The battle was starting, and Clementine wanted to go back to bed.
Her shift had ended at 0330, leaving her less than two hours of sleep before loud banging on her cabin door shook her awake. It was an urgent recon report from Lieutenant Brice. One that didn’t make a lot of sense.
She’d leapt out of her cramped bunk bed, thrown on a jacket for the chill and tied her hair back in a tight bun. In sixty seconds, she was jogging through the lower decks of the aircraft carrier, boots clanging against the metal floor.
She’d been dreaming of a sunny diner from her hometown, full of heat and steaming breakfast foods. Reality was two degrees below freezing, and there were no chocolate waffles.
The sharp burst of adrenaline was enough to keep her awake. But for the first time after four years of combat, she wanted to sink into her sheets and pretend there wasn’t a war going on.
For the first time since basic training, she was scared. No matter how many slow, deep breaths she took, her hands wouldn’t stop shaking.
When she’d arrived at the bridge of the CNS Edwina, out of breath, she’d explained the details to Vice Admiral Kerst. Now, after sending a telegram to High Command, he was asking for clarification, certain he had misheard her.
“A woman?” he said, incredulous. “Just one woman?”
“Yes, sir,” she said. “During his recon flight, Lieutenant Brice spotted a woman, bearing approximately thirty knots towards us from the east. Wearing red and gold.” Shenti colors. Clementine paused, taking a deep breath. “She’s running across the surface of the water. It’s why she didn’t show up on radar.”
Kerst’s brow furrowed. “Ocean must have iced over.”
Clementine shook her head. “The water’s cold, sir, but not that cold. She’s running on top of the liquid.” She let the words sink in.
“And you trust your man’s eyes,” said the Vice Admiral, running his fingers through his grey crew cut.
Clementine nodded. Lieutenant Brice was a top-shelf pilot, with spotless judgement. No matter how impossible his report sounded, it had to be true.
The Edwina’s strike group included three heavy cruisers, five destroyers, thirty fighters, and twenty-eight bombers. In the past few months, it had cut a path through the Shi Xue ocean. Its squadrons had torn through swarms of planes, firebombed cities to ashes, and taken on the strongest ships in the Shenti Navy.
But this was something new. A human shouldn’t be able to walk on water as if it were solid ground, or sprint at those speeds. It defied the laws of nature, of common sense. According to Brice, the Shenti woman wasn’t even carrying weapons. Just her bare hands.
The best word, the only word she could think for it was magic. Something supernatural and inhuman and far beyond anything they’d trained for.
But the idea sounded ridiculous. She wasn’t about to say that out loud.
“Time to intercept?” he asked.
“Brice is still tailing her. Roughly thirteen minutes at current pace.”
“Set readiness to Alarm One. We’ll await further orders,” he said.
Three seconds later, red lights flashed all over the bridge. Bleary-eyed sailors rushed to and fro in the hallway outside, carrying ammunition and shouting orders. Clementine’s pilots would be rushing too, strapping on flight suits and running to the flight deck.
Alarm One was full action stations. The admiral wasn’t taking any chances.
The ship’s officers huddled together with Kerst, wiping sweaty hands on coats. Every now and then, one of them glanced at the telegram, where the reply from High Command would arrive. Until orders arrived on that machine, it was up to them to develop the fleet’s plan. “Your assessments?” he asked.
“No signs of nearby vessels,” said Captain Ennis, staring at the bridge’s monitoring equipment.
Captain Renea tapped her fingers on a dashboard, her voice rapidfire. “Could the Shenti have developed new stealth technology for their submarines? The woman could be a distraction, some illusion they whipped up to keep us in chaos before their surprise attack.”
“A surprise attack seems most likely,” Captain Dana nodded. “The Black Tortoise favors unconventional tactics.”
“I can’t think of any technology that could make an illusion like that,” said Commander Ales, hunching over on his chair. “On a stage, maybe, from a single angle. Not in these conditions,”
“Some other device, then,” said Captain Renea. “One that could make the bitch float.”
