“Starve out the country?” I said. “What are you talking about?”
“The Agricultural Islands,” said Ana. “My home. It’s the most fertile and farm-dense land in the nation. It produces the vast majority of the Principality’s food supply.”
“And,” said my mother. “While it has defenses, they will be like tissue paper to the Pyre Witch and an entire Shenti fleet.” She paced back and forth on the concrete runway.
Don’t count out paper. It was fragile, but had a mean edge.
“And it’s summer,” said Ana. “The dry season.”
“The winds will be high,” said my mother. “Firefighters and planes with retardant can be taken out. With well-placed firebombs and palefire, Commonplace and the Shenti can create a firestorm. I made many such attacks during the Shenti War.”
Jun got a heavy look in his eyes when she mentioned that. They’re using our tricks against us. The enemy had a cruel sense of irony.
“The islands are dense,” said Ana, slouching over. Her voice was flat, half-dead. “They could burn them all down in a manner of days.”
“Hours,” said my mother. “If they hit the right spots. Which they will.”
“Could the Black Tortoise be involved?” muttered General Benthey. “He did love unconventional tactics.”
“Unlikely,” my mother said. “The man has been a mental wreck since the Spirit Block. All our sources indicate he’s busy smoking himself to death in a ruined bunker somewhere. If he’s not dead already, or replaced by some poser in his chassis. More likely, it’s one of the warlords whose fleets have gone missing. Luo Cai. Or Gao Mei.”
“Do we know they’re targeting the islands?” said General Benthey, puffing on his cigarette. “This is all just guesswork, right now.”
“We know,” my mother said. “We got a sliver of the Humdrum’s thoughts. And those warlords wouldn’t pick a fight with us for no reason. Every time a Shenti ship has crossed a single yard over our borders, we’ve eradicated it, and their fleets are far weaker than ours.” She folded her hands behind her back. “They’re hiding from us on purpose. And the firebombs are even further proof. They’re going to burn down our nation’s breadbasket.”
Nobody spoke for a moment. The waves washed up against the shores of Bartolet Naval Base. I bounced my leg up and down. With my hands cuffed behind my back, I tapped my fingers against each other, an escalating pattern of nervous fidgeting.
Burn it down? No, that couldn’t be right. Was this the attack, then? Commonplace’s final assault, their ultimate gambit to take over this country and destroy Paragon.
This has been a pretty rough week.
My leg bounced faster.
“And what happens then?” I asked. “When the Agricultural Islands burn down?”
“Over the next year, supply lines collapse,” said my mother. “The greatest economic crash in this nation’s history will occur, but no one will care about the numbers. Because they’ll all be starving to death.”
“The poor will die first,” said Hira.
My mother nodded. “After the grocery stores empty, and the fish run out, and the bread lines stretch for miles, the legally available food will run out. They will eat rats. Then tree bark. Then wallpaper, and household pets, and dirt. And each other.”
I pushed down a wave of nausea. No. The Shenti War had been bad, but this was apocalyptic. We had systems in place, safeguards. The world couldn’t end that easily.
“The violence will not be too bad,” said my mother. “Savagery is a luxury, for people with the strength to stand. Most will die in their homes, with bulging ribs and swollen bellies, holding the hands of their loved ones. Others will wither on the streets, begging for scraps, or stumbling to train stations in the hopes of traveling to a city with more food.”
“Um, Rowyna,” said Penny Oakes, biting her lip. “This is the worst-case scenario, right? I mean, there have been countless famines before, throughout history.”
“No,” said my mother. “I’m describing one of the better outcomes. Countless millions dead, even more malnourished, unable to move, requiring huge investments in medical care, overflowing hospitals. The famines of the old world came from disease, odd weather, poor seeds. Not projectors.”
No. “But – “ I said. “We live in a global economy. We can just buy more food, from Ilaqua and Neke and other islands, right?”
“We’ll lose more than eighty percent of our supply,” said my mother. “Ships cannot perform miracles. Even if we spend every coin in our coffers, put ourselves in crippling debt, and commandeer every vessel in the nation, we won’t get enough for everyone. Not in time. Before the Spirit Block, the Black Tortoise held the greatest logistical mind in history, and I doubt even he could save us.”
“She’s right,” said General Benthey, tossing his cigarette on the runway and stamping it out. “It’s an absurd problem, and our industry’s not up to the task.”
“Food will become more expensive than Voidsteel,” said my mother. “Epistocrats will flee, and hoard supplies, because they are intelligent, and they know that such a crisis is never temporary. And that no amount of charity will satisfy the Humdrum mob.”
“None of our Vocations are designed for a problem like this,” said Penny Oakes. “Even the strongest ones.”
My fingers stopped tapping, slippery with sweat. “And then?”
“Then, Commonplace gets their revolution. Or the Shenti finish us off. Without food, the Principality will die. The manner of death is just a formality. Maybe Tunnel Vision doesn’t even care about the details, past that point.”
“I don’t think so,” said Ana. “Maxine Clive has a plan.”
“Fool,” my mother said. “You think that Humdrum puppet has made a single decision for that group? This is the plot of The Pyre Witch. A Praxis specialist.”
“I’m not sure.” Ana shook her head. “It didn’t seem that way when I met her. I think Maxine Clive has a plan.”
“There has to be something,” said Penny Oakes. “Something we can do.”
“Wait,” said Ana, leaning forward. “What about the Lavender Book?”
My mother, General Benthey, and Penny Oakes glared at her in unison, like she’d just suggested a puppy genocide. Sebastian Oakes folded his arms, cocking his head to the side.
“You have Vocations in there, right?” she said. “Overwhelming power. Forbidden techniques. If there was ever a time to crack it open, it would be now.”
Big mistake, Ana. Guardians got real testy about their books.
“It is not your place, cutthroat,” hissed Penny Oakes. “Isaac got greedy and tried to buy you as a hired gun. That doesn’t entitle you to a library card, or to discuss such matters.”
“You have no idea what lies inside that book,” said my mother. “Do not make this worse for yourselves.”
“Does it matter?” The words slipped out of my mouth. “You’re not going to let us Oust the golden boy, are you? Not after we helped your biggest enemies escape.”
“That remains to be seen,” she said.
I clamped my lips together. Shut the fuck up, Wes. If there was still a chance for us to fulfill her offer, then every word I said was another chance to screw up my odds.
