The table slammed into me, knocking me onto the floor. When I opened my eyes, a thick cloud of dust filled the room.
The only sound I could hear was a high pitched ringing. My ears and lungs burned, and something sharp poked into my leg.
I crawled backwards, my head spinning, blinking to clear the stinging dust from my eyes.
A pile of bloody glass shards sat where my leg had been lying. From a damn milkshake cup. Beyond that, the dust made it difficult to see anything. I coughed, doubling over.
My mind snapped to my basic tactics training. Don’t panic. Get your bearings. What just happened? My eyes darted around the room, peering through the smoke and debris. A bomb.
Right-Hira crouched behind the table, a thin stream of blood running down the side of his head. He yelled something at me, but I couldn’t hear anything. The wooden chairs and tables around me had been reduced to rubble, and every window in the building had been shattered.
Bodies surrounded me and Hira. Waiters, teenagers, Paragon students. Large blotches of red stained their clothes up and down their bodies, and a thin layer of dust covered every single one of them.
Some of them moved, twitching their fingers or sucking in wheezing breaths. Most of them didn’t.
Where are Samuel and Eliya? My breath quickened, making my throat burn. Both of them had been closest to the blast – the old woman had set it off when they walked past her. Their autonomous bullet defenses should have blocked the shrapnel, but the blast wave would still harm them.
I crawled back towards the metal table Hira had used as cover, taking care to not tread over more broken glass. That’s the only reason I’m alive. I poked my head above the top and squinted across the room, towards the pile of rubble and limbs where the old woman had been sitting.
Eliya lay next to the door, unmoving. A thin red hole had been blown into the side of her forehead, blood pouring out of it. Both her legs were a mangled mess of blood and bone beneath the knee, and one of her eyeballs looked like a popped balloon.
A wave of nausea came over me, and I leaned against the table for support. No. She couldn’t be dead. Eliya was the toughest person I knew.
I looked back at her. Despite everything else, her dust-covered chest was rising and falling. She’s still breathing. But with the wound to her head, her brain could be in danger, which could mean permanent damage to the delicate structures of her Pith itself.
The wound looked like shrapnel had caused it, which should have been blocked by her ABD. Was there Voidsteel in the bomb?
Samuel lay next to Eliya, on his back.
Blood covered his perfect forehead and chin, staining his dirty blonde hair. One of his arms had been ripped off from the elbow down.
The other arm was draped over his torn stomach, where his intestines spilled out, exposed. A puddle of blood grew beneath him, pouring out from the tear in his abdomen and dripping down his torso and legs.
Oh, scholars. I gagged. Tears collected at the edges of my eyes.
His eyelids fluttered, and his chest rose and fell. He’s alive. But for how long?
I’m going to find whoever’s responsible for this.
A girl crawled up towards Samuel, coughing up blood. Marion Hewes. A Paragon student from Sphinx Squad.
Marion ripped off a piece of a dead man’s shirt and pressed it to Samuel’s stomach. He groaned with pain.
“Pressure,” she choked out. “You have to slow the bleeding. Until help arrives.” The ringing in my ears had subsided just enough to make out her speech.
Loud cracks rang out from the street, and bullets blew through Marion’s head, filling her with bloody holes.
She dropped to the ground, unmoving.
Outside the front door, a man and a woman sat on a motorcycle, with a machine gun mounted on the sidecar. Green hands. Or mobsters from Tunnel Vision. Possibly armed with Voidsteel bullets.
“Two o’clock, two o’clock!” the man shouted.
The woman turned the machine gun toward me.
I dropped to the floor, and more cracks rang out, bullets clanging into the metal of the table. They kept going, drowning out all other noise.
Hira grabbed me by the arm, yanking me to one side of the table. He pulled off my shoe and slid it to the opposite end, so that just the toes were sticking out.
The gunfire focused on the far end of the table. Bullet holes opened up above where the shoe stuck out, just above the ground so it would hit a person lying on their belly. The table wasn’t thick enough everywhere.
