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Mars: A Different War

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Plants had been scarce on Mars, and they were not enough to change the usual rusty colors of the planet. It seemed that Mars didn’t like plants, and they didn’t like it in turn. They didn’t like Roy either. He thought they hated his hands that had brought so much pain and death in his time. Or maybe the explanation was more trivial and they didn’t like the electricity that was always in his body, simmering, cracking, always waiting to burst out.

They loved Innocence’s hands more. Under his care they sprouted and filled the air around their house with tantalizing aroma, sweet and sharp and green. Innocence got up every day with the first blue rays of sunrise, pumped water into the watering system, wet an old blue cloth, weathered thin from use, and wiped the tender leaves from dust. Roy usually got home from his hunt just in time to see Innocence tending for his herbs.

The vegetables he had planted a week ago had given the first sprouts, but they were still too weak to go on their own, and Innocence whispered to them and watered them and shielded them from the sand and dust and heat.

Plants did like Innocence, Roy thought.

The kid’s dream was to make an orchard and harvest sweet fruits. Roy had bought seeds for him and a few bushes that looked like they had never had a drop of water, sad things. Roy had spent almost all his Serum, but it was worth it, if only for Innocence’s bright smile and blue eyes filled with light. They hadn’t woke up to life yet, though, but Innocence didn’t look worried about it.

Roy tried to be useful, too, and every day went to the hunt. New Life had water, and its sweet scent had been drawing moles. The village had a close cycle system, but still the damn animals had been able to smell the precious liquid and made attempts to gnaw through channels and pipes to get to it. Roy had spotted two nests on the outskirts of the village. He had been careful not to kill the queens or the younglings, but the grown-up moles were dangerous for the village. It had been a hell of a work to hunt them, and Roy could take down more than two or three of them at once. Using his nailgun and bits of Technomancy, he put them down and roped their legs and dragged them back home. He took only one mole for Innocence and himself, dropping the rest in the old cracked tub near Generosity’s house.

Generosity was one of the war vets, a grizzled grunt with slight paranoia, but he had a presence of sense. The villagers didn’t like Roy, but unlike Courage and other men who had confronted Roy numerous times, Generosity accepted Roy’s killings and took moles from him to cut and share with the rest of the village.

Roy didn’t care for anyone’s opinion, as long as it didn’t cause trouble for Innocence.

The village people liked Innocence. He was respected by war veterans, being a vet himself and a prisoner of war, but also he was the youngest of the soldiers here, not a child already, but young enough to remind them maybe of younger brothers or neighboring children that the war had claimed. Innocence got along well with everyone, and because of it the people of New Life frown at Roy.

He was a Technomancer.

They had, no doubt, seen Technomancers during the war.

Roy didn’t doubt for a second that they would have turned him to the authorities, if not for Innocence. When Roy had first arrived here and the vets confronted him, Innocence made them understand that Roy was his friend. And they respected Innocence enough to leave Roy alone, for now.

Besides, he could charge the solar batteries when they started to flicker. They were old, three solar batteries, but they were the source of energy in the village, the source of life. An old pre-Turmoil technology, they were the source of life in most inhabited places of Mars, and the knowledge of their construction had been lost during the Turmoil. Word was, someone at Ultimum tried to reinvent them, but didn’t succeed. Most of the Shadow Line trains were powered by solar batteries that were more effective than electrogenerators. Factories worked on them, villages used them, and when they crumbled from age and misuse, place got abandoned and trains were torn apart for bits of metal.

New Life had three of them, more than enough to power a few dozen houses and the water system, more than enough for the village to grow.

Since Roy’s arrival a few more houses had appeared. New Life didn’t announce themselves, and they were far from main routes. The train came here only once in a few weeks, but it was bringing new people. New Life was a village on the border of Aurora and Abundance Guild territories, a dusty place like so many places on Mars, but the people here were determined to never depend on anyone else. And they came here to start a new life.

It was a new life for Roy, too, and he liked it, perhaps more than he should. He and Innocence had fallen into perfect synch, they could go on for half a day in silence, Innocence working in the garden and Roy tinkering with metal and wires or cooking. Sometimes, when the moles became aggressive, Roy had to go for a hunt twice a day, before the sunrise and just after the nightfall. On the days when he stayed at home in the evening, they settled in their tiny kitchen or on the porch where Roy had made an awning out of old aluminum pieces, and they spent their evening writing in the journals or discussing the rare news they got here.

Other nights were so silent and peaceful that Roy didn’t want to talk, and he was content just watching Innocence drawing.

There were darker nights when Roy saw old pains and shadows darkening the kid’s face, and then Innocence quietly asked him to sing. Roy searched his memory for something light-hearted, to brighten the kid up, or wrapped a hand around his shoulder and hummed quiet songs of sadness and longing.

The past tormented Innocence even in his sleep, coming to him in nightmares, and Roy knew when they crawled back to claim his kid. A light sleeper, he woke up and rushed upstairs, into Innocence’s room, and touched him gently, and held him until his trembles and sobs dissolved into silence. Roy rocked him slightly and whispered words that would sound hollow at any other time, and rubbing his back until Innocence fell asleep again, peaceful now.

Roy’s own nightmares didn’t bother him these days, replaced by concern for the kid.

It was good, living like this, peace settling in Roy’s bones.

He knew it wouldn’t last.

Nothing this good could last, and there was no peace for him. One day his past would come hunting, and Innocence’s presence wouldn’t protect him.

It was inevitable and it made an ache settle in Roy, a cold claw that clenched his heart whenever he was reminded that this wouldn’t last.

Every day, as the peace spread in his like a warm fire, he told himself that he had to go, and every day he said to himself, I want to be here for a moment longer. And these moments added, turning into minutes, hours, days.

He tried to imagine telling the kid, I need to go, sorry. He imagined walking away without any notice, disappearing into the darkness of the night when Innocence was asleep.

He imagined nightmares sinking their sharp teeth into Innocence and tearing him apart, and nobody being there to protect him, and Roy cursed his imagination and stayed for another day, and then another, and another.

He was needed, not as a weapon, but as a person, with his flaws and quirks and silly songs, and he went for a hunt, and fixed lighting, and ruffled Innocence’s hair, and sang to him, waiting, waiting with stuttering heart for it all to end.

***

Morning sun was dancing on the crude table made of old crate and painted with swirls of striking blue, and it was dancing in Innocence’s eyes. Roy was on the couch, content after filling breakfast, a mug with steaming sweet tea in his hands, and he was watching the light caressing Innocence’s face, turning his blond hair into a halo.

The kid like to sit on the stool opposite of Roy, and Roy thought that it made him look at the portrait that was hanging on the wall just behind the couch. Roy’s portrait.

“Kindness told me his sage seeds have woken up,” Innocence said. His fork was clattering on the simple ceramic plate, the molesteak still warm. “When they grow stronger, he will give me some of the sprouts, and we will make tea.”

Roy smiled. “Another kind of tea?” It amazed him how Innocence never grew tired of making different tea compositions.

“Sage tea is goo for your throat, Kindness says,” Innocence replied. “You can drink it after you sing…” He trailed off, ducking his head, and color spread over his cheeks.

Roy smirked. Back in Shadowlair, Innocence had gotten really drunk one time. Roy dragged him to their hideout, humming a song to make the way more tolerable, and the kid, clinging on him, had slurred that he really like Roy’s voice. Charity had made him sing a few days after that, and Roy had agreed, because, apparently, his life was really dull without any trouble. Innocence had obviously developed an affection for Roy’s singing, but it made him blush almost every time.

Not that it didn’t make something flutter in Roy’s chest, watching such admiration.

There had been times long ago when he used to sell his voice and his singing, but singing to Innocence… It was a different thing.

Roy decided to sing for Innocence tonight, and he started, “Say, what do you think—”

Innocence didn’t listen. He jerked his head up, looking into the window to Roy’s left.

Roy stiffened, leaving his mug on the table, and put on his glove that he had stuffed into the pocket of his pants before cooking the breakfast, but then the stone look on kid’s face softened, and Innocence jumped to his feet, leaving the half-eaten molesteak, and dashed to the front door.

Roy heard the sound that made all kinds of horrors to flash before his eyes: the chirring of a dog. He stumbled around the table, heart pounding in his ears, and rushed to the porch. The blazing light of the day blinded him for a moment, and he shielded his eyes with right hand, clenching his left, gloved one.

“Hi, kid! Did our Technoguy cause you any trouble?”

The familiar voice with unique accent that had developed through years of wandering made a sudden lump swell in Roy’s throat, and his legs moved on their own accord.

“No,” he heard Innocence say with laughter in his voice. “I’m watching over him.”

Roy’s eyes finally adjusted to the light, and he grinned so wide it was painful. “Tenacity.”

He hadn’t changed, not much, at least. His clear gray-blue eyes were piercing and watchful like eyes of a wild dog, old leather jacket hung half-open, revealing a long scar over his ribs. A big bag was in his hands, the same patched up bag Roy had seen so many times. The only differences were that Tenacity had more gray strands in his hair than Roy remembered, and the kerchief on his neck was red instead of black.

But he had a companion now: a dog half Roy’s height chirred, swiping long antennae over Innocence’s open palms.

“What is his name?” Innocence asked, smiling.

Roy looked at Tenacity. The headhunter was grinning.

“What?” Roy frowned.

Tenacity was watching him intently, unnerving, then said, “The name’s Temperance.”

The dog chirred. Roy felt as if Tenacity had just overrode him with a freight train.

“You’re shitting me,” he growled at last, finding his voice.

“I shit you not,” Tenacity drawled, his grin turning even wider.

Roy glared at the man, then looked at Innocence who was laughing breathlessly and scratching under the dog’s chin, and the sparks of annoyance died in Roy’s chest. “I’ll zap you with a lightning, I swear. One of these days…” he mumbled, completely defeated.

“Maybe he just missed you, Roy,” said Innocence, and this sudden thought made a knot tie in Roy’s chest. The dog licked Innocence’s hand and chirred. “Your master missed Roy, didn’t he, Temperance?”

Roy winced from the name. It was his former name, the name he hated and abandoned. Damn, but he thought he had moved past it.

“Nah, him?” Tenacity’s playful gaze wasn’t leaving Roy, but the grin turned into a soft smile, warming Roy. “I wouldn’t go here to look at his ugly face even if they’d offered me a great bounty, but you, kid, you’re a different story.” The headhunter turned to Innocence and patted his shoulder.

“Come to the house,” the kid suggested. “We were just having a breakfast.”

“Food is always good. Show me what you’ve got.”

Innocence patted the dog and walked back into the house.

“Dogs are not—” Roy cried out, but it was too late, the big beast was already in the kitchen,dwarfing it by his presence. “Uh, never mind.” Roy glared back at Tenacity. “I hope you haven’t come here for my head, have you?” he said quietly.

Tenacity waved the assumption off. “No. As I said, I just missed the kid.” His grin returned, and he reached out his hand.

Roy clasped it with ungloved palm. “Good to see you, Old Hound,” he said honestly, the warmth of the meeting curling his lips.

It was surprising to understand that he did miss Tenacity. There was something reassuring in the way the headhunter seemed to never change much. He was like all those years ago when hey had first met, the same grin, the same annoying overconfidence, the same solidity. And he still was a man for hire, but Roy trusted Tenacity more than he trusted even the people of New Life.

Maybe it was saying something about him and his twisted views.

Hey went to the house shoulder to shoulder, exchanging painless quips. Innocence had already filled two extra plates and lowered one down on the windowsill for the dog. He chewed on the steak with loud chirring.

“Do you even feed him, Tenacity?” Roy teased, shaking his head. The hound was licked the plate clean.

“Maybe he liked Innocence’s cooking.”

“Hey, I’m cooking here. Sometimes good things come from me, too.”

Tenacity chuckled, the sound like the ground shifting during the quake. “Whatever you say, Electroguy.” He dumped his bag near the couch, and Roy scowled at the sand that trickled off it on the floor, then pointed at the sink.

“Running water?” Tenacity cocked his head to the side. “You found a good place to live in, guys.” Roy moved aside to let him past, and the headhunter washed his hands and splashed some water on his face, and it trickled into his beard.

“I have a present,” the headhunter said after drying his hands. He dug into his bag and took out a brown notebook. “I know you like writing things, kid,” Tenacity said, holding the notebook out, and Roy hid his smile behind the mug.

Innocence took it and stroked the cover, then flipped through it. It was a good piece, worth a fortune, with smooth leather and creamy sheets thick enough for watery paint. They had enough paper, but leather for the covers was rare, and New Life had no means to prepare mole hide for this purpose.

Innocence’s chest was rising and falling with racing breaths. “Thank you, Tenacity,” he said quietly.

“Well,” Tenacity scratches his cheek and patted his thighs. “Time to test your cooking, Roy.”

Since Roy had already had his breakfast, he watched them eat, and they talked and laughed. They told Tenacity about their life here, and he told them the news about the big world. The war halted to a stalemate, but Aurora’s victory was just a matter of time. Abundance couldn’t recover from the loss of Green Hope. Words were that Aurora’s new leader — and Tenacity exchanged looks with Roy — had been gathering forces to take the oldest Guild down for good. Well, Roy thought, he had a reason. Abundance still had the oldest and biggest factories, and now that General Honour had put the Technomancers of Aurora on a short leash, he could act freely. Roy hoped that it wouldn’t affect New Life.

After the breakfast Innocence took Temperance for a walk around the town. Roy was sure that the villagers had already noticed their guest. Tenacity was infamous, and no doubt they recognized him, which meant more trouble for Roy. But as long as it didn’t cause Innocence any harm, Roy was okay with that.

Tenacity turned back on the couch to study Roy’s portrait. Roy smirked. Tenacity didn’t know yet that Innocence had drawn him, too, several times.

Shaking his head, Tenacity took a flask out of his bag, the gray metal dulled from years of use, and dangled it. Roy nodded and took it from the headhunter’s warm paws, then took a swig. It burned his throat, but it was a smooth burn, and he half-closed his eyes. Tenacity had a knack at finding good stuff.

“So what did bring you here, Tenacity?” Roy asked after a few moments, leaning back on the chair.

Out in the village the four kids the village had were playing hide-and-seek, counting and squealing in delight, and behind that Roy could hear a distant chirring.

“People say that Relics have been found in a certain place,” Tenacity said, sprawling on the couch, but his shoulders were tense.

Roy raised his eyebrows. “People?”

“My contacts. I thought you’d want to go and take a look at them, before the Electorguys swarm around.”

It reminded Roy about the digging site near Green Hope. At some point he had thought that the only point of the war was to capture Green Hope and excavate the Relics there. The Technomancers had had great influence of the previous Dowser Wisdom, as Roy had uncovered. And they had found their Relics, but what had that meant? Roy never asked.

During his time at the Source Roy had heard many theories regarding the Relics and their origin and purpose, but nothing made sense for him. The only thing he could understand was the practical one: the Relics were metal. Sometimes it was an unusual alloy that the Technomancers could neither recognize nor reproduce, and other times it was something familiar, and they could make use of it.

He shook his head. “I have settled here, my friend. But I think it’s not the only reason behind your arrival. Am I right?”

Tenacity was silent for a moment, drinking from the flask, then turned his full attention on Roy. “They are at you,” he said quietly. “Abundance Technomancers. They want to see you punished, for the camp and that Technoguy you put down. And for who knows else. They’re offering a big prize for anyone who could bring you to them. Alive.”

Roy took in a long breath, cold creeping under his shirt.

So that was it. The time for him to leave. And despite days, weeks of preparing himself for it, he wasn’t ready. He couldn’t go, not now.

“I can’t expose Innocence to this danger. I should go,” he said, more for himself than for Tenacity, and scrubbed at the dirty spot on his mug.

“He won’t let you go this easily. I see how he looks at you. You mean world to him. He’ll go after you if you sneak away. And honestly? I can’t blame him. I wouldn’t let you out of my sight for a single moment, if I were him. You’ll become reckless.”

Roy managed a weak smile. “Aw, you’re worried about me, I’m touched.”

Tenacity snorted. “I’m worried about the kid crying, not about your sorry ass disappearing.” He smiled back, too, genuine and soft. “He’s a good kid. He doesn’t deserve to mourn over your electro-cooked remains.”

And just in time Roy heard Innocence’s voice, full of light and laughter, followed by loud chirring, and he imagined Innocence playing with the hound, wrapped in the sunlight, and Roy ached.

“He has just settled here, he has his house and his garden and peace. What has happened will never leave him,” Roy gripped the mug and it creaked under his fingers, “but he is able to smile and laugh again and he has learned to not apologize for every damn thing he does. I can’t take it from him, Tenacity. I knew one days I would leave, but I just…” He shook his head. “I can’t. This house and this garden and this peace, he deserves them, and I can’t steal them away by staying and exposing him to danger again, and I can’t leave either.”

If he went, he would take a part of Innocence’s peace from him. Either way he would hurt him bad.

He raked a hand through his hair, then looked at Tenacity. “You know I can’t stay and I can’t leave. Why have you come? Why have you told me this?”

Tenacity raised his palms. “To warn you. And to suggest you to go look at the Relics.” The headhunter leaned forward, urgency in his voice. “Take Innocence with you. They’ll lose your trail, I guarantee it. And then you two will return here, to live in peace.”

Oh, was it tempting, this easy way. Just travel for a while together, then return to their slow life. Roy felt his resolve already crumbling.

“But what about the house?”

“Ask him, Roy. Let him decide if he wants to go,” Tenacity said softly.

“You think you already know his answer.”

Tenacity nodded. “I do know, yes. But you need him to voice it.”

Funny, Roy thought, how he could leave anything and anyone behind, being used to running away. But he couldn’t leave Innocence, he was clinging to him like he was the last spark of light in the crawling, suffocating darkness. And in a way, he was.

Roy shook those thoughts out of his head. “What’s the place with the Relics?”

“I’ll show you on a map.” Tenacity dug into his bag again and took out an old map on the northern hemisphere. Roy cleaned the table, and they spread out the map.

“Roy?”

He turned around. Innocence was standing on the threshold, the kid’s hand resting on top of Temperance’s head. Innocence’s eyes were stripping, flaying Roy’s soul bare, defenseless.

The kid walked past Tenacity to the sink, washing his hands and wiping them on a cloth, and Roy watched him with bated breath. Innocence turned to the table, and his gaze traveled over the map. “Where are are we going?” he asked, turning his attention to Roy.

He stiffened. “Look, kid—”

“The place,” interrupted him Tenacity, bumping their elbows a little, “is called Flammarion Four.”

Roy shot a gaze at Tenacity, but the man was bent over the map and running calloused fingers with black chipped nails over the markings.

Innocence came closer, and his arm brushed Roy’s sleeve-covered forearm. The kid’s skin was burning even through fabric. Roy licked his lips and turned his attention to the map.

Tenacity pointed at the place. “Here.”

Roy read the markings and frowned. “It’s ‘Peane’s place. Is it?”

Tenacity nodded. “Yeah. It’s a mining site, but it’s been abandoned a few weeks ago. Their last solar battery has died out, and there are quakes in that area, so they evac’d all workers. Except for the Dust, obviously.”

Innocence paled. “A few weeks ago? The Dust must have run out of supplies!”

“Nobody cares about the mutants,” said Roy quietly. He suspected that everything of use had been taken during the evacuation, so the Dust had probably hadn’t anything at all.

“Why we are going there?” asked Innocence, looking at Tenacity.

“After one of the quakes the Dust have discovered a tunnel leading to Relics. I asked Roy if he wanted to take a look at them.”

“And help the mutants,” Innocence said, his gaze unyielding, and turned to Roy.

He nodded. “If there’s anyone left to help.”

The kid looked at the map once more, fumbling with the strings on his cuffs that he used to fix rolled up sleeves while working in the garden. Then he walked to the door. “I will ask Kindness to look after the house and plants while we are absent.” He went out, and Temperance who had been waiting on the porch trotted after him.

Roy wanted to call him, but kept silent.

“Well, here’s your answer, Roy,” Tenacity stated.

And so it was.

“You with us, Old Hound?”

Tenacity raised an eyebrow. “You think I have nothing better to do?” Then he grinned. “Of course I’m with you. I have to cover your ass. And besides, the truck we are going to use belongs to me.”

Roy stared at him. “Where did you… Okay, never mind.” It was better to not ask.

Tenacity tapped at few points on the map. “That’s where we’re going to take my truck and these are our intended stops. We gotta go to this Shadow Line station, and then on foot to the place where I hid the truck.”

“How are we going to get to the station?” He snorted, studying the map. “Don’t tell me you suggest we walk.”

“No, I arranged a train for us.”

Roy shook his head, laughing. “You’ve got everything covered.”

Tenacity produced a smug grin. “I’m used to taking care of things. I thought you’d definitely agree to go to Flammarion Four, and if not, well, I’d go there by myself. And with Temperance, of course.”

Roy moaned. “Aw, cut it already. You’re really proud of yourself for naming your dog like this, aren’t you?”

Tenacity laughed. “Actually, he came with a name. I saw him and then his trainer told me his name, and I thought, ‘Ah, this is destiny’.”

Roy tried to think of a witty comeback, but then Innocence returned.

The kid was carrying something wrapped in a cloth, and Temperance was helping by carrying the edge of the cloth in his mouth. There was solemnity in Innocence’s face, and Roy stiffened.

Tenacity excused himself and went out, calling the dog with him. Temperance chirred, letting go of the cloth, and trotted after his master.

Roy folded the map and moved it aside. The kid put his package down on the table and unwrapped it, revealing fresh herbs. He started plucking leaves from the stems, putting the leaves and the stems into two separate piles.

Roy waited and waited, forgetting how to breathe.

“You wanted to leave me,” Innocence said.

For the first time since their meeting Roy couldn’t understand what he was thinking about. The kid’s face was stern, but undecipherable, like a stone mask, and his voice was too even and devoid of any emotion.

Roy rubbed his face, sighing. He couldn’t lie here, but he couldn’t tell the whole truth. “It’s dangerous. You saw the map, the place’s nearly in the zone where people get roasted on Mars’s whim. You heard Tenacity. There are no supplies, no energy, and nobody knows what we can find there. Too dangerous.” He tried to sound convincing. “I couldn’t ask you to go with me.”

Innocence’s hands stopped their movement. They were tan and calloused and firm, and Roy knew how warm they usually were, but now they seemed made of stone, too. There was green juice smeared over them from a few leaves Innocence had crumpled. He was usually gentle and never crumpled plants.

“But you are going yourself, despite the danger. You wouldn’t even ask me, would you?” His voice cracked to let out a trickle of tremble that swayed Roy off his feet. “Like that time when you got me out of prison but didn’t even come to talk to me.”

“You were mad at me,” Roy said quietly. He wanted to move and pull the kid into embrace, but he didn’t dare.

Innocence whipped around, blue eyes huge and burning. “No, I wasn’t! Not until I realized that you were not going to come. I was confused and, and scared,” he waved, and one leaf was swept by the motion on the floor, “but also I was worried, worried about you! And then that military lady came to move me somewhere else but you—”

“They sentenced you to death.” Roy clenched his fists, looking at the fallen leaf. It landed on the floor right between them, and he held at its dull green, feeling the darkness of the past wrapping its claws around his throat. It was difficult to speak. “I’ve bought your life with my own, you’ve read the journal and you know how it went.”

A hand touched his arm, startling him. He lifted his gaze.

“I was worried, Roy,” the kid repeated softly, and his face was not a stone anymore. “I wanted to see you. When I moved here, I didn’t even know if you were still alive. I didn’t know how to find you or how to help you find me.”

Roy couldn’t say anything to this, but maybe he didn’t need to, because Innocence closed the distance between them and wrapped his arms around him. Moving slowly, afraid of losing him, Roy raised his hands and put them on the kid’s back. It was too brief, though, Innocence freed himself, scooped the greens and the cloth, and ran upstairs.

“You’re so wrapped around his finger.”

Roy startled and turned. Tenacity was leaning on the door, his arms crossed over his chest, and a smile was dancing on his lips.

Roy lowered his head. “Shut up,” he mumbled.

“The train is going to come tomorrow morning, so you better get to sleep early today.” He patted Roy’s shoulder. “A personal train at your service.” The headhunter grinned and bowed melodramatically. “You should be grateful. I don’t make grand gestures like this just for anyone.”

“I’m flattered,” Roy mockingly bowed in reply, and, truly, he was flattered. And most importantly, he could trust Tenacity to take care of Innocence if Roy himself would fail. “You planning to stay under the roof overnight?”

Tenacity grunted in reply, taking a mug — Roy’s mug — and filling it with tap water.

Roy smiled, thinking of sweet, sweet revenge for the mug. “Then you’ll sleep on my couch, here.” He pointed at the one in the kitchen. “And I’ll sleep in a bedroll upstairs.”

Tenacity eyed the piece of furniture dubiously. It was slightly too short for Roy, and although Tenacity was shorter than he, his shoulders were broader. It would be a killer to find a comfortable position on the couch.

The headhunter shot him a glance that promised slow and painful death, but it didn’t sway Roy’s mood.

Then Tenacity grinned. “I can ask Temperance to keep you warm.”

“Fuck you,” he breathed out.

That made Tenacity’s grin even wider. “Tell Innocence that we are leaving early, so he could pack his things today.”

Roy nodded. He needed to settle things between them anyway.

He headed upstairs, and the stairs clunked under his boots. He caught himself thinking that he never wondered if he would miss the sound. He doubted that he would come back after they are done with the Relics. Maybe Tenacity was right and the Technomancers would lose his trail, but if Tenacity could trace him until New Life, anybody else could. Innocence was not safe while Roy was around, regardless of where they were, in New Life, in Shadowlair or someplace else.

He didn’t want to admit it, but deep inside he was glad that Innocence was coming with them. Leaving felt like tearing a part of himself out to stay and bleed. Roy understood how much of a sacrifice it was, Innocence had his tiny house and his garden, but he was willing to go with Roy despite everything. Roy had never had anyone in his life who could do things like this for him, and it was frightening, how weak and warm it made him feel.

He tapped on the bedroom door. There was a rustling noise, and then Innocence asked him in.

The house had only three rooms, kitchen, bedroom and a bathroom, so the bedroom also acted as a study. The table near the only window that was facing the east was covered with papers and drawing tools. One of the walls, opposite of the bed, was painted with complicated pattern: green and gold plants and light-blue lightnings. It had been unfinished when Roy had arrived here, but now it was in its full glory. Roy liked to watch it during the day, with blinds open. The sunlight, shifting and moving over the painting, made the pattern come alive.

Just before the sunrise it seemed to glow, when Roy walked into the room before going out on the hunt, and whispered a goodbye to the kid.

He had imagined that some day he would go away just like this, with a goodbye under his breath, casting the last glance on the crown of the kid’s head, peeking from under the blanket, dirty-blond hair spiking into every direction.

Maybe he was getting old and sentimental.

The kid was picking up sketches and drawings and placing them in a small metal box.

Roy shifted from foot to foot. “You can stay if you want.”

Innocence’s shoulders tensed, and his hands halted for a moment before resuming their movement. “I don’t want to stay. I want to go with you.” He closed the box and put it under the table, then he took his journal that also served as a sketchbook, and a leather purse that Roy had made for the kid’s drawing tools. Innocence took an old brown bag from the floor and packed his belongings, then straightened and leaned heavily on the table. “Don’t ask me to stay, Roy.”

“I don’t know what might happened there.” He walked to the kid and placed hands on his hunched shoulders. They were warm through the thin shirt, and hard as rocks.

“It is yet another reason for me to go with you. Somebody has to look after you.”

Roy stifled the fluttery feeling in his chest and offered the last argument, “But this is your home.”

The kid turned slightly to look at him, and his eyes captured Roy like they always did. “No, it isn’t. You are my home.”

It hit him in the gut, the simplicity of it, the honestly, and he took a step back. “I… I thinking you should wear your old jacket and the scarf.” He turned around and all but rolled down the stairs.

He walked outside, his chest rising and falling rapidly. Something touched his palm, and he looked at Temperance. The hound chirred. Roy shook his head and patted the dog. “Innocence is amazing, isn’t he?” he mused aloud. Temperance chirred again, then the muscles under rusty-red hide tensed and he turned his head.

“What is it, boy?” Roy asked then heard voices.

Angry voices.

“Shit.”

He hurried down the street, the dog trotting alongside.

“What’s going on here?” he asked loudly.

Tenacity was in front of the very angry villagers. It reminded Roy of his first days here. Innocence had protected him from these men — or rather, he protected them, because even being war veterans, they couldn’t oppose a Technomancer and go out of it unscathed. Tenacity wasn’t a Technomancer, but it didn’t make him any less dangerous.

“First you came here, Technomancer!” spat out one of the men, a big fellow named Courage. He had been the one to confront Roy, too, in his time. “And then you drag a headhunter, too?”

Generosity went out on the porch of his house behind them but did nothing to interfere, just leaned on the banister, lighting a cigar. It smelled foul, like burning tomato stalks or old paper. Tenacity used better stuff.

“Wow, I’m so famous even in this shithole,” the headhunter muttered. His posture was relaxed, but it was only a deception. He could strike fast and deadly, like a giant hound.

Temperance growled, too, lowering his head.

The group of men eyed the dog warily.

Tenacity noticed him and placed a palm on his nape, rubbing slightly. “Easy, boy, easy.”

Roy took a step forward. “This headhunter is as much Innocence’s friend as he is mine, and you better not shout here, you’re making the dog nervous.” His Technomantic glove was still hugging his left hand, and these people knew what the black glove meant.

Courage swayed back. “There’ll be a time, ‘Mancer, when Innocence would not be able to protect you,” he uttered, pointing right at Roy.

He huffed. “Yeah, looking forward to it. Anyway, I won’t be able to enjoy your company for a while. Tomorrow we’re getting out of here.”

“Good to know, ‘Mancer!” shouted someone in the group.

Generosity frowned and talked for the first time, “What about Innocence?”

“He’s going with them” replied Kindness, limping to the group. He was the oldest in New Life. His hair was bleached by sun and grief and losses. He hadn’t participated in the war directly, but he was an ever-mourning father who had lost both his son and his son-in-law to the bloody war. And he was one of the precious few people who didn’t mind Roy’s presence in the village.

One day he had stopped Roy on his way home from the hunt, and gave him seeds for Innocence. Then he took Roy’s hand, his grip firm, and said, He looks up to you. Don’t disappoint him.

“We are going early in the morning,” Roy added.

“I’ll look after your house, don’t worry.” Kindness nodded, then smiled, and the smile was faint like an echo of the bright past.

Roy muttered his thanks, lowering his gaze.

Courage huffed, but didn’t say anything.

Roy clasped Tenacity’s shoulder and walked with him back to the house, sighing.

“Is it always like this?” Tenacity asked.

“The war damaged them all, I can’t blame them for being suspicious,” he shrugged as casually as he could.

“Yeah, but our kid hasn’t become a paranoid ass,” replied Tenacity, then gripped Roy’s arm, stopping him.

Roy took a deep breath, then looked at the headhunter. His eyes were soft, and his face, usually the face of a hunting hound, was glowing with sympathy. “I’m sorry it’s like this for you.”

