I had to save Ana.
Scholars, it was a stupid idea. One of the many I’d had since joining Queen Sulphur. My squadmates, tactics professors, and mother would all have yelled at me to get my head out of my ass and realize the basic facts.
I could hear Eliya’s voice in my head, blonde and perfect and chastising. The grey bitch hates you, she said. Maybe it’s justified, maybe not. But riding out of the sunset and saving her life isn’t going to magically make her trust you again. And if you try and rescue her neurotic ass, you’re probably going to get shot in the spine and drown in medical debt for the rest of your life from a wheelchair while you fold your stupid origami and drink away your untreated chronic pain.
Also, the Eliya-voice added, she chopped off my hands, so fuck her.
Shut up Eliya, I said. Why did she always have to be right? Scholars, I missed her.
But if we didn’t deal with this Shenti sniper bastard, I’d be dead or worse anyways. The only way out was through. So in a way, saving Ana was the best way to help myself.
A pair of mortar explosions shocked me out of my stupor, and I jerked my head down. I blinked, crouching behind a metal shipping container with the Rose Titan and the white phosphorus projector in the asbestos suit. The ground shook, and dust rained down on us from above.
“I have a plan!” I shouted over my ringing ears. “I have a hint of an idea of a plan!”
“Great!” said the Rose Titan. She lifted her hands, deflecting another pair of mortar rounds. They exploded off to the side, reducing a stack of wooden crates to splinters. “Let’s hear it!”
Another pair of mortars hit the crate just next to us, blowing it up. The asbestos-armored man lifted his palms, and chunks of shrapnel froze in the air before they hit us.
The sniper’s starting to target the cover around us. The Shenti bastard was trying to isolate us. Without the crates nearby, we’d be trapped. Pinned down.
I coughed from the smoke, doubling over. “I’ll need to explain it fast,” I said. “I’m guessing the enemy can read my lips, and the moment I’m done, he’ll start countering us.”
“He moves slow,” said the white phosphorus man, the Shenti man. “We should stay here and trust in our comrades on the inside. I know the older one in that group, and he’s formidable in close combat. They call him ‘The Boiler’.“
“Well, I know the illusionist and the cocky Ilaquans,” I said. “And there’s no time. Close range won’t matter against a sniper.”
“He’s right,” said the Rose Titan.
“Trust me,” I said, deadpan. “I play a lot of board games.”
It took me about thirty seconds to explain my plan.
Then we moved.
The two ends of the metal container ripped off. The four remaining sides tore and bent in on themselves, forming a rectangular metal shield twenty feet wide and eight feet tall.
First, we moved back to deposit the white phosphorus man behind a separate piece of cover. For the rest of the fight, he would peek his head out at random intervals, from random locations, for a second at a time.
This way, he’d see the battlefield while minimizing his risk. His metal projection was strong enough to fend off mortar fire for a few minutes.
Then, the Rose Titan and I charged up the hill, using the flattened shipping container to protect us from the gunfire. Direct projection couldn’t stop a Voidsteel bullet, but a thick enough shield could, if you held it in front of you. We bent half of it at an angle, protecting us from above as well.
It wouldn’t stop mortar fire, or an anti-tank round, but anything less than that, and it’d bounce right off.
Of course, such a tactic was obvious. It was one of the textbook strategies Paragon taught us to deal with Voidsteel snipers.
The key problem was visibility. The shield blocked your vision.
If the sniper was a Humdrum, unable to move much, you could advance without a problem. But if the sniper could project, move around, they could flank around you and shoot you full of holes.
A glowing yellow projectile sailed over our heads, landing towards our one-o’-clock. The Rose Titan rotated our barrier to the right, and we kept sprinting forward, leaping over bodies and weaving around patches of burning grass.
We didn’t know where the sniper was, but the Shenti man could. Every time he poked his head out, he shot a white phosphorus projectile at the sniper. It acted as a flare, giving us the enemy’s exact location.
I swirled a thick storm of paper in front of our shield. A pair of mortar rounds flew at us from above, and the Rose Titan flicked her wrist, knocking them aside.
I felt another pair of mortars fly through the edge of my paper storm, this time aiming for our barrier at a flat angle. He’s trying to blow up our cover.
I willed the paper in front of us to harden, to stay in its place and not be pushed aside.
The mortars collided with sheets of paper and blew up.
The boom made me double over, clutching my ears. My paper scattered in all directions, and our metal shield clanged, rattling from the impact.
