Chapter 1: Prologue
Shadows seemed unable to touch the lone ancient structure standing sentinel among the shifting dunes of sand, its natural weathered stone camouflage amongst the shining brilliance of the desert sun allowing it to remain hidden for millennia. Under the careful stewardship of the unbroken line of priests chosen by the Mondoshawan themselves, it had gone undiscovered for generations until a wandering shepherd stumbled upon it, notified the nearest archaeologist, and unleashed chaos upon the site.
Elder priest Savoia let out a rare curse as he passed the makeshift tents and excavation equipment that now littered the surroundings. Children greeted him with excited tugs on his robes and he absently pressed his hands to their foreheads as he passed further into the recesses of the temple, toward the sound of muttering voices that marked his target. Rounding one last corner he stopped and peered around the stone wall.
Dismay flooded through him as he took in the sight beyond the wall. A white-haired man in a lavender suit, apparently the professor on the archaeological team, stood on a crate tapping a brush against a portion of the inscription on the far wall, muttering to himself. A second, younger man reclined on the dusty floor amongst bags of equipment, sketching something in his notebook, while a young boy standing near the entryway leaned sleepily against a mirror nearly as tall as he was, reflecting light onto the wall guided there by other such children stationed along the halls of the temple.
Savoia closed his eyes and sent out a prayer that his apprentice would get to the city in time to prevent more outsiders from descending upon the area. This was too much already.
A gruff voice rang out from the room, and Savoia peered back around the corner to see it had grown dark. “Aziz, light!”
The young boy jerked awake and adjusted the mirror, shining light onto the wall once more. The man with the sketchbook turned to a dog-eared page, muttering “Aziz, light…” to himself as he added another line to a page full of crossed tally marks.
Ignoring both of his companions, the professor resumed his translation. “When the three planets are in eclipse…” His brush moved along the symbols carved into the stone. “The black hole is open… Evil comes… sowing terror and chaos.” The brush paused on a particular symbol and he raised his voice slightly, getting the attention of the younger man. “See? The snake, Billy, make sure you get the snake. The ultimate evil.”
“And when is this snake supposed to come?” Billy asked, dutifully sketching the symbol.
The professor traced along some more hieroglyphics, brow furrowed. “It makes itself known… every five centuries, out among the stars. But on Earth…” His fingers tapped along the wall, counting to himself. “Every five thousand years.”
Billy looked up, paused in his sketching. “So, I've got some time.”
Savoia’s irritation only grew at the younger man’s irreverence. A child holding a water skin approached, a mildly terrified expression on his face, and Savoia did his best to put on an avuncular smile. “I’ll take it to them, my son,” he said, holding out his hand. The boy handed him the water and Savoia smiled down at him, placing his other hand on the boy’s forehead for a moment before the child took his opportunity and ran away.
He flattened his back against the wall, hiding himself from view as he pulled a small vial out of his robes. The voice of the professor continued to echo through the stone chamber as Savoia contemplated the vial for a long moment, before taking a deep breath and pouring its contents into the water skin. “Forgive me, Divine,” he murmured, “they already know too much.”
In the chamber, the professor was still translating the symbols. “The four elements of life, aligned against the great Evil. Water, fire, earth, air,” he tapped his brush against each of the four symbols in turn, each comprised solely of a series of lines, then circled around the symbol in the center, shaped vaguely like a human. “Around a fifth… A Fifth Element.”
There was a clatter behind him as the mirror fell to the ground and the wall was once more hidden in shadow. The professor let his head fall forward in exasperation as he growled again, “Aziz, light!”
Already startled awake by the noise of the mirror, Aziz quickly repositioned the mirror as Billy made another tick on his paper, and the professor moved onto the next section on the wall, freshly reilluminated by reflected sunlight. “Imbued with the spirit of the Divine, both human and not… All the strength… All the knowledge of the universe… To protect life from death.”
“Amen,” Savoia interrupted, stepping into view while pouring water into a cup he had retrieved from one of the piles of equipment littering the room. The professor’s surprise quickly turned into delight when he saw Savoia, someone new to share his academic enthusiasm with.
“Father, it’s the most extraordinary thing, the greatest find in history. Can you imagine the implications?”
“All too well,” Savoia said, and held the cup of water out to him. “You look parched.”
The professor took the cup and absently raised it to his lips, eyeing the inscription before him. “I mean, look!” Water sloshed over the side of the cup as he gestured in excitement. “It is a weapon, a weapon against evil. The four elements, focusing the Divine essence within the fifth… A Divine light, to stop evil in its tracks.” He paused, blinking. “I’m going to be famous.”
“Then… let us toast to your fame,” Savoia suggested, pouring another cup of water for Billy. The professor’s words only made him more sure of what he had to do; men seeking fame and fortune could only lead to ruin for the entire population of Earth if the knowledge contained in the temple spread beyond its walls.
The professor saluted the priest with his cup, swirled it under his nose, then paused. “We can’t celebrate with water,” he pronounced, jerking his wrist to let the water splash to the ground. “Billy, the wine in my bag!”
Savoia looked on in dismay as Billy cast his water aside as well and left the room. The professor continued to drone on about his impending fame but Savoia paid him no attention, searching for a way to eliminate the threat he posed without alerting the others outside the temple. Distant shouts echoed down the corridors, breaking through his awareness, and he heard a rumble in the air that cut deep into his bones - he had never heard the sound of a Mondoshawan ship before, and never was supposed to, but there was only one explanation for the shouting, and that noise, and the shadow that fell upon the temple and blocked the sun.
The chamber fell dark, causing the professor to yell once more. “Aziz, light!”” The boy stared at his mirror in confusion, not having moved a muscle - but even if the children holding up the rest of the series of mirrors casting light into the heart of the temple hadn’t all fled in terror, the ship’s presence meant there was no light for him to reflect. A deep booming sound echoed across the desert and unnaturally pure bright white light flooded the room. “Much better, thank you, Aziz.”
Savoia abandoned the chamber and hurried to the entrance of the temple, passing Billy on the way, collapsed against a wall in shock. A port appeared in the side of the gleaming brass-colored ship, standing straight up into the sky as high as he could see past its outwardly curved shape. He watched in reverence at seeing the Mondoshawan with his own eyes as six of them disembarked from the ship. Round, mechanized bodies the same color as their ship, moving with no evident haste, elongated snouts tipped in a glowing red grate, ornate spikes rising from their shoulders - it was incomprehensible, and, sparing a glance at Billy as they passed by, his hand moving of its own accord across his sketchbook, it was little wonder why the ancient priests had been vague about their appearance. Potential apprentices would never have believed them.
“My Lord,” Savoia said when he finally managed to gather himself, following the group of Mondoshawan down the corridor. “I know he was about to discover everything, but I had it under control.”
“Priest,” the lead Mondoshawan said, its stilted mechanized voice echoing unnaturally amongst the stone and dust, “you and those before you have served us well. But war is coming. The stones are not safe on Earth anymore.”
The group reached the chamber with the professor, who noticed nothing, the celebration and promise of wine long forgotten in favor of studying the wall. “This… this is the most unbelievable thing I have ever seen.” A noise behind him finally caught his attention and he turned around, coming face to face with one of the Mondoshawan. He stood silent for a long moment, unable to comprehend what he was seeing and trying to blink it into something resembling reality. “Are… are you German?”
The Mondoshawan wordlessly shook its head as the lead one moved to a different section of the wall, its head moving back and forth, searching for something hidden there. Finally it pointed its finger at a particular series of lines, and an intricate gold key emerged from its mechanized glove. Stone grated against stone as the wall slid open, revealing a brightly lit chamber beyond a short dark hallway.
“This…” the professor said, pointing his brush at the empty space left by the wall he had been deciphering, “this is really interesting.”
The Mondoshawan closest to the professor stepped forward, its eyes glowing yellow, and after a short moment the professor collapsed, unconscious. The group moved forward into the chamber as one, Savoia following with great awe and trepidation. At a loss for words, he could only stand and take in the nearly overwhelming reality of the chamber before him. Four round stone pillars surrounded a central altar, upon which stood an ornate sarcophagus with its head tilted up toward the sky. “The Fifth Element,” he breathed. It was exactly as shown in the texts, but he had never believed he would see it with his own eyes.
“Gather the stones,” another of the Mondoshawan said. Four of them broke off and each made their way to one of the pillars, removing dust-covered triangular stones from atop each and placing them into a simple lined case. After the group moved toward the sarcophagus and activated a gravity field to float it out of the chamber and return to the ship, Savoia snapped out of his reverie at the realization of what had just happened.
“My Lord,” he said, approaching the lead Mondoshawan who had remained behind with him in the chamber. “If you take the weapon, we will be defenseless when Evil returns.”
“In three hundred years, when Evil returns, so shall we.”
A commotion outside of the chamber gained their attention. Billy hovered over the professor, checking his pulse, then stumbled to his feet and raised a pistol at the alien. It trembled in his hand, brain and body both in shock.
Savoia stepped in front of the Mondoshawan, trying to shield it with his much smaller frame. “Billy, no!”
“They killed the professor!”
“They are our friends,” he gently corrected, raising a placating hand out toward him as he took a step forward.
Billy clamped his other hand around the grip of the pistol, steadying his aim. “You’re… you’re with them? Father, they’re monsters!”
There was a barrage of confused and desperate shouting, Savoia advancing and Billy backing away, then - a clatter and a stumble and an accidental gunshot, stone grinding with the triggering of the mechanism for the ritual chamber door. Savoia whirled around to see the Mondoshawan still in the hallway separating the chamber from the rest of the temple as the walls on either side of it slowly slid closed. “My Lord, hurry!”
“Here is your mission now,” the Mondoshawan said, moving at the same languid pace as always. “Pass the knowledge to the next priest as it was passed on to you. Maintain the temple. Secure its safety.”
“I will do as you command, but you must hurry! You’re running out of time!”
“Time is not important.” The gap between the doors had closed to mere inches, and as the Mondoshawan rapidly became stuck between the narrowing walls beyond the doors, it raised its hand, extending the forefinger. “Only life is important.”
Savoia turned away, unable to look as the doors closed on the Mondoshawan’s hand, then the rest of its body, with a sickening crunch. After a moment he opened his eyes and saw the key to the ritual chamber sticking out from between the walls. He grabbed it and ran to the temple entrance as he heard the alien ship close its port and prepare to launch.
The ship was already in the air when he made it back outside, and he shielded his eyes against the sun to watch it shrink into the distance, holding the key up to the sky as he made his vow.
“I will pass the knowledge until your return! You can count on me!”
With a flash of light in the sky, the ship was gone.
New York City, 2263
“Telemetry report, do you have anything yet?”
“Negative, sir. The thermo-analyzers have jammed. One is reading over a million degrees, the other… minus five thousand.”
Carter raises an eyebrow at the subspace radio chatter; a decade of military service and another fifteen years of interplanetary politics has taught her how to carefully school her expression in the worst of times, but some things are still just too weird not to react to. This anomaly that seems to have magically appeared at the edge of the Federated Territory, during a routine scouting mission by her best general’s flagship, has everyone in the control room on edge, herself included.
“On with the General in thirty seconds, Madam President,” an aide informs her, setting a comm unit on her desk. Subspace allows for general extrasolar operational communications to be continuously relayed back to headquarters on Earth, but a two way link is more difficult to establish and maintain. These past few minutes have been more nerve-wracking than her last election campaign, and that involved six days of waiting for returns from eighty-three separate planets.
“Send out a probe,” General Staedert says over the radio.
Seconds tick by, without any incoming telemetry readings, until Carter hears the telltale click of the comm unit and sighs with relief. Finally, some damn answers.
“General, do you read me?”
“Loud and clear, Madam President.”
“What the hell is this thing?” They can exchange pleasantries later. “Your initial report only said it looked like a ball of fire, moving under its own propulsion of some kind? That doesn’t happen in space, General.”
“I’m aware, Madam President, but I’m afraid we have nothing confirmable apart from our initial visual readings. All of our external sensors give us conflicting information, we can’t get any chemical and molecular analysis, we just sent out a nuclear imaging probe, but - ”
Carter lets the nail of her middle finger dig into her palm, trying not to let her annoyance and trepidation show to the various four-star generals and intelligence analysts in the control room. “So you’ve got nothing.”
“I can only confirm that it has grown in diameter by four percent since we first encountered it, and its apparent trajectory will place it in the Sol system in a matter of days.”
Exactly what she didn’t want to hear. She looks around the room. “Options?”
Even lightyears away, Staedert manages to beat everyone else to the punch.“I don’t like uninvited guests, Madam President. I say we shoot first and ask questions later.”
Carter’s not a fan of that philosophy, but she can’t deny that it has its appeal when faced with a mysteriously growing object heading on a collision course with Earth. She turns to the astrobiology team stationed at a series of computers off to her right. “Is there any sign of life on the thing?”
The team considers for a moment, exchanging looks amongst themselves, before the woman in the center speaks up. “We can’t get any hard data on that, but from visual readings the fires on the surface would be too hot for anything to survive, and between the velocity and shifting mass of the object, the gravity on it would be too varied for any kind of life as we know it to be able to exist at all.”
Carter nods, feeling more favorable toward Staedert’s proposal; they’ll be preventing a genocide by destroying the object, and more than likely won’t inadvertently be causing one. She looks to the other generals on the opposite side of the room. “I assume you agree with General Staedert?” They nod as one. “Very well. Staedert?”
A new voice rings out from the back of the room. “Madam President, I have a different theory to offer you.”
An attache answers her question before she even has to ask it. “Harold Finch, expert of astronomical phenomena.”
“Mister Finch,” Carter nods at him as he steps forward, an older man with an odd-looking key hanging around his neck, his billowing brown robes standing in incongruous contrast with the abundant technology in the control room. Some sort of priest on top of being a scientist, then. Strange, but not unheard of. “I’m listening.”
“Consider, for a moment, that this object defies identification because… it prefers not to be,” Finch moves a shoulder like that is all that needs to be said in explanation, and despite herself, Carter feels the sense behind his words. “Wherever there is light, it brings darkness. Wherever there is life, it brings death. Because it is evil, absolute evil.”
The priest has moved closer to her desk, and the utter sincerity with which he speaks is almost convincing. But she didn’t get elected President to act on hypotheticals offered by a mystic. “Sounds like you’re telling me to shoot it down too.”
“Evil begets evil, Madam President,” Finch counters. “Shooting will only make it stronger.”
Radio chatter on Staedert’s ship resumes. “The probe is five seconds away, General.”
Carter raises a finger at Finch, turning to the monitor displaying the ship’s visual feed. The probe approaches the object, the entire surface seems to glow with fire for a moment, and unless her eyes are deceiving her the entire object just swelled slightly in size.
The general’s voice confirms her suspicions. “We lost the probe, Madam President, and the object has grown again. We’re at a crisis point.”
Carter turns back to Finch, putting on her apologetic politician’s face. “Your theory is interesting, Father, and I’ll want to set up a meeting to discuss this further, but right now we’re out of time.”
Finch wraps a hand around the key hanging in front of his chest. “Time is of no importance, Madam President. Only life is important.”
“I agree, which is why I’m trying to save the lives of two hundred billion of our fellow citizens.” She pulls the comm unit closer. “General Staedert? Fire when ready.”
“Load the 120 GZR missile.”
On the monitor, the fiery surface turns black, seemingly hardening into a thick crust. A member of the astrobiology team turns to Carter with an incongruous mix of academic fascination and mortal terror in her eyes.
“The surface structure seems to have hardened in response to the potential threat. That suggests intelligence.”
Finch places his hands on her desk and leans forward. “The most terrible intelligence imaginable, Madam President.”
Carter considers him. She might not have been elected to deal in hypotheticals from a mystic, but neither was she elected to ignore credible warnings from the one person in a room who can give her answers. A general monitoring the situation from the control room reports that the flagship's fleet is in combat formation. Carter’s gaze flicks from him back to Finch. “Staedert?”
“Yes, Madam President?”
“I have a doubt.”
“The missile has been launched,” a technician announces unnecessarily, since all eyes in the room - save those of Finch, who seemingly can’t watch - are already trained on the main monitor, observing the missile on its path toward the object. Carter watches the progress of the missile, hoping her instincts to trust Finch’s words are wrong, that he’s just some religious kook who somehow managed to get into the most heavily secured office on the planet, but as the missile strikes the surface of the object and fizzles out with barely even a puff of smoke, she knows they’re in trouble.
“Load a full volley.”
Carter exchanges a look with Finch. “General, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“You will when I destroy this thing, Madam President. Fire.”
Three missiles meet the same fate as the first, and Carter swears as the object doubles in diameter, growing so close to the ship that its visual monitors are unable to capture the entire surface of it. “Staedert, get out of there immediately!”
“What do we have that’s bigger than the 240?”
“Staedert, that’s an order!” On the monitor, the object either grows again or moves closer to the ship. “Get out of there!”
A burst of fire reaches out from the object, and in the burning afterimage of the last transmission before the ship is destroyed, Carter swears she can see a flaming skull.
Shaw wakes with a start, her body already tense and ready for battle before her brain fully awakens and remembers where she is. Even six months after retiring, old habits are hard to break. Not that she'd particularly want to break that habit; she made a lot of enemies in her time with the Special Forces, and the friends she made are almost as untrustworthy. She feels a presence at her hand dangling off the edge of the bed and turns her palm up to give Bear the chin scratches he's asking for.
The dog obligingly moves out of her way when she swings her legs over and rises, stretching as she hits the button to slide the bed back into its recess in the wall. Its mere absence nearly doubles the floor space in her shitty apartment, but it's better than barracks, for the most part. She has some privacy, at least. And Bear.
She ignores the shrill ringing of her phone as she pours out some food for Bear, who manages to get it all over the floor within five seconds. The fridge doesn't offer much better for her own breakfast, a few MREs lining the shelves that are not far off from human kibble, but after so many years in the service she can appreciate the simple efficiency of it. Plus it's cheap, and she still hasn't figured out how to turn being a fucking cab driver into a lucrative career.
Her phone hasn't stopped ringing, the sound has started to make Bear whine his high-pitched distressed whine, and she's pretty sure she can hear someone causing a ruckus outside her apartment door. One of these assholes is in danger of being murdered, and it’s not Bear.
“Yeah yeah yeah,” she sighs through her nose, shuffling through the shit that's crowding the single storage shelf in the apartment to find her phone, and raises it to her ear. “Yeah?”
“Shaw,” Cole comes across the line, and Shaw groans and leans against the shelf. “You forget about your six month overhaul?”
“Was just on my way,” Shaw lies through her teeth. She left the military to get away from this kind of bureaucratic nonsense, and now the one piece of shit job she could find is making her do more. Just great.
Cole doesn't sound like he believes her. Smart of him. “Look, if I buy you lunch at Frederico's will that help get you to actually come in?”
Actual hand made food instead of reconstituted dehydrated factory shit? Cole knows what buttons to press, that's for sure. “Fine.”
“How many points do you have left on your license anyway?”
“At least fifty,” she says absently, tossing the MRE back into the fridge now that the promise of fresh gnocchi is in her immediate future.
“We ran a thousand missions together, Shaw, you really think I'm gonna believe that?”
Shaw shrugs to herself. It was worth a try. “Sometimes I really fucking hate that you ended up being my boss, Cole. I outranked you every step of the way.”
“Yeah, well, you retired because you didn't want to command an entire brigade. You sure as hell weren't gonna become my boss.” Shaw can't argue that point; she was too good for the Forces not to keep promoting, but with promotions came more paperwork and dealing with people and their problems. No fucking thank you. She idly flicks through the few possessions she has, all crammed onto the shelf.
“Just found a picture of you,” Shaw says, looking closer at the photo. Their unit had been present at the liberation of Pathiri SZD and some photojournalist had insisted on a group shot after the action had settled. Shaw had meant to send the photo to her mother, knowing she'd appreciate it, but never had gotten around to it.
“How do I look?”
“Better than you, I bet.” It’s a fair assumption, and one that’s particularly apt in this case. Shaw had caught the wrong end of a Pathirian deathclaw in the middle of the skirmish and ended up with its iridescent purple blood spattered all over half her uniform and most of her hair. She hears Cole take in a breath and clenches her teeth, knowing what's coming. “Look, Shaw, when are you going to actually come to terms with the fact that you're a civilian now? It's been six months and you're still acting like you're fresh out of the service. Same job, same transitional housing, have you even been on any dates? Go find a nice girl, or one of those meathead guys you like, have some fun.”
Shaw glares at the yellow circles on her wall, meant for police monitoring of the type of paroled criminal that makes up most of the residents of this building. Cole's not wrong; the past six months have been spent more existing rather than actually living her life, but it's hard to find a job that promises as much action as she's used to, and she's sure as shit not gonna become a cop. She's seen how they treat the people in this building, she'd sooner reenlist than be a part of that. She watches Bear finish his breakfast and settle down in the floor space formerly occupied by her bed so he can watch the small television screen embedded in the wall, and latches onto the one thing Cole had said that she actually does have a response to.
“I don't need a girl, or any other combination of gender or species you might want to suggest. I've got Bear and he’s all the man I need.”
Cole sighs like he knew it was a lost cause. “Fine, just don't be late today, all right? You're the last driver I've got on my schedule and some of us have things to do outside of work.”
Shaw hangs up wordlessly and tosses the phone back onto the shelf before gathering her clothes and boots and license, resigning herself to spending hours in the cab depot. An ad comes on the wall screen, capturing Bear's attention with the announcer's gruff yet peppy voice.
“... tell you live at five the winner of the super green Gemini Croquette contest! The lucky winner will go with me to Fhloston - ”
“Don't watch it all day, buddy,” Shaw says, patting Bear's head as she moves to the door. “It'll rot your brain.”
Bear tilts his head at her for a moment, then goes back to watching the screen. A glance at the security monitor next to the door reveals an empty hallway. The door slides up into the ceiling when Shaw presses the button next to it, and she barely has time to register the hallway moving before a large, spikey gun is being thrust into her face.
“Gimme the cash,” a voice demands.
Leon again. Mostly harmless, if not an entirely ridiculous human being, as evidenced by the large metal panel he's wearing as a hat, painted to look like the hallway when seen through the security camera. One of his more clever schemes, actually.
Shaw considers the gun. “That a G-140?”
“Uh-huh. Now gimme the cash.”
“Alleviated titanium, neuro charged assault model, huh.” Not easy to come by. For Leon, at least. Shaw imagines she’s about to have a much easier time of it. “Lucky for me it's not loaded.”
Leon pauses. “What?”
“You've got to press the little yellow button to load it.” Leon's eyes flick between Shaw and the gun, his face contorted in stress as he reaches his finger out to push the indicated button. “You want me to…?”
Finally he manages to push it, and raises the weapon with renewed vigor to Shaw's face. “Gimme the cash!”
A faint springing sound emanates from somewhere inside the gun, and when Leon's gaze flicks back to the button, Shaw brings a hand around to his elbow, twisting his arm down and back and wrenching the gun from his grip. Bear barks at him half-heartedly - he knows Leon is no threat, but shares Shaw’s penchant for fucking with him - and Shaw slaps another button just inside the door to lower her weapon rack.
“This is a very dangerous gun,” she says, tossing it into the pile of weapons she's confiscated from him over the past few months. Leon's always good for some amusement and a new gadget, so she doesn't mind having him around.
“Keep it,” he says, and backs away with his hands raised. “I don't need it.”
Shaw watches him, almost dancing in the hallway in his nervousness, and her eyes travel back up to the sheet of metal on his head. It looks heavy enough to do some damage to someone’s face. And Leon’s neck. “Maybe consider just headbutting someone with that next time.”
“I’ll do that,” Leon says, sounding grateful for the suggestion, then lets out a groan of frustration and takes off down the hallway.
Shaw watches him go, and with one last pat on the head for Bear, she heads down to the bay at the opposite end of the hallway. Her cab is just as she left it, a mostly nondescript yellow and gray model, standard aside from the numerous bumps and scratches lining its sides. They taught her how to fly defensively in the Forces, which most of the time meant flying offensively. Not her fault these cabs can't withstand that kind of treatment.
The system greets her by name as she settles in and pops her license into the receptacle to start the engine. “You have six points left on your license,” the mechanical voice calls out.
“Thanks for the reminder,” Shaw mutters. The docking clamps disengage and the cab jerks a little as the gravity unit kicks in. She opens the bay door, shielding her eyes against the sun glaring off the thousands of cars hovering through the air, and pulls out into traffic, joining the lane a few hundred feet below.
A great start to what's shaping up to be another shitty day. At least she'll get lunch out of it.
A thick brown book thuds heavily upon Carter’s desk, and she looks past Finch to see his slightly younger apprentice - John, he’d said - looking somehow even more grim than Finch himself. “We have forty-eight hours,” Finch says. “That’s how long it takes to adapt itself to the living conditions of its target once it manifests.”
“And then?” All traces of Staedert’s ship have vanished; the rest of his fleet set a course for Earth and have reported the object continuing to grow and maintain its trajectory. Finch seems to be the only person in this building who knows anything, and she’s not about to turn away answers no matter how much she might not like them.
“And then it will be too late,” John finally speaks up, his voice low and grave.
Finch nods in agreement. “The goal of this thing isn’t to fight over money, or power. Its only goal is to exterminate life.”
“All of humanity,” John says, and Carter gets the distinct impression that neither of them gets out much. They’re enjoying this tag-team doomsday prophesizing too much.
“Forever.” Finch gives her a significant look, running his fingers over the cover of the book.
Carter looks between the two of them, to the generals off to the side, and back. “And there’s nothing we can do to stop it?”
Finch smiles slightly, looking as though he’d been waiting for that question. “There is one thing.”
He opens the book to a marked page near the beginning, an intricate hand-drawn depiction of some sort of ritual in a stone chamber, a single human figure on an altar surrounded by several pillars. John steps forward to explain as Finch points to various figures in the drawing.
“The Mondoshawan have in their possession… a weapon, you might call it. The four elements of life: water, fire, earth, and air.” John gives a sheepish little shrug when Carter furrows her brow at that - good to see he realizes how this sounds to a woman of science who knows damn well that there are more than two hundred elements and none of them are fire or air. “These four elements, surrounding a fifth. A supreme being, containing the essence of the Divine. The ultimate warrior, created to protect life.”
Finch taps his finger on the figure in the center of the drawing. “Together, they - ”
“Hang on a second,” Carter holds up a hand to Finch, addressing John. “What do you mean, ‘containing the essence of the Divine?’ You’re not saying they’re some kind of god, are you?”
John and Finch exchange a look, debating each other with their eyebrows until John grimaces and sighs. “It’s… As best as we can tell it’s a metaphor. That undefinable spark that gives us life, that science still can’t quantify, that’s what the Mondoshawan have personified and called the Divine. The Fifth Element is directly connected to that life force, somehow.”
Carter narrows her eyes at him, catching what he isn’t explicitly saying. “So basically you just say ‘containing the essence of the Divine’ because that’s what the text says, and hope no one ever asks.”
John smiles - more of a tug at the corner of his mouth, but she can see it in his eyes. “Basically.”
“Least you admit it,” Carter says, returning the smile and with a wave toward Finch to continue.
“Right, well,” Finch clears his throat and points at the Fifth Element in the drawing again, then turns the page. “The five elements together create what the ancients call the Light of Creation.” A pillar of light emerges from the top of a temple in the new drawing, aimed at a menacing ball of fire in the sky. “But, if evil stands there…” John turns the page for him, pointing at a figure clad in black standing on the altar amongst the pillars, surrounded by corpses. “Then light turns to dark. Life, to death.”
“Forever,” John adds, somewhat unnecessarily in Carter’s opinion.
“Madam President,” a voice interrupts from behind the men, and they move aside to make room for Control to approach her desk. “We have a Mondoshawan ship at the frontier requesting permission to enter our territory.”
Palpable relief floods through her, and Carter can almost feel the same flowing through both Finch and John. “Give them permission, with our warmest regards. Thank you, Control.”
John spares the woman a glance as she turns away with a nod. “Control?” he mouths, more than actually vocalizes.
“Head of operations control of the army,” Carter shrugs. “It was quicker, during the war. Just stuck, I guess.” She looks back down at the book, pulling it closer. “So, this has happened before?”
“Every five thousand years, on Earth,” Finch confirms.
“No, I mean this,” Carter shakes her head, tapping on the image with evil at the altar. “Where the evil wins. How does that work?”
“A few times, since the Mondoshawan developed the weapon,” Finch says. John pulls the book toward himself and flips through the pages, searching for something. “They can’t predict the future, but orbital mechanics and the… migratory patterns, for lack of a better term, of this Evil are predictable. It appears roughly every five hundred years, in various parts of the galaxy.”
John finds what he’s looking for and turns the book back toward Carter. This drawing depicts some sort of outdoor school, filled with children of various alien species. “The Mondoshawan engineered several supreme beings, each with a genetic profile to match the dominant species of the planet they were designed to protect. Raised them together, trained them together, then put them in stasis until they were needed.”
Carter stares at the page, horrified. “That’s… They bred children to fight for them?”
Finch shifts on his feet, clearly uncomfortable with the idea and unable to reconcile it in his mind. John, for his part, looks like he agrees, but is better at compartmentalizing. “It was… what they felt needed to be done to keep the galaxy safe.”
“They were just kids,” Carter objects.
Apology in his eyes, John points to one of the children in the group, a roundish, nearly feline-looking species that Carter doesn’t recognize. “Thirty thousand years ago, not long after the Mondoshawan engineered them, the planet Qadral was threatened by the Evil. Their calculations had been off; the Qadrali Fifth Element… wasn’t ready.”
Carter’s blood runs cold when John turns the page and she sees the Qadrali child collapsed against a stone altar, lifeless at the feet of the dark figure from before. He turns the page again, and the Light of Creation bursting from the roof of the temple is instead a solid beam of black, swallowing even the stars behind it, the surrounding landscape consumed in a raging fire.
“She couldn’t fight through the Evil’s servants in time, and Qadral was destroyed,” Finch says, and Carter shouldn’t be surprised that there are people who will fight on behalf of evil incarnate, but it’s still an unwelcome reality.
She lets that sink in for a moment, taking in the bleak portrait laid out before her. “Why was she was sent alone if they knew she wasn’t ready?” Presumably all the other newly created Fifth Elements weren’t ready either, but a small army of genetically enhanced children had to stand a better chance than one alone. And it certainly doesn’t seem like the Mondoshawan had any particular aversion to sending children to their deaths.
“It would have been far too great a risk,” Finch says. There’s a sudden flurry of activity from the technicians at the monitors behind him, and Carter keeps an eye on them as John takes over again.
“The exact process that the ancients used to create the Fifth Elements has been lost, but we do know that the connection that was forged between the Divine and each of the Fifth Elements was some kind of a one-time deal. If all of them had been killed, the galaxy would have been defenseless.”
Carter thinks aloud. “That life force for each species could only be harnessed once.” It made sense, in a sort of way that completely defied any kind of actual scientific explanation.
“Right,” Finch says. “And besides which - ”
“Madam President,” Control calls out, and Carter gets a sinking feeling in her chest when she sees the palpable tension among the technicians behind her. “Long range scans confirm that two unauthorized Mangalore fighters have attacked the Mondoshawan ship.”
“Did they destroy it?” She’s certain she already knows the answer, but she has to confirm.
“Indications are the ship crashed on the surface of an uninhabited planet near one of our outposts. We’ve sent a recovery team, but initial scans show no signs of life.”
Dispassionate words, delivering a death sentence to the human race. Sometimes Carter wishes Control were more demonstrative with what she’s thinking, but under the circumstances, she thinks she’s going to need her composure.
Finch falls into the chair next to him. “We are lost.”
Carter clenches her jaw, one brief moment to suppress the same sentiment and steel herself before focusing on the things she can still do something about. “Father, this is a government matter now,” she says, knowing the next thing she’ll have to do is contact the Mondoshawan. At Finch’s apparent catatonia, she turns to John. “Maybe you should take him home.”
John nods and reaches out to close the book and tuck it under his arm. His eyes betray the turmoil he must be sharing with Finch, but Carter can appreciate the way he is able to set it aside and help Finch up and out the door.
Carter watches them go and wonders if either of them are the sort of people to take to the net and announce the imminent apocalypse. Less than forty-eight hours to go until Earth is destroyed. How can they evacuate an entire planet in that time? Where would they go?
Control steps closer and Carter gestures toward the seat Finch had occupied. “I suppose you heard all that.”
“And what are your thoughts?” The length of the silence that follows is disconcerting, to say the least. Carter remembers, suddenly, that Control has a young daughter.
“I think we shouldn’t have let them leave,” Control finally says. “Whether they’re right about what this thing is or not, the fact remains that we’ve got an unknown object heading for Earth, massive enough to extinguish all life if it impacts. And now two civilians are free to publicize it.”
Now there’s an unpleasant dilemma. Which takes precedence - the right for her fellow citizens to know what’s coming, or their right to continue their lives as normal, unmarred by the inevitable chaos and loss of life in the ensuing panic if it became public knowledge? There’s two dozen people in this room alone who know what’s coming. Several of them will be heading home soon, she knows, and there’s no telling how quickly word would spread after that. She trusts all of her people implicitly, but it would be naive to think something like this wouldn’t get out.
“You think we should lock down - ”
A tech listening to radio chatter interrupts them. “There’s a survivor!”
There’s a whirlwind of harried shouting, attempts at confirmation, an hour of agonized waiting - Carter’s already got emotional whiplash, so when she and Control arrive at the Nucleation Center to see the survivor, it seems only right that she should be put through more. Confronted with a severed metal glove in a sealed glass tube, the protruding forearm bones the only evidence of the person it used to be, Carter can only gape.
“This is your idea of a survivor?” Carter asks the head of the research facility - Professor Mactilburgh, Control had said - as they follow the tech rushing down the hallway, pushing the tube on a cart in front of him.
“One cell survived, that’s all I need.”
“Have you identified it?” Control asks, looking wary.
“That’s the thing, we’ve never encountered anything like this before.” Mactilburgh manages to look both annoyed and in awe at the same time. “Human DNA is contained in forty-six chromosomes, which is more than enough genetic information for any species to perpetuate itself. This cell has two hundred thousand.”
Carter feels a tentative hope come back to her, but biology was never her forte. “Which means what?”
“This cell contains an almost infinite amount of genetic knowledge stored inside. Almost like it was… engineered.” Mactilburgh sounds mildly puzzled, and if the briefings she’s read on what he can accomplish at this facility are true, Carter thinks they may have a chance after all. Engineered cells should be old hat to a man who can revive the dead so long as a single cell is still alive; if this particular cell has him confounded, then they just might have Finch’s so-called Fifth Element back.
“Sounds like a freak of nature to me,” Control says, ever suspicious.
“Yeah,” Mactilburgh says, eyes glowing in the blue light of one final decontamination zone. “I can’t wait to meet her.”
They enter a large dome-shaped room lined with gold foil, and the tech places the tube with the severed arm into the airlock of the sealed surgical chamber at the opposite end of the room. Mactilburgh taps at a screen on the large control panel in front of them, and Carter and Control crowd around him as a modeled strand of human DNA appears.
“The compositional elements of her DNA are the same as ours,” he says, tapping the screen again. The double helix of the DNA appears to copy itself, filling in empty spaces and becoming more of a cylinder. “There’s simply more of them, tightly packed. Efficient storage of limitless knowledge.”
Control peers more closely at the screen. “Any danger? A genetic virus, maybe?”
“We ran it through the cellular hygiene detector,” Mactilburgh says, voice betraying his awe again. “The cell is, for lack of a better word, perfect.”
Carter glances over to Control, who merely nods slightly and steps back. The simple gesture highlights just how dire of a situation they’ve found themselves in; there’s no universe in which Control wouldn’t have unlocked the emergency system shutoff switch when confronted with the imminent revival of a mysteriously engineered cell, unless she knew they would all be screwed either way.
“Okay,” Carter says, stepping back as well. “Do it.”
Mactilburgh types a few commands on the control panel as a tech moves into place at the other end of it. The surgical chamber in front of them comes to life, moving the severed limb - sans glove - into place near the outer edge of the center of the tube. A pair of metal arms reaches out from the top of the chamber, and Carter watches in fascination as they start laying down bone tissue, picking up speed until their movement is little more than a blur, and it’s only a few minutes of reverent silence before an entire skeleton lies before them.
“Soft tissue regeneration,” the tech calls out, and a second set of instruments emerges, weaving an intricate pattern of muscle and sinew and internal organs onto the frame. The body being created before them is undeniably human; Carter wonders what Finch would feel, standing here watching the reconstruction of his prophesied supreme being.
“Three seconds to ultraviolet protection.”
A shield comes out from the end of the chamber, covering the glass. Mactilburgh nudges Carter, and gestures at the display before him showing the progress of the regeneration. “Next the cells will be bombarded with ultraviolet radiation, forcing the body to react to protect itself. That means growing skin.”
