|sf02 the purge|
It felt appropriate, today of all days, that the room he sat in was a copy of the original. Every detail had been mirrored: the shape, the scale, the layout, even the decorations. Historians had put painstaking work into ensuring a continuity of this room's legacy. Even if the original was destroyed in the early years of the Pandora Wars, someone felt it was appropriate to carry on as if nothing had changed, as if nothing was wrong. America the strong. America the beautiful.
Everything was wrong. America wasn't strong. America wasn't beautiful.
This Oval Office was a replica, a fake, a shadow of the original. It was in Philadelphia, not the District of Columbia. The entire White House was a copy. The original had been completely overgrown with flowers and vines, thanks to a spell of mass destruction cast upon the old city by Lady Summer.
Yes. Very appropriate, President Waller considered, that his seat of power had no real power at all.
"You will, of course, make the arrangements...?"
His private guest being, of course, the real holder of the power around here.
Waller turned to face him, to try and break the bad news.
"I don't feel we're ready for that stage yet," Waller suggested. "You have to understand, you arrived only a few days ago. America is still on the fence about this; they know of what the Ascendancy did to this world in the first place, even if they can't prove it was really you. They trusted #A076, as much as I let them, but they don't trust you. If you start taking brash action like this now, before they've had a chance to settle down and get comfortable with the idea--"
Proctor Lar slapped down the information pad he was carrying, onto the President's desk.
"This isn't brash action," he clarified. "This is a minor shuffling of the chain of command in your law enforcement. A brash action would be to completely take over all government operations and run them better than you ever could, using proven Orbital governance methodologies."
"I was under the impression that's where we were going anyway," Waller muttered.
"And we're getting there one step at a time. This is the next step. You say it goes too far? That's a shame, but it's not really your call to make, is it?" Lar asked. "Don't forget who it was that influenced your pathetic, stone-age electronic voting system. Who tilted the election in your favor, to run that so-called Gatherer out of office. WE put you here, and we did it to ensure a smooth transition to your planet's destiny."
You never ASKED me! Waller wanted to protest. You never asked me if I wanted to be your puppet!
He was, once upon a time, perfectly content to run for President based on his own views about the future. He saw the dark path that Petersen was leading them down -- one in which they not only embraced their old enemies, but grew reliant on them. America needed to stand alone, as it always had done, and be beholden to no one. Before Pandora, they had the power, they had the sway, they were the ones the whole world followed...!
And now... a copy of the original. A fake Oval Office. His dream of a return to the old nation was doomed from the start, because there was no old nation anymore. Made even worse by the fact that his party sold him out, working with the Ascendancy behind his back, to make sure that the election could not be lost. Waller only found out the truth from his campaign planners on the evening of his victory gala. When it was too late to turn back.
Too late. All that was left was to deal with these people. To make deals that would put America back on top. Which was vital, what with the British signing on with the Ascendancy as well, and being more than eager to embrace the ones that destroyed their age-old mutant enemy.
But he had to be true to what he felt. He had to at least say something.
"You're going to do what you're going to do. Fine. But at least hear me out," Waller suggested. "The way you're doing it is risky. You're coming on too strong. This isn't goddamn Europe; we have a long tradition of not rolling over and taking it when some newcomer says they're in charge now. If you want to command America you have to be more subtle. Oh, our people will roll over and take it, and always have -- but only if you convince them that it's what they've always wanted you to do."
Lar didn't follow. "What more convincing could they need?" he asked. "This is pure logic. This is a solution to the problem on multiple levels. Surely they'll understand that resolution of these basic societal issues is a worthwhile endeavor..."
"No, they're going to put on their tinfoil hats and start screaming Big Brother. ESPECIALLY in this case. You have to make them think this was their idea to begin with. You have to point out that this doesn't hurt them; the only people it hurts are the ones they never cared about in the first place. THEN you hit them with the logic. --look, do you want my speechwriters to take a crack at your announcement tonight? I'm offering. Let me help you with this."
As soon as he said it, he realized it was a mistake.
Lar might be wearing a younger man's skin now, but he was still a curmudgeon's curmudgeon. He wasn't going to admit to weakness, especially not in front of someone he saw as a subordinate. A lesser creature.
"I will word the announcement in a manner of my choosing," the young man declared. "I will take your suggestion into consideration. All I require of you is your compliance with the reorganization to come. In fact, that's all I'll ever be requiring of you. Compliance. If you can't perform that one simple action, we can find someone who will."
And then, he was gone. Personal teleporter, or maybe a mumbled magic spell. Hard to say; Lar came and went as he pleased, these last few days.
Leaving Waller alone, with his thoughts.
I didn't sign on for this mess, he grumbled, inwardly. I just wanted to make America great again. Strong, tall, and proud. And maybe we could have been, even under the Ascendancy, if they'd let us run the world for them like they promised my party leaders... but THAT idiot is going to run this nation into the ground trying to make this happen. We either get broken in half or we do a suicide charge trying to stop it.
He almost wished he'd never won the election. Almost. This was the best position to be in, for whatever was going to come. And maybe he could play it a little, before that end arrived.
After all... he had his own gambit, one as old as the building he sat in. One which couldn't fail. Or rather, could succeed and make him come out smelling like roses, or could fail silently while he safely disavowed it. But... it would have to wait. This wasn't the right moment, when Lar was riding high on terrifying the world into submission. Let him play, let him bungle, let him get the American people itching for a fight. And then, by God, they would give him one.
"Sir, there's someone to see you--"
"Send them away. And clear my appointments for the day," Lar ordered, cutting off his aide, marching onward through Arcology Plato towards his office. "I've speeches to write, organization plans to draft up, specialists to select to direct the social conversion programs... I've no time to suffer fools today."
"But, but sir, he's already in your office..."
Proctor Lar paused, before the doors to his private office. The office which was guarded by heavily armed soldiers. The office which was warded using magical barriers to prevent any other means of entry. He'd even dulled every surface in the room, in case Esrever tried to get in... although there was no chance of that now.
"How, exactly, did this person get into my office?" Lar asked, turning to his aide.
"W-we don't know, sir," the young fellow admitted. "He's just... well, he showed up. He's asking to see you."
Fine, Lar decided. Pushing the double doors open wide. My mood couldn't get worse, after all.
The figure leaning casually against his desk beamed a bright smile in his direction, and waved in a friendly manner.
Lar took a few seconds to hate his life, before closing the doors.
"Purge the entire office of all life with high energy beams in a wide dispersal pattern," he spoke, to his honor guards.
One minute later, and his office smelled of ozone. Fortunately none of his information pads were damaged, but someone would have to replace the flags behind his desk before tonight's broadcast. They'd been incinerated completely.
The figure, who hadn't budged and certainly hadn't evaporated into a whiff of carbon, pouted adorably.
"I'd almost think you weren't happy to see me," he pondered aloud.
Lar's mood got worse.
"Has the Emerald Tome of Ur-Felrial been located yet?" he asked his aide.
"Uh... no. No, sir. Not yet."
"Damn. I would've enjoyed using it to banish this thing. ...fine. You may leave us. Guards, stay outside the doors. I will convince it to leave."
"What? Sir? You want to be alone with whatever that--"
Lar shut the doors behind him. He resealed the magical barriers with a spoken word, which also effectively cut off any surveillance. Not that anyone in the Ascendancy would dare spy on him, not with his rank within the organization.
The man opened his arms wide. "A hug?" he suggested. "You look like you've had a very rough day, Lar..."
"I have absolutely no interest in anything you could possibly have to offer me," Lar said, up front. "I know who you are and what you are, and what exactly you're capable of."
"Then you know how much I have to offer a man like you!" the fellow suggested, with a smile. "The power, Lar. Limitless power. Beyond pagan witchcraft, beyond your science, beyond anything you can possibly imagine--"
"I think the appropriate phrasing is 'Get thee behind me, Satan.' Am I correct?"
"You flatter me, but I'm afraid I'm not THAT low on the totem pole," The Mister replied. "But close enough for government work. So, let's talk. You clearly know me, my good sir, and that means you know--"
"That you are a demon from the infernal world that most humans have mislabeled 'Hell,' in their primitive superstitions," Lar filled in. "That you were trapped within a dome by the Faerie Queens, two centuries ago. You very nearly escaped and destroyed the entire world, if not for the surprising moral fiber of those you tried to tempt. And, of course, the backstabbing of your former minion."
At this, The Mister's smile wobbled. "And I would SO enjoy paying Ben'ai back for that little incident. Although, of course, your needs come first--"
"You died, I believe. This isn't actually you, this thing I'm seeing before me," Lar stated. "But I've seen the reports we confiscated when we destroyed the Gatherer network from within. You left behind a failsafe. A copy of yourself, stored on an unholy film reel, buried in the ruins of Los Angeles. And several years ago, the child Susan Moonthistle accidentally released you. A pale imitation of the original, a pathetic shade... but still dangerous enough that I know better than to deal with you on any level whatsoever."
With a sigh... The Mister, or rather, The Mister's cinematic copy nodded in acknowledgement. "It's an unfortunate series of events, but truthful. I am an honest man, by design. And yes, I'm half the devil I used to be. I've been hiding away, fading away ever since the day that lovely little girl let me loose. My host film is quietly burning up and I've become quite insubstantial as a result. Afraid that's why you couldn't kill me; I'm little more than light and shadow, now..."
Lar had to focus his eyes to see what was so unusual about what he was seeing... and after some quick math, he'd figured it out. Twenty-four. The Mister only existed at twenty-four frames per second, the standard frame rate of primitive Earth celluloid film. Everything else in the room was continuous and analog in time, but he was a stop-motion caricature. In fact, if Lar squinted hard enough, he could see right through The Mister.
"Rest assured, we will find a way to destroy you," Lar noted. "You're useless and dangerous and have no place in our future. Your bargains come with excessive price tags. I am no fool like the Faust of your mythologies."
"There's always a price to pay, yes, but what possible use would there be now in making it a deliciously ironic one?" The Mister asked. "I am slipping away from this world, Lar. I held on this long because the little whisper within me that tells me what to do said I was going to be needed. I feel I've only enough mojo left for one more big bargain -- and then, I'm gone. That's why I'm here, Lar. I want to give you the honor of my last hurrah. I think you've got the right stuff."
"If I ask for a cup of Cold Fun, will you go away?"
"Oh, come come, you know that's not going to be enough," The Mister said, with a snort. "But... don't worry. Take your time. I'll loiter around, I'll be patient. And one day, when you're sitting in this very office, when you're in just the right mood, when the last traces of your façade of logic have fallen and all that remains is the bitter ash already within burning within you... I'll be ready. Are you going to answer that?"
Two seconds after the words came out of his mouth a light flickered on his desktop console. Incoming message.
Ignoring the shade, he walked around to his desk, and activated the connection.
The image was a bit unsteady. Or rather, the man in the image was a bit unsteady. Or rather, his entire Arcology was a bit unsteady, swaying back and forth, with the dull sound of impacts in the distance...
"Arcology Hippocrates calling, from the Atlantic waypoint," the second level Proctor said, formally. Quite unconcerned with the way his city was apparently shaking underneath his feet. "To inform Proctor Lar that the Atlanteans have begun their attack, just as predicted."
"I see. And how are you holding up?"
"We're currently getting splashed by some highly localized tsunami-class waves, but there's no structural damage. I would suggest a response, however, before the Atlanteans escalate and potentially find a way to breach the hull. Your orders, sir?"
"I suppose it was too much to hope that they'd accept the pointlessness of their Great Entities in the grand scheme of things," Lar mused. "Oh well. It's unfortunate that things have come to this. You have my permission to proceed with pacification response #FFF."
"Sir...? Are you certain? I feel that pacification response #1A8 would be equally effective, and--"
"You're young, Secondary Proctor, and have a lot to learn. This is a long-term solution to the problem at hand. The absolute continuation of the future takes priority over short-term mercies. Proceed with #FFF."
He was already thinking of ways he could integrate this with tonight's announcement, as he closed the channel.
The figurative and slightly literal devil on his shoulder was smiling, all the while.
"I think we're going to get along just fine, you and me," The Mister suggested. "After all, you're already doing my work for me, aren't you? And I don't just mean all the lovely genocide."
by stefan gagne
Una point zero one sat in her reading room, illuminated only by the glow of her holographic console.
She had to repeat it twice before it sank in.
The task force allocation officer on the other end of the line was clearly showing signs of exasperation.
"I didn't say that," the officer repeated, as well. "You are simply not being allocated for the foreseeable future to any concerns. The Council of #A076, working in tandem with the Ascendancy, has already selected team leaders for all upcoming task forces. You are not one of them. That does not mean you are 'fired,' to use the local term. You are simply not required for anything whatsoever."
"But... wait, but what about the refugee coordination efforts? There's still so many who were displaced when the Arcology was destroyed. I can help you with that, I know these people, they trust me--"
"Resource allocation specialists have already been selected."
"Then liaison to the Faerie Court! Susan is my godchild. I know her like she was my own! I can help you there!"
"Proctor Lar is already in communication with the Faerie Princess, and does not require a third party."
Lar. The name made Una's teeth grind. She couldn't prove who he was, but... she knew the grim and grumpy old man, once upon a time. And the smooth-talking young man's skin he was wearing did nothing to hide his true malice...
"What about... what about Kas's work?" she asked, knowing it was a long shot. "Evacuation of Arcology Luna #01. Continuing Project Pangea and Project Lite. I can maybe help out with that--"
"Evacuation by Ascendancy shuttlecraft is already underway. And even if those other two projects hadn't been cancelled by the Ascendancy, what possibly makes you think you're qualified for that sort of work?" the officer asked. "Una, despite being thirty-three cycles old, you have no specialty, no trained skill set. Your studies were limited and completely generalized. You're a ninety-one who never found a calling. You're certainly not capable of handling an advanced engineering task force. You have no value to apply towards our purposes."
Maybe it was the mention of Lar that put her anger on edge. Maybe it was just frustration at being told she was useless. Probably both.
"I have leadership skills! Years and years of practiced leadership skills!" Una insisted. "I led the expedition to the Forsaken Shores! I was involved in the Welcome Wagon project! I helped uncover the conspiracy that you claim the Ascendancy finished unmasking and purging from our society! Put me in charge of any task force, I don't care how minor, and I will show you how capable this ninety-one is!"
Already, this communication was going on far longer than the officer wanted. He let out one final sigh... and spoke directly.
"Una... there's simply no task force available," he replied. "You've done fine work in the past -- although I would like to point out that the first Welcome Wagon project was seen as a failure by the Council -- and we thank you for that work. But with the arrival of the Ascendancy, the Orbitals of this world no longer have to apply abrasion to the bottom of the cylindrical container to obtain scarce resources, to use a local phrase. We have experts, ones with far more experience and specialized skills. We don't need you anymore. ...you have a home in New Orleans, connections to the Fae, and apparently... from what your file says... a 'loving family'. I suggest enjoying your retirement. I have surpassed my allocated time for this message. I'm terminating the connection."
The display winked off. Leaving Una in the dark of her study.
She finally sank backwards, into the pleasantly comfortable leather armchair. The one that a Noble Fae house had given her a few years ago, in thanks for coordinating a deal exchanging Orbital cloth for Faerie steel. Not that it offered any comfort today.
Useless. Unneeded. Merely a ninety-one...
Part of her, a bitter and angry part, decided this was all a matter of Lar's extended revenge. If he was really the murderous madman who killed her mother... and likely her father, as well... he would take great pride in trivializing Una. Even to the point of having one of his underlings do it, rather than dignify her with a face-to-face chat.
But... another part, one which had been with Una ever since childhood... worried that they were right.
She'd spent much of her youth wrapped up in trivialities. Earth media. Dreams of romance. Failed relationships. Incredible emotional blunders. Even in her supposed finest hour, working to free her people from the conspiracy that had made them unknowing accomplices to genocide... she was so focused on her own little misguided dreams that she'd actually thrown herself at Scout, once. Scout. The man who was like a trusted brother to her, now. It was humiliating just to remember that incident; Emily actually had a good-natured laugh over it, when Una finally got the nerve to confess her indiscretion. And then there was Brell...
Brell. The horrible man she convinced herself that she loved, just so she could be loved. A pathetic self-deception, powered by traditional media depictions of prince-plus-princess-equals-happiness fairy tales.
An Orbital didn't get distracted by such absolute nonsense. An Orbital was dogged in the pursuit of knowledge, not of boys. (And in the end, it wasn't even a boy that she craved with her heart, and it took her so long to realize that... even on an emotional level, she was a failure.)
Thirty-three cycles... so many years, and she'd done nothing to improve herself. Nothing to justify herself. Her "leadership" opportunities all came from Emily and her father. Maybe those task forces and concerns she was involved in were just gifts from a doting father, giving his adorably useless little daughter something to occupy her time...
It was the voice of her insecurity. It was illogical, just as illogical as romance was supposed to be. But both felt so real to her; how could she shove it aside and claim it meant nothing?
Well. She'd have plenty of time to think about it, now. Tending to her little cottage, enjoying her adult years, her loving family, and always worrying that she'd still managed to fail.
Una emerged from the dark of the study, feet dragging against the fine elven weave of the carpet. Towards the other light in the house, in this nighttime hour...
Towards the one guiding light in her life. Nelliwyn.
The elf was sitting on the couch... but leaning forward, attentively. Eyes wide, as she watched the network broadcast...