I closed my eyes and stretched out my Pith, reaching for pieces of paper in the room. Mostly napkins. Not enough of an edge to cut properly, but I could feel a few receipts and orders around the kitchen area, and some sheets from a cabinet in the office.
Before I could shoot them at the motorcycle, Hira grabbed my arm. “Police and Guardians will be here soon!” Even though he was shouting, I could barely hear him over the gunfire. “Brin won’t be able to cover it up if you’re arrested! You’ll fuck over us all!”
“Doesn’t matter,” I hissed. “Have to fight.”
“No, we don’t!” Hira pointed to the back door behind him. “Your ex is going to get a new body when the paramedics show! We need to get out of here.”
Blood dripped down my cut leg. Every breath made my lungs burn, and the loud cracks of the machine gun sent stabs of pain through my ears. I clenched my fists. “The enemies know Eliya and Samuel are still breathing. If we leave, they’ll confirm their kills. But we need to – “
I turned to my right. Hira was already speed-crawling out of the back door, slipping through the narrow gap and into the alleyway out back. Bullets blasted into the door where he’d been, opening up dozens of holes.
While they focused on Hira, I slid the paper I’d gathered out one of the broken side windows, out of sight of the two gunmen.
Remembering the gunmen’s locations, I shot the paper at the motorcycle from behind, aiming where the shooter’s necks and faces would be.
They only hit air. The targets moved. I swirled the paper up and down, back and forth, combing around the motorcycle to find their new position.
Where did they go? Their vehicle hadn’t moved, and someone was still shooting the mounted machine gun. Could they be –
I spun around. The man and the woman leapt around the table, swiveling a pair of shotguns in my direction. They kept the gun firing as a diversion. And they’d used the distraction to flank me.
The two thugs aimed their guns at me.
Then they screamed, falling to the ground. Their hands fell off beneath them, blood gushing out of the two stumps where their wrists had been. The shotguns clattered to the ground, unfired.
Someone cut their hands off.
The woman writhed on the ground, screaming. The man was unconscious, passed out from the shock. In the late morning sunlight, I caught a glint of a thin wire, floating in the air above them.
I stood up to see Samuel standing in the center of the room. He staggered towards me, clutching his stomach and holding his intestines in his body. Tears poured down his face, and his shoulders shook from the exertion and pain.
The boy had been torn open, could only see out of one eye, and was covered in blood. And he was still fighting.
A man with a rifle popped up from behind the motorcycle, out of Samuel’s vision.
Without looking, before I could move, Samuel lifted his arm in the man’s direction, and the man’s arm split off at the elbow. He fell to the ground, clutching the stump.
I stretched my Pith out, straining to feel the presence of other souls in the room. That’s all of them.
Samuel stared the floor, blood pouring out of his torn eye. I stared at him, unable to move a muscle.
Then he collapsed, his guts spilling out beneath him.
I sprinted over to him and grabbed the shirt Marion was using to slow the bleeding. Sirens rang in the distance as I flipped him over, pushed his guts back in, and pressed down on the opening as hard as I could.
He didn’t need a functioning digestive system for the paramedics. He just needed a working Pith, and that meant minimizing his blood loss and shock reaction.
“Eyes open!” I shouted. “Don’t fucking fall asleep.”
Sirens rang in the distance. Blood soaked into the shirt I was using, making it damp beneath my palms. As I pressed down, I could feel his guts moving around beneath me, like I was kneading a pile of raw meat.
I retched, holding back the vomit. “Stay the fuck awake.”
Samuel avoided eye contact with me, turning his head so he was looking away from me. He coughed, and whispered something under his breath.
“What?” I leaned closer to hear him better, and pressed harder on his stomach, making him groan.
“Go,” he whispered. “Go. Go.”
I shook my head. “You’ll bleed out.”
“If they catch you – “ Samuel gagged, spitting blood. “ – both get hurt. Don’t need you.”
The sirens got louder. Closer. The police aren’t going to be friendly.
