In ten minutes and thirteen seconds, the members of Chimera Squad would jump out of a plane, into a hurricane of bullets, shrapnel, and ice. Joiners with perfect aim might shoot at them, with Voidsteel bullets that couldn’t be knocked aside by ABDs, or explosives that could level buildings. If they got unlucky, they might even encounter a Shenti Commando, who could pull their organs apart with their little toe.
So it made sense that Eliya was panicking. In some ways, it made her the only sane person on the flight.
The cabin shook with turbulence, and Leizu gazed out the window, at the dark clouds passing below, and the ranks of paratrooper planes soaring alongside them.
Everyone else on the benches had blank faces, cold and flat. Keeping their nerves to themselves. But even in the dark cabin, Leizu’s enhanced eyes saw their twitching fingers, their sharp breaths. They’re terrified, too.
Eliya’s fear looked obvious. She hyperventilated, her one eye wide, and her whole body trembled, sweat soaking into the armpits of her wingsuit and her platinum blonde hair. Leizu’s Joined hearing picked up her racing heartbeats, faster than everyone else’s.
Normally, when the girl had a panic attack, she’d excuse herself and go somewhere private, or would hide the symptoms well enough to appear normal.
But there was no privacy on a K-19 plane. The Guardians and the Humdrum paratroopers squeezed shoulder to shoulder on the benches of the cabin. They were going into war packed tight like canned tomatoes, just like the poor marines who would assault the beaches in a few hours.
The largest amphibious and airborne assault in history. That’s what the brass called it. It made them sound like an overwhelming, invincible force, a statistic to pump everyone up before the big day.
But Eliya didn’t believe that, evidently. And neither did Leizu.
Leizu leaned over and rubbed Eliya’s shoulders, trying to make the gesture not look too intimate. If the two of them looked romantic, Eliya would stress about them getting discovered, and that would add another layer to her terror.
“Breathe slow!” shouted Leizu, fighting to be heard over the engine. “Count ten objects you can see in the plane!”
Eliya nodded, and murmured under her breath, muffling the worst of her panic attack.
“I’ve jumped from dozens of planes like this,” shouted Leizu.
“And it’s not that bad?” shouted Eliya. “We’re going to be fine?”
“Well, um, no,” said Leizu. “If the enemy knows there’s projectors here, we could get shredded by Voidsteel flak! The plane could catch fire, and explode! The wing could get blown off, and we could crash! And we could get spotted and sniped after we jump!”
To your friends, honesty is a duty, not a courtesy. Whaleshit comfort wouldn’t help Eliya.
“But!” Leizu shouted, clenching her fists. “I will keep you safe! Even if it kills me!”
Artillery fire rang out in the distance, and the plane shook. Puffs of smoke and fire exploded in the sky, beside them and the other planes. Anti-aircraft fire. But not too much of it. It meant the bombers had done their work, softened up the ground in advance. We’ll make it to our jump target.
“I don’t want you to die either, moron!” shouted Eliya.
“We had a saying in Shenten!” said Leizu. “The fool has bottomless luck.” She patted Eliya on the shoulder. “So you have good odds of surviving!”
“Hey!” shouted one of the paratroopers next to her. “Shut the fuck up! Your whaleshit is worse than the flak!”
“You first, squealer!” shouted Leizu. I’m ensuring an ally’s combat readiness! And helping a friend!” She glanced out a window.
“Why are you even here?” shouted the paratrooper. “Shouldn’t you be down there, running in the snow with the dogs?”
Leizu placed a hand on Eliya’s shoulder, stopping her from doing anything to the man. Even if Eliya did something, it might be blamed on Leizu, and the consequences could be nasty.
And, more importantly, this squealing fuck was a fellow soldier. Fighting on the same side, jumping from the same plane. Leizu’s job was to watch his back, even if he didn’t return the favor.
Leizu gave a simple response, that was mostly true. “I’m here to liberate my home,” she said. “And you’re going to help me.” He doesn’t deserve the full explanation.
The paratrooper laughed. “We’re here to finish what we started,” he said, repeating a talking point from the new Verity. His voice fell quiet, just loud enough to be picked up by Leizu’s enhanced ears. “You know what that means.”
One of the other paratroopers grabbed his shoulder. “Ed. Shut your hole.”
Ed fell silent, but stared straight at Leizu, his eyes glinting in the dark cabin.
The gunfire continued around them. A few minutes later, First Sergeant Stella Hargreave, their CO Guardian, shouted at all of them. “Guardians, ready!”
Leizu straightened up. The projectors and Humdrum paratroopers shared the same planes, but thanks to the wingtroopers flight capabilities, they were jumping far earlier than the parachute boys. The planes just conserved their energy for the first leg of the journey.
Leizu stood up, with Eliya, Samuel, Nell, and the other three Guardians of Hargreaves’ squad. Turbulence shook the plane, knocking Nell off balance, and Leizu grabbed the other girl’s arm, steadying her. None of my squad are ready for this. ABDs or no. Command was pushing them in far too young. Just like me. Years before.
The exit door swung open at the front of the cabin, and the light beside flicked on, red. Leizu felt the freezing wind on her face, and shifted her Joining to heat the surface of her skin.
“Check suits!” shouted Hargreave. The gunfire grew louder around them.
Leizu projected into her unfurled wingsuit, checking for holes, tears, or loose clasps. The other members of Chimera Squad shouted off, one at a time. “Five good!” shouted Leizu.
The light changed to a yellow. Almost there. The wind howled in the cabin. Leizu bent her knees, loosening herself up, and remembered the training that Lieutenant Yi had screamed into her.
Making the jump isn’t about courage. It’s about the force of habit. It’s about discipline.
What was that her mother had said about the root of discipline?
Leizu stared over the icy cliff, her stomach hurting.
She shuffled with her skis, moving herself higher up the slope, away from the drop. Leizu’s mother said something about roots, then stabbed one of her ski poles into the snow and squeezed Leizu’s arms.
“You’re a good skier, pumpkin,” her mother said, pulling down her scarf. “You can make it.”
Leizu hugged her mother, burying her helmet into her stomach, still recoiling from the cliff.
Why did we have to come this way? Leizu’s mother loved skiing in odd places. Especially since the resorts were so expensive.
So they’d gone on an adventure, which Leizu normally enjoyed. The scenery looked beautiful. Frozen waterfalls and towering peaks and quiet thickets of snow-covered trees, far away from civilization. Their own little corner of nature.
Then, they’d gotten lost, and found themselves at the edge of a cliff. Now, they could either jump off to get down the mountain, or make a long, painful hike back up the slope and find another route.
“Come on!” called out Tao at the bottom of the cliff. “You’re way better than I am, and I made it!”
Tao had been friends with Leizu since they were babies. So he knew Leizu was scared of heights.
“I don’t know,” Leizu murmured, still clutching her mother. “I don’t think I – ”
Leizu’s mother hugged her back. “Hey. Hey, it’s okay. I’m not going to push you if you’re not ready.” She yelled to Tao. “You know how to get down, right?”
Tao nodded. The boy wasn’t even ten, but he’d spent his whole life in their town at the foot of the mountain. He knew his way around the slopes.
“Meet us there, alright?” said Leizu’s mother. She pulled off her skis, put them together, and slung them over her shoulder. Then she did the same to Leizu’s. “If we make good time, we should be back by nightfall.”
“Thank you,” murmured Leizu. They started their long, uphill hike.
They made excellent time. Leizu’s mother led her through the woods for an hour, found a familiar landmark, and got them skiing to the bottom in no time.
They arrived at Danhai village at sunset, winded, tired, and ready for a warm drink and a huge dinner.
When they walked in, armed soldiers were marching through their streets. Men and women with rifles, wearing red military uniforms with the mark of the Black Tortoise.
The Caoists controlled the country. They could have come here any time they wanted to. But according to Leizu’s mother, Danhai village was remote, unimportant. There was no need to visit them, even as Shenten’s war with its neighbors grew hotter and madder.
