As the closest minotaur reached for my shoulder, time seemed to slow. Though my instincts screamed at me to fight and run, a rare moment of insight told me to relax. When the giant hand settled at the nape of my neck, it took every ounce of self-control to listen to that infinitesimal voice, telling me more was going on than I knew.
I realized suddenly, who had been the brains in mine and Vic’s partnership. I may not be a dummy, but Victoria was brilliant. It was part of why I loved her. She had calculated every possible scenario and attached probable values to them.
My normal attitude was to burn it all down and let the gods sort it out, so Victoria probably expected us to fight. And there was a reason for it. After all, she had wanted us to take her captive and torture her with magically enhanced truth serum to get her here. She didn’t do all of that just to kill us. There was a purpose. I needed to figure it out before making any irreversible actions.
“Unhand me,” Aiden said, pushing uselessly at the arm of the minotaur holding him. “I will not warn you again.”
“Don’t,” I told Aiden. “It’s what she wants.”
A wicked grin split her face. “I always enjoyed watching the wheels spin behind your eyes.”
“We may not be citizens,” I said, “but you cannot simply butcher us here in the street. Even manhandling us will draw notice. And that’s not what you want, is it?” I pointedly looked at the minotaur touching me.
She nodded to them. The minotaurs released us and took a step back.
“Very well,” she said. “Shall we talk? I can buy you coffee.”
“Sure. I could use some coffee.”
“What?” Aiden demanded. I held up a hand for him to be patient. Either he missed the cue or blatantly ignored it. “We don’t want anything from you or your bitch goddess. Ya fucking masochistic cu—”
I drew a trickle of ether and sent a mental message to Aiden. We need to find out what she is doing here. Just trust me for once.
His mouth snapped shut. He took several slow breaths. Though his face puckered as if someone had slipped him sour candy, his lips stayed shut.
“Pleasant as always Rob Junior,” Victoria said.
Aiden simmered but pointedly looked at the ground, grinding his teeth.
“Shall we,” I asked.
“After you,” she said gesturing for me to walk.
I offered her my arm, more to keep her from being behind me than to be close to her. But, if we are being honest, she smelled of lavender. And it was extremely difficult not to notice the side of her body as it pressed into mine.
“Where to?” I asked.
“There is a place up the street. You will love it.”
“What is this?” Aiden asked. “A date? Talk already so we can be about our business.”
“Not until we are some place more private.”
Though many people bustled past us on the walkway, none paid us any attention. We were not the only earthling-esk people walking about, but we were definitely in the minority. Still, people walked or rushed around, going about their business. In many ways, it was just like any other huge city I’d been to.
Horns sounded from vehicles in traffic. A faint breeze brought the smell of baked goods and other salty flavors. My stomach growled, reminding me I had not given it anything for a while. And though ether could sustain me, it was a poor substitute to a bacon cheeseburger with extra grease and a side of chips (you might call them fries.)
We turned a corner, the buildings curved around to the right. A massive building stood on a patch of land to itself. Glass tubes protruded from the side, wound around in odd patterns and branched off into more tubes. Conjoined balls at the ends had flat bottoms. Inside, I could see tables and people dining, served by giant hamster-creatures, each differing in color. They wore red livery, complete with white aprons.
“Please tell me this isn’t the place.”
“No. We are farther up, but they make an incredible dish called chichidee here. Basically eggs benedict, but it has this spicy-sweet, earthy flavor that you would love.”
Eggs Benedict is my favorite breakfast. The fact that she knew that hurt more than a punch to the nose. There was a sad little twist to her mouth. It vanished as quickly as it had come.
“I’ll have to try it sometime.”
We passed several stone buildings followed by some high-rises. We stopped to cross the street. Victoria stepped on a circular disk, buried into the cobblestone, and hit the button to cross. She instantly transported to the other side. I stepped up and hit the button. And just like that, I was across, standing next to Victoria.