“Don’t need you,” repeated Samuel.
Idiot. I should have done something better, something smarter. If my reflexes were faster, if I’d picked up on the signs like Hira did, I could have stopped the attack – jammed the bomb, or stopped the old woman. I need to get stronger.
Tires screeched outside. A pair of police cars and an ambulance pulled up on the street.
I glanced at Eliya, her chest rising and falling with a bleeding hole in the side of her forehead. There wasn’t anything I could do for her in this position. Any damage to her Pith would have already been done. Hang in there.
Men and women streamed out of the cop cars, hefting pistols and bolt-action rifles, aiming towards the restaurant.
“Run,” whispered Samuel.
I threw up on Hira’s carpet.
Disgusting. You stupid alcoholic. I leaned back on his couch, wiping my lips and taking a sip of ice water to wash out the taste of stomach acid.
“You’d better clean that up,” said Hira. “Lund pe chadh. Damn drunk.”
Technically, I wasn’t drunk anymore. I was covered in dust and soot, bleeding from cuts on my leg, and suffering from the worst hangover of my life, but now I was sober enough to lie on the couch and hate myself.
I’d been vomiting in the bathroom for the past hour, and would have stayed, if it was possible to listen to the radio there. I needed breaking news, as much of it as I could take, and Hira refused to move any of his devices.
Samuel’s got to be alright. The ambulance was right in front of me. Elmidde’s emergency responders had been fast, so fast I’d barely managed to escape while they secured the area.
But Eliya had looked worse. She could be in a coma. There could be all kinds of permanent and fucked-up damage to her Pith.
I knew where she’d be taken too: Iphiclus Hospital, the high-end medical center where all injured Paragon students were taken. But if I was spotted too close to Samuel, the Ousting laws would get both of us in trouble, and the building would be swarming with witnesses.
Ana could have gone in. Her grey coat status would have gotten her past the front door, and her illusions would be more than sufficient to check in on two patients.
If we were still speaking to each other, it would have been easy. But we weren’t.
So here I was, lying back on Hira’s couch, half-dead and filthy, listening to some idiot news anchor go on about the day’s horrors, praying they’d release information about the victims amidst all the Broadcast King’s propaganda.
But I had to keep listening. If I stopped, if I let myself relax and play with my thoughts too much, my mind would slip back into the interior of The Silver Flask with all the dust and blood and corpses, and that awful ringing noise in my ears that I could still hear now if I strained.
“I’m not suggesting it was deliberately orchestrated,” said the idiot on the radio. “But you’ve got to admit, it’s rather convenient for powers that support Paragon Academy and its Guardians, for the people who would want to smear a political organization like Commonplace. I’m saying that we shouldn’t draw any rash conclusions, and make sure we can trace the attack back to its true sour – ”
I projected into the radio’s buttons and flipped it off.
“Hira,” I said. “Can Paragon Academy trace payphones?”
“After a few minutes,” he said, leaning back on a rickety wooden chair. How is he so casual after surviving a bomb attack? “But only if they suspect something.”
I sat up, staring at the pool of stomach acid, ice cream, and rum I’d made on the floor.
“I need to ask a favor from you,” I said.
From the other end of the lobby, I watched Hira approach the front desk of Iphiclus Hospital, holding Isaac Brin’s silver business card in front of him.
“I’m one of Major Brin’s assistants,” Hira called out. My idea. “I’m here to check on the state of his daughter, Eliya, since his last visit.”
My paper projection on the hospital’s visitor records confirmed that Professor Brin had signed out six hours ago and wasn’t currently in the building. And the business card of a Scholar-ranked Guardian carried more than enough clout to get something as basic as this.
Hira and the woman at the front desk talked, quiet enough for me to not hear what they were saying. After a few minutes, Hira turned and walked back towards me.
He punched me on the shoulder as he passed. It reminded me of Leizu. “Next drink’s on me,” he said.
I followed him out. “What happened?”
