33This Conversation is Ending Starting Right Now
"Solus remains unique among the settled
worlds of the Republic. Its ecosystem is at
least partially manufactured, with the body
of available evidence suggesting it may be
artificial in its entirety. This is not uncommon
(see chapter IV: Introduced Diversity and
Terraforming), but the nature of that
artificiality is currently unparalleled. Solus
was once not only devoid of life, but unable
to host it, existing far outside any circumstellar
habitable zone. Once believed to be an
extrasolar capture, more modern evidence has
proven Solus to have been created in the initial
formation of the solar system. Instead, it was the
sun itself which was replaced, creating a habitable
zone. The method through which this was
accomplished remains one of the greatest
–Erik Bergen, Single Sun: A History of the Solus System
"Impromptu meeting! Impromptu meeting, totally off the cuff. Gather 'round," Scott said, clapping his hands together. "Come on, let's make this fast. There is shit what needs doing."
He had waltzed into the room with Harry and Sophie following. Hermione, Ron and Ginny were in the midst of yet another research session, this one concerning the use of blood in rituals of magical binding. Ron couldn't make sense of half of what he was looking at, which was actually a higher percentage than usual. The age of the books did not help, as so much of their wording was coached in ancient syntax that required multiple readings to grasp.
So he wasn't exactly heartbroken to take a breather, no matter how fast Scott wanted to make it. He had been considering volunteering his services downstairs, where Scott and Harry were studying maps of Diagon Alley.
"Two things," Scott continued once he had gathered their attention. "Actually, first I need to know if you've said anything about the wand already, Hermione?"
"Oh! The wand, yes. I mentioned it to Ron, but not in any specifics. I'm afraid it's been a bit lost in the shuffle," Hermione said.
"As it probably should be. Let me summarise: when we were at Hogwarts, Dumbledore's portrait asked me to take his wand when I left. His wand is something called a 'Deathly Hallow', which are apparently magical artefacts which, when united, make the owner a 'Master of Death'."
Ron's mouth dropped open. "No way!" he breathed. He knew the Deathly Hallows as well as he did the rest of Beedle's tales. But he'd always been told it was just that: a story, and nothing more.
"Yeah, way. So, we have the Elder Wand. Which, as it turns out, means very little. We have one out of three magical things which may or may not do anything at all. But it's not our wand, and we all know how wands work – more or less – so whatever. Me and Hermione talked it over, and we think that Dumbledore wanted us to hold on to his wand since he knew his grave would be vulnerable now that Hogwarts is occupied."
Ron couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Might not do anything at all? Mate, if that's actually the Elder Wand, it can't be beaten!"
Scott raised an eyebrow. "Yeah? Go ask Dumbledore how that worked out for him. I'll wait right here."
That brought Ron up short. By definition the Elder Wand couldn't be unbeatable, if Dumbledore had been beaten, but– "Still, what if that's why You-Know-Who was always afraid of him? Maybe the story's wrong, but if it's completely wrong, then why would he want us to have it?"
"He didn't defend himself," Harry murmured, his eyes haunted.
Ginny placed a hand on his knee. "Harry?"
"We landed on the Tower; just got back from the cave. He had me wear my Cloak, just in case, but then Malfoy came in and…" Harry paused, jaw muscles clenching, and then said, "Dumbledore froze me so I wouldn't be found. He did that instead of fight back, and Malfoy Disarmed him."
"Hard to believe that little ferret got the drop on Dumbledore," Ron muttered.
"He was ill, I think. With his hand all blackened as it was, something wasn't right," Hermione said sadly.
"That's actually part zwei," Scott said, leaning back against the wall.
Scott explained what the portrait had told him, how Dumbledore had been poisoned destroying one of the Horcruxes and had then hatched his convoluted plan to save Malfoy (save Malfoy, of all the fucking people!) from having to carry out Riddle's orders.
"So then he went through the whole thing with Harry's little problem and the blood protection. But the gist of it is, goddamn crazy as it sounds, Snape is apparently still on our side," Scott concluded.
Ron had no idea how to handle that. And from the look on Harry's face, he didn't either.
"That's… a bit hard to swallow," Hermione said uncertainly, assessing her friends.
"Well, Snape hates Harry and hates all of us and is definitely a bipedal anus with a shitty haircut, so when I say 'on our side', I mean on Dumbledore's side," Scott amended.
"It would explain why the Death Eaters never made their way here before we reclaimed it," Hermione mused.
The look Harry gave her was one of betrayal. "So that's it? We're all just good with him now, everything's effing brilliant?"
Hermione flinched slightly. "Harry… I know that we don't have the best history with him, but if he's really working towards the same goal, then he is in a unique position–"
"That we can't jeopardise anyway," Scott interrupted. "He can't openly help us without blowing his cover and we can't approach him without revealing what we've been doing."
"Surely he knows already?" Hermione conjectured. "He's in Dumbledore's confidence, after all."
Scott shrugged. "I don't know. Look, if Snape is still in Dumbledore's pocket then maybe he can be useful and undermine Riddle or whatever, but the fact of the matter is that he's sitting right next to enemy numero uno and we can't come near the guy. We can't act in any way that will jeopardise his infiltration."
Ginny had an odd look on her face. "So… is this even important, then?" she said.
Scott shook his head. "No. We have a wand that may or may not be special and we have someone else's double agent and we don't know enough to use either of them. But I knew you guys would get pissed if I didn't tell you, and I said we should make this meeting fast, and we've already spent enough time discussing this."
Harry actually began to laugh, a sound more tired than joyful. "When did my life get to the point where finding out Snape isn't a traitor doesn't even rate as important?" he said, pressing a hand to his forehead.
"And that the Deathly Hallows are real!" Ginny added.
"I'd like to talk to him," Harry said, staring at the floor, and he clearly wasn't referring to Snape.
"I was actually thinking about making a return trip for that. Just me, though. Dumbledore's portrait said that they're all compelled to serve the current Headmaster, and I talked about Horcruxes right in front of all of them. So either Snape is definitely not telling Riddle what's up, or the portraits aren't trying very hard to help him," Scott said.
"Or Dumbledore is still in charge, so far as Snape is concerned," Hermione reasoned.
"I'd probably feel bad for trying to kill Snape, if he wasn't such a turd," Scott mused.