So why are they here? Why couldn’t they just leave the town alone?
“Where’s Tao?” whispered Leizu, wishing she could curl up into a ball somewhere.
Leizu’s mother clutched her hand, and speed-walked Leizu through the town, towards Tao’s family’s house.
When they arrived, a lone soldier waited outside, leaning against a wall and smoking a cigarette. Leizu’s mother rushed past him and burst through the front door.
Tao sat at his dining table, his eyes red from crying. Leizu’s mother raced forward and knelt beside him, speaking in a rapid, low voice. “Where are your mom and dad, Tao?”
“They took them,” sobbed Tao. “The soldiers took them.”
Leizu’s mother looked back at Leizu. “Stay here,” she said. “Wait with Tao. Stay away from the windows.” She marched past Leizu and strode out the front door, slamming it behind her.
Disobeying the orders, Leizu ran up to a window and poked her head over the sill, watching her mother confront the cigarette-smoking soldier out front.
“What did you do to the couple that lived here?” said Leizu’s mother.
“Their economic scores were calculated,” said the soldier. “They were found to be insufficient for normal public life. They’ve been taken to redemption camps, for reeducation and job training.”
“They had jobs,” hissed Leizu’s mother. “He was a carpenter. She spent her days working on farms.”
“And they spent their nights in terrorist meetups,” said the soldier. He breathed a cloud of smoke into her face.
Leizu’s mother jabbed a finger in the soldier’s face. “They were good people,” she growled. “Show me the proof.”
“Back up please, ma’am.” The soldier hefted his rifle. “Were you friends with this couple?”
“Acquaintances,” she lied. They’re close family friends. “Investigate me if you want, you’ll find nothing there.”
“Please return to your home, ma’am,” he said. “We’re conducting important state business, and it’s not safe for civilians to walk about the streets.”
Leizu’s mother took her and Yi back to their house. She fixed them a cup of hot tea, then put Tao to bed on a sleeper sofa.
“Go to sleep, everyone,” she said, her voice tired. “We’ll fix this in the morning.”
Yi sobbed, curling up on the mattress. Leizu’s mother squeezed his hand, then went off to her own bedroom. Leizu hugged him. “Maybe this is just a bad dream,” whispered Leizu. “Maybe it’ll all be better when we wake up.”
She hugged Yi until his sobs quieted, and he fell asleep. When she retired to her own bedroom, she felt shocked by how normal it looked. When she looked outside her window, she couldn’t see any soldiers on the street. She couldn’t hear screaming in the distance, or shouted orders or passages from the 99 Precepts on loudspeaker, like she’d heard from the radio.
I thought it’d feel different. That Cao Hui’s men marching through and abducting people would look and sound special, an obvious horror unlike anything else she’d seen before.
But Danhai Village looked ordinary. She still heard the snow crickets, the burbling river in the distance. Saw the fresh snowflakes falling on her windowsill. An image of a peaceful town, a wonderland.
The world looked normal, even as it crumbled to pieces around her.
It look Leizu hours to fall asleep. When she woke up the next morning, her mother had received a sealed black envelope from the soldiers, drafting her into the war.
Leizu ditched school after lunch, so she missed the bomb.
Her chemistry teacher, Ren Yuhan, had yelled at her during the morning period. Leizu had been bored in class the last few weeks, so she’d gone ahead and finished every problem set in the textbook, setting her up for the whole year.
As a result, she had nothing to do in class today, and had said as much to Teacher Ren when she approached Leizu and asked her why she wasn’t writing with the other students.
Teacher Ren had viewed the mass problem-solving as a great transgression against her authority. “Impudent child,” she’d said, matter-of-factly. Then, she’d torn up Leizu’s three weeks worth of work, and ordered her to do the assignment with the other students.
Old teachers in Shenten were used to using The 99 Precepts as a foundation for their classrooms, no matter the subject. After the Spirit Block, and the breaking of Cao Hui’s empire, teachers, especially older generations, had no idea how to run things. More often than not, they just defaulted to yelling.
Leizu wanted to slap the shriveled hag. But then the senior secondary school’s guard would beat her up. Leizu had the muscles of a diseased mouse, so she wouldn’t stand a chance against him.
So, Leizu settled for ditching school. Tao was already skipping the whole week for some project, though it put his grades into a critical red.
She walked down the hill, halfway to her apartment, and heard a thundering boom behind her.
Leizu jerked into motion, darting behind a tree trunk for cover. A tiny orange fireball expanded over the secondary school. A hot wind washed over her face, making her flinch.
A second later, Leizu sprinted back up the hill, as fast as her puny legs could carry her.
She arrived minutes before the firefighters, if you could call them that. They were really just a few volunteers from town, with the most basic training and other jobs to finish during the day. There hadn’t been an actual trained firefighting team in Hengxiang since Warlord Qian had taken over.
A wall of the school building had been reduced to rubble, along with a third of two floors. A layer of dust and brick covered groaning survivors and corpses alike. A weak fire burned in the corner of the building, and the other students and teachers rushed out of the building and onto the street.
It wasn’t a huge bomb, all things considered. Bigger ones had gone off in Hengxiang in just the last few months. But it didn’t need to be huge.
When the volunteer firefighters arrived, Leizu helped them move aside rubble and put out the spreading fires and lift injured survivors onto stretchers. They needed all the help they could get.
Later that day, covered in dust and soot from her work, Leizu glanced at a bulletin board in the town square and saw Teacher Ren counted among the dead.
Leizu got the week off school while they rebuilt the classrooms. Or at least tried to rearrange the rubble and desks into a vaguely functional shape. It let her work an extra part-time job, building terraces on a rice farm, helping to pay the rent on her shared apartment.
And at night, Leizu slumped down in her subdivided apartment and ate dinner with Tao, her one roommate. The one-room space looked more like a glorified cage than an apartment, barely large enough to fit the two of them. Half the time, the building didn’t even have running water or working radiators, though the combined body heat of all the people stuffed in helped warm it.
But in spite of that, with just a tabletop stove and a cutting board, Tao had put together a delicious meal of homemade soup dumplings, an exquisite luxury considering their circumstances. We all have to stay sane somehow. Though Leizu certainly wasn’t.
The two of them sat on their bed, doubling as a couch, and ate dinner, huddled together under a blanket. Two orphan teenagers, forced to pay rent and go to school.
“Did they find out who did it?” said Tao.
“The police showed up,” said Leizu, sipping a cup of hot water. Two tired-looking soldiers. “They made a half-ass attempt at interviewing people. Then they went back to their post and said they’d ‘get to it later’.” They didn’t have the resources to conduct a real investigation. And it was probably just the insurgents Warlord Qian was fighting, anyways, an attempt by another warlord to demoralize the populace and take over the region.
“They’re going to blame this on Minzhu Junren,” said Tao, nibbling the top off a soup dumpling and letting it cool. “Warlord Qian wants to tighten the noose on us.”
Leizu saw where this was going. “I’m sorry, Tao,” she said, chewing a dumpling. “I can’t.”
Minzhu Junren was a popular, doomed movement that had cropped up in Hengxiang over the last few months. It advocated against warlords, and in favor of universal suffrage and civilian rule, but it hadn’t gained much traction.
“Just one protest,” said Tao. “You can wear a mask, and stand in a spot where you can run away if the cops get close. Democracy works great in the Principality and Neke.”
Leizu shrugged. “Maybe it does. But we’re never going to have a democracy in Shenten. Protesting is just going to cause more chaos and division and violence.” She leaned back against the wall of their tiny flat. “Warlord Qian will just send in his projectors and beat you guys up, if there aren’t enough of you.”
“And what if there are enough of us?” said Tao.
“Then some other warlord will use the chaos to take over Hengxiang with their projectors. And then they’ll put you down and it’ll just be more of the same.” Leizu stuffed five dumplings at once into her mouth, letting their soup explode over her taste buds. “It’s pointless.”