There’s a slight glow from the edges of the chamber, until the tech speaks up again. “Process complete.”
“Remove the shield.”
Carter unconsciously leans forward to get a better look as the shield slowly retracts, revealing the pale nude form of a tall, slender woman, the slight definition to the muscles twining up her legs and arms belying their somehow obvious strength. A mess of wavy brown hair splays out from her head, and Carter spares a thought to wonder how Mactilburgh’s skin regeneration process managed that one.
“Thermal bandages,” Mactilburgh says, and the tech presses a button. Bands of white cloth stretch out over and under the body, wrapping her in makeshift clothing that seems to really only cover her breasts and pelvis.
The room is silent. Control looks between the chamber and Mactilburgh. “What now?”
“Reanimation,” he says, nodding to a rectangular panel that slides out along the top of the chamber.
A high pitched whine fills the room as the system charges in preparation.
Carter holds her breath.
Then, all at once…
Millennia of programmed knowledge and decades of memories fight for attention as they all simultaneously dump into her consciousness, too much to process, too much to focus on any one thing, too much to sort out and separate into individual pieces, too much to even know that it wasn’t always like this, that there had been a time before the noise, that she had once had a life -
The concept seems brighter, somehow, stronger, a definite thread to seek and anchor herself with. She reaches out toward it, senses a voice calling to her, calming her, helping her find meaning in the chaos, sorting through - flashes of memory, alarms blaring, hideous noise and ruinous fire, she had died, she had a mission and had failed, failed like Neze had, like Cheba had, like Hanna had -
The scream that rips its way out of her throat is what pulls her back into her body - makes her realize that she has a body again, she’s alive, she can breathe, she can think, she can feel, she can feel… too much, too much sensation, she becomes hyperaware of air moving across every inch of her skin and the overwhelming cacophony of the world and the most infinitesimal of imperfections in the glass that her hands encounter when they flail out in search of her surroundings.
Her eyes fly open almost against her will, but really, what’s one more sensory input in the face of all of this? Colors assault her brain, she’d forgotten what colors were but now a detailed history of every sentient species’ discovery of the electromagnetic spectrum wars for her attention with their civilizations’ art history and development of color theory, and as her hands explore the glass around her and realize she’s encased in some sort of tube all of that falls away under the rush of geometry and engineering that come to the forefront.
“What’s she saying?”
Her head jerks around at the words, more colors that resolve into distinct shapes - people. People who can hear her, she hadn’t been aware she was even speaking, why can’t they understand her?
“I don’t know. Activate the phonic detector.”
English, her memory supplies. They’re speaking English. She grasps onto her knowledge of the language but like everything else it’s too tenuous, she can understand it but can’t wrap her tongue around the words. Something else within her latches onto the thought. English… These are humans. These are who she’s been sent to protect.
The guiding voice within her returns, coaxing her thoughts in that direction. The Divine, she suddenly knows. The Divine is speaking to her again.
A calm settles over her as the comfort of the Divine’s presence mingles with the new, solid anchor for her thoughts. The panic starts to dissipate, her mind starts to clear, her senses calm and her awareness resolves down to a single fact with perfect clarity.
Her name is Root.
“Is that thing solid?”
Root’s attention turns back to the humans gathered on the other side of the room. She recognizes the woman who had spoken, head of operations control in the Federated army. Next to her is Joss Carter, President of the Federated Territory.
“Unbreakable,” one of the men says. Root doesn’t recognize him; he must not have been in the research material she’d been looking over for the past few years. Whoever he is, whatever he does, must have been considered irrelevant for her mission.
She looks around the room, but fails to recognize the one human she actually needs to see. Why is she in a sealed tube in a sealed room with military and political leaders, but no temple priest? She asks to see Harold Finch, but hears the words come out in the Divine language and knows none of them will understand her.
Control approaches her, dangling her security card from its chain tauntingly. “If you want out, you’re going to have to work on those communication skills.”
These people have no idea who she is, do they? What she’s capable of, why she’s here. How little time or patience she has for humans who think they’ve got power, for those who would treat people like her as things to be used -
Root feels a tug, the Divine guiding her along, agreeing that she doesn’t have time for Control’s nonsense but nudging her away from that particular path. Awareness of every living creature in the building floods through her then, her connection with the Divine blooming into full force, and Root shifts to crouch on her hands and feet and gives Control what she hopes is a suitably threatening look - she’s not sure she’s regained full control of her fine motor functions yet, but she’s got enough brute force for what she needs.
A brief flicker of concern passes over Control’s face the instant before Root punches through the unbreakable glass and seizes hold of her jacket. Root smirks at her as she pulls back, slamming Control’s face into the tube, crushing her nose and knocking her at least momentarily unconscious. She catches the security card in Control’s hand as she falls, and inserts it into the console she can now reach through the hole as alarms start to sound and guards whisk the President away.
The glass trapping her in the tube recedes, and Root takes cover between the surgical bed and the foil-covered wall behind her. She can sense the guards coming down the hallway before they file into the room, rifles raised in warning, alarms still blaring and warning lights flashing and she feels her grip on her senses start to fade again. Her vision pulses, the others in the room seeming to stand at an angle and flickering in and out of existence, she’s only certain they’re there because of the connection with the Divine still flowing through her, a connection that she hears the voice apologize for, it was too much too soon, her body and her mind needed more time to get used to each other again before She made Herself known but they’re out of time, Root has to trust Her, trust Her, listen, close your eyes and listen and focus only on what’s behind you, what do you hear?
Root winces against the pounding in her head but obeys the voice, shutting everything else out and listening only to what’s past the foil wall behind her.
She knows what she has to do.
The guards startle and position their rifles as Root stands up, but they scarcely have time to react before she turns around, takes two running steps, and dives straight through the wall.
Root tumbles into a dark hallway with a less graceful landing than she knows she’s capable of; coming back from the dead is a real pain in the ass, it seems, and she hopes it’s just a temporary side effect and she won’t have to retrain her body to work together with her mind. The alarms seem louder now, echoing through the narrow concrete and steel space, but at least the flashing lights are less bright. She hears guards approaching from the right, and she turns left and runs, letting just enough of the Divine in to know where to turn to avoid all other signs of life.
After too many dizzying leaps and turns throughout the building, Root comes to an intersection in the ductwork where she can see rays of sunlight filtering through the grate at the end. She stumble-crawls toward it and kicks it away with more force than necessary, shielding her eyes from the sun as she steps onto a ledge on the outer facade of the building and sees…
She’s seen New York before, of course, in pictures and videos and holoimages, has been on ships and visited cities with the Mondoshawan, so none of this is, strictly speaking, new to her. But seeing the myriad of colors painted on the vehicles whizzing by through the air, the dazzling neon lights on the sides of buildings thousands of feet tall, backlit by sun even as they nearly touch the cloud layer - Root’s fairly certain that this would have struck her even if she hadn’t been in the middle of a resurrection-induced sensory overload.
“Okay, lady, stay calm. This is the police. There’s nowhere else to go,” one of a group of guards calls out from behind her. Root bends down to look through the ductwork at them and sees they’re all still gathered at the intersection, too scared or too bulked up from their body armor to pass through. “So you’re gonna slowly turn around and put your hands on the floor. Do you understand me?”
Root watches them for a moment, then stands back up and walks away along the ledge without a word. Humans. Too scared of what they don’t understand, always reacting with violence. Why do they even deserve her protection?
She feels a twinge along her connection with the Divine at that thought but she shoves it away. It’s not just humans that have earned her ire, she knows. As her memories start to settle back where they belong, Root gathers the core of her time as a child with the Mondoshawan and sends it back along her connection.
I know, the voice says. I’m sorry, there was no other way, but there may be one now, trust me, trust me, trust -
A train car rushes past her down the side of the building, wind whipping through her hair and interrupting even the Divine. Root stares down after it as it speeds along the track guiding it down through the fog underneath the bustle of traffic at this elevation. Now in shadow, the sun hidden behind the building opposite her, Root can make out the fog clearly for the first time. A product of pollution and changing climate, she knows, covering the surface of the ground and extending a few hundred feet into the air. The seedy underbelly of the city.
Without warning, a siren chirps and floodlights assault her eyes. Root raises a hand to block the light and sees a police car hovering a few feet in front of her.
“This is the police. We are processing your identification. Please put your hands up and follow our instructions.”
Root raises both hands into the air, more to shield her eyes than to follow their instructions. She doesn’t have time for this - they don’t have time for this. Her headache makes itself known again with renewed vengeance, the unforgiving harsh white lights of the police car seeming to pierce through directly to her brain. She peers down past the ledge, taking in the barely controlled chaos of the multiple elevations of flying traffic, down to the fog below.
The Divine calls out to her again, bringing one person in one vehicle in particular to her attention.
“She has no file,” one of the cops in the vehicle says, apparently sitting on the button for his megaphone.
Trust me, the voice says.
Root closes her eyes and lets herself fall.
The language Leeloo speaks was constructed for the movie, and the internet being what it is, I was able to find a dictionary of the Divine Language. So Root isn't just saying gibberish throughout this chapter, but don't ask me to tell you what she's saying because I forgot anything more than the gist of it almost as soon as I translated it. Which seems appropriate, really.
(Also, if you haven't met Root yet, then you missed a chapter on Monday!)
An annoyingly large amount of traffic is trying to merge down into the mid-range throughways a few levels above Shaw, resulting in a minor traffic jam that’s starting to spill down into her lane. Three dimensions of travel and several thousand feet of elevation to fly through and still New York City traffic is the worst. It’s somehow even less manageable than navigating through enemy ships and debris during full-blown combat. At least then she wasn’t restricted in where she could fly.
Apparently there’s some sort of police action going on next to a building a couple hundred feet up, forcing people to abandon that throughway. Sucks to be those guys. Doubly sucks to be the guy the cops are after, but at least that’s not a problem Shaw has to deal with. Instead she’s got to explain her driving record to her former navigator and endure his nagging about her finding a social life.
… Maybe it actually would suck less to be the guy those cops are after.
The thought barely has time to cross her mind before she sees the police cars abruptly pull away, and as she wonders how their target managed to escape from the side of the building, something crashes through the roof of her cab and lands in the backseat with a yelp. The force of the crash makes her lose control, the cab diving down to the throughway below and into opposing traffic.
“You have just had an accident,” the cab’s computer helpfully notifies her as she struggles to maintain her grip on the steering controls and level out. “Five points have been removed from your license.”
“Thanks, I hadn’t noticed,” Shaw grits out through her teeth, swerving around and between lanes of traffic and hearing the interloper in the backseat let out the occasional grunt as she’s slammed around.
“You have one point left on your license,” the computer reminds her, and Shaw chants the words out along with it, having heard them all too often since retiring. A car flies toward her, its driver either woefully unobservant or just an absolute idiot, and Shaw slams the heel of her hand down on the horn several times to get his attention. They manage to fly out of each other’s way and Shaw escapes the flow of traffic and swings to a stop in an unused stretch of space near a residential building.
Her eyes flick up to the rearview mirror and take in the damage to her cab. The metal of the roof is caved in, leaving a large hole through which both sunlight and the cables for her rooftop cab company sign fall in. Just fucking perfect.
“I don’t know who you are, but I’m gonna kill you if you’re not already dead,” Shaw says, unbuckling her chest harness and turning around to look through the window separating the back seat from the driver’s area.
A beat, then a soot-covered hand slams onto the window. A woman pops up soon after, wild eyes and sharp features and Shaw’s immediate thought is that she wouldn’t have minded giving this woman a ride at all, if she hadn’t wrecked her cab in the process. The dirty and bruised look really does it for her.
The woman’s eyes pierce through her and Shaw has the distinct feeling that she’s being assessed as a potential threat. She knows that look well. Shaw glances between the hole in her cab and the cuts and dirt that mar the woman’s body, barely covered as it is by some ridiculous gauze onesie, and realizes she must have been the person those cops had been after and had escaped by jumping off the fucking building.
Points for style, she supposes. “You okay?”
The woman’s eyes bore through her for another moment, then her face breaks out into a glowing smile that takes Shaw aback.
“Apipoulaï,” she says, wiggling her fingers against the glass a bit, and Shaw has absolutely no idea what language that is but can recognize an overly flirtatious greeting when she sees one. The woman must not be fazed by her lack of reaction, though, and launches into a whirlwind monologue spoken faster than anything Shaw’s heard in years.
“Melaloy-re takhtad asountimon de Mondoshawan ligurat! Isperobera khrasma, perod'jun dat dero fergi hamas'met tatroskit zhit handlha…Tsouk, tsouk…” At this, the woman pounds her other arm against the glass, showing off a tattoo on the inside of wrist - four symbols aligned in a grid, each composed of a series of lines. Shaw tries to get a closer look but the woman moves her arm away as she gestures animatedly with both of her hands. “Topometimbackta selovoy! Itoumalena palela fer kiko hammas statoncro bom sonoy dot pan-adindoskal…”
The woman gets a dark, sardonic look on her face and shares a devious smile with Shaw, shaking her head. “Nealla dindo... fuck teno djalla…” She makes a diving motion with her hands. “Mola kozoul, ashan boom.”
Shaw gets the gist of that last part, at least. “Fuck those guys, huh? I feel that. Good to know ‘fuck’ is a universal sentiment.”
The woman smiles, pointing up through the hole in the roof. “Fuck teno, welso ania,” she says this with a particularly vicious jab of her finger in the air.
“I get that cops suck, but was diving through the air really the best solution?”
“Ven tokemata soun cocha fer dot,” the woman says, the words themselves seeming to calm her in some way.
“You understand English, don’t you?” Shaw realizes. “You just can’t come up with the words fast enough.” She can certainly relate; there’s no way she could make conversation in several of the languages she learned during her service, but she can still recognize the words when she hears them. Passive versus active vocabulary is a bitch.
The woman tilts her head and smiles again, softer this time. “Deno latuna, ydeo,” she says, looking at Shaw in that same inexplicably flirtatious way she had when she first saw her. “Hin mino,” her tongue sticks out and she points at it, shaking her head, “maka ne dia tokem, amna De’oum. Me akilet ilo noïatchaï, bankité dolgaban.”
Shaw stares at her and the woman laughs a little. “Your mouth can’t make the sounds is all I got out of that,” she shrugs.
“Hin mino statoncro eto matin adjïseti achan'chinou,” the woman says with an unmistakable waggle of her eyebrows, and Shaw can’t help but laugh at that. She has no idea what the woman just said, but at the same time she knows exactly what she just said.
“Not that I don’t appreciate the offer, but sexual favors aren’t gonna fix my cab.” Shaw pointedly looks up at the hole in the roof and the woman has the gall to actually pout at her. “Look, I was supposed to meet my dispatcher for a six month overhaul ten minutes ago, and normally I wouldn’t really care about being late but he was gonna buy me lunch at Frederico’s and they’ve got the best gnocchi above three thousand feet, and now he’s probably - ”
Shaw’s interrupted by the chirping of a police siren and flashing red lights.
“This is a police control,” an amplified voice sounds out, and the woman ducks down out of view. “You have an unauthorized passenger in your vehicle. We are going to arrest her. Please leave your hands on the wheel. Thank you for your cooperation.”
These guys sure do love to assume cooperation before anyone’s ever given it. Shaw peers out her window and sees only one police car. Convenient. She shifts back around in her seat, placing her hands on the wheel, and looks up at the woman in her rearview mirror. “Fuck these guys, right?”
The woman nods, looking relieved, but it quickly turns to agitation when she realizes that Shaw has no intention of driving away just yet.
“Kozoul!” she says, gesturing forward.
Shaw shakes her head. “Not yet.”
The door of the cop car slides open as it hovers closer to the cab. “Please open your passenger door.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Shaw says, jabbing the button to follow their order. Light pours in as the sliding door that comprises the right side of the cab opens up, and the woman retreats to the opposite side of the cab, folding her long limbs up as best as she can.
“Fuck, kozoul! Perod’jun!”
“Just hang on a second, would you? I know what I’m doing.”
A cop in the other car reaches out and connects a tether to the anchor point on the inside of Shaw’s cab. The woman slams her hand against the glass separating them and Shaw looks at her in the mirror again. She barely has time to register the fire and steel in her eyes before the woman launches herself out of the cab and into the police car.
It’s a dizzying flurry of limbs that Shaw can’t quite follow or comprehend, but from the pained groaning and cursing coming from the three cops inside the car, it’s clear this woman has had some sort of combat training. One of the cops nearly catches the woman from behind but she manages to grab his arm and flip him over onto his back, no easy task for a woman her size in a car that cramped.
Shaw looks on in both appreciation and annoyance; they’d be out of here by now if the woman had just had some patience and trusted Shaw, but she has to admit she’s enjoying the show. The last cop gets knocked out when he makes the mistake of raising his rifle and the woman rips it from his hands and hits him in the head with it, then she swings back over to Shaw’s cab by the tether connecting the vehicles. She rips it away with impressive force, taking the anchor point with it, and slams the passenger door closed.
“Kozoul!” she shouts again, and is slammed back against the seat when Shaw floors it, speeding away and sideswiping the cop car in the process.
“I told you to just wait a second!” Shaw shouts over the rush of air past the hole in the cab, the on-board computer informing her that another point has been deducted from her license. “You think I was gonna cooperate with those fuckers?”
“Bachta loungalino foun’de!” the woman yells back at her.
“Excuse the fuck out of me for not realizing you were hiding some secret ninja skills or some shit,” Shaw says, a little annoyed that she can recognize the chiding tone in the woman’s voice even without understanding the words. “I was gonna drive off after they hooked us together and give ‘em a little tow until it snapped and they couldn’t chase us, but no, you had to go and make a point, didn’t you?”
The cab’s computer decides this is a great time to chime in again. “You have zero points left on your license. You license has been revoked. Please - ”
“That’s enough out of you,” Shaw growls, and rips the license unit out of the console. She takes a glimpse in the mirror; they’re not being followed, it seems. At least there’s that. “You got lucky. If they don’t chase you after a mile, they don’t chase you.”
They speed past an intersection and a trio of police vehicles emerge from either side, sirens blaring.
“Maybe it’s two miles.” The cops yell something over their megaphone and Shaw spots an opportunity coming up on the left. “Hold on,” she says, and immediately makes an abrupt ninety degree turn down a small service throughway between two buildings, barely wide enough for one car. The woman is probably getting even more bruises on her already battered body from all this stunt driving, but that’s what she gets for crashing into Shaw’s cab and then not even bothering to put on a seat belt.
Two of the cop cars manage to follow them down the alley and Shaw curses when her partially mangled computer console alerts her to an identity scan being run on her cab. Great. No license unit, no identity. No identity… The screen alerts her that the lead vehicle has locked its weapons.
Yep, there it is. “Shit.”
She yanks up on the wheel just in time to avoid the first barrage of machine gun fire, and as the cab barrels straight into the air Shaw can hear the woman tumbling around in the back, yelling at her. There’s the unmistakable sound of one of the police cars smashing into the side of a building, and Shaw takes a moment to be pleased with herself before the glass behind her head shatters. In her periphery she sees the woman’s fist retreating back from the hole she’d just punched through the window separating the back from the driver’s seat, then the woman lands another blow and the entire window falls back under the force of gravity.
As Shaw levels out the cab and heads down another side alley, the woman crawls forward into her space and flops down into the seat next to her. Her hands are bloody as they reach out for the computer console, but she doesn’t seem to pay any attention to it.
“I don’t know what you did to piss these guys off,” Shaw says, keeping an eye on the mirror for the other cruiser, “but they are really pissed off.”
“Selovoy,” she shrugs, tapping on the screen. Shaw squints at it; she’s never seen that submenu before.
“What are you doing?”
The woman’s answer gets cut short as they break into a wide open space at the end of the alley and find six more police cars waiting for them, all pointing their roof-mounted guns straight at them. They explode in a hail of gunfire and Shaw slams her foot down on the accelerator even as she throws off her chest harness and ducks and covers as best she can, the woman beside her still working at the monitor as she follows suit.
The reinforced steel of her cab holds true, but the windows are all quickly shattered under the assault. They speed through the massive intersection and the gunfire stops at least for a moment when a building comes between the cab and the police vehicles. Shaw straightens in her seat and the woman does the same, never ceasing her focused work with the computer.
“If that’s how you want to play, let’s play,” Shaw mutters, tightening the seat restraints across her chest again and tapping at the manual control switches above her head. The cops pull into the throughway behind her and Shaw grins. She hasn’t had any action like this since before leaving the service, and it’s sure as hell a better way to spend her day than getting lectured by Cole.
“Elgoun'doloun,” the woman says, reaching out a hand to rest on Shaw’s arm. She makes one final tap on the screen then finally turns to Shaw, a look of absolute glee on her face. “Tsouk.”
She points at the screen, and it takes Shaw several quick glances at it while weaving between cars and evading the cops to realize what she’s looking at. “Did you… disguise our radar signature?”
“Ena.” She points down toward the fog thousands of feet below. “Awa-flamta panané, kozoul!”
“My thoughts exactly,” Shaw says, and shoves the steering wheel in and aims the cab straight down through the traffic below. The woman manages to keep from falling against the windshield by bracing her feet against the dashboard and gripping the empty frame of the privacy window behind them. It affords Shaw a choice view of her long and limber-looking limbs and lithe muscle that are really too distracting while she’s barreling headfirst through dozens of layers of New York traffic.
She shakes her head and tightens her grip on the wheel as they approach the particularly congested layers of traffic of the third tier. The cop cars are behind her, gaining on them, but the fog is closer and approaching even more rapidly. Shaw darts and weaves between vehicles like she’s back in battle, except not even enemy attack formations can get as complex as traffic in the third tier.
“Hang on,” Shaw calls out to the woman as the fog grows ever closer. She braces herself as they break through the upper layer, instantly losing all visual contact with the surface above, and Shaw pulls the cab into a simultaneous barrel roll and sixty degree turn that make the woman tumble back into the backseat, and sends them further into the fog in the opposite direction from the one the cops will most likely take, descending at a less extreme angle.
After a few minutes of weaving through alleys and long-since abandoned throughways, Shaw pulls the cab to a stop behind an old billboard, cuts the headlights, and unbuckles her chest harness. “We can stay here for a while. Maybe I can get Cole to get us a ride.”
There’s no answer. Shaw turns around and sees the woman lying in a crumpled heap in her backseat. “Dammit,” she mutters, and clambers through the broken window to join her. She’s still breathing, at least, and when Shaw sits down next to her and leans over her chest to examine the cuts and bruises dotting her skin, the woman’s eyes flutter open.
“Api… choncha.” She manages half a smile for half a second, before letting out her breath and flopping her arm against Shaw’s. The woman is utterly exhausted, and clearly from something deeper than just her crash landing and their subsequent joyride. Shaw runs her fingers along her scalp, searching for any signs of a head injury.
The chirp of a cop car goes by and Shaw tenses, hunching down over the woman. Flashing red light pierces through the fog but she can’t make out the car itself, and the billboard and the woman’s radar trick seem to hide them well enough.
“I don’t know how you knew how to do that thing with the radar,” Shaw says, and the woman’s eyes open again, seeming to have trouble focusing on her. “But that was a nice one.”
A hand searches up Shaw’s chest, the woman’s fingers loosely gripping Shaw’s shirt and trying to tug her closer. Her mouth works against something for a moment, then she manages to get a word out. “Priest…”
“You don’t need a priest, you need a doctor. Lucky for you I used to be one.” Although if ‘priest’ was the first English word she could wrap her tongue around, the idea must have some significance to her. Who even is this woman? Combat skills, hacker skills, some bizarre religiosity but in endless trouble with the law? That’s a hell of a combination.
“Priest,” the woman says again. “Har… old… Finch.”
She promptly falls unconscious, and Shaw is left to address her question to the fog.
“Who the fuck is Harold Finch?”
The door opens and the first word that comes to Shaw’s mind is tweedy. The man who sticks his head out doesn’t seem to be wearing any actual tweed, but that’s the impression he gives off, to be sure. He squints at Shaw from behind his glasses and Shaw has to wonder what kind of person wears a formal waistcoat and tie in their own home, then he opens the door slightly wider to look at the woman she’s carrying in her arms.
“I’m… looking for a priest,” Shaw says, squinting right back at him.
“Weddings are one floor down. Congratulations,” he adds, stepping back to swing the door shut.
Fuck that. Shaw did not call in all of her favors with Cole to get out of the fog and track down this priest at the behest of some skydiving whack job just for him to turn her away. She kicks her foot out, catching the door before it shuts, and barges into the apartment behind him.
“The hell kind of priest congratulates some random person holding an obviously unconscious and beaten up woman in their arms?” Shaw takes some amount of satisfaction in the way his entire body seems to tense in her presence. Smart of him; even with her arms full of unconscious daredevil, Shaw has no doubt she could knock him out in two seconds flat. “She asked for you, that’s why I’m here. Harold Finch, right?”
“Yes, but… I’m afraid I’ve never seen that woman before in my life.”
Shocker. “Nobody knows who she is, she was being chased by some cops and dove off a building and landed in my cab. She’s got no file, no ID, nothing.” Shaw shifts her hold on the woman, angling her dangling left arm out toward Finch. “She’s got a tattoo on this arm here, that’s about it.”
Finch goes still at her words. “Ta… tattoo?” He takes his glasses off and rubs them with a handkerchief before putting them back on and leaning in closer. Scarcely a moment after raising the woman’s forearm to get a better view of the tattoo on her wrist, he looks back up at Shaw, his face gone white with shock.
“Finch?” Another man emerges from the depths of the apartment, younger and clad in a simple black suit and white shirt. Not tweedy, at least.
Finch turns to him, then back to the woman’s wrist, then back up to Shaw. “Fifth… Element,” he manages to breathe, then passes out on the floor at Shaw’s feet.
Cole’s gonna kill her.
Shaw looks over to the other man, who seems torn between helping the woman in Shaw’s arms or the man at her feet. “I’m Shaw,” she offers, for lack of any other obvious move to make.
“John. Did he say ‘Fifth Element?’”
“Think so. That mean something to you?”
In lieu of an answer, John steps closer and takes the woman’s wrist in his hand. He takes in her tattoo, his eyes widening almost imperceptibly, then he steps back and gestures toward the couch near the window. “You can put her over there.”
If these guys think Shaw’s going to leave this woman here with the two of them, unconscious and unable to speak English, they’re out of their fucking minds. But she has been carrying her around for the past fifteen minutes, so she gladly crosses the room and deposits the woman onto the couch. Her hair flows across the accent pillow behind her head and Shaw tucks her wayward arm against her side when it flings itself out against Shaw’s leg. She hears John hefting Finch into a lounge chair as she’s inspecting the woman’s tattoo for herself; she’d seen it in the cab when the woman pointed it out to her as if it would mean something.
Which, apparently, it does. Though now that she's got a closer look at it, it seems less of a tattoo and more of a strangely intricate birthmark, emerging from her skin as though it has always been there.
Shaw straightens up at the same time as John, who glances between the two unconscious people before them. He clears his throat a little and looks to her. “Do you… want to wait for him to wake up?” John asks, gesturing vaguely toward Finch.
“No need,” Shaw says. Finally, a way to work out some of the aggravation about this whole situation.
John moves out of the way when she approaches the chair Finch is slumped over in. She grabs him by the shoulders and adjusts him to be sitting up more fully, his head falling back against the headrest, and takes his glasses off and hands them to John.
Then she slaps Finch in the face, as hard as she can. “Hey!”
Finch jolts awake, jumping in the chair a little, and after a moment his eyes focus on Shaw. “Who are you?”
Shaw shrugs over in the woman’s direction. “I brought the woman over there, remember?”
Finch’s eyes flick toward the couch, then widen almost comically, and Shaw has to stumble backward as he jumps out of the chair with John reaching out to steady him. “Yes, yes, of course. How… how did you say you found her?”
“She fell through the roof of my cab,” Shaw says. Maybe these guys can pay for repairs, if they know this woman. Cole would be less upset, at least. “Started speaking this language I didn’t recognize, and let me tell you, that is not easy to do.”
“The Divine language, the ancient language,” Finch says, gesturing animatedly between Shaw and John. “Spoken throughout the universe before time was time.”
“Okay…” That was a crock of bullshit if Shaw ever heard it. She shoots a look at John, who merely shrugs at her like he’s used to this kind of thing from Finch.
“John, go find the ceremonial robes, there isn’t a moment to lose.” John dutifully retreats into the back of the apartment as Finch steps closer to the woman on the couch. “Wake her, but gently. She is… mankind’s most precious possession,” Finch says with an odd reverence for someone talking about a human woman as a possession which makes Shaw narrow her eyes at him. “She is… perfect.”
Finch abruptly turns to follow John, muttering something about needing to look more formal in her presence. Shaw looks down at the woman, taking in her long limbs, lightly muscled but clearly powerful, her delicate features marred by bruises and dirt, the hair spilling out from behind her.
Perfect might be an overstatement, but she’s not bad to look at, Shaw can admit that. And she’s not bad to have on your side in a fight, either, from what she’s seen.
The woman doesn’t stir when Shaw shifts her legs over to sit on the edge of the couch near her knees. Neither does she seem to react when Shaw reaches out to shake the less thoroughly bruised of her shoulders. She thinks about slapping her, if only to be contrary to Finch’s instructions, but that seems… unfair, somehow.
Shaw sighs and turns to cataloging the woman’s injuries, instead. Probably better to do so when she’s still unconscious, anyway, in case something is fractured or otherwise more painful than it looks. The skin of her forearm is warm when Shaw takes it in her hands and examines the abrasions marring her knuckles, looking suspiciously far along in their healing for only having occurred a few hours ago. Unless she’s been on the run for longer than Shaw had thought, and landing in her cab was merely a capstone to a particularly shitty week.
Shaw can certainly relate.
Noticing her thumbs have been unconsciously rubbing gentle circles around the woman’s wrist near her tattoo, Shaw drops her arm and looks around the room. No one around to see, good. Although now that she’s looking, she can’t help but notice that the symbols on the woman’s wrist seem to be a recurring motif around Finch’s apartment. Definitely some religious symbol, then. Great. The first person to show Shaw a good time in months and she’s part of some weird cult.
Kind of a shame. She’s not bad to look at. The language barrier might even have been a nice bonus - no illusions about a fun night turning into anything more meaningful.
Shaw shoves the thought away and lets her hands roam down the woman’s thigh, twisting it to the side a little to get a better look at a deep cut near her hip. There’s still some glass embedded in it, and when she peers around the room for something resembling a first aid kit, the hand at the inside of the woman’s thigh slips a little.
She feels a hand clamping around her wrist at the same time she hears the woman speak. “Jesset yankan datotz, paknena.”
Shaw straightens and raises her free hand, the woman’s grip on her left wrist loose but strong. “Sorry, I was just checking out your injuries.”
“Mana jesset yaknan datotz, podo.”
“I know what I’m doing, I went to med school.” The woman has an odd gleam in her eyes, like she’s not really angry to wake up to find Shaw groping her. Like she’s fucking with her. She looks between their hands and back up to the woman’s face. “Look, you’re hot, you’re good with a computer, I can get behind that. But if you don’t let go of my wrist I’m going to have to break yours.”
Only after seeing the woman break out into a shit-eating grin does Shaw realize that the woman’s understanding of idiomatic English is better than she’d thought. They stare at each other for a long, charged moment, Shaw all too aware of the heat around her wrist, until finally the woman lets her go and sits up, back against the arm of the couch.
“Deno choncha soun’sossian, chtaman?”
Shaw still has no idea what the woman is saying, but she can recognize flirting when she sees it. The image of the woman flinging herself over to the police car and knocking out three cops in less than thirty seconds is still vivid in her mind, and she finds her fingers pressing against a bruise near the woman’s knee where her hand had landed. The woman scarcely reacts, but Shaw can see that same glint in her eye and lets her lips curl a little as she presses harder against the bruise.
Okay, so she might be some sort of religious nutjob, but she’s hot, good in a fight, and likes pain. Shaw can work with that.
“You know, I don’t even know your name.”
The woman smiles. “Rootminaï Lekatariba-Laminaï-Tchaï Ekbat de Sebat.”
Shaw blinks, the hand on the woman’s thigh gone still. “That… whole thing’s your name, huh?” She simply sighs and she’s pretty sure the woman stifles a laugh. “I’m Shaw. It’s Sameen Shaw, actually, but just Shaw, for short. You got a shorter name like that?”
“Sameen,” the woman repeats softly, as though trying out the shape of the word on her tongue. Shaw narrows her eyes at the blatant disregard for what she’d said, and the woman smirks a little before her gaze flicks away. Her brow furrows in concentration as her mouth moves silently, apparently practicing her words. Finally she looks back at Shaw and says, a little haltingly, “You can call me Root.”
Shaw nods and taps her thigh near the cut with glass still in it. “You want me to take care of this, Root?”
Root gets that gleam in her eye again and Shaw finds herself staring at her mouth just as Finch and John burst back into the room. Shaw stands and takes a step away from the couch, taking in the ridiculous red velvet robes that both men are now wearing, decorated with large versions of Root’s tattoo across the chest. Finch holds out an oddly shaped key hanging from his neck and at the sight, Root’s eyes light up.
“Apipoulaï, Rootminaï, mo Harold Finch escobar.”
“Ouacra cocha o dayodomo binay,” Root says, animated in an entirely different way than she had been with Shaw, and Finch looks distressed at her words. “Mo cocha ferji akba ligounai makta keratapla.”
Shaw looks between them, slightly miffed despite herself that Root’s attention shifted so quickly. Finch seems to notice her for the first time and gestures at John, who comes to Shaw’s side and takes her arm.
“Thanks for your help, Shaw,” John says, in an unerringly polite tone that nonetheless conveys that Shaw is decidedly not welcome anymore, and ushers her toward the door. Root notices and frowns and seems to be about to say something, but Finch drops an arm around her shoulders and guides her toward a computer. “But I think she just needs to get some rest now, she’s had a long trip to get here.”
“Yeah, I was there when she landed,” Shaw mutters as John opens the door for her. She’s not one to get in the middle of whatever kind of cult nonsense they’ve got going on, so she doesn’t bother resisting, but it is annoying to be cockblocked so thoroughly. The thought makes her turn around and hold a hand out to keep John from closing the door. “Earlier, she said something I didn’t understand…” John raises a knowing eyebrow. “Okay, so I didn’t understand any of it, fine. But what does… ‘jesset yaknan datotz’ mean?”
John makes a face at her. “‘Jesset yaknan…’ Uh… ‘a little higher, please.’ What were you - ”
“Nevermind,” Shaw says quickly, and pulls the door closed for him.
Probably for the best that these priests don’t know that their long-lost nun or whatever has the hots for her. Nice to know she’s still got it, though.
As she heads down the hall, she realizes she’s going to have to hail someone else’s cab to get back to her own apartment. The favors she’d called in with Cole had gotten them to Finch’s place hidden in the back of a tow truck, but even if her cab hadn’t been taken to the stock yards after that, she wasn’t stupid enough to try driving her cab full of bullet holes and falsified radar signatures back home.
She manages to keep the grumbling to a minimum while she’s sitting in the back of some random guy’s cab, mostly by picturing him in the situation she’d been in earlier and how he’d probably have shit his pants and surrendered at the first sign of trouble. She’s still smirking to herself about how Root would have probably just hijacked the controls of the cab from him when she enters her apartment and is immediately greeted by Bear dancing excitedly around her.
“Shit, I’m sorry, buddy, I’m late for your lunch,” she says, shutting the door and kneeling down to rub his head. “I’ll order us some Thai, how about that?”
The phone rings across the room and Shaw groans, knowing what’s coming. Cole always has the best fucking timing. She jabs the button on the wall to slide her bed out as she dodges Bear’s continued prancing to make her way to the phone.
“You gonna tell me why I had to call in all those favors for you and you still didn’t show up for your overhaul?”
Shaw sighs and sits on the edge of her bed, tugging at her boots. “Yeah, look, sorry about that.” She’s not, really, not about missing the overhaul anyway. Cole was put in a tough position, though, trying to help Shaw out with something obviously illegal and putting his job and family at risk. “There was a woman who needed my help.”
“I know I told you to find a nice girl, but this isn’t what I meant, Shaw. Your cab was destroyed, what the hell did you two do?”
“I didn’t ‘find a nice girl,’ Cole, drop it,” she says scornfully. “And hey, she’s the one who crashed through the roof, don’t put that on me.”
There’s a silence. “…What?”
Shaw idly pets Bear’s side and relishes the opportunity to raise Cole’s blood pressure some more. “She was being chased by some cops and jumped off a building and landed on my cab.” Hmm. “Landed in my cab, I guess.”
“And she had such a good reason for wrecking your cab that you, what, went on a car chase through the city?”
“Well, she spoke some language I’ve never heard before so I don’t know why she was in trouble, but yeah, pretty much.” Cole sputters on the other end of the line. Nice. “She beat up some cops, I got to do some pretty sweet flying, half a dozen cop cars shot at us, she hacked the console, I took us into the fog, and then I called you.”
