A pop of displaced air and that same set of scents accompany the uniformed woman’s reappearance at the base. She rolls to the side as the console she was leaning against stays behind, cracking her knee on the concrete floor. Two blinks, collecting thought from the disarray her magic causes, then she yells. “Alex!”
Footsteps pounding down the corridor, then Alex – Alecto, to be precise, but none of the women care for the names they’ve been given, and immediately shortened them – rounds the corner to the summoning chamber. “Meg,” she says, “you okay?”
“No. It went, as Tis calls it, pear-shaped.” Meg’s voice has a lilt to it, echoes of her childhood in Northern Ireland. It matches her pale skin and the red hair braided tightly behind her. You can barely see the scar across her left temple any more.
“She radioed in – they have the packages,” Alex says, deep voice calm as always. “ETA 15 minutes.”
“Tell them to keep an eye open – our attackers had fliers.”
“She knows. A couple of your troops radioed in before they were taken down.”
“Dammit,” Meg mutters. “Tis is going to have a fit over her people.” She makes a hissing sound. “It was those damned girls getting in our way. If they knew --”
“They’d probably still do the same thing,” Alex says, shaking her head. Her dark eyes are sad. “Helsinki Syndrome to the Patriarchy. They don’t understand, so they follow the orders programmed into them.” A sigh. “My fault. I focused my intel on the male students, picking targets for your enchantment, once we had the proteins encoded.”
“Well at least that worked like a charm,” Meg says, then makes a face at the inadvertent pun.
Alex grins instead. “Maybe next time we find a way to take down the girls, too. Temporarily.”
Meg shakes her head. “The Craft doesn’t work that way. At least mine doesn’t. Only on the males.” The last word has a sour twist to it.
Alex doesn’t know what brought Meg to XWhy, or what drove her to the point where She Who Wills made her one of the Three, but anger is behind a lot of it. For her part, Alex tries to set anger aside, and exercise her judgment more clearly. “Be that as it may, even with your losses, the mission was a success. And we can make the release of our sisters part of the ransom deal for the non-metas we took.”
“As long as the others are dealt with,” Meg says. Her voice is low.
“They will be. And those girls who fought you will learn how much stronger they are on their own. With time, they’ll come to see.” Alex flashes a smile, teeth bright against her dark face. “C’mon,” she says, helping Meg to her feet. “Let’s prepare a welcome for Tis and company. This is going to be a busy night.”
“Hopefully one with no more surprises.”
“This place has the best stealth money can buy,” Alex replies. “Once the chopper is back, we’ll hunker down, conclude our business, and nobody will ever know we’re within hundred miles of here.”
* * *
“There,” Alycia says, pointing at the run-down, multi-story warehouse across the street. Large “NO TRESPASSING” and faded “WAREHOUSE / LOT FOR SALE” signs festoon the rusting gates, making it appear not to different from a lot of other closed facilities nearby. Halcyon is economically vibrant, but even here the Old Economy is failing.
Keri frowns. “It doesn’t look like it.”
“Trust me,” Alycia replies, making sure she’s within the shadows of alley. There are almost certainly cameras watching this street. “I know what a lair looks like. And there’s some new construction up there, at the top of that flat roof.”
“It looks the same, old brick --”
“And new mortar. Probably to support those electronic arrays mostly screened by that corrugated metal. Stealth projectors – white noise sound suppression, visual distortion fields, ATC radar fuzzing, that sort of thing. Hard to mount and power all that on a chopper, even a Chinook, but as a ground installation they can make that thing fly in undetected from several blocks away, once they’ve got line of sight.”
“You seem to know a lot about whatever all that means,” Charlotte comments. An eyebrow crooks in question.
Alycia makes a face. “I recognize it. Father built it. Probably stripped from one of his places, and resold to these folk.”
Aria and A10 trot back from the food truck, which is doing a moderately brisk business from the few workshops and complexes nearby still in operation. “The vendor confirms there’s a group of women who come from up the street somewhere most days he’s here. Enough of them to be noticeable among the workforce.”
“Sloppy,” Alycia mutters.
“This is weird,” Keri says – Superchica, more properly, as she’s suited up. She and A10 were wearing their outfits under their streets at school (though for quite different reasons), and have stripped down to them. “These guys have high-tech stealth stuff over there, but you said there was something magical going on?” The last question is directed to Charlotte.
“Yes,” she says. “I’m not a magician, to be sure, but I could tell that whatever they were doing to the boys, it was tied, through mystic channels, to that van.”
