|sf05 the fall|
In a windowless room, in the heart of a silver city, in the skin of a younger man, sat the would-be ruler of this world.
Night had fallen, by now. Not that he had any natural views of the world outside his office... his spacious, largely empty, extremely quiet office. Truthfully, Lar hadn't seen direct sunlight in days, preferring to stay in here. Too many reflective surfaces outside this room. Too many opportunities for those eyes to stare at him, from beyond the void...
He hadn't seen the sun, but he had seen the moon. There it was, a 2-D representation of it, in a hovering 3-D window above his desk. He'd been keeping an eye on the moon for several days now... watching it, always watching it, out of the corner of his eye. The rest of his eye was focused on the other hovering windows.
One holographic window looked at the House of the Rising Sun, or the Moonthistle Witching Academy, or whatever name the local filth used for it. Too many shadows on that house. Sometimes, when he wasn't paying enough attention, he could swear they were moving ever so slightly... which was absurd, since light obeyed simple and understandable physical laws. Like the laws of matter and gravity that ensured the Moonthistle brat was safely secured in there, watched from within by her Fae honor guard, watched from without by the Ascendancy soldiers posted to allegedly keep her from harm.
Lar had tried being diplomatic with the child. She was the heir apparent of the Faeusa nation, and courting her was the key to getting buy-in from her people. (Her people. The child was human, not Fae. Were these elves really so compliant and imitative that they went along with that so easily?) But Susan had always stalled, pushed off decisions, avoided direct contact when possible. She was clearly buying time, in hopes that her adoring parents would spring into action. Wherever they might be...
Another holographic window looked over the city of Atlanta. In the last week, it had become an impromptu hub of anti-Ascendancy sentiment. After all, they had Astro Gal! One silly little girl with a radioactive and mutated genome, who grew superpowers instead of dropping dead from cancer. How could one silly little girl give them such ridiculous ideas? Atlanta was Eastusa, and Eastusa was in the Ascendancy. Lar could take the city whenever he wanted.
Another holographic window surveyed the disaster zone that was London. Non-stop rioting, day in, day out. The people there had been stirred to revolution, and by what? A lie! Lar didn't believe for a minute that Jesse Runeblade and Gilbert Gearhaus sacrificed themselves -- or the people's princess, Chloe Manchester. Why did nobody else see that? Were these chaotic, useless, worthless Suborbitals so eager for a fight that they were willing to take that lie at face value?
Why were so many trying to resist the future? Why were they so intent on making his regime a mockery?
And this was the most troubling of all... a window to Seattle. Or rather, where Seattle was.
He'd gotten the report only minutes ago. The entire city was gone. Which was completely absurd, as they'd been keeping a tight watch on NanoSeattle this entire time. It represented the most advanced technology on the planet so far... docile, tamed, but a potential threat. And yet, somehow, the city had vanished from under their noses. All that remained behind was a thin shell designed to look like Seattle, at a glance, but... a nightly patrol accidentally bumped into one of the buildings, which promptly collapsed. The entire facade soon followed. 95% of the city's nanomatter had apparently been evacuated at some point prior.
Planetary sweeps had turned up nothing, of course. No idea where the city went to. Maybe it had fled, run into hiding, in fear of the Ascendancy. That would be the best case scenario...
And yet, despite this latest crisis... he found himself primarily looking at the window that observed the moon.
The moon. He stared at it directly, now, to get his mind off the other failures. Except the moon represented failure, as well...
A whiskey bottle replaced the moon. Held in front of him, waggled around, to get his attention.
"A gift," the devil on his shoulder said. "And no, this doesn't count as a bargain between us. You just seemed like the sort of fellow who could use a stiff drink... and I didn't have to spend much of my remaining mojo to make it so."
Because Lar was never quite alone, even in his own highly secured office. Nothing had been able to purge this room of the unliving stain known as The Mister. Not for lack of trying, either.
He could've protested, shoved the bottle away. Or just ignored the demon, as he'd done before. Besides, intoxication was an illogical course of action.
He grabbed the bottle away and took a strong swig from it, instead. Bitter.
The Mister tapped his twenty-four-frames-per-second finger at the holographic moon, disrupting the image briefly. He studied it, curiously, while Lar had his fill of the drink.
"You seem rather fixated, if I may say so," The Mister said. "May I ask why? Feel free to ignore me, as you usually do, of course. I don't honestly mind. No offense taken--"
"Because despite my best efforts, I failed," Lar sputtered, after slamming the bottle down on his desk.
"Really, now? You've got this planet in your grip, do you not?" The Mister asked. "Granted you haven't clenched your fist yet, for sake of your public relations, but..."
"It's not the world. It's the damn moon. The Arcology. And Kas's recycling program," Lar said. "I tried to put a halt to that. Magic and Orbital science? A dangerous mixture. One which could have given them the strength and independence to fully shrug off the Ascendancy's clutches..."
"I'm not a man of science, admittedly, but... it didn't work, yes? They couldn't make new Mass Capacitors," The Mister said. "Seems to me you won the power struggle, in the end."
"That's just a matter of engineering and cleverness. In a generation or two, they would have made it work. Magic is the key, after all," Lar said. "It breaks unbreakable physical laws down into something more pliant. ...but that's not the point. If not for Kas... if not for her efforts, giving this world enough power to unify factions that were supposed to be murdering each other long ago... we could have swept in, brought order to chaos, and unified the world ourselves. We would've been heroes. We could have had it all, and without dealing with these pathetic little tantrums..."
"Really? You think she did all that?" The Mister asked. "That one woman made it all happen?"
"Of course. Orbital science is the embodiment of the future. Nothing else can possibly compare, and Kas nearly perfected an alternative science very similar to my own. One which could've stood against the Ascendancy."
The devil sitting at the edge of his desk took the whiskey bottle, and had himself a swig. Which should have been impossible, given he was an immaterial projection of a celluloid nightmare... but magic had a way of cheating physics. He passed the bottle back, after enjoying his taste of the devil's liquor.
"I will agree with you on one point," The Mister offered. "One woman did make it all happen. One woman provided the spark to unify the world, and solidify it. And you have every right to be angry at her. Vengefully angry, even..."
"I'm not accepting any bargains today, no matter how irate I may be," Lar warned. "Besides, I got my vengeance. Kas is dead."
"Hmmmm. And IS she really dead, now...?"
A dreadful silence claimed the star chamber.
"Kidding," The Mister added, with a wink. "I assure you, she's quite dead. But you should have SEEN the look on your face--"
The whiskey bottle flew straight through his movie-projected self. Because he didn't feel like being solid enough to get glassed by an angry man who supposedly was motivated only by logic.
"It's funny how women are such a problem for you, isn't it?" The Mister continued, even as the Proctor began to slip back into ignoring him completely. "A woman nearly uncovered your conspiracy, years ago. You puppeted her right out an airlock. Did that solve your problems? Certainly not! Her daughter took up the cause, next. And then a young witch kicked you in the crotch and put you in a coma. And then a woman nearly perfected a science to rival yours. A girl barely into her teenage years sits in her castle, stifling your attempts at claiming the elves. And now, a young girl is claiming Atlanta as safe territory--"
Lar stabbed at a holographic button on his desk. Not wanting to interrupt, The Mister sat idly by... and listened.
A new window opened, showing a silver-suited warrior.
"Sir?" the captain of the guard asked. "Do you require something? The hour is late, but--"
"I want a message to go out through every media outlet we control," Proctor Lar decided. "Message is as follows. As duly authorized representatives of the Ascendancy and its allies in the American government... Arcology Pythagoras will relocate from New York to Atlanta in four days time. The city will be strongly reinforced with Ascendancy security, and there will be a zero tolerance policy for lawlessness and treason. Citizens are encouraged to stay in their homes and not resist. The Ascendancy has the interests of the American people in heart, and we will restore peace and order. ...that is all."
"Understood, sir. We'll ensure your message is sent out with the morning news streams--"
"Do it now. Activate their primitive Emergency Broadcasting System, if you must. I want them to know tonight that we are done playing around," Lar stated. "Atlanta will serve as an example to any who defy us. ...and in the morning I'm going to start issuing final pacification orders for London. Maybe even for New Orleans. Get your men ready for battle. It's time to stop playing friendly neighbor, and start playing stern paternal figure."
He didn't wait for a reply. Lar cut the communication feed off immediately. He was in no more mood for talking.
"Well done," The Mister's voice whispered in his ear. "Four days, you say? Very well. Remember that, Lar. That's how long you have left. Now, I should gather up my strength for the big finale... but I'll be with you, at the end. You have my word."
Lar spun to face the demon...
Who was gone.
For the first time, The Mister had truly vanished. Not playfully vanished, to pop up when Lar least wanted him to... he was gone.
...and all the better for it, Lar thought. The demon had no place here. Lar had no need of some Faustian bargain. Everything was going to fall back into line with the Ascendancy's plans, one way or another. Proctor Lar had worked too long and too hard to accept any other result.
He sat, alone, in his office. At his desk. In the dark and windowless room. And waited for the morning to come. The first day of the rest of his life.
by stefan gagne
She felt fine. She didn't see what all the fuss was about.
Wake up in the mornings, bathe. Eat breakfast. Sit around. Eat lunch. Sit around. Eat dinner. Go to bed. All perfectly normal things to do, and things she'd always done, all her life. Nothing was really different.
Sometimes she lost track of time. That was the only real explanation for why she'd glance up and notice Nel urging her to eat something, or saying that it was bedtime. Una hadn't noticed growing hungry or tired. She WAS hungry and tired, but it didn't really bother her, not in any serious way. Why worry about it?
She was losing weight. She hardly spoke, unless spoken to. But why worry about it? She was alive and well, and nothing was wrong at all.
If anything, perhaps she felt satisfaction. A comforting satisfaction, that their mission was accomplished. They recovered the magic that created Essence Cores -- and even an Essence Core itself, which they said now contained her soul. (Orbitals didn't believe in souls. They didn't believe in religion. They believed in the fascinating study of human folklore regarding primitive sun deities and such. But not souls.) What's more, they'd recovered Chloe, and hired an assistant to help her make the weapon which would defeat the Ascendancy. This should be a happy time, a time for celebration.
Why was Nel in tears so often?
She hid it, of course, but Una was sharp and able to tell when Nel was upset. Even if she couldn't put a finger on why, she didn't like that Nel was so upset. At first, she tried to help -- Nel was researching the effects of Total Social Conversion, reading blogs online from family members dealing with people who had been subjected to it. Most who went through the TSC process slipped into a grey depression, neither happy nor sad, simply existing. A few committed suicide.
That was absurd. Una didn't feel like killing herself. She didn't really feel like anything.
The Ascendancy wizard that Una had rescued, Jon, had killed himself.
He waited until they had a plan for how to win the day. Waited until it was clear he wasn't going to be needed anymore, now that he'd told them everything they wanted to know. Then he killed himself. Slit his wrists in the bathroom. He left no note.
A lot of people cried. Una felt like she was supposed to be crying, since she was sympathetic to Jon's situation. But she didn't cry. And didn't really care to wonder why, beyond a momentary Huh, that's odd moment. It passed.
That was days ago. Today, she had nothing to do, not even think about things like that. In fact, for lack of anything better to do, she decided to wander around the Quantum Mermaid a little, while Nel was asleep at her computer.
The Mermaid had expanded quite a bit, since they first arrived. The building didn't actually exist in any conventional sense -- it was a spell cast by Gwen Berners-Lee, a place of pure magic and imagination, which expanded to add rooms appropriate for each new person that took up residency here. (Una's room had gone quite colorless lately. The lights weren't very bright, either. This troubled Nel, for some reason.) It meant Gwen had to stay inside the entire time, even if everybody else was out on errands; the girl didn't seem to mind as long as she had MagWiFi to keep her company.
The main room in the center had changed since arriving, as well. It started out as a dusty but cozy combination of a living room and a storage center... stocked with artifacts from Petersen's days with the Gatherers. But now, chalkboards and holographic displays and more had been added, with plans for war. They were developing a countermeasure to the Ascendancy and the means to deploy it, working with people all around the world through the huggable ursine message delivery service. The cozy atmosphere was now quite tense.
Una drifted through, as several members of the resistance were discussing reports of the day.
"There's not a doubt in my mind that the Ascendancy will find some thin excuse to pacify Atlanta," William Petersen was explaining. "The Gatherers have seen it before, on other worlds the Ascendancy's invaded in recent years. They try to win the hearts and minds of the people, try to spin the public relations in their favor... but when that fails, they start clamping down, all the while claiming it's for the people's best interests. Carrie Lane is all the excuse they need."
"I'm not sending her away. She's our best bet for cracking the shell of that Arcology," Emily disagreed. "Super strength and her sharp mind will find a way past the city's armor. Now, I know she's a walking target, especially since they're tracking her radiation, but we can get her ready for battle before the Arcology even gets to Atlanta. Besides, even if she runs for the hills, we can't assume Lar won't take out his anger on that city anyway."
"Chloe hasn't made any progress on the weapon. You really expect it'll be done in four days?"
"It'll have to be, won't it? Now. What about my daughter?"
The Scout spoke, next. He was looking better, these days... out of seclusion, and working with the team. But his skin, it was still so pale... and some nervous energy kept moving in his muscles. It would've unsettled Una, at one point.
"Stalling, like we want her to do," Scout said. "Earning us time. Winterhounds are in nearly every shadow of the building, now. None of them have been spotted so far. Well. Not spotted by the Ascendancy, but the Summerlions understand the score. But it's only out of respect for me that the Winterhounds aren't launching into the Wild Hunt and the Summerlions are tolerating the shadow incursions. They're not going to wait forever. Need to act fast, because of that -- and because of Atlanta, and because Seattle can't hide for long..."
"Right. So, four days. Will the mutant tribal ambassador be back in time for a strike in four days? Who's got the tube messages Penny's been sending...?"
Drifting away, now. No reason to remain in the war room. She wasn't part of the war. She did her part and sacrificed and now they didn't want her getting hurt anymore. So, Una moved on.
Chloe's room. Una loitered by the open doorway, watching the two within.
Edward was out at the moment -- having him around was putting too much performance anxiety on his wife. Instead, she was in deep concentration directed by the unlikeliest of mentors... the King of Pain, a demon by nature and a drug dealer by trade. Currently on contract to the forces of good.
Slowly... Chloe exhaled, into a glass tube. Which the King quickly corked, and brought over to an extensive network of tubes, vials, valves, and brass pipe fittings. (He wore heavy rubber gloves with matching lab goggles and breathing mask, knowing damn well how dangerous the breath of an angel could be to him.)
The misty gas of her breath was shunted through each and every bit of the system, slowly working its way through the fixtures. The King tapped at the glass on valves, frowning at where each needle pointed. He twisted dials. And in the end... shook his head, releasing the gas back into the air through a mildly cursed vent system that would neutralize it safely.
"It's just not focused enough," he said. "You're going through the mental images, right? Keeping your positive emotions firmly in mind?"
"I'm trying to keep them as upbeat as I can, just like you taught me," Chloe replied... although the sag in her shoulders said she was hardly upbeat. "Positive karma. Good vibes. Hope for the future. Things like that... I don't see how that's going to be enough for an exorcism, though."
The King of Pain rubbed his forehead, leaning back in a wooden chair near his portable drug lab.
"Look, forget everything that the movies taught you," he said. "Exorcism isn't about the might and majesty of God. It's not all 'The power of Christ compels you!'. That's macho chest-beating. It's not about pulling the demon out, it's about strengthening the soul. Motherly love, not paternal rage. You want to give a wounded soul enough impetus to take action on its own. Whether that action is shoving one of my brothers out the door... or escaping captivity, to return to its original mortal vessel."
"Right. Sending the captured soul back home, or... to wherever it should be going, if the body is dead," Chloe acknowledged. "And powering down all the Ascendancy's technology in the process. But... you really think my breath can empower the souls in Essence Capacitors? Me, seriously? I mean... I know I'm an earthborne angel, but... I'm hardly someone important, like Raphael or even the Word--"
"You speak for the Word. You're here because He wants you to be here," the King of Pain said. "And besides, like I said, this isn't about power and bravado. It's about purity of will. Compassion. ...this is hard for someone like me to explain after years of souring compassion and breaking wills, okay? I'm rusty on how to describe angelic concepts. Work with me here, kid!"
"I'm trying! I'm trying, okay?!" she blurted, frustration mounting. "I've been at this for days and you keep saying it's not good enough, but I don't know what I'm supposed to be doing!"
"And you think I do? I'm a demon! This is the opposite of what I'm supposed to be doing!" The King grumbled right back at her. "Only reason I'm doing it at all is... is... I don't know, okay? I don't know any more than you do. But we have to figure out some way to make this work. You need to tune your feelings and pass them on through your breath, or all those precious souls are going to get burned up by those interdimensional jackasses!"
"Can I help?"
They hadn't noticed anybody watching their little breakdown. Una was hard to notice, these days. Like you didn't notice the furniture in your house.
Immediately, any rage Chloe was feeling evaporated. She sank back in her own chair, trying not to look at Una. Letting out the sad reminder in one breath.
"Hey, Una," she greeted, although without any mirth. "Sorry, we're just... having some process issues. We'll figure this out and get you back to normal soon, I promise--"
"Can't we just take a break?" she asked, turning back to the King, who was trying to get her attention. "Please?"
"Chloe. The needle moved," he said, tapping one of the meters on his steamwork rig. "When you exhaled, just now. Do it again. Right now, do it."
Chloe shrugged a little... then inhaled, and exhaled. The needle didn't move.
The King of Pain scratched his chin. The idea was in front of him, in a part of his brain associated with kindness which had nearly atrophied after years of drug dealing, screwing people over, trolling, and generally making life miserable for people...
"Look at Una, then try breathing," he suggested. "Look in her eyes."
Doubting this was going anywhere, Chloe turned to face Una...
And found it hard to do exactly that. To look in her empty, soulless eyes. Not because it was horrifying, or revolting... it was sorrowful. A sad reminder of the wound that Una had suffered. One which Chloe had been trying, trying so hard to help mend...
A sharp cheer distracted her. The King of Pain was in high spirits.
"Tickling the green!" he exclaimed. "I didn't even have to funnel in a controlled sample! The ambient breath of life in the room was enough to register on the meter; I can actually feel my evil skin itching from it! Now you're cooking with exorcism gas, baby! --quickly. What were you thinking, just now? How did you feel...?"
"I... I don't know, I just..."
"Nel looks that way a lot lately," Una added, in an even tone.
It took Chloe a moment to put her finger on it. Which was odd, since it was a word she'd been carrying around her whole life.
"Melancholy," she decided. "That's it. It's not just sadness, it's... a compassionate sadness. Unhappy with how things are, the injustice of it. I want to help Una. I really, really want to help make this wrong thing right..."
"We've been going about this the wrong way..." the King announced, while resetting the dials on his machine, and fetching a fresh test tube. "Positive vibes and purity of will are great, but we need a little more on top of that. Some extra ingredient... sympathy. It's not something I'm really loaded with, but you, you are PACKED with sympathy. You always have been, being an earthborne angel. Half-breed. All of the problems of humanity and all of the responsibility of the angels, in one package..."
He pressed the test tube to her lips. And nodded, waiting for the sample.
This time, every needle on his machine buried itself to the right.
"Someone get Nel," he declared. "It's time to test out the weapon."
Nel was holding her hand. Quite tightly, in fact, judging from the pressure she was feeling. Her voice had taken on an urgency which said she was worried and agitated. Whatever they were discussing must have been incredibly important, even if Una couldn't put her finger on why.
Of course, everybody knew this was coming -- ever since Emily decided they needed to focus on disabling the technology, and the King of Pain and come up with the actual idea of what "weapon" could make that happen. They needed a test firing of the weapon. And that meant they needed something to fire it upon.
Namely, the glowing glass cylinder that apparently held Una's soul.
"We have captured Ascendancy technology, yes?" Nel was arguing. "Weapons taken by the Winterhounds, things Penny sent us from overseas. Why aren't we using that?"
"We are using that. But we need something we can use to directly observe the complete chain of effect," Emily was explaining. "If we free the souls trapped in these Essence Capacitors, we won't know if they return to their hosts or just evaporate. But if we free Una's soul from the Essence Core... we can see if, well--"
"If she dies or not," Nel filled in. "If her spirit is restored, or simply vanishes from this world. You want to use her like a guinea pig!"
Emily was clearly unhappy. Maybe because Nel, who was technically her royal subject, was disobeying her Queen?
No. That didn't make sense to the logic within Una's mind, which drew upon her memories of the relationships involved. True, Emily had grown a tendency to order things into being over the years, her meddling nature ("I know best") combined with the power of the crowns ("I can do what needs to be done"). But that sort of frustrated impulsiveness she directed at her enemies, not her friends.
In this case, if Una had to make a call despite not quite understanding the emotions involved anymore, she'd say the problem was that Emily didn't like having to do this, despite it needing to be done. Arguing a logical viewpoint (to use available resources and the scientific method) was muddled by her own illogical wish that it didn't have to be done in a way that brought risk to her friends.
"I don't like this any more than you do, Nel," Emily said, confirming Una's theory. "But... that's exactly the reason. We have to know that the King of Pain's theory is sound, that this will restore Una. If not... well. If it sends souls onward towards whatever lies beyond, even then, we have to use it. But if it just obliterates the soul, burning it up--"
"I won't allow that to happen to Una."
"We've sacrificed more than enough for your crusades, Emily," Nel stated... dropping all titles and honors due her queen. "You ask too much. We took the risk at first, going to the Arcology, because we believed in you and your cause. We left that night and even abandoned our daughter -- we did so without question, out of loyalty. But we paid a price, a heavier price than anyone should pay. ...I am not a meek slave girl anymore. My queen or not, if you order me to do this--"
"Us," Una corrected. "Order us to do this."
"--thank you, Una. If you order us to do this, then... I'll... I'll resist. I won't comply."
"I'll comply," Una stated.
Her expression was unchanging, of course. Nel's reaction suggested that this declaration was unthinkable, so Una backed up her point with proper logic.
"Us, not you. I have to agree before a direction is decided upon, Nel. And I do not agree."
"Please, let me state what is clear to me," Una insisted. "If the Ascendancy is to be defeated, so it cannot hurt anyone else the way it hurt me, this has to be done. That is a simple fact. I can't completely grasp how I was hurt, but I trust you enough to accept that I was hurt in a terrible manner. One that's continuing to hurt you, Nel. Now... perhaps this angelic steam will heal me. Maybe it won't. Maybe I'll just fade away. Regardless, the outcome is optimal."
Nel's shock failed to fade, despite Una's best efforts.
"How... HOW is dying an optimal outcome?!" she demanded to know.
"Because as noted, I'm continuing to hurt you," Una said, simply. "I'm not so far gone as to take any delight in your pain, Nel. So. Either I am restored, making you happy. Or I am gone, and you no longer have this pale reminder of who I was around. After all, if I understand what you've all been saying to me... in a way, I'm already dead. A failed experiment would simply make that death official."
Una's flat and calm presence countered Nel's growing panic perfectly. Enough to mask the increasing look of guilt on Emily's face, which Nel wasn't paying attention to.
"I... I don't want to lose you," Nel whispered. "Any part of you. No matter how little remains..."
"I'm not sure enough of me remains for me to want to keep being here, if this is what comes of it. I'm sorry, Nel. But this is for the best, from every possible viewpoint."
"You're, you're not of sound mind. You can't make decisions like these for yourself..."
"My mind is perfectly sound. Even if little else about me is perfectly sound, I at least have my Orbital logic," Una said. "But... I don't have my Optimism. It's just not there. I understand what's missing, now. And if I don't have that, if I can never get that back, I don't think I should be anymore. Since I'm not really Una. Emily? I consent to the experiment... if Nel is in agreement."
It took several moments, before Nel was willing to offer the briefest of nods.
Emily immediately expressed that the experiment would work, that she had every bit of faith in Chloe, that honestly all of this was needless worrying, and that Una would be back to normal right away, they could get started in a few minutes, sit right here, I'll be right back, everything's going to be fine, etc, etc.
The ones with clasped hands ignored her. Nel rested her head on Una's shoulder, while the Orbital woman kept her head held high.
Only when Emily left, did Nel whisper in her love's ear.
"If this doesn't work... I swear that I'll follow you wherever you may go," she breathed. "Wait for me. Please."
Una had no objections. But then again, she didn't really feel one way or another about much of anything, anymore.
The prototype weapon had been assembled only minutes previous, from chalkboard sketches by Gilbert Gearhaus. Unseen within its brass casing was the glowing aetheric steam which would either save Una's soul, or perhaps condemn it.
All had gathered in the main room, surrounded by war plans, to observe the experiment. They had a lot riding on this, after all... both the fate of their world, and the fate of their friends. Considering the risks they were asking Una and Nel to take on, they had to be here -- for either the victory celebration, or to share in the guilt of failure.
Emily and her husband Scout. Jesse and Gilbert. (They'd brought Cammy with them, much to Emily's worry -- that the child shouldn't see something potentially scarring. But Jesse and Emily had different perspectives vis-a-vis child rearing and what horrors one must accept in life in order to mature.) Chloe and Edward. Petersen, Elisa, and Maria. Jen Cooke of NanoSeattle. Gwen the technowitch. And finally, the King of Pain -- wearing a biohazard suit from Petersen's collection of oddities, to keep himself from getting blessed to death in a few moments.
My circle of friends has grown over the years, Una mused. I should be thankful for that. I want to feel thankful for that. Maybe in a minute, I will...
Gilbert placed the device on the central table, pushing some empty mugs from the coffee house beyond the magical door aside to make room.
"Right. So. Here's how it will work," he said, putting emphasis on the word he had faith in. "The Exorcism Bomb. Let me break it down for you, piece by piece, for those who weren't as involved in the design...
"First, British engineering of my own make, to compress and encapsulate aetheric steam. I've had enough time to work and re-work Jeeves's systems to find new ways to utilize the steam... especially since we learned what it really was. I know how to safely contain a vast amount of Chloe's breath in a small space...
"The design is British, but I've used the far more advanced metal alloys of Eastusa to create the casing. England is held back a bit by its reliance on metallurgy from centuries in the past. Eastusa may love its nostalgia, but the core technology they use has advanced tremendously in terms of efficiency... doing a lot with a little. I couldn't have made a sturdy enough casing for the steam without it...