But it held. It didn’t break.
I gathered the burnt scraps of paper, making a storm again. And we continued.
Gunshots rang out at the top of the hill. The sniper’s shooting at white phosphorus guy.
My feet stumbled, and I fell forward against our metal shield. If I step in a gopher hole, I’m going to break my leg. I panted, my lungs on fire.
Halfway up the hill, the gunshots stopped. The only sounds I could hear were my loud, wheezing breaths and the soft thumps of my shoes on the grassy hill.
A pair of white phosphorus projectiles soared straight into the air behind us, not aimed at any target. The signal. The sniper retreated. As expected – with our position, he didn’t have much of a choice.
Gunshots rang out in the distance, deep into the complex. What’s going on up there? We had to move fast.
We reached the top of the hill, and I felt around with my paper, feeling nothing except corpses and buildings. “I think we’re clear,” I muttered.
The Rose Titan nodded, and made a gesture with her hand.
The Shenti man emerged from his hiding place. He flew forward up the hill, projecting into his asbestos suit, zig-zagging in a random pattern to avoid the target’s gunshots.
Twenty feet from us, a bullet punched through his hip, spraying blood onto the blackened grass.
The man roared in pain and crashed into our makeshift barrier. He collapsed, clutching the wound.
Bloody scholars. That shot had come from above, hitting him almost vertically. The Shenti sniper would have had to aim the bullet almost straight up to hit at an angle like that. And he’d predicted the man’s movements too. How good is this bastard’s aim?
The white phosphorus man groaned, the grass stained red beneath him. The Rose Titan turned to him, her voice soft. “How does it look?”
“Manageable,” he said through clenched teeth. “I’ll bleed out in half an hour, maybe. Just need to find a replacement.”
“We’re screwed if we go through the buildings,” I said. “We can’t see him, and he can ambush us.”
“They’re made of wood,” said the Rose Titan, “aren’t they?”
We set up the fire in a semicircle around the outside of the complex. Green lightning flickered around the Shenti man as bursts of white phosphorus shot out of his hands.
While he set fire to the buildings, I wrapped his leg in strips of ripped-off clothing, applying pressure to the gunshot wound on his hip. He coughed, lying on his side.
Within a few minutes, the wind had whipped up his flames into a thick wall of fire, spreading towards the center of the complex. The scent of smoke filled the air, and I could feel the heat on my face.
We took a path around the outside of the complex, staying away from the fire. We held the piece of metal cover in front of us, feeling our way forward using my paper projection. I didn’t feel anyone, or see any people when I poked my head out.
It was like the whole facility had emptied.
By the time we made it to the far side of the island, most of the complex was burning. Orange flames licked the sides of the wooden buildings, and blackened roofs collapsed. Thick clouds of smoke hung in the air above the island, and sweat soaked the armpits of my shirt.
Gunshots and low booms rang out in the distance. They’re still fighting. Our allies weren’t dead yet.
As we approached the last buildings in the area, a man and a woman stumbled out of a burning house, green circles tattooed on the backs of their hands.
As they raised pistols towards us, the Rose Titan’s spear lashed out. The rosevine uncurled from the shaft, whipping forward.
The two Green Hands fell to the ground, unconscious. The Rose Titan stepped over to them, knelt beside them, and touched her palms to their foreheads. She closed her eyes, her chest rising and falling.
She opened her eyes and pointed at the man. “That one.”
The bleeding Shenti man dragged himself over next to the sleeping man and grabbed his wrist. Green and white lightning crackled around the space where their skin touched, and the Shenti man went limp.
The male Green Hands stood up, examining his body. “No time to switch my suit, but it’ll do.” Forced transference. Now the Green Hands’ Pith was stuck in the body that was bleeding out.
“Wish we didn’t have to do this,” muttered the Rose Titan. She touched her palm to the woman’s forehead.
She’s using her Vocation to enter the Green Hands’ dreams. The same thing she’d done to me the night we met.
The Rose Titan stood back up. “She talked,” she said. “We’re fighting a Praxis specialist who goes by the name ‘Pictogram’.”
Odd name for a sniper.
“He is using an M511,” she continued, “and he only has three or four voidsteel bullets left. But his Vocation is – “ She pursed her lips. “Well, it’s complicated, but we can assume he can always see us and hit us with perfect aim and timing.”
“Anything new?” asked the white phosphorus man.