Roy shrugged again. “I’m used to it. They have seen their comrades electrocuted by the Technomancers, and I’m a Technomancer, even though I don’t wear the uniform and don’t have the wires pugged into my head.” He looked at his left hand, black and sleek. “I don’t even have the matching glove. But still, despite everything, I am a Technomancer.”

Tenacity shook his head then threw a look at Roy, but then turned to Temperance and patted his head. “C’mon, Temperance! Where is Innocence? Go look for him!”

The dog chirred, waggling his short tail, then dashed into the house.

“I think it’s for the best if we get you both out of here,” said Tenacity quietly.

“I think it’s for the best if we get to look after you,” Roy parried, touched by Tenacity’s care and worried by his quiet demeanor.

His quip eased the tension, and they both laughed.

***

The rest of the day was spent in packing, and throughout it all Roy’s heart was going heavier and heavier. This tiny house had become his home, though he understood that it was Innocence’s presence that made it feel like home.

He had wandered through many dusty place, made a few acquaintances along the way, even met people he could, after some thinking, call his friends, but nothing felt like home, mostly because he had never stayed anywhere for too long. It scared him how the tiny house had become his home. He had been in New Life only for a few weeks, and it had been his home from the moment he had seen the familiar figure working in the garden, from the moment the kid had gripped his jacket and cried out his name.

It crawled into him through the opening in his defenses made by Innocence, and it curled up in there and refused to go. And there were things he had made here himself, with his own hands, the porch, the kid’s tools purse, the table in the kitchen, the wiring of the stove, the boxes where the kid stored his drawings and sketches. He fixed the blinds in the bedroom and the leaking tap in the kitchen sink, he made a small lamp that they lightened in the evening while sitting out on the porch. They made things together, too, re-covered the roof, scrubbed the outer walls of the house clean, made the fence around the garden…

The place didn’t matter on itself, but the days and nights they had spent here, the things they had done here mattered. Leaving it would mean leaving the memories, too.

Even the moles that lurked around the village felt like old friends for Roy — unlike most of the villagers.

He wondered briefly who would hunt the moles after he’d be gone. Probably Courage and the gang, if they would be smart enough to not touch the younglings or try to kill the queens.

“Having second thoughts already?” asked Tenacity, startling Roy out of his thoughts.

He was in the middle of packing stripes of dried meat into his bag, and his hands lingered on the sack he was wrapping them into. The headhunter, watching him, leaned on the wall, his arms crossed.

Roy smiled, returning to his task. “Not really. Just thinking about this place. I wanted to see the kid’s orchard bloom. Or garden. Whatever.”

“You’ll get to see it. It’s not like you’re not going back. Just a trip to dust off your boots.”

He chuckled. “I’m sure that this trip is going to make my boots even dustier.”

Tenacity waved him off. “You get the idea. I’ll make sure you both return to tend for the kid’s orchard, and you’re going to have the sweetest fruits on Mars.”

“Yeah, and you’re gonna pay for them,” grinned Roy. It was easy, this verbal dance of jokes.

Tenacity gasped. “What, this is your gratitude? For all those times I saved your ass?” The headhunter mockingly clutched at his chest. “Ah, you wound me, my friend.”

The gesture made his jacket open up even more, and since Tenacity didn’t wear anything under it, Roy took the opportunity to rake a gaze over the man’s torso, always curiously pale despite spending a good amount of time outside. Then he noticed the glint in Tenacity’s eyes.

He did it on purpose, bastard.

Roy averted his eyes, muttering a few curses. “Quit standing there and help me make out dinner.” He wrapped the meat stripes and put them into his bag, then walked out to the garden. Circling a few plant beds, he took a small shovel and went to the bump in the sand.

“What are you doing, you crazy Tech-boy?” asked Tenacity from behind him. “You can’t really…”

Roy smiled at the panicky notes in his voice and dug into the scorching hot sand and after a few moments took out a cloth with meat. It was crusty already. Perfect.

Tenacity burst into laughter. “Oh no, you actually did!”

Roy turned to him, holding his prize. “Well, you taught me this trick yourself, and we have plenty of moles here, so why not? Makes a difference in our diet.”

“But it’s a, you know, a method reserved for emergency! When you are out in the wild! And the meat tastes awful after it bakes in the sand.”

“No, it doesn’t. Innocence uses his herbs to spice it up, and it’s delicious, you’ll see.”

Tenacity shook his head, and the sun danced in his reddish hair, making it resemble the color of hounds hide. “You’re crazy.”

Roy dusted off his pants. “I get told this a lot.”

They returned to the house, Tenacity hovering behind him, and fell into usual afternoon routine, only this time there were Tenacity and his dog, getting in the way, challenging for a duel of words, making Innocence laugh. Roy thought he could get used to it, too, to the presence of the headhunter and his giant dog, and it was good, having them around.

They could live here together. Build a bigger house to accommodate them all… Roy could go for a hunt together with Temperance, and they could draw Tenacity into working in the garden. But leaving Tenacity here meant twice more problems for Innocence. He was a headhunter, but he was hunted, too, by old enemies, old clients.

Maybe Tenacity didn’t even want to settle down. Maybe Roy just wanted to share the overwhelming joy of having a place to call home.

Maybe Roy wasn’t made for it at all. When their “trip” was over, he would go away and they would stick together for a while, Tenacity and he, like in the good old times, and then part their ways. And he would never return to Innocence, never would he see his orchard bloom.

It would be better this way.

Roy got rid of those thoughts in favor of making a dinner. The kid was close, brewing herbal tea in a kettle, and their arms bumped occasionally, and Roy listened to Innocence quiet laughter and watched his smiles, trying to engrave it all on his memory.

After the dinner Innocence took his journal and pencils out on the porch and called, “Come, Temperance! Will you let me draw you?” The hound chirred, the whole muscled body vibrating, and sat down before the kid, staying perfectly still, only the antennae were waving.

“It seems your dog has chosen a new master, Tenacity.”

The headhunter, washing the dishes, threw a glance at the kid and the hound. “Can’t blame him. Everyone has a soft spot for the kid.”

It wiped the smile off Roy’s face, and Tenacity looked at him, muttering, “Shit! I’m sorry.”

He had told the headhunter the story of their meeting for Innocence. The kid had been delivered by the train to the P.O.W. camp 19, along with other Aurorian prisoners, and as per the rules the prisoners had been guided to the sand showers. Where a welcoming committee had been waiting for them already. Fatso and his gang had been the infamous rapist of the camp. When Fatso had started doing his thing, he had quickly realized that a grunt fresh out from the front lines wasn’t an easy target, so Fatso had made a few friends and ganged up on the “fresh meat” as he liked to call them.

And Innocence was small, fragile, with badly bandaged wounds and big hollow eyes. An easy prey.

When Roy had appeared, Fatso had mused aloud, saying that Roy probably wanted Innocence for himself. But Fatso and his mongrels had quickly excused themselves.

Roy could imagine the look on his own face then. He had been so mad he couldn’t utter a word. He would have probably tore them apart, burned them on the spot, no even thinking about consequences.

He couldn’t allow them to ruin Innocence like this.

The way they had been looking on the kid reminded him of the same gaze he had drawn to himself years ago, in the Source and even after that.

Roy shook his head. He knew Tenacity didn’t mean his words to sound this way. “Do you have something left in that magical flask of yours?”

Tenacity turned off the tap and, without even drying his hands, fished the flask out of the pocket on his thigh. “Don’t get drunk, you’ll die hungover tomorrow, and no matter how Temperance would try to eat you, I won’t allow him.” Despite his words, the headhunter gave the flask to Roy.

It was wet and warm, and Roy noticed with surprise that his hands were trembling. “Very beautiful image,” he tried to joke, then unstoppered the flask and tilted his head back, taking a big gulp. The fireball rolled down into his stomach, but it couldn’t burn the images of the past out of his mind.

“He’s a trained hound, not a puppy.”

The “trained hound” chirred gleefully. Roy turned to look, closing the flask. Innocence turned his journal for Temperance to check his work. The dog liked it, obviously.

Roy laughed, a knot in him loosing for a bit. “Yeah, right, a trained hound.”

The edge of the sky was turning light-blue, and soft wind brought the scent of wet soil. It was the time of the evening watering cycle. Moles would definitely try to get to the water this week.

“Time to prepare for sleep,” Roy said. “There’s a shower upstairs. With real water.” He marvelled in the way Tenacity’s eyes widened.

“Shower? And you haven’t mentioned it before?”

He shrugged. “What can I say, you get used to good things really quick and stop noticing them.”

Tenacity snatched his flask out of his hands and went upstairs, muttering under his breath something that wasn’t really flattering for Roy.

He took a sheet, blanket and a pillow out of the box standing near the couch, then spread the sheet over the couch, put the pillow down and threw the blanket over it. It was still warm at nights so Tenacity wouldn’t get cold under the thin blanket. Besides, the man was usually overheating.

Roy took out his bedroll, an old thing he had bought almost immediately after meeting Tenacity for the first time. It had cost almost all Serum Roy had had at the time, but it had served Roy for years. He was glad he had left it to Charity just before the war had swept him away, along with a few personal belongings he had, a sturdy jacket, a pair of good boots, just in case.

He walked upstairs to arrange his sleeping place. There was barely enough room for him on the floor near Innocence’s bed, but he had had worse sleeping conditions. He spread it out on the floor and put a spare pillow Innocence had been keeping under his bed.

Just as he straightened, Tenacity went out of the bathroom, and they nearly bumped into each other.

The headhunter was bare-chested, though wearing pants, and Roy had enough time to catch the scent of water, clean sun-baked skin, and good alcohol. The the warmth of him.

There wasn’t enough space between them.

Tenacity grinned. “What, want to kiss me goodnight?”

Roy punched him in the shoulder. “No, came to drag you out of my shower.” He wasn’t going to let his own weakness show.

Tenacity rubbed at the spot. “I’ll wake you up.”

“We’re early risers.”

Tenacity nodded. “Goodnight, then, Tech-boy.”

“Goodnight,” Roy smiled.

There was a moment of tension and silence when he stood, awkward, motionless, but then it passed, and Tenacity moved out of his reach and his boots clunked down the stairs.

He thought about how many times Tenacity had a chance to say goodnight to someone. Especially to someone who wasn’t going to sell his head by morning. He came to conclusion that the number of those times was not very big.

Roy took a shower, too, lingering a while longer than he usually did, understanding that he wouldn’t be able to take a shower for a while. He then put on his night clothes and lay down on the bedroll. He winced at the hardness of the floor, but at least the pillow was quite fluffy. The clothes he prepared for the morning were folded in a pile near the bedroll, and he reached out and took the Technomantic glove out of the pants, then stuffed it under the pillow. Just in case.

He drifted off quickly, the habit ingrained in him from the years of moving around and having little opportunities for sleep. But mostly it was the sense of being safe that lulled him into sleep fast.

From under the blanket of his sleep he heard Innocence walking around, then the whispering of the shower water. Then the quiets steps that were avoiding the creaking parts of the floor, and then the sheets rustled on the bed.

The kid’s breathing filled the silence, and Roy fell into the welcoming darkness.

Chapter Text

My lowest day, I guess. I had to sell my coat, Technomancer’s coat. Had to say that I’ve found it. It’s pretty worn out by now, but still recognisable. I don’t think the dealer believed me but he didn’t say anything and payed me too little. I can’t complain, though. It’s better than nothing, and I got rid of the damnable thing. Don’t know why I’d kept it this long. I couldn’t wear it, not anymore, not if I didn’t want to rise suspicion. Nobody likes Technomancers. But it contained memories. Bad memories. Good memories. Smells and textures. I couldn’t just throw it away like old skin. Now I have nothing left, except my gloves.

If only you could see me now, Aust. Dirty, had to grow out my hair to hide the markings on my temples. But they are like scars, visible despite all, they are like a brand. “Technomancer,” they say. “Psychotic killer,” they scream to everyone around.

I had to change a lot of things about my appearance. Grow stubble, too, gain some scars… I wonder if you would even recognise me. I wonder if you would even care to recognise me.

Yesterday I thought I saw a familiar black coat in the crowd, and my heart stopped for a moment, but not from fear. No, it was not fear. All I could think of was you. That maybe you’d come for me, at last. That maybe I get to see you one more time. In that stretched out moment it didn’t even occur to me that if we’d really met, it would probably mean that you had come to kill me. To put the mad dog down.

After this long, such a long year I can say that it makes you think, puts things into perspective. I mean, being completely on your own. It makes you re-evaluate things, re-think. Remember, too. When you’re not clawing for your own life, that is.

They’ve never taught us important things, our teachers. How to walk through slums where people are so desperate they might kill you if you seem to have enough meat on your bones. How to deal with thugs when you don’t have your reputation and uniform to protect you.

What to do with complete freedom, so vast you feel lost in it, lost and insignificant.

Though I have to admit that being used to poor meals really helps me to survive. But sometimes things drilled in me get in the way of my survival. I have to learn new things and adjust my previous knowledge according to this real world they have never spoken about, and in some cases, I have to un-learn things.

There are times when I feel so alien as if I was born on another planet. I don’t understand these people, and they don’t understand me, and when you appear a stranger, it might cost you your life. That much I’ve learnt in the first weeks. Remember how they taught us basic hand-to-hand combat? Oh so scarce and useless those lessons were. A Technomancer isn’t supposed to go hand-to-hand. A Technomancer isn’t even supposed to go face-to-face, we’re good at killing from a distance, without even learning our enemies’ facial features. If only you could see me now, Aust! Watch how I fight now, without dignity or honour. You forget about these things quick. If you live long enough to do it, of course. I fight for my own life, what has become of it, and there is always that voice of temptation that reminds me I have a great power, ready to be unleashed at my will. Ah, that voice, telling me I don’t have to rely on some petty nailguns or break my own knuckles. And maybe it could spare me a broken rib or split lips, but the moment I use it I’m as good as dead. Oh, I can get rid of any witness, but there is something in the air, something in the stones and rocks and sands that whisper, whisper, and words fly freely. And somebody would come after me, maybe my former brothers. Maybe even you would come, Aust.

And I can’t die yet. I have so much to do. I’m sorry.

I had to give up many things in order to live another day. And another. And another.

Things like clean water, always ready for me whenever I want to drink or refresh myself. Quiet evenings in the library. I have only one book with me and my journal. All the documents and books I find in my research, I have to read quick and memorise. That’s one more good thing about our drilling: my memory is able to store many things.

And memories, too, are among the things I can’t afford now, the personal memories. It’s ironic how now I resemble a perfect machine they tried to make out of us, more than I was back… there. I almost wrote, “back home”, but it never felt like home, despite all the years I’d spent there. The library felt more or less of a haven, silent, empty. My own cell… Never. You, Aust… You’re completely another thing.

You’re the only memory, the only luxury I sometimes allow myself to savour.

At first, I relied on memories. Despite the shadows cast over so many of them, it was something familiar, a place I could retreat to when the real world, the world I’ve fled to, seemed to be too much. But I discovered there was a fatal flaw in this course of action: memories hurt. They hurt so much and distracted me from every day deeds it put me in danger. I cannot escape them completely: I remember classes and studying, recollect books I’ve read and sayings I’ve heard. I remember our training, I try to readjust my own powers in those scarce moments I dare to tinker with Technomancy. But I forbid myself to dwell on it, to dive deeper into it.

Though there are moments of weakness I can’t escape at all, low minutes just after I wake up, when half-dreams and half-memories are playing in my mind, so vivid I can taste them. I dream of you… You, I dream of you. There is no point in denying it, isn’t it? I keep this journal as if some day you would read it and try to understand my confessions. If you would even care…

Through the course of the years I’ve accepted that I will never be able to confess my feelings for you. You wouldn’t understand. I was a friend of yours, and you allowed me to get this close, and it was enough. Should have been enough for me. Even though it wasn’t. But more than that, I needed you to understand my ideas, my thoughts, assumptions. And you… You have rejected them. Called me insane.

I remember it vividly, your face, pale from anger, your voice, full of disgust.

You have rejected me. That’s why I have fled. It’s not the only reason, but it is the main reason.

 

Chapter Text

Roy woke up on his back. A stripe of light was moving on the ceiling. He got up, ribbing at his sides, then stretched and went into the shower. He dressed for the road, putting on his old jacket with buttoning sleeves. He let the scarf hang on the bag, reminding himself to put it on later. He rolled the bedroll and attached it to the bag, and the pillow was stuffed back under the bed.

Heavy steps fell on the stairs, and Roy looked at Tenacity. The headhunter was sullen, scratching his bushy beard and blinking at Roy. He took pity on Tenacity and waved him down into the kitchen.

Innocence was still asleep on the bed, his grown hair a mess, his form curled under the blanket. Roy touched his shoulder softly, and the blue eyes opened with the slowness of the rising sun.

Roy smiled. “Time to wake up.”

Innocence yawned, covering his mouth, and nodded.

Roy took his bag and went downstairs to the sight of Tenacity riding a chair and scratching under Temperance’s chin. The headhunter was staring into empty space. Roy filled a kettle and placed it on the stove.

“The train is in an hour,” mumbled Tenacity, putting his hands over the chair’s back and lowering his chin on them. Then he winced at the soft clinking that followed Innocence’s joggling downstairs.

The kid was completely, perfectly awake, his bag in his hands. Temperance chirred and trotted to him to receive yet another portion of scratches. Innocence was, too, wearing his old jacket, the one Roy had got for him in between their flight from the camp and arrival to Shadowlair. The red scarf was hanging loose from his neck.

Roy put a pan on the stove, too, poured some water, added herbs and chunks of meat and dried tomatoes. It was nothing fancy, but Roy caught himself lingering on small things: the rich smell of fresh cooking, blue light of the sunrise illuminating the small kitchen and making Tenacity’s half-closed eyes seem translucent… Yesterday they had packed the drawings that had been on the walls, and without them the room looked different. Less of a home.

They were silent during the breakfast, and Tenacity took care of the dishes afterward while Innocence went to check his garden.

Roy was sitting on the kid’s usual chair, looking at the place on the opposite wall where his portrait had been. He could see the faint outline of the frame. His bag was under his feet, and he was running through the mental list of things he might need. The list was relatively short.

Innocence entered the house, and Tenacity moved aside to let him wash his hands. Then Innocence righted his jacket.

“Innocence,” Roy called.

The kid came close to him, and Roy wrapped the red scarf around his neck, then smiled, “You ready?”

Innocence nodded, but didn’t say a word. There was longing on his face, but excitement, too.

They took off and Roy was the one to lock the doors.

Innocence set off on walking straight to the train station. Temperance was trotting at his side.

“It’s for a few days, maybe a couple of weeks at large,” said Tenacity, patting Roy’s shoulder.

He had a sick, gnawing feeling that the headhunter was wrong.

Innocence didn’t look back, not one time. Temperance was jumping around him, and at last Roy heard his quiet laughter.

“It seems you really love New Life,” mused Tenacity, falling into step with Roy.

“It’s a dusty, quiet place on the edge of the world, Roy answered, “ but we are independent here. No war, no thugs trying to kill us…” His lips curled. “No Technomancers.” He glanced at Tenacity. “No headhunters stalking our every step.”

“Ah, and I’ve ruined your small ideal world with my presence,” Tenacity drawled.

Roy shook his head, chuckling, then righted the bag hanging on his shoulder. “No, you are welcomed here,” he confessed. “Just don’t start stalking us, and we’re good.”

Tenacity’s surprised face was a pleasant sight. “Okay,” the man mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck.

“And,” Roy added, “as long as you keep your trained hound away from me.”

“Aw, he likes you!”

Roy huffed to show that he was not amused by the statement.

They caught up with Innocence and the hound, then hopped on the platform.

It was a short stone thing perched on piles, lost in the middle of nowhere like New Life. Thick layer of sand crunched under their boots. The platform would be buried under the sand in a year or so, if nobody dusted it off. There was only one railroad track, going from south and then stretching to north-east, but no train went further north. There was nothing there.

The railroad was part of the Shadow Line, one of the few branches of the railway system that had been created before the Turmoil. It served as the major pathway on Mars, connecting the villages and factories and mines of the Guilds, and usually they restrained from sabotaging it. It ran for days into the plains of Mars, and small villages like New Life usually popped near train stations. Sometimes it was the only way to reach those villages.

A view of the plains opened from the platform, dusty and the color of rust, like most things on Mars. The railway dove into the Ares Valley in the south, its walls were spiky like neck of a hound. To the west of New Life there was a nameless hill with gently sloping sides. Roy had tried to reach it but overestimated the distance and turned back eventually. The border of Abundance territory was somewhere behind that hill.

“Well? Where’s your train, Old Hound?”

Just as Roy said it, a metallic hiss rolled over the plains and the train emerged from the depth of Ares Valley like a giant drilling worm — a dark metal monster with wedge-shaped head of the control car. It looked like it had been designed to ram through enemy lines. Maybe it was a siege machine. Many things had been lost in the Turmoil. As Roy had heard, Ultimum had restored blueprints for some of the trains — or maybe reinvented them from the scratch. Something like that.

The train had two control cars, it appeared, and three cars between them. They shuddered when train stopped with a screech.

“What business do they—” Roy started, but then closed his mouth.

Three wide stripes, white in color, ran through the lengths of the train. The control car proudly held an emblem, a silver ingot entwined by red vines.

Roy stared at it incredulously. “’Peane. This is Silver Peane’s train.”

Tenacity nodded, looking the train over like it was his pet. “Yeah, and that’s why we’ll be able to go through Abundance territory. Nobody touches ‘Peane’s trains or else they might as well say goodbye to any trade with ‘Peane. The driver of this train owes me big, so you’re lucky that I like you and ready to use my connections. Hop in, I’ll go say hello.”

Innocence already was near the middle car and slid the door to the side, then tensed.

Roy hurried to him and looked inside. It was empty save for a couple of boxes, but the smell was clean — as clean as you can get rolling through dustlands, anyway.

“What is it, Innocence?” He touched his shoulder, and the kid focused his gaze on him.

“I’m all right, this just… brings memories.” His voice was small, overshadowed by the towering mass of the train. “I was transported to the camp in a train like this one. A bunch of guys cammed into one empty wagon.” He shook his head. “And during the war we traveled like this, too.”

Temperance hopped into the car and chirred.

“It’s just for a few hours,” Roy said. As if it could calm the kid down, but what else he could say?

Innocence moved inside, and Roy followed, and shortly after him Tenacity appeared in the car, too, slid the door shut and dropped his bag. “Sorry, guys. One of the lines had been blown by retreating Abundance troops, so our journey will take longer than we planned, about twelve hours.”

Roy shrugged. “Still it’s faster than anything else.”

The train jerked, forcing Roy to grab at the bracket on the wall to steady himself.

“Goodbye, New Life,” he muttered.

Innocence spread his bedroll near one of the walls and sat cross-legged on it, then put his journal on the lap. Temperance curled in a large ball near the kid’s feet.

Roy put his bag on the floor and sat down, with his back leaning on the wall. Rummaging through the bag, he nodded to Tenacity. “Wanna check the delicious cuisine called ‘dried meat’?”

Tenacity smirked and accepted some. Roy turned to offer the same to Innocence, but the kid was curled on the bedroll, fast asleep, clutching his journal to his chest. Roy took the journal from his hands and put it near the kid, then spread his own bedroll into a blanket and covered Innocence with it. The kid stirred but didn’t wake.

Tenacity shook his head. The sunlight, seeping through the small holes in the walls, got caught in the headhunter’s eyes. “Poor kid, stuck on this bloody planet. So talented, but what’s here for him to draw? Dust, and sand, and rocks, and thugs, and more dust. They say Earth was green and blue and gold, so many colors. So much life. That’d be a better place for him to live in.”

Roy knitted his eyebrows. “Why ‘was’?”

“You think they wouldn’t have sent anyone here if Earth was still inhabited? A ship, a bloody message, anything!”

“Maybe they can’t/ Maybe they don’t even know we’re here.”

“Or maybe there’s no-one left. Maybe Earth itself if gone. You know, we’re told that we came from Earth, inhabited this rusty rock, and then — boom! — the Turmoil, most of the civilization cooked to crisp, some are turned into mutants, and most of technologies are lost. But, living year after fucking year,” Tenacity clenched his fists, “I sometimes think that there’s never been no Earth. No other colors than different tones of blood. No water, no plants, no life. We’ve always been here in this hell.”

The train was creaking and groaning and hissing. The sand that had gathered on the floor crunched under Roy’s boots when he moved close to Tenacity and put a hand on his shoulder. The man didn’t look at him, only lowered his head.

“But the kid has his garden to remind his of colors different than blood and rust,” Roy said quietly. “And to remind us about it, too.”

“And you, he has you,” Tenacity added, looking at him at last. “With your eyes of blue and gold.”

Roy choked on his breath an coughed into his fist. “It’s brown, brown, Tenacity! Not golden! You’re delusional.”

“Yeah, no.” Tenacity didn’t agree, stubborn fool. “When the light is just right, your not-blue eye shimmers gold and— What?”

Roy realized that he was staring slack-jawed. “You…” But he didn’t know how to end the sentence.

Tenacity snorted. “I do pay attention, Pretty Eyes. That’s what made me the best in the business.”

“And the most insolent and annoying, too.”

The headhunter shrugged, and Roy reluctantly slid his hand off Tenacity’s shoulder. “Everything comes with a price, Roy.”

In his experience, there was no statement more true than this one.

The movement of the trained lulled him into drowsy state. At some point they dove down into Ares Valley. As the car had no windows, Roy was left imagining the yellowish-rose walls, towering on both sides of them like lines of guards, and wavy lines carved on the ground and on the walls, indicating that eons ago Ares Valley confined a river.

He tried to imagine the river, too, a great body of water, noisy, hissing like the train; the moist filling the air; the great stubborn power, cutting through rock, patiently forming the landscape.

It was difficult to imagine such a thing.

He must have fallen asleep at some point, because when the train stopped Roy jerked awake. He searched the car for Innocence. The kid was still huddled under Roy’s bedroll-turned-blanket. His right hand was resting on Temperance’s hind leg.

Tenacity was tending for his gun, a weird hybrid of a nailrifle and a crossbow. Roy blinked at him. “Just a stop,” Tenacity mouthed. “Changing ways.”

The train jerked and sped up, and by the change in angle Roy assumed that they were leaving Ares Valley.

He leaned back, relaxing and watching Tenacity’s paws moving over the delicate innards of the crossrifle.

Roy’s thoughts drifted far away. Ares was a god of war, another name for Mars. Maybe it was a sick joke, naming the planet this way. Maybe those who had named it didn’t think it through, and now everything Mars had, everything they were doomed to have was war. Endless, hopeless, hollow, until there was nobody and nothing left. Until they all became rock and sand and dust.

These thoughts left a foul taste in Roy’s mouth, and so he put them aside. He was half-dreaming, of colors other than rust and blood and yellow, he was dreaming of blue so bright it poured into him to bursting in great waterfalls, turning his heart into a garden of flowers. He was dreaming of strange shapes in the blue.

The train turned right and left and right again, changing routes and railways. Roy thought he heard voices at some point, but those could as well be the voices from the past, half-heard conversations of people he would never know. He trusted Tenacity to wake him up if things got bad, and he trusted Temperance to protect Innocence.

Once, the kid let out a soft noise in his sleep that made Roy stir, and through half-lidded eyes he saw the dog lifting his head, nuzzling Innocence’s face and cooing, and the kid drifted off again.

The dog is better than I am at keeping Innocence’s nightmares away, Roy thought.

He looked at his right. Tenacity was tending for his crossrifle still, wiping it with measured, reserved movements of his hands. Roy suspected it was more to spend time rather than to do actual work; although on Mars you couldn’t over-tend for your weapons, that with ever-present sand and dust.

He thought about waking Innocence up and feeding him, but the kid looked so peaceful and Roy couldn’t find enough evil in himself to shake him out of his sleep. Maybe he was dreaming about colors, too, or about his orchard and the scents of it.

Tenacity put his crossrifle in its case and moved closer to Roy, bumping their shoulders together. The headhunter slid further down the wall, sprawling his legs, then took at bedroll from his bag and spread it over his and Roy’s feet. Then Tenacity lightly punched Roy in the shoulder. “Move down.”

Roy blinked at him. “What?”

“Move your shoulder lower,” Tenacity explained, looked at him from under long eyelashes. In the light falling down on him, Roy noticed that even his eyelashes were red.

He obeyed, not quite understanding the reason of the headhunter’s ask. He stiffened when Tenacity rested his head on his lowered shoulder.

Tenacity grumbled, “Relax. I’m not going to bite you in my sleep, you know.”

That was not really reassuring, but Roy was too sleepy himself to say something back. And Tenacity was quite warm. In a few moments the man was out, snoring lightly, — or maybe pretending that he had fallen asleep. He smelled like leather and gun oil and sand and was a heavy weight on Roy’s shoulder. Dark reddish hair tickled Roy’s neck and jaw.

He settled comfortably himself and drifted away.

***

Unlike the previous stops that had begun with a gentle slowdown, this one was sudden and sharp, and Roy bumped his head against the wall. He rubbed at the spot, then stirred, hearing angry, demanding voices with a hint of frustration and weariness buried deep in them.

Tenacity stiffened by his side and took the crossrifle out of its case. Roy pulled on his glove.

“Military post?” he whispered, exchanging glances with Tenacity.

He heard a bang, like someone punched on the wall of the car in frustration, and it sounded distant, coming from somewhere near the head of the train.

Tenacity listened then shook his head and answered as quietly, “Don’t think so. We’re away from the main routes. Must be thugs or deserters.”

He stood up, moving on quiet legs, — a hound prepared to pounce on its prey.

Temperance was already awake, his body low on his legs near Innocence. “Good boys,” Roy whispered to the dog and crouched near the kid. He placed the right palm over his mouth before touching his shoulder.

“We’re leaving, Innocence,” he said when blue eyes opened wide and focused on him. Innocence looked puzzled.

Roy took the hand off the kid’s mouth and rolled his bedroll, then fastened it back to his bag.

“Leaving? What do you mean?” Innocence mirrored Roy’s gestures nonetheless, putting his things into his bag and rolling the bedroll.

“The guys running the train, we can help them against these people,” Tenacity said. His crossrifle was lying in his hands like beloved pet.

“We don’t want anyone to see us. If they are thugs, they might as well sell us to anyone,” Roy explained. “We look suspicious, don’t you think? The train people can protect themselves. If they start checking the cars, we would be forced to engage in a fight.”

Tenacity looked thoughtful then nodded. “The train’s empty except for is.” He moved on soft feet to the door opposite of the one leading to the platform. “We should be not far from the truck.”

Innocence was still holding Roy’s gaze, but he didn’t turn away from it.

“Are the train people going to be okay?” the kid asked.

It was one of the moments when Roy was about to make a silent promise, but Tenacity cut him off, “They’ve weapons. And I saw only five men. They couldn’t really think about robbing or hijacking the train like this, but they must’ve put something on the tracks. Otherwise we wouldn’t be standing still.” He shook his head and muttered, “Idiots.”

Roy recognized a growl of desperate menace in the arguing voices. “Time to go.”

