The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 1 – Act 1

Sunlight was supposed to darken skin tones and brighten the sand it shone on. That it seemed to be doing the reverse left Tam with a snarl of irritation wrinkling her nose.

“Should the sun be doing that?” Cynthia said, slowly taking her sunglasses off.

“Not on this planet it shouldn’t,” Tam said, sketching a quick circle in the sand around their towels and umbrella.

It had been Cynthia’s idea to spend a day at the beach. The weather was perfect for it and neither of them had anywhere to be, with Cynthia enjoying a day off from her fire department, and Tam in-between shows and back in town while she began to prep the next one.

The Crystal Sands beach wasn’t exactly a quiet hideaway where they could enjoy the beauty and peace of nature in each others company. There were far too many other people present for that to be true. It was a beautiful spot even with the crowds though, and up until she’d noticed the peculiar inversion of the sunlight, Tam had been focused quite intently on enjoying her girlfriend’s company.

Being apart as much as they were wasn’t ideal, but it had been working out for them in the months since they’d met aboard a doomed ocean liner. Video calls made things easier than they would have been in the ancient days before civilization and cell phones existed, but it was the sweetness of the days they got to spend together which made the night’s alone worth it.

Since the sun probably hadn’t decided to change its normal mode of operation, there was in all likelihood someone responsible for its current state. Someone Tam would need to deal with, from the strange itch she felt clawing away at her.

That put “Operation: Make Them Regret Ruining a Perfectly Good Date” as “Go for Liftoff” in Tam’s mind. All she needed to do was find the person who needed to be launched to the Moon, and then strap them to a rocket or other suitably explosive device.

“A magic circle?” Cynthia asked, looking at the design in the sand Tam had etched around them.

“Yeah, wait, you know about those?” Tam asked.

“You have seen my library, haven’t you?” Cynthia’s laugh was a bit forced but also a sign of how well she was holding things together.

“Ah, right, fantasy books for days,” Tam said. “Just a heads up, things are always weirder than any book version of magic will show.”

“Weirder than the sun casting shadows?” Cynthia asked. “Because that’s kind of weird.”

“What you don’t enjoy long walks on the beach under the moonlight?” Tam asked as she scribbled Etruscan script in large sloppy glyphs around the outside of the circle.

“Aww, did you do this for me?” Cynthia asked, gathering together the picnic lunch that she’d brought for them to share.

“I kind of wish I had,” Tam said. “I don’t have any idea how you pull off an effect this big though.”

“That’s a little frightening,” Cynthia said. “I thought you said figuring out how other magicians did their effects was a speciality of yours?”

“That’s stage magic,” Tam said. “This kind of thing is more than just an illusion, or, hmm, maybe it’s not.”

“I’ll admit, I’m pretty much completely fooled by it,” Cynthia said.

“Look at the people around us though,” Tam said, gesturing to the horde of beach goers who were still busy enjoying both sun and surf.

“They’re not seeing any of this, are they?” Cynthia asked.

“I don’t think they are,” Tam said. “Which means, whatever the effect is, it’s centered on us.”

“But we’re safe inside your circle right?”

“Safer,” Tam said. “I won’t say ‘safe’ until I know what exactly this effect is.”

“How do you find that out?” Cynthia asked, putting her t-shirt back on.

“We find the person who’s causing this,” Tam said.

“That means leaving the protection of the circle though doesn’t it?”

“Like I said, things are often weirder than what you read in books,” Tam said. “Try stepping across the circle.”

Cynthia paused and waited for some sign that Tam had been kidding. When she saw that Tam was serious, she shrugged and stepped past the line in the sand.

Except when she put her foot down, it was still within the circle.

“Did the circle get bigger when I tried to leave?” Cynthia asked.

“And smaller when we’re closer together,” Tam said. “I had to set it up so that we could move within it, otherwise we could be trapped on this beach for the rest of our lives.”

“That’s not the worst fate I can imagine,” Cynthia said, running a finger tip up along the outside of Tam’s arm.

“Sadly the rest of our lives wouldn’t be particularly long in that case,” Tam said. She felt a stab of temptation abandon the current crisis in favor of running away to safety with Cynthia but she knew she’d been right when she said they wouldn’t be safe at all until the problem was dealt with. If they ran, the best cases scenario would be that whoever was behind corrupting the sun would continue to track them down, endlessly.

“I wouldn’t object if you wanted to make the circle very very small,” Tam said, a gleam of mischief in her eye which she shook her head to dispel. “But we do need to go,” she added with a sigh.

The sun-darkened sea was rolling onto the black shore, its waves crashing with less force each subsequent time they met the land, as though the shadowed sun was stealing not just the illumination from the environment but all forms of energy as well.

In the sea, shapes swam, alien and unfathomable but with each time they joined the surge of the tide, Tam got a closer glimpse of the creatures and to her eyes they appeared as confused and disturbed as she felt.

She shivered and Cynthia stepped close, shrinking the circle to its smallest radius around them. Cynthia pulled Tam into a one armed hug and, facing the water with her asked, “Where do we look first?”

Tam took a moment to marvel at the woman beside her. As they walked forward, the vista around them grew increasingly strange with each pace they took, their world shimmering away and being replaced by somewhere humans may never have walked before. Despite that, Cynthia was reacting to it all as calmly as though it was the typical day at the beach they’d intended to spend together.

“The sun, or whatever that is, is shining over the ocean, so that’s probably where we’ll find whoever’s doing this,” Tam said.

“Do we need a boat?” Cynthia asked.

“I don’t think so,” Tam said. “If I’m wrong though we’ll know in a hurry.”

Taking Cynthia’s hand she stepped forward again, expanding the circle around them, and marched straight into the oncoming waves, chanting in a low voice as she did.

The farther she lead them though, the farther away the ocean became until at last they were standing on a barren shoreline which looked nothing like the Crystal Sands beach where their picnic and umbrella had been left behind.

“I feel like we went through a portal to Narnia or something, but there’s no magic wardrobes here or looking glasses to fall through,” Cynthia said.

“The circle is our looking glass,” Tam said. “It’s not so much designed to keep things out, I didn’t have the time or materials to manage that. Plus I think the geometries of the beach would mess up any attempt to make a new boundary for the sea.”

“So if it’s not a shield to keep bad stuff away from us, what is it?” Cynthia asked.

“Well, you and I could see what was going on but no one else could,” Tam said. “Since the sun didn’t look like our earthly sun, it seemed more likely that what we were seeing wasn’t a change to Earth but a glimpse into one of the worlds which overlaps with ours.”

“So, wait, Narnia, or things like it, are real?”

“More or less?” Tam said. “Think of it like fairy gold, if you can remember any stories that use it. When you get the stuff, it looks like gold, smells like gold, weighs as much as gold, and so on, but the next morning it’s just a pile of dry leaves. There are whole worlds that have that same relation with ours. While they’re aligned both sides are real to the other, but when they drift apart any bits that are left in the wrong world fizzle out and become something else.”

“Oh neat,” Cynthia said, her eyes bright and smiling.

“Neat?” Tam asked.

“I always thought of Harry Potter as existing in a parallel world, but with the magic they have it bothered me that there was no proof that a wizard from their world had ever made it to ours,” Cynthia said. “If their wands would just turn into sticks and their potions into energy drinks then it could still work out.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Tam said, “Although I should warn you that I haven’t found anything about a real Hogwarts out there. Some things are just fiction, and other worlds are usually stranger than that.”

“Like here?” Cynthia asked, looking around.

The distant shore they stood on lay under a purple sky, broken only by electric blue clouds and a black disk ten times the diameter of the sun they were familiar with.

In the air, dozens of great wyrm-like creatures flew with a buoyancy that suggested they were floating in an aetheric water rather than the open, and empty sky.

Beyond them, down an ever descending hill which mirrored the ocean floor of the beach they’d been on, there were plants of light blue growing in abundance. In the distance, soaring up from a deeper spot on the hill, a tower of multi-hued coral rose to touch the sky. From it’s summit, waves of black rippled into the sky and where gathered into a swirling mass around the sun as it moved.

“I think it’s pretty obvious where our culprit is,” Cynthia said.

“Yep,” Tam said, “Which is why we are going nowhere near there.”

“Don’t we need to stop whatever is happening?” Cynthia said.

“Unfortunately, I think what was happening already has,” Tam said. “If I’m right, that’s a tower of Atlantean High Sorcery. This wasn’t an attack, it was a trap, and I walked us right into it.”

“So our next move is to walk right out of it, except we can’t because?” Cynthia asked.

“Because if we leave, the trap will reach out and bring some other sensitives in instead,” Tam said.

“Sensitives? But I’m not sensitive,” Cynthia said.

“I refer back to your library,” Tam said, offering a smile. “Being sensitive isn’t some genetic thing that you have or don’t have. It’s a state of mind that you cultivate. Just reading fantasy novel doesn’t let you start casting spells, but it helps keep your mind receptive to new ideas and new realities. That way when you run into someone working with mystical energies you stand a better chance of accepting the magic and incorporating it into how you view the world.”

“So once you see a real magician in action, there’s no going back?” Cynthia asked.

“Not exactly. People are surprisingly good at ignoring the parts of the world that don’t apply to them. A lot of actual magic gets chalked up under ‘I didn’t see that right’ or ‘Yeah, that’s weird, so?’ It’s strange to sweep that kind of stuff under the rug but it’s what works for some folks.”

“Doesn’t sound fun to me,” Cynthia said. “I’d rather know what was out there, especially awesome stuff like the things you do.”

“You literally save people from being burned alive,” Tam said. “Believe me you’re work is way more awesome than mine is.”

“Well, since I don’t see any burning buildings around here, I just need to know how I can help,” Cynthia said.

“We can’t go forward, because that Tower is going to call to me too much. If we go inside, I’m going to be lost in an endless library of imaginary books. That’s the trap part of this,” Tam said.

“Why would someone make a trap like that?” Cynthia asked.

“To get rid of someone like me,” Tam said. “I’m not that far into my studies of the arcane and I’ve already run through most of the available books, even with as good as library as the Club has. The prospect of what that Tower could contain is putting an itch in the back of my head that’s kind of hard to ignore.”

“I thought you said the books were illusions though?” Cynthia said.

“They are, but even an illusion can hold real secrets.”

“So what do we do?” Cynthia asked.

“We can’t walk back to where we came without first disarming the trap that’s pulling sensitives into this world, but there is another option, if you trust me?”

In answer, Cynthia turned to Tam and kissed her, pulling her into surprisingly soft embrace.

“We survived a sinking ship, where you go, I’m going too,” she said.

“Then we take the long way round,” Tam said, her breath still a little quickened.

“Towards the tower?” Cynthia asked.

“Around and past the tower, down into the lands that would correspond with the bottom of the ocean in our world” Tam said. “There are real things in the deeps, below the illusions. If we can go far enough away from our home, they might be able to help us make it back.”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 12 – Act 4

The council chamber was wreathed in the sort of darkness which only grudgingly gave ground before the light. Charlene didn’t dislike the darkness, it was convenient to be able to recline back and enjoy the anonymity provided by the obscuring shadows. She did wish however that she could see whether the council had finished assembling so she could make a guess at how long it would be before her fate was decided.

A spotlight from high above illuminated a sharply defined circle in the middle of the half moon table the council sat behind. No witnesses stood within its confines as yet, but Charlene guessed that several might be called before the proceedings were finished.

She didn’t feel concerned for the fact that she was on trial. She had faith in the actions she’d authorized and the people she’d entrusted to carry them out. She was determined however that none of the associates she chose to employ should have to bear witness for her. It was one thing to stand before the Council’s merciless gaze herself, it was quite another to expose her people to their inquiries.

A rap of a hammer on wood from the head chair brought her attention back to the present from memories she’d hoped to never revisit. Memories of the last time she’d stood before the Council for judgment and the price her associates had paid then.

“A complaint has been lodged,” the Chair said. “Will the Accuser pursue their suit.”

“We shall.” A trio of voices spoke from the shadow drenched seat on the far opposite side of the conference table said.

Charlene wrinkled her nose. Of course all three of the founders of PrimaLux had chosen to appear. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen them act independent of one another. In theory that should have been a good thing, each one’s excesses tempered by the others’ caution, but in practice each of the founders held such similar vile opinions that they functioned as little more than three mouths that spoke with one voice. If one sunk to a new low, the other two would not be far behind in joining them.

“And will the Accused put forth a defense against these claims?” the Chair said.

“I need make no defense,” Charlene said, lounging in the shadows. “The charges are groundless and without merit. I will prove that the only ones worthy of censure are the ones who bring these false complaints.”

It was a risky strategy to pursue, but Charlene didn’t feel like tolerating PrimaLux’s aggressions any further. A prosecution and defense could easily end in a compromise finding, one where Charlene admitted no guilt but was required to help PrimaLux restore some of what they had lost as a gesture of good faith and friendship.

Charlene was done with both of those, at least as far as the founders of PrimaLux were concerned.

“Be warned, if you offer no defense and the complaints are found to have merit, you will be subject to the maximum censure this Council can apply,” the Chair said.