"I want to know more about this wand," Harry said abruptly. Ron agreed: the idea that Snape might not be their enemy was emotionally confusing, but the thought of having one of the Deathly Hallows was downright exciting.
Scott shrugged. "You know what we do. It's a Deathly Hallow, Dumbledore told me to take it."
"There has to be more. It's supposed to be powerful, right? And even if it isn't unbeatable, any extra power is better than none."
"Yeah, but it's not your wand, man."
"It can't have been Dumbledore's, either. It's too old for that, Hermione's book is ancient," Harry pointed out. "So how did he make it work for him?"
"Well, I don't fuckin' know, do I." Scott raised his hands in a 'what do you want from me' sort of way. "Maybe I'll ask him if I get over to Hogwarts."
"Could I see it?" Ron said, eager to check it out for himself.
"Sure, whatever. Everybody give a try, put it in your mouth, rub your balls on it, since we're all so fucking excited," Scott drawled, obviously tired of the subject entirely.
Sophie discreetly kicked the heel of his boot.
"I have it in my handbag, Ron," Hermione told him. "Let's take it down to the training room before we do anything with it, just to be careful."
"You do that. Meeting adjourned," Scott proclaimed.
The next morning, Harry was finishing up his shower and performing his daily ritual of avoiding looking at himself in the mirror. Ever since he'd found out about the Horcrux inside of him, he'd developed the habit of ignoring his own reflection to the best of his ability. The worst thing was, he knew it was weird and neurotic and probably more than a bit mad; he looked no different than he ever had, he wasn't changing with the revelation. But, somehow, his own visage was just a reminder. He didn't feel like himself anymore, when he saw the teen in the mirror.
So, not healthy, obviously, but probably better than doing what he felt like doing sometimes, which was screaming at
the top of his lungs or going comatose with terror. Harry wasn't worried about inadvertently hurting anyone if he threw an epic wobbly, since he reckoned Scott would probably just choke him out the second words failed to calm him, but it was the kind of state he knew his friends would prefer not to see him in. So he suppressed his natural reactions to being a bloody Horcrux and dealt with whatever bubbled up around the edges, like the mirror thing.
He was also still trying to wrap his head around what Scott had told them about Snape. Even if it was true, it wasn't as if Harry's feelings towards the man would change. He'd hated Snape back when he'd thought the man was just a professor in the employ of Hogwarts and nothing more.
Harry had seen Snape kill Dumbledore. He'd watched it happen right in front of him, helpless to intervene. It was hard to override that image, to re-contextualise it with a few words offering a different perspective. How could Harry accept that? He'd done his best to kill Snape that night. His best hadn't been good enough, but he could still remember the almost unbearable rage which had gripped him.
Still… He remembered how Snape hadn't been the one to kill Scott. It had been one of the other Death Eaters. Snape had tried to reason with Scott instead of blasting him out of the way. Scott had a gun trained on him, true, but Snape was a master of nonverbal spells. It had struck Harry even at the time as an oddly non-aggressive moment from a man who had just killed his Headmaster and supposed friend.
Ultimately, Ginny had been right: in a weird way, it didn't matter. Even if Snape were on their side, they still had to treat him like an enemy. Which was far from a burden.
Harry didn't know what he would do if he ever saw Snape in person.
On his way down to breakfast he was surprised to see Lila's SMG sitting against the wall outside of the other loo. She must have been by to visit again. He studied the weapon for a moment, not daring to touch it. He needed to remember to ask either Lila or Scott about it, because he quite liked the look of it but didn't know what kind it was.
Walking down the stairwell, he started planning out his day. Hermione thought she might be narrowing down some real answers for taking care of his Horcrux, so Harry would probably be drafted to assist with that again at some point. Ultimately his real job would be to sit there whilst he was poked and prodded (or killed), but until then he was another pair of eyes for reading. He also wanted to continue planning some of the finer details of movement for the Gringotts mission. With Scott, he had been studying Diagon Alley down to the finest details they could discern from the maps they had. Whatever would happen with the vault was still up in the air, but how they would actually get in was starting to take shape.
Meanwhile, training continued. Harry was still attempting to increase the number of spells he could cast nonverbally, a painfully slow process. He hadn't made enough progress to feel like it would be helpful, but he knew that repetition was still increasing his power and accuracy, so it was worthwhile. The dining hall had become a mass of wards, Imperturbed objects lining the walls. Scott had begun to instruct Harry on the use of handguns, which Harry had found considerably more difficult to operate than his shotgun.
"There you are," Ginny said when Harry entered the kitchen. "I saved you a scone."
The scone she had 'saved' for him had a very conspicuous bite out of it, but he accepted it gratefully. "Thanks. I'm bloody starving."
Ginny nodded. "I know. I just want to eat all the time lately. You'll still want to snog me if I get fat, right?"
"Just more of you to snog," Harry told her with a grin.
"We've been burning a considerable amount of calories with our training," Hermione commented.
"Do you get tired from casting spells?" Sophie asked as she seated herself at the table with another bowl of ridiculously buttery porridge.
"Yes, but not quite in the same way. Casting doesn't put much strain on the muscles, not like what we've been doing," Hermione said, referring to the basic self-defence that Sophie had been teaching.
Scott, who had his chair back on two legs and his feet up on the table, dropped his legs and rocked his chair forward with a clatter. "Hey, Sophie has something for you guys that I want you to look over."
Sophie produced two small booklets from one of her pockets and passed them to Hermione and Harry. "Scott said he wanted to start with you two, since you'll be the most comfortable," she said. She then stood and left the kitchen, saying, "I have some other things I found, I'll be right back!"
Harry picked up the booklet: it was a beginner's guide for operating a motor vehicle.
Scott leaned his chair back again. "I mentioned it before, but we never got around to it. I think it would be good if at least a couple of you knew how to drive."
"I'd like to drive," Ginny said, reaching for Harry's booklet.
He looked at her sceptically, holding the booklet back out of her reach. "Since when?"
"Since we went to the shop! The Muggles have those cars everywhere, I'll bet it'd be dead useful to know how to work one," she said.
Harry looked over to Scott. "I suppose we'll both read it."
"Couple's activity! So cute," Scott said in a falsetto.