“Fine,” said Ana. “But what’s the next move, then? The Pyre Witch and Maxine Clive and the mob and Steel Violet and the Shenti and all of Commonplace? How are we going to stop them?”
My mother turned a withering look onto Ana. I felt bad for her. She’ll get used to that look, if she ever becomes the next Lady Ebbridge.
“We?” said my mother. She stepped forward and placed her index finger on Ana’s forehead. Blue electricity snapped where their skin touched. “I can only have one tracer active at a time,” she said. “I need it for the conflict ahead. You’re not worth it.”
They’re going to the Agricultural Islands. Of course they were, they had no other option. This would be the greatest battle in a decade. Maybe the single greatest battle in the Principality’s history. It was a miracle that we’d found out about it this early, but it would still be a deadly conflict.
Then I realized. This is our best chance to show our worth. To fight our way into a pardon. We couldn’t miss this.
I leaned forward, raising my voice. “Please,” I said. “Let us join you. We can fight, we can help. We’ve built up a lot of combat experience in the last year.”
“I saw you on the field,” said Penny Oakes. “Brave, but I wouldn’t call that experienced.”
“How’s that stomach feeling?” said Left-Hira. “Still sore from the bullet?”
“Hira’s a bit coarse,” I said. “But he makes a good point. We do have experience.”
“In street fights,” said my mother. “Back-alley brawls and underhanded duels in close quarters. Not in a war. Do you even know what a base of fire is? Or an ash can?”
I shook my head.
“What about ASW? Or WB?”
You’ve made your point. Get on with it.
A soldier grabbed me and pulled me to my feet. Others did the same for Ana, Hira, and Jun.
“As of this moment,” said my mother. “‘Queen Sulphur’ is disbanded.” She stared at me. “Go home. If you’re still alive when we get back, and the world hasn’t ended, we can discuss your position with our criminal justice system, and my family.”
My family. Not ‘our’.
The soldiers pushed us forward, leading us towards another transport boat. Ana looked down at herself, at her bulging grey veins. At her cracked, unmoving fingers and shaking hands.
Then she looked at me, not with determination or focus or purpose, but fear. Simple, pure wide-eyed terror.
And at that moment, I knew.
It didn’t matter what happened if the Guardians returned. Even if they won, by the time they fought a massive battle, sorted out the aftermath, and decided which of us was worthy, it wouldn’t matter.
Because Ana would be dead by then.
Queen Sulphur sat under an umbrella, drank soda, and watched the world end.
I’d wanted a drink, a fruity cocktail or at least a glass of wine, but Right-Hira had glared at me from over the cafe menu. “No exceptions,” he said.
“Fine,” I had muttered, and ordered a Jwala’s Orange Soda alongside Jun’s. With Ana’s taste buds still broken, she drank a mug of pitch-black tea, with a small mountain of leaves sitting at the bottom. She sipped faster and faster, until her hands shook and her eyes darted around like fireflies.
The wonders of caffeine. Or maybe that was just the decay. Ana looked even worse than a day ago. Her entire skin had turned greyer – not just the bulging veins. Her breaths looked slow, pained, and her eyelids drooped.
Jun folded his hands on the table, trying and failing to look calm. Right-Hira leaned back on his chair, puffing cherry-scented smoke out of his purple hookah and chugging one lemonade after another, cans piling up on the table in front of him. His female body was out.
Waves lapped against the side of the waterside cafe. From the empty patio area, we had a great view of both the ocean and Mount Elwar.
To my left, the city burned. Gunshots rang out in the far distance, from rubber bullets or real ones, with clouds of smoke from fires or riot police.
As it turned out, mass arrests of Green Hands didn’t pacify the public, but the exact opposite. The riots had exploded across Elmidde with new ferocity, and law enforcement had responded by flooding the streets with cops.
According to the radio news, someone had tried to assassinate a pro-Paragon member of Parliament, too. Enoch Trembath, some old ex-Guardian with a bushy mustache. His son had sat next to me in Physics 110, and had helped explain some of the more thorny concepts when I zoned out.
A sweet boy. He didn’t deserve this.
Loyalists on the street had replied with fervor, and in the ensuing chaos, Parliament had been taken to Paragon for security. A few hours later, someone set fire to the House of Ministers. The blaze had been extinguished, but it had confirmed everyone’s fears.
Was this part of Commonplace’s plan? Had this all been some elaborate ruse to escalate the conflict? I couldn’t keep track of this cat and mouse nonsense anymore.
But one way or another, chaos ruled the streets.
In the opposite direction, Elmidde’s fleet sailed away across the horizon. My mother’s flagship, the Rhona, accompanied by the rest of its carrier group and a pair of submarines. And a majority of Paragon’s Scholar-Ranked Guardians.
Sailing towards the Agricultural Islands. To save millions. After hearing the basics, Jun had done some math on the back of a napkin, and guessed that they’d arrive after the Shenti fleet. It’s going to be close.
A single carrier, the Larcher, was left back with a battleship to defend the city. But who else got left behind?
“Hira,” I said. “Did you find out what I asked?”
“Yup,” he said. “Just stitched some lieutenant colonel with my Left body. As far as I can tell, both Chimera and Golem Squads have been assigned to the Rhona. Lorne Daventry’s been studying some special eye-Joining for the operation.
My friends are going to battle. Samuel was going to the battle. Eliya and Leizu were going to the battle. Even Lorne and his thugs were going to the Agricultural Islands with my mother, to make history or die trying.
Everyone but us. We’d missed the boat. We’d been fired. It was like getting Ousted all over again. Now, we had no employer, no real allies, and nowhere to sleep other than the basement of a ruined shack with Cardamom in the corner.
“And during our chat with the generals,” said Hira. “I found out where they got the intel for our raid just now. A mobster whose death they faked, kidnapped when Isaac Brin and your mother went on their mission after The Pyre Witch.”
When they went into the sewers and got Brin paralyzed.
“They went on that mission because of us,” said Ana, her voice soft. Because of her tip to Brin.
“Well,” I said. “Fuck.”
Silent nods all around.
“What do you think?” asked Ana. “About the islands.”
“Paragon’s all sorts of fucked-up,” said Hira. “But causing a mass famine? That’s fucking disgusting. Like I said, the poor people will die first.”
Jun nodded in agreement.
“Tunnel Vision needs to go down,” I said. “Along with the rest of her cronies. This isn’t about the heart of our society anymore. It’s about survival.”