“I studied fluid dynamics in college,” said Clementine, speaking up. Before the Principality drafted me. The officers turned to look at her. “Surface tension is not that strong. She’d have to run many times as fast, or weigh much less. No nation I know of is even close to something like this.”
“Regardless,” said Captain Dana. “It’s no coincidence they’re attacking when our takeoff system is damaged.”
There were grim nods all around. In their last battle, enemy bombers had damaged the hydraulic accelerators on the Edwina’s runway. Right now, the carrier could only launch planes at a fraction of its normal rate. It was vulnerable.
“Orders! Here!” A shout from the other side of the room. The signals officer had finished decrypting their new instructions from Command. Their response had been almost instant. The machine chugged, spitting out a piece of paper with the message typed on it. The officer sprinted to the middle of the bridge, handing it to the Vice Admiral.
“Maybe the top brass know what the fuck is going on,” muttered Kerst. He scanned the telegram, his chest rising and falling.
The Vice Admiral had served in the Navy longer than she’d been alive, enough for his bright blonde hair to turn half grey. He’d seen more than his share of the impossible, fought many battles against absurd odds. Through it all, he had always been calm, always measured.
Clementine had never seen him look this scared.
When he held it up to the light, she could read the telegram through the page. The order from High Command, the strategy they were to use against the enemy, was a single word.
Clementine’s stomach clenched. The chill air got a little colder. The whole bridge went silent, as they stared towards their commander.
“Oh,” said Kerst.
Twenty seconds later, the bridge’s printer spat out more orders from Command. The Vice Admiral shouted them through his radio to the other warships. “All ships are to change course to different directions, full speed! Get as much distance between yourself and the nearest ship as possible! And prepare for boarding! Navigation orders will follow!”
In the modern era, naval boarding was almost unheard of. Any ship would be sunk long before it got close enough to offload people. The thought was almost absurd. Clementine wasn’t even sure if they had more than a dozen small arms on the carrier.
Claxons blared throughout the ship. Through the bridge’s windows, Clementine could see mechanics running around on the flight deck. Thick grey clouds covered the morning sun, shining flat light over everything.
The Vice Admiral turned to her, jaw set. “Get to the flight deck.”
Clementine stood in front of her dive bomber, zipping up her light blue flight suit and throwing on a thin life vest. A chill breeze blew across the carrier, and she shivered. Damn northern seas. Winters on the Shenti continent were ice-cold.
On the grey horizon, the eight other ships in the strike group sailed in opposite directions, fanning out away from each other. Their propellers churned up the dark water behind them.
Giant steel vessels with guns as thick as trees, all fleeing a tiny woman with no weapons.
Sailors ran onto the deck, hefting heavy machine guns and bolt-action sniper rifles. The elevator lifted another plane out of storage from beneath, and marshallers with flags directed it forward. A group of pilots jogged towards her, forming two lines in front of her.
“Listen up, boys!” she shouted, her breath fogging the air in front of her. “The Edwina is bearing top speed away from the target! However, the target has increased her pace to fifty knots! She’ll be on us in four minutes!”
The pilots were too disciplined to shout or cry or murmur amongst themselves, but she noticed the unease on their faces, the clenched teeth and tensed shoulders.
She continued. “Mechanics will have the catapult ready for first launch in three! Priority will be dive bombers equipped with heavy guns! Fly in formation K-3, attack one at a time and blow that cunt out of the water. Questions?”
“Do we know anything else about the target, ma’am?” Second Lieutenant Silas asked, his mouth set. Her most improved pilot. He’d started at the bottom of the training program, but through sheer effort, he’d become one of the Edwina’s best, now launching second after Clementine.
Clementine shook her head. “That’s for us to find out. Keep comms open, report anything new you see.”
Far off the stern, Clementine could see the tiny figure of Lieutenant Brice’s plane in the distance. The roar of his engines got louder as he circled the target, approaching the carrier.
