Chapter 18: Second Star

In the fight against New Camelot, you will encounter foes that no man can defeat. You must adapt your strategy when facing such opponents. Not every enemy is an enemy, and not every weakness, a weakness.


“So you say you died and came back? You know I can’t do that trick, right?”

I had thought we had ten minutes. We’d had seven. Seven blissful minutes before Doyle started whining about my driving.

Watson had made sure that every cop in three counties knew that we were public enemies numbers one and two. They all wanted a piece of whoever had set that fire that killed two hundred people. They were out for justice.

They were also out of their league. With all due respect to the police, they had to obey both the laws of man and the laws of nature. They had to worry about things like mustering up the necessary manpower to set up a roadblock - hard, with zero notice and at two in the morning - and the fact that their cuddly little police cruiser engines had a tough time hitting one-forty.

My limits were more fickle. After all, this was a chase scene: it wasn’t just traffic laws that I was breaking. All around me, physics groaned in complaint.

Within five minutes, there were probably a half-dozen sets of blue lights flashing behind me. I was playing it nice at ninety-five, but every time one of them tried to put the hammer down and edge up ahead of me, I let him get just far enough to start feeling all manly before I dropped gears and shot forward as the car roared like a dragon.

Poor cops. They really had no idea who they were dealing with. There were far too many people inside me who knew how to drive.

A police cruiser had caromed onto the highway from a ramp just ahead of us, and was now alongside. “Pull over!” the loudspeaker barked. “Pull over now!”

“Is this thing insured?” I asked with a grin. Before Doyle could respond, I eased onto the brake as fast as I dared, while steering into the car alongside. He didn’t have time to react: my front passenger side clipped his rear. His back end fished out to the right, and then to the left as he lost control. He spun away from us and was gone.

My tires chirped. I corrected. We drove.

Possible? Probably not. Don’t try this at home, kids.

We played this game for another minute or two when Doyle, looking desperate, confirmed that there were no more units inbound who could possibly join the chase before we hit the Beltway. With a final wave to the fuzz, I hit the afterburners.

After about forty-five seconds, I couldn’t even see more than a blue hue on the horizon.

Which isn’t to say that they were completely uninteresting seconds. There’s no mechanism to let late-night drivers know that there’s a maniac in an absurdly expensive sports car driving twice the speed limit up interstate 95. Even if there was, Watson would have shut it down: it kept me distracted, dodging imports as if they were stationary barriers. Traffic was light at this hour - well after last call, but too early for the pre-dawn risers to be heading to work - but as fast as we were moving, I might as well have been dodging through rush hour.

It’s not like it’s easy to keep wheels sticking to the pavement at those speeds. You’re not supposed to hit a hundred on the highway, much less half that again. The road isn’t built for it, and the car isn’t built for doing those sorts of speeds on roads that have bumps and potholes. It wants to drive over a supermodel’s face, and I was feeding it a teenager’s.

“Are you quite certain this is necessary?” Doyle asked, eyes wide.

I laughed. “We are who we are, Merlin. Dying in a fiery crash because you’re driving too fast while escaping a maniacal robot bent on world domination simply isn’t literary. So we won’t.”

“You’re putting a lot of faith in the notion that we’re in an action film. Is there anyone left alive who might miss you? This could be a Lifetime movie.”

“Lucky for you, I never made many friends. Any friends, really.”

Doyle rolled his eyes. “Oh, I’m in the car with a dangerous loner with something to prove? Now I feel safe. Let me know when I’ve been strapped to the train tracks and should start screaming.”

I shrugged. “I don’t think you’re the dainty love interest, sorry. Maybe you’re the comedy relief sidekick.”

Something had changed since I had woken up after Jill had… what had she done? Put me back together. Picked up the pieces. Having her inside my skin had been like being the villain in a horror flick. Dangerous. Limitless.

And now… now I could feel them inside me. All of them. All the stories I carried, they were there, and they were mine to do with as I saw fit. Whether Jill had scared them straight or I’d just come into myself, I didn’t know… but when Han Solo was sharing the wheel with Michael Knight and Speed Racer… well. You just didn’t crash.

Not until something literary happened, anyway. Something dramatic.

“Gwen?” The radio crackled to life, unbidden. It was Vivian’s voice.

I remembered the cold. The feeling of cable ties cutting into my wrists. The water.