Ana looked away from me at those last few sentences. Does she believe me? Did I believe myself?
“If I may ask,” said Jun. “How much time do you think you have, Ana?”
“I’ve seen other cases like mine,” said Ana. Her voice was hoarse, half an octave lower than before. Did the decay get to her throat, too? “Other people scammed by Sapphire Industrial and Tunnel Vision’s mob. Judging by their timelines and markers, I should have died two weeks ago.”
“I am a war criminal,” said Jun. “You can do more to help people than I ever have. With your permission, we could transfer your Pith into my chassis.“
“No,” said Ana. “I won’t swap bodies with you. I won’t have anyone sacrificed for me.”
“Then we find some Green Hands murderer or a mobster squidfucker, and take their body,” said Hira. “Ernest Chapman is dead. They removed the tracer on you. And for once, the Guardians are out of Elmidde. You’ll never have a better shot.”
Ana shrunk away at this, slouching over further and staring at her tea mug.
Of all the times to get righteous. “Come on,” I said. “You can’t honestly tell me that some random serial killer needs to live more than you do. You deserve to see tomorrow.”
“None of us are going to see tomorrow,” said Ana. “My parents. My home. They’re going to burn, and this country will wither.” She gazed out over the sea, at the fleet shrinking in the distance. “The water is rising. The sea remains.” She sighed. “I’m sorry for putting you all in this situation.”
“You saved my life, you idiot,” I said. “Don’t apologize. To my surprise, I actually enjoy living.”
“Not then,” said Ana. “If I was brave enough, I would have sent you away back in Helmfirth, when I had Lorne’s tracer on me. I could have killed Clive, Kahlin, and Pictogram all at once.” She indicated her head to Hira. “As you said, they could have sent those Voidsteel missiles at the town, just like last time. But Tunnel Vision was right. I’m a beetle, not an ant. When the flood comes, I don’t become part of the raft.”
“Fuck that,” growled Hira.
“You’re the rock of this group,” he said. “You’re supposed to push us forward with terrifying determination, not wallow in self-loathing. I’m the only one here allowed to have a death wish.” He jabbed a finger in Ana’s face. “Stop trashing your own life, and help us find a way out, like we always, always have. Your parents live in the Agricultural Islands. They’re counting on you.”
And that Ousting pardon’s not impossible now. Improbable, but still within reach, if I squinted.
I made eye contact with Ana for a second. Neither of us had brought it up yet.
“To have any chance,” said Ana. “Of moving forward. We’d need to get to the Agricultural Islands, and fast. It’d be easiest to smuggle ourselves onto the ships, but they’re gone, already.”
Hira laughed. “That’s all we need? A quick ticket to the islands?” He stood up, finishing his lemonade. “That’s easy.” His hookah folded up inside his bag, and he grabbed Jun. “Come on, Kuang. We’ve got somewhere to be.”
“Wait,” said Jun, his voice getting soft. “What if we’re going about this the wrong way?”
“What?” I said.
“How shall I put this?” Jun ran his fingers through his grey hair and closed his eyes. “Sometimes, terminally ill patients keep chasing after expensive treatment, even when the odds are absurd and it means putting themselves through agony.”
“Jun?” said Ana, her voice getting small.
“You’ve been through so much already, Ana,” he said. “If you won’t take my body, then maybe it’s time to let go. Focus on a more tranquil passing.”
Ana looked up, back at Jun. And for a moment, I forgot all the decay and only saw her eyes.
“If I pass,” she said. “I promise you this. It will not be tranquil.”
She nodded at Right-Hira. The Ilaquan left. Jun followed close behind, giving Ana a concerned look as he walked back to the street.
For a long while, neither I nor Ana talked. We sat at the table, listening to the waves and the faint piano music from inside the cafe, with the sounds of gunshots and explosions much further in the distance. A waiter came over and refilled Ana’s tea. I bought another Jwala’s orange soda.
Both of us knew the big unspoken question, but neither of us was willing to say it.
Who gets the pardon? Who would become Lady Ebbridge, and who would get banished with the rest of Queen Sulphur?
I can’t handle this anymore. “If we wait,” I said. “It’ll just get worse.”
“Should we wait for Hira and Jun?” Ana stared at her tea leaves.
“Hira’s in two prison bodies,” I said. “And doesn’t give a shit. Jun wants to leave to find his father. And – “ I held up a finger. “My dearest mother didn’t talk to either of them. She talked to us.”
“Alright,” said Ana. “It’s your name. Your body. You have a right to them, you should return to your family.”
“But if you don’t get a new body,” I said. “You’ll die.”
“You have a fitness double,” said Ana. “You can smuggle it to me.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You’d trust me with that?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I would.”
“I would try,” I said. “I would do everything in my power. But there’s no guarantee that I’d be able to succeed in time.” I leaned forward. “And if you get banished, you’ll never be a Guardian.”
Both of us glanced up at Paragon, floating high above Mount Elwar, shrouded in a layer of clouds.
“You’ve wanted to be a hero, more than I ever did.” I thought of the last year. “And you acted like it.”
“I shot a lot of people,” said Ana. “Hurt a lot more.”
“But you’re fighting for the people, for the nation,” I said. “I just wanted to go home.” Samuel’s voice flashed through my mind. Eliya’s smile. Leizu’s bad jokes. “I just wanted to see my friends again. So go.” I stared at her. “Be a butterfly. Spread your wings and flutter into the sky. Have fun with your friends.”
“Most caterpillars die in the cocoon,” said Ana.
Real upbeat, Ana. Though, in her defense, she was dying at the moment.
“And you’re my friend,” said Ana.
Despite everything, a warm feeling spread through my veins. I smiled.
“Jun is my friend. Even Hira’s my friend, though she scares me sometimes.” Ana closed her eyes. “And Tasia’s my friend, too. Was.”
If she wants that seat, she’ll have to Oust one of her best friends. Or let me Oust her. I couldn’t forgive Tasia for what she’d done, but I could understand Ana’s dilemma.
“If I drink that cider, up in Paragon,” said Ana. “I’ll be doing it alone.”
“It’s your life,” I said. “You can build something new. But only if you’re alive. You’ve come so far, fought so hard. You can’t throw all that away.”