"...it was an unfortunate situation, and one which had no other possible outcome," Proctor Lar was explaining, during his borrowed airtime. "Atlantis refused the call of peace and order. They turned their backs on this world, and on all of you. Consider -- for two hundred years, they could have contacted your nations at any time. They could have worked to find a peaceful solution that would let you cross their territory without disturbing the sea beasts they kept as pets. Did they? No. They sat in isolation, perfectly content to let their pets destroy your ships and airplanes, to murder your people. Only when forced to the negotiation table did they consent to any stripe of cooperation, and a limited one at best..."
"I've been fired," Una mumbled.
"The Ascendancy just destroyed Atlantis," Nel replied.
Both sat on the couch after that, in mute shock.
"...today, the Ascendancy struck a blow against your greatest enemy," Lar continued. "For generations, they had kept you isolated. Starving, desperate, and barely able to survive. This has been a long time coming... and I am proud to say that from now on, your age-old nemesis will no longer burden this world. We have solved this problem for you, just as you always wanted us to. ...however. Do not think that such drastic measures are the only means the Ascendancy has to cure society's ills..."
The image of Lar faded... to show stock footage. Of hate rallies by the Federalists, declaring that the only good grimm was a dead grimm. Of druidic rituals of the Braid of Dawn, to unify against all that was not of the Faerie Court...
"People of the Americas... for too long you have endured the intolerance and bigotry of these two groups," Lar continued, in voiceover. "Hate is not the road to the future. Extremism has no place in a peaceful, orderly society. I'm proud to say that working in tandem with the FBI, we have successfully captured the leaders of both the Federalists and the Braid of Dawn."
Back to his smiling face.
"You may think... what is to come of Kai Myfanwy and Liam Jefferson, the masterminds behind these groups? Will the Ascendancy show the same force they showed against your ancient enemy the Atlanteans, or against Los Muertos and the Mutant hordes? The answer... is no. We have shed enough blood in the name of peace and order on your world, and have always regretted the extent of the steps that must be taken when compromise cannot be found. For them... we are pleased to introduce the time-honored, extensively tested Ascendancy program of Total Social Conversion..."
...and from stage left and stage right... an elven matron, and a grey-haired scholar. Kai Myfanwy and Liam Jefferson.
Smiling, just as Lar was smiling.
"With the aid of Orbital psychologists, and using our proven technologies, they have seen the error of their ways," Lar explained. "They now have the perspective they need to see past the hate, to understand the wrongs they have committed. All it takes is the kindness and understanding of ones willing to listen to their problems... the Ascendancy. They have cooperated with Eastusa law enforcement to give up the names and locations of their former allies, and thanks to coordinated FBI raids... the Federalists and the Braid of Dawn are no more."
In a video moment that would be captured and uploaded over and over again to the Internet... the two blood enemies then embraced. A show of good faith and compassion.
And Nel turned off the video set. And threw the remote control through the space where the hologram was. It clattered against the distant wall.
"Mind control," she decided, rising to her feet. "I don't see any metal headbands, or any earpieces, but... no. Just... no. I know my mother. She wouldn't give up the Braid of Dawn, and certainly wouldn't give that bigoted fiend a hug..."
"I've been fired," Una mumbled.
Pausing a moment to push down her anger... Nel eased herself back to the couch. And offered Una the same hug she said was impossible from her mother.
This was Nel's place... at the side of her beloved, to be the cool and reasonable one, when Una was getting carried away. When she was melancholy. When she needed an ear, a shoulder, someone to lean on...
For the longest time, that was all Nel thought she needed to be -- Una's counterpart, her lover, her dedicated lady in waiting. But Nel had grown in the years since those silly rescue fantasies, the snap emotional reaction she'd had after being freed from Lady Morgana's chains. Enough to know when to be firm with Una.
"You're thinking they had just cause. I'm guessing the number ninety-one has crossed your mind. But that's just a number, Una," Nel declared. "Time and time again you've stood against the darkness. You've helped your people and given of yourself endlessly. The only reason that they're turning you away now... is him. Lar. You know who he is. I've worked in illusion enough to see through his lies..."
Una offered a weak laugh. "Which is why I'm always so happy to have you as a partner during Bridge night," she suggested.
"He wants you demoralized, Una. He's demonized Emily and Scout -- we both know they are not murderers! He's made Susan a prisoner in her own home! He's murdered the entire nation of Atlantis, and claimed it was an act of justice. And now he's... I don't know what he's done to my mother, but it can't be good. I should be thankful she wasn't simply killed. For all her faults, even for keeping me away from you... I still wouldn't wish that on her. ...my point is that all of this is a dark scheme! Now is not the time for doubt, love. Now is the time to act."
Rather than leaping to her feet with passionate fervor for heroism, Una remained slumped against Nel's side.
"There's nothing we can act on, love," she said. "They've taken over, completely. The only reason they haven't been openly hostile is because everybody's terrified of what would happen if they did speak out against this. No doubt that terror will deepen after the fate of Atlantis. We're only two individuals against all of this horror! What can we possibly do?"
"You can have it your way, at the Quantum Mermaid!"
Neither of them noticed that the video set had somehow turned itself back on, until the cheery announcer addressed them.
A montage of coffee cups being filled and happy hipsters enjoying conversation amidst offbeat retro furniture filled the screen. Bouncy music played, the kind you had to nod your head to, no matter how dour your mood...
"We've got lattes! We've got chai! We've got chai lattes! We've got friendly baristas, welcoming smiles. The perfect place to meet up with old friends. Come in today and have a free grande-verte, just for stopping by to say hello! We're currently on Magazine Street, in New Orleans. This is a limited time offer, so hurry on over! And make sure you're not followed. The Quantum Mermaid! Your adventure starts HERE!"
And then the video set gave a soft pop! and began to emit smoke, as it destroyed itself to erase all possibility of tracing the private message.
Two people who were not Una and Nel appeared from nowhere in particular at the edge of town that night. One wore a hat, the other wore a sharp red tie. They hailed a cab and went a few blocks into the city; then got out, and walked into an alley.
Three minutes later, two people who were also not Una and Nel wandered out. One was an Orbital gent wearing a simple silver tunic; the other was a human woman with a flowered skirt. They hailed a cab and went a few blocks deeper into the city... before getting out, and wandering behind a covered bus stop.
Another pair walked out from behind the bus stop seconds later. This time, both women were human, and were dressed like ordinary students, here to study at a local art college.
"is this really necessary?" Not Una did not say aloud. Instead, she used the barely-audible ghost whisper method taught to her by Nel... a means of communicating when in close contact, and under heavy glamour.
"whoever that was said we weren't to be followed. if lar is bright, he'll be keeping an eye on the house," Nel replied, her voice smooth and sure, being more practiced at subtle illusive communication. She kept their mouths from moving as they talked, using her magic. "they had to melt down our video set just to safely deliver that message. the house may be monitored beyond simply keeping a spotter on us, for that matter..."
"we should have left a message for carrie. i'm worried. she'll be home from her superheroing work in atlanta soon..."
"couldn't risk it, una. i worry as well... but even if carrie is immature in some ways, she's mature enough to know we'd only leave in an emergency," Nel replied, while swerving around a passed-out homeless elf on the sidewalk. "she'll be okay... magazine street should be around this corner, and--"
The two paused, as the green and white mermaid smiled coyly down at them.
"This can't really be it," Nel said aloud, the surprise of it throwing her for a moment.
The shop wasn't actually called the "Quantum Mermaid." The commercial was actually for this particular stripe of franchised coffee house, which operated under a properly trademarked name.
It had been around since Pre-Pandora times, coming and going as styles changed and the corporation was bought and sold. For a decade here and there it simply wouldn't exist, until Eastusa got a hankering for a cup of expensive fancy joe, and then it'd be back... with the same logo, the same mermaid, welcoming all. Ever since NanoSeattle's emergence as a popular tourist destination, it had been franchising itself with wild abandon across Eastusa and even Faeusa, to cash in on the tangential fame.
Nothing about this particular franchised shop seemed out of the ordinary. Peering in through the windows, Nel saw exactly what she expected... mismatched wooden tables and chairs, sofas, armchairs. Hipster decor, from various eras of Eastusa history, throwbacks and modern designs. All of it looked quite comfortable, of course.
Beyond the scattered seating areas... the bar. Where a barista waited, to dispense all manner of brown liquids and various pastries.
When she caught the face of the barista, she entered without hesitation.
Una tagged along after, just as confused... and glancing around nervously, hoping that the few late-night customers present wouldn't recognize her. No need to hope, really, as Nel had been rotating their glamour all night. Only a handful of coffee achievers were left at this hour, anyway... a woman with a guitar case talking to some elven music promoter, some poet-looking guy in a beret, and someone too busy with her nose in a blog to even pay attention to them.
The barista nodded to the pair. "Hi there, and welcome," she greeted. "What'll it be?"
"Uh... we... are looking to meet up with old friends," Una decided to say, recalling the commercial's message. "We were watching streams tonight, and saw an ad, and... had a distinct urgency for bitter caffeinated consumables--?"
Their barista quickly rang a bell behind the counter.
"Closing time, folks!" Jen Cooke of NanoSeattle announced, while pulling her green apron off over her head. "You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here. Ma'am, you said you needed to use the bathroom?"
"Err, no, I--"
"Just go around the corner there," Jen explained, pointing to a back hallway. "It's the first door on the right. On the right. You can't miss it. Take your time."
"But what about our--"
Jen the Barista ignored them after that, moving around from the counter, to hustle everybody out of the shop. Una stood perplexed, until Nel hustled her along to the back hallway, as they'd been directed.
On the left, a door indicating the unisex bathroom.
On the right, a door indicating Employees Only were allowed passage.
"She said on the right," Nel reminded, as Una drifted towards the bathroom instead.
Nel twisted the handle on the forbidden door, and stepped into...
...another world. Or rather, a sub-world. A space which only existed at the whimsy of its creator.
Briefly, she stepped back into the hallway. Just to confirm that there was no possible way the room on the other side could exist, that it was far too big, and would've overflown into the main area of the coffee shop proper. Once she was satisfied that this made no sense whatsoever, she pulled Una in with her, and closed the door behind them...
A vast room greeted them. Not quite a living room, not really a den, more like a study, probably more of a common room in a dormitory... sort of a generalized space in which people were encouraged to get comfortable and take a load off. Throw rugs. Couches. Chairs. Video sets. Cables everywhere. Books stacked on tables. Dusty shelves along the walls. Rows of wooden crates above those bookshelves, extending high, until the light couldn't reach them anymore. A crazy mish-mash of furniture, in a room that was somewhere between a family space and an Ikea warehouse...
Two occupants. One quite recognizable, being Maria Morales, teenage daughter of Elisa Morales. Sitting on a couch in a fluffy bathrobe, looking glum and annoyed, with a half-used box of tissues nearby. Near her, a twentysomething young woman with dyed green hair and a few facial piercings was tapping away at a holographic display screen, working on some computer programmy thingamabob.
Maria spared them a glance, then turned and shouted.
"MOM! They're here!" she called out.
She then grabbed a fresh tissue and coughed into it repeatedly.
This was quite a bit to take in at once, of course. The strange coffee house, the familiar face at the bar, the impossible room, the familiar folks... Una was still trying to get a hold on her situation. Nel was slightly ahead of her on that front, but only slightly. Enough to recognize the impossible room for what it really was.
"This is a FaePlace!" Nel recognized, as they approached the center. "Una, you remember, right? Emily used to cast this spell so that we could have somewhere nice to rest, during our first adventure...!"
"What? What now? --oh, right!" Una recalled. "A magic room! Well, yes, that'd explain how it's in defiance of several laws of physics, and why it looks like such a mishmash. It adapts to the needs of each person currently inside it... must be quite a few people in here, then..."
One of whom emerged from a stately looking wooden door, squeezed between two bookshelves.
"Una, Nel," Elisa Morales greeted. "Thanks for coming. You can drop your glamour; there's no chance the Ascendancy has this place monitored. We're safe."
Nel relaxed her mental focus, letting the image drop. All the better to offer her old friend a warm and genuine smile.
They'd worked together, in the past. Elisa Morales, formerly of the FBI's Anachronism Task Force, then assigned to the Welcome Wagon project with Una and Nel. They'd explored the world together. Granted, they hadn't found a lot of success playing wandering diplomats... but on one of those adventures, they'd rescued Carrie, their adoptive ward. Carrie had even been young Maria's babysitter, for a while.
...Carrie, who was probably coming home to an empty house now, after hanging up her cape and mask. Una still worried so about her, the closest they had to having a daughter. But from the looks of things, they had made the right decision to follow the mysterious clue. Anyone who purposefully isolated themselves from the Ascendancy, and employed an upstanding character like Elisa Morales, could be trusted. Presumably.
Elisa paused a moment, to turn to her own adoptive daughter. "Maria, did you take your medicine?"
"That stuff tastes like cat urine," Maria complained. "And it doesn't help my cough any. Screw it."
"Maria, come on. This is for the good of your health--"
"Don't care. I'm not taking that junk. What're you gonna do, Mom, ground me?" the teenager challenged. "I'm already perpetually grounded by living here! Forget it. Going to my room anyway."
She grabbed the cardboard box of tissues, nodded briefly to Una and Nel, then stormed off through a door plastered with rock band posters. It slammed shut behind her.
Elisa shared a helpless look with the young woman who glanced over from her computer terminal.
"Toooold you," the hacker said, in a sing-song tone.
"...anyway. Una, Nel, welcome," Elisa greeted, a bit more downbeat than before. "To our home away from home for the last few years. I take it Gwen's message got to you? Sorry, we didn't realize she decided to play around and send a wacky commercial instead of the prepared communication I drafted..."
Gwen Berners-Lee stuck out her tongue, and got back to her programming duties.
"So... this is the Quantum Mermaid. Gwen named it that; partly visual pun, partly in honor of Gilbert's ship," she continued. "It's actually a nanotech building, controlled by Jen Cooke, designed to look like a coffee shop. The doorway you walked through indeed has a FaePlace enchantment of Gwen's design; this is the true heart of the Mermaid. It's untraceable and hidden from the Ascendancy. Even hidden from the Gatherer network, which is good, since--"
"Ah... pardon, Elisa. Back up a bit, if you don't mind," Una requested. "The Gatherers? You know about them...?"
"Of course. I've been working for them for a while now, in fact. Specifically for Tier Zero, Archivist Sen."
"Right. Aaand... the Gatherers, ah... what ARE they, exactly?"
Elisa had a seat on the couch, where her daughter was sitting before.
"I told Sen we should've opened up to you before this," she complained. "Rules be damned. Now we have to start at square one, and after the stars have fallen. Where do I begin... you've heard that prophecy, right? That the Gatherers were looking for items of power, for the day when the stars fall?"
Una and Nel had a seat on a couch opposite. This was clearly going to take awhile.
"Jesse told us about what she'd uncovered in Europe," Una explained. "How she ran into some Gatherers, and learned that they were trying to track down weapons and gadgets and artifacts, for 'when the stars fell'. But nobody knew what that meant. We assumed it was for some sort of attack on the Earth, so we carried on trying to unify the world through the United Nations in hopes it would prepare us, but... you mean it was the Ascendancy? They're the fallen stars?"
"Exactly," Elisa confirmed. "Two hundred years ago, one of the finest Proctors inside the Orbital conspiracy decided he'd had enough. Proctor Hel knew there was no end in sight to the genocide, and if uncovered, they'd simply move to Phase Two: the Ascendancy, a conspiracy that exists in the open, pretending to cooperate with Earths while continuing to strip them bare."
"So this man started the Gatherers, to find a way to fight against the fallen Orbitals," Una continued... seeing how it all fit together, for the first time. "The Gatherers weren't preparing to fight some sort of alien menace. They were getting ready to stop the conspiracy within our ranks!"
"Correct. And to give them weapons to fight with, Proctor Hel designed this Earth's Pandora Event. He designed it carefully, using his legendary skills at predicting social patterns, to ensure that despite the dozens of foreign elements it would stay stable rather than fall apart. Long enough for the Gatherers to do their work. ...of course, all of that's gone to the dogs now..."
"Pardon? They have relocated themselves to be in the presence of canines...?"
"The plan failed completely. The Ascendancy caught us with our pants down. Way I see it, the Gatherers got too greedy," Elisa said. "They were too busy being proud of their work, caught up in the science and forgetting the reason behind it. They lost focus even after you and Emily indirectly kicked off the start of the Ascendancy! 'Oh, don't worry! They're years and years away from coming here!' they said. 'Projections indicate they won't have enough required resources for decades,' they said. Only Archivist Sen was willing to take action..."
The door Elisa had emerged from opened again, quietly, the brass door handle creaking.
Sen straightened out his tie, before walking over to join them.
"I prefer to be called by my civilian name, really," he said. "I know my people call me Sen, but I always liked William Petersen more. I was born an American citizen, after all."
It was a touch dramatic, to be honest. He'd deliberately entered at mention of his name, for the best impact. Which meant he had to wait a moment for them to catch up and start asking the obvious questions.
"Sen... Archivist Sen, leader of the Gatherers... is President Petersen?!" Una blurted.
"Former President Petersen, sadly. No chance of me getting a second term," Petersen admitted. "I knew then I had to get my own team together, before I no longer had the pull to do so. A private team, unknown even to the Gatherers, who weren't taking things seriously enough. I took the idea wholesale from Emily, actually... she had her anachronauts, I had my anachronauts. Miss Morales, who you know -- and her daughter, although she's not officially a member. Then there's Miss Gwen Berners-Lee--"
The green haired computer girl waggled her fingers in their direction.
