Hasta la vista, baby.
"I'm sorry," I blinked. "Watson is sending 'all' the drones? Wha-?"
Vivian's strained voice cut me off. “You ruined Camelot. Any second now the internet’s going to have a dozen smartphone videos of what just happened here. Even he can’t stop it.”
“Unless he stops everything,” I finished. “He’s going to kill us all. Me. Arthur. And all the witnesses. Hard to upload video when you and your phone have been blown to tiny bits. In thy mercy.”
Vivian was pale. “He’ll do it. And in the wake of the worst tragedy since 9/11, he’ll have someone waiting. A scapegoat, and a hero. I don’t know who. But he’ll be ready to have someone take over the world again.”
I shook my head. “He won’t do it. Not with you still down here.”
There were tears in her eyes. “But I’m not. I’m backed up on a hard drive, Gwen. You think it’s just Moriarty who can be imprinted? He stole the machine that my father invented. I used it to temporarily imprint Irene Adler on myself so that I could fool you. I knew you'd know me, so I made sure I was her, at least until I undid it.
"My father has used that thing on me more times than I can count. 'To help,' he always says. I wake up and he'll have fixed some personality defect or another, like some damn science fair project. One time he made me dislike cheese - 'to make it easier for you to stay fit', he said. He took away my desire for cheese so I wouldn't get fat so I could be sexy in order to have power over men so that I be better at whatever he wanted me to do. That's how willing he is to use that goddamn thing. I don't know who I am or who I used to be.” She prodded her own chest. “I don’t even know if this is the body I was born in. He takes out every living soul here and I’ll wake up and he’ll have a story about how you murdered me, or some shit, and I’ll think that the skin I’m wearing is mine. He can always start over. He won’t hesitate.”
I closed my eyes, pinched the bridge of my nose. Think. Think. This is what you do. You think your way out of problems. Usually, you do it before a psychopathic ghost in the machine has a whole Air Force worth of drones ready to blow hundreds of innocent people to-
My eyes flashed open.
“It is your body. ‘Just a girl.’ Hah!”
I heard a drone on the air. Watson wasn’t coming. Watson was here. But so was Merlin. And Vivian. Both at the height of their power.
This wasn't a story anyone knew.
“Listen,” I snapped, “when the imprinting process happens on Personae, they keep whatever abilities they had. Moriarty imprinted on Hercules and he was still super-strong and tough. Lancelot was still a swordsman. And you cast a spell on me last night, didn’t you? Memetic curse, ‘just a girl’? And it was you who hit Kay with that lightning bolt, wasn’t it? You’ve got spells: you’re a magician of some sort. But your father, he cares about Camelot so that he can turn you into the Lady of the Lake version of Vivian. If you were some other Persona, it wouldn’t matter: the story is in the blood. He wouldn’t bother trying to turn you into Vivian if you were really Cleopatra. You’re Vivian and you have to be Vivian because he cares about Vivian. “But Vivian can’t cast spells… not until she’s stolen Merlin’s power. Doyle’s still powered up, so which Merlin’s magic did you steal? His. You stole your father’s magic when you trapped him in that computer. You did that, right?”
She swallowed away tears, and nodded. “How did you…?”
“Elementary, as the man says. For now, just know that it’s really your body, or you wouldn’t still be able to cast spells. If he’d uploaded you into a new body, you’d have lost that. You’ve got the magic of the Merlin flowing in those veins, magic that Vivian stole when she stole his power. We’ve got a fleet of drones to knock out of the sky.”
I pointed at Doyle, then to her. “He’s Merlin. You’re Vivian. Go make some magic happen.”
Doyle’s eyes met Vivian’s. At the same time, they each asked, “Lightning?”
They grinned. Thunder rumbled.
Instantly, they were lost in each other. “Patching into cell towers…” muttered Doyle, with Vivian whispering, “electrical impulses at the right frequency… electromagnetic emissions delivering…” “… virus though the system,” Doyle continued, “… taking it straight back to the source!” Vivian finished, triumphantly.
Lightning flashed across the sky from clouds that appeared out of nowhere on the horizon. Some people out in the stands held up their cell phones in confusion, squinting as if it would revive stalled uploads.