Cole sighs, a long-suffering sound that Shaw is long since used to. “You sound like you enjoyed yourself, at least.”
“Yeah, it was great,” she agrees, without a hint of the sarcasm he might expect.
There’s an oddly self-satisfied hum and Shaw narrows her eyes. “You sure you didn’t meet a nice girl, Shaw?”
Ugh. “Okay, look. Yeah, she’s hot, and apparently she knows how to have a good time, but she’s got some weird religious bullshit going on. Had me take her to a priest, had their symbols tattooed on her and everything. No thank you.”
“Sure, Shaw,” Cole says, and Shaw gives him a little growl at the disbelief in his voice. “This woman got a name?”
Shaw settles back onto the bed with a deep sigh and folds an arm behind her head, relaxing for the first time all day. She stares through the ceiling and sees brown hair and piercing eyes.
“Yeah. Her name is Root.”
I was a bit weirded out by how well Zorg's dialogue from the movie fit Greer, but villains convinced of their own superiority are gonna villain, I guess. Also, a reminder that despite some lore changes I've made, nobody you care about is gonna die in this fic.
Also also, several chunks of the various scenes in this chapter happened more or less simultaneously in the movie. In the interest of clarity I kept what's going on in various locations to their own scenes, so if the timing seems odd when you get to the end that's why.
A man walks down an almost overly sinister-seeming poorly lit hallway, hands clasped behind his back.
“Excuse me, Mr. Greer!” someone calls out from behind him, and Greer doesn’t slow his pace. The assistant catches up to him instead. “The council is getting worried about the economy, they wondered if it would be possible to fire five hundred thousand. I suggested one of the smaller companies, maybe one of the cab companies…?”
“Fire one million,” Greer says.
“But, five hundred thou…” The assistant trails off when Greer finally stops and turns just enough to allow his face to come into view, scars intermingling with deep wrinkles of a life long-lived, bathed in shadow to give him even more of an air of menace than usual. “Very well, one million. Sorry to have disturbed you.”
The assistant runs back off the way he had come, and Greer continues down the hallway until he comes to a large bay door. It opens as he approaches, revealing a large cargo area with several yellow crates sitting on the floor. A group of alien mercenaries approaches, led by a human woman with long blond hair and murder in her eyes.
“Martine, is that you?” Greer says, affronted. At Martine’s nod, Greer waves an idle hand at her. “What a hideous visage, doesn’t suit you at all. Take it off.”
Martine puffs out her chest and shakes her head rapidly, her human features dissolving their disguise and returning to their natural Mangalore state, wrinkled grey skin and protruding forehead, with sunken eyes and large pointed ears flopping down toward the ground.
Greer smiles. “Much better. Never be ashamed of who you are, my dear Martine. So what if the Federated Territories scattered your people to the wind? Revenge…” he spreads his arms out to gesture at the crates in the middle of the room, “is at hand.”
Another assistant comes out of the shadows and hands him a large gun painted in pale camouflage. “Behold, the GF-1. Light, adjustable for easy carrying, good for righties and lefties.” The assistant moves to the opposite end of the room to help a few others set up a police mannequin. Martine and her crew look on with interest.
“Breaks down into four parts, undetectable by x-rays. The ideal weapon for quick, clean interventions. Or messy, if that’s your thing,” Greer says with a wink to Martine. “As for fire power, it’s got a titanium recharger, three thousand round clip with bursts of three to three hundred. With the replay button, a Greer exclusive innovation, it’s even easier. One shot…”
Greer turns around and fires a three-round burst at the mannequin. “And replay - ” he spins back around and aims the gun directly at Martine, who remains still even as the group behind her take cover. “Sends the following shots all to the same location.”
Smoke fills the gap between Greer and the group of Mangalores as dozens of flashes of light curve around Greer and strike the mannequin behind him. The Mangalores slowly stand and nod at each other, a few offering tentative applause.
“Then of course there are the Greer oldies but goldies. Rocket launcher,” he turns back around and fires a small rocket toward a new mannequin the assistants have set up, which promptly explodes. “Arrow launcher, with poisonous or exploding tips.” A hail of arrows flies toward the first mannequin, sticking in its face. “The always efficient flame thrower,” Greer says, moving a few steps closer to the dummy before unleashing a large stream of flame toward it.
The Mangalores grunt in approval as a team of assistants move in with a fire extinguisher and Greer briefly turns back to them. “My favorite. And there’s our famous net launcher,” he says as a braided net flies out toward the mannequin. “And for the grand finale… Our brand new ice cube system.”
He fires a burst of cold air toward the mannequin, which becomes covered in ice in seconds. He allows a moment for the others to take in the sight, a policeman holding riot gear in full body armor, arrows in his face, charred to a crisp and full of bullet holes, immortalized in ice. He turns back to Martine and tosses the GF-1 into her hands.
“Four full crates, delivered right on time. How about you, my dear Martine, did you bring me what I asked for?”
Martine’s inscrutable face stares down at Greer for a moment. She finally tips her head and a pair of Mangalores bring a large brown case out from among them and places it on top of one of the crates.
Greer’s eyes reflect something resembling emotion for the first time as he strokes the outside of the case. “Magnificent,” he breathes. Taking his time in unlatching it, he draws in a steady breath and lifts the lid.
“This case… is empty.” He flings the lid open and stands to the side. “Anyone care to explain?”
A beat, then Martine’s gruff voice answers. “You asked us to bring you a case. We brought you a case.”
“A case… with four stones in it. What exactly am I supposed to do with an empty case?”
Martine puffs out her chest again. “We’re warriors, not merchants.”
“But you can still count, can you not? Look here, look at my fingers,” he says, holding up his hand. “Four stones, four crates. Zero stones? Zero crates.” He turns toward his right hand man. “Pack it up, Mister Lambert, we’re finished here.”
The group of Mangalores turn their weapons on Greer as one. Martine steps forward, holding the GF-1 at the ready in front of her. “We risked our lives. Compensation is in order.”
Greer picks at his teeth with his tongue, considering the rifle in her hands. “So you are merchants after all. Fine. Leave them one crate, for their trouble.”
He heads back out the bay door as the assistants move to pack up three of the crates. Lambert grabs the case and follows him out, catching up with him after a few seconds. Greer immediately starts talking when Lambert approaches, even as he continues down the hall.
“I don’t like warriors. Too narrow-minded, no subtlety. Always fighting for hopeless causes. For honor, or some such nonsense. Honor has killed billions of people and never saved a single one.” He abruptly stops halfway down the corridor and turns toward Lambert. “You know what I do like, though? A killer. A dyed-in-the-wool killer. A real killer, when they picked up the GF-1, would have immediately asked about the little red button on the bottom of the gun.”
Right on time, an explosion rocks out from the cargo bay they had just left. Lambert shields his head even as Greer stands tall and starts walking again.
“Get me the priest.”
Words float by on the screen as Root watches and reads aloud, reassuring herself that her command of languages other than Divinian has returned. Fluency in the Divine language is encoded in her genes, but she had to learn English after being brought out of stasis ten years ago since it hadn’t existed when she had been created. Her neurons had needed some time to realign in a way the humans’ reanimation chamber hadn’t been delicate enough to manage in order for her to get her English back, or so the Divine had said when she’d woken up. It’s been a while since Root had heard Her speak, though. She wanted to give Root some time to settle, and Root’s grateful for it. Reading through the history of humanity that the Mondoshawan had seen fit to leave out of her briefings over the past few years hasn’t exactly left her in the most charitable mood toward them, and having the Divine chide her every time her temper flared would have gotten old quickly.
She’s only up to G in Harold’s encyclopedia program and there have already been so many enlightening topics. Apartheid, the Battle of the Somme, capitalism, the Dark Ages… The Divine definitely wouldn’t have approved of the things Root’s been muttering under her breath.
The word ‘hacking’ comes across the monitor, and Root pauses the program to launch the submenu about hacking that comes up. It always had been an interest, when she was growing up with the other Elements, and it’s kind of adorable to see how far humans think they’ve come with technology in a few hundred years. Root is the ultimate weapon, sure, but she had also been in the middle of a sensory overload having to be kept on track by a vague impression of a disembodied voice and she had still managed to hack a cab’s security signature in a few seconds well enough to fool the entire police force of the capital city.
Root remembers the look on the driver’s face when she realized what Root had done and smiles to herself. Shaw had been an unexpected highlight to this whole thing, apparently impressed with both Root’s hacking and fighting skills, and more than willing to flirt back with the random woman who’d fallen through the roof of her cab and resulted in her having to flee from the cops. She’d seemed like she’d enjoyed it, actually. And she hadn’t been afraid of Root, had helped her out despite seeing what she could do and how she’d crashed into her life, hadn’t cared that she couldn’t speak her language, had in fact realized that she could understand it if not speak it herself.
Root feels a lightness fill her as she considers the way Shaw had tended to her wounds - or had tried to, anyway, before Root had grabbed her wrist and deflected the unfamiliarly tender moment with a flirty joke. ‘You’re hot but I’ll break your wrist,’ Shaw had said. She’s straightforward; Root can appreciate that. Puts her miles ahead of the other humans she’s encountered in her life, at least. Certainly miles ahead of the Mondoshawan.
The Divine pokes at her a little at that, and Root sighs. She loves the Divine, she really does, but sometimes a supreme being just needs to stew about her lot in life without being nagged for it.
She pauses the program and gathers John’s overly large robe around her as she stands - he went out to find some actual clothes for her, and in the meantime she commandeered the robe so she could get out of those ridiculous strips of cloth the lab had wrapped around her. Her sleeve falls in the puddle of chicken debris on the plate that she carries back to the kitchen and she absently brushes it off onto Harold’s floor before adding a few more pellets from a container on the counter to the plate and popping it back into the reconstitution unit. The magic microwave, John had called it.
It dings, and Root opens the door and pulls the now heaping full plate of chicken out, holding it close to her chest to balance as she closes the door. The smell wafts enticingly up to her nose - she’d had a full plate already, and her stomach is rumbling at the promise of this one. Every cell in your body save one getting incinerated and resurrected and sent on a high speed chase through the city would take a lot out of anyone, including a genetically enhanced being like herself. It calls for a lot of protein, at any rate.
The smell gives her pause, though. Shaw had said something about already being late for lunch with someone when Root had landed in her cab, and it was clearly more the lunch than the person she was worried about missing. It had been the only time she’d actually seemed legitimately annoyed, too. Root knows enough about society on Earth as it stands now to know that probably not everyone has this magic microwave technology, and if Shaw is a cab driver then she’s undoubtedly included in that group.
The plate gets set aside and Root eyes the wall recess the microwave is installed in.
Harold emerges from his call with the Mondoshawan some unknown time later to find Root sitting on the floor surrounded by various electronic components with the carcass of the microwave in her lap. “What… Forgive me, Root, but what are you doing?”
Root glances up at him and just as quickly returns her focus to the circuit board she’s trying to pull out. She answers in English, just because she can. “Trying to see how this works, obviously.”
“May I ask why?”
“Shaw would probably appreciate having one of these. You’re fortunate to have one, aren’t you?”
Harold looks baffled for a moment. “Who is… Oh, the woman who brought you here, yes, well, I imagine she wouldn’t have one, no.” He peers down at the mess of his probably very expensive microwave and clears his throat. “Perhaps you should wait to… uhm… bond, with Miss Shaw until after the immediate crisis at hand is dealt with.”
Root shrugs the shoulder not currently engaged in a tug of war with the inside of the microwave. “Can’t. I’ll be dead by then.”
There’s a startled silence that Root takes no small amount of perverse satisfaction in. She can feel Harold’s eyes on her and he’s fidgeting with his glasses when she looks up. “I beg your pardon?”
The confusion on his face seems genuine enough and Root can’t stifle the sardonic laugh that erupts from her throat. “Of course, the Mondoshawan didn’t tell you that part, did they? Harder to recruit their little priests on the promise of protecting life if they knew what they did with us, I imagine.”
The opening and closing of the front door passes almost unnoticed, John entering with an armful of shopping bags. He takes in the two of them, Root sitting on the floor amongst a pile of expensive debris and trepidation on Harold’s face. “…What did I miss?” he asks, dropping the bags on the floor next to Root with an awkward bow that Root finds almost endearing despite herself.
“Just in time for class, John. Harold here seems to think I’ll still be around to have some fun with Shaw after this whole defeating evil business.” She studies him, and something in the way he’s holding himself tells her that her hunch had been right. “You never were that gullible, though, were you John?”
Harold abruptly turns his focus to him. “John? What is she talking about?”
“It seemed too neat and clean,” John nods, directing his words to Root. “I know how to read between the lines, the Mondoshawan were obviously leaving something out. I just wasn’t sure what it was.”
“I don’t suppose one of you would like to fill me in,” Harold says, some edge coming into his voice.
Root finally stands and lets herself come to her full height, about even with Harold but still seeming to tower over him. It’d be nice if she were wearing something a little more intimidating than a ridiculous robe that swallows her whole, but lowering her voice and switching to the Divine language rather than English to make her point should do well enough. “Time is not important, only life is important, right, Harry?”
The melodic catechistic phrase is familiar to all of them, but even in its native Divinian tongue, Root’s lifetime of resentment spills over and makes John wince. Harold still only looks confused, and Root hums. “It’d be awfully hypocritical of them to create dozens of living, breathing… thinking, feeling people for them to use as weapons against evil, meant to protect people because life is the highest ideal, only to design them to die in the course of their mission, right?”
“Of course, but…” Harold hesitates, thinking. “The Evil has come to Earth several times already, you’ve clearly defeated it before if we’re still here.”
Root smiles, shaking her head. “Wasn’t me, Harry.”
Hie brow furrows, and Root thinks she sees the pieces being put together in his mind. “The connection between the Fifth Element of a given species and the Divine can only be forged once. It had to have been you.”
“That's what you’ve been told, I’m sure. Doesn’t change the fact that I’m pretty sure I’d remember visiting Earth during the middle ages,” Root adds, switching to English since the clunkiness of the language seems more appropriate for the sentiment. “Probably would have stunk less than it does now, at least.”
Root picks up the bags of clothes John had brought her and dumps them out on the couch. A faux-leather jacket immediately catches her eye, along with some tight black pants with some gold trim on the legs. She sets them aside and sorts through the various shirt options as Harold protests behind her.
“I don’t under- oh my goodness,” Harold interrupts himself and he and John both hastily turn around as Root drops the robe she’s been wearing so she can put on some actual clothes. She huffs in amusement at their consternation as she tugs on some plain but thankfully not depressing underthings, and has moved on to the pants when Harold gathers his wits and clears his throat. “You’re suggesting that the Mondoshawan misled us. That there are multiple Fifth Elements, backups in case something happens?”
Root shakes her head as she buttons up the pants. Humans will rationalize anything to prevent their belief systems from being tested. “No, Harold.” She picks a shirt at random, a tight white sleeveless thing that ends just above where her navel would be if she’d been birthed like an ordinary human, and turns around as she tugs it on. John and Harold seem to understand the sounds and turn around as well, and Root fixes them both with a withering look.
She switches back to the Divine language, the words that had been drilled into her head as a child seeming all the harsher when delivered in a language that’s ostensibly all about the sanctity of life. “Sacrificed for life; severed in violence. Those are the only two ways our connection to the Divine can be broken. You’re not wrong that there can be only one Fifth Element for a given species, but what the Mondoshawan left out is that it’s only one at a time.”
John looks grim as what he'd apparently long suspected is confirmed, and Harold grows pale.
“If we’re killed before we can unleash the Light, then that’s it, the connection is gone forever. No more Fifth Element, no more Qadral, no more Oiaj’liv, no more humanity, or whoever it was that failed. But what exactly did you think the Light of Creation was? We channel the Divine through our bodies, the essence of life itself, every single last one of you, along with the fundamental forces of the universe, to forge the Light and defeat Evil. I don’t care how strong you engineer your weapon to be, no living, breathing sack of meat in the universe could do that and survive. Our bodies get torn apart but our link gets returned to the Divine, ready to be forged into the next sacrificial lamb.”
A dawning horror had been growing on Harold’s face as she spoke; Root hums in satisfaction and turns back to the pile of stuff she’d dumped on the couch. A handheld device of some sort catches her attention, clearly meant to be held up to her face for some reason. She does so, mostly out of curiosity, and feels some sort of finely aerosolized spray hit her skin in strategic places. She blinks, holding the device out in confusion, until she feels the vague concept of cosmetics float across her consciousness.
“You… Did you know about this, John?” Harold seems to have finally recovered from his stupor, and Root turns back to them.
“I knew they had to be hiding something. There’s always a price,” John says, leveling Root with a significant look. “I’d do it myself, if I could.”
Root can respect that, at least. John isn’t naive about how the world works, understands that sacrifices have to be made, and set himself on a path to help ensure that what had to be done, got done. Harold, on the other hand, judging from his blind acceptance of what the Mondoshawan had told him and the teachings passed down along his line, thinks that since the Mondoshawan stand in opposition to evil, they must be irreproachable. That he’d never have to get his own hands dirty.
“This… This isn’t what we’re supposed to do,” Harold feebly protests.
“Don’t worry, Harry,” Root says, reaching out to pat him on the arm with an amount of condescension that even he can’t miss. “I didn’t come this far to just not go through with it, your life’s mission isn’t going to fail.”
Harold looks sharply up at her. “How can you say that? Aren’t you… angry? That you’ve been tasked with ensuring your own death?”
“Oh, did I not make that clear enough for you, Harold?” She throws out her arms, gesturing at the room at large. “Of course I’m fucking pissed off. But not at Her, not because my life actually has a purpose, which is more than most of you can say. I’m pissed at the people who resurrected me and tried to keep me locked in a cage because they were scared of something they didn’t understand. I’m pissed at people like you, who think that there’s good and there’s evil and there’s nothing in between, and nothing that’s done in service to defeating evil can possibly have any downside.
“But most of all, I’m pissed at the Mondoshawan, spending thousands of years pretending that they’re the highest moral authority in the galaxy, that nothing is more important than life, recruiting people like you with that promise, while leaving out the fact that they created dozens of us for the express purpose of dying in the most spectacular way possible because that would tarnish their impeccable image in the eyes of people like you.”
To say nothing of the fact that they had sent an inadequately prepared Qadrali Fifth Element to her death because they saw how close she was becoming to one of her fellow students and couldn’t allow such distractions. Her connection with the Divine grows heavy with the weight of Her grief, an apology that Root pushes aside in favor of her own anger.
“There are always people like John, willing to get their hands dirty to do what needs to be done. There was no need to lie about what we are, how the Light works. But instead they went with truly galactic levels of hypocrisy. So yeah, Harold, I’m angry. But I’ve got a job to do. Now get your shit together and help me find the stones.”
The word seems to knock Harold out of his stupor, at least partially. “The stones… You don’t have them, of course. They didn’t get destroyed in the attack?” He pauses, considering her. “If there can be more than one of you, are there more than one set of stones?”
Root shakes her head. “Sorry, no. There’s only one set of universal elements, so only one set of stones. They weren’t on the ship with me, though.”
“Where are they?”
“The Mondoshawan never fully trusted the human race,” Root says, smiling when John tips his head in a that’s fair gesture. “They gave the stones to someone they could trust.”
She moves to the computer console and exits out of her historical program in favor of pulling up the net. A few taps on the screen and she finds what she’s looking for.
Harold moves to look over her shoulder. “The Diva Plavalaguna? She has the stones?”
“And she’s currently doing a week of shows at Fhloston Paradise,” Root adds.
John hums behind her. “I’ve always wanted to go there.”
“The priest life not glamorous enough for you, John?” Root needles him as Harold moves to answer a knock at the door. “What do they do there, exactly?”
“Uhm…” John opens and closes his mouth, evidently regretting his words.
Root grins at his discomfort. “Orgies, then. Got it.” Maybe there’s a way she can get Shaw to come along. That’d make her final days a little better, at least. She hears Harold open the door behind her as she pulls up detailed blueprints of the Fhloston Paradise to start scouting out possible avenues of infiltration.
At Harold’s bemused question, Root turns and sees a trio of men at the threshold, plainly not here for any kind of celebration.
“Not really,” the one in front says in an English accent, glancing at the men behind him. “Mister Greer wants to see you.”
“Mister Greer,” the man says again, in disbelief that someone doesn’t know his boss’s name.
John moves to stand next to Finch in a way that puts him just enough between Harold and the other men to be protective without being rude. “Greer industries? The arms dealer? That Greer?”
“Why does he want to see me?” Harold asks, though Root certainly has her suspicions already. She wants to do some investigating on the computer, but she’s lucky the men haven’t noticed her yet, any tapping of keys will surely get their attention.
“That’s for him to say,” one of the men in the back says, and the man in front nods solemnly.
Harold and John exchange a look. “You’re not going there alone,” John says. Warns, more like. For the best, probably.
“Fine, both of you, but I’m under a deadline here.”
“Of course, just one moment,” Harold says, and pushes the door closed. He and John make a series of rapid but silent gestures, arguing some important point involving far too much pointing in Root’s direction, and come to a decision in short order.
John turns to her and, glancing at the door over his shoulder, steps closer before leaning over the monitor and whispering. “Try to find a discreet way to Fhloston for the three of us, or at least you and me if three isn’t possible. He can’t go see Greer alone, I don’t know what that guy might want but I don’t trust it.”
“Neither do I,” Root agrees.
“Stay here,” he says, and upon seeing Root start to protest, he adds, “I know you can take care of yourself, but if this is just a distraction to get us out of here so they can search for something, I want to know.”
Root’s lips curl, showing her teeth. John’s all right, for a big lug following Harold around like a puppy. “I’ll be sure to give them a warm welcome.”
With a nod, John heads back to Harold, blocking Root from view from the door with his body as they file out.
In the ensuing silence, Root feels the Divine’s sense of trepidation. “I know,” she says into the empty room. “Greer is working for the Evil, isn’t he?”
Certainty swirls around the apprehension, and Root taps her fingers against the desk. Well, not much she can do about that right now. She sets herself about the task at hand, pulling up all records regarding Fhloston Paradise and possible routes to take there.
After half an hour of browsing, advertisements for a Gemini Croquette radio contest start popping up on her screen. Tickets for a week at Fhloston Paradise for two are up for grabs, it seems. Root hums, smiling to herself, and directs her attention to the Gemini servers. Rigging a contest shouldn’t be too difficult.
A thought which someone else has already had, it seems. Root frowns, tracing the other hack to the President’s office. They must have gotten in touch with the Mondoshawan and learned where the stones were. She pokes a little further, curious who the government thinks can handle this kind of an operation without involving Root or the priests whose job it ostensibly actually is.
Her eyes land upon a single name, evidently a highly decorated, recently retired Major in the army.
Well, this mission just got so much more interesting.
“Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Greer.”
Suppressing the urge to roll his eyes, John follows Harold into the large gilded room that serves as Greer’s office, shepherded along by the three men who had come to the apartment. The entire far wall is made of glass, offering a pristine view of the city. John can picture him standing before it with a drink in his hand contemplating war like any number of two-bit villains in the holovids, all too easily.
“Ah, I remember you now,” Harold says. “The so-called art dealer.”
The most prolific weapons manufacturer in the galaxy and the thing Harold remembers about him is the time he showed up at the apartment asking about ancient art. He’s lucky John took his apprenticeship or he’d be long dead.
“I’m glad you’ve got your memory back, father. You’re going to need it.” Greer shoos the other men away with a gesture and steps closer to Harold. “Now, where are the stones?” Well, at least he’s not going to dance around the subject.
Neither does Harold. “Even if I knew where the stones were, why would I tell someone like you?”
Greer tsks, looking between Harold and John, standing solemn sentinel near the door. “Now what’s wrong with someone like me that makes you think you need a guard dog? You’re my guest, and I’m not a barbarian.”
“No, you only profit off of those who are barbarians. I live to serve life, and you… You only seem to want to destroy it.”
“See, father, that’s where you’re wrong.” Greer leads them further into his office, John keeping a few steps behind. Greer sits down behind his desk and gestures out to the room at large. “Life, which you so nobly serve, comes from destruction, disorder, and chaos.” He presses a button and a glass emerges from the recesses of the desk. “Take this empty glass. Here it sits, peaceful, serene… Boring. But if it is destroyed…”
Greer pushes the glass off the desk with a finger and as soon as it shatters on the floor, several cat-sized robots emerge from various hidden panels in the walls and floor. One creates a perimeter around the area, cordoning it off with arms that extend to either side, a flashing red light in place of a head. Another has a small broom attached to it and makes a uniform pattern around the area, pushing the glass shards along in front of it into the waiting dustpan attached to a third robot.
“Look at all these little things, so busy, so useful.” A fourth robot sprays cleaning solution on the floor as a fifth trails behind it, scrubbing away. “Such a lovely ballet, isn’t it? So full of form and color. Full of life, you might say.” The robots finish their task and abscond to their secret compartments as a new glass emerges from the desk, along with a small tap that streams water into it. “Now think of all the people who created them, the engineers, technicians, mechanics. All people who will be able to go home tonight and feed their children so they can grow up big and strong and have children of their own. Thus adding to the great chain of life.”
A plate of fruit pops out from the desk next. “You see, father,” Greer continues, picking through the fruit almost absently, “by creating a little destruction, I am in fact contributing to life. In reality, you and I are in the same business.” He picks out a cherry, drops it into the glass of water, and brandishes it at them. “Cheers.”
John can see what’s coming before it happens, and he won’t deny that it’s pleasing to watch. Greer chokes back on his smug smile when he swallows, going still before starting to smack wildly at his desk. His face goes as red as the cherry and a myriad of gadgets pop out from the desk, including what looks like one of those custom genetically modified pets he’s seen advertised on the net - some sort of small blue and pink elephant, it seems. Greer slaps at some more panels on the desk and the locking mechanism on the large door behind John engages.
Harold circles around the desk as John watches, impassive. “Where’s the robot to pat you on the back? Or the engineer? One of their children, maybe?” The animal merely gazes at Greer as he gestures toward his back, struggling and failing to take in any air. Harold leans down next to Greer, menace in his eyes that John doesn’t remember seeing there before. “You see now how all your so-called power counts for absolutely nothing. Your entire empire of destruction comes crashing down, all because of one little cherry.”
Greer’s face is purple by the time Harold raises his arm in the air - John thinks about stopping him, just letting nature take its course here would be one way of making their jobs easier, one less person going after the stones, but if the doors opened and they were found in a room with Greer’s lifeless body then there would be no getting out of this building alive. With one resounding smack on Greer’s back, the cherry flies across the room and lands at John’s feet.
Greer immediately slams his fist down on a particular button, the doors opening and the trio of goons rushing in to seize Harold and John by the robes. Greer stands, balancing himself against the desk for a moment, and gestures something at the men, who start to drag them toward the door.
“You’ve saved my life, father. In return I’ll spare yours.” He sizes Harold up and down, sparing hardly a glance for John. “For now.”
He shoos them away and the two lesser goons shepherd them out of the office. Behind them, John can hear Greer speaking to his apparent right hand man.
“Torture whoever you have to, the president, I don’t care. Just bring me those stones.”
Carter takes in the report before her, uncomprehending and frankly sick of it. “Why the hell is it consuming all the communications satellites?”
“Unknown.” At Carter’s glare, the tech hastily adds, “We’re working on it, Madam President.”
In the grand scheme of things, Carter supposes that some missing communication satellites won’t really matter once all of humanity is destroyed. In... forty hours. Carter sighs, rubbing a hand over her face.
“I managed to contact the Mondoshawan,” Control says, approaching with an impassive gaze. “They deplore the incident, but accept our apologies.”
Some good news, at least. “And the stones? Were they in the wreckage?”
“The stones weren’t on board the ship.”
“What? Why not?” They’ve found and resurrected and subsequently lost the Fifth Element and now they don’t even have the stones. Tangling with the Federated senate did not prepare her for this.
“It seems the Mondoshawan removed the stones from Earth prior to the start of the first World War. Didn’t think they could trust us anymore.” Control looks peeved at that, but Carter can’t say she blames them. “They gave the stones to someone they felt they could trust.”
Carter takes the file Control hands out to her and flips through it. “Plavalaguna? The Diva?” She knew the Diva was ageless, but she’s got to be pushing four hundred by now if she was given the stones in the early twentieth century. Good for her.
“I didn’t ask,” Control says evenly. “She’s singing at Fhloston Paradise for the next several days. We can rendezvous with her there.”
Some of the tension she’s been holding since the Mondoshawan ship had been destroyed finally lets up. “I want a discreet operation, in and out as quietly as possible.” A cockroach flits across her desk and she crushes it with her shoe. “This is need to know only. No paper trail, or an electronic one, for that matter.”
“I’ve already got a team working to rig the Gemini Croquette contest so flight records can’t be traced to us.”
Carter almost smiles at the implication that even Control listens to the radio enough to have been subjected to Ruby Rhod’s constant shilling for that contest to Fhloston. Now there’s a mental image. “Good. I want your best operative on this.”
Control nods. “I’ve got just the woman in mind.”
Note that there is a moment in this chapter where things get a little sexy, but I don't think it's anything that warrants a rating bump for the whole fic. Maybe a high T, low M for the chapter. Sexier than the corresponding moment from the movie, though :D
“You have a message.”
Shaw glances up from her intense concentration on her food, following where Mr. Fah is pointing to the mail tube on the other side of her desk. Sunlight from the open window between them hits the tube just right, obscuring the words on the outside of the envelope, and Shaw shrugs it off with another mouthful of noodles.
“You’re not going to read it? Might be important,” Mr. Fah admonishes her with a wave of his spoon.
“Like the last one I got was important?” Shaw huffs through her noodles and swallows before continuing. “From my former partner, saying he was my new boss, and that I had to work the night shift.” She’s not actually all that upset about her and Cole’s reversed positions, it’s just the principle of the thing. She’d always been the higher ranked officer of the two, and while they’d had more of an equal partnership in their fighter than their ranks would have suggested, now Shaw is the one who has to answer to him.
It is nice having someone else to deal with the higher ups when shit goes wrong, though. Like, say, ending up on a police chase through half the city with a fugitive in the backseat.
“And the one after that,” Shaw continues as Mr. Fah fries up something new for her, “from the army, saying my retirement technically counted as job abandonment, and I wouldn’t get my pension.”
That one did piss her off. She wouldn’t be living in this shitty building if she had gotten the benefits she’d been promised under the eighth GI bill upon joining the academy. Disturbed by her audible grumble, Bear shifts his position under the desk and whines up at her until she drops a piece of beef at his feet.
“Ah,” Mr. Fah says, stirring with intent. “But as my grandmother always said, it doesn’t rain every day. It’s good news, I’m sure of it.” He takes his skillet off the flame and slides its contents onto a fresh plate that he reaches across the open window to set in front of Shaw. “I bet you lunch.”
Shaw shifts her gaze between the plate, the message, and the man in front of her, the enticing aroma of whatever he’d put in this stir-fry quickly making the decision for her. “All right,” she says, and leans across the desk to retrieve the envelope from the tube.
Mr. Fah makes a grabbing motion and Shaw gladly hands it over to him in favor of using both hands to hold her plate up and shovel a steaming bite into her mouth with her chopsticks. It doesn’t quite make up for missing lunch at Frederico’s, but holy shit, is it delicious.
“You are fired,” Mr. Fah announces, holding the transparency from inside the envelope in his hands, then realizes what he’d said. “Oh.”
Another bite, and Shaw reaches out to take it from him and scan over the text herself. Budget cuts, precautionary measures, layoffs, all leading to her termination from a division of Greer industries. Great. At least she won’t have to deal with Cole pestering her about six month overhauls anymore.
When she looks up, Mr. Fah is frowning. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, well,” Shaw shrugs as she hears her phone start to ring. “Least I won lunch.”
“Good philosophy, see the good in the bad.”
Shaw tunes him out when she rises and retrieves the phone. “Yeah?”
“Sameen, honey, when were you going to call and tell me the good news? Have you found a nice girl you can take with you yet? Or maybe you’ll meet one there, I’m sure they’ve got plenty of interesting people there.”
Shaw has absolutely no idea what her mother is talking about, but she can tell this will take a while. She holds her hand over the phone and gestures at the window. “My mom,” she says, and Mr. Fah nods in understanding. He unwinds the anchor rope from the side of the building and starts up the engine in his floating food cart as he tosses a bag of crunchy noodles through the air.
“For the soup,” he calls out, pulling out into traffic. Shaw watches his boat drift away, closing the window and listening to her mother go on about how proud she is of her for some reason.
“You can’t take Bear with you, obviously, but of course I’d be happy to take him if you can make it up here before you leave, he’ll probably love the low-g parks on the rim of the crater.”
The idea of taking her dog to stay with her mother on the moon is what finally cuts through. “Ma, what are you even talking about right now?”
“You don’t know? You won the Gemini contest for a trip to Fhloston Paradise for two, for ten days.”
Shaw blinks, the words ringing a faint memory of an advertisement with that Ruby Rhod guy earlier that morning. “I didn’t enter any contest.”
“Well they’ve been blaring your name out on the radio for the past hour, darling. Unless there’s another highly decorated war hero with your name out there, you won. So was that a yes on finding a nice girl to take with you, or not?”
“Why is everyone so concerned about me finding a nice girl all of a sudden? Why not a nice guy, or a nice dog?” Sure, her sample set is limited to just Cole and her mother, but in Shaw’s social circle, that counts as everyone.
Unbidden, an image of Root pops into her head. She bats a hand through the air to shoo it away.
“Have you ever met a man that you wanted to spend the night with and have a conversation with?”
“Ma,” Shaw groans, squeezing her eyes shut and flopping back on her bed.
“All I’m saying is you’d be happier spending ten days with a nice girl rather than - ”
“And all I’m saying is that if I’d won a contest, I’d know about it. Someone would have notified me.”
In the latest of the series of cosmic jokes that someone seems to be playing on her today, a whooshing noise near the window fills her ears when she finishes her sentence, indicating the arrival of a new message. As she sits up to glare at the tube, the buzzer on her front door sounds, and she looks over her shoulder to see three people in full military regalia on the hallway monitor.
“Ma, I’ll call you back.”
The stern, expressionless face of Control - marred slightly by a recently-set broken nose, and damn Shaw wishes she could have been there to see that happen - greets her when she hits the button to slide the door open. Hersh and a blond woman with an undercut - a lieutenant Schiffman, judging from the stripes and badge on her jacket - stand close behind her.
“Ma’am,” Shaw nods at her, for lack of anything else to say when the head of the Army and her former CO barge back into her life.
“Major,” Control returns the curt nod and steps into Shaw’s apartment. Bear lets out a low growl, such a good boy. “I understand you’ve been fired.”
Shaw brushes past them to pat Bear on the head before retracting the bed back into the wall. It’s hard enough for her apartment to fit four people and a dog without a bed taking up half the floor space. “You heard about that, huh?”
“Greer Industries doesn’t make it a habit to keep their layoffs out of the press.” Control runs her finger along the desk, making a face when she encounters some sauce from Shaw’s lunch. “Fortunately for you,” she continues, taking the handkerchief offered by Schiffman and cleaning her hands, “I’ve come to offer you a job.”
“I retired six months ago, in case you forgot.”
Control smiles, at least in her eyes. “You say retired, the Army says abandoned your post with fifty-seven hours left before you could be discharged.”
“Funny how I was in a medically-induced coma after the battle at Renzar for exactly fifty-seven hours, don’t you think?” Shaw fixes her gaze on Control and Hersh in turn, wondering which of them had given her medical records to whatever accountant wanted to cut the pension budget that year.
“Be that as it may, you have time left to serve, and we have a mission for you, of the utmost importance.”
Shaw sighs; they’ll probably still find a way to screw her out of her pension after this, but at least it’s something to do. “What kind of mission?”
“Save the world.” Control says this with utter sincerity, despite the ridiculousness of such a thing. “You’re to travel to Fhloston Paradise, rendezvous with the Diva Plavalaguna, retrieve four stones from her, and return them to Earth with the utmost discretion. Any questions?”
Stones? Saving the world depends on retrieving some fucking rocks? Shaw tries to detect any hint of humor in her body language - but that would be a first for Control, she knows, so she pushes the absurdity of the mission aside. “Just one. Why me?”
“Three reasons. One, as a member of the elite special forces unit of the Federated Army, you’re an expert in all the weapons and spacecraft needed for the success of this mission.” At Control's pause, Hersh whips out a thick sheaf of paper from somewhere and lets it unfold like an accordion onto the floor. Shaw peers at the list and shrugs - seems legit. “Two, out of all the members of your unit, you’re the most highly decorated.”
“And the third?”
“Out of all the members of your unit, you’re the only one left alive.” Shaw hums. Cole is still alive, but as her navigator he was technically separate from the special forces unit and never accompanied her into the dicey situations he led her to. Control watches for her reaction, which Shaw determinedly refuses to give, then lets her gaze stray to the message tube in the corner. “You haven’t checked your mail.”
