Florence Tuft wanted to remember this.
When she was old, she’d have a long life behind her, with a lot of happy memories competing with this one. She wanted to hold onto this one.
Even though she was getting her ass kicked.
Rowyna moved her Dancing Painter forward on the board, knocking Florence out of a key hexagon. A few more losses like that, and this game of Jao Lu would be over. Their board states were even for now, but Florence could tell how outmatched she was.
On an ordinary day, she would hate losing like this. Once, as a child, she’d headbutted a kid in the face just so she could score the winning goal in a football match. According to the referee, that was ‘against the rules’ and ‘enough for a lifetime ban’.
She never played football again, but Paragon Academy didn’t care how competitive she was.
And yet. She’d never had this much fun losing.
Maybe it was the quiet noise of triumph that came out of Rowyna whenever she took one of Florence’s pieces, or the focused stare in her deep green eyes as she analyzed the board.
Or the way she avoided looking at Florence’s face, like it was bright and blinding as the sun.
When Rowyna did look in her direction, she made glances at the blizzard outside the window, the crackling fireplace, her mug of mulled cider, all around the common room. As if to prove that she wasn’t gaping at Florence.
Rowyna was setting a trap for her that would decimate her board. If Florence avoided it, she could drag the game out longer, hold onto a small chance of winning.
But to be honest, that seemed long, and difficult. And she wanted to see the look on Rowyna’s face.
Florence reached her hand out and moved her lancer forward, swan diving into the ambush.
A beautiful light seemed to spread across Rowyna’s face, starting in her eyes, spreading to her cheeks, and bursting out around her mouth. She laughed, unable to contain it, not a cruel or taunting gesture, but a joyous one.
“Yes!” she crowed. “Yes!” She moved her Chameleon Spy, setting off a chain reaction around the board. And she smiled.
I made her smile. Rowyna hadn’t smiled in weeks.
“I forfeit,” said Florence. “Not gonna come back from that one.”
Rowyna was almost bouncing up and down, but hadn’t forgotten her manners. “Good game.”
“Good game,” said Florence.
“Interesting,” said Grace, lying back on a blue couch in the common room.
“Interesting?” said Rowyna.
Grace gave them a thin smile. “I think Florence let you win.”
Rowyna shook her head, still high off the victory. “Whaleshit. Why would she do that?”
Grace raised an eyebrow at Florence. Florence felt her face grow warm, blood rushing to her cheeks. Damn that perceptive Grace, she thought.
“Another?” said Florence. “Let me reclaim my honor?”
Rowyna leaned back and flipped open a book. “I have to get back to studying.”
“It’s winter break, Row,” said Florence, indignant. “This is the one vacation the admins give us so we don’t murder our professors or drop dead. Humdrum schmucks get summer and holidays, we get one week.”
Rowyna indicated her head to the Jao Lu set. “I got my rest.” She’d played a single game.
Florence refilled Rowyna’s cider mug. “Isaac panics when you say ‘A-Minus’, and Grace doesn’t even know her Vocation is.” She stuffed a handful of popcorn into her mouth. “And they’re not studying. We don’t even have homework, what are you reading?”
Rowyna held up her book, thicker than her biceps.
Naval Strategy of the Early Industrial Period, Volume 3
It looked so boring, Florence almost gagged.
“It’s not for class. I assigned myself extra reading.“
Florence whistled. “Look at you, Tegudar the General. You’re going to make all of us feel very inadequate one day.”
“Look, you already know naval strats better than most of our professors, but none of that’s going to matter if you don’t let yourself relax every now and then.” She batted her lashes at Rowyna.
“I guess,” Rowyna sighed.
“Yes!” said Florence, setting up another game. “You won’t regret this.”
“Actually,” said Grace, sitting up. “I just remembered something. The textbook I borrowed from you yesterday, I think I left it in Professor Thorne’s lecture hall. Sorry.”
“Ugh,” said Florence. “That’s a level two book. If they find out I lost it, they’ll put a hold on my library card.” Paragon Academy took its security very seriously. She floated her jacket onto her back. “I’ll go get it.”
“It’s on the other side of campus,” said Grace. “Long walk. You shouldn’t go alone.”
“I can go,” said Isaac. “Nothing else to do anyway.”
He’s not getting it. Grace shot him a look.
His eyes widened. There it is. “On second thought,” he said. “It’s very warm here. Think I’ll stay.”
“Sure,” said Rowyna. “Could use a walk.” They strode to the front door and stepped out into the snow, crossing a bridge from their dormitory to the main islands.
In Paragon Academy, the atmosphere controls made snow act weird. The air stayed at room temperature on campus, and the deceleration field dampened high winds, so you couldn’t feel the real effects of a blizzard, and all the snow melted into slush.
The effect turned the grassy pavilion into a cold pile of mud, filled with icy puddles, lit by dim orange lamps around the edge.
“Why are we here?” said Rowyna. “Thorne’s lecture hall is east.”
“Thought this could be the scenic route.”
They stepped onto a dry patch on higher ground, where the dirt was still solid beneath their feet. Before Florence could come up with a witty retort, Rowyna stepped forward, glaring at her.
“Be honest,” she said. “Do you like me?”
Florence blinked at her. “What?”
“I’m bad at picking up signals,” Rowyna said. “But sometimes, when I see the way you looking at me – I don’t know. And if this is some sort of prank, or joke, I do not have the time.”
“You seem testy about this.”
“People don’t like me,” she snapped. “Grace respects me, Isaac envies me, and a few classmates in our year fear me, or lust after me, but none of them like me. When I become an admiral, that won’t change either.”
When? “Getting ahead of ourselves, aren’t we?”
“It’s not a boast, it’s a fact. I’m determined and my family has resources. I will forge the stars in my image, and strive to become an Exemplar. But I’m also probably going to die alone, and I’ve grown to accept that.”
“Epistocrats have arranged marriages,” said Florence. “I’m sure your family will set you up with a nice young man.”
“I won’t like him, and he definitely won’t like me.” She pursed her lips. “Being locked in the same house for years is not going to change that. But you’re dodging the question. Do you like me, and if so, why?” She said the last word with disgust and confusion, like she’d just heard about someone who liked the taste of sawdust.
“Look down,” said Florence.
A layer of snow coated the ground around them, a white circle ten meters wide, surrounded by the mud and slush.
Rowyna’s eyes widened. “How – “
“My Vocation,” Florence said. “With nitrogen gas projection, I can make force fields, blow things around, mess with sound, and….cool the air.” She flopped on her back, making an indent in the fresh powder and spreading her arms.
Rowyna looked confused. “What are you doing?”