"But we can't rely on the steam to reach every single Ascendancy power source within an Arcology by itself. For that we use Seattle's military nanotechnology, which delivers the payload intelligently, spreading the gas into every nook and cranny it can find. Orbital programs designed to detect dimensional shift signatures will help with the target selection. That's why we need to breach the Arcology armor and deliver it as close to the center of the city as possible, to give the steam a fighting chance of finding every target without simply escaping into the atmosphere...
"Next, Faerie protective wards of Archmagus Elriel's design, which are designed to resist Ascendancy energy blasts. If they target and destroy the weapon before we can deploy it, if they're allowed to sense and scan it, they may catch on to our plans. If a single Arcology escapes unscathed, we have failed. They all have to be shut down at once, before they can counteract us...
"Helping out there, Nel has provided a similar enchantment to the one we placed on the teddy bears. No one can hear the bears unless we'd already designated them as listeners... and Nel's spell assures the Ascendancy won't be able to even see the Exorcism Bombs. Now, they may find a way to break the illusion, but hopefully not before it's too late.
"Finally, and this goes without saying... Chloe's breath, using the King of Pain's formula. Angelic steam, to empower these souls to break free of their chains. As she speaks for the Word, I'd like to think of this as His merciful punishment for the Ascendancy's sins, carried on the artificial winds of nanotechnology--"
Gilbert coughed once, his speechmaking thrown off a bit by Emily's interjection.
"Ah... sorry to be so poetic, but it seemed appropriate, yes?" Gilbert offered. "It was your idea to be merciful, to disable their power without killing them all. But, ah, Chloe's an angel, so it's sort of His mercy, and... well..."
"No no, I get it, very clever," Emily said. "Just... reminded me of something, is all. Sorry. Keep going, keep going."
"Not much else to say, honestly. That's the up and down of it," Gilbert concluded. "This test firing should affect Una's Essence Core, which we've placed in another room, to make sure the wide dispersion of the steam is working correctly. We've also placed the other stolen bits of Ascendancy tech all over the facility. If the Exorcism Bomb deactivates all of them... and leaves Una, ah, intact... we can call it a success."
With his description complete, all that remained was to push the shiny red button on the box.
Nobody was in a rush to be the one to push it.
"Um... maybe you should do it, Nel," Emily offered. "I mean, this was your decision, together."
"As my Queen, and the one who asked us to do this, I believe the responsibility falls on your shoulders," Nel offered, with a small amount of wintry chill.
"Don't mind if I do it for you, Emily," Scout offered. "It's okay."
"Ugh. Scout, I can't ask you to--"
"Oh, for pity's sake--!"
And so Jesse pushed the button, tired of their lollygagging.
Everything went white. After all, in less than two seconds, aetheric steam bolstered by special-purpose nanobots had flooded the atmosphere of the Quantum Mermaid's Faeplace completely. Fortunately they were designed to avoid leaving grey goo inside human lungs, or nobody would've been alive to see what happened next.
Not that they could see anything beyond a flash of blue light. It was soundless and flashed like lightning... afterimages mingling away in their retinas for moments after. A perfect arc, connecting the side room where they'd stashed the Essence Core, to the spot was to where Una was sitting...
Jeeves helpfully activated an electric fan that Gilbert had installed in his chest, to clear up the mess. Now, the room was simply foggy, as opposed to doused in holy pea soup.
Una hadn't collapsed, which was a good sign. She was sitting upright, just as she had been sitting before. Blinking away, trying to get the flash that had momentarily blinded her to go away.
Soon, she felt the touch of Nel's hand. So, she turned to look at her companion.
"Una...? Are you...?" Nel offered, trying to figure out how to ask it. "Are you okay? ...say something. Please..."
"I want some Cold Fun," Una replied.
On the list of things the soulless victim might say after having her soul restored, that ranked somewhere near the bottom. Nobody was quite sure what to make of it.
"When I was growing up, I had to endure a lot of disappointments," Una continued. "Low evaluation marks from my instructors. Bad luck finding anybody to love. ...losing my mother, at a young age. But every time life pushed me down, I'd pick myself up, and have some Cold Fun. Because Cold Fun shows that there's always something good in life, even when everything feels otherwise. I would very much like some Cold Fun right now."
Finally... Una was smiling. A genuine smile, from the heart, not a faked smile so they wouldn't look so worried.
"I know that was a bit... ah, random, but it just popped into my head. I wanted Cold Fun. I wanted to be happy. I... don't think I've been happy at all, recently. Or sad. Or anything. It never even occurred to me until now, honestly, but... I guess I really was missing something important. So. Um. Do we have any Cold Fun? I know it's an Orbital foodstuff and we're rather trying to avoid Orbital attention, so it's not very likely, but, uh..."
An iced mocha latte was presented.
Jen Cooke had apparently formed one using her innate barista nanotech, the instant Una made the original request. Similar to the food generated by NanoSeattle, it was a perfect and perfectly edible molecular replica of the tasty frozen treat. She'd even added sprinkles.
Una, very carefully, accepted the drink. And took a sip through the adorably pink straw.
And started to cry. While smiling. Weakened from the onrush of confusing emotions... Una sagged a bit, leaning heavily on Nel. Who was ready and willing to be there, to support her love. And to smile alongside her.
"...so. That happened," Gilbert offered. "I'll still need to check the other Essence Capacitors, but... I'm willing to call it a successful test. Hm. Petersen, does your coffee shop carry any proper vintages? We can't celebrate a victory with steaming java..."
"Six. We need six fully loaded Exorcism bombs," Emily said, quickly. "Can you get them ready within four days? Sooner, even? Gotta distribute them. One to Penny Dreadful, one to NanoSeattle, one for Edward and Chloe to bring to England, one for the Atlanta resistance, one to bring to São Paulo... and one for the bastard who started it all, sitting in his city outside New Orleans. Six. We need six weapons and pronto. Fine wine can wait."
"I'm all for getting to work, m'lady, but... I think we've all been wound a bit tight, yes?" Gilbert said.
We can't waste a minute, Emily wanted to say. The Ascendancy are ready to tear Atlanta apart. Maybe getting ready to lay into the rest of the world, while they're at it. We don't rest, we don't stop, we fight, we sacrifice, we make this happen...
...because I'm still afraid that the future vision I've been fighting against for fifteen years may come to pass. A world shattered in half, ice and fire, the crowns divided. Cataclysm and failure. All the other visions came to pass, even "His merciful punishment on artificial winds," so...
But Nel had hit the nail on the head. She'd asked so much of them, already. Too many sacrifices, all for her crusade. It didn't matter if the crusade was just. It wasn't her place to drive them like slaves. She wasn't Queen Perfect of Everything That Exists. She was, at the core, supposed to just be Emily Moonthistle.
"A glass of champagne wouldn't go amiss," she decided.
Several glasses of champagne didn't go amiss. Apparently one of the random artifacts stashed away in Archivist Sen's Super Secret Gatherer Depot was a bottomless bottle. Of course, once opened it just kept pouring and pouring, which meant a delicate un-corking and re-corking procedure every time they wanted to fill a glass. None of his wacky little toys simply worked without a quirk or two, after all.
Scout was playing designated driver. He didn't want to risk losing the control he'd worked so hard to establish over his Winterhound bloodlust. If he were still a Summerlion, able to burn through any intoxication in seconds, he probably could've drank the bottle to its bottomless bottom... but even then, he was never much of a drinker. Or good company at a party, really, which is why Emily had eventually wandered off to talk shop with William Petersen.
At first they talked about about the old days... when she wasn't a Queen in Exile, and he was President of the United States. ("Born in America, so a perfectly valid candidate, even if I was an Juxtaterrestrial-American," he'd joked.) But eventually, things drifted to subjects they hadn't talked about... namely, what he was REALLY up to, when he was supposedly running a nation.
"I felt the Gatherers were ignoring a vital resource in the fight against the Ascendancy," Petersen explained. "They were completely focused on the technology of this world. Weapons. Gadgets. Thingamabobs. Or shift artifacts... objects like my unstoppable Buick LeSabre, which became strangely warped when Proctor Hel's multi-shift Pandora Event twisted it around. But the Gatherers thought they had all the answers, and they alone would save us. Typical Orbital thinking, really, focusing on entirely the wrong thing..."
He swayed lightly, nearly spilling his drink, as he imitated the proud swagger of an Ascendancy Proctor.
"Orbital science is the embodiment of the future! Nothing else can possibly compare!" he mockingly declared. "Rubbish. Junk. Shortsighted. The Gatherers should've looked beyond their own roster. Should've done what you did... recruited people who had a true vested interest in this world. Your anachronauts--"
"--really wish I'd come up with a cooler name than that, honestly--"
"--were the blueprint. Diverse. Driven. Determined. D... duh... definitely... the thing. Right. So, I did the same. I looked for people with the drive to save this world, and a variety of skills to do it with," he said. "Not toys. Not things. People. Like... Elisa. Elisa Morales. I knew from the moment I first met her that she would be perfect... exactly the one I was looking for..."
Emily focused on a point across the common room... where Maria Morales was busy arguing with her mother about why she wasn't allowed to have any booze.
"You really oughtta tell her, you know," Emily said.
"Tell her what?"
"How you really feel. I saw two of my best friends go through nine kinds of heck because they didn't talk about how they felt..."
Now, the former leader of the free world and champion of democracy sputtered on his drink.
"It's, that's not really... ah. ...it's really not my place to say," Petersen tried. "I'm in the middle of a war. One which is going to extend beyond her world, once we raise the flag here. There's no need to complicate matters more than they're complicated..."
Complications presented themselves to Emily, promptly.
They took the form of Jesse, who had extracted herself from the "family chatter" of Edward and Gilbert (who apparently shared a mother, thanks to a Gearhaus eugenics collaboration with the King), in order to confront her on a point of confusion.
Realizing something may be up -- and wanting to extract himself before he had to return to the previous topic of discussion -- William Petersen bowed out of the discussion. Leaving Emily alone with her former rival.
"Emily. I realize this is a celebration, but I have a concern," Jesse Runeblade-Gearhaus stated.
"What's on your mind, Jess?" Emily asked, despite knowing full well what the problem would be.
"I have seen the battle plans that you collaborated on with my husband," she said. "The plans for the Cairo Arcology will suffice, and the takedown of the Arcology over the former site of Atlantis is a clever gesture indeed. Your plans to liberate New Orleans are also quite... interesting. It's all very nice and neat, really."
"Thank you. Although half of it was your husband's scheming, really..."
"Which is why I am curious as to why you specifically instructed him not to find a role for us. I am assuming this is because you are waiting to hear back from Benny the Broker for the London assault, or perhaps that you intend us to join Astro Gal for the Atlanta battle," Jesse suggested. "Because otherwise, we would have no place in the war. My skills with the blade and the spellbook left to waste on the sidelines, my husband's towering intellect doing little now that his blueprints are complete. It seems... odd, to squander your allies in such a way--"
"Right, right. I know you're itching for a fight, Jesse--"
"I threw my lot in with the Faerie Court, more strongly than you ever wished to," Jesse pointed out. "I hold a noble house, the only pureblood human family to do so. I feel I have a right, a duty, and an obligation to defend it in the war to come. So. Why have you pushed to exclude me?"
Emily considered how best to approach this. The middle of a social gathering was probably not a good place for it.
"Mind doing a cone of obfuscation?" she mumbled. "I'm trying to limit my spellwork these days. Drawing on the crowns really screwed me over a while ago, you know... and, well... just toss one up, okay?"
Her friend considered the request, and nodded shortly after. The spell was called up on her monocle, throwing an illusion over the pair... not only muffling their conversation, but making it look and sound like idle chatter to anybody who decided to pay attention. A good way to speak discreetly in an indiscreet situation.
"Right. So. I didn't exclude you," Emily explained. "But your mission has to remain a secret."
"A secret? Even from your allies, your friends, your family?"
"Absolutely. Oh, I trust them -- but I want this done as quietly as possible. What I need you to do, well... a lot of folks may disagree with it. You might disagree with it. But I know you will keep your word if you swear to follow my instructions. Your oath is your pride is your blood is your path is your yadda yadda yadda. Right?"
The mistress of the House of Gears clearly wasn't liking the sound of this. "You play things too secretively, Emily. I rather dislike that. But... I will hear you out. Whether or not I agree to help is another matter. What is it you need of me and my husband?"
"A failsafe," Emily admitted, deciding to go all-in, even if there was a risk of Jesse's refusal. "If we screw this one up and the Ascendancy counters our weapon... or if somehow, my prophecy that I'll go insane and shatter the world with ice and fire comes to pass... I want you to take my daughter and run. Specifically, I want you to use the Pandora spell to leave this world. No last stands, no going down with the ship. You take Cammy and Susie and you get the hell out of here."
And to that, Jesse was... unreadable.
Which was actually quite a relief. The Jesse of years past, the one Emily had reluctantly let into the fold for a secret mission into the west, might have flat out refused the suggestion of retreat. Her pride and need to prove herself had no room for anything that looked like cowardice. The fact that she wasn't rejecting the idea out of hand was... probably a good sign.
"You told me you destroyed the only copy of the Pandora spell," Jesse said, without addressing the request directly. "That it was far too dangerous. And from what Kas explained to us, dimensional shifts require some sort of destination soaked in aleph radiation to home in on. I was lucky to be able to send Lilith and those Elder Things back to the scraps of life on their homeworld..."
"First, I couldn't let anybody know that a magical means of causing the Pandora Event existed," Emily supplied. "You know that Lady Summer used a similar spell, with Orbital technology as a focus, to nearly tear this world apart in an effort to get back to the World of Faerie. We're lucky the same thing didn't happen when you and your husband cast the spell as a last ditch effort in Anchorage. So... I took the copy we made from his scars before they healed over, and stored it somewhere safe."
"Very secretive, Emily. A very secretive play indeed. And secondly...?"
"I'm not saying I know HOW you'd find somewhere safe to run to with my daughter. How you could find a world to latch onto. Kas was trying for ages to find pangeal Earths, and failed. For all we know you might end up on a populated world owned by the Ascendancy. But... you're the only person alive who's ever cast Pandora. You have the best shot at it."
"I would argue you have the best shot at it. You have the Faerie Crowns," Jesse pointed out. "You don't enjoy tapping into their power, but... Lady Summer nearly used Pandora-like magic. You could do the same, escaping with your daughter and mine, while we cover your exit. You could do it with more ease than I could, being a goddess--"
"And I could break the world in half trying!"
It was almost loud enough to leak through the cone of obfuscation... perhaps even using the Voice of the Faerie Crowns. Emily tampered her reaction down considerably, before continuing...
"Look. I don't trust myself with that spell, not from what I've Foreseen," Emily explained. "But I do trust you. Jesse... please. You have no idea how hard it is to ask you to do this. I'm asking you to take my daughter away from me, to flee, to run away. It's a terrible thing. But... better a terrible thing, than to lose Susie. If I do... die, or go mad, or whatever... I don't want her to suffer for my mistakes and my shortcomings. Please..."
Again... Jesse, silent, in contemplation. But not for long.
"It's said that the existence of a Plan C implies Plan A and Plan B will fail," she said.
"However, an exceptional woman showed me that there can sometimes be a Plan D that you had never thought of originally. Therefore. I will agree to this, with one caveat," Jesse decided. "You will trust my judgment of when to make our departure. And you will trust me to keep your daughter safe... while I plan my own schemes. I will not hide for long. I will liberate you, should you fall, should it come to that. I will destroy you, should you go mad, should it come to that. A strategic withdrawal is acceptable to me. It's the mature thing to do."
"She has to survive this. That's an absolute."
"Susie shall endure, just as my own daughter shall. The House of Gears and the House of Thistles will exist forever, intertwined. You may put your faith in that, and in me to see it through."
And then they were approached by Una and Nel, and had to drop the obfuscation, to maintain appearances.
To maintain appearances, Emily smiled and laughed, like she was having a good time. And she was thankful for her friend's restoration, truthfully... but that shadow of worry loomed overhead. Even through carefully designed war plans, through failsafes, through every piece of the puzzle she'd carefully slotted into place... the visions persisted.
A world, shattered, ablaze and frozen. Scout and herself, divided. Everyone gone.
There was no reason for it to happen. Even if they lost the war, the Ascendancy scoured and obliterated planets -- they didn't magically encase them in contrasting classical elements. She couldn't connect the dots on the WHY of this one, not after years and years of effort. All she could do was struggle against it. Plan. Scheme. Meddle.
Meddling used to make sense. See a problem, solve a problem. Interject yourself even if others don't want your help. But these days, she wasn't sure if she really had some Goddess-given right to meddle in them... after all, she could just as likely just things worse.
Hopefully, it'd all work out in the end. About the only hope she could realistically have.
Four days to the end.
Beyond the magical space of the Quantum Mermaid's hideaway, beyond the nanomolecularly crafted coffee shop that surrounded it, beyond the city it was hiding out in... other preparations were being made for the end.
Across the sea, Benny the Broker looked out his office window at the riots below, and pondered his current position between a rock and a hard place.
He was an ambassador of peace between old rivals, and a collaborator with foreign invaders. He was secretly working for the people, while working with the Ascendancy to better oppress them. He was an angel, but was once a devil.
And above all, despite being the only pure and immortal celestial on this world... he didn't speak for the Word. He couldn't even speak TO the Word. His new role complete with metaphorical golden harp had been granted to him out of circumstance and sacrifice. That didn't mean he held faith in the company mission statement, and that meant he couldn't come down on this madness like the fist of God. No pillars of salt, no razing the silver cities of sin. He could do nothing awesomely useful in the Old Testament sense.
Although... he was still a Broker, in his heart. He knew people who knew people who could make things happen. He had caches all over the world of useful and incredibly dangerous toys. He could send word to the guy who'd pass word to a crew who'd move into action and enact his will on this Earth. All of that power originated not from Heaven or Hell, but from Benny. The first truly humanist demonic angelic whatever-he-was-today.
The right word to the right person was what got his sister to safety, for instance. Right under the noses of his guard dogs, he orchestrated Chloe's liberation. He knew damn well what the Essence Capacitors were, after all, and knew she was the key to dealing with them.
He followed it up with a dead drop to the King of Pain... that sniveling little speed freak was hardly trustworthy, but Benny knew what strings would tangle him up in the web so he couldn't help but help out. The two of them combined would be enough to kickstart the revolution, and finally bring the pain to the Ascendancy.
All of this, from his position as Judas to the people of the British Empire. And he had one more action left to take.
The teddy bear had been delivered this morning. The Ascendancy no doubt studied it extensively before delivering it, of course... but they found nothing unusual about it. Other than why Benny the Broker was getting a plush bear, of course.
"It's all perfectly explainable," Benny had explained. "You wanted me to suss out Randall Wellspring's headquarters for his L'Anonyme cell, right? Well, the bear is part of a chain of trades to get access to the information. For instance, once I locate a wine chalice owned by Henry VIII and get it to a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport, I'll..."
They lost interest before he'd gotten to the bit where it was very important to find out exactly how long you age a sharp cheddar for maximum potency, which meant they'd completely forgotten about the bear. Perfect.
He was working late when the bear started talking to him. And only to him, oddly enough, as the armed guard that accompanied him at all times didn't even react. A clever bit of illusion magic... the work of that elf of theirs, no doubt...
"To Benny the Broker, assuming you even received this bear given you're under heavy surveillance, we could use a hand here reclaiming London," Emily explained through the bear. "You got us this far; if you've got any other resources on tap in England, send word through... well, you're a master at finding crazy ways to send messages. Surprise us."
Some days later, and Benny had silently moved all the pieces he needed into place to do just that.
He started the chain reaction by ordering a drink.
"A what?" his guard asked.
"A Caledfwlch," Benny repeated. "On the rocks. C-A-L-E... oh, nevermind, I'll just write out the phonetics for you. I want a Caledfwlch. On the rocks."
"I... don't know what that is," the guard admitted.
"Of course not. I doubt you've been to Scotland. But you really should, it's absolutely beautiful in the highlands," he said, while yanking a fresh page from his day planner, and jotting down some notes. "There's a pub in Beeswing, Scotland. Won't take you long to jetpack over there. They serve this amazing local brew, a Caledfwlch. I want one. On the rocks. ...that means 'with ice' for the idiom impaired. And get me one of their daily fry-ups! Last time I was there I had some chips that would knock your socks off. ...that means they were very impressive."
"Let me get this straight," the heavily armored superscience soldier asked. "You want me to go to this Beeswing place, and obtain a beverage and a fried foodstuff for you."
"That's the long and short of it, yes. And hey -- have a little extra. Get something for yourself while you're at it," Benny suggested, tossing a few more bills on the desk with the note. "My treat."
"Sir, it's not my job to get you exotic foreign dishes. It's my job to ensure your safety," the guard reminded him.
To ensure I don't get up to any funny business while you use me to keep tabs on this world, Benny corrected internally.
"Look, I'm tired and I'm hungry. I've had a ridiculously long day tracking down rebel scum and rabble-rousers through my network--"
"You mean you've been writing tube messages all day. It didn't look particularly difficult."
Clearly this was going to take more than a gentle push, Benny realized. He stepped out from behind his desk, to stand on the precise line which defined the guard's comfort zone. Not close enough to unsettle him, but not far away enough to let him stay detached from the discussion.
"Look, Trq... I know this assignment bores you to tears," he said, putting as much empathy in his voice as possible. "It's just as boring for me, trust me on that. I think we both deserve a break here. The Ascendancy could've put you on the frontlines, stomping Suborbitals into the cobblestones. They could've put you on some comfortable job inside the Arcology, for that matter. Instead, they've got you loitering around my office, doing damn near nothing. Standing there all day like a rusty old suit of armor. I can't imagine there's a lot of upward mobility in this assignment. Am I right?"
This was the right time to approach him. He'd been on this post for over a week now, and Benny had done his absolute best to be as uninteresting as possible... and nonthreatening as possible. An ordinary guy, stuck in a dull situation. Just like Trq. Brothers, in a sense.
After one tense moment... he could see the tiniest amount of slack in Trq's shoulders, even through the heavy armor.
"I can't leave you unguarded," Trq did point out.
"I'm not asking you to. Just delegate one of your lessers to stand watch while you get us some chow. Like... Rec. I've seen the way that brat looks down on you, despite being lower-ranked. Give Rec a taste of what you've had to go through so far," Benny suggested, with a smirk. "Then when you come back, we get to dine on what I guarantee is the best greasy grub you'll ever have, and Rec gets absolutely nothing. Sound good?"
After rolling that thought over in his head... Trq came up smirking as well.
"Sounds good," he agreed.
An hour and a half later, and Benny was dining on a delicious fish-and-chips combo with his newfound friend, and drinking completely ordinary whisky poured from a bottle. Oh, he played it up to Trq, explaining what a fine liquor the "Caledfwlch" was... when honestly, it was the cheapest and nastiest swill Benny had ever drank. Which meant the recipient of his message wasn't pleased with him, but that didn't matter. The message was delivered.
Four days to the end.
The key to understanding what was happening to Atlanta was in understanding the nature of Eastusa for the previous two centuries. The "nation" of Eastusa was really a series of contested territories... major walled urban centers and surrounding fringe settlements. Supplies and travel between cities were only done along secured routes, to avoid Faerie conflict. On top of all that, at least early in the war, it wasn't unheard of to completely lose one city to the Fae, or establish a brand new one on top of the ruins of an older metropolis.
In other words... cities came and went. And when things were turning sour, it wasn't uncommon for the population to split between those who would stand, and those who knew a guy who knew a guy who could get them migrated into another city. Even as the war cooled and turf stabilized, families had a tradition of keeping their bags packed, just in case.
Atlanta in particular had always been a city on the edge. It had held out successfully through the entire war with the Faerie Court, but it was a rough ride. The city was situated deep in the south, away from the stronghold of the northeastern atlantic territories of Eastusa, and its proximity to Summer Court lands put it at risk. Atlanta did not favor fair weather friends -- its population stood strong, or encouraged those who would not do so to run for the hills.
Now, after fifteen years of peace, a new enemy was coming... one that was likely going to "pacify" the city with extreme force, at the authorization of the Puppet-President of the United States. And unlike the Fae, a brick wall and some machine guns weren't going to do jack against what was coming.
The citizens who were terrified of what was coming immediately took their packed bags and left. Roads were jammed with cars, loaded up with families and luggage and personal valuables. This city was about to go under, and that portion of the populace wanted nothing to do with it. Standing up against the Ascendancy was insanity -- and for others, they felt that standing up against the legitimate government of America was treason. Little by little they leaked around the seams of Atlanta, headed for the Freedom Walls of distant Eastusa cities.
But for the rest, for the ones now calling themselves the "Occupy Atlanta" forces... they were bunkering down. Stocking up on supplies. Stocking up on weapons. Getting ready to put their money where their mouth was, when Astro Gal gave this city the confidence it needed to stand. When Ivan Buren opened their eyes to the brutality of the Ascendancy. When a stolen confession showed the faithful the true depths of Hell that these invaders brought with them...
And yet, even as people left... others were moving in. Americans from distant Eastusa cities had shown up to join the fight, to flee Ascendancy-controlled lands. Even Faeusa encampments showed up, eager to join in the fight for the last free city of the American dream. A good number of young elves from Florida had arrived in a caravan this morning, rolling down the completely unoccupied incoming highway lanes... after all, the looming menace of the Ascendancy over the Faerie Court was a problem for them, too.
But the problem, as far as Carrie Lane saw it, was that none of this would do any good. In four days, the Ascendancy would find some thin excuse to simply wipe the city off the map and make it become an example to others.
Zot, kaboom, done. All in the time it took to shake a protest sign at them or maybe fire off a single bullet.
All the rebel spirit in the world wouldn't change the fact that they were all going to die, unless she did something to stop it.
Nobody learns from history. That's what Ivan would've said. You don't get a bloody uprising without a little blood.