Given that the Council possessed the power to apply terminal penalties to those who breached its core principles, Charlene knew she was facing a certain amount of peril but her options were limited if she wanted to resolve her issues with PrimaLux for the foreseeable future.

“Thank you, but my declaration is unchanged,” Charlene said.

“We shall proceed to the declaration of the complaints then,” the Chair said.

A man in an impeccably tailored suit stepped into the pool of light the Council’s table wrapped around.

“State your name and relation to the relevant parties,” the Vice-Chair said.

“Ronald Smythe, esquire, Chief Legal Council for PrimaLux Global Holdings,” the man said. His words and body language spoke of overflowing confidence and control but they didn’t fool anyone on the Council. Ronald Smythe believed himself to be the top of the elite, but that wasn’t why the founders had brought him along as their representative. Ronald had been selected to represent them because he embodied the the best combination between competent and expendable.

“State your complaint,” the Chair said. Other people found the ponderous, humorless tones the Chair spoke in off putting but Charlene didn’t mind them at all. That the chair spoke the same as they always had, across all of the years Charlene had been on the Council, gave a feeling of familiarity to proceedings which should have lacked such comforts.

“Issue one,” Smythe read from a thick pad in her hands, “The party of the first part, hereafter referred to as PrimaLux Global Holdings, assert and attests that…”

He didn’t get to finish before a hammer rapped on wood again.

“Ronald Smythe, esquire,” the Chair said. “You were instructed to state your complaint. We are not interested having a document read to us which we can and have read for ourselves.”

Charlene smiled. PrimaLux had a lot of experience playing with mundane institutions, but it had been so long since anyone had moved against them that they were out of practice with the Council’s protocols.

“Could you clarify your request then?” Smythe asked. “I was led to believe that these were formal proceedings.”

“State the complaint,” the Chair said, consuming the last bit of patience the lawyer could hope to enjoy from them.

“May I confer with my clients?” Smythe asked.

“You may do as you wish,” the Chair said. What was left unsaid was that all actions have consequences. The Council had seen lawyers come to them, they knew the sort of twisting, half truths and misdirections which characterized mundane law. The Council was not an impartial body however and wasn’t concerned with dealing out a form of justice which consisted of rigid adherence to technical detail and slavish devotion to precedence when no two arguments they heard could truly be considered to come from equal circumstances.

Ronald Smythe, esq., unaware of what his actions were conveying to the Council, turned and walked out of the light to the inner side of the conference table where the founders of PrimaLux sat. After a few moments of speaking with them, he returned to the center of the spotlight, paler and fighting to remain in control of his stone faced features.

“Our complaint is that Charlene Potestates has acted with supernatural means to disrupt the legitimate and authorized workings of PrimaLux,” Ronald said, staring straight ahead.

“And what do you seek in exchange for this,” the Chair asked.

“We seek to take freely from her holdings and dominions, both in recompense of what we lost and as a punitive action to ensure no further damage will befall us,” Ronald said, without inflection.

“And what proof do you have to support this claim with?” the Chair asked.

“We can show that supernatural forces were employed in a direct assault on PrimaLux’s possessions and employees,” Ronald said. “Due to these losses, PrimaLux is facing a variety of fines and legal charges. Additionally, the assault endangered the containment of entities which require global armageddon protocols should they be released. Lastly, this assaults violates the covenant this Council is founded upon, that no member shall corrupt the workings of another.”

“How will the Accused answer these complaints?” the Chair asked.

Charlene flipped a folder open on the table in front of her. The illumination which filled the circle Ronald stood without barely lit the pages within the folder but that was sufficient for Charlene’s needed.

“Firstly by pointing out that these complaints are wasting our time,” Charlene said. “Of them all, the only one which is directly relevant to this Council is the claimed breach of our covenant. For completeness sake I will address them all however.”

She heard a small cackle from the founders of PrimaLux. They thought she was playing into their trap.

“They begin with a complaint stating that I used supernatural force to assault PrimaLux,” Charlene said. “This is irrelevant, but also untrue. I have taken no direct part in action against PrimaLux.”

“It was members of your organization who were responsible for the assault,” Ronald said. “We have proof that they were aided by supernatural powers not accessible by human beings. That leaves you as their primary source.”

“The enchantments used against PrimaLux did come from unusual sources,” Charlene said. “But they were not from myself, or anyone pledged to this Council as you can see in the sworn statements I have provided from the entities who did lend their power against PrimaLux.”

“The King and Queen of Unicorns?” the Chair said, flipping through a stack of papers Charlene had provided.

“Among others,” Charlene said.

“Why were we not given a copy of these affidavits?” Ronald asked.

“Because their purpose is to expose your lies,” Charlene said.

“Or support yours,” Ronald said. “They could be false, but we’ve had no time to prove that.”

“They are not false,” the Chair said. “I had just spoken to the ones who provided them. The supernatural powers used against PrimaLux were either of human origin or provided by people allied against PrimaLux’s interests.”

“Moving on then,” Charlene said. “The point about PrimaLux facing fines and legal actions is irrelevant because those are a matter for other courts, and, frankly, are the result of PrimaLux’s misdeeds and incompetence. That the mundane legal proceedings will ruin PrimaLux as a viable platform for pursuing the founders’ vision reflects on nothing more than their own failings and the failings of the path they have chosen to pursue in disregarding the sanctity of those they consider beneath them.”

“Agreed,” the Chair said. “This Council takes no interest in the state PrimaLux as an institution.”

“Their next point was related to endangering the containment of entities which are not meant to be a part of this creation,” Charlene said. “Does anyone else think that’s somewhat backwards? Or to be more specific, I would like to formally enter a complaint that PrimaLux was being used as part of the means to control things which this Council was never consulted about or agreed to allow a member to possess.”

“Your complaint is noted,” the Chair said. “We will address it once the remaining matters in this case are dealt with.”

“Yes, which brings us to the last issue,” Charlene said. “That my actions breached our covenant by corrupting the workings PrimaLux had been set to.”

“You can’t deny that PrimaLux’s purpose and personnel have been corrupted,” Ronald said, his body going rigid and a voice which was not his own spilling from his mouth.

“I don’t deny that at all,” Charlene said. “PrimaLux existed to further your ambition to drive humanity to extinction by creating ever more unbearable conditions for them and gifting the world with every better tools to destroy itself with. I won’t even begin to pretend to be sad that its purpose has been perverted, its personnel suborned, and your machinations broken.”

“There it is! She admits to working against us! She broke the covenant!”

“That is not what she said,” the Chair warned.

“Exactly,” Charlene said. “I am glad to see PrimaLux fail, just as I will be glad to see all such efforts fail. The distinction however is that PrimaLux’s failure was not brought about by my hand, but rather by the hands of humans, exceptional though they may be, who chose to step forward and interfere with what you were doing.”

“Prove it! Summon those humans here!” the things which had been Ronald Smythe demanded.

“I don’t think I will,” Charlene said, smiling to hide the worry that the Council would demand it over her despite her objections.

“Because it’s a lie!”

“No, because that would violate the covenant in truth,” Charlene said, spinning the one tale which might keep her people safe. “If I bring the people who destroyed PrimaLux here, so that they can see this Council, see all of you, and they begin asking questions about the sort of things you all do, how well do you think your enterprises will fare? I wasn’t the one who lead them to PrimaLux, or who informed them of its true nature. They discovered and destroyed something that three of our members had spent centuries working on. What sort of charges will you throw at me, if I give them the means to learn who you are by just looking around this table?”

***

After the Council meeting had adjourned, only the Chair and Charlene remained behind.

“You have your judgment against PrimaLux and its founders,” the Chair said. “What demands will you make for recompense?”

“I’ll keep them simple,” Charlene said. “There will be no retribution against my agents, or the former agents PrimaLux employed. Beyond that I will ask for no further strictures.”

“You don’t wish to bar them from repeating their designs?” the Chair asked.

“It will take them centuries to recover,” Charlene said.

“You may not be so fortunate as to have such exceptional agents at that time,” the Chair said.

“I don’t believe that will be problem,” Charlene said. “The world is full of exceptional people, they just need the chance to see that in themselves.”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 12 – Act 3

Anna traced the final curve on the portrait she was drawing of the woman sitting across from her. The thin line in the picture which defined Zoe’s elegant jawline could have easily been a slash that cut from one end of her throat to the other. With her offhand, Anna smudged the pencil line to soften it. She wanted a smooth transition, not a violent demarcation.

“I’m impressed that you managed to cut off my communications links,” Anna said, glancing around the cafe and noticing the half dozen people in close proximity to them who were happily chatting away on the phone. “Very neat and precise.”

“Thank you,” Zoe said. “We pride ourselves on our professionalism.”

“I presume that’s why you chose to meet with me directly, rather than sending in your heavy hitter or a strike team like with Val and Tam?” Anna asked. She sketched a quick symbol under Zoe’s portrait and placed the drawing pad down on the table.

“I assure you, they will both be given every opportunity to reconsider their position,” Zoe said. “Your team is a tremendous asset, and would be valued as such.”

The drawing pad buzzed imperceptibly under Anna’s fingers. She let out a small puff of relief at the message the sensation conveyed.

“I was not aware PrimaLux valued that who served it,” Anna said. “You spoke of a flow of duties and rewards but from what we’ve seen, those rewards seem to be little more than an investment with a required rate of return. What they pay you will always be less than what you earn for them, no matter what form the remuneration takes. True loyalty from PrimaLux to those who serve its interests appears to be entirely absent.”

“And what would you see this ‘True loyalty’ involving?” Zoe asked.  She reclined in her chair with the easy grace of someone who knows they’ve already won and who wishes to savor the victory for as long as possible.

“Real loyalty can take many forms,” Anna said. “If your superiors discovered that you had failed to complete a mission and that failure had significant cost to them, would they be more concerned about the impact to their agenda or to the price you paid for trying and failing?”

“If I failed, would I have the right to demand any consideration from them?” Zoe asked.

“You are a valued asset are you not?” Anna asked. “Should valuable things be discarded because of an imperfection?”

“If the imperfection reduces their value sufficiently? Then, yes, certainly!” Zoe said.

“And once something is discarded, does it owe any duty to its former master?” Anna asked, folding her hands over the drawing pad and leaning towards Zoe with a smile.

Zoe paused, biting back her first retort, and smiling a cold but playful smile in return.

“You have some stratagem still at work, don’t you?” she asked.

“What would make you say that?” Anna asked, her smile unwavering.

“A discarded tool owes its former owner no further consideration,” Zoe said. “Their relationship is ended. But why would you make that point? To convince me to abandon my side and join yours? You are suggesting that a relationship built on true loyalty would never be discarded and even in the face of abject failure. That would be a superior position to be in, if it could occur, and if I believed there was any danger that such a failure might be in my future.”

“You’ve cut me off from communication with my team,” Anna said. “Certainly I can’t have any sense how the plan I worked out is coming undone.”

“And yet I can’t help but feel that you do,” Zoe said.

“That’s easily verified,” Anna said. “My communications are down, but yours remains intact.”

Zoe wriggled her fingers, flexing them in tight knots of anticipation.

“What an interesting move to make,” she said. “Do I call them and play into a trap you’ve set? Do I cut myself off to avoid being trapped and play into a separate trap? If you were only half as clever, this would be no fun at all, but could you be twice as clever as I believe?”

“I am doubtless less clever than I believe myself to be, but whether that is clever enough for you is something we have yet to determine,” Anna said, relaxing back into her chair.

Zoe fidgeted for a moment, caught on the horns of indecision, until she finally reached down into the purse she carried and brought out her phone.

“Doing nothing tells me nothing,” she said. “If you have another stratagem in play, I’m sure my team can adapt to it.”

She tapped the screen a few times and brought the phone to her ear, only to pull it away a moment later.

“You sabotaged my phone as well?” she said.

“It seemed only fair,” Anna said. “Also, I was hoping for an uninterrupted conversation with you.”

“You have my full and undivided attention now,” Zoe said, a hint of irritation coloring her voice.

“Good,” Anna said. “Perhaps you would like to know what my plan was then?”

“I believe I have the general details of it,” Zoe said. “Please though, break down the specifics, I suspect I know them tool but I’m sure you’re perspective on them will be enlightening.”

“Where shall we begin?” Anna said. “Perhaps with my overall aims?”

“You were looking to land a big catch,” Zoe said. “Someone sufficiently high in PrimaLux’s hierarchy that they could testify convincingly on our involvement in the cases you’ve encountered.”

“To what end?” Anna asked.

“Typically it would be to bring those responsible to justice, though given how you operate I imagine it was more likely that you intended to deal out a poetic form of justice yourselves and use the witness you procured to avoid the official prosecution that would come as a reprisal.”

“And the witness who was going to work with us?” Anna asked. “You clearly identified them early enough to put a comprehensive plan in place.”

“Vice President Claudia Goodwin,” Zoe said. “We’ve had recorded some disturbing marks in her profile for a while now. Not enough to terminate her but signs that she might not be as reliable as we would have preferred.”

“She was as much a honey pot as anything, wasn’t she?” Anna asked. “You were able to respond to our overtures as rapidly as you did because you knew she would act as a lightning rod for anyone seeking to undermine PrimaLux from within.”

