B3 — 10. Crystals, Money, And The Future

POV:  Rachel Park

Recap:  Rachel and the girls were in the thick of a meeting with Tom and the Executive Branch of the United States.  The girls told them about the aliens and the Azure Frost, and now they’re getting ready to discuss what to do about it.

Rachel listened to the conversation that followed once they left; Scarlet was already moving back to the cooler for more blood with a bright hum, causing the soldiers to give each other uneasy glances.

Her ears shifted a little to the left, getting a clearer sound from the strategy room; Tom’s voice became louder as she concentrated on the area.

“Major Webber, go with the girls and get them anything they need—in reason, Rachel,” he said with a tired sigh.

Maria chuckled.  “You know she be listenin’!  Right, right—I’d like to talk to my hermanito … he must be worried sick.”

“Got it,” Webber said, chair making a slight squeak as he rolled back, but paused as the woman on the screen spoke again.

“General, are you sure we should let them go?  We need to look into a lot of the  information they’ve brought us.”

“I agree with the Secretary of State,” said another man.  “The country’s laws will change drastically this year, and we need to identify contingency plans, including the fact that this is a Presidential Election year.  Both parties will go nuts over the policy changes; we need to get ahead of this.”

Tom shrugged.  “I’ll appeal to the Hatch Act on this one.  I’m here for the military-strategic planning on how we’re going to move forward to keep the nation’s best interests at heart, not a presidential race.”

The President took in a long breath before letting it out.  “I get it, everyone … what do you think, Jeff?  You’ve been the one that seems to be throwing out all the right ideas, putting Tom in charge to lead us here.”

There was silence for a moment; Maria popping her tongue with a bit of annoyance as she waited.  After a second, he said, “Tom’s served me well as the Army’s Chief of Staff.  I trust his judgment.  Let the girls rest … hell, they’re citizens for heaven’s sake.”

The Secretary of State released a low huff before replying.  “Yes, Mr. Secretary—but we’re dealing with an unorthodox phenomenon.  We’re getting information from birds!  How am I supposed to go back to explain this intel to our allied nations?  Phil, what do you say?  Surely this is a critical piece of information we can use?”

There was a short pause.  “As the Director of National Intelligence, I understand your reasoning, Hannah, but we have been given a lot to discuss.  Tom, what that girl—Rachel,” he muttered, likely looking down at his notes, “you trust the intel she gave, and what about the concern she has for the bird’s explanation on the crystals?”

Tom leaned back in his chair, causing it to squeak before releasing a short sigh.  “I’d stake my career on Rachel’s intel.  Let’s just say she’s as honorable as they come, but as to her concern, there’s not much we can do about it.  This is the only branch we’ve got to jump on.  Maybe Fiona can go back out and find some more creatures with information after she rests, but I think we’ve got enough to discuss right now.”

The President spoke up, silencing any further debate.  “Okay, thank you for what you’re doing for your country, girls.  Have a good rest.”

“My pleasure!”  Fiona said with a bright tone.  “Major Webber!  Can we make those calls now?”

“Sure thing,” he said, getting up to guide them out.

“Finally,” Maria groaned.  “I’ll be in the—oh, my—flippin’ cold!”

Fiona giggled.  “What, you forgot this is Montana in February?”

“How am I supposed to sunbathe in this?”  She shouted with frustration.  “Freak!”

“Indoors?”  Fiona suggested.

Maria just growled in response, stomping into the chilling wind.

Rachel’s head shifted to glance at Scarlet; she was sitting on the cooler, absently sucking on a blood bag while watching her.  Her fangs detached from the plastic, licking her lips as Rachel’s focus moved to her.

“Anything important happening?”

She shrugged.  “Maria’s complaining about the weather.”

“Typical Maria,” she said with a soft chuckle.  “She’s got a big mouth, but she’s not that intimidating, to be honest, well—unless you didn’t know her.”