Then they smiled, signal restored. The strobing in the sky died down, and the clouds started to fade. And that was it. The two mages turned to me.
“It’s done,” said Vivian.
“The drones will fly out over the ocean and run out of fuel somewhere in the Atlantic,” Doyle added.
“… that’s it?” I asked.
“Did you want a fireball?” asked Vivian. “I think I can do a fireball if it makes you happy.”
Doyle was also grinning from ear to ear. “Did you expect man-on-drone violence to be the culmination of the action? I thought you cared about winning.”
I laughed. “Did we?” I giggled. “Did we just…?”
There was an explosion in the distance. Vivian’s head whipped to the sky, and Doyle unfocused.
"Gwen?" asked Vivian, "if you destroyed Camelot, he doesn't really need to worry about Vivian anymore, does he? He can just… wipe the slate clean."
“Oh god…” Doyle murmured. “Watson… he… he got one command through before we shut it all down.”
Another explosion, closer.
“Fire. He told them all to fire.”
I was already watching the parking lot as the missiles struck. They weren’t aimed at anything in particular, but with all the drones we had coming in, did that really matter? Tens of thousands of pounds of ordinance would blanket the area in the next sixty seconds.
Plumes of orange and red blossomed at the far edge of the field where thousands of spectators had parked their cars. It was oddly silent as the undirected barrage of missiles grew into torrent of explosions that swept toward us. The blossoms merged into a sea of fire that enveloped everything.
We’d be lucky if we had time for the fire to kill us. I could see the mounting pressure wave as car windows shattered and grass flattened, far ahead of the explosive flares. At the speed of sound, a wall of hyper-compressed air blasted toward us with concussive force. There was an inverse-square law in there somewhere, but with more bombs dropping every second, the explosive force was going to hit us like a thousand pounds of concrete.
“Run!” I screamed. “Get to the trees!”
I don’t know if anyone heard me, because that’s when the sound of the first explosions reached us.
Vivian stood tall, arms stretched to the heavens. Doyle pulled at her, but she shrugged him off. Her lips were murmuring something that was lost in the growing roar.
Lightning flashed down from the sky, close. A missile exploded, followed by two more caught in the arcing energy off the main branch. The explosions were high, early.
“There!” Doyle pointed, and more lighting hammered missiles out of the sky. His finger swept and jabbed, quickly joined by his other hand, and where he pointed, Vivian directed her elemental fury. Explosions flared from missiles I couldn’t even see - but Doyle’s computer-aided vision could.
The sound of distant booms mounted as the noise from the first strikes was joined by the howls of nearer ones. It became a physical thing as the sound from the lightning strikes and their explosive victims reached us. I could feel my insides quiver as I watched a copse of trees fall instantly flat from the pressure wave.
Suddenly, the ground just between us and the parking lot bowed upward, like a bubble of earth. Grendel burst forth, his huge bulk between us and impending doom. Tears streaked his dirt-caked face, and he clapped his giant hands over his inhumanly-large ears. His mouth was open in a cry that was lost entirely as the pressure wave hit us.
In the last instant, I could see his eyes go wide. Then I was lost in a maelstrom of sound that became all sensation. I could see the noise; I could taste it. It was coppery and orange and smelt of sulfur.
I lay there in the dirt, head spinning. I’m not sure how long it took for me to be able to pick my head up. The scene when I did was surreal: where the parking lot had been there was now a carpet of fire. Closer to us, cars and trees lay mangled on the ground. The festival buildings that had stood between us and the parking lot were splintered, and the grandstands on that side looked like someone had driven a truck through them.
Yet… they weren’t completely destroyed. And while I could see bodies laying everywhere, some of them were stirring.
I did a quick accounting of my own body: intact, bruised, ears ringing to high heaven, alive. Alive.
Nearby, Doyle picked himself up off of the ground, where he’d tackled Vivian. The both of them looked dazed and every bit as surprised as I was to be alive.
“That worked!” I saw his lips move. “We set up a destructive harmonic pattern of early detonations… we met the pressure wave with a counter-wave. We canceled out part of the explosion with our own explosions.”
Then he threw up.
Grendel lay near me, his massive body unmoving. His hands were still clapped over his ears.