“Your boyfriend’s fine,” he said. “The girl’s blind in one eye.”
“I’m supposed to feel sad and broken and angry,” said Christea Ronaveda on Hira’s radio. “That’s what everyone expects after a tragedy like this.”
Hira and I had barely exchanged a single word since arriving back at his tiny house. His refrigerator was out of booze, and it was all I could do to summon up the strength to lie on the couch and listen to the radio.
“I’ve felt all of those things before,” said the host of Verity. “Rage and pain and despair, over and over again, every time I see senseless cruelty. Every time I hear about a bomb attack, or a shooting, or mental hijacking. But if I’m being honest, and I literally have to be – “ She paused. “When I heard about the attack on the café today, I felt nothing. Bored, maybe. Exhausted. But nothing else. When you’re going through nightmares every day, at what point does it become normal? Millions of Principality denizens listen to this show and expect me to be intelligent and insightful and some kind of magnificent personality through all this whaleshit. I’m just some dumbass who has to tell the truth. And honestly? Fuck you. Fuck me. I’m going back to bed.”
I pulled off the bloody bandages on my leg, tossing them aside, then wrapped new ones around my calf. I’d removed the glass shards and doused the cuts in rubbing alcohol, but now that I was sober, all the burning pain was coming back.
“Samuel looked away from me,” I said.
“What?” Right-Hira glanced up at me from the floor, lying on his back and taking puffs from his hookah. His female body fried something in the kitchen.
My mind flashed back to the image of Samuel, lying on the floor with his guts spilling out over him. Eliya with a bleeding hole in her forehead, blood staining her blonde hair, looking like she’d been shot to death. And now she’s half-blind.
“Samuel was in agony. His intestines were spilling out in his hands and he had just saved my life.” I leaned over, slouching. “But he still couldn’t look me in the eye.”
“For what it’s worth,” said Hira. “I knew a lot of people back in Ilaqua. Family, friends, fucks.” He took a long puff from his hookah. Its orange flame glowed in the room’s dim light. “And none of them would have risked their lives for me. Not like him.” He shrugged. “Or maybe he was just using you as a distraction for those Green Hands.”
“For the longest time,” I said. “I’ve been surrounded by smart, successful, beautiful people. I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants and passed out drunk, and every time I did, I heard a sneaking suspicion at the back of my head. Whispering ‘your friends could do better than you’.” I stared at the ceiling. “Now I know.”
“Not that you give a shit about my advice,” said Hira. “But you’re wasting your time. Don’t beat yourself with problems you can’t solve. Don’t obsess about becoming an Exemplar, or ‘forging the stars’, or whatever.”
“Really,” I said.
“Fill your life with the most intense distractions you can find, don’t stop to think, and you’ll never have to wallow in your self-loathing.” Hira blew a smoke ring towards the ceiling. “Trust me, I’ve skill-stitched multiple therapists. All pricks, of course.”
“Distractions.” I can be good at those. “Got any good ones?”
“Lund pe chadh,” he said, sitting up.
“What does that mean?”
Hira spread his legs and took off his jacket. He tossed it aside, raising a single eyebrow at me.
I looked him up and down. He’s pretty enough. Muscular, too, with a jaw that could cut Voidsteel. Both his bodies were red-hot.
Then a twinge of regret. An image of Samuel’s smile, flashing through my head. You’re not together anymore. But if I abandoned him, what was I fighting for? What was the purpose of any of this?
He’s moved on. The image of Samuel in my mind scowled, turning his head away from me, avoiding eye contact. A pang of pain shot through my stomach. He chose a stable life over you.
It’s this or get vomit-drunk again.
“Why the fuck not?” I said.
I reached for the top button on my shirt.
A series of loud bangs shocked me out of my sleep.
Gunshots? Explosions? A burst of panic exploded through my mind, and my chest tightened.
No, that’s not it. My sleep-deprived mind analyzed the noise. Wooden. Hollow. Patterns of two or three. Downstairs. Someone was knocking on Hira’s front door.