“What would you do, then?” said Tao. “Sit and go to school and wait for a bomb to take us? Our parents are gone. The adults were the ones who let Shenten rot into this. It’s up to us, now.”
“Shenten needs unity,” said Leizu. “I’m tired of watching people die.” She closed her eyes, and saw the bomb explode again. Saw the survivors groan under the rubble.
Then, she reached under her pillow and pulled out a bright yellow pamphlet. One of the paper booklets that had been dropped by an enemy plane soaring over Hengxiang. Warlord Qian had made them illegal to possess, but he couldn’t search every apartment in the city.
“You’re reading Gao Mei’s propaganda?” said Tao, in disbelief.
“I hear gossip, too,” said Leizu. “Gao Mei has conquered two other warlords. More than anyone else in the last few years. And she’s building roads, turning the water back on, putting people in factories. She’s trying to reunite the nation again, give us all hope again.”
Tao scowled, and rapped the pamphlet with his knuckle. “She’ll make a bunch of empty promises, and then she’ll do the same things that all the other warlords do. Loot, kill, burn.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” said Leizu. “But it’s better than relying on the mercy of Warlord Qian.” She clasped his hand. “I don’t want to watch those animals in the police gun you down.” She clenched her teeth. “I want to gun them down. And their boss.”
“We can’t,” said Tao. “I’m sorry.”
“I won’t just sit around, waiting for some riot cop to riddle me with holes,” said Leizu. “I’m going to fight.” She punched the concrete floor.
And the ground shook, vibrating like a struck bell. A low clap of thunder rang out from the point of impact, and a cracks spiderwebbed out beneath her knuckles, fissures opening up in the concrete foundations of the apartment.
Leizu held up her hand, staring at it. A hint of red lightning flickered around her fingers.
Tao stared at her hand. She stared at her hand. Both of them in disbelief, their eyes wide and their breaths short.
I’m a projector. A Joining specialist, of some sort.
“I’m going to join the military,” said Leizu. She pointed to the pamphlet from Gao Mei. “The real military.”
Tao looked at her with concern. And maybe a little fear.
Leizu stared up at the cliff. Her impossible task.
“You can’t erase pain,” said Lieutenant He, her instructor. “But you can endure it.”
A fundamental rule of Joining, one they’d learned on their first day of training. And one they repeated now, on the day of her final examination.
Joining relied on the connection between you and your body, and that connection depended on your nerves and their sensitivity. Numbing the pain from impacts and attacks was impossible with Joining. There were Praxis Vocations and drugs that could reduce pain, but doing so would sabotage your power.
So a Joiner had to endure great pain, in battle. And they had to train their spirits to weather it.
“Remember this lesson,” said Lieutenant He. “Remember your training, and you will pass. Fail, and you will plummet.”
Leizu stood at attention, dressed in her physical training uniform. A red shirt and shorts, nothing more. Sneakers, instead of fancy climbing shoes.
Lieutenant He pointed to the cliff, thousands of feet high. One of the largest cliffs in the world, towards the south of Shenten, where the weather was warmer. Then, she handed Leizu a drawstring pouch.
“Your task is to scale this face, retrieve a bag full of honey from the Kiterjeden bees that make their nests here, and deliver it to the first lieutenant at the top.” Lieutenant He paced around Leizu. “You may not use Physical, Whisper, or Praxis vocations. And you may only use a single Joining vocation: a Venom Shield.” A technique of the blood and organs, that would prevent anaphylactic shock or a death by poison. No enhanced strength to scale the toughest pitches. No upgraded senses to spot the best routes and handholds.
And no hardened skin to ward off the bee stings.
“If you use any other form of projection,” said Lieutenant He. “We will know. And you will be disqualified. If you fall, you may use any projection to save your life, but you will be disqualified.”
In the last thirty-seven hours, Leizu had already passed numerous tests of Joining, marksmanship, tactics, and projection to reach this point.
The final examination didn’t test for those things. It tested for will, and the strength of one’s discipline through the sheer exhaustion. If Leizu succeeded here, she would become a wingtrooper for Gao Mei’s divisions. If she failed, she would have to restart the year, or get transferred to a different branch.
“Do you have any questions, Private?”
Did you know I have a lifelong fear of heights? “No, ma’am,” she said.
“Lady Gao Mei needs true soldiers to rebuild this country,” said Lieutenant He. “Push past your limits. Achieve victory. You may begin.”
Leizu strode forward, and began climbing up the cliff face. No rope, no Joining.
From the first handhold she grabbed, it felt strange. She had climbed many cliffs like this. She’d scaled smooth glaciers with her bare hands, using her fingers to stab handholds for herself.
But she’d had Joining for all those. She had leapt from rock to rock, graceful and quick and untouchable.
Here, she had to take it slow. Pull herself up at the pace of a drunk slug. Her thick muscles burned from the exertion, and she found herself out of breath, unable to use Joining to boost the oxygen in her system. Her hands got sweaty, her skin and body temperature running uncontrolled, and she coated her palms with climbing dust to keep the friction up.
And she looked down, every now and then. Though she knew it was a bad idea. She saw the flat fields and towns spreading out beneath her. The terraced rice farms that looked like a strange, geometric painting. I used to work on those. It would take her a whole day to build just one.
From here, they looked so tiny.
And the ground looked so far down. Leizu imagined herself slipping and falling. She imagined herself splattering on the ground, too tired to Join up her durability or slow her fall.
Her stomach dropped. But she kept climbing.
Then, she started seeing the bees. They looked sparse, at first. Hovering to take pollen from a cliffside flower. Circling around Leizu to inspect her, curious, before darting away. None of them landed on her, or stung her yet. I’m the first one to climb today. They hadn’t learned that humans were their enemies.
As Leizu climbed, the bees grew denser. Clouds of insects, swirling in patterns over the cliffs, transporting resources in and out of the hives far above. The ambient buzzing noise grew louder and louder, even with normal hearing, until it drowned out the wind.
Some of the bees settled on handholds, forcing Leizu to wave her hand to disperse them. But that didn’t make them attack.
After another slow, painful half hour of climbing, Leizu spotted a hive. No, three hives, clustered together under a rocky overhang, sheltered from the elements. Three vertical shelves of thick, layered honeycomb, clustered together and filled with bees. Each of the hives was larger than a pickup truck, covered from top to bottom with crawling insects. Some of the bees landed on her clothes and hair, but no stings, yet.
There might be other hives further up, thought Leizu. Smaller hives, lone hives, that would be easier to plunder. But she couldn’t tell with her normal eyesight. And if there weren’t more, Leizu would have to climb back down to this hive, which was impossible at her level. I’ll fail.
This was her best shot at getting the honey.
Leizu closed her eyes, and imagined reuniting Shenten. She imagined sending Tao to a nice apartment, with a giant kitchen and running water and year-round heat. She imagined a quiet street, a peaceful city with no bombs, no vicious warlords.
She opened her eyes and climbed to the hive. She clung to a tiny handhold with the first knuckles on her left hand, and used her right hand to loop the string on her pouch around her left wrist. The bag hung draped against her forearm, its mouth wide open.
Then, Leizu reached up with her right hand, grabbed a chunk of honeycomb, and ripped it off of the hive.
The bees responded in an instant. The buzzing filled her ears, a surreal, animal siren. Thousands of bees shot off the hive and swarmed over Leizu.
Leizu clenched her teeth and readied her body. But nothing could have prepared her for the pain. They stung her on every inch of her body. The exposed skin on her thighs and calves. Her belly and chest and back, stinging through her thin shirt. And her neck and face. So many on her neck and face.
It felt like someone was burning her alive. Like a thousand hot needles were being jabbed into her skin and muscles and bones. The bees coated her skin. Implanting their stingers, then pulling out.
Leizu screamed, her whole body shivering. But she didn’t let go of the handhold, even as bees stung her fingers. Even if her hands weren’t occupied, there were far too many to squash or wave away. As she screamed, a bee flew into her mouth and stung her tongue, and she snapped her lips shut.
