The following is a commissioned interlude. The regularly scheduled (Heretical Edge) chapter will be out tomorrow as normal.
To any outside observers, the man striding casually across the semi-crowded floor of the Detroit Metropolitan Airport would not stand out in any way. He was of average height and build, his face entirely nondescript and clothing just dull enough to avoid attention aside from the simple glasses that he wore. There were no logos on his shirt, and they were clean without being obviously new. He wore his dark hair at average length, and offered faint smiles to those he passed without stopping for conversation. Not that many would care to strike up a discussion with the clearly incredibly boring figure who passed them.
Nor would passersby be any more interested in the simple-looking backpack the man wore over his shoulders. There were no logos or patches on the brown and white bag, nothing that would give any indication that there was anything special about it at all. What appeared to be a very cheap padlock held the zippers shut, just as anyone moving through a public space like this would use. The bag, and the man who wore it, could have been any number of the thousands who passed through the airport every single day. To any who saw him, even those who paid attention, the man would disappear from their memory almost immediately. He was just another face in the crowd, one who did absolutely nothing that could make him stick out in their minds.
That, of course, was entirely intentional. The man’s ability to blend in and attract no attention was specifically why Lion had hired him to begin with. And in these past couple of years, Jared Keene had become a very trusted friend. One of very few whom the little Touched-Mouse felt comfortable with taking her through a place as terrifying as this busy airport.
She was in the backpack, naturally. And, like the man who wore it, the bag wasn’t nearly as simple and run-of-the-mill as it had been intentionally designed to look. Within the bag were three levels, separated by plastic dividers and slanted tubes that she could scurry up and down. The top level, just below the main zipper, was a bit of a watchtower. What appeared to be opaque cloth or leather material from the outside was actually easily see-through from the inside, like a fairly thin mesh that allowed the little mouse to peer through at the outside world.
Meanwhile, the middle level was where her temporary living area was. Down there was a soft and warm nest to curl up in, her water and food, and a smartphone that had been set up to function as her main television. It wasn’t simply for watching movies or browsing online, however. It also allowed Lion to view the outside world through the cameras built into Jared’s glasses, or any of the several other cameras in the bag or his clothing. Or through the cameras of several small fly-shaped drones which automatically followed them from various distances.
All of which meant that at any point, she could look in any direction to see what was around them. It was, again, the only way she could feel even slightly comfortable in a place full of as many dangers as an airport. Or any public space.
Then there was the bottom level of the bag. That was the smallest and most protected section. It was essentially a safe room, surrounded by a thick, reinforced metal that would stand up to almost any level of abuse up to and including being in the middle of an explosion. From inside that small space, Lion could employ any of the dozen weapon systems and other defenses the backpack contained. She could also call in the fly-drones with their own attack capabilities.
Many would have called all these measures completely paranoid and unnecessary. A hired (and highly skilled) bodyguard intentionally made to look as nondescript as possible, cameras facing in every direction, a secret panic room that was harder to break through than almost any actual bank vault, tiny fly-robot drones capable of putting a grown man down within a couple shots, and more weapons built into the bag itself. Most would have said all of that was patently unnecessary when one was simply walking through an airport to board a plane.
To those people, Lion would have pointed out that… they were people. Humans. Tall and strong compared to her. She was literally a mouse. At the absolute best of times, she was vulnerable to people stepping on her because they either didn’t see her or did and panicked. Even if they recognized what her golden armor meant, some would still lash out. Either because they hated Touched-Animals like her, or thought it was funny because they didn’t see her as a real living, thinking creature. She was perfectly and painfully aware of how many humans thought of her and those like her as abominations. Some thought TOuched Nonhuman Individuals (or TONIs) were connected to Abyssals somehow, or that all of them were Abyssals or would become them. Others believed their god dictated that animals ‘cursed’ with intelligence be purged.
And that wasn’t even counting the people who would try to actually abduct Lion to work for them. Her Tech-Touched ability to design elaborate structures and defenses would, after all, be an incredible boon for any Fell-Touched who wanted a new base. Or simply eccentric rich people who didn’t want to commission and pay for her designs, but still wanted her work.
The point was, between everyone who would accidentally or casually kill her, those who would intentionally do so out of maliciousness or religious fanaticism, and those who would abduct her to work for them, Lion had every reason in the world to be careful. Especially in a place she didn’t visit often, like Detroit. In her home of Seattle it might have been different. People knew her there, and she knew them. It was much safer to be seen. But here, in this place? She would take no chances.
