"What's your immediate situation?" her Chief Warlord asked. "Are you safe?"
Having completely come to terms with the fact that her life would be ending within minutes (or at most, hours), the question gave Lilith the sudden urge to laugh. She couldn't afford the time or the noise risk for the fit of doomed, hysterical laughter that felt like it was bottled up in her right now, though. She was a professional to the core, and she answered the question as Chief Gotti had intended it.
"I waited to call until I was," the Archon sent back silently. She was doing a trick you did when sending a thinkagram under veil, mouthing the words physically, while projecting the mental sound of them to the recipient.
The Chief nodded. "Arright, thank you for calling in. Our situation is that we're under truce with Charlescomm." Hope welled up in her. Gobwin Knob had arranged a truce to get her free? So fast? But the Chief immediately added, "The units you've killed so far have effectively handed our whole treasury over to Charlie."
And then she understood. Instantly. Perfectly.
No cold sword or hot magic through the guts could have felt any worse. In the last few minutes, Lilith realized, she'd maybe done more harm to Gobwin Knob than she and all the Decrypted Archons had ever been worth.
Charlie had set it up this way, so he couldn't lose. And he'd won again. As usual.
"It's not your fault; you didn't know," said the Chief reading her reaction, but staying intent on what he was saying. "But every unit you hurt or kill now costs us a half million more Shmuckers, paid in cities and units. So it's imperative that you don't engage any more units or allies of Charlescomm. Understand?"
"I understand…" she whispered, both aloud and in the 'gram.
"I'm not even sure about the contract terms," he added with overtones of chagrin, "he might even be able to claim you back as payment, I don't know."
"That's not going to happen," Lilith sent.
Numbly, she added a mental image of the pistol, and of what she intended to do with it once they cornered her.
The Chief Warlord paused for about five precious seconds. His projected expression was of someone whose racing thoughts had just slammed to a stop. "Lilith, clarify for me. You have a gun? You even know what that is?"
She sent him an image of the assault rifle. "I have two guns," she said. And Charlie has lots more. I know what they are, yes."
Chief Gotti took a deep breath. "See this is why we couldn't disband you," he said. "Of course Charlie has guns. Of course he does. Arright, real quick, what else can you tell me?"
Lilith felt the request as an order, with the nuances of the Chief's intent coming into her mind on a parallel channel. He wanted new information about Charlescomm, in the order of highest-value intelligence first. She took her jumble of thoughts and tried to whip them into the form of a table of contents for a dossier. Her thoughts obeyed. She was an Archon, and this was not her first emergency debriefing.
"Charlie is… a regular unit with a physical body," she sent, "in what I think is a permanent state of total incapacitation. He is dependent upon Fox Force Five for all his physical needs, including movement. Two of the units that I croaked were Fox Forcers."
"Permanent incapacitation, like how?" asked Chief Gotti. "What form?"
"He can speak and cast, but not move. He was in an armored chair, with wheels. His Signamancy is horrible. He uses machinery to connect to the Arkendish, and is not always connected to it. He may not be ondish right now."
"Good, okay," said the Chief. "How many guns does he have?"
"I don't know," sent Lilith. "Rumor said lots."
"How does he make them?"
"I don't know. I'm guessing they're Dollamancy."
"Okay. What else can you tell me?"
"Charlie needed to touch me, to cast whatever he was trying to do," said Lilith. "Turn me, maybe. Or dismantle my mind. He wanted to know why I didn't—" She almost sent love him anymore. "…feel connected to the Arkendish anymore. They brought me very deep into the tower to meet him. That's where I am now."She was still on 36, in fact. Still crouched and veiled behind a hatchway door. A few minutes ago, she'd drawn a perfect bead on her prey as the triad rounded the corner, but an order from Lord Stanley himself had stayed her trigger finger. Don't engage. Call Hamster.
Furious and terrified, certain that they would only need a moment to spot her veil, she had obeyed her Overlord. Only once in ten thousand times should three high-level Archons all fail to make a veil spot under these conditions, by Lilith's estimate. But they had walked right past her, looking in other directions, muttering nervous jokes.
"So you were actually touching him? Did you engage him?" asked Chief Gotti. "Can you get to him now?"
Lilith swallowed. "I had a shot at him," she found herself sending. "I was prevented from taking it. I don't think I can get to him now, but I could try."
"Prevented by what?"
You never know where your Loyalty lies until it is tested. They'd told her at Charlescomm that even Archons could turn, even though that was the worst thing you could ever do. A unit might swear to the Titans to feel nothing but love for her Ruler and side, but when faced with a true test, she might just say something to surprise herself. Something treacherous.
For example, she might say:
"By Mistress Wanda's order."
The Chief's surprise this time was tempered by a cold anger. Something in him wasn't actually shocked at this at all. A pit of guilt formed in Lilith's stomach.
"All right," he said after a moment. "Well, I had a plan. I think I need to amend it. One moment," he said, and his distraction at something was evident. "Stay on the call," he added.
Lilith waited. She could hear voices, but nothing too close. Currents of cool air brought the scents of grease and iron to her nose. The Chief Warlord muttered some words, but they were not intended for the thinkagram, so they didn't come across.
"The plan was," Chief Gotti sent clearly, after a few moments, "to get them to hurt you. As cold as that sounds, it's our best bet for getting out of this mess. If they do you any material harm, then we'll get half the Charlescomm treasury, which should be capped at five million. So whatever you do, don't suicide." This came as an order.
Without hesitation, Lilith sent a grateful affirmative. Holy Titans, she had a way to redeem herself! Just as those three Archons had passed her by, trying to trade their lives for a city, she had to find a way to draw their fire. She could trade her own life now, to make amends for her mistake.
"Hang on, though. Here's the amendment," said the Chief. "I need those guns. The bracer thinks you've got no chance of getting to Charlie, but a surprisingly good shot at getting to their portal room. You think you could throw some guns through the portal?"
Lilith frowned. The portal room was on 40. She'd never been there and she didn't know how it even connected. But it was supposed to be the highest security spot in the city, since it was the only place that ever hosted non-Charlescomm units.
"I can certainly try, Chief," she sent "Would you have a way to retrieve them?"
Lilith focused intently on the call, but her Chief Warlord was talking to Mistress Wanda now. Oh, Mistress, I am so sorry…The Chief turned his attention back to the call. "Not just the guns," he sent. "We want the bodies, too."
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