd have to explain to my fellow Proctors why I let their prize slip away. Although personally...? I wouldn't have shed a tear if your planet was destroyed."
"The Tome of Ur-Felrial..." Emily realized.
Fifteen years ago, when they foiled Lar's insane plan to crash #A076 into the planet and blame the Optimists, he had a spellbook. One of the five books of forbidden magic, the Tomes of Ur-Felrial, thought lost forever. (Until the Crimson Tome was offered by Benny to Jesse, to aid in their escape from a slaver camp.) If anything was capable of making all the capacitors in #A076 fail despite the laws of physics, it would be the curses and hexes he'd memorized from that book...
"Fortunately, everything worked out for the best," Lar continued. "That weak Arcology was destroyed. Your alternative power source was discredited. And now, you and your husband, dead. You're criminals, you realize; we can say we killed you in self-defense. You attacked Earth's new allies with no provocation whatsoever! Well. None that anyone will know of, at least. At long last... we're ready to process your world. To render it... safe. Peaceful. Orderly."
He remained completely unaware of the burning ice of rage that hovered over her head.
"Hmm. I've got meetings to get to, afraid, so I'm going to have to cut our conversation short. But don't worry -- your daughter has a future. She's the crown princess, and lineage is vital to the Faerie Court. No harm will come to her, as long as she sits on your throne, and does as she is told. ...this will be the last thing you hear, for all time. And here I am, having failed to think up proper parting words. Oh well."
And ... nothing.
Alone, in the silent White Room.
It took great effort, but they eventually peeled most of the charred biomatter off the floor. Some was left behind, but presumably there was enough tissue here for the Biologists to work with.
After sealing it into a sterilization tube, it was moved down six decks to the morgue.
Biologist Rew had no idea when he woke up that morning that he'd be dissecting the former consort of the Faerie Queen. There he was, enjoying a leisurely day in his quarters and watching Proctor Lar's greeting to the world, when something shook the entire Arcology... for a few moments. Minutes later, the higher-ups demanded he come down to the lab. At first, he was worried that the Suborbitals outside had somehow breached the walls and were attacking with primitive clubs, or something, and that he was needed to treat the wounded.
(That'd be a fine way to greet this planet's new friends, but the Ascendancy hadn't been greeted with open arms on all the worlds they approached. Sometimes, there were initial misunderstandings. He'd had to live through a few of those incidents. Biologist Rew didn't show priority in treatment, Orbital or Suborbital -- whoever was the most injured got treated first. That was only fair.)
But no, he didn't have any injuries to treat. His patient was already dead.
"What did you do to this man?" he asked, unable to close his mouth completely at the sight of the body. "Whatever happened to appropriate use of force?!"
"Proctor Lar predicted correctly that the Faerie Queen would resist the hand of friendship. Her husband's flesh was too durable for conventional weapons," the guard explained. "Appropriate use of force was expanded to compensate. Lar wants the body examined, to see if we can determine the genetics responsible for his healing factor."
"Considering that healing factor apparently failed him miserably, I'm not sure what use it'd be. But I'll give it a try, I guess," Rew offered.
The guards left him alone with his "patient," after that. Rew groaned at his rotten luck, fixed himself a cup of spiced bitter, and sat down to start scanning the corpse.
This wasn't how he was planning to spend his first day on a new world. He wanted to be there for the ceremonies, the presentations. He wanted to watch as the official greetings were extended to this world's leaders. He was going to record it all, to send back to his brother and his friends on Arcology Hypatia, which was running mining operations on Earth #458F. Instead, he had to spend hours cutting apart a dead body. Job satisfaction was optional, in the Ascendancy.
As he began to make incisions into the body with a surgical laser, he pondered the impending birth anniversary of his brother. A gift would have to be obtained. Maybe he could visit this "New Orleans," after things calmed down, and find something colorful. He loved learning about the new cultures they visited, after all--
The corpse grabbed his throat.
And tore it out.
Biologist Rew's body slumped to the floor, after knocking his cup of bitter over, spilling all over his medical console.
The thing which was formerly a Lion of Summer opened its eyes. And saw only red. Heard only the pounding of the drum in its mind. The beating of the heart of winter. The drums of the hunt...
The Wild Hunt. Pouring like ice through his veins, pushing him on, driving him to seek the prey...
Between shadows, the creature slipped away, without tripping a single internal alarm. They would never know what hit them.
Six minutes or sixty years later, and something changed.
The White Room was starting to collapse around her. It frayed and boiled, discolorations in space -- flaws and bubbles. And seconds later... it was gone.
Leaving her right where she started, in an antechamber of Arcology Plato.
She was still surrounded by guards. But this time, they were lying on the ground. Bloodied. Dead.
A fresh sound of a body hitting metal turned her around.