Ginny's expression indicated a forthcoming retort, but she, along with everyone else, was distracted by loud footsteps on the stairs.
Lila stormed down the steps and into the kitchen, her blonde hair for once free of its ponytail, instead draped wetly around her shoulders. She was holding a sodden, white puffy thing; stopping in front of the table, she held the object out accusingly. "You used my loofah," she said to Scott.
He frowned at her. "What?"
"You used my damn loofah!" she reiterated with more anger.
"What the hell would I do with one of those?"
"I don't want to know! I went in to take my shower and my loofah, which I placed on the sink, was hanging in the shower and it was wet. You take my things, and then you don't even care enough to put them back where you found them! Do you respect nothing?"
Scott crossed his arms derisively. "I don't respect your fucking loofah, if that's what you're asking."
Lila tossed the loofah onto the table, spraying the surface with water. "You're dead!" she declared, and then – to the great surprise of everyone in the room – she launched herself at Scott.
"COME AT ME, SIS!" Scott roared defiantly as Lila vaulted over the table. They crashed together, toppling Scott's chair and ending in a blurred tangle of striking limbs on the floor.
"Bloody hell!" Ron exclaimed. The closest to the two combatants, he began to slide his chair farther away.
"It was me who used it," Hermione whispered guiltily to Ginny. "I thought it was yours."
Ginny frowned at the other girl. "Hey!"
Sophie, who had just come back into the room when Lila pounced onto Scott, stopped in her tracks. "Oh, are they wrestling again?" she said.
"Uh… Does this happen a lot?" Harry asked her.
"Sometimes. They didn't have a childhood together, so I think this is one of their ways of making up for that," Sophie said pensively, watching as Lila wrapped her arms around Scott's torso and flipped him backwards into the wall whilst Ron made a noise of appreciation.
Harry winced. "Should we stop them?"
"No. Not unless someone starts bleeding." Sophie pouted a little, her lower lip protruding. "They never ask me to join…"
Privately, Harry thought that Scott would wrestle with Sophie any time she asked.
"Say you're sorry!" Lila demanded, draped over Scott's back with her arms tight around his neck.
Scott spat out a mouthful of her wet hair. "I would rather die."
Lila's eyes narrowed dramatically. "So be it."
"They don't mean that," Sophie assured Harry.
"Er, yeah. I gathered," Harry said.
Breakfast ended up being unusually entertaining, to say the least.
The atmosphere became more serious in the afternoon. After a house-wide gathering session, everyone convened around the kitchen table and placed whatever wizarding money they could forage in a pile. Harry had contributed what he had found in his trunk. The sum total of their collective spare change was underwhelming.
"We'll have to dip into my emergency fund," Hermione sighed, surveying the rather pitiful pile of coins they had scrounged. "But it's not much, just whatever spending money I had left from the school year."
"How are we doing?" Scott asked Lila.
"If you need regular money, we're doing fine. But I haven't been to the bank in forever. Most of what we have is in pound notes, and you have a lot of that," she said.
"We have plenty of Muggle money," Hermione agreed. "We're in no danger of starving in the immediate future."
"I won't let you starve!" Sophie said with a smile. "I can get a job if I have to."
"This is a lot of people to feed on a single income," Scott noted.
"I could get a good job," Sophie added. "And I don't pay rent. Or utilities."
Lila rolled her eyes. "You really think anyone in London is going to accept your glowing recommendations from Strauss Industries?"
Scott raised his hands and slowly parted them, as if he were unveiling a banner. "Strauss Industries: We Totally Exist!"
"My skills are very marketable," Sophie haughtily declared.
"Regardless," Hermione said, determinedly moving the conversation back on topic, "I don't think what we have here will pay for all the Polyjuice ingredients, especially not if we're going to buy others
to deflect suspicion."
"I guess we don't have to do that, but it seems like a bad idea to waltz in there and buy exactly what someone would need to make Polyjuice," Scott said.
"Do you think they might expect it?" Ginny supposed. "What with all the times you lot have used it, and the fake Moody…"
"And the Order's rubbish plan," Harry added.
Ron grinned at Hermione. "You started a trend."
"Polyjuice isn't quite fashionable yet," Hermione said dryly. "It's rare enough that I don't think anyone automatically assumes people aren't themselves; not that we'll be disguised as anyone who would be recognised, anyway."
"But don't advertise that you might have it," Lila said.
"Hence our need for more varied ingredients, and more money."
Harry sighed in frustration. "I should have gone to Gringotts last year and filled my trunk with Galleons."
"The Order isn't exactly swimming in assets, mostly for the same reason," Lila told him. "They could probably cover this, though."
Harry immediately shook his head. "No, we can work this out. I don't want to take money from them."
"Why not rob the place?" Scott suggested.
"Why draw attention to what was taken?" Hermione countered.
Lila made her own larcenous recommendation. "I could rob a different place. Just for cash."
Hermione huffed in exasperation. "What is it with you two and theft?"
Scott shrugged. "It comes up a surprising amount during integrations. You don't always have the time to get funding legitimately. It helps if you have a rich Prime, like Harry, but he's kind of cut off right now."
Harry hid a smile, suddenly struck by the humorous realisation that – in direct contrast to his other friends, especially the Weasleys – Scott would have had no compunction whatsoever in taking advantage of Harry's fortune. Had he integrated earlier in Harry's life, he probably would have been spending Harry's money on everything from guns to video games.
"I'm sure Neville could help us, but we have to start the brewing as soon as possible, we can't wait until his trip with Sophie," Hermione said.
"The twins," Lila said abruptly. "They were loaded. They had cash in the shop and a whole bunch more before they had to go incognito with the rest of us. They planned ahead."
"Tell them that Harry needs some money, I know they'll help," Ginny said.
"They've been paying for some Order expenses, but I'm pretty sure they've got enough to kick some your way. I'll talk to them."
"They owe me, anyway," Harry said, thinking of his tournament winnings.
"Lil, I don't know when you can see the twins, but we have an appointment next week," Scott told her. "I called in about the acq we need for this bank hit and Diehl wants to see both of us in person."
Lila's brow furrowed. "Uh, is he aware we're in the middle of something?"
"I genuinely do not fucking know what is going on at the Consist," Scott said, sounding fed up. "I asked for a temp AFA so Sophie has some backup. He at least approved that."