A smile touched Rachel’s cheeks.  “You’d first see a mesmerizing beauty, followed by the mouth and attitude fit for the gutter before warming up to her big heart.  She’s brutally honest about her opinions and how she feels, but that’s what makes her such a great friend, right?”

“I thought that, too!  They’re coming back?”

Rachel shook her head.  “They’re going to another building to call their family; Webber’s grabbing us some cots, blankets, and pillows, too.”

Scarlet’s lower lip tucked under, blue irises falling to the asphalt before glancing left at the soldiers.  They were trying to keep their focus on the crystal, but their eyes understandably kept shifting their way every so often.

A heavy sigh passed through Scarlet’s mouth as her focus returned to the ground, feet twisted around each other.  “Hey, Rachel…”

“Yeah?”  She folded her arms under her chest, studying the crestfallen Vampire.

“Why—why did my parents do that—believe that stuff?”

Rachel’s face pacified while she thought.

She isn’t looking for an answer … she’s just hurt.  She went through her entire life seeing this false image of her parents to suddenly discover what they really believed.  Not only that, but having something like that happen after going through The Oscillation is hard to contemplate.  Being a part of the group has just been a distraction from the nightmare her life has become … a way to cope.

She accidentally killed dozens of people she knew for years, her father included, and her mother just smiles, saying that’s exactly what she should have done … that’s some mixed messaging.  Her mother’s definitely insane, but Scarlet didn’t see her like that at all … it was a complete whiplash; she’s having a hard time fusing the mother she thought she knew with this new fanatic.

Scarlet might even be trying to convince herself that this can’t be her mother, and there’s some kind of magic at play.  Her world’s utterly fallen apart, and to top it off, there’s a part of her that hates what she’s become.  How can I respond?  Well … if I try to put myself in her shoes, even though I might deny it at first…

Rachel walked over and bent down to hug Scarlet; she stiffened for a moment but didn’t resist.  After a moment, she wrapped her arms around Rachel’s back, whispering, “Thanks, Rachel.”

She didn’t cry or shake, but her cold body continued to embrace her for a few minutes.  After a time, she pulled back and glanced over at the concrete wall.  “Can we sit down?  Sorry, the blood is giving me some strange emotions,” she chuckled, wiping at a single bloody tear that left her eye.

“No, yeah—no problem,” Rachel replied with an encouraging smile.

They both walked over to the edge, away from most of the soldiers.  Sitting down, Scarlet leaned her head against the wall.  She tugged a portion of her gown, smoothing it out.  Rachel sat next to her, folding her legs as she mirrored Scarlet’s action, head resting against the wall to look up at the concrete barrier.

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It took a few minutes before Scarlet whispered, “This all still feels like a mix between a nightmare and a dream … if I’m not focused on the task in front of me, my mind wanders.  I don’t know what to expect anymore…”

A lump dropped down her throat, blue eyes closing.  “My mom and dad took us on lots of vacations … trips around the world to see all sorts of historical sites.  I thought it was fun when I was growing up, but now … now I wonder what they were really doing there.  How much of it was a lie?  Did they ever love me?”

Rachel wanted to say they did, but at the same time, she wasn’t sure if she could.  After running it through her accelerated mind, she said, “I doubt they could have kept up that mask your entire life.  They must have loved you.”

Shifting a little, Scarlet brought her knees up to hug them, whispering, “But was it me?  Looking back, was I just the eventual plan they had to summon their goddess?  I was just some named body of cells they could use to accomplish their goals?  The way my mother looked at me … they all looked at me; it’s like this was the end goal the entire time.

“All the rituals I was forced to take part in … just looking at the clock, waiting for it to be over so I could get back to my weekend.  I—I didn’t have a clue they were serious.  Was I that stupid?”

“I don’t think you’re stupid…”

“Why didn’t I see it, then?  My parents were the leaders of a legit cult … maybe they even killed people during those rituals.”  A shiver ran down her body as she pressed her face against her knees, mind likely returning to dozens of events she took part in.  “I met random people during our trips … my parents would go out to eat with them, and the next day we’d move to a new location.  I can’t stop thinking about all the times they were gone.  What were they doing?