"--who came here fresh from witching school, to be my expert in Eastusa technology and Fae magic. You've also met Jen Cooke of NanoSeattle, who runs the nanotech replica coffee house we indirectly live in. Just like the original anachronauts... I sought out a broad range of origins, each with their own specialties, their own talents. All for one cause, keeping this world safe. ...which we failed at completely, unfortunately. The Ascendancy had spies in the Gatherer ranks. The entire Gatherer Archive network fell the day they arrived. Since my team moved in secret, we're all that's left. Mistakes were made."
Nel spoke up, because she knew Una would be too polite to say it.
"Mistakes were certainly made. For instance, you should have told us about this before," Nel said. "About ALL of this! Did you not trust Queen Emily, Mr. Petersen? You worked with her as the President on so many issues, why not this one? Together, we could have done something. We'd at least have been prepared! #A076 was destroyed, and we had no idea why..."
Petersen couldn't meet her eyes. He gave a diplomatic cough and looked aside, apparently fascinated by a dust mite.
"I wanted to approach Emily," he said. "Even as Tier Zero, the leader of the Gatherers, I didn't have the right to make that call on my own. The others in the organization didn't see any value in recruiting the 'locals', they thought we could stop the Ascendancy on our own. Hmph. Orbital pride. The best I could do was push for what needed to be done as the President... and organize my own small team, using the best and the brightest this world had to offer, without the Gatherers knowing. I couldn't make bigger moves than that. ...I'm sorry, Una. Your father's death... the loss of your city... I feel at least in part responsible. Nel's right; this could have been avoided."
"It could have," Una agreed. In a voice far colder than she was usually considered capable of.
Another set of eyes he couldn't meet. But... if he had, he would've seen the brief look of anger replaced by a smile, moments later.
"But it is what it is," she continued. "There's no point in wasting our time with accusations and could-have-beens. We will look to the future, instead. Our course is clear -- Lar must be stopped. He murdered my parents, he destroyed my home, and perverted my entire society... all to further his sick goals. The Ascendancy must be forced off this planet, at the very least. That's why you called us, yes? To aid in the rebellion started with the Gatherers?"
Finally... Petersen could look at them. And nod, in affirmation.
"That's the plan. Take what resources we've got, and use them to undermine the Ascendancy before it's too late," he agreed. "Calling you in was Emily's idea, actually, because the mission she came up with--"
"Emily is here?!" Una asked, excitedly. "Aha! I knew it. I KNEW those claims that Emily and Scout are wanted murderers were more of Lar's lies!"
Smiles only existed on Una's side of the room, at that.
Petersen reached into the pocket of his pants, withdrawing a simple vinyl square. An "instamatic" picture, retro even before Pandora struck. He glanced at it, to confirm something... then over to one of the many doors along the edges of the FaePlace common room.
A heavy iron door. Sliding slot at eye level for observing the interior, sliding slot and at the midpoint for pushing in a dinner tray. A secured prison door.
Una followed his gaze, and peered at the distant portal, curious. But Nel knew, immediately, what it meant.
A FaePlace changes itself based on who currently occupies it, to give them a room that best suits their needs, she thought. That means a prison cell wouldn't have been Petersen's idea. It had to be his idea. Scout made it for himself...
Once upon a time, there was a sad boy. A boy so sad that he came around the other side and became angry and cold. An unwanted boy, an orphan, someone who was everyone else's problem rather than anyone's responsibility. He wasn't intended to be anything other than another of society's castoffs, dead by violence before he could even come of age...
And then he met the old soldier. Saul.
Saul had never heard of an unsalvageable scenario. After all, he'd defended his city against countless attacks by the Summer Court, when everybody said it was lunacy to maintain such a large urban settlement so far away from Eastusa's undisputed territory. But Saul wasn't a proud crusader looking for an opportunity to prove his skill -- he quietly worked with what was in front of him, until he was satisfied that it was the way it should be. And he refused to stop until the work was done.
The old soldier took this dangerous little boy, and taught him to focus his danger. To become dangerous to those that threaten the things he believed in... because Saul could tell that the supposedly heartless boy had a heart, underneath his wild exterior. A dog that would hunt, instead of bite madly. And hunt he did, under Saul's compassionate but firm direction.
He was supposed to join a military academy. Join the Frontliners. Become a Scout, a recon specialist and hunter, work he was naturally leaning towards.
And then Lady Winter, for whatever reason, decided to finish the job her sister could not. She murdered the city in its sleep. She murdered the old soldier. And, in the end, she murdered the boy. Which only ended up being the start of his woes...
There was more story than that, of course. But to see the boy today, sweating and gritting his teeth in the dark of a prison cell, like a wild animal caged... it wouldn't be clear that anything had changed.
His heartbeat had once again been replaced by the drums of the Wild Hunt.
"I'm going to kill him," Scout declared. "Going to crush his throat. Tear out his throat. Something. I don't know. I'll figure it out when I'm alone with him. I'm going to make him suffer--"
"This isn't you, Scout," his wife pleaded. "You've never been like this. Even in the time we first met, you weren't like this. You can get that control back -- remember, count your breaths. Come on. Easy. One, two. One, two..."
"Not true. I've been like this before. You don't know what I was like, Emily..."
"You were more apathetic and twitchy than outright vicious, Scout. Not a mad dog. You were strong against Lady Winter!"
"No, I was redirecting myself," he explained. Talking about it helped distract him from the urge to act on it, oddly enough. "I became a hunter. I hunted quite a few people, and was compelled to do so. Thought I could turn it into a kind of justice, could at least put my compulsion to good use. Cruel Fae nobles, slavedrivers like Lady Morgana. Eastusa businessmen who had entire villages killed to turn a profit. I have killed. Killed plenty, before we met. Hunted. Now I have to do it again. All of this, all over again..."
"You don't have to do anything. Dammit, Scout -- I'm the new Lady Winter!" she protested. "The old one pushed you to be cruel. Not me! ...if only I knew how the Faerie Queens changed you into a Summerlion, I've been trying, but I can't figure out how..."
"It's not about who has the crowns. It's about the Wild Hunt. Exists as long as your crown exists, like it or not. It has to be directed, or you go feral, like... like I did when I killed those Orbitals. ...a doctor. I think I killed a doctor. He wasn't trying to hurt me and I killed him anyway..."
"So... direct it! Control it!"
"I want to. I want to direct it. I want to direct it directly at Lar's throat," Scout hissed... as he paced inside his cell, tight circles. "That's the problem. I have my prey fixed in my mind and I can't unfix it. He hurt my family. Hurt you. Killed Una's family. He's hurt so many. I want to kill him. That's what the hunt wants. That's what I want, can't fight it, because too much of me wants it. Even if it's... a mistake... even if he'd just capture me, White Room me, even if it's useless... I CRAVE it...!"
Useless. It was a word that had been bouncing around in Emily's mind quite a bit, the last few days. She felt just as useless as Scout did, after all. Amazing cosmic power... and she could do nothing to soothe him.
She could do what he suggested she do, when he first awoke from his feral Winterhound stupor. She could grant him death. Take away the gift of resurrection, which only existed for Winterhounds at Lady Winter's whims. Not that she ever would, no matter how bad things got. But she had no good ideas, none at all... and he was determined to keep himself locked away, until he could be sure he wasn't a threat to anyone. Stalemate.
The man shivered. Despite being in his thirties now... he looked just as lost as he did as a teenager.
"It's cold," Scout said. "Forgot how cold it was, like this. Not until I was so warm, as a Summerlion. As a father. ...I had peace, Emily. Just a few days ago I had peace and I took it for granted. Didn't realize at the time how precious that feeling was, compared to my life before..."
"You're going to have it again. I swear that to you," Emily declared. "I'm going to find some way to help you, Scout. ...meanwhile, I've put a word out to Taamusi. If anyone can help you with this, I know he can."
"Shouldn't have done that. Risky, to let anybody else know we're here. Bad enough Una and Nel are coming..."
"It's worth the risk to me, Scout. We are going to live through this. We are going to be a family again, and we are going to be at peace. I swear it."
"Except you know that's not how this ends."
For a moment, Emily convinced herself she had no idea what he was talking about.
"The world split in two. Fire and ice," Scout reminded her. "The king and queen divided, with myself holding the Crown of Ice. The madness of the seasons. Never again to be together. ...you saw it. Didn't make any sense before: why would I turn on you like that? Thought we could fight it, could resist it... but I'm so close to the heart of winter, now. It's so cold. What if--"
"I don't live in a world of what ifs," Emily decided. "I live in a world of what can bes. And we can be a family again. ...try to get some rest. Please, try to actually sleep tonight. Now... I need to go sort this mess out. I'll be back in the morning."
She didn't want to leave him, in the cold and dark of his self-selected prison cell. She wanted to stay. But wanting and needing were different things, and right now, she needed to get her plan underway.
Emily tried to look strong and confident, emerging from the iron prison door. From the looks on her friends' faces, she was anything but.
The sleep-deprived witch took a moment to slip a square piece of instamatic photography from her skirt pocket. One of the few artifacts that Petersen had smuggled out of the Gatherer network, before it collapsed... it gave you a live view through the point of view the photo was taken from, at any time. And in the frame... her husband continued to pace. Not lying down on his cot, not trying to sleep. With a sigh, she pocketed the picture... and got to work.
"I'm sorry I had to bring you in at this hour," Emily explained, having a seat next to Petersen, opposite Una and Nel. "But if we're going to do this, we need to do it now. Right now, before their duty rosters solidify. I need you to infiltrate one of the Ascendancy's Arcologies."
She could've said it in a less shocking way, but she was exhausted. Too exhausted to be kind. Thankfully, her friends didn't miss a beat.
"We're ready to help," Una announced. "What's your plan, Emily?"
Her lungs deflated, letting out relief at their quick acceptance. "Thank you. I... just... thank you," she said. "We... okay. I'm a little brain-fried, so if any of this doesn't make sense, stop me and ask for clarification. Gwen's hacked into the Ascendancy's communications grid. Just the lower levels, logistics and routing and trivial things. But it's enough to point the way to what needs to be done. ...Gwen, can you explain? I'm... I gotta sit down a bit, here. Just for a minute."
The girl at the computer closed a few windows, then brushed one from her display onto a portable projector. She walked over to the conversation pit, sat indian-style in front of the coffee table in the middle, and set it into place.
A glowing representation of an Orbital arcology appeared... squatting in the ruins of a city.
"Arcology Socrates, currently parked in what's left of São Paulo," Gwen Berners-Lee explained. "Of course, the city's completely overrun by zombies--"
"Los Muertos," Una corrected. "Ah. Sorry, just... 'zombies' sounds so silly..."
"It's completely overrun by zombies," Gwen continued. "Flesheating zombies. Grrrr chompy. But y'know how they totally obliterated a bunch of 'em with their space rayguns on the news? They aren't actually doing that, now that the camera's off. They seem content to sit in a pile of corpses rather than pew-pew them all. We think they're really down there because nobody would poke their nose into zombie turf. It's a great place to do stuff in secret. Seeeecret tech stuff..."
The display changed... to show a Mass Capacitor. Or rather, an Essence Capacitor, the new name that Lar had been using in the news broadcasts.
"They're carving up South America, stripmining it for parts, and shipping out large amounts of Essence Capacitors. This is the place where they're making the go-juice for their planetary takeover machine. Once we figured that out, Emily... uh. Miss Emily?"
The Queen of Faerie responded with a light snore.
Nel spoke up. "I, ah... noticed she nodded off, so I decided to put a cone of silence on her for the time being," she said. "My liege needs her rest, ma'am. There's no need to wake her; I presume you and Petersen know the rest of the plan...?"
Former President Petersen nodded, in agreement -- at knowing the plan, and at giving Emily a merciful respite.
"There's no way to go to war with the Ascendancy head-on," he said. "That WAS the plan, when the Gatherers were busy scooping up anything they could find which might be used against the enemy... but we're all that's left of the Gatherers. War is off the table."
"Then our plan is sabotage, yes?" Una asked. "To shut down whatever they are doing in this Arcology that produces Essence capacitors..."
"On the right track. The idea was Emily's; we're going to pull the same trick that brought London down and made it heel. Disrupting Arcology Socrates itself is too difficult a task. Instead... we need to learn how they're making Essence Capacitors, and then figure out how we can UN-make them. If we can counter the Ascendancy's power source, we can neuter them. We'll hold it as a threat over them on other worlds they've already conquered. It's the key to unraveling their entire war machine."
"Wouldn't they be similar to Mass Capacitors, though? I can't think of any means of disabling one of those... well, other than what happened to #A076, I suppose..."
"My theory is that there's more to them than some souped-up form of Mass Capacitor. Some X factor in play, which we may be able to leverage. Lar claims he solved the problem that Kas could not... an unknown technique that let them leapfrog all Gatherer predictions of when they'd be strong enough to attack the Earth. You don't build up power that fast without there being a drawback we can work with."
"I see. Would Kas's memory palace be of any help?" Una asked. "Emily should have it in her possession..."
"It might, but right now it's back at her palace. Which is crawling with Summerlions and Ascendancy types, staring each other down like alley cats," Gwen interjected. "It's a no-fly zone. Man, the kids at the witching school are in a sucky situation... I think I got a message to Susie Moonthistle to let her know her folks are okay, and I've got ideas for how you can contact Carrie, but we can't get a reply back safely from anyone there. We didn't even know if you two saw my message, for that matter..."
Nelliwyn nodded, appreciative of that side note. "We couldn't leave a note for Carrie without the Ascendancy catching on. Anything you can do to reach her would be helpful, even if it's a one way message."
"I wouldn't leave her high and dry, nope, nope. But point is, New Orleans is bat country right now, totally dangerous. Can't keep digging for resources there. Only way we're gonna figure out these new batteries is to go right to the source and get hands-on time with them."
"And so... Una, Nel... we need you to infiltrate that Arcology and learn how Essence Capacitors are made," Petersen concluded. "With an eye towards nullifying them. Integrate into the work force, discover what you can, steal materials, and come back alive. We'll have to leave tonight to avoid detection; you can then sneak in with the morning work crews. With Nel's disguise mastery and Una's knowledge of her people's culture, you two are the best candidates for the job. ...I won't lie to you. This is going to be tricky."
"Tricky is a fine word for it," Nel noted, making her concern clear. "We have no idea what situation we are walking into. It will take guile beyond reckoning to appear as if we belong there; and cunning beyond reckoning to obtain what we seek..."
"I know it's a risk. All of us are risking our lives to make this work," Petersen said. "The alternative is to sit around, enjoy the peace and order of the Ascendancy, and wait for them to slowly dismantle your world around you until you come around to their point of view or die trying. So, death is always going to be in play. ...but if you want to back away from this, I'll understand. It's a lot to ask of you."
Again, Una didn't even need a moment to reflect on her answer. She did spare a glance to Nel, to make sure -- but the determination in those elven eyes mirrored her own, cautious though it was.
"We're ready," she repeated, from earlier. "Difficult or not, this is too important for us to back away from. It's not only the salvation of Earth... but of my people, as well. I cannot allow Lar and those like him to continue perverting our society. ...I don't like leaving our daughter alone and vanishing into the night on a mission, but I trust you to find a means to contact her."
Gwen didn't glance up from the holographic keyboard she was tapping away on. "Already on it. Got a few good ideas; don't want to repeat the same tricks twice, the Ascendancy are sharp cookies..."
"Very well. So, how are we to reach the southern demarcated continental mass of America?" Una asked. "Jetpacks? Spaceships? Faerie magic?"
"No, we're going to move the coffee house into São Paulo's ruins, using a Gatherer artifact that works like an Orbital shift engine," Gwen said, calling up a communication window. In it, Jen Cooke could be seen, busy turning chairs up on tables in the restaurant above. "Hey, Jen? We're good to go. Fire up the reality engine whenever."
"Wait, what? Move the entire building?" Una asked. "But... won't someone notice if one of these franchised coffee houses mysteriously vanishes oh wait I see your point very well then."
The holographic Jen nodded, and returned to the bar. She flipped a lever, causing the espresso machines to rotate into the wall... revealing a slightly dented metal device of alien origin. (A stamped metal plate on the side bore a stylish-looking corporate logo for "RealWare." Curious, Una thought...)
The image blurred.
The Quantum Mermaid translocated itself through the shift planes, landing right back on the same reality it left, but in a new location.
And a scream tore through the room.
There wasn't enough room for all of them. Maria's bedroom in the FaePlace was typical for a teenager of her age; media collections, posters on the walls, clothes on the floor despite her mother insisting she pick them up. A lovely bed with pink sheets. And a teenager between them, sweating and mumbling, twisting up within her blankets...
Her mother tended to her, trying to cull the fever with a cold compress. Petersen was there as well, looking concerned, and staying by Elisa's side. The others simply watched through the doorway, not wanting to crowd the small bedroom.
(Emily continued to snore away on the couch. Even Maria's scream of agony hadn't broken through Nel's silence glamour. Rather than worry her with yet another problem, they chose to let her keep sleeping.)
"Maria's been sick for a few years now," Gwen whispered, trying to explain. "You know where she comes from, right? Where she really comes from...?"
"Ah... Emily told me, once," Una recalled. "As a child, Maria was one of Los Muertos, before a combination of Summerlion magic and Orbital cloning technology saved her. But she's fully human now, I mean, the Biologists confirmed no trace of undead contamination or Fae enchantment when the process was completed..."