As quickly as I could manage, I crawled to him. He’d been buried down under the tourney ground with me, and had pushed me and that bulky Black Knight costume up through the earth when it had been time. He was filthy, and huge, and still.
“Gren?” I called, shaking him. “Gren?!?”
With a shudder, he took a tentative breath. He picked his head weakly up from the ground, and when his eyes focused on my face, he gave me a terrible smile.
“Mama…” he sighed. “Grenny no like big noise.”
I laughed, and hugged him.
Slowly, I picked myself up off of the ground. Half of everything I could see was a hellish wasteland, and even though some people were stirring, some weren’t.
Vivian was also standing, and she helped Doyle to his feet. Her eyes looked very flat, and her jaw was a grim line. She’d been right: Watson hadn’t hesitated. Her father had just tried to kill her.
I felt a slight electric sizzle. The coppery taste of ozone filled my mouth and nose, and Vivian’s dark hair began to rise with a static charge. I felt my own doing the same.
“Get down!” someone shouted, and then several things happened at once. The first thing was that somebody tackled me to the ground, apparently not satisfied with my lack of response to being shouted at. The second was that the dirt just behind where I’d been standing exploded in a cloud of grit and smoke, leaving behind a hole several feet deep and just as wide. A thunderous boom knocked Vivian and Doyle back off their feet.
Groaning, I found myself tangled up with Roger Stevens. He grinned weakly at me, and said, “What do you know? You can hear them from the ground!” Then: “Ow. Also, we should move. Also, ow. I really shouldn’t do that.”
He didn’t have his crutches. Looking in the direction from which he’d come, I saw them lying near the base of the half of the stands that were still intact. He’d somehow sprinted the thirty feet over here without them. From the look on his face, it had hurt.
“My hero,” I smiled at him. “Thanks. Also, I told you so.”
Vivian was on her feet again, and the two of us got Roger to his, holding him between us. “That was the rail gun. The floating you were seeing is its signature: it electrically polarizes the air molecules along the ballistic trajectory to increase velocity and accuracy. It takes two minutes to recharge the cells,” he was saying. “It can track a dozen targets at a time with LIDAR. Effective firing range is a half mile, and at cruising speed it can make landfall within thirty seconds of firing. We really have to move.”
We started running toward the stands, where people were recovered enough to be panicking. “What can make landfall, Roger?” I snapped. “What is this thing?”
“The Counter-Air/Land Improved-Ballistic-Effect Reaper, Mark-10. CALIBER-X.” He paused. “It’s, um, my project at work. I’m having a really tough time figuring out why it’s here.”
“It’s a super-drone?”
“Uh, yeah, you could call it that. We always just called it the Transformer.”
There was a howling, like the sound of a bomb dropping. I looked up to see something hurtling out of the sky toward the jousting field. It looked like a plane at first, but as it sped toward the earth it sprouted four legs, and its wings folded up behind it and pivoted to fire its turbines downward to brake its descent. The sound was like the angry bellow of a dragon. The “Transformer” crashed down with enough impact to make the ground shake, and was immediately lost in a huge cloud of dust that spread from the impact site in a dark wave.
We covered our eyes and coughed the grit out of our lungs. “This won’t slow it down,” Roger managed. “It’s got thermal.”
“For what?” I spat.
“Originally we wanted to get better BDA - battle damage assessment. Nothing like ground truth. It’s really embarrassing to tell a policymaker that the deputy emir of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is dead, and then be wrong.”
I had the feeling he could keep going all day. “Get. To. The. Point. Please.”
“To kill us,” he summarized. “With swords.”
“Swords?” I exclaimed.
He shrugged. “The whole point of this thing was to eliminate collateral damage. Hard to have a misfire with an edged weapon.”
“You’re saying that thing is going to get up and come after us?”
The dust was settling now, and Roger didn’t have to answer. From the center of the crater, CALIBER-X reared up on its hind legs like a horse. It pawed at the air and landed firmly on its feet. It was facing us, and it was ready to charge.
The body was the fuselage of a drone that once looked like a fixed-wing aircraft, maybe thirty feet long. The wings had folded up back behind the body, spread slightly. Where an animal’s head would be was a massive cannon, with a pair of sensor arrays on top that gave it binocular vision. In about ninety seconds, according to Roger, those eyes would fix on me, my hair would stand on end, and the cannon would belch forth a fire that ended me.