“And the teleporter,” Aria notes.
“That was magic, too,” Charlotte adds.
“But the kit on those soldiers was pretty straightforward,” Alycia points out. “Good quality. Not cheap. But pretty much off the gun dealer’s shelf.”
“Magic, sophisticated technology, and soldiers,” Aria sums up. “An interesting hybrid threat.”
“In other words, like I said, weird,” Keri continues. “So, do we go kick down the door now?”
“We probably beat the chopper here,” A10 says, looking over at Charlotte. Nobody particularly enjoyed the trip through Shadow Realm, however brief, to get here, though at least Aria and Alycia were ready for it. “If we’re worried about hostages, we should go now.”
Alycia shakes her head and opens her mouth, but Aria interrupts, “If we attack and they get word to the chopper, it will divert and we might never find it.” Alycia nods with a slight frown, but doesn’t say anything.
“How will we know when they’ve come, if they’re all stealthy and everything?” Keri asks, looking at Alycia.
The frown continues, but now it’s thoughtful. “That system is pretty good, if it’s been kept tuned up. Even watching for it, we may not see the visual or audible distortions. I might be able to cobble together something, given time, but we don’t have much. They can’t be more than five to ten out.”
“It’s not magical, so I won’t be much help,” Charlotte said.
Aria nods. She’s still in armored mode from the battle during the school. “But other senses?”
“Smell?” A10 asks. “Those things put out a hell of a lot of exhaust. Big turbos, turning those rotors.”
“Vibraciones!” Keri half-shouts. “Air pressure. A10, you and me, hovering, we might be able to feel the beat of the blades.”
A10 nods. “I’m not actually really sensitive to that sort of thing, but – hell, we can give it a try.”
“Fuck,” Alycia blurts out. Charlotte sighs. The others stare. “Sorry,” Alycia says, not sounding sorry. She taps her ear. “I’m monitoring police bands. They’ve gone into the school – the effect on the boys and on male faculty is still in place, but it isn’t spreading any more, the male cops are okay. But they’ve done a head count.” She looks around at the others.
“We show as missing, though they have reports of students fighting the soldiers, so they’re assuming that’s where we are. The tally of other kids missing, though, is almost all male. Most of them --” She pauses, listening. “-- most are from the more wealthy families at Gardner. But it also includes a number of metas, even ones not ‘out’ – Trace, Adam, Harry …” She glances up at Aria and Charlotte. Something’s going on in her eyes. “… Jason.”
Aria raises an eyebrow. “Not Leo?”
A raised eyebrow, a furrowed brow. “Really? No, not Leo. There was an initial report about that, but they finally found him, still at school, asleep.” She shakes her head, closes her eyes, takes a breath, goes still. When her eyes go back to Aria, though, there’s something different about them, and her voice. “Also. Summer. She’s missing, too.”
Aria starts. She opens her mouth to say something, then closes it again. “I’m sure she’s – okay. I don’t know why …” She shakes her head slightly. “I’m sure she’s okay,” she repeats, then looks at A10 and Superchica. “Start hovering. I want to know the moment as that helicopter arrives.”
* * *
“Opening hanger doors now,” one of the techs tells Alex, who nods, watching the power levels on the stealth systems. All is holding steady. Overhead, there’s barely a metal clank as the ceiling over the chamber opens, letting in sunlight – abruptly blocked when the Chinook drops below the level of the visual distortion field. The clatter of the copter inside the chamber is deafening, and the downdraft threatens to blow out the control room window out. (Alex does see one trooper knocked off her feet – her own fault, they’ve all been drilled on this.)
As soon as the wheels touch ground, Meg is out the door of the control room, headed for chopper to check on the spell, even before the dual rotors have stopped spinning or the turbo-shaft engines have dropped their whining to tolerable levels. Alex follows quickly, well-aware the blow-up to come.
They make it halfway across the vast floor, dotted with crates, abandoned (too expensive to salvage) machinery, and a large magic circle that Meg had installed on one side of the room (silver embedded into the concrete). Other soldiers are stepping out of their cover area, a few coughing in the dirt and dust stirred up.
The cargo door in the back of the Chinook lowers open, and the third of the Three jumps out, not even waiting for ramp to hit the ground. Tis is shouting something, her Turkish complexion splitting the difference between Meg and Alex. The noise is still too much to get the words, but the expression and gestures are clear: Tis is royally pissed at Meg, and it’s going to be up to Alex to keep the two of them from doing something drastic. She’s not paid enough for this, but thank the Goddess the cause is worth it.