"None they could find. Both of 'em are back now, unfortunately. Necrosis being fought by regenerative magic. Not much, barely enough to pick up on an Orbital medical scan, but... it's getting worse by the day. ...dammit. Poor kid. We should've known that shifting the Mermaid right into the heart of Los Muertos territory might have an effect on her..."
"We need to go back," Una suggested. "Perhaps far north. Drop her off somewhere safe, then come back..."
"Can't do. The Mermaid's reality engine takes anywhere from twelve to twenty hours to recharge," Gwen explained. "It's an old Gatherer artifact, and a bit damaged. Plus, if we leave you behind, you'd be trapped; if we stay you could always go stealthy and run back here should something goes wrong in the mission. --look. I already know what Petersen's gonna say, so please, don't make this any harder on them by insisting. We gotta go forward with the mission."
"Will be looked after. I'm a witch, and I take care of my own," Gwen said -- in a firm tone that reminded Una of Emily. "Right now this is the safest place for her. Heck, we've even got the Faerie Queen on hand... and I'm thinking she could use a distraction. Let us worry about this. You two worry about the mission. You'll be going in the morning, sooo... get some sleep. There'll be a room in the FaePlace for you, now. --that one, I think."
Una glanced over... and saw a familiar door. It was an ordinary wooden door, painted a nice white, with a doorknob of glass like a fake crystal. The same door they had on their bedroom, back at the cottage outside New Orleans... and no doubt a perfect replica of their room would lie behind it.
It was selfish to think about sleep at a time like this... but they had run off on another grand adventure on such short notice, and had so much peril ahead of them. A few hours of peace wasn't too much to ask for, between those things.
So, Nel and Una retired to their room, leaving the suffering of the girl and the scheming of spies behind them for now.
That night, they made love as if it was going to be the last time they had together. Not that Una would believe it, being an Optimist at heart, down to her soul.
Una had never been very good at it. Deceit wasn't in her nature; she was too earnest, too concerned with the feelings of others. In fact, the last time she acted in that capacity was fifteen years ago... in the city of Baltimore. Where her sympathies for the "enemy" had gotten her strapped to a chair and tortured. It was an experience she did not like to dwell on, even this far removed from the event, the thought that anyone could be so heartlessly cruel just for cruelty's sake...
No. Not to dwell on it. Infiltration was what had to be done, and this time, she would take greater care.
It was decided that Una only needed minor alteration to be unrecognizable as Una. A few tweaks to her facial features via a long-lasting glamour enchantment would do the trick. Nel, on the other hand, was far too fey in appearance... her hair color had to be washed out, her ears rounded, her clothes replaced with garb of Orbital make. Fortunately, being Nel, she had a perfect disguise up and running within a minute. Given the quasi-psychic nature of an Nel's illusions, it took Una longer than a minute to get over how unsettling it was for her lover's voice to come from this stranger's mouth.
They would be taking two artifacts with them, to aid in the effort. One, a small porcelain figurine depicting a smiling puppy. Apparently, if shattered, a matching copy sitting on Gwen's desk would shatter as well -- and that would be the signal that they needed immediate armored extraction, that everything had gone wrong. Two, a simple document folder, containing a blank sheet of paper. Elisa claimed it would be all they needed to have the most convincing cover story imaginable, provided they gave it to the right person. It would only work once.
Arcology Socrates was a good half mile away, through the winding ruins of São Paulo. They would approach using a stealth glamour, looking for the right moment to integrate themselves with the work force. And presumably, the sizeable population of Los Muertos would not be able to find them along the way...
The pair said their goodbyes, in swift enough manner. The group was torn with worry, but torn two directions. Outwardly, as Una and Nel stepped out of the FaePlace, to begin their mission. Inwardly... as Maria Morales was in a fever state, occasionally thrashing in the restraints they had to add to her bed. A concern Una couldn't allow herself to share, as she had her own concern to be concerned with.
Beyond the FaePlace...
The coffee shop was in ruins.
And Jen Cooke was undead.
"No, no, it's okay, it's me!" the rotting spectre of Jen protested, holding up her hands defensively, as Una leapt away from her. "I adjusted myself and the Mermaid to match its surroundings. I mean... blending in, right? It's all nanotech, so I can reshape it as needed. It's okay. Totally okay."
"I... ah... of course, yes," Una said, forcing herself to calm, despite the grim visage of a barista before her. "You will be... well, up here? With Los Muertos abound?"
"I don't think they can tell I'm here," Jen said, glancing through the shattered windows of the coffee shop at the ruins beyond. "Or they don't care. We don't know how they track prey, but... I've spent the last hour up here to be sure, and they haven't come sniffing. A few walked on by without even looking my way. ...look, if anything goes wrong, even if you don't get the goods, just... run. Run back here. We can be gone in seconds."
"But this may be our only shot at crippling the Ascendancy's war machine," Una said. "We need to come back with results. Jen... we will be well. Don't concern yourself."
A low moan from the streets beyond did nothing to lower Una's own level of concern.
Two figures did not walk the streets.
They moved slowly. Nel was taking no chances; she had focused herself completely on the task of becoming a ghost. Obviously they would be invisible, but they also had to be inaudible, and leave behind not even the slightest hint of body odor. No sensory trail to follow. Any rubble they had to pick their way through couldn't become unsettled, couldn't move, couldn't make a noise... she had to leave a trail of adjusted illusions in their wake, so that loose rocks wouldn't become obviously loosened until they were well away.
The first gaunt hunter they saw didn't look their way.
Una spared a moment to study him (from afar) as Nel carefully maneuvered them through the wreckage of a parking lot. The poor thing was emaciated, dried out, used up... it didn't resemble the fierce and cruel cannibal she'd been told existed here. He was slumped against a building, as if exhausted from the effort of simply existing. A bundle of bone and mottled skin and stretched muscle... with half-lidded yellow eyes. Tear ducts had long ago stopped working, eyes crusted over, unable to fully open or close...
She wanted to comment on this to her partner, but knew even using ghost whispers was dangerous. Nothing could distract Nel from the task of getting them safely through--
Its head slowly raised.
Its eyes turned towards her.
That was worth a distraction.
i think that one can see us, Una whispered, a hair below audibility, but loud enough for Nel's sensitive ears to pick up on.
From between the rusted hulks of minivans... another body. This one, on its feet. Taking two slow, careful steps towards them...
It shouldn't have been possible, of course. Nel was likely the foremost illusionist of her age -- the Fae nobles had assumed her to be nothing, and yet, from nothing she became something they still refused to acknowledge. If anyone could keep them from being seen, heard, smelled, felt, or (should it hopefully not come to that) tasted, it was her...
But whatever sensory input Los Muertos used, apparently it existed beyond the normal five. Another two revenants had joined the others. And another group. And another....
"Run," Nel said aloud.
Easier said than done. São Paulo had fallen to pieces around them; no clear paved roads or crisp concrete sidewalks to stroll along. Even moving as fast as possible, they had to weave their way around the rubble and wreckage, had to climb over obstacles. As much as Una wished to sprint, she could only move with purpose at the speed of a brisk jog. She held on tightly to Nel's hand, the elf leading the way, still trying to keep them from making any impact on the world around them if at all possible...
A small gathering had become a herd. Una immediately regretted looking back at them. The pitiful creatures remained quite pitiful... but now those yellowing eyes were as sharp as the half-mouthfuls of teeth that were bared in their direction. Whatever urges drove these wretches had locked onto them as the next order of business. Whatever communication they shared, it was in full effect, as every time Una dared glance behind, more had joined the parade...
"Cut the stealth and let's move!" Una called. "We have to hurry!"
"But then the Ascendancy can see--"
"They'll see they have something more worrying than us headed their way! Do it!"
What little remained of the great Cathedral of São Paulo had been overshadowed by the giant armored city that parked in the wreckage of another city. Still, despite the foreign invader crushing a good portion of the landscape, it managed to retain its spires, and the frames that once held elegant windows to allow light into the house of God. It kept a shadow of its dignity, despite everything that had been done to it...
The small gathering being held in its open air plaza took no note of whatever majesty remained. They were too focused on moving a series of colored numbers around.
"Red-4 and Blue-9," Chu presented, sliding the digits from his private hologram cube onto the game board. "Factorial rule in play. Afraid unless someone's got a Yellow-4, that's game over--"
"Yellow-4," Jon announced proudly, stacking it on top of the red number four. "Sorry, Chu."
"No worries. I was getting tired of quick wins, anyway," his companion said, sharing a smile. "Alright, then. Ket, what's your move?"
Ket's wrist display began turning red. He spared a glance at it, noting the neat triangle formation of red dots crawling along its overhead map... with a frown.
"We've got a herd of them coming in," he said. "More than the usual amount..."
"That just means the attractor's working properly, yes? More Muertos the merrier. --ha ha! Alliterative schema."
"Yes, but... this is a hunting flock pattern. It's wedge shaped. They're following something. I thought you said all the local wildlife of noteworthy size had been eaten by this point?"
The trio spared a moment from their game to study the display... then collectively turn to the northeast, towards the direction of the tiny red dots...
And saw a pair of Orbitals, running towards them. Screaming and waving their arms madly. With about a hundred of the undead following them.
"Oh, expletive--! Ket, the shields!" Chu alerted.
"I'm on it, I'm on it..." Ket said, keeping his eyes on his display, as he keyed commands into the floating keyboard. "I'll open a gap for them and close it behind."
"But if any Los Muertos get through with them--"
"I'm not a ninety-one, thank you, Chu. I know what I am doing," Ket bit back. "Now please remain silent and allow me to focus..."
Closer and closer. The two women. The twelve dozen undead. But the trio of Ket, Chu, and Jon stood their ground... there were impulses to make a break for it, back to the comfort and safety of Arcology Socrates, certainly. But logic had to win the day. They would be perfectly fine, provided Ket got his calculations correct. And Ket never got his calculations incorrect. They would be fine. Presumably...
Chu and Jon exchanged looks, and then stood ready to catch the women, to keep them from running into the opposite side of the shield dome after entering. Moments away from impact...
The pair crossed the faintly glowing circle, through the break that Ket had formed.
They were caught, and held back, to keep them from overshooting the center.
And then the wall of zombies impacted against Ket's quickly closed wall of bioelectric feedback.
The dome echoed with the metallic twang of force fields holding off impacts, crackling bursts of power arcing from the projector in the center, to slide along the surface and into the zombies that pressed up against the impassable, invisible wall. Los Muertos screamed and convulsed, their weakened bodies unable to deal with the strain of the power being blasted through them... and wave after wave of them staggered away from the shields, collapsing on the grounds of the plaza. Fresh waves hit the shields and suffered the same fate. Again and again... until over a hundred of them had run headfirst into the energy field, and were rendered unconscious.
The five Orbitals within the dome started to breathe again, after the attack subsided. Twitching and useless, the undead piled up a safe distance around them. They made no more attempts to attack. They didn't even get up, after that.
"...Ket, how's the energy level holding up?" Jon asked.
"One moment, please," Ket insisted, holding up a finger, while studying his wristbound holographic readout. "One moment. ...okay. We're good. That was a stronger attack than usual, but well within design parameters. Honestly, you were worried for nothing, Chu. We could hold off five times their number without needing to change out the capacitors..."
"Well, yes, but... we did have to reshape it to allow them to enter safely. I was concerned that would affect the energy output manifold... right?"
"Energy output matrix, thank you, Chu. Don't pretend you understand," Ket requested, with a very illogical roll of the eyes. "Now, then. Are we going to talk, or are we going to play? I'm tired of missing turns because you're busy dueling with Jon--"
Now, Chu held up a finger.
"One moment, please," he requested... with his focus on the two women, struggling to get their breath back, after doing a quarter-mile sprint to safety. "Better. You two are perfectly safe. With that established... who are you? What were you doing out there? We're the only ones with authorization to leave the Arcology! São Paulo is not a tourist capital!"
He might have come on a bit too strong. The two women looked terrified, for a moment... frozen in indecisiveness. Quite bad for morale. Chu considered taking it back, and trying to rephrase in a gentler way... when the taller of the two reached into her tunic, and pulled out a strangely dusty-looking manila folder.
"Our or-orders, sir," she stated, pulling a crisp sheet of white paper from its holder...
"Orders... I'm sorry? Printed on... is that tree bark or something?" Chu asked, reaching out to take it--
--the page was blank, wasn't it? Just a moment before. But now, it was loaded with writing. Which was absurd, since paper didn't spontaneously gather ink in structured paragraphs. Clearly, it had always been full of carefully organized information. Chu's mind must've been playing tricks on him, likely due to the brief surge of adrenaline from a Los Muertos attack...
He studied the document very carefully.
"It says here... it says..."
What was it saying to him, exactly? At first, it was difficult to read... like the letters were scurrying, to form the words he wanted to see. Again, a preposterous notion. Inked words on dry pulp don't rearrange themselves. Clearly they read exactly what they had read when they were printed, and remained unchanging. Nothing else would have made sense.
In the end, they made absolutely perfect sense.
"Len and Uno, from Arcology #A076," he read aloud. "Transferred to Arcology Socrates learn more about the Ascendancy's power processing techniques. Authorized by the Council of #A076 and... and Proctor Lar!"
Ket felt the need to interject. He snatched the paper away, to study it himself.
"Why would Proctor Lar use such an archaic means of information conveyance as 'paper'?" Ket asked. He squinted and studied, as if focusing his eyes through the paper could make it reveal some secret. "This is highly suspect--"
"#A076 is still having power consumption issues, sir," Len replied, quickly. "We're cutting corners everywhere we can, until Essence Capacitor distribution is up to full speed. I suggested the paper format in order to avoid waste, and Proctor Lar agreed with me."
"Yes! It makes perfect sense!" Uno added, oddly as if she was hearing this for the first time. "Also, we... we flew down here personally using our jetpacks, rather than take standard transport, as we were extremely eager to begin our assignments! Ah, but... the jetpacks ran out of power, due to those issues of which my friend spoke, and we had to walk the rest of the way. Thankfully, we found you! ...so... ah... are we good? Everything okay?"
Ket ignored them, busy studying the paper, trying to find fault in the faultless document. Chu considered the words of the newcomers...
...and began to smile.
"See? See? Isn't this what I've been saying all along?" Chu asked his friends. "We need more representatives from #A076 here! This is their world, just as much as it's ours. Hopefully this means Proctor Lar's rethought his reluctance to deploy them to sensitive operations. We're all in this together, after all; Orbitals united, and the Ascendancy on the rise! Obviously, they've been reading my annotated reports!"
"I don't see what a couple of neophytes from that grounded Arcology can do for us," Ket said, deciding to accept the document, for now. "You two. What are your skill sets? What are your specializations?"
Again, nervous looks between the two. Terrible for morale, simply terrible; Chu would have to have a talking to Ket later. (Not that Ket would listen, but... Chu felt that a talking was required, regardless. It was a matter of principle.)
Fortunately, the quieter of the Ascendancy trio spoke up first.
"If you're from #A076, you must be at least a little familiar with Faerie culture," Jon suggested, in his soft voice; much more pleasant than Ket's nasal whine. "I realize this is unlikely, but by any chance... are you familiar with thaumatology?"
Uno turned to look at him, puzzled. "Err... thaumatology...?"
"Pagan practices and traditions. Ritualistic physical modification of energy flows. ...magic," Jon corrected. "Faerie magic. Surely as citizens of the grounded Arcology outside New Orleans, you interacted with the Faerie Court, and witnessed their practices. I could see Proctor Lar sending representatives of #A076 if they could help my task force with our thaumatological work..."
"Yes! Yes, sir, I am familiar with thaumatology!" Len spoke up, immediately -- going so far as to raise her hand, for attention. "Ah... I've done little traditional spellcasting, just a few Mendings here and there. My specialization is glamour. --thaumatological image projection. Like holography."
Jon nodded... satisfied. "Close enough for me," he declared. "I'll ask the Council to add this new recruit to my task force. I'm close to cracking the 8.33% problem. More eyes on the runes would help a lot."
"I don't suppose the other one -- Uno, is it? -- knows anything about force fields and weaponized bioelectric charges," Ket mumbled, making it a statement rather than a query. "Judging from the not-so-bright-look on her face, that would indeed be a no..."
Quite enough of that, Chu decided. "You're making our new friends feel unwelcome," he noted. "Don't be a beast, Ket. These are our brothers -- ah, pardon, sisters -- from #A076! We are all one people, and all are welcome under the handheld radiation shield of the Ascendancy. Uno, you can work with me on the morale improvement task force until you have an official assignment!"
Uno's nervousness began to fade. Good, Chu thought; there was no need for her to be frightened. They were all Orbitals, after all.
"Ah, thank you, sir! Thank you!" she thanked, twice. "Well! I'm glad to meet you all, and am looking forward to our productive work together. ...so! What do we do first?"
The trio glanced around... and with a collective shrug, sat down around the game table again.
"No reason we can't add in two more players," Chu suggested. "We've got some temporal divisions to murder, after all."
"What? But... we're in the middle of piles of Los Muertos!"
"I know! It's really going to help fill our daily quota, the way you led so many to us! Normally it takes longer for a herd to find us out in the open. Still, we should stun and gather up a few more herds before we retire back to the Arcology. Meanwhile... can I interest you two in a few rounds? I'll spot you some significant digits."