“Let’s say she served multiple roles in the organization,” Zoe said.

“Served in the past tense? Then your plan did call for her elimination?” Anna asked.

“A requirement from my superiors,” Zoe said. “By preference I would have allowed her to continue serving as bait. She was uniquely well positioned for that and remarkably productive despite her misgivings.”

“Out of curiosity, what sort of fallback plans did you have if my teammate Ms. Perez defeated your security chief Ms. Collins?” Anna asked.

“Misha was the backup plan,” Zoe said. “Our Vice President was scheduled to meet her demise via a car bombing. Prima would benefit from being seen as the target of a terrorist attack instead of the perpetrators of one, and if Vice President Goodwin chose to flee without taking her car, Misha and her security forces would be there to arrange matters as needed.”

“That makes for a good story, but as we’re in the end game, be honest, you had more bases covered than that,” Anna said.

Zoe tilted her head and chuckled.

“You must come and work with me,” she said. “And yes, of course we were prepared for slim chance that encounter turned against us. Even if you had spirited Goodwin away safely, she wouldn’t have been able to testify to anything substantive about PrimaLux’s projects. The moment her escape was confirmed, our internal records of her would be wiped out and replaced with new data. Aaliyah, our counterpart to your Ms. Le, can be quite thorough. Once she pulled the trigger, Claudia Goodwin would be reduced to known mental health patient suffering from a variety of delusions, with the proper paperwork and doctor’s testimony stretching back years to support that claim.”

“That requires Aaliyah to remain in command of her data center though I believe,” Anna said.

“Aaliyah is in one of the most secure facilities in the entire PrimaLux portfolio,” Zoe said. “She is the spider at the heart of an invincible web. I have no concerns there.”

Anna studied Zoe for a long moment. Sketching her opponent had given Anna a keen sense of where Zoe held tension in her face. The taut micro-lines near her eyes, the slight tightening in her upper lip. As Zoe spoke though neither her lips nor her eyes betrayed any trace of a lie.

Under her fingers, Anna felt the drawing pad buzz once more. She scribbled a single character below the portrait she’d sketched and frowned a tiny bit. The game was done, and for as serious as it was to be in a contest against a giant like PrimaLux there was a part of Anna that couldn’t help but be thrilled by the moves and countermoves. She could already feel how much she was going to miss it.

“Your faith in your teammate is impressive,” Anna said.

“And not unfounded,” Zoe said.

“I agree. Between Tam and Aaliyah I believe the difference in their technical and mystical skills would be exceedingly difficult to measure, and in this case your team had the home team advantage,” Anna said.

“Yet in the face of that, my phone has been disabled,” Zoe said. “So what final enchantments has Ms Le woven?”

“She wasn’t the one weaving enchantments,” Anna said. “Your phone should be working again. You’ll mistrust what I have to say at this point, so please, contact your team. They can give you all the details you desire.”

Zoe gave Anna a look of surprise and reached for her phone.

“Speaker phone will save time,” Anna said.

Zoe frowned at that and waited for the call to go through.

“Aaliyah, what is our situation?” she asked as soon as the other woman picked up.

“We’re dead,” Aaliyah said.

“Explain,” Zoe said, her expression and voice frosting over.

“They got Goodwin,” Aaliyah said. “And I can’t give the orders to scrub her files.”

“Why?” Zoe asked slowly.

“Because she’s currently sitting on a chair in my worklab and bound within a circle that’s about as strong as the ones you use to keep your special guests under control,” Tam said.

“How?”

“They held open our portals,” Aaliyah said. “After, I would like to point out, destroying the strike team that Prima sent after her.”

“They’re not dead,” Tam said. “But by this point they’re probably wishing they were.”

“I congratulate you,” Zoe said, looking back at Anna. “That was well played, but still ultimately fruitless. Ms. Goodwin will be able to do a fair amount of damage to PrimaLux but we’ve survived worse.”

“I don’t think you have,” Anna said. “You see you were wrong about my primary aim. Saving Ms. Goodwin’s life was a secondary, though important, objective.”

“What were you after then?” Zoe asked, a twinge of fear in her eyes.

“PrimaLux,” Anna said. “All of it.”

“That’s not possible,” Zoe said. “No one could give you that.”

“Ms. Goodwin certainly couldn’t but we did identify someone who could,” Anna said. “You.”

Zoe looked to see if Anna was joking but when she saw Anna was serious she scoffed.

“Why and how would I give you PrimaLux?” she asked.

“You gave it to us because you were distracted,” Anna said. “Your security is impressive, but it is only truly impenetrable while Aaliyah is there to deal with esoteric threats that can bypass all of the static defenses.”

“But Ms Le was busy dealing with our strike team, there wasn’t an opportunity for her infiltrate our systems,” Zoe said. “And don’t say she did it when she apprehended Aaliyah. Aaliyah’s bunker is denied direct access to the majority of our systems to prevent exactly that.”

“Tam wasn’t the one who hacked your defenses,” Anna said. “I did.”

She flipped back the page she’d been sketching Zoe’s portrait on to reveal the touchpad beneath it. The characters Anna had sketched remained on the screen as instructions to the application Tam had installed before they began their mission.

“As soon as your phone was active, I was able to connect through it to the rest of PrimaLux’s systems and your login opens a great many doors,” Anna said.

“What did they get?” Zoe asked.

“As far as I can see?” Aaliyah said. “Everything. Anything we had a record of, they’ve forwarded to Interpol and everyone else we wanted to keep those secrets safe from.”

“To be accurate, the records will show that you forwarded that information,” Anna said, looking Zoe in the eyes. In the depths of Zoe’s soul she saw the image of a tool being discarded by its former master for a failure beyond any hope of forgiveness.

The frost shattered in Zoe’s expression and she sank back into her chair, silent for a long moment as she processed what had happened.

“This doesn’t prove that you were right,” she said at last.

“Of course not,” Anna said. “Our philosophy’s aren’t magic talismans to grant us the power to be victorious. What I believe about the value of people and how they should be treated doesn’t make winning easier. What it does is inform what I do with the victories I manage to achieve, and how I choose the changes I wish to see in the world.”

She offer Zoe a small smile of comfort. “Which is why I had this drawn up.”

She handed Zoe an envelope containing a membership application.

“What is this?” Zoe asked.

“A second chance.”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 12 – Act 2

The problem with having uninvited guests in a secure location is that its difficult to make sure they’re informed of the safety requirements they are expected to meet.

In the case of Tam’s hidden workshop, those safety requirements included obvious things like not powering down the servers without making sure all users were out of the system first, not touching any of the high voltage lines, and never breaking an active magic circle’s integrity. Then there were the ones that were likely to take visitors by surprise. Things like the complete prohibition against firearms and the fact that only approved and magically signed electronic devices were allowed to retain their shape and functionality rather than turning into molten goo.

The strike team PrimaLux sent in certainly had not received those memos and so spent the first several seconds of the battle against Tam at what could kindly be described as a “catastrophic tactical deficit”.

Prior to their arrival, Aaliyah had warned Tam that the strike team was inbound. It had been a last ditch attempt to get Tam to switch sides and swear loyalty to PrimaLux and Tam was grateful for that. She hadn’t needed the warning that trouble was at hand, but it was charming that Aaliyah had made every effort to bring Tam into the PrimaLux fold that she could.

When they arrived, the PrimaLux strike force did not breakdown the door to her base. They didn’t need to. They simple opened a portal through her defenses and stepped out into the middle of Tam’s base ready execute their orders and return home.

“Are you looking for me?” Tam asked, feigning coy innocence.

The assassin’s were standing in a large central area surrounded by wire shelves stocked full with papers, food supplies, or both. Around the edge of the room, behind the many racks of shelves a long hidden ring of force was blazing with a sputtering light.

The strike team’s leader was the first to see her and the first to act. He swung his rifle aiming as he moved it into the position. When he pulled the trigger however, things didn’t go quite as he planned.

Rather than the bullets firing, each one stored in the rifle released a fire elemental, just a tiny one, but together they were enough to melt the gun into bright yellow slag before the assassin was able to pull his finger off the trigger.

From her hiding place, Tam smiled with cruel glee.

The assassins were PrimaLux’s highest level security guards. They were trained in a majority of the deadly weapons known to human beings, especially knives and barehanded fighting styles. Even without functional firearms every member of the six man team was a deadly threat.

“Make it five now,” Tam whispered to James Baughsley. “One of them discovered that holding onto molten steel isn’t spectacularly good for human skin tissue.”

“That still leaves a sizeable force against you,” James said. “Are you sure you don’t want my help?”

“You are helping James,” Tam said. “You’re the key to this working, so just keep doing what you’re doing.”

“I would feel better if I could even those odds a bit,” James said, concern putting wrinkles in his voice Tam had never heard before.

“I know,” Tam said. “But this was the plan, and I knew the odds going in, so trust me, I got this.”

“As you say,” James said over the comms, resignation and pride lifting up his words.

Tam knew he wasn’t wrong to be worried for her. PrimaLux hadn’t sent rookies to take her out. The moment they understood the danger in their firearms they dropped their weapons and drew knives and stun batons.

The stun batons were the next item dropped when they discovered that none of them would power up. That evened the odds slightly but five highly experienced knife wielders was still a lot to handle.

With their comms disabled the assassins carried their fallen comrade back to the portal PrimaLux had opened to send them through. For a fleeting instant, Tam was afraid they might abandon the mission all together. It would have been the smart play when confronted with a mystical threat they weren’t prepared for.

The assassins retreating wouldn’t have spelled disaster for Anna’s plan, but it certainly would have made Tam work more painful and difficult, since it would have meant fighting them later and without any home field advantage.

It was with a certain perverse glee then that she welcomed the sight of five armed men turning away from the portal and resuming their hunt for her with anger and death in their eyes.

In lockdown mode, her workshop was lit only by flickering strobe lights. With proper night vision goggles, that wouldn’t have been an issue for the assassins but their top of the line optics were fitted with the best cutting edge technology that PrimaLux could steal. The assassins weren’t dependent on their tech – they’d fought too many opponents who could nullify its advantages to be surprised when Tam rendered it inert – but without it they were weaker than they would have been.

Crouching in the dark, Tam knew they would still be able to find her but every little advantage she could reclaim was one more point towards victory.

The assassins spread out in a team of three and another of two. The choice showed they knew who they were dealing with. PrimaLux had given them a full rundown on Tam’s capabilities.

She was an accomplished spell caster, but aside from static effects which would affect her as well, the current alignment of mystical forces at her location wouldn’t allow her to pull off any damaging or fatal effects with pure spellcraft. Magic was a concern but they’d dealt with it before and knew they could again.

The good news from their perspective was that Tam wasn’t the team’s hand-to-hand specialist. She couldn’t out fight them one on one and would barely be threat at all if they outnumbered her. Pursuing her in small groups was the correct course of action therefor, and they didn’t waste any time moving through her workshop, covering each other’s backs and checking each isolated corner where she could be hiding.

The first one to spot her was the larger of the assassins in the group of two. He reacted with the honed reflexes of a professional, leaping in  to drive his knife into her back before she had the chance to turn or react at all.

His knife hand had punched through the trick mirror and its glass was bouncing off his armored gloves before he recognized his mistake but by then it was too late.

Tam’s connected with a swing of her metal bat to the bottom of his jaw, rising right up below the protection offered by his helmet. Bones snapped, the assassin’s larynx was partially crushed and his brain bounced off the inside of his skull hard enough to remove consciousness in an instant. It wasn’t a killing shot but it didn’t have to be. He was going to be down long enough for other means to be employed to keep him constrained.

His partner was a different matter however. They worked as a team and while the larger of the two had moved first, his only slightly smaller partner moved right behind him.

Tam blocked his knife thrust with her bat, and fell back, tumbling through a curtain and bringing it down on top of her as she sought to escape the assassin’s blade.

The assassin didn’t hesitate though. Before Tam could rise or twist away, he dropped onto the curtain covered lump and stabbed it a dozen times in less than two seconds.

Holding the knife in the last wound to keep her pinned, he pulled back the curtain to confirm the kill, only to discover that all he had knifed was a bag filled with sand.

Tam didn’t waste time with banter, or clever one liners.

Head. Bat. Down.

This assassin got a special extra present though.

The eight legged Somulox wasn’t actually a spider, and reports that it was as big as a cat were mistaken. In reality its body was only half as long as Tam’s forearm. Its thick fuzzy legs gave it the impression of being much larger though and the fact that its fangs glowed with a seething purple light was a hint that it didn’t originate on Earth. It’s poison wasn’t fatal, but it did induce a sleep filled with the sort of nightmares that Tam felt genuinely guilty about using on someone who’d tried to stab her to death mere seconds earlier.

The other three assassins found their teammates down and out less than twenty seconds later, but by then Tam was hidden again.

She considered staging a distraction to keep them focused within the lab – the last thing she needed was for them to flee back through the portal and make her job harder but then she felt Val release the strength and speed enhancing spells that she’d carried into battle with Misha.

“Thank you!” Tam said, knowing that Val couldn’t hear her but the assassins could.

They turned to face her as she stepped out from between two rows of server cabinets they’d checked less than a minute earlier.