That was, if the blades I saw jutting out along its forelegs didn’t get me first.
“Vivian,” I turned to her, “you get Roger somewhere safe. Don’t you fucking argue with me and if you stab me in the back again you will live to regret it, do you understand?”
Both of them started to argue anyway, but I cut them off. “You’ve got eighty seconds to save my life. Think fast.”
I turned from them, and strode towards the mouth of the dragon before me.
“Sherlock? What I said before?” I swallowed hard. “I’ll take whatever you’ve got.”
I feared you would never ask.
A familiar presence filled my body. My legs started moving faster. Together, we charged the monster.
It didn’t move. It didn’t move. It didn’t move. Then, with speed so blurring fast that even Sherlock Holmes barely saw it, it swept a foreleg out and its blade took my head off at the should-
No. It is too fast. New tactic. Rewind.
.evom t`ndid tI .evom t`ndid tI .evom …
… move. I could tell from its immobile stance that it was counting on me to underestimate its speed, so I didn’t. Those forelegs would be instantly lethal. My eyes had already swept the tourney field, taking in everything there was to see… and everything that there wasn’t.
“Puck! Scabbard!” The fairy was nowhere to be seen, and neither was the magical scabbard that had let me laugh off being impaled by Arthur’s sword. Those two things were related. I raised my hand, and a half-second later, salvation fell into my hand from on high.
The dragon re-evaluated. I still was not an immediate threat, but now I was invulnerable to its blades. But Puck wasn’t. It calculated the trajectory of the scabbard from when it had first appeared on its sensor array. It mapped it backward to where it knew Puck had to be. And with lightning speed, it reared back and tore him in half.
Except he wasn’t there anymore. “You’re swiping at someone who can dash ‘round the moon and back while a baby burps,” I explained as I slid down under the dragon’s body, reaching for anything that looked hydraulic. “You’re going to have to do better.”
“If you insist, Ms. DeGrace,” came Watson’s empty voice as the drone’s legs retracted and the whole thing came crashing down on top of me-
… retracted, but if Watson thought gravity was moving at my level, he had a lot to learn. I kicked myself into a roll as the fuselage smashed into the earth inches from my skull. There was a mechanical whirring as one of the wings slashed down towards me, ready to slice me in two. But I hadn’t been heading this way to fight the dragon.
I’d been the bait.
Mouth open farther than it had any right to go, Grendel caught the wing in his jaws before it could reach me. He straightened up, and the whole drone rocked back in the other direction. His teeth gnashed through the wing, and he spat metal.
“You no hurt Grenny’s new mama!”
He leapt, landing squarely on the back of Watson’s drone and wrapped his arms around one of its wings. With a surge, he reared back, tearing the wing clean off of the plane. It crashed to the ground as Grendel roared in triumph. He turned his misshapen face to me, huge mouth grinning.
Blood bubbled up between his lips.
He looked down with childlike curiosity at the the gore-covered blade protruding from his chest. The drone could move like an animal, but it could also bend its limbs in a way no animal could match. One of the hind legs had twisted up and around and stabbed Grendel through the heart. He reached a hand up to grab it, but his fingers slipped as the nerves left them.
“Gren!” I screamed.
No! shouted Holmes in my head, but this wasn’t something he could just rewind and replay. We hadn’t had that data, and we couldn’t look out for Grendel too…
The drone whipped its leg around, flinging Grendel away over the grandstands like a piece of garbage.
An answer came from the grandstands in the form of an arrow through one of the machine’s eye-like sensor arrays.
“Hey, you bucket of bolts! Let’s you and me tango!” Robin shouted, loosing another arrow at the robotic beast as I scrabbled away.
“You don’t believe that I am without redundant systems, do you Ms. Cowl?” Watson asked, ignoring her shafts. “You’ve accomplished nothing. I am simultaneously tracking the lot of you.”
“Yeah? Did you track me severing the hydraulic line on your back legs?”