One of the mechanics motioned to her, and she clambered up the ladder beside her plane.
Clementine turned back to her men, addressing them from above. “We’ve never fought anything like her before. But she’s never fought anyone as good as you. Fly fast, fly smart, and let’s protect our friends down here.” She raised her fist. “The nation, the people, the light!”
The men chanted with her. “The nation, the people, the light!” They broke up, running to their planes.
Clementine sat down in the pilot’s chair, buckling herself in and pulling on her aviator hat. Loud booms echoed in the distance. The retreating destroyers had opened fire with their sixteen inch guns. The naval artillery impacted the water around the woman, sending up huge splashes.
She reached for her radio to switch it on, then froze.
An animal was flying above the deck. It was a giant serpent more than sixty feet long, that had flattened its body to be as wide as her chest. Its silver scales were covered with triangular markings.
An Oracle Snake. It swam through the air by undulating its coils back and forth, its insides filled up with self-generated hydrogen gas.
The animals were incredibly rare. Clementine had only seen them in photographs before. But, according to superstition, they were said to show up before pivotal events in history.
She flipped on her radio, opening a channel with Lieutenant Brice, one that Vice Admiral Kerst would be able to hear. “Talk to me,” she said. “Are they hitting her?”
“She’s dodging them,” said Brice, his voice crackling over the speakers. “Every time, she changes direction and sprints to the side before they hit. It’s like she knows where they’re going to land.”
At least they’re slowing her down. Clementine pulled her oxygen mask onto her face, tightening the straps.
“Runway open. Clear to start engines, over,” said the controller over the radio.
“Roger,” said Clementine, flipping switches and turning dials. The radial engine sputtered, and the propeller began to turn. It went faster and faster until it became a blur, its afterimages appearing to move backwards.
The marshaller in front of the plane stepped to the side, waving his bright yellow flags forward. The go signal.
Clementine set the engine to full power. The hydraulic piston attached to her plane slid forward on the runway’s track, shooting her forward. The acceleration pressed her back against her seat, blood rushing in her ears.
The piston detached, and she cleared the edge of the ship. Her hand pulled the joystick towards her, and she soared into the air, climbing higher and higher. Her lungs sucked in deep breaths from the oxygen mask.
Even when the circumstances were so dire, nothing felt as good as this. Not food, not sex, not any of the booze or drugs she’d tried. It was sheer acceleration, freedom in three dimensions. When the Principality had drafted her years ago, she’d volunteered for the Air Force because it promised to pay the highest. She never imagined how well she’d take to the skies, how flying could feel as smooth as breathing.
Through the clear plastic of her cockpit, Brice’s fighter was much larger now. Clementine could make out the figure of the woman in red beneath him taking long, bounding strides across the water.
With the woman closer to the carrier, the destroyers stopped firing. She’s too close to dive bomb, Clementine realized. At this range, she risked hitting the Edwina itself. She circled back around, watching the next plane load up onto the catapult. Second Lieutenant Silas.
“Hurry!” she shouted into her radio, “Target has almost reached the stern!”
The marshaller shook his flags, and Silas accelerated down the runway. The woman reached the bottom of the carrier, twenty stories below the deck.
Without hesitating, she leapt onto the hull and clambered upwards. Her arms and legs moved in a blur, as fast as a spider skittering up a wall. How is that possible?
Clementine dipped her plane for a closer look, and saw a trail of marks on the metal below the target. She’s making handholds.
The woman was tearing into solid steel with her fingers and bare feet. And she was doing it quickly, climbing dozens of feet every second.
Silas shot down the runway towards the stern on the hydraulic track, propeller spinning. “She’s climbing the side!” shouted Clementine. “Watch out!”
The Shenti woman reached the top, pulling herself onto the end of the runway. Silas’ plane rushed towards her at over a hundred miles an hour. At this speed, he would either run her over or turn her to a pulp with his propeller. “Got you!” he crowed over the radio.