You can’t erase pain. But you can endure it. Leizu flipped on her Venom Shield, the one vocation she was allowed to use. Her blood purged the venom from its system and quarantined it, protecting her internal organs from the worst symptoms and suppressing an allergic reaction.
Her shaking hand slipped on the chunk of honeycomb, and it slid out of her grip, dropping down the cliff. So she tore off another chunk, closing her eyes to prevent the bees from stinging her there.
Leizu held the chunk of honeycomb over the open pouch, and squeezed it in her fist. The honey leaked out between her fingers and poured into the bag, thick and viscous. She opened her eyes for a split second, confirming her success. Then, she tossed aside the crushed honeycomb, and ripped off more, repeating the process.
Kiterjeden Bees were far more vicious than ordinary honey bees. They wouldn’t attack without provocation, but once they started, each sting secreted a pheromone that sent the hive into a killing frenzy. Now that they had marked her, they would chase her to the top of the cliff, and keep stinging until she died.
The bees kept attacking. Soon, Leizu had more stingers in her than a porcupine had quills. She looked like a strange acupuncture patient. Her fingers on the handhold began to shake from the exertion. It felt like she could fall every second, but she kept going, ripping honeycomb, squeezing out the contents, and tossing it aside.
Finally, she filled up the bag. She pulled it tight with the drawstring, and clipped it back on her waistband, tears dripping from her chin. Her fingers shook, so she moved slow, taking care to not drop the bag down the cliff.
Then, Leizu wiped her sticky, honey-coated hand on the legs of her shorts, and started climbing again. The bees pursued her, as her limbs shook and she inched up the cliff. The swarms kept zipping around her, stinging her everywhere there wasn’t already another stinger. Leizu cranked up her venom shield, preventing her body from shutting down, even as agony filled her mind.
This climb was even slower. Sometimes, she reached for a handhold, only for her hand to touch a smooth rock face. Mirages. Several times, her legs or one of her hands slipped, and her body would slam against the face of the cliff, forcing her to cling on to keep herself from falling.
In the last leg of the journey, the swarms of bees finally thinned around her, then stopped pursuing her altogether. At the same time, Leizu’s nose picked up a sharp, sour odor coming from the top of the cliff. Repellant. That kept the top of the cliff clear, pheromones or no.
The stingers stayed, though. And the burning heat spreading through her veins, her muscles, over every milimeter of her skin. Every second, she wanted to let go of this stupid cliff and give up. I can’t do this anymore. Not a single handhold more. Fuck it all. Then she would reach for the next one. Leizu had never felt this much pain in her life.
Physical pain, at least. As Leizu climbed, and her body shivered, she saw her mother, reading the black envelope that sent her to fight Cao Hui’s war. She saw the bomb go off in her school, killing her classmates and teachers. And she saw Tao, sitting in their tiny, freezing apartment and shivering under a blanket. Suffering under Warlord Qian.
Finally, Leizu let out a ragged scream, and pulled herself on top of the cliff, flopping onto her back.
First Lieutenant Zhen leaned over her, smiling. Then he knelt and unclipped her pouch full of honey, inspecting the contents. He nodded at Leizu.
I passed. I fucking passed.
The test over, Leizu turned on all her Joining that she’d been suppressing for the climb. She felt the strength return to her muscles, the breath return to her lungs as power and focus rushed through her nerve endings again.
She stood up, and tensed her muscles. The bee stingers shot out of her skin like darts, flying through the air and drifting away on the wind. Her skin calmed itself, the redness and bumps turning pale and smooth again.
The pain from the stingers remained. But it couldn’t harm her anymore.
That night, the trainees who passed the examination had a feast of barbecue pork, glazed with the honey they’d stolen. A rare sweetness, that proved the strength of their wills, their discipline. Today, they had become true wingtroopers.
Lieutenant He raised her wine glass, and toasted them all. “Congratulations,” she said. “Serve your country well.”
The Shenti plane flew towards the drop point.
In a few minutes, Leizu and the other wingtroopers would jump out, to soar through the air and descend hundreds of feet below, to fight a deadly enemy that had taken over Huangdi Academy, what had once been the premiere school for Joiners to hone their talents. Their target, Warlord Qian, had dug himself in, and surrounded himself with battleships, Joiners, and anti-air batteries. And Leizu had never fought in a real battle before.
She was having so much fun.
“Three times,” said Private Zi. “I can get three times as many kills as any of you dumbfucks.”
“Only if you’re counting trees,” scoffed Leizu. “I saw you miss five shots in our last marksmanship training.” Anti-aircraft fire exploded around them, and the plane shook, but they still quipped at each other. They had their durability vocations up to the max. Even a direct hit with flak shot would just ruin their uniforms.
“Yeah,” said Private Yin. “You’re a good shot, and good in a melee.” She snorted. “If you manage to land. You fly like a drunk goose.”
“A drunk goose made of diamond.” Leizu thumped her chest, hard enough to make it thud like a drum, louder than the gunfire and the plane engines. “How about a gamble, Zi? Whoever gets the least kills has to pay for a squad dinner.”
“You’re on,” said Zi. “I like steamed bass and longevity noodles.”
“Yeah?” said Leizu. “I like soup dumplings, and those are expensive. So get ready to shell out the cash, you cross-eyed rabbit.”
“Everyone quiet,” said Lieutenant He, in a soft voice that everyone picked up with their enhanced ears.
Leizu and Zi fell silent.
Lieutenant He stood up at the front of the plane, and reviewed the plan. “You are to secure the perimeter of the academy. Then, you are to move up in teams of two through the main corridors, taking out any enemies along the way. When you reach the central building, you are to rendezvous with Colonel Xu, a Shenti Commando dropped in two hours ago.” Her eyes shone in the dark cabin. “Then, you are to remove Warlord Qian. Alive is better, but not a priority.”
Nods all around the plane. They’d reviewed the strategy a hundred times, memory bursted all the maps and blueprints of the area, and the likely distributions of enemies.
“Once Qian is gone and the sector secured, our forces will have united the nation’s capital, the academy, and this whole province! And every man, woman, and child will rejoice at the dawning of a new era.”
The whole plane erupted in cheers.
Hengxiang will be safe. Where Tao still protested against the same warlord she was fighting. Soon, it would have running water again, working electricity and intact roads. We can make it better again. But only if they won.
Lieutenant He finished her briefing. “Stand up!” she shouted. They all stood up, and performed the standard equipment checks.
When the red light turned green, Leizu didn’t hesitate. She walked forward and jumped out of the plane, flicking on her Darkvision suite.
A massive battle spread out on the water beneath her. Formations of battleships and destroyers fired at each other on the waters of the massive lake, a deafening thunderstorm of steel and explosives. Bright orange fires burned on the decks of submarines, filling the air with smoke.
And formations of wingtroopers flew towards the academy from three separate directions, near-invisible in the darkness. Warlord Qian’s Joiners will see us, though. Their eyes were anything but naked.
As Leizu approached her landing zone, she flattened her arms and legs to her sides, accelerating straight down. She aimed at a terrace overlooking the docks, filled with at least two dozen Humdrum soldiers behind sandbags, manning an anti-air cannon and a pair of machine guns.
They saw her just a few seconds too late. She landed in the center of them, cracking the stone ground beneath her and shaking her bones.
Then, she opened fire. Two triggerless automatic shotguns lifted themselves out of holsters on her back and opened fire, floating over her shoulders and aiming at enemies with projection. Leizu used projection to feed more shots into the weapons as they fired – ammo belts feeding out of special chambers on her backpack. It let her fire without stopping, filling the air with buckshot.
As Leizu fired, she separated the shaft of her Voidsteel glaive into two pieces, and grabbed them in her fists. She jumped and darted amongst the enemies in their makeshift bunker, slashing and shooting and repositioning herself.