Carrie had cloaked herself in a new secret identity, as a crazy homeless kid. It wasn't too far from the truth, since she had nowhere to live and no money to burn. Besides, anywhere she went, she put everybody around her at risk. The Ascendancy could send a strike team anytime they liked and pinpoint her location... she had to stay away from others, for their own safety. Although after a few days without showering, few would want to stay near her, anyway...
Still, she had to eat, and wasn't far gone enough to loot garbage bins for anything edible. Fortunately for her, a transient population of Floridian elves were present and accounted for now... and with them came their system of debt and barter. It wasn't too hard to do a little manual labor in one of the impromptu Fae encampments, in exchange for some food. But she couldn't stay too long... not one minute more than she had to. If Ascendancy shock troops came screaming out of the sky, rifles blazing, and someone got caught in crossfire intended for her...
No. She could accept being grounded firmly to earth, alone and miserable. If anything, it matched her mood, at her darkest moments.
He was dead, after all. Caught in the crossfire.
No. Carrie didn't have time to mourn. She had work to do, to prepare for the looming deadline. She pushed her shopping cart along the gravel path from the Fae camp, heading downtown to her secret lair. Too much to do. Way too much to do...
Home was now the basement of an abandoned factory, on the edge of the city, near the Freedom Wall. With real estate at a premium within the walls of the city, it was supposed to be demolished years ago... budget cuts and higher priority tasks kept the structure upright and ignored. Perfect for a super secret super lair! Or a meth lab, which is what it was originally, when Carrie cleaned it out ages ago with Barbara O'Dare.
She'd arranged a pile of metal scraps over the external stairs leading into the cellar. Even if someone actually wandered by, they'd never know someone was living here.
The scraps had been moved away.
Would the Ascendancy lie in wait for her? She was expecting them to come flying out of the sky, laying waste to everything around her in a hope of blasting through her invulnerability... but they already had a very public date with destiny in this city, right? Why jump the gun in such an obvious way? A strike team laying a trap for her would make more sense. After all, they knew she was here; they could track the faint Kirby Radiation her body emitted...
Carrie tuned in, focusing her super hearing. Heartbeats, indeed. Voices, although the structure muffled them enough to mean she couldn't tell exactly what they were saying.
Tactically, the smart thing to do would be to collapse the structure on their heads and find a new lair. She had weakened key parts of the building with a few well-placed punches to do just that, in case of emergency. But... shiny armor or not, that would probably kill them. And Carrie had managed not to be a murderer. So far.
Starwoman would have flown right through the cellar doors and into the trap, powering through and destroying her enemies with overwhelming might. She was famous for it, in fact.
Astro Gal decided to punch a precision hole right through the ceiling and drop down in the back of the room, instead. Positioning herself right behind the group, ready to use her superspeed to ambush them--
The Ascendancy didn't wear black and white urban camo.
Astro Gal (Now With Smelly Homeless Person Disguise And Super Punching Arm) stood low, ready to spring into action... but held her fist back. Because even in the dim lighting of her crappy super lair, she could tell this wasn't the Ascendancy. It was the Frontliners.
Were her enemies using her own nation's army against her, now? They had the President, so they had access to the military. It'd be a smart move; she'd have to hold back in such a fight, as they were more vulnerable. In an enclosed space, under a wobbly old building, even more caution would be needed. Quickly, she memorized the standing position of every soldier, planning a path to take her from enemy to enemy, until--
The last familiar voice she'd heard was Ivan's, right before he died. Hearing another one was enough to melt her resolve completely.
Fighting Combat Stance turned into Sinking To Your Knees Exhausted From Everything You've Been Through. But this time... someone was there, to offer a comforting embrace.
"It's going to be all right," Barbara O'Dare promised. "We're here now. You're not alone."
Her super lair had been turned into Resistance H.Q., which was also a pretty cool and heroic role for the former meth lab to play. ("You mentioned after the raid that this place would make a cool vigilante super hero base," Barbara had explained, when Carrie asked how she was tracked down so easily.) Soldiers were setting up supply piles... medical equipment, rations, and high explosive weaponry smuggled out of Frontliner bases. Someone had even set up a map of the city, with possible lines of defense and Arcology approach vectors sketched out.
As a dozen or so men in uniform (many of which had stitched name tags reading O'DARE) set up shop, Barbara and Carrie were chatting over the first warm cup of coffee she'd had in a long time.
"A shadow protocol?" Carrie asked.
"Before the Pandora Event hit, before the Frontliners got absorbed into the military, they had a tactician in their employ who had a hobby coming up with battle plans against imaginary enemies," Barbara explained. "Zombies, alien invaders, demons... and faeries. He was the one who designed most of the nation's combat tactics against the Fae, when the Fae proved to be less than imaginary. And he designed the shadow protocols, as well."
"So, in the event of alien invasion taking over the legitimate government of America..."
"This happens," Barbara confirmed, nodding to her many uniformed relatives and their friends. "Cells within the Frontliners are designated resistance cells, and ordered to go AWOL and liberate the government. And the sick of it? President Waller authorized this protocol, in secret."
"What? 'The Wall' President Waller? But I thought he loved the Ascendancy!"
"My guess is that if we win the war, he'll claim all the credit for secretly liberating his people while under the eyes of the invaders. And if we fail... well, we were just a rogue unit which couldn't accept Earth's transition into the future," she said, with a roll of the eyes. "Anyway. My boys showed up at the farm, needing somewhere to hide out. The O'Dares have a long history in the military and law enforcement, sooo... I got promoted to Acting Field Officer, since Officer Jenkins fell during a failed raid. ...I'll be honest with you, Carrie. This 'resistance movement' is not doing well. I had to burn down my own house to cover our escape, last time..."
"I... I thought I'd led them right to your door," Carrie admitted.
"No, the Ascendancy knows about the renegade cells. They've been after the O'Dare cell for some time. ...wouldn't doubt they waited until you showed before striking just to mess with you, though..."
"Wait, but... that means you can't stay!" she said, getting to her feet. "You've gotta get out of here! You don't understand, they can track me through my--"
"Radiation?" Barbara asked, before sipping her coffee. "Mm. Yeah. We know. We got a teddy bear, too. Lost it when we were on the run, but we know what's going on. And right now, this is the place to be. Trust me, Carrie, they won't risk a move before the deadline's up... and then, we can work together to stop them. You heard about Emily's weapon, right...?"
Slowly, Carrie forced herself to calm down. She was so used to the idea that everyone close to her was in danger, that she forgot how dangerous some of those who were close to her could be.
Besides... this was a great opportunity to show off her plan.
"I wasn't expecting any help, so... I came up with a scheme all by myself," she boasted, with a grin. She crossed the room, waving for Barbara to follow. "If the Ascendancy sees me coming, they could probably focus all the Arcology's weapons on me, and, uh... it'd be bad. But they won't be ready for this...!"
Triumphantly... Carrie strolled over to the metal box she'd placed in the corner of her super lair, and threw it open.
Barbara, accompanied by a few soldiers, peered in.
Row after row of jars filled with yellow liquid greeted them. They were packed in alongside hospital specimen bags, likewise brimming over with the amber fluid. Sunlight from a window well made them glisten ever so slightly with an aura of shimmering gold.
"It's my pee," Carrie declared, with pride.
A tiny amount of hope died in the room, much to Carrie's obliviousness.
"Get it?" she asked. "Get it, huh? I've been filling jars and bags and anything I could find with my urine! And I made this lead-lined box to store it in. It's sheer elegance in its simplicity!"
That's it. Ivan's death must've snapped her poor little mind, Barbara thought, at first.
Wait. Lead-lined box? She thought, next.
"Kirby radiation?" she asked, to complete the chain of understanding.
"Yes, exactly!" Carrie confirmed, after closing the box lid. "This isn't the first time it's been used against me, see. Back on my original Earth, the sinister Free Radical could sense the radiation that gave me my superpowers. But I was able to distract him when he attacked me at a Taco King, because I'd used the restroom! It left behind trace amounts of the radiation! He went for the ladies room, and I hit him over the head from behind with a plastic booster seat and tied him up with dollar value menu string cheese!"
Trying to get that image out of her head was proving difficult for Barbara.
"So... you use this to confuse their trackers?" she prompted.
"Hmm? Yes! Yes, that's it," the girl continued. "This is just Phase 1. Once I've collected enough pee, I move to Phase 2... catching pigeons and coating them in my urine! Phase 3, release them as the Arcology is approaching, and use the resulting confusion to punch my way through and deliver Emily's weapon!"
"Right. Okay. Carrie? This plan is completely nuts," Barbara tactfully stated. "Even if you had enough time to catch and train a ton of birds, even if they COULD fly when dunked in your urine... the Ascendancy has eyes. They're going to figure out what you did in a second, and simply target the flying radiation signal that is not in fact a bird."
Carrie's smile of accomplishment wavered a little.
"I... um... I couldn't think of anything else," she admitted. "I mean, I had one idea, but I'd still need a distraction, and I couldn't do that on my own, and... I don't know. I'm just trying to find some way to--"
"It's not a terrible idea, just completely nuts," Barbara interrupted. "What you need is human-shaped targets for them. Such as, say... a military resistance cell, wearing matching uniforms and masks, any one of which could be you in disguise...?"
"What? No! You can't-- they'd slaughter your entire group!"
"Please. We're not helpless, Carrie. We've come up with a few methods of fighting back against them," Barbara said. "Look. You need our help, and we need your help. We can hold them off long enough for you to plant the weapon, but we can't win the fight. You can plant the weapon, but you need them held off. This is the best way forward. This is our city. We're going to defend it together."
They're all going to die, Carrie's gloomier whispers told her. More people I love, dying for me... isn't it better to fight alone? Even if you can't win, at least then you're the only one to die...
But I always fought with my mother, with Starwoman. I'm the sidekick. She confronts the enemy, while I deal the decisive blow. That's always how it worked.
"...you need a superhero name," Carrie said. "Or I need to stop using mine. We need to match."
"Um. What?" Barbara said, looking confused. "I... have no idea what my superhero name would be. 'Eagles Dare'? 'Who Dares Wins'? I'm not much of a punster--"
"I'll just be Carrie Lane," Carrie decided. "I made a decision a while ago about that, to get on with my life as Carrie Lane. I'll be Carrie Lane and I'll punch the heck out of a giant flying saucer city while you're covered in pee. It's more of an Astro Gal thing to do, I know, but... I'd rather be Carrie Lane now and you be Barbara O'Dare. Okay?"
Carrie Lane offered a superheroic thumbs up, then wandered off to get more of that tasty coffee, while it was still warm.
Leaving Barbara to ponder something. She caught the eye of one of the many uniformed O'Dares in the room, this one being Medic Sean O'Dare, to bring him closer.
She plucked one of the jars from the box, passing it to him.
"Test this," she requested, keeping her voice low. "I want to make sure that we'll be okay with this on our uniforms. Look for anything dangerous or just anomalous. If we're going through with this, I want every angle covered."
Meanwhile, with a crushing blow about to be dealt to Eastusa's resistance, some living in the fringes had considered upping stakes and trying to merge with Fae society.
After all, even with an Arcology parked just outside the Moonthistle Witching Academy, they didn't seem particularly oppressed... no Fae equivalent to the London riots, no doomed Fae-Atlanta. The Ascendancy hadn't made any overt moves against them, in contrast.
In truth, the Fae were too busy with their own internal games between noble houses to pay much attention to the invaders; each house jockeying for position, just in case the House of Thistles fell. Having the master and mistress of the House of Gears vanish as well was too much temptation for those who enjoyed a good power vacuum.
Except the Ascendancy had in fact fired an opening salvo. But it wasn't one that anyone else in the Faerie Court knew of, not yet...
It consisted of a strongly worded document, currently sliding out of Susie Moonthistle's printer, waiting to be signed.
Proposed Legislation for the Magical Registration and Control Act. As penned by Proctor Lar, of the Ascendancy.
Susie had explained time and time again to Proctor Lar that there was no way to insert his "Total Social Conversion" process into Fae law enforcement, because there wasn't such a thing as "Fae law enforcement." Law in the Faerie Court consisted of a tightly woven network of grievances, debts, and ironic penalties. Not an anarchy, exactly... you could appeal to a higher station than yours, if you couldn't find satisfaction from the one who wronged you. But doing so would indebt you to the one taking care of your problem, and so on, and so forth... in the end, there wasn't any such thing as a single monolithic police system.
Which meant the Ascendancy needed something else to lean against the Faerie Court with.
"As you can see, this is a finalization of the concept I put forward several days ago," Proctor Lar explained, through his video conferencing link, to Susie's bedroom. (The man himself hadn't left his office in quite some time.) "I think you and I can both agree that unrestricted use of magic can be a threat to the stability of an ordered future. We have no intention of infringing on the fine traditions of your people, but--"
"You want to make all spellcasters undergo Total Social Conversion," Susie filled in, wanting this call over with as soon as possible.
"Correct. Studies have shown that citizens who undergo the process are incapable of threatening society at large. The process will not significantly impact magical ability, but will prevent rogue witches or warlocks from causing issues for your people. Is that not for the best?"
Except that the process also eats their souls, according to the message Taamusi passed me from Mother, Susie didn't add.
"The document is non-negotiable. This is the only path forward for our two peoples, into the bright and shining tomorrow. I strongly advise you to ratify the document as soon as possible," Lar said. "Already, my people are concerned that your continued hesitation in working with us is a sign that you share your mother's terrorist leanings. But me... I'd like to think you're a reasonable young woman, Susan."
"And if I don't sign it?" she asked. (A direct confrontation, something she'd been trying to avoid, but... days and days of this tightrope dance were wearing her thin.) "What then? The Fae won't follow an edict without royal approval."
Lar's smile was unpleasant, to say the least. A fine mixture of cruelty, and smug confidence.
"We have been in discussions with the House of Games," he said. "Lilith and Morgana's former house, if I recall? If the current royal scion is deemed unmutual... leadership of the Faerie Court will be passed to the noble houses. They are quite enthusiastically seeking that role and willing to do whatever it takes, including rounding up all mages for conversion."
Susie gritted her teeth. "The Faerie Court follows the seasonal crowns. Always has, since ancient times. That's not something you can sell to the highest bidder."
"I'm sure our scientists can do something eventually to pull the metaphorical crown from your head, if need be. I'm sorry to be so cold about this, Susie, and I am sincerely hoping it won't come to that--"
She shut off the video link.
"Your parents will come for you soon," a voice from the shadows promised, in a chill whisper. "They are preparing for it. But if the Ascendancy moves first... you will be protected, with the raging fires of Summer and the icy blades of Winter."
"There's more to this than me," Susie Moonthistle mumbled, knowing Taamusi would be able to hear her. "This mansion is also a school. Kids like me, and all of them witches. If Lar decides to make witchcraft without soul-draining illegal... can you protect all of them, all at once?"
The pause before his reply was telling.
"The Wild Hunt is not... typically a defensive act. But we will do what we can," he insisted. "And your Summerlion guards will do what they can, as well. Take heart, young Susie. The seasons have stood in one form or another for aeons, and will continue to do so."
A slight breeze through the room signaled his exit. He couldn't risk staying in any one shadow for too long, as the Ascendancy had the mansion heavily monitored.
He meant well, really. And he was the most compassionate Winterhound alive... well, unliving, today. But hunters weren't guards, and the Summerlions were too few. If the Ascendancy moved in force to eliminate the central power base of her family, and all the children under their protection...
Well. She might have to grow a few flowers. Quite a few of them.
As in, tap directly into the hybrid crown of Winter and Summer, the crown of Spring. And then, do what her mother was terrified of doing: embodying the full power of the seasons.
William Petersen's imaginary office in an imaginary Faeplace gave a not-so-imaginary lurch, as the Quantum Mermaid's salvaged RealWare engine kicked in again.
The Orbitalized Oval Office the Faeplace provided him (as it designed places you would feel comfortable in) was a mixture of the historical weight and warmth of American history, and the flawless silver of hypertechnology. The two aesthetics were often at odds, taking away any sense of familiarity he had from spending four years in that office, doing his best to serve the American people and the Gatherers alike. And days like these, he really wished he had the old office back. Not for the power, but because it felt comfortable, it felt right. Comfort would be good today.
Four days was barely going to be enough time. Gilbert and Chloe were creating Exorcism Bombs as fast as they could, and he was seriously pushing the limits of the rickety old dimension shift engine that moved the Mermaid around to deliver them.
Six bombs -- destined for Atlanta, Cairo, New Orleans, London, São Paulo, and the former site of Atlantis. Each had to be delivered to the resistance movement that was preparing to assault those Arcologies. Twelve hours minimum downtime for the Quantum Mermaid's engine to recharge, times six... they'd be cutting it very close. And with no word from Benny the Broker yet and no idea how to take down the London Arcology, it'd be VERY close indeed...
To say nothing of São Paulo. Oh, they had a plan. But it wasn't one he liked. Convincing Elisa that this was the way to go would be difficult, indeed... which gave him some sympathy for Emily Moonthistle, who often had to ask for great sacrifices from her friends...
"We need Maria to talk to Los Muertos again," Petersen explained, to his companion. And waited for the backlash.
"She came to the same conclusion, actually," Elisa Morales replied. "She's willing to go through with it."
"Now, I understand we came very close to losing her last time she was in contact with the undead, but wait what now? ...seriously?"
"Seriously," Elisa said, in a serious manner. "She came to me with the idea, too. If we can convince Los Muertos to engage the Arcology, it may give us enough time to make your plan work. And she thinks they'd be amicable to the idea. They want to save their souls, and were willing to forgo eating all our brains in order to help us fight the Ascendancy last time. They'll be willing to work with their... 'missing unit' again, Maria thinks."
"But you can't possibly be okay with that," Petersen asked. "Reconnecting her to the 'Network,' letting Los Muertos back into her head, maybe even kicking off another wave of her undead infection..."
"I'm not okay with it in the slightest. I'm horrified at the thought of it. But... she's in this, just like me, just like you. She has to have her say," Elisa recited, as if she'd been practicing the line quite a few times, to convince herself before she tried to convince anyone else.
"Right. Well. We'll take precautions, of course," he promised. "She can stay inside, while we--"
"Exactly, she'll contact them from inside the Mermaid, with Gwen acting as oversight in case anything goes wrong. She'll sever the link using her psionic firewall if Los Muertos decide to get greedy. Hopefully, we'll be in position before that happens, but... one way or another, Maria will be safe."
"Sounds like you've thought this all out more than I have," Petersen admitted.
"I've had time to think about it, ever since the stars fell. ...and to think about other things, as well, ever since you recruited me," Elisa said. "For instance... what happens after this is over and done with?"
"After we defeat the Ascendancy, you mean?"
"No, after we defeat the Ascendancy on this Earth," she corrected for him. "Think multiversally. You said the Ascendancy's already conquered other worlds over the last fifteen years, that this is just another Earth in a long line. Where do we go from here, assuming we can stop them on this world?"
Petersen leaned back in his chair, which mimicked the leatherbound chair of the Commander in Chief, despite being made of Orbital sensory cushion metals. It was a question he'd been pondering, himself... without any idea of how to approach it with her.
"I suppose you and Maria stay and help this world rebuild," he suggested. "We're taking on a huge burden by grounding six Arcologies' worth of Ascendancy citizens here. You know what we told our resistance groups... no bloody reprisals, no revenge sprees. The Ascendancy is -- or at least 95% of them are -- unwitting accomplices to Proctor Lar and his upper echelon's genocidal crimes. They deserve this world's pity and help, or at least indifference."
"I see. And you...?"
"Shift the Quantum Mermaid away from here and reconnect with the Gatherers on other worlds. Our main operations were on this dimension, but agents and scouts were sent out once the Ascendancy rose to power. We've got a lot of work to do, pacifying them all with exorcisms, trying to find some breaking point that will encourage them to change their ways. It's a long haul war I was born into, Elisa, one that's going to span the multiverse. Ending aeons of conspiracy will take years yet."
"Which is why we're going with you," Elisa stated.
The idea hadn't even occurred to him. He leaned forward in his chair, as Elisa approached his desk -- but she held up a finger, to stop his objection before he could make it.
"This is the life Maria's known," Elisa said. "She complains, yes, but she's with me on this; we've talked about it. Moving around, fighting the good fight. I'm not tied to this one world anymore. THIS has been my world for a long time now, William... and we're all ready to follow you. Me, Maria, even Gwen. Jen's itching to go home to NanoSeattle, true, but... the rest of us will follow. We want to go."
"We... might never come back this way again, I'll warn. You'd be stuck with me for a long time."
At some point... Elisa had shifted, to be sitting on the edge of his semipresidential desk. And this time, the shushing finger was pressed to his lips.
"I'd be okay with that," she said, with a smile.
Despite being the most powerful man in America for a good four years, coasting into office on a wave of confident charisma... William Petersen felt every bit the shy and awkward teenage boy at that moment.
Fortunately or unfortunately enough, the door to his mock office burst inward before anything more exciting could occur.
The Prince of England marched in, eyes wide, smile plastered across his face. His wife followed soon after, looking considerably less excited and more worried about his excitement.
"Map. Map, need a map," Edward declared. "Quickly, do you have a map, a globe, an atlas, something...? Hurry. I've got this in my head right now, I need to get it out before I lose it... why are you sitting on the desk?"
Without missing a beat (because Petersen had already missed several beats in a row) Elisa activated the tablet computer on his desktop, and called up a digital map. Geography had become a new pastime, ever since the ElfStar satellites started doing flyovers of Post-Pandora Earth, and super detailed "map apps" were a dime a dozen.
Edward used his fingers to drag, pinch, zoom, unzoom, and slide the map around... until he settled down over the British Isles, flying north, into Scotland... and landing on a highly unimpressive little village.
"Beeswing," he declared. "That's it. I need to go there, to the Avalon Pub. When you deliver the weapon for London, let me take it. I'm going to be bringing it there myself. Me and Chloe. But first we need to go to Beeswing, Scotland."
"We just shifted into Casablanca to deliver a bomb to Penny Dreadful," Elisa pointed out. "We can't move again for another twelve hours. You could hop a boat and try to fly north, but odds are the border patrols would slow you down..."
"Twelve. Okay. I can wait twelve hours," Edward said, thinking the idea over. "Sorry. Bit distracted. It's all quite perplexing, really -- I was minding my own business, playing a game of chess with Gilbert, when I got hit with this sudden burning desire to be somewhere. Specific, somewhere specific. Beeswing. Scotland. Avalon Pub. I can wait. No problem."
As quickly as he stormed into the office, he stormed out. Chloe gave the pair an apologetic little bow / shrug / indescribable gesture, before hurrying out after him.
"Anyway, we're coordinating the last deliveries now," Elisa said, getting to her feet, smoothing out her skirt. "I should go check if they're going to be done stocking Exorcism Bombs, if Chloe's getting off at the next stop. Remember, next to last stop is New Orleans... and then once that group leaves, we immediately jump to São Paulo and get to work. Maria and I will be ready."
"Um," Petersen offered.
"It'll be over soon. We'll have beaten them on this world, and we'll beat them on other worlds, too," she promised. "Force their surrender, or reach a good compromise, or... whatever. We'll find a way. Now, you should get some rest... it's going to be a while before we fight."
"Um," he responded.
And then she left.
Petersen stared at the door, after it closed behind her.
"What just happened?" he asked aloud.
"Intercepting the Arcology is going to be the key," Barbara explained to her troops -- well aware of the irony of using one of Arcology #A076's donated holographic displays for visual aids during the presentation. "From the intelligence the Frontliners have been gathering in secret, even if these Arcologies are smaller than the classic Orbital Arcologies, we still don't want it to come crashing down on top of Atlanta when we shut down their power. In addition... we want to be the first to the fight, before every crazy in the city decides to charge out there with a pointed stick and play hero. The fewer civvies throw their lives away, the better."
The display resolved to show a 3-D representation of the city. Unlike the smooth and elegant design of #A076... this was more compact, squat, and heavily armored. It eschewed the sleek and clean lines of Orbital design in favor of a radially arranged series of metal plates, each bearing the rising star logo of the Ascendancy, each thick enough to repel just about every man-made weapon in existence.
"I won't kid you. We've got no way to crack this nut ourselves. That's why we have Astro Gal -- Carrie Lane. Even then, brute force is not going to take down the Arcology. We're going to have to be more cunning than that. Our job is going to be to distract them... but also to take out these key targets..."
The display flipped the Arcology on its back, underside upwards. In a video game world, that would've exposed its weak points which could be struck for massive damage, but in this world, it was actually the toughest part of the city... and the four highlighted areas could hardly be called weaknesses, either.
"Gravity pumps," she said. "Normal Arcologies like #A076 were never designed to land on a world, so they have weaker pumps. Ascendancy Arcologies employ four extremely powerful pumps, mounted externally, to allow soft landings. And we are going to take out two of them. Our weapons should be able to do that, at least..."
An O'Dare in the back raised his hand.
"Sir? Um. Ma'am? ...Auntie? Why only frag two of 'em?" he asked. "We take out all four, the weight of that thing will come crashing down and we'd be hosing the Ascendancy off the walls of their own city. I thought that was the original plan Frontliner central authorized...?"
"Emily Moonthistle, who's providing us the weapon we need and linked us up with our delivery girl, is not in accordance with that plan," Barbara explained. "No revenge, no reprisals. Folks... our enemy is not the Ascendancy in general. We have to engage their troops in order to win this, but a good 85% of each Arcology is populated by scientists and their families, not by military forces. And even those military forces were duped by the genocidal warlords who kept the truth from them. This is no different than the hogwash they pulled on #A076. We are minimizing civilian casualties... both ours, and theirs."
"So... by talking out half the pumps..."
"Frontliner R&D thinks that's the best way to force a soft landing outside of Atlanta," Barbara said, to complete the line of thought. "Gentlemen, we've got the hardest job of the bunch. The other landlocked Arcologies are already parked. Ours is going to be in transit. Hence... interception of the Arcology will be key, to bring this back to my original point."
She shut off the display, to conserve the stolen Mass Capacitors they were using. (They could have scavenged Essence Capacitors off the few successful raids they'd done, but... after learning what those were, that was off the table.)
"How are our resources looking?" Barbara asked.
Another O'Dare stood up, to read off a pad and paper.