Vivian.

I let the car’s breakneck pace slow. I wanted my wits about me.

“Yes, I’m here,” I replied evenly. “No worse for the wear, I’m happy to disappoint you. Even Lance’s stab wounds are all healed up. It turns out I have some friends who are true.”

“I never wanted any of that to happen to you, I swear. I sent Doyle to keep you safe.” Her voice sounded earnest, strained. I knew all too well that she could make her voice sound like a lot of things. She'd fooled me before. Never again.

“After killing Gavin!” I snapped. “After stealing Moriarty’s device. After making it look like I’m the one who’s been going after New Camelot this whole time. After setting me up to take the fall for everything!”

“Gavin? Oh no… Gwen, that wasn’t me. Jesus, did he really-? It was… you call him Watson. He’s in the machine. He made sure that Gavin had a message to pass to you, but it wasn’t from Arthur, not really. He faked the email from Gavin to Arthur that sent the doctored footage from the polygraph that showed you admitting you set the fire. Then he got Gavin out of Headquarters so they couldn’t bump into each other. That’s all I knew, you’ve got to believe me! Jesus, he killed him?” Vivian was practically babbling: the words spilled forth faster than she could think them through. “Watson… he told me to steal the device. He said you’d stop us if you knew. We had to keep you out of the way for a while, but I was going to get you out after the coronation. I never wanted…”

Next to me, Doyle was very pale. “Vivian?” he asked, not wanting to believe it. “You still have the device? You said you were going to give it to Gavin, to move it somewhere safe.”

“Doyle? You’re… dammit,” she swore. In a whisper, as if to someone standing behind her, she accused, “You didn’t tell me he was there. You haven’t told me a lot of things! You fucking killed someone!”

A cold, flat voice responded. “I told you what you needed to know to ensure the fate of Camelot. You have performed beautifully, as you always have. Now, it is time to tell her.”

“No, dad. No, it’s wrong.”

Dad?

There was no emotion in the computerized reply, but it was louder. “Then I will have no choice but to eliminate her entirely.”

A pause. Vivian came back to whatever microphone she was sitting at.

“Gwen? You can’t do this. You can’t win. You can’t stop New Camelot. You’re just a girl. It’s time to come in. It’s time to come home. Nobody else has to die. We can keep you safe, Gw-”

Her voice cut off abruptly as she was trying to reason with me. It was replaced by Watson’s toneless, synthesized speech.

“Mr. Doyle, Bill Adler here. I think you’ll agree: my little girl always performs when it counts.” Doyle’s jaw clenched, but he made no response: he was staring into space. “Now, Ms. DeGrace, you obligingly killed the Lady of the Lake for me, paving the way for my daughter's ascent. She will become the Vivian who is also the Lady: powerful, eternal. For that, you have my thanks. And my apologies: your attitude towards Camelot is unhelpful, and you have proven yourself too resourceful to be allowed to risk frustrating my plans. A father must protect his daughter. If Camelot fails, she is doomed to alienation and decay. It must succeed, with her as the Lady. You are an intriguing creature: I do regret your destruction, but it's you or her. It’s time to bring-”

The radio went dead.

I swallowed. We weren’t dead yet, but… this was, like, wicked uncool?

“That’s quite enough out of them,” Doyle snarled, eyes focusing again.

“What did you do?”

“I locked him the hell out. I have… interfaces. That was how I made my money, before I ever heard of Bill Adler: human-computer interface. Half of the things you can do on your phone are my intellectual property, and I’ve got dozens of tricks that I haven’t released publicly yet. You wouldn't believe the licensing fees you can make. My little tricks aren’t dependent on Watson: he just automated them. I can still code, can still broadcast. They think they neutered me. Vivian thinks that by stealing Watson, she stole my power. Hah! She didn’t lock me in a tree… she backed me into a corner.”

There was a sparkle in his eyes. I liked this Doyle! I had an - oops, careful, don’t grind the gears, yikes! - yeah, we were definitely going to live, if I could manage to avoid completely jacking up Doyle’s car.

“Who’s Bill Adler?” I asked.

“Merlin. Old Merlin,” he answered. “And… I can’t believe I missed this…”

“… Vivian’s father,” I finished. “Irene Vivian Adler. And, somehow… he’s Watson.”