But despite all the dangers of the world that she was all-too-painfully aware of, Lion still enjoyed watching people. She didn’t hate the world. Far from it. She was simply incredibly cognizant of the dangers it held. From the safety of her secure backpack, the tiny mouse eagerly gazed through the mesh to look in every direction, trying to take in everything at once. Every person she saw had their own story, and she couldn’t help but wonder what they were. And more than wonder, she actually made up stories about them in her own mind. Seeing a beleaguered mother half-dragging her two protesting children toward the restrooms while an uncaring father trailed behind with his attention on his phone, Lion instantly made up names and an entire story for their lives. The family in this story went through a harrowing adventure aboard a hijacked airplane that brought them together and made them much stronger in the end.
While Lion was focused on trying to decide whether the mother and father in her story would be the one to land the plane in the end, the voice of her bodyguard/driver quietly spoke up with a simple, “Ahead.” That single word was almost more of a cough, but she caught its meaning.
The moment he said that, Lion scrambled in a circle, pivoting as fast as her tiny paws would allow. A second screen built into the back of the bag up on this top level showed the view through Jared’s glasses, and she immediately saw what he was drawing her attention to. Or rather, who. Approaching them was a Native American woman in casualwear, simple jeans and a dark hoodie. Yet Jared and Lion knew her immediately, despite the fact that she wasn’t wearing her normal costume of dark blue and white army camo and tactical helmet. This was Mika Holt, known to the rest of the world as the leader of the state-sponsored Star-Touched team of Spartans. And also, more importantly, a friend. Mika had, after all, been the one who introduced Lion to Lucent after the two had been online contacts for some time.
“Hey, Jared,” the woman greeted, “and company. You mind if we find a place to chat for a minute? I know your plane doesn’t leave for another hour, and this shouldn’t take long.”
Lion, of course, agreed by reaching out to touch a button beside the screen so that the voice from the speakers attached to her armor would be transmitted through the small button on Jared’s collar. “Ahh, oh, oh of course, let’s get something to drink. If, umm, if you’re thirsty.” The voice was soft enough that it barely reached far enough for the intended recipient to hear.
A small smile appeared on the dusky-skinned woman’s face, before she gave a slight nod. “Sure, I know just the place. Expensive as hell and basically the only spot in the airport that isn’t fast food, but hey. It’s a place.”
With that, she turned to walk, with Jared easily following. To anyone watching, this was nothing more than some random nobody guy meeting some random nobody woman and going for coffee at the horrifically overpriced airport shop.
Choosing a booth at the back of the room, Jared and Mika both ordered their drinks and waited for them to be delivered before putting the privacy screen up. It was essentially a wall of colored light that surrounded the booth and kept all conversations within private. Popular, for obvious reasons, with businessmen trying to make last-minute deals before catching their flights.
Only once the drinks were there and the shield had been raised did Jared carefully set the bag on the far side of the table. By that point, Lion was ready and waiting, and a small slot appeared for her to scramble out. Casually hopping from the opening in the front of the bag to the table, the armored mouse peered upward to the woman who sat nearby. “Ahh, hi there, Mika.”
The woman, in turn, asked, “Biscotti?” With that, she snapped one of the treats in half and set part down for Lion before taking a bite of her own piece. “Heard you really helped Lucent out with his little project for the upgrade of the Seraph building out there.”
Taking a little nibble of the treat while Jared carefully prepared a saucer with some of the tea he had ordered, Lion gave a quick nod. Her tiny nose sniffed the air, taking in every detail of the area surrounding the table and the dozens of people who occupied the restaurant beyond their private booth. “Ahh, oh, yes, well I’m just glad he found it, ahhh, helpful? Ahh, did… did he say so?” Even as she answered, the sound of a glass being set down a little too hard three booths away (where the privacy screen had not been put up) made Lion pivot quickly, nose sniffing frantically. Danger! Danger! No–no danger. No, just a somewhat clumsy waitress who apologized. No predator. No problems. No death. Still, she kept a wary ear that way while taking another quick nibble of the biscotti.
“He did,” Mika confirmed. “But he didn’t have to. It’s sort-of your specialty, my mane friend.” The pun was accompanied by a wink before the woman casually added, “Well, that and secretly directing the affairs of an entire universe.”
Mice didn’t blush. But if they could, Lion would have right then. Squirming a bit, she didn’t respond immediately. Instead, she turned to the saucer of tea Jared had set down, leaning in to lap from it briefly. Only then, once she had assured herself that the drink was perfect (as usual, Jared knew what he was doing), did the small mouse turn her attention back to Mika. “Oh, ahh, I only write some stories here and there.”
