“This one is only a Category One,” Sheila was saying, pointing to a mark on the map. Louise could see all the lines and numbers and motion and even a headcount and locations of the women in the castle. “However,” Sheila continued, frowning and looking, to Louise, more like an old woman than any of the old women here by expression alone, “this one is coming from a direction I’ve never seen one come from before, and it’s moving very fast. So we really need to intercept it and make sure we get the payload this time.” She scanned the group, and her gaze collided with Louise’s. They stared at each other for a long moment, and then Sheila turned back to the map. “Are there any questions?”
Louise found her heavy stick, and followed the group out of the castle, as before. Mick’s antics and posturing continued to be just as silly and endearing as they had been the night before, though Louise thought Mick was just a little manic—grin a little too wide, laugh a little too loud.
To the west, the ground got hilly, though the forest was no less thick than it was to the south. Still, they’d only climbed the first substantial hill, into a bit of clearing, when the anomaly attacked.
A shining golden eagle shrieked and dived at the group, talons extended. While the other women leapt into action, Louise put her back to a tree and watched. While Mick and the others struck at the eagle on its swooping passes, she noticed something interesting: the bird wasn’t nearly as beautifully animated as the snakes had been. The eagle gave the illusion of flight, doing a lot of soaring and remaining in roughly the same position while swooping to strike. After the first thirty seconds or so, it developed more animation, blending better into the environment and keeping up with the young women fighting it.
Louise saw something move out of the corner of her eye, and she ducked. The something thunked heavily into the tree where she’d been standing—the last foot and a half of a spear, apparently thrown out of the fight by the force of whatever impact had broken the weapon. Still, it was pretty coincidental how it landed in the tree point-first, hard enough to sink the entire point into the wood right where her head had been.
She found another tree to put her back to, just in time to watch the transformation sequence.
The six silhouettes formed over their usual users, and this time, Louise could see the hint of features inside the hoods, of hands inside the sleeves. She could also see that they were actually pretty androgynous in shape, though there was no reason they couldn’t be female-shaped, after all, since this was a VR. Certainly, her current shape here bore very little resemblance to the body she inhabited in real life.
The shapes descended on Mick and the others, and Louise’s three-Cog-fueled perception could see that both the silhouettes and the women’s bodies reshaped themselves to occupy the same virtual space. It was almost as though the bodies swelled outside the bounds of the clothing defined for them, which is why they required the little uniforms. Louise wondered what Penelope was going to say about that particular rendering. It seemed lazy to her, and she barely knew anything about computers.
Each woman, floating up into the air, manifested a shining pink bladed weapon of some sort: some were recognizably European-style swords or spears, while others looked Asian to Louise’s uneducated eye. A moment later, they were all channeling some sort of energy attack through their weapons—Louise couldn’t make out details in the bright light—and then the eagle fragmented into thin metallic shards that exploded outward. Most of the shards disintegrated in the pink glow that enveloped the council’s chosen, though a few of them made it outside their containment and winged a few of the non-“magical” women. Louise watched for any coming her way, but the broken spear was apparently the evening’s “coincidence.”
They found the payload had been lodged in the belly of the eagle. “Like a piñata!” exclaimed Debbie Jo, who was carrying the package.
“You’re all right?” Mick said, jogging up. She was breathing hard, sweat beaded on her forehead in a way Louise hadn’t seen on her in previous battles.
“Yes, sweetheart,” Louise said, wiping Mick’s forehead with her fingers and only glancing at the spear tip embedded in the nearby tree.
“Oh, good,” Mick said, sighing and putting her arms around her. “Let’s go back,” she murmured into Louise’s hair.
After they’d had a remarkably luxurious bath in a thoroughly Orientalist fantasy of a colorfully-tiled swimming-pool-sized bathtub with golden taps, Louise selected something from the random jars and bottles of what she suspected the designer would refer to as “scented unguents.” At her urging, Mick stretched out on a low couch, and Louise knelt next to her, giving her a thorough massage and hoping some of it carried through to the real world as a sort of virtual placebo effect.
As she worked down Mick’s legs, Louise said, “You know, I miss your scar.” She slid her fingers down to where the scar had begun. “I used to like kissing all the caterpillar tracks.”
“What scar?” Mick said sleepily.
Louise felt cold all along her spine. “The scar on your knee.”
“I had a scar on my knee?” Mick said, yawning.
Louise leaned over to peer at Mick’s face, expecting mischief, but seeing only puzzlement. “Your accident when you were 26? Almost killed you? You said once it was the most traumatic thing in your life?”
Mick looked at her blankly for a long, long moment, then something clicked in her face. “Oh, right, that accident. Motorcycle on Route 90, slid off the road, overcompensated, and ended in the median strip.” She recited it like she was reading.
“Mick,” Louise said, remembering the vivid, nightmarish descriptions Mick had given her of that night, then she sat up to keep at her work, saying, “Oh, never mind.”