He sighed. “There must be something buried in the code somewhere. Watson is insanely complicated: it wouldn’t be hard to hide some obscure call in a subroutine that was just waiting for the right trigger… like Vivian using some kind of phrase to pull in new functions that were just waiting on a server somewhere. I’m just guessing here, but that legacy code could have considerable material in it that no one has looked at since Bill wrote it.”

“You didn’t write all of Watson’s code?”

Doyle seemed genuinely taken aback by the question. “Nobody writes all the code, Gwen,” he said slowly. “Everything is built on someone else’s work.”

I gave him a look, albeit without taking my eyes off of the road. “Not a software developer, here. So Bill gives you Watson, tells you it’s yours now, and pulls a vanishing act?”

“There were some… intellectual property quibbles with IBM. Bill told me it would be better if he weren’t involved anymore. I had the money to fight them, and we won in court. He’d added his own semantic parsing routines that were pure genius. Matched with my interface tech, it was a new product. We set up a licensing agreement and… I am completely boring you.”

“No! I mean, okay, a little.” I blushed. “So, uh, is Watson still locked out or whatever?”

“Informational chaff,” he nodded. “I’ve locked down the communications array on the drone that’s following us: it can’t communicate with the rest of them. It’s just a dumb machine with some basic targeting logic and a really good camera. And I’ve seeded Watson’s data stream with false reports of all the possible routes we could have taken. He’s picking up fake police band and everything. He can’t sort out what’s true from what’s me.”

“Isn’t he kind of, like, a computer? They’re super-fast at stuff like that.”

“He can’t beat me,” said Doyle, chin jutting forward. “I’m the Merlin. Also, he doesn’t have enough drones to cover all the places we could possibly go: there are too many choke points, so he has to make decisions about how to allocate resources. I’m changing my broadcast pattern based on input into a semirandom number generator. He has to sort truth from fiction, but I’m changing how I define truth constantly. My pattern changes faster than he has time to adapt. He doesn’t have time to hack me, any more than I’ve got time to beat his crypto. Either of us could do anything with enough time, so I’m making sure he doesn’t have that. I’m pretty sure I just got boring again.”

I was only partially sure of what he was talking about, but he sounded like he knew what he was doing. Which was good, because for some reason I was having enough trouble just making sure we stayed on the road. The car handled like the sort of dream that leaves you needing to wash your jammies, I had to give it that. We were doing over a hundred and I was sure I could punch it higher.

Except… I wasn’t. I wasn’t sure of that at all. I had been, but that was, like, a looooong time ago. I slowed it down, grinding the gears again in the process.

“So…” I muttered, flushing again. “Vivian?”

His eyes narrowed. “I can’t believe it. She’s Vivian, and I’m Merlin. When we were together, she said…” he drifted off. There was something in his… and the way Watson had said she always performs…

“Ewww! Oh my god!” I exclaimed. “You two have had sex! I’m… aaah, bad visual! Jeez, when did you have time?”

“When I went to her house to ask her about what you were up to after you left me at the Capitol. She, ah, came to the door in a towel, and… well… She is who she is. Then there was when she came to see me in the lab where I was examining Moriarty’s device, while you were taking your polygraph. She… you know what, what may or may not have happened is exactly none of your business. It’s not like you’ve been open with me about what you’ve been doing here.”

I felt Doyle’s disapproval like a punch to the gut. And I was totally ruining the clutch on his crazy-amazing car and he probably hated me now. I teared up. Then I white knuckled the wheel and locked my arms, and suddenly the road was not my friend. Bumps and potholes made things really interesting.

Define interesting.

“Oh god, oh god, we’re both going to die!” Doyle gasped.

“Keep your pants on,” I growled, suddenly stronger and feeling the road again through the wheel. “Apparently that’s been a problem in the past.”

I felt a rush of adrenaline, and laughed at myself. Why had I just been worried about Doyle being mad at me? What the hell did I care? We had bigger problems, and if he was going to be mad at anybody, Vivian was surely higher up on his list. Had I really used the phrase “crazy-amazing” in my own internal monologue?

Doyle’s hands were rigid on the dashboard. “You told me what happened to the last not-so-gentleman who kissed you. No thanks. Not even if you offered to flash me one more time.”