“I’ve had enough good news for today, thanks.”
“Might be important,” Control says, and tips her head toward the message waiting in the tube. Schiffman retrieves it and hands it over, and when Control tears it open a tinny voice echoes out, proclaiming you’re a winner! “You’ve won the annual Gemini Croquette contest, for tickets to Fhloston Paradise for two.”
“You rigged the contest.” Shaw wishes she could punch the self-satisfied look right off her face. Although, she hasn’t actually re-enlisted yet so it’s not like she could be court martialed.
“Congratulations. Here are your tickets” Control hands her the envelope and a mission briefing.
A few choice words in the briefing jump out at her - ultimate evil, light of creation, Fifth Element, supreme being, blah blah blah. She studies a little closer, wondering why the government is getting involved in some nonsense that thinks air and fire are universal elements and some actual human being is a Fifth Element meant to control them all. Sounds like some bizarre religious crap.
Hmm. Now why does that sound familiar? Shaw slaps the briefing down onto the table and crosses her arms. “Why isn’t this Fifth Element person getting the stones? Seems like their responsibility to me.”
“We… are currently tracking her down.” Control seems annoyed. They lost her, then. Good for her. “Colonel Hersh will accompany you on the mission, as your husband.”
Shaw stares at her, then stares at Hersh, who looks like he’s struggling to keep down something he ate. She knows how he feels. “You really think anyone’s gonna believe that? He’s old enough to be my father, for fuck’s sake. Absolutely not.”
Hersh looks vaguely betrayed by her vehemence, but Shaw is spared from Control’s response by the front door buzzing again. Schiffman makes like she’s going to answer it, but Shaw beats her to the monitor on the wall next to it and has to squint to make sure she’s seeing what she thinks she’s seeing.
Root is standing outside her apartment, waving up at the camera. Shit.
Shaw abruptly turns around, blocking the monitor with her body.
“Made friends since your retirement, Major?” Control somehow manages to sneer at her without changing her expression.
“What?” Shaw thinks she’s actually gaping at Control; she’s never going to forgive Root for this. What the fuck is she doing here? How did she even find - right, the hacking. Shit, she’s on the run from the cops and the military can’t be any better, especially if Shaw’s growing suspicions are true. She’s not going to be happy if she sees three army officers here, although why that suddenly matters to Shaw, she couldn’t say.
“Who’s at the door?” Control prompts.
“Uhhh…” Shaw hedges, fully aware that she’s going to say the first thing that comes to mind but that something is taking an awfully long time to show up. “My wife,” she says, and immediately curses her mother for planting the idea of taking some woman with her to Fhloston.
The incredulous look on Control’s face would almost be worth it, under different circumstances. “You… got married?”
“Yes,” Shaw nods vigorously, then shakes her head just as rapidly. “No. I mean, we’re going to get married, soon, but she hates the military.” Yeah, okay, this can work. Shaw fumbles for the power switch to the monitor behind her back and turns it off before pushing Schiffman backward, into the others. “The military ruined her brother’s marriage and she wants nothing to do with it, that’s why I retired. If she sees you here she’ll kill me, you gotta hide.”
Shaw looks around the apartment, her eyes flitting briefly to the window but even she wouldn’t just shove Control out a two-hundred-and-eighty-first story window. The oddly proud gleam in Hersh’s eye gives her pause. He gestures around the room. “We’d love to help you out, Shaw, but where are we supposed to go?”
Good question, Shaw thinks as her eyes roam wildly around the cramped room and land on the fridge.
She yanks the door open and knocks the empty shelves down, then grabs Schiffman and shoves her inside with minimal protest. Hersh follows, pressing against the Lieutenant and making himself smaller than he has any right to be - some special forces spy shit that Shaw never had to learn since she was already shorter than the rest of them, probably.
“Major, we’re not all going to fit in there,” Control protests when Shaw seizes her by the arm.
“Sure you will,” Shaw counters, bodily pressing Control into the fridge and forcing the door closed.
Her foot connects with the button to make the fridge recede into the floor and replace it with the shower unit, and she fluffs Bear’s fur, telling him to guard the shower, as she moves to the door. She takes a breath and presses the button to open it.
Root grins at her. “We’re getting married, huh? Not that I don’t accept, but take a girl on a date first, Sameen.”
Shaw rolls her eyes and gestures for Root to come in, sliding the door closed behind her. Choosing to ignore Root’s actual words, Shaw instead focuses on the fact that she could understand her for once. “You speak English now?”
“Oh, I always could, it just took some time to get it back after the whole resurrection ordeal,” Root says breezily, kneeling down to pet Bear who promptly left his position upon seeing Root. Traitor. “Neuroplasticity is a wondrous thing, isn’t it?”
Shaw eyes the tattoo she can see peeking out from under the sleeve of Root’s jacket. There has been far too much weird shit going on today for her not to connect the dots between Control’s mission briefing and the woman in front of her, her casual demeanor and tight pants and leather jacket in stark but not entirely unpleasant contrast to the manic and nearly feral appearance of earlier. “You’re her, aren’t you? This Fifth Element they’re looking for.”
Root stands and beams at her. “You’ve heard of me?” She makes a satisfied noise, far too sultry for the context of an interrogation. “You know, I’ve read your file too, Sameen, and I have to say I’m kind of a big fan.”
“I’m sure,” Shaw mutters, grabbing the file Control had given her and brandishing it in the air. “Think I just got given your job.”
Root’s eyes narrow and she snatches the file out of her hands. As she scans the words, brow furrowing in annoyance the more she reads, Shaw notices her skin, which had been covered in scrapes and bruises, is now flawless and healthy. She peers closer at her face, suspicious, and scoffs. “Why does a supreme being need to bother with makeup?”
“There’s always time to get your eyeliner on point when you’re going to see your best girl, Sameen,” Root says, and Shaw would almost be impressed with her ability to flirt while also being visibly annoyed with her reading material if she wasn’t the one on the receiving end of such nonsense. With a dismissive growl, Root tosses the file onto Shaw’s desk. “Somehow I’m not surprised that humans would be so arrogant as to think they can do the job with only part of the full picture. And while missing the most important piece.”
“Which would be you, I take it.” Root nods at that, and Shaw considers her for a moment. “What does ‘supreme being’ even mean, anyway?”
“It means I’m really good at everything.” She leans closer, reaching a hand out to twirl a finger in Shaw’s hair. She lowers her voice and her eyes flash with promise. “And I do mean everything, Sameen.”
Shaw lets the eye contact linger for longer than she’d planned - somehow, she doesn’t doubt Root’s words, and the presence of a bed right behind her doesn’t escape her awareness. Instead, she reaches out and pinches Root’s side, satisfied by the yelp Root lets out when she pulls away.
“That squeak didn’t seem very godlike to me,” Shaw smirks at her.
Somehow, Root’s smile gets even wider, more affectionate. “No, that’s Her purview. I’m just… the conduit.”
“The Divine,” Root says simply. After it becomes clear that no further explanation is forthcoming, Shaw shakes her head and catches sight of her desk and the lunch that has been interrupted three times now, still sitting there.
Well, it’s not as though she can stick it in the fridge now. “You want some Thai?”
Root gets this ridiculous look in her eyes like Shaw had just said something profound, lingering her gaze on Shaw herself for a long moment before turning toward Shaw’s gesture. “Never had it,” she says, already moving toward the desk. Shaw watches in morbid fascination as Root picks up one of the plates and Shaw’s favored chopsticks, giving them a hesitant look before shrugging and using them to shovel noodles straight into her mouth.
The moan that echoes out through the room is one that nestles deep into Shaw’s brain and makes itself right at home, never to leave again. Or, maybe not her brain. Some body part, anyway.
“Do you have one of those magic microwaves?” Root asks through another mouthful. Shaw takes a moment to puzzle out first her words, muffled as they are around the noodles, then their meaning.
“You mean a reconstituter?” Root hums in the affirmative and ends up jabbing herself in the nose with a chopstick. “Does it look like this building has those kind of amenities?”
Root looks around the apartment, too small and utilitarian to be described as ‘cozy’ even by New York standards. “Guess not. I can try to steal Harold’s for you if you want.”
“Harold has one?” Her annoyed incredulity can’t be masked, even in the face of Root’s continued orgasmic enjoyment of her leftovers. Apparently being some sort of demigod gives you a high metabolism; Shaw herself can barely put noodles away that fast. “How the fuck does a priest afford something like that?”
Root opens her mouth to speak, giving Shaw a choice view of her half-masticated lump of noodle, then pauses and looks off to the side, seemingly listening to something. “Ask him yourself,” she says with a jab of the chopsticks toward the door.
Just then, the hallway monitor buzzes. Shaw throws a furrowed brow Root’s way as she moves toward it, receiving only an enigmatic smile in response. She groans when she sees who’s at her door but slaps the button to open it anyway.
“John. Harold.” She tips her head at each of the men in turn when they step inside the apartment, the door sliding back down behind them.
“Shaw,” John nods back. An actual human expression crosses his face when he sees Bear, the dog immediately leaving Root’s side to sniff out the new people for potential snacks. Fickle bastard.
Harold seems perturbed to see Root sitting on the desk, spearing a piece of chicken and waving it in greeting. “I did ask you to stay put, did I not?”
“I left you a note.” Root somehow manages to talk with her mouth full even more obnoxiously than she had been. Shaw bites back her amusement but Root sees it in her eyes and sits up a little straighter.
“Be that as it may, we have a mission, and - ”
“We need to get to Fhloston, yeah, yeah.” Root waves the chicken dismissively then chomps down on it. “Did you not read the note at all? Shaw is our mission.”
Harold clears his throat and tries to arrange himself into an important world-saving priest rather than a tweedy robed man standing bewildered in transitional housing filled with felons, looking to Shaw. “Yes, Miss Shaw, we heard about your good fortune - ” Shaw snorts at the idea that good luck had anything to do with her current situation and Harold frowns. “Your… fortuitous tickets to Fhloston, and I - we - well, John and I -”
Root interrupts his uncomfortable stammering, spying the look on John’s face that clearly says he had no part in whatever brought Harold here. “You were going to try to take the tickets from her, weren’t you?”
Shaw’s delight at John’s discomfort is matched only by her disbelief that Harold would be that stupid. “Seriously, Harold? What, was he gonna pretend to be her father?” She smirks at John’s wounded look.
There’s a pause, then Root tosses the mostly-empty plate of noodles back onto the desk and scrunches her face in disgust. “Husband? You wanted me to pretend he was my husband?”
“I’m not that bad,” John protests weakly.
“That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard, Finch,” Shaw shakes her head. “Anyone who talks to them for more than ten seconds will see through that in an instant.”
Harold looks uncertainly between the three of them, turning to John for backup, who only shrugs at him like he’d told him so. “I fail to understand why.”
“I can do a lot of things,” Root says, in that weirdly attractive smug way of hers, “but pretending I’d ever go on a romantic trip with a man, let alone marry him, isn’t one of them.”
“And John looks like he took a vow of chastity when he was fifteen,” Shaw adds. John actually pouts and Shaw cackles.
“What do you suggest, then? We need to get to Fhloston Paradise and retrieve the stones, and Greer’s men will doubtless discover the Diva has them and be there as well.”
Root raises a delicate eyebrow at Shaw, who somehow knew the instant Root showed up at her door that this was coming. “I take her with me as my fiance,” she says, resigned to her involvement in this mess despite herself.
“See, that would be believable,” Root beams.
Ignoring the way Root seems to be preening at her, Shaw ticks through the logic on her fingers. “Everyone knows ‘Sameen Shaw’ won the tickets, that’s who they’ll be expecting. You won’t have to forge any identity records for her in my name, this way. I was in the special forces, I can handle anything anyone might throw at us. I’m guessing whoever else is after the stones would know to look for you,” she says, jabbing her finger at Harold and John, “but they don’t know I’m involved at all.”
“Or what I look like,” Root adds. “Or that I’m alive at all, for that matter. We’d be much less suspicious than either of you running around.”
Harold and John exchange a glance, John merely shrugging in the face of Harold’s consternation. “I can probably stow away on the ship there,” John offers, “in case you need backup.”
He meets Shaw’s eyes and she senses he’s only saying that to make Harold go along with the plan, that he knows Shaw would need nothing of the sort. Root must have left her file out for them to read when she’d left.
“I’m so glad we’re all in agreement,” Root says brightly. “That is why I came here in the first place, which you’d know if you had read my note.” She looks sidelong at Shaw, drawing her eyes up the length of her body. “Well, part of the reason.”
Shaw shifts under her gaze, heat coursing unbidden through her. She turns her attention to John instead. “You’re gonna stow away on a space transport?”
He shrugs again. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
John looks insufferably pleased that he seems to have surprised Shaw, but she’s spared from having to deal with it by an alarm ringing out through the building.
“This is a police control,” an automated voice calls out, echoing in the hallways in a way Shaw has gotten all too used to since living here. “This is not a test.”
Just fucking great. The one time Shaw has any visitors and the fucking cops show up. “I’m not supposed to have more than one other person in here with me,” she says, and adds at Harold’s frown, “encourages illegal activity, or something. I don’t know, it’s never been a problem before.”
She kicks at the button to make the bed slide out, glancing at John’s absurdly giant height and dismissing him just as quickly. Harold stumbles when she seizes his arm and they both pause at the concern in Root’s voice.
“Greer’s right hand man is here,” she says. Shaw notices that same distant look in her eyes for only a moment before she snaps back to full attention. “They must be after your tickets to Fhloston too.”
Shaw doesn’t bother to ask how Root knows that. Part of her supreme being schtick, no doubt. But if the galaxy’s biggest arms dealer is sending men after Shaw’s tickets, then… “All of you need to hide, now.”
The alarm in Harold’s eyes at Root’s announcement only gets more pronounced when Shaw shoves him onto the bed and tucks his legs in. “Miss Shaw, what are you - ”
“Saving your ass so you can save the world,” Shaw says, and kicks the button again, Harold squeezing his eyes shut as he disappears into the recess in the wall.
“This is a police control. Remain calm and place your hands on the yellow circles.”
John is eyeing her ceiling speculatively when she turns around. “You’ve got one of those illegal weapon racks, don’t you?”
“Yes I do,” Shaw says, already moving to slap the button on the wall to lower it. The square panel in the ceiling lowers, revealing the overfull weapon rack, but John merely exchanges a nod with her and hoists himself onto it. The supports creak under his weight, but he somehow manages to shimmy his way up into the ceiling, and when he sticks a thumb out over the edge into her view, Shaw hits the button to seal him up again.
“He grows on you, doesn’t he?” Root says, clearly amused at the show. The sound of a dozen standard issue police boots thundering out of an elevator echoes down the hall, and Shaw grabs Root by the wrist and shoves her into the shower. “Don’t worry, Sameen,” Root says, looking thoroughly unperturbed at being manhandled into the cramped space. “I made sure they won’t know you live here.”
“Good,” Shaw says. With a jab at the button just inside the shower, Shaw watches Root recede into the ceiling and calls out, “be quiet,” before moving to the opposite wall and placing each of her hands in the two yellow circles painted in the security monitoring area.
Just in time, it seems, as she hears voices outside her door. “No ID tag on this door. Give me that,” one of the cops says, and Shaw knows he’ll be putting the viewing device up to the door by now. “Ma’am, are you classified as human?”
Leaning forward into the intercom built into the wall for this purpose, Shaw does her best to let her hair fall over her face to obscure it from their view. “Negative, I am a meat popsicle.”
Another voice calls out from further down the hallway. “Found her. Sameen Shaw, unit 281-53.” Shaw hears the cops outside her door move away, but keeps her position with her hands on the wall. “Ma’am, please put your hands inside the yellow circles.”
There’s a pause, then a shouted “fuck you!”
Wrong answer. Shaw thinks she recognizes the voice; she doesn’t know the woman’s name, but she could bear a passing resemblance to Shaw herself, if you had a vague enough description, and is clearly the sort of person the limited visitation rule was designed for if all the shady characters going in and out of her place at night is anything to go by. Shaw won’t be sorry to see her go, though she does wonder how Root knew to frame her specifically.
There’s a brief commotion, boots scuffling and something heavy hitting the floor, then the sound of someone being dragged along the ground kicking and screaming.
Amidst the sounds of her neighbor being hauled out of her apartment, muffled slightly like she’s been shoved in a canvas sack, the robotic voice calls out one final time. “The police control has been terminated. Thank you for your cooperation. Have a nice day.”
Not that Shaw doubts her ability to escape from a few city cops, even if they were set on her tail by an arms dealer apparently working for the greatest evil in the galaxy, but she’s glad to have avoided yet another police chase today. She gets the feeling she’ll have enough of that on her trip to Fhloston.
She straightens, brushing her hands off on her thighs from the dust in the yellow circles, and keeps an eye on the hallway monitor as she jabs the button to call the shower back down from the ceiling. The last of the clean-up crew passes by her door, bringing up the rear of the police unit. A small cascade of water from the ceiling draws her attention and she steps back and curses.
“Shit, I forgot about the auto-wash,” she says to Root, drenched from head to toe, shivering furiously with her arms crossed tight around her chest to keep what little warmth she still has. Root may be a hacker genius, but it took Shaw a month to figure out how to consistently get any hot water out of the pipes, and even showering as fast as she could she still always ended up with chattering teeth. Root just spent at least three times as long in there as Shaw ever had without hot water.
Shaw grabs a towel from the cabinet next to the shower and seizes Root’s upper arm, guiding her out of the stall since she can’t seem to move much by herself. “Aut- auto-was-shhh?” Root’s words are slurred both from her shivering and the fact that Shaw has wrapped the towel around her shoulders and has started rubbing vigorously, given that Root is in no shape to do it. “You sh-shower in the ceil-innng?”
Root manages to look affronted by this fact, despite her nearly-blue lips and the sopping hair stuck to her face. Shaw bites back the smile that seems to want to form at Root’s expression and focuses instead on rubbing warmth back into Root’s arms. “Yeah, well, I don’t want water all over the floor, do I? Or the dog,” she adds, as Bear takes a step closer, gets dripped on, and shakes himself off in annoyance. “I think your jacket is ruined,” Shaw says, picking at the leather on Root’s shoulder. “You need to get out of these clothes or you’re never going to dry off.”
Root’s look of dismay at the prospect of her ruined jacket quickly morphs into a lascivious grin at Shaw’s words, or as best she can manage at the moment, anyway. Her hands untuck themselves from under her arms as she tries to shrug the jacket off, Shaw casting the towel aside for a moment to help her. Her shirt is stuck to her skin and her fingers still lack the coordination to grasp it, so Shaw unpeels it from her stomach and lifts it over her head and oh, shit, she’s not wearing anything under it.
It takes longer than Shaw would like to admit for her brain to shift focus from the reality of Root’s bare, pebbled nipples in front of her to the fact that the reason they’re in her face is because Root needs to warm up. She squints up at Root as she grabs another towel from behind her - Root seems to get the hint and doesn’t mention Shaw’s reaction, though her eyes certainly betray her amusement. Shaw presses closer, wrapping the towel around Root’s arms and torso and rubbing harder than she had been in retaliation for making her lose focus with her stupid naked chest.
The lack of a navel at Root’s waist doesn’t escape her attention, and the absurd thought strikes her then that, given what Root really is, her breasts are literally Divine. She bites her tongue to keep from laughing, or worse, commenting on them. She moves the towel up to Root’s head, only partly to cover her stupid attractive face and mostly to keep her from seeing Shaw’s internal struggle. A pressure at her hips alerts her to the fact that Root has regained some semblance of muscle control and has decided the best way to maintain her balance against Shaw’s continued vigorous rubbing at her head is to grip Shaw’s hips and stand even closer.
“You know, Sameen,” Root says, no longer shivering, “you didn’t have to go through all this.” Shaw lets the towel fall to the side, loosely gripped in one hand, and peers suspiciously at Root’s grin. “I was already wet for you.”
Shaw glares at her, acutely aware of Root’s bare skin pressing against her. “You’re a supreme being or whatever, are you really supposed to be flirting when the world is in danger?”
“I can do both,” Root says, quirking an eyebrow in a manner that has no business being as attractive as it is. Her fingers tug at Shaw’s hips and she licks her lips, eyes flicking down to Shaw’s mouth and back up.
Shaw surges forward and captures Root’s lips with her own, still slightly cold from the shower but somehow all the more enticing for it. Root lands against the cabinet and she whimpers both from the pressure at her back and the feeling of Shaw’s hands working their way between them to get at the closure of Root’s pants. They’re soaked too, after all, and need to come off sooner rather than later.
Root gasps under her mouth and Shaw takes the opportunity to nip at her lower lip before running her tongue along it, and Root wastes no time in doing the same even as her hands meet Shaw’s to help shove her pants down past her hips. Shaw’s fingers meet more bared skin than expected and she looks down and groans - it seems her underwear was stuck more to her pants than her skin and they’ve left Root naked from the knees up and it’s all Shaw can do to not immediately slide her hand around to the one part of her that’s all blazing heat. Root lets out a whimper around their kiss, sloppy as it is while they’re trying to maintain contact while getting Root’s sopping wet clothes kicked off her legs, and pulls Shaw impossibly closer when she finally succeeds in getting herself fully naked.
Shaw groans at the touch of Root’s skin through her own clothing, still chilled but with a clear undercurrent of a building inferno that Shaw is all too eager to let consume her. Her hands curl around Root’s hips as her mouth moves to Root’s neck, easier to reach at this angle and just asking for that perfect skin to be marked up. It’d probably heal in an hour anyway, Shaw thinks as she bites down on the flesh adjoining Root’s clavicle, and it’s not like Root would care even if it didn’t, if her answering moan is any indication.
There’s a tickle at her waist and it takes Shaw a moment to realize that Root’s fingers are trying to grasp her shirt. “Skin to skin contact is the best way to warm someone up, Sameen,” Root says - pants, more like, out of breath from the combination of the cold shower turned making out and incredulous how they’ve arrived there. Shaw pulls away just enough to look her in the eye, seeing the hopeful glint behind the teasing gleam in her expression, and shrugs. It’s not like she’s going to complain about feeling Root’s skin on her own, or getting Root’s hands on her. No, she’s seen those nimble fingers, she’s not complaining at all.
Shaw tears the shirt off over her head and tosses it aside - apparently landing on Bear, whoops. She spares an apologetic glance toward him when he boofs in protest, Root watching with a ridiculous soft look on her face that quickly becomes something altogether more wanton when her eyes turn to Shaw’s chest and the cleavage revealed under the compression garment covering her breasts, a habit leftover from her time in the military. The look in Root’s eyes promises something that Shaw very much wants to receive and she shoves her back against the wall, savoring the warmth of skin against hers and the play of her tongue at her lips.
The hands at Shaw’s hips tug her close, a leg fitting neatly between hers, and they both let out matching groans at the grinding pressure. Fuck, Root makes the most intoxicating sounds, it’s a shame she can’t lay her down on the bed and enjoy them properly. The thought snags on something in the back of her awareness - wait, why can’t they use the bed right now? - but quickly gets shoved aside when Root tugs at her hair and nips at an earlobe, her warm breath washing down her skin and leaving goosebumps in its wake as she hums in pleasure. One of Shaw’s hands snakes between Root’s legs and she hears another moan and smirks in anticipation before she realizes that hadn’t been Root making that noise.
She pulls back slightly, out of breath and frowning. “What was that?”
“What?” Root asks, just as confused as Shaw feels. The noise doesn’t come back and Shaw is prepared to shrug it off when Root tilts her head with a little ‘oh’ to herself. Or to the Divine, Shaw supposes. “It was Harold, he’s suffocating in your bed a little.”
“Oh.” She forgot about him entirely. A pause, then, when her brain kicks back in, “oh, shit.”
Shaw tries to move away but Root’s grip at her hips tightens. “He’s still got thirty seconds until he experiences permanent brain damage. He’s just a little unconscious at the moment.” Root waggles her eyebrows - she doesn’t seem to care much for Harold, which strikes Shaw as odd. He’s supposed to be her liaison on Earth, the guy who makes sure she can complete her sacred mission or something, seems like she should care more for his well being than continuing to shove her tongue down Shaw’s throat while he’s suffocating to death a few feet away.
She’s not complaining though. Root licks into Shaw’s mouth and presses her thigh harder into Shaw even as she takes Shaw’s hand in hers and places it on one of Root’s breasts. Fuck, her skin is so soft and smooth, her fingers slip over the slight sheen of sweat and palm a nipple and she suddenly wants nothing more than to get her mouth on that skin -
Root pulls away and shoves Shaw to the side. At Shaw’s outraged expression, she nods toward the space in the wall where the bed is tucked away. “Seven seconds to permanent brain damage.”
Shit, right. Harold.
She kicks the button near the floor and the bed slides out, revealing Harold, encased in the plastic shrink wrap that’s meant to keep the bed clean when it’s hidden away in the wall for longer than a few minutes. Shaw rips the plastic over his face apart and slaps him a little until she hears a gasping intake of breath - he’ll be unconscious for a while yet, but he’ll be fine.
A crashing noise emanates from the ceiling, alerting Shaw to move out of the way just as John comes tumbling down from the weapon rack. He groans in a pile of limbs at her feet, dust raining down from the hole in the ceiling onto his head. “You better not have hurt any of my guns,” Shaw warns.
“Just my pride,” he says, coughing as he struggles to rise to his feet. Shaw sighs and holds out a hand to him to yank him up. “Thank y - ” he starts, then catches sight of her partly bare chest and cuts himself off, whirling around to look at anything else. Which puts Root and her still completely naked self directly in his eyeline. He yelps and spins back around to Shaw, covering his eyes. “Why is she…” he asks, begs, almost, for an explanation that won’t hurt his sensibilities.
“The autowash was on,” she says, more than a little defensively. “She got soaked and had to get out of her clothes.”
“But why aren’t you wearing a shirt?” he hisses.
Good question. Shaw glances over at Root, who is studiously pretending to be focused on wringing out her clothes and paying them no attention, though between the cramped space of the apartment and the smirk playing about her lips, Shaw knows that’s a load of crap. “Hypothermia. Skin to skin and all that,” she hedges, waving her hand in the air dismissively.
John stands a little straighter and drops his hand, shifting his feet to put Root behind him as he does so. His suspicious squint at Shaw gets cut short when he finally notices Harold at their feet, and he quickly drops back to his knees to check on him. “Do I even want to know what happened here?”
“Totally innocent accidental suffocation,” Root chimes in. Shaw glares at her implication that everything else had been less than innocent - they weren’t, to be sure, but John didn’t need to be thinking about that. Seeing he’s preoccupied by trying to wake Harold for a moment, Shaw draws closer to Root.
“Just so we’re clear, this” she gestures at Root’s general state of nudity, “was a mistake and I shouldn’t have let it happen.”
Root raises a playful eyebrow. “Didn’t feel like a mistake to me, sweetie.” She picks Shaw’s shirt up off the floor behind her and holds it out. “Felt pretty right, I have to say.”
Shaw snatches the shirt back and tugs it over her head, grimacing at the dampness as she slides her arms through the holes. It must have landed in some of the drippage from Root’s hair. Gross. She pulls at the bottom hem, straightening the shirt around her torso, and grasps for anything to get her point across when she feels like she’s floundering and can’t tell why. “Look, I’m still annoyed at you for wrecking my cab and making me miss lunch and just… generally being a disruption to my entire existence, got it?” Nevermind that it was a welcome disruption; Root doesn’t need the encouragement.
“Uh huh,” Root says, damnably skeptical and even more damnably still naked, an indulgent look on her face. Ugh, this would be so much easier if John hadn’t made her self-conscious and they could have just fucked this out and been done with it.
“I mean it, Root. My priority is this mission, to save the planet and all that. Not… this.” Bear whines and Shaw frowns at him for doubting her. “We’re just colleagues. Like John and Harold.”
Root’s amused eyes dance between the men behind her and back to Shaw. “Whatever you say, Sameen.”
“Good.” Shaw nods, glad to have that settled. She takes another long look at Root, standing nude there without a care in the world for modesty, and sighs. “I don’t have anything that would fit you. John,” she calls out, turning back to him. “There’s a shop two buildings over, go get her something, would you?”
“Again?” he whines. “I’ve already done more shopping today than I have in years.”
Shaw scrutinizes his nondescript black suit. It’s better than the robes, at least. “Clearly. But Harold’s not exactly up to it, and I’m not leaving the three of you alone in my apartment with my dog and my frozen former CO. You were already planning on stealing my tickets, I don’t want to think about what trouble you’d get in if I let all of you stay.”
John looks perturbed at her mention of Control, but his hands flop in acquiescence. “Fine. It’s only a few hours until your flight leaves anyway, I’ll pick some things up for you for the trip,” he says this last to Root, still averting his eyes.
“Same thing, if you can get it,” Root says, clearly amused at his struggle. They watch him leave, an awkward silence descending when the door closes behind him. Shaw absently pets Bear’s head, refusing to look anywhere other than the hallway monitor to make sure nobody tries to follow John.
After an interminable period of time, Root finally slaps her hands together. “Well,” she says, grinning even with her voice. “What should we do while we wait?”
Shaw looks sidelong at her, then back at Harold who seems to finally be stirring back to consciousness. “Not that,” she says pointedly, grabbing her last towel from the cabinet and tossing it at Root.
“You’re no fun,” Root pouts, but wraps the towel around herself anyway and takes a seat at the desk near the window. Harold groans and sits up, blinking blearily between the two of them.
“Just in time, Harold,” Shaw says.
“For what, Miss Shaw? And where is John?”
“He went to get Root some clothes,” Shaw shrugs, pleased despite herself at the way Harold pales a little at Root’s state of undress. He’d probably have gone unconscious again if she hadn’t been wearing the towel.
“I see,” he murmurs, clearly not seeing at all.
“Good. Hope you’re comfortable, because you two,” she gestures between Harold and Root, “are going to tell me everything about these stones, and this great evil, and Greer, and just what, exactly, you are,” she adds, jabbing a finger at Root.
She shakes her head a little, picking up Control’s orders from the table and brandishing them in the air. “Just what the fuck did you drag me into?”
“Mister Lambert, sir,” a police captain says, his voice echoing among the concrete stairwell twelve floors down from their commissioned warrantless search. “We’ve secured Sameen Shaw without incident.”
“Excellent,” Lambert’s voice sounds tinny through the layers of interference in their secure connection. “Your payment will be processed shortly. Take a DNA sample and fingerprint her, then get rid of her.”
The captain turns to his men and gestures at the limp form in the canvas bag at their feet. “You heard the man.”
As an officer kneels to open the sack, a barrage of gunfire rings out in the stairwell, an unforgiving assault that blinds the captain before he can see his attackers. The entire unit lies dead in seconds, blood splattering the walls and soaking through the canvas of the bag.
Two Mangalores stomp down the stairs and kick at the corpses before seizing the bag and dragging it through the stairwell entrance nearest to them, following a practiced route to an abandoned storage closet halfway down the corridor.
“We have her,” one of the Mangalores announces to the occupant of the room. Martine sits in the dark, her face and arms marred with burn wounds, and her lipless mouth curls into a sadistic grin.
“Good. Take Aknait and go to Fhloston, retrieve the stones from the Diva.” She struggles to stand, her leg wrapped in a makeshift splint after getting crushed in the explosion earlier that day. “If he wants the stones, Greer will have to see just how well we can negotiate.”
She kicks at the human form in the bag at her feet, judging where the head should be. A single shot is fired before the others can react, and Martine pays no attention to the blood soaking through to her feet as she looks back up at the others.
“Revenge is at hand.”
So, if you haven't seen the actual Fifth Element movie, Chris Tucker as Ruby Rhod is something you have to see to properly experience. He's the most extra human being in the galaxy and translating that to text is... interesting. When you meet him in this chapter, just trust me.
(This fic does not have Chris Tucker in its cast, but we do have Kevin Chapman!)
“The New York Intragalactic spaceport apologizes for the work interruption by our refuse disposal personnel. Thank you for your patience while we resolve the situation. Enjoy your travel.”
Root trails slightly behind Shaw as they weave through the throngs of people carefully avoiding the towering pile of garbage lining the concourse. The smell could be worse, she supposes, but occasionally she catches a whiff of what can only be a weeks-old diaper and feels her disgust rise anew. Tale as old as time - the rich people in charge of the system forget how vital basic sanitation is to the functioning of society and look down upon those who keep it running, then have to wade through vast piles of their own shit before they grudgingly admit maybe such workers deserve fair pay only to immediately cut jobs in response and start the entire cycle over again.
Humans are hardly the only species to have such shortsighted capitalist aims, to be sure. It’s hard not to see the police holding back the protesting line of sanitation workers outside the spaceport and not place the blame squarely on the entirety of humanity, though. A nudge, a feather of a suggestion at the back of her mind, and Root’s thoughts are directed instead to the striking workers themselves, seeking better opportunity for their families.
She can take a hint. Fine, not all of humanity sucks. Just most of them.
Not the one in currently striding with purpose in front of her, that’s for certain. Shaw had seemed incredulous, at first, when she and Harold had explained the circumstances surrounding Root’s appearance on Earth to her, which had been both understandable and, somehow, endearing. Upon seeing the footage of the Federated Army’s first contact with the Evil, which Root had helpfully shown her after hacking into the Army’s archive, Shaw had changed her tune.
(“I’m not saying I accept this pseudoscientific four elements bullshit - ”
“Five, Sameen,” Root corrected, preening.
“Even less believable,” Shaw said, with a teasing scoff, “but there’s something fucked up about that thing and since you idiots seem like the only people who have any kind of solution, fine. I’m game.”
Root’s face broke into a wide smile. “We’re gonna have so much fun together.”)
The prospect of spending the last few days of her life in Shaw’s company, rather than John and Harold’s, is certainly much more pleasant than she had anticipated, during the years of training prior to the Mondoshawan sending her here. Even with how surprisingly tolerable John’s presence has been.
The man in question emerges from a dark corner behind the garbage pile, trying to appear innocuous but the effect is somewhat lost due to the piece of banana peel stuck to his shoulder. John catches sight of them and makes his way over.
Shaw eyes his mussed up suit as he approaches. “Make friends with the pile, John?”
“Did I miss some?” His face scrunches up when he tries to follow her gaze to his own shoulder. Root reaches out and delicately flicks the peel away as Shaw looks on with amusement.
“It’s a good look for you,” Root says.
“I found my route out to the hangar to stow away on your plane,” John says with a shrug, uncaring of the state of his suit. Fair, since it’s about to get even worse; there are only a few places to stow away on a passenger shuttle, and none of them are particularly sanitary. “Saw Harold off on his flight to Egypt, got your bag checked, paid a friend to accompany Bear to Tranquility City. You’re welcome,” he adds, pointedly.
Shaw makes a dismissive gesture. “And her ID?”
“Wasn’t cheap, but Elias does quick work,” John says, digging something out of his pocket.
“You’re going to tell me how a priest and his apprentice got involved with a crime family when this is all over.” Shaw reaches out for the ID before Root can take it, and Root admires the annoyed crinkling at the corners of her eyes before she glares back up at John. “If I don’t kill you first.”
Root smiles at her empty threat and takes the ID out of her unresisting grip. A fairly standard, if decent, picture of herself, next to bold lettering proclaiming her name to be Shaw, Root Minai. “I’m guessing we’re not sisters,” she says, grinning.
“Seemed the simplest way.” John’s eyes dance back at her.
Root leans in to Shaw. “You’re the one who told Control we were engaged, Sameen. John just moved up the wedding.”
Shaw grumbles under her breath and stalks off toward the check-in counter, just as an announcement comes over the system.
“Final boarding call for Fhloston Paradise. All passengers to Fhloston Paradise please proceed to gate R28.”
“That’s my cue,” Root tilts her head at John, and he nods. “Don’t get stuck in the landing gear with the other parasites.”
“Good luck,” he says, and Root knows he doesn’t just mean with the mission. She tracks Shaw’s path and sees her waiting next to a support pillar nearby. John’s already disappeared by the time she turns back to where he had been standing.
Not a bad trick, she grants, and heads off to join Shaw. Wordlessly they approach the check-in kiosk, a single Fhloston shuttle attendant standing behind a small desk with a curved glass wall behind her.
Shaw already has her own ID out before the attendant can ask for it. “Sameen Shaw,” she says, passing their tickets over as she inserts the card into the scanner.
The attendant looks down at her screen, hidden from view, and smiles, wide and genuine. “Congratulations on winning the contest, Miss Shaw.” Shaw gives a gruff thanks, removing her ID as the attendant turns her attention to Root. “And this is?”
Shaw glances over at Root and utterly fails to come up with anything other than a half hearted, “… my wife.”