“I told you about Tasia’s research,” said Ana. “If she’s Ousted, then her sister – “
“If the bitch has done her job right,” I said. And I’m sure she has. “She’ll have hidden backups of the most important books she’s read, and all the critical passages. She’ll be able to continue, just not in the same capacity. And she won’t be hunted like a criminal if she’s Ousted. Not like us.” I took half a breath. “And I don’t even – “
I stopped myself, and pictured myself back in my old body. The name, the friends, my bed and Paragon’s food all sounded wonderful. But the chassis? I’d always been indifferent to that. It served as a tool, a collection of muscles and bones and nerves that could house my Pith and interact with the world.
Back at Paragon, people had showered praise onto my body, a fashionable Phoebe Asquith with silky black hair, a heart-shaped face, and sharp green eyes. They’d remarked on my impeccable taste and fashion sense in choosing it.
But I hadn’t selected that body. My mother had, when I was young and she’d decided my birth body wasn’t up to scratch. They weren’t praising me, they were praising her. I had nothing to do with it.
For that reason, it had always felt like an ill-fitting suit, or a tight, painful dress pressing on my ribs, restricting my breath.
On the day of my Ousting, swapping with a boy had been a terrifying prospect. Now, it just seemed ordinary. Easy.
But still, I’d rather be home. I’d rather make a name for my family.
“You don’t even what?” said Ana. “What are you talking about?”
“It’s stupid,” I said. “Never mind.” I chuckled. “If neither of us wants this name, then why are we fighting for it so hard?”
“I do want it,” said Ana. “More than anything.” She examined her greying, stiff fingers. “When I first swapped into this body, everyone in my town saw Guardians with terror. They thought people who used magic and jumped between bodies were freaks, at best.” She smiled. “But I just saw heroes who had freed themselves. Who could assume any form they wanted, and use their power to save the world.” Her voice turned hesitant, unsteady, and her smile faded.
“And what do you see now?” I asked. After they hunted us down, used us, and left us to die.
Ana stared into her tea. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know what I’ve been bleeding myself for. But I know the Pyre Witch is evil. And if I become a Guardian, I think I can still do some good.”
Still an idealist, then. But she sounded so tired when she said those words. Like spitting out all that hope was an agonizing effort.
“But I also know how much you want this.”
“Well,” I said. “What the fuck are we supposed to do, then?”
Ana looked up at me, revealing the bags under her eyes. “I don’t know.”
“We could do what I did for assignments,” I said. “Wait ‘til the last minute and panic.”
Ana didn’t respond, not even to chastise me. Scholars, how tired is she?
“In the meantime,” I said. “We could still take some Green Hands’ body. Tie them up in a basement for a few days so you have a good chassis to fight in. Like with Pirzanu and Brahmani in Kahlin’s penthouse.
“No,” said Ana. “Even ignoring my morals, I know this body. I’ve trained in this body. When I took Brahmani’s body, I was stronger and out of breath less, but couldn’t aim my gun at all or coordinate. I’m still strong enough to fight in this chassis.”
I hope you know what you’re doing, Anabelle Gage.
An hour later, Hira and Jun didn’t return, so we went back to our makeshift basement home to wait for them.
Another two hours, and we found ourselves sitting on my used mattress, leaning against the dusty wall on a pile of blankets. Sweat drenched our clothes from the summer heat, but upstairs, there was no shade from the glaring sun, and someone could recognize our faces from the paper.
So we stayed down here, in our ruined, filthy pressure cooker.
At first, we’d tried to study, or practice our projection, but we’d exhausted ourselves in minutes. Neither of us had the strength to be productive.
Then we’d listened to the radio, but the popular music stations had gone offline. The news still worked, but spouted out a constant stream of horrible, depressing facts about the street violence.
Our favorite show, Verity, had gone offline. Though in fairness, we had broken into the host’s mansion, threatened her, and forced her to deliver a nation-splitting manifesto. And also smashed her chocolate fountain.
We were too tired to work, with nothing good to listen to. So we just sat next to each other, quiet, petting Cardamom between us while the sounds of the riots drifted in from the distance. Gunshots. Pepper gas launchers. Shouting.
I scratched Cardamom’s ears, and he purred.
Ana and I could have continued our conversation, resolved our issues about the pardon and Ousting and Tasia, and who deserved what.
But neither of us spoke. Maybe we both knew it would lead to more dead ends, more frustration.
We just sat there, slumped over in the sweltering heat, petting our green cat.
Jun and Hira returned after another two hours of this. Or maybe it was five, or ten. Or thirty minutes. The three bodies clomped down the stairs. The old Shenti man, smiling and waving at us. And the two young Ilaquans, staring at their feet, neither of them smiling.
“We’ve got it,” said Jun. “A way to get to the Agricultural Islands.”
Ana jumped to her feet, alert in an instant. “Fantastic. What do you have?”
Jun beckoned us, and I pushed myself upright, groaning. The two of us followed him back up the stairs, into the glaring sunlight.
He floated pairs of homemade binoculars into all of our hands, and pointed. I peered into the lenses, following his direction.
I looked far away, past the edge of North Island and over the sparkling blue waters of Meteor Bay.
I gazed at Bartolet Naval Base. My mother’s second home, where we’d gathered for the assault on Commonplace. Almost all the ships had left already, sailing at full speed towards Ana’s hometown, but something else had taken their place
Two dark blue zeppelins sat on the runway, surrounded by a handful of soldiers and trucks.
“See those blimps?” said Jun.
“Yup,” I said.
“Hira did some digging with the local military staff and some sailors at a pub,” said Jun. “They’re retrofitting the cargo zeppelins for battle. Loading them with bombs, guns, that sort of thing. In two days, they’re heading off to the Agricultural Islands. And that’s – ”
“ – how we get there. We stow away.” I clapped Jun on the shoulder.
“Ow,” said Jun. “My Pith is youthful, not my bones.”
“You did it Jun,” I said. “You brilliant bastard. It’s perfect.”
“But we’re no longer welcome in the naval base,” said Ana, pursing her lips. “We’ll have to break in.”
“Well,” I said. “It’s not like we have any experience with heists, right? Or infiltration.” And most of the Guardians have left already. We’d have an easier time than usual.
I put down the binoculars and glanced around us. A metal cooler sat on the doorstep, the kind that stored ice-cold beers or sodas.
I looked up. A makeshift pickup truck had been built out of junk, much like Jun’s last car. Dozens more coolers filled the back of the truck, stacked two high and tied down with ropes. Are they having a picnic?