"We've scrounged up as many of them as we could find from furniture shops and local retailers. We've got full-sized defenses for the whole cell, but with two more cells joining up within a day, we can't cover them all yet," Scout O'Dare read off. "Next we're going to check with locals who are sticking around to defend the city, but considering what a weird request it is, we might not get compliance unless we let on what the deal is. And if folks realize they'll counter Orbital weapon blasts, they might get a lot scarcer..."
"Do what you can and downplay why you're doing it. The last thing we want to do is make the city feel more confident about running out and challenging the Arcology head on. That's our job, as defenders of this nation. ...okay. That covers enough for now. We've got a little over two days, and a lot left to do. Remember, no Frontliner uniforms outside of HQ. I don't care if you're just heading around the corner to get a smoke. We aren't here to become a rallying point, we're here to win the war so nobody else gets hurt. Back to your posts. ...Carrie? Sean? Can we talk for a minute?"
Carrie Lane, who had been busy studying the pattern of decaying brickwork in the wall, didn't notice her name called until a few moments after. Curious, she worked through the crowd of taller soldier types, to join Barbara.
"Something up, ma'am?" she asked.
"Two things," Barbara said. "One, we got a communique from Emily through the bears last night while you were sleeping. Jen Cooke's dropping off our weapon tomorrow morning... and the good news is Una's recovered from whatever it was that was ailing her."
(It would've been more of a relief to Carrie if she was aware of the full extent of the unspecified injury. But then again, it might've turned her into 'Darker and Edgier' Vigilante Carrie to know the full extent of the unspecified injury.)
"Are they coming to join us?" she asked. "I'm glad they're doing well, but..."
"Life during wartime, Carrie. They've got a part to play in New Orleans. But once we're finished here, you can head directly over there, I promise. ...there's actually another reason I called you over here, though. Sean...?"
It was tricky for Carrie to keep track of all the various O'Dares in the unit, given they all wore identical uniforms with identical name tags. This one, though, she remembered as Sean O'Dare, a field Medic. And he looked just as serious as Barbara did.
"I ran your urine sample through a battery of tests," he said. "To make sure it was safe for our use, and to check your general health, since you've been without three square meals and proper sleep for a while now..."
"I'm feeling okay. Better than okay, really," Carrie insisted. "I mean... if you're worried about what happened to Ivan, and... it's okay. I'm used to fighting even when things get bleak out there. I'm a superheroine. You save the world first and mourn your losses later..."
Sean glanced to Barbara, concerned... but got a firm nod in return. So, he continued.
"Carrie... you're pregnant," he told her.
He had to say it again before it sank in.
"That's not possible," Carrie insisted, immediately. "I mean, it's not medically possible. Side effect of age-locked invulnerability and everything..."
"I can't pretend to fully understand your physiology, and I'd like to run a blood test if we could, well, figure out a way to make you bleed, but... I ran the test three times, to be sure. You're definitely pregnant, Carrie. But that's not the only thing we need to talk about. I compared a quick medical heuristic using our Orbital field scanner, and ran it by Barbara... you've grown. One full centimeter, in fact. Amazing, considering your malnutrition..."
"I'm... taller," Carrie said, puzzled.
"And I'm going to have a baby."
"Yes. ...these two events might be related. You may not be age-locked anymore. You might even be aging at a slightly accelerated rate, as a side effect of this. I can't say for sure, not unless we can get you to a hospital, but... that's my initial theory. You're getting older for the first time in centuries."
She had nothing left to say about it. Not yet, anyway, as a dozen or so thoughts competed to be the first ones out of the gate.
I'm a teen mommy. Oh no. They're going to make one of those awful reality shows about me.
Ivan's the father. Some part of him survived this nightmare. He'd be so proud.
I hate ice cream and pickles. That's what I'm supposed to be eating now, right? TV says so.
I'm growing up. That's what I really wanted from life. It's his gift to me.
I'll be a mother, just like my mother was. A superhero mother. I shouldn't force my kid to be a sidekick, though.
But I have absolutely no idea how to actually FEEL about this right now.
Barbara O'Dare stepped in, unsure if she should continue, but... needing to approach the issue.
"Carrie... if you want out of the war plans, you can opt out," she suggested. "For the health of the baby. For your health, for that matter. If pregnant women shouldn't smoke or drink, they probably shouldn't take on an invincible alien armada, either..."
"No," Carrie stated.
"Give some serious thought to this, Carrie. This is important."
"That's why I can't back out," she replied. "This is important. I get it, now. Why Una and Nel had to leave, to fight. Why everybody's fighting. It's about more than just my own future. ...I want to grow up. I want to go to college, get a job, be a mother. Fight crime. Protect everybody I love. And that's always going to be true."
"We could fight them on our own. We were planning to do that, anyway..."
"You've got no way to do it alone. I can help, and I will help," she said. "The plan's going to work. If you distract them... I'll be safe. We'll be safe. Mrs. O'Dare... please. I'm an adult, now. I can make my own decisions."
Before Barbara could protest more... Carrie moved away, smoothly integrating with the crowd of rebels, to help them with unpacking their defensive measures and getting everything ready for the big day.
I feel... good, Carrie realized. I feel good about my future. That's a new thing for me. And I like it. I want more of it. So, I'm going to fight for my future.
While not QUITE in the middle of nowhere, Beeswing was slightly left of center from the middle of nowhere. Being one of many to claim to be home to a particular mythical legacy, the village eventually swapped that legend for another, renaming itself after a race horse. Which was appropriate, since you could zip right by it at a fair clip and not even notice you'd done so.
The village consisted of a thin strip of houses and tiny shops to support the local farmlands, pasted along a highway rolling through the much larger and more prominent town of Dumfries. Granted, they had grown a little since pre-Pandora times, to better support the agricultural base of the British Empire, but lack of electricity and lack of funds to buy up steam canisters had sent the town back a few centuries. Now, it got by in its own quiet little way, day in and day out, without being important in and of itself. Dark nights, pleasant dawns, and nothing of note in between.
And then Edward and Chloe showed up. Not that anybody would be aware of the role this city would play in their personal histories, but it was still quite a noteworthy event.
They arrived after dusk, coincidentally at the same time a franchised coffee house had appeared in at one end of town. That was actually the noteworthy event, for the locals... a popular, name-brand coffee house popping up overnight was strange indeed. Still, it was designed as a quaint little wooden structure, in the same aesthetic as the rest of the village, so few people really took notice. Which was for the best, since it was going to vanish in the morning.
The two visitors blended with what little foot traffic existed along the highway. They didn't look the slightest bit out of place, although that was thanks to a temporary enchantment by a certain illusionist elf. The only suspicious thing about them was how the one kept looking around with a big goofy grin, studying each building, as if he was lost. Which was implausible, since if he kept walking for a few minutes, he'd exit the town. There wasn't enough here to really get lost in.
"What exactly are we looking for...?" Chloe asked. Again. She hiked her purse up over her shoulder, as it had slid down again, with the weight of their Exorcism Bomb dragging it down.
"Not entirely sure," Edward replied, as he strolled along. "But this is the place. Feels right. It's right where we need to be..."
"Edward... you know I'm in your corner. I've supported every zany idea you've had over the years. I've tagged along on your outings of whimsy. But... I'm having a hard time understanding why we just made Petersen spend one of his few remaining engine cycles to take us to the middle of Scotland."
"I'm having a hard time understanding it too, except that it makes perfect sense. This is where I'm supposed to be," he said. "I've been called, Chloe. Summoned. Given notice. No doubt this has something to do with Benny -- he's a funny bloke when it comes to delivering messages..."
"He could've just sent a damn email," Chloe grumbled. "Or gotten someone to send one, or something. Something more clear cut. Honestly, I think my brother actually enjoys his Broker-y cloak and dagger silliness--"
She nearly ran right into Edward, as he stopped dead at the side of the road.
"Do believe we're here," he said.
She glanced up, at the stained glass window. An elaborate, runic design had been wrought between panes of colored glass... scenes of castles and dragons, alongside mugs of frosty beer. The Avalon Pub, it declared. And in very small print at the bottom, No Wizards Allowed!!
"Do angels count as wizards, I wonder?" Edward mused aloud.
"These illusions aren't going to last forever," Chloe reminded him. "If we're going in, let's go in, already..."
A tiny bell signaled their arrival to the four people present.
In the dim and dank of the pub, three were simply hunched over figures, nursing at mugs filled with nasty-looking, off-color beer. They paid no attention to the new arrivals; it had been a long hard day at the farms, and they wanted a stiff drink. Given the lager around here could be classified as a semisolid, stiff was a good descriptor.
The rest of the chairs were already up on tables, which was slightly odd, given the sun hadn't set THAT long ago. They'd arrived right at an early closing time, as the proprietor was trying to chase the last few villagers out the door. Which meant she shouldn't have been happy to see new customers wander across her creaky old wooden flooring, each board squealing far louder than the bell that had jangled at their entrance...
She was not in fact happy to see them. "Relieved" would be a better way to put it. A mixture of annoyance and relief.
"And it's about bloody time you showed up," the wrinkly old woman in the apron declared, fixing her gaze firmly on Edward. "Right. You lot! Out! We're closing up early. Out, out, out! And don't come back!"
The clientele very, very gradually peeled themselves off their barstools and chairs, grumbling as they made their way to the exit. Chloe had to press up against a coat rack to avoid being brushed aside by the beefy farmhands, as they begrudgingly made their departure.
Leaving only the pair of them, and one grumbly and irate innkeeper, who was crossing her arms very hard at them.
"So, let me have a look at you," she said.
"Ah... here I am? Ma'am?" Edward offered, arms wide, as if on display. "And may I ask what--"
"SHHHH. Young people today. And take off those lousy disguises! You look like people who aren't trying to look like what they look like, and it hurts my eyes, it does."
Chloe stepped up, to join her husband. "If you mean our, um, illusions, I'm afraid we don't know how to--"
"For pity's sake--!"
She snapped her fingers, and Chloe and Edward stood where Chloe and Edward stood.
"Better," the woman declared. "Hmmh. So. You're the one, are you. Can't say I agree with Benny's assessment. And if you see that flip-flopping fool, you tell him I also don't appreciate being called up like a bellhop! I don't care if he does speak for the Word again, HOW he speaks for Him is downright rude. I've got a very important role to play here, and I deserve the respect I'm due for that!"
"I apologize on his behalf, ma'am. My brother can be a bit... odd, sometimes," Chloe said, feeling the need to step in to deal with the family issue. "But secrecy was quite important. Although, I'm afraid you have us at a disadvantage, as we don't know why we're here..."
"You're here because I bloody well gave your husband a Message," she said, pointing accusedly at Edward. "Just as I was supposed to. Lo, and she shall stand guard over Loch Arthur -- can't believe they renamed the town after a damn horse, compared to that majestic history -- so that when the Once and Future King returns, he can be presented with his divine right. So. I got poked by the Word through Benny, so I poked you, and here you are. Now let's get this over with."
Briefly, the old woman ducked behind the bar... to pull open a wooden trapdoor, exposing a flight of stairs into the pub's wine cellar.
"Well? Coming?" she asked. "You want your bloody sword or not, Edward?"
Excalibur. Or, in the old tongue, Caledfwlch.
Legendary sword of King Arthur. The divine blade, which carried the King of England through many a battle, trumping any foe, laying low the enemies of the crown. Glistening and pure, in gold and silver. Surrounded in a halo of light, as if an angel had cast its gaze downward from the heavens, illuminating the holy avenger with grace and dignity...
Perhaps a bit less grace and dignity than it was afforded, given the light from the heavens was a single gaslamp bulb, hanging off a bit of tubing from the ceiling. Also, the sword had been jammed roughly in the stone floor at a funny angle, which did nothing to compliment it (or complement it).
The old woman, tired from the effort of laboriously hauling herself down the steps, pulled a packet of cigarettes from her apron and lit one up.
"So, there it is," she declared. "All yours, presumably. If you're the right lad for the job."
Edward had to take pause, walking slowly around the sword, studying it from every angle. Because what he was seeing was supposedly an impossible thing. But, angels were at one time considered impossible...
"Am I to understand that this is--"
"It is," she replied.
"And you are--"
"You better not expect me to go hop in the lake," she said, wagging the cigarette at him in a threatening manner. "Because I did that for a few centuries, waiting for you to be born, and eventually it got very tiresome. So I said to myself, 'Nimue, the little bastard's not going to be back anytime soon, it's high time you got on with things' and decided to go open a pub. Took up piano and cross stitching to pass the time, but eventually, immortality wore a bit thin..."
Now, her attention turned to the woman in the room. Giving her a once over, as was done to her husband up in the pub.
"What do you see in this child, anyway?" Nimue asked. "You've an angelborne legacy, the first angelborne in aeons. Could've had your pick of the lot, and you took the crown prince of fools..."
"I... excuse me, but I happen to love his foolish nature very much," Chloe stated, feeling like she was defending ALL the men in her life, tonight. "And it's done quite a bit to help publicize my charity efforts, over the years. --and you're saying he's King Arthur reborn! Shouldn't you be... um... a little more respectful?"
"Yes, well, that bit remains to be seen," Nimue said, after grinding out her worn down cigarette. "Well, boy? Get on with it. I'd like to be home to get some supper soon."
Edward remained slightly skeptical, as he studied the sword. "I don't mean to dig my hole any deeper, as clearly you've got your doubts about me, but... I'm hard pressed to figure why a sharpened iron bar is going to help me liberate my empire from the clutches of the Ascendancy. Is it magical, in some way?"
"Is it magical? Is it magical? It's the goddamn holy sword of legend," Nimue stated. "It'll do what you need it to do. You'll figure it out as you go, I'm sure. And if not, well, I'm not your operational guidebook, am I? I'm just the strange woman sitting in a pond distributing swords. Now PULL it already!"
For lack of a better option, Edward tentatively reached out, to grasp the hilt... and pull.
The sword didn't budge in the slightest. In fact, if a scanning electron microscope were deployed at the juncture of blade and stone, it would confirm that absolutely no movement had occurred.
So, he tried a two-handed pull. With no results. Then grasping the edges of the hilt, uselessly. Briefly he touched the edge and got a wicked paper cut off it.
"Yes, well, can't say I'm shocked," Nimue said... almost smiling, as she did. "Benny, Benny, Benny. He was a charlatan back in the Silver City and he's a charlatan now. Making you come all this way, for nothing... typical."
Edward took a step back, studying the sword, in puzzlement.
"Sooo... what does this mean, exactly?" he asked. "Does my father need to pull it, instead? I am only the Prince, after all..."
"Bah. The wheezing old sperm donor you call your father hasn't been within miles of approaching the merest possibility of a chance of being a proper King in decades. He's let the seven corporate heads run his proud empire, and so did his father before him, and his father before him... none of them worthy. I'm honestly shocked he hasn't dropped dead from the effort of pumping blood through those veins by now..."
"So I AM meant to be the one to pull it, yes? Or do I need to sire an heir, and have him do it? Because there is something of a time factor in play, here," Edward reminded her. "If this is going to help us fight the Ascendancy, SOMEONE needs to give it a tug..."
"And you think that ought to be you, eh?" Nimue asked.
"It's not like there's anybody else appropriate for the job, is there?" Edward countered. "Chloe could give it a go, but she married into the family. I'm reasonably sure the legend says that only Arthur reborn can do this, and right now, I'm your only option--"
"You know damn well that's not the case. Your mum wasn't really your mum, was she?"
Nimue stepped away from the wall she was leaning against, to get right in his face about it. He could feel the waves of disappointment coming off her.
"You figured it out some time ago. How the pile of dust in the shape of a king managed to have a baby boy," she explained. "The seven corporate heads knew they'd be up a creek if lineage wasn't maintained, so they used the Gearhaus eugenics program to create you. One sample from your papa, and an in-house breeder with an edge for intelligent offspring. The same one that Gilbert Gearhaus sprang forth from."
"Well, yes, but... a patriarchy basically means that only the father matters when it comes to lineage--"
"That's a fine attitude to take, considering you'd still be a meaningless footnote in history if not for your wife. Now. What you DIDN'T discover, and what I know because it's my job to know the lineage, is that they cooked up Gilbert with the same sperm and egg pairing. Y'know. Just in case you didn't pan out. Or in case they wanted your dad out of the way."
"Wait, wait, so... you mean... he's not just my half-brother?"
"Give the boy a prize! Yes, Gilbert's your full blood brother. Same cocky young upstart, yes? But the companies decided you were working fine, since you were little more than an amusing distraction for the people -- and Gilbert was making them plenty of money where he was, so his lineage was forgotten. Then, when BOTH of you turned on your masters more or less at the same time, well, it continued to be a non-issue. They couldn't use either of you, then. And... that brings us to now. When the difference between you two is actually quite noteworthy. He's got the same Arthurian legacy you claim is needed today to save the empire. So, yes. He's just as much a candidate. Better, perhaps..."
She's got that right, Edward darkly thought.
A thought he shook off. As much as he liked the fellow, as much as Gilbert helped him escape the little corner he'd been painted into once upon a time... he had to stand up for his role, in the here and now. If he was going to help his people, he had to believe in his own advocacy.
"I'm sorry, but... are you saying Gilbert Gearhaus should be the rightful King of England?" Edward asked, incredulous.
"And why not? He's a clever one, he is," Nimue said, with a satisfied smirk. "And he's done more to fight for your empire than you have."
"He led an armed rebellion against his empire!"
"And in doing so, liberated it from the mastermind that was turning it into an Orwellian nightmare. He gave those people a future. Gave you a wife, even, who could steer you proper. Gilbert Gearhaus could do quite a lot of good for Britain, if given the chance. Maybe he ought to pull the sword. Maybe I should've given him the Message, not you..."
"Yes, well, he's not here, is he?" Edward asked, crossing his arms, standing defiant.
To which Nimue simply laughed.
"Oooh, look at this one, thinkin' he can run off and play king because he's the choice by default! As if attendance records have anything to do with it," she said... turning as if to talk in a sidebar to Chloe, before snapping back to Edward. "Think, boy! Are you or are you not worthy? While Gilbert was fighting tooth and nail to end Raphael's lunacy, you were throwing a party!"
"I was a powerless scion! That was the best I could do was annoy people in power."
"And a mighty annoying party it was, wasn't it?"
"Yes! That was the bloody point of it, in fact!" Edward declared. "I threw that masquerade a decade ago because they were ignoring the perfectly valid grudges my people had! Only way I could open their eyes to it was to drag them out there and show them the ones they were grinding down! So yes, while Gilbert was fighting the good fight, I was throwing a party. Because that was my way of fighting the good fight against those corporate dimwits who puppeted the empire through my father! He had no right to call himself KING, when he never served the people!"
If a stare could cut rock, Edward might've been able to turn it to the floor and carve Excalibur free. But Nimue stood her ground, taking it all in...
Before nodding, slowly.
"A king who serves the people," she repeated. "Funny thing, putting it that way. A royal, serving the people. From the days of yore, through the divine right of kings, used to be the people served the king."
"Yes, well. I may be the Prince of Fools, but at least I'm a modern Prince of Fools," Edward stated, in his defense. "And Chloe's shown me how I can play my powerless position to do some actual good for my people. Now... they're facing down an enemy that's destroying their souls, laying waste to their freedoms, and ruining what little was purely good in this world. So yes, I want to save them, because that's what a king ought to do. If you can't accept that--"
Nimue stepped back... and nodded, satisfied.
"Go on, take the sword," Nimue said.
"It's yours. Do with it as ye will," she declared, pulling a fresh cigarette from her pocket. "Destroy your enemies, if that's what you feel you have to do to preserve your people. Divine right of kings. I can't say all my doubts are squashed, but... I suppose you've got a fighting chance in you to do the right thing. I'm going home, now. And I don't think I'm coming back. Lock up the place when you're done. Better yet, burn it down. Left my estate to the village, and they could probably use the insurance money."
The innkeeper ignored the confused looks from the two kids, and left.
The exact manner of her leaving was... indescribable. One moment she was there, the next, she was somewhere else. Far away. Maybe upward. It took the eyes and the brain a few moments to catch up to the change in the fabric of reality, which now consisted of everything that was not Nimue. The only sensation to mark her passing was the faint sound of waves lapping against the shore of a lake...
Brushing that out of his head... Edward returned his gaze to the sword.
I've never really given thought to being king, he pondered. I was content to be where I was, prodding and pushing from the peanut gallery, making things happen in my own way. But I suppose we all grow up, eventually. Right, then. Tally ho.
The King of England drew his sword.
NOW there was the onrush of wind and holy light from above. NOW there was the choir of destiny, singing out the legacy of the Once and Future King. NOW there was a pile of special effects befitting the moment when the sword was drawn from the stone. Destiny unleashed a howling wind, blowing through the musky basement of the inn, far too much power of the heralds in far too small a space...
With this, he could carve the Arcology open in one swoop. It'd be effortless. He could lay waste to his enemies, bringing the fist of God down upon them for their crimes. He could conquer the corporate houses, reclaim their power for his own, unify the empire under a PROPER monarch. He could restore true glory to the British Empire, underneath the might of the sword.
He could unify the WORLD, as Raphael had sought to do. It made perfect sense. Order from chaos. The Ascendancy could be dealt with. He could travel to London, he could destroy the Arcology, he could leave it a smoking and lifeless ruin--
Through the howl of uncertain fate, he felt a hand on his shoulder. The lightest of touches, as if it had no mass, no weight to it. It was light made form. Like an angel, dancing on the head of a pin.
Chloe was with him. He could see her clearly now, more clearly than ever before. The halo, the wings. The compassion in her soul.
He could destroy the Ascendancy.
But he didn't have to. That was what Nimue was implying...
The blaze of fire in his mind faded away, as quickly as it began. Maybe nothing had actually happened -- maybe that was entirely his imagination. But one thing remained fixed in his mind, even as normalcy asserted itself. A single idea.
Edward fetched the scabbard of Excalibur from a peg on the wall, where it was hanging next to a ratty old overcoat and a bowler hat. Which he took as well.
They declined to burn the inn down, but hours later a bolt of lightning from the heavens set it ablaze anyway. Nimue didn't like leaving a job half finished.
The day before the battle.
On the edge of New Orleans, a coffee house opened for business. Despite being a new arrival, it was already doing a brisk business by lunchtime, with the barista serving customer after customer with steaming hot coffees and delightfully tasty little pastries. But through the EMPLOYEES ONLY door... the hustle and bustle had been replaced with a grim sort of calm.
Several of the additional rooms in the FaePlace were gone, now. Edward and Chloe had departed for Scotland already, hopefully soon to be off to London with some means of liberating it. The King of Pain had taken his leave, having finished the Exorcism Bombs and deciding it'd be best to lie low and wait for the war to blow over, one way or another. And once the engine recharged, as night fell... the original anachronauts would depart, the Quantum Mermaid would shift to Brazil, and the war would begin worldwide.
Emily felt she should give one last speech to those she'd roped into this mess. Instinctively, she wanted to apologize. It wasn't the right thing to do, not when they needed words of encouragement, so she'd have to push her instincts aside. Which left her for a lack of ideas for what to say...
But, her best speeches were improv. Hopefully this would be the same.
She clicked RECORD on the magnetic tape recorder, and tried not to meet the plastic gaze of the teddy bear she'd be playing it back through.
"Everybody knows the plan," she started. "The time of the attack, the methods, and the means. You've got your Exorcism Bombs. You've got your approach, how you're going to breach the armor of your target Arcology. The rest is up to you.
"Jen Cooke got your word before handing over the weapon that you would minimize casualties. The Ascendancy is a culture of victims... tricked into committing soul-stealing genocide, by taskmasters who have made them unwitting accomplices to these crimes. I can't emphasize this enough: this is not a war. This is a rescue operation. We are saving these people from Proctor Lar and his kind, just as much as we're saving ourselves. Death will happen, lives will be lost, that's not avoidable... but we have to maintain some sort of moral high ground. Otherwise... I don't know. There'd be no point. We'd be no better.
"Afterwards, it's only going to get harder. We're going to need to show the stranded people of the Ascendancy the truth, and work with them to get their power restored, using our own methods. This is no different than what we've been doing for the last decade and a half... building bridges, finding common ground, trying to heal the wounds of Pandora. The only way ahead is together, the Ascendancy got that part right. But it's as partners, not as slaves.
"This might be the last message you hear from me, since my own role in this is going to be just as active as yours. I'm trusting all of you to carry what we've built forward, with or without me. No matter what happens in the next twenty-four hours, no matter how this shakes out, hold onto that solidarity. We stand together, or fall apart. That's just how it is. That's how it's always been.
"Good luck out there."
She carefully retrieved the plastic cassette from the recorder.
"Too cheesy?" she asked.
Her husband took the tape from her, slotting it into the teddy bear.
"Just fine," he said. "We'll get through this. They'll get through this. You'll see."
Emily sank back, into the common room couch of the Quantum Mermaid, while the bear recited her speech word for word. It echoed beyond the room... through the mouths of every identical teddy bear, across the world.
"I really wish I could buy into that, but... you know it's been gnawing at me," she reminded Scout. "The prophecies. They've all come true, one by one."
"Open to interpretation, though. Said that yourself. And some of them were a surprise, which goes to show... it's not always what we think."
"It's hard to see what the destruction of Earth could be, other than what it is," Emily said. "And that's the last one of the lot. If we didn't dodge any of the others, who says we're gonna dodge that one...? I mean, run it down..."
She started to count off on her fingers.
"One, 'Undying, with a bitter taste of ash where logic once held sway,'" she recited. "Well, that's pretty obviously Lar, who's the closest thing to a Lich science has ever produced. I'd argue he was never very logical, but he probably thought he was. Two, 'Warm life and cold death twice over, on the hunt anew,' which I'm sad to say is you."
"Got the hunt under control, though," Scout said. "Wasn't easy, but I can master this. It's not going to be a problem..."
"'Water from a far away empire, in which mermaids now swim to distant shores.' We're sitting in that one right now, aren't we? Petersen said the Quantum Mermaid used some weird water-based artifact from some other pandimensional system. Leave it to the Gatherers to find just the right doohickey to fulfill an incomprehensible destiny. 'Glowing golden eyes of rage, an awakening summer sleep...' Nel said the zombies that swamped the Arcology in Brazil had glowing eyes, and they woke up thanks to Maria's weird mix of Los Muertos and Summerlion magic."