“Here’s the big thing.” The Rose Titan beamed. “He’s not a Shenti Commando. His joining is terrible. The only things that he’s really enhanced are his eyes. He’s not faster, stronger, or more durable than an ordinary human. He’s – “
“Vulnerable,” I finished. To normal bullets, fire, and paper cuts. If we cornered him, he’d be toast.
The buildings around us grew more sparse, and we went up another hill. Behind us, almost the entire complex was burning. The flames stretched as far as I could see, a carpet of glowing orange and yellow, spewing smog into the air and dimming the light from the morning sun. The smoke stung my eyes, making me cough.
I glanced out of our cover. We were approaching a narrow chasm cutting off the end of the island. On the other side, a hill extended further up with a single building on top.
Pictogram stood between us and the ravine, holding a pistol in his hand. A pair of sniper rifles floated next to his head, and at least a dozen mortars were set up in a line in front of him. A rushing river stood between him and us, cutting the hill in half and sinking into the ravine.
“Same setup as last time,” said the Rose Titan. The white phosphorus guy, now in a new body, took cover behind one of the few buildings that hadn’t burned down yet.
At the same time, The Rose Titan and I ran towards Pictogram with our metal cover, down the shore of the river, getting closer and closer.
A dull boom echoed ahead of us.
Black smoke ballooned out from the chasm where the splintered remains of a wooden bridge sat. It billowed out in a thick cloud, growing bigger and bigger, surrounding the building at the top of the hill. Its movements looked strange, unnatural, like a tidal wave in slow motion.
Around the edges of the gas, Green Hand staggered out, slumping over. Unconscious or dead? The black smoke swallowed them all.
I glanced out again. The smoke had formed a wall behind Pictogram, spreading towards us. The sniper stepped forward, floating the mortars next to him, staying out of its range.
I spread out the paper in front of us, straining my Pith. The storm surrounded Pictogram in a semicircle, making a barrier between him and us, a second wall pushing him back towards the smoke. Both of us knew he couldn’t harden his skin against paper cuts.
Pictogram stood just a little out of my range – I could stretch my Pith out further to cut him, but I’d tire myself out fast.
Explosions rang out ahead of us, the sound of mortars firing. I felt several of them hit my paper shields, and they blew up, scattering my barriers and shaking our metal barrier. The Rose Titan whipped her hands around, and more flew to the side, exploding far away from us.
The metal clanged, and a deafening explosion blew me back. I staggered back, my ears ringing. A hand grabbed my shoulder and pulled me down, slamming me to the ground.
As I fell, a burning sensation streaked across my cheek, like someone had laid a hot poker across my face. Warm blood trickled down the side of my face, and I yelled out in pain.
Above us, a jagged hole had been blown in our metal cover. One of the mortars got through.
I kept my paper moving, gathering it again to block Pictogram from moving forward.
I touched the burning line drawn across my cheek, and recoiled from the stinging pain. A bullet wound. It had only grazed me, thanks to the Rose Titan and her reflexes. Pictogram had timed his shot perfectly, so the bullet flew through the hole an instant after it was made.
I turned to look at the Rose Titan.
Blood poured down the side of her neck, drenching her clothes. She lay down on her side, taking deep breaths, and grabbed my wrist with a bloody hand.
“Voidsteel,” she wheezed. “No nerves hit. My Pith’s intact. Need a new body.” She collapsed, putting pressure on the side of her neck. The blood tightened and sealed over her wound, stopping the bleeding with water projection. She gasped for breath, coughing. Blood in her throat?
A mortar exploded next to the white phosphorus man, tossing him to the side. He lay on the grass, not getting up.
That’s two more bullets down. Just one or two left.
But the Rose Titan was injured. The white phosphorus man was unconscious at best.
Around the side of our cover, the black smoke grew further, getting closer to us.
A red-haired woman staggered out of the far end, and unlike the others, she didn’t collapse. Instead, she stumbled towards the boats, wobbling back and forth like a drunkard.
Her black hair looked familiar. Is that Clementine Rawlyn?
Pictogram was stuck between my paper and the expanding cloud of gas. If he ran forward, I’d cut him. If he ran backward or stayed where he was, he’d get taken out by the black smoke. At last glance, he was out of mortar ammunition too.
I peeked out of the metal cover for a moment.
Pictogram aimed straight up and fired. He ran to the side, dropping his weapons and covering his face with his coat.