“Oh.” Florence stopped. “I forgot, you’re from the South. You’ve never spent time around snow before. Check this out:” She fanned her arms and legs back and forth, making a shape in the fresh snow.
Rowyna snorted. “You look like an idiot.”
“It’s called a snow falcon!” Florence ran her fingers through the cool snow. “Try it!”
“But what’s the point?” Rowyna said. “Is it some sort of game? Do I get something from doing it?”
“It looks neat,” said Florence. “And it’s fun.”
Still confused, Rowyna lay down on the snow and copied Florence’s movements, making her own snow falcon. She exhaled, her breath fogging in the chill air. “This is nice, I guess,” she said. “Snow is nice.”
They stared at the crescent moons overhead.
“That’s a good question, what you said earlier,” Florence said. “Why would anyone like you? Maybe it’s because you’re courageous. You speak up to the professors and disagree when no one else will. Or because you set absurd, high standards for yourself and then meet them. Or because even though you’re cold and blunt with everyone, you actually care about them.”
“I don’t care about all of them.”
Florence gazed at her, snow falling on her face. “Remember when you found out Tamar Belson and his clique were cheating on the midterms? All on your own, when they were fucking up the grading curve for the rest of us and even the professors had no idea. And then you exposed them in front of the entire class. That was incredible.” She clasping Rowyna’s hand, the girl’s palm warm against her’s.
“Most people hated me for that. I don’t think I should expect anyone to – “
Florence kissed her.
The snowflakes on Rowyna were cold, but her cheek was warm.
Rowyna kissed her back.
“I like you, Row,” said Florence. “And if you start second-guessing why, I’m going to pinch you.”
“I think I like you too.”
“You kissed her in the snow?” said Grace, grinning.
“I’m nothing if not a romantic,” said Florence, resting her head on Rowyna’s lap, holding her hand. She used her Vocation, blowing a pile of rocks through the cold tent and forming animal shapes with them.
“You know,” said Isaac. “I never asked you what your parents thought of all that.”
Rowyna shrugged. “My parents are practical. As long as they secure a strong marriage alliance with a good family, they couldn’t care less who I see with the rest of my time.”
“And Paragon?” said Grace.
“They don’t know, obviously, and I see no reason to change that.” If they found out, there could be problems with their careers.
Florence clenched her fist and squeezed her rocks together with her Vocation, compressing the air into a hyper-dense sphere. The rocks broke into pebbles, and green lightning crackled around her.
“Careful,” said Isaac, glancing at her projection. “We’re surrounded by Humdrums.”
“What else am I supposed to do to pass the time?” she said, shivering. They were in command of this brigade, but there was nothing to do right now but wait. “Row said I couldn’t heat myself with projection.”
“We could be fighting the enemy at a moment’s notice,” said Rowyna. “We need you at full strength.”
Florence pulled her knees to her chest under her blanket. Damn these Shenten mountains. Why couldn’t Paragon have given them an assignment in the southern theater? The Shenti would still be shooting at them, but at least it’d be warm. “It’s not conserving energy if my asscheeks freeze off,” she grumbled.
“The food isn’t helping either,” said Isaac, staring at Florence’s bowl of cold porridge. Almost empty, thanks to their rationing.
“Maybe the Shenti can spare a dumpling or two,” said Florence. “Want to head over to their lines and ask?” She floated the porridge up to her face and prodded it with her fingers. “Two more bowls of this glop, and I’ll chop off my arm and spit-roast it with onions.”
“We don’t have onions,” said Isaac.
“Then I’ll just pan-fry it,” said Florence. “I’ll get the skin all crispy, you guys’ll love it.”
Rowyna clasped a palm over Florence’s mouth, playful, stroking her blonde hair with the other hand. “That’s enough. We’ll break through to our supply lines soon enough. Until then, let’s be grateful we’re not eating snow and stay strong.”
Florence nodded. Rowyna always knew what to say.
“And,” said Rowyna. “I prepared for this.” She pulled a thermos out of a bag and unscrewed it.
An incredible, familiar scent wafted off of it. The smell of apples and cinnamon and nutmeg, of hot comfort and allspice and Opal Hall’s common room.
Paragon’s Mulled Cider. Florence had no idea how Rowyna had dragged it across half of Shenten through mud and ice and artillery, but somehow, the genius bitch had managed it.
And now, at the edge of the world, stuck in a mountain pass between two Shenti divisions, they were getting a taste of home.
“Oh, Scholars,” said Isaac.
“Oh, Scholars,” breathed Grace, her mouth hanging half-open.
Florence kissed Rowyna. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you.”
Everyone drank. Isaac took little sips, as if each one would be his last. Grace swallowed her portion in two gulps. And Florence held onto her mug, savoring the warmth in her palms and breathing in the smell.
Florence went back to crushing rocks with her air projection, green lightning flickering around her.
“Florence,” said Isaac. He looked past her.
A man stood at the door of their command tent. Rory Yarwell, the vice chief engineer for the tanks.
And a Humdrum. Staring at Florence’s projection.
She let the rocks drop, staring back at him. Shit.
“I – I’m sorry, sir,” he said. “I should have knocked. Sir, that was – that was incr – “
“Stop,” said Rowyna. “Don’t move or speak or make noise unless I say so.”
Yarwell froze. She’s Nudging him.
“You do the wipe, Florence,” said Rowyna. “That was your projection he saw.”
“None of us can do a precision job,” said Grace, hunching over. “If we screw up the block wipe, he might lose a week, or a month’s worth of memories.” She made eye contact with the shaking Yarwell. “He’s a good soldier, he didn’t do anything wrong.”
“If we don’t,” said Rowyna. “He could tell everyone.”
Most of the Principality’s Guardians were completely separate from the Humdrum military. They fought battles miles and miles away from any ordinary soldier. But their unit was integrated for this mission, which made secrecy bloody difficult.
The wind blew outside, knocking the tent flaps back and forth. Florence stood up, stepping behind Yarwell and zipping it shut.
Yarwell stared at her, making shapes with his mouth, trying to speak but unable to.
“Speak honestly,” said Isaac, Nudging out part of a command. “Why did you come into our tent?”
Little paranoid, aren’t we? He probably thought Yarwell was a spy or something.
“New forecast,” Yarwell said. “There’s a blizzard headed straight for us tonight. A big one. Winds forty to sixty.”
Fuck, that’ll be a pain.
“And something else.”
“Go on,” said Rowyna.
“Scouts caught a new group of Shenti arriving at the enemy’s camp.”
“Just four, sir,” he said. “But they were dressed funny. Light clothes, bare feet on the snow, like they didn’t care about the cold. And they were wearing masks. All of them. Shaped like animals.”