One of the soldiers shrugged off a shotgun blast to the chest, without even a bruise. A Joiner. But he doesn’t have an ABD. So Leizu fired four shots at his face to distract him, then flung one of her half-glaives at him, projecting into the shaft. It sliced his head in two, killing him in an instant.
Leizu walked up the slope of the volcanic island, headed for the central academy. Private Zi met up with her on a pathway.
“Thirteen,” he bragged, his eyes bright. A heavy machine gun floated above his head, attached to a similar projected ammo belt.
“Twenty-five,” said Leizu.
“Shit,” he said.
They pushed through the giant front doors to the academy’s entrance hall, taking cover and using their infrared sight to scan for the countless enemies they expected to see. This is going to be tough.
There were no heat signatures in the entrance hall. Could be enemy Commandos. Concealing their body heat and their presence. But if that was true, they were already dead.
Leizu gestured, and the two of them moved forward, casting their enhanced vision around the hall.
Everyone inside was dead. Bodies had been scattered about the room, slashed through the throat or with their heads exploded.
“Someone did our job for us,” said Private Zi. “Guess I’m paying for dinner.”
They moved through the halls and staircases of Huangdi Academy, over bridges between buildings. In normal times, Leizu would have marveled at the architecture, the paintings, the artistry and the history of the whole place. But she had a job to do.
As they ventured further up the volcano, the sounds of the naval battle grew more muffled outside. They met no resistance. Only corpses.
And then, they pushed open the doors to the main banquet hall, as marked on their internal atlases.
A massive carpeted room spread out before them, with a ceiling hundreds of feet high. A giant oval table sat in the center, covered with a red tablecloth and stacked high with food and flower arrangements. Glittering chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and thick curtains covered the windows.
It looked like a wedding banquet. Or some sort of expensive feast.
And the room was filled with bodies. Figures sat on the chairs around the table, their heads slumped over onto their plates, their suits and dresses coated with blood. A child had fallen out of his seat and onto the carpet, blank, unblinking eyes staring at the wall.
Warlord Qian lay on the floor, the left half of his face buried in a puddle of red bean soup. His family, butlers, maids, and cooks all as dead as him. Leizu didn’t spot a single living soul in the place.
Except one. A young woman, sitting at Warlord Qian’s large chair, devouring the banquet with ravenous delight.
A Shenti woman, tall and skinny and pretty, dressed in a dark camouflage uniform with her black hair cut short. She wore heavy, dark red eyeshadow and black lipstick, a heavy, dramatic face of makeup that she didn’t spill a drop on, even as she stuffed food into her face at blinding speeds. Steamed bass and prawns and and roast duck and longevity noodles, all eaten with an intense sort of grace, without the slightest droplet of sauce touching her cheek.
A white monkey mask sat on the tablecloth next to her. Colonel Xu. The Shenti Commando who’d shown up here two hours ago. The woman they were to rendezvous with.
“Two thousand, three hundred and eight,” said Colonel Xu, casual. “I win.”
Leizu stepped forward, her hands shaking. “These – these are civilians. They weren’t a part of this war.”
“Any one of them could have been the real Qian,” she said, shoveling rice into her mouth with a pair of chopsticks. “He could have put a double in his normal body, hidden himself in a civilian nearby. This is the best way to be sure.”
But Shenti people don’t do body swaps. Even with the Spirit Block in place, the people of this nation remembered that transference had been forbidden.
“This wasn’t in our orders,” said Leizu.
“Your orders,” said the Colonel. “Lady Gao won’t mind.”
Leizu’s enhanced senses flitted from person to person, straining to detect a heartbeat, a sign of breath. Someone still alive, who could be given medical attention. But she sensed nothing. Commandos are thorough.
“Don’t be sad, pumpkin,” said Colonel Xu. “It happens to everyone.” She wolfed down a platter of crispy noodles, her makeup still perfect. That isn’t part of a normal uniform. Gao Mei must have let it slide, in her desperation for trained commandos.
Leizu let go of her twin glaives, frozen to the spot.
“Now,” said Colonel Xu, finishing her meal. “Pick up Qian’s body. We need to take it to the boss.”
Her body numb, her thoughts blurry, Leizu shuffled forward and slung Warlord Qian’s corpse over her shoulders.
After the assault, Leizu could have screamed, or fought Colonel Xu, or lay in bed and refused to train, or any other extreme reaction.
Instead, she wrote a formal letter of complaint to her CO. Lieutenant He had adopted a serious expression, and promised she’d look into it. And that was the last that Leizu ever heard of it.
Tao moved with her to a nicer apartment in Hengxiang, in a neighborhood with running water and consistent power. They had heat, multiple rooms, and a giant kitchen for Tao to cook his signature soup dumplings with.
But Leizu didn’t talk about it to him. Didn’t mention the floor of corpses, or the civilians Colonel Xu had butchered and eaten over with such casual indifference.
After all, she’d been a part of the operation, too. She’d stood back, and followed the Colonel’s every order.
And she was still fighting and killing for Lady Gao Mei. Another soldier might have quit from a situation like that, but not Leizu. Not the girl who’d gotten a thousand stings for the sake of her country.
Privately, she lay awake in bed, staring at the ceiling, tossing and turning and unable to get comfortable. She imagined what would happen if she confessed to Tao. How do you sleep at night? he’d ask.
I don’t, she’d reply.
She couldn’t fall asleep at night, and she couldn’t fully wake up during the day. She completed training and operations for Lady Gao Mei like she was walking through a dream, cleaning up the remnants of Warlord Qian’s forces that didn’t wish to submit.
On the worst nights, Leizu went on jogs through her neighborhood, even in sub-zero temperatures and blizzards. Intense, long sprints that got her winded, even with Joining. Since Warlord Qian’s defeat, the neighborhood she’d moved to with Tao had the lowest crime rates in the city. It boasted clean sidewalks and working electricity and all the luxuries other nations took for granted.
But her runs took her to the rest of Hengxiang, through the old neighborhoods where she used to live. And after five months under new leadership, it looked identical. Run after run. The same beggars, the same dry water pumps, the same malnourished children.
Leizu felt tired, but not sleepy. She just felt so tired.
After one of her two AM runs, she returned to her apartment and found the living room light on. They had a living room, now. A year ago, Leizu would have found that a miracle.
Tao stood on the balcony outside, awake, gazing over the rest of the dark city as snowflakes fell on his black hair. And it was a dark city, beneath the wooded hill of their neighborhood. Streetlamps and consistent electricity hadn’t been restored to the other districts.
Leizu stepped out onto the balcony with him, and looked down at the frozen streets. Her breath fogged up the air in front of her, but Joining kept her blood hot, each snowflake hissing and evaporating as it touched her skin.
Tao looked at her. “What did she do?”
He couldn’t know about the Commando, Colonel Xu. He means Lady Gao.
“Nothing,” said Leizu.
“You look horrible,” said Tao. “Even with your Joining, you look horrible. I’m guessing this isn’t the first late-night run you’ve finished. You barely talk to me, and you barely eat.”
“Don’t have to eat,” said Leizu. With Joining, her body could sustain itself with little to no food.
“But you love eating,” said Tao. “So what did she do?”
He’s still part of Minzhu Junren. Gao Mei might not be happy if confidential information got leaked to a public protest group like that.
Leizu clenched the metal railing, crumpling it in her fist. Listen to yourself. It was Tao. If she could trust anyone, it’d be him.
So she told him everything. About the mission, the Commando. The piles of dead civilians and her ignored complaint to Lady Gao Mei. And how Leizu was still following orders, by sheer force of habit.
“I’m sure you hate me,” said Leizu. “And I know you told me so.” She slumped over. “But. Maybe I don’t know anything anymore. If you want to live with someone else, I understand.”
Tao looked at her for a moment. Then he leaned towards her on the balcony and hugged her. Leizu turned down her body temperature, so as to not burn him.