"It better be somebody worth the posting," Lila said, crossing her arms.
"Actually, we did all right. It's Cody."
Lila's arms dropped, her face switching to satisfied. "Oh, good."
"Yeah, he can handle a day."
Harry held up a finger, feeling very left out of the conversation. "Hold on, what's happening? Are you going somewhere?"
"For a few hours. Don't worry about it," Scott said.
"Whenever you say not to worry about something, it's a disturbingly good indicator that's exactly what I should be doing," Hermione said pointedly.
"Now, that can not be true. I've told you so many things that you never wanted to hear."
"It's the little things you tend to gloss over. Out with it, what's our part in this?"
"You don't have a 'part'," Scott said. "Me and Lil are going to get some of the things we need. For whatever reason, we can't do it over the phone, so, another Primare will be coming here while we're gone. So don't do anything stupid until we get back. I think you can manage that."
Harry felt ambivalent about that. A different Primare? Scott was a soldier and a bit of a nutter, but he was their barmy soldier. Harry didn't want to work with someone else. What if he didn't like them? What if they did things differently?
Judging by Hermione's expression, she was having the same thoughts. "Someone new? That's quite a disruption. And they won't really know anything, will they?"
"It's for one day, max," Scott said impatiently. "I'm not being replaced."
"Could you be, though?" Hermione said worriedly. "I don't want them to decide to keep you and stick us with this new person."
"Changing integrationists partway through an OP is like, literally the worst thing you can do for reasons that are too obvious to bother listing. They never do that unless they have absolutely no choice." Scott jerked a thumb in Lila's direction. "Honestly, if for some reason I couldn't do this anymore, they'd probably toss it over to Lila even though she isn't even an integrationist. That's how much familiarity matters."
"They'd still bring in someone fully rated to assume the OP," Lila noted. "But leave me in charge of you guys."
"So who's the new bloke?" Ron asked.
"Primare Cody DeLucca. He's good people. He's a jabbery little ballsack, but he's good people."
"You'll be fine with him. He's cool," Lila assured them.
"Is there anything that we should know about him?" Hermione asked.
"Uh…" Scott tapped his fingers on the table. "I was going to say don't make fun of his accent, but you can go ahead. Mock his height, too, that'll be fun."
"I don't know, he's as tall as I am," Lila said.
"You're tall for a chick, and he's short for a guy."
"But Lila's the same height as me," Harry protested.
"Yeah? What's your point, shortstack?"
"I'm not short!"
"Agree to disagree, mate," Ron said with a grin.
"Harry is actually taller than the adult male average," Sophie informed them, coming to Harry's defence. He gave her a grateful look.
"I think you're just right," Ginny told him.
"Of course she thinks that, from her perspective," Scott jeered. "She probably can't make out the ceiling."
"Is that so?" Sophie said, crossing her arms.
Scott rolled his eyes. "Oh, now Sophie is offended. It's your own fault for inviting the contrast with your choice of best friend; when you stand next to Lila, you look like nesting dolls."
"And you always look like an arse, no matter who you're standing with," Ginny said coolly.
Hermione was apparently determined to get some useful information. "Scott, I would like to make a decent first impression, so if you could stop disparaging your co-worker for a moment…"
Scott was still chuckling over Ginny's riposte, but he shrugged and said, "He's pretty easy-going. He's a Combat Corps Primare, we've both worked with him a bunch of times. Just let him hang around here until we come back."
"Very well," Hermione said a bit dubiously. "Though try not to delay if you can help it."
"Miss me already?"
"I will when we have to set aside your part of our preparations," Hermione said with a note of reprimand.
"It's just for a day, tops! I don't want to go, believe me." Scott thumped his fist on the table. "When I put in for acquisitions, I had to tell them it was for a mission in the planning stages. Normally, I'd leave it at that, but the Colonel got on the line and gave me the fucking inquisition for reasons that only became clear afterwards. If I'd known that he wanted to make sure I could safely get away for a little while…"
Hermione sighed. "We'll be all right. There's still plenty we can be working on."
"And I'll still be here," Sophie said importantly. "Sophie is on the job!"
"Strauss, don't refer to yourself in third person," Lila said flatly.
"But, I was being ironic."
"Yeah, and you can't pull it off. We've talked about this."
"You don't get to tell me what forms of humour I can assume!"
"Okay," Scott said, sitting up straight, "I vote everyone get up and walk away from the table. All in favour?"
"Aye," Harry voted, and was quickly seconded by the rest of his friends.
Lila stood in the spring air, watching the wind blow a colourful assortment of leaves across the pavement and back into the grass. She hadn't been around to know exactly what the weather had been like, but it looked as if the last remnants of snow had melted not too long before. The grass was a mixture of green and brown, and the pond was overflowing. The Solus sun shone down through a perfectly clear blue sky, dispelling most of the chill outside of the shade.
The sounds of the City were so distinct from those of London. It was odd to not hear the usual assortment of car tyres on pavement and horns blaring in the distance. Aside from the gentle hum of a sidewalk cleaner nearby, there wasn't any traffic audible on the Consistorium grounds. Lila watched as the cleaner extended a pronged appendage and began picking up paper wrappers caught in a nearby bush, dropping the litter into its trash port and compressing it with a quiet hiss.
Scott approached her, holding two shed buns. "Check it out, the dude only had two of the pork left. Score."
"Nice," she said, accepting the hot paper-wrapped bun. "I've missed these."
They stood in silence for a moment as they ate. "Okay," Scott said, swallowing, "so we don't have an appointment, per say, but the sooner we get in there the sooner we can start waiting."
"Hurry up and wait," Lila said through a mouthful of bun.
"Don't HUAW with your mouth full." Scott
sniffed and looked down at his food. "I should have grabbed something to drink."
Second South was the same as ever, a little more tucked away than some of the other more ostentatious wings of the Consistorium. The polished granite decorating its outer facings reflected the wavering light off the park pond; the KRAF seal set over the entryway was bright in the shadow of the walkway roof, illuminated by a few tastefully hidden spotlights.
The inside was still cool air and polished marble offset by dark wood-grain, though there was more ambient noise than Lila was used to. There were a number of people scattered throughout the lobby, some in chairs, some conversing in the corners or near the windows. She recognised a few of them as fellow Primares, trading a friendly nod with Dominic Alta, who had noticed her entry. He had been one of the candidates in her application group.