The blood drained out of Rowyna’s face. “Leave this tent in fifteen seconds,” she said. “Then tell the men to prepare for battle.”
Florence placed a hand on the man’s forehead, completing the wipe. A few seconds later, Yarwell stepped out.
“What the fuck was that?” said Isaac, foot tapping. “What do bare feet and animal masks mean? Is there some briefing I missed?”
Rowyna put down her cider mug, standing up. “I hope you’ve been practicing,” she said. “We’re about to get hit by Shenti Commandos.”
Even in a war this brutal, there were rules.
As projectors, both the Guardians and commandos were bound by the Treaty of Silence, the agreement that kept their world safe and hidden. The battle had to be at night. There couldn’t be too many Humdrum witnesses present, so that they could be mind-wiped at the end of the fight. Intelligence teams from both sides would agree on an ordinary explanation of the situation.
And projectors could only fight if other projectors were present. If Florence and the rest of Revenant Squad weren’t here, the commandos would have to find another battlefield.
Our presence may have killed these soldiers. A sobering thought. But secrecy was critical, to prevent another, larger war with the Humdrums.
All this, she thought, over some dumb asshole who chose the name ‘Black Tortoise’. Some mad dictator with dreams of global conquest, who’d named himself after a turtle
Florence adjusted her grip on the rifle, aiming out at the pitch-black snowstorm. The brigade’s trucks, tanks, and non-flammable supplies were arranged in a semicircle with a rock wall against their backs. In front, hasty trenches had been dug in the snow to serve as a second source of cover.
Every headlight, flashlight, and lamp they had was directed outwards into the storm, casting orange and yellow light onto the blowing white snow. Even with that, it was almost impossible for ordinary eyes to see more than a few yards ahead.
“Hold!” shouted Lieutenant Mayfield, their second-in-command.
In a normal battle, Rowyna or Florence or one of the other Guardians would be giving the orders. But since the commandos didn’t know their faces, they had disguised themselves as common soldiers. If the enemies didn’t know who they were, they wouldn’t get sniped right away.
A soldier next to Florence shivered, her hands shaking on the barrel of her rifle. Florence’s joining-enhanced ears could pick up her faint voice. “Scholars,” she whispered. “Scholars watch over me.”
Something dark moved in the distance, then vanished. Florence squinted. Another shape moved through the blizzard, closer this time.
Florence projected into the nearest car horns and pushed them twice, the speakers blaring over the howling wind. A signal. They’re here.
Fwip. And a muffled crack. The sound of a silenced gunshot.
A car’s headlight shattered, going dark. Fwip, fwip, fwip. They came from all sides, breaking a lightbulb each time. Fwip, fwip, fwip. The suppressors weren’t as quiet as the movies, but it was still impossible to tell where the sounds were coming from. No muzzle flash, either.
One by one, the lights went dark. The ring of orange and yellow turned pitch-black.
“Fuck,” muttered the woman next to Florence. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
Fwip, fwip, fwip. Men and women dropped around Florence, each shot clean through the head.
“Lieutenant!” another shouted, panic slipping into his voice. “Orders!”
Rowyna honked a horn three times, the second signal. Grace projected into one of the many flares scattered around the edge of the camp, and lit it, igniting the gasoline they’d poured around it.
A ring of fire exploded around the trucks, lighting up the blizzard with roaring flames. The snow nearby evaporated into hissing steam, a brief flash of warmth on Florence’s face.
The first ring ignited a second, creating two walls of fire between them and the commandos. The soldiers cheered. “Burn, you eastern dogs!” screamed the woman, her wide eyes lit in flickering orange.
The commandos would be fireproof, with reactions too fast to get caught in the blast. But the heat would screw with their infrared vision, forcing them to go through and get close to shoot them.
The flames crackled. No one came through the wall of fire. The shouting and cheering died down.
“Where the fuck are they!” one soldier shouted. But they could guess.
Florence felt four objects move through the air, coming down from the sky. Area-wide scanning took great energy, and air projection was exceptionally rare, but thanks to her Physical Vocation, Florence could do both. Grace’s prediction was right.
“Above!” she whispered, using her air Vocation to speak to the others. “Above!”
Fwip, Fwip, Fwip, Fwip. The commandos shot from midair, hitting headshot after headshot.
Through the air, Florence felt four figures land inside the ring. Got you.
She used the full power of her Vocation, taking control of the nitrogen in the air around the targets. Not too hard. If she strained her Pith, the green lightning would give her away.
Around the targets, the wind shifted direction, blowing all the snow away from them.
And for the first time, she saw them.
Two men, two women, standing on car roofs and tanks. Wearing thin white camouflage, swinging heavy rifles like they were light as twigs. Each wore a pale mask depicting a different animal on it, turning their expressions feral, unreadable.
The nearest soldiers turned towards them, aiming shotguns and SMGs.
They died first. The commandos moved in a blur, their aim snapping to one, then the next. The targets leapt from car to car, trying to jump to the blizzard, but Florence moved her wind, keeping the air clear around them.
Then they aimed at the soldier next to her.
Next phase. Florence projected down, below an inch of snow, into the steel armor they’d stripped from the tanks. She yanked them upright, forming barriers between them and the commandos. It had to be protecting both her and the soldiers next to her, or they’d know which one was a projector.
The rest of Revenant Squad followed in her lead, lifting diagonal metal walls. Isaac projected into most of them, making them lighter, easier to move.
The car horn sounded twice again, from Rowyna’s projection. Now.
Revenant Squad attacked.
A storm of frag grenades flew at the commandos from every direction, forming a sphere closing in. All looked identical, but a third of them were coated with Voidsteel. Rowyna’s projection.
The commandos leapt, shooting for the part of the sphere with no Voidsteel. Pieces of the car beneath them ripped off, forming shields. The grenades closest to them exploded, but none of them fell, or slowed.
As they dodged the grenades, Isaac shot a volley of darts at them, dropping the mass to accelerate them, then increasing it a moment before impact. They punched through the metal shields, and slammed all four of them, crashing them into the rock wall with a dull boom.
Florence felt one of the figures slow, its arm going limp. Another one clutched its side, staggering. Voidsteel darts. Two of them had hit.
At the same time, Florence turned up her Vocation, blocking the flow of air in front of the commandos’ noses and mouths. It’d take a while, but even master Joiners needed oxygen eventually. She buffeted the commandos with wind, gusts strong enough to snap a man’s neck.
And Grace? Grace they held back, as a trump card.
Then, all four enemies started moving again.