The tires started behaving, and I laughed. “Touche. That’s more like it. Bee-tee-dubs, we’re going to hit the Wilson Bridge in a few miles, and it’s the only choke point between here and Maryland. There’s going to be an army of cops there. I need you to break them up.”

Bee-tee-dubs? Really? What the hell was wrong with me?

Doyle jumped on the new challenge. “Information chaff again,” he decided after only a couple of seconds. “I can take over their radio repeaters and make it seem like we’re pulling off the highway before we get there. They’ll break down the barricades and drive off to where they think we're headed. They might leave a few units…” he trailed off. “Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’d give you at least a thirty-five percent chance of getting through at that point.”

“Never tell me the odds!” I snapped. Then: “Make it so.”

I’d been glazing over again at all the techno-mumbo-jumbo, because, jeez, I didn’t even like math. Then came the sci-fi references, and I was thinking clearly again. But I felt a strange timidity creeping in as fast as I could fight it off. A pink, ruffly haze was clinging to everything.

Did Doyle hate me? I should totally be like, supportive? Or something?

“Doyle, what’s your happiest memory?”

He blinked in surprise. “Yesterday afternoon aside?” I rolled my eyes, but he just grinned. “I guess… there was one summer, my mother and I spent at a farm that one of her cousins had. It was… unplugged. I’d expected to hate every moment of it, because I was thirteen and that’s how thirteen-year-olds are, but I didn’t. There was a day we spent, just the two of us, where we walked the fence, fixing it where it was broken. It was a good fence; there wasn’t a lot of work. It was just her and me… We barely said anything. My mother… she’s a real talker, but that day she let me be quiet. It was sunny, there was this tiny little breeze… When we got back to the house, I remember she gave me a hug, and thanked me for sharing the day with her. It wasn’t the kind of thing that she said, or that we did. But I hugged her right back. I hoped all summer that we’d go out and mend the fence again.”

He took a deep, serene breath. “That day was nothing special. But it was better than any that came before it or after it.”

I teared up, thinking of my father.

“Parents: you never stop wanting them to be there. Thank you for sharing that day with me,” I echoed. “Hang onto it.”

“Why?”

I told him. His eyes widened.

“No,” he mouthed, too dumbstruck to speak. “No, no, no, this… this can’t be your plan.”

I quavered. It had really seemed like a good plan a little while ago. But if Doyle didn’t think it was a good plan, maybe it wasn’t? He was, like, totally smart and stuff?

“Um,” I began, “so I’m really sorry, but I think we’re really going to need some pixie dust, because we are kind of out of highway?”

“Pixie dust? That’s not even a real thing! It’s not like I can just wave my hands and magic some-” His breath caught. Then he was gone, lost in an electronic haze. He’d figured something out.

The remnants of the roadblock that the police had set up across the highway loomed ahead. There were still half a dozen cruisers, lights cutting blue and red slashes across my eyeballs. But some of them were moving away from us, and there was a gap of at least a full car length straight ahead. I gritted my teeth, tried not to cry because I had to do this but it was totally, totally impossible and were going to die and it was all my fault…

With Doyle distracted, the radio hissed to life. It was static for a second, but then it went silent. I willed my eyes not to flicker to the dashboard: at a hundred miles an hour, a twenty foot gap isn’t that wide, and I was not feeling my best.

It was Vivian’s voice again. “Gwen… it’s time… to die. You're just a girl.” The words sounded weird, like someone had taken voice samples from our earlier conversation and pasted them together in a new, more sinister order.

Watson’s voice cut in once again. “Goodbye, Ms. DeGrace. I told him what you did.”

My hair began to whip crazily as the convertible roof began to open. Suddenly, the sounds of men drinking and shouting in song burst through the radio. It was loud; Watson had cranked it to eleven. Doyle shook his head, coming back to the moment. The car sounded like a rocketing mead hall.

I remembered something about mead halls... someone who didn't like them.

Tears started streaming down my face. What was I doing? I shouldn’t be driving like this! I barely knew how to drive. Oh my god! I’d totally just gone all she-bitch on Doyle and told him I was driving. What did he think of me? Did I have something in my teeth? This dress I was wearing, what was I, eight? My nails were all torn up. I checked myself in the rearview mirror and then the steering wheel started to shake under my hands.

I started to hyperventilate. I couldn’t do this! I was just a girl!