She followed Scott towards the centre of the room. "Tula's at the desk. Had Aspen last time," Scott said as they approached.
"Tula?" Lila frowned. "I thought you didn't like her."
"Huh? No, you're probably thinking of Tara. Tula's loud, but harmless. And always willing to talk."
"Ah, a good source."
"Yeah, I pump her for information and she makes semi-amusing comments about wanting to pump me for something, too."
"Or so I've inferred." Scott looked up at the emitter board above the front desk. "Look at that. When was the last time there were that many people in the offices? What is– turn around!"
Lila quickly followed his example, pivoting on her heel to gaze out the bank of windows on the far wall. "Why are we doing this?" she said quietly.
"It's Major Wakeman," he hissed, one hand calmly gesturing as if they were in a much milder conversation. "Man, we don't have time for this."
Lila frowned. "I don't know her."
"You would if you had integration rating. Elabeth Wakeman. She's probably going to see me. She always does," Scott grumbled.
Lila raised one eyebrow suggestively. "An admirer of yours?"
"An admirer of my work. And yours, right now. She runs the GROVE project out of Charpenak."
"For the Archival?"
"I think they coordinate, but GROVE is a Primarius section." Scott grimaced. "Oh, fuck me. Here she comes."
"What is she going to want?" Lila quickly whispered.
"Interviews, she'll tell you she only wants a few minutes but she'll keep you there for hours," Scott answered in a single breath, beginning to shift around to confront the Major. "Don't commit to anything; remember, we're here under Diehl's orders."
"Primare Kharan!" the woman called out behind them.
"God. Dammit." Scott turned back around, his expression polite. "Major," he acknowledged, saluting her.
Wakeman returned the salute. "Captain. And Lieutenant," she said in surprise, noting Lila's uniform.
"Ma'am," Lila said.
The Major looked between the two of them as if she were solving a puzzle. A very easy puzzle, considering their resemblance. "You must also be Primare Kharan," she surmised.
Wakeman looked like she had won a prize. "Well, this is quite the opportunity, Primares," she began.
"I'm not sure what you have in mind," Scott lied, "but at the moment we're under orders from Colonel Diehl to report in ASAP."
"I assumed you had orders from the Colonel," Wakeman said. "That won't be a problem, you can report to me after you see him."
A muscle in Scott's jaw twitched. "We're currently on deployment, fully integrated, and we can't leave our Primes for very long, Major."
Wakeman frowned slightly. "Do you not have an AFA assigned?"
"We do, but–"
"Then I'm sure your Primes will be fine for a little longer. Report to GROVE at Charpenak after you've seen Colonel Diehl," Wakeman said casually, deliberately phrasing it as an order.
Judging from the way Scott's face had become increasingly blank, Lila figured he was going to push back until he couldn't anymore.
"Yes, ma'am," Lila interjected before he could get himself in trouble.
"I look forward to your insight, Primares," Wakeman said brightly, saluting them once again and then walking away.
"Diehl will get us out of this," Lila told Scott as they watched Wakeman leave.
"He'd better. It's just a matter of time before something attacks or mind controls or ejaculates on Harry," Scott muttered. "Kid's a crap magnet."
Scott shook himself slightly and assumed what Lila thought of as his 'secretary face', the friendly, vaguely flirty demeanour he used to earn the good graces of the women (and occasional men) that made up the Consistorium's staff. The administrative personnel in Second South were all enlisted, but weren't required to wear dress uniform. The woman behind the central desk ('Tula', Lila reminded herself) was wearing a very smart business-style blouse and skirt, which was an interesting combination with her short purple hair, bright red glasses and numerous tattoos and piercings.
"Hey, Tula's on the job!" Scott said in greeting, sauntering up to the polished desktop and leaning over it. "Now things will actually get done around here."
"Flattery will get you everywhere," Tula said with a pronounced Eastervale Hub accent. She stopped typing just long enough to favour him with an amused twist of her lips.
"You must know what's going on around here if anyone does," Scott said, wagging a finger at the gathered visitors.
"You don't know?" Tula said, sounding shocked. She abandoned her emitter and pushed her glasses up (they had no lenses, Lila noted) as she spun her chair towards Scott. "It's oversight hearings, Scotty. Bad, bad news."
"Yeah, but they've done this before."
"Oh, sure – lots. But this time it's not going away so fast, and all the COs are scramblin'. You should have seen, oh my God, you shoulda seen when the joints came through here! You'da thought Hanetse finally pulled the plug; I called my sister to make sure Odaburk was still standin'!" Tula tapped her long, purple nails against the desk. "Been like a tap dance on these floors, all damn day. And they got me outta records just to watch the door, can you believe that? I'm already covering for Tara!"
"Well, no surprise there," Scott said dryly.
"That girl, oh my God. But you're such a sight, how you been? I heard you were on a long-term. Is this your sister? Hi, I'm Tula," she said, reaching for Lila's hand.
Lila shook it. "Lila Kharan."
"And just as gorgeous as your brother. You know, I figured, I thought that you would be. I only seen your file a couple times but, yeah, now you're here and I thought you would be. I knew Diehl would bring you both in, it's the day for it. What a day! Holy hell, I can't wait to–"
Scott interrupted her. "Hold on, it's the day for it?"
"The oversights, Scotty, remember? Use your head, hon, of course Diehl was gonna call you down here. Everybody's on deck, especially me. I been all over the deck today. Now it's your turn, but I'm still here."
Scott squinted uncertainly. "Because we have a good joint record?"
Tula glanced over her shoulder, then leaned in closer. "Because you're so photogenic together," she whispered conspiratorially.
"Oh my God." Scott's hands fisted on the counter as he looked at Lila. "He's risking my Primes for a photo op."
"You guys are great for the press releases, not fooling. Brother and sister, good bodies, good records, too. They oughta trot you out more often in a pair, though you ain't bad by yourselves," Tula said, snapping her gum.
"You know, I've been told I should go into modelling before. I really didn't think a military career would bring me back around to that," Lila said thoughtfully.
"Full circle, sweets. You gotta use what God gave you; at least when the Colonel tells you to."
