Chapter Eight: Maintain
Minerva watched the demoness awaken, her eyes flickering open slowly. She moaned—although ‘moan’ seemed to crude a word. It was more akin to the mewing of a kitten. The girl looked up, her big brown eyes meeting Minerva’s and saying something in garbled Gnommish.
Minerva shrugged helplessly, then clutched at her shoulder, her wound still aching. Of all the times for her gift of tongues to be out. Tieve looked around her and Minerva could see the panic in her eyes as she registered the absence in the party. More Gnommish.
“I can’t understand you, all right?” she snapped. Tieve looked away, and Minerva instantly felt guilty. Not guilty enough to say sorry, though. Instead she opted to stare moodily out the window and rub at her overly-medicated shoulder. Homemade sutures and overdoses of painkillers weren’t enough to heal the bullet wound.
There was no doubt about it—as much as Minerva hated to admit it, this situation had gotten too big for her to handle on her own. She needed help. Unfortunately, the list of people that were willing and able to help her was painfully short. This left her with a limited set of options.
Minerva knew that an LEP officer would be tracking her party. Normally, she would have just bunked down in a hotel for a couple of days and wait for the officers to catch up—but she didn’t have a few days, not if Kong and Spiro had a thing to say about it. She needed someplace secure to stay while waiting for the LEP, and a way of getting them to find her quickly.
So Minerva came to a very obvious solution: detonate a pipe bomb.
The Past, Police Plaza
Vinyáya was curled up in a plush chair like a civet cat, a blanket wrapped around her sodden frame. At least Julius wasn’t the type of person to mind water dripping on his carpet. Being in the office was playing havoc with her emotions, already strained from time-travel, stress, and an overall bad day. The cigar smoke hung so thick in the room as to almost be visible. Julius’ desk was neat as always. There were absolutely no knick-knacks—just some files (stacked neatly), some pens (lined up in a row), a phone (cord completely untangled), and an ashtray (obviously used.)
And then herself, a complete mess. Fitting in nicely as always.
Julius entered the office, shutting his door for privacy. “Vinyáya,” he said. “What in the heck happened to you?”
She looked at him and her heart twisted violently. “I… um–” Oh, suck it up, you lovesick twit! You’re a better liar than that. “I got off-track. My wing rig fell apart and I had to make an emergency landing.”
Root contemplated this, clamping a cigar between his teeth but considerately leaving it unlit. “I see. Everything was going as planned, otherwise?”
“Yes.” There was an awkward silence, highlighted by the steady plopping of water on the carpet. He coughed.
“Julius?” Vinyáya said tentatively. “I…” She looked downward, trying to will away the image of the commander with a bomb strapped to his chest, trapped in the tunnels with Holly pointing her Neutrino at his chest… “Can we talk tonight?”
Julius looked surprised. “Talk? Er, sure. I mean, absolutely.” He ground out the cigar. “How about Tick-Tocks?”
The restaurant he had picked was fairly quiet, suiting Vinyáya nicely. “That sounds good. I’ll meet you there at seven.”
“Nonsense. I’ll pick you up.” Vinyáya’s feminist streak kicked in and she eyed Julius. He waved her away. “No offense, but you don’t exactly seem composed enough to drive.”
“Thanks,” she said, voice dripping with sarcasm. Julius chuckled, and for a moment things were just like before. And then she realized that like it or not, he was dead.
Vinyáya rose and wrung out her hair. “See you then,” she said. And when she walked out the door, Vinyáya couldn’t help glancing back.
Villeurbanne, France (Two Miles Outside Lyon)
Trouble munched on a protein bar absently, skimming through the LEP data base. Human television droned at a low volume, creating a comforting undercurrent of sound to muffle out the sounds of his officers loudly enjoying their lunch. “Where are you, Vinyáya?” he mumbled. “You could have made yourself a little easier to follow.”