The woman stood up, nonchalant, and punched the plane in the middle of its nose.
The bomber crumpled with a metallic screech, its body flattening before her. The engine exploded in a ball of orange flame, sending scraps of metal in every direction.
Momentum carried the smoking wreck forward, and it spun around the woman, tipping off the side of the carrier. It crashed into the water, hissing as the fires went out, and sunk beneath the surface in seconds.
“Silas!” shouted Clementine. “Silas, do you read!”
The woman hadn’t moved an inch. Aside from some singes on her tunic, she was untouched.
She straightened her sleeves, looking up at the bridge. A wide semicircle of sailors stood on the other end, leveling rifles, machine guns, and pistols at her. Captain Renea stood in the center of them and barked out an order.
Dozens of weapons opened fire, a thundering storm of gunshots. The woman sprinted down the deck towards them, a blur, running barefoot in a straight line.
Some of the rounds were tracers, thin bolts of orange light shooting across the deck. They ricocheted off her, flying off in all directions.
The men adjusted their aim from her center mass, firing towards her neck and face, where she would be more vulnerable. Still nothing.
Two more seconds of firing. And then she was on them, in the middle of the semicircle. Her hand was on Captain Renea’s throat before anyone could react, and she squeezed, crumpling the captain’s throat like it was a piece of paper.
Renea dropped to the ground, her head lolling to the side. Blood poured out of her torn neck.
The men nearby scattered, running away in opposite directions. It didn’t matter. The woman weaved among them, always faster, always hitting several of them at once. Sometimes she squeezed their throats. Other times she punched their faces, flattening their skulls with sprays of blood.
And all the while, she moved with inhuman grace and smoothness. It was if she were performing an elaborate dance, and every step, every strike had been practiced for weeks. Her motions were fluid, effortless.
Sometimes the men landed shots at the woman, but most of the bullets didn’t even penetrate her clothes. The only marks the battle left on her was the red fluid coating her palms, dripping onto the ground. It wasn’t her blood.
“She’s butchering them!” shouted Lieutenant Brice over the radio. “We have to do something!”
“Fuck, fuck, fuck.” Clementine kept circling low over the deck, looking for an opening. Lieutenant Brice circled higher above her, doing the same. What are we supposed to do? She was fucking bulletproof. They had to think outside the box, get creative.
As if they were reading her thoughts, two men emerged from a watertight door. They hefted missile launchers over their shoulders, aiming them at the woman and crouching. The weapons were designed to take out tanks, to blow through thick metal armor like it was made of cardboard.
They fired, aiming at the ground next to her so she couldn’t dodge. The rockets hissed, hurling forward.
The woman glanced at them out of the corner of her eye, and raised her palm towards them.
The rockets froze in midair, only a yard in front of the shooter’s faces. The exhaust still burned bright behind them, futilely trying to push them forward. But the projectiles themselves were unmoving, as if time itself had frozen. The soldiers stared at them, dumbfounded.
The woman snapped her fingers, and the missiles exploded with a low boom and a cloud of dust. The blast wave flung back the men like they were dolls, ripping off limbs. Their corpses flopped against the deck.
The woman leapt, climbing up the flight control tower towards the bridge. “Target is headed for the bridge!” shouted Clementine. “Four seconds!”
“Lock down controls!” shouted Vice Admiral Kerst from the radio. “Everybody out!”
The woman crashed through the bulletproof glass windows. Clementine’s plane circled around, blocking her view of the action, but the radio line was still open. Shouting, gunshots, and crashing rang out from her speakers.
Her bomber circled back around, and she went low to see inside the bridge.
The room was full of bodies. Blood stained the walls, and all the metal doors had been slammed shut. The only two people in the room were the Shenti woman and Kerst himself. He ran for the hole in the window.
Clementine could hear a female voice over the radio, authoritative, with a light Shenti accent. “Stop moving,”
Kerst froze, two steps from escape, aiming a gun at the woman without firing it. I don’t have a clear shot with him on the bridge.