“How are we supposed to break into Bartolet?” said Ana, tapping her foot. “It’s the biggest military base in the capital of the Principality. That’s a near-impossible task.”
“Come on.” Jun smiled at Ana. “Where’s your sense of creativity and adventure? Difficult, indeed, as you say, but impossible?” He shook his head. “Of course not. Not for Queen Sulphur.”
I folded my arms. “You have a plan then, Grandpa.”
Jun rolled his eyes at ‘grandpa’. “Young people these days,” he grumbled. “Such insolence.” He looked at Ana. “ I have part of a plan. Hira and I got talking on the way to the store, and started bouncing ideas off each other.”
Right-Hira nodded, silent. Odd of him to be so quiet.
“The Guardians are gone,” said Jun. “So that’s already solved.” He projected into the metal cooler on the doorstep, floating it into his hands and dragging it down the steps, into the basement.
“But they’ll have sonar, right?” said Ana.
“That’s right,” said Jun, slamming down the cooler. “The Principian navy keeps active sonar all around Elmidde, but especially around the naval base. It can be used to detect submarines, at the larger scale, or something as small as a human diver, if you know how to read the scopes.”
“Neke War Priests can stop sonar in water, right?” I said.
“It is as you say,” said Jun. “But the Vocation is anything but simple.”
“And,” said Ana. “The Rose Titan is gone. We can’t ask her for help.”
“The trick,” said Jun. “Is not hiding from their sonar, then, but disguising it.” He wiped sweat out of his long, wispy beard. “Making the operator think you’re one thing, when you’re another.”
“An illusion,” said Ana.
Jun nodded. “It is as you say.”
“So,” I said. “How are we disguising ourselves?” Excitement slipped into my voice. “Are you building a submarine out of scrap? Or some armor shield to fit around us that modifies our shape?” I pointed to the cooler. “Those are the materials, right? What’d you spend the last of our money on?” Despite myself, the Shenti bastard’s elaborate contraptions were always fun to watch.
Jun leaned down and flipped the cooler on its side. The top swung open, releasing a thick, salty odor.
A pile of dead fish splattered onto the floor.
Jun beamed at us. “Shall we?”
Almost a day later, we were close to ready.
Jun’s plan sounded ridiculous on paper, but the more I thought about it, the more practical it seemed. Hira helped us set everything up, and trained us in the basic techniques we’d need. Ana, in particular, needed a lot of instruction to learn how to move in the water. Otherwise, though, Hira remained quiet and withdrawn.
“Principality Naval bases maintain perimeter fences and watchtowers with no blind spots,” said Hira. “Ana will have a hard time getting in range. But with this method, you’ll have a solid chance of smuggling your way onto the blimps.”
“You’ll?” Ana stood up in the basement, washing her fish-covered hands with soap and projected water.
“Fuck.” Right-Hira looked away from us, like we’d just busted him for murder.
“Hira,” I said. “What precisely the fuck are you talking about?”
Hira sighed with both bodies. Right-Hira massaged his forehead. “I’ve been thinking about it since we heard about the Agricultural Islands.”
“I like you guys. Fuck, you’re my friends.” Hira clenched his fists. “You kept me safe from my father, and you watched my back without ever complaining about my smoking habit. I’ll always be grateful for that.” He looked at me, then Ana, then Jun. “We’ve been on impossible missions before, deadly missions. And they are so much fun. But if you go into war, into a battle like that, I can’t join you.”
My stomach wrenched. What the fuck? “I thought you didn’t care if you lived or died?”
“Maybe my lung will sprout a tumor tomorrow,” said Hira. “Maybe I’ll get hit by a stray bullet or run over by some nutty Green Hands.” He looked up the stairs. “But if I get on that zeppelin with you, I know I won’t make it to the end of the week. Five minutes in, and it’ll get shot out of the sky.”
“They’re being retrofitted for combat,” said Ana. “And they have non-flammable helium.”
“And I’m telling you it doesn’t matter,” said Hira. “I’ve been skill-stitching soldiers, remember. War zeppelins were relevant thirty years ago. Now, they’re just slow, fat targets in the sky filled with explosives. Most guns on a ship can shoot one down without blinking.”
“Then why is the Principality using them?” I said.
“They’re desperate,” said Hira. “They’re throwing everything they have into battle. And that should scare you shitless too. This is the perfect opportunity to escape, and I’m not going to pass it by. I stitched that General Benthey person while we were talking strategy. Remember Helmfirth? That city that got blown by the Voidsteel missiles?” He gritted his teeth. “Turns out, they have more of those. And they might fire them at the Agricultural Islands if they think they’re losing the battle. Wipe out the enemy without starting any fires. With some collateral damage here and there.”
Silence, as everyone processed this.
“Yeah,” said Hira. “Think you’re gonna survive that, dipshit?”
“Fuck,” said Ana. Thinking of her parents. “Fuck! We need to make sure they don’t lose the battle, then.”
“Where will you go?” I said.
“The Floating City, in Neke,” said Hira. “Like we discussed earlier. There’ll be work there, and I can stay low to hide from my family.”
“The water is rising,” said Ana. “You won’t be able to avoid it. That city won’t float forever.”
“Not forever,” said Hira. “Just long enough for a few drinks. You should join me.” His female body started stuffing clothes and ammunition into a duffel bag.
“We’ve fought your father,” said Ana, hands shaking. “We’ve gone to battle on a foreign island against mortars and machine guns and a sniper with perfect aim. We’ve beaten mobsters and projectors and terrorists and Guardians. I’ve watched you go toe to toe with Lorne Daventry, and you almost beat him. We’ve turned the tables while being hunted by Commonplace and Paragon, with an active tracer on one of us. And now you want to quit?” She stared at Hira, incredulous.
“Yes,” said Hira. “This is far worse than any of those things.”
“If we don’t stop Tunnel Vision and Clive,” said Ana. “Millions will die. The Principality will descend into chaos, and the impact will ripple out over all Eight Oceans. Nowhere will be spared, including Neke.”
“You’re right,” said Hira. “But you’re mad if you think you can change that. Clever tactics can only go so far.”
“Come on,” I said. “Impossible battles are fun, aren’t they? You said it yourself.” Since when did you care about dying?