And that’s when things go to shit.
Even as Alex watches, three figures drop down from the still-closing hanger hatch. One lands directly onto the rear rotor assembly, seriously damaging the hub; Alex realizes that chopper isn’t going to lift again without serious maintenance, even as she triggers her personal force field. It’s invisible, but she can hear its comforting hum, a meter out in all directions.
The other two plummeting figures pull out of their drop, one of them stooping on Tis and sending her flying through the air with a kick; the other one arcing toward the cluster of soldiers running to the chopper, scattering them. Small arms fire starts up almost immediately, and Alex pulls out her phone, calling up the app she’s spent so many hours customizing.
* * *
Meg twists the air around her, reappearing in her magic circle, which she triggers with another whispered word, the scent of honey in the air around her. None can enter now, and another word and a flash of cinnamon extends protection from the spirit realm to weapons fired by her enemies.
But that doesn’t mean she, in turn, cannot use her magic on those without …
* * *
Credit where credit is due, even with the surprise the XWhy soldiers recover quickly, and stick to their discipline. Most have side arms, but there are lockers on the walls, and half their number heads that direction while the other half lay down what suppression fire they can.
* * *
A10 lands by one of the rusted pieces of equipment, still bolted to the floor. She grabs it, and with a very loud and prolonged grunt tears it from its moorings. Another roar and it’s flying across the room.
It’s fortunate that so little time has elapsed. Those soldiers racing for the weapons lockers haven’t gotten close enough to be mashed by the flying machinery that strikes the lockers, demolishing whatever was within them.
* * *
Alycia slides with all deliberate speed down the rope she’s secured above. It’s not a recommended way to enter a firefight, but the opposition is visually and existentially distracted by A10 and Superchica swooping and diving and attacking, and Aria stalking about and throwing things (smaller things than what A10 just did, to be sure, but daunting enough for the grunts).
Her own mission is simple – get into the Chinook, take down whoever’s inside guarding the prisoners, secure same. She resents being out of the action, but she’s the most logical person for the job (i.e., the least necessary for the fire fight). She understands the logic, even if the emotions disagree.
She’s halfway down, when another of the soldiers goes flying – not under her own power – out the back hatch of the chopper, which then quickly rises to a close.
Alycia makes a command decision that her mission has changed. She’s not sure what’s going on, but breaking into the chopper is going to take time and exposure, and she’s not sure it’s still necessary. And there’s so much else she can do …
* * *
Above the window of the control room, two spheres, maybe a meter across, suddenly sprout paired, stubby barrels. The lasers start firing from them a moment later.
Alex smiles, and taps her phone for the next surprise.
* * *
A10 and Superchica both swoop down and grab crates, throwing them at the turrets. The defensive override engages, and the lasers turn the crates into charred slivers before they get within a dozen meters.
Keri turns to Andi to say something. Her mouth opens and she dives forward at blinding speed, intercepting the explosive grenade round Tis – now recovered and shouting orders to the troops – has fired at A10. Keri succeeds in blocking the shot with her own body, but is knocked high in the air, tumbling back to the ground with a limp thud.
A10 growls, and launches herself at her next target.
* * *
Alycia’s crouched behind the Chinook’s rear landing gear, the bulk of the armored aircraft giving her reasonable cover. She’s using this to good purpose, squeezing off single shots at the opposition troops, focusing on those whose position and movement implies rank or peer leadership of their fellows.
The gel rounds aren’t designed to penetrate armor, so she has to take extra care to ensure each one hits some portion of exposed skin, taking down the individual and, not coincidentally, whatever rallying or tactical direction they were providing to the others.
It’s unfortunate she can’t see Tis from her angle, but she doesn’t lack for targets, and so is, in her own way, content.
* * *
Charlotte rises up out of the concrete floor in front of Meg’s magic circle. “Boo!” she says sweetly, and swoops forward –
– flattening (in a most embarrassing fashion) against the circle’s mystic edge.
Meg is still startled enough to let loose with a flaming ball of mana that flickers with a fluorescent yellow light. It shoots toward Charlotte, rather than A10, her intended target. It’s not lethal, at least not to women, but it will slow down time in a limited sphere, taking its target out of the battle.
It passes harmlessly through Charlotte and expends its power on mere air.
* * *
Alycia’s efforts have attracted Alex’ attention, and she puts in an over-ride code to target Charade in her position behind the Chinook. The lasers don’t do much to the armored craft, but its tires are another matter, and Alycia dives out of the way, zig-zag running toward the far wall.