A pleasant afternoon's picnic, spent amidst piles and piles of the undead. Chu had even brought Cold Fun and compressed nutrient bars with flavor jellies to munch on, while the zombies tried in vain to munch on their heads.
Ket, once urged to play nice by Chu, explained how the setup worked.
"Los Muertos are low-level telepaths," he explained. "They hunt by sight, sound, smell, and by psychically detecting biological sentience. That's also how they form herds, by communicating telepathically to relay the location of potential food. But they're not particularly bright, and incapable of learning from their mistakes. All we have to do to gather up large amounts of them is stay out in the open, with a bioelectric stun shield around us. The revenants run towards us, sensing available nourishment, and crash into the shields. Their weakened systems are overwhelmed by the shock and the threat is neutralized..."
It had worked quite well at repelling the ones chasing "Uno" and "Len," as evidenced by the stunned bodies all around them. While they played a few rounds of children's number games and enjoyed Chu's snacks, several new waves attacked... and met the same fate. Soon, there were heaps of bodies for the zombies to climb over, just to get access to the shield that would be their downfall.
By afternoon, at least a hundred had fallen for the trap. A few got the strength back to make a second go at it, unable to remember how badly it went for them the first time. And by that point... Una had gotten quite used to the sounds of zombie stampedes and electrical feedback blasts. She was able to ignore them and focus on her game.
Nel had declined to play, since doing so would mean admitting she didn't know HOW to play such a simple game. But Una hadn't played Factorials in a long, long time... not since her primary educational sessions. (Which was also the last time she had anything resembling close friends. Even if they were friends who teased her for her less-than-perfect test scores.) While she wasn't particularly good at the game, and often was sidelined when Jon and Chu got locked into numerical duels, she was having quite a good time enjoying the nostalgia of it.
For the last round, Ket had already been eliminated from play (or rather, eliminated himself, as he was tired of it) and Una had been knocked out by Jon and Chu working together to divide her available sums. Once again, it was down to those two.
While Una was enjoying the game... Nel was paying attention to the players, on the off chance she'd have to impersonate one of them later. And she'd come to an understanding.
Chu enjoyed sparring with Jon. He was more outspoken, more keen to celebrate his victories and curse his losses, compared to the soft-spoken Thaumatologist. He'd push Jon right to the edge in each game, challenging his available numbers, eliminating them one by one... but when it came to the last hand, the patient Jon would always overcome, having held onto the sums he needed to turn things around.
It was an obvious pattern, and one Chu couldn't have missed. Yet, he played aggressively, each time. As if he was quite willing to fall for the trap, to give Jon that win, rather than change his style. And each time, he'd compliment the victor, declaring his acceptance if not satisfaction with the defeat.
Even now, Chu was looking boastful from his stance of near-victory, despite Jon quietly arranging his numbers for the final blow that would end the game. He was patient, not urging Jon to hurry up... turning his attention instead to the heaps of undead around them, as if noticing them for the first time.
"You almost feel sorry for them, the way they're incapable of logical thought," Chu mused aloud. "You know, I hear from the geosurvey team that a surprising number of Los Muertos gather beneath a statue called 'Christ the Redeemer' outside Rio. They gather, and simply lie down there. Maybe we should go to Rio next, once we're finished in São Paulo. It should be easy to harvest them if so!"
Una, eager to stay involved in the conversation even if she was out of the game, spoke up. "I thought Ket said they hunted by their senses. Why would they venture into the open like that if there were no people to eat? It doesn't seem to fit their behavioral patterns..."
"I don't honestly know," Chu said. "Maybe they think they can eat the giant religious icon? The Christian religion does involve symbolically devouring the flesh of its savior in communion -- a savior who rose from the dead, ironically enough. I suppose their brains are completely atrophied if they think they can eat stone for nourishment..."
"They want salvation."
Not a response Una was expecting to hear from Jon the scientist. But he didn't explain any further -- instead, he slid his numbers onto the board, to finish the round.
"Blue-4," he declared. "And... that's the game. Nothing in your hand can trump that, Chu. Sorry."
"And you win again! Quite deservedly so," Chu agreed, keying a sequence into his number tray to clear it. "One of these days I'll beat you, Jon. I'll get lucky, or you'll slip up..."
"Yes, yes, of course. Until that day, I shall enjoy taking my wins, until such time as I enjoy taking a loss," Jon said, with a slight smile. "Hm. Do we have time for another round...?"
Ket, who was busy monitoring the power levels, didn't look up from his wrist. "We're actually over quota for the day, and the power's about drained," he replied. "We should go in."
"I could always go fetch another capacitor," Jon suggested. "We've got a few hours of daylight left, several beverage coolers remaining, and another wave should be along soon enough according to the statistics--"
"The rules state that we move as a unit. No solo action in hostile territory. We're all going back to the Arcology together, if any of us are going back."
Jon nodded, in quick agreement. It did make sense. "We'll continue the game another time, then," he said. "Okay. Torus up the shields and let's migrate the harvest into the cargo bay--"
"You're bringing them into the Arcology?"
She'd tried to resist the urge to poke them for information. Fitting in meant going along with what felt normal; they had no worries about the enemy a few paces away, so Una wouldn't be. They weren't talking about why they harvested zombies, so neither would Una. But some questions are simple instinct. Why would anyone want to bring infectious monsters inside an armored city...?
Chu was quick to push aside her fears. "Don't worry, don't worry!" he insisted. "They're shocked into submission, and we're using force fields to push them into secured containers inside the Arcology. There are armed guards patrolling the cargo bay twenty-four hours a day. Our biohazard containment protocols will hold fine."
"But why bring them into the Arcology at all? Even with safety measures, it seems an unnecessary risk..."
As Ket busied himself with manipulating the force fields, scooping up the undead in an invisible containment torus... Chu and Jon exchanged the briefest of looks. Looks of concern.
"I'm afraid the exact reasons are classified," Jon spoke, before Chu had to come up with a pleasant excuse. "Even if they're widely known throughout the Arcology, anyway. It's hardly something you can keep a secret for long. Still, I suppose as a member of my task force, Len, you'll know soon enough..."
"And as a member of MY task force, Uno, we have the second most critical duty aboard Arcology Socrates!" Chu said with pride, while gathering up the remains of the picnic for storage. "Without our efforts, the entire community would likely fall to pieces. I hope you're ready, because this is work that will challenge you on every level!"
With great effort and skill, Una set the controls on the machine and activated it. Through the circular force field, she could see the fruits of her hard labor.
Shirts, tunics, and assorted bits of underwear, tumbling around. It was vaguely hypnotic.
"Okay, that's one load down," Chu said, floating in the next laundry hamper on its antigrav supports. "Did you add the fabric softening nanoagents in direct proportion to the amount of clothing? Very important to get the ratios correct, or else the shirts come out too scratchy or too powdery..."
"I used the proportional ratio you provided me with, yes," Una confirmed, from her seat directly opposite the washing machine. "So... all we're doing is the laundering? That's our task?"
"Laundry is the cornerstone of civilization, Uno!" Chu said, with pride. He began to load the second machine with bundles of silvery cloth, from the third bin they'd done so far. "The human body, even an Orbital's body, is capable of generating extreme amounts of discarded skin flakes, microbes, and secreted oils. There are considerable infection vectors to consider, and a good number of them stem from improperly laundered clothing! Without us, why, Arcology Socrates would fall apart!"
"...because of dirty underwear?"
"It's more than that, of course. The process of removing these contaminants isn't just for hygienic purposes," Chu said, tossing the last shirt into his machine. "Because we are voluntarily doing tasks that many see as beneath them... we free them to do the mission-critical work of the Ascendancy. We free them from the burden of worry and discomfort. A freshly-laundered shirt, one which does not chafe or irritate, is one less bothersome thing to deal with when the future of all Orbitalkind is in your hands. THAT is the purpose of the Morale Task Force -- to improve morale by taking care of the needs of our people. No matter what those needs may be! I take great pride in this."
The logic of it did ring true to her. In fact, it was a point of contention in her house, when she was growing up... her father Ono at first insisted on taking care of things like recycling the dining implements, in order to provide his wife more time to work in the engineering section. Then her mother Lea would insist on doing the laundering and tidying up, because her father was a rising councilman, and had political scenarios to attend to.
Both of them saw the tasks in question as being trivial, unimportant, beneath them... but at the same time, things which had to be done, and best done by oneself to alleviate the burden from the other. In the end, neither of them held the majority of these assignments; it balanced out nicely.
"It's like division of labor in a two-parent household," Una considered. "The tasks are shared in proportion, to ensure adequate time for external concerns."
"Yes, quite! I realize the... what's the Suborbital term? Nuclear family? Is a bit unusual for Orbitalkind, but there's considerable strength in the model," Chu agreed. "Partnership means you never face a difficulty alone. I do my part to help my Arcology prosper."
"You and the rest of your task force, yes?"
Chu paused, before he activated the washing machine.
"I am currently in the process of recruiting for my task force," he said. "I've been actively petitioning my fellow citizens of Arcology Socrates, expressing to them the importance of having a strong workforce to sanitize workstations, sweep sleeping surfaces of debris, organize file cabinets, and tend to the recycling. And I'm proud to say that I have had no fewer than three extremely interested offers which would have become recruits had they not been wooed away by higher-profile work! It's a good start!"
"So... the Morale Task Force consists of you. And now me."
"Well, we did just get started on this assignment, you understand," Chu said, waggling a shirt at her, as he began to work on the next load. "Socrates has only been on this Earth for a few days. True, Jon's group was well-prepared in advance for the challenges and hit the ground running and has thus achieved a notable profile, but... I'm sure my group's profile will rise in the days ahead. I mean, sooner or later they'll realize the importance of these duties..."
"Oh, don't get me wrong -- I agree with your ideals!" Una insisted. "You were the one who arranged the picnic, yes? With the games and snacks...? That feels like your doing..."
"Indeed! Originally, Ket's force field technicians would simply stand out there all day, waiting to be attacked. And Ket was hardly a soothing presence, shouting at them to quit panicking and whimpering! That's terrible for morale! You should've seen the horrified looks on the faces of his junior technicians, the first time they returned from an outing. If they kept doing that, day in day out, it'd crush their psyches! So, I thought, why not bring some creature comforts out there? Why not volunteer myself, to ease the burden of the junior technicians? Jon agreed with me, and volunteered as well. ...mostly because I think he wanted some time away from his duties, but..."
"He and N... Len are on the 'Thaumatology' task force, right?" Una asked. "What exactly do they do, anyway...?"
Again, Chu was given pause, with an armload of clothing halfway into the machine.
He turned to look at Una... without his usual bright Morale Task Force Smile.
"There's a very good reason for me to be concerned with this Arcology's morale, Uno," he explained, while resuming the laundry load. "In just a few days... it's dropped to critical levels. We are besieged by these abominations, true, but that's not the only cause. The work which we do here, this work which has been done on other Earths before this one, is extremely draining for the spirit. Jon's work, specifically."
"But what IS it...?"
The washing machine lid sealed shut, becoming a smooth metal surface once more. His work complete... Chu had a seat next to Una. Looking far more tired than he did a minute before.
"He creates Essence Capacitors," Chu admitted. "The power source that fuels the Ascendancy. It's a secret process, and one I'm not at liberty to talk about, even if quite honestly everybody already knows what goes on in the cargo bay. ...I was on his Task Force before I petitioned for this one to be created, you know."
"You were a Thaumatologist?"
"I wanted to be one. One night a year or so ago, Jon returned to the dormitories, and he... he was simply crushed. He enjoys wearing a quiet little smile for the world to see, but the one he wore that night... I could tell it was fake. The work was wearing him down. I applied that day to join his group, in hopes I could bring my good cheer with me and ease his troubles, but... it didn't really work out. So I took a different approach to the problem: improving morale through taking on common daily burdens! For him. For everyone, really."
Logic gates started opening in Una's mind. Perhaps it was just her memories of early family life that triggered them, or perhaps she'd heart the words spoken between the words Chu said, but... she was starting to see things clearly. Clear enough to risk announcing her findings.
"You... love Jon, don't you?" she asked, tentatively.
It could have caused Chu to close up completely, killing all hopes that he'd explain more about Essence Capacitors. But Una didn't believe he wanted to close up. Someone this willing to tell all about his beliefs and concerns to a complete stranger was eager, if not desperate, to remain open to others... something she felt a bit guilty about exploiting.
Although part of her wanted him to open not just for the good of the mission... but because she sympathized.
Chu's laugh was weak, but honest.
"I guess no amount of softening agent can wash away one's heart when it's worn on the sleeve, yes?" he suggested.
"Sorry, I... I know you barely know me," Una acknowledged. "But... as one romantic to another, it's a bit obvious, yes. I understand. When you love someone, you want to do anything you can to make them happy, to support their dreams..."
"Indeed. Now, Jon is the strongest individual I have ever met. He has been doing this work for years. But I know him, and I know it's wearing away at him, little by little. Anything I can do to ease his burden... launder his shirts, keep his sleeping surface clean, give him Cold Fun and games while he's playing bait... I'd do anything I could. Anything to keep him able to smile..."
"Does he know how you feel?"
"Of course not. I can't put this on his shoulders! I doubt he's a romantic, much less one which has non-heterosexual leanings. The percentage chance of that being the case is quite low. He's a Pragmatist, and a very career-oriented one, firmly within the ranks of the Ascendancy. They don't exactly encourage romantics -- it gets in the way of ensuring the eternal future of Orbitalkind. Better to volunteer samples at a genetic bank, they say, better to have society raise the children..."
"But surely there's no restriction on the freedom to have relationships, or families...?"
"You don't have to make something illegal to make it forbidden," Chu said. "The Ascendancy just... makes sure its desires are well known. They have the plan that will save us, and there's no room in it for quirks like romantics, families, natural births... anything that divides loyalties. ...Jon is part of that system. I joined from a grounded Arcology, one which tried to leave the fleet and get by on its own. Didn't work out. Not at all. So, I came back, and found the Ascendancy. He was already there. A firm believer. I doubt there's any future for us as a 'couple' in that..."
I need to steer him back to talking about Essence Capacitors, Una thought. And then ignored that thought.
"Chu... you can't know for certain how he feels unless you ask him. And if you never ask him, well... you could miss out on something wonderful," Una said. "I speak from experience. Being an Orbital and a romantic is never easy. It's a state of confusion, as our culture doesn't go out of its way to support it. Does your heart ache for men or women or both? Do you seek casual affairs or monogamous partnerships? What do we want, what do we need? It's an explorative process and the outcomes are unique for each of us."
"I understand, but... that's just me! That's not Jon. He already has his goals set..."
"How do you know that? Have you experimented to prove that hypothesis?"
"He has enough troubles without me adding to them..."
"You sound like my beloved."
She half-regretted letting that slip. Personal details while undercover, no matter how obfuscated, were unwise. But...as the saying went, in for a unit of currency, in for a greater unit of currency...
"Let me tell you of myself, as you have told me quite a bit of yourself," Una began. "I'm a romantic. Always knew I was, even if I barely understood what that meant. A dreamer, someone never quite good at studies... a ninety-one, but I was happy, and always looking for love. I modeled myself on ancient Earth media... in which the typically handsome male hero woos his swooning female counterpart. I thought that's what I was supposed to look for, and along the way, made countless mistakes. It broke my heart many a time... as I completely overlooked the truth right in front of me. A love born of true friendship--"
"It's Len, isn't it."
A tiny spark of fear shot through Una's hindbrain. But... Chu was smiling.
"You wear your heart on your sleeve, too," he said. "I know I barely know you, but... you two came here together. She stayed at your side, even when she had no interest in playing Factorials, and hung onto your every word. She's the quiet counterpart to your exuberance. You're in the same situation I am... you're not only a believer in romance, but in non-heteronormative romance."
"Well... yes. Yes, that's true. Technically I'm bisexual, although it took me quite some time to realize it -- I'm straying, pardon. My point is, I overlooked Len for the longest time, because of my preconceptions, because I didn't notice her feelings for me, and... because she didn't want to burden me with presumed unrequited feelings. If we had broken through that wall sooner... well. At least we eventually found each other. And I found what I actually needed in life."
"So... you think if I approach Jon... I'll find he always loved me in return, and this is all a miscommunication?"
"Ah, I can't exactly promise that to be the case, but... you certainly will never achieve a success scenario if you do not make the attempt. That stands to logic."
None of it had anything to do with the mission. It was an incredibly bad idea, given how the last time Una opened up to someone while undercover, she ended up taken prisoner. But...
But she wouldn't be Una if she wasn't honest to herself, really.
The man chewed her words in his mind a little, considering them.
"I'll think about it," he promised. "Idealistically, it's the right thing to do. Although... I don't know if I should risk it. Not in this situation. And not just because he may turn me down. ...this is Arcology Socrates. The work we do, the edge we stand on, well... hm. Uno. You love Len with all your heart and soul, yes?"
"Then you may want to ask her to leave Jon's task force," Chu said... absently running a hand along his sleeve, as if his arm just started itching. "It's too late for Jon, and he knows it. I tried to join him, to support him... but at his encouragement I got out, before it was too late for me. It may not be too late for her."
Howling and moaning and groaning and slamming against the sides of their metal containers. Hundreds of the undead, caged beasts, desperately clawing and climbing the walls, hanging from the metal mesh of the ceiling, trying to reach towards the flesh they craved...