“You’ve never been in a real war,” said Hira. “But I’ve stitched the thoughts of veterans. And I’ve heard stories.” He sat down, while his female body stuffed the shotgun into a bag. “Artillery. Flak cannons. Bombing runs that level forests and rip holes in mountains. Noise so loud you can’t hear your own screams. You and Ana don’t have ABDs, so you’ll have to worry about shrapnel and bullets, too. And that’s just the Humdrum side of things.”
“We’ve fought projectors,” said Ana.
“Not like this, we haven’t,” said Hira. “That fight against the Pyre Witch? When all we could do was cower? Think of that as an appetizer. The real meal is happening at the Agricultural Islands, and it’s far beyond any of us. They will tear up the earth, burn the sky and the land, fill up the air with smoke and gas and attacks that break physics itself. You wouldn’t make it ten minutes. And neither would I.”
Ana clenched her teeth. “Don’t count us out.”
“You’re determined,” said Hira, sliding his pitch-black sniper rifle into a golf bag. “I admire that, even it makes no fucking sense to me. Can any of us project away a massive fire?”
“No,” said Ana.
“How about Joining? So our lungs can deal with the smoke? Or so we can survive shock waves from bombs.”
“No,” said Ana through gritted teeth.
“There’s nothing fun about bleeding out in a ditch. There’s a saying in the Harmonious Flock, death happens to other people. Know what that means?”
“I can guess,” said Jun.
“People think about death, but most don’t really think about it. Even when they envision horrible things like disease and war, they compartmentalize, see other people dying, but not them. They imagine themselves as the heroic soldier storming the beach, the dogged survivor, not the poor fuck who gets shot in the first minute. It’s a failure of empathy. Death happens to other people. Until it happens to you. And it only needs to happen once.”
“But do you really care if you die?” I said.
“No,” he said. “Death is why you shouldn’t go. I’m worried about what’ll happen if I live.”
“Why?” said Jun.
“The Principality won’t make it in time,” said Hira, stuffing a bottle of pills into the bag with his rifle. “If I survive, my father will drag my half-dead bodies from the wreckage and pump me full of Whisper vocations again. Just like last time.” He pulled the bags shut and slung them over his shoulders. “Dying is fine. But I’m not going to become his lab rat again.“
Fuck. A part of me had always expected Hira to leave us, but not now, not here. And maybe I wanted to believe he’d changed.
“If you want to say goodbye, now would be a good time.”
Jun ran forward and hugged Right-Hira. “We will meet again.” Hira hugged him back, closing his eyes.
I stepped forward and punched Right-Hira’s shoulder. “You’re a selfish, drug-addled prick,” I said.
“But you’re not a bad teacher, and you know how to have a good time. I’m going to miss your stupid face.”
“Come on,” said Hira. “Don’t get sappy on me, Ebbridge.”
“Lund pe chadh,” I said.
Ana glared at both Hiras from the far end of the room. “This is when we need you most.” She didn’t approach either of them. “You can’t abandon us. You can’t.” Maybe she thought her cold stare would stop Hira, that her angry words and moral righteousness and appeals would change her friend’s mind.
But Hira just avoided her gaze. “I’m sorry, Ana. See you around.”
With two bodies, he walked back up the staircase, and disappeared into the light.
I sat down on the mattress, slumping onto my back. “What the fuck?” I said. “What the fuck?”
“It happened so fast,” said Jun. He leaned against the wall, running his fingers through his grey beard.
I knew what Hira was. The entire time, I’d known. He was a selfish, battle-hardened mercenary, who’d almost killed us on the day we recruited him. I shouldn’t be surprised. Or hurt.
Too bad, idiot. I’d gotten attached. Once again, I’d let my feelings and impulses charge ahead, without thinking about how it could screw me over in the future. Every day, I find new and exciting ways to define rock bottom.
On that night, the last night before our operation, before the zeppelins were scheduled to leave, I tossed and turned in my covers, fading in and out of sleep in fitful bursts. I dreamt of swimming through a pitch-black ocean, up towards a beautiful multicolored light high above me, then woke up, locked out of a proper rest. The warm summer night turned our basement into an oven. Even Cardamom was sleeping outside, unable to bear the warmth.
Normally, I’d drink to put myself to sleep, but even after Hira left, something stopped me from staggering to the nearest liquor store. A nagging itch.
As I drifted off to sleep again, a coughing sound echoed from upstairs. Some random drunk. Ignore it.
I squeezed my eyes shut, slumped back on my ratty mattress, and another sound rang out. Someone retching upstairs.
Takonara. If I dealt with the noise, maybe I’d catch more than half an hour of sleep.
I grabbed my briefcase full of paper and flattened weapons, in case, slid on my shoes, and tiptoed up the creaking stairs to the ground floor of the ruined building.
Then I gazed to the burnt steps where the front door of the house had been.
Ana knelt there, clutching her stomach, shivering despite the warmth, her grey hair illuminated by the pale moonlight. She doubled over and vomited, heaving stale lentils and stomach acid onto the overgrown grass. Then she slumped back against a broken wall, wiping her mouth.
She sniffled, and turned to me, her eyes red from crying.
I jogged over to her. “Hey. You alright?“
Ana retched again, forcing her eyes shut to stop the tears. “Nerves. I’m fine.” Hira’s departure hit her harder than I thought.
I’d never comforted someone like this. Back at Paragon, it had always been Samuel comforting me, making me feel better after a night of pained drinking, or when I got a bad grade on a paper.
So I copied what he did to me. Minus the more intimate parts. I kicked aside a pile of rubble, sat down next to Ana, and rubbed her shoulders. “I’m here,” I said. “I’m here. Slow breaths. Slow breaths.”
“I’m – “ Ana swallowed, forcing herself to breathe. “I’m so scared,” she whispered. “I don’t want to – ” She stared at her withered, grey fingers. “I don’t want to – ”
I don’t want to die. She couldn’t bring herself to say it.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I won’t let you.”
“I don’t want to die,” she said, with a great effort. “I don’t want to die for nothing.”
“And I won’t let you. I promise.”
“You’ve lied before,” she mumbled.
“You’re right,” I said. “You don’t have to trust me. But I’m going to do it anyway.” And I meant it. “Look where we were just a year ago.” I indicated my head towards the basement, where Jun was sleeping. “A slave in a redemption camp, on the verge of death.” I looked down at myself. “A drunk, selfish washout, spiraling out of control.” Then I looked at Ana. “A grey, withered maid, failing her dream three times in a row.”