A10 swoops across her path, drawing the turrets’ fire. One beam grazes her arm, which freaking hurts. Andi dekes and corkscrews, trying to avoid the shots, and diving down toward the dwindling number of soldiers to see if that will complicate the targeting problem.
* * *
Alycia eye catches on something interesting. She smiles and starts to circle low around toward it.
* * *
Alex is startled by an impact to her force field. It’s Aria, who’s pounding away at the barrier, an electrical glow around her hands. Before Alex gets concerned by the dropping power levels, another HE round blasts Aria ass-over-teakettle to the far wall.
Alex gives Tis a thumbs-up, then her eyes widen. Tis whirls, but too slow to avoid a kiting punch to the jaw by A10. Tis goes down, hard, skidding five meters across the floor.
“Dammit!” Alex shouts, beginning perhaps to lose her cool just a smidge. She explicitly targets A10, who’s landed to make sure that Tis is out of it, with both turrets.
Superchica steps in the way, taking the shots with crossed forearms.
“Dammit, Keri, I’m not made out of paper!”
“Just go punch something, chica! I – _got – _this.”
* * *
Alycia has arrived at her destination, the control room. The noise from without as she slips through the unsecured door is enough to attract the attention of the one console monkey still there – though she doesn’t even get her hand on her pistol before Alycia’s tranqed her.
It takes Charade precious seconds to determine that she can’t override the turrets, not while Alex is running them remotely. Which is fine: there’s more than one way to skin a high-powered weapon system.
* * *
The lights go out in the building. In fact, all the power goes out. The only illumination in the main warehouse space comes from light sneaking through the not-yet- (and not-likely-to-ever-be-) -closed hanger doors, and some emergency battery backup exit lighting that Alex had put back into operation when they acquired the space.
There’s no battery backup for the laser turrets. Those are powerful enough that it would have blown the budget they had been given, for an extreme that seemed so unnecessary.
Superchica slumps to her knees, conscious of a vague odor of toast, but just grateful the energy’s stopped.
* * *
"No, no, no!" Alex shouts, tapping furiously at her phone.
“CONNECTION LOST” the app informs her helpfully.
“BOO!” shouts Charlotte, abruptly appearing in front of her. The force field is still in place but the aura of fear from the ghost passes through it, and through Alex – who screams, throws down her phone, and runs.
* * *
Across the room, A10 is pounding on the magic circle. “Come out here and face me, you bitch!” she shouts at Meg.
Meg in turn is watching her like a new but particularly distasteful species of beetle. “You would betray your own gender, girl – destroy everything we are trying to build, everything we want to do for you! Ye ganch, ye don’t deserve --”
Meg begins to shape a ball of energy in her hands. It’s magic that She Who Wills has forbidden her to learn, let alone use, something outside the Craft, but it will strike down even a woman, and Meg in her fury is more than ready to take that step.
“You’re trying to ‘build’ something on kidnapping and guns? Yeah, look how that’s working out for you,” A10 yells, pounding harder.
“It’s quite useless, ye thick eegit,” Meg chides her, Irish accent thick with sarcasm. “No living thing, no spirit, no soul can breach this circle. But once you and yours are done and dead, I’ll walk out of it with ease and watch the birds pick your bones.”
Someone taps Meg on the shoulder. She whirls, eyes goggling to see Aria standing there. “You might want to reevaluate that claim, or else qualify your definition of soul,” Aria says. Then she clocks her.
Meg goes down in pile, and A10 almost falls as well, as her next punch meets nothing but thin air. “You couldn’t do that sooner?”
Aria smiles. “We’ll do a post mortem at the next inter-team exercise.”
* * *
Alex is running down the corridor, as fast as she dares in the near-utter darkness. Far, far ahead is an Exit sign, casting the only faint illumination here. She’s counting doors as she goes, knowing that after the twelfth one there will be a hatch on the floor. It’s unpowered, so she can get away – indeed, get away more easily, as the alarm system is also down.
She realizes that the gunfire behind her has trickled to a stop. She tries to hurry further, a fear she’s not felt in a decade or more gripping her guts, turning them to water.
She’s just past the tenth door when Charlotte’s voice sounds in her ear. “Oh, hello again,” the ghost, suddenly visible in the blackness, says to her in an ever-so-polite fashion.
There’s something very wrong here, and it takes Alex a moment to realize that, in the darkness, Ghost Girl has appeared inside Alex’s invisible force field.