My eyes snapped open. Female-Hira’s toes poked into the side of my face, and Male-Hira’s naked torso was draped over my legs.
I extricated myself, sliding backwards off Hira’s bed and crawling onto the floor. Both Hiras stirred, groaning, and I glanced out the window through the curtains, keeping my face hidden.
It was early morning. Thick grey clouds obscured the rising sun, casting the dark street outside in dim, flat light. The pale street lamps were still turned on, casting shadows onto the pavement.
A car was parked on the curb outside. Its headlights were on, glaring at my face and making it difficult to make out if anyone was in there.
There was nothing else I could see. No suspicious figures, no bystanders, other than an old man in the distance dragging a food cart down the street. And no enemies.
Or maybe they’re good at hiding. But if someone wanted to kill or capture us, why knock on the front door like this?
I glanced back at the bed. Both of Hira’s bodies were already up and carrying guns, though they were still in their underwear.
Left-Hira loaded a bullet into a heavy sniper rifle and pointed it to the floor. Right-Hira signaled to me, tiptoeing towards the stairs to the first floor. He can aim using the downstairs body.
Left-Hira fumbled with the bolt action on the rifle, dropping a bullet in the process. His stitched skills wore off over the night. Unless he could copy from someone new, he’d be useless.
As the two of us stepped down the stairs, I projected into the wood, stopping it from vibrating so it wouldn’t creak or make noise. In the dark living room downstairs, we moved towards the front door.
Through the blurry glass, I could make out four figures standing on Hira’s front porch, carrying weapons and muttering amongst themselves.
Before I could move, a hole exploded above the door. The crack of a gunshot echoed throughout the living room, and the lead figure leaned to the side, dodging Hira’s bullet. Hira can aim and fire with different bodies.
The door flew open, and the figure snapped back upright, holding up her hands. The booby traps didn’t go off. “Wait, wait! Don’t shoot, we’re friendly.” A Neke woman, at least six feet tall.
I know her. Another one of Isaac Brin’s mercenaries. The one who had rescued me from Steel Violet and Kahlin, the first time I met them.
“Rose Titan?” I said. “Don’t shoot, Copycat.”
The Rose Titan waved at me, beaming. “Hi, Wes.” She glared at a Shenti man behind her. “I told you we should have called ahead.”
“It’s – “ I glanced at the clock. “Five-twenty-one in the morning. What are you doing here with – ” I glanced outside. “Three heavily armed soldiers?”
“Isaac sent us to fetch you,” she said. “Queen Sulphur has been selected for a mission.” She pressed a business card into my hand, dark green with a bright orange rose.
“Who are we beating up?” said Right-Hira, sticking his hands in his pockets.
The Shenti man tossed a tiny piece of metal to me, and I caught it. “Shrapnel from the bomb attack on the Silver Flask.”
“And?” I said.
“It matches three much larger suicide attacks on military locations throughout the country in the past year,” he said “An airfield in Corsair. An oil refinery north of Arvik. And a destroyer docked at the port of Malbet.”
“Based on a shipment he intercepted twelve hours ago,” said the Rose Titan. “Isaac thinks it’s all coming from a single bombmaker, and a single weapons depot. One intermediate location being used to transport weapons into the Principality from other nations. And – ”
“- He thinks it’s the coordinates I gave him,” said Hira. The intel he found from the Broadcast King’s files.
“The kind of weapons stash a billionaire can buy,” I said. Large enough to wage a war.
“It’s on an abandoned island in disputed territory,” said the Rose Titan. A round, flat crisp floated out of her bag, looking like a cross between a potato chip and a pancake.
“If we fuck this up,” growled the Shenti man. “We could start a war.”
“So what’s the objective?” I asked. “Sneak around? Gather info on a bunch of shady arms dealers and a bombmaker?”
“Oh, no,” said the Rose Titan, munching into her snack. “We’re going to kill them.” She extended another giant cracker towards me. “Hungry?”