It sounds more like a question than anything, and Root nudges her as she inserts her own ID into the scanner. “It’s still so new, we never know how to answer,” Root laughs, wrapping an arm around Shaw’s shoulders and tugging her close. “You know how it is, bump into each other, sparks fly, magic happens…” Root can feel Shaw’s entire body clench at the notion, but she lets herself stay flush against Root.
The attendant takes in Root’s beaming smile and Shaw’s evident discomfort at the situation for a moment. “Newlyweds?”
“She’s a very private person,” Root says by way of confirmation. “Doesn’t like everyone knowing our business, what with this contest and all.”
“That’s understandable.” The attendant passes back their tickets to Shaw and Root takes her ID out of the scanner. “Back that way and to the left. Have a nice flight.”
Shaw manages a nod and immediately rounds the curve past the desk, Root following closely behind. She takes a moment to admire Shaw’s backside before they board the crowded shuttle, and the attendant calls out again from behind them.
“Oh, and enjoy your honeymoon!”
Shaw finally lets out the reaction she’s been withholding, pinching her nose as her frustrated groan echoes through the narrow corridor. Root reaches out and pats her shoulder, looking on with fond amusement. As far as suicide missions go, she thinks, it’d be hard to do better than this.
The check-in attendant turns away from the retreating couple and stills her hand hovering over the announcement system when she sees two more passengers approach. One of them looks fairly similar to the contest winner who had just boarded - or, at least, similar to someone who looks similar to the woman, if her head had been squashed and her features reassembled after being squeezed through a net. Her companion looks normal enough, though, and he passes their tickets over to the attendant as the other woman inserts her ID into the scanner.
The unit beeps in warning. “Sameen Shaw?”
The pair have a quick conversation with their eyes. “Yeah, that’s me,” the woman says, her voice gurgling oddly somewhere low in her throat.
“Just one moment,” the attendant smiles at them. It’d hardly be the first time someone has tried to steal someone else’s identity to try to take a trip to Fhloston. A blue light flickers across the passengers’ faces when she taps on her screen, and after a short delay the display in front of her, hidden from their view, displays the obvious visage of a Mangalore. With a glance up at them as she inches her finger toward the silent alarm, she gives them her best customer service smile and an apologetic shrug. “It’ll be just one more minute.”
The woman who is obviously not Sameen Shaw glares back at her, her face seeming to shift and crawl, shadows dancing where there had previously been none. Her companion notices and seizes hold of her, turning her around out of view. “We’ll be right back,” he says nervously, trying to hide it with a smile.
As they walk away, she can hear the woman - her voice now entirely changed - lean in to her companion. “Tell Martine plan A flopped. Move to plan B.”
A line of police officers summoned by her silent alarm approach from the other side of the concourse. The attendant sighs and raises the protective shielding around her desk as the shooting starts.
Mangalores never were great at subtlety.
“Oh, miss Shaw!” A flight attendant gasps when Shaw hands her their tickets. “You have to come with me, Ruby Rhod is broadcasting live and needs you for an interview.”
There’s not much that Shaw knows about Ruby Rhod, or even his radio show on Gemini Croquette, but the little she does know tells her that an interview with the man would be worse torture than she had ever experienced with the Special Forces. The flight attendant grabs her wrist to lead her away and she instinctively breaks out of the hold before she remembers she’s actually supposed to be going along with this humble contest winner charade.
“Be nice,” Root admonishes, as she herself is guided away toward general boarding by another flight attendant.
“Don’t leave me with him.” Shaw’s not above begging, in this case.
Root just gives her a ridiculous little wave as she rounds the corner out of sight. “Have fun, sweetie.”
The flight attendant who had tried to grab her wrist seems undeterred, and opts instead to walk slightly behind her down another corridor, bumping into her every now and then to keep her on track. “You are so lucky, Ruby Rhod is the coolest DJ in the galaxy, it’s an honor to be on his talk show. He is so green.”
“Look,” Shaw protests as they make their way past a gaggle of first class passengers sliding into their sleep units. “I’m just on vacation - on my honeymoon,” she adds, hoping it’ll garner some sympathy. “I’d prefer to remain as anonymous as possible.”
“Anonymous?” The attendant actually laughs at her. “You’re going to be doing his show with him every day from five to seven!”
Shaw pulls up short, stopped in the middle of an empty intersection. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
The attendant opens her mouth to answer, but is interrupted by a sudden blaring fanfare coming from behind the double doors at the other side of the hall.
Shaw suddenly very much regrets accepting this job.
The doors burst open and a pale-skinned man in a leopard print unitard slides through like a speed skater, holding a gem-studded scepter in one hand, his arms splayed wide. “Sameeeeeeen Shaaaaaaaw!” he announces as the fanfare drops out, leaving only his voice echoing through both the hallway and the radio set that one of the many personal assistants behind him must be carrying. The collar on his unitard stands stiff and straight, reaching the back of his head, and his obviously fake bleach-blonde hair styled into a hollow cylinder over his forehead nearly knocks into it when he turns his head to indicate something to his closest assistant.
“Here she is, the one and only winner of the Gemini Croquette contest!” Ruby - somehow even more ridiculous in person than Shaw had ever seen on Gemini ads, though older than she would have thought - flails his scepter in the air as a pair of his assistants shove something with the Gemini logo into Shaw’s hands and take a photo. It’s gone before Shaw can react, staring uncomprehendingly at the man before her.
A thumping bass beat fills the hallway and Ruby stalks toward her. “This girl is fueled, like fire,” he drawls the words out before finishing the thought at a faster pace, “so start melting, sisters, misters, and gender resisters, because she is hotter than hot, she is hot hot hot!”
He shouts the last ‘hot’ in Shaw’s face as he passes her, and she doesn’t know who’s at the top of her list to maim: Ruby, Root for leaving her here to fend for herself, or Greer for being a piece of shit working for the physical embodiment of the entire concept of evil and forcing Shaw to be on this mission in the first place.
The assistants huddle around Shaw and force her to spin around and follow Ruby down the hallway, where a gaggle of fans has somehow appeared, all holding out pictures for him to autograph. “The right size, right hair, the right build, right on,” he chants, sashaying down the line of fans with a paint brush, provided by one of the assistants, carelessly smearing paint on the proffered photos. “And she’s got something to say to those fifty billion pairs of ears out there.”
He abruptly stops in the middle of an intersection, twirls around, and jabs his scepter in front of Shaw’s face. “Pop it, Sameen!”
Shaw has no fucking clue what that’s supposed to mean, but between the expectant look on Ruby’s face and an assistant leaning close with a hand at his ear, she gathers she’s supposed to say something to the radio audience. “Uh… Hi.”
One of the DJs in the huddle plays a triumphant sound and Ruby twirls around. “Un-be-lievable!”
He starts off down the hallway to the right, speaking in rhythm to the bass again. “Quiver, people, quiver. She’s gonna set the world on fire.” He arrives at another intersection and immediately hops on one foot and whirls around, pointing at a flight attendant heading in their direction who blushes at his attention. “Right here from five to seven, you’ll know everything there is to know about Sameen.” Shaw’s name gets drawn out, slow and deep as Ruby sidles up to the flight attendant and works his famous supposed charm on her, whispering in her ear even as his voice echoes on the radio. “Her dreams… her desires… her most intimate of intimates…”
A single loud drum beat, and Ruby spins back around again, resuming to his usual volume and tempo. “And from what I’m looking at, intimate is this stud muffin’s middle name. So tell me, Shaw,” the music drops out again and Ruby shoves the scepter back in Shaw’s face. “You nervous in the service?”
Somewhere on this plane, Shaw knows, Root is listening to this broadcast and having the time of her life. She sighs and leans into the microphone. “Not really.”
Another twirl, and Shaw is being shepherded down another hallway as Ruby gestures and continues his monologue. “Freeze those knees, my chickadees, ‘cause Shaw’s in the place and she’s on the case. Yesterday’s frog will be tomorrow’s prince!” They come up on some uniformed Gemini officials who gesture wildly at Ruby and hand him a transparency. “Of Fhloston Paradise!” he quickly adds, and takes back off down the hallway reading from the script given to him at a rapid clip. “A hotel of a thousand and one follies, jollies, and lick-em-lollies, a magic fountain flowing with nonstop wine, women, and - ” he tosses the transparency away and humps the air as he slides down the corridor and sings, “hootchie-kootchie-koo.”
Ruby stops in the middle of another intersection and dances with himself as an assistant starts up a heavy beat. “All night long! All ni-iiight long, all night - ” He stops when he catches sight of another flight attendant, a man slightly shorter than himself. A wolf howling comes over the radio and Shaw glances back at the gaggle of assistants, wondering how they come up with this shit. When she looks back at Ruby, he’s leaning in close to the flight attendant, who seems to somehow be overtaken with arousal at his presence.
“Start licking stamps, folks,” Ruby murmurs against his ear, “because she’ll have you writing home to mama. Right here from five to seven I’ll be your voice, your tongue, your hands, hot on the trail of the sexiest woman of the year. You’ll be sure to have a good time…” Ruby licks his lips and moves somehow closer to the flight attendant. “If you come with me.”
The attendant faints and drops to the floor. For what she’s fairly certain is the first time in her life, Shaw is well and truly speechless - the only bright spot in all of this is that Root is surely having less fun listening to the show now that Ruby Rhod is talking about ‘getting on Shaw’s trail’ before Root ever gets a chance to herself.
There’s a beep, and Shaw hears a tinny voice announcing “end of transmission.”
The assistants all shove Shaw out of the way and huddle around Ruby, one offering him a cigarette which he immediately shoves in his mouth. Another lights it, and Ruby takes a long, silent drag before folding his arms. “How was it?”
A crowd of voices all ring out at once. “Amazing.”
Ruby eyes them warily. “What kind of green?”
A pause as the assistants look at each other. “Bright, neon green.”
“Whatever green you want!”
Ruby’s face scrunches up and he waves them away with an irritated flick of his hand. When it’s just Shaw left alone with him in the hallway, he drops the cigarette, crushes it under the heel of his unitard, and pulls off his wig to reveal close-cropped graying curly hair. “God, I hate this,” he mutters, in a suddenly thick Brooklyn accent.
The fuck? Then, for good measure: “The fuck?”
Ruby looks sharply up at her. “Do I look like an intragalactic sex symbol to you?” he says, gesturing with his scepter across his less-than-sculpted torso. Admittedly, his hair is pretty terrible now that it’s not covered by a wig, but in Shaw’s opinion it’s an improvement from the obvious phallic symbol that had been stuck to his forehead.
“Not really, but I don’t get this kind of…” Shaw waves a hand at Ruby’s leopard print outfit, “famous person thing anyway.”
“You and me both, sister.” He tugs a hidden zipper near his throat and the popped collar collapses. “Name’s Fusco,” he says, stepping forward with a hand outstretched. Shaw takes it automatically as she tries to figure out how Ruby Rhod just completely disappeared before her eyes. “Lionel,” he adds, “please don’t ever call me Ruby when we’re not on the air, I get enough of that from everyone else.”
That’s fair, it is a ridiculous name. Although… “If you hate this so much, how did you get into it in the first place?”
“Hell if I know,” Fusco says, throwing his hands out. “I was just some two-bit assistant producer at Gemini a few years ago when one of the late night hosts had an emergency and I was the only person who could fill in. I made up a persona to get myself through it, and somehow it spiraled out of control and the next thing I knew I was the hottest DJ in the galaxy with a contract I can’t get out of.”
“‘Ruby Rhod,’ though?”
Fusco’s eyes wrench shut. “Don’t ask.”
“Oh, I’m asking.”
“Well I’m not telling.” A breath, and he thumps his scepter on the floor and fixes her with an unexpectedly serious stare. “Look, it puts food on the table for my kid, okay? I’m sorry you’ve gotten sucked into this nonsense, but I’ve got a show to do here and it’s got to pop. So could you maybe actually give me a hand tomorrow from five to seven and act like you’ve got more than a two word vocabulary?”
A brief moment of good will for his kid, and then he had to go and ruin it. Shaw narrows her eyes and steps closer. “Lionel, right?” He nods and Shaw’s hand reaches out to his chest, shoving him against the wall. She leans in close, voice low and dangerous. “I didn’t come here to play DJ on the radio, Lionel.” Her forearm curls around to press against his throat, not with any kind of pressure behind it, but enough to let him know there could be. “So tomorrow from five to seven you’re gonna give yourself a hand and leave me out of it. Green?”
“Super green,” he squeaks out.
Shaw drops her arm and adjusts his rumpled unitard, then flashes him her best fake smile “See you at the Diva’s concert, Lionel.”
He’s left spluttering behind her as she heads down the maze of hallways toward the passenger cabins. A beep, and she can hear him talking to someone on his headpiece. “I’m not working with a lunatic, I’m out.”
That’s fine by Shaw. She knows someone who’s all too happy to work with her.
Dust falls off her shoulders as the attendant outside the gate to Fhloston rises from her crouch, the standard three minute waiting period after an altercation in the spaceport having passed. She brushes a few errant pieces of debris off her crisp uniform and lowers the shielding - which only encircles her desk, providing no protection from airborne debris, and her union rep will be hearing about this for sure - just as a lone man in a business suit approaches.
“Hello, love,” he smarms at her, handing over a ticket and his ID. Probably thinks his accent will get him places.
The scanner beeps angrily at her when she inserts his ID card; his accent won’t help with this, that’s for sure. She looks him up and down with a critical eye. “Sameen Shaw?”
“Just Sam now,” he says. “Gemini Croquette was a few years out of date with my legal documentation.” He smiles in what would probably be a charming way if he wasn’t currently trying to steal a war veteran’s vacation.
She’s had enough of these people today. “Look, I’ve only got one Sameen Shaw on this flight, and she’s already checked in.”
He pauses at her evident exasperation and tugs at his collar as he licks his lips. “That’s impossible. I am Sam Shaw.”
There’s a chime from above her head and she sighs in relief as the shielding wraps around the counter once more. “Sorry sir, boarding is finished!” She flashes him her first genuine smile, then the platform beneath her feet retracts, sending her down into the employee lounge area.
Above her, she can hear the man bang on the glass and activate the security system.
“This is a police control. Please place your hands on the yellow circles.”
“I’m sorry,” she hears him say, sheepishly. “There’s been a mistake, I’m sorry.”
His voice fades away as the floor slides back into place above her. She hopes the real Sameen Shaw gets to enjoy her honeymoon with her wife. They deserve it more than any of the other idiots she’s seen today.
The cabin door clicks open and Root looks up from her work at the wiring she’s exposed to see Shaw toss her jacket inside before sliding in feet first.
“Hi, sweetie. Or, should I say,” she adds, imitating Ruby Rhod’s introduction, “Sameeeen Shaaaaaw.”
Shaw tosses a look over her shoulder as she settles in, apparently noticing her presence for the first time, and rolls her eyes. “Let’s not mention that show ever again. I feel like I need to scrub my brain of what I’ve seen.” Her eyes roam around, taking in the cushioning that lines the area, just large enough for the both of them to lie down with a foot of space between them, but not enough to sit up. Maybe enough vertical space for them to lie on top of each other, though, Root notes, and Shaw doesn’t seem to miss the glint in her eye at that thought. “At least they’re gonna put us to sleep soon, maybe I can forget it then.”
Root hums and moves her head to let Shaw see the electrical panel in the corner that she’s been working on. “Wouldn’t be so sure of that, Shaw.”
“Did you… disable the sleep regulator? Do you know how long this flight lasts?”
“I thought we could take the opportunity to get to know each other better,” Root grins. “Chat a while. Or something else. I understand that ‘sleeping together’ means something more interesting than just a nap.”
“We don’t have time for this, Root.”
“Do you know how long this flight lasts?”
Shaw narrows her eyes at Root throwing her words back at her. “We’re on a mission, that’s all I care about.” A flight attendant outside the door fails to notice that the button she’d pressed on the outside of their cabin hadn’t actually knocked them immediately unconscious, and Root is pleased to see the decision in Shaw’s body language as she lets the attendant pass by without a word. With a sigh and a lingering look at the attendant, Shaw turns her gaze back to Root. “Fine. You want to talk? Talk. You owe me answers about all… this,” she says, gesturing at the universe at large, “and not those bullshit answers Finch gave me, either. The truth.”
Root knew she liked her for a reason. “I’m shocked that you think Harold was less than forthright.”
“Please, I know his type. Wouldn’t know what to do with a moral dilemma if one slapped him in the face, and I know how to read between the lines. This all reeks of philosophical bullshit.” Shaw lets her gaze roam along Root’s body and she can’t help but preen under her critical eye. After a more thorough perusal than Shaw would probably admit to, Shaw meets her eyes and shifts onto her side, getting comfortable. “How old are you, really?”
“Afraid I’d be robbing the cradle?” She can’t help the flirting, it’s practically a reflex where Shaw is concerned. She’d ask the Divine about that, but She seems content to let Root enjoy herself while she can. “Depends on how you count, really.” Shaw raises a leading eyebrow, and Root lets out a breath. “I was… born, I suppose, thirty thousand Earth years ago, engineered and incubated along with all the other Fifth Elements, but we got put into suspended animation after growing and training for twenty-five years. I was woken up ten years ago so I could learn all the modern languages and tech I might need for my mission.” She smiles at Shaw’s look of consternation. “So, thirty-five, give or take a few orders of magnitude.”
“Other Fifth Elements?”
“There were about a hundred of us.”
“Were?” She knew Shaw wouldn’t miss the past tense there. Root gives her a wry smile in response.
“Were. The Mondoshawan knew what regions of space the Evil would appear in, and how frequently, and engineered enough of us, based off the dominant species of each region, to defeat the Evil for a couple dozen millennia. A few humans, a few Qadral, a few Dreitir... Then I guess once we were gone, they’d make some more.”
Shaw is silent for a moment. “Gone, as in dead. They made extras in case someone failed?”
“We grew up together,” Root continues, ignoring the question. She gets the feeling Shaw won’t like the answer. “Matured at different rates, of course, since we were different species after all. The Qadral were… feline, you could say, where humans are primates, but we had similar growth patterns so the Mondoshawan trained us together. They let us be kids for a while, since human children in particular are basically useless before a certain age, then gradually phased it out in favor of training full time. Combat, espionage, flight, language, anything we might need when going up against the greatest evil in the galaxy and its minions.”
“And never gave you a choice in the matter, I’m guessing.”
“Choice is irrelevant when the survival of all life in the galaxy is at stake,” Root says. “There was one Qadrali girl, though. Hanna. We were… close.” Shaw’s brow scrunches, probably trying to judge just how feline the Qadral might have been and what exactly she meant by ‘close,’ and Root smiles at her. “We did everything together. The Mondoshawan told us we had to focus on our training, we couldn’t be a distraction for each other, but they had taught us everything we needed to know about subterfuge, they were never going to keep us apart if we didn’t want to be.”
“Sounds like shitty parenting.”
She doesn’t know the half of it. The comforting presence of the Divine settles through her before her thoughts can get too dark, and she takes a breath and continues. “So, sixteen years after we were born, the Mondoshawan learned that their calculations had been off, and the Evil was going to be in the Qadral system sooner than anticipated. None of them were ready, but only one of each species can be imbued with the spirit of the Divine at a time so they couldn’t just send all of the Qadral. You can guess who they picked.”
There’s a fire behind Shaw’s eyes that Root hasn’t seen before. “They sent a kid to fight pure evil because she made a friend?”
“Someone had to go,” Root points out. “They just saw a way to fix two problems in one. Hanna underwent the ceremony to join with the Divine, she boarded a ship, a few Mondoshawan and the stones in another, and that was that. They tried to get the rest of us to go back to our training, but I wasn’t the only one worried about what was happening. Two days later, the Qadrali elements who had been left behind collapsed out of nowhere, the life just instantly drained from them. That’s how we knew Hanna had failed.” Her jaw clenches, and the Divine sends a tendril of love along their bond. “I knew she was going to die, but she died for nothing. The Evil succeeded, and all Qadrali life was extinguished from the galaxy.”
Shaw tenses as though she was going to sit up before remembering there’s no space in their cabin to allow it. “You knew she was going to die,” she says instead, frowning intently. On her side as she is, it’s lopsided and probably cuter than she realizes. Root holds her tongue about that, though, knowing that Shaw has hit upon the one thing she had wished to avoid. “It’s a suicide mission, isn’t it? That’s why they created so many of you. Using the weapon to destroy the Evil kills you in the process.”
Root gives her best nonchalant shrug. “It’s the life force of the entire species flowing through us. Hard to keep yourself together in the face of all that, you know.”
“Fuck that.” Shaw says it so decisively that Root can only blink, certain for a moment that millennia of tradition stands no chance against Shaw’s vehemence. “I’m not letting that happen.”
“Didn’t know you cared, Sameen.”
Shaw glares at her. Glares through her, more like, at the universe at large. “I care about the mission, and my mission is to protect life in general and you in particular. I don’t make a habit of failing my missions and I’m not about to start on your account.”
Relief - not her own - flows through her then, the sense of knowing this is how things would be but worrying for so long that something would go wrong. The surety coming from the Divine catches Root off guard, and she can’t help the smile that forms when She sends along memories of Root’s escape from the nucleo lab and Her directing Root to Shaw’s cab. “She knew you’d say that,” Root says softly, in wonder at Her care for her.
“The Divine?” Root nods, and for a moment Shaw looks annoyed that someone would purport to know her that well before casting it aside. “Smart of her,” she says, stretching a little. “She’s not actually some sort of god though, right? That’s just what the Mondoshawan call her.”
Root hums. “She’s… complicated.” Shaw snorts and the warmth that fills Root at the sound has nothing to do with the Divine’s presence. “She’s not so much a single entity as She is… the idea of life itself?” She makes a face at herself before Shaw can do it too, then tries a different tack. “Nobody really knows what it is that separates the living from the dead, or from the inanimate, right? Not once in the history of the universe has any species figured that out in any kind of scientific, data-driven way. That spark that runs through every living thing connects them all, and when you have a network that large, with that much data, it’s hard for it not to become sentient.”
The furrow on Shaw’s brow as she absorbs that and works through it is even cuter than her earlier frown. “You’re saying the Divine is basically a galactic artificial intelligence made out of meat instead of circuits.”
“And vegetables, but yes,” Root agrees. “Through Her, I can sense all the living things around me, if I need to, or She can direct my attention to threats, if even so much as one ant on the ground senses something. The weapon against the Evil, the Light of Creation, is essentially Her, made tangible for one brief moment as She defeats death.”
“She kills you.”
Immediate revulsion at the notion shocks through Root’s system, from both the Divine and herself. “No,” she protests, even as a halting acknowledgment of the truth of Shaw’s words nudges into her awareness. “No,” she says again, as much to the Divine as to Shaw. “She was… so lonely, before we were created. Seeing everything that the living did, but not being able to communicate with any of us. And as much as it hurt Her to see and feel what the Evil did every time it appeared before the Mondoshawan created us to fight it, it hurts Her so much more when one of us dies channeling Her through ourselves. To lose one of the few people who’ve ever loved Her like She loves us, and be the cause of it. But She can’t let trillions of organisms die for the sake of one that She has a particular affinity for.”
The Divine brims with sorrow at her words, even as Root remains aware of the shimmering light centered around Shaw. Shaw, for her part, searches Root’s eyes with her own and frowns. “Just because you’re willing doesn’t mean you’re not basically just a glorified sacrificial lamb. I don’t lead people to their deaths unless they’re my enemy. You’re not my enemy, Root. I don’t care what Harold or the Mondoshawan or the Divine say, I’m not doing that.”
Shaw’s face becomes blurry and it takes Root too long to realize it’s because her eyes are watering despite herself. Having Shaw here with her was nice while it lasted, she supposes. The big lug will get his chance after all. “We haven’t taken off yet,” she says, fumbling fingers at the mess of exposed wires. “You can probably still get off the flight. Gemini Croquette might be upset, but they can deal.”
A hand lands on hers, stilling her motions. “Did I say I was leaving?” Root glances over to see Shaw looks offended at the notion. “I don’t let people die, and I don’t quit either. If there’s another way, we’re going to find it.”
Root can do nothing but marvel, eyes flicking between Shaw’s determined gaze and her hand on Root’s own. Eventually Shaw notices where her hand still is and pulls away, and it jolts Root back into the reality of the Divine’s renewed warmth. “She likes you,” she says, nearly a reverent whisper. “Life…” she breathes, opening her connection with the Divine a little more than usual, and is nearly overwhelmed with the sheer presence of Shaw beside her. “Life thrives within you.”
The wonder in Root’s voice makes Shaw uncomfortable, something she can both see and feel, and it’s with a sudden self consciousness for violating Shaw’s privacy that Root clamps down on the connection with the Divine. “Find that hard to believe,” Shaw scoffs, deflecting. “Seeing as I’ve killed hundreds of people.”
“Sure,” Root agrees, shrugging. “But why did you do it?”
“Got kicked out of med school. Seemed like as good an alternative as any.”
Root doesn’t believe that for a second, but leaves it alone for now. “And why were you in med school?”
“Parental pressure,” Shaw says, meeting Root’s skeptical eyebrow with a challenging one of her own.
They face off in silence for long moments, only the distant sounds of engaging engines breaking through. Root feels a smile curl along her lips, as much from the light hearted teasing as it is from what she knows to be true from the Divine. “You want to protect people.”
A grumble, a frown, but Shaw doesn’t argue the point. “Doesn’t mean I like ‘em.”
“Maybe you don’t like most people, or most things, but you protect them anyway. And you fight… so hard to survive, for both yourself and others.” Her smile fades, seeming so inadequate for the sentiment within herself that abruptly makes itself known. It’s too much to express in any kind of human language and it’s all she can to do reopen her connection with the Divine to let it all flow out of her. “You have that in common with Her,” she manages, even as the Divine takes the thing bursting out of her chest and wraps it in Her warmth and tells her She understands.
“I like things that improve my quality of life,” Shaw says simply, but not insignificantly. And as though the Divine had held up a mirror to Root’s own interactions with Her, she realizes what the sentiment is, and what Shaw is telling her. “I don’t care what She says,” Shaw continues, “I’m not letting you die because some mystical prophecy bullshit says so.”
It’s too much, the feedback loop of emotion between herself and the Divine fed by Shaw’s words making her head spin like she hasn’t felt since being reanimated in the nucleo lab. “That’s how it has to be, Sameen,” she murmurs, shaking her head. Unable to look at her. “You protect me so I can protect all of you.”
She can hear Shaw’s protest in her intake of breath, and before Root has to see it in her eyes, she turns back to the mess of wires in the corner. “Root, what are you - ” Root taps at the panel, reactivating the sleep regulation device, and hears Shaw’s head thump against the surface they’re both lying on before she can finish her thought.
The Divine may have sought Shaw out, may feel some sort of relief at Shaw’s insistence that she’s going to somehow change millennia of tradition, but Root can’t allow herself to hope that Shaw’s certainty is anything more than human arrogance. She can’t hope that she can somehow make it out of this alive. That’s the best way to ensure the Evil wins and all of humanity is wiped out, Shaw along with them.
The compounds released into the air to ensure the passengers stay asleep start to work against even Root’s metabolism, despite the initial knockout electromagnetic wave having had no effect. She turns back to Shaw and watches her sleep, thinking that this was a shitty time to be confronted with the fact that not all humans suck. She’d known, sure, but to have such a glaring, intriguing, attractive example of it inches away from her is…
Well. Her human side is back to telling her not to go through with this. Only now it’s for a much different, selfish reason that’s harder to ignore.
It takes Lambert longer than he knows is wise to find an isolated spot, away from the wreckage left behind by the Mangalore attack, from which to call Greer. Martine had been a good partner, while she lasted, but she was never going to make a good right hand for Greer. Too loyal to her own code, unable to see the bigger picture for her own want for violence. Men like him and Greer, they were the ones who would usher in the new order. Not Martine and her - ugh. He peers down upon feeling his foot land on something squishy. A steaming pile of Mangalore entrails. And these shoes were new, too.
No, Martine and her merry band of shape shifters were never going to be great like Lambert and Greer. Too focused on the chaos and not the order that came after.
He pulls out his phone, realizing there’s not going to be an isolated spot to call Greer from anywhere in this concourse, and it’s better not to keep the man waiting. A tap, a tone, and a pause, then:
“Everything ready for liftoff?”
“I’m sorry, sir, I’m not on the plane.”
Another pause, longer this time. Lambert smiles at a woman passing by, admonishing her child for splashing in the blood like a puddle. “I must have heard incorrectly,” Greer says, voice gone cold.
“The real Sameen Shaw must have taken my place. Believe me, I’ve tried everything. There is no other way of getting on this plane.”
The sound of tapping filters over the speaker. Greer arranging someone to come get him so they can regroup, no doubt. “I am… a little disappointed.”
He bites his lip and notices the sky outside being lit up by a shuttle on its standard escape path - the one for Fhloston, no doubt. Dammit. “And you should know, sir, Martine must have - ”
“If there is one thing I do not like,” Greer interrupts, “it is to be disappointed.”
“I’m sorry, sir. This will never happen again.”
The tapping comes to a stop. “I know.”
Lambert feels an odd warmth in his jacket pocket, but never gets the chance to investigate.
He explodes in a blaze of fire and blood, sending scattered pieces of flesh and expensive suit onto the walls and floor of the concourse, indistinguishable from the Mangalore remains already there.
A buzz echoes through the gilded office. “Sir, you have an incoming call.”
“I said I didn’t want to be disturbed,” Greer says, turning from glaring out the window to glare instead through the large door on the opposite side of the office where his assistant is sitting.
“You said you didn’t want to be disturbed unless it was Mister Shadow, and it’s… Mister Shadow. On the line.”
The intercom cuts off and Greer reaches a hand out toward the phone on his desk, pausing for a moment before picking it up. He raises it to his ear and before he can say anything in greeting, he hears a deep, inhuman voice, almost slithering through each word.
“It’s… Shadow… again.”
“Greer here,” he says, clinging to as much normalcy as one can when speaking to the embodiment of pure evil, relayed through hijacked signals from every communication satellite in the sector.
“Am… I… disturbing… you?”
A barely perceptible swirling of pitches emanates from the other end of the connection. Whether from the strange sounds or the sheer intimidating presence of the Evil speaking to him, Greer’s body is wracked with tremors, knuckles gone white as his fingers tighten around the phone. “No, no. No, it’s just…” He pauses, blinking through the fog created by the sound. “Where are you?”
“Not… far… now.”
“Good, good. That’s… good,” Greer says, clearly meaning anything but.
“How… are… the… stones?”
“Fine. Fine, they’re just fine.” There really is no other answer. “I’ll have the four stones you asked for any time now. But it wasn’t easy. My costs have tripled.”
The voice becomes more of a growl. “Money… is… of… no… importance. I… want… the… stones.”
“The stones will be here. I’ll…” Greer struggles to swallow against the paralyzing sound and gasps around his words. “I’ll see to it personally.”
“I… will… be… among… you… soon.”
The connection terminates and Greer collapses into his chair at the sudden relief from the sound, even as it still reverberates through his skull. He feels a trickle down his neck and drops the phone to the floor with a clatter as he raises his hand to his ear.
His fingers come back coated in a warm, black substance, thicker than blood but just as disturbing. Greer watches it slowly flow down his fingertips to his palm, then reaches his other hand out to the intercom to instruct his assistant to get his private warship prepared for flight.
He has a hotel to get to.
The Diva's song sequence from the movie is one of my favorite scenes in all of sci-fi, tbh. It's ridiculous but it's great. If you haven't seen it and are curious, you can watch it here, though hopefully I've managed to convey the importance of the music through my words. (And as with everything else, I did make changes - the song itself is the same though.)
“… enjoyed your flight today, and hope to see you again soon.”
The fog gradually dissipates from Shaw’s consciousness, and she comes to still lying in the cramped cabin. Stiffness in her neck as she raises herself on her elbows tells her she hadn’t moved at all during the induced sleep, and isn’t that just the most perfect way to start her supposed vacation. The pleasant woman’s voice on the intercom continues to ring through the corridor outside the cabin, muffled by the sounds of dozens of passengers trying to get a head start on the opulence in store for them.
She rotates her head, stretching some of the soreness out of her neck, and notes that Root is already gone. Of course. Avoiding conversation is supposed to be Shaw’s thing, but it seems Root is giving her a run for her money. She’s not going to be able to hide from it forever.
Although, Shaw supposes, if they can’t find a way to defeat the Evil that doesn’t involve Root sacrificing herself, that would certainly be one way to avoid it forever.
The plastic panel in front of her crumples a little when she hits the door release button. It doesn’t help the situation, but at least something else feels some of Shaw’s irritation at this whole mess. The crowd in the passageway clears enough to make way for her door and she wiggles around to slide out feet first, cursing whoever designed these damn cramped shuttles. And this was supposedly first class, too. Economy cabins are probably worse than the fighters she used to pilot with Cole, and those had strict regulations about how long personnel could be stuck in them for fear of causing irreparable damage.
There’s no clear signage, but the mess of people seems to be heading in one particular direction so Shaw goes with it, squeezing between people with the aid of an occasional elbow to the side so she can make it up front and try to find Root. Asshole probably knew it’d be impossible for Shaw to see over people's heads in this crowd, and there’s no telling whether she’d even fallen asleep when she’d unhacked the sleep regulator. She could have disappeared to anywhere in the hotel by now.
Rounding the corner in the airlock, Shaw becomes aware of singing further down the gangway. Celebratory singing, from what sounds like a large group of professionals. As she pushes through the crowd the singing is interrupted by a cheerful drum beat and the sound of applause, and when she finally, finally emerges into the lobby of the hotel, she sees… Yep, an entire fucking welcoming committee concert, complete with dancers and a full chorus and what looks like flower petals streaming down from the ceiling.
These people have way too much money.
Unthinking, Shaw pauses to take in the sight - the lobby itself is fancier than anything she’s ever seen, intricately carved molding along the walls, multi-story windows near the ceiling revealing a beautiful clear blue sky outside, floors so polished they reflect the sky better than most of the lakes Shaw’s ever been to in her life, several ornate fountains she’s frankly surprised aren’t spouting wine - and a bikini-clad dancer takes advantage of the moment to lean in and drape a lei over her head and kiss her cheek in welcome. Shaw manages to catch her body’s instinctive reaction to lash out at the unexpected intrusion, and successfully dodges a man in a speedo who tries the same move from her other side.
There’s a commotion on the opposite end of the lobby. A security guard looking bemused at another, clutching his bloodied nose, and the secured door a few feet behind them slipping open and closed, unnoticed. Root.
Shaw starts off in that direction but is stymied by yet another hostess. “Miss Shaw! On behalf of Gemini Croquette and Fhloston Paradise, let me be the first to welcome you here. We’re so excited to have you!”
“Yeah, thanks,” Shaw says, trying to look past her to see where the secured door might lead.
The hostess takes her arm, inviting yet firm, and pulls her toward an elevator. “Let me show you to your suite.”
This woman is lucky she’s supposed to stick to the cover of just being on vacation. Shaw lets herself get led through the hotel, taking note of the layout and visible security measures on the way and keeping an eye out for Root. And where the hell is John?
“Your handprint here,” the hostess prompts. Shaw realizes they must be outside her suite, and she’s more than a little disturbed to note the size of the doors and the lack of any others on this side of the wall. How big is this place?
She places her hand on the scanner, unsurprised that this place is ritzy enough for biometric identification in lieu of any physical keys or pass codes but still feeling annoyingly inadequate and out of place. The feeling only multiplies when the hostess nudges the doors open and Shaw sees the suite she’s been given.
Her apartment would fit in here at least ten times over, and that’s just the space she can see immediately upon walking in. The walls and floor are all painted blue, which is… an odd choice, but there’s gold detailing everywhere, an enormous crystal chandelier hanging in the center of the room, an actual Grukvan skin rug, with the head still attached, and she’s pretty sure the shade on that bedside lamp has diamond tassels.
“We have twelve swimming pools, and two on the rooftop,” the hostess says, pressing buttons along the walls to retract the shades on the windows that evidently make up the entire opposite wall. “All the restaurants are between level two and level ten. The planet Fhloston has four hundred beaches, all accessible until five p.m., then the airship goes higher, to offer you a better view with your dinner.”
Shaw wanders toward the bed, an enormous mountain of pillows and blankets slightly recessed into the wall and surrounded by what look like silk curtains. There’s a pamphlet on the bedside table advertising Plavalaguna’s concert. “Is the Diva here yet?”
She picks up the pamphlet and turns it over. Maybe she can catch the Diva directly after the show and get out of here sooner. “Are there any tickets left for this opera? I’m a really big fan.”
“You have a seat reserved. First row, next to Ruby Rhod!” The hostess seems entirely too excited about Shaw’s pending murder charge. “He’s so talented, don’t you think? I just love him, he’s so sexy.”
Shaw wonders what this woman would think of Ruby Rhod if she knew he was a single father from Brooklyn who hates his job. She holds her tongue, though; she knows the value of a decent cover identity, and Fusco is apparently very good at maintaining his.
