The whole world had gone to hell, as expected. Rather, as he'd expected. Not as others had expected.
Ace was still in motion. The scientists trying to protect the Artifact were following, and Ace was shouting to them over her shoulder as they ran across the courtyard. She was still trying to keep them together even as they splintered in the chaos. She was, in short, still fighting--fighting the Conglomerate; and, he suspected, fighting him.
His suspicion was confirmed when she spun to look straight at him where he stood watching. ”You knew it wouldn’t work!”
That was all she had time for. Another shell hit close, and people screamed as they ran from falling masonry.
It was not precisely true. The scientists had released the computer virus he and Ace had brought them, and it had worked fine: It shut down the Conglomerate's intelligence network, which was what they had expected it to do. But if she meant he'd known that that wouldn't keep them from finding the Artifact, then, yes.
Professor Litin shielded a colleague with her tiny body as another explosion shook the palace walls. Ace yanked the pin from a canister of Nitro 9 and hurled it back in the direction from which the blast had come.
The thing about the Artifact, the Doctor reflected, was that it was not of this world. Hence the resurrections, and all that manner of thing. Possibly it had been intentionally deposited here; more likely, it had been mislaid. As soon as humans had learnt to make radios, they had got the idea of putting transceivers in important things they wanted to keep track of. Every species did. As technology progressed, the means would evolve in turn, but the idea remained the same. Even if the signal was so advanced and so alien that lesser sciences could not detect or decipher it, it was still just a way to keep track of your keys.
So here the Cirius Conglomerate were, answering a call that they oughtn't to have been able to hear. They had located the Artifact, which that meant that they must have already scavenged the other bits of xenotech the Osirans had mislaid on this planet. And the Doctor really couldn't allow them to keep it.
Besides, bombs were a rude way to knock.
Then he realized that the bombs had actually stopped. Everybody, the scientists and even Ace, stopped along with them, looking from face to face as the courtyard grew thick with apprehension. A whirring came from a window that had been blown out. The first round of airborne droids emerged from it, their cameras clicking and glittering like insects. They hung for a moment and then dove.
The scientists screamed; Ace sounded a barbaric yawp all her own and threw herself at the nearest droid. She nearly caught it, too.
The Doctor checked the sky. It was dizzyingly blue, and empty. A little longer.
Ace told him that he'd changed. He'd changed since she'd met him, she said, since the time when he'd been traveling with Mel; she said he'd grown darker, more secretive, and more manipulative. She said that his clowning had become a mask, and that his life had become chess. Her tone when she brought it up was usually torn between fascination and anger.
Another thing that was not quite true the way she put it. He had changed since he'd taken her on, but the only thing he had gained was transparency.
"Professsor! Look out!"
He whipped round. Ace's body crushed him to the ground as the wall beside him erupted.
He felt her go slack. He rolled from beneath her in time to see the droid that had shot at him drop out of the air, damaged by the same debris that had felled Ace. Ace–
The Doctor checked the other droids–one left; Sandras and Litin had good cover–and turned her over. Blood trickled from somewhere under her hair. Her curse was loud and clear in her eyes the moment before they went out: You manipulative bastard.
The Doctor sought her pulse with his fingers and thumbed her eyelids. Reassured, he settled in on a rock beside her to wait.
Shouldn't be long now. The Conglomerate had played their hand in broad daylight, discretion completely abandoned in their determination to capture the Artifact. They weren't all here, but enough of them were, and they would have the Osiran xenotech with them. That was what mattered. Soon, the Praesidium's forces would be along to scoop them up, putting an end to the sort of military that a corporation really shouldn't have. The Doctor knew that they would, because he had called them.
He looked around the courtyard and sighed. Then he looked down at Ace, where she lay across his knees. This was for her benefit. One day, she would know that. Somewhere, he suspected, she already did; she would fight that knowledge longest of all.
A white dot appeared in the sky: the first of the Praesidium's ships. This was nearly over, which meant that soon he would be collecting the dangerous artifacts from both Litin and the Conglomerate. Winner take all. Ace, quick-witted Ace, would draw her inferences when he did. She would see that he had set them up, and she would realize that he had started the moment he saw Professor Litin's wonderful and dangerous resurrection gauntlet. She would see right through the mask he had turned to glass for her. She would be furious with him.
But she would also learn. Ace was not a book student. She was, in the catch-phrase of her age, more of hands-on learner. If it was the only way to teach her, then the universe would be his chalk and slate.
He could have spared her the betrayal she would feel by explaining. But there was the only way to teach her the most important thing of all about manipulation, which was how it felt to be manipulated.
The Doctor turned his face up to the sky. Sunlight was pouring down; the topiaries were swaying in the breeze. It was a nice day, really. Another shell came down.
The corner of his mouth pulled up for a moment. He leant on his brolly and stroked her hair. "Just feathering the nest, Ace. Just feathering the nest."
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