“This place is truly wondrous,” she said. “Don’t you agree?”
“Insane,” I agreed. “We should try to patent that back on earth.”
She crooked her arm and I took it. We walked on before Aiden and the minotaurs caught up. Some part of my brain told me this was likely part of her design, to get me alone—or rather without Aiden within earshot—for a few minutes.
“You were always clever,” I said. “I could almost believe your mind is still your own.”
“It is,” she said, smile making her eyes sparkle.
“My Vic never would have set me up like that. The Ferryman could have killed us.”
“I knew he wouldn’t.”
“That isn’t the point. If you were not influenced by Artemis’s control, you would never have led us into the trap.”
“I would apologize, but we both know that would not matter. I have a job to do, just like you do. I take orders from Artemis the same way you do from the collective.”
“Right,” I said, suddenly weary of the conversation. “We both have jobs to do, so what do you want from us?”
“I just want you to see the truth. The Collective lied to us, Liam. About so many things.”
I took a slow breath and sighed. “Not this again. You cannot believe I would join Artemis. I’m not going to bond with any god. You know me better than that.”
“I do know you,” she said, “which is why I know you can see reason. Not all the gods wish to dominate the world. Not in the Zeus-Elohim sort of way. There is a New Pantheon forming on earth. It is going to change the world for the better. We will end hunger, suffering, and bring about a New Eden. Think of it, Liam. No more starvation. No more murder. Doesn’t that sound nice?”
“Sure. But there is a catch. The only way humans can ever achieve such a state is when they give up competition in favor of cooperation and global community. It might be possible in the future, but civilization isn’t ready for that. Not without taking away their free will.”
“Free will is a privilege. Not everyone will have that in New Eden. Not at first.”
“So … what happened to not dominating the world?”
“No one is being bonded. We will simply suppress the urge to do violence and nurture the part of the human mind desiring to give. They will be happier to be a part of something bigger than each individual.”
“And all the books burn at 451 degrees Fahrenheit. Are you going to take away their ability to think as well?”
“Of course not. Just their desire to obsess over wealth and petty rivalries. The world will work together to grow. In time, we can rival Atlantis. But not if we continue the way we are.”
“I will never condone anything that steals the mind and free will of another. Never.”
“Look what humanity has done with their free will. The Earth is dying from global warming. Wars are becoming more frequent. Governments are murdering their own people. The rich will inexorably drive the working class into abject poverty on a global scale with AI technologies. We are saving an entire race. Help me save them from themselves. Please.”
I could feel the plea in her gaze. She truly believed in her own words. And though it felt like the real Victoria, I knew better. There was a fervor for this cause that could have only come from Artemis. The goddess had changed Victoria. And they would do this to all mankind if they got a chance.
“If this is all you wanted to say to me,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest, “then you are wasting your time.”
“No. Not a waste. In time, you will see reason.”
“Are we done then?”
“For now.” I felt the sound shield drop a heartbeat later.
“—fucking smell like a barn, you gods damn heifer. Get your paws off.” Aiden broke free of their grasp and ran forward, only slowing when he’d reached me. “Fucking cows manhandling me. I am done with this farce. Time to go.”
“You still have not heard my offer,” Victoria said. “How do you intend to get home?”
“We’ll figure it out,” Aiden said. “There’s no way I could trust anything you gave us.”
“Sure you will. We will bind our agreement with a blood oath.”
“We can hear her out,” I said. “We both could use coffee.”
“Fine,” Aiden said, stomping ahead as if he knew the way. “But she’s paying.”
“I already said I would.” Victoria winked at me. “And you are going the wrong direction. It’s across here.”
She pointed to a building across another street. It was a Starbucks.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said. “Best coffee in the multiverse?”
“Can’t beat ‘em.”
“Well, at least I know what I’m getting.”
“Soy latte,” she said, “extra shot.”
“Two extra shots,” I said, not hiding my annoyance.