“Well, anyway,” the hostess continues, oblivious to Shaw’s disbelief, “he has your ticket for the show and he’ll be here in thirty minutes.”
A photo of an adoring audience on the pamphlet catches Shaw’s eye, all in formal attire the likes of which she hasn’t had to wear in years. John had packed and checked a bag for Root, which is somehow already in the room, but there wasn’t much in Shaw’s apartment to bring along for herself. “Do you know where I can get something to wear?”
By way of answer, the hostess moves to a panel on the wall opposite the bed and presses a button. The wall opens and an entire rack of clothing slides out, a variety of suits and dresses in a multitude of colors. Each one clearly worth more than even her monthly pension would have been, and all apparently in roughly her size. “Enjoy your evening, Miss Shaw.”
“Thanks,” Shaw mutters as the hostess leaves. She considers the wardrobe, debating whether to be annoyed or impressed, then shrugs. When in Fhloston, she supposes. Her shirt is tossed to the floor as she rises and steps over to the wardrobe, eyeing a deep red dress on the end with interesting geometric cutouts at the throat.
“Oooh, pick the red one.”
Root’s voice coming from behind her takes her by surprise, and she whips around to find Root leaning against the doorway to the presumed bathroom nook, looking utterly delighted at having caught Shaw unaware.
“The hell did you come from?” There’s no way she’s picking the red one now, that’s for sure.
“Oh, around,” Root says breezily, waving a dismissive hand in the air. “I mean, I certainly wouldn’t complain if you stuck to this look, but even Fhloston has its limits.”
Shaw steadfastly refuses to react. If she wants to be shirtless in her own damn luxury suite then she’s going to be shirtless in her own damn luxury suite, regardless of Root’s leering. She flexes her abs when she twists to pull a nondescript black tuxedo off the rack and is satisfied to see Root bite her lip in response. “Couldn’t get off the plane fast enough, huh? Running away from your problems doesn’t sound very Divine to me.”
“I wasn’t running away,” Root pouts. “I was… scouting out the security.”
Shaw moves back to the bed and takes the suit jacket off the hangar, tossing the rest onto the mattress. “And knocking me out in the middle of our conversation was…?”
“Ensuring your safety on the flight.” Apparently choosing the simple black tux to annoy Root isn’t going to work; if anything, she watches Shaw even more intently than ever as she shrugs on the jacket to check the fit. Dammit.
“Sure,” she says, smoothing down the front of the jacket. It fits almost too well, and it’s more than a little perturbing that Fhloston was able to do this without her knowledge. The perks of having her military records and an absurd amount of money, probably. Her fingers work at the buttons and she looks up at Root. “Doesn’t change anything, you know. I meant what I said.”
Root watches her for a long, quiet moment, her arms circled around herself, a furrow in her brow. “Why are you so determined to save me?”
Her voice is softer than Shaw’s ever heard it, plaintive and desperate and it tugs at something inside her that she doesn’t know how to identify. “Why are you so determined to die?”
Root’s gaze falls to the floor, and there’s another lengthy silence before she speaks again. “Sameen, I can’t…” She shakes her head and finally pushes herself off the wall, stepping into Shaw’s space but not meeting her eyes. “Please don’t make me think it’s possible.”
Silence descends again. Shaw searches her face and feels the absurd need to brush the loosely hanging hair away from her cheek so she can see her better. What does the Divine have to say about all this? She directed Root to her cab for a reason, and from what she’s learned, Shaw has to think the Divine would know better than to expect Shaw would go along with this suicide mission.
A buzzing at the door interrupts them, and Root takes a half step backward, tilting her head and blinking away the moment. “One of the Diva’s attendants.”
A faintly accented voice comes through the intercom. “Ms Plavalaguna wants you to know how glad she is that you’re here. She’ll give you what you’ve come to get, after the concert. Stay here until then.”
The faint sound of retreating footsteps, then nothing. Huh. Now there’s an idea. The Diva knows enough about the situation to be entrusted with the stones, maybe she knows something that the Mondoshawan didn’t tell Root. Although what that could be that the Divine wouldn’t have told her already, Shaw couldn’t say. She looks up at Root, who is making herself busy examining Shaw’s tuxedo shirt, and sighs.
“Fine, I’ll drop it,” she says, and Root smiles sadly in response.
“It’s for the best, Sameen.” Root rubs her fingers along the expensive fabric for a moment more, then seems to make a conscious decision to shove away whatever it is she’s been feeling. She perks up, grinning wide at Shaw with the familiar light in her eyes. “I know something we can do that doesn’t need any talking at all.”
Her eyebrows waggle in the least seductive manner Shaw’s ever seen, but she has to give her points for dedication. She reaches behind her where the rest of the tuxedo still lies on the foot of the bed and grabs the hanger. “I need to shower before I put all this expensive shit on.”
Root’s grin grows somehow wider as she steps into Shaw’s space. “Even better.” She inches closer and Shaw stands her ground.
“Kinda running low on time here.”
“We still have twenty minutes until Lionel swings by to pick you up.”
Shaw pauses at her use of his real name. “How do you - ” Root interrupts her with a smug lift of an eyebrow. Right. The Divine. She frowns and Root just looks amused. “You better not be using your weird connection with her to spy on me.”
“Why would I need Her to spy on you when I’ve got you right here?” Root reaches out and tugs on one of the buttons of the tuxedo jacket Shaw’s still wearing. Her fingers brush against Shaw’s skin when she slips beneath the material to undo the button, then the second, and Shaw doesn’t protest when Root spreads the sides of the jacket aside with the backs of her hands.
Root steps impossibly closer, forcing Shaw to sit on the edge of the bed. Her torso unconsciously leans back to allow Root continued access to her chest, caressing the bare skin with her fingertips as she leans down toward her with a hand on the bed next to her for balance. There’s a soft wonder in her eyes and delicacy to her touch that makes Shaw both itch and want nothing more than to lie back and feel Root on every inch of her skin. She meets Root’s gaze and gives her a barely perceptible nod, and just as Root leans in, eyes flicking down to Shaw’s lips, a shrill ringing crashes through the room behind them.
Cursing and disentangling herself from Root’s hands, Shaw scoots back on the mattress toward the bedside table. The phone is ostentatiously designed like an old rotary model from the nineteenth century, and she picks up the receiver half expecting to find a cord attached.
“Sameen, honey! You’re already there!” Her mother’s voice is louder than expected and she jerks the receiver away from her ear, conscious of Root’s amusement behind her.
“When did you get in? How is the hotel? Bear’s being an absolute darling, he’s so well behaved, he loves the low-g park, he’s made so many friends already.”
“A proud grandmother,” Root murmurs into her ear, having followed Shaw onto the bed. Shaw swats at her where she’s kneeling behind her back.
“Who was that?” Her mother gasps dramatically and Shaw winces. “Sameen, did you find a nice girl to bring with you after all?”
The excitement in her mother’s voice makes Root snicker. Shaw elbows her this time. “I… came here with a woman, yes,” she admits, before adding under her breath, “nice might be overstating it though.”
“Oh my goodness, what’s her name? Where did you meet? What’s she like?”
Well, she can answer one of those, at least. “She’s… interesting,” Shaw allows.
Root hums, leaning in close to her free ear. “Sweet talker,” she says, and kisses Shaw’s cheek.
Shaw swats at her again. “And annoying,” she pointedly adds. “Look, ma, I’m glad Bear is having a good time but there’s a concert I have to go to soon and I need to get ready for it.”
“Oh are you two having a date night? I’m so happy for you, dear, of course I’ll get out of your hair now. I’ll call you tomorrow!”
“No, ma, it’s not - ” Shaw stares, betrayed, at the receiver in her hand when her mother disconnects the call before she can clarify that it’s decidedly not a date. Although, to be fair, she would rather go to the concert with Root than with Lionel as Ruby Rhod. She’d be nicer to look at, for one thing. There’s probably some fancy dress in one of Root’s bags, or one in the wardrobe that would fit her. She imagines Root’s long legs emerging from a slit in a strapless gown - oh, her shoulders and clavicles would be exposed then, too, that’s… interesting.
“Your mother sounds nice,” Root breaks through her rapidly spiraling fantasies. “Though she does have terrible timing.”
Shaw launches herself to her feet, retreating from Root and her hands. It’s only a matter of time until Lionel gets in on interrupting them, too. Best not to tempt fate. “I need to get dressed.” Root opens her mouth, smirking with her eyes, and Shaw holds up a hand. “You are not helping.”
“Fine,” Root pouts. A glance at the clock tells her she doesn’t even have time to shower now; she doesn’t know if Lionel is as punctual as the hostess implied, but his radio show starts soon and Shaw’s supposed to join him for that too. She heads back to the tuxedo and gives Root a significant look. Root merely waggles her eyebrows in return, and Shaw huffs, grabbing the suit and grumbling on her way to the bathroom nook.
“Pity I can’t come with you,” Root calls out to her, voice warbling oddly and Shaw can’t place the sound until she hears creaking and realizes Root must have bounced herself onto the bed. “You in that tux, me in one of those gowns… We’d make a pretty picture for the Gemini ads, don’t you think?”
Shaw ignores her, making quick work of changing into the suit, despite the best efforts of the accompanying suspenders and bow tie, and finds a conveniently placed selection of shoes in the dressing area. “Diva said you should stay here,” she says finally, reemerging with shoes in hand, and is pleased that Root immediately sits up and seems unable to find her words at the sight of her. “Where’s her suite?”
“Across the hall,” Root answers on autopilot, keenly watching Shaw’s movements as she tugs the shoes on and laces them with a foot on the edge of the bed. The Divine helped her answer that one, no doubt.
“Good. Keep an eye on it, make sure no one comes snooping around. I’m gonna have a chat with her after the concert.” Her foot falls to the floor and she straightens up, considering Root. “I saw that guy with the bloody nose in the lobby. Try to fly under the radar better than that, all right?”
Root finally seems to come back to herself and a corner of her mouth slowly curls. “Mmm, I like it when you take charge.”
Shaw rolls her eyes and is spared having to respond by a pounding knock on the door. Lionel’s gruff voice shouts through the wood. “You ready to go, tiny?”
She growls, both at Lionel and Root’s clear amusement. “In a second, Ruby.”
“Yeah, fuck you too,” he calls back.
Root scrambles off the bed and meets Shaw near the door. Her hands smooth over Shaw’s shoulders and button her jacket for her in silence, and Shaw, despite herself, lets her. With a small smile, Root pats her sides and moves to open the door. “Have fun, sweetie,” she grins, back to her teasing tone after the oddly intimate moment.
Shaw simply nods at her, then turns to the hallway. Lionel is watching them in exasperation, tapping his scepter on the floor. He’s exchanged his leopard print unitard for what’s probably supposed to be a more formal black one. The exaggerated large popped collar is the same, though, and his hair, while not phallic this time, is still ridiculous. Several tightly curled buns rest on his head, clearly a wig as it’s a sleek and healthy looking brown, rather than the close cropped gray she knows he should be sporting. And that’s not even getting into the bouquet of roses lining his collar.
“Quit canoodling with your girl and let’s get a move on, we’ve got a show in five minutes.”
Shaw groans but follows him down the hallway, feeling Root’s eyes on her as she retreats. The Diva better have some answers for her. Maybe then she can leave this place sooner rather than later, and never have to see Lionel’s face again.
Carter wipes her brow as she takes her seat at her desk, and nods at the technician waiting at the terminal. The need for discretion about the impending apocalypse means the best way to keep tabs on Shaw’s mission is to listen to Ruby Rhod’s radio show, and under any other circumstance she’d have a lifetime of amusement from seeing Control - a hint of frostbite still hanging around her earlobes from whatever had happened at Shaw’s apartment - listening intently to his never ending stream of innuendo and pep.
Under any other circumstance.
Dulcet tones fill the command room from every sound system available, a smooth seductive announcer’s voice at the top of the hour. “You’re listening to Radio Cosmos, and it is now five p.m. Time to join Ruby Rhod and Sameen Shaw, the lucky winner of the Gemini Croquette contest, coming at you live, from Fhloston - ”
“Paradiiiiise!” Ruby’s voice interrupts, loud and booming, and a crashing dance beat fills the room. “Ruby Rhod, at your service for two hours with lucky Sameen and the manager of this super green hotel, miss Gemini Croquette herself in person, and eight thousand other lucksters here to enjoy the privilege of the unique concert of Miss Plavalaguuuuna!”
Ruby’s cheerful announcement of the Diva echoes through the bridge of Fhloston Paradise, where the captain lounges with a cup of tea while listening to the show. A lieutenant comes through a side room and addresses the captain.
“Sir, we’ve got a ship in distress requesting permission to dock for repairs.”
The captain nods, taking a sip of tea. “Did you check their registration?”
“Everything’s in order, sir.”
“Put them in the docking garage and inform security,” the captain says, and turns his attention back to the radio show.
“And now we enter what must be the most beautiful concert hall in all the universe! A perfect replica of an old opera house… But who cares? To my right, a row of ministers, more sinisters than ministers. To my left, Roy Von Baker, king of laser ball. Nice to see he has interests other than grunting and shooting things, let’s see if it sticks. And here we have the emperor of Kodar Japhet and his gorgeous son. ‘I love to sing,’ he recently confessed to me.”
In a small ship looming near the hotel in orbit above the planet Fhloston, a communication with the helm comes through.
“Permission granted to dock for repairs, for one hour.”
Greer smiles to himself. “More than I need.”
Barely audible on Greer’s commercial radio, Ruby Rhod cuts off the recorded moaning he’d been playing.
“I’ll play the rest of the song later, because right now it’s time for Sameen to say the word of the day. Tell me, Shaw. You happy here, in the big world?”
In the front row of the concert hall, barely three feet from the stage, Shaw lets the silence drag out for a long second before leaning in to the scepter microphone that Lionel has shoved into her face. “Thrilled.”
She takes her seat and watches as Lionel clenches a fist in the air and restrains himself from any further reaction. “And now…” he says, twirling. “Champagne!” He taps a tall, blond waiter in a white formal jacket on the shoulder and takes a flute of champagne from her tray, then shoos her away with a wave of his hand and taps the microphone at his ear. “Commercial! Commercial!”
A radio commercial for the next Gemini Croquette contest plays in an anteroom off the main concert hall. Two dozen Managalores sit around a pair of tables, playing cards, and they raise their weapons as one when the door opens to reveal the waiter. She looks around, noting the weapons, and nods.
“Showtime,” Martine says, and shakes her head to dissolve the disguise.
The commercial cuts off, followed by a short silence. Then -
Haunting flutes playing a somber melody fill the concert hall, and Shaw sits straight in her seat as the curtains pull back, revealing the ship’s orbital view of the planet Fhloston in the enormous windows that comprise the wall. A shadow steps forward and the Diva Plavalaguna emerges, bathed in light, her head bowed, softly swaying with the music. Her pale blue skin nearly matches the seas on the planet’s surface, a skintight floor length dress perfectly matching her coloring and nearly making her seem naked on stage, apart from the narrow draped belt at her waist and ornate collar and cuffs of bronze. Shaw’s eyes are drawn to the tentacle-like appendages that emerge from the top of her head and around her spine to dangle past her knees, almost seeming more like hair if they weren’t the same color as her skin, and she’s struck by how tall the Diva is. Taller than Root, even, by at least a foot.
The Diva takes a few more steps forward, then lifts her head and begins to sing her aria. “Il dolce suono mi colpì di sua voce...”
Opera isn’t Shaw’s thing, by any stretch of the imagination, but even she can admit the Diva’s voice is beautiful. She hits notes unreachable by anyone else in the galaxy and turns simple Italian words into an otherworldly lament and not even the forced company of Lionel beside her can make Shaw regret being here in this moment.
“Ah, quella voce me qui nel cor discesa…”
The Diva holds a note for five seconds that seem to pause time, enrapturing the audience as she sings toward the balcony, hands outstretched like she’s pushing the sound out of herself. The accompaniment drops out when she finishes the line and for a moment the only sound in the cavernous hall is the ethereal echo of her voice.
“Edgardo…” Violins join the flutes as the Diva gestures, pleading, out into the audience. “Io ti son resa…”
On the bridge of the ship, the security lieutenant turns down the radio in his office, pulls up a chair, and fixes a stare at the man in handcuffs before him. “All right, you wanna start again? Maybe make some sense this time?”
John gazes back impassively at the lieutenant, grime from the cargo hold of the shuttle covering his suit but otherwise unharmed. “I stowed away because the world is going to end.” He shrugs, and reaches his cuffed hands out for his tea. He can list eleven separate ways of getting out of here in thirty seconds or less, but it’s not urgent. Not yet, anyway. At least here he can listen to the Diva’s concert.
“Fuggita io son da tuoi nemici…”
A single flute rises above the rest, a harmonizing voice carrying the melody along with the Diva. Shaw hears sniffling next to her; Lionel pulls out a handkerchief from somewhere in his unitard’s collar and dabs at his eyes and the worst part is, Shaw can’t find it in herself to make fun of him.
The Diva finishes the verse and the flutes get louder, carrying a slightly different melody, the violins dropping out and switching to a dramatic staccato accompaniment.
The sound echoes through the luxury suite where Root lies on the oversize bed with her eyes closed, drinking in the music, so unlike anything she’d been allowed to listen to in the company of the Mondoshawan. There’s a hum running through her, something Divine, clearly, but it doesn’t feel like Her usual communication with Root. Curious, she tunes her attention to it, focusing on the music coming through the radio and the singing in her blood, and opens the thread of connection with the Divine that is calling her toward it.
Sheer, overwhelming emotion floods through her. Eight thousand souls screaming at her with it, a cacophony of awe and ecstasy, echoing off each other and feeding each other and filling Root with such sentiment that her flesh can’t possibly contain. The Diva continues her song on the radio but Root can’t hear it, doesn’t need to hear it, she can feel it, in the hearts of the audience, enraptured by the Diva’s voice, if not Divine then at least something holy.
Something so simple, yet so beautiful. And the humans in the audience, to a one, struck. Unthinking of their petty conflicts or their unrelenting pursuit of fortune, united, if only for a single night, by the sublime.
Humanity reverberates within her and Root has never felt closer to the Divine than in this moment. To think She experiences all of humanity with this intensity, has experienced it for all of Her and their existence… It’s little wonder that she loves them so much, and even as Root feels water gathering at the corners of her eyes she knows that the Divine is weeping along with her.
She can’t allow this to be destroyed.
The violins become more intense, and Root wishes the Mondoshawan had seen fit to include more music in her training education, or that she had at least thought to research classical opera after being woken from stasis - her vocabulary for this is woefully inadequate. The word cabaletta flits across her mind and she lets herself drift off in the rhythm of the Diva’s voice -
- and is ripped violently away by a malevolent force barging its way into her awareness.
Mangalores in the hallway, just outside the door, surely here for the Diva’s suite. One of them growls an order to the others and Root’s eyes wrench shut, shattered memories of the attack on her ship coming to the fore. A blip on the radar of the Mondoshawan helm. Probing the Divine and seeing the Mangalore fighters, gleefully and mercilessly firing on them. Alarms, fire, ruin. Death.
Voices outside the Diva’s door, an offering of champagne to the assistant inside. Unknowing, the Diva continues her song, still flowing through the radio.
“Vacilla il piè!”
The team of Mangalores storm into the Diva’s suite, yelling about finding the stones, and Root’s jaw clenches against the rapid shift from such beauty to such rage.
They don’t know what they’ve just brought upon themselves.
The Diva’s voice turns into a tormented lament, wavering with emotion as she pleads out at her audience.
“Si, Presso la fonte meco t'assidi…”
Shaw surreptitiously glances at Lionel on her right, some minister or another on her left. The Diva bends slightly, hand outstretched, seeming to sing directly at Shaw herself. Her Italian is more than a little rusty, especially her operatic Italian, so she’s unsure of what the Diva is actually saying. But the message is clear: the Diva knows her role in the cosmic scheme of things, and is imploring her to see it through.
The music falls, echoing through the concert hall for a moment, and the Diva drops back, swaying gently.
The music slowly swells, then -
A loud, explosive beat.
Root kicks the door in, knocking one Mangalore off his feet and into another, sending them both sprawling to the ground. Another is standing nearby; Root seizes him by the collar of his armor as he turns around and smashes her head into his nose, and lands an outstretched kick at a third trying to come up behind her.
Five more stand before her in the trashed suite, the one in the center holding a nondescript rectangular case. The stones. Root eyes them all, readying herself for another barrage, settles on the one in the center, and points her finger at him, daring him.
“Get her!” the one with the case, clearly the leader, gurgles at the others. The one on the right breaks off and Root smiles viciously at him as she draws her arm back, feigning a punch, and he’s taken by surprise by the kick that lands across the side of his head and sends him to his knees. A spin and another kick, to the chest this time, takes care of the one on the left for the moment.
One of the ones knocked aside by the door must have managed to rise to his feet - he grabs Root from behind, wrapping his arms around her, but a swift kick of her calf up and back strikes him in the crotch and he releases her. A fist to his face and he’s sent sprawling into a chair where he tumbles backward before he can catch himself, knocking himself out when he hits the floor.
On the radio, the Diva resumes her song, animated and energetic along with the distinctly modern beat the orchestra has been playing without her. Wordless vocalizations, as far as Root can tell, but she lets her connection with the Divine blow wide open and she can sense each of the Mangalores in the suite, telegraphing their moves to her by virtue of having a pulse, and in the swirling maelstrom she can feel the music within the audience in the concert hall, eight thousand people unconsciously coupling their thoughts with the beat, building and pounding within themselves and resonating through to Root and she moves to the rhythm of it, a fight to protect life and a dance to celebrate it, for an audience of none but Her.
Another Mangalore tries to seize Root from behind but she drops to the floor as the music does, turns on a heel and rises to face him. She blocks a barrage of punches with her forearms in time with the beat pulsing within her, and finally traps both of his wrists in her hands. She looks up at him through her curtain of sweat and dirt-matted hair and grins.
The Diva shouts.
Root shoves him backward to give herself room and kicks the Mangalore square in the face, shattering several bones. Blood pours out onto the floor and the Divine alerts her to another Mangalore behind her. A swift elbow connects with his gut and she throws her fist back to break his nose - that takes care of him.
There’s a Mangalore in the hallway - he had been late to their storming of the suite, the Divine tells her - watching, debating whether to get involved or retreat. Root delivers a forceful kick to two Mangalores struggling to get to their feet, sending one after the other sliding along the floor and out the door, and notes with no small amount of satisfaction that the one who had been watching runs back down the hallway in the opposite direction.
Another tries to run at her from behind - she waits until the perfect moment and deftly steps aside, letting him carry himself forward when he had anticipated Root impeding him, and with an encouraging kick to the small of his back he flies forward onto the piano, slides across it, and lands in a heap on the floor on the other side. Light catches on a sword being brandished threateningly by one of the few who haven’t been knocked out yet; Root turns slightly, tilts her head in condescension, and lets another kick fly.
The blade breaks in the Mangalore’s hand.
The leader sets down the case, pulls out a gun, and immediately fires wildly at her. Root lets her body’s thrumming with the rhythm and the Divine’s signaling of his intentions take over, and she falls backward onto her hands, deftly evading the hail of gunfire as she flips gracefully across the room away from him, scarcely landing on a single hand or foot in time with the music before springing off the floor again. The bullets cease and she lands heavy on her feet at the door, stance wide and stable, hands outstretched. She smirks, taunting him, and the Diva’s voice gives a playful flutter of notes as his gun jams.
He tosses the gun, the Diva’s voice going low. The pitch steadily rises as the Mangalore rushes toward Root, and when he approaches Root plants her feet, posts a hand at his shoulders, and uses his own momentum to guide his head under her other arm. They stumble together but Root doesn’t let go, wrapping her arm around his neck, and the Diva hits an impossibly high note as Root squeezes and cuts off the flow of blood to whatever brain he might have in his skull.
The last remaining Mangalore rises to his feet as the music reaches a crescendo, the Diva singing through a dizzying, impossible array of notes until she lands on one, sustaining it for countless seconds as Root straightens her back and squeezes her arm around the leader’s throat even tighter, tracking the other Mangalore’s movements with the Divine. He tries to sneak behind her, and as the music drops out with the Diva’s voice still ringing through the concert hall and Root’s blood, he readies an attack.
The Diva ends her note.
The orchestra returns - one beat, Root drops the unconscious Mangalore to the ground.
A second beat, she spins and takes out the last Mangalore at the knees.
The final, triumphant beat, and Root’s knee connects with his chin and he slumps over, unconscious.
There’s a brief silence, then the roar of a crowd rising to its feet, the orchestra hall thundering with applause. In the front row, Shaw rises more slowly, struck with whatever the Diva had been trying to impart to her by singing directly at her, and, if she’s being honest, more than a little in awe at what she’d just witnessed. The Diva is renowned throughout the galaxy and Shaw had brushed it off as little more than the usual sort of star power that led to people like Ruby Rhod becoming famous, but this, this almost made having to be on Lionel’s show worth it.
The applause doesn’t let up, reverberating through the rooms off the main hall. The Mangalore from the hallway outside the Diva’s suite bursts in, interrupting the others who had remained behind from their card game.
“It was an ambush!”
Martine takes him in, then looks to the others in turn. “If it’s war they want, it’s war they’ll get.”
Beside Shaw, Lionel drops his scepter, sticking his thumb and finger into his mouth to whistle. The curtain behind the Diva drops, blocking off the view of Fhloston, and she bows at the crowd.
Root starts, pausing in her motion of picking up the case the Mangalore leader had left behind. She had closed off most of her connection with the Divine after the last Mangalore had fallen, feeling a headache coming on from the sheer volume of input, and now John Greer himself is standing before her, wearing a slightly rumpled suit and a far too smug face.
“Bravo,” he repeats. “My compliments, little lady. Thank you for doing all the dirty work, I couldn’t have done a better job myself.” He nods and points at the case in Root’s hands. “Hand over the stones.”
The Divine screams at her, Her panic palpable in every fiber of Root’s being. The case is empty, Root can tell, knowing as she does precisely what each stone weighs and the impossibility of whatever may be in the case weighing even slightly over that figure. Greer doesn’t know that, though, but whether he knows the importance of Root herself to the stones’ efficacy, he clearly isn’t planning on letting Root out of here alive.
Greer raises a large rifle, letting the grip smack into his outstretched hands. “Now.”
Dust mites in the ductwork above outline her only path of escape. Root slowly moves herself into position, eyeing Greer, who eyes her in turn. With a dip of her knees, she hefts the case into the air toward Greer, not even pausing to watch him stumble backwards to catch it before she takes a running jump herself and swings up on the decorative metal framework near the ceiling, shoving an access panel aside with her feet on the upswing and landing neatly inside the ventilation duct.
The duct behind her explodes in brutal metallic echoes as Greer fires blindly into the ceiling, dozens of rounds in the span of mere seconds. Root crawls forward as the Divine spirals further into a panic, somehow unable to read Greer at all; the Evil he’s working for is running interference for him, blocking Her ability to sense his intentions and leaving Root on her own. Distantly, she realizes that must be how he’s planning on surviving this to profit from it - if the Evil can shield him from the Divine, it must be able to shield him from dying with the rest of humanity when it attacks.
Another volley bursts through the ceiling and Root cries out in pain as multiple bullets tear through her left arm, outstretched in her attempt to crawl through the ductwork. The Divine amplifies her pain, feeling it as Her own, She’s sorry, so sorry, She didn’t anticipate this, She never wanted Root to die, certainly not this way, she can’t die this way -
She can’t die this way. Shaw will never forgive her.
Root ignores the blood seeping out of her forearm and crawls toward the intersection that the mites tell her will lead back to Shaw’s suite. Her knee slips on the pool of blood left behind and she slams against the side of the duct, surely warning Greer of her location. She stumbles forward with renewed desperation, she has stones to find, a mission to complete, she has to get back to Shaw -
Greer hits his mark.
She loses count of how many bullets tear apart her flesh through her howls of pain but the barrage seems endless, scorching metal scraping against bone and ripping through sinew and it’s all she can do to hold herself still when it finally ceases, to play dead rather than make a sound and invite further pain which would surely kill her.
The Divine pushes their connection open Herself, Root unable to focus enough to let Her in, and bathes her in Her love even as Root feels Her profound sorrow. Warmth oozes along her skin, nothing to do with the Divine and everything to do with the life slowly pouring out of her. She could heal from this, she thinks, but only if she can make it out of the duct and remove the bullets preventing her blood vessels from repairing themselves.
Noise fills the hallway outside and Root searches the threads of the Divine until she lands upon the concert hall. Chaos, panic, blood, so much blood, blood covering Shaw’s hands, Root’s heart stutters before she realizes it’s blue blood, the Diva’s blood. Mangalores. The Mangalores storming the hotel, killing with impunity, taking something so pure, so beautiful, so full of life, and turning it into their own sick kind of symphony of screams.
She hears Greer below her, gleeful in the wake of the chaos, and through one of the many bullet holes in the duct she can see him affix something to the door. A bomb, the Divine supplies, through the eyes of one of the hotel guests running by. A timer starts, and Greer picks up the case and joins the bedlam outside.
Twenty minutes. They have twenty minutes. Root struggles to lift herself but her muscle tissue is too shredded, and the primal, fearful screaming echoing in her head from the concert hall as guests get mowed down for no reason other than their simple presence in the hotel makes it impossible to hear the Divine trying to reach her.
She focuses on Shaw. Shaw, with Lionel, and the Diva in her arms as the light fades from her eyes. Shaw, nearly alone in an empty concert hall, with dozens of Mangalores scouting for any survivors or hint of the stones.
Root closes her eyes, tears mixing with blood as she loses her tenuous grasp on consciousness at last.
One more chapter then an epilogue to go!
He’d missed most of the Diva’s first song, but John thinks maybe he’s finally convinced the security chief that he’s not some sort of terrorist. Probably. He seems to be leaning more toward mostly-harmless criminal stowaway with an overactive imagination, at least. Still hasn’t seen fit to take John’s handcuffs off, though, which would be more of a concern if John didn’t know eight different ways to free himself just with the various objects within reach.
Applause filters through the radio embedded in the wall, and as John is debating the merits of asking whether they could delay any more interrogation until after the Diva’s next song, the doors to the control room violently burst open and a team of Mangalores storms inside.
“We’re taking over the ship!” the one in front growls, lofting an overpowered Greer Industries rifle at the captain.
Well, at least John’s not the security officer’s only concern anymore.
Another Mangalore advances toward the security office. “Hands up!”
John eyes the room. Twelve Mangalores, five crewmen, and himself. He could probably manage to get the closest Mangalores taken down before getting himself killed, but having to take the few seconds to get his hands free first make that a more risky prospect than he’d prefer. Especially knowing what they must be here for. He can play the hapless stowaway for a while, maybe interfere with whatever the Mangalores are planning up here.
He puts his hands up, still shackled together. Shaw just needs some time. He knows he can give it to her.
Applause still echoes through the concert hall and as she stares through the Diva still on stage, Shaw is struck with the sudden thought that she would have liked to see Root’s reaction to the song. Had Root even been allowed to listen to music when she was growing up, training to sacrifice herself for the rest of humanity? It can be frivolous, sure - Lionel’s radio show is evidence enough of that - but Shaw can’t deny that there was something deeper than music in this concert hall when the Diva had sung. It’s the sort of thing that makes life worth living, if you were into that kind of philosophical bullshit, and though Shaw has the suspicion that, given what they had done to Hanna, the Mondoshawan would have frowned upon the Fifth Elements enjoying music, she has a hard time seeing how it would have been detrimental to their effort to get them to protect life at all costs.
She frowns, annoyed at her annoyance at a hypothetical, as likely as it may be, and turns her annoyance to Lionel shouting bravo at the Diva beside her. That’s more like it. Should have been Root next to her in this fancy cordoned off VIP box in the front row, she’s supposedly Shaw’s wife, after all. As far as Gemini Croquette is concerned, anyway.
Rapid gunfire from the rear of the concert hall puts an abrupt end to the applause, and Shaw’s body reacts before her brain has fully processed the sound and pulled Lionel down to the ground with her. Screams and panic fill the room now, particularly in Shaw’s ear where Lionel is shrieking and several of his assistants are shouting his name as the mob beyond their private audience box forces them toward the exits.
More gunfire, the familiar screams of the dead - Shaw pokes her head over the partition. Mangalores. A lot of them.
The Mangalores seem divided on whether to shepherd the audience out the exit doors or just mow them down. Shaw can hear gunfire out in the lobby - apparently there’s another strike team of mercenaries outside the concert hall, even less concerned about the audience’s well-being. They must be here for the stones, somehow they figured out the Diva was connected to them… Shit, the Diva’s suite. Root’s guarding the suite alone, and if there’s this many Mangalores in the concert hall after the Diva herself, they surely have enough to storm the suite in search of the stones. Root can take care of herself, Shaw knows, and leaving her behind to guard the Diva’s suite had been the plan, but that doesn’t mean Shaw likes it.
She turns toward the stage, reaching out to indicate to the Diva to join her and Lionel in the relative safety of the private box, but it’s only been scarce seconds since the shooting started, and the Diva still stands tall on the stage, watching the chaos unfold, and Shaw sees the moment a single high-powered round strikes her in the abdomen, rending her flesh and spilling deep blue blood onto the stage.
The Diva seems to fall in slow motion, graceful even in imminent death. The various ministers and other rich people in the private box throw themselves over the partition in panic, leaving Shaw and Lionel behind. With a quick check to make sure no Mangalores are within close range, Shaw darts out toward the stage and wraps her arms around the Diva, pulling her off the stage and onto the floor in the private box. She’s strangely light, for how tall she is, but she’s already nearly a dead weight and Shaw can feel her blood slick and hot on her hands.
Shouting and chaos echo through the various radios in the war room on Earth and Carter turns to Control - she’s hated every second of this, having to rely on Ruby Rhod’s radio show for updates on Shaw’s whereabouts for the sake of discretion, and now chaos has erupted and she needs answers.
“What the hell is going on in there?”
“Folks, something’s happening,” Ruby’s voice comes through the radio, terrified but steady over the screaming and gunfire. “I think we’re being attacked. I don’t know what they are, but they’re everywhere. There, I see one of them. They’re warriors, and they’re ugly. They’ve got grey skin, and big ears, sunken eyes, and half their head is a mouth. And they stink.”
Control nods to herself, then tells Carter what she’s already figured out. “Mangalores.”
In the VIP box, Shaw ignores Lionel monologuing to his radio audience - he’s not quite panicking yet, to his credit, and as long as he’s focusing on the show then he’s not getting in Shaw’s way. She strips off her tuxedo jacket and presses it to the Diva’s wound.
“I’m here to help you, just stay calm,” she mutters, as soothingly as she can manage to someone whose eyes betray their acceptance of their fate.
“You must give her the stones.”
When the Diva speaks, it’s as though she has two voices, harmonizing with each other. Shaw suddenly knows how she managed to hit such impossible notes in her song. She glances up at the Diva’s serene face for a moment before focusing back on putting pressure on the wound. “Who?”
“The Fifth Element,” the Diva says. “The supreme being, sent to Earth to save humanity.”
“Yes.” She seems somehow pleased that Shaw knows her name, and Shaw realizes her best opportunity to find a way to keep Root from tearing herself apart at the end of all this is slipping away. “But she’s more fragile than she seems.”
“I know.” Her hands slick with blood press down on the jacket covering the Diva’s wound and she turns her full attention to her words. “I know she’s supposed to die - using this weapon, this Light of Creation, it’s gonna kill her. There’s gotta be another way, though, right? This… Divine, wouldn’t make that the only way.”
The Diva reaches a weak hand out to Shaw’s tuxedo shirt, smearing her fingers through her own blood. “She needs your help. And your love, or…” she swallows, seeming to ignore the question, “she will die.”
The fuck is that supposed to mean? “Help how? Is there a way to use the Weapon without killing her or not?”
The Diva’s hand falls, her eyes fluttering closed. Fuck, finding a way for Root to use the weapon without dying is useless if they can’t find the stones to activate it in the first place. She shifts and shakes the Diva’s shoulders. “Hey, come on, wake up.” A flutter under her fingers. Hopefully it’s enough. “Where are the stones?”
“What?” Her harmonizing voices are fading, barely distinguishable anymore.
“The stones, where are they?”
“The stones…” the Diva pauses, struggling with her breath.
(On a ship speeding away from Fhloston, Greer engages the autopilot and steps back into the cargo space. “If you want something done, do it yourself,” he proclaims, and picks up the case he had taken from the Diva’s suite. He sets it on a table, running his fingers reverently along the lid, then takes a seat before it.
He opens the case. And promptly shuts it again as he breaks down into the delirious laughter of a man who knows he’s gotten himself in deep. “They’re not here.”)
Shaw shakes the Diva as gunfire rages on around them. “The stones, where are the stones?”