"And rage would suit them, yes," Scout admitted.
"Right. 'They will no longer lie down, after one falls.' We saw the news footage of Atlanta. What happened to Carrie's friend. That set off the powderkeg, turned the city into ground zero for America's rebellion against their new owners. 'All together, speaking in one magnetic voice?' Our lovable, huggable little messenger bears. Finally... Gilbert just HAD to go and call his Exorcism Bombs 'His merciful punishment, carried on artificial winds,' didn't he? I might've missed that one if he hadn't. Thanks a lot, Gilbert..."
"So, three unaccounted for. Or, three we've avoided, without realizing it..."
"'Faintly flickering satisfaction within the burning metal wheel,'" Emily recited. "'Three eyes looking to different horizons, but only one can see the promised land.' And who can forget the final gem in this pile of suck? 'A shattered and murdered world, half in flame, half in ice, the crowns divided.' ...the first two I can't figure out, and the last one, well... there's no good way to look at that. I'm going to go crazy and nuke the world, aren't I."
"No," Scout declared. "Won't happen."
"And why, exactly?"
"Because I'd kill you before you could do it. And you'd want me to," he said. "But more because you are surrounded by your friends, and we'd intervene before anything like that could happen. You're not in this alone. Said as much, in your bear speech, just now. We'll get through this, like I said. Doesn't have to shake down like you're assuming it will..."
"I'm missing something," Emily said, not hearing his words. Too tired to hear his words, really, as she'd been awake all night making final arrangements. "We're missing something important. We should've gathered more intel, first. Maybe something Lar has, some metal wheel, or... maybe he's got a planet-cracking weapon of some kind, or... I don't know. We keep stumbling through these predictions and only seeing them in hindsight. Just once, I'd like to foresee what I've Foreseen. Hah. Hindsight and Foresight. Neither've done me any good..."
Feeling the need to clear her head, Emily reclined deeper into the couch. Rested her head on the back of it. Looked up.
And fell asleep, as the exhaustion she'd been staving off found its opportunity and went for it.
Which was a shame, since she was on the verge of solving one of her unsolvable riddles. But that would have to wait for what was to come. Meanwhile, there was a warm blanket provided by her husband, and the final hours before the war sliding away from her.
When she awoke, it would be time to deal with the Ascendancy, once and for all.
SEALED FILE 00a256c
PROPERTY OF THE HOUSE OF GEARS
AUTHORIZATION L0TF REQUIRED
Assorted data fragments related to the events surrounding the start of the Second Age of Earthkind. Exact dating unknown; dateline tag "Stars Fall."
Event reconstruction surrounding testimonials and Ascendancy accounts. All events transpired simultaneously. Time zone adjustment included.
8AM Cairo (f001)
3AM Atlantis (f002)
4AM São Paulo (f003)
1AM Atlanta (f004)
6AM London (f005)
12AM New Orleans (f006)
Data as follows --
FRAGMENT 001 : CAIRO 8AM
Despite being under near constant attack, Proctor Yus felt quite calm. True, the first days had been dicey... when raid teams were capturing the freakish subhuman Suborbitals for processing, and the first reprisal attacks hit the sides of his Arcology. But that was just it... they hit the heavily armored sides of his Arcology. And bounced off. Whatever tension Yus might have had evaporated, on seeing the futility of the mutant weaponry against their hull.
Spears, bullets, even primitive explosives had no effect. And why would they? Ascendancy Arcologies were the finest hypertechnology available. Designed to withstand even the most ardent and stubborn Suborbital's resistance to the future. Surely the mutants would realize the pointlessness of it, perhaps even go into hiding, rather than continue their pathetic onslaught...
They didn't give up, of course. Which just went to show that this was a flawed and tainted race of morons, which the future was better off without.
So, well after dawn's break across the deserts of the ruined and now emptied mutant tribal city of Cairo, Yus was sipping some Hot Fun and reading status reports as the last attack took place.
"Sir, enemy forces amassing over the southern ridge," his first-in-command reported, without any particular hesitancy.
The holographic display clicked on, displaying the horde of disgusting, unwashed, incredibly cancerous little abominations lurching across the desert sands. Armed to the teeth with arms that were little better than biting someone with their teeth, ready for battle... a typical scene, and nothing to be concerned with.
"Psionic defense screens up, and let me know when they go away," Yus requested. "By the way, how'd the match go?"
"We beat Beta Shift by a good six seconds," the officer said, with pride. "It got a bit touch and go when Lyn's nanochain sculpture collapsed, but she managed to resequence it with seconds to spare. I was thinking of giving her a promotion up three tiers."
"Well, it's your team, it's your call," Yus said. "You've got an eye for officer material. Just be careful she doesn't start eyeing your role in Command Ops. ...where's the clanging?"
"Usually I can hear distant clanging of bullets and spears off the hull by now," Yus said, setting his mug down. "What's going on out there?"
The officer turned, to actually pay attention to the incoming army.
"They seem to be... waiting. Standing around," he said. "I can see that pirate woman's airship pulling up ahead of the combat line, but they haven't opened fire, either."
"Maybe they're doing the smart thing and surrendering...?" Yus suggested, scratching his chin. "Recognizing that they have no place in the future, and are ready to die? It's wishful thinking, I know, but... get a collection team ready to harvest as much of them as we can. Scare off the rest--"
"Sir, the airship has landed," the officer announced. "They seem to be disembarking..."
"This is getting weirder by the moment. Penny Dreadful, willing to surrender? The Psy Ops group predicted she'd abandon her allies in time, being little more than a mercenary at heart..."
The figure on the holographic display which was walking down the ship's departure ramp was not Penny Dreadful.
Yus requested a zoom and enhance, to be certain.
It was an older man, wearing a comfortable business suit, with a red power tie that illuminated the holographic console controls slightly from the tacky brightness of it. Bald, slightly wrinkled.
And starting to open his jaw.
Very, very wide.
Automatic facial recognition software identified him as the United Nations ambassador from Moscow, before the screaming began.
Nobody noticed as more and more of the strange and incomprehensible citizens of Russia departed from Penny's ship, all of them screaming tonelessly, never pausing for breath, never stopping for a second.
It was a difficult thing to pay attention to when those screams were tearing through the entire Arcology, bounding off the walls and down the corridors, causing a deep rumble from within the core of the ship. A rumble that was increasing in intensity and frequently, the longer it went on...
To date, nobody had been able to understand the creatures that occupied Moscow. They looked human, they acted human, but... when around outsiders, they screamed, and screamed, and screamed. Incomprehensible. Mysterious.
Unless you had psychic powers, and thus could actually communicate with them. Say, to strike an accord, and invite them to be your allies against the Ascendancy. Which is exactly what the mutant tribes had done several days ago, at Emily Moonthistle's suggestion.
Yus could only see the hundreds of red error messages popping up in mid-air through a haze of agony and tears, as the force of that sound threatened to pull him to pieces. Fortunately for him, it wasn't intended to pull him apart... according to the various automated errors, it was pulling the Arcology apart instead.
A harmonic resonance wave had been set off through the armor plating outside the ship. And the distant clangs, audible even through the din of supernatural noise, were hardly spears bouncing off the hill. They were entire plates of armor crumbling away and collapsing in the sands around the ship.
Finally, mercifully... the screaming ended. Four dozen citizens of Moscow, led by their ambassador, closed their jaws and neatly filed back into the ship that had brought them this far south.
The next wave of screaming came from the mutants. A war cry, as they rushed the now defenseless city.
Yus sat on the floor, propped up by his command chair, unable to even respond as his second in command frantically ordered squads into place to fight off the intruders. They were in every sector, now -- past the psionic shields, kicking down doors, stunning guards with mental blasts. Most of the Ascendancy's dreaded shock troops were already in a state of shock, after all, and not able to put up much resistance.
"I think we're all going to die," Yus realized. Not really horrified... more surprised. Surprised that these primitives had so effortlessly crippled the forever people...
Next thing he remembered was looking down the business end of Penny Dreadful's blunderbuss, flanked by pirates and mutants. His entire Command Ops staff had surrendered, laid down arms.
But the mutants weren't skinning them alive. They wanted to -- Yus could see that rage behind their eyes -- but they were deferring to the Queen of Pirates, in the here and now.
"Check and mate, mate," Penny declared, tossing a strange-looking device up and down in her other hand. "Afraid you lose. But don't worry. We're not here to kill you. We're here to teach you a little lesson in humility."
She caught the Exorcism Bomb neatly, and pressed the shiny red button.
FRAGMENT 002 : ATLANTIS 3AM
Nobody noticed as the light from the little green icon representing Cairo winked out.
It was three in the morning, standard Earth time. They'd adjusted to the local time cycle, shifting the night shift to these dead morning hours... not that there was anything to DO during these dead morning hours. Not that they really had anything to do since their role in this world's assimilation into the Ascendancy ended right as it began.
This particular Arcology, the least impressive of the bunch, was designated for one job only -- the destruction of Atlantis. Naturally, they were hoping to strike an accord with that particular faction, but Psy Ops had predicted a 97% chance of resistance to the future. So, they would destroy the entire undersea nation, and then... float above the ocean on gravity pumps, acting as a communications hub between the Arcologies, and little else.
Which suited Tertiary Proctor Ret quite well. This was his first command, and having a "soft ball" task like genocide followed by desk job work tossed his way meant he could do very little of note and still look good doing it. He'd even volunteered to take on the night shifts in Command Ops, a role nobody else wanted, to make it look like he was sacrificing for his team. Even if honestly, he spent most of his time napping rather than paying attention to the communication grid.
Which is why he missed Cairo vanishing off the net.
Which is why he awoke with a painful start when proximity alarms that had been quietly blinking started loudly blinking.
"Zzzssnwhaa?" he replied, as a dozen beeping alarms went off at once.
The intelligent display units, realizing they finally had his attention, opened an external view to show him exactly what was approaching at high speed.
A secondary window opened... revealing a Command Ops center much like his own, except with considerably more explosions, sparking control panels, screaming, and people being hurled violently left and right.
"Mayd-- alert, alert! We are in desperate need of assistance!" the man in the window screamed, with blood running down his face, from some unseen head wound. "Come in, Arcology Hippocrates! Are you receiving?! Divide-by-zero, I don't think the communications are working--!"
"P-Proctor Ret, of Arcology Hippocrates, here and... and... what? What's going on?" Ret asked, leaning forward in his chair, immediately. "Proctor Wqp, is that you...?'
"Ret! Thank science, it's you!" the man exclaimed. "We're coming in fast and we need to dock with your Arcology to make repairs. It's the Suborbitals! We barely got out of London alive. They've developed some new superweapon! It almost completely sapped our power sources and took down all our defenses! If we don't dock soon and merge gravity pumps, we're going to crash into the ocean!"
"I, I don't know how, I... um..." Ret babbled, desperately flipping through files, trying to find one on security and docking procedures. "It's night shift, I'm here on my own, I mean, we're undermanned anyway since we're just a comm hub, I don't know how to do anything like--"
"You don't know HOW--?! Fine! Fine. Just open all your cargo bays and shift your gravity pump controls to ours!" Wqp explained. "Override the command controls and transfer them, too. That way we can automate the procedure for you!"
"I'm, um, I'm... I need your security code before I can do that. I mean. It's protocol, is all. Safety first...?"
The man in the room that was currently on fire stared at him like he grew a third head.
"Protocol," Wqp repeated, flatly.
"Ascendancy standard security protocols dictate that I, er, be very careful about handing over primary systems to what could possibly be an enemy agent. ...I mean, you know... look, it's my first command and I don't want to screw this up, okay?!"
"Yes, I'm sure it'll look wonderful on your record if we lose power and meet a watery grave because you wanted to obey protocol and make sure the ARCOLOGY CLEARLY ABOUT TO MELT DOWN IN FRONT OF YOU isn't, I don't know, a city-sized shapeshifting superweapon," Wqp said. "I mean, sure, go right ahead. That makes perfect sense. Don't worry, we'll wait."
Ret's horror built upon terror built upon nightmarish fear of what his immediate future held.
Immediately, he shunted all the command controls for his Arcology to the sister Arcology.
"Okay, okay, all yours! Dock, dock now, do it!" Ret shouted back. "I'll scramble repair teams and meet you in the cargo bay. We'll get you back up and running right away, I promise!"
Proctor Ret spent the next five minutes frantically summoning every engineering team he could rouse out of bed, to converge on the cargo bay. He even grabbed a portable workstation and nanotech repair toolkit himself. Not that he could do much to help in this situation, but he didn't want to look like he wasn't a hands-on sort of commanding officer.
He was knocked off his feet a few times, as Arcology Hippocrates began docking procedures, merging its armored wall with his own Arcology's, lining up bay doors to bay doors and airlocks to airlocks. It was unheard of, two Arcologies linking together in this way, outside of extreme emergencies. This certainly counted as an extreme emergency, however, and thankfully Wqp knew how to make it happen. Not that Ret wouldn't take some credit for it, of course.
When all of this was done, maybe Proctor Lar would even give him a medal.
He skidded around a corner, into the primary cargo bay, toolbox in hand...
...to find his engineering teams on their knees, hands on their heads, while they were held at gunpoint by what looked like 21st century Earth civilians.
The Mayor of NanoSeattle, with his proud mayoral MAYOR sash and curly board-game moustache, tsk-tsked at him.
"Afraid it's not your day, son," he said. "It's ours. But don't worry, we'll keep your little town afloat using our borrowed Mass Capacitors and replicated gravity pumps, after we're done shutting yours down. No need to be uncivil about this little war."
FRAGMENT 003 : SÃO PAULO 4AM
Four minutes to four, and the Quantum Mermaid made its last jump.
They'd just left their New Orleans contingent behind... the coffee house empty now, save for Petersen's own little band of anachronauts. The five who had started this journey together... Elisa, Jen, Maria, Gwen, and himself.
In the ruins of the Brazilian city, a new coffee house opened up shop. Jen twisted it quickly, manipulating the nanomatter to appear to be a ruined building, not unlike any of the other ruined buildings. And hopefully, the locals -- zombies, who had been mindlessly drawn to the shiny Arcology, to be harvested for their souls -- were not in the mood for brains and coffee...
In the common room, Maria tested the tiny paper sleeve on her fingers.
"This can't possibly keep me secured," she repeated.
"It's an artifact. Anybody wearing the Chinese fingercuffs is unable to make any movement except to try and escape them," Petersen explained. "You can't get up off the couch. You can't walk out of the room. Your body will do nothing except try to pull at the paper weaving, and won't manage to get out. Try it."
True to his word, Maria found herself unable to resist the urge to squirm her fingers, to try and tug them apart. Which was silly, because she was trying to make them squeeze the weave together, to loosen and slip out. But it was irresistible...
"Okay. I guess I'm as ready as I'll ever be," she said. "Gwen? Turn off the MagWiFi firewall. Put me in touch with the Network. ...look, if this goes wrong, if I try to eat your brains--"
"I'm a hacker and a witch," the young woman reminded her, while poking at the Reset button on the blue plastic box, with an unwound paperclip. "I can take a witch's stand as easily as I can tweak your credit rating. Rebooting..."
"Right. So, when wi--"
And Maria immediately broke out into a sweat.
The change hit her immediately. A snarl from her lips, a jerk of the neck... but her hands, squirming away in the fingercuffs, unable to do anything other than that.
"...n... network online," she mumbled. "Negotiating protocols..."
Connections established. Psionic Network routing in place. Loop through protocols are complete.
New node added to network. Ident: Maria Ruiz.
Maria. You have returned. The Network loves you, even if you have rejected us. Are you ready to merge? [Y/N]
And then, silence. At least, outwardly. Now, the only communication packets shuttling back and forth were psychic ones... between the long dead, and the child they lost years before.
A single tense minute passed. Elisa's hand sought Petersen's, to squeeze for comfort. Gwen busied herself with tracking Maria's vital signs, on a tablet computer. Until--
"A-Accord," Maria strained to say, through gritted teeth. "Unit Maria w-w-will remain co-connected only until the program is complete, in exchange for salvation of the Network. ...mom, hurry, please, hurry--"
Now, Elisa used her handhold to pull Petersen along. Because as much as she wanted to stay by her daughter's side... they had work to do.
The crumbling disguise of the Quantum Mermaid retained all its features. The bars were ruined, the espresso machines rusted away, chairs now wire shells of their former glory... but the overall shape was the same. And that included the attached garage. And William Petersen's beloved 1984 Buick LeSabre.
Yesterday, he added four-point harnesses to the seats. This would be the first time they'd really tested the limits of the car's capabilities as a Gatherer artifact. He had no doubt it would perform admirably... but had some doubt that he'd survive the experience, given the safety of automobiles from that age.
Elisa was buckled up and ready to go before he was. He took his American flag keychain, found the starter key, and fired up the old internal combustion engine of the vehicle. Finding gas for it wasn't a problem anymore, not with Jen able to slurp up some of the ground they landed on with each jump to create matter such as gasoline and cookies and java beans... and he'd been sure to top off the tank before they went on this particular Sunday drive.
"You don't have to come with me," William Petersen reminded her, even if he knew it'd be futile. He felt he had to put the idea forward again, anyway.
"If you die, you need backup to finish the mission. Now get rolling. We can't twiddle our thumbs," Elisa replied.
The Buick backed out of the garage, slowly. It could have simply blasted out the back of the garage, if it was moving at speed... but from a standstill, the best it would do is dent the wall.
That was the key. His car was made in the twentieth century... a relic even by modern standards, when the Pandora Event hit. A boring and unimpressive vehicle in all respects, and with clear signs of aging, such as scrapes in the paint and rips in the leather seats. The Gatherers almost overlooked it... until they realized there was no conceivable way a car from that era could've remained intact for more than a hundred years.
Subsequent tests proved the vehicle was completely indestructible. Any damage it had taken before Pandora hung around, but you couldn't add a fresh ding to the bumper. Which meant you could ram it right through a brick wall and the loser in that battle would be the wall.
Petersen took it out to the open road... the open, zombie-filled road, as they were all lurching towards the Arcology now... and gunned the engine.
The car leapt into action. The road was terrible, filled with potholes and debris... but the car offered SOME degree of kinetic dampening to its occupants. The Buick itself certainly was in no mood to slow down due to any simple thing like an undrivable road, either. Any debris that wouldn't get knocked aside simply got crushed beneath its galvanized rubber tires. And soon, once William was confident he'd gained enough speed... he swung sharply to the left.
Into a building.
The four-point harnesses were a godsend. Kinetic dampening or not, he was now deliberately engaging in a series of head-on high speed automobile accidents. Building after building gave way before the front bumper of the car, dust and debris coating the windshield... by now, he was navigating by the GPS and display screen Gwen had rigged up for him. Running the windshield wipers helped some, but he could only hope they weren't going to run into anything too awkward to drive over...
They were carving a path around the Arcology, flanking it... while presumably off in the distance, under Maria's direction, Los Muertos were engaging in futile combat with the city from a single direction. Meaning the city's weapons would be targeting them. Meaning all attention would be focused on the oncoming horde.
Meaning they wouldn't see his Buick until he'd built up enough speed to make his final run.
If they spotted him... well. He didn't THINK the Ascendancy's energy blasts could destroy the car, but if they made a large enough crater, they could halt his progress, or at least slow it. No momentum would mean no means of escape. It'd mean the entire plan failing...
He could hear Elisa take a sharp breath, as the windshield cleared enough for them to see the final straight line dash to the cargo bay doors. The weakest spot on the city's armor.
"Brace yourself!" Petersen yelled. Not that he had to, as Elisa had a death grip on the armrest, pressing her feet against the floor of the car.
The trajectory was critical. They had blueprints for the Arcology -- unlike many Orbital arcologies, the Ascendancy had stamped all of them out in the same shape, with the same layout. These plans were leaked to every resistance cell around the world. And from them, Petersen found the best possible approach, one which would result in slamming through rooms and corridors and bulkheads that would be extremely unlikely to be occupied during the dead of night. Less chance of running anyone over...
Of course, he'd be hitting hypertech armor head on. The car would probably be fine. He might be converted into a thin paste. Or simply snap his neck.
He had exactly four seconds to worry about this.
After that, it was irresistible force vs. immovable object time.
The crunching noise was thankfully not his spine. And from a quick glance in the rear view mirror, he confirmed a car-sized hole in the wall of the Arcology... with additional holes-yet-to-be coming up fast.
A rapid series of impacts kept him bouncing around in his harness, fighting to keep control over the car, to keep to the route he'd planned out. Swerve too far to the left and he could end up rolling right through a residential sector... just a few more moments, and...
Straining against the agony that was gripping his body, trying to ignore what was likely a few cracked ribs and some serious sprains to various joints... William yanked the handbrake, hard, and drifted sideways through a few bulkheads designed to stop a tank.
The vehicle slid to a halt, in the spacious shift engine room.
It stopped just three inches short of an Engineer who was there to do some late night calibrations, still wearing his pajamas.
A mug of Hot Fun slipped from his fingers, and splashed the driver's side door.
After confirming that Elisa was still conscious and not coughing up blood... with a shaking hand, William slowly rolled the window down.
"Hi," he said, greeting the confused fellow with a smile. "Before we exchange insurance information, mind holding this for me?"
He pressed the button on the Exorcism Bomb, and then handed it to the Engineer.
FRAGMENT 004 : ATLANTA 1AM
As the three least-prepared Arcologies were being taken by surprise, the Arcology slowly floating its way over to Atlanta was quite prepared for battle.
The deadline had passed at midnight. They immediately departed Central Park in New York, to make the journey southward to Atlanta. While in transit, squads were being armed and prepared... loaded down with heavy energy weapons and armor, equipped with extra Essence Capacitors to keep the firepower coming, and fitted for jetpacks. Squad commanders began to instruct their units as to what their role would be during the pacification, what the conditional situations were, how to react to them.
If the city immediately surrendered -- including Target Alpha ("Astro Gal") and Target Beta (a treasonous ex-Frontliner terrorist organization) -- then the soldiers would be stationed at designated points in the city, to open fire on anyone caught breaking the law of the land. No arrests, no Total Social Conversions. There were no "strikes" left for the city, as the locals called them. Complete obedience or complete annihilation were all that remained.
Which meant if they encountered any resistance whatsoever, they were authorized to use deadly force. And if they encountered organized and armed resistance within the city of any sort... well, the same weapons which wiped Atlantis off the face of the Earth could be used here.
This Arcology would not be an easy target for a thief in the night, someone exploiting a weakness. They were ready for an all-out war, and fully expecting one.
In fact, the Proctor in charge of this city was considering simply ordering the attack, before they could assess the situation. It wasn't like anybody would contradict him later if he claimed the Suborbitals fired first.
His name was Proctor One. It was a name of destiny, a confluence of letters which indicated he was headed to greatness... perhaps even to replace Proctor Lar, if rumors about Lar's neurotic emotional state were true. If he was selected to pacify this world in the long term, he had to demonstrate here and now that his loyalty to the Ascendancy was absolute. Superior to the weak-willed ethics of Proctor Wqp, superior to the inexperience of Proctor Ret. One had to stand above them. Be number one.
Of course, crushing Suborbitals was hardly a true test of his skill. They had no weapons to fight him with; their strongest champion was a moody teenage girl, a girl they could track remotely and obliterate at will. Which meant he'd have to demonstrate his abilities by being... very thorough and efficient in destroying this city. Maximum impact with minimal resources would show the high councils of the Ascendancy his merit--
"Sir? Enemy contact."
"Already?" Proctor One asked, taken from his power fantasy by the needs of the here and now. "We haven't even reached the official city limits yet... where are we?"
"Geographic records indicate this is a local monument of some kind, 'Stone Mountain.' I've detected life signs entrenched all over the rock formation," the officer responded. "I think we found the terrorist cells. They don't intend to engage us in the city itself. Your orders?"
He hadn't planned for this... urban combat was far more dramatic, far more impressive to those in power. But, the fight was where the fight was. He could crush them simply. In fact, better to crush them simply, than to waste scrambling the troops into the air... save them for pacifying the city itself.
"All stop, and hover above them. Target each individual of Target Beta. But let's find Target Alpha before we start shooting," One suggested. "Activate the radiation signature scan. Where is Astro Gal hiding...?"
The holographic display of the Frontliners, lying in wait for the Arcology's approach, was overlaid with a glowing dot representing which one of them was the so-called "superheroine."
Except they were all superheroines.
"That can't be right," One said. "Recalibrate and rescan."
"I did, sir... it's accurate. They're all emitting the same radiation."
"Hmm. Clever," One admitted. "Probably distributed biological samples, to throw off the scanner. Fine. Well, we know ONE of them has to be her, likely in disguise. So we'll just open fire until one of them doesn't die, or takes off and flies into the air. Begin."
Carrie Lane had dug the trenches in the flat top of Stone Mountain with her bare hands. It was a bit of a disgrace to a national memorial, but they needed the cover, and this was the best spot for the strategy they had in mind... plus, trenches in pure granite would stand up to Orbital-style energy blasts. That, with the unique defensive measures they brought with them, should keep them safe. In theory.
In practice, Barbara O'Dare knew that the Ascendancy had all the time in the world to smear them across the mountain. They wouldn't run out of ammo. They wouldn't get bored. They'd shoot until they were done, or dispatch troops to take them in close quarters, if need be. All of this was just a delay of the inevitable...
But that was the point.
In the dark of night... they saw the approach of the shining city, in the light of the full moon. It slid through the sky on its four gravity pumps... and began to hover, right in front of the mountain. And to aim its cannons, angled downward and towards them. After all, by Ascendancy logic, they always had the high ground -- if you wanted to purge surface-crawling Suborbitals, the best place to put your strongest guns was on the bottom of your flying city.
Armored covers slid away... revealing the glowing dots of those cannons, peppered all over the underside of the Arcology.
"Shields!" Barbara shouted through her megaphone. "Incoming volley! Watch your angles and make this count!"
Blankets and towels were yanked away...
...from large mirrors, all of them angled carefully to receive the incoming blasts.
They'd scoured the city for their improvised defenses. Past experience confirmed that Orbital blasts were vulnerable to reflection -- Emily had used that technique to win a mage's duel, once upon a time. A mirror, turned into a shield with handles on the backside and ceramic coating to absorb the thermal aspect, would hopefully get the job done...