“And The Oscillation … did they cause it?  I mean, we all have crazy powers, and we’re in front of a crystal that teleports us to a different world.  Were they really communicating with Scarlet … was it all actually real?  Were my parents the ones that caused everything?  I don’t know—I just don’t know.”

Rachel’s pulled her hair around, leaning forward a bit.  “I can’t say they didn’t … it’s a valid question.  You have Fiona, Maria, and me, though … you’re not alone.”

Scarlet fell silent for several seconds; the only sound came from the shifting clothes and hushed conversations of the soldiers, discussing between how they looked to the different events happening around the world.

Another lump dropped down Scarlet’s throat, tone dropping further.  “What if you’re deceiving me, too, though?”

“What?”  Rachel asked, brow furrowing as she looked over at Scarlet’s gloomy demeanor.  “Why would you think that?”

Scarlet shrugged, running her left hand through her hair.  “It just popped into my mind.  What if you just want me around to benefit yourself, like my parents.  What if it’s not really me you want around, but my powers … what if I’m only worth anything because I’m a Vampire?  Should I even be alive right now … am I alive?”

Rachel reached over and nudged her, causing her to look over at her with confusion.  “What?”

“Did that feel real?”

“Yeah … but that’s not what I mean.”

A smile moved Rachel’s lips as she grabbed Scarlet’s hand.  “I thought to have a Vampire as a friend meant others would hate me, and I’d be better off chasing you away?  Isn’t that what you were saying before?”

“Well—I guess…”

“I get it … don’t get me wrong, and no, I don’t think I really understand how you’re feeling … how could anyone … you do have emotional sensing.  Do you think I’m being insincere?  If you suspect I’m lying, you could always ask Maria, too.”

Scarlet giggled softly, looking back down at her knees.  “Yeah, well—Maria’s kind of a blockhead, and you’re pretty crafty.”

“I suppose you’re not wrong,” Rachel said, mirroring her laugh.  “Still,” she squeezed her hand, “I’ll keep trying to be your friend, and I know you don’t have anywhere to go—which sucks.  I bet I’ll have to find a new place to live here in a bit anyways … we’ll just take it one step at a time, and you can live with me.”

“Thanks for hearing me out,” Scarlet sighed, leaning over to rest her head against her shoulder.  “I don’t really feel like you’re keeping me around to use me … yet the thought still popped up,” she mumbled.

“I know saying don’t worry about it is pointless; so, I’ll just let my actions prove it.  I’m here for you, no matter what you need.”

They leaned against each other for a time, shifting every so often while Rachel followed the discussion taking place back in the mobile home.

Tom and the executive council were still debating; she closed her eyes, listening to their conversation.

“… we going to keep this from the public?”

The Secretary of National Intelligence, Phil, responded, “I don’t think we can; I’ve been getting reports that there are already speculations and questions surrounding the crystals circulating the web.  We’ve tried to put a button on it for the time being, but it’s only a matter of time before it starts to hit the big YouTubers, Podcasts, and Social Media in general.”

“Right,” Tom sighed.  “We knew we couldn’t fight it forever.  The bird’s information on the crystals seem to be holding up, and the public won’t be worried about the crystals, but what we’re going to do about them.”

“The soldiers are restless about our direction, too,” the Sergeant Major muttered.  “I’ve talked to a few that are even concerned about their wages dropping or their stations being filled by people with powers.”

Hannah, The Secretary of State, breathed out a heavy sigh.  “There’s also the issue of immigration and relief for other countries; the middle east is a hornet’s nest with purges and rival warlords moving to expand their territory.  Africa and Hong Kong are in major civil unrest, too.  

“Hong Kong is moving further toward civil war after China put boots on the ground to keep the territory and peace while also using the chaos in India to expand further.  Still, I haven’t received much information about how they’re doing internally.”