The Diva blinks up at her, curling a finger on the hand that had fallen onto her chest. “In me.”
Silence for a beat. “What?”
There’s no response; Shaw presses her hand to the Diva’s chest, another to her neck, knees slipping in the blood that’s pooled around them.
“One coming this way, Shaw,” Lionel says, head poking over the partition. “I think we should go, Shaw. Shaw!”
She ignores his hissed whisper. “Just give me a minute,” she mutters, thinking furiously.
Heavy footsteps approach the front row. “Hey, you!” a single Mangalore growls at them. Shaw hears him draw his gun and approach, kicking Shaw in the side. “I said you!”
“I’m not with her,” Lionel says, and answers Shaw’s responding eyeroll with one of his own.
The Mangalore shoves his gun into the back of Shaw’s head. “Where’s the other?”
Root. They must know about Root. Oh, she is sick of people finding out about her business all the fucking time. The Mangalore adjusts the angle of his gun and Shaw spins on her heel, grabbing his wrist as she kicks out his knee, flipping him onto his back in one swift motion. His skull cracks on the floor, knocking him out, and Shaw holds the gun to his forehead.
“I said one minute.” She leans toward Lionel, takes his hand, and wraps it around the gun. “Hold this.”
Lionel’s eyes go comically wide. “What… what do you want me to do?”
“If he moves, squeeze the trigger.”
Lionel continues to panic beside her as she turns back to the Diva’s now lifeless body. The stones are in me, she’d said. Well, Shaw shrugs, okay then.
The tuxedo jacket squelches with blood when she pulls it away from the Diva’s abdomen. Blood bubbles anew from the wound for a moment before ebbing from the lack of a heartbeat. Her skin is torn apart, a decently sized hole a few inches from centerline, and Shaw squeezes her fingers together and pushes her hand into the wound.
She’d marvel at the Diva’s anatomy if the situation weren’t so dire. No organs to speak of, as far as she can tell, just thick, warm blood, and - Shaw’s fingers brush against something hard. There. Her hand shifts to grasp it, feeling the weight of it as she struggles to keep her grip amongst all the blood to pull it out.
One of the stones, it has to be. A simple triangular prism about the length of her forearm, with curved lines etched into it, each of them filled with the Diva’s blood. She holds it aloft in the light for a moment, wondering how something so simple is going to save all of humanity. And how they got inside the Diva in the first place.
“Lionel - ” she starts, and is promptly answered by a gunshot and a shout. She turns her head sharply to see the Mangalore’s head blown half off, the gun in Lionel’s hand discarded to the side.
“Shit, sorry, sorry,” he says, rubbing his sleeve on the Mangalore’s forehead. “Think he’s gonna be okay?”
“Just… Keep a look out for a second, will you?” There’s no way that shot didn’t draw some attention, and she still has three more stones to get.
Her hand sinks into the Diva’s abdomen again as Lionel peeks over the partition. “Another one coming, Shaw.”
Her fingers scrape against another stone. “How long?” she asks distractedly, tugging it out.
Lionel steals another glance. “Oh, shit. Three coming. Maybe twenty rows back.”
Shaw makes quick work of retrieving the other two stones, then wraps them all in her blood soaked tuxedo jacket, tying the sleeves together to make a bundle, and shoves it into Lionel’s chest as she grabs the gun at his side. “Listen to me, you guard this with your life, okay? Or you’re gonna look like this guy right here.” She points the gun at the dead Mangalore. “Green?”
Lionel jerks his head hesitantly. “Green.”
She searches his face, terrified and clearly out of his depth but trusting her words. “Super green?”
In the war room, Carter’s hands fall from her face to her desk at the exchange. “Is that your idea of a discreet operation?”
Control stands tall and nods. “Don’t worry, ma’am. I know Shaw. She’ll calm things down.”
A hail of bullets precedes Shaw as she emerges from the concert hall with a Greer Industries machine gun she’d stolen from one of the three Mangalores who’d made the mistake of advancing upon the front row. The Mangalores guarding the entrance don’t even see her coming and her shots send them falling backward over the railing behind them to the main floor.
Movement to her right. She twists and fires, taking out two more on the stairs without looking as she scouts the lobby - most of the civilians are gone, chased away or already dead, she’s not sure which. A few remain, though, so she drops the machine gun in favor of the precision aim of the hand gun and wraps both hands around the grip to steady it as she fires at a few Mangalores down below.
The civilians scatter and Shaw takes a moment to appreciate her work - one shot, one hit, one casualty, she’s still got it - before a pair of Mangalores in the center of the lobby catch her eye. They have a ground-based machine gun slash rocket launcher combo.
She darts off to the left, firing at the Mangalores behind the machine gun as they do the same and the balcony behind her explodes in shards of wood and marble. There’s a bartending area down below to her right - it’s as good for cover as anything else, she supposes, and takes a running leap off the balcony, her blood-soaked shoe slipping on the railing just enough for her to realize even as she’s still in the air that her aim is going to be off enough for this landing to really fucking hurt.
The storage shelves split and splinter and shatter when she crashes into the bar and she’s lucky she managed to shield her head on the way down - she’s buried in broken boards and busted bottles and her forearms feel like they’ve been torn to shreds. She shoves it all away and sits up, coughing, and, realizing her gun was lost in the fall, searches the bar for something she can use as a weapon.
Movement on the balcony above catches her eye. Lionel, scooting slowly forward on his stomach, pushing the bag of stones in front of him and looking like he’s still narrating for his audience. Shaw shakes her head and creeps forward in a crouch to the other end of the bar in her search for a weapon.
The wood behind her explodes as one of the rockets blasts through it and she covers her head again until the debris settles. Her eyes track a flying bottle through the air until it lands in front of a man hiding under a pool table and in front of him - yes, her handgun, thank fuck. The man is familiar, one of “Ruby Rhod’s” assistants, she thinks. Shit, what’s his name?
“Rob!” she hisses toward him. “Ron! … Ray?” Whatever his name, she has his attention now, his eyes wide as he clings to one of the table legs. “The gun!”
The man cocks his head, his eyes flicking toward the spot on the floor that Shaw gestured toward. He reaches toward it, then recoils at something going on behind Shaw. You’d think he hadn’t seen a Mangalore mercenary before, sheesh.
“Yes, the gun! Give me the gun!”
He recoils again and okay, maybe Shaw only has herself to blame for the second blast that hits the bar, calling attention to her lack of being dead by yelling at Lionel’s assistant. She scrambles out from behind the cover when she hears the Mangalores fire, just managing to escape before an explosion tears the bar apart. Her gun is almost within reach, her fingers scraping through the debris littering the floor before she hears a series of mechanical sounds, looks to her left, and sees four more Mangalores behind a fountain that’s somehow still functioning, aiming their overpowered rifles right at her.
Shit. She dashes back to the bar, figuring cover that’s been blown apart multiple times is still better than no cover. Rapid gunfire follows her, one bullet grazes her calf, shrapnel flies off from the sides of the bar, but she’s still intact. The guy under the pool table is still staring at her, not making any attempt to run away but that’s probably the smart move for him right now. “The gun!” she hisses again as she tears off the tatters of her sleeves to tie a makeshift bandage around her leg, and finally, fucking finally, he manages to collect himself enough to reach out and slide something forward. The sound is off, though, and when Shaw ties off the bandage and looks at what Ray had given her, she can only blame herself for expecting better from one of Ruby Rhod’s assistants.
“Thanks, Ray,” Shaw says, considering whether it would be worth it to pick one up and sling it at his head rather than saving them both for the Mangalores. Ray salutes her and goes back to clinging to the pool table and Shaw’s saved from having to decide by a Mangalore popping up out of nowhere on the other side of the bar in front of her and leveling his rifle at her head.
“Don’t shoot!” she shouts before the Mangalore can do anything, taking a page out of Ray’s scared tourist book and throwing her hands in the air. “I’m not armed!”
The Mangalore jerks his rifle in the air. “Get up!”
“You’ve got the wrong guy,” Shaw says, hands still in the air as she stands. Not an ideal situation, leaving cover with unknown numbers of mercs surrounding her, but at least now she can get a lay of the land. She lets her best scared normal person tremble into her voice as she slowly turns around in place. “I’m on vacation, don’t shoot me, please.”
Four of them still at the fountain, three at the rocket launcher now, another three unpacking some seriously heavy firepower from a case behind them, plus the one nearly within reach, who tracks her movements by hopping onto the end of a large piece of wood - paneling from the underside of the balcony, it looks like, laying on a pile of debris and forming a sort of seesaw. Shaw takes it all in, notes Lionel’s head peeking from between the bars of the railing on the balcony above them, and settles on a plan.
“I’m on my honeymoon, I won a contest,” she continues, making like she’s uncomfortably backing away from the Mangalore. The only place to go is on top of the pile of debris at the other end of the bar - good. She slowly steps on it then climbs onto what remains of the surface of the bar as she continues her pleading. “Gemini Croquette’s contest, tickets for two to Fhloston Paradise, I’m just on vacation, please.”
The Mangalore closest to her shoulders his rifle. “Down!”
She catches Lionel’s eye and quickly looks away, gesturing to him with her right hand, flicking her fingers to the side.
“Wait a minute,” Lionel whispers from above, still broadcasting to his audience, apparently.
“I said down!” The Mangalore plants his feet on the debris, ready to fire. Shaw gestures to Lionel a second time.
Lionel perks up a little. “I think she’s trying to say something to me.”
Well, she tried. Lionel’s only got himself to blame for this.
Shaw nods and inches toward the edge of the bar. The Mangalore keeps his eyes and rifle trained on her, which is just as well. She lines her feet up, gauges her aim on the ceiling, and jumps down from the counter, landing with all of the leg strength she can muster onto the opposite end of the fallen board the Mangalore is standing on, seesawing him into the air where his thick skull crashes into the already damaged balcony above them and gets himself stuck, legs kicking in the air.
In the next half second, Shaw throws herself aside behind the pile of debris, Lionel screams at the sudden presence of an angry Mangalore’s head right where he had been lying, and the dangling Mangalore starts blindly firing his rifle in his rage. Out of the corner of her eye, Shaw can see Ray, or whatever his name was, taking the opportunity to escape in the confusion. The Mangalores at the fountain are swiftly taken out by their companion’s aimless shooting but before the ones at the rocket launcher can take him out themselves, the Mangalore falls from the ceiling and crashes onto the floor, unmoving.
Lionel’s face peeks out at her from the hole in the ceiling - Shaw ignores his scandalized look as she dives for the Mangalore’s rifle, rolls to the side, and mows down the three at the rocket launcher. Crouching on her knees, she makes swift work of taking out the rest of the Mangalores in the lobby. And more than a few of the unnecessarily elaborate decorations in the place, but they had it coming.
When her last shot echoes through the lobby and silence falls, she drops the rifle and turns to the Mangalore behind her. There’s sure to be dozens more of these guys elsewhere in the hotel, and any weapons he might have on him are something she wants to get her hands on.
“Where are you?” Lionel hisses through the hole above her as Shaw finds a small spike bomb in the Mangalore’s vest. Sweet. There’s a thump and heavy footfalls coming from the far end of the balcony. “Oh, shit, they’re coming, Shaw. Three, no, five, no, I don’t know how many - ”
Shaw shoves the bomb in her pocket, grabs the rifle at her feet, and looks up at Lionel. The terrified expression on his face when she aims up at him is almost worth the fact that she’s going to have to use the spike bomb so soon after finding it, to save his sorry ass. “Don’t move,” she warns.
“What - ” Lionel starts, quickly spiraling into a series of curses at Shaw and her mother and Gemini Croquette when Shaw fires in a wide circle around him, down past where she gauges his feet to be and back around to the hole the Mangalore had made. There’s a thunder of stomping boots as the new Mangalores race across the balcony but it only serves to help them along, and with a crunching splintering sound, the floor gives way.
Lionel rides the oval-shaped piece of floor down and crashes at Shaw’s feet, cursing all the while. The rifle is tossed aside, surely near depletion by now, in favor of pulling the bomb out of her pocket and unsheathing it. The spikes pop out and Shaw adjusts the dial on its end.
“You’re a fucking lunatic, you know that?” Lionel berates her as he gets to his feet, his Brooklyn accent coming through. “The fuck is wr - what is that?”
“Count to ten,” Shaw says, and tosses the bomb up in the air, where it sticks to the underside of what’s left of the balcony. In one swift motion, she grabs the sack with the stones - at least Lionel stuck to his word there - and Lionel’s collar and drags them both with her under the pool table Ray had been hiding under. The Mangalores start firing at them through the Lionel-sized hole in the floor, shrapnel flying through the air.
Lionel seems more pissed off and incredulous than anything, to his credit. “Was that a bomb?”
“Just shut up and count.” The stones in one hand, Shaw grabs the support bars between the legs of the pool table and rises to a crouch. Lionel gets the idea and follows suit and together they push the pool table along with them as they sprint laterally away from the balcony with at least seven Mangalores’ worth of gunfire raining down on them.
She’ll say this for Fhloston, they don’t cut corners on flimsy pool tables.
“Ah, shit, four? Four… five…” Lionel counts out between huffed breaths as Shaw glances over her shoulder to gauge the distance they’re putting between themselves and the bomb. Should be enough. Should be. “Six… What the hell did you do in the army, anyway? You’re not - ”
A cacophonous explosion cuts him short as the bomb goes off, sending pieces of balcony and Mangalore alike flying through the lobby. The searing heat wave blasts past them, singeing the hair on Shaw’s arms that’s not currently coated in blood from either herself or the Diva, and Lionel ducks and covers his head with his arms with a yelp. Fire crackles through the air and Shaw shoves the stones into Lionel’s chest, slides out from under the pool table, and gets to her feet.
The balcony is gone, replaced by billowing smoke and flickering flame, as is the bar Shaw had been using as cover. The once elaborately carved marble making up the bulk of the lobby has been reduced to little more than piles of rubble and dull, rough stone exposed on the support columns. No sign of any more Mangalores - living ones, anyway. And most of the dead ones had been close enough to be blown into unrecognizable tiny bits in the explosion.
The fountain is still bubbling away, though.
She hears Lionel gingerly rise and join her, his mouth fallen open in a wordless gape as he looks at what the bomb had wrought. Shaw looks sidelong at him and gives him a small shrug. “Ten.”
That earns her an elbow to the ribs. “You could’ve gotten us killed!”
“Oh, please, like I haven’t set off way bigger bombs in way smaller quarters before.”
Lionel gapes at her, clutching the jacket-wrapped stones close to his chest as though they’d protect him from whatever she might do next. His formal black unitard is covered with chalk-white debris and torn in several places, the popped collar collapsed in the back, and she’s pretty sure she can see his actual hair poking through his knotted wig. She’s in far worse shape, she knows, but adrenaline is still pumping and her body is too busy humming with the thrill of it all to pay attention to the pain.
“Where are the escape pods?” Lionel asks, dismissing the subject of Shaw’s tactics. “There’s gotta be more of these guys, right?”
“Definitely. But we can’t leave yet.” Shaw looks around the ruined lobby, getting her bearings. Fhloston Paradise is, at its heart, just an obnoxiously large, rich person’s space freighter, and freighters always have command centers in specific places. “Come on,” she says, grabbing Lionel’s arm and jogging off in the direction her instinct tells her they should go.
“What do you mean we can’t leave yet?” Lionel complains even as he follows along down a service corridor. “You worried about your girl? Oh, damn, do you think they got her or something?”
“No,” Shaw says, though he’s not entirely wrong. They need to find Root, but if Mangalores stormed the concert looking for the stones, they undoubtedly started themselves a fight with Root at the Diva’s suite. There’s no telling where she would have ended up chasing them to, and they can’t afford to take the time hunting her down. Not when the control room is surely under attack and in need of help too. Take out the Mangalores there, check the security cameras, and find Root’s trail of destruction. Easy. “Root can take care of herself.”
Lionel must note something in her voice. He looks at her oddly, then makes a face. “Should’ve known you found someone just as crazy as yourself to marry.”
Shaw bites back a smile. “Something like that.”
They emerge into a mostly empty hallway, a few people rushing past them, following yellow guiding lights on the floor. A crashing sound followed by a few gunshots ring out from the opposite end of the hallway - there. She grabs Lionel’s arm again, heading toward the ruckus.
“Go toward the gunfire, sure, why not,” he grumbles, then they round a corner and see a man in uniform being tossed through a door, landing in a crumpled heap, followed by more flashing gunfire. “Okay, you found it, I’ll just be over - ”
Shaw just tightens her grip on his arm. They approach the door and, peeking through, find an anteroom separated from the main control room by a short corridor, and on either side of the entryway is a man in the uniform of a Fhloston officer and…
Tugging Lionel along with her, Shaw joins the officer against the wall as John waves at her. His hands are handcuffed together and blood is smeared all over his forehead and clothes, but he seems otherwise unharmed. “How you been, Shaw?”
“Saw a concert, killed a bunch of Mangalores. Got the stones. You?”
“Been a bit tied up,” he shrugs. “Security chief Bolen here lost the key.”
The man beside Shaw clutches his gun to his chest and hisses in fear. “It’s in there!”
As if to emphasize his point, a Mangalore in the control room behind them lets out a growling gurgle, followed by a thump to the floor. Someone probably pissed him off.
“How many are in there?” Shaw asks both Bolen and John; neither of them seem to have an answer. With a sigh she shoves past the security officer, knocking him into Lionel, and peeks past the edge of the wall.
Past the narrow entryway, the Mangalores have made a barricade out of desks and computer equipment. A few are poking at the instrumentation lining the walls that haven’t yet been destroyed, others are holding Fhloston officers hostage, either with a gun to the head or tying them to chairs, and two are attempting to erect another rocket launcher like the others had in the lobby. Shit.
Shaw pulls back, bracing against the wall. “Seven on the left, five on the right.” With a nod toward John, she whips out the handgun she’d stolen from a dead Mangalore, leans back over through the entryway, and lets loose a volley of rounds, sweeping through the line of Mangalores twice before ducking back against the wall.
“Four on the right, two on the left,” she updates the others, as sounds of anger and chaos emanate from the other room followed by a few warning shots. Her handgun is nearly empty, now, and she tosses it aside and gestures at the one in Bolen’s hands. He quickly passes it over, happy to be rid of it. “We need to find the leader, Mangalores won’t fight without the leader.”
“One more shot,” a gruff voice calls out, “and we start killing hostages.”
Another quick peek past the corner. One of the Mangalores has shifted into the form of a tall, blond human woman, presumably to present a more narrow target than her usual Mangalore figure, and is holding another officer by the scruff of his neck. The ship’s captain, judging by his stripes.
“That’s the leader,” Shaw says to John when she pulls back.
The Mangalore leader speaks up again. “Send someone in to negotiate.”
Shaw tips her head toward Bolen, eyebrows raised. He’s probably in charge, technically, since the captain is currently indisposed. He sees her pointed look and stammers out in protest. “I’ve… I’ve never negotiated before.”
“You mind if I give it a try?” Shaw notes Lionel giving her a knowing look from behind the security officer and winks at him.
“No, no, sure, by all means.” Bolen clears his throat and raises his voice to be heard over din of Mangalores in the other room. “We’re sending somebody in to negotiate!”
John nods at her as she steps out into the entryway, hearing echoes of her drill sergeant shouting out paces as her recruit battalion marched in the way her feet hit the floor, back straight, right arm angled slightly behind her.
Three, four, five paces, straight to the center of the room, six, she raises her handgun in one fluid, confident motion, seven, the Mangalores notice and shout but it’s too late, Shaw squeezes the trigger and hits the blond woman right between the eyes, the room falling silent but for the faint metallic clatter of the shell casing hitting the floor.
The ship’s captain huddles in place, stunned, as the Mangalore woman falls backwards. Shaw points the gun at each of the five remaining Mangalores in turn. “Anyone else want to negotiate?”
From behind her, she can hear Bolen stammer out to John and Lionel. “Wh… where did she learn to negotiate like that?”
(In her office on Earth, still listening to Ruby Rhod’s broadcast, even if he seems to have forgotten he’s still on air, President Carter stares blankly up at Control from her desk. “I wonder.”)
The Mangalores seem at a loss for how to proceed - nobody ever accused them of being brilliant strategists, especially not without their leader - and Shaw takes the opportunity given by the lull in their aggression to take them all out at the knee with five precise shots. The remaining Fhloston crew are jolted into action and free their comrades, tying up the alive but writhing in pain Mangalores with their own bonds.
“That was…” the captain who had been held hostage by the lead Mangalore approaches her, a shell-shocked expression still on his face. “I mean…” he gestures with a finger between his eyes, “wow. Thank you, I don’t - ”
They don’t have time for this. “Where’s your security office?”
He gestures behind him and Shaw sprints to the room indicated, hearing Bolen, John, and Lionel coming up behind her. There’s a panel of security monitors embedded in one wall, each flicking between a few different angles of the same area, and Shaw directs her attention to any monitor showing evidence of the Mangalore attacks.
John comes up beside her, the stones cradled in one arm as he rubs his newly freed wrist with his other hand. He gestures behind them and Shaw takes a quick glance at Lionel adjusting the microphone at his ear as he tells his audience the ship has been secured, before turning back to the monitors. “You gave him the stones?
“He’s an idiot, but he’s solid. When he needs to be,” she shrugs.
“Where’s Root?” Inferring the answer from Shaw’s silence and clenched jaw, John scrutinizes the monitors himself. “Is she in trouble?”
“When is Root not in trouble?” She’s sure her voice betrays some amount of fondness through the exasperation, but it’s no time to worry about that. Her eyes alight upon a monitor in the corner, displaying a wrecked room with debris and unconscious or dead Mangalores strewn about. “There, where is that?”
Bolen leans in and follows her pointed finger. “That’s, uhm, the Diva’s suite.”
The image on the monitor flickers, changing angles to a view from above looking toward the main door, and Shaw feels a jolt along her spine before turning and running out of the control center. A single, bloodied hand dangles out from the ceiling, limp and unmoving.
The thrilling climax of the story! I'll probably be posting the epilogue/final chapter on Saturday or Sunday, a bit early since it is a lot shorter than the rest of the chapters have been.
(Also, I debated for a while about what to call this universe's version of faster-than-light travel, until I eventually realized something: no future human civilization on any Earth that had Star Trek in its cultural history would ever - ever - call our future FTL technology anything other than warp drive.)
A clatter from down below rouses her.
She blinks open her eyes - she knows that voice. Something grasps her hand, feeling her wrist, warm skin against the cool air flowing through the duct. Shaw?
There’s a hideous scraping noise and Root is brought back to alertness from sheer annoyance. She manages to shift her body to see Shaw shoving the Diva’s piano across the room, and when the movement makes her cry out in pain, she remembers. She’d managed to crawl nearly all the way back to the entrance to the air duct before passing out again from blood loss. How long has it been?
Shaw clambers up onto the piano and reaches for Root’s shoulders. “How the hell did you even get up here?” Pain sears throughout her body as Shaw pulls her down, stumbling a bit from the angle. “Come on, I’ve got the stones. John’s here, we can go now.”
She’s laid down on the surface of the piano and the renewed throbbing in all her injuries barely pierces through the fog of unconsciousness trying to roll over her again, but she manages to focus on Shaw and what she sees sends a jolt of anger through her. Blood, so much blood, smeared all over Shaw’s clothes, her shirt in tatters and apparently only held in place by her suspenders, exposing her arms which under any other circumstance Root would be pleased to see but the cuts and obvious bullet grazes only serve to infuriate her. “Who did this to you?” she demands, her voice far weaker than she’d like. “I’ll kill them.”
“Too late, I already killed them all.” Shaw smiles down at her, skin glistening with sweat and ash and matted hair stuck to her neck, and Root doesn’t think she’s ever seen anything so beautiful in her life. “Besides, what would you do, bleed on them?”
Pounding footsteps thunder down the hall and skid to a stop at the door - Lionel and John, Root notes. Had they gotten separated at some point, or had Shaw outrun them both by that much, to get to Root? Warmth floods through her, quickly stymied by a renewed flash of pain when Shaw shifts her leg to inspect her wounds.
Shaw gives her a vaguely apologetic look. “What happened here?”
It’s asked by way of distraction, she’s sure. The carnage left behind in the room, along with the unconscious Mangalores, tell the story well enough on their own. They should have all come to by now, though, and Root probes the Divine just enough to confirm - the Mangalores in here are all dead. Greer must have shot them while he was attacking Root.
Greer. The bomb. How much time is left?
She struggles to sit up, utterly fails, and grasps for Shaw’s shirt instead. “Greer - ”
Lionel’s suddenly panicked voice interrupts her. “No no no no no, cause if it was a bomb, all the alarms would be going off, because all these fancy hotels have bomb detectors, right?”
There’s a beat of silence, John nodding uncertainly to Lionel as he gapes at the countdown timer Greer had affixed to the door. She’s spared from having to muster the strength to explain by all the alarms going off.
“This is a Type A alert. For security reasons, the hotel must be evacuated. Please proceed calmly to the lifeboats located in the main hallways.”
An immediate cacophony of screams sounds throughout the hotel, far from the Diva’s suite but audible all the same. Shaw glances at her. “That what you were gonna say?”
Root hums and Shaw joins the others at the door, inspecting the timer.
“You know how to stop this, right?” Lionel asks her after a pregnant pause.
“Not without knowing where the actual bomb is, this is just a remote trigger.” Shaw turns to Root. “Any ideas?”
The Divine screams at her to leave and Root is subsumed by her connection, the sheer terror roiling through the hotel overwhelming her already fragile consciousness. She only just manages to breathe out, “She can’t see it,” before falling under again.
The next thing she knows, she’s in Shaw’s arms, pain jolting through her with every step as they run through the halls with the others, following the alarm lights in the floor to the escape pods. There’s a nudge of a suggestion in her mind and she blindly follows, focusing on the Divine rather than the overwhelming stimuli from her body. It’s easier to hold onto consciousness this way. Comforting, almost.
At least, until she becomes aware of the thousands of souls worth of panic now brimming through her. Running, searching desperately for their loved ones, security officers trying in vain to maintain order. People shoving, trying to get others out of the way, to save themselves first. Officers abandoning their post to get on a lifeboat, others grimly determined to go down with the ship if it means they were able to help one more guest escape.
Root tightens her grip on Shaw and buries her face in her neck, her body trying to crawl away from the turbulent emotions to the safest place she knows. There’s a disturbance in the docking bay - three security officers trying to stop a ship from landing. She forces everything else into the background and focuses on them, on what they see. A man disembarks, it’s Greer, Greer is here, he hefts a rifle and mows the officers down and both the Divine and Root lose any sight of him, he must have realized the case was empty, he’s here for the stones, they have to hurry.
“He’s here,” Root manages to mumble against Shaw’s neck.
“Greer?” The deep, rumbling vibrations of dozens of escape pods being launched nearly muffles Shaw, even as close as she is. They’re in the lobby, now, and Root nods in response, realizing Shaw’s leading them away from the escape pods themselves, in favor of the docking bay where the richest hotel guests had left their private shuttles.
They pause at an elevator, and when one finally arrives and they board, Root hears a swish of the neighboring car’s doors opening, footsteps falling away as its passenger heads back the way they had come. The Divine can’t see them - it must be Greer. His ship is empty. His fast, illegally modified warship, if the security officers’ assessments in the moments before they were struck down were accurate.
“Take his ship.”
The elevator doors open out into the docking bay and Root feels Shaw stare up at something in front of them. “Gladly,” she says, and leads the others up the narrow staircase into the ship.
The dispassionate security alert sounds out one last time as John retracts the stairs, sealing the ship. “One minute to complete evacuation.”
Shaw lays Root down on an unexpectedly soft bunk, though Root supposes Greer wouldn’t be in the habit of denying himself anything, let alone comforts on his private spacecraft. “Strap her in,” Shaw tells John, and moves into the cockpit.
Root’s eyes track Lionel as he follows Shaw, asking if she knows how to fly this thing, and land upon the case she had tossed to Greer in the Diva’s suite. Discarded now, clearly the recipient of some of Greer’s frustration, if the dents on its side are anything to go by.
“Like driving a cab,” Shaw says to Lionel, teasing even in the face of imminent death. John shares a look with Root as he secures her with the probably as-yet unused safety harness along the edges of the bunk. They’ve both seen Shaw’s military record; if Greer can pilot this thing, it’s second nature for Shaw by now.
“But the door,” Lionel gestures at the large airlock. “You got access codes? Cause I don’t.”
In lieu of a response, Shaw flicks a few switches. There’s a rumble from beneath the floor, Shaw taps at something on the screen, and the door is blown out into space in the wake of the missile fired through it.
“You might want to hold on,” Shaw looks over her shoulder at Lionel and John. The docking clamps release and Shaw throws the thrusters forward, launching them out of the dock.
The sudden g-forces flatten Root’s body to the bunk and while she’s not unfamiliar with space travel, her body protests against the assault and she blacks out for a moment. How long, she’s not sure, but it must have only been a few seconds. John and Lionel are still where they had been, and the comm units in the ship are still in close enough range to the hotel to display the timer for Greer’s bomb.
Root squints - the timer has stopped. He must have shut down the trigger to give himself time to find the stones. Probing the hotel through the Divine, Root confirms the only sentient creatures remaining on the hotel other than Greer are a few Mangalores. Good. She’d probably have done this regardless, but at least that means the Divine won’t be too upset with her.
“John,” she calls out. “Hand me that comm unit.”
He follows her weakly pointing finger to the mobile unit on the shelf behind him. Root wiggles her arms free of the safety harness and takes the computer from him, ignoring his questioning eyebrow. It’s only a few moments of work to break into Greer’s system, but the muscle tension necessary to hold it, let alone the motor control to type, is nearly too much for her system to handle. She needs blood, or rest, or at least to get the bullets out of her flesh so she can start to heal, but this is more important.
A few more taps on the screen, and she’s finished. A bone-deep, weary sigh escapes her and she lets the comm unit slip out of her fingers to the floor. “Tell Shaw to go faster,” she manages to mumble. John picks it up, sees the numbers on the screen counting down again, and rushes to the cockpit, shouting at Shaw.
In the same instant, she feels the Mangalores die, consumed in fire that surely takes Greer with them, and the ship throw itself forward harder, faster. Shockwaves from the explosion rattle the ship, Shaw curses, Lionel whimpers, and Root falls into a shallow, troubled sleep.
She awakens to a murmur beside her. Her eyes open just enough to see Lionel in a seat near the cockpit, signing off from his radio show. John’s beside him with one of the stones in his hands, gently wiping the Diva’s blood from its crevices. And Shaw… Root shifts her head, momentarily blinded from the flash of pain, and sees Shaw’s strong back, clad only in her tuxedo pants and a tank top now.
She’s nearly within reach, across the narrow aisle between the bunk and the storage shelf on the opposite wall. Sorting through something, talking to herself.
“… don’t know what you really are, or if you even actually exist. The fuck am I doing?” she shakes her head at herself, and Root realizes she’s talking to the Divine. “Magic stones and disembodied earth spirits and annoying women who keep landing in my lap needing help. Whose bullshit joke is this?”
The Divine feels light within her, pleased with something she’s not telling Root about. Shaw lets out a heavy breath, the muscles of her shoulders highlighted under the dim light in the cabin as she braces herself against the shelf. “Look, I don’t know what you are, but Root seems to think you can hear me. Or… sense me, or something. So you know I fucking mean it when I say I need another way. You can’t… People aren’t disposable. I’d do this if I could, so would John, or Harold, hell, even Lionel, probably, but that’s because it’s our choice. She didn’t get that. She’s supposed to protect life and you never let her live it.”
Root wants to speak up, to defend Her, to tell Shaw that the Divine wishes things were different even more than Shaw does. That it was the Mondoshawan, not the Divine, who raised her that way, that She’s been used by them as much as the Fifth Elements have. But the Divine encourages her to rest, that Shaw wouldn’t appreciate knowing Root had overheard, she’s conflicted enough as it is.
Shaw sighs again, picking something up off the shelf and tossing it into a box next to her. “We’re running out of time, here. And your girl isn’t looking so hot. So, you know, any time you wanna give me a suggestion would be great.”
Another sigh. Shaw leans down to pick up the box at her feet and Root takes a moment to enjoy the view before she realizes Shaw’s turning toward her and closes her eyes. Feigning sleep is easy enough, at least, since every limb feels like concrete - concrete with knives continually being driven into it, to be accurate - and the position Shaw takes up by Root’s feet means her eyes only have to be barely more than slits to see what she’s doing.
The box is placed between the wall and Root’s left foot and Shaw draws some scissors and gauze from it, then sets about carefully cutting away the tatters of Root’s pant legs, sticky with blood. Shaw works silently for several minutes as Root watches and marvels at her gentle touch, the way she carefully washes her skin with a damp cloth to reveal the wounds themselves, the furrow in her brow when she sees the extent of the damage, anger palpable even through the dabbing of the cloth. Anger at Greer, probably, or the Mangalores, or the Mondoshawan, but nothing of the sort for Root. Not anymore.
What kind of universe is this, to contain people like Shaw, so strong and determined and good, and throw them in with people like Greer, bent only on achieving their own ends, regardless of the cost? She wonders if the Mondoshawan realize which of the two they share more similarities with.
Something sharp pokes at Root’s leg and she can’t suppress her hiss of pain, flinching away from Shaw’s hands. Fingers run along Root’s skin, soothing as Shaw looks up at her.
“Hey,” Shaw greets her, though something in her eyes tells Root that she knows she’d been awake this whole time. She gestures toward the box, a pair of tweezers held in her hand. “Found a med kit. Standard issue, apparently even on Greer’s ships. Seemed like your supreme being healing ability needed a hand,” she adds, giving her half of a crooked smile.
Root studies her for a long moment, then Shaw shrugs and goes back to her work, Now that she knows it’s coming, Root’s able to hold herself still when Shaw probes the tweezers into the lowest wound on her calf, searching for the bullet lodged in her muscle. She finds her target and gently tugs it out with a slight squelching sound, a sharp flash of pain, then a comforting heat as the fibers in her muscles are finally allowed to do their work at repairing the tissue.
Shaw moves on to the next wound, a few inches higher, near her knee. Removing bullets Greer had riddled her with, aided by a med kit in Greer’s own ship.
“Humans act so strange,” Root murmurs, the words out almost before she realized she intended to speak them.
Shaw glances up at her but returns to her work. “How so?”
“Everything you create is used to destroy.” Shaw seems to consider that, then holds up the tweezers in her hand. “Only here because this is a warship. Can’t create war without healthy soldiers.”
“Fair enough.” She’s silent for a while, focused on digging out a bullet uncomfortably close to Root’s femur. Whispered apologies in the wake of Root’s agonized noises until suddenly the pain is gone along with the bullet, then Shaw looks back up at her. “Did you get to hear any of the Diva’s concert?”
“Before she got shot, you mean?”
Shaw squints at her. “Not my point.”
“I did.” She closes her eyes and lets herself float in the memories of the concert, the way the music flowed through her, made her body hum, elevated the spirits of everyone in attendance until Root felt them all sing in her veins through the Divine and made her feel like a part of something for the first time in her life. “It was beautiful.”
“Hard to kill someone with opera,” Shaw points out. “Me, maybe. The Diva made it all right, though.”
“I felt everyone there,” Root says, eyes still closed. Her fingers reach out for Shaw’s at her thigh, forestalling her attempt to clean out another wound. “I could feel them all, and they were so… in awe. Like they all felt what I feel when She speaks to me, something more than themselves. Something divine, and it was just music, one person’s voice, and they felt that.” She’s still at a loss to describe it, and her fingers clench around Shaw’s when her thoughts turn. “And then the Mangalores attacked. The Diva’s suite, then the concert. Something so beautiful, and it was just… torn apart, in one fell swoop. And for what? Some vendetta between them and Greer?”
The bunk falls silent as Shaw considers Root’s words. “I don’t know,” she says, finally, and Root opens her eyes to see her shrug. “I’ve been fighting people like Greer and the Mangalores my whole life, and I never know what motivates them, not really. It’s just… what they do.”
“What difference is there between humans and Mangalores, really? Mangalores weren’t the ones working for the Evil, Greer was. A human. You think there aren’t Mangalores sitting at home reading a book like humans do? That there aren’t humans running around spilling blood for the highest bidder like Mangalores do?” Root watches as Shaw wordlessly resumes removing bullets from her other leg, expression blank. “Do you know why the Mondoshawan trained us so extensively? Why we have to know how to fight, and kill, even though we’re meant to protect life?”
“Because they’re dicks?”
Root coughs against the unexpected laugh, chest aching from the bullet still lodged near her shoulder. Shaw seems satisfied by that, but Root quickly darkens the mood again. “It’s because every species they’ve ever encountered, every single one that’s ever affected by the Evil, to say nothing of the ones that aren’t, all of them inevitably have someone willing to work for the Evil. All of them fear what they don’t understand and want to attack it, or kill it, or control it, and that means us. Fear and violence is in their blood, and nothing’s going to change that.”