We crossed at another pair of teleporter disks and made our way to the coffee shop. There was outdoor seating, complete with green umbrellas and the trademark symbol of the Seattle-based coffee chain.
Inside looked the same as every Starbucks I’d ever been to. The dark wood, tiled floor with modern (for earth) lighting. Square tables filled a moderate space, separated by a long bar down the middle. More bar seating lined the windows that looked out onto the pedestrian walkway. I walked up to the counter. A barista came up to me immediately. She had pink hair and a nose ring, but otherwise entirely human.
It was surreal.
“Can I offer you a toastie?”
“Uh, yeah,” I said, “And a venti quad-shot soy latte.”
She picked up a cup and asked, “Name?”
She wrote ‘Will’ on the cup. “Anything else for you today?”
“Whatever they are having. And that young lady is picking up the tab.”
Aiden ordered next, adding far more than he could possibly eat or drink. Victoria didn’t complain or bat an eye. She paid without ordering for herself or the bull squad.
“Shall we,” she said, gesturing to a table in the corner.
“We will sit outside,” Aiden said, not giving anyone a chance to protest.
We followed him to a table in the middle of the patio. The minotaurs could not stand surreptitiously around the table, which is likely why Victoria ordered them to wait on the walkway.
“What do you want?” Aiden said. “Make it quick.”
Drawing ether, she closed us into a sound bubble, far less subtle than the one she’d made on the street earlier. “Only for you to pick up a second artifact from Theseus.”
“Second artifact?” Aiden said, trying to play it dumb, but there was too much surprise in his eyes. “What are you talking about?”
“You should make sure your victims are truly unconscious before making plans in front of them.”
“You are insane,” Aiden said. “We would never take anything from Theseus. Have you not heard what he does to criminals here?”
“You are already stealing from him,” she said, as if he hadn’t protested, “so it won’t put you out. When you get into his vault, you’ll take this as well.”
She pulled a thin folder from her purse and placed it on the table. When I went to grab it, she placed her hand on the folder, preventing me from taking it. I was tempted to play tug-of-war with her, but I met her gaze instead, giving her a get-on-with-it-already look.
“This also has schematics of his compound as well as the details of his vault. There are guard postings and patrols, everything you need to get in and out, including details of the wards and traps protecting the castle and artifacts.”
“This is a set-up,” Aiden said. “You want us out of the way so you can get the Bermuda Nexus. You could not goad us into fighting, so you’ll get us arrested and executed this way instead.”
“We could have killed you on earth if that was our goal. You can be more use to us here. Your failure would be a complication for us as well.”
“A bit more so for us. We’ll be ripped apart. Literally.”
“You already intend to get inside,” she said, tapping the folder with one manicured fingernail. “With my help, you actually have a chance to make it out.”
“You have someone on the inside,” I said. “Who is it?”
“Clever boy,” she smiled. “But I cannot tell you that.”
“No way,” Aiden said. “We cannot trust her. For all we know, these schematics will lead us straight to the dungeon. Not worth it. We will find another way.”
“I can give you some time to consider your options,” she said, rising. “However, you should also know that if you reject my offer, Theseus will receive an anonymous tip that a couple of earthlings are planning to rob him. Can you believe those arrogant pricks were talking about it at the Starbucks? The nerve, right?”
“Bitch,” Aiden said.
“Such flattery. No wonder you always get the ladies.”
“And if we do this for you,” I said, “how do you intend to get us back to earth? Our earth in our home universe.” When dealing with a genius and master manipulator, you have to be specific.
“We have access to a Finder Ship.”
I felt half-a-second of confusion before I figured it out. Aiden was a bit slower. “A Finder Ship? Ridiculous. Then why did you trick us into smuggling you …”
He trailed off. His expression grew slack. Then his cheeks reddened. His forehead scrunched up. I could practically see him bristle, shoulders squared up, readying for a fight.