She didn't have time to worry about whether it'd work. The first beams sliced through the air, targeting each individual entrenched Frontliner.
Barbara forced herself to watch, not to cover her eyes, as Sean O'Dare held his mirror aloft.
The force of the beam pushed Sean back against the other side of his trench... but he braced his boots, digging in.
Now, it was Barbara's turn.
"Lower! Left! Left!" she called out... playing spotter, helping Sean angle his mirror, to reflect the beam back at the Arcology. Specifically, at the first of the two targeted gravity pumps...
All over the mountain, beams were bounced right back, slowly drawing focus on the target. ...too few beams, Barbara realized. Meaning some of them hadn't gotten their mirrors up in time, or the power of the blast was enough to vaporize them outright. But hopefully enough survived to make this counterstrike count...
The Arcology realized what was happening, and cut the power to the beams.
The closest gravity pump exploded. A ball of fire erupted from underneath the city, showering the recreational park beneath Stone Mountain with debris from fried hypertechnology.
Slowly, the Arcology started to tilt to the side... and sink.
Thanking God above that it worked... Barbara got back on the megaphone.
"Round two!" she announced.
Being able to loot the Frontliner bases on their way out had paid dividends. Because all over the mountain, the tubes of rocket propelled grenades were being raised, and targeted on the second gravity pump.
Proctor One's chance at an efficient and trouble-free takedown of the enemy forces had just been shot down. By his own weapons. Which was absolutely, positively, inconceivably suboptimal a scenario to be in.
"Cease fire, cease fire!" he shouted, over the din of the automatic alarm windows, each helpfully beeping away to inform him that the impossible had just happened. "Last-digit-of-pi... we're going to need to scramble the aerial assault squads. I'd hoped not, b--"
The entire city rocked beneath him, as a series of explosions could be heard even through the hard armor of the Arcology shell.
"And what was that, now?" he demanded to know.
"S-Sir, two gravity pumps are offline!" an officer replied. "We're losing altitude!"
"Set the city down. There's a nice, spacious national park there for us to park in. I am not letting them run us into the ground by force," Proctor One decided. "That would be the most humiliating defeat imaginable."
"But sir, the weapons... they'll have the high ground. We won't be able to target them, not at that angle--"
"It doesn't matter! We're going to send out the airborne squads to deal with them. Meanwhile, I want repair teams to the pumps. Start replicating new parts, get them online. I want to be in Atlanta, purging it of all life by sunup! And show me the radiation scans again. I want Target Alpha identified and destroyed!"
"She might not even be out there," the officer suggested. "We've no proof any of these signals are her--"
"Target Beta has to know it can't defeat us alone. She's out there," Proctor One decided. "Any of those signals takes to the air, focus all the weapons we can aim upwards at her. A prolonged burst should be enough to melt that annoying little brat that Ser couldn't tame."
Proctor One sat back in his command chair, studying the signals. Watching the battle.
His squads were closing in on the mountain, now. It would be a short fight, no doubt. But where was Astro Gal? All their predictive A.I. simulations had shown her playing a critical role in the battle. She was invulnerable; why would she shy away from attacking them? Logic dictated she should be defending her people, acting as a shield, fighting them head on...
One of those signals had to be her. A cheap trick, to confuse them, to make them hunt around for her.
There wasn't anywhere else she could be, after all.
"Redirect the radiation scanner," One called out. "Right now. Aim it... upwards. Aim it straight up."
The holographic display swiveled, until it pointed up at the evening sky...
...to a tiny, tiny green dot. Miles above them, in low earth orbit... where she'd been holding her breath, gazing downward with super senses, and waiting for her cue.
Now, she was coming down fast.
A mathematical paradox, the closest thing Orbitals had to an obscenity, floated through Proctor One's mind as he ordered all weapons and all squads to redirect their efforts.
Carrie Lane hit supersonic just as the Ascendancy noticed what she was up to.
Being pounded by every energy beam the Arcology had to offer would certainly have killed her. There was invulnerable and invulnerable... as proven when her mother fell, in the battle of Hawaii.
But a grounded Arcology, with only as many weapons as they could aim straight up? That was tolerable.
Her costume was burning.
She was burning. The re-entry burn was there, true, but the blasts were knocking her around, forcing her to adjust course every half-second. She saw through evaporating tears, focusing her supersenses to pierce the corona of her fiery descent... cradling the Exorcism Bomb under one arm, like a football, protecting it from the incoming blasts...
Holding it close. Right near her child. Two things to protect.
Her other fist pointed downward and closing in fast on the target, she kicked in the last bit of speed she had left.
Silver blurs shot past her -- the airborne squadron, trying to catch her, following her down in her death plunge. Good. Keep them off Barbara and the Frontliners. Get them as close as possible when the bomb goes off, catch them in the escaping steam...
The last thought she had wasn't particularly dramatic, or inspiring. It was just oh boy I hope this works.
Then she slammed directly into the center of the Arcology.
She punctured the spacious chambers of the city's Proctor, first. He wasn't there, so she didn't have to worry about killing him as the force of her explosive entry completely ruined his nice office.
Next, the central atrium of the ship. The civilian population was on lockdown for the coming war, so all she did was destroy a food court and a few small recreational spaces.
The shift engine room was more of a risk. She'd made a minute change to her downward arc, twisting in midair over the atrium to come in at an angle... avoiding the engines themselves, which could've exploded from impact. Chances were very low they'd cause a Pandora effect and potentially destroy the world, but hey, better safe than sorry.
Except in doing so, she was moving a little TOO fast, faster than she'd predicted. So, she went through one more floor than she expected.
Finally... she flattened out, to maximize impact, and slow her descent. And made a considerable dent in the room one floor below her.
In the middle of a classroom.
At first, Carrie thought the room was red -- but apparently, there was blood in her eyes. They'd finally found a way to make her bleed.
Figures surrounded her. Children. The civilians had been using all available space below decks to take shelter, just in case. Of course.
The aerial troops that chased her finally caught up. They landed, ushering the children away, and aiming all their weapons at the broken teenager who fell to Earth.
"S-Sorry," she apologized, to one of the little girls, hiding behind a soldier's legs. "I think I broke your school..."
With her last bit of energy, Carrie weakly pressed the button on her Exorcism Bomb.
FRAGMENT 005 : LONDON 6AM
Peter Tuttle pulled up to a street in London, in the dark of morning on that fateful day. The rickety old autocar engine in his cab, long overheated and pushed beyond the limits that steam power would allow for, fell apart right on the spot when he finally arrived. It was a miracle it had made it that far to begin with. Literally. A miracle.
He'd been paid a considerable sum to make the trip from Scotland all the way to London, a journey seven hours long and down dark and winding country roads. A cabbie would have to be absolutely mad to go so far out of his way for a single husband-and-wife couple, even at ten times the going rate. Fortunately, Peter Tuttle had just gotten out of an unhappy love affair, and was very much in the mood for the quiet and dark of a long night journey, so he was willing to take the case when the emergency tube arrived from his dispatch company.
What the message had declined to mention was exactly who, he would be ferrying across the length of mainland England. Apparently that had been something of a secret, one worth paying a ridiculous overcharge for.
Because he was carrying the Prince and Princess of England. Who had supposedly died some time ago.
He didn't look particularly regal, mind. He was wearing a horrible old overcoat, the kind of thing you'd pluck off the back of a Scottish field hand, and a bowler hat that had been sat on a few too many times. Plus, there was something odd he was hiding under his coat, which he refused to talk about... despite the big smile on his face that said it was something quite impressive, indeed...
But nevertheless, his passengers were indeed Edward and Chloe, the whimsical prince and the compassionate princess, the fool and the angel. And so, figuring the night couldn't get any stranger, Peter Tuttle threw the flag on his meter and started the seven-hour trek to London.
His car hadn't been refitted for electrics -- even ten years into the power reformation, those were expensive, and his mom-and-pop taxi shop had no intention of splurging money. Which was silly, as steam was getting harder to come by, as per the reformation agreements. (Peter had no idea why the Empire was shifting away from steam, but presumably those who got paid more than he did had their reasons.) In fact, there was little chance of his tanks getting them all the way to London, and he'd told the royal couple as much... but they assured him it would be just fine.
And it was. The needle scraped the empty line a few times... and then refilled. Funny, how it got a little... foggy, each time that happened, but the night did funny things to your eyes.
The royal couple generally spent the night sleeping in shifts, and talking in worried whispers. Such as:
Chloe, "I just hope you're right about this. It's a lot to bet on such a crazy notion..."
Edward, "You felt what I felt, in that cellar. It's quite real. And working together, I think we can do this."
Whatever they were planning, it was going to be big. Maybe something to stop the riots... maybe surrendering to the Ascendancy. That was the smart thing to do, no matter how horrible they were, Peter felt. Nobody could fight them. Best to save lives, end the pointless chaos, and figure out how to deal with them later. But their motives remained a mystery, as silence dominated the taxi for much of the ride...
Until they arrived, not long before sunrise. And his cab officially declared it had done quite enough, falling to bits.
Peter was waving escaping steam and smoke from the hood of his autocar as the royal couple emerged, ready to leave.
"You'll find your fee in escrow with your dispatch company," Prince Edward promised. "A fine journey, and we are not left wanting for comfort or discretion. My compliments, sir, my compliments to you and yours."
"Maybe they'll buy me an electric, given you've run old Bessie into the ground," Mr. Tuttle half-complained. "So... what're you up to now?"
"Now?" the Prince asked... with that mischievous little grin, the one Tuttle had seen in newspaper photos, from his various escapades. "Now... we walk. Thank you for your time, good sir. I wish you well."
And they walked, heading west, into the city. Into the thick of the city, around Regents Park and the Arcology, where the riots had been their worst.
The journey had ended up being one-way, true, but Tuttle could've turned and gotten out of there with all speed. That was the smart move, as the Prince seemed intent on walking right into the lion's den. Find somewhere to hole up for the day, get some rest, then locate a means to get back up to Scotland and collect his fee...
Instead, he walked along behind them.
Not the smart thing to do, he knew. But he did it all the same. If you asked him with the benefit of hindsight and gave him some time to come up with an appropriate turn of phrase, he'd say he felt the weight of history at his back, pushing him on.
Edward noticed... and nodded to the man. Not driving him off, or even pointing out that he no longer needed to accompany them. After all, this was in the plan, as well.
As the minutes went by, they walked on, deeper into the city. Edward kept checking a pocket watch... adjusting the pace of his walking, slower or faster, as if he was keeping to a specific timetable.
(Which he was, not that anyone aside from Chloe realized.)
They walked past sandbag entrenchments, scorched by energy weapons. Past collapsed buildings, caught in the crossfire between protestors and Ascendancy troopers. The city had gone mad with grief from the loss of Princess Chloe, the only one who had stood up for them in years... the adoptive guardian angel of the British Empire. And now, their angel was coming back...
Even at this sleepy hour, when any sane man was asleep... some had noticed the trio. And joined them. Three became four, became seven, became a dozen strong.
As the size of the group grew, slowly walking towards the metal city that had entrenched itself within London... the Ascendancy took notice. They could look up and see jetpackers, observing and reporting, waiting for orders. But... nobody was throwing bricks or molotov cocktails. Some of them were carrying those weapons, having gone the whole night getting ready for the day's rage, but... they weren't here to fight. An unspoken agreement carried through the crowd that this wasn't a march to war.
Just like Tuttle, they weren't quite sure why their urge to express their anger was held in check. They were drawn to the procession, and didn't question why. It just happened.
Perhaps, from the shock of seeing their angel returned, all thoughts of violence faded away. She was the compassionate one, willing to throw herself into any just cause that bettered life for the people of the Empire. Over ten years she'd become the melancholic mascot of all noble causes... and the riots were hardly a noble cause, even if they were thrown in her honor. Perhaps the rioters finally felt the sting of ironic guilt. It was difficult to say, really.
By the time the people of London reached the armored walls of the Arcology, they numbered so thick that you couldn't see the end of them. Shopkeeps who were tired of brushing broken glass away from their stoops, or counting losses from people taking advantage of the chaos. Protestors in Guy Fawkes masks, adopting the L'Anonyme meme as a rallying cry. Ordinary citizens roused from their beds, not even stopping to change out of their pajamas.
And at the head of this teeming mass of humanity stood Prince Edward and Princess Chloe.
They stopped just before the massive doors leading into the Arcology, which were, of course, sealed shut. They weren't even singed, despite all the attacks to try and force them open in recent days.
Now, a murmur through the crowd.
They'd followed the royal couple this far, to see where it was going. But now they were within blasting distance. Not all of them were revolutionaries; mixed in were ordinary folks just trying to live through hard times, or even loyalists who felt the Ascendancy were key to advancing the British Empire. And yet, here they were. And what now...?
Finally, Edward cupped his hands to his mouth, and bellowed a tremendous shout.
"Parlay!" he called, to the silver city. "I seek parlay with Ascendancy Proctor Wqp of Arcology Aristophanes! I wish to enter negotiation to end the violence between our peoples!"
Tuttle, who was near the head of the crowd and had been growing quite nervous with each backward glance to see more and more people behind him, immediately realized he was right. This was surrender...
Nothing happened for a full minute.
(In actuality, something very important happened. Chloe slipped behind Edward, to stand in his shadow. It was part of their scheme, agreed upon in hushed whispers during the journey to London... she had a critical part to play, and it meant not upstaging Edward. At least, not yet.)
When the cargo doors opened, and a man in white military dress emerged -- flanked by two dozen armed guards, just in case this was a ruse -- he found himself facing Prince Edward, with no equal at his side. A singular man to address.
"Prince," he acknowledged, with a curt nod. "The captain of my guard felt your death was another of your practical jokes. It seems he was correct in that assessment."
"My apologies for the jest," Edward returned... tipping his bowler hat in respect, before tossing it aside. "My sense of humor is known to be suspect in nature, as you seem to have suspected. But I am here, now. And I speak for my people, as you speak for yours. It's time to end this unfortunate situation, so that we may both live in peace."
Proctor Wqp measured those words, before deciding how to respond.
"Some of your people appear to be armed, although I'd hardly call it armed in any useful sense. I'm going to assume you know we could wipe this entire group out with a single command," he spoke. "So, that means you are genuine in your request to discuss surrender. I'm thankful for that. It has honestly pained me to have to carry out orders to pacify your people. I disagree with Proctor Lar on many issues, this included... and your being here now means I will be able to avoid implementing his latest edict. Assuming, of course, this is in fact surrender...?"
"Oh yes, this is a surrender," Edward said...
...as his trademark wry smile slowly fixed itself in place.
"Your surrender, to be specific," he continued. "The terms of immediate cease fire are as such: You will no longer interfere in affairs of my state, and in return, we will not interfere in your affairs. In fact, we will extend aid, such as you may require it. It will not be the partnership your Proctor Lar claims he desired, but a true partnership. You do not join my Empire, we do not join your Ascendancy, but we raise each other aloft on the wings of alliance. That is your surrender."
A ripple went through the crowd assembled behind him -- the coin that had been aloft finally fell to earth, coming up heads. He wasn't here to lay down arms and give into the Ascendancy, he was here to take back the Empire for his people! ...although none knew quite how he planned to do that, and worry was rising, enough worry to perhaps even break through the odd mist that had settled over them on this morning...
Edward, unconcerned, glanced over his shoulder... to the lightening sky, behind him. Then a glance down, to his watch. Impeccable timing. That was the key to all punchlines, after all... even in serious affairs.
The Proctor, facing him, simply looked confused.
"I would be pleased to see peace between our peoples, but I am under strict orders to bring it about through the standardized path of the future," he stated. "A path that runs directly through the order of the Ascendancy. Why, exactly, should I lay down arms...?"
And now, he slipped his coat aside slightly... resting his hands on something at his hip.
"You, sir, have brought great harm to my people. You have oppressed their rights, trampled on their dreams, and stolen their very souls," Prince Edward stated. "That I am even considering overlooking these horrendous crimes should bring you to your knees, in thankfulness for my mercy. You have sinned not only against the people I serve, but against God. And for that, you will answer to me."
"I'm afraid I don't answer to an insolent child--"
"You will answer to the King of England!"
And the coat was thrown aside, to hold aloft Excalibur, the holy weapon of the Once and Future King.
And the wings of the Messenger of the Word, the earthborne angel, spread themselves wide directly behind him. With them came all the love and rage of the one above all -- focused directly on those who had wronged all that was right.
And at last, the sun rose behind them all, the breaking dawn spreading across the gathered peoples of England. Blinding and brilliant in the face of the Ascendancy's weakness, illuminating a thousand strong of all walks of life, standing behind their leader. The savior of their souls.
Proctor Wqp fell to his knees, the weight of it all bearing down on him, a pressing guilt the likes of which he had never felt before.
Without that exact combination of events, the plan wouldn't have worked. The declaration of the King, in his place of power and surrounded by his people, would not have been historical enough to bring about paradigm shift. The majesty of the holy weapon alone would not bring about a forced surrender. The will of an angel was not enough to make them realize their crimes. All of these together created a once-in-a-lifetime moment, one which would become a great boulder thrown in the sea of history, spreading ripples outward forever... instead of a handful of pebbles, slipping away unnoticed.
King Edward walked into the center of the Arcology alongside his people, with his enemies trembling before that singular vision. And when she'd determined he walked far enough, Chloe activated the Exorcism Bomb.
FRAGMENT 006 : NEW ORLEANS 12AM
Officer Kil marched with determined purpose through the halls of the Moonthistle Witching Academy.
The deadline had passed, and Proctor Lar issued the final pacification order. His grand scheme for bringing the Faerie Court in line, the Magical Registration and Control Act, was officially law... with or without Princess Susan's signature. It was time for the Ascendancy to assume full control of the Faerie Court, and evict the current regent in favor of would-be regents who would follow the path of the future.
It wasn't going to work, and Kil knew it. The Fae generally let life slip by without a care, content to play games of debt and favor with each other, but turning a weapon upon a core pillar of their culture -- magic, and the Faerie crown, no matter what shape it took -- would rouse them from complacency. It was going to be war, much like the riots of London, or the resistance in Atlanta.
And he wouldn't have it any other way. In fact, he was almost smiling, as two Summerlions stepped to block his path, as his team of a dozen strong marched towards the dormitories of the Witching Academy.
Past the sizeable enforcers... he could see children, wearing sleeping gowns and pajamas, watching nervously as the Ascendancy troops approached. To the back of the room, and blocked by a pair of teachers, was the royal princess.
"This manor is secured by the royal honor guard of the House of Thistles. Not by the likes of you," the lead Summerlion declared. "What brings you here, at this late hour? The children are trying to sleep, and your iron armor is loud enough to rouse the dead."
"You are ordered to stand down," Officer Kil declared -- calling up a projection of the MRCA. "By legal authority of your masters in the Ascendancy, we are to begin processing all magic users under the protocols of Total Social Conversion. Starting with the children. They are, after all, immature and dangerous magical weapons."
No doubt the Summerlions would fight. Let them; they'd learned enough from killing the one called Scout when he was a Summerlion exactly how much energy it took to overwhelm their arcane healing factor. Officer Kil and each of his men carried rifles fully capable of putting one of these Suborbital freaks down with a two-second burst.
But the Lions of Summer did not move to fight. Nor did they stand aside.
"Unfortunate," their captain declared.
"You are free to feel so. The path to the future is often difficult, but the reward is--"
"Unfortunate for you, I meant," the gruff soldier clarified. "For until now, they had been kind. They stayed their hand. But with this dawning hour, with the coming storm, and with your declaration of intent to murder... I'm afraid you've sounded the horn."
Oh how I LOATHE the poetic posturing of these fantasy throwbacks, Kil groaned inwardly.
But at least the Lions were withdrawing... back into the dormitory wing.
And moving to close the door behind them.
"We must retire, to protect the children. For the Winterhounds, when caught in the throes of the Wild Hunt, are not always discriminate in who falls before them," the captain warned. "May your journey to the next life be swift and painless. But I have a doubt about that."
The wooden doors closed, barring their way. Loud thumping noises indicated wooden crossbeams being dropped into place, to brace them. Which was completely absurd, since an energy rifle -- particularly one juiced up hard enough to punch through a Lion of Summer -- could slice through wooden doors without effort.
Officer Kil unslung his rifle, charging the energy coil with a full 0.31-grade Essence Capacitor. No kill like overkill.
"Let's get this over with," he declared. "Rit, Rlo, with me. Pol, get your thaumatology ready to convert the children. Weu, Lok... wait. Where's Lok?"
His squad of twelve was a squad of eleven. Terrific. Not a good night to break formation and wander off; he activated his communication unit, keying into Lok's frequency.
"Channel open. Lok, where exactly do you--"
A screech of feedback snapped the connection in half.
They found him four rooms back, in the dark and deserted hallways of the manor.
Most of him, anyway.
The ones who dispatched him helpfully left a message on the walls, painted in his blood, suggesting in a clear and concise manner that you are all going to die. The final trailing line of the e led down to Lok's head, its eyes still wide open in absolute terror.
Rit threw up in his helmet. Kil remained calm. Despite the anger overwhelming him.
"We have kinetic barriers and armor that can stop a round from an Eastusa tank," he declared. "I am not accepting that a bunch of fairy tales are capable of doing this to us. We'll move as a unit and we hunt room by room until we find the ones who did this--"
There is no need. You have already found us, the shadows whispered.
Taamusi's spear came down upon him with the cold certainty of a raging blizzard.
The screams echoed throughout the manor house.
Servants had been sent home earlier, told that they would not be needed for the night shift. All that remained were the students, and the Summerlions and teachers who stood to protect them. But despite having the nigh-unkillable soldiers of the Summer Court watching the door... every time the floor shook, or a blood-curdling yell reached their ears... even the teachers cringed in terror.
The Winterhounds did not simply kill their enemies. That would be too easy. After all the Ascendancy had done, the way they disrespected the Faerie Queen and sought to enslave all Fae kind... this Wild Hunt would be a cruel one, crueler than any that had come before. It was imperative that the prey understand it was the prey in this game, and always had been.
Something horrible was happening in the House of Thistles, in hallways that once held the laughter of children and mundane affairs of state. Horrible, but unavoidable, in the same way one could never evade the march of seasons into the darkness of winter. Now, for those whom the Winterhounds were indirectly protecting, their role in this was simply to survive while their enemies did not...
Princess Susie Moonthistle was with the students. After all, she was a student, a witch in training. Crown of Spring or not, she was just as human as the rest of them, and being near the Wild Hunt was a terrifying experience. Despite that... she forced herself to at least look calm, to reassure the other children. She had to be the strong one, since they looked to her to set the example whether she wanted to or not.
"It's going to be fine," she told them, for lack of anything more eloquent to say. "Fine. Totally fine--"
The double doors of the dormitory shook from a tremendous impact. Summerlions braced against the reinforced wood, which splintered from whatever had been hurled against it...
Blood seeped into the carpet from underneath the doors.
Mom, Dad, get here soon before I wet my pants, Susie prayed inwardly.
It was in the middle of that mess that a pair of agents, dispatched in secret by the Faerie Queen, were looting the family archive.
Jesse and Gilbert used the chaos as cover, to slip into the manor house. The fighting was mostly a floor or two up from ground level, meaning other than a sizeable hole in the ceiling of one of the hallways they snuck through, they were far from the battle.
"This way," Jesse whispered, leading on. And away from whatever nightmares were being unleashed above her head.
Emily had duplicated the techniques the British overseers had for protecting secrets... an underground vault, hidden behind one of the least used kitchens in the mansion. With the servants home for the day to keep them out of the crossfire and there being no strategic value to getting a midnight snack while a Winterhound kicks your teeth in, they had free run of it.
The refrigerator magically slid out of the way to reveal the secret passage, after Jesse adjusted the thermostat above the vegetable crisper. A keen combination of technology and magic... touching the surface of the dial scanned her DNA using Orbital technologies, matching it against a database of lineage. Anyone in the Moonthistle family would be able to access their personal archives... and thankfully, Emily had trusted Jesse enough to include the Gearhaus-Runeblade family in that database, as well.
Gilbert lit his flashlight, once they were down a spiral stair and into the vault itself. And was not particularly impressed.
"It's a bit shabby, isn't it?" he asked, looking at the room, no more than a dozen feet on either side, with little more than a bookshelf and a footlocker to hold the Moonthistle family secrets.
"The greatest treasures are rarely large enough to mandate anything grand to store them in," Jesse decided. She moved to the bookcase, to find what they were looking for. "Hmm. Crimson Tome of Ur-Felrial. I remember using this back in Africa... should I take it with us?"
"Emily's trusting us to escape with her daughter. Presumably we should take whatever we can with us, lest it fall into enemy hands as well," Gilbert suggested. "Don't think of it as looting, think of it as preemptive escrow... hello, what's this?"
He'd already been rooting through the footlocker, before the suggestion was made to search the room... and in his hands was a metal cube, of Orbital make.
Tapping the side of it, a tiny projection of Kas two point three appeared.
"Kas's memory palace," he recognized. "All her research on finding unpopulated earths, and creating renewable power sources. Far too valuable to leave behind, I suspect..."
Jesse held aloft... an ancient looking steamy romance novel, featuring a female protagonist falling out of her bodice while a fellow with distinctly elven features and no shirt embraced her from behind. IN THE GLADES OF PASSION, by Susan Moonthistle, the cover declared.
"Hardly the time for pulp literature, love," Gilbert commented.
She brushed the seam of the book -- which used the same lineage-sensing DNA scanner the entrance did, for added safety -- and the book snapped open, revealing a hollow core... hollow save for a copy of the Pandora spell.
Focusing her spell monocle, she copied the spell into its databanks. Gilbert produced the book of matches needed to burn the original. No sense leaving a copy behind, where someone could find it... and casting it from the paper would have burned up the only copy available, meaning no return trip, should one be needed.
"Time to go," Jesse announced. "We'll grab a broomstick on the way out the door, and join everyone for the final battle. Are you prepared, husband of mine? Mind you, we may be riding into the apocalypse..."
"It's a lovely evening for the end of the world," Gilbert decided, with a smile. "Beautiful full moon. Very romantic. Let's be off."