“Speak honestly. Do not omit anything or mislead. Are you Vice Admiral Kerst?”
“Yes,” he growled, without hesitation. “What the fuck?”
“What did your superiors tell you about me?”
“Nothing. They just told us to flee,” said Kerst, still frozen mid-step. Why is he telling her the truth? Kerst couldn’t be a spy. That made no sense. Had the woman drugged him, somehow?
“What other plans and traps do you have set to deal with me?” The woman sounded impatient.
“Room 162 on the way to the engine room has been set with anti-tank mines,” Clementine could hear the anger in his voice. He’s trying to resist.
“And?” The woman didn’t seem concerned.
“Room 993 and the two hallways nearby have been rigged to seal you in with five steel doors and flood with carbon monoxide. Sixteen sailors will ambush you with shotguns in Room 251. While you’re distracted killing them, the seventeenth will hit you from behind with a flamethrower. All codebooks and encryption machines have been destroyed.”
“One more question,” the woman said, her voice tightening. “How many of my kinsmen have you killed?”
“Under my orders? Tens of thousands.”
“And do you feel remorse for the lives you’ve taken?”
There was a long silence, where nothing came from the radio, and all Clementine could hear was her engine and the shaking of her plane.
Then, the woman’s voice, laced with rage and loathing. “Kill yourself.”
A single shot rang out from Clementine’s radio. Then the silence again.
Clementine howled. “Fucker!” she screamed. She flipped the switch to prime her ordinance, but by the time she circled back towards the Edwina’s bridge, the woman had already left. “Vice Admiral Kerst is down,” she said. “Be advised, target has some sort of mind control ability. She knows what our traps are and where they’re placed.”
“Target is going through the ship,” rasped a sailor from the radio. “Heading for artillery ammunition.” There was a wet, gurgling cough. Then silence. She’s going to blow up the ship. Below, on the deck, sailors streamed out of the doors en masse, leaping off the sides into the water.
“Clem! Clem!” said Brice, his voice wavering. “We need to get out, now. We’re not equipped to deal with a threat like this.”
“She killed our comrades,” growled Clementine. “She killed our CO. We are going to bleed her dry.” She grit her teeth until they ached. “And if we don’t stop her, she’ll rip through the rest of the carrier group. The Shenti will roll through this region, and our people will burn.”
“I want to flay the bitch too, but be rational. She’s fucking invincible. All our bullets bounced off.”
“Yes,” said Clementine, thinking. “But she didn’t tank our heavy artillery, or the missiles. She dodged them, or froze them. She didn’t want them to hit her.” A feral grin spread across her face. “She’s vulnerable. We just need to catch her off guard.” She turned her radio to the Edwina’s general channel. “This is Lotus One, does anyone read?”
The radio crackled with a sailor’s voice, punctuated by heavy breaths. “This is Warrant Officer Daniels. Target is constructing some sort of bomb near the fuel tanks and is heading back to the upper decks. All unarmed personnel are evacuating. The rest are trying to slow her down.”
May the Scholars watch over them. “Daniels,” said Clementine. “I’m going to ask you and your men to volunteer for something. Can you track the target’s movement? As accurate as you can. When she gets close to one of the flight decks, tell me, then get out as fast as you can.”
A pause. “It’s probably a death sentence. She’s about to blow the whole carrier.”
“I might be able to kill her.”
A much longer pause. “We’ll get it done.”
Clementine angled her plane up, climbing high into the sky. To dive bomb the woman, she’d need to pick up enough speed.
Lieutenant Brice’s fighter flew up beside her. His voice crackled over the radio. “I’ll dive with you. When she opens the door, I’ll use my guns. They might distract her so your ordinance can hit.”
“Good idea,” she said.
This’ll destroy the ship. But the Edwina was already lost, already doomed.
She turned her plane to circle at the higher altitude, followed by Lieutenant Brice’s fighter. The radio crackled with Daniels’ voice again. “Target headed for southwest door! Thirty seconds!”