The President groaned.  “As much as I hate to hear how the rest of the world is doing, we need to first focus on our own citizens.  We can’t help out others until we’re in a stable condition to support them.”

“Our allies are demanding aid … what do you want me to tell them?”  She asked.

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“Whatever you must,” Jeff stated bluntly.  “We’re in a state of national defense; the sooner we solve our problems, the sooner we can help the world with theirs, and we’re not the world police; I ran on that, and I believe it.  We need to let other nations handle their own problems.”

“Getting back to the topic of the crystals,” Tom cut in, “it’s our most pressing issue.  If the birds are to be believed, then we are literally in a state of constant war.  We should use this crystal as an experiment to see if their estimation is correct.”

“Nuke the site?”  Hannah chuckled mirthlessly.  “You think that would be a good decision?”

“I didn’t say that,” Tom huffed.  “Rachel and the others can get us further information on how to proceed.  Learning how to close the portals and discussing how to warn the populous should be our top concern.  The girls weren’t wrong; we might need to look at alternative options to protect the nation.”

“You’re not talking about privatizing the task of closing the crystals?”  Phil asked.

“That’s just one of many options.  We need to shift the focus off the tribal mentality of those changed people and give everyone a common goal.  What better opportunity than an enemy that could show up at any time, and we just don’t have the resources to deal with it, right, Zack?”

“I’ve said it before. Since we passed the major tax cut and pulled back most of our forces in the Middle East to focus on rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, we’re in a better financial spot than we might have been.  However, even with the increase, our deficit keeps growing because spending keeps increasing beyond that.

“Our economic growth is important, and contracting that out to private companies might help with that, giving them the chance to bid on crystals, but we also have to worry about big business and big government…”

“Here we go again…”  Hannah muttered.

“No, it’s a legitimate concern,” The President sighed, “and I get your opinion, too, Hannah, it’s why I nominated you … to give me a different angle.  Go on, Zack.”

“Right, well, you campaigned on smaller government, but big businesses getting richer is becoming a growing concern with the public.  With some of the things you want to do with the presidency in your next term, you won’t have the power to really interfere that much.

“Censorship and these companies monopolizing the market might be a big concern that we need to look into.  I suspect you want this to be a grassroots effort, giving anyone the chance to contract these people with powers, and maybe even people that can gain suitable weapons.”

The President hummed.  “If we do take that route, then we’ll need to prioritize safety and have a certain degree of oversight and programs to make sure people are qualified, whether they have powers or not.”

“Of course, but look at the top companies in the world, Silicon Valley, they make the oil companies look like a joke.  If they were able to get their hands on resources from other planets, they could even start challenging the government.  We need to consider both sides; economic growth is great for all citizens, but giving companies the power to utilize the crystals is playing with fire.”

“Let’s move back to the cost,” The President said.

They went back and forth for a few minutes, causing Rachel to zone out with the complicated issues about using taxes in various ways being discussed.

Someone Rachel hadn’t heard yet spoke up.  “Give me a moment … As you said, Zack, we sell the crystals.  Now,” he stated, cutting Zack off, “I understand we still have a ton to discuss, and the safety of citizens in a wartime effort is needed.  It’s kind of a grim outlook, but basically, overnight, we’re being forced to turn into a military world.  We must not only defend but attack, based on the information we’ve obtained.  Correct?”

There were begrudging mumbles of acceptance thrown around the call.

“Right, so, we must drastically change how we perceive war; we don’t know how long this might last, perhaps forever, and we need to be ready for the chance that the rest of the world will also have issues.  I can’t see African tribes being able to handle waves of monsters attacking them for an extended period of time.

“We’ve got a powerful industrial market to prop us up, and like it or not, the sound of the war machine is starting up,” he muttered, and Tom sighed, seat squeaking with his movements.  “Yes, Mr. President, we need programs and tests to make sure we can handle this, but our military must be prepared to handle it if the companies fail.”