Watson’s hindquarters were suddenly wobbly. The drone’s metallic torso pitched to the left, crashing heavily to the ground… onto reinforced rear landing gear. It wouldn’t be as mobile as before…
“… but this is barely even a temporary setback. All of my synthetic parts are composed of a self-healing polymer that releases an enzyme that renders the area around it temporarily malleable. A slight electrical impulse increases the surface tension of the non-Newtonian fluid, and just like that…”
A hind leg thrust itself downward, followed by the other one. The dragon was moving again.
“Hadn’t thought of that one,” Robin admitted, “whatever the hell you just said.” Then she threw herself out of the grandstands as a sweep of one of Watson’s now-repaired legs brought them crashing down.
“I am tracking all of you,” Watson repeated, “including you, Mr. Holmes. What are you doing in that costume shop?”
“Getting into character,” Doyle answered. He stepped into view from a small shop just off of the tourney grounds. He was clad in a purple robe covered in stars, with a matching pointy hat. He was wearing a false beard. “I’m faking it ’til I make it.”
“Do you believe yourself to be a master of magic? Poor, deluded Doyle. Do you know why I chose you? Because you are harmless. You could no more wield the lightning than you could tear off a wing from this drone. You are a pretender. You are not worthy of the power of the Merlin.”
Lightning crackled in the sky. “Neither were you, Bill. And now you’re just a computer program. One whose sensors I can monkey with while you’re looking elsewhere.”
In a smooth motion, he pulled the hat off of his head and threw it at Watson’s bladed feet.
Nothing happened. We all stared expectantly at the limp piece of costume.
Vivian vaulted from the hole where Grendel and I had waited for Arthur. She was wearing a black one-piece rimmed with white fur and had a pair of white rabbit ears sticking straight up off of her head. She had white thigh-high stockings on and white leather boots with an improbable heel. With the speed of a jackrabbit, she tore open a panel on the underside of the drone and thrust something up into it.
She gasped as she found her mark. The drone didn’t seize up, didn’t flail: it simply stopped. It emitted a slight humming noise, and moved no more.
Vivian let her breath out. She looked at us triumphantly.
“Rabbit out of a hat. Was there seriously a Playboy Bunny costume in that shop?” I asked. “Of course you’d find it.”
“Don’t hate me because I saved your life in five inch platform heels. It was Roger who knew where the access port was, and it was Doyle’s wireless drive that I stuck in there. A virus is busy broadcasting itself straight back to the server that he came from. Pretty soon, the control center is going to be shut down. So Team XY gets some credit.”
“You looked better doing it,” Doyle grinned, taking a step toward us. “You know, between using lightning-generated electromagnetic pulses to reprogram airborne drones, setting up destructive sonic harmonics to counteract a firebombing, and reprogramming a drone on the fly, I think we make a good… team?”
The humming noise from the drone stopped. The hairs on Doyle’s fake beard started to rise. His robes started flowing upward.
We were supposed to have another thirteen seconds, Holmes reasoned. There must be a backup system triggered by tampering. Spies wouldn’t want their drone captured and reverse-engineered. The main weapon may not be fully charged, but at this range it doesn’t have to be.
Scenarios played out before me. I cried out for Doyle to move, and I watched him die. I raced for the drone to try to grab its rail gun, was cut in two by its arm blades, and then watched Doyle die. I picked up a nearby rock and threw it at the gun in an attempt to spoil its shot, but nothing was heavy enough to move the barrel by even an inch, and I watched him die. I watched him die. I watched him die.
Then I watched something happen that I hadn’t calculated at all. The granite block with the sword in it had toppled over from the shock of the drone’s landing. The magnetic plate we’d installed to trap the blade inside must have come free, because when Arthur Drake stood up from behind the stone he easily pulled the sword free of the stone as he vaulted over it. The rune-carved blade glistened in the sun as he swung it high over his head, then brought it down in a leaping, two-handed strike on the middle of Watson’s cannon, just as it was discharging.
The rail gun exploded. Arthur was blown back a dozen feet, and landed in a crumpled pile near the stands.
Roger Stevens was sitting nearby, a strange expression on his face.
It means- Sherlock started, but I cut him off.
“Yes, I know - it’s about to blow up so nobody can find the evidence. It’ll take us all with it.” I looked back to Roger, who was dragging himself determinedly towards Arthur’s body. “What’s he…?”