They slid the door to the side as quietly as they could, just enough to make a small opening for them to squeeze through. Tenacity and Temperance jumped out on the stones first. The headhunter bent to the hound, said something and patted Temperance’s side. The hound trotted to the control car and chirred.

Innocence looked uncertain, still in the car.

“We should go,” Roy said. “Come on.”

After a moment the kid jumped off, too, and Roy followed him. Together they slid the door shut.

It was hot outside, and after looking closely Roy saw a mist of melting air shriveling and squirming over the ground.

Temperance returned to Innocence’s side. Tenacity pointed at the small hill casting a deep shadow. “There!”

They ran to hide in the shade. After a few moments the train groaned like a disturbed drilling worm and sped up in the direction it had come from, leaving the five men Tenacity had spoken about on the platform. They ran after the train until the end of the platform, but stopped just on the edge of it.

“They are so ragged!” Innocence exclaimed.

Even from the distance their slouched postures and dusty clothes were obvious, a weak protection against Mars’s rage. The sun glinted from two nailguns, but there were no spare nailclips on them. They had only one bag that hang sad and low, indicating the hungry emptiness of its bowels.

“Deserters.” Tenacity spit the word out like it was foul water. “Not even thugs dare to go into the deadlands without proper equipment.”

“We have to help them!”

Roy grabbed the kid’s arm and held, adding steel into his voice. “No, we don’t. In their state they’d likely to kill us and get anything we carry.”

Blue eyes pierced through Roy like an arc of electricity. “But they are going to die!”

“Either them or us, kid.”

“They are just like we were, Roy! Abandoned, lost—”

It was the last grain of sand that tipped the rockslide. “Well I’m not a damn hero to—” he burst out, but Tenacity yanked him deeper into the shadows.

“You mad?” the headhunter hissed. “Want them to notice us? They’re ragged, but have you ever seen a mad dog?”

Roy shrugged his hand off, his eyes on Innocence. The kid had to understand. “I’m not a fucking hero to save everyone,” he growled. “I’d rather have you alive and breathing than one of them making it!”

He closed his eyes, his nostrils filled with the sharp tang of arising electricity, and took a few deep breaths. The power in him coiled, seducing him, whispering that he could bend the world to his will, that he could bend Innocence to his will. He clenched his fists and looked at Innocence. “I’m sorry, kid.”

“No, you are not sorry.”

Tenacity came between them before Roy could think of an answer. “Cut it!” The headhunter’s face was sharp as hound’s. “We have to get going, find the truck before it gets dark.” He hoisted his crossrifle and called the dog. “Let’s go, Temperance!”

The hound threw a look at Innocence then trotted after Tenacity.

The kid averted his eyes from Roy.

“Wait,” Roy called, reaching out but then dropping his hands. “Your, uh. Your scarf. Better wrap it around your head and neck, so you don’t get burnt.”

Innocence nodded mechanically and did as he was told, then followed the headhunter.

They moved from under the shadow of the hill and to the ridge that was behind it. Tenacity said he had hidden the truck in a crater, just in case, though these lands were bordering on the inhabitable zone and it was unlikely that somebody would even want to go this far.

To the north there had to be old Abundance factories. The workers couldn’t even flee the days after the Turmoil and had been burnt alive on the spot. Tenacity said, his voice muffled by the scarf, that he’d been there a few times, seen one of the factories. Nobody’s there, not even a trace of mole, he said and fell silent, idly stroking Temperance’s neck who was walking side by side with him. He added that even the Shadow Line was burnt, the metal of rails distended, platforms cracked and collapsed, solar batteries in pieces as if they’d been blown up.

He didn’t say anything about the workers or their families.

There was no life on the far northern edge of Arabia Terra.

“You’ve seen so many things,” Roy heard Innocence say after catching up with the headhunter. “You have been to so many places.”

“Yeah, on every Guild’s official territory and places where sane people usually don’t go to.” The headhunter shrugged. “Comes with a job.”

Roy ran forward and slowed to fall into step with Tenacity. “What particular job required to go to these deadlands?” he croaked.

The terrain was flat with occasional rocks twice Roy’s height. It was solid stone, melted into one piece like glass, and dusted with everpresent sand.

“All kinds of jobs. The guy who owed me a favor, the one operating the train? I’ve rescued his daughter from bastards who wanted a big ransom from him. They took the poor gal to an old factory but they were not prepared for two trained hounds and a quake that made half of the factory collapse on itself.”

He was so calm, talking about it like it was no big deal, rescuing kids from bandits dug in a crumbling factory on the edge of the world. Roy had seen him doing things like this. Hunting for some big gun on the run? Yeah, the Guild asking Tenacity to do that had better be prepared to part with their money. But rescuing kids? No way he would take any payment for that.

Maybe he had a strike of humanity from time to time. He had rescued Roy himself, long time ago.

But again, he had hunted Roy down, too.

“I’ve seen lots of places, it’s true,” Tenacity continued. “I like wandering. You see lots of things, you know. Small villages in the middle of nowhere with people surviving nobody knows how. Like your New Life. Actually, New Life is one of the best villages I’ve seen, with your water system and gardens. Grizzled vets, too. It takes balls to not only start a place like this but survive in it, too, day by day by day.”

“Is this a compliment?” asked Innocence.

The head hunter laughed. “Yeah.”

Roy smiled into his scarf. Tenacity was a master of easing tension, and it made him breathe more freely.

The big rocks cast enough shadow to turn this walk from potentially deadly into mildly uncomfortable. Roy drained one of his flasks. He was warm under the scarf, his breaths accumulating on the fabric, but it was a necessity to protect himself from direct sunlight and also from sand that gusty wind lifted from the ground and threw at them in mouthfuls.

It reminded Roy of one of the cases when he had helped Tenacity with his hunt. It had happened before Innocence, before the camp, but the war had already started.

Tenacity had been hunting down a guy, a thug boss or something like that. Roy had happened to meet Tenacity in one of those seedy bars that Mars had in handfuls, and between shared stories and booze Tenacity asked for a company and help, and since Roy had been running out of Serum, he accepted the offer on the terms of sharing Tenacity’s pay.

They’d gotten the guy — Roy shot him right in the forehead when he tried to tackle Tenacity, but the guy hadn’t been alone and took his friends with him. An entire band.

They had to flee from them, and, anyway, as Tenacity had said, they had been paid for just that guy alone. They had run into the plains because not even ass-crazy bandits were crazy enough to roam the sand plains on the borders of habitable zone.

There had been only one flask of water between them two. When the sun got down, it became so cold they had to stop their movement and hide between stones that still held daytime warmth, then huddle together, and Tenacity wouldn’t shut up about how bony Roy had been.

In the darkest hours of the night Roy had heard the scratching sound and then tiny shrills. The moles. And the moles meant that there had been water somewhere near. He woke up Tenacity, and they sneaked around with one pocket fire trying to find the moles. Eventually they came to a whole group of them, five mature beasts, and Roy had to electrify them to protect himself and Tenacity. He hadn’t had his gloves and he burnt his hands fighting the moles and had been trembling from the residual electricity firing his nerves. But it had been food and shelter — moles’ abandoned nest — and water, a small spring that trickled in between rocks. It was a miracle to find one of these, and that had been the only time Roy had actually seen a natural source of water that came to the surface.

Tenacity once said that he tried to find that place again, but in vain. Maybe it had dried out.

Maybe they had dreamed it.

“Let’s rest for a bit!” Tenacity ordered.

Roy snapped back from his thoughts. The headhunter was spreading his bedroll in the shadow of a triangular rock that stuck from under the sand like a hound’s fang. Temperance flopped on the ground near Tenacity. Roy envied the dog who seemed to be unaffected by the sunlight or heat.

“You’re doing good, boy,” praised Tenacity, patting the hound’s head. He dug into his bag and unwrapped meatstripes and held some for Temperance. The dog took them off Tenacity’s palm and chewed.

Innocence fell on the bedroll, swiping hands over his face.

Roy unwrapped his scarf, letting it hang free on his head, then held his second flask for the kid. “Drink. You need more water.”

Innocence shook his head and took a swig from his own flask.

“No need to save water now.” Tenacity forced meat into the kid’s hands. “I’ve saved plenty of it in the truck, enough to last us for a trip there and back.”

“How exactly are we going to get back?” Roy asked and lowered himself on the bedroll.

He should have asked Tenacity about it before they started, but maybe he was too trusting. Or maybe he hadn’t thought about it because deep inside he knew he wouldn’t go back.

Tenacity shrugged and gave him a meatstripe. It was hard to chew, but it was filling, salty and spicy. “On the truck to the Shadow Line station. At least it’s the initial plan. We’re going to play by the circumstances.” The headhunter gave Roy a pointed look.

He pretended to be occupied with his meal.

Tenacity made it clear that he didn’t approve of Roy’s idea of leaving Innocence, but what else he could do? Make Innocence a fugitive again?

“But who has found the Relics?” asked Innocence. He refused the food, and Roy scowled, but didn’t say anything. “You said that the mining site has been abandoned, and I thought the Relics have been found after the workers were evacuated. Were it the Dust who found the Relics?”

“There’s been a cave-in of sorts,” replied the headhunter. “It bared the bowels of the site, and they found something they assumed to be Relics.”

Roy thought about for a moment and raised an eyebrow. “How did they spread a word of it? If the site is abandoned and they are running out of supplies, and most likely they don’t have any vehicles… I doubt any radio have been left for them either.”

Tenacity shrugged again and held the remaining meat for Temperance. The dog swallowed them in one go then tickled Tenacity’s palm with his antennae. “Who knows? It’s the Dust. They know everything.”

That was true. Back in the camp Roy had helped to start a riot of the mutants, using it as a part of his distraction plan that had allowed Innocence and him to escape. They had tried to take more people with them, but they hadn’t made it… Roy wondered sometimes what happened with Jey. Bob, their other companion, had been shot during the escape.

Long after that at the industrial complex of Green Hope the leader of the local mutants, Garbage, knew that Roy had helped the Dust in the camp. Even the Abundance didn’t know what had started the riot.

The looks of the Dust and the way they talked were not the most strange features in them. It was their weird faith — that they had “made a deal with the devil” or something like that and that now they were atoning for this sin — was one of the many things that made people throw nervous glances at the mutants. And treat them even worse than hounds or moles.

In Aurora, with the tradition to give children virtue names — the tradition that made Roy cringe — the Dust who belonged to the Guild used their own “virtue” names, derogative, like Garbage or Scum. Roy didn’t know for sure if they had chosen those names themselves or somebody else — some “Man”, as they called non-mutants, — had named them, apparently thinking that it was a good joke.

Though the name “Dust” they had chosen themselves.

Roy thought that it was unnerving, that they had chosen the thing that was everywhere on this damn planet and tended to sneak into every thing, no matter how tight you tried to close your doors or blinds on the windows.

In Green Hope, Roy had seen them being starved for one reason only: nobody cared about them. And when they had stolen food and water at Green Hope, the workers would have to gotten rid of the mutants, if not for Roy who convinced the Dust to not steal and then went to the workers and said that the mutants had already eaten the food and couldn’t return it. They’d stolen it because they had been starving.

They were different, but still they were living beings, and that was such a rare thing on this deadly planet.

The Dust were a part of this planet. No wonder they knew something that happened far away. Maybe they could understands the whisperings of sand.

“Tenacity, you said the truck is near?” Roy asked. He could swore he felt his brain melting.

“Yeah, we should go.” The headhunter patted Innocence’s knee and got up.

The kid’s eyes were unfocused, and Roy decided that he would make him drink a whole flask of water when they find the truck.

They went slower this time, and Roy took a place at the rear of their small group, looking under his feet. He was wonder what horrible heat could have baked the terrain into the glass.

“We are near,” said Tenacity after what felt like a few hours.

Roy lifted his head. The ridge they had been moving towards was suddenly very close, and very tall, too. It cast a wonderful, blessed shadow, but the rocks scatter at the edge of the shadow made it look like an open maw of a beast with crooked teeth.

Tenacity sent Temperance forward, and the hound dashed with loud chirring. Roy envied the hound.

Innocence hurried to catch up with the hound. Roy hastened, too, eager to feel the embrace of the shadow. He was blinded by the darkness, but after a moment he blurted out, “You said about a truck!”

“Well, it is a truck.” Tenacity grinned in his overconfident manner that made Roy’s fists itch with the urge to punch his face. “Just a really big one.”

If you could give a monstrosity like this one the modest name of a truck, it was a truck. Sure. It was gigantic, a fortress on a few sets of tracks, it’s sides reinforced by armor. It looked like it could ram into a drilling worm and get out unscathed.

“What are you planning to transport in this thing, an army?” Roy asked. He walked closer to the truck and gazed up… and up. “It’s a war machine.”

Tenacity laughed, eyeing the monster up and down with a fondness of a proud parent. “It was used for drill worms hunting. So no, it’s not a war machine, it’s a hunting machine. It suits us, right, Temperance?”

The dog chirred, jumping from side to side and wiggling his tail.

“And they say that men with big guns are compensating,” Roy muttered. “What about the men with big trucks?”

Tenacity appeared too close to him and purred, “You know I don’t need to compensate for anything.”

The hazy memory of their first meeting flashed before Roy’s eyes, full of sensations, sounds, smells, touches, but yes. Yes, Tenacity was right. He didn’t need to compensate for anything.

It was only once, anyway, and it had been the first time Tenacity hinted at it.

Tenacity went to the head of the truck. He gripped two brackets on either sides of the door, pulled himself up and stepped on a small ledge, then opened the door. “Temperance, come in!”

Temperance jumped in with ease, then Tenacity called for Roy and Innocence. The kid gripped the headhunter’s paw and went inside, and Roy followed.

He looked around and whistled. “It is big enough for a small army.”

The door separating the cabin from the main body of the truck was slid to the side, and Roy imagined that their New Life house could fit in here easily if you spread both stories horizontally. The control console bristled up with levers and tools and buttons that Roy knew nothing about.

He went into the back. It was filled with crates and boxes, but still there was room for movement. Water canisters, old and scratched, were strapped to the walls. Roy peeked inside a few boxes, discovering dried meat and tomatoes. Two boxes turned out to be fridges. They oozed cold air when Roy opened them. There was a case with nailguns and nailrifles with ammo for them, and a separate case with bolts for Tenacity’s crossrifle. Scarves, fabric, respirators, goggles were crammed into the largest crate.

“I thought we were heading on a small easy trip, not marching to a war,” Roy commented.

“You’ll never know what we can meet out there,” the headhunter replied from the cabin. “Besides, I thought about the poor bastards stuck in that place. They need supplies, and we’re going to share.” He appeared in the doorway and pointed at the crate with the gear. “And this is because of the sandstorms.”

Roy frowned. “Isn’t it a bit too early for them? And a bit north-y?”

Tenacity shook his head. “Just in case.”

Innocence stepped into the rear side of the truck, looking around. “How do you hunt a worm in a machine like this?”

“There’re harpoons on the either side of the truck,” the headhunter explained. “You shoot them into the worm, and you dug stopper pylons into the ground and you pray that they would hold. They use several trucks to hunt, at least two. Young worms buck like wild hounds, but they are easier to control afterward than older worms.”

“How do you know that?”

The headhunter grinned. “You’d be surprised how many different things you pick up when you travel around like I do.”

Roy snorted. “Comes with the job, huh?”

Tenacity nodded.

Something else appeared to Roy, and he rubbed the back of his neck, shifting from foot to foot. “Uh, Tenacity? I can’t drive, so you’re alone in this…” He looked at Innocence. The kid’s gaze was sharp, but he shook his head.

Tenacity waved. “It’s okay. We’ll make stops anyway. I’m okay with driving all the way.”

“Maybe you can teach me to drive?” Innocence suggested, a spark of hope in his voice.

The headhunter patted his shoulder, grinning. “Whatever you want, kid.”

Roy turned away from this sight and pointed at the fridges. “What are those for?”

“Hunting,” Tenacity replied, then elaborated, “We can hunt along the way and store fresh meat here. Going on the dry food is not good for you, believe the old hound.”

“Won’t the fridges go off during our tripe?” Roy eyed them, frowning. They looked like a magical items, spilling dry cold down on the floor.

“They’re plugged into the main generator. Don’t worry, this whole thing is as stable as it can be.” Tenacity patted his shoulder. “Hunters travel out in the wild for months, and they make sure things work.”

That was not really reassuring, but Roy marveled in the way the headhunter seemed to oversee everything. Comes with the job, indeed. No wonder Tenacity was considered the best of the best on Mars.

Temperance trotted into the body of the truck, his claws clunking on the floor, circled around and flopped on his belly in the middle of the truck.

Roy laughed. “Well, our stuff is safe.”

The hound lifted his head and chirred in agreement.

Tenacity clapped his hands. “Gentlemen, if you’re ready, we can go. I want to drive as far as we could before the dark.”

“I want to look through the window,” Innocence asked. “May I?”

Tenacity grinned. “Of course.”

The kid went to the cabin, but Roy grabbed Tenacity by his forearm, stopping him. “Look, I know it cost you big, the train, the truck, the supplies and gear, everything…”

Tenacity cocked his head to the side, a look of amusement on his face. It was unnerving, making the world around Roy unstable.

“You know I can’t pay you,” he continued, annoyed. “Warning me, visiting us, telling the rumors about the Relics, these things I understand, but you’ve planned this through, organized everything, and I don’t understand why.”

“I am a headhunter, it’s true, a man for hire,” Tenacity said quietly. “But maybe not everything for me is about pay.” Roy let him go, dumbfounded. “Maybe I did miss you.” Tenacity smiled at him and moved away.

So much effort only because he missed them?

If that had been the case, he would have just come and say, hey, guys, I heard the rumors about the Relics, think we can go for a walk there? But instead he had come to take them with him. The train had been organized before he had come to them.

What if it was a trap?

Temperance chirred quietly.

Roy shook his head. “I’m getting paranoid, pal.”

***

He spread a bedroll near the hound and realized how exhausted he was. He dozed off, huddled in the bedroll, with warm Temperance at his side, while they were rolling through the plains. Roy woke up groggy and disoriented and had a few unpleasant moments of panic when he thought he was on the run from the Source and hiding in the bowels of a train. Temperance chirred, his antennae tickling Roy’s face, and it reminded him who and where he was.

Well, technically, if he took the Abundance Technomancers, he was on the run, but he had friends at his side now, a murderous headhunter with his hellish dog, and a kid who refused to let him go.

Roy got up, ruffling the spikes on the neck of the “hellish dog”, and stretched. The couch in New Life he used to sleep on was hardly a better place, but at least it was relatively soft.

He ached for a shower. Living in New Life had made his weaker, it seemed.

Roy couldn’t understand how many hours he’d been asleep. He looked out of the small narrow window in the wall. The plains were moving fast, simmering under the sunlight. Roy was hungry, so he must’ve slept for quite a while.

Small luminescent stripes ran near the bottom ends of the fridges, casting an eerie electric blue glow. Roy grabbed two handfuls of dried meat, tossing several to Temperance, then, balancing the meat in one hand, filled empty flasks hanging from the canisters.

“Dinner here!” he said, entering the cabin. “Or lunch, I don’t know what time it is.”

Tenacity and Innocence shared a look and a smile. They were probably talking about him, Roy thought.

The kid ducked his head, color spreading on his tanned cheeks.

Definitely about him.

Ignoring it for now, Roy handed their food and water and squinted at the light poring through the windshield. The horizon before them, a hard, defined line ridged with distant hills and rims of craters, had already begun to darken.

“You tired, Tenacity?” He leaned on the rightmost chair where the headhunter was.

The man was barely moving the steering wheel. The truck was rolling softly, with little sound, despite it great bulk.

“Not really,” Tenacity answered. “The terrain’s good, we’re alone, so I’m good, but thanks for asking. And for the lunch.” He saluted to Roy with his meal and bit out a piece of meat. “We’ll make stop when it gets dark,” the headhunter said after finishing his lunch. “We have lights but it’s better if we don’t roam around at night.”

“Why?” asked Innocence.

Roy took an empty flask out of his hands and said softly, “Want more water?”

Innocence smiled, and that made Roy relax a little. “No, thank you.”

He caught Tenacity looking at them with a smirk, then Tenacity turned to Innocence and made a scary face. “You never know what sorts of things my jump on you in the dark!”

Roy whacked him over the back of his head. It was satisfying. “Don’t scare Innocence!”

Tenacity laughed, rubbing his head. “Okay, sorry. But for real. There’re strange things all over the Mars. Besides, I need sleep, and you need it, too.”

Roy scratched his stubble. “I’d go for a hunt, but I think vibrations from this hellish machine have scared all moles around here, if there’re any in this shithole.”

“Moles are everywhere, you know it,” Tenacity said.

Innocence nodded. “Just like people.”

***

In an hour it became so dark the grotesque silhouettes of nearby rocks and hills crept into tired mind and turned into monsters out of nightmares.

They stopped near a big rock — a place as good as any else here. Roy took Temperance out on a walk, because Tenacity had said that the hound could sniff the moles, but they didn’t find anything.

The scent of brewing herbs called for them to return, and it reminded Roy of going back after a hunt, to a house that became a home horrifyingly fast. Only he hadn’t had a hound trotting at his side then, chirring and waving his antennae.

Warm glow, home-like, welcoming, was beckoning to them, and they hurried to it. Tenacity and Innocence had took out a small generator-powered stove outside and was brewing something meaty in a pot. By the soothing, green scent Roy could tell that in the kettle, bubbling joyfully on the stove, there was Innocence’s herbal tea.

Roy smiled and lowered himself on a bedroll, stretching his legs.

Tenacity was busy with rubbing four bowls with a cloth, then he looked at Roy and snorted. “What are you beaming at, Technoguy? You haven’t even caught anything!”

Temperance whine, lowering his head.

“Aw, don’t fret about it, boy,” cooed Tenacity and scratched the dog’s back. “It’s all his fault. He’s stomping like a million Technotroops on a march and he has scared away all your prey.”

The hound chirred and got himself a chunk of meat.

“Traitor,” Roy muttered.

Despite their failure with the hunt Roy felt warm and relaxed and safe. Darkness surrounded them, but he was among friends, and that was good.

The stew was filling, and the tea sealed for Roy the feeling home. He suggested that he would take the first watch because he had slept in the truck earlier. Temperance walked to his side and bumped him in the shoulder, suggesting his aid. Tenacity took the stove back into the truck, then returned to Roy with a small light tube and a nailgun.

“I have night goggles,” the headhunter said. His eyelids were already drooping, but he kept himself upright. “You want them?”

Night goggles were a pricey and rare gear, but it seemed that there was nothing Tenacity couldn’t get. Probably came with a job, Roy smiled inwardly. “No, I’d handle, I guess.”

Tenacity shrugged. “Okay. Yell if somebody attacks you.” And he went into the truck.

Roy holstered the nailgun and turned the cap on the light tube and hung it on the cord on his jacket. It flickered, waking to life, and shone with electric blue.

Innocence’s face in this light looked gray, scaring Roy for a bit. No, he wouldn’t let anyone harm Innocence. He would protect him, with his own life if it comes to it.

The kid was fidgeting with the ends of his scarf, hanging loose from his neck. “Roy, I— I want to apologize.”

Roy reached out and wrapped the scarf more tightly. It could be very cold at nights. “For what?”

“For what I said… I, I still don’t understand you sometimes, but I know you have your reasons, and just…” he trailed off and hugged Roy abruptly.

Roy froze and then wound his hands around the kid. “You don’t have to apologize. I know I sound like an asshole. It’s just that…” He sighed, resting his chin on the crown of the kid’s head. “You’re the most important, that’s all. I’ll take you over anything else. Over anyone else.”

“I…” Innocence’s voice was muffled by Roy’s jacket, and the light was dimmed by the kid’s body, but Roy was glad Innocence remained in his arms. “I don’t understand. Why you’re protecting me, I mean. Sometimes I think it is because you are just good to everyone, but then something reminds me that, that it’s only for me… I don’t know what to think. Why are you doing this?”

Innocence lifted his head, and in the darkness Roy could only see the outline of his face, but it made his eyes into deep blue voids, like wells full of dark water that could swallow him whole. He couldn’t avert his eyes, mesmerized. It took a moment for him to register the kid’s question.

He could have brushed it away with a joke, should have to, probably, but couldn’t think of anything good. And he couldn’t tell the whole truth either.

“You’re my Innocence, that’s why,” he smiled and ruffled his blond strands. “Now you go sleep, and take my bedroll, the nights are cold here.”

Innocence smiled at him, too, and then backed away. Light flared between them again, and Innocence jumped on the small ledge leading into the truck. For a moment he hesitated and said, “Thank you, Roy.” And he disappeared inside.

Roy shook his head. “When will you stop saying this?” he asked quietly. Then he called Temperance and settled on a rock, still warm from the day’s heat. “Just you and me, pal.”

The hound chirred and sat down, looking into the darkness.

Roy decided to sit like this for a while then walk around the truck. He didn’t think moles would smell water in the canisters, but you never knew. They could already be on the march here.

The night was thick and quiet. When he still had been in the Source, Roy had learned to fear the night, to be vigilant even in his sleep, waiting for an assault that could come from the darkness, and not always it had been an assault meant to beat him. More times than not it had been something more filthy and damaging.

Sometimes it had been his “comrades”, other pupils held in the Source. Sometimes it had been teachers, mentors, guards. His jailers.

Daylight had not been a sound protection, for the corridors of the Source were long and quiet, a whole city full of dead ends and dark corners where you could scream and scream and nobody would hear you.

The darkness around him, though, was not the heavy darkness of his past, full of whispers, rustles, sighs, steps that could mean danger and could mean nothing at all.

It was vast, open darkness of plains, silent, as he thought at first, but as he adjusted to it, he began to pick small sounds: whispers of dust over stones, grinding of rocks sliding down the slopes of distant hills, Temperance’s claws scratching the hard ground, sub-hearing buzzing of the generators in the truck.

Many dangers could be hidden in this darkness that was so thick he could almost feel it closing on him, wrapping itself around his shoulders like a cloak, but he was not a scared technoadept anymore, alone and defenseless against insistent fears.

They circled the truck a few times, but no weird sound disrupted the night.

After a few hours he recalled his own words about the cold. The light tube didn’t bring any warmth, and its cold blue tint made the stiffness in Roy’s joints even more solid.

He thought about going into the truck to find something warm when the door opened with a quiet click and a figure appeared on the ledge, holding a small blue light.

Innocence’s eyes were half-closed, but he jumped off the ledge and walked to Roy.

He smiled. “It’s still too early.”

“You said the nights are cold.” Innocence tripped on the bedroll-blanket he was wrapped in, and Roy caught him by his shoulders.

Temperance rubbed himself against the kid, nearly knocking him off his feet again.

“Yes, they are.” His jaws were barely working.

“I came to warm you up,” Innocence slurred and tugged the bedroll off himself.

Roy chuckled. “Determined, are we?”

He looked around and walked them towards a rock, then with one hand he spread a bedroll on it and sat them down, side by side. He tugged a half of the bedroll over their shoulders, holding Innocence close. The kid pressed his cheek to his shoulder. He was radiating heat.

“You’ll catch a cold,” Roy murmured, his heart stuttering for some reason.

“And you’ll freeze out here,” Innocence mumbled into his shoulder.

Temperance flopped on the ground — and on Roy and Innocence’s legs, keeping them warm.

He drifted off slightly out of his body, his brain asleep, but his mind aware of his surroundings and flowing in the air somewhere near his material form. In his half-sleepiness, he snuggled Innocence closer, he wanted to keep him warm and safe.

Temperance stiffened and lifted his elongated head, and Roy shook himself awake. A new light appeared in the night, carried by Tenacity. The headhunter looked refreshed, but his hair was in total disarray.

“Nice hairdo,” Roy mouthed. Innocence was asleep on his shoulder.

“Go fuck yourself,” Tenacity whispered just as quiet, smiling, and raked a palm through his hair, trying to make it in some semblance of order. “Though know what? Go sleep properly, and get the kid with you.”

“’m not sleeping,” mumbled Innocence, stirring beside Roy.

Roy smiled.“Yeah? You sure?”

“Let’s get inside,” slurred Innocence, straightening up and blinking a few times. Then his eyes focused on Roy. “You look like a ghost,” he whispered, sleep running from his voice.

Roy stared at him, at his suddenly serious face, into the sparkles playing in his eyes, cast by the light hanging on his jacket. “I’m not a ghost,” he replied quietly.

A hand landed on his shoulder, breaking the moment and startling Roy. He looked up.

“Go inside,” Tenacity insisted, voice soft.

Roy nodded and patted Temperance. The dog jumped, like he hadn’t slept at all, and stepped aside. Roy coaxed Innocence to stand up and offered to lift him, but the kid shook his head. Roy helped him into the truck, then threw a glance back at Tenacity.

The headhunter was smiling, a bit ruefully, a bit fond. “Sleep. We’ll be okay, right, Temperance?” he said and patted the hound.

Roy lingered for a moment, then went into the truck.

It struck him, the warmth of it, the sense of closed space after the vast cold of the outside. He flexed his fingers and stomped his feet.

“Roy?” called a small voice from the depths.

He turned off the light tube and took it off his jacket, then get rid of his jacket and the scarf, too, leaving only a sweater He considered taking off his boots, but decided against it. He couldn’t flex his fingers to properly unlace them anyway.

He padded into the rear of the truck.

Two bedrolls were arranged near each other, one occupied by Innocence. He was huddled under the third bedroll, only his eyes and his nose and the crown of his head over the edge of it, and the kid patted beside himself.

Roy walked there and lay down. It was warm, a a thought struck him: it was warm from Tenacity’s body heat. The bedroll had a faint smell of old worn leather and gun oil.

He dove under the blanket and Innocence immediately cuddled near him. He looked so small, despite being even bulkier than he had been the first time Roy saw him, back in the P.O.W. camp.

Roy still called him a kid but Innocence deserved more, though he looked much younger than he really was. Eleven year old, what a surprise. Roy remembered that when Innocence had told him that, it had felt like the sky had fallen on him. It meant that they had a smaller age difference than Roy initially had thought. It made Roy sick with the thought of just how much time the kid— Innocence had spent on the war.

He never talked about it, though Roy had read some things about it in Innocence’s journal, about marches and fear and orders and confusion. He’d seen it himself, too, when the war had sucked him in, but he hadn’t been drafted. Innocence had.

Innocence didn’t usually talk about his past in general, aside from occasional thing or two, but from what little he had said and mentioned in the journal, Roy gathered that he had led a happy, carefree life with his parents in Shadowlair. Until the war came after him. Why hadn’t his parents interfere? They’d been the leaders of the Militia, for crying out loud. But maybe it had been Innocence’s decision, too, he had been poisoned by the propaganda, eager to serve his Guild, to prove himself.

The war had almost reduced him to ashes.

“Roy,” a voice called him from the present, and he looked at Innocence laying in his arms. His thoughts had made him tighten his grip.

He loosened it a bit. “Sleep already.”

Dirty-blond hair smelled of dust but still held that earthy smell of rich soil and roots and leaves that Innocence had picked up in New Life. A good smell.