As he passed through my paper storm, I hardened the sheets and sliced his skin, cutting his hands, his ankles, and his wrists before he ran out of range, headed for the boats.
That shot was meant for someone inside the gas. Someone he couldn’t get a normal angle on. Which meant the smoke was nonlethal. It would take the bullet anywhere from twenty to sixty seconds to fall back down.
But he might have one shot left. His retreat could be a trap. If I left the cover, Pictogram could headshot me before I could blink. Or he could have guessed I had no ABD, and could get me with a normal bullet.
Five seconds passed. Ten. Fifteen. The fires crackled behind us, filling the air with smoke. Blood dripped off the edge of my chin.
I stood up and sprinted forward, towards the river. Stretching out my Pith, I projected into the water beneath me, hardening it under my feet.
A water walk. I’m doing it. My feet bounded across the surface, sending out ripples. Green lightning crackled around my ankles, and a stabbing headache exploded in my skull.
A second before I entered the smoke, I sucked in a deep breath and pressed my lips shut.
I stretched my Pith forward, feeling around me. The headache tripled, and the green lightning expanded into a miniature storm. A lot of people had been knocked into the chasm, and I felt the wood and metal in their weapons and equipment.
Are Ana and Hira among them? The only sense I could use was my projection. Both of Hira’s bodies had flat hip flasks at their waists. Ana would have her suppressed machine pistol and her cattle prod.
For the second time today, I felt the burning pressure in my lungs building, and felt the exponential desire to exhale. I was already out of breath before I started running, and this was a hundred times worse.
I swept my Pith left and right, feeling guns and stocks and flashlights. How many Green Hands got knocked down here? It felt like a tornado of pressure was building inside my chest. Still no sign of Ana or Hira.
I ran down the edge of the ravine, feeling more and more bodies at the bottom. The movement tripled the agony inside my lungs, and I exhaled. I clamped a hand over my mouth before I could inhale the gas, my chest screaming. Are they still alive? Was I looking in the wrong place?
I felt a hip flask. Then Ana’s machine pistol.
I projected next to them, feeling the stocks of a rifle and shotgun. I pressed the guns up against them, parallel to their bodies, and pushed.
The headache went beyond anything I’d experienced. It felt as if my skull were cracking at the edges, that a thousand bone saws were cutting into it from a thousand angles.
Their bodies shifted to the side, rolling over. They’re out of the bullet’s path now.
Then my lungs sucked in a breath. The black smoke smelled sweet, like a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice.
The world spun around me, going blurry, and I fell onto the grass at the edge of the ravine.
My arms and shoulders relaxed, the tension dissolving away. I drifted away from reality, carrying a single thought into the ether.
I hope I did enough, Ana.
Waves crashed against the beach, a soft, comforting sound.
A chill wind blew across my skin, and my eyes fluttered open.
The sun shone overhead, well into the late morning. I pushed myself to a sitting position, hands sinking into the sand around me.
A tall woman, the white phosphorus man, the two Hiras, and Ana sat next to me on the crimson beach. Another man leaned against the cliff, with his hands bound and a bag thrown over his head.
It was high tide now, and the waves were washing almost to the cliffs. The air still smelled like burning wood.
Right-Hira yawned, stretching his arms, waking up next to me. “Did it work?” he said.
“What?” I mumbled, massaging my forehead.
“Jun’s black knockout gas, did it work? He fixed the bomb and we blew it up in the chasm to knock everyone out.”
“Wait,” I said, “Jun Kuang? The bombmaker?” I glanced at the bound man off to the side. They didn’t kill him.
“Yup,” said the tall woman. “Then I switched to a new body and pulled you all out before the fire spread.” The Rose Titan, in a stolen body. “But Pictogram and that woman Clementine got away. And we lost three.”
The Humdrum, the mortar woman, the bald man who boiled people. And how many Green Hands had we killed? Burnt or shot or blown up or thrown to the bottom of a ravine.
“Still,” said the white phosphorus man. “We won. The Titan and I have to get new bodies, and I don’t even know who this fucker is, but we won.”
Right-Hira leaned back against the cliff face, letting out a contented sigh. “Well, that was fun.” He lit a cigarette. “Let’s do that again sometime.”
“We lost three people,” said the man. “I knew two of them. Don’t be a prick.”
Hira shrugged. “Hard to get weepy over a bunch of strangers who wouldn’t even tell me their name, Mr. White Phosphorus.”