“Yes,” I said, putting my hand on his. “She tricked us with the Ferryman so we would be forced to take her help. We both fell for it.”
“Gods damn it,” Aiden said, standing. “I will fucking kill you—”
I stood as well. “Stop! This isn’t helpful. We lost this round. Don’t make it worse by getting us arrested. Think for a minute.”
Victoria simply sat, giving Aiden a smug look, not too different from his own typical expression. She must have practiced that in a mirror to get it so perfect.
“We’ll do it,” I said. “But we will draft up the blood oath. You’ll sign it, or we’ll take a job as baristas and find a cozy life here.” And though I didn’t believe it, I added, “There is still chance the Ferryman will take us on a return trip.”
“Done,” she said, rising. She left the folder on the table as she turned to go. “You can reach me at the Lady’s Villa. Queen’s suite.”
She sauntered away without a backward glance, breaking the sound proof shield as she left. Aiden assaulted her with more curses than I could keep up with.
The barista stood with a drink carrier and an armful of paper sacks.
“Sure. That’s us.”
She dropped the sacks on the folder and placed the drinks in front of me. “Called your names for five minutes.”
“Won’t happen again,” I said, crossing an X over my chest.
“No worries. I just hope it’s not cold. Let us know if we need to remake it.”
And that’s why I love Starbucks. Even if I’m the dumbass who left his order to get cold, they’d make it fresh without complaint. Maybe a bit of sass, but I don’t blame them.
We ravished the food for several minutes without talking. It gave me time to think. The more I thought, the more used I felt. Eventually, the anger I’d been suppressing while under pressure came bubbling up.
“Gods I feel used,” I said. “We are fucking tools.”
“No. You are a tool. I wanted to turn her in to the Collective. You are the one insisting on saving everyone all the time. Even the megalomaniacal, manipulative bitches who don’t want to be saved.”
“She is not herself, and you know it,” I said, “Fuck Loki, but we have a chance—”
“Sorry, love, but you are not my type.” The man at the table beside us turned and eyed Aiden up and down, finishing his perusal of Aiden’s body with a seductive wink. “But he just might be.”
Aiden blinked. “What’s that now?”
The man wore an ostentatious fur coat made of velvet fur and lacy frills. He could have been Prince’s twin with a closely trimmed mustache and dark eyeliner which highlighted his brown eyes. His crimped black hair fell a few inches below his chin and shimmered as if he’d just stepped out of a shower.
“Oh boyfriend,” he said, “That is one sweet ass you have. I could sop you up in gravy and eat you like a biscuit.”
Red flushed Aiden’s cheeks. “Uh. Thanks. But I’m not really dating right now.”
“Who said anything about a date?” He leaned forward, eyes now predatory.
Aiden’s nervous laugh failed to hold any actual mirth.
The man gave himself a self-satisfied grin, head swaggering back and forth as he turned his body to fully face us. He lifted his coffee and sipped it, pinky out.
I felt a strange connection to the man—not just the joy at seeing his ability to make Aiden squirm at a furtive glance. There was a resonant power coming from him that was familiar but I could not quite place. His eyes twinkled as if he had told a joke where only he knew the punchline, but he had the patience to wait it out rather than explain the pun.
As I opened my mouth to ask who he was, he said, “You must recognize the god you love to curse so often. I mean, do you really want to fuck me in so many orifices?”
The predatory smile turned on me. Just like that, my joy evaporated.
“Loki?” I said. “Jesus Christ.”
“No. You had it right the first time.”
I knew he could smite me into oblivion, and there was little I could to do stop him. There were laws against murdering in Atlantis. They do not wish chaos to break out on their streets. However, the civilization was archaic in that Loki could demand satisfaction, forcing me to duel him to the death or admit guilt and be executed for dishonoring a citizen of Atlantis. Either way, I’d be dead.
And it would be my own fault for opening my big-fat mouth.