"Diehl doesn't do this shit!" Scott said in frustration. "They must be about to nail his nuts to the wall or something, because, goddamn."
"What about Greene, or Bedwin? They're both really sheen," Lila said.
Tula nodded. "Already came and went. Pretty much anyone who looks good on file has been by."
"Nobody looks that good on file. It's a glorified mugshot."
"Yeah, and if you look doable in there then you'll be even better in person. Not even kiddin', they've had a few people go down to the overnights just to freshen up," Tula told her.
"This is crazy!" Scott growled.
Tula gave him a look of exaggerated sympathy. "Oversight hearings, honey. Nobody wants another set of fingers in their pie."
"So instead I have to show up looking like my pie is very fingerable," Lila said dryly.
Tula tossed back her head and laughed like some sort of braying animal. "Oh, Lila Kharan! You look good enough to eat, don't you worry about that. You should swing by the desk more often, girl, I don't know if I ever talked to you before."
"It's been an experience."
Tula grinned widely, showing off several fashionable plated teeth. "I try to make it fun; I'm stuck behind a damn desk anyway, right? View's been better than usual today. Finger's been worse, though. What a day, holy hell. Tomorrow they can all cram it, I'm going over to Crowne to see my boyfriend and I'm gettin' laid at least twice, swear to God."
Scott pressed a hand to his chest. "Tula! I thought we had something."
Tula shrugged and snapped her gum again. "Too slow, Scotty. You talk a good game but you never put out."
"Ah, well. My heart must go on," Scott said. "And my body must also go on, to see Diehl."
"I'll send him a blink from here, but I ain't walkin' over there to tap you in. Been doing that all day, my damn feet look like plimp trout." Tula whipped
through the emitter screens with lightning precision. "Okay, he should know you're here. Rest is up to you."
"You're the best, Tula," Scott said, beckoning Lila towards the leftmost hall. "Usual office?"
"Yep. Just play nice with the shills and he'll get you on your way."
"We actually needed to talk to him for acquisition," Lila said.
"Ooh, that's just bad timing, hon," Tula said sympathetically. "That is just real bad timin'."
The extent of just how bad their timing was became even clearer when they approached Diehl's office and found that there were already at least six people waiting to get in. Scott paused to rub at his eyes, obviously tamping down his frustration. Lila understood how he felt, even if she didn't feel it quite as sharply. Any integrationist worth the title hated to leave their Primes unless absolutely necessary. So far, their trip to the Consist had felt like anything but.
"Trent!" Scott called out, waving the big man over.
Trent Evans-Varea stood from the chair he had been occupying and came over to them with a big smile on his open face. He was a couple inches taller than Scott and built like a tree trunk. Lila had always liked him.
"Scott, Lila!" he said happily, shaking both their hands. "I was wondering if I'd see you two."
"Tula said she's seen about everybody," Scott said.
"Not too far from the truth, probably," Trent agreed. "How are you, Lila?"
"Soon to be bored, from the look of it," Lila said.
Trent nodded ruefully. "I've been here longer than I would have liked. Maria expected me back sooner, but, what are you gonna do?"
Lila shrugged. "Start shooting."
Trent laughed, eyes crinkling. "A p-class would get me out of here in a hurry, that is true."
Scott pointed at Diehl's door. "So, what exactly should we expect?"
Trent crossed his arms, his demeanour more serious. "Well, so far as I can tell, it seems like command is calling everyone in just to prove that they can. They've even brought in a lot of you IC guys; Fawcett is in there now."
"Hey, I'm CC like you," Lila said.
Trent smiled again. "Oh, it's just a matter of time, Lila."
"This is a wider net than I expected," Scott mused, observing the others in the hallway. "Diehl isn't even Fawcett's dispatcher, he works with Reyes."
"It's not just Diehl, and it's not just us," Trent explained, referring to the Primarius. "Diehl's just the one here to meet and greet. I think he drew the short straw."
"I think we all did."
"Feels like it. But from what I've been told, we're going to go in there and just do status."
"Yeah, that's it. There's some folks in there from the media bureau who will take your picture trading salutes, and then they bring in the next 'face of the Primarius'."
"You always were more pretty than useful," Scott told the other man.
"Hearts and minds, Scott," Trent said with a twinkle in his eye.
"We only came in for acquisition," Lila said.
"I heard you two were on long-term. How's that going?" Trent said interestedly.
"Fine, until we had to be here," Scott grumbled.
"Well, I'll bet the Colonel will be happy to have some real business for a minute." Trent looked back over his shoulder. "Looks like I'm next. Good luck with your OP. And, hey, I don't know when you guys will finish up, but I'm throwing a Unification Day lawn party again this year."
"No promises, but you know I'd kill a man for one of those chimichangas Maria makes," Scott said.
After Trent left, Scott and Lila seated themselves on a nearby bench and settled in to wait.
"I thought we were soldiers, not propaganda models," Scott sneered quietly. "You know, if we were still on the GEP, choosing us would be a confirmation of western society's problematic physical standards."
Lila looked at him, then down at herself. "We are some Aryan bullshit," she concluded.
For whatever reason, that struck Scott as inordinately funny. He snorted into his fist, laughter squeaking out around his clamped lips. Then Lila began to smile, more at his snorting than what she'd said, and soon they were both doing their best to muffle their amusement, shoulders shaking with the strangled sounds of suppressed humour which were so obvious in the mostly empty hall.
"At least here we're just for flavour," Lila said once they'd calmed.
"It's a contrast, isn't it? Back with Harry we represent a clichéd ideal; here, we're not even in style. Parvati would turn some heads."
"Girl from school." Scott sighed and put his head back against the wall. "I should have brought a cot."
Fortunately, Diehl was nothing if not efficient. The meetings in his office seemed to average out at about ten minutes each, and it wasn't too long before the door opened and a frazzled Staff Lieutenant stepped out, calling, "Primare Kharan, and… Kharan," he finished, confused.
"Lieutenant," Scott said, breezing past the man. Lila was following close behind, ready to get the whole affair over with.
"Uh, Captain, I'm supposed to verify–" the harried officer protested, but Scott was already in the office, saluting the Colonel.
Diehl didn't bother rising from his desk, though his return salute was crisp. "Stand down, Benson, these are the ones," he said, his voice a bit hoarser than usual.