It was a scene that horror movies would have been humiliated by. A true vision of hell, in which the grey and mottled masses of the dead yearned for the blood of the living. Every single containment cell held a dozen of the undead, and every row had dozens of dozens. Dozens and dozens of rows. Mobile flesh in grids, far below...
Nel spared a look down, once. Once. After that she kept her eyes ahead, on Jon and his teammates, who walked with serious purpose. It was difficult to block the sounds of the imprisoned Los Muertos below; she considered a cone of silence charm on her own ears, but didn't want to risk missing any crucial details which would help the mission.
Jon led his small team, Nel included, along the catwalks above the containment cells. Up here, they were quite safe, well out of reach of the dead. Down below, guards in shining armor and toting energy weapons paced between the cells, just in case any of the undead got out. Not that they had any chance of doing that.
An assistant displayed an image file, which matched the grid of cells below. Instead of being a picture of burning yellow eyes and absolute malice, it was a cheerfully color coded series of boxes.
"The fresh ones you caught today should probably be processed last," the assistant suggested. "This batch was collected two days ago and they're starting to break their own limbs in an effort to escape. The more damage is done to the bodies the less efficient the process seems to be..."
"I know, I know. I think I'm close to solving the 8.33% problem, but... that'll mean redesigning the subdermal implants considerably. For now we'll stick to the given procedure," Jon agreed. "We'll process the oldest batch first, and work our way through until we've met quota for the evening..."
He followed the catwalk junctures, led by the assistant, until they arrived at the container in question.
"This is Len's first day with the team, so I'll run through the procedure step by step," Jon explained. "The key to the thaumatological process is the ritual inscriptions..."
Slowly... he took off his silver Orbital thread jacket. Underneath, he wore a sleeveless tunic, which was a bit unusual for Orbital fashion styles. The reasoning was immediately clear, however.
He had a series of six different spells, runes packed neatly into squares, inscribed along the length of his arms. They were tattooed on, or more likely, using the nanotech makeup technology Una used. The "ink" just beneath the surface of his skin could be rearranged as need be.
With the jacket off, she could also see a series of small tubes arrayed on his belt. They looked like glass, with metal piping around them... but knowing Orbital technology, wouldn't be nearly as fragile as glass. He unhooked one from his belt, holding it in his right hand, while flexing his left...
"The application of thaumatology we utilize was developed by Proctor Lar, based on ancient Faerie texts," Jon explained. "It's known as 'ritual magic,' which differs from most common spells in that extensive preparations must be made before the final spell is cast. The markings on my arms are part of that ritual; in the end, I only need to cast one spell, but it's worthless without the spell sequence already printed here."
Nel, eager to show her worth to the team -- and thus dig herself in deeper with them, and learn more -- decided to interject.
"I've heard of ritual castings before," she said. "Spell circles, runes sewn into robes, things like that. Unlike combat magic or simple enchantments, powerful rites require a great deal of preparation."
"No doubt in your time with #A076, you saw some pagan rituals performed," Jon said, nodding in her direction. "Good. I was hoping you were already familiar with the reasoning behind it."
"So... what exactly does this ritual do, sir?"
"It allows us to siphon aleph radiation into an Essence Core, which is this device here," he explained, holding up the glass box. "One core can then be used to fill a large number of Essence Capacitors; it's a battery for a battery. Each night, we process the day's captures, filling Essence Cores until we meet quota. Another task force transfers power from cores to capacitors, and yet another task force ships the finished product out to other Arcologies in the Ascendancy. This is how we generate power for our civilization, without the need to destroy entire worlds."
Although Nel had no idea what 'aleph radiation' was, she nodded at every word, pretending to understand. Jon, satisfied that he had achieved comprehension... turned and looked over the railing, at the container below.
The undead dangled from the cage roof, trying to push fingers or hands through the bars, to reach up at him. Futile, of course, but they were powered by the rawest animal instinct and nothing more. Pitiable and desperate...
He stared into their yellow eyes, for a good while. Nel considered saying something, but... decided against interfering.
Jon extended his free hand, and the hand holding the Essence Core.
Briefly, the markings on his arms started to glow with a blue light. Not blue like a refreshing summer sky, or like the cold of ice in winter. Blue like something outside the scope of the seasons. Something which was... alien. Wrong...
"," he intoned.
The blue light flashed in an arc, from the cage -- to the glass box.
Zombies howled and screamed, falling from the roof of the cell, twitching and convulsing on the floor... the light surrounded them, pulling at them, like water flowing uphill. A trick of the eye, luminescent liquid pouring in reverse. It drained away, quickly at first, then a trickle...
The Essence Core glowed a bright and nauseating blue.
And the undead lay in piles, unmoving.
But... not truly unmoving. They were breathing, the rapid, shallow breaths of Los Muertos. Their eyes still blinked. But all the rage and sorrow they had before was gone. They had lost every ounce of themselves in the process, leaving behind only meat which refused to completely die.
"As you see, the spell transfers the innate aleph radiation in their bodies into the core," Jon continued, after turning to face Len. "The problem, of course, is the incredible physical mutation of the Los Muertos infection. That renders the process inefficient, providing only 8.33% of the power needed to fill a core. That's why we process them in batches of one dozen. Casting the spell on a single ordinary human fills the entire core--"
"The Azure Tome of Ur-Felrial," Nel recognized, her mouth hanging open in horror.
"Oh, you're familiar with the pagan lore surrounding this thaumatology?" Jon asked. "No doubt you heard any number of tall tales involving the source code from which we derived this process--"
"You sacrificed their souls."
Nel prided herself on being an astute observer of body language. It was necessary, when you worked with glamours. You had to read the people you were going to augment with spells, to ensure the spells worked with their natural poise... or if you needed to imitate them, in a pinch.
Until now, Jon's expression had been completely neutral. Just another day at the office. But at the mention of the truth behind his spell work... there was a brief tangle of emotions. Fear. Guilt. Sorrow. And... back to neutrality.
"You're of course talking about the primitive religious superstition," he said, feeding her the company line. "That there is some intangible, invisible energy known as 'the soul' which remains immortal, even after biological processes are completely shut down. This is, of course, a story. A fairy tale, if you will. It persists across many Earths in many forms, but science has proven that the innate aleph radiation in all living things is simply that -- radiation. It's no more mystical than the visible light spectrum, once you can analyze it."
"The Ascendancy is powered by the souls... the aleph radiation of those it sacrifices?"
"In a manner of speaking... yes. But unlike the amoral and ridiculously inefficient process we used to use, where we mined entire worlds, this is a superior method. When the process is working at peak efficiency, it's a fantastic source of energy. One Essence Core, when fused with a considerably lesser amount of planetary matter than we used to require, can power considerably more hypertechnology. Plus, it's far more ethical."
I should be agreeing with him. I should be toeing the company line. I shouldn't be arguing this!
"How can this possibly be ethical?! You're murdering to power your society all over again!"
"Murder? Of course not. The process doesn't leave them dead. ...well. Dead-er, I suppose. See? They're completely unharmed..."
Nel dared to look down, again. Compared to the cells of enraged zombies around them... the one which had been sacrificed was positively sedate. The creatures below had simply given up, every last spark of life taken from them. They were passively waiting to die...
A death which was granted to them in short order, as Jon nodded to the armed guards. They opened the cell door, and unloaded their energy weapons into the cell.
Soon, nothing was left but ash. Mind, body, and now soul destroyed.
"All my spell did was drain their aleph radiation," Jon explained. "This has a wonderful side effect, as it pacifies the subject completely, making them docile and compliant, ready to join orderly society. ...not that Los Muertos have any place in an orderly society, pacified or not. But when you think about it, the potential for law enforcement application is astounding; no doubt you've heard of our Total Social Conversion program? The one used on those terrorist masterminds in Eastusa?"
They sacrificed my mother's soul, Nel realized, eyes wide with terror. She lost her spark of life. That's why she rolled over for the Ascendancy, and gave up everything she believed in...
"In fact, when the spell is used on a healthy human, a single 'soul' as you call it fills one Essence Core. The process isn't as efficient with biologically stunted races like Los Muertos or the mutant tribes in Africa, which makes the work more difficult, but... nevertheless, important. Both to empower the Ascendancy, and to quell the chaos of this Earth. Don't you agree, Len...?"
She didn't realize she was still looking terrified until it was too late.
Quickly... Nel forced down her anger, her shock, her sorrow. Every unproductive emotion which could have compromised the mission. She swallowed it all and used it to power her desire to make this mission work, to bring down the Ascendancy, to put a stop to this madness.
"It makes perfect sense, yes," Nel agreed. "Thank you. I hadn't considered it in that light, but it is logical and sound."
--but Jon didn't smile.
There was another flash, another brief reaction. Anyone but Nel would have missed it. But when she decided to give the Ascendancy's use of dark magic the thumbs up... he had looked disappointed.
He knows this is wrong, Nel realized. But he's given up. He hates what he's doing and he's doing it anyway.
Could be that he's resigned to his fate... or he may be willing to fight against it, given a ray of hope. He was hoping I would disagree with this nightmare, that I might fight it...
This might be what we need to turn the tide.
Staying busy. That was the primary goal of the day. Staying busy, and waiting to see what happens.
Petersen was staying busy by cataloging all the artifacts in his personal archive, which sadly didn't amount to much. His memetic teapot was gone. The idealized paper and ceramic puppy pair were already in play, with Una and Nel. He had his point-of-view instamatic camera, for what good that was right now. The teddy recorders might be useful later, but not at this stage. His prized 1984 Buick LeSabre, for all its unstoppable indestructibility, was easily dwarfed by the teleportation ability of the Quantum Mermaid's RealWare engine when it came to travel...
But above all, he had no knick-knacks that could cure someone of the Los Muertos infection.
The engine was almost recharged, so they could pop by the Twin Cities and consult with one of the names in his black book of specialists -- the wayward Orbital, Doctor Zee -- but his body exchange methods had only staved off the infection temporarily. It wasn't a cure, it couldn't completely purge the infection. Plus, if the Quantum Mermaid left Brazil now, it'd mean leaving Una and Nel high and dry... unacceptable.
So, he ran through the sadly short list of all-powerful items of weirdness again, hoping there was some angle he wasn't seeing.
Emily Moonthistle, meanwhile, was cursing the fact that she was a goddess without an operation manual. She was able to use the chill touch of winter to keep Maria's fever down, but she had no other ideas for what to do. A Mending spell did nothing; the infection was just as much a natural part of her physiology as her lingering Summerlion enchantment. All Mending could do was boost every aspect of her to peak performance... including the bits they wanted to do away with.
So, she migrated routinely between Maria's room and Scout's self-selected prison cell, feeling like there was nothing she could do for either of them.
Elisa Morales, the teenager's adoptive mother, had even less cosmic power at her fingertips. But she was arguably doing the most for her daughter... changing out the cold compress on her forehead, holding her hand, whispering love and affection at every turn. Making sure Maria didn't feel alone, in fighting off this plague. The girl had slipped into a fever state of unconsciousness two hours ago, but that didn't stop Elisa from talking to her, from trying to break through.
So... that left Gwen Berners-Lee, the twenty-year-old technomage witch.
Fortunately, she was BFFs with the world's finest search engine -- Ariel, the Elemental Witch of Air.
Ariel had been transformed, bound to the air around her, in a mad experiment by former Archmagus Lilith. Much like her old friend's sister, Sarah Tinker, who was bound to fire. Although being bound to air meant you didn't have a body anymore, it did mean she embodied the airwaves... the invisible signals, radio spectrums, and other flotsam and jetsam of the Earth's communications networks.
Being a virtual girl had its upsides. For instance, Ariel could scour the Internet intelligently, and search deep within protected databases and locked sites.
ArielSkydancer: Sorry, kiddo. No joy so far. There's little information online about Los Muertos, just some conspiracy theorist blogger rants. I did find someone who took a boat around to Mexico and had a run-in with them and got out alive, but his video records don't really show anything we didn't already know.
WitchBlogGwen: thanx for trying anyways. not sure what else we can do, hopefully when we leave, it'll clear up
ArielSkydancer: Wasn't she taking meds for this? Didn't anybody tell her how important they were?
WitchBlogGwen: yeah, immune boosters. her mom tried once, but telling your kid she's part zombie isn't e-z. guess she was hoping wed have more time. not have to freak her out with it.
ArielSkydancer: I think the Ascendancy has a lot of data on how Los Muertos work, but I'm not gonna poke my nonexistent nose into a database that's a few hundred years more advanced than the junk Eastusa folks use. Not unless there's no other option. ...how are you guys doing with options? That bad?
WitchBlogGwen: that bad. i feel like crap about this, i should be able to do more. evbody else feels like crap 2 though. nobody was ready for the ascendancy and now we're playing catch up
ArielSkydancer: What about the files you're downloading? Anything good in there? Must be, considering how huge they are.
WitchBlogGwen: what files?
ArielSkydancer: The signals going through your FaePlace are so thick I can barely get 32ms ping. What're you downloading there, the Library of Congress?
WitchBlogGwen: the only connection i've got right now is to your chatbox, ariel. i'm trying to keep a low profile. dammit, mayeb the ascendancy haxx0red me?!
ArielSkydancer: Kill the MagWiFi now -- just traced the signals, they're coming from the area of the Arcology. Discon now!
Immediately, Gwen popped up the process manager, ready to Kill -9 the network device driver...
But no unusual packets were coming or going from her workstation. Nothing beyond the link to Ariel's chatbox. No sneaky file transfers, no backdoor access attempts, not even a generalized denial of service flood.
Quickly, she pushed out of her ergonomic office chair, crossing the FaePlace's common room. Over to the main entrance, over which the MagWiFi router had been roughly nailed into place, using a staple gun and some zipties. It had to be close to the enchanted doorway, in order to process signals from the outside world into this nebulous pocket dimension... a device of her own design, with Ariel's help, so that she could both hit up all her favorite social networks and hack government systems for her boss despite her office being a figment of her own imagination.
On a normal day, the traffic lights would spike around three or four of the ten available bulbs.
Today, only one bulb was lit. Just enough to poke some packets through to Ariel. Nobody was sniffing through her network. She unplugged the router anyway, just to be safe... but a worry settled into place, within her mind.
If Ariel says there are signals going in and out of here to the Arcology, there must be signals; she wouldn't mistake something like that, Gwen understood. But she can sense all kinds of signals. Maybe it's not Internet. What could it be...?
Thirty feet away, in a darkened bedroom, the whispers began to increase in intensity within Maria's mind.
It had been a long time since Nel slept on an Orbital bed. Even sitting on one felt strange to her now, as she tried to settle into their crew quarters within Arcology Socrates, tried to work away her nervous tension. Una's backrub skills were not helping, nor was the strange metal sleep-surface, which conformed to offer her a supposedly perfect seat.
"So the question is... which one do we approach to help us?" Nel summarized.
"I think Chu is the way to go, dear," Una suggested, again. "He's an Optimist, and an open-minded one, given how quick he was to embrace outsiders like us. His experience with the power syst... the forbidden spell in question is limited, but... I saw him scratch his arm, when reminded of his time in Jon's task force. I think he still has the ritual tattoos. Even if he doesn't, he has the knowledge we need."
"But Jon is an active practitioner of the Dark Arts. He--"
"Ah... I'm sorry, but do we really have to call them that?" Una asked. "'The Dark Arts,' I mean? It sounds so silly..."
"The Tomes of Ur-Felrial are forbidden for a reason, Una. They're the worst magic imaginable, the sort no good can come of. Books of curses, necromancy, demon summoning, abomination breeding, and mass destruction... we need to give them the respectful amount of hatred they deserve. The only reason they weren't destroyed was by Archmagus decree, hundreds of years ago, that they should survive if only for study and counterspell development."
"But Emily uses one of the Tomes to keep this generation of witches from memorizing spells..."
"And Lar used it to nearly kill you and your father, when you confronted him last. Regardless of how they can be used, their intent is foul. The Dark Arts. That's what they are."
"I suppose. I mean, assuming souls exist..."
Nel turned her head, to look back at the one giving her a backrub.
"What do you mean, assuming?" she asked.
"Well, ah... I mean, Orbitals aren't really a very spiritual people..." Una admitted, looking unsure, even as she spoke. "We have no particular belief in a merit-based bifurcated postmortem immortal existence, and, um, consider the very idea to be a bit childish. ...although we now know for a fact that angels and demons exist, sooo... I don't know. It's just a lot to process down my digestive tract, is all..."
"I saw what the spell did to those zombies, Una. And now I know they used it on my mother. My mother," Nel emphasized. "I may hate what she became, but I still love her, and... they took something vital and precious away from her, just to pacify her to their liking, to make her power their war machine. Even if you don't believe in Heaven, Hell, reincarnation, genius loci, or whatever flavor of spirituality exists... you can't doubt the evidence in front of you about what their spell does to a person. It drains away all that makes them truly alive."
Una wasn't one to argue it further. Even if she didn't feel the same sense of urgency, having not seen this strange magic firsthand, having no long-standing faith in "souls," she didn't doubt her love's sincere analysis one bit.
"Then the problem remains of who to turn to, Jon or Chu. Or wait longer, until we can obtain the spell ourselves. Perhaps after you've integrated yourself into Jon's team...?"
"Glamour isn't much like spellcasting. It's more of a talent, a trick... it's going to take me a long time to be proficient enough to gain access to the tattoos, Una. If we want to do this before Maria comes to more harm, it means opening up to one of them, trusting them to trust us, and escaping with a defector in tow."