A figure stepped into the gap between the police cars. It stood nine feet tall, bald, preposterously muscled, arms like a gorilla. The sword that it held in one hand was as tall as it was.

He was so sensitive... couldn't abide noise. He would get out of control.

Grendel. He was blocking the way. There was nowhere to steer around him. There was no way I could stop. There was… a very big sword.

I could hear his bestial cry over the stereo, over the roar of the engine.

“Mmmmmaaaaaaammmmmmmmaaaaaaa!”

Parents: you never stop wanting them to be there.

I screamed. Like a girl.

“Gwen, what the-?” Doyle snapped back to attention and lunged for the wheel I’d let go of in my panic. Desperately, he fought to keep the car from swerving totally out of control. He partially succeeded, but we shot into the gap in the barricade of police cars at an angle, and the back end clipped one of the cruisers. My foot was mashed down onto the pedal - I didn’t know which one - and we were spinning…

What with the panic, I’d lost track of Grendel. A split-second into our out-of-control death-spin, we found him again as his huge sword crashed down in front of us. It cleaved the engine block completely off from the rest of the car, sending the front end of the Aston Martin spiraling away. I screamed again as highway grit was suddenly pelting the cabin, and sparks from the grinding of the car’s frame along the road scored my legs. Metallic shrieking joined my own as we careened along onto the Bridge, car grinding away beneath us, until finally we crashed to a stop against the concrete wall separating the car lanes from the pedestrian path.

Every airbag in the universe deployed in my face, smelling of gunpowder and terror. I started to come to my senses with my legs pulled completely up against my chest, trembling all over. My breath was coming in short little gasps, and I could barely hold together a thought. We weren’t dead! Oh god, poor Doyle’s car! He was so gonna kill me! Monster - where was the monster? Seat belt… seat belt was stuck…

“Gwen!” Doyle shouted. “Are you okay? Snap out of it! We’ve got to get out of here! I’ve got the fairy dust coming; let’s go!”

I didn’t move, except to tremble. I couldn’t handle this. I was going to die.

“I’m just a girl…” I whispered. I could feel silky shackles on my soul.

Doyle slapped me. Hard.

“Vivian. I don't know how, but she hit you with a memetic curse,” he growled. “I may make magic differently than Bill Adler, but he liked to talk and I'm a good listener. 'Just a girl.' You’re living every bad stereotype that we have about women being weak. Everybody’s susceptible, but it’s worse for Personae. Luckily, women aren’t supposed to get slapped. It knocks you out of concordance with the meme, lets you shake it off for a minute. Now get moving or I’ll do it again.”

My face stung. My eyes burned with tears. I still felt awash, and adrift. But for the moment, I also realized that I could do something about it.

I punched Doyle in the face. Hard. It was very unladylike.

I immediately felt better.

“No thanks,” I said. “Let’s run away now.” Holding his nose, he mumbled his assent.

I got the seat belt off and clambered out of the wreck. The door was spot-welded shut, but Watson had been so kind as to open the top. It probably saved my life.

“K-k-killed… mama!” Grendel screamed, emerging from behind the row of police cruisers. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. My heart went out to him: he was so lost. My body, I threw out of the way, because he was swinging that sword again. I hit the ground badly, skinning my elbows and cracking my head on the ground. I was just a girl, I wasn’t supposed to-

“God damn it,” I swore. “Fucking brain-raping whore shit cunt bitch!” I continued. I swore until the air was blue, navy blue, like sailors hopped up on piss beer and testosterone. With every profanity, some of the gauzy prison faded for a moment. Long enough to let me scramble to my feet and start to circle around my opponent.

I had Odysseus inside me: he’d bested a cyclops. The Dread Pirate Roberts had beaten a giant. I’d only just bid farewell to Jack the freaking Giant-Slayer. Grendel would be cake.

Except… I couldn’t. I couldn’t reach them. I shook my head, trying to clear it enough to allow some badass into my body to take this hyperthyroid ape out of existence. But no one came.

I was just a girl. All of those badasses weren’t.

“Oh, shi-”

Doyle tackled me down to the ground a split second before Grendel’s sword would have torn my head off. He scrambled along the road, away from the lumbering monster, dragging me back with him. We wound up tucked against the wheel well of one of the police cruisers that had been set there to block our escape.