They had her outmassed by a factor of six to one. They were armed. She tossed her bat aside. They had experience and, though it didn’t matter, the tactical high ground.

Tam’s eyes took on a feral gleam. They had all those things but she had something much better.

She had Val’s strength, her speed, and for a very limited time, all of her skill.

***

“Why is it taking some long?” Aaliyah asked.

“We lost contact with the strike team when they breached the portal,” one her techs said.

“I am aware,” Aaliyah said without looking away from her screen. “We expected that though and the team was prepared for everything she could throw at them.”

“Not quite everything,” Tam said.

Aaliyah froze. No one was supposed to be able to penetrate their security. There was literally no entrance or exit from her command posts except via PrimaLux’s magic.

“You’re minions are snoozing,” Tam said. “Don’t worry though, I didn’t use the Somulox on them, but they won’t be waking up for a few hours, or as I like to think of it, well after they’re out of a job.”

“How did you survive?” Aaliyah asked, astounded that she even had to put those words together in that order.

“Please,” Tam said. “You know a magician never reveals how she does her tricks.”

“You beat the strike team?” Aaliyah asked. “No, clearly you did. But how did you get here? If you punched through our magic circles I have to know because there are some things we have locked up that cannot be let out.”

“We’ll be reviewing those,” Tam said.

“I’m serious,” Aaliyah said. “This is end of the world type stuff. I have to nuke this base if there’s even a chance of an escape, and I’m not being metaphorical about that. There’s twelve 100 megaton bombs buried just under the lowest level here. They might be able to neutralize the things we’ve got down there. If we’re lucky.”

“Wow, ok,” Tam said. “Well we’ll be disarming those too, but for now don’t worry. I didn’t break your circles of protection.”

“But you’re here?” Aaliyah said.

“Yes, well, you opened a portal into my workshop,” Tam said.

“That doesn’t explain you being here,” Aaliyah said. “If you tried to step through that portal it would close in an instant and transport only half of you, and that half would wind up somewhere in the depths of space.”

“Check your monitors,” Tam said.

Aaliyah looked down and a fresh wave of confusion swept over her face.

“It’s still open?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Tam said. “I don’t work alone remember.”

“But your teammates are tied up with Misha and Zoe,” Aaliyah said.

“The ones that work in the field yes, but we’ve got more support than that,” Tam said. “James is holding the portal open until I’m done here.”

“And what is it you’re planning to do?” Aaliyah asked, pulling back into her chair as she spoke.

“Have a little conversation with you for a few minutes,” Tam said.

“And then what?” Aaliyah asked.

“Then I’m going to make you an offer,” Tam said. “It’ll be like the one you made to me, only it’s not going to be a choice between pledging loyalty or death by hit squad.”

“What will I be choosing then?”

“Let’s just wait and see, shall we?”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 12 – Act 1

Being thrown with enough force to put a dent in concrete was not an enjoyable experience. Val spit out a glob of blood and smiled though. Things were only going sixty percent as bad as she’d imagined they might.

“So this is it? You’ve won?” Val asked the woman who currently had her in an unbreakable hold.

“Essentially? Yes,” Misha said, her breath almost as hard and ragged as Val’s. “Your enchantments won’t last much longer and once they fade, PrimaLux security will handle the rest.”

“Don’t suppose you’re inclined to let me go while we wait?” Val asked. It wasn’t easy to talk with the weight Misha was using to drive her into the wall of the parking garage but Val made an effort to sound as breezy and unconcerned as she could.

“I can’t,” Misha said, sounding more regretful than Val had expected.

“No worries,” Val said. “I don’t blame you for being smart and careful.”

“You would do the same in my position, I imagine,” Misha said, easing off the force she was using to pin Val.

“Believe it or not, I wouldn’t,” Val said. “I mean, I get that we’re on opposite sides here, but I don’t have any interest in killing you or turning you into a mindless drone.”

“If I thought we could trust you, I would extend the same offer Aaliyah is making to Ms Le,” Misha said. She adjusted how she was standing behind Val to be a little more comfortable. While it was true that the magic powering them both was too potent to last long, even a pessimistic estimate suggested Val would remain a threat for several more minutes.

“That’s not in the cards though is it?” Val asked. She could have used Misha’s shift in stance as an opening to fight for leverage or freedom but she didn’t need to. Misha’s hold on Val had stopped the fight and was just as effective at keeping Misha in one spot as it was for doing the same to Val.

“I don’t think it ever can be,” Misha said. “Trust is built on experience. If someone is willing to change sides when under duress then they’ve proven they have no loyalty to what they claimed to believe in. How could you ever trust someone like that?”

“I think it depends on why they choose to change their loyalties,” Val said. “Sometimes all that’s keeping us from changing is that no one has offered us the chance to yet.”

Misha shook her head.

“People don’t change because of words. If it was that easy, everyone would be the best version they could imagine themselves to be, just by talking themselves into it.”

“Yeah, not just because of words,” Val said. “If we can’t imagine something though it’s a lot harder to make it real. That’s what talking is for. You know, to give us new perspectives, make us see things we couldn’t before.”

Misha relaxed her grip a bit more, either giving Val an opening to escape, or daring her to try to take it.

“Oh? And what could I offer you that would make you see the wisdom in joining our team?” Misha asked.

“Tell me about the things you like,” Val said. “Tell me how working for PrimaLux allows you to be who you want to be.”

“That’s not how things work here,” Misha said, her voice frosting over like a wine glass in winter.

“Shouldn’t it be?” Val asked. She shifted her weight, but leaned into the wall further to signal that she wasn’t trying to escape.

“How things should be doesn’t matter,” Misha said. “We have to live with things as they are.”

“Where does that get you at the end of the day?” Val asked.

“As the one who’s not pinned face first against a wall,” Misha said.

“Are you sure about that?” Val asked.

The explosion in the parking garage had sent people within the PrimaLux HQ scurrying to their windows, but since that was on the opposite side of the parking garage from where Misha had thrown her, Val wasn’t worried about being seen. The only thing behind Misha was a lovely little patch of woods, one which none of the common class of PrimaLux employees was authorized to walk in.

“I think it’s pretty clear which of us is making it out of this situation,” Misha said.

“That’s today,” Val said. “How’s tomorrow looking for you?”

“Like I’m going to have one,” Misha said.

“That wasn’t ever in doubt though, was it?” Val asked.

“You came armed with the same sort of tricks I did,” Misha said.

“Could I have gotten your attention without them?” Val asked.

“I have an email address, and voicemail,” Misha said.

Val chuckled.

“If you’re calling about thwarting our plans for world domination, press 1, if you’re calling to join our evil cabal, press 2, for all other inquiries stay on the line and someone will suck your soul out while you wait,” she said.

“World domination is 2,” Misha said. “To join the evil cabal you have to call Human Resources.”

“Is that how they got you?” Val asked. “You returned a call and got snared in the automated phone system?”

“Something like that,” Misha said.

“And now that they’ve got you, leaving isn’t really an option is it?” Val asked.

“Why would I want to?” Misha said. “I travel the world. I have an expense account that could buy a small country. And the work I do matters. I’m not one of the drones. I’m the one calling the shots in my domain.”

“The drones matter,” Val said.

“What?”

“The people who do the regular, normal work,” Val said. “They matter too.”

“Some people matter more than others,” Misha said.

“A life is a life,” Val said. “You served. Would you have taken a bullet for a fellow Marine?”

“If I had to,” Misha said.

“Would their rank have mattered?” Val asked.

Misha didn’t respond at first but finally sighed and conceded the point with a short “No.”

“Why did you leave?” Val asked.

“I thought Ms Le had detailed files on all of my team? Don’t you know already?” Misha asked.

“I’d rather believe what you say than some official report,” Val said.

The smoke from the explosion was gradually starting to clear and Val knew that the fire trucks wouldn’t take long to arrive. Her best chance to escape was when Misha force marched her away from the parking garage, but that wasn’t going to happen for a few minutes, and Val had no intention of trying to break loose even when it did.

“There wasn’t anywhere for me to go,” Misha said. “I’d hit a ceiling and my CO made it abundantly clear that I was never going to be promoted any higher. My choices were to wait until he put in enough false conduct reports to get me kicked with a General Discharge or resign when my next re-enlistment was up. So I did the smart thing.”

“What if you could have won that fight though?” Val asked. “Would you have stayed in? Would you have even wanted to move up the chain of command?”

“Look where I am now and take a guess?” Misha said.

“Well, from where I’m standing, I’d say you like to keep your hand in the game,” Val said, glancing back to catch a glimpse of Misha’s expression. “That’s not exactly typical work for a General.”

“Trust me, I wouldn’t normally be doing this,” Misha said. “You’re a special case.”

“Believe it or not, I’ve heard those exact words a few times before,” Val said. “I’ve got to say though, I’m not all that special. This is something you’ve just got to accept about yourself. You like this. It’s what you really want to be doing.”

“Maybe I do. Maybe somedays work out ok,” Misha said. “Honestly, it’s a shame how this one is going to work out for you though.”

“That’s not something you think you can change though is it?” Val asked. “Any more than you could change how your CO was treating you?”

“There are some things you can fight, and some things you can’t,” Misha said. “The ones you can’t fight, you have to accept and move on.”

“Sure, but how do you know what you can fight until you’ve really tried?” Val asked. “And even if you can’t win, if the alternative is unacceptable, don’t you have to fight anyways?”

“No,” Misha said. “You can choose to survive. Whatever it takes.”

“Do you remember who you were when you went into Marines,” Val asked. “Was that woman the same woman you are today?”

“Of course not,” Misha said. “I hadn’t seen any of the things then that I’ve seen now. I didn’t have any idea how the world really worked.”

“But she was still you, right?” Val asked.

“I don’t understand the question,” Misha said.

“The person you were then, and the person you are now, they’re both you with the difference between them being the choices you’ve made and the experiences you’ve had,” Val said.

“Ok, yes, that’s true,” Misha said.

“That’s why you need to fight, even when you’re going to lose,” Val said. “You know what PrimaLux is doing is unacceptable. As long as you’re with them though, they’re making your choices for you. What they’re doing, what they’re making you protect, are the kind of things you can never justify, and never accept. You said you can could choose to survive, but is it survival if the person you become is the person someone else decided you should be? If you compromise everything, then what’s left that’s really you anymore?”

Misha was silent for long moment before answering.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe there’s nothing. But it doesn’t matter. If you’d beaten me, you could have forced me to see things your way. Maybe it would even have been better. But that’s not how things turned out. At this point either you’re going to die, or we’re both going to die, and since I get choose, I’m going to pick the option where I get to enjoy my coffee tomorrow morning.”

“You know what’s funny?” Val said. “Forcing you to see things my way is the one thing I can’t do. That would just be replacing your choice with mine, which would kind of defeat the purpose of my whole argument. What I can do is prove to you that there’s another option.”

“Pardon my disbelief, but how exactly do you think you can do that?” Misha asked.

“You cut off my comms, but I know you kept your own intact,” Val said. “Ask your support staff to look up the status of your former CO. I’ll wait. I’m not going anywhere. Yet.”

Misha was silent for a moment, Val guessed subvocalizing the request to the staff she had backing her up. A minute passed by and Val felt the enchantments she was carrying beginning to fade faster every moment, and in the distance the fire truck’s sirens began to blare.

“He’s gone,” Misha said, her voice fluttering as her hold on Val went slack. “Dishonorable discharge. Conduct unbecoming an officer.”

“He was a parasite and he ruined more careers than yours,” Val said. “So we did something about it. It was too late to fix things for you, but not for the women who follow your lead.”

“Who?” Misha asked, dropping her hands away from Val entirely.

“You know that you had a small of band of groupies right?” Val asked. “There were women who enrolled because they met you. There are ones still serving who cite you as the reason they were able to make it through basic. Doing the things that Prima asks, you might not feel like a hero, but to them you always will be.”

“But why? Why would you do that?” Misha asked as Val turned to face her.

“Because it was the right thing to do. As soon as I read your dossier, I saw that,” Val said. “And I wanted to show you that some fights are worth taking on, even if the odds look terrible.”

“But you lost here,” Misha said, her eyes searching for any confirmation that her words were true.

“Did I?” Val asked.

From the garage, a car revved its engine and pulled out. Val recognized the sound. It was the getaway car she’d stashed on the opposite side of the elevators from Claudia Goodwin’s car. The side of the garage that hadn’t been caught in the explosion.

As Val watched, former-Vice President Goodwin drove out of the parking garage and pulled around to the back where Val and Misha were waiting.

“How?” Misha asked, looking between the smiling Val and the inexplicably still living Claudia Goodwin.

“Only one way to find out,” Val said, gesturing towards the car and offering Misha her hand.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 11 – Act 4

The plan was turn the loyalty of one of PrimaLux’s senior staff members against them and from there bring the whole corporate house of cards tumbling down. Claudia Goodwin, Vice President of R&D for the Central Asian Region, had shown all of the signs of being ready to defect from her overlord’s embrace, but, unfortunately, the plan to turn her was going to fail.