“… bomb exploded outside a bakery today…”
Bomb? That caught Kelp’s attention. He shifted his focus to the television, watching a brunette reporter stride amidst broken glass and debris from a pastry shop. “This bakery was the target of more teenage violence today. Near two o’ clock a homemade pipe bomb exploded, miraculously injuring none. The suspect was apprehended at the scene.” The camera switched to grainy tape, with a girl’s face blurred out.
Trouble groaned. There was no mistaking those blonde ringlets. Minerva was shown dutifully climbing into a squad car with her hands cuffed behind her. “The suspect is being moved to a police holding facility pending trial. There’s no word on whether or not charges will be pressed…”
The major rose from his seat and opened the door. “Chix! Get in here!”
The pixie scrambled into the room, downing the remainder of a bottle of nettle beer. “Found her, sir?”
“Yes. Change course to the Villeurbanne Police Station.”
“Police station?” Verbil paled. “They didn’t find out…?”
Trouble shook his head ruefully. “She wanted us to find her. Blew up a bomb to get herself on the news.”
“A bomb?” Chix laughed. “They said there was a thin line between genius and insanity. I hope the little chick hasn’t gone over it!”
Twenty minutes later, Minerva was squished between several pixies who didn’t seem to grasp the concept that they were a different species and therefore could not have romantic relations. A medic was seeing to her arm (with much more touching that was needed, in her opinion) while Trouble Kelp grilled her.
“Look,” she said, brushing off the pixie. “There’s not much time. We need to get Vinyáya back and–”
Trouble’s eyes narrowed into slits. “Get her back? Where is she?”
Minerva blinked, then rubbed at her eyes wearily. “It’s a long story. She’s in the past, but I have a plan–”
The major’s breath left him with a whoosh, leaving behind a red curtain of fury. He put up a hand, stopping Minerva from speaking. He took several moments to regain his composure.
“Vous avez besoin de repos,” he said stiffly. “You need a rest. Get some sleep and we’ll talk later.”
“Maintenant.” His tone brooked no argument. Cowed for the moment, Minerva slunk off, retreating to the bunks. Trouble sunk into his chair and kneaded his forehead. Vinyáya, his ace in the hole—gone. Vanished into the timestream, probably stuck there.
It was times like these where Trouble could understand why Julius had taken up smoking. Something, anything to relieve the stress.
He looked up to see Tieve in a corner, studying the flashing lights of the cockpit’s dashboard with great curiosity. Streaks of color painted her face, chiaroscuro calling attention to the rounded cheeks and showing how young she really was. Trouble studied her for a moment, sighing inwardly. She was too young to be involved in any of this—and yet, they needed her too much to just let her be.
Trouble approached her slowly. She turned, giving him a small, shy smile. “Konichiwa,” she said. “Ikaga desu ka?”
“Okagesana de genki desu. Anata wa?” he answered, answering her automatically. Trouble was impressed: speaking Japanese was one thing. But speaking it with almost no accent and with the correct politeness level (so important to the Japanese) was something.
Trouble cleared his throat. “Gnommish, please? Mud Man gives me a headache.”
Tieve looked surprised. “Oh. Yes. Of course.”
“You didn’t know you were speaking Japanese?”
“I guess I didn’t notice. It’ll go away soon anyways,” she said noncommittally.
“Go away?” he asked.
The demoness shrugged. “The talking thing goes away sometimes. I don’t know why.”
Trouble went over to the cooler, unscrewing a bottle of water. “It’s your magic. You haven’t… well… hit puberty yet. The flow isn’t consistent.”
Trouble colored. “Um, yes. You’ll have to ask Vinyáya about that.”
She started. “You know where she is? Where is she? I need to talk to her!”
“No.” Trouble averted his eyes. “We don’t know where she is. I’m sorry.”
Tieve wilted like a dying flower. “Oh. Okay.” There was a long, awkward silence.
“Did I do it?” she asked in a tiny voice.
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“But I did,” Tieve said. Her voice was heavy, matching Trouble’s mood. Which pretty much summed up the day.
