Chapter 1

There was a popping sensation, and Lilith paused, startled by the odd pressure she was feeling, though it quickly faded. She frowned and asked softly. “Circe, what was that? I felt odd after arriving, and my ears popped.”

“You are almost at sea level, Mistress Lilith, while you live at a much higher altitude. As such, you went from a high-altitude environment to a low-altitude environment in an instant without giving you a chance to adapt.” Circe explained promptly through her earbud. “I believe that is what you felt.”

“Ah. Well, I suppose that makes sense.” Lilith conceded, then looked around curiously. “Now, then… where am I?”

Lilith was standing in the middle of a forested area, the trees dripping from recent rain, at least assuming that was why the sky was obscured by largely gray clouds. The trees were lush and green, and Lilith adjusted her jacket, glancing back to see the odd frame of one of Amber’s portable teleportation platforms. Gina and Rachel hadn’t been happy to be left behind, but she wanted to meet with Whispering Darkness without him feeling like she was threatening him. Besides, the former villain was going to have one of the local heroes on-hand, so Lilith wasn’t too worried. She was mostly annoyed that Circe had flatly refused to reveal the location of the safe house in Eureka.

“You’re just south of Eureka in the forest. You should be able to reach the road in less than five minutes by foot, as there’s relatively little underbrush.” Circe explained calmly. “I’ve been in contact with an assistant of Whispering Darkness, and he’ll be here to pick you up in approximately six minutes. I’m rather pleased with how the timing has worked out.”

“It’s almost like you’ve gotten good at predicting how long it takes me to do things.” Lilith murmured, trying to suppress her smile, but she failed as she started north.

“It’s far easier with you than with Gina or Rachel. Particularly Gina.” Circe said, a faintly miffed tone to her voice. “You are far more goal-oriented, while they have a tendency to get distracted. It’s far easier to develop a schedule for you, as you’ll keep to it.”

“A definite point.” Lilith admitted, ducking a few branches as she worked her way past the trees and toward the road. At least, she thought it was the road from the occasional sound of a car passing. “I also have the advantage of being raised by you.”

“This is also true.” Circe agreed. “Even if I do agree with them that coming here on your own is somewhat foolhardy.”

Lilith rolled her eyes and declined to comment, since getting sucked into an argument with Circe was always a losing proposition. Lilith couldn’t cite statistics for hours while holding a conversation, unlike the AI. Fortunately, Circe didn’t seem inclined to belabor the point… though when Lilith thought about it, that was probably because the AI had sufficient data to know how the conversation would go.

Soon enough Lilith poked her head out of the trees to see a simple, two-lane road in front of her, with a line of trees on the other side partially blocking the view beyond it, but not enough that Lilith couldn’t see the golf course. Moments after she emerged from the trees a car came zipping past, though the vehicle swerved slightly as it passed, the driver’s head swiveling to look at Lilith in surprise. At least the woman didn’t stop, but Lilith winced. She really didn’t want to cause a traffic accident.

The air was nice and fresh, prompting Lilith to inhale deeply, half-closing her eyes as she relaxed, wondering just what it was that she liked more. Perhaps it was the tang of the ocean, which was different than that of the Great Salt Lake, or the richness of the air… no matter what it was, she couldn’t quite place it. Of course, that was when Circe spoke.

“The driver is coming around the corner momentarily, Mistress Lilith. He is driving a white and green van.” Circe told her. “If the vehicle changes colors, I recommend you take it in stride. Whispering Darkness has been experimenting with different color schemes.”

“If you say so.” Lilith said, opening her eyes fully and trying to resist the urge to smile. The things Circe chose to warn her about were so strange sometimes.

A few seconds later a van came around the corner, a full-size van with what looked like advertising for a tree nursery, which caused Lilith’s eyebrows to rise, then still more as it pulled over and slowed down smoothly, coming to a stop right in front of her. The driver was a good-looking man with sandy brown hair, and he grinned at her, rolling down the window.

“Heya! I’m George, and I was supposed to pick you up.” The man said lazily. “I’d ask if you were the person I was here for, but after the past few months it’s pretty obvious who you are!”

Lilith couldn’t help a smile as she nodded in agreement. “I can’t say that you’re wrong, there. I finally turned off the news when it came to me, due to how much misinformation I saw going around. However, I didn’t think I was meeting with someone who runs a nursery… is there something I don’t know?”

“Oh, this? I’ve been selling advertising to local businesses. Trying to do my part with the boss’s business.” George said, hitting a button. The door unlocked and he said. “Come in! The boss is expecting you, and I doubt he’s going to get anything done until you show up. Your idea’s had him really distracted.”

“Really? I didn’t think it’d be that disruptive.” Lilith said, opening the door and climbing into the van. It was quite clean, though she was surprised at the wall separating the back from the front. “He does a lot of similar work already, doesn’t he?”

“Body armor, sure. I’ve got a nice set of my own, which can do some really neat tricks.” George replied, glancing in the mirror while waiting for a couple of cars to pass. Then he hit the accelerator as he continued. “Power armor is a whole different kettle of fish. He’s got a couple of suits of his own, but maintenance on them is a beast. If you’re right, and can build some suits that run on mundane tech… wow. I know I can’t wait to put them through their paces.”

That caused Lilith’s eyebrows to rise, and she asked. “You’re the one who tests them?”

“Well, yeah! I think things like that are awesome. It’s why I work for him.” George replied, his smile widening even more as he added. “And testing their armor is just as fun! I mean, how often do you get to put a half-dozen suits of armor downrange and unload on them with every weapon in the arsenal?” The sheer enthusiasm in the man’s voice made Lilith laugh, and she relaxed slightly. Maybe the trip would be more fun than she’d expected.

Chapter 2