Tom hummed thoughtfully.  “Okay, so you’re saying allow the companies to give the government resources, and potentially anything dangerous, meaning we need to have a lot of oversight, but provide them with the chance to gain supernatural resources to spur the market forward.  

“Soon, we might see magical fire swords and the like circulating the market or electric bullet guns, or whatever, which will also need regulating.”

“In accordance with the Second Amendment, of course,” The President stated.  “I can see where you’re both going, and … abilities and the Second Amendment; that’s a whole other can of worms.  It might work, but we’d need to put this through the legal department and a host of other committees to work out the details.  Congress and the Senate will bicker like cats and dogs over it, but … it could work.”

“All I’m saying is that it seems like the best option to handle the problems we’re facing.  We need to prepare for the long haul; this isn’t going to be a temporary thing.”

Hannah groaned softly.  “Mmh, this will make a lot of countries pretty scared.  I mean, we’re talking about going all in … full-on military mode, while even using private citizen volunteers.  Right,?”

“It’s a whole new industry that’s untapped,” Zack muttered, clicking his tongue a few times.  “The standard of living could rise a ton, but it’s all dependent upon the chance skills or abilities people obtained, and less than one percent of the population has gained powers.”

The President leaned back, causing his chair to creak across the speakers.  “Although, it will increase the immigration of these powered people to our nation.  Correct?  We are by far the most liberal immigration country in the world already, taking in 4x more than Russia, as the world’s second largest immigration country.

“Are you also suggesting we incentivise more powered people to help bolster our defense against these Crystals?  He can’t sustain the whole world, as much as I’d like to provide everyone the American dream.  Our social programs are stressed as it is after The Oscillation.”

There was silence for a moment as the other members thought on it; Zack was the first to respond.  “I see where that could go … and we may not have a choice.  It would solve a ton of our financial issues in the long run by bringing in new resources from these other worlds, but we’ll need something to help us in the short term.”

Tom hummed thoughtfully.  “I don’t know how that would function; it’s outside of my purview.  However, didn’t you already discuss selling the portals?”

“Yeah, I do like that,” Hannah whispered.  “We could make it illegal to enter a crystal, and…”

She paused as Tom laughed.  “Like that will stop them; it’s like stepping into a fantasy world.”

“Hold on,” Phil mumbled.  “We’re talking like we’ve already decided to release it to the public.  I get that it’s going to be hard to keep a lid on this, but have we just given up entirely on covering it up?”

The Sergeant Major groaned.  “I don’t see that we have much choice.  If those birds were right, they’ll just show up randomly, putting everyone at risk.  We need ways to quickly identify crystals and some type of quick response units to take command.”

Zack clicked his tongue a few times.  “If we go down this route, then we’ll need to not only get it past the Senate and House, but we’ll also need to set a pre-purchase price.  For that, we’d need more detailed information on the danger level of each crystal, and the insurance these companies would have to take out on anyone going through … there’s just so much more to consider.”

Tom shifted in his seat.  “Hmm—we could also tax the resources taken back.  For a short term solution, this could work—until we find a better one that might not require conquering the other side.  Morally, it doesn’t sound right, but if it just keeps getting worse, I don’t see many other choices to keep our citizens safe while not breaking our economy, as Zack pointed out.

“We’ll have to first bring in a bunch of PMCs and brief them on the opportunity and conditions.  You could work this out later to put in a bill to send to the Senate and House.  Mind if we move on to how to deal with this Azure Frost?”

Rachel listened to them argue and bicker about information and political agendas for several minutes before turning to greet Maria and Fiona as they entered the room with a bunch of soldiers carrying their supplies, including nightwear.  She was a little surprised to find Scarlet had fallen asleep on her shoulder.

“I guess Vampires sleep on a clock,” Maria chuckled softly.

Fiona’s dust changed from dark blue to yellow.  “She’s so cute, and you’re holding hands!”