Tick Tock’s, Haven City
Vinyáya wiped her mouth with a napkin, sneaking a glance Julius. He looked just like she remembered, smelled just like she remembered. Tanned skin and cigar smoke. Normally they would be talking each others’ pointy ears off—but Vinyáya was still seeing Julius’ corpse, and Julius wasn’t into talking to himself.
She lifted her soda towards her absently, then was jerked into the present. “Oh!” The cola spilled all over the table, and they both lunged for napkins.
“Sorry! I wasn’t even paying attention–”
“It’s not a big deal.”
“I hope they don’t charge us…”
In a horribly clichéd moment, their hands met. Except unlike most romance movies, they were holding soggy napkins. “Sorry,” she repeated for the hundredth time.
“Vinyáya.” Julius’ tone was serious. She looked up at him. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing’s going on!” she shouted, suddenly desperate. “For Frond’s sake, Julius, will you just let it be?”
He stared at her, and neither of them spoke for several seconds. It was one of the awkward, hated silences that happened when neither would back down. Vinyáya squared her shoulders and turned up her famous stare.
“Fine,” he said abruptly. Grabbing at the bill, he scrawled a signature and left his payment in cash. “Let’s go.”
He stood up without looking to see if she was even following.
Swallowing hard, Vinyáya followed him like a whipped puppy. He was driving her absolutely insane. She couldn’t tell him, there was no way. It was illegal and wrong and ten kinds of terrible. But seeing Julius with such betrayal in his eyes was almost more than she could take. They walked on in silence. If there had been any cans on the sidewalk, Vinyáya would have kicked them.
Julius turned a sharp left into what must have been a shortcut. The alley was dark, and Vinyáya’s breath hitched in her throat. Her hand brushed her hip unconsciously, feeling the smoothness of the burnished metal handle of her blaster.
It didn’t help her much.
Julius pinned her against the wall, covering her hand with her mouth to muffle a scream. “Listen!” The plea was the only thing that saved him from a jab to a nerve center. Vinyáya watched him through narrow, defiant eyes.
He lifted his hand from her mouth. “There aren’t any cameras here. I know because I fired the pixie who slacked on the instillation job.”
Vinyáya kept her mouth clamped shut, not trusting herself to speak. At the rate this evening was going, her voice would probably trigger a bomb and half the block would be blown to smithereens. Julius sighed. “I know, Vinyáya. You’re from the future.” He answered the unspoken question in her eyes. “Your hair. It’s three inches longer and it’s not dyed.”
Her eyes shut tightly and she battled an overwhelming sense of failure. Her hair. She’d always hated it. She should have shaved her head, become a monk. Get away from this. Get away from everything…
“I’m sorry.” Pathetic as it was, that was the only thing Vinyáya could manage. Julius’ brow furrowed.
“For what?” he asked.
She met his eyes. Because you’re dead. Because I wasn’t even there to say goodbye. Because I’m a terrible friend. There’s a million things to be sorry for, stupid.
Neither of them had moved. Julius’ arms still caged her against the wall, and as she brought her chin up to speak she was startled at their close proximity. His breath was feather-light on her cheeks, and the heady aroma of cigar smoke and cinnamon permeated the air. Vinyáya’s words died on her lips, and the leaned forward involuntarily. Their noses brushed, and Julius’s hand went to her waist.
Then sirens went off everywhere.
The moment deflated like a balloon, and Vinyáya relaxed muscles that she hadn’t even realized were tight. “D’arvit,” Julius growled. The low rumble sent tremors down her spine. Hastily she ducked out from beneath his arms, unconsciously touching her palm to her face to cool her burning cheeks.
“Sirens. Mud Men?”
“I doubt it,” he replied. “More like a paranoid centaur.”
She wasn’t sure whether to thank Foaly later, or to shove him into a dwarf bar and let them have their way with him. The pair obediently began directing traffic, showing civilians to shelters until the warning expired. Red lights bathed the streets in an eerie glow. And when Vinyáya cast a glance at Julius, she was struck with a sudden vision of blood.