“I will, if you sing me a lullaby,” Innocence whispered back, rolling on his side and tucking his face into Roy’s neck. His breathing was like a warm spring wind on Roy’s skin.

He snorted. “I’ll try.”

Could he ever deny Innocence anything? He didn’t think so, but he didn’t care. He wanted to spoil him, give him back the life that had been stolen from him. Even if he himself was just as broken and didn’t know what normal life should look like.

He dug into his memory, a memory of running, of surviving, doing anything he could to live another day, to see another blue sunrise, and he recalled the many songs he had learned from other people, asking them, listening to them, waiting.

He started humming under his breath. The words were crude but the melody soft and gentle. It seemed to separate from him, enveloping them both in sounds and scents and warmth and light-blue glow, and flew away. In his mind he could see Tenacity, leaning on the rock beside the truck, Temperance at his legs, a small light in Tenacity’s hands like a beaconing light of a star, and he saw stars blinking from above at their small sister down there on the ground, and he could see the plains and dive into inner workings of the stones, although his eyes were closed, and then he drifted away into the darkness that greeted him like a long lost friend.

***

Sharp green smell tickled Roy’s nostrils, and he woke up with a sneeze. He was warm but alone, and for a moment the loneliness gripped his spine, but he battled with it by getting up and stretching and searching for his jacket. He threw it over his shoulder, and the chatter, the easy morning chatter that meant nothing and conveyed the feeling of home and safety, trickled into his head.

He drank from one of the canisters and looked out. The vast panorama of moving land was draped in pinkish yellow, and only the shadows of stones still clung to the blue of sunrise. There was a dark line just over the horizon, like a distant mountain chain, but Roy knew it weren’t mountains.

So the sandstorm was a real threat, it seemed.

He couldn’t tell how much time they had before the killing wave would reach them. The sandstorms reached north only once in a few year, and the fact that it was already hovering over the horizon like a bad feeling meant trouble. If it was strong enough to reach that far, then it was strong enough to make real damage.

The truck was probably made for surviving even in such circumstance, its doors could be sealed shut, its windows were made of rare tempered glass, and the armor of the whole things was thick enough to even block any sounds from the outside. But during sandstorms you couldn’t escape the everpresent sand that turned into a mad murderer seeking for a prey, paired with its friend dust. They trickled through every pore, found every crack and settled in every crevice, rubbing stone, metal and skin raw.

Roy had been caught in a sandstorm once during his years of running. He had gone south, out of the borders of Aurora, and found a small dingy place that didn’t deserve to be called a town; just a handful of buildings that looked like rotting carcasses of animals who died of a nasty disease. The people matched the village, exhausted hunters, shady persons whose skin and clothes had turned the color of the lands around them, weathered by deadly winds. Roy hadn’t been any better than that.

He should have skipped the place, too dangerous for a lonesome guy, even though the scrawny men with drunk-hollowed eyes couldn’t possibly guess that he was a Technomancer and could burn the whole “town” to cinders. Would he have used his Technomancy if they tried to move on him, despite promising to himself that he would never use the Technomancy again? Without a doubt.

But their eyes had followed him and then let him free, losing any interest in him.

And then the sandstorm had come.

All village people had fled into basements. The village had been pressing himself to the wall of a nameless crater, and the sand had fallen upon it like an armored fist.

Wrapping his arms around himself, listening to the shallow breathing of the people crammed together with him in the narrow space of the basement, Roy had hear howling of dead men in the find and couldn’t see a thing even though they had lamps down below. The sandstorm had sucked every spark of light.

He remembered vividly the sour smell of sweat and fear and spoiled beer that somebody had spilled on the floor.

The sand had trickled everywhere, on Roy’s shoulders, into his hair, crunched on his teeth. It had grazed every surface, choked, scraped throats, muffled sounds, — except for the loud banging and howling and screeching over their heads.

Roy had found scratches on himself afterward, despite being underground, despite wearing many layers of clothes, despite wrapping himself in a bedroll. He had seen ruins of a building when he came to the surface. It had been crushed by the fury of Mars.

And they said the storm hadn’t even been that bad.

The whole damn planet hated humans who were dragging their legs on its surface.

Roy went out. Tenacity, Innocence and Temperance were having a quick breakfast, sitting on a bedroll spread over flat surface of a stone.

Tenacity’s gaze was trained on the horizon, then he turned to Roy. “We should get going.”

Roy nodded. He accepted his breakfast — dried meat again and water — from Innocence’s hands and ate it quickly, and in a few minutes they were on the road again.

This time Roy decided to sit in the cabin. In an hour they reached a massive wall of a crater and turned left to circle it. The wall was worn, cracks and patches of different colors splattered on its surface polished by moving sand.

“It’s Casin,” said Tenacity, pointing at the crater. “A good landmark, since I had to memorize the route.”

Roy was sitting in the center, mesmerized by the plains and dull colors and sand dancing over the ground. Innocence was to the left of him with a journal in his hands. The smooth movement of the monster truck allowed him to draw and write without disturbance. Temperance, sitting on the floor, was watching Innocence’s hands flow over the paper.

Sneaking a glance into Innocence’s journal, Roy saw Tenacity’s portrait, with the crossrifle lying in his hands and Temperance standing at his feet. Tenacity was smirking on the drawing, the same good, slightly crooked smirk that made him such an admirable bastard.

Roy smiled.

“Why did you have to memorize it?” asked Innocence, his eyes not leaving the journal. He looked serene while drawing, his lines fast and light, catching the essence of things. It was not the same with writing, it made various emotions run through his face, and he muttered under his breath, trying to catch the right words for what he wanted to say.

“We’re too far to the north,” Tenacity explained. “Sometimes the atmosphere hiccups, or something like that, and compasses go made. So I had to learn it by heart, and eye, too. Or else we would get lost.”

Something nagged at Roy’s mind, and he closed his eyes, visualizing the map. Then remembered. “Casin crater! That means we’re just on the edge of Abundance territory.”

Tenacity nodded, turning the wheel. It seemed he could command not only hound but a different kind of monsters, too. “Yeah, the official borders, at least. The crater is just north of the borders, but we’re safe here, as safe as we could be anyway. Nobody lives near the northern borders. Drastic quakes in the winter. The Shadow Line’s pretty much broken. The terrain’s undrivable. Only things like this,” he patted the steering wheel, “can crawl here. Besides, people say the hiccups are occurring more often.”

Roy chuckled. “What people? You said nobody lives here.”

“My kind of people.”

He snorted. “Ah, the wandering kind.”

“But I think they might be right,” said Innocence quietly. “Something is happening with the planet itself. And, and we just don’t understand what.”

Tenacity nodded, a quick, sharp gesture. “The kid’s right. You don’t notice it, sitting on the same spot, but if you travel around and listen and watch…” He trailed off, leaving a silence full of thoughts.

***

They made a stop in the shadow of the Casin crater just after the sun started rolling towards the west horizon. Still there was no sign of moles, but they rarely went outside during daylight. There was no sign of anything human either. It felt like they were completely alone on the whole planet.

They ate dried meat and drank water, sprawled on the stones, miraculously still holding the coolness of the night.

Tenacity kept quiet and his gaze, shifting from thing to things, always stopped at the dark shadow on the south. He replied to Innocence’s questions only with occasional grunts, and Innocence exchanged looks with Roy.

“I think you should sleep,” Innocence offered after Tenacity stifled a yawn.

Roy nodded. “Listen to the voice of reason here, Tenacity.”

“We should get going,” the headhunter said but the last word turned into an outright yawn.

“Yeah, no.” Roy stood up, hovering over Tenacity, and glared at him. In this state Tenacity shouldn’t have been glare-proof. “You’re our only driver, it’s no good if you fall asleep behind the wheel and drive us into a canyon.”

“There’re no canyons on our way,” Tenacity grumbled and looked up at Roy. His eyelid were drooping.

“You’ll find us one and drive right into it, if you don’t take a nap.” He pressed on the broad shoulder, and Tenacity obeyed without much resistance and lay down. Roy patted his shoulder. “Good.”

Temperance appeared, carrying a bedroll in his jaws. Roy crouched and covered Tenacity with it.

The headhunter slurred, “Don’t, too warm.”

He shook his head. “Not too warm in the shadow. Sleep.”

Tenacity grumbled again, like an old hound he was, and then his body went slack. Temperance curled up near him, and Roy chuckled, looking at how quickly they had fallen asleep.

He sat near Innocence and wrapped a hand over his shoulder. “Just look at them. Two hounds fell asleep after a long trip in the wild.”

Innocence blushed, though it might be the warm day and Roy’s imagination. “Tenacity does look like a hound, a little bit.” They were talking quietly, so as not to disturb the sleep of two hounds. Then Innocence coughed.

“You should drink more water. A lot of dust, here in the open.” Roy handed him his flask.

Innocence nodded and took a good swig out of it, then returned it to him. “I have forgotten how it is,” Innocence said. “Traveling like this, I mean. New Life had sand, of course, but it never hurt you like that…” He trailed off into silence.

Roy looked at Innocence. He was fumbling with the ends of his scarf.

Roy tightened his grip on his shoulder. “You miss it?” he asked gently.

Innocence made a small nod. “A little bit.”

“There’s no shame in it, kid.” He almost bit his tongue on the last word. He had promised to himself that he would stop calling him that. “In missing the place,” he hurried to add.

“I don’t know…” Innocence fell silent again, then pressed his head to Roy’s shoulder. His warmth and the scent of watered, rich soil enveloped Roy in a single moment. “I-I do not think I miss the place itself. I think I miss the idea of the place. It’s not the best on Mars, but it was ours and there was a garden and you came there… It felt like home.”

Roy took his coarse hand and squeezed, his heart clenching with the lies that were ready to fall from his tongue. “We will return there, you know? No need to use past tense. You’ll get your garden and grow big fruitful trees. It’s just a small journey, that’s all.”

Innocence squeezed his hand in return. “It’s just that I have this feeling that I cannot explain.”

“Everything’s going to be okay,” Roy rubbed the crown of his head with his chin. “Now rest. You can nap on my shoulder, I let you have an hour, and then we’ll wake our hounds and go further. Sounds good?”

Innocence nodded and relaxed.

Roy dozed a bit, too. It was the heat, the weird type of heat that he ever only experienced in the wild, when he was overly warm but couldn’t take off his clothes because it felt cold without them.

He stirred and gently rubbed Innocence’s shoulder, waking him up, then went to Tenacity and touched his arm. Tenacity startled, wild eyes staring at Roy, and only after a whole moment recognition crept into his face. “Don’t… Don’t ever wake me up like this, Technoguy,” Tenacity croaked. “Might’ve stabbed you.” He threw the blanket aside, and Roy saw a big knife clutched in his hand.

He grinned. “Not compensating, huh?”

“Aw, fuck you,” Tenacity groaned and sat up. He rubbed his face, and Roy took mercy on him and handed him a flask.

The headhunter drank then poured a bit of water over his head and snorted, then returned the flask to Roy.

He shook it, but it was empty.

In a few moments they were on the road again.

Roy started to find the quiet movement of the truck almost disturbing. Trains produced many noises: swift, hissing singing of the rails, joyous chatter of wheels, creaking and groaning complains of cars. But the truck… It wasn’t making any noise whatsoever.

They half-circled Casin and made a few more hours before the blues of sunset spilled over the sky, calling for them to settle for the night.

“It irks me that there’s still no sign of moles,” Roy grumbled, placing the stove on the ground. But then again, there was no water, so there was no reason for moles to live here.

The ground emanated heat, and Roy had taken his jacket and sweater off to cool himself down a notch. And cooking was a heating process, too.

He was making a stew while Innocence, as always, was busy brewing tea, sweet and yellow now.

“I’ll take a full-night watch today,” Roy said, chopping meat into the water, boiling and bubbling in the pot, and throwing tomatoes and herbs into it. “You three—” Temperance nipped at his right hand. He chuckled. “You want to go on watch with me again?”

Temperance chirred, and Roy gave him a piece of meat.

“I wanted to take half a night,” said Innocence, stirring the tea. “If you don’t mind, Roy.”

He did mind. “I’d rather you not. It’s a tough business, mostly because it’s boring, and you’ll get real tired.”

“Still I want to do it,” Innocence insisted. He hang the spoon on the small hook on the side of the stove, closed the lid on the kettle and fixed Roy with his gaze. “I will have Temperance with me. He can smell things, right?”

“He can but—”

“Guys?” Tenacity interrupted them, and they turned to him at once. “I’m perfectly fit for taking a watch—”

“No!” they said at the same time and exchanged looks.

Sudden laughter danced in Innocence’s eyes, and Roy couldn’t not respond to that.

The headhunter lifted his hands and backed away. “Okay, never mind.”

“You are already tired, Tenacity. You need proper rest,” said Innocence seriously, then glared at Roy. “And I am taking the second watch.”

So stubborn. It must’ve been Tenacity’s bad influence.

“Listen, kid—”

“I’m not a kid.” Innocence clenched his fists, his head low. “I am a soldier, a trained killer, a murderer!” His voice broke, and he hid his face in his palms.

Roy felt as if the sky had fallen down on him at last. His legs move on their own, and his arms wrapped themselves around Innocence. “That’s not who you are, you understand, Innocence?”

“The name doesn’t fit me anymore,” came the whisper. Innocence was trembling, little tremors rippling through his body and transferring to Roy. He was so small.

“No, it fits you just fine,” Roy murmured.

A cold stone appeared inside him, sickening him, frightening him. Hopelessness, uselessness. All his training and his power were useless because they couldn’t help him protect Innocence.

He was a killer, a murderer, yes, it was true, but also it wasn’t, and Roy didn’t know how to explain it to Innocence.

“I apologize for calling you a kid, I won’t do it again, promise.”

“It’s not that.” Innocence wound his arms around him.

It wasn’t, and Roy knew that. He lifted his right hand and tried to swipe back the blond hair.

It was like the first days in Shadowlair when Innocence had discovered that his parents had been arrested and his home was no more. “I’m scared.”

“I will protect you from anything.” He wanted to build a wall around him, do anything, something to keep him safe, even if he didn’t know how.

He would give anything.

“I know this, thank you, Roy. I’m… I’m sorry for being like this. Maybe I’m really just a kid.”

Roy tried to sound light. “You’ve been on the war and then you came back, and you protected me just like I protected you. It is me who should be thankful, okay?” He softened. “I don’t want you to take a watch because I need you well-rested when we arrive to the mining site. I’m used to staying up all night, and you aren’t.” Yes, being on alert during long nights in the Source…

“But you will get tired, too.”

Roy smiled. So very stubborn. “You know what? You can stay with me and Temperance for a while, keep us company, say, until midnight, okay? Then you go to sleep. Deal?”

“Yes, deal, Roy.” Innocence looked up at him and smile, though the shadows hadn’t left his eyes. “Thank you.”

“No need to thank me all the time.”

Innocence ducked his head. “I know. I’m sorry for that.” Innocence freed himself from his embrace, and Roy reluctantly let him go. Then Innocence’s gaze darted to Roy’s bare chest, and he became painfully aware of his half-naked state and many scars on his torso, from knives and claws and nails, and ugly metalized burns from his training. He hadn’t had a shower in days and although he tried to keep his stubble in order, but there’s just so much you can do without running water and only with a knife.

He cleared his throat and turned to the stove. The stew was bubbling enthusiastically.

“Okay. Okay, deal,” he muttered.

The kettle hissed, and Innocence hurried to save their tea.

Roy felt a gaze on him, like someone breathing onto the back of his neck, and lifted his head. Standing on the threshold of the light cast by the lamps they had put out from the truck and shadows of the falling night, Tenacity was grinning at him.

The heat spreading on his face and neck and chest Roy blamed on the stove before him.

They ate and drank and then together with Innocence, they ushered Tenacity back into the truck. The bastard kept sending Roy indecipherable looks halfway between fond and smug.

They went back into the night, Roy with a light tube hanging from his jacket. Temperance jogged around, ran to Innocence and asked for scratches.

Roy smiled. “The dog likes you a lot.”

“Dogs always like me, I don’t know why,” Innocence said, scratching under Temperance’s chin. “Some members of the Militia had trained dogs, and they all liked to come and play with me…” His face fell, and his shoulders tensed.

Roy put a hand on his back. They were sitting on a stone, surrounded by darkness. The truck emanated heat, accumulated during the day, but not so much as Roy had expected it to do. It seemed that the truck was protected from consuming too much heat. Otherwise it would be unbearable to travel for long distances. Maybe it had something to do with camouflage, too. Could drill worms feel heat?

“Hey, Innocence,” he called softly.

“It feels like it all happened a lifetime ago,” Innocence said at last, his gaze trained on Temperance. The hound stood between his legs, his head on Innocence’s eye level. The dog chirred, nibbing at Innocence’s fingers gently, mindful of his needle-like teeth. “And in a way, it really did. I don’t even remember how much time has passed… I can’t remember how many days I have spent on the war. I fear that I’m starting to forget their faces.”

“They” were his parents.

Roy wound an arm around his shoulder, like he had done before many times, and pulled him close.He hadn’t been sure if he could touch Innocence to comfort him during the first weeks of their forced co-existence. If Innocence would even want it, if it would even help in any way... And now he pulled him to himself, and it was not only for Innocence’s sake. He wanted it, too, needed it, Innocence’s comforting presence and the knowledge that Innocence needed him, that there was someone who was waiting for him.

But maybe there was someone who was waiting for Innocence, too.

He hadn’t told him, hadn’t even written in Innocence’s journal much about the people he had found near the Green Hope excavation site, where Aurora Technomancers tried to find pre-Turmoil artifacts — and had been conducting experiments on the prisoners.

They had been citizens of Aurora, meaning, the Technomancers’ own people, but more than that, they had been the arrested, kidnapped members of the Militia. Innocence’s parents had been part of the Militia. The prisoners had been exposed to extreme solar radiation, received parts of mutated tissue on their body, fed mutated flesh…

The man Roy had talked to said about other disgusting things. He had been scared, justifiably so, but he had been in a better state that others Roy had seen there, with horrible burns and signs of surgery, with hollow eyes. And oh, had Roy searched their eyes, horrified — but with a sliver of hope, too — to find the eyes unbelievably blue that he knew too well.

After he had exchanged his power and skills for Innocence’s freedom, he had nightmares about those people, two of them, with Innocence’s eyes, coming to accuse him of leaving their son, of betraying him.

Innocence’s parents could have been there, among those prisoners, could have been tortured, used, destroyed by the experiments, not themselves anymore.

He hadn’t told Innocence any of this.

He had done anything he could for them, killed the man looking over their cages, let them out, but that had been it.

He should have done everything to be perfectly sure.

He should have told Innocence all of it. He feared to tell.

During Roy’s first days in New Life, Innocence had said, sure and decisive, that he would never find his parents. He had come a long way from the kid hollowed by the war and devastated by the view of his ruined house, to this determined person who wouldn’t let Roy go, capable of leading a life of his own.

Roy wanted to protect it.

“I’m not going to leave you, you know this? I will always be there,” he said at last, a lie to protect Innocence.

Instead of replying, Innocence hugged hard. Roy wondered how he would live without these simple gestures of affection when he would inevitably leave.

He nudged Innocence. “It’s midnight already, you should go sleep.”

“Yeah, I’ll… I’ll go,” Innocence said. His eyes were too bright in the blue light. “Do you need anything?”

Roy smiled and stood up. “Just you to be alive and happy,” he said, half-joking, half-serious.

Innocence’s eyes widened for a moment, then a tentative smile brightened up his face. “Thank you, Roy,” he whispered and ran into the truck.

“No, thank you, Innocence,” Roy said into the darkness.

Temperance headbutted his forearm. “Okay, buddy, I get it. We should watch over them while they sleep, yes?”

The hound chirred in reply.

***

Roy was playing with Temperance to bring life back into his body, chasing the hound and then running away from the dog in turn, when he noticed the blue light over the east horizon. He stopped and Temperance nudged his shoulder.

He looked at the hound. “The sun is rising.”

Everything became quiet, even the wind calmed down and the sand stopped whispering, entranced by magnificence of the dawn.

One of the two times of the day when the sky turned blue. The slow music of it rouse it Roy’s ears, silent at first, and then, growing louder, a smooth, flowing thrill that shook Roy to his very core. At the peak of its glory it was the blue depth of Innocence’s eyes, and behind that veil he could still see the distant beacons of the stars.

Only when it started fading into the dull gray-blue, like that of Tenacity’s eyes, and then into yellow, Roy could breathe again.

He shook his head and patted Temperance’s back. The hound leaned into the touch, the spikes running along his spine rising and falling with his deep breaths.

The spell had faded, and the new day had begun.

Roy woke everyone up. He touched Innocence’s shoulder, and then called Tenacity, mindful of the headhunter’s warning, then Roy picked up the stove and brought it outside to cook the breakfast. When the tea began babbling in the kettle and the stew grumbled in the pot, all became good in the world.

Roy chuckled at Tenacity’s attempts to take care of his beard that had grown quite bushy, but the headhunter quickly realized all futility of this and sheathed his knife. Roy’s own stubble was growing slower, but in a week it would turn into an unkempt beard, but he wouldn’t even try to use a knife.

With a thrill of surprise Roy noticed stubble on Innocence’s chin, too. Because he was blond, it wasn’t immediately obvious. Roy wondered if it was scratchy or soft, then he shook his head and busied himself with their breakfast.

“Today we’ll get to the place,” Tenacity grumbled, accepting the stew from Roy. “And we’ll make it on time before the night, but to do this we won’t make a stop in the afternoon.”

Roy frowned, filling a mug with tea for the headhunter. “You’ll be pretty wiped by then.”

Tenacity shook his head. “I’ll be fine.”

He nodded slowly. The headhunter knew his own limits, sure, and he wouldn’t let the team down. But Roy was worried not about the team.

“I hope there is someone left alive in there,” Innocence said quietly. He took his breakfast, too, and sat on the rock to eat.

“There sure is,” Tenacity said, leaning on the same rock. “The Dust are tough bastards. We’ll bring them water and food, and since it’s a mining site, there’ll probably be moles, and we’re going to hunt. You can count on Temperance and me on that.”

Roy shook his spoon in the headhunter’s direction. “Hey, I’m a hunter, too!”

Tenacity grinned. “Whatever you say, Electroguy.”

Roy suppressed the urge to haul the spoon at him.

They wrapped their mourning routine in half an hour and returned on the road.

“It’s not moving, Innocence said. He was watching the shadow hovering there like a fog of war over the horizon. “The sandstorm.”

“It is moving,” Tenacity objected.

They sped up abruptly, and Roy had to grip the edge of his seat.

“It’s moving fast,” Tenacity repeated. “You won’t even have time to catch a breath, and there! Your mouth, your ears, your eyes are full of sand. That’s the thing with them sandstorms, you never know when it hits and you’re never prepared to how fast it moves. Never.”

“You’ve been caught in a sandstorm?” asked Innocence.

Tenacity nodded, gripping the steering wheel. “Caught in the open, yeah. Not a pleasant experience, I must say. Got plenty of scratches still on my hide.”

Roy wanted to ask how he survived, but remained silent. Tenacity looked pale, raw, under his beard and grin and over-confidence.

The sky seemed lower than in the previous days, with sick yellowish glare to it, and once they saw a small — “small” being a relative term — tornado of sand to the north that looked like a humanoid figure wrapped in tattered clothes.

Tenacity barely spared it a glance, muttering, “Not good,” under his breath. He gripped the steering wheel and yanked at the levers with jerky motions of his hands.

Every trace of Roy’s good mood trickled like drops of water through a crack in the ground. He placed a hand on Tenacity’s shoulder. The headhunter started and then sighed, swiping a hand over his face. “Sorry,” Tenacity said.

Roy tried to reassure him,“Everything’s going to be okay. We’ll look after each other.”

“Yeah. Yeah,” the headhunter grumbled.

There was a crater shadow before them on the horizon, and Tenacity pointed at it. “That’s the place. There’s a crack in the wall, and then in on of the smaller craters there’s that Flammarion Four site.”

Roy patted him on the shoulder and went to the rear end of the truck to grab weapons. They would probably need them, though he hoped that the need wouldn’t arise.

Tenacity’s monster of a crossrifle was already at his feet which didn’t easy Roy’s worry. He checked the readiness of two other weapons, simple and light nailguns. They were in perfect condition. One he strapped to his own thigh, the other he gave to Innocence. “Better safe than sorry.”

Innocence nodded, serious.

It was unnerving how good the kid was at shooting. The war had broken him, and then he managed to recover, and Roy liked to think that he had something to do with it, too, but some skills lingered, his steady aim and his focus under the fire.

The first fights, long ago in the camp, he had been jumpy, his gaze glazing over at the sound of shots being fired, but once he managed to overcome this, it appeared that he was a decent fighter and shooter, being better at the latter than Roy.

In the Source, they had taught Roy to shoot, of course, but barely. Technomancers thought that guns were below their high electro-asses. He had gathered more knowledge — and practice — at it during his wanderings.

Roy had learned to fight the hard way.

He had realized long ago that he was lucky in many aspects. He had been lucky to meet Tenacity so early in his free life, he had been lucky that Tenacity had helped him and had been generous enough to teach him some things, share Serum and knowledge with him. He never actually asked for anything in return and never pushed Roy into anything he didn’t like.

They had shared the bed that one time, and Roy sometimes thought that it had been a foolish move, but other than that and some good-hearted flirting, Tenacity had never pushed.

Roy didn’t know why Tenacity had been doing any of it. Messing around with a runaway Technomancer meant great trouble, not that Tenacity hadn’t known what trouble was. Maybe he was a risk-addict, or something.

Tenacity had come with him to the Source, to fight through Technomancer elite and go for the Dowser Wisdom. When General Honour had asked Tenacity why a person such as him was following Roy and how much did it cost, Tenacity retorted back that it cost his life.

True, Roy had spared him during their encounter in Shadowlair — Tenacity had come to hunting Roy on the Technomancers’ account — but that had been it. Sometimes Tenacity seemed to be the most grounded and reasonable man on this crazy planet, but sometimes, he made absolutely no sense to Roy and Roy couldn’t understand his motivation, no matter how he tried.

It took him time and the madness of the camp, the running, the war and Green Hope and conspiracies to understand that Tenacity had been one of the few people Roy genuinely cared about. But what Tenacity himself thought about this?

Roy shook his head. Tenacity was probably beyond his understanding. Did he even understand anything himself?

“Uh, Roy? Are you all right?”

Roy blinked at Innocence who was looking at him with concern. “Yeah, just lost in thoughts. There.” He handed him spare clips of ammo. “We don’t know what’s waiting there, so better be cautious.”

“You too, Roy,” Innocence replied.

Roy nodded and took a seat, then adjusted his glove. He glanced at Tenacity. The man eased his grip on the steering wheel and didn’t try to drill a hole in the front window with his glare, but the tension in his jacket-clad shoulders remained, as in the crease of his mouth. Something wasn’t right.

Roy wasn’t going to press the issue and ask questions now. For all that he was kidding, but Tenacity really reminded him of the hounds he liked to work with, determined, loyal in his own way, ferocious in battle. Violent and deathly when cornered.

For now, they needed to be a team and act as a team. Be prepared for anything.

Roy settled on his seat, eyeing the towering ridge of the Flammarion crater that was getting closer and closer.

Chapter Text

I’ve heard about Relics being found somewhere on Silver Peane’s territory, somewhere near the habitable border. Relics, that far from the equator? I must see them, before our brothers or cousins from other Guilds come pilage the place. They will tear it apart for any mention of the Relics. I would have, too, if I had any resources to do so. But I don’t have any, and still I have to waste my time on unreliable rumours… And yet, what if they turn out to be true?

…How do I even get there? ‘Peane guard their facilities well, and if it’s that far to the north, it has to be a factory or a mine, not just an average town. And ‘Peane value their mines more than they value their people. How do I get a clearance, a pass, anything? I’m an outlaw now, and have to behave as one. If someone of authority — or at least with enough brainpower — catches me… I can grow out my hair, throw away my uniform, not wear my gloves, but there are things that I can’t hide.

I need to find out the coordinates or the name of that place, and then somehow get there.

I have to be sure. If some Relics — and not just anything pre-Turmoil, but the Relics — are really there, it might possibly confirm my thoughts…

I think I’m scared, Aust. Scared of what I might find there, fear that my assumptions might prove right.

What I may find there… It may mean nothing. Or everything. Or something I won’t be able to understand…

Maybe you’re right, Aust, maybe I am insane. But I can’t turn back.

Chapter Text

The truck was casting a shadow resembling a huge crawling beast. The crater rim was drawing near, and Roy could almost taste the tension accumulating in the cabin. The only one who seemed pretty relaxed was Temperance. He was sitting near Innocence, his head again on his lap.

“If the hound gets anxious,” Tenacity noted, sparing a glance at the hound, “that means real trouble. So watch for his reactions. He’s better at noticing danger than we are.”

Roy didn’t say anything, though he wanted to quip something about Tenacity, too, being a hound.

“I don’t see any signs of habitation,” Innocence said. He leaned forward, eyeing the wall of the crater. It was more steep than Casin, but generally looked like any other crater on the planet.

“You said something about the Shadow Line nearby?” Roy asked Tenacity.

“The Shadow Line runs into the crater from the south,” the headhunter explained.

“There!” Innocence pointed.

The crack was like dried blood, caked on a wound, it darkened the wall and was wide enough to invite two of the monstrous trucks.

Tenacity doubled over to rummage under the panel and tossed binoculars over Roy’s lap to Innocence. “See if there’s anyone on those guard towers, will you?”

They were simple, just tall pillars of metal and stone with a platform on top, and they looked like they would crumble at any moment. The left one was tilting to a side.

“Quakes,” Roy muttered to himself.

Smaller cracks were running through the wall and big rocks had gathered at the foot of it.

“I see nobody,” said Innocence after a few minutes of surveillance.

One hour seemed to stretch into eternity before they approached the natural gates. Tenacity slowed down.

Roy checked his glove and stood up. “I’m going outside.” Nobody objected.

He jumped off the truck, jogged forward and waved to Tenacity to move forward. The truck, all the intimidating bulk of it, started creeping towards the gates.

The towers looked pitiful, orange with dust, old stones croaking. Reinforcing rods protruded like broken bones penetrating skin.

Right hand at his holster, Roy flexed his left one and walked a bit ahead of the truck. He had to cover his mouth with his scarf. The place was dusty, thick blanket of sand lying on the road., and it didn’t seem that anything at all walked or drove through the gates during the past few days or even weeks.

After they moved through the gates, the bowl of the crater opened before them, with a few smaller craters. Roy saw buildings, half-clawing at the walls of one of the smaller ones. How was that thing called? Flammarion-4. The number suggested that there were other mining sites, probably abandoned, too.

The truck stopped, and Roy jumped back in.

“As silent as in a grave,” he shook his head. “No vehicle has moved through the gates recently.”

Tenacity nodded.

A distant rumbling noise sounded for a moment then cut off abruptly.

“What… What was that?” Innocence asked.

Temperance jumped to his feet and chirred, antennae waving. His gaze was trained on the set of buildings.

“That a quake?” Roy asked.