Rachel’s body shook slightly with a light laugh before gently nudging Scarlet.  Her eyes opened in an instant, moving to grasp the situation before her tension dropped.  “Oh—hey guys,” she yawned, shifting her hands to stretch them.  “Beds—oh, please tell me those clothes are for us!”

Fiona gave her a thumbs-up.  “Maria picked out some things while I made a few calls!”

Maria lifted an appraising eyebrow at Scarlet’s appearance.  “Seriously, chica, you gettin’ out of the bride’s dress?  It’s not a bad look, you know, even with the mud.”

Scarlet’s face turned the color of her name, looking down at the dirty fabric.  “You really think so?”

“Yeah, but I couldn’t see Rachel in somethin’ like that … she looks right at home covered in mud.”

“Thanks,” Rachel said with a bright grin before getting to her feet and sweeping her hair back.  “They have a shower we can use?”

“Yup, a hotel across the street, just pick any room … we’ll walk.”  She said, giving Scarlet a meaningful look.

Fiona broke into the conversation, seemingly bouncing with joy, yellow dust falling around her green-hued body.

“Good news!  Brion, my cat, is fine; Erica is at my place taking care of him.  She’s talking to the Major right now … poor guy, she’s pretty scary when the lawyer side of her comes out.  I told her that we couldn’t say anything because of the contract.”

“And your sister?”  Scarlet asked, following Rachel to her feet.

All Fiona’s cheer diminished, dust turning emerald green as her long ears drooped a little.  “I couldn’t get in touch with them, but Major Webber said there are Military contacts at Shannon Airport since it’s now a de facto U.S. military station.  It’s about a two-hour drive away from Clifden, but he said he’d have someone go check on them.”

“That’s nice,” Rachel said with a bright smile.  “By the time you get up, we’ll have some answers.”

“Well—I don’t think I can sleep,” Fiona said with a forced grin.  “I really want to make sure Nora and my parents are alright.”

“What about your brother?”  Rachel asked, turning to Maria.

Her smile mirrored Fiona’s.  “Well—Felix got in a little scuffle with some guy talkin’ crap on us and was locked up … I sent one of my crew over to get him out.  Everyone’s doing good at the block, too.  Some heads needed smashing, but ever since Elena changed into a Beastkin Honey Badger, she’s been freakin’ mean.  She whipped some thugs’ butts, and got them into shape when they came lookin’ for cash.”  She chuckled.

“Someone more feral than you?”  Scarlet asked innocently.  “Humanity is doomed.”

“Hey, I thug, but dang,” she muttered, flipping a few locks of her long white hair behind her back.  “Elena can get out of control, and she’s only sixteen.  Girl’s got mad attitude; some of the boys just call her Badazz, but she takes care of her mom.”

“She sounds like a real firecracker,” Fiona commented.  “My sister can be a bit timid … I used to be a little timid!  Man, The Oscillation changed us so much…”

“You’re telling me,” Scarlet said with a long sigh.

“I’m glad you have people you can count on,” Rachel said, patting Maria on the shoulder.

“Hey!  What’s the deal?  You’re covered in mud, chica!”

Rachel chuckled before yawning, “Alright—well, let’s get ready for bed.  Are you going to go chill in a heated glass room?”  She asked as a partial joke.

“For real!  There’s a greenhouse nearby, so I’ll be in there.”

“Well, okay,” Rachel said, and they all laughed.

Scarlet teleported her to the hotel room and went to another room to shower herself, using the small bottles to help clean off.  They dressed in the replacement nightwear before heading back.  Scarlet had to wait a bit for her to finish getting all the dirt out of her hair; it wasn’t as hard as she thought it would be, but still took a bit of time.

She was a little surprised to find she wasn’t hungry.  She followed a few more conversations with Tom related to making the crystals public and what it might take to get some of their plans past Congress and the Senate.  They both made their cots and laid down, quickly falling asleep.

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