The commandos’ guns started firing again, made faint by the howling winds. They went faster this time, aiming for everyone who wasn’t covered by one of the improvised shields.
Bodies dropped around Florence, one after the other, men and women all shot through the head.
More grenades from Rowyna. More darts from Isaac. But this time, their enemies were wise to them. They dodged or blocked all the Voidsteel, and the rest just bounced off their skin.
Bullets burst out of crates, streaming towards the commandos and into their weapons. Their guns could be modified to fit different calibers, so they’d never run out. Until we’re all dead.
One of the Commandos broke off from the main group and leapt to Isaac in a single bound.
She grabbed his metal barrier, layered steel plates eight inches thick, and ripped it apart like a cobweb.
Brin lightened it, shot it at her, and made it heavy, with enough force to break a building in half.
The Shenti bitch flowed around it, like water.
It didn’t even graze her.
In the same smooth motion, her palm lashed out, pushing his solar plexus.
Isaac Brin slammed into the rock wall. Something cracked, and he went limp.
Something exploded on the far side of the ring, making Florence’s ears ring. A box of explosives. Lieutenant Mayfield crawled out of the dust cloud, leaving a trail of blood behind him. He collapsed onto the snow, unmoving.
The air grew colder. The winds of the blizzard whipped faster, too intense for even Florence to control.
And Florence realized they were all going to die.
Rowyna’s birds weren’t working in this storm. Isaac was down. Florence’s suffocation was too slow. Grace had talent, but without knowing her Vocation, lacked a strong focus.
Think, think, think. There had to be some way out of this, some way to escape this blizzard back into the light.
Then, the commando ripped through Rowyna’s shield.
On instinct, Florence blew her shield forward, forcing all four commandos to dodge for a split second.
In that instant, she made eye contact with Rowyna. Spoke with the wind.
“See you round, Row.”
Rowyna’s eyes widened. The commando leveled a pistol at her head.
And Florence exploded. Instead of down or to the side, she forced the wind upwards at hundreds of miles per hour in four columns.
The four commandos shot into the air. Their overwhelming strength was useless with nothing to push against.
Florence created an updraft beneath her, unfurled her wingsuit, and shot up after them, green lightning crackling around her. She blew the four commandos together, trapping them in a sphere of nitrogen, and whipped the air faster and faster, ripping their guns in pieces.
Then, the same woman who’d hit Isaac braced her feet against another commando, and pushed off, punching her fist through the barrier of air. It’s not enough. They were still too strong.
Before Florence could react, the woman’s hand darted towards her throat.
When it was inches away, a blast of white flame filled Florence’s vision, knocking the commando back in the sphere.
Palefire. The air bubble turned into a glowing fireball, consuming all the oxygen in seconds, then funneling in more. Florence’s face burned from the heat.
Grace Acworth flew up beside Florence. “You’ll never make it on your own!” she shouted.
Florence understood. The fire wouldn’t kill the commandos, but it would slow them down enough for Florence to get them away from the battlefield.
Together, they soared up the side of the mountain, a bright white globe surrounded by green and purple lightning. A multicolored lantern in the middle of a blizzard.
As they climbed towards the peak, Florence glanced down. Her winds had cleared the blizzard for a moment, revealing the ring of fire and the camp below.
Dark blue dots covered the snow. Bodies. It looked like the commandos had slaughtered almost the whole brigade.
Then they went over the peak, and the headache became overwhelming. It felt like someone was jamming a dentist’s drill into her brain. Florence could almost feel her skull cracking at the edges. Her vision blurred, and she writhed in the air as she flew.
Florence screamed, tears running down her face. But she kept going, shooting the burning sphere down the far side of the mountain and off a cliff, wind whipping in her ears. The sheer acceleration made her dizzy, but her Joining vocations kept her from passing out.
Grace was silent, her face contorted in agony from the strain on her Pith.
They shot through the blizzard, past trees and rocks and snow, as the fire’s heat burned Florence’s face. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Just a little further. If she went a little further, it would be enough.
Her skin started to smoke. The screeching headache multiplied again, overwhelming the rest of her thoughts.
The world blurred out of focus, and she blinked.
When she opened her eyes, the ground was right in front of her.
Florence jerked herself up, blowing with the wind. Too slow. The sphere slammed into the ground, bursting apart, and Florence crashed into a snowdrift. Something snapped in her leg.
After a few seconds, the headache faded, replaced by a sharp, stabbing pain in her thigh. She projected into the snow above her, digging herself out.
Florence limped forward, the dark blizzard howling around her. The fire had gone out, making it hard to see more than a few yards in front of her.
Grace stumbled out of the storm and fell to her knees, coughing. In front of her, three of the commandos became visible, lying on their backs. Breathing, but barely moving otherwise. They must have spent all their energy protecting their bodies from the fire.
Where’s the fourth?
Grace pushed herself upright, and a hand punched through her blue armor, exploding out of her stomach.
The fourth commando stood behind her, and yanked out her arm, stained red up to her elbow. Grace collapsed, blood spilling out of her mouth.
The Shenti’s mask had come off, and her uniform had been reduced to burnt rags, but her face and body were untouched. In an instant, Florence recognized her. The long black hair. The deep red lips and pale skin and flawless beauty.
The Immaculate Vanguard. The strongest Joiner in all of Shenten – in all the Eight Oceans. The woman who stood at the right hand of The Black Tortoise.
Florence blew a gust at her. The Immaculate Vanguard sidestepped it with ease, darting forward and drawing a red Voidsteel hook sword.
The blade moved in a blur.
And Florence’s hands fell off.
Her arms exploded with pain, and she dropped onto her back, spurting blood onto the snow.
But through the agony, through the fear, Florence felt a sense of peace. Of satisfaction.
She and Grace would be executed, or worse. Most of their unit had been wiped out in a matter of minutes.
But now, the rest stood a chance of escaping. Isaac could get a new body. Rowyna could live the rest of her life. The best parts of Florence and Grace would live on in their memories.
As the world faded away, and the Vanguard approached, Florence knew she’d made the right choice.
In the coming years, Florence would come to question that decision.
By the time the Shenti got them into new bodies with Null Venom, and dragged them to the interrogation room, both Florence and Grace had wiped all critical memories. On the faint chance that they ever got back, the information would be easy to re-learn, and now they were useless as sources to the enemy. Florence’s new body was mousy, short, older – vastly different than the chassis she knew. Joining would be near-impossible, but that didn’t matter now.
And the Shenti hated Whisper projection, so there was almost no risk of being hijacked, thank the Scholars.
The Shenti could try and force them to share their Vocations, but writing the codices would take years.