Ana closed her eyes, nodding.
“If we lose, we lose everything,” I said. “But if we win, we get to write the next page. We get to open the door and walk into the rest of our lives.”
“After this,” she said. “I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to fight anymore. I don’t know if I can do this.”
“You don’t have to,” I said. There are non-combat Guardians. Though Ana didn’t seem like the scholarly type. “Pour yourself a cup. And drink some mulled cider.”
Ana leaned forward and hugged me. I hugged her back. Her body felt cold against mine.
The moon beat down on us, bright and piercing. A warm summer breeze blew across the empty street.
From this distance, I could hear her panicked breaths, surging in and out of her lungs.
By mid-afternoon the next day, we finished our preparations.
“Do we have everything?” said Ana.
Jun and I nodded.
“Then it’s time.”
Queen Sulphur prepared for battle.
Ana unfolded her thin blue combat suit and slid it up her body, wearing only boxers underneath. I caught a glance at her, and noted all the injuries she’d built up over the last months. Bandages on patches of cracked skin. Two stiff, grey fingers. Three destroyed toes. Bald patches on her scalp. Bulging grey veins. And untold damage on the inside, where nobody could see.
She pulled the blue material over her skin, covering up the decay. A big mission like this might snap her like a twig.
But still, if she’d slowed down or tired since our first meeting, she wasn’t showing it. She moved with strength, focus, throwing a dark shirt, pants, and a tight, ratty jacket over her combat suit.
She assembled her machine pistol with projection, checking the single Voidsteel bullet in the side magazine, then disassembled it in an instant, sliding the pieces into zippered pockets in her armor, by her ribs, at her waist, and by her outer thigh. She shoved her cattle prod into a holster at her belt, and dropped the metal pillbox of Kraken’s Bone into another.
How could she possibly poison someone in a pitched battle like this?
Then I realized. It’s for her. If she got injured, and lost all chance of victory.
Finally, she added a pair of grenades, knockout gas and frag, both flattened by me and stuffed under her belt.
Then, she pulled out the painting Hira had drawn for her birthday. The girl with red hair in the wheatfield. A twenty-year-old Anabelle Gage, if she’d lived another life.
She gazed at it, while the rest of us got ready.
Jun stuffed metal gizmos and bits of scrap into his huge backpack, until it was bulging from every angle. Basics like grenades, knockout injections, pepper gas, but also a few I didn’t recognize. He didn’t bother with guns or knives.
I pulled on my favorite, most durable suit, since I lacked combat armor. A lightweight, breathable blue linen with a flexible, two-button jacket and cuffed, slim-fit pants.
Then, I ripped open packets of letter paper and stuffed them into my brown fish leather briefcase, made watertight with Jun’s help. In between the sheets, I added a variety of objects I’d flattened. Syringes of Jun’s tranquilizer, grenades of all types, and a crowbar.
I placed a full bowl of food next to Cardamom in the corner of the basement, and scratched behind his ears. “See you later.”
As a last touch, I pulled on my white crane mask, the one Samuel had gifted me for the masquerade so long ago. I’m going to get back to you, I promised. I’m going to earn everything we had and more. We’ll play Jao Lu in the common room, and I’ll make you smile again, just like before.
An hour later, we stood at the eastern shore of North Island, in the scrapyard where Jun had assembled his first car. The coolers sat next to us, pulled off the makeshift pickup trick.
Behind us, the sun sank into the mid-afternoon, casting long shadows in front of us. Far ahead of us, across the water, I could make out Bartolet Naval Base, and the two zeppelins getting fueled up on the runways. About to launch.
To my right, Mount Elwar extended far above us, smoke rising from almost every district in Lowtown and Midtown. A few in Hightown, too, with clashes breaking out near mansions and the empty Parliament building. That’s a lot of riots.
And above that, the floating islands of Paragon Academy. The conical Great Library and the banquet hall and the classrooms and dormitories, connected with wooden bridges, tied to the mountain with only a pair of cable cars. The end goal, for both me and Ana.
I stared at the lapping water ten feet below. “There better not be any junk down there,” I said. “Don’t want to jump in and get speared through the leg.”
“We’re fine,” said Jun, patting me on the shoulder. “I checked.”
The water glimmered, crystal-clear, and I could see our reflections in the ripples. The broken illusionist, the guilty bombmaker, and the spoiled exile.
Queen Sulphur, down two bodies and one member. It seemed impossible that we’d managed to win a single fight, much less an entire pitched battle.
We made it this far, didn’t we?
“Let’s start,” said Ana, with illusions.
One by one, we dragged the coolers to the edge and tipped them over, dumping mountains of dead trout into the water. I wrinkled my nose, breathing through my mouth to avoid the stench. Jun tossed a few baubles in, adding them to our underwater stash.
I strapped my briefcase to my back so I didn’t have to hold onto it. Then, we fit on our scuba gear. My diving mask, digging into my forehead, with a snorkel. A pair of tight fins on my feet, squeezing my pinky toe and heels. A pair of black gloves. A heavy steel oxygen tank on my back, next to the briefcase, and a rubber regulator to go in my mouth, leaving a bitter taste on my tongue. The only thing we avoided were wetsuits, since we could project the water out of our clothes with little effort.
And, as a final touch, earplugs, with waterproof tape to hold them in.
I breathed in through the regulator, forcing myself to be slow, patient, deliberate. It all felt so bloody uncomfortable. Cold and tight and awkward. We’d only had a day to train.
But I could improvise.
“Ready?” said Ana.
I probably forgot something. I patted myself down, checking for anything missing. But I found nothing.
I gave a thumbs up. Ana didn’t even need to look at me to see the motion – she’d discovered a new feature of her Vocation, that let her piggyback on people’s senses as long as she was familiar enough with their Piths. In our last battle, she’d used it to listen to through my ears at a short distance.
And right now, with practice and my permission, she could see through my eyes, too.
Jun nodded, and squeezed Ana’s good shoulder. “You can do this.”
“Three, two, one, go.”
I stepped off the edge, and splashed into the water, cold rushing around me, soaking into my clothes.
I blinked, adjusting my diving goggles, and opened my eyes. Ana and Jun floated next to me in the deep blue water. They moved their arms and legs, swimming with their fins and getting their bearings. Warm sunlight filtered through from above, casting them in a rippling glow.