I saw a pool of blood staining the ground red. Following it with my eyes, I saw why these cruisers hadn’t driven away.

I put a hand to my mouth automatically, and then forced down the artificial girliness with a deep breath. The officer’s eyes were open, an expression of horror on his face. His hands were wrapped around the intestines that he’d tried to stuff back into his body. But he hadn’t had anything to stuff them into: Grendel’s sword had cut him in half. I didn’t see his legs anywhere.

Doyle saw it, too, but he was a little more in touch with his aggression at the moment. He grabbed the officer’s gun and spun on Grendel, emptying the clip into the monster as he lumbered slowly toward us.

The bullets hit their mark, mostly. But Grendel didn’t even blink. He just sniffed the air, and I saw his pointed ears twitch at the noise. His pig eyes focused on Doyle.

“LITTLE MAN QUIET!!!! GRENNY SAAAAAD!” he bellowed, bending over to scream it at us. He slammed a fist into the ground, and the road under me rumbled. We were on a bridge, and Grendel made it wobble.

He was just a little kid. He’d been taken from Nimue a decade ago; he should at least be in his teenage years by now. But he was acting just like a three-year-old having a fit. I looked around at the carnage. The Aston Martin was in pieces. I could see at least six police officers down. Some of their cars had huge gouge marks where Grendel’s sword had torn through them. But there were also spots where he’d slammed the sword into the ground in rage and pain. I could see chunks of highway missing, places where he’d smashed his colossal fists into the earth, totally unable to shut down what he was feeling.

He was just a kid.

All children, except one, grow up.

I stepped between Doyle and Grendel. The huge sword flashed up into the air, seeing easy prey.

“Boy,” I said, voice trembling. “Why are you crying?”

Grendel stopped. He squinted down at me.

“Mama…” he muttered. “Mama gone. Gone forever. Don’t have a mother.”

“Oh, Grenny, no wonder you were crying!” I took a shaky breath and forced a foot forward to step toward him.

Just a girl.

He stood, uncertain. The sword tip wavered in his hand. “Hiding man say you kill mama. No like you.” He bellowed in rage at the sky, and I cringed, but my feet didn’t move. I didn’t back away.

“Your mama couldn’t come to you, Grenny. She missed you very much, but the hiding man stole you away.” I inhaled slowly, trying to keep my voice from shaking as badly as my hands were. The memetic curse was making it hard, but Watson hadn’t counted on one thing.

There was something that "just" a girl - only a girl - could do.

“Your mama couldn’t come, Grenny,” I repeated, “so she sent me instead. She knew you’d need a mother. So she sent the strongest one she could find. She had to be sure I was tough enough. The one who could beat her, that was the only one for her baby boy. She loved you so much, Grendel. She gave her life finding you a new mother.”

The sword tip dropped a little.

“New… mama?” His tiny eyes were wet. “Hiding man… hiding man say…”

“Did the hiding man ever give you a kiss?” I stepped forward.

Grendel took a half-step backward, but I kept coming. He stopped backing away, and shook his head. He dropped the sword with a huge clang, and I gasped reflexively. Grendel stuck a meaty hand out.

“Kiss?”

I patted myself down, but I wasn’t even really certain how I’d come to be wearing this dress, and it didn’t have any convenient thimbles in the pockets - or any pockets at all, for that matter. Grendel watched me, expectant. He fidgeted a little. I was losing the story. I was losing him.

I gave him a reassuring grin as my desperation mounted. I was wearing shoes… maybe he’d take a shoe? I could try giving him a real kiss, but that would totally break concordance. I had to give him… something… red?

A familiar balloon drifted down lazily from the sky. I had last seen it slipping into the breeze just before we left the amusement park. It slid its ribbon into my outstretched hand, and then bobbed happily there. Grendel gasped and stared. His nose twitched. His pointy ears bent toward the red globe.

“Here is your kiss, Grenny,” I said to him, handing him Jill’s balloon. He snatched it, eagerness mixed with ginger caution. He poked at it gently, and laughed with joy as it dipped away from him, and then bounced back.

As quickly as I could, I tied the ribbon around his wrist. I could only imagine the fallout if he decided to clap in his excitement.

“‘One girl is more use than twenty boys,’” quoted Doyle. “Peter Pan was always a favorite. My mother used to read it to me, forever ago.”