Florence said as much during their first conversation, and pretty quick, the interrogators realized she was telling the truth.
Florence and Grace were feeling pretty clever with themselves.
Then the interrogators sent them to a redemption camp.
They were blindfolded and driven up in trucks, on bumpy, winding roads that made Florence nauseous. The prisoners were cuffed to each other, and the truck never stopped, so after the first few hours of agony, Florence pissed herself. The stench and the chill from her damp pants lingered with her on the splintering wooden bench. That was the first humiliation.
After an eternity, the truck pulled to a stop. The prisoners were herded out, and someone pulled the blindfolds off.
Florence squinted, the grey morning light stinging her eyes. Her vision cleared, and she got the first glimpse of her new home.
A vast tundra spread out before her, every inch covered in yellow grass or snow. A tall barbed-wire fence stretched across it as far as the eye could see, and in the middle, a simple wooden gate had been built. Where the fuck are we?
No insignia. No dramatic words scrawled on the entrance. If it weren’t for the red and gold flags and the Shenti soldiers, she could have mistaken it for some country farm.
Florence had no coat, and in this new body, no access to the tiny handful of Joining vocations she knew. The cold bit into her skin, making her shiver. Her hands hung limp and grey from her wrists. The Immaculate Vanguard’s Voidsteel blade had sliced through her Pith, so even in a new body, they would crumble into dust within a week or two.
A bulky Shenti man climbed up a ladder to a raised platform by the gate. Another barked out an order, and the soldiers stood at attention. All eyes turned to him.
Time to find out what this is all about. Dissidents and those deemed mentally defective had fewer rights under Cao Hui’s regime, but they’d heard nothing about mass imprisonment.
“Society’s treacherous sloth must be purged!” he cried in Shenti. “This is your redemption. You have committed a grave offense against the state. You are as locusts, leeching off the hard-earned goods of the people. For this, your privileges have been curbed. The privilege of unbound feet. The privilege of reproduction. The privilege of food.”
No one spoke back. The men and women beside Florence stared up with dead eyes.
“Prove you are not a locust, and you shall earn these privileges back. Prove your intellect, and your diligence, and you will ascend into the light, to live amongst your betters in this enlightened nation.“
Then, he smiled.
“One way or another, you will get the fate you deserve.”
And that was it. Florence and Grace were no longer Guardians, or soldiers of the Principality, or even humans. They were locusts, though it took them some time to realize it.
“When I get a weapon,” Florence muttered to Grace. “The first thing I’m going to do is slaughter that eastern dog.”
But the first person they killed wasn’t a guard. It was another prisoner. An innocent woman.
First, Florence had to learn the meaning of hunger.
It wasn’t the ache from when she skipped meals at Paragon, or the pangs from when she got sick. It wasn’t even the intense, stabbing pain she’d felt after a month of rationing in the field.
No, true hunger was a whole identity. After a certain point, you became unrecognizable to yourself. You stopped caring about things and started sleepwalking through your new life, and your determination seeped out through your belly.
The camp allotted two meals a day to its prisoners. Rice in the morning, soybeans at night. Cold, unflavored, filling only a fraction of a bowl. Sometimes, on good days, they caught rats or snakes in the camp, and could cook them in a fire. The guards didn’t mind if they ate those, since they fertilized their farms with human waste and pests were common.
But mostly, they just starved.
Florence’s abdomen swelled up, becoming bloated. Her periods stopped. Her skin turned dry and flaky, cracking at the edges, making every movement painful. The sweaty parts of her body took on a rotting stench, made worse by the fact that they rarely got to change clothes.
And the hunger made everything harder to bear.
Every day, she and Grace would force themselves out of the women’s dorm, covered in aches and pains from the unheated concrete floor they slept on. A guard would order the prisoners into a line, and they would trudge to a factory inside the camp, shuffling through the snow and wet grass. In the smoke-filled building, a Shenti woman with a cigarette screamed instructions at them, putting them to work at various parts of an assembly line. With her hands chopped off and no projection, Florence could only pick up boxes and operate foot pedal machines.
The pieces got assembled at another factory, so it took Florence a day or two to figure out what she and Grace were making. Tank treads. They were making tanks for the Shenti military.
At first, she’d thought of performing silent resistance, half-assing her work to weaken the Shenti war machine. But at the end of each week, the man or woman who did the most work received an extra bowl of rice.
Florence held off, for the first few months. And then, it became too tempting to resist. She loathed herself for it, whispered a thousand words of disgust as she shivered herself to sleep. You should be escaping, she told herself. Or dead. Better than this shame.
But she still went for it. Florence made tank treads with desperate fervor. All for the hope of earning that one extra bowl.
But with no projection, and no hands, it was almost impossible. Everything was almost impossible. Grace had to open doors for her, spoon food into her mouth, even help her go to the bathroom in the pit dug next to the dorm. It humiliated her, made her cry at night, when everyone else was asleep. Pathetic. They’d made her so pathetic.
But still, Florence was grateful. Without her squadmate, she would have died in under a month. Grace nearly broke herself to keep her squadmate alive.
Then, the tests. Every month, they took a variation on the Civil Examination, the same one every Shenti citizen was required to take. Pattern recognition. Spatial reasoning. ‘Which shape does not belong?’ Short term memory. Mathematics and logic. Memorizing passages from The Ninety-Nine Precepts, and Cao Hui’s speeches.
There was even a verbal variant that Florence could take without having to write anything. Even for a lowly prisoner such as her, they took the time to give her exam after exam, making her speak the answers out loud.
At first, Florence and Grace aced them. Next to the material at Paragon, it was nothing.
And then, they got harder. And harder. The first few times, Florence thought they were ramping up the difficulty, but that wasn’t it.
The tests weren’t getting smarter. The two of them were getting dumber.
Paragon liked to talk about the noble supremacy of the Pith over the body, but with her body breaking down, her mind was weak, useless. With no joining, and Null Venom regularly injected, she was no better than a Humdrum. And she didn’t even have ideas for an escape plan.
The one thing she improved on was her knowledge of Caoism. She’d studied it from intelligence briefings, but she understood the system now on a deeper level.
In the redemption camp, the prisoners were organized with ‘Economic Scores’ of zero through seven. The rest of the Shenti meritocracy consisted of scores eight through ninety-nine, signifying how much value they added to society. A critical scientist or CEO might have one in the mid-eighties. A foot soldier might be in the thirties.
And an intellectual cripple would come here. Within the camp, dissidents and prisoners of war were near the bottom, with a base economic score of two. Florence and Grace were even lower – a score of one.