“Roger.” Clementine kept climbing. “Brice, on my mark.”
“Mark!” Clementine dove.
Her bomber plunged downwards, straight towards the southwest door of the Edwina. Her stomach wrenched from the sheer drop. “Get off the ship! Go, go, go!” she shouted. Brice mirrored her movements on her left, in tight formation.
On the deck, dozens of sailors sprinted out of the carrier’s doors, slamming them shut. Daniels’ lookouts. They ran to the sides, leaping into the water, as the ship got larger and larger in Clementine’s eyes.
Her altimeter read five hundred meters. The normal drop height for her payload. Her finger hovered over the trigger, her stomach churning as the plane shook.
I need to get closer. She would only have one attack. Five hundred meters was only accurate enough to hit a massive ship. Not a bullseye. “Keep going!” she shouted at Brice.
They shot towards the deck. Four hundred meters. Three hundred. Two. A hundred.
The southwest door blew off its hinges, a rectangle of steel hurling past her left in a blur. It crashed into Lieutenant Brice’s propeller with a screech, smashing his fighter’s nose.
The plane careened to the side and crashed on the deck in a fireball. Brice was dead before he could even scream.
Clementine pulled the trigger, and the bomb detached from the bottom of the plane. She yanked up the joystick. The g-forces pressed her down against the seat as her plane turned upwards.
Craning her neck, she caught a blur of movement around the door below, before the detonation covered it in fire and smoke. The explosion roared in her ears, shaking her bomber as it flew away.
Did I hit her? Another explosion went off soon after. The target’s improvised bomb.
She turned her head forward again.
The Shenti woman was crouching on the nose of her plane, hands digging into the metal hull.
Clementine stared at her, paralyzed. How?
The woman was beautiful. Flawless. Her face was the kind foreign models had, after hours of makeup and the perfect lighting scheme. A small, flat mouth with bright red lips. Smooth, porcelain skin. She was tall, slender, unscathed from the explosion. Her long black hair wasn’t even tousled or sweaty, looking like it had just been combed.
The only sign of the explosion was her clothes. Her red and gold tunic was covered in dark scorch marks. Her flowing pants were in tatters, but underneath, her skin was unblemished.
Her clothes. So many had died, and they’d only damaged her clothes. Clementine almost wanted to laugh at the hideous absurdity of it all.
Narrow green eyes gazed down on Clementine with cold fury, unblinking. Her face radiated contempt, loathing. The expression one might have at a wriggling centipede.
The woman stuffed her arm into the plane’s engine, shoulder-deep. There was a loud cracking noise, and the propeller slowed to a stop. She flicked her wrist, and one of the wings bent upwards. The metal creaked, and the wind tore it off.
The woman leapt off, and the plane nose-dived, spinning around. The sky and sea spiraled around Clementine, making her head ache.
She hit the surface diagonally at over a hundred miles per hour, eyes squeezed shut, thinking of Brice and Kerst, and everything she could have done.
At her speed, the icy water hit like concrete. The impact threw her forward in her harness, knocking the wind out of her. The straps hit her chest harder than a punch, sending blinding pain from her stomach to her collar. Her legs slammed against the dashboard.
Clementine gasped for breath, every wheeze sending stabs of agony up and down her ribs. Everything hurt, her legs most of all, shooting aches in what felt like a dozen places in her bones. The waves of pain crashed over her, overwhelming every thought, every instinct, every careful procedure she’d been taught for crashes.
Twitching, she looked forward, at what remained of her plane. The bomber’s crumbled nose was sinking into the water first, propeller bent, pulling the rest of the craft down with it. Smoke rose from the engine, torn apart and exposed to the elements. A low boom sounded from within, and on instinct, Clementine raised her aching hands in front of her face.
The engine exploded with a deafening bang and a balloon of smoke. There was the sound of cracking glass, and a tearing pain in her hands, like a dozen knives had slashed them all at once.