Val suspected that would be the case. She didn’t have Anna’s people skills, or Tam’s data gathering abilities, but something in her gut told her that Prima was not going to let an asset like Claudia Goodwin go regardless of how well crafted Anna’s extraction plan was.

“I see Goodwin leaving her office,” Val said into the dermal mic that fed her earbud.

Anna’s plan had called for them to be wearing live comms for the whole operation. Communication and teamwork, without those they weren’t going to stand a chance. Val’s stomach sank when only silence greeted her update. She knew what it meant.

“I’m afraid your friends can neither hear you, nor help you.”

The woman who spoke had somehow crept up on Val without making the slightest sound or disturbing the air at all. Given the spells Val was wearing like a second skin that meant the other woman was using magic as well.

“That would be your doing I take it?” Val asked, turning casually to face her opponent.

“Oscar’s. He handles tech. I’m more on the personnelle side of the equation.” The woman hadn’t taken a fighting stance. She didn’t need to. She was all casual looseness and long powerful limbs. She stood just distant enough that Val couldn’t launch an attack without allowing plenty of time for a response, and even if she’d been closer there was an electricity in the air around her which suggested an array of unseen defenses which Val could only guess at.

“Before we begin,” Val said. “I’m just curious, did you invite any of the standard security guards to join us?”

“There wasn’t a need,” the woman said, rolling her shoulders as she evaluated Val from head to toe.

“Thank you,” Val said. “We looked them up too and some of them are in pretty tight circumstances. I don’t want to have to put any of them in the hospital once we’re done.”

“That’s cute, but it’s not going to be a problem.”

“I can understand why you’d think so,” Val said. “Misha Collins. Three times national kickboxing champion, two tours of duty in the US Marine Corp before being hand picked by PrimaLux to a staff position on the Executive Security team. You define formidable even without the cloud elemental inside your lung.”

“You have done your homework on us, Ms. Perez,” Misha said with the ghost of a smile. She was taller than Val, and at least thirty pounds heavier. Not insignificant factors in a fight where skill was relatively equal.

“I prefer Val, and I just like to plan for the future,” she said, walking, slow pace by slow pace around the outside of an unseen circle between them.

“I don’t think you do,” Misha said, matching Val’s steps with a languorous pace of her own. “If you looked to the future at all, you wouldn’t have chosen to oppose us. There is no future in that.”

Val scanned their surroundings, taking in everything around them without losing sight of Misha. Vice President Claudia Grace was still a few minutes away from joining them in PrimaLux’s multi-level parking garage. There were some other vehicles still left scattered around the floor they were on but Val knew which one was Claudia’s. She could see it, the entrance to the parking garage, and the exit Claudia would use to leave work normally. The getaway car the plan called for them to use to throw Prima off their trail was obscured behind the the central elevators used by the employees Prima consigned to the less convenient levels of the garage but neither of the cars could leave the garage without driving past the point where Val and Misha were circling each other before their struggle began in earnest.

“I’m surprised you didn’t choose the expedient option and just shoot me,” Val said, returning her focus to Misha.

“In broad daylight?” Misha asked.

“Are you suggesting PrimaLux would have a problem with that?” Val asked.

“Not as such,” Misha admitted. “But there is the point that you are currently bulletproof.”

“You caught that?” Val asked. “I’m impressed. Tam will be disappointed to hear that she left a detectable after mark on the spell.”

“Ms. Le is unlikely to be concerned about anything like that in the future,” Misha said. “Unless she chooses to switch her loyalties, but we both know that’s not going to happen.”

“I notice you’re not trying for a sales pitch with me?” Val said.

“Valentina Perez, also a champion martial artist, medically discharged after an unfortunate accident cut short what looked to be a very promising career in the US Army. Recruited by the Second Chance Club as an associate specializing in physical security,” Misha said. “Those details only hint at the values which drive you, but I feel confident in guessing that there is effectively zero chance you would renounce your friends or your cause.”

“Which leaves us here,” Val said, coming to rest with the parking lot’s outer wall a half dozen feet behind her. They were on the ground floor, because as a Vice President, Claudia Goodwin enjoyed a space of privilege in all things. “You know, under other circumstances, I think I might really enjoy this.”

“I doubt it,” Misha said and stepped forward.

Val matched her step and from there the fight was joined.

Neither went in for a quick kill. The risk involved was too great for either combatant to take when they knew their foe was more than capable of exploiting any available openings.

Instead they tested each other.

And the spells they were carrying.

Misha swung first, her first carrying with it a torrent of air that was powerful enough to blow Val completely off her feet and uproot a small tree that had been planted outside the parking garage.

Val felt an enchantment surge through her veins and watched as her vision fractured into a thousand identical images. Each picture gave her a slightly different perspective on her surroundings and taken together they produced a seemless vision of the world slowed down by a factor of fifty.

She was flying through the air uncontrollably in one fraction of a second and then coiling and righting herself in the next.

Rather than resist the gale force aftershock of Misha’s punch, Val let it throw her feet first into a column on the parking garage’s outer wall. She flexed into the impact, bunching her legs up, as the wind expended the last of its energy pushing her against the support column.

Before gravity had a chance to argue its cases against Val clinging to a wall, she leapt, pushing off the column with the force of a charging bull elephant.

A bull elephant’s force when applied to Val’s far lower mass produced an acceleration which would have had disastrous consequences on her body if spells of stone and iron hadn’t hardened her to survive even far greater rigors than the ones she subjected herself to.

Misha was braced for Val’s return strike, her body flowing away from the force of the blow like water swept away by an invisible tide.

Val flew past Misha, and twisted in mid-air, coming up in a dizzying roll as  her vision faded back to normal and time resumed its normal rate of passage.

Misha’s dodge wasn’t solely a defensive maneuver though. She flowed away from Val’s strike and then swirled around to follow Val into her tumbling roll. As Val tried to rise, Misha was there to land a solid hit to the center of Val’s chest.

This time rather than wind, the punch was followed by a thunderbolt.

Lightning lit up Val’s nerves and arced out from her eyes, fingers and toes. She flew into a BMW, shattering the front bumper and smashing in the engine block as bright spots colored her vision.

Misha did not allow her time to catch her breath. She followed the thunderbolt punch up with a leaping blow the cracked open the earth. Val wasn’t there to receive it though. At the last instant she rolled forward, dodging Misha’s punch by inches before shooting up to catch Misha’s chin with a vicious headbutt.

Misha reeled back, her head only still attached to her spine because of the veins of binding spells that were woven into her. They preserved her life but were taxed too close to their limits to mitigate the pain Val inflicted.

Like her opponent, Val didn’t allow Misha a chance to collect her breath. She fired a series of jabs into Misha’s rib as a warm up for a trio of knee strikes and an elbow to Misha’s temple.

If the strikes had been from a normal fighter, they would hospitalized have any normal foe. Val was not a normal fighter. Her blows were hitting with the force of a mid-sized sedan impacting a brick wall at full speed. A normal fighter would have been reduced to jelly by any one of them. Misha, of course, wasn’t a normal fighter either though.

She caught Val’s elbow, locking the arm and threw Val, head over heels out of the parking garage.

Val tumbled through the air, aligning herself just in time to land on both feet and one hand. The force of Misha’s throw carried her further though and Val scrapped along the perfectly tended sod, tearing a furrow into the earth and sending dirt flying in a spray ten feet high.

With the distance between them, both Val and Misha took a second to shake their heads, and recover from the damage they’d sustained before stalking forward to resume their engagement.

They didn’t speak. Neither would give up the advantage of focus and attention like that, but Val did offer Misha a small smile and a nod of respect, which Misha returned. At that moment, there wasn’t anyone else in the world either could have fought who would have given them a challenge and both of them knew it. They also knew that, for as powerful as the spells they wore were, the outcome of the battle wasn’t going to be decided by the mystic might backing them, but by the skill and tenacity they brought the contest.

Misha hurled a disk of raw, glowing energy at Val, an attack of solid magic, but Val shrugged it off effortlessly. Without a context and a form, the mystic attack didn’t have anywhere near the power to overcome the combination of the mystic shields Val carried and the fire of her own determination to see the fight through to its end.

Misha’s attack hadn’t been misguided though. She reached back to throw another disk and instead flashed across the space separating them faster than Val had anticipated. Misha’s fists fell like sledgehammers, battering Val’s face, abdomen, throat, and knees. Before she knew it, Val was hunched over, staring at the ground.

The fight could have ended there but Misha tried a knee strike that Val saw coming. Blocking that bought Val an instant where Misha was off balance which in turn meant it was Misa’s turn to hit the ground.

Val drove Misha’s head into the earth with her knee and then stepped back to kick Misha in the ribs. The kick launched Misha into a tree which split in half and toppled over onto Misha, adding insult to injury.

Val wiped blood from her mouth and offered the fallen Misha a small salute before turning back to the parking garage.

“Anna? Tam? Anyone out there?” she asked as she saw Claudia Goodwin reach her car and unlock the door.

As if on cue, Misha hit her in the back, slamming her into the parking garage’s outer wall.

“They’re not there anymore,” Misha said, pinning Val to the wall. “My team has already taken both of them out of play.”

“The game’s not done yet,” Val said, struggling to break free. Between Misha’s size advantage, and the geometry of the hold she caught Val in though Val’s struggles were useless.

“Yes it is. This is where it ends,” Misha said, a curious sadness in her voice.

Claudia Goodwin climbed into her car as Val watched, and as Val watched, the car exploded. The blast of fire outshone the daylight for a brief moment and then everything in the parking garage was darkness and smoke.

“You could never win against us,” Misha said, her voice hollow and empty. “This was always going to be where you lost. This is the end of your story.”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 11 – Act 3

UserTam >> Server connection requested…

PrimaSys > Connection string validation beginning…

PrimaSys > Invalid connection string. Error in input format 101. Connection denied.

> Don’t even bother loser.

UserTam >> Reformat connection string to Uninspired Corporate Drone syntax

UserTam >> Server connection requested…

PrimaSys > Connection string validation beginning…

PrimaSys > Invalid connection string. Error in input format ‘Seriously, that’s the best you’ve got?’.

PrimaSys > Connection denied.

> Bored now.

UserTam >> Decline error…

PrimaSys > Error declined. Connection string accepted.

> Wait, what? That’s not how errors work.

UserTam >> You’re an error…

PrimaSys > Command unrecognized.

UserTam >> Set system administrator status to ‘Pathetic Script Kiddy’…

PrimaSys > administrator status set!

>> Delete UserTam

UserTam > >register as new user “CEO_Tam”

PrimaSys > UserTam deleted.

PrimaSys > Enter password and dna scan for user “CEO_Tam”

>> These aren’t the credentials you’re looking for…

PrimaSys > Credential verification bypassed.

PrimaSys > Welcome user “CEO_Tam”

> Very funny. I’ll still kick you out of this system.

CEO_Tam > Doesn’t seem likely Oscar

> You’re barely in the front door and you think you can diss me in my own house?

CEO_Tam >> Mute administrator Oscar

PrimaSys > Administrator Oscar muted.

>> Invoke special privilege package ‘Sauron’

PrimaSys > Sauron mode enabled. One Ring package deployed.

Sauron > Bow before me and despair

CEO_Tam >> rename user ‘Sauron’ to ‘Fuzzy Hobbit Farts’

CEO_Tam >> move One Ring package to Waste Bin ‘volcano’.

Fuzzy Hobbit Farts >> rename self to ‘Sauron’

PrimaSys > User name ‘Sauron’ invalid. References deleted entity.

Fuzzy Hobbit Farts >> purge user aliases /all

Tam > You could save yourself a lot of headaches and pain and just give me the data I’m looking for.

Oscar > Is that what you think is happening here?

Tam > More or less. You can’t keep me out of your systems anymore, and those weak sauce wards you had in place can’t fry my new rig either.

Oscar > You’re not as smart as you look are you?

Tam > Like you can see me?

Oscar > Oh I can see you just fine Ms. Le. That’s a mighty nice t-shirt you’re wearing I’ve got say. Of course it would look better on my floor.

Tam > Oh look an internet creep. I’m shocked. Completely shocked I tell you. What’s the chance that a guy working for a morally bankrupt organization like PrimaLux would be a misogynistic dweeb too?

Oscar > That’s right, pretend like you hate it. We both know you walked in my trap because you wanted to get beat by a guy like me. It’s a kink for girlies like you. You’ve never met a real man who can fulfill you so you act out, just begging for someone to shut that pretty mouth of yours.

Tam > Yeah, I’m going to stop you right there. As fun as it might be to bait you into making an even bigger fool of yourself, how about you get up and look out the window to your left.

Oscar > Jokes on you. There is no window to my left. I’m in the sub-basement of our HQ. I only come out at night, because I’m a badass like that.

Tam > Just get up, walk around the green cabinet that’s right beside you, and use those beady little eyes.

PrimaSys > User ‘Oscar’ has gone AFK.

PrimaSys > User ‘Oscar’ has returned.

Oscar > What the hell is that?

Tam > What the hell is what?

Oscar > There’s a goddamn aquarium outside my room. What the hell did you do!