I ran to him, screaming for everyone to get clear. I slid down next to him in the dirt as he was fishing around underneath Arthur’s breastplate.
“Roger, we’ve got to move-” I started, but he waved away my attempts to pull him up.
“Blast radius is about five hundred feet. Shrapnel farther. Anybody we don’t like comes looking, we take them out, too. You don’t have time to get clear, much less me.” He looked calm. “There’s a protocol, though - ah.”
Roger had been looking around while he was looting the dead, and he spied something shiny. He left Arthur’s body and dragged himself a few feet over, where something was sticking out of the ground. Roger tugged on it for a second, grumbling about it being wedged into a rock… and then pulled back a pen. I remembered it from the Black Velvet Lounge.
… the King’s Word… It’s what I use to sign lethal authority memos. I’ve probably killed as many people with it as my predecessors did with their own. And then there was Senator Rance…
Roger twisted the pen, and it made an audible click. He sighed with relief. Looking over at me, he held it up.
“Failsafe,” he explained. “To remain on the director’s person at all times. It must have been knocked clear in the blast; got halfway buried into that rock. It’s a miracle the circuits were still good. Twist it one way, everything’s rendered inert. Twist it the other… boom.” He laughed. “I was only about sixty-forty that I remembered the right one.”
I looked around. The rune-sword that Arthur had used on the drone was nowhere to be seen.
“You pulled a pen from a stone, gambling that you maybe remembered which way to turn it… and just saved all our lives?” I asked.
… only the true king could wield it safely… it would destroy a lesser man.
“Your hero,” he nodded, smiling back.
“Sixty-forty?” I raised an eyebrow. “I’m glad you didn’t tell me the odds.”
He laughed. “I’ll never tell you the odds. I learned that from him.” He nodded at Arthur’s body. “He hated that. Pretentious.”
I let out a long breath. The drone had gone completely dead, as promised. I sagged back, pushing my elbows into the dirt.
“You pulled the pen from the stone, and it made you king?”
I gave Roger a long, appraising look.
“Listen,” I said, “you’ve got to promise me that you’ll do better than he did. That you’ll write your own story. That yours will be better than his.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he grinned at me. “It sounds very dramatic.”
“Point taken. Shall we continue this elsewhere?” Roger stood up and looked around as people started to gather once again, peering nervously at the scene in the tourney grounds.
Then Roger looked down. He was standing. His crutches were still on the ground. In a daze, he reached down and touched his legs. They didn’t crumple. He didn’t fall.
He looked up and met my eyes. His were wet. “Gwen, what…? I… my legs…?”
I stood up and walked to him. “If those kids only knew, Roger…” I thought about the young boy who was taunted and tortured for being weak. I thought of the child who’d burned away the one thing that had brought him any peace, spoiled by the evils of adolescent nastiness. I thought of what his father had told him when he’d had his surgeries, that he’d wake up someday and be strong.
They’d had no idea.
“Roger, a lot of stuff is going to change for you. Most of it will be good. But you’ve got to promise me, promise me that you will never forget what it was like to need help to walk. You’re going to be so strong… but always remember those who aren’t.”
“Did… did you do this?” He rocked back and forth from leg to leg.
I grabbed him by the shoulders, and his eyes flashed up as if I were waking him from a dream. “Promise me, Roger. Promise me you’ll remember burning your comic books.”
“I… I remember.” He took a breath. “I promise.”
I let him go. “Good. Because I’ll be watching.”
People were starting to crowd closer. They were buzzing with confusion, whispers, fears. This wasn’t the place for a detective. I couldn’t puzzle away their anxiety. This was the place for someone fearless and sympathetic, someone patient and unbending, someone strong and weak and wise.
It was the place for a king.
I turned away from him. “Doyle! Vivian! Robin! Cavill! Time to go.”
“Wait,” Roger implored from behind me. “Where are you… you’re leaving? Now? What do I do?”
I didn’t turn back. “That’s up to you now. What happens from here is up to you. But if it were me… I would tell them not to be afraid. To be good to each other and live for one another.” I gestured to the throng. “They’ll listen to you, Roger. I promise. Tell them something worth hearing.”