She looked at her hands. Their skin was ripped apart like paper, blood trickling down her palms and forearms. Several digits on both hands hung limp, sliced deep by pieces of shrapnel and broken glass.
As she stared at her mangled fingers, a single thought cut through the agony. I’ll never fly again. Pilots needed working hands, dexterity she’d never have again.
It was the one skill she’d been respected for, celebrated for. The one thing that made her stand out. Without it, she would be another hollow veteran, begging for money on street corners.
That knowledge made the pain a thousand times worse, a crushing weight pulling her down with the plane. It can stop soon. All she would have to do was sit there, and the water would pour into the cockpit, filling her lungs and quieting the noise. It was already trickling in, forming a puddle around her feet.
What did we do to deserve this? They had done everything right, taken their enemy seriously and reacted with every weapon at their disposal, every strategy they could invent. And everyone still died.
The water was now up to her shins, pouring in faster and faster, ice-cold. She didn’t move.
Captain Renea. Kerst. Brice. The soldiers she’d looked up to. Her friends. All dead. All shred to pieces by that woman with barely an afterthought.
Clementine craned her neck, looking back at the carrier. The Edwina was burning, thick clouds of smoke rising from the deck. The woman ran away, skimming across the surface of the water, ignoring Clementine and the sailors around her.
She was going after the next ship. The Shenti woman would hunt down the carrier group one by one, and nobody would be able to touch her.
Then she’d move onto the rest of the fleet.
Clementine couldn’t let her win. Couldn’t shrivel up and die like the bitch wanted. I’m going to live. And when we find out how to make you feel pain, I’ll be there.
The ice water was up to her chest now, making her shiver from the chill. Get up. She fumbled at her harness with her torn fingers, undoing it. Reaching up with her arms, she hooked her palms on the side of the cockpit, pulling herself up and pushing with her broken legs.
Her fingers burned. As she put weight on her legs, it felt like shards of glass were moving around inside, slicing her flesh and snapping apart her bones. She screamed, breathing in and out, but kept pulling until her limbs were free of the plane. Her life jacket would do the rest.
She let go, and sunk down, head dipping below the surface. What the fuck. She looked down.
Her life vest was covered in holes, streams of bubbles pouring out into the water.
Clementine flailed in the water, reaching for every swim lesson the military had beaten into her. Every kick sent stabs of pain through her legs all over again. Tiny clouds of blood streamed from her mangled fingers, a red fog dispersing through the blue water. Water filled her mouth, saturating it with the harsh taste of salt.
The pain drowned out her coordination, making her movements a clumsy set of jerks and twitches. Her clothes and boots clung to her skin, pulling her down. She was heavy. Why did she feel so heavy?
Under the surface, everything was quiet. The crackling of the flames on the ship, the shouting and screaming of the men in the water were all silenced. The icy water bit into her, numbing the pain and slowing her motions.
Beneath her, the Shi Xue ocean extended far down, a deep expanse of dark water. It seemed to go on for an eternity, a cold, merciless void that was swallowing her whole.
If she could swim up a yard, she could take a breath. Another yard and the burning pressure building in her lungs would end.
But she wasn’t swimming up. She was sinking, gradually and inevitably. And the crushing sensation in her chest only got worse, as the frozen sensation infused her entire body.
What a pathetic way to die. If the Shenti woman had killed her personally, she might have gotten on the front page of a newspaper somewhere. But drowning? So many sailors drowned. Nobody would remember that. Nobody would care. Her legacy would be in a dusty military file cabinet, on a list of all the soldiers killed during the battle.
The bitch hadn’t even given her a hero’s death. She’d just scampered away on the surface of the water, leaving her to thrash and choke.
The surface. The very thing that was eluding Clementine, the breath of life just beyond her grasp. The Shenti woman could flit across it like it was solid ground. Like the surface tension was a thousand times stronger than it was, and the water itself was holding her up.