The technician that was monitoring her containment had been torn to pieces, along with his equipment. That effectively shut down her White Room field and freed her. But the one who saved her was--
Something small and tiny within Emily wanted to run in terror, as those icy blue eyes turned on her. Blue, surrounded by red. A man, soaked completely in blood, head to toe. So much blood...
And in turn... that look of absolute fear on her face finally broke the driving fury of the man's onslaught. Because he was seeing fear in his wife's eyes. Fear of her husband.
Scout's voice wobbled when he spoke.
"Ehh... Em... Emily?" he asked. "What's... what did I..."
Both of them knew the answer to that question immediately.
The Wild Hunt. The force that empowered the Winterhounds, that set them to kill. And, in some cases, turned them into feral, mindless murder machines.
Emily wasn't the only one gifted by intense cosmic power which had completely backfired. Scout had once been a Winterhound... and upon his death, had reverted to that state. From the looks of it, the self-control he was able to find in the past had been out of practice for too long.
As he fell to his knees, the horror setting in at last, Emily was there to catch him. Despite her own exhaustion, despite everything that had happened today, she did her best to comfort him.
When the guards came for them, having followed Scout's trail of destruction, neither of them were strong enough to raise a hand in protest.
They'd managed to defeat themselves, today. The Ascendancy certainly helped, but in the end, who and what they were worked against them. And now... they had nothing left. Nothing to fight with.
Engineers hadn't finished patching the hole they left in the hull.
Which made it perfect for lobbing a class 4 memetic hazard through, like a grenade.
The "grenade" just happened to be made of fine white porcelain, with decorative curls of gold paint laid into the sides. The handle was brass. The spigot had two chips in it.
It bounced a few times, before rolling to a halt, lying on its side in the middle of the room.
The guards, who were ready and willing to open fire on the bewildered couple, instead found themselves pondering what it was.
"...teapot," one recognized. "Teapot."
"Teapot teapot. Teapot. Teapot! Teapot...?"
Teapot, was all Emily could think of. She couldn't even think of WHY she was thinking of the teapot. She simply was. It was utterly fascinating. Teapot. Teapot. Teapot.
Someone who was possibly not a teapot was pulling her to her feet, trying to get her to walk. Her legs were weak. Her nerves had been shot completely, from everything she was dragged through today. Somehow, she managed to stumble along. Out through the melted metal hole, and into the light of day...
Teapot teapot teapot teapot hurry, you've got to move, we need to go.
A car was parked just outside the crater left behind by #A076. A lump of classic Eastusa iron. If Emily had any knowledge whatsoever of the history of internal combustion engineering, she'd have recognized it as a 1984 Buick LeSabre. Which of course was completely impossible, given there was no way such an ancient vehicle could've survived over two centuries intact. Just as impossible as a teapot which made people teapot teapot teapot.
In the bright light of the early spring day, it looked quite strange indeed; tire marks in the grass had indicated it approached and braked with some speed. Likely because of all the armed Orbital guards, who were now wandering aimlessly, repeating the same word over and over again.
They were shoved roughly into the back seat of the car. Emily, too stunned for more than a single word. Scout, too lost to even say that single word.
"We're clear," Elisa Morales declared, removing her memetic hazard protection goggles. "Gun it. We've only got a few minutes to get back to the Mermaid."
Former President William Petersen put the hammer down, and the 1984 Buick LeSabre kicked up a massive cloud of dust in its wake. Not that anybody was able to see it, not even the surveillance cameras; all they saw was a cloud of teapots, coming from a larger teapot, carrying four smaller teapots inside it.
By the time anybody was able to get the hazardous artifact under control, the Queen of Faerie and her consort -- now the most wanted criminals in the Ascendancy -- were long gone.
Hours, and still no word.
Susie Moonthistle had never seen a tenser atmosphere in the House of the Rising Sun. Half witching school, half royal palace, often those sides were at odds with each other -- the anxiety building in one flowing into the other. Today, with the throne empty and the Queen missing, her classes had taken on a strange wobbly uncertainty.
Professor Pensworth kept going on about practical applications of the Animate spell, but clearly she was just reading from the textbook. Normally she was far more animated, using dramatic little flourishes of language and in-class demonstrations that made the younger kids go ooh and aah, but today... everything was routine. Because there was safety in routine. Stability.
They'd all taken time away from learning to watch the broadcast. Lar's broadcast. That was the name of a old enemy of her family... one who nearly ruined the world. Whether or not this was the same man, Susie had no idea, but she didn't trust him all the same. There was something unkind behind his kind smile...
And then, word from the Winterhound escorts in New York. Emily and Scout had left the United Nations building in a rather... explosive manner. They hadn't said where they were going, hadn't said if they would be returning. Hours, and still no word.