He caught me up by the wrist. My eyes were wet. I liked him, I really did. But things hadn’t worked out with the last King Arthur. I pulled my wrist back without turning to him.
“I can’t stay. I’m sorry, I… someone needs me. I can’t stay with you. I’d tell you what I wanted you to know, about my notions of using might for right. But there are different kinds of justice. I rage at the death of a single person. But someone has to fight against the death of whole nations. That’s not me. I wish it weren’t you. I want you to be someone you aren’t.”
“I think I…” he stopped. “Things are fuzzy. I remember you, but it’s like a dream. We were fighting. Except I wasn’t me now… I was… Arthur?” I stopped. I remembered what Moriarty had said, about he and I being the only ones who remembered. I remembered Puck saying that things had changed. Nimue, too…
“But why were you fighting? He wanted peace. You want justice. If you were fighting each other, who was the villain?"
Now I turned to him. I smiled sadly. "Roger, I'm going to tell you something my father once told me. It was after a big debate, one that had gotten pretty nasty. Afterward, my dad told me that the other guy was a good man. I asked him how that could be, if my dad was also good. He told me, 'If you're not a villain to somebody, then you probably didn't stand for anything in the first place.' Does that make sense?"
His blonde eyebrows furrowed. “I think so. But I don’t want to fight you. I don’t have to, do I?”
“I told you: that’s up to you. I don’t want to fight you either.”
“We won’t. Don’t go.” His voice was so definite… commanding. Somewhere, a memory of another woman lifted her face to him. But here, now, Gwen DeGrace leaned over and pecked him on the cheek.
“Tell them not to be afraid. You’ll figure it out from there.”
I turned, and stalked off of the jousting field. The crowd parted before me and let me pass. My steps faltered only once, just as the crowd had started to fill in the space between us. I wanted to turn around, to see Roger Stevens one more time.
But I was terrified that I would see King Arthur there instead. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t supposed to work like this. He was so nice.
Vivian met me on the other side. “The way he’s standing… he looks just like Arthur Drake. He’s not…?”
I nodded, mouth in a tight line. I kept walking, until we got around the corner from where everyone was starting to listen to Roger speak.
“You don’t want to talk about it.”
I shook my head.
“I get it. I’m sorry, Gwen.”
I hated myself for believing her. I hated liking her in spite of myself.
Then Robin strode over and belted Vivian right in the mouth, knocking her to the dirt. That did make me feel better.
“You sold me out!” the blonde woman shouted down at the raven one as Doyle raced over to help. Vivian waved him off. “We met up, you slipped me a Mickey, and then I’m a passenger in my own body. That little twit was in my head, calling the shots. She was wearing my skin. Do you have any idea what that’s like?”
Vivian wiped blood from her lip, but didn’t try to stand up. Her eyes sparkled with anger… but not towards Robin.
“Yeah,” she whispered. “I do. Regularly. Since I was a little girl.”
Robin stopped. “What?”
“A couple of times a week, sometimes. The thing you guys call ‘Moriarty’s machine’… my father invented it. Moriarty stole it from us. But before that… he would use it on me.” She swallowed.
I crouched down. “Your father was Merlin. Your middle name is Vivian. That wasn’t his idea, was it?”
“No,” she said horsely. “He’s told me that much. I don’t… I can’t remember my mother. He took her from me… said it was for the best. Said she was a nobody. An extra. A bit player. But he told me she gave me that name, hoping I’d get more of his attention than she did.”
“She named you Vivian,” I whispered, “hoping that you would turn out to be the Vivian. He wouldn’t be able to resist you. He would lavish you with attention. He’d be a good dad.”
“But I wasn’t.” She hung her head. “Neither was he, I don’t think.” Then she looked back up, lip jutting stubbornly. “But he was my dad.”
Doyle interjected, “But… you’re Vivian. I mean, you’re the Vivian. I’m sure of it!”
She nodded. “I am now. He… he made me be her. He said he wasn’t going to let me be a nobody. Not his little girl. I was going to be stronger than any of them. I was going to be Vivian, take Merlin’s power… be the Lady.” She swallowed again. “So he put me in the machine.”
“He rebuilt you,” I breathed. “Over and over. Until you were her. Or at least, until you were waiting in the wings. When did… when did you become her for real?”