Tenacity looked at the hound, and shook his head. “No. Not a quake.”

The headhunter sped up the machine towards the small crater. There weren’t any signs or numbers to tell if it was exactly the fourth mining site. One wing of its main gates was slumping to the side, probably the effect of the quake that scared people away from here.

Still no trace of life.

As Roy turned to Tenacity to ask for a stop so he could look around, the low grumble, much louder now, repeated, the booming sound bringing a lingering echo, and Roy could almost hear wailing in it.

His head was ringing a bit after the sound. He looked at Temperance. The hound didn’t try to run away, as, Roy had seen, moles do when they sense a quake. The dog, rather, seemed listening intently to the sound.

“That’s our stop, I guess,” Roy said and coughed. It felt like the sound somehow had scraped his throat raw, like sand.

“Go look and wait for me, I’ll hide the machine in that cave,” Tenacity gestured to the left where there was a shadowed hole in the wall of the crater.

Roy nodded.

They hopped out of the truck. Temperance stayed with Tenacity.

The gates were leading to a set of buildings carved right into the rusty walls of the crater. The old, worn metal and slabs of stone were covered with sand and dust and looked like they were a part of the crater, just as old and weathered. On the right side of the gates there was a guard tower, just as empty as the ones they had already seen. No sounds of drilling or movement, just creaking and groaning of rock and the eternal whisper of empty wind.

They didn’t even need to open the gates: the distended part had left a gape wide enough for them to step inside freely.

“It looks like the camp,” Innocence breathed out. His nailgun was clenched in a white-knuckled grip.

With the cylindric water tower and guard platforms and piles of sand and dim light, it did, Roy admitted. But so many places looked like the P.O.W. camp they had been held in.

He moved closer to Innocence, not close enough to intimidate and bring back painful memories, but close enough to announce his presence.

“No, it’s just a place where people live — or used to live, anyway. They ate here, slept here, but the mining itself is behind those gates,” Tenacity pointed to the farthest doors. “A large opencast mine that they dig spiraling down into the crater.”

“It seems you know everything,” Innocence noted with a faint laugh.

“Comes—”

“With the job,” Roy finished for the headhunter. That made Innocence smile.

Tenacity stopped and pressed his cross-rifle to his shoulder. “Movement,” he growled.

They emerged from the shadows, and the shadows trailed after them like mantles.

Temperance didn’t look hostile, but moved closer to Innocence.

There were a few dozens of them. They looked as startling as ever, with noseless face, prominent upper jaw, burns that made their skin look caked, and weird appendages on their elbows.

“You are the Savior-Man,” said one of them. He stepped forward, looking directly at Roy.

“What?” Roy frowned.

“The Man who saved us in the Abundance camp and in Green Hope,” said the Dust in that musical way of theirs. “We know you. And you,” he looked to the left of Roy, “you are his Innocence.”

That wasn’t untrue.

Roy wanted to ask about the Relics, but Innocence, his nailgun lowered, moved forward. “Are there any injured? We heard there has been a cave-in here…”

The Dust turned his hairless head to Innocence again, big eyes unblinking. “Those who had been injured, passed into the Shadow. Do not worry, Innocence.”

Innocence closed his eyes for a moment, slouching, than straightened his back and looked at the mutant. “Then we have water and can provide food.”

“You are offering more than the Dust deserve,” the mutant bowed his head.

The Dust always were in motion, swaying from side to side on bony legs, fingers twitching from ticks, always restless. But this one was different, he — or she? Did they even have females? — stood completely still, taller than any mutant Roy had ever seen.

The low noise shook the buildings again, so low it was inaudible but Roy could feel it in his bones. Sand trickled into his hair from the ceiling. There was something familiar in the noise that Roy couldn’t verbalize.

“What’s it?” croaked Tenacity, coughing. He lowered his crossrifle, but his finger was still on the trigger. His gaze was fixed on Temperance. The hound was calm, looking at the farthest gates and wiggling his short tail.

Many of the Dust lowered their heads and backed into the shadows.

“We have a request, Savior-Man,” said the one who, as Roy thought, represented the whole pack. “If the Savior-Man would be kind to follow us.”

Roy frowned, but nodded.

“We’re going with him,” Tenacity said.

“As the Hound-Man wishes.”

The Dust separated like walls of a canyon before the tall mutant as he led them to the farthest gates. The Dust standing on the either side of the gates tugged at the big wings to open it. They groaned, twisted and rusted and old. The whole facility looked like it had been established eons ago, though from Tenacity’s words Roy gathered that it was the newest of the Flammarion sites. Maybe only a couple of years old.

The gates led into a tunnel. The darkness here was thick, tinted with rusty orange, and the air was dry, but there also was an unusual smell to it, like blood spilled on the sand, only sharper, and the farther they moved, the thicker that smell was becoming.

“Where are you leading us?” croaked Roy, his voice muffled by the scarf that he tried to cover his mouth and nose.

He flexed the fingers of his left hand, the glove cool and creaking.

A blue light flashed ahead, and Roy closed his eyes for a moment, to let his eyes adjust, then opened them again.

The Dust stood, holding a small lamp high in thin hand. “We ask you to help this one go into the Shadow,” said the mutant.

The tunnel was blocked by a giant drilling worm. Long thick body, armored with natural plating, was lying on the floor, covered with dust. The worm, abandoned as the mutants, had probably broke the chains that usually bound those creatures. Most likely, the worm had tried to run from the quake. For some reason it couldn’t drill into the ground of the mine. One of its bigger tendrils that helped the creature to crush even the thickest stones was broken nearly in half, a nasty stump already covered with crusted ichor. There were cracks and gashes on the creature’s round head, nostril-like holes ripped, sharp teeth broken.

The space behind its head was blocked by crumbled rock.

“We can’t free this one,” said the Dust and turned to face Roy. The blue light made the mutant look like a ghost, with shadows too sharp. “We ask you to help the Earthen Leviathan, Savior-Man.”

“Is there no way to free it?” He looked at the worm. It’s armor was cracked in so many places, and there was a particularly horrifying wound on the head that was oozing black ichor.

The Dust shook his head — the first gesture that conveyed any emotion. “All machines have broken. And we have no weapons.”

Roy took a few steps forward. It was one thing fighting the beast back at the digging site near Green Hope, but looking at the worm bleeding, dying was quite another.

He steadied his own voice. “Leave me the light. And go.” He didn’t look at Innocence.

“But—”

“Go!”

He heard Tenacity striding to Innocence and whispering something.

The Dust lowered the lamp on the sand near Roy’s feet. “We thank Savior-Man.”

Roy had been left alone. The mutants closed the gates.

The light was not nearly enough, and after a moment Roy turned it off. It would probably explode or die out anyway.

Moving in the darkness, accompanied only by the shuffling of the worm’s tendrils on the sand, Roy put the lamp near the wall of the tunnel, placed his nailgun beside it, then returned to the worm.

He could smell the agony, felt vibrations of shudders rippling through the mighty body. Roy moved closer, until he could place his left hand on the head of the worm. Although the smell was almost unbearable, what made Roy nauseous was the thought of what he was about to do.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered and reached out into his body to produce electricity.

He gathered the amount he could handle without an overload. It made his head spin, and he felt like he was falling, but with an effort of will he concentrated and channeled all the electricity through his hand and into the worm.

Heaving the last booming cry, the worm jerked, trowing Roy away. The flash of the electricity almost blinded him, and he hit his head on the floor, though the sand covering it softened the fall.

The smell of cooked flesh hit him in the gut, and he roll to his side and emptied his stomach. He barely could stand, with spasms running through his muscles. He gulped from his flask, but held himself. He knew from his training that downing too many fluid at once would make matters even worse.

He stood up and, shuffling, his legs not in his control, found his nailgun.

Only then he noticed the screams.

Swaying like a drunk, he scrambled to the gates. He could feel the sharp smell of electricity in the air, not here in the tunnel, but in the main hall, too, and the hair on his neck stood up. There were flashes of blue and white and the shrieks of pain.

He struggled to open the gates. “Open… the fuck… up…”

Six or seven people, in the black uniform of Abundance Technomancy, were sending electro-arcs at the mutants who tried to run or hide. The tall Dust leader stepped forward with a mini-nailgun.

Tenacity darted behind wooden crates filled with sand and shot around the corner, but the Technomancers generated electro-shields to deflect nails.

One of the mutants near Innocence fell, spasming and jerking, and with dawning horror Roy saw how Innocence’s eyes glazed over.

Innocence roared, a sound Roy had never heard from him, and rushed to the group of Technomancers, shooting from his nailgun.

Roy shook himself out of stupor. “Innocence, no!”

A red whirl of fury threw itself on the Technomancers, accompanied by shouts of pain. Temperance bit into the hand of a Technomancer, his needle-like teeth piercing through thick leather of the coat easily, causing the Technomancer to fall on the floor, squirming and gasping and clutching at his bleeding arm in agony. The hound leaped to another, taking a hit of electricity, but it didn’t slow Temperance down.

Something knocked Roy off his feet, and he was dragged behind a crate.

“Are you crazy?” Tenacity hissed. He made a few shots then ducked into cover again.

“Innocence is there!” Roy gasped in pain, clutching his throbbing head.

“Can’t you answer them with electricity, Roy?” Tenacity eyed him, his gaze cold and calculating.

“Used… used everything on that worm,” he rasped.

The headhunter cursed and made another series of shots. Innocence roared again, and Roy stumbled to his knees and shot the closest Technomancer in the shoulder with his nailgun. “Go for the hands!” he yelled to Innocence and the Dust.

The mutant leader was moving fast between two columns and shooting. Roy had a moment to appreciate how surprisingly precise the shots were.

Roy waited for an opening, dashed towards Innocence and tackled him to the ground, then dragged into cover. There was a howl of a hound catching its prey : it seemed Temperance was fine, too.

“We won’t make it,” Roy said, pinning struggling Innocence to the ground with his whole body weight.

One of the columns that the Dust used as a cover blew up. The throbbing in Roy’s head turned into full-scale hammering.

He could try to drink the remaining water in his flask and gather energy to the point of overloading, make time for Innocence, and Temperance, and Tenacity, and that Dust to go—

He looked out of his cover, and the tension suddenly changed.

The Technomancers were yelling and turning back, to the main gates, and those who had been holding shields fell on the ground, twitching with spasms. There were a figure, walking from the gates and sending powerful electric arcs into them. The Technomancers, caught off-guard, tried to turn around and protect themselves.

Roy jumped out of his cover and shot the closest Technomancer in the forearm. His gun clicked empty, and, cursing, he started to reload when he spotted another Technomancer accumulating electricity between her open palms, preparing to send a shock wave.

Roy knocked the woman off her feet and then punched her in the face. His fist flared with pain, but it was a minor distraction compared to the pounding in his head.

One of the Technomancers yelled at the others and they hurried away into the main gates, dragging their fallen with them.

Roy barely had time to roll over before he heaved a dry retch.

Someone helped him to sit and put a flask near his mouth.

“Drink, slowly.” The voice was unfamiliar, and Roy attempted to open his eyes, but the world swayed.

He felt dirty, aching all over, and the smells of cooked flesh, electricity and burned metal were heavy in the air. He suppressed the urge to down the water in one go and drank in small gulps. It was warm and with metal tang, but it was better than nothing.

“Roy!” Roy felt Innocence’s warm hands on his body, checking him for injuries.

He opened his eyes at last and managed a weak smile that he hoped looked reassuring. “I’m okay, just tired. Don’t worry.”

It didn’t work because Innocence didn’t move from him, supporting his back. Roy breathed out a sigh of gratitude.

Then he turned his head carefully.

Crouched before him was another Technomancer, but to tell that he was exactly that Roy had to check his hands. Gloves, right, a pair of them. They were the only thing kept intact and with great care on this man. His clothing was a mess, Roy had seen hopeless junkies wearing better clothes. His leather jacket had lost any semblance of form and color, had streaks and holes in few places, and his pants were no better. His boots were old, worn-out, but heavy and high, good for long walks or running. Fighting, too.

The lower part of his face was obscured by unkempt dark beard. His dark hair had been dusted with sand and kept in a tail. His dark skin, like his clothing, was weathered and dirty, but his golden eyes were alight with flame. A flame of madness, a flame of a fanatic.

“Who are you?” Tenacity growled.

The headhunter stopped to the left of Roy, not moving his finger from the trigger of his crossbow.

Innocence helped Roy to rise to his feet, and he leaned on Tenacity. The headhunter moved his crossbow into his left hand and wound his right arm around Roy’s shoulder.

“You better answer my friend,” Roy croaked. The water was good for his nausea, but he still had that metallic taste in his mouth, and his headache was getting worse. He hoped he didn’t get a concussion.

The man rose to his feet, too, and made a step back, spreading his arms. He had no weapons, as far as Roy could see. Only his Technomancy.

“I am a Technomancer, as, I believe, you have already guessed. A rogue one, much like you are,” he nodded politely to Roy. Tenacity’s hand on Roy tightened. “You can call me Errant.” The Technomancer offered a small smile, like he wanted to laugh at some private joke.

“Good name for a runaway Technoguy,” Tenacity huffed, but his grip didn’t relax.

“You are… not from Aurora,” Roy said. He didn’t remember the guy. He must have been Roy’s age, maybe a little older, it was hard to say with all dirt and sand and general weathering of him. And Roy couldn’t possibly remember all Technomancers he had seen in the Source in his time, but those eyes… He would have remembered them.

“I am not. Those were,” he looked at the front gates where the Technomancers had gone, “my brothers and sisters. Once.”

“Abundance, then,” Tenacity muttered..

“The Men are gone,” said the leader of the Dust. Roy didn’t notice how the mutant slipped out, but he entered through the main gates. He looked quizzically at the stray Technomancer. “Is this one here to help the Dust?”

“I came here for the same reason as, I believe, my colleague,” the Technomancer waved at Roy, “has come here. To see the Relics. But that is of little importance now. You have a few days, maybe a week before my former kin return here with troops and heavy weaponry.”

The Dust leader moved from one burned remains of a mutant to another. The mutant kneeled beside every single one of them and touched the chest of the fallen, muttering something about the shadows. Then the mutant walked towards them, slightly waving his arms.

Survivors gathered together again, too. They spared their fallen a look or two but no more.

“What is your name?” asked Roy. He leaned away from Tenacity and steadied himself. The world stopped swaying, but it would take days to get rid of the sharp taste of metal on his tongue. The headache became almost tolerable by now.

“We think they used to call us ‘one from the wind’ long ago,” the mutant said. For a moment his golden eyes glazed over, and Roy startled because only then he noticed that the eyes of this Dust and the eyes of the former Abundance Technomancer were almost the same color — and the same flame was burning deep inside them.

“’Wind’, then?” Tenacity said.

“This name is as good as any, Hound-Man,” the Dust replied. “We will show you the artifacts of the old Men.”

“You should go away from here,” the Technomancer, Errant, said, but Wind shook his head.

“We have only the plains to go to, and the Shadow awaits us there as well as here. We are staying.”

“We could take you with us!” Innocence exclaimed. “Our truck is big enough…”

The Dust looked at him. “We appreciate your thoughts, Innocence, but we do not want to be a liability. It is unwise to take us with you. Any military Man can stop you and if they see us, they will ask questions. They will shoot. We do not want to endanger you. You fought for us, for that we are grateful,” he placed a hand against his heart, “but it is more than we deserve. Do not worry about us, we are sinners and the punishment awaits.”

“I just… wanted to help.” Innocence’s voice was barely audible.

Roy moved to squeeze his shoulder and looked at the Dust.

Muscles on the face of the mutant twitched, as if he tried to remember some facial expression that he had forgotten how to use or only seen on someone. “You have already helped us, Innocence. That is enough.” The mutants looked at Roy. “Are you ready to go to the artifacts of old Men now or do you want to rest?”

First, he needed more water.

He asked Tenacity for it. The headhunter eyed him with suspicion but gave him his flask. Roy nodded and drank almost everything. He had maybe a few hours before he would need to sleep, badly. He was exhausted and had used almost everything he had. During New Life, he had barely used Technomancy, and then only scraps and sparkles of it. He could use even more, but hadn’t exercised for a while. Hadn’t thought he’d ever have the need to go into overload or use shields…

“We are ready.”

He had doubts about Errant. What was he doing here? Why did he— Wait.

“Wait,” he said, before Wind turned around. “Wait, Errant, how did you get here?”

“Train, then a small truck,” the Technomancer shrugged. “Just as those Technomancers did, I am sure of it. I saw the Abundance symbols on the vehicles near the main gates and heard the sounds of electricity, and I ran right in.”

That sounded not really convincing, but Roy couldn’t find it in himself to care, so he just nodded.

Temperance jogged to them, panting. Faint sparks flashed between the spikes on his back, but there were no tremors in his muscles.

Roy patted the hound. “Good boy. You did good, protected Innocence.”

The dog chirred, waving his antennae.

“Let’s go,” Roy said to the Dust and Errant.

One of the survived mutants gave Wind a small lamp, a twin of the lamp that Roy had left in the tunnel with the worm.

Remembering the worm and the pain of killing the beast, Roy though he was thankful for the Technomancers who had rushed into the site, in a weird, twisted way. At least the attack gave Innocence a reason to take his mind off the dying worm. But he had to be there for Innocence, to hold him and protect him from nightmares, from the sucking void of guilt.

***

Wind led them through corridors of the mining site. They were walking through the top staff quarters, it seemed, a corridor with rooms, small but with two beds. Had there had to be so many of the top workers? He doubted that regular workers had lived here, there were likely barracks on the other side of the facility.

The emergency lighting was still working, but barely, only accentuating shadows the color of dried blood. And sand, everywhere, in every crease. It made everything look like the facility was abandoned years ago.

There were items, personal belongings scattered everywhere as if the people weren’t allowed to take anything with them: tattered clothes buried under a pile of dust, a cup knocked on the floor filled with sand. The image of flight.

Roy caught a glance of something white in the light in Wind’s hands, and he walked to it. It was a small polished piece of bone, isosceles triangle wrapped in dark metal wire. In the center of the triangle was a carving of… some creature. It had no legs and had a shape of drop of water, with small appendages under its fat belly. The tail ended with a flat blade-like shape. The triangle was well-loved, sustained great damage and came out unbroken. It was the size of half Roy’s palm, and when he touched it with bare fingers of his right hand, he thought he could feel light buzzing. And… singing? He shook his head and groaned at the renewed pain in his head.

What was he thinking, a singing bone? He must have been hit hard.

“What is it? Roy, you alright?” Innocence appeared near him and touched his arm.

“Just a headache, don’t worry,” Roy smiled at him. “Look what I found here in the sand.”

“What a strange creature,” Innocence said, taking it from Roy’s palm. His hand was warm against Roy’s skin, and for a moment he could hear a clear, transparent tinkling like a glass sticks he had in his cell when he still had lived in the Source…

He squeezed his eyes shut, and the tinkling was no more. He definitely had been hit hard.

“That is a whale,” said Errant, startling Roy. The Technomancer walked to Innocence, along with Wind, and looked at the triangle in Innocence’s hands.

“Some rare animal?” Roy croaked and drank from his flask. Despite that his mouth felt dry.

“It is a Leviathan,” said Wind in his melodic voice and placed right hand against his chest. “From Earth.”

Errant nodded. “Our friend here is right. It is a creature that roams the oceans of Earth, one of the biggest animals.”

Roy looked at the carving. One of the biggest, huh.

“How did it survive in the oceans, I wonder?” Roy murmured.

Innocence held the bone triangle to the Dust, but Wind took a step back. “No, take it with you, Sun. Let it protect you and those you hold dear.”

Innocence nodded and put the bone into the pocket of his pants.

After a few turns the floor of the corridor dropped into a black pit. There was no way of jumping over it, and the path behind it was blocked by fallen stones and metalwork. There were lamps standing on the rim of the pit and their blue light made the darkness below seem alive.

“It is a tunnel made by moles, we think,” Wind said and turned the light into the pit. It caught the shape of a crude angular corridor, running down, with faint claw-marks, and it was big enough for an adult mole.

“It’s old,” Tenacity peered down into it. “Look how the walls are cracking and crumbling, and the claw marks are faded.”

Wind nodded. “Those Dust who built this mine say the tunnel and some other tunnels like this one have already been there, and abandoned long before the Men of Silver came.”

“You were not here from the start?”

“They moved us from elsewhere when the mine was ready to use us. The Relics are down the tunnel.”

Roy took four lamps and handed them to Innocence, Errant, and Tenacity. The light was poor, dying.

The pit looked as if it was ready to swallow them, and Roy had a moment of doubt. What if the Dust wanted to lure them into a trap and lock them there. Men had caused the Dust trouble without even thinking about it, used them as if they were disposable — even more disposable, than human workers. The Men left the mutants here, to die a horrible death of starvation and thirst, and Roy couldn’t blame the Dust for hate and anger. It didn’t seem, though, that they had the anger in them, and in part, that made Roy angry himself. He wanted to shake Wind out of his indifference and fatalism. But it was not his call to make, was it?

He stepped into the hole, probing the stones. They seem solid enough, and he started his descend. About half a minute the tunnel was leading down then opened into horizontal path with ridged edges.

The rustling and creaks behind Roy indicated that his friends made their way down. Temperance chirred somewhere above.

“He didn’t want to go down,” Tenacity said and raised the lamp.

Roy waited until everyone gathered around to bring enough light.

“Seems like that one in Green Hope,” Tenacity commented.

These Relics looked exactly like those Roy with Tenacity had seen near Green Hope, like those in the tunnels under the P.O.W. camp and in couple other places: just scraps of metal, an unknown alloy, dusty-green or gray, half-rings connected by a thick straight rod. They looked like beams of a round tunnel — or a carcass of a huge animal. Roy thought they looked like ribs on a spine, remains of a giant metal drilling worm, except that worms had no bones.

“The same as everywhere,” Roy muttered.

He saw no point in their existence, or more like, in all the fuss around them. Clearly, he thought, they were parts of a single underground network, but they could only be discovered by chance. He had heard of Technomancers trying to search for the Relics by using worms, but they couldn’t sense that strange alloy and crushed the Relics. Technomancers also tried to locate the Relics by using electricity, but it was unsuccessful. Or so he had heard.

Maybe they were parts of some pre-Turmoil colossal structure, but considering that they were found in odd places, in almost every corner of Mars without any clear pattern to their arrangement… What kind of structure could it be?

In the Source Technomancers studied the alloy. Sometimes they could recognize the components of it, and used it, reforging it and making thin wire that they plugged into their heads like. Abundance was especially in love with this tactic. Roy had a band like this himself, but it hadn’t… actually changed anything, only given him bad dreams and worn him down.

Abundance made whole halos and crowns out of it. The Technomancer he had fought and killed in the camp, Sean, had those wires. Mary, Sean’s apprentice, had the wire sewn into her dress.

Roy hadn’t seen her since his last business with General Honour. The General wanted to lock her up with other Technomancers in the Source, but Roy managed to buy her freedom. After they had parted ways, he hadn’t seen her or heard anything about her.

He leaned on the wall, tired. It seemed they had done this trip for nothing, if not for the Dust, but the mutants had rejected their help.

And they had run into the Abundance Technomancers, and some of them managed to escape. They had definitely recognized that some of their adversaries were Technomancers, too, and there weren’t that many stray Technomancers on Mars, Roy thought. They would return.

Errant didn’t seem disappointed. He raised his lamp higher, moving it around. “Fascinating,” the Technomancer murmured. “The structure and the alloy resembles those in Schaeberle. Interesting…” He walked closer to the Relics.

“You seem to know much about them,” Innocence said.

Errant turned around with surprise as if he had forgotten that he wasn’t alone, then smiled. “No, not much. But the people, the colonists, are my passion, or rather, their beliefs, motives, their knowledge.” His smile faltered. “That is the reason I had to leave my kindred. They couldn’t understand it, wouldn’t understand. You have seen them. In Abundance, the Technomancers are a part of the military. And I am a scientist, not a soldier, but it is not possible to change your position in Abundance.”

“What makes you think we are not from Abundance?” asked Tenacity. “We could easily sell you out.”

“I heard about you, headhunter,” Errant replied. “And I heard about you… Roy, isn’t it? You are somehow connected to the changing of balance in Aurora. Mars is a small place, and I learned to listen because otherwise I couldn’t have survived.”

Roy frowned. Was he so famous?

He rubbed his forehead. His headache was lessening, but he needed rest.

“But I think that for Abundance something is changing, too,” Errant continued. He turned back to the Relics. “Despite losing the main battles in the war, look at them! They have enough resources to go here, so far away from home, to check the rumors about Relics being found. The Technomancers of Abundance are getting more independent. You should leave this place as fast as you can.”

“What about you, Man?” asked Wind suddenly.

“I will stay here for a while longer. I want to study these Relics.”

“We can’t allow you to go into the Shadow here, Man,” the Dust shook his head. “You watch the artifacts of the First Men but then you go. You helped us, too. You won’t go into the Shadow here.”

Errant nodded. “I know. I am not meant to go into the Shadow here or now.” His voice sounded dark.

Roy shook his head. Technomancers were Technomancers, in the end, as weird as the Dust.

“I say we wait for the morning and then move,” Tenacity announced.

“But we will leave some water here,” said Innocence.

Roy nodded. He would have agreed to almost anything right now.

Tenacity who started heading back up, and Roy dragged himself along. Pebbles rolled under the headhunter’s feet, and it shook Roy awake enough for him to catch Tenacity under his arm. “Careful.”

Tenacity jerked from the touch, then turned his head and offered a smile, but there was something off to it. “Uh, thanks.” And the headhunter hurried up.

Roy scowled, but didn’t say anything. They got out of the pit, and he helped Innocence to go out. Wind remained with Errant.

Temperance jogged to them and rubbed his head against Innocence’s shoulder. Innocence smiled and patted the hound.

“We are clear, Temperance, don’t worry,” Tenacity said.

They made the way back in silence.

Roy saw trouble obscuring Innocence’s face. Tenacity and Temperance were walking ahead of them.

Roy moved closer to Innocence, so that their arms brushed against each other as they walked. “Hey,” he called quietly.

Innocence startled and lifted his gaze at Roy. His eyes were huge and too bright in the dim light of their lamps. “They are going to die here,” he whispered.

“It is their choice, Innocence,” Roy answered just as quietly. “We can’t force them to accept our help.”

“They are going to die,” Innocence repeated, shaking his head, then turned away.

Roy placed a hand on his shoulder. “It’s not your fault.”

“It is my fault if I don’t do anything.”

“You can’t. Leave them be. Let them choose. They had enough time when everything was chosen for them.”

Innocence looked at him sharply. “When you put it this way… I think I understand. It’s like when you didn’t tell me not to go with the Resistance. You let me choose for myself.”

Roy stopped abruptly, his gaze following Innocence who caught up with the headhunter and his hound.

After a few moments, he went after them, through the corridors back in the hall and then outside.

There was a small truck that must have been Errant’s. It was nothing like the armored monster they had, not even close, just a regular small truck that the military used.

Roy wondered where Errant had acquired it.

It was not locked, so Tenacity moved in it into the cave where he had left their truck, just in case. Then they drove their monstrosity to the main gates and unloaded water canisters. The Dust were helping them. Despite their seemingly fragile physique and undernourishment, they were strong.

They left only two canisters in the truck, giving everything else to the Dust. They took the food out, too, dried meat and herbs and vegetables, and Innocence said he wanted to cook.

Going through the rubble and remains of the mining facility, they stumbled upon a mess hall. Half of the roof had fallen down, but the kitchen was intact and Roy managed to make the oven running. They spent some precious water to wash the pots and kettles. Mutants peered into the kitchen, like wild moles, and Innocence said that they could help him if they want.

Leaving him at it, Roy went to the main gate and, taking a crate with him, went outside, put the crate on the dusty stones and sat down.

He didn’t realize that it had been just a few hours since they arrived at the mining site, and they had already encountered Technomancers, found some strange guy, and seen the Relics. The bowl of the crater didn’t allow to see the horizon, but Roy could see the main “gates” into the crater and the dying light of the day over the ridge wall.

His headache made a slight ringing in his head, and after a while he gave up on thinking and just breathed, in and out, steadying himself, centered in his own body with its pains and scratched and weight and shape.

They were alive. Innocence and Tenacity and Temperance, alive and unharmed.

“What are you going to do, Roy?” Tenacity propped a crate beside him and sat on it. “And by the way, how are you feeling?”

The appearance of the headhunter didn’t disturb him. He flexed fingers of his gloved hand. “I have no concussion, just a headache, and despite the lack of proper exercises, I’m recovering well after spending so much Fluid.” He sighed. “Just tired and dehydrated, don’t worry.”

“What about my other question?” Tenacity asked quietly.

Roy turned to looked at him. He was covered with dust, and his gray-blue eyes were weary, his scarf torn in some places, and new bruises were forming under the half-opened jacket.

Roy tugged at his own scarf, then tore away the ruined piece of fabric that sagged on Tenacity’s neck like a plant that didn’t get enough water, and wrapped his own scarf around his neck, brushing his fingertips over warm skin.

He then leaned back and caught the headhunter’s amused gaze. “You look like shit, Tenacity,” he said with a grin.

“You’re no better yourself, Technoguy,” the headhunter retorted.

They laughed, a weary and soft sound.

Then Roy looked at the sky, at the water paint filling it, and said, “I don’t know. We got exposed, and there’s no doubt they will return, just as Errant said. And even if we go before that, what will it do? That truck, it’s not so difficult to track it, admit it. I can’t expose you to this threat, neither one of you.” He lowered his head and scratched the ground with his boot.

“My opinion is the same,” Tenacity said. “He won’t let you go that easy.”

He let out a long, shaking breath and rubbed at his face. “I know. I can’t think straight right now. I’ll think about it a bit later.”

“The mutants said we should rest, and I support their offer. Eat and sleep, Roy.”

“What about the watch?”

Tenacity laughed, a dry sound in the wasteland that was around them. He spread his arms. “Do you see any enemies here?”

Roy frowned. “No, but the Abundance Technomancers managed to get here without us noticing.”

Tenacity’s smile fell. “Don’t worry about it. Wind promised they would guard us themselves. You and Innocence need sleep.”

“You, too, Old Hound. You are still our only driver.”

Tenacity offered him a smile and then produced a flask out of the pocket on his pants. Judging by his grin, Roy reckoned it was not water.

“Want some?”

He snorted. “With my headache? You kidding?”

“It’s just water, promise. I wouldn’t drink anything stronger in the hell of the plains here.”

Roy caught the flask when Tenacity tossed it to him, and drank. It was definitely water. He gave it back, and Tenacity took a swig, too. He looked at the gates leading out of the crater into the big world.

“They are going to die,” the headhunter said at last. “I’m not gonna judge them or press the issue, but damn, their readiness to die is disturbing. I’ve learned that you have to fight to survive in this shithole,” he gestured around. “Mars, I mean. And that’s how I live, you know me. But here, when they have our offer of help, when they are free to choose… They chose death.” Tenacity shook his head and rolled a small stone with his boot. “Makes you question your own choices, eh?”

Roy nodded. “Yeah.”