“Why’d you blow up the hotel?”
The change of subject throws Root off. “What?”
“We had the stones, and Greer was never going to be able to catch up with us, not without his ship.” Shaw shrugs, nonchalant as she cuts a line across Root’s shirt to get at the wound near her shoulder. “Why bother resetting his bomb?”
“He…” Root shakes her head, anger growing at what he had done to her, tried to do to Shaw, what he intended on doing to Earth. “He didn’t deserve to live.”
“Agreed. This is gonna hurt,” Shaw adds in warning, before plunging the tweezers into Root’s pectoral muscle. This bullet is deeper than the others; Root thinks it may have hit when she’d already collapsed against the duct. “What if the hotel hadn’t been evacuated?
“She told me everyone else was out.”
Shaw’s eyes flick over to hers and she raises a pointed eyebrow. “Would that have stopped you if She hadn’t?”
“No.” She lets out a hiss when the tweezers grasp the bullet, and Shaw nods when she pulls it out and examines it under the light.
“I made that kind of call all the time, in the army. Who needed to die, who the galaxy was safer without. I tried to only take out the bad guys, but I’ve got a lot of blood on my hands, and I’m sure some of it’s innocent.” Shaw places some gauze over the wound and taps some surgical tape into place, Root’s quiet eyes watching every movement. “I’m responsible for plenty of that fear and violence you’re talking about. You condemning me?”
Shaw’s very carefully not looking at her, jaw set. The idea that Shaw could possibly believe that Root thinks less of her is absurd, and Root reaches her uninjured arm out to her. “No,” Root says carefully, brushing her fingers against the skin of Shaw’s forearm. “Never. You’re… what I should have been.”
The confused, scrunched up face that Shaw makes then is utterly adorable. “You’ve been flirting with me nonstop since we met. That better not have just been some next level narcissism.”
Root huffs out a laugh, already less painful than before now that the bullet is gone. “No, but good to know you’re so concerned with the sincerity of my interest.” She winks at her and somehow that results in Shaw looking amused along with her eye roll. It’s light, a moment that reminds her of her childhood, with Hanna, and Root sighs, shaking her head slowly. “I condemned myself a long time ago, Sameen. I never believed in the mission, not even before Hanna died. And after, I was… so angry, I hated the Mondoshawan so much for what they did, I didn’t want any part of what they were doing. It was only after my ceremony, getting bonded with the Divine, that I understood and accepted it.”
That had been nearly ten years ago, now, and Root can’t imagine how she had gotten through the first few months after being reawoken without Her. She’d never felt worthy of Her love, still doesn’t, especially not now, filled with such doubt and yet still She probes at the edge of her awareness with Her comforting touch.
“If it was just me, without the Divine, I never would have come here. Humanity wouldn’t even have a chance. It’s my humanity that’s telling me to just let us all get wiped out.” Root grasps at Shaw’s hand again, eyes pleading with her to help her understand. “Why is that worth saving?”
Shaw searches her face, letting Root’s grip tighten around her fingers. “I don’t know that it is,” she says finally, and Root wants to weep. Shaw shifts her grip, guiding Root’s hand to rest on her own chest and covering it with her own for a moment. “But it’ll be hard for us to become worth saving if we’re all dead.”
Root can only admire Shaw’s assuredness; it sounds so simple when she says it. Shaw knows what saving humanity will cost, given that she still hasn’t found a way to keep Root from getting killed when using the Light. She knows it, and she hates it, and is still focused on finding a way around it, judging by her overheard conversation with the Divine - but she knows what needs to be done to save humanity and is just as determined to see it done, regardless. It’s as Root said: she’s what Root should have been.
She’s spared from having to respond, though, by John approaching. “Shaw, the President’s on the radio for you.”
Shaw jerks her head in acknowledgment, then looks back at Root and gestures at her still-bloodied left side. “I’ll get the rest of these in a minute.” She moves up the cabin and sits at the edge of one of the seats behind the cockpit, then reaches for the radio unit on the wall. “Yeah?”
“Major Shaw,” President Carter’s voice is partially subsumed by static, but strong. “I would first like to salute you for the success of your mission. In the name of the Federated Territory - ”
Shaw pinches the bridge of her nose. “You wanna skip ahead to the point?”
There’s a moment of silence. “Okay. There’s a ball of fire two thousand kilometers in diameter heading straight for Earth, and we have no idea how to stop it. That’s the point.”
The Evil. There is no stopping it, not without Root and the stones. Shaw shares a significant look across the cabin with Root. “How much time do we have?”
Another pause, then another voice comes over the radio. “If its speed remains constant… an hour and fifty-seven minutes.”
Shaw nods to herself, checking the time on the monitor above her. “I’ll call you in two hours.” The radio is turned off and back in place before Carter can say anything more, and something in Shaw shifts when she stands and takes in John, Lionel, and Root in turn. She’s in command, now, and Root would be lying if she said it wasn’t alluring. “Either of you got any medical training?”
“Not really.” John looks apologetic, glancing at Root.
Lionel shrugs. “Not unless slapping a graft on my kid’s skinned knee counts.”
“The rest of those bullets are gonna have to wait, Root,” Shaw says. “Unless you want these two digging around in your wounds to get em out.”
That’s not even a question. “I’ll pass.”
“Patch her up as best you can, John. Lionel, get those stones cleaned up.” Shaw moves into the cockpit and straps herself in. Lionel, with his kid, would have been the more natural choice to play nursemaid, but whether Shaw somehow knew Root would be more comfortable with John, or merely trusted him more, Root appreciates the gesture.
Lionel grumbles but picks up the stones anyway. “What will you be doing, tiny?”
“Shaving some time off our trip in a way the autopilot really wouldn’t like.” Shaw sounds focused but supremely pleased with herself. “Hold on.”
The ship jolts itself into a higher warp factor, wracking Root’s body with excessive inertial forces and making her black out for a second. She’s getting really sick of that, she thinks when she comes to. But, she supposes, one way or another, she’ll be dead in a few hours and won’t have to worry about it anymore.
She feels John’s presence beside her, hesitant but determined, and she tunes out the input from her external senses in favor of the Divine. John’s nice enough, but she’d rather be with Her right now. Regret fills her as soon as she reopens her connection, the Divine’s overwhelming sorrow that She couldn’t help Root when Greer attacked her, that She can’t find a way to save her now.
For once, she feels annoyance. She knows all this already, Her grief isn’t helpful. She knows what She would tell her about what she and Shaw had been discussing, and that’s kind of the problem. Of course the Divine wants humanity to survive - she is humanity, at least partly. Her existence is dependent on that of all the life in the universe, She’s borne of their thoughts and experiences and the spark inside them that makes them alive, and would be irrevocably altered if humanity’s light were snuffed out.
Instead, she focuses on the tendrils that comprise the Divine, the individuals going about their business on Earth, most of them blissfully unaware of what’s coming for them. Reaching through the Divine as far as Earth puts an undeniable mental strain on her already taxed system, and it won’t be long before she passes out from the effort. But she needs to know. Needs to see them, as they are, through their own eyes, at least once.
She lands upon Harold, first. Unsurprising - his connection with the Divine is probably stronger than that of anyone else save herself, if only from the simple fact that he knows She exists. In Egypt, preparing the temple for their arrival. She knows him already, so she abandons him in favor of the President’s office, the next loudest voices.
Panic, barely contained, fiercely suppressed in the face of grim resolve to see this through. Dozens of techs, monitoring the sensors, dreading any sign of the Evil increasing speed. Carter in the center of it all, feeling helpless that the fate of those she’s been elected to protect is in the hands of something she doesn’t understand, and determined to lead her people by example.
Root expands out to the rest of New York. There, in the slums in the fog below. Homeless, abandoned, forgotten, scorned. Veterans, who’ve shed blood and had their blood shed, in the name of the Federation, now left to fend for themselves in the fog, or transitional housing if they’re lucky, caged and monitored like their criminal neighbors.
A man attacks another in a corridor. No reason, really, but the man is left bloodied and frightened in the stairwell and without his wallet.
A young girl listening to music in her bedroom, kissed on the forehead by her parent. No reason, really, but the girl is left happy and comfortable and full of love.
In the tower of Greer industries, a team works on developing the next great weapon of war, work that will go on even with the loss of Greer himself. Someone always stands to profit from it, after all.
In the research lab of a university, a team tinkers with the design for a system to clean up the fog, thankless work for now, but which has the potential to transform the city for the better.
On the lunar surface, Shaw’s mother rubs Bear’s belly, proud of the way Shaw had rescued Ruby Rhod and the other hotel guests during the Mangalore attack at Fhloston, and hoping the situation hadn’t jeopardized Shaw’s relationship with her mystery girl.
The strain becomes too much and Root’s awareness snaps back into the ship itself, and the three other occupants are all that flood her mind. John, cautiously cleaning Root’s mottled skin and placing gauze over the bullet wounds that haven’t yet been treated, and wishing for nothing more than the ability to take Root’s place. Lionel, overwhelmingly confused about what’s going on but determined to help even as he worries about what will happen to his son.
And Shaw. Piloting the ship with a nearly singular focus. But even through her resolve, even with as much as she’s trying not to think about it, is the knowledge that billions of lives are at stake. That she has to see it through, even with the cost. That she doesn’t know why she cares so much about Root not dying, but a long-since accepted awareness that she does.
And, alongside all that, an absolute certainty that when this is all over, she is going to tear the Mondoshawan apart.
Root tries to reach for her, to tell her that she hears her, she understands, to thank her, to apologize for not knowing what’s going to happen, anything, and for one brief, wondrous moment, she thinks she feels Shaw respond, a subconscious acknowledgment of message received. Exasperated that Root can bother her even like this, even though Shaw herself isn’t fully aware of it - but Root knows it’s only wishful thinking, that Shaw isn’t the Divine, and she’s only projecting. Maybe it’s Her, giving her what she wants, one last time.
She fades away again, holding onto her tether with Shaw until the last.
Glaring sunlight blinds her eyes when Shaw steps off the ship and into the sand outside the temple, still swirling in the air from the force of their landing. With Root in her arms, John and Lionel bringing up the rear, Harold - back in his robes - ushers them inside, a series of military-issue light sticks illuminating their way through the darker depths of the temple. It’s clearly been untouched for centuries, and it’s little wonder - even with John guiding her, even with the flares Harold had set up to mark a landing spot, the temple was still perfectly camouflaged in the sands of the Sahara. By design, no doubt.
Harold leads them through a dark hallway and into what can only be their final destination. An open ceiling lets light stream in, shadows scarcely touching the altar standing at knee-height in the center of the room, circled by four round pillars.
“Put her in the center,” Harold says, taking the bag with the stones from John and moving to an outcropping of rock along the wall.
Root makes a faint protesting sound when Shaw kneels and lays her down on the altar. She’s been mostly out of it since Shaw had to take the helm, according to John. It’s… disconcerting, to say the least. Root is meant to be full of life, a smug, constantly flirting annoyance getting under her skin or wrecking people's shit or at least arguing about how much humanity sucks. The blood loss and existential crisis have hit her hard, though, and Shaw hears the Diva’s last words to her echo in her mind almost like an admonishment.
She takes Root’s hands and rubs her thumbs over the backs of her palms before folding them over Roots chest. “I’ll be right back,” she says, fixing Lionel with a pointed stare before moving away. He nods, looking grim, and stands watch over her. John and Harold have the stones spread out on Shaw’s tattered jacket when she joins them. “You got this figured out?”
They exchange an uncertain look. Harold picks up one of the stones, the one with a series of wavy lines on each of its three sides crawling up half its height from the bottom. “This one should be fire.”
“You do know how this works, right?”
John, at least, looks contrite. “Theoretically, yes.”
Harold points at the book laid out beside the stones, an elaborate sketch of the chamber they’re in depicted on the open page. “The four stones should go around, the Fifth Element in the middle, then the weapon against Evil… should work.”
Peering more closely at the drawing, Shaw can’t see any obvious indication of which stone goes where. “Seems like a lot to ride on a ‘should.’”
“The Mondoshawan were meant to - ”
Shaw snatches the stone out of his hand with an exasperated scoff. The others follow when she makes a beeline for the closest pillar. “Every weapon has a manual,” she says. “I’m sure this has one too.”
The pillar is covered with dust and sand; Shaw brushes it away and reveals a triangular indentation surrounded on all sides with the same sort of pattern of lines as Root’s tattoo. These are horizontal and straight, as opposed to the wavy vertical lines of the one in her hand. John had seen fit to follow her with the bundle of stones in his arms, and she tosses the fire stone to Harold in favor of pulling the matching stone from the pile.
There’s a satisfying click from somewhere in the pillar when Shaw lines the stone up in the indentation. “Match the symbols on the stones.” The words are scarcely out of her mouth before John and Harold scatter off to the other pillars, juggling the stones between them. She stands staring at the stone in front of her for a moment before she senses Lionel approach her from behind.
“What are you doing?”
Shaw tosses him a glance over her shoulder, then turns back to the stone. Cursing the Mondoshawan, for one. Trying to work through the uncomfortable knot in her gut that’s got Root’s name all tangled in it, for another. Contemplating the feasibility of breaking millennia of precedent in the next five minutes, to top it all off. “Trying to get you back to your kid,” she says instead.
“And what about your girl over there?”
The muscle in her jaw clenches and she ignores him as John and Harold rush back over to her, somehow deferring to her in all this despite being the guys whose job this is actually supposed to be. “Done,” Harold says breathlessly, and Shaw prompts him with her eyebrows.
“Now we have to… open them.”
Fucking perfect. “And you do know how to do that, right?”
The look on their faces is all the answer Shaw needs. She brushes past them and kneels next to Root. Her torso is limp when Shaw slides an arm behind her shoulders and holds her up. “Root. Root, come on, we need your help.” She shakes her a little and Root’s head lolls against Shaw’s bicep, but her eyes struggle to flutter open and focus on Shaw. “How do you open the stones?”
“Wind blows…” Root’s voice is unsteady and barely above a whisper. “Fire… burns…”
“We know all that, Root, come on.” Shaw’s fingers graze against Root’s jaw, trying to ground her. “How do you open the stones?”
“Rain… rain falls…” Her eyes lose focus and her head falls back, toward the sky. Fuck. This is not the time for her cryptic bullshit.
Shaw turns to Harold as she sets Root back down. “Any ideas?”
Harold opens his mouth like he’s going to say something, but only gapes soundlessly at her. John is of no more help, though he at least seems to be thinking rather than panicking. Lionel leans in, brow furrowed. “Maybe it’s a riddle. A game or something.”
The others glare at him, and Shaw seizes him by the collar of his frayed unitard. “If we don’t get these stones open in the next five minutes we’re all dead.”
His face goes white. “Dead?”
“Dead,” Shaw confirms, and shoves him away. “Go take a stone, all of you.”
“And do what?”
“Figure something out!”
The three men scatter, just as a shadow falls over the temple. A chill crawls along her skin, followed by an uncomfortable heat. The shadows creep along the walls and Shaw thinks she sees part of it… drip? Her brow furrows, still hovering over Root.
“Too late,” Root breathes, staring blankly up at the darkened sky.
If there’s one thing the military had instilled in her, it was a sense of timing. Going by the last update they’d received from Control when they landed, they have just over four minutes. Root’s a little premature, but, Shaw concedes, watching the shadows in the temple melt and drip along the walls, some inky black substance oozing out of the stone itself, it’s not looking so great right now.
“Shaw!” Lionel shouts at her from one of the pillars. “Shaw, it moved!”
Chaos ensues as she, Harold, and John circle around him, all shouting in his ear. The stone in front of him has a small flap opened on each of its sides, slid out near the top like a chute leading into the stone.
“Just calm the fuck down,” Shaw tells the others, and turns to Lionel. “What did you do?”
“I had my hands like this,” he says, placing his hands palm down on either side of the stone, “and I leaned in, like this, and I said… ‘we’re never gonna make it.’”
He clearly enunciates the words, but nothing happens. Shaw cocks her head at him. “Is that it?”
“Yeah.” He nods his head, looking forlorn, and gives a deep, weary sigh.
The flaps open wider.
Of course it’s that fucking obvious. Dammit, Root. “She said ‘wind blows.” Shaw leans in, focused on the stone, and blows a gentle, steady stream of air over the top of it.
The flaps move again, and an ethereal yellow light flows out of the top of the stone, glittering points of light moving in the air and coalescing themselves into a nearly identical triangular prism hovering over the stone.
“Take a stone,” Shaw says, studying the light dancing before her eyes. “Water for water, fire for fire, earth for earth. Go, now!”
John and Harold rush to the two pillars on the other side of the altar and Lionel follows when Shaw approaches the next closest one. Six horizontal lines, straight across, giving the sense of groundedness. “Earth,” she reasons out loud, and scoops up a handful of sand from the ground.
Green light emanates from the stone when she tosses the sand against it, quickly forming a similar mirror image prism of light. Across from her, John squeezes sweat from his handkerchief onto his stone, resulting in a blue prism.
They all focus on Harold, whose face is growing increasingly panicked behind his glasses. “I don’t… Miss Shaw, I don’t… fire?” The way he almost squeaks out the word would, undoubtedly, be hilarious, if not for the thumping realization in her chest that they’re screwed. She quickly joins him, Lionel patting himself down beside her, and she scours the ground for anything resembling flint. Maybe she can run out to the ship and make it back in time with one of Greer’s flame throwers?
A faint rattling noise from beside her gives her pause, and they all stop short, staring at Lionel. Lionel, who is holding a matchbox, produced from who knows where in his unitard. “Everyone always told me to quit. Said it’d kill me one day.” He hands the box over to Shaw with a nervous laugh. “Joke’s on them, I guess.”
The box slides open in her fingers, revealing one single match. Well, that seems appropriately dramatic. “Don’t breathe,” she tells the others, gathered around the pillar, then takes out the match, holds it firm in her fingers, and strikes it alight.
The faint hissing sound of the flame is like a roar in the temple. It flickers, burning impossibly low as Shaw guides it toward the stone. Lionel whimpers, John’s mouth clamps shut, lungs gone still, reflected flame flickers in Harold’s glasses as he keeps his eyes trained on the match, and Shaw can’t help but be aware of the steady encroachment of the shadows along the wall and floor.
She lets the match fall onto the stone.
Bright, deep red light erupts from its surface, and they all exhale as one.
An altogether more unpleasant hiss echoes from the corner - the strange dripping ooze from the stone is picking up its pace. Harold notices and turns to her. “It’s close enough to attack the temple directly, now.” He pushes John and Lionel away from the overhanging stone in the ceiling and its threatening shadow. “We don’t have much time,” he adds.
A little over a minute, by Shaw’s count.
Root's hands, unconsciously or otherwise, have spread out toward two of the stones. It’s an entirely too sacrificial position for Shaw’s liking, and she scoops Root up in her arms when she kneels next to her. “Root, wake up. They’re open, we’ve got it, come on.”
Her head falls back, throat bobbing in the air. “Protect life, until death.”
It sounds like a catechism, something drilled into her head from birth and the only thing she has left to latch onto with her shreds of consciousness, and Shaw is flooded with anger when she realizes that’s probably exactly what it is. “No, no that’s not gonna happen. I made a promise, remember?”
Time is rapidly running out to keep that promise, but if there was one time to stubbornly cling to hope in spite of reality, it’s now. It’s only human, after all.
“What’s the use of saving life when you see what you do with it?”
“You’re right,” Shaw says, “but there are other things… good things - ”
“Dogs,” she blurts, the first thing to come to mind. “Food is good, too. And you owe me like thirty steaks at this point anyway so if you back out now I’m gonna be pissed.” If Control had known convincing someone of the great things about life was part of the mission, she’d never have picked Shaw. She looks up at the others in the entryway, outside the circle formed by the pillars, and jerks her head at them for support.
Shaw glares at Lionel for that last one and he merely throws up his hands at her. A drop of the black substance from the walls lands on his hand and he curses, frantically rubbing it off on his clothes, but Shaw doesn’t pay any attention, something within her latching onto what he had said and not letting go.
The Diva’s words rattle in her mind again. She needs your help, and your love, or she will die. Shaw’s not great at that second part, but the other…
She realizes, with a sudden, striking clarity, what the Diva had meant. What she has to do. It’s stupid and it’s reckless and there’s no reason to think it will work, but she knows, she knows, more than anything else, it’s what needs to be done. If the Divine is life itself, a sentient, if disembodied, being comprised of every other living being in the universe, and Root can channel that through herself, then Shaw can reach her. She can reach her, and use the threads of the Divine to take some of her burden upon herself.
Shaw reaches out toward Root with everything that she has, everything that she is, pushes, against what, she doesn’t know, but she’s counting on the Divine to sense her intentions and guide her. The rest of the temple fades away and Shaw is only dimly aware of her body letting out a startled breath when she’s struck by a profound sense of gratitude from somewhere that’s somehow both outside of herself and deep within her core.
The Divine, it has to be. There’s no time for greetings, though, and She seems to agree. She pushes Herself to the side, drawing Shaw’s attention to what she’s been seeking. Tendrils, surrounding her, some larger than others, but all blindingly bright. Closest to her: panic, resignation, hope… there. Swirling turmoil and seething hatred and bleak despair and something Shaw thinks must be like love.
She tugs on the thread, letting it guide her in, and in an instant the turmoil calms, steadying around the anchor of Shaw’s presence. In her arms, Root’s eyes fly open, wide and panicked. She can feel Shaw’s intentions, knows what she’s doing, and tries to clamp down on the the thread between them, desperate to keep her alive.
“Trust me,” Shaw says, leaning in close. There’s probably no need to say the words, given that they can sense one another’s thoughts, but Root’s still clawing at the connection, trying to shut it down.
“I’m meant to die, Sameen,” she protests. “Not you.”
“We’re all gonna die if we don’t get this weapon to work.” Shaw shrugs, kicking a foot inside the doorway Root’s struggling to close. “But I’m not gonna let that happen. I'm supposed to save life on Earth, right? That's the mission. You count in that, so let me help.”
Root searches her eyes. “The mission?”
“Yeah, Root,” Shaw says, giving her a soft, private smile. “The mission.”
A beat, the clock ticking away in the back of Shaw’s mind down to a handful of seconds, then Root nods. Root’s thread intertwines with something inside Shaw, lets her in, and with her last thought as herself alone, Shaw leans down to kiss her. If this doesn’t work, one or both of them will be dead soon, so they may as well enjoy it while they can.
Root’s hands clutch at Shaw’s shirt and she deepens the kiss, desperate to get closer to Shaw than even their connection through the Divine will allow. She hums, Shaw hears an oddly shimmering singing note from the stones around them, then -
The floodgates open. Shaw breaks the kiss and nearly loses her grip on Root in her arms because she feels… everything. Sudden, forced awareness of everything around her, of John and Lionel and Harold and every single lizard and insect in the temple, calling her, pulled toward her, burning through her every cell. Root channels it all, gathers it within herself and shares it with Shaw. It’s only a fraction, a nearly infinitesimal piece of the Divine that’s entrusted to Shaw’s care, and the strain is already nearly too much.
She doesn’t know how long she can hold this, how Root can possibly sustain this all the time - she feels more than hears Root’s cheeky reminder that she was engineered for this, and as annoying as it is that Root can flirt with her inside her own damn mind now, the lightness in Root’s bearing is an indescribable relief, though it’s short-lived. They’re seconds away from annihilation and somehow containing the survival instinct of every human in the galaxy inside them through sheer force of will and Shaw’s body is on fire and her mind is being torn apart neuron by neuron and Root isn’t faring any better, but the Divine washes over them, soothing and sure.
Her own eyes are wrenched shut, but through John’s she watches as beams of light emanate from each of the stones, connecting them to each other on their pillars, then shoot out toward her and Root and encircle them with the light. Something surges within them, Root is a dam, holding the Divine at bay, and Shaw feels like it’s going to burst out of her, then…
It does. Shaw’s body throws itself back as the Light of Creation is channeled through her, a solid, blinding pillar of pure white light exploding out of her chest. Root feeds her the energy, tempering the flow as best as she can to keep it from tearing Shaw apart. A lifetime of doing her best to avoid interacting with people, and now she’s got every single one of them in the galaxy in her head. It’s too much too quick to focus on any of them, at least, the Light surging forth into the sky as fast as Root dares to feed it to her.
Resistance. The approaching Evil is struck by the weapon and it roars in her head as it tries to push forward against the Light. She draws more from Root in response, needs more of the Divine, faster - her body screams in exertion, echoing along the stone walls of the temple, but she can feel the Evil breaking apart, they’re close, they’re so close, Root tries to regulate the flow between them but Shaw takes takes takes, hellbent on putting an end to this, until -
One final surge, Shaw gives everything she has left, feeling Root do the same, the Light explodes in one climactic burst, the Evil disintegrates above Earth’s atmosphere, and as suddenly as the Divine had filled her in the first place, She disappears.
Shaw slumps forward over Root. Her throat is raw, her mind little more than mush. Her vision swims, she manages to focus just enough to see Root moving in front of her, to note the shadows on the walls receding, and nods to herself.
The last thing she’s aware of before losing consciousness is strong arms catching her body when it gives out.
Chapter 11: Epilogue
This is it! By far the longest thing I've ever written, and way more action scenes than I thought I'd ever write in my life! Thanks for indulging me! And I hope next time you watch the Fifth Element you think about how much better it could have been if it were gay :D
The Mondoshawan, Root thinks, aren't going to know what hit them.
Lying in the same regeneration tube in New York that she had been resurrected in only a few days ago - freshly repaired after her escape - reclining on her side watching Shaw sleep beside her, and with the Divine’s presence still warm and comforting within her, Root isn’t sure she knows what hit her, either. It’s much more pleasant than what the Mondoshawan have in store for them, though, she knows that much. She’d felt what Shaw intended to do to them if Root hadn’t survived, when they were connected in the temple, and something tells her that Shaw isn’t less inclined to act on it now that they’ve made it out unharmed.
Unharmed now that they’ve had nearly a day to recuperate in the most technologically advanced medical facility Earth has to offer, anyway. Shaw had been in particularly bad shape, according to the Divine, unsurprising considering she was never meant to channel the Light like that. Root herself had been in only marginally better condition, and it was only thanks to John managing to fly Greer’s ship to New York and get them to the nucleo lab that they were still alive at all.
Humanity survived, and Root right alongside them. Shaw had kept her promise. Root doesn’t know whether to laugh or weep that after all this time, all it took to find another way was someone too stubborn to accept millennia of tradition. Someone who knew the things that had been kept secret, and cared enough to try to change them.
All this time, it was possible for the Fifth Elements to survive, but instead the Divine had been forced to watch, powerless, as Her children were sacrificed, torn apart by Her own power ripping through them. The anger that ripples through Root then is profound, she’s going to smash her fist right into the Mondoshawan’s stupid metal faces next time she sees any of them, the sight of Root still alive will be such a shock they won’t even -
The Divine interrupts her, sympathizing with and even sharing her anger, but forestalling it with a simple reminder of what, exactly, she and Shaw had done. Root was Her conduit, she could channel Her essence and create the Light, and her connection with Shaw meant Root could share it with her, even without Shaw being created for that purpose. But they had to have been able to form that connection between them in the first place, and that was the piece that had been missing in the past. Only a handful of Fifth Elements had ever even interacted with outsiders, and the ones that did never developed so much as a rapport with them. It simply hadn’t been possible for the Elements to survive in this manner, before.
Root hums, taking in the Divine’s words as she watches Shaw’s steady breathing. All the more reason the Mondoshawan need a good ass kicking. It wasn’t even that Shaw was, somehow, Divine, it was just that she was there, and had been, and wanted to be. They could share the burden of the Light, and the simple fact that they were both so determined to not let the other die was enough of a shield against being overwhelmed by it. And the Mondoshawan had denied them ever forming those connections.
Beside her, Shaw stirs. A light groan as she stretches, her arm knocking against Root. “What the hell happened?” she asks, eyes still closed yet knowing, somehow, that it’s Root beside her.
Root smiles at the way Shaw doesn’t object to her proximity. “We saved the world, sweetie.” Seeing Shaw’s frown, Root’s brow furrows. “Something wrong?”
“No,” Shaw says, blinking her eyes open. “I feel great, actually. Which is weird, since last I remember I was all but dead.” She looks between them, dispassionately noting the fact that they’re both utterly naked, then examines the glass tube around them, its privacy shield extended to block them from view. “The hell are we?”
“New York. This is where they brought me back to life after my ship crashed.” Root can’t help the roaming of her eyes, now that Shaw is awake. It had seemed less than chivalrous when she’d been asleep, recovering, but now that she’s conscious and capable of hitting her if she objects, Root takes in the gentle curves and hard muscle of Shaw’s nude form, the various scars marring her skin, the slope of her breasts and the power in her shoulders and the way her throat bobs when she speaks - wait, what did she say?
Her eyes flick back up to Shaw’s to see they’re giving her a knowing look. Knowing, and amused. “How long have we been here?” Shaw asks again.
“Seventeen hours.” Shaw looks impressed, and Root nods. “Only the best medical care for Earth’s heroes. President Carter’s been itching to talk to you, and your mother called, somehow. She really wants to meet your girl,” Root adds, waggling her eyebrows.
Shaw purses her lips, but ignores that last part. “How long have you been awake?”
“A few hours,” Root shrugs, and at Shaw’s look of annoyance that Root recovered more quickly than she did, Root pats her on the shoulder. “I am a genetically engineered supreme being, Sameen. Can’t blame a girl for her healing abilities.”
“Ugh.” Shaw sweeps Root’s hand away with her forearm, but lets them land tangled together between them. She’s quiet for a moment, then makes a face. “Is that really all it took? Someone just had to… share the load with you, and you would live?”
“Well,” Root says, giving Shaw her best flirtatious look as she reaches out to twirl a finger in Shaw’s hair, “not just anyone. Had to be someone special.”
Shaw makes a disbelieving noise low in her throat but seems to be biting back a smile. “Your invisible friend tell you that?”
“I told you She liked you.”
Fingers wrap around Root’s wrist, firm but not tight, and Root nearly swoons at the humor dancing in Shaw’s eyes. “You saying I’m divine?”
Who is Root to resist an opening like that? Shaw’s only got herself to blame, really, for the way Root frees her hand from Shaw’s grasp and lets her fingers trail along Shaw’s taut stomach. “Hmm, you certainly feel that way to me.”
“Ugh, gross,” Shaw protests. Her hand returns to Root’s wrist and tugs it away from her abs, pulling it to the floor of the tube on the opposite side of Shaw from Root. Which results in Root toppling partially over onto Shaw, and there’s that swooning that threatened earlier. Shaw’s skin is remarkably warm and soft and clean, especially considering the state she was in before leaving Egypt, and feeling her pressed against herself is nothing short of perfection.
Root peers up at her through her curtained hair to see Shaw give her an expectant look, a clear invitation Root has no intention on squandering. Surging forward, she presses her lips to Shaw’s, and feels hands immediately wrap around her back, Shaw’s legs shifting to adjust Root’s position on top of her to something far more comfortable. And far more distracting. Shaw kisses her with the same determination and focus she puts into everything and Root is drowning in the wake of being in the center of it all and never wants to breathe again.
A clatter against the regeneration tube breaks them apart, Root falling against Shaw. The Divine supplies her with information before she even asks and she relays it to Shaw. “Carter is here again. The professor was checking in on us.” She points up at a view port near the ceiling, trying not to be amused at the exceptional annoyance in Shaw’s face.
“They’re… they need a few more minutes,” comes a voice from just outside the tube, barely audible through the glass and privacy shield.
“Great timing,” Shaw mutters. Root wonders if her own lips look as thoroughly kissed as Shaw’s do, now. “So, hang on a second.” Shaw audibly shifts gears even as she shifts under Root, folding an arm under her head and lifting her hips enough to make Root roll over a little onto her side, nestled against Shaw. “How did it work, then? I mean, I know what I did, or… what I meant to do, at least.”
The little crease in Shaw’s brow is distractingly adorable, but she knows better than to tell her that. “You did exactly what you told the Divine you wanted to do.”
The crease becomes a full-blown furrow as Shaw starts to protest that she can’t speak to Her, but after a moment it disappears with a shrug. “Yeah, okay, I can see that, but you’re saying it had to have been me?”
“Wanting to share the burden, as you say, wasn’t enough. There had to have been something already in place that would let us share it, and…” Root hesitates, considering how best to say this without putting Shaw off. “You felt the Light, what it was? The life force of every human in the galaxy, going through you. Us. Too fast to focus on any one person, though?” A hum of acknowledgment rumbles through Shaw’s chest under Root’s fingertips. “We… like each other,” Root cringes to herself at that, but powers on. “We were exceptionally motivated to not let the other die, so, whether consciously or not, we - held on, I suppose, to that spark for each other. Didn’t let it go.”
“You realize you’re implying that using the weapon should have killed every other human in the galaxy, right?”
“We were just borrowing theirs for a moment, they were never in any danger,” Root says breezily. “But you’re right, it’s not really so much that we were using humanity’s collective life force as it is…” It’s Root’s turn to frown now, unable to figure out how to describe it. How can something so simple when the Divine explains it be so impossible to put into English?
Shaw pokes at her forehead, interrupting her thinking. “No, I get what you’re saying. I was only involved with using the Light because I refused to let you die, and you really only decided to use it in the first place so I wouldn’t die with the rest of humanity.” At Root’s sheepish look, Shaw smirks at her. “Hey, I was there for your big ‘humanity sucks’ meltdown, remember? Can’t say I blame you, but I think you gave Harold a heart attack.”
She would have liked to have seen that. “The Mondoshawan would probably have something to say about it. Protect life until death, time is not important only life is important, blah blah blah.”
“Hard to want to protect life if you’ve never lived it,” Shaw says simply, and Root swoons all over again. “I should go knock some sense into them. Might start an interstellar incident, but Carter’s dealt with worse. People aren’t disposable.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
“And hey,” Shaw says, tilting her head into Root’s where it’s resting on Shaw’s arm, “if they don’t want to listen to reason, you could always start a breakaway sect. The… Element Reformation, or something.”
“We do have the stones.” Or, well, Harold has the stones, but John’s firmly aligned with their way of thinking on this and even if Harold is more stubborn, She seems to be sure he’ll come around with John’s guidance.
“Exactly. Like to see ‘em do anything without those.” Shaw hums, then pokes Root’s arm. “Might want to change their names to something less… bullshit, though. I don’t know what other sectors are due for a visit by this giant cosmic evil, but I can guarantee you they’re way past thinking that water and fire are elements. The four fundamental forces, maybe.” She considers for a moment. “Yeah, that could work. Earth could be like gravity, fire is like electromagnetism - ”
“Sameen,” Root interrupts, and Shaw takes in her bright eyes with suspicion. “How do you know that’s not what they already are?”
There’s a long silence as Shaw stares at her in disbelief. Honestly, she has no business being so cute when she’s annoyed. Finally Shaw shoves her shoulder, rolling her eyes. “I can’t believe you made me go along with all that mystical bullshit this whole time. I hate you.”
“Back at you, sweetie.” Root settles back against Shaw’s side and starts drawing the patterns of the stones along Shaw’s ribs. “Though, to be fair, everything else is still pretty much mystical bullshit.”
Shaw sighs, conceding the point. She seems to consider something, and when she turns her head away from Root slightly, her voice is tense, though her body is carefully stilled. “So do you have to go get frozen until the next time this thing shows up on Earth, or something? If you die, humanity loses its only direct connection to the Divine, right? We’d be screwed next time.”
Shit, she hadn’t even considered that herself. The Divine quickly stymies any potential angst about that, though. “No,” Root relays to Shaw, seeing her own relief reflected in the loosening of Shaw’s muscles. “As long as I don’t die at the hand of the Evil itself, the connection can be reforged into my successor.”
“Good,” Shaw says, letting the hand of the arm Root’s laying on curl around to her shoulder. “Cause I’m sure there’s all sorts of useful trouble we could get into after we take care of the Mondoshawan, with the Divine in your ear telling you secrets all the time.”
Root lifts onto her elbow and grins at Shaw, utterly delighted but doing her best to mask it with an air of teasing. “You want to spend more time with me, huh?”
A shrug - Shaw’s attempt to remain nonchalant fails pretty spectacularly, thanks to the way her eyes darken when Root’s skin brushes over hers. “Could be fun. Mercenaries, but with our own agenda. Beats driving a cab, anyway.”
Root swings her leg over Shaw’s, giving her a slow, promising smile as she settles over her. Shaw’s hands come to her hips, the light dancing in her eyes surely matched by Root’s own, and Root leans in close. “I can think of a few other benefits,” she murmurs, then closes the distance between them with a searing kiss.
And later, after falling apart under Shaw’s touch and getting to experience her do the same, Root comes to a realization: humanity doesn’t suck.
But one of them, at least, is very good at it.