“When my father killed her,” she said simply. There wasn’t anything more to say, really.
But I still had questions. “You said that you’d trapped him in the machine. How?”
She hugged her knees. “I was twenty years old. I’d had enough. We were going to have another session in the morning, but… Robin and that Lancelot stand-in you broke in half aren’t the only people I’ve drugged while they weren’t looking. While he was out, I put the machine on him. I’d seen him use it… figured that I could work out how to just make him stop… just let it be enough that I was me.” She stopped, choked up.
“You were wrong.”
“I was so wrong,” she whispered to the ground. “Everything started quiet at first… ran for a good long while that way. It was always so disorienting, being in the machine: I didn’t know how long it was supposed to go. Then it started sparking. He started twitching, flailing, screaming… screaming my name. He was calling for help.” She took a few deep breaths. “Then it all stopped. He was dead.”
Doyle picked it up first. “But he wasn’t gone. You’d imprinted him into the computer. You’d downloaded him. The computer turned on and he was there, just like before, but a ghost.”
She shook her head. “I told myself that for years. I told myself that he was just like he was before. It was… we’d always had kind of a messed up relationship, you know? Except that I’d murdered him and he never let me forget it. That bit was new.
“But I don’t think I got all of him. I think there was something left in that body that just… didn’t come over. He’d always been a hard man to please. But sometimes I’d do it. Sometimes he would look at me, and ruffle my hair, and say that I’d done well. When I was a little girl, I lived for those moments. I mean, it wasn’t like I was going to public school… I had nobody else to tell me that. After what happened… there weren’t any more of those moments, ever. Nothing was ever right. I could never do enough.”
“Doyle, your virus… it was riding back to his servers? He’s gone now? You wiped him out?”
He nodded. “Anywhere that’s plugged into the internet. I don’t know how his code works, not for sure. But if it’s based on Watson, he’s massively parallel. He depends on distributed connectivity to run his critical functions. He can’t exist offline.”
“He doesn’t have to.” Vivian looked up. “There’s one computer system that would let him run all his functions quickly enough. He used to have one.”
“A brain,” Robin said, and we all looked at her. “What? Just because I don’t know what non-Newtonian fluids are… I read a lot of Asimov as a kid, you know.”
Vivian looked hard at me. “He wants a body again."
My blood ran cold. “And does he know where to find one?”
Vivian nodded. “I’m so sorry, Gwen. I… he’s my father. I just… I don’t know. I just wanted him to be better, you know?”
I didn’t say anything for a minute.
“Gwen,” Doyle interjected. “I can get us there. To Frankenstein. To your father.”
“And to my mother,” I added. “To Moriarty.”
More than ever, I wanted to go back to Roger Stevens. He’d say this innocent little thing and make me laugh and feel better. We’d figure something out… he really made you believe that. But I didn’t believe it.
Doyle nodded. “I think I can get him out of her, just like I did for Robin. I think I can bring her back. We can be out of here in five minutes. Convincing the helicopter pilot to keep coming after all that happened wasn’t easy, but I used one with a lot of zeroes. Ones and zeroes are my super power.”
I took a deep breath. “All right. Moriarty. Merlin. Maybe Frankenstein, too, if he's in a bad mood. I'm going to need help. Vivian, do you even know whose side you're on anymore?"
She looked ashamed. "Gwen, I don't. This is all fucked up. He's a murderer. He tried to kill me. But he's my dad."
It sounded like something I'd once said to her. "I get it. And I'm sorry. I really am. And if you'd said anything else, I'd have tied you up and left you in the burnt-out husk of somebody's trunk. But you can come: Moriarty may need an appetizer."
"Aw, you're sweet."
"Damn skippy," I nodded. “Also, I need you to make a phone call. But first, we find Grendel. Bury him. Then… Puck? You ready to do this?"
Teeth hung behind Robin in the air, in a grin too wide for a human mouth. None of the rest of Puck was making an appearance.
"If you mean, kill the fuck out of the sicko who murdered my boyfriend, then 'yes'. But he's currently in your mom, who may be salvageable. So I trust you've got a plan?"
"Yeah. This ends the only way it ever could." I swallowed.
"Moriarty has to get what he wants. I have to die."