Leizu’s eyes felt warm, and she realized she was crying. She could have used a Joining technique to make it stop, but she didn’t.
When they broke off, Tao looked at Leizu with a new, hardened expression. “So Lady Gao Mei didn’t respond to your complaint.”
Leizu shook her head.
“What do you think she’s going to do when she learns you’re best friends with a protester?”
She might forgive me. Well-trained Joiners didn’t come cheap. But Tao would go to prison. Or worse.
“Lady Gao is a warlord,” said Tao. “Just a slightly more successful warlord than everyone else.”
“What are we supposed to do?” said Leizu. The protests had shrunk after Warlord Qian had been deposed, and under Gao Mei, the crackdowns would be even more brutal. And all the other military forces she could join were just more warlords. More fake promises and violence and looting.
Tao took a deep breath, like he’d been preparing for this his whole life.
“We need to leave,” he said. “Not just Gao Mei’s domain. We need to leave Shenten. Go to one of the other three Domains, or one of the islands.”
“You’d give up on your protesting?” said Leizu.
“Each week, the protests get a little smaller,” he said. “And the cops get a little meaner. I’m not a spy, I can’t run a rebellion. And more people are recognizing my face.” He closed his eyes, his shirt sprinkled with snowflakes. “If I stay here much longer, I’m going to get killed.”
Leizu ground her teeth together. “And then what?” Her voice sounded weak. “Gao Mei keeps a close eye on her borders. If we try to leave, we’ll have Joiners on our tail within a day.”
“You can fight them off.”
Leizu snorted. “I’m seventeen. They’ll break my spine like a dry noodle.” She stared at the hill on the far side of town, where her school had blown up. “And even if we do escape, then what? Give up on Shenten and watch it rot? Let it descend into barbarism?”
“We’ll come back, one day,” said Tao. “We’ll come back.”
If there’s anything left to come back to.
“I want to sit out the invasion,” said Leizu. “I’m going to ask to stay back in the Principality.”
Professor Charles Hou draped himself over on his thick feather sofa, his head on one of the arm rests. The only other Shenti person in Paragon Academy. “Interesting. How? You and Chimera Squad have orders, no?” An umbrella unfolded over his head, shielding his face from the sun .
“The Principality is already wary of sending Shenti soldiers to the front lines,” said Leizu, standing on a thick fur rug on the outdoor half of Professor Hou’s office. “I will tell them I’m not comfortable fighting my countrymen, and that’ll be more than enough to reassign me.”
Charles Hou floated a handful of strawberries out of a mini-fridge, a breeze blowing through his light blue hair. He pressed two of his slender fingers together, and the strawberries blended themselves into a pulpy juice, pouring into a martini glass. He poked a hole in a lime with a toothpick, and squeezed a stream of juice out of it.
With his drink finished, he opened his mini-fridge again, and floated something in front of him squeezed between a pair of chopsticks. Leizu’s enhanced vision recognized it in an instant.
An eye. A human eyeball.
Professor Hou popped it in his mouth and took a sip of strawberry-lime juice, swallowing it whole like a pill.
Leizu recoiled, her stomach churning.
“Calm down,” said Professor Hou. “My Joining Vocation gives me precise control of everything in my stomach, cells and microbes included. So my R&D involves swallowing a lot of organic materials.”
“Makes sense,” said Leizu. “Still gross.” She sat down on a chair across from him. A purse had been left on it, and Leizu moved it aside. “This from one of your guests?” The women of Paragon found Hou to be an exotic attraction, apparently. As gossip had it, Hou didn’t mind the treatment, so long as he got to enjoy the perks.
“I’m your professor,” said Hou. “Don’t be inappropriate.” He took another sip of strawberry-lime juice. “Now, why don’t you want to join the invasion? You’ve told me before that you wish to bring democracy to Shenten, no?”
“Yes,” said Leizu. “And I do trust the Principality, and everything we’re fighting for, and – “
“Leizu,” said Professor Hou. “I sweep this place every morning. It’s not bugged.”
Leizu exhaled, and nodded. When she spoke again, her tone was less guarded. “The Conclave of the Wise is back.”
“It is as you say.”
“And if Parliament keeps giving them power, our reps will be figureheads in no time.”
“It is as you say.”
“And it violently suppressed Commonplace, a protest movement with legitimate concerns, which pushed the country into half a civil war.”
“It is as you say.”
When Leizu had enrolled in Paragon, the Guardians had made so many promises to her, about their ideals, their hopes and dreams and respect for human dignity. Gao Mei had made promises too.
“We’re just getting out of that,” said Leizu. “And our parliament is crumbling. Are we really the best choice to help Shenten?”
“No,” said Professor Hou. “But the alternative is Cao Hui. And he’s far worse than anything this academy has to offer. For all their flaws, Paragon never built redemption camps. If the Black Tortoise is left to his devices, his empire could roll over the world again, bring all of that back.”
If he can build an empire with the Spirit Block in place. Leizu gripped the wooden arms of her chair, turning down her muscle Joining so she didn’t turn it to splinters.
“I don’t want to settle for a lesser evil,” said Leizu.
“The world is drowning,” said Professor Hou. “Lesser evil is a luxury. A blessing, one we cannot ignore. The Neke are not fighting Cao Hui this time. Neither is Ilaqua. Where else will you go?”
“I visited Gestalt Island the other night,” said Leizu. “The mob burned down half of it. It looks worse than Hengxiang under a warlord. And they barely talked about it in the papers.” Which made it more disturbing, since it meant the information was being suppressed. “This country loathes people like us.”
“Don’t speak to me of loathing.” Hou swallowed a test tube full of green liquid. “You’re still new to these shores. I lived in the Principality during the first war. Guardians accused me of being an agent for the enemy, even though Shenten was known for its weakness at foreign intelligence. They accused me of being a Caoist, even though I defected from Cao Hui’s government.”
He cared more than they could ever hope to. Guardians and veterans alike sometimes bragged that they’d joined the war for the cause of freedom, or to liberate innocents from redemption camps. But most had enlisted out of obligation, not as wannabe saviors. Unlike Professor Hou.
“Even a year ago,” Professor Hou snorted. “They wanted to give me a tiny basement office, before Headmaster Tau intervened.” He finished his drink. “But for every two zealots, there’s one who respects me. Who sees what I’ve done for the Eight Oceans.”
“And what have you done?” said Leizu. Professor Hou was known as a body designer, and Leizu knew he worked with the biology and infectious disease departments, esteemed for their impressive medical leaps. But Paragon kept his work confidential.
Charles Hou stood up. “Can I show you something?”
He led her out of his office, down an elevator, and to the kitchens, basically a group of tents with cooking equipment, after the Banquet Hall had burned down. Some of the servants had died during the Paragon attacks, but less than the students, who’d gotten directly in Commonplace’s way. Leizu still recognized most of their faces.
Steam and the smell of cooking seafood rose into the air, as they prepped lunch. Some sort of tomato-fish soup, with all the usual accessories.
While one of them looked away, Leizu floated a half dozen chicken turnovers off of a cooling rack, stuffing them into her pockets. She tossed a pair of them into her mouth, and winced from the burning heat. You can’t erase pain.
Charles Hou led her to the side, just out of earshot of the chatting chefs. He pointed to the closest one. “That’s Dillon Faqir. He was dying from Jannat Flu when I finished my therapeutic drug. Now, he goes on twenty-mile hikes on the weekends. And after I developed a universal flu vaccine, no one gets Jannat Flu anymore.”
“The flu vaccine,” said Leizu. “You developed that? In your stomach?”
“Vomited it right up,” said Professor Hou. “It’s not pretty.” He pointed to one of the servants washing a table. “That’s Joyce Coulthurst. She had a nasty case of hookworms in her blood. Could have lost an arm and a leg. Literally.” He smiled. “But, with a sizable investment from Paragon, and a thirty-second Synapse, I managed to throw up a bacteria that kills hookworms, makes antibodies, and costs almost nothing to make. Now, hookworms are a thing of the past, too.”