Just as Susie was considering pulling the oldest trick in the book and asking to go to the bathroom -- so she could, dunno, go looking for them or something -- a Lion of Summer knocked at the classroom door. Susie was being excused from class for official purposes.
She'd never had a four-Lion escort before. Three, maybe, and that was outside the palace; it was generally assumed she was safe inside the palace, what with the guards everywhere already. But here they were, flanking her, making her feel very small. Like she was a kid again, instead of a teenager. Leading her on, wordlessly...
To the throne room. Where she hoped Mother and Father were waiting for her.
Instead, there was Archmagus Elriel... and Proctor Lar.
"Susie, ah... there's been..." Elriel began, trying to find the words. The old Fae tended to lose his grip on the language, the less confident he was in explaining something to royalty. "There's been an... incident. With your parents..."
"They can't be dead," Susie declared, immediately. Four words she could put absolute faith in. Mom was a goddess and Dad could heal from anything.
Proctor Lar cleared his throat, to bring attention to himself.
"No... not dead," he said. "But... for some reason, they attacked my Arcology today. And I'm sorry to say, they murdered nine people in an unprovoked act of war. Since then, they've gone into hiding. If they are found, I'm afraid they're going to have to stand trial, Susie. Your own laws and ours do not tolerate this sort of mindless slaughter--"
"The news tonight will be airing confirmation of the bodies of the dead. I've made arrangements with the major streaming networks."
"If they did attack, it's because you're the bad guys," she tried, next. "Everybody knows that you tried to crash #A076 into the world and you'd been lying to your own people for, like, forever about how you mined worlds!"
"That was another Lar, Susie. An older and far more malicious man," Lar insisted. "I want to be a friend to this Earth. I want to help it, much as the Orbitals you know from #A076 want to help. So. If you have any information as to the whereabouts of your parents--"
"I'd never tell you," she said, crossing her arms in defiance. "Even if I knew. Which I don't. ...nobody wants to see them again more than me."
"A misguided sense of loyalty, but... I believe you are speaking the truth, and you don't know where they are," Lar stated. "Well. The question, then, is where this leaves us. With the Queen gone... the task of shepherding the Faerie Court falls to you. That's the lineage of the crowns. Whether this is a temporary or permanent state remains to be seen, but it is what it is."
Another impossibility. Just as impossible as her parents being dead, or them killing people for no good reason. Susie was a Faerie princess, yes, but... she didn't really rule anything. She didn't want to rule anything, that was Mom's job. Even if, under Fae law, she was expected to fill in if some impossible situation arose and her mother was gone...
"You have two paths ahead of you, Susie," Lar explained, folding his hands behind his back. "One, you can embrace the Ascendancy as your friends, as we step right into the role that #A076 has played so far. We've already reached a firm agreement with President Waller to continue services in Eastusa, using our improved Essence Capacitors. Life will go on in America... much as it always has. We've no intentions of upsetting the fruit conveyance modus, to use your local phrasing. Change must be gradual, and mutually agreed upon. All we'd need from you, at this time... is an agreement to consider our offers, in fairness, and friendship."
The young princess listened. Mostly because she was waiting for him to finally stop yakking, so she could respond.
"And if I say no?" she asked.
At this... Lar sighed, disappointed. But still hopeful.
"If you refuse... then we have to consider the actions of your parents as an act of war," he said. "If the entire royal family is hostile to the Ascendancy, if you condone their actions... I don't want to think about what may follow. Our intent is to bring this world to peace and order, Susie. President Waller has already agreed to our terms, and the British Empire is considering our offer. We'd need to think about the safety of our new allies, if their neighbor stands defiant against peace and order. I don't want to say there will be bloodshed. I don't WANT bloodshed. But... it would be best for the future of your world if you at least considered not being the youngest monarch to lead a nation to destruction."
Her immediate impulse was to tell the guy exactly which one of his relatives he should go have sex with.
Mother wouldn't give a bald-faced liar like this the time of day. She'd stand defiant and firm, for what she believed in. Susie didn't buy for a second that the Ascendancy was up to any good; they were like weeds growing around the flowers, ever so slowly choking the life out of them. Her Insight, the blood gift from her mother, told her so. It was rarely wrong about these things; the weakest of the lidless eyes, true, but the wisest. It let you put together what you already knew and cut through all the cruft to get at the core of a situation.
In fact, she was about to come up with a highly creative insult... before she saw the look on Elriel's face.
The old man generally had a nervous disposition, true, especially around royalty. But... this was different. Fear for the future. Fear for the Fae.
She had her response, and spoke firmly.
"I'm not willing to accept your explanation for what happened with my parents," Susie declared. "But for the time being I'm going to take you at your word that you're here to help. The Orbitals in general have been friends of the Faerie Court since before I was born. You're owed the benefit of the doubt, for their sakes. Respect my people and their ways, and we will respect yours. I can't promise anything at this time beyond leaving the door of diplomacy open for you."