I turned to him and smiled. “You’re a bit of a lost boy, aren’t you?”

He smiled back. “But I remember my happy thought. And I think he’s found his.” Doyle jerked his head at Grendel, who was sitting on the ground, giggling and playing with the balloon. The sword sat forgotten next to him.

Doyle sobered. “He’s killed people, Gwen. He will have to answer that. And what are we going to do with him? He’s a monster to the naked eye. He shouldn’t be able to be that, any more than his mother should have been able to be a horrible tentacle beast.”

My lips made a thin line. “Puck said that something had changed. I think it has to do with all of those Personae dying the other night. I think it has to do with me. But Grendel? Look at him. He’s a little boy. Yes, he’s also a monster. Yes, he’s done wrong. Some things, horribly wrong. But you don’t blame the kid with the gun, even if the kid is the gun. You blame the one who put the gun in his hands and pointed it at us.”

Doyle frowned back. “Bill Adler. Watson.”

I nodded. “He made sure that cops would be here, and then worked Grendel into a frenzy and set him loose.”

I turned, and looked up at the sky. There was a star up there, moving slowly across the heavens. “Watson's drone: can it see me?” I asked Doyle.

“Yes, and probably read your lips, too, at that altitude. It's flying low, maybe ten thousand feet.”

“You said that the fairy dust was incoming?”

An engine cut through the night, growing louder. It was coming from the opposite side of the Bridge, in the opposing traffic lanes. A low-end sports car came revving by, the first traffic in the last few minutes. As it passed us on the other side, its window rolled down, pumping loud music into the night. My eyes flicked to Grendel, but he hadn’t stopped playing with the balloon even for a minute.

Out of the window, the driver reached a hand, and flung a plastic bag through the air. It burst open over us, showering us with small, straw-like objects. Several of them burst open as they landed on us, spraying colored powder everywhere.

I dipped a finger in it, and tasted. “Pixie sticks?” I laughed. “Doyle, you’re a genius.”

He beamed. “You put out a call on the internet asking for pixie sticks delivered to GPS coordinates in five minutes, and offer five thousand dollars to the first taker, you’re likely to get a lot of fairy dust.”

“Doyle,” I gasped, “look down!”

His feet weren’t touching the ground. He looked up at me in amazement.

“How… how does it feel?” I asked.

He tilted his head back and crowed in exultation. He laughed like a kid. “Gwen… it’s amazing! Come on… what’s your happy thought?”

She's the best thing I've ever done, my father said in my memories. He'd smiled at me, and I'd had to stop him from ruffling my hair. Don't tell my wife.

I closed my eyes. I felt warm. Safe. The weight of the last few days lifted off of me. I wished I’d let him ruffle my hair. I pictured it, felt his hand tousling me, my hair going every which way…

I opened my eyes. I looked down. I laughed.

The Bridge, Doyle, Grendel… they were all far, far below. I was high up in the sky, floating, weightless. I did a little tumbling roll, just because I could.

Then I heard a noise. A familiar noise, one I’d heard throughout my eighth year. A buzz, a hum. Not far.

The drone was circling in a standard reconnaissance pattern: a wide circle around its target. It was shaped like fixed-wing aircraft, with a huge camera mounted on a rotating drum on the underbelly. As the drone circled, the camera swiveled, targeted on the scene on the bridge. I could see another sensor array near the nose, a glass dome that presumably gave more of a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view under the aircraft, the better to find its targets. There were no armaments strapped anywhere that I could see.

It was cold up here, but I felt it only as a dim awareness of chill: adrenaline or magic, I didn't know. As I flew toward Watson’s drone, the large camera swiveled up to follow me. Between the wind and the rotor noise, it definitely couldn't hear me - it probably didn't have any audio sensors, anyway, because why bother? - but Doyle had said it could read lips. I flew in close, maybe twenty feet away from the tip of its starboard wing, below the chassis so the camera could see me clearly.

"Her or me!" I screamed over the roaring air. “Your words! Guess who I choose?”

The drone made no response.

“It didn’t have to be a choice!” I accused. “We were friends. I would have helped her! But you couldn’t leave anything to chance, couldn’t trust in good will! You had to control everything! Now, I’m coming for the both of you! Tomorrow! It all ends for you tomorrow! Camelot, Arthur, the Lady, everything! Game over! You can control New Camelot. You have swords.” I spat the last word.