“And your bodies?” said Leizu. Hou was involved with the biology department, but was best known as a luxury chassis designer, who shaped the most elegant faces in the world. “Do you help lots of people with those, too?”
Professor Hou’s face darkened. “The academy is less interested in my ideas around those.”
“I’ve tried, numerous times, to get our department to massively increase its supply of fabricated chassis. It’s the greatest medical invention in history, and it’s absurd that we don’t have more of them.” He shrugged. “But I just make faces. And even the Headmaster couldn’t budge the Epistocrats’ minds on that.”
“And you don’t see that as a red flag?” said Leizu.
“All body fabricators around the Eight Oceans have a similar mindset,” said Professor Hou. “If I worried myself over every unsolvable problem, I’d never sleep at night. And I never would have made any of my accomplishments.” He gestured forward. “Countless thousands died of those diseases. And now, thousands of people get to wake up and see tomorrow. They get to eat breakfast with their families, drink with their friends, explore the mysteries of the world.”
And Paragon keeps his involvement under wraps. “You’ve probably saved more lives than anyone else at Paragon, then,” she said.
“See,” said Professor Hou. “Paragon is full of elitists. And cruel people. And bad decisions, to be sure. But Headmaster Tau ensured that I got funding for my projects, and I worked with a dedicated research team of Humdrums and Guardians. I finished them in my stomach, yes, but we formulated those compounds together, and spread them to the populace.”
“And the Epistocrats didn’t let you take any credit.”
Hou shrugged. “It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. I help this nation’s public health and don’t criticize them, and in exchange, they give me money and space, even though I rarely fight on the front lines.” He gazed up at the towering Great Library in the distance. “Despite its flaws, I’ve leveraged this academy’s resources to help people. To reshape the world for the better. And you can, too.”
“How?” said Leizu. “By going to war?”
Professor Hou lifted a finger, and glanced around to make sure no one was listening in. “Force the Principality’s hand. Put them into a position where they don’t have full control of Shenten, and build up enough international pressure to kill any dreams of conquest.”
“International pressure?” Leizu said, folding her arms.
“This nation still depends on Neke and Ilaqua for trade. And both were former colonies of this nation. If they see the Principality overreaching, they may threaten financial consequences. And if the Black Tortoise is dead, and an occupation is too expensive, then an opportunity will present itself.” Charles Hou lowered his voice. “For anyone to shape the nation of Shenten. To push it in one direction and watch it tip over the rest of the way.”
Leizu snorted. “So the warlords can take it again?”
“Maybe,” said Professor Hou. “Or maybe something else. There are pro-democracy groups within the nation that can be funded, assisted, kept thriving and alive during the chaos.”
“Stop Caoism and hold back Paragon?” said Leizu. Shenten was filled with natural resources. Oil and coal and steel and more. And plenty of industrialists in this nation that would love to get their paws on it. They would have, ten years ago, if it weren’t for the chaos in the wake of the Pyre Witch’s massacre. “That’s some fucking tightrope to balance on.”
Hou shrugged. “You’re a Joiner. Tightropes are easy for you.”
“And if I want to quit the circus?”
“Neke and Ilaqua are sitting this one out,” said Hou. “If you want to shape the future of Shenten, then you can’t sit on the sidelines. You have to play the game, just like I do.”
“I hate the fucking game,” growled Leizu. “I can kick an airplane in two. I can bathe in a pool of lava and climb a cliff full of Kiterjeden bees. But I wasn’t trained for politics.” Influence-grubbing was for other, more tricksy folk.
“You won’t be alone,” said Professor Hou. “I’m going to Shenten, too. And so is Headmaster Tau. This is the place where we can help the most.”
Leizu gazed out at one of the floating islands, at a line of Guardians running combat drills on the grass and dirt. She gazed below, making out the edge of Gestalt Island past the foot of Mount Elwar. Her enhanced vision looked over the rows of homeless people on the streets, the houses burned down by the mobs of loyalists.
If I sit out, it’ll just get worse. And she would never join the Black Tortoise, and the rotting mess he’d made of Shenti culture. The 99 Precepts could crumble, for all she cared.
“It’s not too late to save the Principality,” said Professor Hou.
I wish I could believe that.
But it wasn’t too late to save Shenten. There’s still time.
Leizu extended her hand to Professor Hou, and he shook it. “Fuck it,” she said. “Let’s go home.”
The jump light turned from yellow to green.
“Go!” shouted First Sergeant Hargreave. She jumped out of the cabin door, soaring into the darkness. The other three Guardians in her squad followed after her. Wind whipped through the cabin, and the plane engines rumbled.
Without hesitating, Leizu stepped forward, projected into her suit, and leapt into the air.
Her stomach wrenched, as she dropped through the sky, but it felt comfortable, now. Like riding a bicycle, after losing the habit for years.
Leizu’s internal clock counted out three and a half seconds. Then she extended her arms and legs, opening her wings, and shot forward through the sky, above the clouds. She pushed her suit forward with projection, accelerating herself after Sergeant Hargreaves’ squad for a few seconds. How could I have ever feared heights? This was the best feeling in the world.
Flak shot exploded in the air around her, and a heavy chunk of shrapnel slammed into her neck, bouncing off her Joined skin. Not Voidsteel. Designed for planes, not projectors.
But her ABD hadn’t deflected the larger chunk of metal. It might give the others trouble. Leizu glanced behind her, at the other members of Chimera Squad flying behind her. Samuel looked focused, Eliya looked terrified, and Nell looked like she was having the time of her life, flak shot or no.
Leizu turned to a different angle, separating from Hargreaves’ squad to a different objective, watching her position on her internal atlas. She had the most flight experience and the best eyes in the squad, so she’d been assigned the navigator role.
She tilted forward and descended through the clouds. And for the first time in years, Leizu saw her homeland. The white-capped peaks of the Xinan Mountains. The tiered rice farms below, climbing up the slope of a hill and forming beautiful elegant patterns of circles. The trees with bright red leaves, signifying the passage into autumn.
And the snowflakes, drifting through the air around her. Light and cold and each of them different.
Leizu didn’t regret leaving. But scholars, she’d been missing this place. She switched to her infrared vision, using it to navigate through the early morning darkness.
This part of the country was a quieter, rural area filled with farms, to the north of Wuxian city. But a series of artillery batteries had been set up in some of the rice terraces, aimed at the beaches in the distance, and anti-air guns to defend them from planes.
One of the soldiers below spotted them and pointed, shouting out their location. The men rushed about, aiming their anti-air guns and rifles. But they moved slow, at an ordinary pace, with no enhanced muscles or reflexes. No Joiners. No obvious ones, at least.
Leizu flattened her arms to her sides, shooting her straight for the ground. A few soldiers fired at her, but none of them came close, and she doubted the bullets were Voidsteel, anyways. Just a distraction.
She slammed onto the ground, floated her twin shotguns over her shoulders, and opened fire, leaping and shooting and slashing amongst the Humdrum soldiers. The other Chimeras landed on the other terraces, and started fighting.
Leizu cleared her assigned artillery gun in under five seconds. So she leapt thirty feet into the air, and landed on Nell’s terrace to help her out. A storm of paper swirled around Nell, blocking her from view and making paper cuts all over the enemy soldiers. But not on any major arteries. She’s still holding back. So Leizu opened fire, clearing the zone and doing Nell’s job for her. Hesitating gets you killed.
Then, she scanned for the other members of Chimera Squad. Samuel had done his job with careful precision. Eliya had taken out her targets too, but she’d messed up one of her kills, and the soldier was still alive, groaning, with his torso covered in blood. He’s not going to survive that.
Since no one else was moving, Leizu aimed her shotgun at his face and pulled the trigger. The crack echoed over the hillside, and Eliya flinched.
“Rest well,” said Leizu. She projected into piles of unloaded artillery, signaled for Chimera to step back, and detonated them. The guns blew up, four fireballs lightning up the night. Done. Who knew how many lives they’d saved on the beach?