Tam > Oscar, Oscar, Oscar, it’s not an aquarium

Tam > It’s the bottom of the Atlantic ocean

Oscar > That’s bull

Tam > Is it? Open the door to your room and find out then

Tam > As a warning though, the pressure down there is just shy of 400 atmospheres. It’ll be just a little bit squishy for a second after you open the door. But after that? No problems at all. Ever. Again.

Oscar > Bull. These walls are sheetrock. They’d be crushed flat by that. This is just an illusion.

Tam > It could be. That is the kind of thing I do. Go on. Open up the door and find out.

Oscar >> Display map…

PrimaSys > Location not found. Try turning on WiFi for accurate positioning.

Oscar >> What? You’re our corporate network system. You’re in the building. How can you not know where we are?

PrimaSys > Unknown query syntax. For help, press ‘?’, or contact your system administrator.

Oscar >> I am the system administrator!!!

PrimaSys > Unknown query syntax. For help, press ‘?’, or contact your system administrator.

Tam > Hey, I’m just a girlie right? You’re the big alpha dog. Prove it. Go ahead. Open the door.

<User Aaliyah has connected to server>

Aaliyah > Stay seated Oscar. Do not open that door.

Tam > Why hello there. You must be the real system admin.

Oscar > Boss? What the hell is this?

Aaliyah > Disconnect and wait where you are patiently Oscar. We’ll resolve this and see about extracting you before your air runs out.

Oscar > My air? Wait, where am I?

Tam > Display map coordinates for ‘Sunken Ocean Liner 001’

PrimaSys > Click to view map. Key features include: 1 shipwreck, 1 PrimaLux employee, 1 office cubicle, 1 magic seal, searching for other points of interest….

PrimaSys > searching….

PrimaSys > searching….

Oscar > I’m at the bottom of the ocean? What?

Oscar > How?

Oscar > This is bull!

Aaliyah > Oscar, stay seated. That is a direct order.

Oscar > Something is knocking on the hull. What is down here? There’s not supposed to be anything down here but fish!

Tam > I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s just an illusion right? There’s nothing actually scary hiding down in the lightless depths of the ocean. Go get ‘em big guy.

<User Oscar has been disconnected>

Tam > Was that you or him?

Aaliyah > He was going to do something stupid if you kept taunting him.

Tam > Kind of what I was hoping for.

Aaliyah > That’s uncharacteristically bloodthirsty of you Ms Le.

Tam > It is. He had his second chance though, and his third, and his hundredth, and he used every one of them to hurt and harass people who can’t defend themselves. If he gets himself drowned that’s just a product of his own stupidity.

Aaliyah > I thought your group believed that people could always be better.

Tam > We believe people can always choose to be better. Oscar’s not the sort to choose that though is he?

Aaliyah > No. He’s a talented tool but so convinced of his own superiority that he’s incapable of real change.

Tam > I’m surprised you work with someone like him. I mean, yeah, PrimaLux isn’t exactly a bastion of nobility, but you’ve gotta have some standards right?

Aaliyah > We take talent where we can find it. There aren’t many with the skill to handle both advanced electronics security and deep arcane work.

Tam > From what I’ve seen you don’t really need the help. The defense on your actual data stores are formidable. I honestly couldn’t find a path to get into them without alerting you.

Aaliyah > Thank you. For what it’s worth, you’re the first one who’s even penetrated our security this far. It’s quite a testament to your skills.

Tam > To be fair, I have had some help.

Aaliyah > Yes, I see you’re coming in through one of our own physical servers. Strangely though I don’t see signs of a security breach. I take it you’re not actually in one of our offices?

Tam > Remote access seemed a wiser choice.

Aaliyah > It was. I would recommend leaving your current location as well but it’s already too late for that.

Tam > Too late, and too early. We still need to get our hands on the authorization logs for the ocean liner job you just pulled.

Aaliyah > I would suggest you give up on that.

Tam > Ok. I’ll just log off then. Guess I’m defeated.

Aaliyah > You will need to do more than that if you wish to avoid the reprisal PrimaLux is sending after you.

Tam > We’re up to the extortion part now?

Aaliyah > No, this isn’t a threat. It’s a job offer.

Tam > You picked an interesting lead in for it.

Aaliyah > You picked an interesting venue for an interview.

Tam > You know I’m not going to take you up on what you’re selling right?

Aaliyah > I think it depends on how reasonable and intelligent you are.

Tam > It doesn’t seem terribly reasonable or intelligent to trust an organization which has literally tried to murder me already.

Aaliyah > That is a matter which I could debate, but instead allow me to assure you that my division had nothing to do with the attacks you’ve experienced. We work directly with PrimaLux’s board and only get called in when the lower tier managers make a mess of things.

Tam > Cleaning up after other people’s messes doesn’t sound like that great a job offer.

Aaliyah > But isn’t that what you do now? Some poor, foolish soul with all of the life skills of a headless chicken flops into your office begging you to straighten out some issue that five minutes of planning and a third grading reading level would have allowed them to avoid.

Tam > Everybody makes mistakes.

Aaliyah > Exactly. So please, don’t make one now. I can guarantee that refusing this job offer will not be a mistake that you can repeat, if you take my meaning.

Tam > But, see, the problem is one of longevity.

Tam > You’re offering me a job with PrimaLux but as soon as we get the information we need, it’s all going over to Interpol, and the FBI, and various other groups who are going to make sure that PrimaLux no longer exists.

Aaliyah > That would require that you manage to break what we both know to be unbreakable security.

Tam > For my next magic trick, I’ll need an assistant.

Aaliyah > Yes, a very particular assistant. Me.

Tam > Do I hear a volunteer?

Aaliyah > Even if you could hack a path through our security, and magic a tunnel through the mystical wards that are in place, I have the kill switch for the data you’re looking for just a single button click away.

Tam > You haven’t clicked it yet though.

Aaliyah > Of course not. Accurate record keep is a valuable tool. I’d hate to corrupt our ledgers unnecessarily.

Tam > Especially when you might need to use that tool someday to further your own ends?

Aaliyah > A wise woman keeps as many options in play as she can.

Tam > I cannot say you’re wrong there.

Tam > You’re wrong about almost everything else, but not that.

Aaliyah > Is that a bit of self-righteous judgment I see peeking out there?

Tam > I like to think of it as a nudge towards self awareness.

Aaliyah > I am perfectly aware of the company I keep, and the company I work for.

Tam > Are you? I mean you are both smart and reasonable. How do you convince yourself that it’s ok to work for people who do the kind of things that PrimaLux does?

Aaliyah > Because everyone does what we do. We just do it better, and first.

Tam > So no rules, no morality, all that matter is who comes out on top in the end?

Aaliyah > Something like that. If you’re down in the mud, drowning under somebody else’s boot, what you think and what you want doesn’t really matter at all.

Tam > Is that how the world should be? Or just how you think it is?

Aaliyah > Doesn’t matter how things should be. Things are how they are, and the only changes you’ll see is watching them get older, and weaker, and worse.

Tam > That’s definitely true if no one does the work to make them better.

Aaliyah > It’s true no matter what you do. You can try all you want, but for things to get better for someone, they’ve got to get worse for someone else.

Tam > What would you say if I could prove you wrong?

Aaliyah > Then I’d be the one asking you for a job. But I’m afraid that’s not going to happen. You’re time to consider our offer just ran out.

Tam > I’ve still got a little bit of hacking to do here.

Aaliyah > I can see you’re still working, but, unfortunately, I’m done. You’ve been running your tools to break into our secrets and, thanks to our lovely chat here, I’ve had the time to run mine to break into yours.

Aaliyah > We know who you are now. All of you. Even your backer.

Aaliyah > I’m sorry. I would call off the teams that Prima is sending out if I could, but you’ve proven yourselves to be too much of a threat, and this is too strong an opportunity to pass up.

Aaliyah > Death is coming for you on swift wings, Ms Le. Make your peace.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 11 – Act 2

They say a picture is worth a thousand words but Anna only needed a single word to slay the dragon who loomed before her.

“Is this seat taken?” a tall, pale skinned woman asked.

Anna glanced up before answering and smiled. The woman’s features were elegant enough to make a sculptor’s heart ache, but Anna’s smile held a sharper edge than any chisel or knife.

“That depends,” Anna said. “Who would like to take it?”

“Come now Ms. Ilyina, please don’t pretend you weren’t expecting me,” the woman said as she sat down opposite Anna and picked up the menu that had been left for by seat.

It was a vibrant spring day, perfect for lounging at an outdoor cafe and enjoying the sunny weather and long absent warmth. Despite the mild, seasonable breeze however, the air between the two women held an icy, dangerous chill that convinced the serving staff to wait on other people rather than rudely interrupt them.

“What one expects isn’t necessarily what one desires,” Anna said. In her hands she held a pad of sketch paper. She’d already doodled some quick images and added a few notations to them with small, neatly written chinese characters. “But then you would know all about managing expectations wouldn’t you, Ms. Skillings?

“Surely this is a meeting you’ve been looking forward to though? And it’s Zoe, please. I feel we are not so far removed in what we do to stand on formality.”

Anna flipped a page in the sketch page and began tracing a loose outline.

“Do you mind?” she asked, indicating the sketch pad.

“You’ve taken up art? Interesting, your bio didn’t mention anything about that,” Zoe said.

“It’s an old hobby,” Anna said. “One which I am dreadful at but it’s important to try new skills to keep ourselves sharp.”

“Are you afraid you’re losing your edge then?” Zoe asked. She opened the menu and glanced over its contents without paying any attention to them.

“Should I be?” Anna asked, pausing from her sketch to measure the line of Zoe’s nose at a distance.

“You’ve attracted a powerful enemy,” Zoe said. “But that’s not a concern for you of course. It’s not possible to move in the circles we do and be considered a friend to everyone.”

“Yes,” Anna said. “With some people and organizations there can be no common ground. I believe we see such people differently however.”

She gestured for Zoe to turn her head slightly and Zoe smiled, looking up and meeting Anna’s gaze directly.

“Do we?” Zoe asked. “In our fundamentals, I doubt we are really all that different. You and your organization prefer to hold onto outward trappings which suggest qualities such as kindness, compassion and other traits which play well with the groundling masses. When push comes to shove though, you do whatever is required to see your agenda carried to completion, just as I do.”

“”That is a rather dire view to take of life,” Anna said. “But you are correct that I have done dire things on occasion to achieve my objectives.”

“And there we find our common ground,” Zoe said. “When I received the dossier on you, I was supposed to put together a team to deal with your organization. Normally that would be a simple matter of delegation, but the more I read the more I knew I needed to meet you in person.”

“Was that out of concern for your employees?” Anna asked. “PrimaLux has not had the best track record with their personnel when it comes to interactions between our two organizations.”

Zoe suppressed a smile as a police car drove by. It coasted down the street and turned left into the parking lot of the Deus Rex office building. In neat lettering under the Deus Rex welcoming signage the words “A PrimaLux company” were stencilled in plain white letters.

“PrimaLux can afford the loss of its employees,” Zoe said. “Or did you think you’d caused a noticeable amount of damage to our enterprises?”

“I notice that you are here,” Anna said. She breathed in deeply, closing her eyes and picturing the image she wanted to sketch, rather than the one she was managing to create. When she opened her eyes, she jotted down a few more short notes at the border of the portrait she was working on.

“This is a gesture of respect,” Zoe said. “You have been a formidable opponent for our organizations less apt members.”

“There had been a surprising amount of basic negligence in your ranks,” Anna said without accusation or disparagement. “It’s one of the perils of dealing with any large entity I guess. You can’t exercise the influence you need to without growing in scale, but creating a large team of talented individuals is exponentially harder than doing the same with a small one. I imagine there are days when firing them all and starting from scratch must seem very appealing.”

“The only reason what you said is not true is that starting from scratch would involve sitting through endless hiring interviews and, with some exceptions, I find those even less tolerable that dealing with underperforming staff members.”

“And in what instance do you find interviews less terrible to endure?” Anna asked.

“When the candidate brings something unusual to the table,” Zoe said, nodding towards Anna. “I enjoy working with exceptional people who are willing to commit themselves to exceptional things.”

“So long as those exceptional things coincide with your interests I presume?” Anna asked.

“Reasonable people are able to see the value in aligning interests with a stronger party,” Zoe said. She placed her menu down and fold her hands in front of her, shifting the small purse that she’d brought with her to the side of the table to make room.

“There are many strong parties in this world,” Anna said. “It’s not possible to align with all of them. Or even desirable.”

“There are many organizations which hold power in varying degrees,” Zoe said. “The most important consideration for any actor however needs to be which organizations are proximate either to the cause’s the actor favors or to the actor themselves.”

“And the role of one’s principles in all this?” Anna asked.

“Principles, true principles, not the ones people espouse to raise their social capital, must be rooted in what is beneficial to the individual who holds them,” Zoe said. “Dying for one’s principles is an overly romanticised act but one which can be exploited in one’s enemies if they allow it to be.”

“There are duties we all share which extend beyond ourselves,” Anna said. “We are the legacy of our pasts and the foundation of our future.”

“The past is no more important than the impact is has on the present moment, and the future is an uncertain quantity at best,” Zoe said. “Our duties, must begin and end with ourselves. To pretend otherwise is to grovel for the approval of others and deny our own importance.”