This time, instead of the pounding of a body against the door... knuckles rapped against it, in a series of three quick bursts. Tap tap tap, tap tap tap, tap tap tap.
Cautiously, the Summerlions removed the wooden braces from the door. What was left of the braces, anyway. And opened it, just a crack at first to verify... and then, wide.
There stood the Scout.
He'd taken the time to wipe the blood off his hands, but it was still difficult to look presentable after taking part in the Wild Hunt. The fact that he was even slightly presentable and not in the grip of a feral killing rage was an excellent sign.
The road was long and difficult, but he had regained his mastery over his Winterhound state... because without that, Scout couldn't protect his daughter.
Susie didn't care if he had been wading in blood moments earlier. This was her daddy, and after so long on her own, afraid and lost... Daddy was what she wanted. The child pushed past her teachers, running across the dormitory floor, and embracing him as he picked her up.
"Time to go," he whispered to her. "We need your help to stop the bad guys. Okay?"
"'kay," Susie whispered back, through her tears of relief.
Scout glanced to the Summerlions... offering a curt nod of respect. Which, from the Queen's consort, the man who died and lived and died again and triumphed over the enemies of the Faerie Court, was something for them to take incredible pride in.
"Watch over the children," Scout ordered. "More soldiers may come. But not for long. We will return, if we are able. If not, your primary duty is to the Faerie Court, not the House of Thistles. These are the orders of your Queen."
Susie glanced up, confused. "Daddy, what--"
Quickly, Scout pressed her head down, to his chest.
"Don't look," he breathed, into her ear. "You'll get nightmares. But we need to go out there, in order to leave the mansion. Don't look until I tell you that you can. Promise?"
Susie mumbled an agreement, and closed her eyes tight, as her father leapt into the darkness of the hallway. Past the aftermath of the hunt, and after tense moments in which all she could hear was the beating of her heart... out into the warm night air.
Storm clouds rolled in over the crater where once stood Arcology #A076. They came to sound the death knell of the Ascendancy. They came because weather mages sent them, to bring the fury of the seasons upon the enemies of the Faerie Court. There was no finer accompaniment to war than a raging storm, after all.
This was the hell into which they flew. Scout and Emily with their daughter, on the back of a large wyvern piloted by the captain of the Summerlion guard. Una, carrying Nel and flying with a jetpack. Gilbert and Jesse, by broomstick -- and Jeeves, fitted with rocket boosters, to carry Camille. (After all, if they had to flee to another world, they needed their daughter nearby... even if that meant bringing her into the thick of battle.)
Nobody noticed their approach. For starters, Nel was focusing on a very wide area illusion, to make them appear to be a flock of birds. Also, the Ascendancy had other problems.
The sleeping dragon of the Faerie Court was now provoked into fiery retribution. All they needed was the sight of their Queen, appearing on the fringe of New Orleans from a coffee shop that opened for business earlier that day (and vanished shortly after) to follow her into the very gates of damnation.
The Summerlions had been patiently waiting to move into action, Wyvern units on standby to counter the inevitable flying Ascendancy troops. Winterhounds had joined the fight, having achieved complete domination over the royal palace, now eager to spill the Hunt out into the open and take the fight right to the enemy.
By now, Arcologies all over the world had been falling offline. While the cause of this was unknown, clearly the kid gloves had come off on all sides... and the skies over New Orleans were filled with energy blasts, arrows, fireball spells, lightning from the storm clouds, and great winged beasts. If the enemy thought it could achieve air superiority, the Fae were keen to prove them wrong.
Despite all the chaos, the group of family and friends tried to avoid the battle. They flew through gaps in the fight, finding ways around the mess which were unlikely to get them caught in the crossfire. Nobody could see them, but that didn't mean they were invulnerable to energy cannon fire from the Arcology, or even a stray arrow from one of their own wyvern-mounted archers. The group flew in a tight formation, following the lead Wyvern...
Headed for the very top of the Arcology. The smooth silver roof of the city, dead center.
Just below that roof, Proctor Lar was trying to ignore the inevitable.
Reports flooded in from every operations center in his city. Other Arcologies vanishing one by one into the night, communications severed, with no uplink capability left. Fae witches and warriors pouring out of the city and the surrounding area, taking up arms in response to the reported return of Queen Emily...
Everything falling apart.
It was nonsense. He commanded technology far and above anything these primitives could match -- he even commanded the forces of magic! He had crushed Kas's efforts, the only hope this world would've had of matching Orbital science. This world wouldn't win, in the end. Even if the Faerie Queen embraced her crowns and punched her way through, they were ready with void traps, just like last time. There was no way the Ascendancy could lose...
The Ascendancy wasn't losing. The reports at least made that clear. But they weren't winning, either.
Normally, the Proctor would be in the ops center, taking direct command. But Lar remained in his spacious office, alone, and surrounded by scoured metal surfaces incapable of reflection. He commanded remotely, opening links to various divisions, issuing orders, watching the results on his scanners. A war which raged just over his head, but so far away...
"Planet cutters," he said aloud, to no one in particular. "Should've brought the planet cutters with me. Just mined this world, straight away. Kill them all and take what was ours. No public relations campaign, no trying to win the hearts and minds. Kill them for how they humiliated me..."
"Lar... I like the cut of your jib."
That little bastard had returned.
He was flickering hard, now. A film reel, stuttering and skipping, threading through a projector on its last legs. But The Mister was clear enough, smiling at Lar, from across his desk.
"Can you feel it in the air? I can," The Mister spoke. "Death is coming. Death is already here. It's so delicious, this violence. You know how many times I tried to murder the world?"
Lar ignored the pale shade, focusing on his battle reports.
"To tell a secret? The lower circles didn't like my... enthusiasm," The Mister stated. "My eagerness to wipe the mortals out completely. It'd ruin the game, see. They wanted to torment His creations, because He chose them over us. If I killed them all, well, no more fun, right--?"
"Shut up," Lar ordered. "I have no interest in ancient religious nonsense. If you're not here to help, then get out."
"But I am, Lar. I am here to help," The Mister insisted. "You know that. All you have to do is make a pact with me. I can make your dreams come true..."
The image flickered more, stuttering and skipping past frames.
"I can wait," The Mister decided. "I can wait for the right moment. I've waited this long."
And the devil was gone. Not really, of course... but Lar didn't care. He was going to win this day. He was going to triumph over this world, or see it burn. Either way, he would win.
Some distance above Lar's head, the friends who had banded together to stop him the first time were banding together to stop him one final time.
With them were new friends -- the Runeblade-Gearhaus family, of course -- but also another pairing, who thankfully were still in New Orleans, working on growing food for the #A076 refugee camp. They joined the rooftop bastion, after swooping down from the chaos above on the back of a young wyvern.
Shaman Tillman of the Summer Court and Shaman Yew of Arcology #A076. Good friends of the late engineering genius, Kas, who was murdered by the very man they now sought to dethrone.
They only had moments before the giant, flashy, noisy, highly distracting battle in the sky wasn't distracting enough and the Ascendancy realized how many high-priority targets were tap-dancing on their roof. True, the Ascendancy couldn't aim any of the Arcology's big guns at them from this angle... but there were plenty of very dangerous men with very dangerous weapons who could swoop down on them from above.
Emily gathered the group and explained the plan as fast as she could. It was audacious, of course. But it would work. Presumably.
"Tillman, Yew, Susie, and myself will be focusing on the shamanic spellcasting," she instructed. "Nel will cloak us as best she can, but once all hell breaks loose down there they'll try to deep-scan right through her illusions. Scout, Una, Gilbert, Jesse, and Jeeves will be defending us once the Ascendancy catches on. Susie and I won't tap our crowns too hard -- that's why we have Tillman and Yew, to share the load. We need to be very, very controlled here because if it goes OUT of control, well, we're standing right above the target. Everybody ready?"
"Are you sure this won't harm the captive souls?" Tillman asked. "They are buried deep in that soil, and if we disturb them..."
"We did a small scale test back at H.Q. on some captured Ascendancy kit. It'll be safe," Emily said.
I hope, she didn't add.
With their roles clear, weapons were drawn, magical energies were focused... and throwing his hands high, Tillman began to channel the lightning from the storms high above.
Rain started to beat down on them, as the storm raged with the kind of trademark fury that only the Faerie Court could arouse in nature.
His city was shaking. Which was nothing new; there was a battle going on just beyond his walls, one in which those blasted pagan mages were trying to turn the very Earth against him.
Let them try, Lar thought. His city was made of stronger stuff than that. He'd studied magic, himself... he understood its capacities and its limitations, and his stronghold would hold against whatever thaumatological explosions they hurled against it. This was one egg the Faerie Court could never crack.
In time, his soldiers would crush the resistance. And then... Lar could get to work. After all, this overnight rebellion was a clear signal that the Fae could not be trusted to be civil, and had no place in the future. They would be suppressed quite heavily... crushed completely, to serve as an example to others, to make them bend knee properly. The wildcard of magical power would be out of play.
His city was still shaking.
Except... it was vibrating quite oddly. Didn't feel like impacts on the hull, more like something from within.
From the floor.
Which exploded upwards, knocking Lar from his seat.
Not all of the floor was torn to shreds, of course. Just the power conduits that ringed his circular office, which automatically shuttled and slotted fresh Essence Capacitors as old ones were drained. Those burst upwards, in a rush of green and brown...
They were growing trees from his Essence Capacitors! Each one, after all, held a supercompressed amount of earthy matter... fertile and ready for massive growth. Even with the limited amount needed for Lar's creations, Essence Capacitors, he couldn't completely escape the need for stripmining. That stolen Aleph, the force of life itself, was turning the edges of his office into an impenetrable pine forest...
Growing upwards at an alarming rate. Right towards the ceiling.
Wooden trees should have splintered and shattered against Orbital metal alloys. But any trees which could spring forth with decades of growth in seconds, with trunks like iron, couldn't be trusted to obey anything silly like physical laws...
Fortunately, Lar wasn't one to cower under his desk. He knew Faerie magic, having studied it for years, determined to put his superior Orbital mind to understanding its arcane mysteries. If a bunch of genetic deviants with pointy ears could do it, so could one of the greatest minds of the forever people.
He stood in the center of the office, arms wide, and began to cast a counterspell. A little something he'd used to disable Una's hypertechnology, once upon a time. A dark curse from a Tome of Ur-Felrial.
"," he called out -- and immediately, a cluster of trees stopped growing, its branches turning brittle and weary. He turned in a circle, repeating the spell, cursing that which lived with the power of bleak doom. ". . ..."
Soaked to the skin, being used as human lightning rods in a shamanic ritual, and now... clearly visible to all around them.
The reverberations of the curse shunted through the willpower of the spellcasters, drawn to them from Lar's bitter lips. Enough to shatter their concentration. Enough to break Nel's illusion spell, as she lost her footing, fell to her knees...
The Ascendancy must have had active scans up for anything vaguely resembling Emily Moonthistle and company. Because en masse, the flying soldiers broke away from their airborne wyvern duels, to attack.
Jesse was the only one smiling.
"FINALLY," she declared, flexing her fingers. "I have long sought to directly confront these brigands. They are one thousand years too early to defeat me! !!"
A wave of hatred in the form of purging flame leapt from her hands, a channeled beam that sliced across one phalanx of soldiers. They had thermal shields, but it was enough to disorient them, sending one spinning off into the distance, another slamming right into the side of the Arcology...
Now, the air filled with battle. Energy beams from Una's self-defense blaster, rounds from a steam-powered cannon Gilbert had invented just for the occasion, clusters of rockets from Jeeves's shoulders. The chaos factor jacked up several notches, as Emily held fast to Susie's hand, trying to refocus her will.
"Tap your crown!" she ordered. "As little as you can, but we have to do it. We have to push past whatever Lar's doing to stop us! Tillman, Yew, link our efforts! Let's do this as quickly as we can!"
Susie looked over, alarmed. "But you said never to--"
"I know, I know! But right now, all we've got is all we've got, and we need to use it! Hurry!"
Tapping into her inherited Faerie crown. Exactly was what Susie was hoping to avoid.
Truthfully, no matter how impressive Susie's gardening was, she'd never really reached too deeply into the Crown of Flowers. She never had to, since she was never pushed into a situation which called for it. She was the schoolgirl, the artist, the child, the one who was never in the thick of her mother's troubles. By her mother's design, even.
Emily often talked of how dangerous the crowns were, how she feared losing herself in them. The cold murder of Winter, the burning rage of Summer. On very rare occasions, including the one that got her sent into exile while chasing down an Ascendancy lie, she did access that power... and the results were at best concerning, at worst, well...
But, no choice now. If Susie was to end up becoming Spring, that was just how it was. She had a responsibility.
Time slowed, momentarily, as she closed her eyes... and opened herself up to the warmth of Spring's renewing light.
She was expecting the dread her mother always felt, the sense of slipping away, letting the strangeness of the Faerie Crowns overtake her humanity.
But... as flowers unfurled in her mind, there was no fear. No slipping away. It was a welcoming feeling, like Dorothy in her black and white house in that incredibly old movie, opening a door and seeing a world awash in color...
Of course. It made sense now, enough that she had to resist the urge to giggle. She wasn't standing at the extremes her mother was, in the heat of summer and the cold of winter. She was Spring. The comfortable midpoint, at which she could be both Fae and human, without fear of losing herself to those passions. All she felt was the comfort of the growing world around her...
But the trees were struggling. Susie could feel that clearly, now. The souls that twined around their roots, trying to help as best they could, were screaming. A dark curse had been put on them by a man who was dying, always dying inside, dead once before and reborn to die again. The ashes of his soul were poisoning the trees, which only yearned to reach skyward, past the cold metal that trapped them...
So, Susie gently pushed him aside, and then offered a helping hand to her beloved trees.
That would be enough, she felt. And so, she let go of the crown, before she even realized she was supposed to worry about what would happen if she let go of the crown. And then, she was just Susie Moonthistle, and all was well.
Except for the roof caving in.
His curse snapped in half, as effortlessly as a child stepping on a dry twig. And Lar screamed aloud, the pain of his focused hate snapping back against himself sending his brain into a brief feedback loop of dark magical power...
When the blurriness faded from his eyes... he was standing in the middle of a legendary forest. And his ceiling was coming down around him.
NOW Lar cowered beneath his desk. Which was the most logical thing to do, when you were about to be buried in scrap metal.
The trees had punctured Ascendancy armor, which was completely impossible except for the fact that it actually happened. And the ring of them had neatly cracked that shell, causing a circular section of the roof to crumble away to bits and pieces. Hypertechology couldn't stand up to that amount of focused natural might.
As large chunks fell into his office, so did the rain, from storm clouds high above. It poured down like the bottom of a waterfall, starting to puddle up on his lovely solid steel floor. And with the rain came his enemies.
They floated down, on broomsticks, on jetpacks, on small wyverns bred for speed and maneuverability. In pairs and in groups, faces he recognized and long cursed were showing up just to watch his humiliation. The obnoxious witch who kicked him in the crotch and then became a goddess. The undying soldier he'd already killed once, refusing to stay down. The 91% whose entire family he'd slaughtered, and the Suborbital deviant she'd embraced....
Refusing to cower any longer, as the last of his ruined ceiling settled around him... Lar rose from behind his desk. Straightened out his uniform. Tried to ignore the rainfall filling his office, tried to look dignified.
"I don't know what you think you've achieved here," he declared. "My army will be here in seconds. Even if you murder me, you aren't leaving here alive. The glorious future for my people will march on, regardless of what--"
"No speeches this time," Emily declared.
And set off the Exorcism Bomb in her hand.
Six flashpoints, wrapped in the steamy haze of escaping souls.
Each Arcology flooded with the momentary joy of freedom, as wounded spirits found the strength to heal themselves, and fly free. Each soul a glowing point, too bright to look at directly, a thing which had no business existing in a physical sense.
Some arced skyward, until they became purely metaphysical, destined for their final rest. Others slipped away, seeking familiar forms... and the people living in the grey limbo of the soulless found themselves in tears, for no explainable reason. Tears of relief.
In Cairo, Yus and his compatriots found themselves shocked to see every holodisplay and every light go dead simultaneously. Energy blasters were useless. And yet, despite being surrounded by enemies whom they had been routinely slaughtering ever since they arrived on this world... Penny Dreadful watched over their rights as prisoners of war, ordering the Dreadnacht Brigade to ship them north, out of the punishing heat of the desert.
Over the grave of Atlantis, NanoSeattle's replicated gravity pumps strained to support the weight of two cities... but they held. The invaders were surprisingly cordial to the city they had just merged with, offering support and supplies as they began to tow it back to shore.
When the Arcology in São Paulo died, Los Muertos could have swamped it through the gaping hole left by a 1984 Buick LeSabre. Instead, they stood watch, to make sure none of the prisoners within escaped. William Petersen stayed locked safely in his car and made out with his "just friends" coworker, while the cassette player in his radio got to the good bit of his Dire Straits album.
The guards who surrounded the fallen form of Astro Gal found their blasters no longer worked. So, for lack of a better option, they started kicking her while she was down -- until the students forced them to stop. The Ascendancy lost a few bright-eyed idealistic patriots that day, when the children saw their heroes laying boots to a young girl just like them. They stood watch over the heroine, and waited.
Whatever confluence of powerful historical moments allowed Edward to peacefully walk his Exorcism Bomb right into the center of an Arcology faded soon after it began. With the damage already done, Wqp had little choice but to take the young King's terms of surrender seriously. The alternative was to have the already enraged mob lynch them; with King Edward in his corner, he would be protected as an ally of the Crown. After that, they could discuss how to find true peace between their peoples... a prospect that Wqp find some measure of Optimism in.
And in New Orleans, as Ascendancy troops fell from the skies and the storm clouds cleared... the end of the First Age truly began.
One of Lar's champions fell to Earth, right in front of him.
The telltale lights of his powered armor were dark. He likely suffered a few broken ribs on impact, splashing down in an inch deep of rainwater... Ascendancy armor was based more on hypertechnology than on physical protection, after all.
The Arcology was dead. Every soul fled into the night, before his very eyes... even if his army could somehow break through the thick woods that surrounded his spacious office chamber, the best they could do was try to punch someone. In a single move, Emily Moonthistle and company had completely ruined everything.
There was no way to stand with dignity, in the face of that. No speeches about how the Ascendancy would carry on. It didn't take a genius to realize if they could cripple this Arcology, no doubt they had done the same to all the others. They'd stopped the ancient Orbital conspiracy cold, with the press of a single button. All thanks to Lar's insistence that they accelerate the invasion timetables, by switching to magically-powered Essence Capacitors...
No speeches this time, Emily had said. And truthfully, Lar had nothing left to say. He stood in mute shock, as his enemies claimed total victory in less time than it took to snap your fingers.
But his nemesis had a few things to say. Not to him, but to her companions... ignoring Lar, as if he no longer mattered. As he simply didn't.
"Right. We're going to need to evacuate the city," Emily explained. "Expand the #A076 refugee camp to include Ascendancy refugees. Set up holding areas for the ones that resist. This is going to be a hell of a mess to sort though, but we'll manage."
"A hell of a mess, indeed," The Mister agreed.
A familiar voice, to Lar. He barely reacted at all. For the rest of them... a live grenade might as well have been tossed into the room.
Fighting stances. Weapons drawn. Everybody ready to pulverize the most dangerous enemy in the room... who again, was no longer Lar. It was the flickering ghost of a demon, sitting on his desk -- although not really here, as he existed in a metal canister, somewhere far away...
"It's time," The Mister stated. He was the only one looking at Lar, the only one taking him seriously. "Just... look up. Have a good, hard look."
Lar tilted his head back, curious...
The roof was gone. Above, storm clouds were parting, having served their purpose as battle cover and power for shamanic rituals. Now... all he saw was the moon.
A bright, full moon. Somewhere up there was a Lunar Arcology, designed by Kas, previously providing this Earth the power to resist the future.
He tried to murder Kas's potential, to destroy her gifts. It didn't work. Somehow, even without hypertechnology to rival the Ascendancy, this Earth resisted him. And Kas got the ball rolling, didn't she...?
"Do it," Lar said, before anybody could put a stop to what was to come.
The price was yet to be paid -- but destiny was his, now. Lar could feel it in his bones... that same rush of madness and power he felt when he cast the darkest of magics. The Mister had made the pact he said Lar would inevitably make.
And with it, Lar pointed skywards, at the distant moon.
"Die," he spoke.
Following the speed of light, 1.28223039 seconds later, they saw the moon explode.
It shattered slowly, huge pieces breaking away, smaller ones rocketing at high speed. Massive cracks forming along the lunar surface. Where once there was a single distant circle of white light... now fragments, moving outward, expanding... and likely, many, MANY of them headed towards Earth.
The Mister boiled away to nothing, his film reel cooking away from the sheer effort of pouring every last bit of his demonic malice into Lar. And yet, even in his death throes... The Mister smiled in faintly flickering satisfaction, within the burning metal reel of film that was his new chalice. He'd finally, finally murdered the world. And then, he was gone.
At last... Lar turned, to look at his enemies. To look at the shock and horror on their faces.
They hadn't even had time to blink; in the span of two whispers, he'd made the demonic deal to turn this war around. He'd snatched victory from defeat, and they could do nothing to stop him. Lar had won. This hated Earth was going to be destroyed in cosmic armageddon.
He didn't even have to pay the demon's price for his triumph.
Lar threw back his head, to laugh, and laugh, and laugh as he watched the moon pull itself apart. True, he was going to die, but everyone was going to die. They would share his fate, smashed to bits, or maybe swept into the sea as the tides went crazy. He had time to relish in the sheer joy and madness of this wonderful evening.
His enemies were agape. In mere seconds, he'd turned their victory into his own. That was worth lauding, despite Emily's earlier declaration that there would be no speeches.
"Would you like to kick me again?" he suggested. "By all means, do so, if it makes you happy. It won't change a thing. I've finally destroyed this backwards and dangerous Earth. Just as I should have done in the first place."
Una, the daughter of the family which had given him so much trouble, had no words. She just... stared at the sky, watching the moon fall apart, watching her Optimism crumble. As it should be, Lar thought, who had grown so tired of Optimism in general and her flavor in particular.
The only one who wasn't too shocked to act was the annoying little pagan. Emily Moonthistle took one of the brooms they had flown with tonight, switched her grip on the handle, and swung it nice and hard.
She didn't go for the crotch, this time. Instead, she broke his jaw.
"No speeches this time," she repeated. "Right. Okay. ...moon going boom. We deal with this problem, then we'll deal with bringing justice to the one who did this--"
There is no need to further bloody your hands, my queen.
The voice came from above. From the falling chunks of moon rock, arcing their way towards the Earth... including one large chunk that contained the ruins of the Lunar Arcology #01. Which contained the damaged spirit of a widow wronged, who had been unable to reach the one who wronged her...
It poured ice right down Lar's spine. He'd heard echoes of it, in the annoying chirping tones of that 91% brat, but this... this was familiar and alien...
You are mine now, Lar.
And now, the voice echoed from beneath their feet.
Slowly... Lar looked down.
At the water, that had been pooling in his office. The reflective water, showing the moonlight high above. He'd worked so hard to remove all mirrored surfaces from this room, to keep those burning eyes of hate away, to stave off the thing that had been clawing and trying to reach him from afar...
Anu, widowed consort of Esrever of the Winter Court, had been stranded on the Lunar Arcology. They couldn't find a way to remove her from the mirrors. So, Lar had helpfully brought those mirrors closer to Earth by blowing up the lunar satellite they were on.
Now, with just enough reach... the horribly twisted reflection of the wounded woman reached out, and pulled Lar through the shimmering surface of the water.
Because in the end, everybody pays the devil's due.
His fading screams echoed through his office, and then were gone.
Leaving Emily and company with a very, very large problem that he'd left behind.
This Earth was now officially doomed.
Chaos was running wild in the streets of New Orleans.
You didn't miss a sight like the moon exploding. You also didn't take it for granted; all of them, human, Fae, and Orbital alike were in a panic. Nobody had bothered taking the depowered Ascendancy troops captive, as there were larger issues at stake, of the "we are all going to die" variety. In fact, those who had been defeated moments ago were now in the same basket as the victors, with the same amount of sheer horror at it all.
No time to find a proper conference room to have a chat about it. They stood in the ruined Proctor's chamber of Arcology Plato, away from the growing panic of the world, and tried to figure out what the hell the next step was going to be. But before that, they needed information.
Jeeves had a telephone in his chest cavity, wired up by MagWiFi to the ElfStar network. Just the thing for calling up NASA and getting an estimate on how bad the situation really was. Gilbert, being the science-minded one of the group, placed the call.
His expression was unreadable when he hung up the phone. Which was bad, as typically nothing really broke Gilbert Gearhaus's good humor.
"Most of the moon's mass will likely collapse in on itself due to gravity," he explained. "The rest is hurtling away into space due to angular momentum. And at least twelve chunks ranging from one kilometer to ten kilometers in size are going to impact the Earth in the next twenty minutes, killing billions immediately and slowly strangling the rest to death in nuclear winter. I'm afraid Lar's little demonic wish bent the laws of physics in his favor. This planet hasn't much longer to live. And it took five of those final minutes just to come to that conclusion."
There was no room for panic, within the group. If anything, the shock of it all worked in their favor; emotional collapse was staved off by the sheer insanity of how quickly they had gone from absolute victory to final defeat. But that also meant a certain amount of paralysis, in the face of the inevitable.
Gilbert decided to be the first to break the silence, as he was the one to deliver the bad news.
"Does anybody have any suggestions as to what we do next?" he asked. "There are no bad ideas in brainstorming, keep in mind. Although there is something of a time factor, here..."
"Can we fix the moon?" Emily asked, as her mind raced through possibilities.
"Can't think of a way to do it in the next fifteen minutes," Gilbert said. "Best I can suggest is to use your bottomless magical power, although I'm under the impression you want to avoid that, what with the fire-and-ice-and-doom prophecy."
"I wouldn't even know where to begin, even if I tried that. There's no Faerie spell for fixing the moon. Could Eastusa nuke the things out of orbit?"