Wind treaded around them on soft paws, and they didn’t say much, until one of the mutants came to them and stuttered that the dinner is ready.

They walked, shoulder to shoulder, back into the facility and to the mess hall, greeted by chatter and clatter and warm smell of food and herbal tea.

Roy counted two tens of the mutants. The last survivors. So few of them. Some of them winced when he walked past. He smiled at them as reassuringly as he could, and a few gave a tentative nod to him.

Innocence and Wind were seated near each other, talking quietly over food. Errant was among the Dust, too, explaining something and doodling symbols in a worn-out journal. Roy couldn’t recognize the symbols, but the Dust Errant was talking to nodded and scribbled similar patterns on the paper.

Temperance moved along the benches. He never did any sudden movements, even though some mutants winced just as they did near Roy, but then leaned to the hound and placed a hand on his forehead or his back, and Temperance was making a low purring noise.

Roy smiled and went to Innocence who waved at him and Tenacity and pointed at two big pots on the stove. “Take the stew and tea.”

“Smells like heaven,” commented Tenacity, sniffing and pouring the stew into two bowls while Roy moved to the second pot to get them some tea.

Innocence and Wind moved to make room for the two of them. Roy sat down on the bench, brushing his arm against Innocence’s open forearm. Innocence’s jacket was hanging from a nearby crate.

“You should go out of the same gates you came here,” Wind said. The Dust was holding a big steaming cup in both palms. “The Men of Abundance would come using trains, the Errant said so. But you should go south as soon as you reach the Cassini crater.”

“Cassini? You mean, Casin?” Tenacity asked.

“Yes, Hound-Man. Casin. ‘Cassini’, that’s an old name.”

“Why should we move south?” Roy asked, finishing the stew and going for the tea. It was the composition that Innocence called “for good sleep”. It was relaxing and sweet.

“The quakes. You should leave these plains, Arabia Terra, because the quakes are growing more frequent, and you can’t go to the north because the Sun that judges and forgives would burn you. It is not safe for you to go north, Savior-Man.”

Innocence nodded. “Thank you for your advice.”

“You shared water and food with us,” Wind lifted his cup slightly. “The Dust share their knowledge with you.”

When they finished their dinner, Wind said that they had cleaned some rooms in the administrative part of the facility. “You can sleep, there are beds. And we will watch over your sleep.”

Roy nodded his appreciation. His headache calmed down, though he still needed to replenish water in his body, and he started feeling drowsy thanks to the tea and warm meal and the dull noise of chatter in the mess.

He dozed on and off, and felt a touch to his shoulder. “Roy, let’s go?”

Roy realized that he fell half-asleep right there. He rubbed at his face and winced at his glove, but didn’t remove it, just in case. He blinked at Innocence and nodded. “Yeah. I need a nap.”

He hadn’t notice Tenacity slipping away. The headhunter was nowhere in the mess, though Temperance was still there, basking in the attention from the few Dust that surrounded him. The hound was chirring and moving his antennae from side to side.

Roy smiled at the sight and stood up. The world spun around him, and he had to steady himself on Innocence’s shoulder and close his eyes.

“You alright?” sounded Innocence’s worried voice.

“Yeah, yeah, just… got up too fast.” He breathed in and out, counting his heartbeat, until his stomach calmed down and stopped attempting to do a somersault. Only then Roy opened his eyes.

Wind’s golden eyes were fixed on him. The mutant was still clutching the cup. “Sleep well tonight,” the Dust said.

“We will,” Roy promised then turned his attention to Innocence who was watching him with worry. “Let’s go?”

Innocence nodded and took Roy’s hand.

Roy startled slightly, but didn’t try to get away from the touch. Innocence led him out of the mess hall down the darkened corridors, and Roy was grateful, in some distant, abstract way, for the near darkness, and for Innocence’s warm hand. And it was nice, not to be the one leading, for a change. Innocence’s hand was calloused from all the gardening and hard work he had done in New Life, and he was holding Roy’s ungloved right hand, and Roy obeyed.

When Innocence stopped, he woke up a little, almost bumping into Innocence, and looked around blinking at dim lighting. There was only one lamp sitting on the floor, their lamp from the truck, and it’s blueish light shone in the small narrow room with two cots at the opposite walls. The mutants had clearly tidied here a bit, swept sand and dust away. Their bedrolls, his and Innocence’s, were already spread over the cots like blankets.

“It is better than sleeping on the floor of the truck, I think,” said Innocence.

“Yeah,” mumbled Roy. He tugged his jacket off his shoulders. His sweater had to stay, though. He tiptoed his boots off, too, and fell on the cot.

“Roy, let me cover you!” he heard Innocence say, and the bedroll was tugged from under him, but he felt heavy, his body weighing more than the monstrous truck.

He mumbled a “thanks” when the bedroll-blanket had covered him, and fell into oblivion.

***

His body was heavy and unmoving, but he was so exhausted that he jerked into wakefulness a few times during the night. He saw an outline of Innocence’s face, with furrowed eyebrows that he wanted to smooth away, but he couldn’t move a finger and fell into sleep again, content that Innocence is with him.

His mind was not able to shut down entirely, and he heard — or thought he could hear — muffled voices, Temperance’s chirring, groaning of metal and stone surrounding them. One time he could sense Tenacity’s presence in the tiny room, but it disappeared quickly. Then somewhere close, he heard a cot groan under a weight of a man, and everything fell into silence and stillness, and Roy descended further into sleep.

He watched as giant droplet-shaped figures moved around him, moaning and singing without words in light-blue void.

Then roar fell from above in his sleep, a rumble, and a noise of different voices calling urgently.

He woke up, bolting upright. The noises didn’t go away, and he recognized the low revving of truck engines.

He grabbed his nailgun, checked his glove that was hugging his hand, put on his jacket, and said to stirring and blinking Innocence, “Stay safe.” Then he went out.

Tenacity emerged from the nearby room, ordering Temperance to protect Innocence. His crossrifle was already in his hands. The hound flopped on the threshold of the room Roy had left Innocence in.

“Engines. Trucks,” the headhunter commented, confirming Roy’s thoughts.

He wondered how could noises from the outside travel so deep into the facility.

They ran to the front hall. Wind was already there with mutants, small guns in their hands. The Dust looked over his shoulder at them and held his hand in the air, stopping them in the corridor. “Stay put, please,” he mouthed and turned to face the main gate.

Roy and Tenacity huddled in the corridor, shadowed by the walls. Roy flexed his left hand. The glove felt familiar, natural, like his true skin, and that was a dangerous thought. Roy was calm and collected, electricity already building in him. He had to tone it down to not reveal his own presence with the sharp scent.

In the opposite corridor he saw Errant, crouching in the shadows just like they did. He nodded to them, his hands clad in Technomantic gloves.

Had the Abundance Technomancers returned so quickly? No, it cannot be…

The gates were opened by grunting men, and then they stepped into the main hall. Ahead of them a woman strode,, wearing a coat that had been white sometime ago but now had turned rusty from dust. Her dark hair was cropped short and powdered with sand. She stopped, looking at Wind who didn’t move or lower his weapon.

“What business do you have here, Men?” the Dust asked.

From his vantage point Roy could see his grip tightening on the small nailgun.

She eyed him as if he was some mole who suddenly dug out of the ground before her. Roy studied those who came with her. They were not Technomancers, obviously, but who else?

“Shit, Ultimum?” Tenacity exhaled near him.

“We came to claim this facility,” the woman announced at last, her fists on her hips. There were eleven men and women behind her, and five of them were armed with nailguns. They eyed warily the mutants who gathered behind Wind.

They didn’t have a chance against two Technomancers and a headhunter.

Roy stepped into the open, walking to Wind and coming to stop at his side.

The woman’s eyes were fixed on his left hand. He raised it so that she could see it better. “You know what this means, don’t you?”

“I know that by the authority of Ultimum Guild—”

“Ultimum has no authority here,” said Errant, moving into the light, too, deliberately holding his hands in the air — and that was not a gesture of peace.

The woman crossed her arms over her chest. “Well, we have two Technomancers here! Or have you just stolen those gloves and put them on to appear more badass? What are you going to do, shoot me?”

“I don’t think it is called shooting when they use their magicks,” Tenacity said, going out of cover and stopping beside Roy, his crossrifle resting at shoulder height. “But I will definitely shoot you, lady.”

“He will, Joane, I know him,” sounded a familiar voice, melodic and high-pitched, but there was something off to it, like the person couldn’t actually decide how to express their emotions through their voice.

She stepped through the gate and moved forwards. Roy could barely recognize her, her blond curly hair cropped close so that she almost looked like a boy, but the unmistakable circle in the center of her forehead, made by metal wires infused into her skin, and her yellowish-gray eyes were definitely hers. And her voice, of course.

She was wearing a jacket he had bought her before they parted ways.

“Mary?” Innocence appeared from the corridor and walked straight to her.

She took his hands in hers. “Hello, Innocence, I’m glad you are well. Hello, Roy,” she smiled at him and then at the headhunter, “Hello, Tenacity.”

“What does it mean, Mary?” demanded the woman from Ultimum. “Do you know them?”

Mary let go of Innocence’s hands. “I only don’t know this sir,” she nodded at Errant, “and this one,” she gestured at Wind.

“We were in the middle of something, step aside, Mary, please,” said the woman, and Roy noticed that her voice sounded softer when she addressed Mary.

“I will, but don’t expect me to use my Technomancy if they start killing your people, Joane. I owe Roy my life and my freedom,” Mary said and made a few step to the her right.

“You have no business here!” Wind aimed his gun at the woman. “Our masters from Silver Peane Guild have left us here.” His voice, previously melodic, dropped into menacing hiss.

“My Guild has an agreement with Silver Peane that allows us—”

“Silver Peane has left us here,” Wind repeated.

“So you have claimed this facility?” she huffed.

“Yes,” the Dust answered. “And you will hear us out, and you will state your business or go into the Shadow right now.”

She gaped at him, then regained her composure and prepared to say something, but Mary stepped forward — not quite in the line of fire, just forward.

“Joane and her research team came here to examine the Relics that are said to be here,” she said.

“And she is not alone in her intentions,” Errant said. “There were Abundance Technomancers here, and they will return in a few days, of that I can assure you.”

“Well, we have to be quick, then,” said Joane, rather calm. “I have no time to deal with crazy fanatics.”

Well, you have to ask, then,” said Tenacity. “But we are not the ones you have to ask.”

Wind was looking at Joane over his gun.

Joane pursed her lips.

“May they go look at the Relics, please?” Mary said. She cocked her head to the side and smiled at Wind.

The Dust’s gaze turned to her, and the mutant lowered his small gun. “They may, we will follow them and we ask you to escort them, Magic Lady.”

Mary smiled and nodded. “Thank you, I will do as you say.”

“But they are not allowed to camp in the facility,” added Wind. “They may only settle outside. You, however, are welcomed to be here, Magic Lady.”

Mary said her gratitude again and went to Joane. Touching her arm, she said something in quiet voice. Joane threw a glance at Wind and then at Roy and nodded sharply.

“We are settling down, people, quick!” she waved at her group and walked out of the main gate.

Tenacity shook his head. “I pity the poor bastards that have to work for her.”

“Are Ultimum people all like this?” asked Innocence.

Mary followed Joane but turned around and waved at them before disappearing behind the gate.

“I’ve met some of them in my time,” Errant replied. “They are similar to Technomancers, set on their own ways. Only that they are scientists while the Technomancers are mystics.”

“And they actually care about this damn planet,” Tenacity added. “Or so I’ve heard. But they are the smallest Guild, so they have no political power whatsoever.”

“Don’t you want to go to them and exchange experience?” Roy turned to Errant. “You said the Relics are of particular interest to you.”

The former Abundance Technomancer was rubbing his chin with a gloved hand. “As I said, they are scientists, and Technomancers are mystics. I presume, we don’t have many things in common in our research.”

“Wind? You alright with this?” Roy asked the Dust.

The mutant shook his head. “We want them go, but they are going to ravage this place anyway, are they not? We think they better do it while we are still around. And we have to guard the Earthen Leviathan from them. We don’t want them to ‘take samples’ or ‘visect’ it.”

“’Vivisect’,” corrected Errant. “You have a drilling worm here?”

“The Savior put him to rest,” Wind nodded. “The Earthen Leviathan was dying and hurting, but we couldn’t put him to rest. The Savior could, and did. We don’t want that Wo-Man to find it.”

Then the Dust went to other mutants who gathered in the main hall.

“That Joane seems to not like the Dust much,” Innocence said.

“The Dust can handle themselves, but yeah, I’m worried about them, too,” Tenacity said. He placed his crossrifle on his back.

“You think this Joane could ally with the Abundance Technomancers?” asked Roy.

And then they would wipe the Dust out, no doubt. If the Dust don’t die before that, Roy thought grimly.

Tenacity nodded. “Probably. Besides, what exactly their research is about?”

“I’ll ask Mary,” Roy said. “And I’m curious how she has ended up working with Ultimum.”

***

Ultimum group set their camp just outside the main gates, four tents near three trucks. Wind refused to share any resources with them but I seemed they had their own supplies.

Roy was watching them moving around. They were clearly unsettled by the fact that the facility they had come to was inhabited, and by the Dust. The Ultimum were not soldiers and didn’t have resources to drive the Dust out of the facility. Or maybe, he thought with a grim smile, they were afraid of two rogue Technomancers and one headhunter with a hound who threatened to kill anyone who would try to hurt the Dust.

Roy watched them for a while, then went to the mess hall. There were few of Dust here, tense, talking about the new “guests”. Wind was nowhere around, mutants said he went with “the Ultimum Wo-Man” to show her the Relics.

After having a quick breakfast, cold stew and tea, Roy returned to the room where he had slept with Innocence, took a gun kit out of his bag, and went out of the facility. The sun enveloped him like a blanket.

The crate he had sat on last night was still there. He moved it and the second crate away from the Ultimum camp, sat down and put the gun kit beside himself. Although the guns were Tenacity’s, Roy was intent on taking good care of them. Besides, it made him busy.

He hated feeling useless.

He probed at his Technomancy, sending a small wave of electricity through the gun, enough to “taste” the alloy it was made of. His power was returning to him quickly. He didn’t like it at all, but just like the gun he was disassembling, it was a tool he used to protect those he loved. His hands were working on their on, and he started humming a tune that had come to his mind.

A shadow fell on him, and he smiled, looking up. “Hello, Mary.” He scooped all his stuff and put it on his lap. “Here, sit down.”

“Hello, Roy,” Mary said and sat on the crate. “It’s good to see you. And you’ve found your Innocence?”

“Yes, I did,” he nodded, wiping the gun with a cloth. “We have a house now, in a small village, and Innocence has a garden.”

“So you’ve found your home. You were lost without Innocence.”

He didn’t try to object.

Someone dropped a crate in the camp, and it made a sad metallic noise, and two people stood over it, yelling and waving hands at each other.

Roy stared at them dubiously. “Are they always making so much noise?”

“Sometimes,” said Mary.

“How did you end up with them anyway?” He turned to her and resumed his cleaning without even looking at what his hands were doing.

She shrugged. “I met Joane, and she asked if I wanted to go with her. She needed someone like me, a Technomancer who could charge things and check metals. And protect her people. And now I’m here, with Joane, as her bodyguard and lover and her Technomancer.”

Roy stared at her, into her eyes, so pure and innocent, then shook his head. “What exactly are they researching? What do they need the Relics for?”

“Joane thinks they are part of some big structure.”

“Yeah, many Technomancers think so, too. Why is her theory so special?”

Mary shrugged again and dangled her legs. “You can ask her yourself.”

“No way I’m going to her.” He frowned. “I don’t like the way she talks to the Dust. They have worked here for years, they have every right to defend this place.”

“Are they going to stay here?”

Roy contemplated telling her the truth. “They are. And they are going to die here.”

“We could take them with us,” Mary said.

“They have already decided, Mary, and I don’t think that’s a good idea. What would your boss do to them? Use them in experiments? No, I won’t allow it.”

“She doesn’t do experiments on anyone, Roy. We could take them to the Dust commune. It’s on Ultimum’s official territory, not so far from Joane’s main base, and they live there on their own.”

Roy put down the gun and looked at her. “You serious? About the Dust commune?”

She nodded. “They don’t belong to anyone, and it’s a small village, just like anywhere else, and they are trying to survive just like everywhere else. They grow crops and trade with nearby Ultimum research bases. Ultimum don’t have time to grow anything themselves, so the Dust village is vital. Only that…” she trailed off and blushed a little.

“What?”

“Joane doesn’t have enough space in her trucks, and more importantly, enough supplies.”

Roy imagined the map and estimated the distance to the Ultimum territory. “Well, we have a huge truck and brought here enough supplies. But still…”

Mary’s eyes lit up, and she grabbed Roy’s arm. “Please, Roy? I like them, Wind is so lovely, please, I want to help. I don’t want them to die.”

He didn’t want, either. “I have to talk to Wind, try to convince the Dust to move.”

“And I’ll talk to Joane.” She launched himself at him, wrapping her arms around him. “Thank you, Roy.”

He smiled and almost ruffled her hair, but then remembered his hands were dirty and settled at placing a small kiss on her cheek. “Don’t thank me yet. We should work fast, though, before the Abundance Technomancers return.”

“You’ll be alright, Roy?” she frowned, leaning back. “Are they looking for you?”

He shook his head. “They are looking for the Relics, but maybe for me, too. I’m not sure. Tenacity says they are on the hunt for me.”

“Promise me you will be alright.” She looked so earnest, so serious about it, squeezing his arm.

He smiled. “Okay, promise, Mary.”

She nodded. “Don’t forget about it.” She rose to her feet. “I will go find Joane and talk to her. I’m sure I will make her hear me,” Mary smiled innocently and left to the facility, and there was something in that smile that made Roy shiver.

The yelling stopped and whatever equipment they had in that dropped crate was picked up and moved somewhere else.

Roy finished with the gun, assembled it again, put it into his holster, packed the kit and took it with him. Then he got up and returned to the facility. He made a way for the room where he left his bag, returned the gun kit to its place. He asked a mutant who walked past him for Wind. The Dust said Wind was in the tunnel leading to the mines.

Roy returned to the main hall and squeeze between the barely opened gates of the tunnel. He could see a small blue light ahead. Careful not to trip over anything, he approached it.

Wind was on the ground, cross-legged, the light beside him. He was looking at the worm. Roy was surprised that the heavy smell of ichor had vanished, and in the dim blue light he noticed that the worm was clean.

“You washed it?” he asked aloud.

The mutant nodded. “The Earthen Leviathans like sand and rock but they don’t like dirt.”

Roy tried to think about people who, being on the verge of dying of thirst, would spend precious water on dead body of a worm. Then he shook his head. “I was looking for you, Wind. I ask you to reconsider you decision. You don’t have to die here,” he said as gently as he could.

“We have nowhere to go except the Shadow, Savior.”

“There is a place in south where mutants live all by themselves, free, they work, they grow their food, they trade with people. A friend told me about this place.”

“The Magic Lady?”

Roy smiled. “Yeah, the Magic Lady.”

Wind closed his eyes. “We made a pact with the One Who Walks In The Void, and now we are trying to atone for it and we go into the Shadow while our bodies turn into what we were made of, the dust. Maybe it is better if we die.” He turned to Roy, looking at him with glimmering inhuman eyes. “That place sounds too good to be true. Nobody is free here on Mars, not the Dust, not even Men.”

“I know,” Roy replied quietly.

Wind was silent for a few moments. Here in the tunnel there were no other sounds besides their breathing and the low rumble of the ground.

“We don’t think it is good to give others hope when it means they would spend even more days in futile attempts to survive and then go into the Shadow anyway.” Wind blinked, and something different, something that Roy hadn’t seen there before, seeped into golden eyes. “Do you know what it means when you live day by day in regret and sorrow and trying to atone for your sins?”

“I think I know it,” he answered.

The Dust shook his head slowly. “Forget about it, Savior. We are… just rambling. We will talk about your words with others. You have brought freedom to this one,” Wind gestured at the dead worm. “Maybe you can bring us freedom, too, once more.”

It was still early because Wind didn’t promise him anything, but Roy smiled nonetheless. Then his smile faltered. “But some of you would have to ride with the Ultimum people. They won’t harm you, I promise, Mary would watch over you.”

Wind cocked his head to the side. “You should go now, Savior. Your Innocence is waiting for you.”

Roy got up to his feet. Wind turned his gaze back at the worm. They were reflections of each other, a dead mighty beast and a strange man who looked like he rose from the dead.

Roy left the leader of the Dust alone.

Innocence did wait for him. Wind had no way of hearing him from inside the tunnel, and yet, he was right.

Innocence smiled when Roy came through the gates. “They said that you were here.”

“I talked to Wind,” Roy said. “We have hope. Where’ve you been?”

“With Errant. We watched the scientists setting their equipment, but then their lady boss shooed us both away. What news do you have?”

They walked to the mess hall. There was nobody around. They took seats opposite each other at one of the tables.

“We can move the Dust from here into safer place. Mary told me about a village, on Ultimum territory, run by the mutants, and I’ve no reasons to not believe her about its existence.”

Innocence’s face lit up at his words so blindingly it was like a damn sunrise, all blue and light, but then he faltered. “But… Where is the Ultimum territory?”

“You don’t know?”

Innocence blushed, lowering his head.

Roy smiled. “No worries. It’s way to the south from here, in the southern hemisphere. There are not much people living there, as far as I know. Ultimum is the smallest Guild and the scientists themselves usually don’t spend much time there, they travel all around Mars to establish their stations, or something like that. I…” He scratched the stubble on his cheeks. “Actually, I forgot to ask about how far that village is from here.”

“What village?” Tenacity and Temperance entered the mess hall.

Innocence got up to snatch some food for Temperance.

Roy explained the plan to Tenacity.

The headhunter nodded. “Okay, but we have to pack all the water back, and we have to start doing it now.”

“We’d have to wait for the scientists to finish whatever they are doing, though,” Roy noted. “And wait for Wind’s answer. And we’d likely hit the sandstorm when we go south.”

Tenacity winced.

“You okay?” Roy asked. For a moment it seemed that he saw a flicker of fear in Tenacity’s eyes.

The headhunter rubbed his forehead. “Yeah, just tired a bit. Well, the truck can make it through the storm. Don’t know about the Ultimum trucks. We should make it quick.” Tenacity began to rise, but Roy caught his arm.

“What?”

“You sure you’re okay?” Roy studied his face.

Tenacity averted his eyes. “I don’t like it here, Roy,” he said quietly. “First Abundance, and now Ultimum? It’s getting crowded in here, don’t you think? I’d happily move the fuck out of here, grab the Dust, whatever, and go. Temperance is getting nervous, I think there’s another quake coming.”

“We agreed to move,” announced Wind, striding into the mess hall. Other mutants were tailing after him. “But we want to seal the place.”

“I can’t allow it!” said Joane. She walked in and stood before the mutant. “Mary…” Joane shook her head. “I agree to take you along, fine, but I won’t let you ruin this place, I will leave some of my people here.”

“Lady—” Tenacity moved to her.

“‘Joane’!”

Joane,” he pressed. “We already told you, Abundance Technomancers are going to come.”

“Ultimum has an agreement with Abundance, too.”

“Do the Technomancers know about it? Do they even care? I’m pretty sure they’d kill your people as soon as they get here.”

“And,” Roy added, “the facility still belongs to the Dust. It’s their call.”

Joane’s eyes threw daggers. Then she huffed. “Tomorrow we’re clear to go.”

“I’ll go grab the truck,” said Tenacity.

“We will organize moving water back into your vehicle,” Wind nodded to Roy and went after Tenacity.

“You don’t want to meet Abundance Technomancers, believe me,” said Errant quietly to Joane. He was standing in the doorway, with arms crossed on his chest.

“And why should I believe you?” asked Joane.

“They are— were my kindred time ago.”

Joane looked at him then at Roy and at last at Mary, and clicked her tongue. “My, so many stray Technomancers! And of different allegiance.”

Errant smiled — a weary, soft smile. “It is fate that we have gathered here.”

“There is no such thing as fate.”

“Maybe you’re right. And maybe I am, too, right. You better hurry with your research here. They might not arrive here tomorrow, but they might be on their way here, and we don’t want to clash with them.”

***

Roy spent the rest of the day helping the Dust pack the water back. They checked the facility’s storage, too. The doors to it was out of power, but Roy managed to charge it enough to open it. Although many supplies had spoiled, cans with molemeat had not.

He had to persuade the mutants to put on some clothes, too. They didn’t want it at first, insisting that they didn’t deserve to wear Men’s clothes, but then Wind said that they should do “as the Savior says”.

It was a pitiful sight: even the smallest clothes looked loose on the bony frames of the mutants. Roy had to help some of them to button up, and they didn’t flinch anymore from his proximity or touches. But they were tense, listening to something beyond his senses.

“What’s wrong?” he asked one of the Dust. He was helping the mutant to fight with tiny buttons on a jacket that hang from him like he was a small child wearing his father’s clothes.

“The ground,” said the mutant quietly, looking at Roy with gray eyes. Only Wind had golden eyes, everyone else had gray or brown. “The quakes, they are already starting. You don’t feel it, Savior?”

He shook his head. “I don’t feel the stones and ground as good as you do.”

“The Savior should learn it. Wind says we should listen to the stones as much as we listen to the Sun and the Shadow.”

“Wind does care about everyone,” Roy smiled, buttoning the uppermost small button and then patting the mutant’s shoulders.

“Wind knows more than we all know, maybe even more than Men know.”

“Are you ready to move out of here? I think you all have useful skills to offer to the Dust in that village.”

“We will survive,” the Dust nodded, “as we survived before, and we live until the Shadow calls.”

“So you didn’t want to remain here, like Wind told me before?”

“There is no difference, the Shadow is always the Shadow and it awaits us everywhere. But with other Dust we can try to atone once more.”

Roy shook his head. He doubted he could even start to understand them.

They checked how much people they could get in the monster truck. It appeared they could easily take ten mutants — providing that they had to squeeze in themselves. The rest had to go in the Ultimum trucks.

Evening rolled in faster than Roy expected. He spent the day being useful, but still delayed the thoughts about what he would do after they take the Dust to that village. Should he go back to New Life as Innocence hoped he was going to do? If the Technomancers had picked up his scent like howling hounds…

He forbade himself to think about it now.

They cooked dinner with Innocence. The Dust started to gather. Roy thought about sending for Mary, inviting her to share the meal with them, but she came herself, talking to Tenacity about something that made the headhunter smile. Temperance was jumping around her, causing her to laugh, a good, carefree laugh of an innocent child, accompanied by the hound’s chirring. She patted the hound on the back and stroke his spinal spikes.

Ultimum people, a man and a woman who looked similar — probably siblings — asked if they could join. Roy exchanged glances with Tenacity and Innocence. Innocence nodded, and Roy waved an “okay”.

They took a cautious seat on one of the benches. The Dust who was handing the food came to them and put down two plates before them, exchanging a few words. The woman offered the mutant a hesitant smile, more surprised than anything else, and the man asked a few questions of the mutant sitting near him.

“They are not as bad as I thought,” Innocence commented, turning to tend for the tea.

“Well, it seems that not everyone in this group is like their boss,” said Roy.

“This is good,” Innocence nodded, pouring tea into various ill-matched cups that were standing on the counter near the big pot where he brewed his herbs. “We have seen mutants being treated like garbage too many times already. Maybe people in Ultimum are not so narrow-minded like Errant said.”

The former Abundance Technomancer came near and began helping with filling the cups. “I apologize for overhearing your conversation,” said Errant. “You are right and wrong at the same time, Innocence. There are true scientists amongst them, dedicated, passionate. I’ve met some of them, and they are decent people. But others are not. Ultimum doesn’t have factories and industrial complexes,where the Dust are usually exploited heavily, but some of them use Dust in their works.”

Innocence almost dropped the dipper. “They… use them in experiments?” he asked, choked.

Roy touched his arm softly.

“Not that I’ve heard of it. But we would never know of such things. They keep their research guarded well, and they don’t communicate with people from other Guilds much, too enclosed in their experiments and science.” Errant said the last word as if it was poisoned.

“You don’t trust them,” said Roy.

“I don’t. But then again, you don’t trust me, and this I can I understand. You see, Technomancers are so similar to Ultimum, they are researchers, you know about this, Roy. But at the same time Technomancers are absolutely, completely different.” Then he lowered his voice, “And I am different, too.” His gaze glazed over. Then he startled and his eyes focused on Innocence. “I’m sorry. It was not an easy decision, to leave the only place I had known in my life, the place I had been raised in, the people who were close to me. But I had no other choice.”

“You have never told us why you left the Technomancers,” Innocence noticed.

Errant looked at him and smiled. “Maybe I would tell you, some other time, but not now. This knowledge may be too dangerous for you, and you are good people. I do not wish you harm.”

“That means we’re in the big trouble already,” Roy muttered.

Errant chuckled, a dry, scraped sound. “Maybe. But haven’t you been deep in the trouble even before we met?”

“You have a point,” Roy said after a moment of thought.

That earned him another chuckle.

The dinner went smoothly. After a while Wind joined them. The Dust leader looked troubled, and he lifted his head from his meal, listening, listening. Roy assumed Wind was the most sensitive to the quakes.

He was glad they were going to leave this place at last.

“How do you plan to seal this place?” he asked the Dust leader after the dinner. He sent Innocence to sleep early, saying that it was the last chance to grab a decent sleep in decent bed before they spend next few days on the road.

They were planning on driving for two days, if they would be fast enough to not be caught in the sandstorm. Then, after they cross Ultimum border, they could grab a train and go straight to the station between Joane’s main base and the Dust village.

Joane had showed the two places on the map, they were to the west from giant Hygen crater. It was luck that they could get a train, because the terrain on Ultimum territory was ridged, with many small craters. Tenacity’s truck could manage in such hard circumstances almost without loosing speed, but Joane’s trucks were not so good. Joane had promised she would raise the Ultimum trains and ask them to get one with flatcars, big enough for Tenacity’s truck.

The time was against them, though, because the danger of the sandstorm was too real. Driving into a sandstorm was suicide, and nobody knew how long it could rage.

“Explosives,” said Wind at last. He looked distracted. “We are going to use explosives to seal it.”

“There’re explosives left here?” Tenacity was with them on otherwise empty bench.

Wind nodded. “We discovered them after the quake that revealed the artifacts of the First Men. The cave-in damaged doors of the storage. But we don’t know how to set them.”

“Leave this to me,” Tenacity said. “Just show me where you keep them.”

“We want to seal the main gates and the inner gates, so that nobody could disturb the Earthen Leviathan.”

“Let’s see what we can do with what you have,” Tenacity nodded, then patted Roy on the shoulder. “Go to sleep, Electroguy.”

Roy smiled. “Yeah, okay.”

He got up and moved to the administrative part. He heard voices and noises, of Ultimum group probably doing something with the Relics. He was too tired to care.

Innocence was fast asleep on his stomach. Roy tucked him in and then tugged his boots and jacket off. He scratched his stubble. Probably would have to shave with a knife last time before they hit the road, before they would have to use water sparingly.

Innocence stirred. “Roy?”