At zero, you weren’t worth the price of feeding. A one, at least, could perform manual labor. At two, you got a dorm with a coal fire to warm you at night. At three, you got twice as much food. At four, you got bedding. At five, less painful jobs at the factory.
And at eight, you got to leave. You were a human again.
Every week, they would read stories of men and women who had redeemed themselves, becoming productive, intelligent, high-scoring members of society. Society’s treacherous sloth must be purged.
But Florence hadn’t seen anyone gain more than a point or two. Her and Grace’s cognitive test scores should have helped, but this far down, it still wasn’t enough.
After a while, the days blended together. Florence forgot how long she’d been in this camp, began to forget life outside. In the first weeks, she’d imagined eating at the Paragon dining room, drinking mulled cider in the warm common room with Rowyna, escaping this horrible nightmare.
But now? Now, she didn’t imagine anything.
Pain had a way of narrowing your thoughts. When you were in constant agony, it was almost impossible to imagine a world without eternal misery. Comfort and peace seemed foreign, absurd.
Yes, she thought. Pain could give you tunnel vision.
One day, a Shenti Joiner visited the camp, the first other projector they’d seen in ages. He smiled at them and had them escorted to a heated room on the far side of the camp, where he revealed an entire platter of roast duck.
Grace helped Florence devour them, so fast the bones cut into the inside of her cheek, sauce dribbling down their chins. They both knew this was going to be a one-time thing.
Then, the man offered moist towels to clean themselves, and bowed to them. “I have never faced you directly,” he said. “But as I’ve heard, you were formidable opponents, who served your nation well and always upheld your duty.”
Here comes the whaleshit. Florence could bear it from Humdrum guards, but hearing it from someone on her level was somehow worse.
“Others may disagree with me, but I hold you both in high respect. As soldiers, as projectors, we can give each other that courtesy. We inhabit a world the Humdrums cannot even dream of, and – ”
“Get to the point, you smirking gutter rat,” said Florence, her voice hoarse. She knew it was a bad idea, but she couldn’t take any more of this posturing. “You want my Vocation codex, right? And hers, I assume. You want us to write them for you.”
It made sense. Null Venom wasn’t cheap, why else would they have kept injecting them with it?
“And in return, you’ll take us out of here, and give us a warm house and a puppy and a mountain of stupid fucking waterfowl to stuff down?”
“A Principian,” he said. “Lecturing me on food. Don’t you eat sheep stomachs?”
Grace shot her a look, as if to say shut up.
“When this is over,” Florence said, smiling. “We’ll be sitting where you’re sitting. In your living rooms and restaurants and ugly government buildings. And we’ll be eating your duck.”
He kept smiling at them. But at the end of the meeting, the soldiers took her to a different truck than Grace, blindfolding her again. She thought they were taking her to be executed, until they dragged her to a surgical table.
When she woke up, the headache was agony. The duck man sat at the foot of her bed, still smiling, and explained how a Joiner had modified her body, making it impossible for her Pith to leave. The Shenti didn’t believe in artificial chassis, or in transferring bodies.
I was an experiment. Now, the Shenti could lock anyone inside their body.
Decades ago, Semer Bekyn, a pneumatologist from a small village, had created the first fabricated bodies. A true miracle of modern science. And now, the eastern dogs could wipe that all out. They could trap a soul for an eternity, to satisfy their sick religion.
The man patted her cheek. “Thank you,” he said. “For the work your body has done for Shenten.”
Then they sent her back to the camp. Alive, still injected with Null Venom, now trapped inside this body for the rest of her life. They’re still waiting for us to break.
That was the last time she talked back to the Shenti.
One winter, a nasty case of kesou fever swept through the camp. Grace spent a week curled under a blanket, shaking and retching as Florence tended to her and gave her a
portion of her food. Without Joining or other projection, there was nothing else to be done.
Florence’s body seemed to have natural immunity, but the others didn’t. In the Principality, kesou fever was easily treated with medical care. Here, over a dozen died in her dorm, with dozens more unable to work. So the guards cut their rations again.
One of the prisoners in the women’s dorm, they didn’t know her name, begged for extra rice for her brother, who had been given an economic score of zero. Florence refused. Grace was still recovering, and she needed regular meals to avoid a secondary infection.
The prisoner bowed her head, polite, murmuring that she understood.
Then, three hours later, she tried to kill her.
Florence was eating with Grace, sitting on the grass on the side of their dorm. Grace fed herself a few grains, then Florence, as they stared out at the view.
On the north side, there weren’t as many factories and dorms dotting the tundra. You could see all the way to the electric fence, and beyond to the rolling hills and mountains of Shenten.
In this light, it almost looked beautiful.
To her right, bare feet made a soft thumping noise on the grass. She spun to look. The woman from before rushed towards them, a rock clutched in her bony hand. Her eyes were wide, bloodshot. She wants our food.
Remembering her close-quarters training, Florence jerked forward and side kicked the woman in her solar plexus, using her momentum against her.
The prisoner dropped back. Her head slammed against the wooden wall of the dorm with a thud, and she fell unconscious.
Florence dragged her back into the dorms and gave her the blanket she’d scavenged. It was the least she could do.
Then, the woman didn’t get better. When she woke up, she was weak and delirious, dry heaving, too weak to even get off the floor. After a few days, her condition worsened, and she was designated a zero herself. Two nights later, a pair of guards dragged her corpse out of the dormitory.
Florence asked around. The woman’s name was Wan Guo, a farmer who’d been sent here for protesting Cao Hui’s regime. And I killed her.
Despite the exhaustion, despite the hunger and dizziness, Florence stayed awake for three straight nights.
And she realized, that if she’d gone back, if she’d known Wan Guo’s name, that she was an innocent woman, Florence would have done the same thing. The other prisoners were just like her – they weren’t companions, they were competition.
After losing her hands, after being trapped in this body and enduring starvation, beatings, excruciating nonstop work, that was the point when Florence finally understood. Locusts. We are locusts.
That was the first time she wiped her memory.
The technique was a Praxis vocation, not Whisper. Null Venom only blocked external projection, so she could still use this one. It was called Memory Encryption. It let you scramble memories within your Pith, so they could only be accessed with a key. The technique was easy, but uncommon, mostly used for spycraft.
First, Florence encrypted the memory of her killing Wan Guo. Grace remembered that, and could tell Florence if necessary.
Then she looked back through her recent memories, and encrypted them too. She kept everything critical – the things could help her and Grace survive or escape – how to work the factory, memorized passages from The Ninety-Nine Precepts, and the snippets she overheard from guards.