“Go to sleep, sugar,” the ghost says, and then everything is darkness.
* * *
The central hall of the warehouse is still shadowed, but the teen women can see clearly enough from the light filtering in from overhead. Debris and unconscious bodies are littered here and about, but their attention is on the Chinook. They have it roughly encircled; there are multiple hatches and doorways on the CH-47, so it won’t do to have someone sneaking out some other way.
Keri, closest to the back hatch, steps forward, and gives it a sharp rap. It’s not enough to damage the armored body, but only because she’s restraining herself. She’s pretty much undamaged, but her outfit has become effectively short-sleeved from fending off those lasers, and she’s more than a bit cranky. She gives a second heavier rap, this time actually leaving a dent.
“Okay, you in the chopper – come out now,” shouts Alycia. She has one pistol out, Chapman stance, aiming at the rear of the Chinook, total-contact, thumbs-forward grip. If she has to shoot, given a chopper full of hostages, she must hit whatever she shoots at. “And don’t even think about using those folk as hostages. We can and will come in, and it will not end well for you. Your only hope of walking out of here without broken bones or broken head is to comply. Now.”
After a moment, there’s a clunk inside the Chinook, and the rear hatch starts to slowly lower down to a ramp. Superchica and Alycia both tense up with attention, and loosen for action – and Aria, Ghost Girl, and A10 assume combat stances on their own quarters of the chopper.
The ramp hits the ground with a thud.
And Summer Newman steps forward. She gives a little half-wave to Keri and Alycia. “Hi! Complying here. Everyone’s A-OK!”
* * *
The truth outs quickly, albeit with glares (some from Alycia, but not just a few from Aria, silently promising a long discussion later). “I’m replacing Leo,” she tells them. Realizing that things were headed toward kidnapping, she had hidden Leo’s sleeping form and taken his place with a holographic display, swearing the other girls in the ConEc class to secrecy.
Once the shooting had started, she’d overpowered the pilot and two other guards in the Chinook (including the one physically ejected that Alycia had seen), then buttoned up the craft, with the not-incorrect supposition that the armored chopper itself was the safest place for the still-sleeping boys.
Who are actually finally beginning to stir.
* * *
“Well, that was fun,” says Andi. She cracks her knuckles.
“For certain values of ‘fun,’ esa.” Keri rubs her forearms, which, the power and lighting restored, look sunburned.
“We have protected our friends, thwarted evil, and worked together,” Aria says solemnly – then smiles. “We also kicked ass.”
Alycia snorts. “Take that, Patriarchy,” she mutters. After a moment, she seems to realize the others are all looking at her. She rolls her eyes, holds up a fist. “Girl power.”
Summer giggles. “The boys will be disappointed.”
“What do you mean?” Charlotte asks.
“Well, they always seem so excited about ‘girl on girl action,’ and here they slept through it all.”
Andi and Keri chuckle, Alycia barks out a laugh, Aria snorts with a light grin. Charlotte looks confused, but finally smiles at everyone else’s amusement.
“Do you think we’ll figure out what this was about?” Andi asks, after a long moment.
Alycia glances over at the AEGIS agents (with specialized military paramedics) gathering up the XWhy troops and commanders, most of them still unconscious. “Probably. Or someone will. Whether we ever get told about it is another question. Though I have an idea who to ask that question of.”
“Targeting men. Hostility toward men.” Aria shakes her head, looking to Summer. “I could hazard a guess.”
Summer glances at Alycia, opens her mouth, then closes it.
“Well, it’s stupid,” Andi comments. “Nothing wrong with boys.” She throws a look over toward the chopper. “Even if some are weirdly slower than you might expect.”
“I’m just glad we could help,” Keri says. “Anyone tries to take down our friends, has to go through us.”
“Maybe,” Charlotte muses slowly, “we could get together for coffee. Sometime. Or sometimes. Every few weeks. A regular get-together. Be compatriots outside of our respective teams, if you will.” She looks around at the others. “Unless someone would rather not.”
There’s a moment of silence. Alycia looks up from her pistol she’s cleaning, realizing they’re all looking at her. Again. She smirks. “Oh, please, don’t let me stand in the way. Solidarity coffee for all.” After a moment. “Fair trade, sustainably raised. Decaf. Soy milk.”
“No cinnelattes?” Summer asks, with a grin.
“Ahriman forbid!” Alycia replies – then smiles as well.
All in all, smiles are not a bad way to end International Women’s Day. Or, frankly, any day.
author: *** Dave H.