“That was a Shenti boat,” I said. “And probably Shenti weapons. A Shenti bombmaker. And we just fought a Shenti joiner. Does that all mean what I think it does?”
“The Shenti are funding Commonplace,” said the Rose Titan.
Nobody spoke for a moment. The waves washed against my feet, making my heels damp.
The Shenti War had only ended around a decade ago, but they still felt like a mythical enemy, an ancient nightmare brought to life by the Black Tortoise that brought the world to its knees. A foreign government on the other side of the ocean, responsible for the largest war in history, was trying to take over the country.
“She’s right,” said the white phosphorus man. A Shenti man, though not in his current body. “I recognized those weapons.”
I sat forward. “Propaganda from the Broadcast King. Money and guns from the Shenti. This ‘revolution’ is a bloody foreign coup. If the public knew about this, they’d have to turn on Commonplace.”
The Rose Titan pursed her lips. “But we have no proof. This operation was illegal. All the evidence is burnt to a crisp or sailed away on a ship. And even if we had evidence, do you really think most people would believe it?”
I sighed. The Elmidde Chronicle, my family’s newspaper, cared about integrity. Stewardship. Morality. If people read it more instead of Afzal Kahlin’s manipulative whaleshit, none of this would be happening.
“You did good, Queen Sulphur,” said the Rose Titan, patting me and Hira on the backs. “All of you, well done. I’ll talk to the major, see if I can get you raises.”
That made me smile. We’d succeeded at this and survived, which meant Brin would give us bigger jobs. Getting me closer to Afzal Kahlin.
I glanced down the beach. Ana wasn’t smiling. Her knees were pressed up to her chest and she slouched forward, staring out at the ocean.
“Ana,” I said. “Everything alright? You’re looking about thirty-four percent more melancholy than usual.”
She ignored me. It’s been an intense day, I suppose.
The Rose Titan put her hand on Ana’s shoulder. “Anabelle, sweetie,” she said. “What’s wrong?”
Ana held up her left hand. Her index and middle fingers were bent back at a sickening angle. Broken. The grey on her veins there had spread, turning them completely grey, and the skin cracked in places, like a stone statue in a ruin.
Hira’s smile faltered.
“Do they hurt?” The Rose Titan asked. “Do you feel a hot, burning pain in your fingers?”
Ana’s finger was still. It didn’t twitch or bend or move in any way.
The waves washed further up the beach, getting my shoes wet. An icy wind blew across the water, making me shiver.
“I don’t feel anything at all,” she said.
Isaac Brin pulled off Jun’s blindfold and he squinted, taking in the bright afternoon sun.
The old Shenti man knelt on the roof of Nolwen’s Soda Fountain, looking even more exhausted than before. Bruises streaked up his neck and cheeks, underneath his long, uncut hair and tangled beard. Bits of dried blood stained his button-up shirt.
Professor Brin stood over him, his hands folded behind his back. “Is this Jun Kuang?”
“They put him in an old man’s body,” I said. “Copycat confirmed his Pith’s identity.”
Left-Hira nodded, sipping from a chocolate ice cream float. His other body was eating lunch in a diner somewhere down the road, while we kept pretending he only had one chassis. He still doesn’t trust Brin.
Kuang took deep, nervous breaths, blinking rapidly. With a gag tied over his mouth, he didn’t say anything.
“So you left him alive,” said Brin.
“He helped us,” said Ana.
“Yeah, Professor,” I said. “Lovely to see you again, by the way. Are classes still going well? How’s Eliya doing?”
Professor Brin ignored me.
“If you need help getting the stick out of your ass,” I said, “I recommend insoluble fiber and prunes. Thanks for the C in social engineering, by the way. Really instilled confidence in my parents.”
“And,” said Ana. “Jun was being held against his will. The Shenti and Commonplace were forcing him to build weapons.”
Brin pulled off Jun’s gag.
“You’re the Scholar of Mass,” Kuang said. He swallowed, and flashed us a nervous smile. “Hi.”
“Copycat says you have information about Commonplace,” Brin said. The wind blew at his coat, flapping it around him and revealing rows of darts attached to his belt.
“The Shenti are funding Commonplace,” said Kuang. “I don’t have evidence, but it’s true. They’re sending a vast influx of funds, weapons, and hidden specialists that dwarf all other backers.”
“I thought the Shenti were fighting each other now,” said Ana. After the Spirit Block sent them into chaos.