Saltwater trickled into my mouth, and I bit down on the regulator, tightening my grip over it, swallowing the saltwater and coughing. Remember what Jun and Hira said. Slow, calm breaths. Don’t breathe through your nose. Stay relaxed.
I projected into my wet suit jacket, pushing out the water and tightening it over me, preventing it from slipping off or getting wrinkled. After the summer heat, the cool ocean water felt refreshing on my skin, but it’d give me hypothermia if I left it there.
We spent maybe a minute like this, moving around, getting our bearings, making sure our equipment worked fine in the water. I practiced moving up, down, and sideways with my fins, making sure my weight and buoyancy were right. I was no expert, but it would be enough.
Then, we paused for a moment, and looked around at each other. “Everyone good?” said Ana, speaking through illusions. “Equipment good?”
Thumbs up all around. Despite Jun’s age, he moved just as fast as the rest of us in the water, giving off no sign of weakness or exhaustion. Benefits of working out. Strands of his wispy grey beard poked out of the bottom of his regulator mask, looking rather comical.
“Formation,” said Ana.
The three of us swam close to each other, with Jun at the front and me and Ana to his sides and behind. Breathe in, pause, breathe out. Not through the nose, not through the nose.
“Navigation,” said Ana.
A compass and waterproof map floated up in front of Jun, the trinkets he’d dropped down earlier, plus some metal contraption that would help point him in the right direction. Jun nodded at Ana.
“Shield,” she said.
I projected into the piles of dead fish beneath us. Into the pieces of paper we’d stuffed inside each one, sealed and made waterproof thanks to Jun. I pushed my soul into one of them, then a dozen, then a hundred. I floated them upwards, into a layered sphere around us.
My paper control was weak, and I couldn’t multitask all that well. To anyone who actually saw us, it would look fake, absurd, not natural swimming.
But to the sonar, we’d look exactly like a school of matrix fish. Our disguise was complete.
“Let’s go,” said Ana.
Jun swam forward, leading the way as the navigator. Ana and I followed, flapping our fins back and forth, and I moved the sphere of dead fish with us.
How on earth did Jun come up with this plan? If, a year ago, someone had told me that I’d be scuba diving with a giant clump of dead fish animated by an old Shenti bombmaker, I would have laughed. This had to be one of the strangest things I’d done for this job.
Inhale. Pause. Exhale. Inhale. Pause. Exhale. Watch your depth and don’t swim up or down. Match Jun’s speed. It took most of my concentration just to move forward and do the basics without screwing up. Every few seconds, I changed the shape of the fake-fish sphere, making sure it wasn’t static.
We swam forward, for what felt like an eternity, the fins digging into my feet, squeezing my toes. That’s going to leave a blister. The mouthpiece dug into my mouth, making it ache.
After an hour, or maybe just a few minutes, I started to hear soft pings in my ear, ringing through water from a far distance. The active sonar. Without the earplugs, it would be deafening.
“Slow,” said Ana. “Careful.” If we made too much noise or I screwed up the formation, the Principality’s naval defenses would detect us.
Time became a blur. My feet ached more and more. The sonar pings got louder and louder, until the noise stabbed into my ears, overwhelming.
Finally, after an excruciating length of time, Jun looked at us and made a slicing motion with his hands. Another signal.
“We’re here,” said Ana. I parted my fake school of fish in front of us and relaxed my Pith, letting them sink through the water.
We angled ourselves up, until my hands touched a rocky slope in the water. I pushed myself forward, and my head burst out of the surface.
I gagged and spat out the regulator, coughing. The water washed over me, and I crawled forward, off the rocks and onto a grassy shore.
Then I collapsed, water dripping off my clothes, and spat, wiping water off my face, taking deep breaths through my nose. Scholars, it feels so good to breathe through my nose.
After a few seconds, I projected the rest of the water out of my clothes and hair. The three of us crawled away from the water, pulling off our scuba gear and drying ourselves.
Then I glanced up. We’d emerged on the northeastern side of the island, on the opposite end as Bartolet Naval Base. A thick forest extended before us, with no one in sight.
I lay on the grass for a moment, bathing in the warm sun as Ana assembled her machine pistol, wheezing and shivering. She looked more winded than Jun.
Jun reached into his backpack and pulled out a set of gas masks and helmets. He tossed one of each to me, and I strapped them on, taking the briefcase off my back.
“Let’s go,” said Ana.
We moved forward through the trees, quiet. Past a short distance, the treeline stopped short of the perimeter fence, with a flat, open region between the base and the forest.
First, we placed a pair of devices towards the north part of the forest, and set the timers on them. Then we went to the south, at a spot between two watchtowers with machine guns. And we waited.
Ana checked her internal clock. “Five,” she said. “Four. Three. Two. One.”
Voices and footsteps echoed from the north, playing from a hidden speaker Jun had planted in a bush. It wouldn’t be enough for alarm, but it would distract the guards and give us a short window.
Jun jabbed his fingers forward, and a dozen wire cutters shot out of his backpack. They dug into the chain-link fence, slicing a hole in seconds.
We charged. Jun darted through the fence, then I sprinted through. We raced towards a dark corner between two of the barracks, a piece of cover hidden from the watchtowers.
Something hit the ground behind me, and I turned.
Ana had tripped on the fence. One of the bits of metal had caught on her shoe. As she yanked it out, freeing her foot, the fence shook, making an audible sound.
Alerting the guards. Oh, scholars.
My stomach dropped. I snapped open my briefcase and shot paper out, ready to make visual barriers or attack. I looked up at the guard towers for our targets, then stopped.
The watchtowers were empty. Not a single guard in either of them. What?
I pulled the paper back into my briefcase, and the three of us ran for cover, ducking in between the barracks.
“Where are the guards?” I whispered. “Where is everyone?”
Ana clenched her teeth. Jun shrugged.
On a hunch, I leaned forward, peering into one of the barracks’ windows.
Then I staggered back, hyperventilating.
“What? What is it?” said Ana.
“See for yourself.”
The three of us walked forward and looked into the window together.
“Fuck,” breathed Ana.
Bodies littered the floor. Principality soldiers, bleeding from stab wounds or covered with burns.
Everyone inside was dead.
I stared up at the sky. A silver oracle snake slithered through the red clouds, winding out of the setting sun towards the city, and Paragon Academy.
Maxine Clive has a plan, I thought.
She has a plan.