That’s not possible. But oddly, something made sense about that, something vital and important that blew through the pain and panic for some unknown reason. Clementine thought back to her physics class from college, to the balding professor with dark spots on his forehead who lectured about fluid dynamics. All the equations, all the problem sets about polarity, hydrogen bonds, cohesion and adhesion, how water stuck to itself.
As Clementine thought, she reached upwards, with her hands, her fingers, everything. Every part of her mind directed its attention upward. She reached.
Something kindled inside of her. A part of her stretched towards the surface, that wasn’t a muscle or bone or any part of her body. A fragment of her being that felt new, yet familiar. Something that clicked.
Clementine could feel the movement of the water. Not just on her skin. She felt the splashes, the ripples, the fluid motion of the liquid as it shifted around in response to her movements.
It was if the water were an extension of her nerves, something she could discern better than her own body, had known her entire life.
She willed the water to move, as easy as twitching a muscle. It pushed upwards, slowing her descent. She focused her mind on fluid dynamics, and it pushed harder.
Clementine’s right hand breached the surface, and she thought back to the Shenti woman, running across the surface of the ocean like a water strider. She thought to her studies of surface tension, of the mechanics of liquids and solids and elasticity.
Straining with her mind, stretching through her connection to the water, she willed the water to harden, for the bonds between molecules to strengthen.
She extended her arm up and grabbed the water. The surface acted like a cloth, bunching up in her hands. Like a solid. Blue lightning crackled around her arm.
Clementine stopped sinking, hanging from her hand, grasping the compact surface of the water. Focus. She reached her other hand up, hooking her palm to the hardened liquid and pulling herself up.
Her fingers screamed agony, and she felt something snap in her right thumb. But she kept pulling, kept straining with her biceps. The blue lightning spread to her chest, swirling around her body.
Her head breached the surface with a splash, and she coughed up water, gasping for breath. Oxygen had never tasted sweeter. She flopped down on the surface of the ocean like it were a mattress, wheezing, chest rising and falling. Dark red blood trickled from her legs and fingers.
Clementine focused on the freezing water, holding it up to support her weight. Focus. But her control was slipping. Her power felt like it was a sore muscle now, shaking from the exertion and getting more tired by the second. I can’t keep this up much longer.
She turned her head to see a group of soldiers a few dozen yards away, floating with bright blue life vests. Her lungs sucked in a breath.
“Hey!” she screamed. “Help!”
One of the soldiers pointed at her, and they all started to paddle towards her.
They got to her moments before she gave out. Her control snapped like a twig, and the water turned liquid again, pulling her under with a splash. The blue lightning vanished.
Two of the sailors grabbed her, holding her head above the water while a third one blew into a spare life vest, inflating it. When it was over her head and strapped on, Clementine relaxed, bobbing up and down, safe. Her shattered legs and maimed fingers flopped down beneath her, limp.
As the adrenaline subsided and she caught her breath, the reality of what had happened sunk in. They’re all dead. And I’ll never fly a plane again. The tears came, welling up in her eyes and pouring down her face, warm against her cold cheeks.
One of the men who’d rescued her swam over, looking at her with a mixture of exhaustion and fear. “How did you do that?” he said. His eyes were dead. “Are you like her?”
“I don’t know,” said Clementine, her voice hoarse, shivering. She had no idea how she’d tapped into the same magic as the woman, how her scientific knowledge let her command the water. “I don’t know.”
Her eyes looked past the sailor, towards the horizon. The grey clouds had parted, exposing the rising sun. The light shone gold and violet over the frigid water, reflecting off the clouds and glaring in their faces. A new morning.
Clementine had no idea where her ability came from. She didn’t know how they could beat the Shenti woman, whether they’d win the war, or if she’d even get rescued before freezing to death. But she knew one thing. Everyone knew, now, in radio messages winging their way through thousands of people across the Principality.
Magic was real.
And Clementine was a magician.
She stared at the Shenti woman, a shrinking dot on the horizon. Well, she thought. It’s a start.