“They are,” said Kuang. “There’s a dozen vicious warlords and a dozen more ready to take their places. But the only thing they hate more than each other is the Principality.”
“It could be stolen or second-hand weapons,” I said. “Defectors. Random terrorists. Shenten is in chaos.” And full of merciless brutes who kill on a whim.
“You may choose whether or not to believe me,” said Jun. “But I cannot deny what I’ve seen, or where I’ve been.”
Brin got a tired look on his face and sat down on a pillow, crossing his legs. “I was afraid of that,” he muttered. “But unless we find hard proof, we can’t do much with the information.”
He hovered four miniature globes of water in front of him.
“The Broadcast King,” he said, floating one sphere. “Tunnel Vision and the mob,” he floated another one. “Shenti funding and weapons, with this ‘Pictogram’ person.” He added the third globe. “And the leader of Commonplace, whoever they are.” He lifted the fourth, largest one above the other three.
“I know a few things about that,” said Kuang. “I put together an audio bug in my lab and planted it in the command center on the island.”
“Elaborate,” said Professor Brin. It was not a request. As far as I knew, none of us knew squat about the real force behind the terrorist group.
“The leader of Commonplace is a woman,” Kuang said. “And a genuine Humdrum, with military training.”
A Humdrum? “Whaleshit,” I said.
“She’s not a projector,” he said. “People ran tests. But everyone listens to her anyway.”
Why would all these projectors, including a Praxis Specialist, choose to bow down to someone so plain and ordinary? Maybe her Praxis Vocation was refined enough to hide itself. Or she was just another figurehead like John Calpeur.
“Now, here’s the most significant thing,” said Kuang. “They avoided mentioning her name.”
“Obviously.” Irritation slipped into Brin’s voice.
“But it’s not just normal security. I overheard one of them explain.” Kuang lowered his voice. “She has a name that people would recognize. A well-known name.”
We fell silent for a moment as his words sunk in.
She could be someone from Parliament, or a celebrity, or the prime minister. Or a prominent Humdrum involved with Paragon.
“Interesting,” said Brin. “Very interesting.” He unfolded his hands behind his back. “And now – “
“You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?” said Kuang. He stared at the ground, his voice flat.
“That remains to be seen.”
Brin understands. Kuang had made the bomb that blew up the Silver Flask. That had taken his daughter’s eye.
“What are you talking about?” Ana clenched her teeth, striding up to Brin. “Look at his bruises. Look what they did to him. He’s innocent.”
Brin raised an eyebrow. “Innocent?” he said. “Jun Kuang volunteered for the Shenti Army on his seventeenth birthday, in the Azure Dragon’s forces. For two years, he worked in their applied sciences division, designing weapons that were used on civilians. I’m not sure why the Shenti threw him in chains, put him in an old man’s body, and sold him to Commonplace, but it certainly doesn’t make him innocent.”
Kuang avoided eye contact with us.
“He’s a skilled bombmaker and mechanic,” said Brin. “If we let him go or throw him in a low-security prison, Commonplace will take him back in a week.”
“So put him in high-security,” Ana said. “That’s where you were going to put me, if I didn’t take your offer.”
“Lyna Wethers was in a high-security prison,” said Brin. “They’re expensive and dangerous and don’t always work. The alternative is much less risk.”
Ana raised a finger, closing her eyes. “What if he helped you? What if you hired him?”
“That would be illegal,” said Brin.
“What if you hired him,” said Ana, “with us?”
Oh, fuck me.
“I have medical training too,” said Kuang, beaming. “I can help patch you up when you’re injured.”
“He’s a Commonplace asset,” said Brin. “Having him paints an even bigger target on your back.”
“So we’ll be careful,” said Ana.
“How can we trust him?” I said.
“We have had a problem with that in the past,” said Ana, looking at me.
“He’s Shenti,” I said. “He could blow us up in our sleep, or give a call to his old bosses and have Pictogram pick us all off, or sneak back to Shenten to make more bombs for our enemies.” I turned to Ana. “You can’t recruit every quirky, damaged fucker we come across.”
“If it weren’t for him, we would all be dead,” said Ana. “He helped us.”
“He helped himself.” I tapped my fingers on my legs. “And he blew out my best friend’s eye. Blew up an entire restaurant full of innocent people.”
“He was being tortured,” said Ana through clenched teeth. “He made those against his will.”
“So he says. There’s no way to tell what he wants now.”
“He’s against Commonplace,” said Ana, her voice terse. “That’s good enough for me.”