But she dumped the rest. The long nights she’d spent awake, hungry and shivering. The excruciating days of work, that turned into nights as her muscles shook from the exertion. When she fell behind quotas, and the guards decided to punish her.
And when the camp faded away, Rowyna’s face became clear in her mind. Her sharp eyes, her triumphant smile, her warm, steady hands holding Florence’s.
Grace never encrypted her memories. She knew the vocation too, but she held onto every day like it was the most important experience of her life.
Every night, Florence curled up on the concrete floor, running through the day’s events and sealing away most of it. And Grace sat across from her, leaning against the wall, staring forward.
To other prisoners, her expression might look cold, blank, like all emotion had been drained out of her face. But Florence knew better.
Grace was angry. That was rage bubbling beneath her flat, obsessive stare.
And every night, Grace sat in the same position, stared at the same point, and got angrier.
With the memory wipes, and the hunger, Florence was even more adrift in time. Every day felt like a lifetime, and yet they all blurred together. Every night she died, and was reborn in the morning. Every day, she endured the same agony, and yet it felt fresh every time. What manner of atrocities have I forgotten?
And so, she wasn’t sure how long it had been when Grace approached her one night, pulling her out of the pitch-black dorm to look over the camp. At this hour, no guards were walking about. No prisoners. Only grass and snow and darkness.
An icy wind blew across the tundra, making Florence shake. Her breath turned to thick fog.
“Why are we here?” she mumbled, her voice weak. Through the holes in her shirt, she could see her ribs, sticking out of her chest like black keys on a piano.
Grace pointed at the tiny pale lights in the distance – the watchtowers ringing the camp, and the electric fence stretched between them. “We’re leaving in two weeks,” she said. “I have a plan.”
Purple lightning flickered in her eyes, lighting up the darkness.
And then, Florence’s memories cut off.
The next coherent thing she could recall was waking up in a hospital bed, strapped to an IV in a military care center. The table next to her overflowed with flowers, cards, and gift baskets.
Over the next few days, Florence became certain that this was a trick, some elaborate mind game from the Shenti to lull her into a false sense of security. When she felt safe, the rug would get yanked out from under her, and she would go back to the redemption camp, to sink even deeper into despair.
Then Florence found a business card under a gift basket, dark blue and purple, covered in diamond patterns and blocky, simple lettering:
Captain Grace Acworth
Foreign Intelligence | Paragon Academy
31 – 1621 – 8273
Then, the phone calls began pouring in, along with the debriefings from counterintelligence. And Florence had to cope with a possibility far stranger than psychological torture:
I’m free. Somehow, in that frozen hell, Grace’s plan had worked.
Florence checked her records: The memories from that were encrypted, not wiped. The escape is non-critical information. And remembering it would be painful.
News came in, in secure manila envelopes to be viewed away from the Humdrum nurses. Isaac, Rowyna, and Grace were all alive and healthy. The war still raged on, and the Shenti’s industry was pushing the Principality back, inch by inch, conquering more of the Eight Oceans. When she got out of the hospital, they would need her again, to fight the secret part of the war.
Inch by inch, Florence let herself relax. She’d have lingering trauma from this, but had been spared from the worst of it. All the most agonizing memories were encrypted in her Pith.
But what would happen next? She had no idea.
Gradually, the null venom wore off and she regained her abilities. I will kiss Rowyna again. She would hug Grace, thank her a thousand times. She would share a drink with Isaac. She would fight by their side, and forge a host of new memories, ones she would never forget.
The nurses had been spoon-feeding her applesauce and yogurt and rice, but her appetite and strength were returning.
For her next meal, she had roast duck, fat, rare and crispy. And she ate it with projection.
Florence Tuft, the Scholar of Air, the Harpy, was having a shit day.
That was hardly surprising. Most of her days were shit. But today had been even more mediocre and frustrating than usual.
First, her plane had broken down in the middle of a flight, some complex engine issue that would take days to diagnose, let alone solve.
Then she’d delivered a weak, half-baked tactics lecture, written at the last minute after a busy night. And then none of her third-year students had corrected her errors. Either they were too stupid to recognize the problems, or too scared of her to point them out.
Either way, she’d let them down as a teacher.
And, worst of all, the weekend had begun. Among the projectors and pilots she commanded, she heard mountains of chit-chat about people’s plans – concerts, and parties, and romantic dinners.
Florence’s plan was to eat takeout and watch television.
It was not a good plan.
Her go-to Shenti restaurant was out of duck, and there were only a handful in all of Elmidde – Principality banks weren’t all that friendly to eastern foreigners looking to open new restaurants. So she had to settle for a shitty joint in Midtown. Their roast duck tasted like chalk coated in salt.
And nothing good was on TV right now, so she just flipped back and forth between the channels, waiting for something interesting to happen.
She sank back onto her fur couch, staring at the Hightown house she’d bought with her Guardian’s salary. Big windows, huge rooms, designer furniture, a big kitchen island. All the amenities you could dream of. And empty, except for her.
Then she went through her mail, because there was nothing else to do. Much of it consisted of arranged marriage feelers being sent out from Epistocrat families, to see if she’d like to marry this or that lord. With her war history and position as the Scholar of Air, it was easy to imagine why, even if she wasn’t an epistocrat. Projection potential had some element of genetic lineage, but no one knew how much. And skilled projectors tended to produce skilled children, regardless of their parentage.
She projected into the offers, flung them into the trash, and noticed a glint of something at the back of the drawer, pulling it out. A business card. Purple and blue.
Captain Grace Acworth
Foreign Intelligence | Paragon Academy
31 – 1621 – 8273
It was the one she’d given her after they first escaped the redemption camp. Something like a decade ago, when nobody knew what a redemption camp was. For some reason, it was still among her stuff, buried beneath the clutter.
Florence floated it between her stumps and focused, creating a fire along its surface. In a few seconds, the business card turned into a blackened crisp. It, too, went in the trash.
The truth was, Florence didn’t lack social skills, but thanks to the war, Revenant Squad had been her only friends. And after they broke up, it had been so hard to make new ones as an adult, especially when her jobs were so demanding.
And after Rowyna rejected me. To saddle herself with some simpering fool who owned a newspaper company, just a few years before the newspaper went under.
As for romance, that was out of the question. She was dead-average to the normal population, but a hag next to the other women at Paragon. I’m repulsive. A simple fact, obvious to anyone who looked. And, thanks to some eastern dog a decade ago, she’d be stuck like this until she died.
And if she was found with another woman, there would be demotions, lost connections, angry bosses. Her career wouldn’t tank, but it would take some serious steps back. That sort of thing was allowed in Ilaqua and Neke, but she wasn’t about to move there any time soon.