“It’s me. Sleep, Innocence,” he replied.

“’M glad the Dust is moving,” Innocence slurred. And turned on his side, facing the wall. The bedroll that served as a blanket slid off his shoulders, and Roy padded on the floor to tuck him in again, then stroke Innocence’s head.

“Yeah, me, too. Let’s get them into safety, shall we?”

Innocence mumbled and fell silent.

Roy smiled and got under the spread bedroll.

Huge creatures sang him into deep sleep.

***

He woke up when Tenacity touched his shoulder, and then Temperance tickled his face with his antennae. Roy sneezed and opened his eyes.

“It’s time,” said Tenacity. The bag and crossrifle already on his shoulders, a light tube hanging from his jacket. His beard was neatly trimmed. Roy envied the skills the headhunter could pull, shaving with a knife out in the wild.

He rubbed at his face and blinked a few times into the murky twilight. The very thought that the next few days they would resume sleeping on the floor inside the truck made his back ache.

Tenacity woke Innocence up.

“We’re moving already?” Innocence asked, stretching. His shirt rode up across his stomach, and Roy turned his gaze away.

“As soon as possible,” said Tenacity and handed Innocence a red scarf, the one Roy had brought Innocence as a gift a lifetime ago, when they had been moving from the camp and to Shadowlair. “Temperance and the Dust are jumpy. They say a big quake is near, and we must go now. We’ll have breakfast on the road.”

Roy got up and stretched, too, then put on his jacket and the Technomantic glove. He held his hand to Innocence and helped him to his feet. “Okay?”

Innocence nodded and held Roy’s hand for a moment longer. “I’m ready.”

It was too early, the sun didn’t even got over the walls of the crater. The emergency lights were blinking in and out of life in the corridors, and Roy figured that the generators were giving up for good. Ultimum people were moving their equipment quickly into the trucks, and Roy and Innocence offered their help. Some mutants were carefully carrying heavy boxes, too.

“Where’s Tenacity?” Roy asked Mary, grunting under the weight of a metal box. Mary was supervising the loading of the Ultimum trucks.

“He and Wind are setting up charges in the facility,” she answered. Then cocked her head. “Are they really going to blow this place up?”

Roy put the box down, nodded and smirked. “A little gift for our friends from Abundance.” Then he coughed into his fist. “Uh, sorry, Mary.”

“You know I’m not Abundance anymore, Roy,” she smiled reassuringly. “Don’t worry.”

An engine revved near them, and Roy turned around. Errant’s small truck — so much smaller than Tenacity’s monster and even smaller than Ultimum trucks — had stopped near them. The Technomancer jumped out of it. The lower half of his face was covered with dark scarf, and he tugged it down to reveal a small smile. “I came to say goodbye.”

“You’re not going with us?” Innocence said.

Errant shook his head. “I’m afraid, no. There are things that must be done, the things that only I can do. I’m moving east and then probably north.”

Innocence frowned. “North? But we’re already—”

“On the borders of the habitable zone, I know,” Errant smiled again. “Do not worry about me, and though we would never see each other again, it was a pleasure to meet you.” The rogue Technomancer held his hand for Innocence. They shook hands, then he offered his hand for Roy. Roy accepted it without hesitation.

There was something dark in Errant’s words.

His grip was firm.

The Technomancer turned to Mary. “I have something for you, beautiful lady. But you must promise me that you open it when you are on the road already, when I’m already gone.” He held a small package, not bigger than his palm. It was wrapped in weathered leather and banded with a thin rope.

Mary nodded. “I promise.”

Errant gave it to her and nodded. “Good. I always suspected that it was for you. Goodbye, my friends, may the spirits guide you.” He nodded to everyone and got back into his truck. Soon it turned to the gates leading out of the Flammarion crater.

“Spirits? What was he talking about?” asked Innocence, looking at the moving truck.

Roy shrugged. “He’s pretty strange guy, even for a Technomancer.”

One of the Ultimum men approached Mary and said that they were ready to go. She smiled and gestured for the waiting mutants to hop into the trucks.

“Watch over them, Mary,” Roy said.

She nodded. “I will.” She put the package Errant under her jacker and walked to the vehicles.

Innocence told other mutants to get into their monster truck.

The sky was quickly loosing its blue tinge and turning sick yellow. Ultimum trucks’ engines rumbled. Tenacity’s monster was disturbingly quiet.

Roy hopped in and put his arms on control console, watching the main gates.

At last Tenacity, Temperance, and Wind emerged from the gates. Wind was walking calmly, with dignity and Temperance at his side. Tenacity jogged to the Ultimum trucks, banged on the doors and shouted something. Then he dashed to the monster truck, got in and started the engine, turning the steering wheel.

“We must move quick,” he said, speeding up.

“What’s the fuss all about?” Roy asked.

A low rumble was his answer, the rumble that he could feel in his bones, in his teeth. He clutched his seat. “The quake?”

But Tenacity’s smug grin told him otherwise.

“Explosives,” Roy breathed out. The truck was shaking with tremendous frequency.

“The quake, too,” sounded Wind’s voice. The Dust stepped into the cabin, supporting himself on the headboard of Innocence’s seat, then Innocence and mutant looked back.

“How’s it?” Roy croaked. He had an itch to watch, but stopped himself when an image of being there and the walls and ceiling crumbling upon him, trapping him in a tomb of metal and stone, made him choke.

It felt as if a giant worm — much, much bigger than the one he had been forced to fight alone on the excavation site near Green Hope — was moving underneath, ready to burst up and swallow them all. He almost, almost could hear the ridges of the plating on the worm’s back scraping over the surface— No, no, there was no worm. The only worm nearby was the one they had left in the facility.

He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to think of something, New Life, Innocence’s garden, but all he could see under his eyelids was the giant maw ready to eviscerate him.

No better than collapsing walls.

He jumped out of his skin when a hand touched his arm.

“Roy, are you all right?”

He opened his eyes and saw Innocence.

“It’s not the most pleasant sensation, you know?” he tried to smile.

Innocence’s grip on his arm tightened, grounding him. “Yes, but it won’t last.”

They were moving along the old Shadow Line to the southern gates, the monster truck ahead and Ultimum behind it.

Roy didn’t want to even imagine what had happened to the facility when the rumbles faded.

Chapter Text

I wasn't expecting to meet the old kin. Though “old” is the wrong word, they all were young, barely out of the training. But when I saw the familiar trucks, my heart raced.

Although I should have expected that they would start a slaughter the moment they see anyone. I didn't care whom they tried to kill, I just wanted to stop them. Only when they ran away, I saw that they were killing the Dust. And there were others, too, to my surprise, a hound, a hound master, a boy. And a Technomancer. Temperance, the rogue Technomancer of Aurora. No matter how hard General Honour tried to hide the involvement of a rogue Technomancer in his coup, many tell tales about the man. Some call him a hero, others call him a madman.

I heard of him. In fact, I can say that he inspired me, to leave, to set on a journey of my own. That — and your rejection.

It doesn’t matter.

I’ve seen the Relics, but more than that, I talked to the leader of the Dust here.

Wind. Oh, he came to me by himself while I was looking at the Relics, and said, “I know you. We are the same.” It sent shivers down my spine.

We talked more, into the night while the rest of the mining site was asleep.

Aust… He’s one of them. The colonists, the first people of Mars. He was even more than that. One of those who established the structure that the Relics are a part of. One of those who have changed Mars.

One of the Technomancers.

Spirits, but it makes him more than a hundred years old! It’s hard to believe it but he spoke with such conviction, remembering more and more as we talked…

And he told me of him. The “devil” they made a deal with, the Void in the form of a man.

Ironic, he said, how their initial faith commanded them to deny his very existence, but, as their doom had fallen upon them, they turned to him and offered and prayed and begged. And now we are ashes and dust, he said, and less than the dust.

I asked him about Earth, too, and I wish I didn’t. He cried, Aust, tears washed sand and dirt away from his burnt face. He said it was beautiful, it is beautiful. He said they had scarred it greatly, and the whales had stopped singing. He said, they made Mars into Earth, and there was an ocean, and rivers, and rains, and forests, but no more. He said, Mars was meant to become a garden. He said, they changed it, they had the power to move valleys, and mountains, and moons, and they thought they could laugh into the devil’s face, mock his inventions and whispers, overwhelm him with their power of reason.

I asked him, what had caused the Turmoil? He said, their arrogance. He said, the hollow laughter of the devil with eyes like pits of darkness. He said, the chance, and coincidence, and mathematics, and miscalculations of cosmic scale, and unfairness of everything.

A meteor crashed into Mars, he said, tilting its axis, changing everything. The meteor they summoned unwillingly, unpredictably, out of every plan.

That was when they understood that they couldn’t control everything. They understood, he said, that they were just children playing with pebbles while a great ocean was lapping at the shore. And it swept them away.

I asked him, what about Earth? Was it lost forever? Why nobody came here if they had the technology?

“We do not know,” he said, meaning himself. “And we do not care.” If it is their destiny, the people of Mars would find a way to contact Earth. But without his help, Wind said.

He is set on dying here. He said, this is his punishment.

Then Ultimum came. Ah, Ultimum. That good lady, Joane, she reminded me of myself and of you during the earlier, better years.

And Roy managed to talk Wind out of staying here. I couldn’t, but he could.

They are moving somewhere into the Ultimum territory, there is a Dust village there, they say. I’ve heard of it before, but thought those were only rumours.

My path, though, goes elsewhere. A few other places with the Relics… Though I don’t know what I’m looking for, now that I know the truth behind the colonists and the Turmoil.

If it’s even the truth.

I feel I’ll never see these people anymore. At least, I have found the person to give the blank deck to, the deck that has been waiting its time.

Spirits watch over them!

Chapter Text

As they got out of the Flammarion crater, the shadow on the south was right ahead of them, and it seemed bigger.

“Shit, we won’t be on time,” Roy breathed out. “It’s already here.”

“We have to hurry,” growled Tenacity. His grip on the wheel tightened. “At least get to the damned train station and wait for the train. We must.”

There was a hissing sound. Tenacity pulled a lever. “Go, Ultimum, if you have something useful to say, over.”

“There’s a radio here?” Roy asked.

“Yeah, but because of the atmospheric interference and the storm and yadda-yadda, it works only short-range.”

“Roy? You hear me, over?” sounded Mary’s voice.

“We hear you well, Mary, over,” Tenacity said.

The railroad turned to the left and was lost in the sand and ridges of the craters.

“Tell Roy I need to talk with to on the next stop, and to Innocence, too. Over and out.”

“What does she need? She sounded tense and worried,” Innocence noticed.

“We have to make a stop to find out.”

“I’d rather we don’t make a stop,” Tenacity muttered.

“What’s wrong, Old Hound?” Roy asked, frowning.

Tenacity shook his head. “Nothing. Just… don’t want to get caught in the storm.”

“What did you agree upon with Joane? About the storm.”

“Drive as fast as we can, one stop in the afternoon, driving in the night if conditions allow, then perhaps tomorrow afternoon we’ll be at the station.”

“’Perhaps’?”

“Look at us, Roy!” the headhunter snapped. “Our truck is three times bigger and five times heavier, that’s with all the water and our passengers, and still we’re faster than they are!” He punctuated his words with frantic waving of his right hand, while the left one gripped the steering wheel. “This truck is a fortress and a weapon, made to fight with the planet and with the planet’s most dangerous and strong beasts, the worms. And what these know-it-all’s have? Their vehicles won’t live trough the storm, mark my words.”

Roy put a hand on his shoulder. “Easy, Old Hound. We’re not in the storm yet.”

“But they’ll make sure we will be caught in it at the worst moment possible!” Tenacity retorted.

Temperance chirred and put his head on his master’s shoulder.

Tenacity sighed and patted the hound. “I don’t want to drag the Dust out of that damned mine only for them to be blow away in a storm.”

Roy sighed. He didn’t want to have a fight with the headhunter. “But that means you’ll be driving for the whole day.”

For that, Tenacity grinned and exchanged glances with Innocence over Roy’s head.

“Something I need to know about?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.

“After the stop and until the nightfall, I’m going to drive,” said Innocence. “Tenacity has taught me.”

“I’m going to overlook him, of course, but he will manage, I’m sure of it.”

Innocence blushed from the praise. “I-I’ll do my best.”

“You will,” Roy smiled and patted his shoulder.

Innocence had his journal lying across his lap. He looked through it, then showed one page to Roy. There was a pencil portrait of Wind on one half of the page, and a portrait of Errant on the other. “I’m going to color them when I have time,” Innocence said.

The two figures were caught with precision, the eyes of two men seemed to pierce right through Roy’s skull. “They look alike, don’t you think? Not in the appearance, but in the, I don’t know. The air about them,” he said.

“And their eyes,” Innocence nodded. “I noticed.” He leaned closer and turned the page.

It was a half-finished portrait of Errant, too, but clean-shaved and in the dark military coat of Abundance Technomancer. “I tried to imagine how he looked like when he was in Abundance,” Innocence explained.

“A handsome guy, if you’d ask me,” Tenacity commented, sneaking a glance at the journal.

Roy snorted. “Yeah, you may say that. Eyes on the road, Old Hound.”

Tenacity flashed a grin at him. The small conversation seemed to ease Tenacity a little.

They moved steadily and fast, grateful that the terrain allowed it. The monster truck was leading the way. Tenacity contacted the Ultimum group several times, to make sure they didn’t fall far behind, and see if they spotted the Abundance vehicles, but there was no sign of them.

As the sun moved to the west and the trucks started casting shadows to the left of themselves, Roy recommended a stop. Tenacity tried to fight it, but then waved his hand. They contacted their adversaries, and the trucks slowed down.

Roy opened the crates with dried food and handed some to the mutants. Every one of them uttered a quiet “thank you”. He smiled at them.

Wind took water and refused to take the food. “Others need it more, Savior. This supply,” he pointed at the crates, “is not big.”

“You need it, too, you were hungry enough at the facility.”

“And we have our food that we want to share with you.” Mary entered the truck with packages in here hands. She unwrapped one and handed to an oblong thing Roy and another one to the Dust.

It was… hard, the size of Roy’s palm, and light in his hands. “What is it?” He sniffed. It smelled good but strange. Warm.

“Bread. However, it is dried because we needed to preserve it, but it’s good none the less.”

“You have grains, Magic Lady?” Wind asked.

“Not we, you have. It is baked using the flour that the Dust from the village made. People from another base helped the Dust to install water system and also they asked to provide patches of land to experiment with different seeds. As far as Joane knows, it’s the first settlement where they managed to grow grains, wheat in particular. Real wheat.”

Wind took the bread with two hands, bowing slightly. “We do not know how we may be of help to the settlement. We are miners, not farmers, although we can learn.”

“Joane may hire you, for Serum, of course, because there are mines with Relics nearby. She needs proper miners, professionals, because her own people know about mining, but have difficulty putting their knowledge into work.”

Wind nodded. “We will think about it, Magic Lady. You have our gratitude. You have done a lot for us already.” With these words he went outside.

Roy careful took a bit of the bread. It was crusty, without any particular taste. Well, food is still food. “You wanted to talk?” he asked after drinking from his flask.

Mary’s face shadowed, and she touched his arm gently. “Please, let’s find Innocence first. I need the two of you.”

They got out of the truck, Roy munching the remains of the bread and chewing dried meat. He threw a wary glance at the south. The shadow looked like a mountain but didn’t seem to be any closer.

Tenacity was perched on a rock, his gaze, too, fixed on the shadow on the horizon. Roy wanted to know what that was all about, but the headhunter wouldn’t elaborate. Maybe it was just the fear of sandstorms, but there was something more to it, of that Roy was sure.

He spotted Innocence chatting with the mutants and waved. Innocence nodded to the Dust and ran to Roy. Ultimum people were out, too, and a few of them, those who had been in the mess hall in the facility and talked to the Dust, was standing among the mutants.

Roy, Mary, and Innocence went away from the resting groups. Roy noticed Joane looking at them from one of the Ultimum trucks, but she caught Roy’s eye and turned away.

“Your boss is watching, Mary.”

“Yes, I know.” She stopped and, opening her beige jacket, reached inside. She took a small package, the gift from Errant.

“What is it?” Innocence asked.

“Something Errant gave me as a goodbye present,” Mary said. She opened the leather.

“It is… cards?”

Roy knew immediately what it was, judging by the size of them and by the pattern on their back. It was made with intricate design, white lines on black. The edges were adorned with a pattern of swirling lines. They seem to glow blue, but it was just a trick of light, Roy thought. In the center of the card there were two creatures, circling each other.

Nobody would bother with decorating the usual playing cards like that.

“Not the usual cards,” Roy said, “it’s a Tarot deck. Some Technomancers use these to meditate or for rituals, something like that. Some people say they can see the future in the cards.”

“Whales,” Innocence breathed out. “These are whales.”

It was unsettling. First, the bone triangle, then this.

“It’s not everything. Turn the card over,” said Mary.

Roy obeyed.

And almost dropped it.

Mary nodded.

“But… it is I,” Innocence breathed out. “And Temperance. And the card is called…”

“‘Innocence’, yes,” Roy had found his voice. “But how does it… It looks hand-draw, but Errant couldn’t draw it. Could he? It looks rather old and used.”

The colors had faded. Innocence on the card was sitting on a stone somewhere on the plains of Mars, facing the horizon that was tinted light-blue. At his feet lay Temperance, his ears perked, his head turned to the horizon, too. Innocence’s right hand was on the hound’s head, the beast undoubtedly was obedient to his soft touch. The word “Innocence” was written in a beautiful script, white on a black ribbon at the bottom of the card.

“What about the other cards?” asked Innocence. He was trembling, and Roy put a hand on his shoulder.

Mary opened the remaining cards, all nineteen of them. All of them were black, empty. “They all were like this until some time after we started to drive away from the crater,” she said.

“W-what’s going on?” whispered Innocence.

Roy’s grip on his shoulder tightened. “I don’t know.”

“What should I do with it, Roy?” Mary asked.

He pondered over it for several moments. “Keep it. When we meet our Abundance friend again, we will ask him what the fuck he meant by this. Uh, apologies, Mary.”

She shook her head. “There is no need.”

“Maybe… Maybe it’s some old technology? And the picture changes according to who is nearby.”

Roy rubbed his fingers over the “Innocence” card. “Seems like paper to me.” He put it onto his gloved hand and charged a sliver of electricity through it, listening to the response. “Yeah, definitely paper, though of very good quality. It’s a rare thing, to see something like this these days.” Then he repeated, “Keep it. Let’s see what the other card will show — or not show.”

They quickly returned into the trucks. Roy had to gently nudge Tenacity who had dozed off on the big rock. The headhunter blinked a few times, then nodded and got back into the cabin. He vacated the driver seat for Innocence, moving to sit beside him. Roy had to take the seat that Innocence previously occupied.

He smiled at Innocence’s determination to do everything right. They resumed moving forward — and towards the shadow of the storm. Ultimum trucks followed them like obedient children. It was getting windy, small clouds of dust sweeping over the ground, though the truck was sealed good enough for them to not feel the gushes of the wind inside. And it made Tenacity’s face darken.

Roy put a hand on his forearm, clad with the leather of his jacket. “You should catch a nap.”

Tenacity nodded. “Yeah. I’m going to drive after the sunset, so… You’re doing good, Innocence,” he turned to the new driver and smiled at him reassuringly.

“Th-thank you,” Innocence murmured in reply. He bit at his lower lip in concentration, his brows were furrowed.

Tenacity slumped in his seat. Temperance laid his head on his master’s lap. Tenacity scratched at the side of the hound’s head and closed his eyes. After a few moments, he was deep asleep.

Innocence sneaked a few glances at him, and then at Roy. Roy pressed a finger to his lips.

The ridges of craters moved past them.

Roy went into the belly of the truck to grab bedrolls. The Dust except Wind were asleep, huddled together like small children. One of them was sleeping with their head on Wind’s lap who leaned on a water cistern. He looked up at Roy and nodded.

Roy unwrapped all bedrolls they had and threw them over the sleeping Dust, taking only two with himself to the cabin.

He wrapped one over Innocence’s legs. Innocence freed one hand from the steering wheel and squeezed Roy’s biceps.

He covered Tenacity with the second bedroll-turned-blanket, tucking it under him, then flopped back on his seat. The smooth movement lulled him into drowsy state.

After a while Tenacity stirred and began twitching in his sleep. Roy found his hand under the blanket, a big and calloused paw, and gripped it. He had his glove on, but it was thin enough to convey his body heat. Tenacity murmured something and calmed down. Roy didn’t take his hand away, watching the road with half-closed eyes.When his feet started freezing, he focused and looked at the sky. It was getting dark, and the shadow of the sandstorm was pale orange on the horizon. He could already see the deceptive softness of it. It was deadly inside, scratching and chaffing.

Tenacity was barely awake, frowning at the shadow, but didn’t make a move to free himself from Roy’s grip.

“Hey,” Roy called.

The headhunter startled and turned to him, trying to smile. It looked pained. “Okay, time to shift seats.” He checked the tools on the console and patted Innocence on the back. “You did good, kid. Tired?”

Innocence blinked at him, his grip on the steering wheel slackening. “Yes, a little bit.”

“You should go to the back, sleep properly.”

Innocence shook his head. “I want to stay here, if you don’t mind. Write for a while.”

Tenacity shrugged. “Okay, but promise you will sleep. You need sleep.”

Innocence stopped the vehicle.

The was a static stutter, then Joane’s voice sounded. “Why have you stopped, over?”

Tenacity grimaced and bent over the receiver. “Changing drivers, don’t worry, Ultimum.”

“Understood, over and out.”

Tenacity took the blanket he had been under and wrapped Innocence in it. “Don’t get cold,” he smiled.

Innocence nodded and took his journal out of his bag with his tools purse.

The second blanket Tenacity handed to Roy. “You, too.”

Roy tried to object, but was wrapped tightly, with his arms pressed snuggly to his body.

Tenacity nodded to himself and only then took the driver seat. He pulled one of the lever. “We turn the rear lights on, so that Ultimum wouldn’t get lost.”

They lit up the front lights, too, the whitish-blue of them making the falling darkness more eerie than without them. Tenacity ordered Temperance to look after the Dust, and the hound went into the back of the truck.

Innocence was dozing off. Roy gently took the pencil, tools, and the journal out of his hands, piled them on the console, and tucked the blanket in. It seemed too quiet without rustling of the pages and swishing of the pencil.

“We won’t make it in time,” Roy said quietly.

The steering wheel creaked under Tenacity’s hands. “I know.”

“You don’t want to tell me anything, Old Hound?”

“I just don’t like storms, is all.”

“Tenacity—”

“That. Is. All,” the headhunter repeated in strained voice, his eyes never leaving the road.

Roy leaned back into his seat. “Okay. I’m just worried about you, is all.”

“I’m flattered, but there’s nothing to worry about.”

“Okay. Okay.” He reached out behind Innocence’s back and touched Tenacity’s shoulder lightly. “But I’m always here and ready to listen, you know this, right?”

“Yeah, I know, Roy, I know,” Tenacity turned to him slightly and even managed a smile — weak and strained, just like his voice.

Roy didn’t want to drop the issue now, but he couldn’t press on without pissing Tenacity off. And he didn’t want to upset the already unsettled headhunter.

Innocence rolled his head to one side and snuggled against Roy, sighing in his sleep. Roy had a thought of picking him up and carrying to the back of the truck, but he couldn’t do it without jostling him awake.

He wondered if they could stay low in the Dust village for a while… But that meant they should probably give up Innocence’s dream of the garden because by that time their house in New Life would probably be uncared and the herbs die from thirst, or worse, somebody else would move into their house, assuming that they had gotten lost in their journey.

Then, there were Technomancers.

He could run and hide, or fight, although during the peaceful weeks with Innocence he had gotten a bit rusty, but Innocence, oh, Innocence. Anyone could use Innocence against him, had used already.

He had to leave.

After they are through with the Dust and Ultimum, he had to go, with Tenacity or without him… Actually, better without him. He couldn’t endanger him, too, Tenacity had done so much for them already.

He would ask Tenacity to bring Innocence home. He had to think of something. Tell them that he wants to stay and help Wind’s group to accommodate in the new village, offer his help and his abilities. Help the mutants’ village. Then, he would say, he will go home. But in truth, he would not. He would not go back, he couldn’t go back.

He trusted Tenacity to take care of Innocence. Maybe the headhunter would settle down in New Life, too. He needed rest and a place to call home, just like Roy needed it.

“Go to sleep,” sounded the quiet voice, startling Roy.

He shook his head and rubbed his face. He put an arm around Innocence’s shoulder to steady him. “What about you? When are you going to sleep?”

Tenacity shrugged. “In the morning, after the sunrise. I will let the kid drive and then I catch a couple of sleep-time hours. Maybe.”

“You sure you can drive all night?”

“Yeah, I’m sure. Are you questioning my abilities?”

“No, I’m just worried about you getting tired and losing our way in the darkness.”

Tenacity grinned at him. “Aw, Roy, you always care about me.”

Roy smiled and said quietly, “I do.”

Tenacity’s grin fell, his face turning serious. “Go to sleep, really.”

Roy didn’t reply. Whomever designed these hunting trucks had designed them to be comfortable in every way. Roy gently pulled on the lever near his seat and it made the back of his chair change angle, then he did it with Innocence’s seat, to make them into half-lying position. He tugged his own blanket further up, to cover himself up to the chin.

The only lamp in the cabin was swaying over Tenacity, its gentle light dim and yellow.

Innocence was warm at his side, and his hair had a faint smell of sun, soil, and sweat. Roy tilted his shoulder lower, to get Innocence’s head more comfortably into the crook between his neck and shoulder. Roy almost, almost could forget about being hunted, about the awaiting and inevitable sandstorm, about each and every problem in his life.

He dreamed of blue void and dark singing forms floating in it.

***

He woke up with a jolt when a hand touched his shoulder. “Roy, are you awake?”

He moaned softly. He felt like he was a big machine and grains of sand made their way into his parts. He raised his hands, causing the blanket to slide down his body, and rubbed his cheeks, wincing at the mess of a stubble. “Yes, yes, I’m awake now.”

He opened his eyes.

Innocence smiled at him, blue eyes twinkling, and held a flask of water to him.

Roy muttered a “thank you” and drank half of it. He squinted at the front window. It was a light-blue twilight, heavy and dusty. The soft shadow of the sandstorm occupied two thirds of the sky before them.

Roy whistled.

“Yeah,” Tenacity croaked.

Roy turned to him: the headhunter looked gray, with shadows under his eyes. He was stifling yawns, his grip on the steering wheel loose.

“Woah, Old Hound, we need to stop.”

Tenacity blinked at him. “Why?”

“To change drivers. You look like a dead man.”

“Shut up, I look fabulous.”

Roy laughed softly and got to his feet. “Whatever you say, Old Hound, but we’re changing drivers for real.”

“Yes, I am ready,” added Innocence, walking into the cabin with meatstripes in his hands.

Roy took a few piece of meat and chewed on them, bending over the main console. He found the radio and turned it on. “Ultimum, do you read me, over?”

“Speak, Roy,” sounded Mary’s voice.

Roy smiled. “Good morning, Mary, nice to hear you. Well, I think it’s morning. We want to change drivers.”

“Yes, understood. Are we going to make a stop?”

Roy looked at Tenacity. The headhunter shook his head.

“No time, we need to hurry, the sandstorm is near,” he said to Mary.

“Understood. Change drivers, we’ll wait.”

They just slowed down enough for Innocence to take Tenacity’s place.

Roy caught Tenacity by his arm. “Go to the back. You need good sleep, not in a slouched position in chair. I will wake you in a few hours.”

“Okay, mom,” Tenacity said, but his comeback was half-hearted, weary. The headhunter obliged and went into the back.

Innocence started the engines again and sped the truck up. “I hope they can catch up with us,” he said.

“I hope, too,” Roy replied. He rolled blankets and put them on the vacant seat. He wanted to shower and eat properly, but they had neither time nor the means to do it.

The terrain was getting more ridged, small craters more and more frequent, like bullet holes the size of a truck. The monster truck could get over them, but the Ultimum ones would be forced to go around.

The giant shadow of a storm was making the day darker as their mood.

Innocence was biting into his lower lip, beads of sweat on his forehead.

Roy tried to reassure him. “We’ll be okay.”

“Ye-yeah. I hope so,” Innocence replied.

Roy took a spare scarf, a sad, gray thing torn in few places, out of his bag and wrapped it around his neck. He was getting restless, caught in the confines of the truck cabin. He wanted to flex his legs and arms, get outside, but the tiny rivulets of dust swirling into life around the truck told him he had to stay inside and not even pull the windows down.

The air was stale, and it was getting hot.

The shadow of the storm moved faster than Roy expected, and in no time it was so close he could see separate rivulets of sand that looked like big unstable humanoid forms with spiraling horns, or hounds the height of a house. And drop-like shapes behind them all. Whales.

“Shit, I should get Tenacity here,” Roy muttered, standing up.

“I’m already here,” grumbled Tenacity. His cheeks were hollow and dusted with yellow sand.

They changed seats with Innocence.

The storm was approaching them like mountains that suddenly decided to move.

Innocence wound his arm around Roy’s. Roy put his free hand on Innocence’s and enlaced their fingers, holding tight..

Tenacity turned on the radio. “Ultimum, Ultimum, do you read? We need to stop immediately!”

“What?” sounded Joane’s voice. “We can’t stop now, the station is near.”

“We won’t make it! Have you ever been in a sandstorm, Joane?”

“We have to move forward! We have to! ”

Roy saw small rocks being blown around near the truck, and heard the scratching of the sand on the window. The mass of the storm was already towering over them, unrelenting, and he couldn’t see the sky. “Tenacity…” he heard himself croaking.

“Ultimum, I’m going to stop, you do what you want. I’m not risking it!” Tenacity snapped. He pressed on the brakes, waiting until the truck stopped completely, then pressed a few buttons and lowered a red lever. The truck trembled and jerked with a loud sound.

“What was that?” Roy asked.

“Stopper pylons,” Tenacity explained briefly. “We better be dug in. This storm is fucking fast.”

Visibility was changing rapidly, falling from tens of steps to few steps to nothing. The light turned into orange gloom, like in a bad dream, with shadows lurking behind it. Rocks thumped on the plating of the truck. One small rock, moving like a nail out of a gun, hit one of the side windows, but the window endured.

There were more of angry thumps, like thugs banging on the door of some unfortunate bastard whose pay day was long overdue. The sand was clawing at the plating and walls, as if dead men had risen to haunt and torture the living, nails scraping on every surface to get to them.

A loud noise boomed near them, then a big shadow swept past them, turning and twisting in the great wind like a ball being tossed between street children.

“Holy… That was one of the Ultimum trucks…” Roy breathed out his realization.

The monster truck groaned — it was the loudest sound it made so far, and it was baffling, deafening.

Roy pressed Innocence closer. He was seated between Innocence and Tenacity, and turned to the headhunter to ask him to get Ultimum on the radio.

Tenacity was pale as dead, staring into the darkness falling on them, trembling and sweating, his eyes fixed on the raging storm.