Hira stuck his hands in his pockets. He’s using his Vocation. “If he joined us, he might still betray us or defect to our enemies.”
A few seconds passed. Kuang stared at the floor, and everyone stared at Kuang.
Hira pulled his hands out of his pockets. “Nothing,” he said. “He didn’t think of hurting us or running away.”
“You can read my mind?” Kuang said.
“Did he think of a memory?” I asked.
“Him,” Hira said, “steaming wontons for his family.” He grinned. “I say we take him. If he tries to kill us, that’ll spice things up.”
Hira’s useless. The Ilaquan had zero sense of self-preservation, and even less impulse control than I did.
And for whatever reason, he was wilfully forgetting the horrors the Shenti had visited upon the rest of the world. Maybe Kahlin’s science experiment had isolated him, but my mother had been an admiral on the front lines. She’d seen everything.
“Kuang here worked for the people who built the redemption camps,” I said, clenching my teeth. “Who invaded every nation on the Eight Oceans and butchered innocents for sport. Are we going to ignore that because he’s convenient? Because we want a mechanic?” I folded my arms. “I’m a drunk bloody idiot, and even I’m smart enough to know that’s a shit plan. A few extra bombs are not worth that.”
“If you think I deserve death, that’s your choice.” Kuang gave me another weak smile beneath his beard. “But if I work for you, I’m afraid I can’t build you any lethal weapons. Not anymore.”
Great, a guilty pacifist. Even better. If we hired him, we’d have to listen to him shove his smug moral compass in our faces twenty-four hours a day.
“Though I can make you those wontons I was thinking about. It took my family generations to perfect the recipe.”
“One job,” said Ana. “See if he works out, like you and Hira. I trust him more than the last person I gave that deal to.”
I scowled. If I dig my heels in, she’s just going to hate me more. And then she might kick me out.
“One job,” I said. And when he turns our limbs to ground meat, I’ll whisper ‘I told you so’ as I choke on my spleen.
“Do you find that acceptable, Major?” Ana said.
“Acceptable,” said Professor Brin. “But you’re responsible for him. If something goes wrong, it’s on you.” His voice tightened. “And if he goes rogue, I will put him down.”
“One more thing,” said Brin. “There have been slip-ups, but overall, Queen Sulphur has performed well.”
Is that how he says ‘I love you’? I felt bad for Eliya. And he doesn’t care about Ana enough to give her a new body. Even though he could easily afford one.
“At this rate,” he said. “You’ll have more than enough money by the end of the year, even if you split your shares four ways.” He slipped off his black shoulder pack and pulled it open. “In the meantime, I have something that can help you.”
A blue full-body suit floated out of the bag, unfolding itself in midair. I recognized it as combat armor, from Paragon, but not any of the standard ones.
Most of Paragon’s models were thick, bulky things made of layered ballistic nylon hardened into rigid shapes. Thanks to the Obsidian Foil’s Vocation, they could stop most normal bullets, but they were unwieldy, heavy, and hotter than an Ilaquan oven on the inside. And they creaked when you moved in them, like cheap leather.
This was different. It was sheer, smooth, elegant. The deep blue fabric looked like the sort you’d find in a ribbon or a shirt, not military-grade armor. Is that even thick enough to stop a bullet?
It hovered in front of Ana, matching her shape. She pulled at the thin material between her fingers, marvelling at it.
“It’s not up to the newer standards for our combat suits,” said Brin. “I was going to dispose of it, but it happened to be in your size.”
The suit dropped into Ana’s hands and she caught it. “It’s so light,” she said, her eyes wide.
“It’s a stealth model. You can fit it under your clothes and wear it without people noticing, and it’ll block most bullets, though you’ll still feel like someone hit you with a hammer.”
Ana gazed up at Brin. “Thank you,” she said. “I’ve – “ Always wanted to be a Guardian. No matter how many times she grit her teeth, she couldn’t hide that dream. “- Thank you,” she finished. “Thank you.”
“Don’t screw up with the Shenti,” said Brin. He leapt off the edge of the roof and flew into the sky, his wingsuit unfurling.
Hira dropped down on his back, staring at the sky. “Wow,” he said. “He didn’t kill the old man. Color me surprised.”
“I’m twenty-one,” Kuang snapped. He stood up and his back cracked. “I’m in the prime of my life,” he groaned. He spread his arms for Ana. “Thanks. I don’t think I would have made it without you.”