"Last time I opened up to someone I thought wanted to defect, I was tortured," Una said, in a voice more bitter than she'd intended.
Nel leaned back against her, to comfort her. To share some body warmth.
"I would never let that happen, Una. You have my word," Nel promised. "If this goes completely wrong... we're one whisper away from slipping away invisibly, to return and fight another day. ...besides, since when is my eternal Optimist unwilling to put faith in the better part of human nature to do the right thing?"
"I have to be Pragmatic as well, love. I have to be careful. I've let my heart lead me for much of my life, even into disaster. But... you're right. I'm not alone. Together, we can be Optimistic and Pragmatic, idealistic and realistic. A fine division of labor! ...and we're in tangent again. Jon or Chu?"
"Jon," Nel proposed. "He has more experience, he has the tools we need. He hasn't given any verbal indication he's ready to turn his back on the Ascendancy, but... I could read it in his body language. He's as desperate as he is defeated. If we show him a way out, he may leap on it..."
"Or he may turn us in. He seems to be Ascendancy through and through, crushed by their will, unlike the more independent Chu. Hmmm. Perhaps we should just sleep on it, and observe them another day before deciding? It's unlikely that we'll have an opportunity to talk to either one of them again tonight--"
The door chimed.
Seconds later, the subjects of their discussion walked in, bearing gifts. Chu had a Considerable Sized container of Cold Fun; Jon had brought flavored fluids.
"Are we intruding...?" Chu asked. "Sorry, I know it's late, but I decided that it'd be good for morale if we have a little social get together just for our two new recruits..."
The two new recruits shared a glance.
"both of them?" Nel ghost-whispered in suggestion. "at the same time? if one refuses, three can overpower one and escape."
"That sounds good," Una agreed, aloud.
"Excellent! I hope you like Cold Fun, but hey, who doesn't like Cold Fun?" Chu said, entering the dorm room with his partner. "I even brought decorative particles!"
All quiet in the cargo bay. Or rather, all howling, snarling, pounding, and thrashing around, which was equivalent to quiet for Los Muertos.
It had taken a few days, but Wro had finally adjusted to guard duty down here. The key was in realizing that for all their sound and fury, the creatures they had caged up weren't particularly dangerous. In fact, his presence here was redundant; there was no way for them to escape, given the door controls inside the makeshift prison cells had been disabled. Unless the mindless zombies suddenly developed a proclivity for electrical work, they weren't getting out.
Pacing around between the cells, a heavy energy blaster and reflective armor keeping him safe from the completely nonthreatening threat of the things contained within, Wro came to see this job as the easiest one in the Arcology. More a ceremonial guard station than a serious one; here to help the scientists feel more secure, even though an outbreak scenario was impossible. A few guns on deck made everybody feel safer, and Wro was proud to carry that gun if it meant the tense atmosphere of Socrates could be a bit less tense.
As the city's activity wound to a close, all quiet, other than the howling; only two other guards on duty during night shift, and they would be in other parts of the cargo bay. With no supervision, with nobody particularly caring, Wro decided to mix up his routine a little... turning left when he normally turned right, simply to break the tedium.
The entrance to the cell in front of him was wide open.
Perhaps it was the sheer momentum of that tedium which made him go Huh, that's odd, instead of We need lockdown, right now! It might have explained his willingness to walk up to the unusually quiet cell, and look around inside.
A quiet cell was clearly an empty cell, after all; pacified Los Muertos were incinerated soon after they were used up, so only living ones should be down here after a work cycle was completed. Wro would likely find nothing inside the open cell.
Instead he found a dozen animate corpses, quietly waiting for him, making no sound whatsoever as they dragged him screaming into the cell.
The undead continued to make no sound, as teeth sank into his flesh.
The last thing he saw were their eyes... golden eyes, glowing with rage. Lucid and awakened, as if emerging from a long summer's sleep.
Soon he heard nothing but their whispers in his head, and all was well. The network had acquired a new node. One with knowledge of Orbital weaponry and security codes, in fact -- that would prove useful, on this night of vengeance.
They laid it all on the line. The truth about their mission. The true identity of Proctor Lar. The truth behind the destruction of #A076. The way the conspiracy that had ruled Orbital progress for centuries had simply changed masks. And, finally, their intent to counter the Ascendancy -- even if they left out the specifics.
It was an incredible risk, of course. If both Jon and Chu proved to be Ascendancy loyalists, unwilling to turn away from the path they had set out for themselves, it would be time to move on to the backup plan: Nel blasting both of them with an illusionary but overwhelming source of light, and the pair kidnapping someone. Willing or not, Jon or Chu would be helping them by the end of the evening.
Una wanted to believe they would both help of their own free will, however. Yes, she'd been lowered into aggressively thermodynamic dihydrogen monoxide before when she trusted someone to turn away from evil... but Optimism meant not losing your faith in the future, and not turning your back on humanity. Even if you had a Pragmatist in your corner to get ugly when things turned ugly.
"...and that's why we need you," she concluded. "You both know that the Essence Core process is wrong. If not on a moral or spiritual level, at least on an ethical level. It shows that what the Ascendancy craves is conquest, not partnership. They have shown their underhanded methods plainly to us, at every turn -- destroying #A076, vilifying Emily, slaughtering the Atlanteans...! I ask you now... please. Please, trust us. Help us put a stop to this. If not for this world, then for the future of all Orbitalkind. Help me save my people from these villains who continue to dominate their future. ...um. So. Will you help us?"
All the while... Nel was watching them, watching their reactions. Una in the forefront to say the words, Nel in the background to listen to what was not said...
Jon remained unreadable. Neutral. But Nel knew before he opened his mouth what Chu's reaction would be.
"Uno... Una. I think you misunderstood me," he said... trying to find the best words, trying not to show his nervousness with the situation. "When I warned you about the dangers of the Essence Core conversion process... it wasn't because I disagreed with it. I support it completely. It's the only road forward for our people. And I don't believe for a minute that they would destroy #A076, or frame your friends. They only use violence when there is no other choice, for an orderly future."
"What? But you can see clearly that they--"
"--are doing what must be done. Is it pleasant work? Hardly. I couldn't stomach it, and Jon knew that. He knew I only joined his team because I wanted to ease his burden, and politely rebuked the offer, so that I didn't have to endure the hardship. I respected that, and left to create my morale task force. But the power conversion process is a necessary evil."
"But it's not necessary!" Una insisted. "We found a way to recycle capacitors! The Ascendancy is lying when they say the process is faulty!"
"Doubtful, but if they are incorrect... so what? You still could not create new capacitors to recycle. Not without stripmining. There's no ethical high ground, there. But our process requires so little in the way of resources! A small amount of matter... and a so-called 'soul.' Who is it truly harming? These monsters, mindless and ravenous? The mutant savages of Africa? A few of society's extreme outlier radicals, like terrorists who murder innocents? These things have no place in the future. If we must be... brutal with them, then... so be it. ...they've certainly been brutal enough to us."
"What? What has this world ever done to you?" Una asked. "We were working towards global peace, before the Ascendancy imposed itself. Orbitalkind was working hand in hand with so-called Suborbitals!"
"Really? And how long would that truly last, if you hadn't been able to satisfy their hunger for power? How long was #A076 hiding before it dared show its face to the world, with a generous peace offering?" Chu asked. "I've read about this world, Una. Your people feared what would happen if they integrated before they had resources to sacrifice to their new masters. And more importantly... I've seen firsthand how things can go wrong. Do you remember what I told you I was doing before I joined the Ascendancy...?"
"You said your Arcology landed on its Earth, but--"
Chu's expression darkened, at the memory of it. Not something he had related to Una. Not something he liked relating to anyone, really.
"We came in peace. But they craved what little we had left," he told. "They accepted us, at first. And asked for our technology. And then asked for more. And more. And eventually... they were stripping our Arcology for parts, holding our scientists hostage, using every paranoid excuse they could to paint us as their enemy! I would have died, if the Ascendancy hadn't saved us. THAT is the face of a Suborbital! They may not fall immediately into chaos, but it is inevitable. ...so. If the souls of a few monsters and madmen are the price for an orderly, eternal society... I say it's worth it. And Jon agrees with me."
"I'll help you dismantle the Ascendancy," Jon quietly announced.
His companion was nodding along, satisfied, until he realized that the words coming out of Jon's mouth weren't exactly what he expected them to be. Were diametrically opposite to expectations, in fact.
Slowly, he turned to look at Jon, utterly baffled... but Jon's tired eyes stayed fixed on Una. Pleading, quietly.
"What we're doing is pure evil," Jon explained. "I don't care if it's more or less evil than what came before. It's still evil. Every time I siphon away their souls, every time I condemn them to oblivion just so we can enjoy a comfortable life, I feel a little piece of me being stripped away. Don't know if it's scientifically provable, but I've felt more and more dead inside, all the same. ...that's why I wanted you to leave my task force, Chu. I don't want that fate for you. I don't want this for you, for my people, or for my victims. I'm ready to go with you, Una. I'll help you, if that's what it takes to find a better path."
Chu tried to put it together in his mind, along with his idealized version of Jon... and began shaking his head. "No, no, wait, you... you can't mean that, Jon. You're the strong one. You're strong! You bear the burden of what must be done for the sake of our people, and it makes me so proud of you--"
"If I was strong, I would've stood up to this evil a long time ago. I'm weak, Chu, and getting weaker. This opportunistic escape is the very least I can do for our people."
He's never going to accept that, Nel realized, watching Chu with some alarm. Conflicting feelings, shattered images, everything coming to a boiling point...
"You can't do this. Not you, this can't be you..." Chu mumbled. "I can't. I can't let you do this. I've got to stop--"
"Flash," Nel warned.
Una dove forward, to clamp a hand over Jon's eyes, as she closed her own.
Minutes later, when Chu managed to recover from the stunning blast of light that still left spots in his eyes... they were gone. Something was ringing in his ears, too. An alarm, distant, and running feet...
But the same thoughts were echoing through his head. Over and over, and over and over. I've got to stop him. I've got to save him from the mistake he's making...
With determination... Chu grasped the shoulder of his tunic, and pulled down, hard. He knew the stitching by heart, having laundered it himself for some time.
The sleeve ripped off cleanly... exposing the nanoink tattoos of ritual magic.
Burning heat. Burning her up. Making everything real and unreal at the same time. They were somewhere out there, beyond the haze... her friends. Her mother. Trying to understand what had gone wrong, trying to stop it... but Maria, hidden underneath layer after layer of intense fever, like mirages on the horizon that had rushed up to hit you head on, couldn't reach out to them. She tried to talk, tried to say something, but had no idea if she was making any sound...
She had to warn them. It had been building up, this sickness. More and more, piled on, pouring in. It couldn't be natural. She'd indirectly worked with the Gatherers long enough to know the strange and irrational horrors that their objects were capable of; eventually, you got a feel for when something was wrong, wrong on a level beyond normal fear or paranoia. True horror, from the most mundane of things. Like having the flu. Or whatever she had--
Connections established. Psionic Network routing in place. Loop through protocols are complete.
The words in her head were Portugese, but she understood them as easily as she understood English. Which didn't make sense, since she had flunked out hard from high school foreign language courses during her many stays at various schools around the country, much less any language in the neighborhood of that. She knew how to say "open," "close," and "water" but that was only from children's video streams...
"Hello?" Maria asked, to anyone in general. Assuming she was speaking. Assuming it was more than thinking. Assuming she even managed to think clearly.
First wave focused and directed. New node added to network. Temporary knowledge download: Orbital security.
"HEY! What's going on?! WHAT IS--"
Remain calm, Maria Ruiz. Routing protocols are active. Conversion process at 85%.
"That's not my name. That's not..."
It was her name.
Maria Ruiz. Deadlocked at a young age. Infected with Los Muertos. Kept safe by her father... Doctor Ruiz, the man who would be king of the zombies. He had found a way to mix Faerie magic with undead biology, to direct and control it. He was going to conquer the world; his old-world rage and hate mixed well with the hunger of Los Muertos. Agent Elisa Morales stopped him. She took the child. They cured her. None of this was told to her, because it was nonsense, a sick joke, a bad horror movie cliche... but it was true. She could feel the truth of it.
They didn't speak, but she felt them all the same. Felt their honesty. They were close to her now, inside her mind, and there could be no lies at that level. A connection that had been formed slowly, over years and years--
"You did this to me!" she accused, once she understood. "You made me sick!"
Network routing protocols and biological conversion required. Doctor Ruiz control unit systems were a perfect working example. The Network could be refocused, given localized purpose beyond infection vectors.
Error: Unit Ruiz perished. New scheme required. You. Compiling within you, over Network psionic broadcast. Too far away. Lag time and dropped packet difficulties. Years of effort. New development: close proximity allowed us to finish compilation quickly. And during a time of great requirement.
Maria tried to push the chaos of their voices out of her head... and couldn't. The best she could do was put the troubling story of her origin aside. It was something her mother taught her; the ability to focus on the immediate threat, and delay your fears. Deal with them later, always deal with them, but not until the mission was over.
"Leave me alone," she mumbled inwardly, in a weaker voice than she wanted to use.
Routing protocols at 100%. Processor Maria Ruiz operating at 86%. Action against enemy underway. No cessation. Join us.
"Leave me ALONE," she tried again, with more strength.
The Network loves you, Maria Ruiz.
And it did.
She could FEEL that, all around her. The burning-hot fury of the Network, of Los Muertos, wasn't as cold as its words implied. She was a part of the whole, a node connected to the others. And they cherished her. She was their salvation--
"What do you mean, salvation?" Maria asked.
The enemy is destroying our souls. Current nodes: strong belief in various faiths. Carry-through to Network hive mind, despite infection vectors. Suffering. Agony in the Network. The hunger. Infected the Network. Ruined the ageless perfection of shared minds, a cannibal meme permutating and consuming all connected nodes. Then stolen away, to this shift plane, to infect and spread further. Hurts. But at least purpose. At least still the Network. Until now.
A vision uploaded itself, even through the inferno of body fever around her mind...
Staring up. She was in a small metal box, with a cage over the ceiling. Trapped, with others of her mind.
She could see them as they saw themselves, now... former citizens of Brazil. Men, women, children. Pushed right to the physical edge by the sickness, but at least they had each other, at least they had the Network. They were unable to think clearly, not clearly enough to avoid being captured by the enemy...
The enemy, who stood over them, with outstretched hands. A glass shell. A blue flash--
And their souls were taken away. Maria's soul was being stripped away, and it was the most painful thing imaginable--
The enemy has taken all we had left. All that was still precious to the nodes. All that remains: suffering, followed by oblivion. Before: hope that death's release would at least free from the memetically infected Network. Now: no hope. Nothing.
And Maria was Maria again.
She didn't want to feel sympathy. She wanted to hate these things that were trying to tear away her life.
"What do you want from me?" she asked. Again, not in the voice she intended; no force. More an offering.
We are already striking back against the enemy of the Network. We are using the technology your father developed. But instead of one node to control the Network... one node to coordinate the Network. We are striking back. We are stopping them. Through you. Your mind, to help us focus our thoughts, see past the hunger. You are helping us slaughter and consume them. And we love you.
Soon, you will join us. Your conversion is nearly complete. We love you.
"You love me," Maria echoed, without realizing.
The shattered remnants of a porcelain puppy statue were left in their wake. This was definitely a situation which called for an extraction, as Petersen had put it. Hopefully, they could survive long enough to get extracted, given the entire city was now alert and mobilized.
They were fully expecting alarms going off all over the place. This was, after all, a direct assault on the Ascendancy -- covert operatives making away with a key Ascendancy asset, one which could be the decisive factor in overthrowing their regime. No doubt Chu, who had refused their offer, would've signaled for the guards immediately.
However, the content of the warning announcements wasn't particularly encouraging.
"Danger. Danger. Level five biohazard containment breach," a synthesized voice crooned, in a sing-song voice more suited for children's lullabies. "Remain at your duty stations and/or personal quarters. Security to sectors 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, and 10. --additional. Security to sector 8. Level six biohazard containment breach in progress..."
Una was leading the way; she knew the basic topography of an arcology, the way the hallways and sections would be laid out. The Ascendancy hadn't built Arcology Socrates from scratch, after all, they had taken an "ordinary" space city and repurposed it for this dark mission. Orbital technology had a notoriously slow growth curve, and fifteen years wasn't enough time for them to so much as redesign the potted plants, much less the basic floor plans.
Having her on point helped, considering Nel had her hands full dragging Jon along. He was nearly dead weight, being past the point of horror at his situation, into a depressed acceptance of what was going on around him. Even the cheerful warnings of containment breaches hadn't broken through his shock.
Being on point also meant Una nearly got crushed by a foot-thick metal wall, which had slammed down right in front of her. She put her hands up to brace against it, to slow herself down... before stepping back, studying the various warning icons decorating its fringes in embossed silver...
"Containment walls," she recognized. "I've only seen them once before, when there was a radioactive outbreak from a nuclear science lab when I was six. ...um. I have no idea how to get past one of these--"
To add insult to injury, a containment wall also closed the way behind them, making a final thud like a metal coffin lid as it secured itself.
"...on the bright side, we aren't going to be facing any zombies!" Una declared, turning to face her comrades. "You have to look for the positive aspects of situations like these, right? Sure, Los Muertos broke out of the cargo bay--"
"--which leads to the cathedral plaza and our only way out--" Nel reminded.