Right there. That twitch, in Lar's upper lip. The man wanted to scowl; he craved it, he needed to show how disgusted he was. But... he couldn't. Not if he wanted to keep up the mask. Susie had given him just enough leeway that he couldn't safely declare enmity.
"I understand your hesitancy," Lar said, instead. "And I thank you for your consideration. I believe that in the years ahead, we can come to an understanding and establish a fine working relationship. You're young, but I can tell you have great potential for leadership. Please, consider me available at any time, if you wish to discuss matters of state. Simply send a representative to Arcology Plato, and I will arrive as soon as possible."
"Thank you for your kind offer," Susie said, flatly. "If you please, I need to discuss such matters of state with my trusted Archmagus. I expect I'll be hearing from you soon, no doubt. We can talk more at that point. The Lions will escort you back to your home. Thank you, and good day, Mr. Lar."
Various bows and nods of the head were exchanged, and then the encounter was over. Two of the Lions who had brought her here shuffled Lar out the door. Leaving her alone with the Archmagus.
"Ahh... that was... ah, a very wise manner of speaking, young miss," Elriel offered. "Your mother would be proud--"
"Mom would've told him to cram it with walnuts," Susie said, with a little growl in her voice. "But... I can't do that. They taught me all my life that I had to be responsible, because way too many people are relying on us to do the smart thing. Right now, the smart thing is to... I dunno. Stall. Play this out and make nice. I mean, I bet you dollars to doughnuts we're gonna have to kick those guys off our planet, but... aww, man. This is not good, Elriel."
"I have no idea what to do except run out the clock. I'm not a queen! The biggest thing I've ever led was a group project involving potato batteries and shamanic magic," Susie said. "I think I can talk like some bigwig if I'm careful, and keep stringing him along, but I dunno what else to do..."
Elriel nodded, slowly. "I... see. Well. Then we have some hope."
"How d'you figure?"
"Your parents are still alive," he said, regaining some of his confidence, at the thought. "Lar could have lied and said otherwise, but he wants them vilified, young miss. Turned into outcasts. There's no need to cast out those who are already dead. And I have no doubt that young Emily... ahh, that Queen Emily will be actively working to turn around this situation. It is an area in which she excels. I would say that at this very moment, she is scheming to defeat this villain!"
"Teapot teapot," Emily mumbled.
"..." Scout stared.
The quintet of the Quantum Mermaid's crew stood around the couch where Emily and Scout were hunkered down, considering what to do with their latest acquisitions.
"I'm just saying, this is why we kept it locked away for so many years," Petersen was explaining. "The initial testing was quite dangerous. We knew it was risky, using the teapot to get them to safety. But this fugue state should pass, in a day or so. Until then we'll just have to keep them comfortable..."
"This goes beyond the memetic hazard, sir. Scout... I think he killed a lot of people, in there. He's reverted," Agent Elisa Morales suggested. "We've got a Winterhound in here with us, now. I'm going to suggest a round-the-clock instamatic on him, until he comes around."
"Uh, I think we also need to let Susie know what's going on," young Maria Morales suggested. "Word online is she's leaning towards supporting the fallen stars. I know my friend; she's gonna freak if she goes too long without knowing her parents are okay..."
"Already on top of it," Gwen Berners-Lee stated, not looking up from her portable net communicator. "I've intercepted a delivery of a video game she preordered a month ago, and replaced the disc with a software installer. It should firewall her console to keep the Ascendancy from logging her VoIP, at least for a while."
The fifth member of the crew peered in through the door which was not a door, into the secret place within the secret place.
"Hey, uh... we're all buttoned down up there," Jen Cooke of NanoSeattle commented. "I think we'll be ready to go in an hour. The engine's primed and, well, it's hard to say if the readout's accurate or not, but I think it should be capable of a jump soon. Are we going back to NanoSeattle?"
Petersen nodded, slowly.
"We need to hide ourselves away, for now," he decided. "That means no safe houses, no artifact archives. We can't rely on the compromised Gatherer network anymore; fortunately, none of them knew about the Quantum Mermaid or our place in NanoSeattle. I just wish we could've secured more resources before the stars fell, before Proctor Hel's predictions about the rise of a dark Orbital empire came to pass..."
Elisa put a hand on his shoulder, to reassure. As she considered their two guests, babbling on about crockery, gazing at nothing.
"It's going to have to be enough," she said. "And with these two, well... maybe it will be."
In the dead of night, a popular franchised coffee house with a mermaid in its logo vanished from the streets of New Orleans. Another one opened for business on the streets of NanoSeattle less than a second later. Nobody took any notice, because coffee houses came and went all the time.
to be continued
copyright 2011 stefan gagne