Principian lives, at least. The poor draftees firing machine guns in the bunkers wouldn’t be so lucky. Her mother had died much the same way, after being pressed into the front lines of Cao Hui’s first mad war.
She stood for a moment, among the bodies. Cloaked in orange light from the fire. And she thought back to her conversation with Professor Hou. The invitation to play a dangerous, uncertain, near-impossible game with this war, in the distant hopes that it could help Shenten.
I hope I made the right choice.
Their mission was over. Easy. Too easy. Leizu’s instincts buzzed in the back of her head.
“Something’s wrong,” she said. “There should be more resistance.”
Nell shook her head. “My mother gave us an easy assignment on purpose.” She bit her lip.
“She wants to keep me safe.”
Leizu relaxed a hair. That explains it, then. Samuel got on the radio and informed command of their success. They prepared to move to their second target, an airfield that may have been speed-repaired after its latest bombing by the Principality’s warplanes.
A panicked voice replied over the radio, using all the right codes. “The beach – “ it said. “The beach. Reinforce the beach. Use flight and travel to Sector R with haste, and reinforce the landing parties there.”
“Typhoon-1, interrogative,” said Samuel. “Has enemy response differed from expected patterns? Over.”
The radio operator just repeated the command, his voice panicked.
“Let’s move,” said Samuel. Chimera Squad unfurled their wings again and launched themselves into the air. They flew low over the ground, back southwest towards the beaches. The anti-air around them didn’t fire, either taken out, or unable to spot them at a distance in the dark.
Something’s very strange. If the beach assault was going wrong, then why wasn’t there heavier resistance here?
They flew for half an hour towards Sector R, as the sky grew brighter above them. They passed more rice farms, a flooded forest with red trees, and a darkened hamlet with all of its lights turned off. For Leizu, it felt like a brisk jog, but she spotted the beginnings of blue and green lightning around Eliya and Nell, respectively.
Then, they circled around a mountain, flying close to the slopes for concealment. They passed to the seaward side, and saw the crimson beaches beneath them. With her Joined eyes, Leizu saw the details first.
The Shenti’s bunkers and machine gun nests had been destroyed all along the beaches. Their anti-tank obstacles and barbed wire had been demolished, blown into scrap. The landings have started.
And the ground was covered in corpses. And the blue Principian uniforms far outnumbered the red ones. Leizu saw dead Guardians, too, wearing enhanced body armor with their limbs blown off.
Dead soldiers, and no living ones. The Shenti had shredded the first wave.
A new group of landing boats arrived – twelve troop carriers pulling up towards the closest beach. In response, a group of men and women charged out of a Shenti camp at the bottom of the mountain, carrying heavy backpacks and heading to intercept.
They sprinted faster than normal. Joiners. Using a zero dash and enhanced muscles to accelerate them. They bounded over hills and onto the red sands of the beach in less than thirty seconds, as the Principality’s soldiers began to run onto the beach. A few of them stumbled over rocks and fell, but picked themselves back and kept going.
Leizu made a hand signal, and Samuel motioned for Chimera Squad to land on the slope of the mountain, behind a thicket of bushes, so they could observe the battlefield before entering the fight.
They ran forward, ignoring the bullets fired at them, and pulled triggers attached to their vests.
A thundering boom rang over the ocean, and the landing boats exploded, a cloud of dust and sand enveloping them.
When the smoke cleared, the Principian marines had been blown to pieces. And the bombers climbed out of sand dunes and piles of rocks, their clothes in tatters, bleeding, bruised. Two of them lay on the beach, unmoving, but the rest of them had lived.
Then, the Joiners ran back towards the camp by the mountain, where a group of soldiers had unloaded more heavy explosive vests for them.
A Joiner bomb. Suicide bombing, minus the suicide. A dangerous tactic that had become popular after the Spirit Block. Use muscle Joining to get a big payload to a target, fast, then use durability Joining to survive the blast. It used bodies instead of money – a favorite tactic of warlords.
But Joiner bombs were dangerous. Without an Invincibility Suite, setting off high-yield bombs in your face caused damage in the long-term. And judging by their wounds, and their clumsy running, these Joiners were novices. No match for a real Guardian, or even a Paragon student with real training.
This is a bad strategy. Under the Yokusei Pact, a nation could only have a few projectors at a time, so quality beat quantity every time. That was the philosophy that had birthed Guardians and Commandos and War Priests alike. And even Cao Hui hadn’t ever broken the pact, not at scale. Such chaos would be impossible to control.
So why is he wasting his Joiners? The Black Tortoise wasn’t an idiot.
And then Leizu squinted, looking further away and straining her enhanced vision.
Dozens more Joiners blew up landing boats further north on the coast, and further south, too. Dozens of dozens. Hundreds. More of them charged out on the water, combining zero dashes with water walks. Charging the Principality’s ships en masse, further out on the ocean.
Their running looked awkward, too. Clumsy and unpracticed. More amateurs. Who’d been given rushed training and pressed onto the battlefield.
But they moved fast enough.
And there were so many of them. And Sector R isn’t the most important beachhead in the assault. It was of middling importance, at best. Which means they’re everywhere. The enemy Joiners were everywhere.
Leizu began to understand a fraction of the radio chief’s panic.
Nell stared down the mountain, looking confused at the chaos below. “What the fuck is going on? Where’s the Symphony Knight? Where’s Headmaster Tau?” The sun rose over the mountains of Shenten, bright and glaring and merciless.
Leizu’s voice tightened, and she forced herself to speak in a steady, measured voice, so her squadmates wouldn’t see her fear. “The Black Tortoise broke the Yokusei Pact.” Broke the arms treaty. “He’s trained an army of Joiners.”
Authors Note – The H Word:
I really hoped I wouldn’t have to do this. I hate having to write this, but here goes.
Here’s the basics: for the last month, I’ve been suffering from a moderate to severe repetitive strain injury, as a result of poor posture combined with a extreme amount of typing. In the weeks since, I have seen multiple doctors and specialists, while continuing to post chapters at a slower rate using my backlog. But the reality is, recovery has been excruciatingly slow and painful. And I’m pretty much out of chapters.
In this period, I have written almost nothing new. I am using a dictation program right now, but progress is still very very slow. Even my editing has severely dropped in quality. I basically have had to put my entire life on hold, and pretty much everything that I’ve been working on, Pith and otherwise.
So, I am putting Pith on hiatus. This chapter, which is currently available to patrons, will go public in two weeks. Otherwise, there will be no new immediate content.
I don’t know how long this is going to take, or how much of my life plans are going to be sabotaged by this injury. I may cross a significant point, and start recovering way faster. I may reach a level of competence with my dictation to where I can actually voice type chapters. But I don’t know how long that’s going to take. But in the meantime, I feel that the best thing I can do, for myself and for the story, is to focus on recovery.
I still love this story. I still love this world and these characters and all the big plot points I have planned. I have no intention of giving up on this project or this world or these characters.
Thank you to anyone who has read, commented, or supported me on Patreon. And I am sorry to disappoint. I hope to be back with the story as soon as possible.
hi all. Thought I would try to give semi-regular updates on my condition and recovery, so y’all can keep track of how I’m doing. I am typing this with Dragon, my new dictation software. It’s a very powerful tool, but I’m still getting used to it. I’ve been able to type notes with it and rudimentary outlines, though editing, navigation, and copy paste are still very slow. I’ve switched to a split ergonomic keyboard on an adjustable tray, with superior posture. I’ve also been seeing a physical therapist who has been working on strengthening my body, so I don’t make new injuries, and hastening the healing process. On that front, I am pretty weak but am making gradual progress. I also went to a massage person but they pushed a little too hard and it didn’t seem to help.
On the whole, recovery is still brutal and slow. I miss writing at my normal pace. And driving. And lifting heavy objects. But I am moving in the right direction, I think.