After a few seconds of hesitation, Ana hugged him. “Welcome to Queen Sulphur, Jun.”
Kuang turned to me, holding his palms up in a neutral gesture. “I understand your misgivings, sir. I’ll do my best to prove them wrong.”
Ana sat down at the edge of the roof, holding Brin’s combat suit in front of her. The two fingers on her left hand were still bent back, still grey and cracking and dead.
“What happened?” said Hira.
“Clementine.” Ana prodded the withered digit, pinching the skin. “And it’s going to get worse.” She laughed, the sound echoing around the rooftop. “You know, it was strange, watching the Rose Titan and the white phosphorus man after the battle. They acted so casual about stealing bodies. Like it was just another day at the office.”
“Why didn’t you join them?” I said. “It would have been easy to find some Commonplace bastard and steal their body. You’re killing people anyways.”
Ana stared at me with disgust. “If I can take their body, it means I don’t have to kill them. And I’m not going to trap anyone else in this carcass.”
“Forgive me,” said Kuang. “But can I ask a question?”
“Wes might try to strangle you,” said Left-Hira. “But sure.”
“They could have given you a body, Ana,” said Jun. “The ‘Rose Titan’, or the Scholar of Mass. They could have given you a loan to buy or rent one. Or taken one out of Paragon’s chassis vault. Why didn’t they? They’re your allies, right?”
“Because they’re mercenaries,” said Hira, stretching on his back. “Because words are easy, but most people will act in their self-interest. You’re not worth enough to them.”
Don’t say anything. Let her wallow, you dumb fuck. You’ll just make it worse.
“The Rose Titan likes you,” I said. “If you spent more time with her and leaned on her guilt, she’d probably cave in a month or two.”
“I don’t want their handouts,” said Ana in a flat voice. “Or their pity.” She stared at me, clenching her teeth. “I’m not going to manipulate good people to squeeze what I want out of them.”
“Is there something between you two?” said Kuang, pointing to me and Ana. “Why are you looking at each other like that?”
Hira glanced at Ana, then glanced at me. He pushed himself upright, wrapping his arm around Jun’s shoulder. “Come on,” he said. “I’ll show you to the house, get some booze in you. Been a long day.” He slipped a knife out of his sleeve and cut Kuang’s bindings.
“Oh, I don’t drink,” said Kuang, beaming. “And if you consume alcohol after breathing my knockout gas, you might get brain hemorrhaging.”
The door swung shut behind them, and their footsteps faded away.
Ana and I were alone.
The wind blew across the rooftop. Below, I could hear men and women talking to one another on the sidewalk. The sputtering engines of automobiles echoed from the streets.
Ana held my gaze, the noon sun illuminating her ragged grey hair. Is that an illusion? “I overheard you,” she said. “On the way to the island.” She stood up. “You said it’s impossible to hate yourself and still be prideful. Do you still believe that’s true?”
I folded my hands behind my back, clenching my fists. My toes fidgeted, tapping a rhythm getting faster and faster. “No.”
It was the answer Ana wanted to hear, but maybe it was starting to make sense. Being in the center of all that chaos, seeing the fields filled with bodies, had a way of making you feel small. Not just loathsome, or worthless, but tiny.
“You hate yourself, you call yourself stupid at every opportunity, but you are the first and last thing that comes into your mind. Saving your family is a stepping stone to what you really want, which is the comfort of your friends and position.”
Is there anything wrong with wanting that? Comfort and friendship were things worth aspiring to. They weren’t sins. Ana had a whole spiel about drinking Paragon’s cider with friends.
“Let me ask you a question,” said Ana. “If you get back to your people in Paragon. Eliya, Samuel, Chimera Squad. If you need something out of them, are you going to lie to them? Is that how you treat your friends?”
My mother’s face flashed into my mind. The smirk playing at the edge of her lips as she watched me get Ousted, smug, watching her plan coming together. She would have manipulated Ana.
The rooftop was bitter cold.
I exhaled. “You were my friend,” I said. “The only real friend I made in this bloody purgatory.” I still wasn’t sure if Hira was anything more than a casual fling. “And I fucked it all up.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
The words hung in the chill winter air for a few seconds.
“I don’t accept your apology,” Ana said. Her expression didn’t change.
I squeezed my eyes shut. “Please.”
“You might still be fooling yourself, but I know exactly who you are, Weston Ebbridge.”
When I opened my eyes, the roof was empty.