“I have words. And I’m carving them on your tombstone, you bastard!”

Suddenly, the drone rolled toward me. The thing was enormous, and its rotors were set to “puree”. At the speeds we were moving, even a small twist made for a lightning-quick change in direction, and Watson was steering for murder.

I didn’t move. I didn’t have to. Grendel was there.

Grendel’s sword was there. With a mighty heave, he cast it into the closest rotor. And suddenly, one of the drone’s wings was not there.

“You no hurt new mama!” Grendel roared. He stood there in the sky, clinging to a red balloon that seemed impervious to the gale all around us. The damaged drone slid under us through the sky, and I felt the wind suck at me, trying to drag me down with it in a death spiral.

But Grendel slid his hand into mine, and we stood fixed in the air as part of Watson crashed into the Potomac.

With amazing gentleness, Grendel squeezed my hand. “You good new mama,” he declared. “Granny no let you go away.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” I promised. “You’re a good boy, Grendel. We’ll take care of each other.”

Slowly, we drifted down towards Doyle, who was still floating a hundred feet above the Bridge.

“Gwen!” he greeted me with a laugh. “Did you just tear apart an unmanned aerial vehicle?”

“You should see me before I’ve had my coffee.”

He put his hands behind his head, and lay back into the air. “So what’s next, Wendy-lady?”

I gritted my teeth. “Next is Arthur. Watson may be the bad seed that set him on the path to being an egomaniac out to save the world from itself, or maybe that’s just the ugly story of Camelot when you peel back all the shining armor, I don’t know. But it’s time to write their final chapter.”

Doyle sank down slightly in the air. “Yes,” he agreed wistfully, “I think that there’s something rotten in Denmark. But what does that mean for Vivian? You heard her before. Bill’s manipulated her into all this. And I see from that look in your eye that you’re still mad about the torture that was after all not that long ago and I understand that. But what does it mean for Merlin if Camelot is finished?”

“Maybe it means that he doesn’t get trapped in a hawthorn tree for all time by an evil sex witch? Maybe it means he gets a happily ever after?”

He frowned. “You’re talking about something that no one has ever done before.”

“Beating Camelot? They’ve lost every single time they’ve tried to rebuild it since the Dark Ages.”

“I mean rewriting the story. Sure, people give it their own treatments all the time. But rewriting it, so it sticks? Ending the story?” He shook his head. “I’ve seen you do a lot, Gwen. But this isn’t just about what you can do. This is about what the world can believe.”

“Two thousand years ago, a man with a hammer made the world believe that the meek would inherit the earth. Let’s see if we can convince people that a man who murdered dozens of children deserves justice.”

He smiled, and shook his head. “And people have called me arrogant. All right: we’re up against an army of knights in shining armor and a sky full of drones. We have a girl in a sun dress, a computer nerd, and a man-child with a red balloon. It’s time for the Revenge of the Nerds.”

“My dad loved that movie. I never understood it. It wasn’t very funny.”

“That’s because the nerds won, Gwen. We beat the jocks and took over the world. I’m living proof.”

My eyes spotted something on the river. “Doyle, I think you’re ripe for a career change. How do you feel about piracy? You’d make a terrible Dread Pirate Roberts, but I could see you as Smee.”

I pointed. Sailing up the Potomac, a ship drifted effortlessly against the current. The Jolly Roger fluttered in the breeze.

“Ahoy, mates!” called Puck from below.

I beckoned Doyle and Grendel. “Come on!” I said. “Captain Puck! Permission to come aboard?”

“Arr!” he replied as I touched down. “I sent yer friend in tha' bowler hat to sleep things off. Changes like that may stick or they may not... but they come at a cost he'll pay in a week's worth of snoring."

I frowned, but nodded. "Cavill was there when I needed him. He'll be there again."

Puck nodded. "Where be we headed, me hearties?”

Vivian had let something slip. We had to keep you out of the way for a while, but I was going to get you out after the coronation.

“There's only one coronation I know of in these parts, at this time of year. Arthur will be there. It’s time to get Renaissance on his ass.”

“Don’t ye mean ‘medieval’?”

“No. It’s time to enlighten him.”

I looked up to the stars. My eyes glittered back at them.

"Second to the left, Captain Puck, and straight on till morning!"