As the Staff Lieutenant went back to the door, Scott and Lila seated themselves and studiously ignored the three media bureau officers clustered by the far wall.
"Captain, could we have you salute the Colonel again, we need a shot of–" one of them began.
"Sir, we're here to confirm our request for the acquisition we discussed," Scott said, blithely ignoring the media officer.
The media officer was persistent. "Captain, if you could just stand up, please."
Scott didn't even glance towards him. "Our acquisition, sir?"
Diehl blinked a bit longer than normal, obviously fighting the urge to shut his eyes. "This is what you're going to do," he said curtly. "Primares, on your feet."
Scott and Lila rose from their chairs, and Diehl did the same.
Diehl raised his hand in a rigid salute, holding it. "Primares: name, rank and intent."
"Primarius Captain Scott Kharan, reporting for acquisition request," Scott said, saluting.
"Primarius First Lieutenant Lila Kharan, reporting for acquisition request," Lila said, saluting.
Diehl nodded and dropped his arm. "Assuming that serves your purposes, I need you to step outside," he told the media officers.
"Ah, Colonel, we have clearance from the joint staff to take record of your business today," one of the officers hinted politely.
"Primare Kharan is the MOFA for an ongoing operation, the details of which you do not have clearance for," Diehl said calmly. "Now, if you would step out of the room."
The media officers must have been around long enough to know not to test Diehl's patience. They filed out and the Staff Lieutenant went after them, shutting the door behind him.
Diehl re-seated himself with a weary dignity. "Let's get this taken care of so we can get you out of here," he told Scott. "Now that you've done your duty."
"It comes in all forms, sir," Scott said, "including an order from Major Wakeman to report to GROVE after this."
"Countermanded," Diehl said without even glancing away from his screen. "Get back to your Primes as soon as you can."
"Consider it done."
Diehl tapped away at his screen. "I'm approving all items requested, but I want you to speak with Crandall about it when you collect. He might have some ideas suited to your bank mission."
"This is all going to be at P-Sector?"
"Some of what you asked for will have to be shipped in. They should be pulling it out of storage right now." Diehl dropped his hands and turned back to them. "Get over to the Transferral and give Crandall your parameters while you're waiting. Once you're back on site, tell DeLucca to report to me as soon as he clears the box."
"Yes, sir, I'll tell him," Lila said.
"Dismissed," Diehl said, never one for unnecessary clarification or small talk.
Back out in the hallway, Lila wasn't surprised to see another group assembled and waiting. She and Scott traded handshakes and salutes with the mostly familiar faces on the way out.
"Man, I'm glad Diehl sheared the GROVE order, I thought we were gonna get corn-holed on that one," Scott said as they strode back out into the park area. "What do you think: since we have to wait for shipping anyway, should we risk the crowd at Raufenfort just to kill some time?"
"If we walk to Raufenfort we might snap some more shed buns," Lila pointed out.
"Raufenfort it is."
Raufenfort Station was only a few blocks from the Consistorium grounds, down Ever Way. Lila took the moment to enjoy walking where there was no danger of recognition or hostile forces at all. The breeze was still chilly, but the sky was clear and no one on the sidewalk gave either of them a second glance. Up ahead, she could see the Station's red and silver dome peeking up over the Allen Building.
"Do you ever wish they had skyscrapers here?" Scott said, looking at the relatively flat skyline of the City. "They are pretty cool."
"I don't know. It's not really the style."
"'We are the office block persecution affinity'," Scott started to sing.
Lila rolled her eyes. "We have to get you out of England."
They ended up finding another street vendor right in front of Raufenfort, and they partook accordingly. The Station was emptier than they had expected, likely due to the hour. It was the middle of the business day on their side of Solus, and although there
were still quite a few people coming and going through the apertures there were few lines. Lila had been there during major holidays, when the floor was packed ass to elbow and it was impossible to move without kicking over someone's luggage.
The Transferral was the most popular destination, so it took them a minute to get to the front. Their identification as Primarius officers spared them the customs delay, and they were through the gate in short order.
The civilian aperture took them to Central. Lila hadn't been there in quite a while, almost always passing through Primarius Sector Central. The crowds were the same, as were the omnipresent advertisements and stores. Moving lights coursed overhead as the cross-lifts shot past the windows looking into the infrastructure, some on the outer hull offering a dazzling view of the distant Phalanx Nebula. Countless ships hovered as constellations of multi-coloured dots, a few close enough to see in detail. Most would be heading to one of the Gates, or the Transversal Waystation Array. A mining barge was moored nearby, connected by a long tube like a fish on a line. The head of its primary drill caught the light from the nebula, flashing in the corner of Lila's eye. The loudspeakers announced freight arrivals from New Canaan, Springland, Quell's Vineyard, Iioca and the Apogee Corporate Cluster.
She covetously eyed a display of adapti-fit summer tops as they passed. Of course, they'd probably cost a good thirty percent more in Transversal Station than they would at a regular shop. She couldn't wear them at Shell Cottage, anyway. It was possible that Molly might not notice how the clothing kept adjusting itself to never ride up or wrinkle, but she definitely wouldn't miss the scrolling text or moving images printed on it.
One lift ride later and they were walking into the gate armoury. The front part of the armoury was a medium sized room lined with gun racks and equipment lockers, all loaded and ready for field agents to grab and go. The tech equivalence gear that Scott had requested was all considered speciality, and though there was probably some selection below their feet in storage, the bulk of it would have to come from the Primarius Armaments Center, an enormous underground facility on Pavarel. Some of it might even be sourced from Third Army facilities, if needed.
"Technician Bennet," Scott drawled as they approached the desk, overemphasising the 'B'.
Pat looked up from the SMG he had been reassembling. "Well, well. Not too good for us, anymore? Or did Litchfield stop taking IOUs?"
"Hey, I can afford Litchfield because I work for a living."
"Yeah, I'm sure you're real busy, watching your Primes do everything for you. Hey, what did your last bill from Litchfield look like? Or does Sophie just cover that for you, now?"
"It looked like your bar tab, ya fuckin' souse." Scott put his hands on the desk and leaned forward.
"Get your fat mitts off my work area, Kharan." Pat nodded at Lila. "Lil. Always good to see you, at least."