"--but we'll be quite safe in here! Ah. Until the Ascendancy figures out what we're up to. Although I suppose we can just go stealthy until the breach is secured, then once the walls go up, sneak out, right?" Una suggested. "It may take a few hours, but that's the safest way. I'd rather deal with Ascendancy guards whose eyes we can fool than a horde of psychic undead, whom we can't hide from! And it's not like zombies can operate security doors, right?"
The bulkhead behind Una retracted back into the ceiling.
A dozen grimly animate corpses, eyes like molten gold, stood on the other side of the gap. Armed with energy weapons, leveled directly at them.
Hiding at that point was moot AND useless.
Enemy located. --error. Recognized additional non-enemy units.
--how long? How long since Maria had nearly sank into the Network? It felt like both seconds and hours...
She was close to them now, very close. Close enough to see through their eyes. Looking down the barrel of an energy rifle... aimed directly at three hazy and distant figures.
Maria focused on them -- and found the haze lifting immediately. She had a dozen eyes to look through, and as the mind through which they were coordinating their efforts, her commands had some weight. Instead of cutting the targets down with weapon fire and then pouncing to devour them... the connected nodes paused, allowing Maria time to study the situation.
Una. Nel. And -- hazier, masked by a burning yellow aura of hatred, an unknown Orbital...
"No, no, wait, STOP!" Maria ordered, waving her metaphorical arms in their direction, to get their attention. "Those are my friends! Don't kill them, please!"
Enemy unit located. Consume. Add to the Network. Condemn it to our fate--
"You can't -- we need that enemy unit!" Maria realized. "My friends, they were sent in there to find help... to find a way to put a stop to all of this! You don't have to kill everyone. We're going to stop them from hurting you! You don't have to do ANY of this!"
Unreliable. Unacceptable. No alternatives. Punish them, destroy them. Salvation for the ones no one else will save. The Network cares for itself. We care for you. We love you. You are part of the Network.
"No, no, I... I'm part of a family. I have friends, I have a mother..."
Not really your mother. Unit Morales took you away from us. We are making you one of us, to bring you home. A real home. The Network knows you hate your false mother's lack of a real home. You hate the restrictions imposed upon you by your false mother...
Through her mind, echoes of all the fights, all the shouting between herself and her mother. Disagreements that went on for days. Being forced to move from city to city, as Petersen's work meant they had to stay on the move. She couldn't make friends other than long distance ones, like Susie, Cammy, or Carrie. All that negativity, all that anger, swirling and swelling...
...but she found herself laughing out loud at it. In fact, it was enough to break her through the fog that had been trying to gnaw away at her mind, the preposterous suggestion of it.
"HAH! You think I hate her? That's totally stupid," Maria countered. "She's my mom. Moms can be brutal, sure, but that's their job. Oh, and I'm a teenager. We fight a little, so what? That's normal! It doesn't mean I don't love her. ...and I trust her, completely. I KNOW her, I know once she puts her mind on something, she gets it done. She's going to help you! She's going to stop the Ascendancy. But she can't do that unless you let these three go!"
The image wobbled. Los Muertos were losing their focus, as conflicting ideas started entering the perfection of the hive mind. For centuries, all it had to deal with was Hunt and Eat... even now, Punish was a simple enough directive. But through their chosen router, now they were being told to Forgive and Assist...
...uncertain, was the best they could offer.
"Alright, then lemme put this a different way," Maria suggested. "One? My mom's not gonna let you turn me into one of you. She'd... she'd sooner kill me than let me suffer as one of you. And I'd WANT her to do that. Two? If you guys are seriously interested in saving your souls... think back. Think to what the nodes you're occupying used to believe in. What does their faith say about salvation of the soul, and willful murder?"
2.233 seconds after the wall fully retracted into the ceiling... the zombies lowered their weapons.
One high-speed telepathic network conference had been enough to change their intent from Kill to Save. Not that the three they stood before knew what was going on behind their eyes, but not being held at gunpoint was a good sign. Even if "zombies with guns" was a very, very bad sign in and of itself.
Una backed slowly towards Nel and Jon, not sure what she should be saying right now, as the rotting corpses began to advance.
"...here for me, I knew they'd come for me, they're going to punish me and I deserve it..." Jon was mumbling...
A desiccated hand reached out...
...and waved them through. Gesturing to follow, the way they came.
The zombies took flanking positions, providing coverage in case of Ascendancy attack, as they escorted their incredibly confused VIPs out through the arcology. They hadn't known squad tactics until a short while before, but eating enough security guards had given them plenty of knowledge files to work from.
"I... ah... thank you?" Una offered, moving her feet at last, if only to avoid coming into contact with the two who had taken up rear guard position. "I think they're... um... helping us escape...?"
"They opened a security door. They have guns," Nel reminded... as she studied the flanking guard, carefully. "And there's more going on upstairs than before. I can tell from the way he's so alert... um. Do you know us? Can you tell what we're saying--"
The guard let out a dry, rasping moan of annoyance, before returning to studying his surroundings for possible ambushes.
"Yes, okay, we can converse later," Nel said hurriedly. "Come along, Jon, we're apparently leaving."
Jon was trembling, now. "Should be eating me. Should be killing me for all the things I did to them--"
"Let's not give them any reminders and let's all wear nice big smiles," Nel suggested, showing him her own manic grin. "No need to bring up old business. Let's just get out of here a... live..."
They had reached the cargo bay.
It was a sight Nel would never forget.
Their guards were focused and intelligent, yes. But the rest of the undead had been left to run wild through the arcology, to assault any living thing they came into contact with. This was a night of crazed, chaotic revenge... and all around her, corpses. Gnawed on. Torn apart. Sometimes, moving around AFTER being gnawed on and torn apart.
Los Muertos had risen up against their oppressors from within the secured walls of this fortress. A fortress which had unfortunately proven to be so secure that it meant no means of escape for those trapped within. In those hardened walls, Los Muertos found their enemy soft and deliciously ready for the kill.
Nel was also certain the deck plates of the cargo bay hadn't been red, before. Or slippery...
An Orbital with half of her brain hanging out of a hole in her skull decided to lurch in their direction, looking for food. But one sharp look from their not-entirely-undead guards was enough to send it simpering away.
"Just keep your eyes forward," Una said. "To the cargo bay doors. We're leaving. We're leaving and we're leaving all of this behind. We're almost there. Everything's going to be just fine, Nel..."
"Una... Una, if we--"
"There's no if to consider. We're going to be fine," Una insisted. "Focus on that. I love you. We'll both be just fine."
In the dead of night, using security codes fed to the Network by the minds of those it had recently acquired, the cargo bay doors of Arcology Socrates opened.
At the same time, a 1984 Buick LeSabre was rolling up to the doors. It was undamaged, or rather, no more damaged than it had been when the Pandora Event transformed it into an unstoppable automotive juggernaut. A trail of shattered debris and buildings had been left in its wake; when his matching puppy statue broke itself, Petersen knew they had little time to bother with niceties like "roads."
He'd plowed through any zombies that were in his way, as well. That was a bit of a problem, as he'd need to hose the car off a little once getting it back to the built-in garage of the Quantum Mermaid, but at least he'd remembered to refill the windshield wiper fluid last week.
On seeing a small cluster of the undead descending the cargo ramp, he was tempted to hit the gas and plow head on into them. The car wouldn't get a scratch, and it'd take out a threat to Una and Nel's escape. Except, oddly, Una and Nel were in the middle of the group and not in fact being eaten. So, he chose to hit the brakes instead of the gas.
"We're okay! We're okay!" Una called out, waving her arms. "They're our escorts! They won't shoot you, I think! We've got a defector who can help us, and--"
--and Una found herself pushed forward. Shoved, roughly, by Los Muertos. Nel and Jon were pushed as well.
The reason why was clear, as Una staggered away, the zombies quickly forming a defensive wall between them and something behind them, trying to block an incoming attack to keep their three wards safe...
In a brilliant flash of blue light, the armed zombies dropped to the ground. Still breathing... but with all the fight taken out of them. And bottled up in a little glass tube.
Chu lowered his hand, the nanoink runes in his arm having burned away from casting the Sacrifice spell. Replacement runes sketched themselves out immediately, the ink sliding subcutaneously to prepare for the next iteration of the ritual.
His eyes were... strange. Manic, but dulled to the chaos around him. Terrified, but blind to the pain.
"I have to stop you," he declared. "I can't let Jon leave. I can't let you destroy the Ascendancy. I... please, don't... just... come back. Please?"
Petersen was out of the car, using the bloodstained door as cover with an energy pistol drawn -- when Jon motioned for him to wait. Stepping away from the group, making sure Chu kept focus on him, and not on them.
Despite the terror he was facing at an unknown future, at stepping away from a known evil and into an unknown destiny... Jon pulled enough of himself together to speak.
"I know, Chu. I know how you feel," he said. "But I can't. I can't stay and let this go on--"
"The Ascendancy is the only way forward, Jon! I--"
"I mean I know how you feel," Jon emphasized.
This time... Chu was the one to tremble.
"If you know... then why are you leaving me?" he asked. "I did everything I could to ease your burden, Jon. I... I love you. I want to be there for you..."
"I know. And I want to ease your burden, as well," Jon replied. "I have to take this machine apart, Chu, for your own sake. This is no way to live. I didn't want you to share in my sin, and now that I have a chance to repent for ALL of us, I have to take it. Please, just... let me go. If you love me, let me go, and let me help save us all."
...Chu began to finger an empty glass tube, at his belt. He'd picked up a few empties before the bulkheads started going down... enough to Sacrifice his way this far, through waves of the undead. And he had one empty left...
"I could... I could make you stay," he suggested, desperation creeping in. "For your own sake. For all our sakes. ...I'm sorry I didn't want to have to do this you left me no choice --"
An energy blast from Petersen's gun hit Chu's shoulder, but by then it was too late.
Jon closed his eyes, accepting how just it was that this should be his fate.
I'm a ninety-one who never really aspired to anything, considered a failure by my people's standards. But I lived for love, and to do whatever I could for a better tomorrow, Una thought, in the space between two moments. It was worthwhile. I have no regrets.
The Sacrifice spell made contact with a target.
A scream of absolute terror filled the skies of São Paulo, as Nel moved slower than she wanted to, too slow. Her outstretched hand towards the glow...
In front of Jon, blocking him from the spell's effect... Una sank to her knees, her eyes going dull, as the tube in Chu's hand burned brightly with the energy of her sacrificed soul.
Nobody was sure what to do next, for exactly one moment.
"...I... I wasn't trying to..." Chu began to protest, looking in confusion from the soulless Orbital woman and the Essence Core. "I didn't mean to--"
The Fae had a term known as a "waking nightmare." It was a magical vision that grasps you while you're wide awake, tossing you into an endless gulf of absolute primal fear. In the face of a waking nightmare, even the strongest warrior becomes a terrified child, crying in the dark at monsters just out of sight, begging for Mommy or Daddy to turn on the light. But Mommy and Daddy are gone and it feels like the lights will never turn on again...
That was Nel's immediate response, as she began to pour absolute horror into Chu's eyes. The leader of the Morale Task Force immediately collapsed to the ground, the Essence Core clattering and rolling away. Tears flowed along with blood, as he clawed at his eyelids, trying to make the glamour curse go away...
"PUT. IT. BACK," Nel demanded... so angry, so utterly enraged that even to her allies, she was difficult to look at through the cloud of illusory shadow and fire that had engulfed her. "Put it back or I'll tear your mind out, piece by piece, until your tongue dries and your spine cracks and your skin blisters and peels--"
Chu somehow squeaked words out, between his screams.
"I DON'T KNOW HOW I DON'T OH PLEASE NO PLEASE--"
A weak hand tried to pull at Nel's arm, as she advanced on her enemy. The vengeful elf glanced back, to see who dared get in the way of this...
The pitiful, weakened form of Una was at least strong enough to try and interfere.
"...don't... it's... not what I'd have wanted," Una whispered, barely able to get her voice loud enough to be heard over Chu's sobbing. "Don't..."
Slowly... the shadow and flame tempered themselves. All that remained was Nel.
But that was enough to grasp Chu by the collar, hauling him off the ground, and giving him a look of absolute hate that needed no magic behind it to be intimidating.
"Under Faerie Law, you owe me... considerable debt," Nel declared. "You owe me your very life for this unforgivable affront to our House. And you will start paying this debt by telling the others nothing about our plans. The rest... I will be back for, one day. Now GO."
Roughly she shoved the man away. Pausing only to carefully retrieve Una's Essence Core from the ground, she led the others back to the car.
A Buick LeSabre sped off into the night, leaving behind a ruined man.
Maria prodded at her new "bling," taking an instant dislike to how bulky it was.
It had been affixed roughly to a heavy necklace, acting as a pendant the size of a jumbo paperweight. Didn't even have the sense to be flashy and cool-looking, unless you counted the LEDs underneath the plastic surface, which blinked away merrily to indicate that it was intercepting and rerouting signals, even now.
"You're going to have to wear it twenty-four-seven, at least for a while," Gwen Berners-Lee was explaining. "Don't worry, it's waterproof. That MagWiFi router's been rejiggered into acting as a psionic firewall, to keep Los Muertos out of your head. We're not going to have proper wireless Internet in here until I can find a replacement."
Elisa Morales gave her bedridden daughter a light hug.
"She's used to being grounded with no Internet. Just consider ALL of us grounded, for awhile," Elisa offered, with a smile. "You're going to be okay, Maria. Thank god for that. You're finally going to be okay..."
"I won't get sick anymore, right?" Maria asked, having no clue and no care for the tech behind it, provided she wasn't going to turn into a zombie.
"They were remotely stimulating what little Los Muertos you had in you. With the connection blocked, your Summerlion enchantment should be able to finish it off for good," Gwen explained. "You'll be healthier than ever, in fact. I'm just glad Ariel was able to help me figure out what the signal was, and how to turn it off... what kind of witch would I be if I wasn't able to take care of my own, in the end? ... um. No offense, Miss Emily..."
The exhausted Queen of Faerie, fanning herself after using up all her thermal enchantments trying to keep Maria's temperature regulated, had no problems letting the younger witch take the win.
"Everything's going to be fine, is all that matters," Emily declared. "Well. Not everything, but enough of everything. ...why isn't Petersen back yet? I thought that boxcar of his was unstoppable, or something--"
The sound of a door opening and closing in the common room got Emily to her feet.
Victorious, the insurgency had returned to the Quantum Mermaid, with their hard-won prize. Although all of them looked like they had been through hell, which was not far from the truth.
The defector had collapsed on the couch, expression neutral, not sure what to do with himself now that he was firmly in the enemy camp. The former president immediately went to a wet bar hidden in an old wooden globe, fixing himself something quite foul and nasty-looking.
The elf gingerly led a pale shadow of her wife through the room, while carrying a glowing glass tube, wrapped carefully in one of the indestructible plush seat covers of Petersen's Buick.
She paused in front of Emily.
"My Queen... we got you what you need to fight the Ascendancy," Nel said. "Now make it worth the cost."
Overnight, the ruins of a franchised coffee shop vanished from the streets of São Paulo, and nobody paid attention.
The Ascendancy was too busy cleaning up the mess to care about some minor shifting of the rubble around them. Los Muertos had to be herded back into their cages... mindless and brutal Muertos, unlike the organized resistance force they had faced the night before. Whatever strange intelligence had seized them had faded as quickly as it came, leaving behind only primal shells.
"I'm going to petition the Council to let me handle the new containment cells," Ket was complaining, as he looked down on the cargo bay cleanup effort, from the catwalks above. "This is flat out ridiculous, relying on purely physical containment. Let's see them think their way out of a well-designed force field, I say... Chu, are you paying attention?"
Chu took a few moments before glancing in Ket's direction.
"Did any of the other Thaumatologists survive?" he asked.
"All of them got infected, as far as we can tell," Ket said, checking the damage reports on his wrist holodisplay. "The bastards were targeted and eaten first. ...I don't see Jon or whatsername, Len, in the casualty list. There's a chance they survived--"
"They're gone," Chu stated. "All three of them. Jon, Len, Uno. They're gone."
"Of course. We can't get a single break, can we? So who does that leave that can continue to process Essence Cores...?"
"I'll be taking over the task force," Chu declared, without feeling. "I'm the only one right now with working knowledge and the ritual preparations. I'll train new candidates. The work will continue. The Ascendancy must continue..."
Chu gazed down, into the repaired containment unit. The guards had finished using Ket's force field scoop to move a batch of a dozen zombies into it... decayed remnants of this world, along with freshly devoured Orbitals, still bloodied and fresh from the battle of the previous evening.
Without emotion, Chu withdrew a glass tube. And carried on with what must be done, to ease Jon's burdens.
Una laid still in bed, with arms around her. With tears falling on her shoulder.
She felt like she should be sad. She felt like she'd lost something, something important. But no matter how Nel tried to explain it to her, Una couldn't understand. Something about losing her soul...
It was right there, the Essence Core placed carefully in a secured container on their nightstand. Always nearby, in case it was dangerous to take it away from Una's physical shell. But she felt nothing particularly special from that box... no warmth, no attraction to it. It glowed a pleasant color. That was all that was notable.
Did Una really feel different? She didn't remember feeling any different than she felt now. Things were simply what they were. She was alive. And breathing. That was enough to ask for, presumably.
Although she did recall that somehow, before last night, she could find warmth in Nel's loving embrace.
Today, she felt nothing.
to be continued
copyright 2011 stefan gagne
copyright 2011 stefan gagne