Scout gave a shrug. "They're probably already trying that," he said. "Frontliners have protocols for all sorts of implausible scenarios. But not many working missiles left; you're thinking old action movies. The nuke-driven cold war was more than two centuries ago."
"Orbital technology to shield the Earth from the kinetic impacts," Emily suggested, next.
As the only Orbital in the room, Una... offered a shake of the head.
So, Gilbert offered up the bad idea he had in mind, for lack of anything better coming along.
"Abandon ship?" he suggested. "We've got the Pandora spell. We can jump to another world. True, everybody dies, but... we don't die. It's cowardly and horrible to even suggest, but if we have the means--"
"We've got fifteen minutes to come up with a better idea before we consider abandoning everybody to die horrifically, thank you," Emily said, to cut that off. "I'm not hopping in a rowboat and fleeing the sinking ship. Now, if you had a rowboat large enough for EVERYBODY on the Titanic, then..."
The good idea hit everybody simultaneously.
"Pandora," Scout agreed.
"My people did it all the time, layering one population onto another," Una added. "They were trying to stage apocalypses by ramming two societies into each other, yes, but... if we have magical means to create the Pandora Event, we can save the people of this world!"
"The Faerie Queens tried to do it, fifteen years ago," Jesse contributed. "It wouldn't even take both crowns; Summer had enough power to evacuate her people alone. Although both of them needed to work together to control the resulting disaster to keep it from tearing the world apart..."
"We're going to save everyone?" Susie asked, the ray of hope cracking the horror of what was happening. "Mom, can we really do it?"
...but as much as Emily didn't want to toss a wet blanket on this, she had to.
"Jesse, you said it's not clear how to target the spell," she said. "We don't know what world we'll end up on, and from what I read in Kas's notes, you can't target a world without the aleph radiation of sentient life. We'd be dumping our world in another world's lap and starting up ANOTHER 200 years of war and chaos and darkness..."
"It would be preferable to dying, yes?" Jesse offered.
"That's assuming it doesn't just dump us in the void, like Lady Summer nearly did fifteen years ago. ...we need an empty Earth. A safe place to land."
"Which we cannot find, as you said yourself. Orbital technology isn't capable of that. Kas had been working on the problem for quite some time, in fact--"
"And I have her research notes," Gilbert stated...
...withdrawing Kas's memory palace from his knapsack, where they'd stashed all the Moonthistle family treasures.
In the light of the dying moon and the dark of the impromptu forest, the silver and blue of its light glimmered. Its reflection rippled in the water, illuminating the chamber ever so slightly.
Carefully... Emily reached out, to take the cube.
"She never finished her work, and I don't have long enough to become an expert on dimensional shift theory," she pointed out. "We need Kas, right here, right now. Una... do you remember when you had to keep #A076 from crashing to Earth, but you didn't know how to control the engines?"
"Ah... yes! Yes, you used a spell to... wait, but would that really...?"
It was one of her oldest standby spells, back from the days of broomsticks and spellbooks. A novelty spell, really -- good for making brooms carry buckets of water, or to menace people with flying chainsaws. But in the right context, with the right focus of Will... it could do so much more. It would have to do so much more, today...
One breath in, one breath out... and the absolute Will of the Faerie Crowns and the witch who wore them, focused on a single Word.
The Memory Palace of Kas two point three briefly became sentient.
Young Emily Moonthistle. Barely out of puberty. Sitting in Lilith's Witching Academy.
An instructor stood at the chalkboard, which had already been covered in mathematical equations far beyond Emily's understanding. Which didn't make sense. Today, they were going to learn about Animate spells... math wasn't something a witch needed to know, Archmagus Lilith had insisted. What was going on...?
The Instructor finished her handiwork, setting the chalk down... and turning to face the only student in the room.
"You are here because this is a place of magic, and I am a woman of science," Kas two point three's echo explained. "It's this mixture of the unknowable and the known that you need to understand. Magic is an impossible thing; a means by which one can, through willpower alone, change the unchangeable laws of physics into something that better suits your needs."
Instructor Kas stepped around the old oaken desk, fetching a book from a pile set at the corner. She leafed through it, idly.
"For instance, in ancient times, the twin holders of the Faerie Crowns used their power to twist the primitive peoples of their tribes into what you know as the Faerie Court," she explained. "A permanent enchantment, to burn the power of magic into their DNA. That is the knowable science behind the unknowable magic, but even that has elements which will forever remain mysterious... yes? Emily?"
(Like a good little student, Emily had raised her hand before speaking.)
"What's going on, Miss Kas?" little Emily asked.
"I'm explaining magical theory to you, because you need to suspend your disbelief long enough for me to show you these insights," Kas said. "You've come to this distant echo of me, given it a brief window of life. We need to do what needs to be done within the span of that half-life. The now is critical. You need to know what cannot be known, what can only be a truth onto itself. Let me give you a minor example. Why did Proctor Lar want me dead?"
"'cause he hated your guts, Miss Kas," Emily said, with a giggle.
"A factual statement, but unrelated," Kas said, waggling a finger. "Try again."
"Oh. Umm... I... don't know, he--"
"What was the key to my early breakthroughs?"
"You mixed magic and technology," Emily recited, from her earlier lessons. (Where had she learned that?) "Shamanic magic to transform sunlight into aleph radiation, and repurpose it scientifically."
"Correct. Magic, as I've said, reshapes the laws of physics into something that better suits your needs. In fact, Lar used magic and technology to 'save' his people. He did it by sacrificing the souls of others, but the hybridization theory was the same one I followed. For example... I was hoping to use magic and technology to find alternative, pangeal earths to mine. Just as you want to do right now, to save this one. He killed me before I could even try."
Emily sat upright at her desk.
"I need to move everybody to a safe world," she realized. "A pangea! Yes! Okay! I know Orbitals can't find pangeas on their own. How do I do it?"
"You already know how," Kas stated.
"No, I don't! That's why I'm asking you!"
"You know how to do it, and I know you know this. That's because my memory palace has been transformed into something else entirely," Kas explained... turning her book around, to show Emily.
Within its pages danced numbers and words. Math and diary entries. Everything that was Kas... and mixed in, the thoughts and memories of Emily. They moved and swirled around each other, magical ink laid down by the oldest of technologies, the printing press....
"This is a book that reads you, as you read it. That's what you wanted; a living ghost, to help you understand. Since I can read you, I can see that you already have the answer. But I can't give you that answer, because the process of understanding the answer is the answer itself."
"Miss Kas, please! I don't have time for riddles!" Emily insisted. "I came to you because I need some insight into what the hell is going..."
A single word flared in magical ink, within the pages of the book. Even mixed in with all the other flowing text, it stood out, despite being something so often overlooked.
Three eyes looking to different horizons, but only one can see the promised land.
"How many lidless eyes are there, Emily?" Kas asked. "How many blood gifts passed down from the Faerie Crowns? To see through time and space, to find the seeker's answers?"
"Umm... there's Hindsight and Foresight, of course. That's Summer and Winter. But... no, wait. You can't mean that..."
"Once upon a time, a clever elf told you that Insight was a blood gift," Kas said. "You have the only lidless eye the Faerie Queens never had. You are the only person in history who has and will ever have access to all three. Hindsight, Foresight, AND Insight. You already knew this. Tell me what Insight is."
"Uh, Insight," Emily recited, trying to recall her magical lessons. "Little is known about this extremely rare and mysterious gift, and it pales in comparison to the ability to flawlessly see the past, or predict the future. It is a glimpse into the now, the middle of the three time windows. It shows what is, truthfully and correctly."
"What can you do with Insight, Emily?"
"I... I don't really know. I've never totally understood it. Just sometimes, sometimes when I really need it, I get some glimpse, or an inspiration..."
"And do you really need it right now? You've said you need answers. So, find them yourself. Know the unknowable. See what is... no matter where it is."
"I don't have to look for the answers in my own world," Emily realized. "Insight isn't the here and now, not really. It's the now. I can see other Earths."
A fertile valley.
A river, a rock.
Queen Emily Moonthistle set foot in the fertile valley, before the rock and the river. The midnight moon, high above, shining down. The land, welcoming to her -- after all, she was the first person to ever visit it.
All these worlds existed, layered right on top of each other, no farther away than the thickness of a shadow. The Orbitals tore holes between them, shifting through that shadow, at great effort. Magic saw that the barrier between them wasn't even that difficult to pierce, if you could see it clearly...
Orbitals had limited insight into the multiverse, unable to see worlds that weren't teeming with the spirit of sentient life itself, the gift of the breath of the Word, what they called aleph radiation. Magic could see everything, everywhere, as long as it focused on the shared now of all things.
Emily knew exactly where to send everyone, to save them from the collapse of the only world they knew.
But... sadly, she also knew how it had to be done.
Standing in the ruins of Proctor Lar's chambers. Holding the Memory Palace... now lifeless, a simple construct of Orbital hypertechnology.
"...and... nothing happened?" Gilbert asked. "I didn't see anything happen, at least. Emily? What was that spell supposed--"
"I've found a pangeal world," Emily announced -- and passed the cube back to Gilbert. "Store that away safely. You're going to need it in the future. Jesse, the key is Insight. You're going to need to find Fae who have Insight -- I know it's rare, but Kanthi Kennedy has it at least, you can start there -- and then you can use it find other pangeal Earths, and get the Orbitals powered up to full."
"I... don't follow," Jesse admitted. "You want me to go and do that now--?"
"I mean in the future. I need to explain these things because we don't have much time," Emily said. "All of you, listen, and remember this for the rest of your lives. Things are about to get very strange for everyone. Humans, Fae, Orbitals, Ascendancy, everyone. They're going to need guidance, to rebuild the alliances, to work together. I'm counting on all of you to make it happen. THIS is going to be the true start of the Second Age. We were off by a few years."
"Yes, yes, very motivating," Jesse stated. "Now can you or can you not Pandora everyone off this rock before we die?"
"I can, but I can't do it alone," Emily said.
And this was going to be the worst thing she ever had to say.
"The Faerie Queens had to work in tandem to control the wild Pandora Event, before," she said. "And... I need someone to help me with this one. I can use the Crown of Fire, I can cast Pandora, I can shift everyone to an empty world. But I need an anchor, to bolster my willpower. Someone holding the Crown of Ice. Because the ten prophecies weren't leading up to a doom I could avoid. They were insights to tell me how I could save the world... even if Scout and I had to stay behind to do it."
Everybody knew the prophecy, the one she had seen so many years ago. Even before the series of ten, which had come to her at the death of #A076.
This world ends in fire and ice. The crowns divided. Nothing left alive in the world, but myself and Scout.
But nobody, not even Emily, understood that this wasn't because of the madness of the seasons, or any sort of Faerie-induced apocalypse. It wasn't the problem they had to solve. Instead, it was the solution to the problem they were going to have.
She could take some comfort in knowing that, without a spoken word, Scout was ready. He stood at her side, taking her hand, and holding tight.
Her husband had never been a very talkative fellow, keeping everything inside. But he made himself known to her, and she knew how to read him. She knew he was ready for this. On some level, he was always ready for this. A soldier doing whatever it took to save their daughter, to save their world...
"You cannot be serious," Jesse said, knowing damn well how serious Emily was.
"He's the only viable candidate for the Crown of Ice. He's a Winterhound; your magic is far too Summer-centric, Jesse. He's my soulmate. He's my invisible means of support. And he has to stay with me, to help me focus my will, as we lifeboat everybody out of here and close the door behind you. That's... that's just how it has to be."
The expected wave of protests as Emily's plan was made clear washed over her, around her. She couldn't even listen to them; if she held any doubt about this, if she let their cries touch her, it might have weakened her resolve. And a weak resolve couldn't have the Will to cast the Word of Pandora.
But... the cries of her own daughter. Those, she couldn't avoid.
"M-Mom, please, don't... let me do this instead! I have a crown!" she protested. "I could do it. I know I could! Don't do this, please, don't leave me...!"
Emily closed her eyes. She couldn't bear to see Susie in tears.
"I'm sorry," she spoke, honestly. "I'm so sorry, Susie. I have a responsibility. So do you. Look after the Faerie Court; they'll need you now, more than ever. ...Jesse, I gave you a mission. You know what you have to do. Escape with my daughter, and rebuild."
And so, the young princess was restrained by Emily's old friend... fulfilling her obligation, with a nod of understanding. No matter how Susie tried to pull away from Jesse, to run to her mother, the young woman was held back.
"I... I'll never stop trying to find you, Mother! I promise you!" Susie declared. "You aren't going to die, lost and alone. I'll find a way to bring you back from this...!"
With the child squirming a bit less, Jesse removed her spell monocle... and threw it to Emily, who caught it easily. Loaded within its memory banks was the only copy of the Pandora spell. No time to copy it to paper.
"Time to go," Jesse spoke, to the rest of the group. "Let them be. We have our own duties. ...farewell, Emily Moonthistle. And thank you for having faith in me, despite all that happened."
This was the time for final goodbyes. No more protesting... the minutes were slipping away, and all that remained was the parting of the ways. That was clear, to old friends and new, the ones who had journeyed together and strived towards a common goal of a new world. Time for one last farewell, and nothing more.
"It's been a funny old adventure, hasn't it?" Gilbert said, with a smile. "I came here hoping to find a grand way to die, but I'm afraid you've topped me on that front. Oh well. Suppose I'll have to live, for as long as I can. Fare thee well, Emily, Scout."
Una was less ready to accept... but knew there was no time left for anything else. "I'll make the best of this, I swear," she said. "I... I always considered you two to be family. Now, I'm losing more of my family. But I'll help my people rebuild, after this -- Ascendancy and Orbital alike. We'll make you proud. I have faith in my future."
"If I hadn't met you all, I'd still be a slave," Nel spoke up. "And you showed me how to have the strength to be my own person. If this is truly the dawn of the Second Age... I'm ready to help as well, my Queen. Any way I can."
Jeeves twitched his brass moustache.
"Godspeed," he said, bowing his head in respect.
And... that was all. They departed, by broomstick, by jetpack, by wyvern. Leaving the pair to their fate.
Emily watched them depart... her eyes lingering on the wyvern carrying away her daughter, until it was only a dot. A speck, against the night sky...
The stars were falling.
Moon rocks, burning in the atmosphere, coming down. The end of all they had built together.
"You haven't said much," Emily spoke, aloud.
"Not much to say," Scout said. "Ready to fight. I've always been ready to fight. I love you, and I love them, and I'm ready to fight for them."
"Once we do this, we may never see each other again. The prophecy says we end up on a world of ice and fire... separated."
"So be it," Scout decided.
He tilted her head, and kissed his wife goodbye.
By the end of the kiss, a crown of frost had formed over his head.
And so, the King and Queen of Faerie began to save the world.
The Pandora Event, in spell form. With the embrace of the Crown of Flame, and the embrace of the Crown of Ice to back it up.
The lidless eyes flared wide, as Emily reached within the power she feared, and said to it: Okay. Let's do this.
Through the link of the crowns, she communicated with the King of Faerie.
We're going to move as much as we can. Scour the surface of the world for all life, all cities, all magic, all technology. They're going to need as much as we can move. If the Orbitals can transplant a whole society using science alone, we can do it using magic. I'll do the spellcasting; you give me your strength, to funnel into it. Ready?
I'm ready. We begin.
Move it all. Save it all.
The robotic wastelands of Australia. The giant kaiju and tribal warriors of Japan. The triad of Chinese emperors, and their dragon mounts. All the cultures we reached out to through the United Nations, and even some we had never found, tucked away in unknown corners of the world for two centuries. I can feel them, now -- I can see everything as it was, it is, it will be...
The radioactive mutated tribes of Africa.
Hindsight. They came here against their will, dragged from a dying and wasted world into a world of warfare. They brought their despair and their hate and turned it against their neighbors to the north, only to be beaten down. They had no direction and no hope.
Foresight. Arriving on the pangeal New Earth, and with an accord struck between the Ascendancy and the mutant tribes, a cure for the tumors and cancers that plagued the tribes was finally found. Many stayed in their tribal families even after the healing, as this was the life they knew. Others went north to rejoin Europe, the society they had been torn from. In the end, they all found what they needed.
The British Empire.
Hindsight. Guided in secret by a rogue archangel, they conquered and consumed all in their path, grinding the world through the gears of industry. They imposed order on chaos, using oppression and propaganda to turn everything into More Empire.
Foresight. With the accord struck between King Edward and Wqp, they became the strongest ally of the stranded Ascendancy. Using their massive industrial base, they helped the world recover from the shakeup of the second Pandora Event... and when the first peace treaties were struck between the greater Ascendancy fleet and the people of New Earth, the descendants of Chloe and Edward were there. The earthborne angel's celestial gift remained strong through the generations.
The city of NanoSeattle.
Hindsight. A weapon of war, set to the singular purpose of consuming and imitating an enemy. No life, no dreams, no feelings, no sentience. It existed only to continue an endless cybernetic war, on a world that was burning itself to ashes, little by little.
Foresight. Freed from the shackles of its military past, NanoSeattle remained a dreamlike bastion of the American ideal... and after towing the captured Arcology back to shore, it was welcomed by Eastusa, and integrated into New Westusa. But like all dreams... eventually one may wake to a sorrowful morning.
Hindsight. Pushed right to the brink of survival, with land given up to the Faerie Court, the heart of America almost perished behind its Freedom Walls. It fought to survive, both against this new enemy and against its own resource-starved lands, sacrificing so many to starvation and disease before finally finding a cold peace.
Foresight. Often overlooked by its more unique neighbors, the lands of America slowly drew immigrants from all over the world... bringing with them their culture and their unique gifts. President Waller realized which way the wind was blowing and turned on his own political party, embracing the melting pot that was forming in his land rather than the isolationism they preached. Whether he did it for the fame and glory or because he truly believed was irrelevant... he became the bridge builder that William Petersen could not.
Atlanta, the city of superheroism.
Hindsight. Carrie Lane, lost and alone, orphaned. Driven mad with despair at losing everything she held dear. No future, no hopes, only dreams of what once was...
Foresight. Carrie Lane, young mother, college graduate, superheroine. A celebrated hero of Eastusa, who used her celebrity for promoting good causes more than for punching crooks. Supported by her adopted family and her lifelong mentor. As the woman stood before the Ivan Buren Memorial Library with her teenage daughter, she knew she finally had found the peace she was looking for.
The lands of Los Muertos.
Hindsight. Once a peaceful and monastic people, a hive mind of biotechnology, they fell ill to a cannibalistic meme that tore through their ranks and converted them into viral beasts. Unleashed on a new world, they devoured an entire continent... all while their souls endured the agony of it, craving some manner of salvation...
Foresight. Connections established. Psionic Network routing in place. Loop through protocols are complete. Request to Faerie King and Queen: Leave Network to die on this Earth. Do not spread infected Network to New Earth. Free souls trapped within corrupted physical shells, to rest at last. Acceptable loss of biomatter in exchange for salvation. [Y/N]? Y.
The Faerie Court.
Hindsight. A world of mystery and magic, of debts and schemes, pulled into the far less mysterious physical world of this Earth and left to do battle against new enemies. For ages, kept locked in a cycle of war and isolation, by the madness of the seasons.
Foresight. With Queen Susan Moonthistle and Archmagus Camille Runeblade-Gearhaus at the helm, the Faerie Court prospered and was a strong supporter of its neighbors. The House of Thistles and the House of Gears stood tall... although as generations passed, even noble houses can succumb to temptations...
The Orbitals, and the Ascendancy.
Hindsight. For aeons, made the unwitting accomplices of horrible tragedy -- bloody hands and dark works, all in the name of keeping a society which could not truly sustain itself from falling apart. The peaceful scientists slept easily in their beds, not realizing that others were committing sins in their name.
Foresight. With two layers of the conspiracy smashed to pieces, the Ascendancy was left bare and helpless... but the lessons taught by Emily and her friends held true. Rather than bloody reprisal, they were embraced as victims of men like Proctor Lar. With the strong bond between King Edward and Proctor Wqp, with the help of Una and Nel, new generations arose to fight the sins of the old.
Hypertechnology, magic, science, culture, everything mixing together. New Earth. The Second Age.
It's going to be okay. I think it's really going to be okay now, Scout.
I think we got everything shifted over. Did we get everything?
Think so. Looks good. The Pandora Event is receding. ...I feel cold, now...
And Emily Moonthistle finally opened her eyes to the world around her.
A world of fire.
She'd burned half of the world in the effort of shifting it over. Emily hadn't even noticed it was happening, the racing flames pouring across thousands of miles of landscape, just behind the wave of the Pandora Event...
It had consumed her physical body. Her queenly dress was now made of flickering embers. The Crown of Flame had completely replaced her beloved old Nana's witching hat.
Somewhere on the other side of the world... the King of Faerie stood, frozen solid in a mountain of ice a mile tall. His half of the world had frozen over completely, as it was consumed by Pandora. Now, a lifeless ruin of frost and misery...
But they'd done it.
Everyone was going to live. They were on New Earth. She'd seen their future. The world was saved, even as this world was dying.
As the first moon rocks impacted with the Earth's surface, as the crust broke and shattered, and the world was split in two... Emily closed her eyes, and slept.
Centuries had passed.
Time was meaningless, now. It existed only on a cosmic scale, on this dead Earth of her prophetic dreams. A world of fire and ice, split in two, the crowns divided.
Sometimes, Emily dreamed. She lived in memories of happier times. Her friend Una, who had come to this world with a smile and a head full of nonsense, but with a strong heart to guide her through it all. Her daughter, her beloved daughter... the joy of seeing her grow, from a tiny baby to a young lady. Such wonderful times...
Other times, Emily wept. Her tears evaporated in the eternal fires that raged on this corpse of a world. She might have cried for years at a time; it was impossible to say, really.
Scout was out there, somewhere on the other side of the world. Frozen and quiet. He hadn't been able to say a word to her since they finished the Pandora spell. Maybe he was crying, within his ice prison. Maybe he slept. Maybe he was dead...
Sleeping was better. So, Emily slept.
It was all worth it, despite her sorrow. She'd lost everything, but in the process, ensured a future for all she held dear. That was what it meant to take a witch's stand, to protect you and yours. There was absolutely no regret over what she had to do, no matter how much it pained her.
For the rest of eternity, she would suffer in isolation. Immortal. Tormented. But satisfied. That would have to be enough.
Centuries had passed, and then, something new. Something familiar, as if from a distant dream...
Three of them came. They were in a bubble of some kind, a shield to protect them from the inferno that coated her half of the world. Even without understanding how it worked, Queen Emily could sense magic and technology and more in the mix... protecting them as they approached her.
A glum-looking young man with shock white hair, and an old duster. A roguish-looking woman in a pirate's costume, with an electric blunderbuss. And a pile of nanotech dust mites, in the shape of a short order cook, with a name tag reading HELLO MY NAME IS JEN.
"Is that her?" the scoundrel asked, keeping her blunderbuss cocked and ready. "Sort of looks human-shaped, if you shaped a human out of fire. That'd fit the legends, right?"
"From Queen Susan Moonthistle's writings, that's probably her," the man said... before turning, to address the woman in the fire directly. "Excuse me! Are you Queen Emily Moonthistle, holder of the Crown of Flame?"
It took Emily a full minute to figure out how to speak. It had been a long time.
I... I am... yes. That's my name. How long has it...?
"Long," the man replied. "I'm Eli Moonthistle, many generations removed. We've actually met before, although I doubt you remember it. Anyway, we've come to rescue you and the Scout. This is Wendy Bonnechance, an angelborne, and I think you already know Jen Cooke of NanoSeattle..."
The shy girl made of sapient nanites waved awkwardly.
Wendy glanced at an arc of light passing over the bubble, looking concerned. "Can we hurry this along, mate?" she said. "My steam won't hold up too long, and the Hounds will be along any minute..."
"Right, right. Anyway, we need your help," Eli explained. "It took us a long time to figure out how to locate you -- and we annoyed a LOT of bigwigs in the House of Gears in the process -- so if you could come with us before they find and kill us all...?"
The Queen of Summer blinked repeatedly, with eyes of flashing embers.
Um. I don't think I can even move from here. Or avoid burning you to a crisp.
"No no, we researched this before coming," Eli explained. "Your daughter tried very hard to find and save you. She theorized that all you'd have to do is... well. Put aside the crown. Set it down and give up your title. Same with your husband. Then we could get you out of here."
Queen Emily's mind wasn't used to thinking. It had been slipping in and out of consciousness for years now, after all. But... it made sense to her. The original Faerie Queens abdicated their positions. She could do the same, and simply not select an heir... she was attuned to the crown now, after all. It would obey her properly.
She'd spent so long assuming this was her doomed life that she didn't consider the possibility of anything else. When anything else stumbled across her grave and encouraged her to hop out of there and dance around, well... it was baffling. But there was that ray of hope...
At the very least, maybe she'd die in the process, burning away. That might be preferable.
Slowly... she reached up, to grasp the Crown of Flame. To will its metaphysical power into a physical enough shape for her to manipulate it...
The misty bubble of angelic steam enveloped her, simultaneously, as the crown was set aside.
Emily Moonthistle, wandering witch, emerged from the flames. She was even wearing her Nana's battered old witching hat. A real one again, made of cloth, not wishes.
In her hands was a crown of ashes and charcoal. Energy spent and ruined.
She left it behind, as they shifted to the other side of the globe and repeated the process for her husband. Thankfully, her savior had a spell for melting ice as well.
Against all odds, Emily Moonthistle and Scout had survived their apocalypse. And they were both human again.
She barely paid attention, as her descendant Eli Moonthistle laid down the details on their current crisis. A grand adventure of some sort. Scheming corporations. Eldritch horrors. Ancient chambers with hidden mysteries. A family legacy of magic and blood and promises to fulfill...
The words washed over her now human ears without going in. She was here, alive, with Scout. He was holding her in his arms. They had survived.
Their families had survived. The Second Age had carried on, without them. And now new adventures were starting -- or rather, had never really ended. And they'd be there, to fight alongside the descendants of their loved ones, all the way.
She missed Susie. She missed Una, and Nel. Jesse and Gilbert and Cammy. Edward and Chloe and Benny. Petersen and Elisa and Maria. They were all gone, in time. But their spirits carried on.
And Emily and Scout would carry on as well, until the end of their days.
copyright 2012 stefan gagne