So, she lived with the loneliness. And every night, she did what she’d promised never to do again.
Once the duck sank to the bottom of her stomach, Florence sank back onto the couch, listened to the pouring rain, and ran through the memories of the day.
The broken engine? Important. The failed lecture? Important, if she wanted to improve. The paperwork and strategy meetings and training? Important, important, important. Since the Conclave of the Wise had been disbanded, the Humdrum-led Parliament insisted on mountains of red tape and documentation for everything. Bloody bureaucrats.
Then, she encrypted the rest. The mediocre conversations, the dull and frustrating hours of pointless whaleshit. The moments where she could feel her brain fluid dripping out of her ears. All gone in a few seconds.
After all these years, the keys to unlock them were still burned into her Pith, but she hadn’t decrypted a single one.
And unlike her time at the camp, these weren’t traumatic memories. Just reminders of a lonely existence, pissed away a day at a time.
The phone rang, and she projected into it, lifting it to her ear. In the middle of a rainstorm, Commonplace had incited more riots. The police were struggling with the deluge, and were requesting for Paragon’s Guardians to assist them.
Florence changed out of her pajamas and glasses, sliding on her armored blue flight suit and goggles.
If she was lucky, she’d be able to forget all this by sunrise.
But she doubted it.
Isaac strode out of the waiting room, back into his office.
Florence leaned closer to Rowyna, talking in an undertone. “So,” she muttered. “Am I dreaming right now? We’re going to try to kill Grace.”
“Not try,” said Rowyna, tying her blonde hair back in a tight bun. “You’re not going to go hug her, are you? She killed Professor Keswick, and who knows how many others.”
“Do you think I’m an idiot?”
“In this case? Yes.”
“And it’s not that simple,” said Florence. “Why would Grace try to bring down the Principality? The Shenti must have hijacked her. Brin said there’s evidence that they’re supporting Commonplace.”
“The eastern dogs hate Whisper projection. Why use it now?”
“Desperation,” said Florence. “Warlord Qian has hired the Droll Corsairs before, and that would be more than enough. They’d just need to catch her with her guard down.”
“Grace Acworth, let her guard down? Ridiculous.”
“You know, not everyone’s a cold, logical husk of careerism like you are. Some people have these things called ‘feelings’, that cause them to make mistakes. Grace wouldn’t do this without hijacking. I know her.”
“Do you?” said Rowyna. “Or did you wipe those memories too?” Rowyna’s glare cut into her. “You’re still doing it, aren’t you?”
Florence fell silent for a moment. That was all the answer Rowyna needed.
“Pot, kettle, black,” said Florence. “There’s enough fucked-up geniuses in Paragon to fill a dozen asylums. If you took away their tea and scones and doilies, half of them would probably off themselves within a week. And you’re no exception.”
“I don’t eat anything sweet,” said Rowyna.
“Right,” said Florence. “That explains a lot, actually.” Her voice got quieter. “We could have stayed friends. After Grace. We could have looked out for each other, kept each other sane. But instead – “
“Do you like me?” said Rowyna. “Do you still like me?”
The first time she uttered those words, they had been uncertain, but with a softer undertone. Now, they were an accusation.
“Do you want the polite answer?” said Florence. “Or the honest one?”
“Don’t patronize me.”
“Of course I still like you, you stuck-up bird.” Florence raised her voice. “You’re red-hot and competent and distant and I have terrible taste.”
Rowyna glanced at her blonde Maxine Clive chassis in a mirror, making eye contact with herself. “I don’t even have the same body as before.”
“Who gives a shit?” said Florence. “Everyone in Paragon is beautiful, except me. It’s you I was attracted to. The explosive fucking brilliance in your Pith.”
Rowyna held her gaze. “Do you remember the time we spent together, or did you erase that too?”
Florence had considered it. A lot of those memories had been happy in the moment, but were tinged with pain now.
But it had also been her anchor during the agony of the camp, a dear friend to hold onto through the nightmare. If she encrypted that, she wasn’t sure who she’d become.
“No,” said Florence. “I didn’t erase them.” And, if they survived tonight, she would decrypt the memories of her escape with Grace, so they’d know as much as possible about their enemy. The process took too long to finish in the next few hours.
“And are you going to erase your memories after tonight?”
“No.” Florence stared out a window on the far side of the room, into the pitch-black rain. “But I wish I could. I wish I could erase it all, and wake up with a fresh start.” She grit her teeth. “But I can’t. My students need me. My country needs me.” And for the first time in years, it felt like Isaac and Rowyna needed her. “But if I could, I’d get rid of it all.”
“Then why’d you keep the decryption keys?”
“You told me, the first night we talked after the camp, that you’d kept the decryption keys. You still have them, don’t you?”
“I taught a class last semester on psychological warfare. Don’t try to shrink me.”
“So that’s a yes, then.”
Scholars damn her. But Florence didn’t have an answer to her question. She had made sure to keep all the decryption keys.
She’d told herself it was a contingency, in case some memories turned out to be important for a mission. But was that true?
“Did it have to be this way?” said Florence. With Grace, with Isaac, with her and Florence and everything that had decayed between them. “Was all this inevitable?”
Rowyna slouched over. She didn’t have an answer, either.
“I miss you, Row.” The old you. Not the admiral.
“I know,” she sighed. “Me too.”
Revenant Squad leaned off the railing, dropping towards the city through the deceleration field.
The rain and darkness closed in around them, wind whipping in their ears as the lights of Elmidde grew larger below. Halfway down, Florence unfurled her wingsuit, clipping the ends in place.
The others did the same, and in unison, they spread their arms and legs. The wings went taut, and they soared forward down Mount Elwar, shooting from Hightown towards Midtown. From here, Florence could see the line of the riot police and protestors clashing, smell the smoke from the fires that had been set off.
We stop Grace. That’s how we help them all.
Florence projected into the air with her Vocation, making adjustments to steer herself towards the target house. And as she flew, she kept thinking about Rowyna’s words. Why didn’t she throw away the decryption keys?
Some part of her was still holding on. The same part that knew something terrible had happened to Grace, and that she desperately needed help.
Maybe we can fix her, a part of her whispered. Maybe Revenant Squad could be together again. Maybe she could remember tonight, and all the nights to come.
The house came into view. No witnesses nearby. Isaac whispered instructions, his voice carried to their ears by Florence’s Vocation.
Thunder boomed, and Florence smashed through the top story window. A dozen men and women on the couch stood up, eyes widening with terror, hands reaching for their pistols and shotguns. One of them flipped back into a fighting stance, red lightning crackling around his fists.
And for a moment, Florence was a part of the storm.