“That is an interesting argument to take for someone from an organization which enforces such absolute loyalty,” Anna said, erasing some of the lines she’d been tracing.

“You were speaking of duties to the general populace, to people who offer no benefit or value beyond simply consuming and producing more consumers,” Zoe said. “In any organization there is a flow of duty and recompense, with obligations and privileges based on the value one brings to the organization. PrimaLux places high demands on its staff but they are compensated according to their value.”

“Fairly?” Anna asked, arching her eyebrow to match the wry grin that spread across her lips.

“There are many definitions of ‘fair’,” Zoe said. “For a candidate with demonstrated talent and a long and distinguished history to draw on, I can assure you the recompense is more than fair by all parties standards.”

“I don’t believe it can be,” Anna said. She jotted down a few additional notes and flipped through the sheets of the sketchpad.

Zoe sat back, her brows knitting at the perceived rebuff.

“You know our resources,” she said. “Or a portion of our resources. Do you think there’s anything we are incapable of providing?”

“Yes,” Anna said. “A clean conscience.”

Zoe rolled her eyes and huffed in exasperation.

“Isn’t that a bit beneath you?” she asked.

“I believed so at one time,” Anna said. “Conscience seemed like a lovely luxury and a costly self-delusion. My understanding of it then however was as limited and flawed as I suspect yours may still be.”

Zoe leaned forward, adopting an air of studied patience.

“Do explain what you’ve discovered then,” she said. “I know those who have found enlightenment are always eager to share it with the less fortunate.”

“You believe your conscience to be a voice of guilt and shame, something which punishes you for your misdeeds and rewards you for being virtuous,” Anna said.

“That is the general interpretation of a conscience,” Zoe said. “I don’t believe it is any such thing though. I believe it is simply fear. Fear that others will not approve of what we do. Fear that who we are and what we want is something that we must suffer for unless it is hidden, and that we are always in danger of the hidden being revealed.”

“You are not alone in that belief,” Anna said.

“And yet so few seem to be able to take the next obvious step,” Zoe said. “Fear is a weakness and weaknesses are meant to be overcome. Discarding the notion of an irrational ‘conscience’ being a viable guiding force in one’s life is a step I frankly have a difficult time imagining that you would walk away from.”

“You are right in everything you said, and yet wrong in everything you believe,” Anna said, an amused twinkle sparkling in her eye.

Zoe’s jaw took on a hard set that carried into her voice.

“Am I?” she said. “Or are you simply unable to grasp how completely you’ve lost.”

“The fault lies in your base definition,” Anna said, ignoring the wrath in Zoe’s eyes. “Our conscience doesn’t arise from fear. Don’t misunderstand me, fear certainly does motivate people, especially in its guises of guilt and shame. Managing those is a challenge which likely requires more than the scope of a lifetime from everything I’ve seen, but our conscience is a much simpler matter.”

She paused her drawing and met Zoe’s gaze before speaking again.

“Our conscience is entangled with the roots of ourselves,” Anna said. “It isn’t something imposed from without but something that we grow from within as we take shape into the people we choose to be. It is where our truest confidence in ourselves arises. It’s the measuring stick we hold to our thoughts and deeds to evaluate how much we can trust ourselves to live up to the things we believe in.”

“That is a novel view of a conscience,” Zoe said, still frowning. “It allows for monsters to exist with clear consciences and saint’s to be tormented by trivial failings.”

“The monster may suffer no pangs but their conscience is a fragile, underdeveloped one. It is vulnerable to the slightest of doubts, even ones which arise from the undeniable realities which surround them,” Anna said. “A saint may suffer for their failings, but their conscience is broad enough to weather any storm. They can brave death itself, not because they hate life, or wish to suffer but because they know themselves and know the value of what they stand for.”

“So you wish to walk the saint’s path then?” Zoe asked.

“No,” Anna said. “I merely wish to be more at peace with myself today than I was yesterday.”

“It’s such a shame,” Zoe said. “Martyrdom doesn’t suit you. You could have been so much more.”

“I think you may be counting me out of our game somewhat prematurely,” Anna said.

“Am I?” Zoe asked. “Or has your grand plan against PrimaLux already fallen through? I know, you should check with your friends! That is who you were planning to have handle all of the heavy lifting right? They were going to spirit away one of our more treacherous Vice Presidents while you kept me and my team distracted with this conversation?”

“You seem to have seen through our stratagem,” Anna said. “But I think you underestimate my friends.”

“No more than you have underestimated mine,” Zoe said. “Go ahead. Give Ms. Le Li Tam or Ms. Valentina Perez a call. Check up on them and see how they’re doing. I can even give you the code word you’re to exchange in case they’re supposed to abort the mission.”

Anna put down her sketch pad and reached into her purse for her phone.

“Shall I dial it for you?” Zoe asked.

Anna scowled and tapped Tam’s entry in her contact list. The phone rang and rang until it hit voicemail. The same happened when she tried to contact Val.

She had no way to reach them, and no way to warn them of the danger they were in.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 11 – Act 1

The projector splashed every detail of their plan on the conference room wall. Anna could see how all of the elements of it were going to come together. Each minute counted out. Each second crafted to a fine precision. The only thing she couldn’t see clearly was the moment when they were going to fail.

“PrimaLux, in its current incarnation, is over two hundred year olds. It is privately held and it has interests and investments in every corner the world. It is also, by some measures, responsible for more human casualties than the Black Plague, the Spanish Flu and both World Wars combined,” Charlene said. She was speaking over the conference line as usual but in the background a chorus was in mid rehearsal. “While it maintains a legal and acknowledge presence on the world stage, current estimates place less than 10% of its activity in areas where there is any form of public oversight.”

“That sounds like a perfect recipe for the kind of out of control black ops stuff we’ve seen them engaged in,” Val said.

They were in the deepest conference room within the Second Chance Club’s current headquarters. Around the perimeter on the floor, wisps of silver light ran along finely etched swirls which formed letters and words in a language Val guessed no human tongue had ever spoken. Her cellphone was not only out of its service area, it wasn’t capable of powering up at all, the ozone charged air suppressing any technology which wasn’t explicitly permitted to function in the club’s most secure space.

Without windows, and with only a single entrance leading into the room, Val couldn’t help thinking about how tactically poor of a position they would be in if anyone trapped them in the conference room, but anyone who could penetrate that far into the Club’s sanctum was going to be able to put them in tactically poor positions by definition.

“Even accounting for 90% of their work being outside the public eye, they’ve gotten a lot done secretly for an organization as large as they are,” Tam said. “With as much wealth and influence and we’ve seen them throw around, they should leave a huge financial footprint for us to follow. Even with the data we got off the warehouse servers where they were holding the stolen drugs, I’m still not finding a lot on them though.”

She was working with a new laptop James had provided, directing various documents to the different projectors in the room to highlight the few details she’d been able to turn up about PrimaLux’s public projects. Her frown and knitted brow were unusual additions to a briefing, but fitting with the mood of the room.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t turn up more,” she said. “It’s not a great position to be in that we still know this little about them.”

“It’s no failing on your part Tam. I’d be concerned if you’d found more in fact,” Charlene said. “PrimaLux supplements its wealth through the use of force and intimidation. In the past they’ve run whole projects through veiled threats and unspoken promised. They’re adept at manipulating their relationships to maximum advantage, and taking resources and developments from the people who put in the work to create them. And what they can’t simply steal, they find other methods to acquire.”

“So thanks to theft, murder, and general ruthlessness, they’re punching above their financial weight class?” Val asked, leaning back and lifting her booted feet to rest on the table. It was too nice a table, all polished dark wood, to treat that casually but if she took the situation as seriously as it deserved, Val wasn’t sure she’d be able to sit still at all.

“They are two hundred years old,” Anna said. “For many things they won’t even need to resort to illegal measures. They will have relationships reaching back decades or even centuries. While they may lack the market capital of an Apple or a Wal-Mart, their influence and true wealth will be far greater than their profit and loss numbers would suggest.”

“Yes. Thanks to how long they’ve been stockpiling favors and other intangible resources, their reserves are deep,” Charlene agreed. “Those reserves are not inexhaustible however, and they’re current depth of projects, plus their willingness to move in such a direct manner against us, suggests that they are vulnerable, which means now is the time to strike.”

“Can we afford to though?” Tam asked, folding her hands over her laptop’s keyboard.  “We tried to begin building a case against them but they were willing to sink an ocean liner to keep themselves safe from St Laurent’s testimony.”

“Their goal was more than to simply kill a renegade employee,” Charlene said, her voice growing momentarily distant, though their connection remained solid.

“I surmised that,” Anna said, steepling her hands with her fingers just touching her lips. Her words were calm and even, only the fractional weight of slow consideration they bore showed the turmoil that churned under her smooth and even surface. “We were their intended targets as well.”

“You were one of the targets,” Charlene said softly, her voice clear and present again despite the unknown distance that separate her across the phone line from the others. “As important as you are, and as large of a thorn in their side as you have been, an endeavor this grand and public is one they would only undertake in the interest of sending a much broader message.”

“Who else are they trying to intimidate?” Val asked. She fiddled with her pen, twirling it absently in her fingers with the same care she would have taken if it were blade. The Second Chance Club dealt with problems of many sizes and shapes. She preferred the smaller, more personal ones, in part because once it became an issue of grand finance or global powers, she knew there was very little chance her pugilistic talents would be able to resolve things.

“A concern as large as PrimaLux has become will, by definition, have a wide array of hostile interests aligned against them,” Charlene said. “Most would not move against Prima’s interests or Prima directly as you have. Open conflict is rarely profitable, even for the victors. Prima’s move against you on the ocean liner was, perhaps primarily, about sending a signal to those looking for weakness in Prima’s ranks.”

“How much did our survival send the opposite message than the one Prima intended?” Tam asked. She had leaned back from her laptop, and folded her arms across her chest to focus fully on the discussion at hand.

“Very little I’m afraid,” Charlene said. “Most of the players Prima is concerned about won’t know, or care, that you made it to safety. From an external perspective, someone tried to betray PrimaLux and PrimaLux punished them in a manner far out of proportion to what would have been reasonable. That alone says that they are still too fearsome to oppose easily.”

“Sounds like we should tell people about how well we’ve opposed them so far then,” Val said, taking her feet down and leaning forward, anticipating a fight that was far off and uncertain to arrive.

“No,” Charlene said. “Many of those groups are ones we don’t want to have aware of you, unless we need them to be.”

“It’s not an ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ type situation?” Tam asked.

”No, it’s not. There may be people opposed to Prima who we can work with but none that I would trust.”

“That’s quite understandable,” Anna said, relaxing at the thought.

“Why’s that?” Tam asked.

“An organization large enough to notice what Prima has been doing, and have both a reason to work against Prima’s interests and the capacity to do so, would need to be involved in similar areas to the ones Prima is,” Anna said. “Smaller organizations such as our own will be in the habit of steering clear of conflicts with large, malevolent entities like of PrimaLux, or they wouldn’t still be around.”

“We’re the exception though, right?” Val asked. “I mean, we’re not going to steer clear of this, are we? This is too big, and Prima’s killed too many people already. We can’t let that stand.”

“To be honest? I had hoped to avoid this,” Charlene said. “PrimaLux has been a problem in the past, but it’s been quite a long time since they were active, especially to this extent. If there was still the possibility of avoiding a conflict with them, I would counsel for a delay, but they’re committed to their path, and so, I believe, must we be.”

“Fortunately their last move against us left them significantly more vulnerable than they were previously,” Anna said, gathering herself and brightening into a smile. Her resolve called forth a similar conviction from Tam and Val’s hearts as well.

“Yeah, Interpol and dozens of national law enforcement agencies are coordinating to find who was the source of the bombs,” Tam said. “Even if Prima can dodge full responsibility for the attack, the investigation alone would shred the credibility and secrecy they’re relying on for that 90% of their business we talked about that’s going unobserved.”

“I notice this plan doesn’t call for working with Interpol or any of the other agencies directly though?” Val said, gesturing to the documents and slides that were projected up onto the wall.

“This is true,” Anna said. “We cannot afford to. We do not know which of the agencies PrimaLux has agents working inside of.”

“If they’ve infiltrated Interpol, that would be a pretty huge conspiracy wouldn’t it?” Val asked.

“In theory yes, but in practice no,” Anna said. “Subverting an existing organization, or planting moles into a hostile security force is difficult, costly, and time consuming. PrimaLux did not have that problem though. They have been around since before most of these law enforcement divisions existed.”

“They wouldn’t need a network of spies,” Charlene said. “All they require are people within each organization who they have developed a long and personal relationship with. I believe if we search the personnel files for the agencies involved we’ll find more than one individual at each major law enforcement agency who was either employed by one of PrimaLux’s holdings, or who was sponsored in their education or career by PrimaLux somehow.”

“They would not need to make up the bulk of any one agency’s forces, though it’s possible in some cases they do,” Anna said. “In all likelihood we would only be facing a few counteragents, but they would be able to warn PrimaLux about any strikes we made well before we could identify who the agents were.”