"Can you guys put a cap on the flirting or just blow each other, because I actually have places to be," Lila said in a bored tone.
"Whoa, take it easy," Pat said, cracking a smile. "We're just taking the time to say hello."
"We're supposed to have a shipment coming in, a bunch of stuff for tech eq," Lila told him. "And where's Crandall?"
Pat punched up his screen and scanned it. "Was this from Diehl?"
Pat pressed a greasy finger against one of the lines on the emitted screen. "Okay, I got your crate in about five minutes ago. Crandall should be pulling the sides off it right now."
"Thanks, Pat," Lila said, turning to go down.
"Hey, hold up," Pat said. He reached under his desk and held up a new model Auslight 10mm with some fancy extras. "Are you gonna see Sophie sometime soon?"
"She's with us on a long-term," Lila told him.
"Tell her I rescued her Aus before it got shuffled downstairs. She needs to remember to see me or get in the system to label it right, she just left it with Dowd."
"She was in a hurry. It was a whole thing, we had a spirited discussion about it," Scott said.
The area below the front office was vast, but cramped. Cages of weapons lined every wall while the floor space was taken up by endless, high-stacked rows of featureless plastic crates. It was always dimly lit in storage, for whatever reason. Probably cost effectiveness. The darkened room was too full to echo, and smelled strongly of metal, oil and the waxy aroma of the crates.
Crandall was on his knee pads next to a crate that had just come off the delivery corridor, peering into its contents with a trouble light in hand. He looked over his shoulder as they approached.
"Figured this for an integration," he said in his usual husky mumble, grey moustache curling over a pale upper lip. "Nineteen-nineties?"
"Yep," Lila said.
"Skimmed your parameters while I was waitin'. Don't usually need to mess with your picks, you've been there. I didn't tweak much, but they gave you an MGL variant that wouldn't be in service yet. Got you somethin' a little better suited."
"Did they get everything else in there?" Scott asked, leaning over to look inside the stash.
"No, I got your forty by forty-sixes here," Crandall wheezed. He stood and ambled his way over to a work bench, on which were stacked several green metal boxes. "All surplus, already had 'em. M651 CS… That's USA make, should be. And these are your flashbangs on impact fuse. Not sure where they came from."
"Rheinmetall?" Scott guessed. He popped the case open and pulled one out. "Nope. Actually, this looks like an equivalence custom."
"Someone probably had those made for who knows what. Ain't got a hold order on 'em, so they're yours now," Crandall said. "Everything else is in the box. Bag's on the floor, right over there."
Lila picked up one of the nondescript black duffel bags and began loading it. Scott grabbed a second one and did the same, carrying the cases from the bench. "Always a pleasure," he said to Crandall.
"Service with a smile, that's our motto," Crandall mumbled, his expression unchanging.
Lila paused to examine one of the cases of CS gas grenades. She knew they would be effective, but she was also beginning to wonder if there weren't going to be too many goblins in the entry hall. Harry had described the room as huge. They had enough grenades to blanket the place, but there would still be a lot of goblins and customers to restrain. And that was assuming CS gas was as effective on goblins as it was on humans.
She thought the flashbangs and gas would probably work, at least initially, but for two people to control a room of that size filled with a crowd of magic-users, they needed to think outside the box.
She was struck by a sudden idea. "Crandall, these 40mm grenades – do you have anything for custom dispersal?" she asked.
Crandall sniffed and chewed on his moustache for a moment. "Yeah, I reckon. Solid HE or powder?"
"Okay." Crandall slowly turned in place, surveying his domain. "Well, I could get you somethin' hand thrown right away."
"We have a really large room to suppress as fast as possible, so we were planning on the launchers," Lila said. "Though we're taking both."
"Okay," Crandall said again. He brought up his screen and typed something in with his usual lethargy. "I got these 36mm casings they made for the defoliation tests on Silva. I guess they couldn't get one of their chemicals to burn right powdered, so they put these together. Take a look." Lila and Scott stood and walked over to look at the screen. Crandall continued, "You'll have to be kinda precise. It's pressure based, comes out in a very fine mist. They disperse in the air over the length of their arc, see; you float 'em along over the target, supposed to be spent by the time they touch down. Like a crop dustin' grenade."
Scott frowned. "This isn't tech eq stuff, though."
Crandall shrugged. "Nothin' special, either. Just a pressurised can with a mechanical fuse. Anybody could make it. I'll machine some new shells in 40mm and you can fill 'em with hot sauce if you wanted."
"Did these things actually work?" Lila said doubtfully.
"Naw, they didn't put out enough vapour to cut a path. Not without a lot of them being fired. Weren't infantry efficient. But indoors, for what you're doin'?"
"What are we doing?" Scott asked Lila.
"I was thinking about how to control the room," Lila explained. "Anything that would give us the best advantage would also kill people. But then I thought about all those potions they have. Molly takes a Dreamless Sleep one sometimes."
Scott's eyes lit up. "Lil, you might be a genius."
"Only if it's feasible. I can't in good conscience call you a genius if it ends up not being feasible."
"I could feasibly make you eat those words," she promised.
Scott looked back at Crandall. "One of us will be back to get them. Hopefully without having to go to the Consist for another meet and greet."
"Oversight hearins'," Crandall torpidly replied. "Keepin' my head down and m' mouth shut."
"Sometimes I wonder why you're not in charge, Crandall."
"'Cause I ain't got my head up my pucker," he said with a wispy chuckle.
Lila and Scott took one of the lifts back to the hallways. They rode in companionable silence for most of the way, weighted down with their newly acquired hardware. Lila mentally tallied how much ammunition she had at Shell Cottage, plus what was still hidden in the flat.
"I guess it was all worth it," Scott said, patting the duffel bag on the seat next to him.
nodded. "When we get back, I'll track down the twins and ask about that potion."
"I'll ask about it, too. If we're going to need more ingredients for that, we might need more cash from the twins. Maybe Hermione can give us an estimate."
Lila felt a twinge of anticipation, which she quickly suppressed. There was no point in getting excited about their forthcoming assault. Whatever should happen, they would be prepared. Of course, even detailed preparation could prove insufficient. Chaos was the only constant in combat. But, worrying about the inadvertent solved nothing.