Her words were met with a disbelieving raised eyebrow. “Write some stories here and there? Is that what they call being one of the primary writers and directors of canon for a multibillion dollar franchise? You know they’re saying the new movie is going to break records again, right?”
Lion, of course, simply shrank back into her golden armor a bit from the attention. It was true. Much as it would have surprised people to know that the simple privacy booth in the corner of the airport restaurant held the Touched-Mouse known most for designing incredibly high-tech defensive structures, it certainly would have floored them even more if they were to realize that that same mouse was responsible for writing several of their favorite science fiction novels over the past several years under various pseudonyms. Specifically, three books within the Outlanders of Reach series. And that, since her first book in that previously-established universe had come out, she had been secretly made a consultant for shaping the direction of the overall narrative. She was credited as one of the screenplay writers under the name Eve Titus, writer of the old children’s novel series Basil of Baker Street (which Disney had turned into the movie The Great Mouse Detective).
Very few people knew of her work, given the names she used. Only three or four people within the publishing and production companies knew the true identity of their director of canon and the author of several of the most successful books in the series. Which was how she wanted it. Because if the public knew, Outlanders would suddenly become the series written by a mouse, rather than being judged on its own merits. And she desperately wanted those works to stand on their own. Her Touched-designs were one thing, but knowing she could write stories that people enjoyed based on nothing more than actually enjoying them was priceless.
It was no real surprise that Lion was so involved and knowledgeable of the Outlanders universe, or that she loved writing so much in general. After all, before his untimely death in the same event that had given Lion her intelligence and powers, the tiny mouse had been the personal pet of the original creator of the books, long before they were turned into movies, comics, a toyline, and more. Aaron Nodgers, the man who had written the first books over two decades earlier, had kept Lion right next to his desk and often spoke of everything he was writing at the time.
Of course, she hadn’t understood any of it at the time. The man’s words were nothing more than sounds. But they were comforting sounds that came from the man who fed and cared for her. And once the… tragedy happened, once poor Nodgers was killed by the man who broke into their home before her orb appeared and changed Lion’s entire existence, she finally did understand the words. She understood the things he had said when he picked her up in his enormous hand and cooed at her. She remembered and understood every word he’d spoken to her in the privacy of their little home.
It was that hindsight understanding of everything her owner and first friend had been telling her throughout their time together that really instilled the love of writing and of the Outlanders universe within Lion. Being able to direct his vision now the way she believed he would have wanted, that was worth more than she could ever possibly be paid for it.
And that was the other half of the reason she didn’t want her work in that fictional universe to be known. Because ‘a Touched-Mouse wrote the new stories’ would be all anyone knew about them. They would never understand or remember that the stories had originally been created and written by Aaron Nodgers, and Lion would rather die than take over his legacy like that. Outlanders was his baby.
“I–ahhh, I’m glad people like the stories,” was all she could manage, shifting a bit to look toward Jared with a slightly quieter, “You said it was doing okay.”
The man, in turn, offered a very faint smile, completely unabashed. “It is. I’d call breaking records doing okay.”
With a small chuckle, Mika put in, “You keep teasing her like that and one of these days, she’s going to find a way to replace you with a robot. Then where are you gonna be?”
Jared, in turn, simply replied, “Maybe I’ll find out if the hive in Oregon needs an errand boy.”
Making a soft squeaking sound of distress in the back of her throat, Lion quickly assured the man that his services and friendship would always be needed. Then, after taking a few more nibbles of the treat, finally asked the woman across from them, “Ahh, umm, did… did you really just want to talk about the uhh, movie until it’s time for the plane?”
Sure enough, Mika shook her head. “Actually, I was kind of hoping to talk you out of taking that plane.” Once she let those words penetrate and knew that she had the mouse’s attention, the woman pressed on. “You might’ve noticed we’ve got a bit of a rising war going on between a few of our gangs. I’m afraid it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better, so I had a few ideas about setting up some defenses around the jails and some other areas. I was hoping you might stick around and offer advice. For a regular contracted fee, of course.”
Pausing, she put a hand out, flat against the table close to the mouse. “I know you want to get home. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important. I just–something tells me the fighting here is gonna escalate beyond what other people think. We could really use an edge, and I think you’d be a good one to have.”
Lion, for her part, was quiet at first. Mika was right, she did want to get back to her own comfortable (and very well-fortified) home. But how could she walk (or be carried) away from a request like that? How would she ever live with herself if she left and found out people died here in Detroit because they weren’t protected the way she could protect them?
So, after considering for almost a full minute while the two humans watched her in silence, Lion gave a short nod. “Cancel the flight, Jared.
“We’re staying in Detroit for awhile.”