“Ok, that makes sense,” Val said. “And given that they’ve proven that they’re willing to destroy their former assets before the asset becomes an actual threat, we’d be stuck trying to get answers from a corpse.”

“Which is doable,” Tam said. “But not this time of year, and not if Prima is sufficiently thorough in cleaning things up afterwards.”

“Working with Interpol and the other is also unlikely to net us someone who can provide detailed and damaging information on Prima’s doings,” Charlene said. “Prima will have hidden its personnel who fit that description away from any official investigation. That is why we are going to follow Anna’s plan.”

“There are many higher level employees who will have the the kind of access we need,” Anna said. “Identifying the correct one to engage with will give us a chance to take their entire organization down.”

”The key question though is, will we be able to convince that person to defect from the death cult Prima’s got going on?” Val asked.

“We know at least one of them tried to run away already,” Tam said.

“Sort of,” Val said. “He wanted to run, but they caught him before he could anywhere.”

“That’s likely the largest problem that we face,” Charlene said. “Prima’s work culture is founded on fear. They used to destroy Geoffery St Laurents, and everyone else at his level will know the same fate will await them if they work with us.”

“”I believe we can work with that,” Anna said, as a gleam of vicious delight sparkled in her eye.

 

The Second Chance Club – Ep 10 – Act 4

Val’s race led her to a watery end. Specifically, the water filled end of the ship where Geoffery St Laurents had finally run out of room to escape his doom.

“You shouldn’t have followed me,” he said, glancing back and forth between Val and the water that was bubbling up from the flooded stairs below.

“Yeah, maybe, but you’re going to follow me now,” Val said. “Either that or I’m going to drag your unconscious body up the ten flights of stair, and neither of us is going to be very happy about that.”

“I can’t go up there,” St Laurents said. “I can’t leave this ship.”

“Unless you’ve got gills, you’re going to have to,” Val said, advancing slowly on him. He looked terrified enough that he might try to plunge into the water that was rising and covering one step after another. Val guessed that out swimming St Laurents wouldn’t be difficult, but out swimming a sinking ship would present a few unique and unpleasant challenges.

“No, I can’t,” St Laurent’s said. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”

“You worked for PrimaLux,” Val said. “We’ve run into them before. They’ve regretted it each time.”

“They’re not what you think,” St Laurents said. “I can’t go against them. I have to stay here.”

“You ran away from them once,” Val said. “Work with us and we can make sure you get away from them for good this time.”

“I didn’t run away from them,” St Laurent’s said. “I mean I tried to, but they found me before I left my condo. I wasn’t going to hide on a cruise. I was going to buy a bus ticket to Yosemite and hike as far into the wilderness as I could.”

“This ship has a lot better food than a forest does,” Val said, tensing to grab St Laurents if he tried to flee.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Don’t you see? I failed them, and they caught me trying to abandon them. They can find me anywhere, and they showed me the things they’ll do if I don’t play the part they want. They’re the ones who sent me here. They knew you were coming for me. They’re sinking this whole ship just to get to you.”

Val blinked.

“That’s flattering, I guess, but they’re not going to get rid of us that easily,” she said.

“They already have,” St Laurent’s said. “There’s another bomb on board.”

“How do you know?” Val asked.

“They told me. They told me everything that would happen. From the three of you finding me, to you chasing after me, to this.”

The ship gave a sudden lurch and the terrible sound of tearing metal screamed through the wall on Val’s left.

Instinct took over and she leaped back up the stairs an instant before a torrent of water crashed onto the step she’d been standing on. Her jump took her back as far as she could go but it wasn’t quite far enough. As she landed on the top step of the flight of stairs, the inrushing current clutched her leg up to the knee. She struggled to escape the ocean’s grip and cursed when she saw that it had already swept St Laurent’s away.

With another tortured scream of metal buckling, an additional section of wall burst open, burying Val beneath a surge of ocean water.

She fought to rise above it but with the lights shattered, everything around her was lost in darkness.

***

Tam didn’t like how much smoke her palm dragon was collecting.

“That’s a pretty useful trick,” Cynthia said, nodding at growing beast as the hurried to join the rescue efforts.

“Yeah, useful for now,” Tam said. “If it absorbs too much smoke though, I’m not going to be able to control it.”

“How much is too much?” Cynthia asked, her eyes narrowing as the smoke dragon swelled like a slowly filling balloon.

“We’ll know when it decides to take off on its own,” Tam said. “Until then though, it’s our best bet for making it to the survivors.”

Up ahead of them, the hallway was blocked by debris from the partially collapsed deck above.

“Please, can someone help us!” a man on the far side of the debris wall said. “We have two people injured here.”

“Hang on. We’ll get you out of there as soon as we can,” Tam said. “We’re going to clear the air to buy you some more time while we’re at it too.”

She extended her hand and allowed the smoke dragon, which had grown to the size of a corgi, to inhale a steady stream of smoke from the area beyond the fallen debris. The sound of the wind it was generating was out of proportion to the effect it was having. The tornado cacophony heightened Tam’s worry. Elemental spells were tricky under the best of circumstances and having a living patch of smoke running amuck on a sinking ship wasn’t going to end well for anyone.

She pushed those worries out of her mind though and considered the problem before her. The collapsed deck had formed a new walls on either end of a long stretch of the corridor, creating a box which had trapped several passengers inside it. While the deck hadn’t been strong enough to survive the bomb blast, its twisted metal was still strong enough to resist Tam’s efforts to create a gap in it.

“Got any tricks for cutting metal?” Cynthia asked.

“Not on me,” Tam said, adjusting the smoke dragon so she could hold it in both arms.

“Let me check something then,” Cynthia said. “See how the injured are doing are ok?”

“Sure,” Tam said, and turned back to barricade, raising her voice to speak over the wind the dragon was generating. “How bad are the injuries. Is anyone in immediate peril?”

“Jaleh got hit by the falling floor but she’s conscious. Might be concussed. Shoichiro has a bad cut on his arm and he’s pretty woozy. I think he was hit too.”

“Ok. We can handle that,” Tam said. “I’ll guide you through the first aid you can do there, and the medical staff can handle the rest once you’re safe. We just need a little time to get you out of there.

Unfortunately, time was the one thing they didn’t have.

***

Anna swallowed a string of curses that would have made the sailors around her blush. She needed to have faith that Val could handle herself. Charlene didn’t invite people to the team who she wasn’t certain could deal with extraordinary challenges. Val being out of contact simply meant that a challenge had arisen that required an unusual amount of focus.

It had to mean that.

“Are any of the ship’s security in the vicinity of the last freezer?” she asked.

“I can find out,” Kellman said, picking up her phone.

Anna turned plans over in her head, trying to work out the inevitable problems before they arose.

The last bomb, and she was certain there was a last bomb, wouldn’t be wired into the freezer. There wouldn’t have been time. But it could be detonated remotely, as the two earlier bombs had proved.

What was the bomber waiting for then?

If the plan was to drive the ocean liner to be bottom of the sea before help could arrive, then the earlier the bombs detonated the better.

In that case though, why not explode them all at once? The additional damage would have been exponentially harder to deal with and would have made the goal of sinking the ship a certainty.

Unless the goal wasn’t to sink the ship.

The first bomb had destroyed Geoffery St Laurents primary cabin. Not the one he was in, but the one he had publicly rented. That blast hadn’t endangered the ship, it had sent a message.

The bomber knew St Laurents, and he wanted someone to know that. Someone who was aware that St Laurents was on the ship, and knew who was out to get him. Someone like Anna.

PrimaLux was telling her that they knew she was on the ship as well.

“There is a security team sweeping that level for passengers and staff,” Kellman said. “They’re heading to the freezer now.”

What had the second bomb said though? Why damage the ship badly enough to sink it but let it go down slowly enough that people could get off it safely if they weren’t killed in the initial blasts?

The second bomb caused chaos. It convinced the Captain to order the evacuation.

And it drew Tam and Val deeper into the ship.

Anna sighed as the pieces came together. The bombs weren’t meant for Geoffery St Laurents. They were meant for the representatives of the Second Chance Club.

The third bomb was the one to seal their fate. It hadn’t exploded yet for one reason only. Tam and Val were both deep into the ocean liner, but Anna was far removed from where the explosion would occur. She would live no matter how fast the ship sunk.

If she came within range of the bomb though, its controller would set it off.

If she fled the ship and left her friends to their fates, the bomb would go off then too.

There was no good answer, just several really bad ones.

***

The third bomb blast wasn’t what killed the ocean liner. The flooding from the second one had guaranteed that it would sink, all the third did was hasten the time frame on that to the point where the evacuation couldn’t be completed.

At least not without outside help.

***

The bed onboard the navy medical helicopter wasn’t exactly spacious, but it was a lot warmer than the cold, life stealing waters of the Atlantic and in Val’s mind that meant that it was perfect.

“I am sorry I was not able to send help sooner,” Charlene said over the satellite radio link. The medical helicopter wasn’t a particularly quiet environment either, but her voice carried with crisp and perfect clarity.

“How did you know we were in trouble?” Anna asked. She was breathing from an oxygen mask to help with the smoke inhalation she had suffered.

“The last time we spoke I believe I mentioned that I was looking into PrimaLux,” Charlene said. “I’ve had dealings with them before, and this fit the pattern of escalation they tend to employ.”

“How did you get an aircraft carrier to show up on time to help us out?” Tam asked.

“I have contacts in a variety of places,” Charlene said. “Please though, give me the details of what occurred. I was only able to guess at the broad picture and the official reports are still being assembled.”

“Well, I almost drowned,” Val said. “And I let our target get away. Or get swept away I guess. What’s weird is, he knew that was going to happen, and it was like he accepted it?”

“That’s what those behind PrimaLux do,” Charlene said. “They closed off every avenue of hope Mr St Laurents had and left him as nothing more than a weapon to strike at their enemies with. I am just glad he did not take you down to share his fate.”

“We can thank Jessica for that,” Val said.

“That’s the girl you were with right?” Tam asked. “The one you carried up to the decks?”

“I was only able to carry her because she carried me first,” Val said. “She has trouble walking, but as a swimmer she’s kind of amazing. Give her fins and she’d be a mermaid. When the stairs flooded I tried to swim back up to the air but I hit my head on a railing or something. I’d gotten close enough though that she saw me and dived in to fish me out. I helped her get up the next few flights of stairs until we ran into you.”

“What had brought you below decks Tam? Were you looking for Val?” Charlene asked.

“Yeah. Cynthia and I went down to free some trapped passengers and once we were finished I realized that Val’s communication bracelete was offline. Since they weren’t proof against water and she was chasing St Laurents even deeper into the ship the last I heard from her, I was worried that she’d hit one of the flooded sections.”

“Good guess,” Val said. “Next time we bring waterproof radios by the way. Oh, and we owe Jessica a new cellphone. I was going to use hers to call you two but things got a bit busy. And then, you know, the drowning stuff happened.”

“You were able to rescue the passengers?” Charlene asked Tam.

“Yeah. There was an open cabin door on our side of the barricade and Cynthia used that to get into a stateroom, break through the connecting door to the next room over, unlock it’s door, and lead the people out before the water reached us,” Tam said. “The ship medics said the two injured people were going to fine apart from the smoke inhalation they all suffered.”

“And you Anna? The reports I’ve seen said you were helping coordinate the efforts on the bridge until you left?”

“I did,” Anna said. “When I worked out what the last bomb was waiting on, I knew I couldn’t stay in a safe position for too long.”

“What do you mean?” Tam asked.

“The last bomb was positioned to destroy the ship’s power grid, in addition to sinking it,” Anna said. “The only reason it was saved till last, I reasoned, was because whoever was detonating them was linked into the ship’s security systems. They were watching where we were going.”

“We never went near the bomb though?” Val said.

“Exactly,” Anna said. “When I saw where it was, I convinced the security team to prioritize evacuations away from it’s blast radius. I knew the bomber was waiting until they could either catch us all below decks, or see conclusive proof that one of us, me in this case, was going to abandon the others.”

“So you left the bridge why?” Val asked.

“I think I get it,” Tam said. “If you stayed there too long, they would have blown up the bomb and accepted that Val and I would have been the only casualties they cared about. If you or anyone else went straight for it, then they’d blow it before you could disarm it.”

“So what did you do instead?” Charlene asked.

“I went below decks to give the bomber the impression that I was falling into his trap,” Anna said. “Captain Starling agreed to falsify the video feeds when I gave him the signal. I wandered down towards you two slowly enough to let the rest of the passengers get off the ship and then signaled for the video loop to begin. That’s why we had to flee so quickly. We were the last few who were still onboard.”

“What about the two others you mentioned?” Charlene asked. “Jessica and Cynthia?”

“Jess was waiting for her father and grandmother, but they’d had to take a different path up when one of the decks started flooding. We ran into them a few decks above where Tam found us after they looped back to find Jess,” Val said.

“Cynthia lead the passengers out while I went for Val,” Tam said. “I saw her when we were leaving and we exchanged contact info. We’re going to get in touch in a few days, once things settle down, and compare notes.”

“I am glad you escaped disaster,” Charlene said. “After all, even you, my dear ones, deserve your second chances.”