The darkness fell on them like a hammer. Their lights were turned on, but it didn’t help in the least. Roy felt Innocence shivering, his palm against Roy’s palm sweating. He could taste the fear and panic rolling from Tenacity. In the darkness so complete and roaring like a wild beast around them, he had found Tenacity’s hand.

“Tenacity, I’m here,” he called, aiming for his voice to sound reassuring. “Old Hound? Answer me!”

He couldn’t see him, couldn’t even see his outline in the complete darkness, but he felt Tenacity startle, and then big calloused paw squeezed his hand so hard he winced at the pain of it, but didn’t try to pry his hand away.

“Roy…” Tenacity’s voice was barely audible behind the moaning of the truck and roar of the storm.

But Roy heard him anyway. “I’m here. You’re not alone.”

In the cabin a light flickered to life, blue and small like a star in the night sky. Roy raised his head.

Wind came to them, holding a small lamp high. The mutant looked at Roy and then put a bony palm on Tenacity’s shoulder. “Fear not, Hound-Man,” the Dust said in a voice even and calm.

Roy nodded to Wind in gratitude.

With light and the presence of other people Tenacity seemed to calm down, his breathing evening out, colors returning to his face.

“I’m sorry, Wind,” Roy said quietly. “For your people and…” He trailed off.

Wind looked at him, golden eyes glittering with eerie glow of the lamp. “The Shadow accepted them. There is no need to apologize. We couldn’t do anything. We can just wait.”

Roy turned to watch the darkness. He couldn’t see it moving, but he felt that it was alive. As if Mars itself was trying to kill them.

***

It ceased in a few hours. Tenacity eased his grip on Roy’s hand, and Roy went into the back for water. The mutants were snuggling with each other, every one awake.

Roy filled flasks. “How are you doing here?” he asked, crouching before them and handing them water. The mutants nodded, taking the flasks.

“We are good, Savior. We have seen storms like this already,” answered the one who was mindlessly scratching at Temperance’s chin.

He nodded and took more flasks, going back into the cabin. He gave them to Wind and Innocence, then handed one to Tenacity. “Drink, Tenacity, please.”

Tenacity startled and shook his head like a hound after taking a hit. “I’m sorry. I really don’t like storms.”

“Yeah, I guessed as much.” He tried to smile and cheer Tenacity up.

The headhunter took the flask and drank almost all of it at one go, throwing his head back. Roy watched his throat move, then took his seat.

It was getting lighter, the darkness turning dark red then gradually getting yellower. Wind turned off his lamp. There was a shadow to their left.

“You think we can move already?” Roy asked Tenacity.

The headhunter was watching the storm with wary eyes. “No. We’ll wait until we could see the rim of that crater properly,” he gestured at the shadow on the left, “and then move. Radio still doesn’t work, and we can’t risk losing each other in the storm.”

“Okay.”

They waited for an hour more, until the air cleared enough for a few steps worth of visibility, and then Tenacity turned on the engines and the radio. “Ultimum, do you copy?”

There was static on the radio, and some strange echoes, like distant, very distant voices or moans.

“Yes, we copy you.” Joane’s voice tore through it all.

Innocence let out a sigh and closed his eyes and suddenly Roy realized why he had been so tense.

“Is Mary okay?” he asked, his voice alien to him.

“Yes, I’m alright, Roy, just bruised,” her voice sounded tired.

“Okay. Okay,” he muttered.

Innocence found his hand and squeezed it. Roy looked at him and managed a weak smile.

“I want to start moving, Ultimum,” Tenacity continued. “Before the night falls. It’s clearing out. Do you think you can move in the wind like this?”

More static, and then Joane said. “Yes, read you, we can endure. We have a working compass here, we should lead.”

“Okay, Ultimum, go ahead. Tenacity out.”

“There is the light in every darkness,” said Wind. “You are sacrificing much for us, Men. We thank you.”

“You’ll thank us when we get you into that village, friend,” Tenacity said.

Two Ultimum trucks side-drove the monster truck, moving ahead.

Tenacity started the machine after them.

“It’s beautiful in a way,” said Innocence. “This golden light and that we can’t see anything much… Like we are all alone on the planet. There is something beautiful in it.”

The wind got much weaker and couldn’t lift big rocks, but there were still the whispers of sand on the windows, over the roof, at the plating, like brushes of hands.

“Yeah,” Roy nodded. “There really is.”

They had been driving through the yellow dust for an hour, and it was difficult to say whether it was evening already, with how the sky was completely blocked by the sand.

Then Ultimum trucks leaned right, and there was a new shadow, two shadows, and after a while they could see a platform and a train.

There were four flatcars, big enough even for the monster truck to drive on top. They got the Ultimum trucks first on the platforms, then the monster truck.

One of the flatcars remained empty.

Joane said that it would take only a few more hours. They were planning to arrive at the place just after the nightfall. The train drivers said that the sand was covering almost all of the southern hemisphere, though not as thick now as it had been when it first hit, and they should keep the windows of the vehicles closed to avoid the dust and sand.

When the train started, Tenacity breathed out a heavy sigh, lowered his crossed arms on the steering wheel and put his chin on top of them.

“We made it, Tenacity. You made it, thank you,” Innocence said and smiled at the headhunter.

Tenacity huffed a laugh. “Well, when you smile like this, things seem to be not as bad as I initially thought.”

Color rushed to Innocence’s face, and he cast his look down. “O-okay.”

“Going to be on the solid ground soon, guys.” Roy patted them both on the shoulders.

Tenacity dosed off right in that pose that made Roy cringe every time he looked at him but he didn’t have a heart to wake him up.

Innocence went into the back of the truck, talking to the Dust and reassuring them, then returned with food and water. “Supplies are getting scarce.”

Roy took water out of his hands and refused to take food. He had the nasty feeling in his stomach from running on too much dry food. “Let’s hope that we can resupply at Joane’s. I hope she will be kind enough.”

“Or we could resupply at the Dust village,” Innocence added, looking at the storm.

“Or at the Dust village,” Roy nodded, drinking the water. He wanted to pour some over his head, and preferably all over his body. He could tell he smelled, and his skin was itchy from all the sand and dust, and his face was irritated from shaving in not so good conditions. He craved to take a shower and have a decent meal, but… He had to stop this train of thought immediately.

“We go straight to the Dust village once we stop at the station,” he said to distract himself from thinking about a shower, “then stop by at Joane’s. I don’t really want to rob the Dust of their supplies. Maybe we can ask for new seeds for your garden,” he smiled at Innocence.

Innocence lit up and nodded enthusiastically. “That would be amazing!”

They made the rest of the way in relative silence, Innocence writing and sketching in his journal, and Roy looking through the windows.

He thought about writing in his own journal, but since Innocence had been there and had seen everything Roy had seen himself, there was no need, and Innocence was better at documenting everything anyway, more thorough.

Roy realized that he would miss his drawings and his stories. He wondered if he even had any time left. Maybe they were already on his tail, maybe he was exposing everyone to danger, Ultimum, the Dust village, the Dust who made it out of the mining facility.

He was exhausted, from little sleep, from sleeping in uncomfortable position, from being dirty and not hydrated enough. From being in the closed space for nearly two days in a row. Even the big belly of the monster truck seemed like a tight space now.

The storm around them tuned out into a gentle whisper, and Roy wondered what the mutants could hear in that whisper. Or that weird guy, Errant. With his weird cards. Had something else appeared on them? Mary would have told him if something had changed.

It cleared out enough to see the slopes and ridges of the terrain, more uneven than in Arabia Terra. They wouldn’t have been able to move just as quickly here as they had moved before. The Ultimum trucks would have slowed them down significantly.

It was getting dark, and it was not the storm, though because of the storm he couldn’t see the blues of the sunset. He always liked sunrises and sunsets.

The radio croaked to life. Tenacity was already awake. “Yes, Ultimum, speak!”

“We will arrive in half an hour, be ready,” Joane said.

“We are going to drive straight to the Dust village,” Tenacity informed her.

“Yes, we spoke of this before, I remember,” Joane retorted and went out.

“So much charm in her,” Tenacity muttered, scratching his bushy beard, and then rubbing his eyes.

“You’re tired,” Roy said.

Innocence was asleep at Roy’s side, his chest rising softly. The journal was on the control console.

“That’s very observant of you,” Tenacity grumbled. “But we need to get the job done first.”

“I suggest we stay with the Dust or Joane for a day or two. You need proper sleep. We rest, we resupply, possibly help the mutants, then go.”

Tenacity grumbled, “We’ll see.”

They arrived at the station when it was already almost dark. Because of the storm the sky was dark-brown and red, like dried blood, unsettling. The wind, albeit weak, raised columns of dust. They turned on the lights in the vehicles and left the train.

On the east there was an outline dusted with flickering lights, Joane said it was her base. Ultimum trucks led the way to the west, the monster truck going after them.

Tenacity refused to let Innocence drive in the darkness. Roy tried to talk him out of it, arguing that in the state of fatigue the headhunter was in he could drive them into a chasm, but Tenacity didn’t bulge. He said that if there was a chasm ahead, the Ultimum trucks would drive into it first and he would have time to stop. Innocence touched Roy’s arm and shook his head. To argue further was to waste time and Tenacity’s energy.

***

Joane contacted them again, saying that she had sent a notice about their coming to the village. Then they saw the lights, like a constellation rising over the dark horizon, blue and orange and white.

Big projectors burst like new stars, pulling them out of the hands of the darkness. Two towers guarded gates leading into the crater covered by a dome. Smaller lights danced on top of the crater wall.

“Quite the security system they have here,” Roy said. The topmost of the wall of the crater had been evened out, turning into unbreachable bastion walls. “Even Technomancers don’t have such security, at least the Aurorian Source doesn’t have.”

“They must have been hit hard in the past,” Innocence mused aloud, “to put this sort of protection.”

They stopped in front of the massive gates that looked heavier than those at Flammarion-4, and certainly good enough to sustain even direct hits of small meteors.

Roy couldn’t see the dome clearly, only the gentle curve of it, but he thought it was metal. Then how did they grow crops here? From what Mary had said, this place was the most successful in terms of harvest than anywhere else on the planet.

The gates started opening, slowly, and Roy stood up for a moment, marveling at their thickness, maybe a meter and a half or even two meters.

It was a giant fortress, not even the Source can compete with it, although Aurora Technomancers deemed the Source to be the most protected and secure place. That had been proved not true, Roy thought with a lopsided smirk. They had stormed the Source with General Honour. That seemed to happen so long ago.

They moved through the gates. The walls of the crater were thick and reinforced from the inside with blocks of crimson stone. The lights of the trucks flickered from the polished surface.

Behind the gates two blue lights were turned on in the hands of two mutants. They were fully clothed, with goggles that made them look like weird night animals, and scarves covering the lower half of their faces.

They walked in front of the trucks, leading them under the roof of a hangar. There were two vehicles, one big truck similar to Joane’s, and one small car, stocky and streamlined. Roy had never seen anything like this before.

Tenacity turned off the engines.

“I’ll get scarves for Wind and his people,” said Innocence and went into the back of the truck.

The two mutants carrying the lamps approached one of the Ultimum trucks. Joane jumped out of it, holding her own light.

“There.” Innocence got back into the cab holding a pair of goggles for Roy.

Roy took them with a nod.

“This place seems big,” Innocence said.

“We’ll see in the morning.” Roy hooked the goggles to his belt and pulled up the scarf over his mouth and nose.

They hopped out of the truck. The ground was covered with fine powder of dust. Roy turned on the small light hanging on his breast pocket.

“We apologize for the sand, Savior-Man.” One of the mutants approached them, holding the lamp high. Its light was doubled in the Dust’s goggles. “Storms come in no matter how tight we seal the doors and windows and shutters.”

Temperance jogged near, then moved his head from side to side and chirred.

“Hello, hound-friend,” the Dust said, his voice muffled by the scarf.

Another hound emerged from shadows, much smaller than Temperance. The dog approached Temperance, and they touched each other with antennae.

The mutant chuckled — and Roy realized he had never heard them chuckle before. It was a very human sound. “Leen is usually afraid of big hounds, but she seems to like yours.”

“He’s not mine, he’s his,” Roy gestured at Tenacity.

The headhunter stepped on the ground, none of his usual light, springy gait. He had to lean on Innocence’s shoulder to steady himself.

“Hound-Man, yes, we know,” the mutant said. “You can go to the house we have for you, Hound-Man. There is food and water and rest.”

“No, I go where he goes,” Tenacity shook his head and pointed at Roy, to Roy’s mild surprise.

Wind helped the other mutants to get out. They all had scarves or pieces of cloth around their mouth and nose, all except Wind.

“He refused to take a scarf,” Innocence said quietly to Roy.

“We greet you, Wind of North,” said the mutant carrying the lamp and pressed his right hand to his chest.

Wind repeated the gesture. “As we greet you. And we thank you for taking us. We promise to be useful.”

“Do you have injured or hungry?”

“Hungry and exhausted, yes. Many need rest. Some of us have gone to the Shadow on the way here.”

The mutant bowed his head and murmured a few words.

The second one carrying the lamp came closer. “My name is Aeol, I will lead your people to the house where they can rest.”

Wind exchanged looks with his fellows and nodded. Aeol gathered Wind’s group and led them away.

“And I will get you to our leader,” said the first mutant. The two hounds jogged side by side after them.

Wind held his head high. Innocence, Tenacity and Roy followed behind, with Joane and Mary in the rear.

Roy gently wound Tenacity’s arm around his own, and Innocence did the same with his other arm.

“I can walk on my own, you know,” Tenacity grumbled.

Roy tightened his grip. He could feel the headhunter leaning heavily onto his arm. “Shut up,” he hissed.

And Tenacity did, for once.

It was a small town, as much as Roy could see in the almost pitch darkness of night anyway.

There were warm yellow lights to the left, in the glass houses, he suspected; otherwise the town was not lit, if you don’t count tiny lamps at the doors of houses. The lamp in the hands of the leading mutant danced on sturdy stonework of the houses, on the paved wide street, caught on patterns on the doors, engraved or painted, Roy wasn’t sure.

He was too exhausted to care. There was no wind but he could smell the faint dust in the air, his eyes watering from it.

They turned around the corner, and Roy had to shield his eyes from too much light. When his eyes adjusted, he discovered himself in a wide space under a tent on poles. Lamps, tens and tens of them, big and small, were hanging from the poles or scattered on the ground like tiny rocks thrown by a generous hand.

There was a radio caster at one of the poles, and a table with ten chairs of different form, size, and material. One mutant raised their head from the radio, putting off headphones from their head. There was another mutant, they stopped their pacing when they saw Wind. They wore red pants and red leather jacket with rolled up sleeves. Their eyes were golden, like Wind’s.

“Welcome, welcome!” the mutant had a deep voice, and in the light from the lamps the burnt skin on their face looked gleaming, like fine gold. “We received your signal, Joane,” they said to the Ultimum boss, “but couldn’t raise you. Must’ve been because of the storm”.

“One of the trucks has been swept,” said Wind. He walked forward and pressed his right hand to his chest.

The golden-eyed mutant mirrored the gesture. “May the Shadow take them to rest.” Then they spread their hands wide. “Sit, friends! You are tired, I can feel it. You are safe here.”

There was a small canister with a tap near the radio caster. The golden-eyed mutant and the radio-man filled cups.

Roy helped Tenacity to sit on one of the chairs, ignoring the headhunter’s glare, then took cups for Innocence, Tenacity and himself from the radio-man. The mutant handed them with a nod and a smile.

They were so unlike the mutants Roy had ever encountered, not the frightened creatures, but the people in their own domain.

“Oh, I haven’t introduced myself yet,” said the golden-eyed mutant. “I am Hephaestus, and I tend for this community.”

“How come that we haven’t heard of this village for a while?” asked Wind. “Is it so very young?”

“No, it has been here for almost five years already,” said Hephaestus. He propped himself on the table, sipping from a cup of his own. “But we keep things discreet. Many of us are runaways here, like I am.”

“Where are you from?” Wind asked. He took one gulp out of his cup, but no more.

“I used to work as a blacksmith at Abundance industrial complex,” he took off a glove Roy hadn’t realized he was wearing on his left hand, then rolled the sleeve almost to his shoulder. The hand was metal augmetics, the finest piece of work Roy had ever seen. “And it cost me much. The Men there pushed us to the edge and left an entire shift without food or water, locked down in cages, to ‘teach the animals a lesson’. I took as many as I could with me, the fifteen of us fleeing the place. Ten had gone into the Shadow by the time an Ultimum research group found us.”

He spoke of it with such calm it was unnerving, but his eyes were hard.

“They fed us, gave us water and clothes. Then we founded this village. That is the story,” Hephaestus finished. “We try to bring here as many Dust as we ca, sometimes helping them to rebel or run, sometimes buying them, but we can’t do it without the Men, especially when it comes to buying. So we work, trade, familiarize themselves with the Men around us, decide whom we can trust. Make friends. Call in favors.” He shrugged and finished his water.

“A Dust Resistance,” Tenacity drawled, shaking his head. “Who would have thought?”

“No, not resistance, just a place to be… And a place to regain ourselves,” Hephaestus explained. “I’m sorry for babbling like this. We can talk tomorrow in the morning if you’d like.”

Wind nodded.

“We are going to my base tonight,” Joane said. “I don’t want to waste time, there are things to be done.”

Hephaestus pressed his right hand to his chest. “We thank you, Joane, for bringing them here.”

“Thank Mary and them,” Joane grumbled, getting to her feet, and pointed at the general direction of Tenacity, then turned to Roy, “I’d like you to stop by. I have something of utmost importance to discuss with you, Roy.”

It was going to disturb his plans to sneak out on his own, so he just said, “We’ll see.”

Joane walked out from under the tent.

Mary got up, too, and bending over Innocence, hugged him, then shook hands with Tenacity. “Get good rest, Tenacity.” She turned to Roy.

“I’m really glad to see that you’re doing well, Mary,” he said with a smile.

“And I am glad to see you all, Roy, and be of help. Please, come by. It is very important if Joane invited you.”

He nodded and squeezed her hand. The mutant with the lamp led the two women away.

“We will not be a liability,” Wind assured Hephaestus.

The leader of the village smiled. “I know. There is always a place for everyone here.”

“We wanted you to ask if you could share supplies with us,” said Roy.

Hephaestus nodded. “We’ll get to it in the morning, too. Now go and rest, friends. Alvastro will show the way.”

The radio-man nodded and got to his feet, as did Innocence and Roy himself.

Tenacity was leaning heavily on the back of the chair, his eyelids drooping.

“Come on, Old Hound, let’s get you to bed,” Roy said, bending down to help the headhunter to his feet.

“With you?” said Tenacity and smirked.

Roy elbowed him lightly in the ribs. “You can dream.”

Alvastro picked up one of the lamps from the ground and lead them into the darkness.

“Where is Temperance?” asked Innocence as they walked into the night, Tenacity leaning on Roy and Innocence’s arms again.

“He’ll return, don’t worry,” mumbled the headhunter. He was sleeping as he moved his feet.

The walk was not long, they turned a few streets and then Alvastro opened and held the door of one of the houses for them. “There are beds in the room and food in the kitchen,” the mutant commented in coarse voice. “Get yourself comfortable and don’t worry about anything.”

“Wake us up in the morning, please?” asked Roy as they helped Tenacity inside.

The mutant nodded. “Of course, Savior-Man.”

That’s when it hit him. “You call me Savior. You already know who I am?”

Alvastro smiled. He had dark-gray eyes, and the light of his lamp, held high, danced in them. “We all know. Let the Shadow protect you in the night and the Sun greet you in the morning.” He turned and walked away down the street, his light fading into darkness.

Roy went into the house. Innocence had already lit up a lamp, like the one Alvastro had held.

“Hold the light for me, please, while I take him to the bed,” Roy said and took Tenacity by his arm and helped him into the back room.

It was small, with three single beds by the walls. There was a clean smell of fresh sheets, and the floor was soft. Roy looked down. It was covered with weed that emanated faint sweet aroma when he stepped on it.

Tenacity sat on one of the beds and instantly tilted sideways.

Roy clicked his tongue. “No, friend, you need to undress first.”

“You do this,” Tenacity mumbled into the pillow. From the blissful look of him it was cozy and soft. Though in the state Tenacity was in, everything would seem cozy and soft.

Sighing, Roy tugged Tenacity’s scarf off, followed by his jacket and his heavy boots. Innocence hung the lamp on a hook protruding from the wall and helped him move Tenacity’s legs on the bed.

The headhunter, already snoring, mumbled something.

Roy shook his head, then looked at Innocence. He was blinking and covering his yawns, tears welling up from the strain. Roy asked anyway. “Food?”

Innocence shook his head. “I’m too tired. He is making me envious, with how comfortable he looks,” he gestured at Tenacity, who was lying on his stomach, hugging a pillow.

Roy laughed quietly. “Go ahead and join him, there are more beds in this room.”

“And you?”

His heart clenched when blue eyes, dark in the night, pierced him, with the light of the lamp illuminating Innocence from behind and making his blond hair seem pure gold. “I’ll be here, too.” And there was something more that he didn’t dare to voice.

Innocence nodded as if he understood more than Roy understood himself. “Alright. Good.”

Roy took one of the blankets, folded neatly on the bed under the only window, and threw it over Tenacity. The headhunter turned to the side, hugging the pillow closer. When Roy took another blanket and turned to Innocence, the kid was sitting on the bed, undoing his boots. His jacket and scarf were hanging from the back of a chair.

Roy smiled and went to him with the blanket in his hands. “Try to sleep.”

Innocence yawned, covering his mouth with a fist, and shook his head, blinking. “Yes, Roy.” He flopped on the bed, and Roy covered him with the blanket, then stroke his hair.

“Good dreams to you.”

Innocence smiled blearily. “You, too.”

Roy chuckled and walked to the third bed. It was covered with white sheets without a single crease, and he was so dirty and didn’t want to lie like this, but he had no other option. So he tugged the scarf off his neck, took off the jacket and hung them over Innocence’s things, then toed off his boots.

Distant warm orange lights were flowing in through the open blinds. The room was quiet, the only noises were Tenacity’s light snoring and Innocence deep breaths. Roy hoped that Innocence wouldn’t get any nightmares tonight.

He lay down on the bed, and the quiet breathing of his friends lulled him quickly.

He dreamed of the dark void.

***

He opened his eyes just on the verge of the morning, the habit of getting up early engraved in his mind and possibly in his bones. He was tired still, but refreshed a bit. Dogs chirred just outside the house. It painfully reminded him of New Life, and yet it seemed different. The voices, greeting each other, sounded different. And there were no dogs in New Life.

He lay in his bed for a few moments more, then sat up, putting aside the blanket. He stretched and looked around the room. His friends were still asleep, and he decided to not wake them up yet.

He looked out of the window and nearly lost his jaw: the dome was getting more transparent with each passing moment, turning from black to translucent-orange with the sunlight pouring through it. He gaped at it, astounded, for a few minutes until the sky turned from sunrise blue to day orange. It was dimmed, though, the dome not completely transparent. He wondered if it was even safe, but it probably shielded the village from the excess radiation. Otherwise they wouldn’t have such healthy crops Mary had spoken about.

Shaking his head, he got to his feet, but didn’t put on his boots.

Tenacity was snoring, facing the wall. The blanket had nearly slid on the floor, and Roy righted the blanket.

Innocence, as usual, was covered up to his ears.

Roy silently padded into the first room, closing the door to the bedroom. The weed under his bare feet felt warm.

The kitchen was small, with a stove, fridge and cupboard, made of wood he didn’t recognize. Wood, here. Such a rare material, even more rare than good metal. What kind of place this village was, a paradise?

Then he discovered that it was, indeed, a paradise: the house had a shower. A simple stall with water falling from the ceiling, but it was real, clean water. Roy quickly shed his clothes and stepped under it.

It was a bliss, a cool, chilly bliss.

He felt as if he would never be able to wash the dirt out of his skin. He scrubbed himself with a crude oval stone until his skin was red, then allowed himself a few more minutes of standing under the water, all thoughts washed away. He opened his mouth. The water tasted sweet.

Not without regret he turned the water off and stepped out of the shower, just now realizing that he had no fresh clothes. There were towels on a shelf, too small for him, but he dried himself anyway, relishing in the sensation of relatively being clean. He scratched his stubble. It threatened to turn into a proper beard in a day or two, but he didn’t want to shave with the knife.

And besides, maybe he should take after their friend Errant and grow out the beard to hide his facial features.

Cringing, he put on his old clothes, then walked back into the kitchen. Opening a small fridge, he discovered fresh molemeat and herbs. They were different from what Innocence grew in his garden. And there were tomatoes and round yellow fruits with sweet scent.

They had orchards here.

Maybe Hephaestus would be kind enough to give Innocence seeds.

He put a pan on the stove and threw the meat in to fry. He found knives, spoons, forks, plates and cups in the cupboard. He sliced tomatoes and fruits and put them on the plates in neat piles. There was bread, too, soft and smelling so good Roy’s stomach hurt.

He heard rustling of sheets in the bedroom.

Then a knock sounded on the front door. Roy opened it.

Alvastro was standing there, smiling. “You asked me to wake you up but I see that I’m already late.”

Roy shook his head. “No worries. I woke up myself, an old habit. Want to have a breakfast with us?”

“No, thank you. We took the supplies to your truck, water canisters, fresh and dried fruits and meat, bread and wheat. Wind said your Innocence has a garden of his own, so we packed various seeds for him.”

Roy’s heart swelled at this news.

“Thank you!” sounded Innocence’s voice. He was wearing a shirt and was barefoot, still blinking the sleep out of his eyes. His smile was bright as the morning sun, and Roy ducked his head to hide the smile of his own.

“Thank you so much!” Innocence strode to the Dust and took both his hands, squeezing them. “This is so much more than I could have asked for.”

Alvastro blinked in surprise, then smiled in reply. “I am glad that you like it. We packed the instruction for the plants, too, but hopefully, they would survive in any climate except the most extreme.”

Innocence blushed and let go of his hands, taking a step back. “Thank you,” he repeated, quiet and earnest.

Roy laughed at last and ruffled Innocence’s hair. Innocence was still warm from sleeping. “Well, we are set to go to Joane, then, if you don’t mind.”

“I’d like to say goodbye to Wind, if that’s okay,” said Innocence, still quiet and sheepish.

Alvastro nodded. “I will ask him to meet you by your truck. Don’t rush yourself, eat and rest as long as you need.” Then he pressed his hand to his chest and walked away.

“Smells good, Roy. Were you making the breakfast?” Tenacity, smirking and scratching his beard, stepped into the kitchen.

Roy cursed and rushed to the stove, but, luckily, nothing had burnt. “There is a shower there,” he pointed to the door at his right. “And it’s quite good. Breakfast in a few minutes, so you two better hurry.”

Tenacity let Innocence go first.

Roy flipped the molesteak on the pan, then filled the kettle with water and put it on the stove to boil. “You are staring,” he noted aloud. Tenacity’s gaze was like a rough touch of calloused palm, and dangerous, like the smell of spice and sand and gun oil.

“I can get used to it,” Tenacity said at last.

Roy raised his head. The headhunter was leaning on the doorframe, his arms crossed over his chest. He was half-naked. Many scars covered his torso, and than long nasty scar under his ribs on the right side of his abdomen was even more prominent than ever. Tenacity grinned. Of course he was like this on purpose. Jerk.

“I can get used to it,” the headhunter repeated, and there was a mischievous gleam in his light-blue eyes. “To your cooking, to Innocence being around. And you are staring.”

Chirring startled Roy, and Temperance jogged into the house, rubbing his head against Roy’s arm.

“I didn’t think you’re the kind of guy who could settle down,” he mused, patting the dog, and then looked at Tenacity again.

There was something dark and worrisome like pain, in the headhunter’s eyes, but Tenacity grinned and cast his eyes to the side, nodding at the kettle. “Our tea is going to spill.”

Roy turned the stove off and started putting food on the plates.

“Maybe if it was with you, with both of you…” he heard quiet voice, but when he turned to ask or say something, anything, Innocence was going out of the shower, clad only in his pants and shirt, and sighing contentedly, and Tenacity went to the shower, and Roy didn’t have time to ask.

And maybe, he realized with a pang of pain in his heart, he would never get any chance to ask anymore.

After Tenacity showered, they ate, and small breeze was breathing into the open door of the house. In the night, the storm had settled down or probably moved further north, and dust settled on the ground. Looking through the open door, Roy spotted several Dust brooming the streets.

He regretted to leave so soon.

He looked Tenacity over, and the headhunter seemed to restore his energy, grinning, chatting with Innocence and scratching Temperance’s head who chirred joyfully.

Then they walked away, closing the door of the house. The village was so vast and the streets were paved with actual stones, polished and clean and put so that you couldn’t fit a knife’s edge in between the slabs. The Dust pointed them at the right direction. They were smiling and friendly. Apparently, living by themselves was good for them. Roy hoped that Wind and his people would change into being like this over time.

They walked down the streets to the hangar, with its big doors opened. It was empty save for their monstrous truck that barely fit under the low roof.

Wind, standing by the truck, was wearing a clean white shirt, baggy pants and boots, and his eyes were ablaze in the sunlight.

“You are leaving,” he said, stepping forward. “You have made so much for us, more than we deserve, and some of us deserve even less than nothing. We talked with Hephaestus and others, and we decided to offer some Men to go here. There is water and work here, and maybe Men would want to atone by working like we do.”

“Just don’t invite anyone who can harm you,” Roy said.

Wind nodded. “We will look over all of those we would decide to invite.” He paused. “If you see Errant again, tell him we…” He shook his head. “Tell him, I would like him to come here, too.”

Roy nodded, smiling at the way Wind used “I” for the first time. It was a change, and maybe it has something to do with being free and independent, because all the Dust of the village seemed to use “I” instead of “we” that was common for the mutants.

“I will tell him this. Goodbye, Wind,” he said after a small pause. He felt that he would probably never see the proud Dust again.

“Goodbye, Savior, and fare the well to your family,” Wind pressed his right hand to his chest as Roy climbed on the ledge of the truck.

Tenacity had already started the engines, and the truck was vibrating like an excited hound. Innocence waved to Wind with a sad look on his face, and Temperance chirred, jumping inside.

“May the spirits guide you,” Roy heard as they rode out of the hangar.

“Wait, what?”

“Did you say something, Roy?” asked Innocence.

He shook his head slowly. “No, nothing.”

They moved to the thick gates, and the mutants they passed all raised their heads from the things they were doing, smiled and pressed their right hand to their chest.

Chapter Text

Aust… I’m writng this with, oh.. Ive seen him. And I meant mean him. The one, the devil, the, oh, only in a dream but it was soo re real.

Hes calling.

He’s calling.

I know my next destination.

He’s waiting. For me.

Chapter Text

“It’s so beautiful and peaceful in there,” Innocence said.

The Dust village was behind them.

The houses that they had seen in the village were usually one-story high, with gardens full of green, yellow and red flowers. There were hounds on the streets, too, mostly small, unlike Temperance. They jogged around, chirring, and the Dust were playing with them and called them by beautiful names.

“You could stay here,” Roy said quietly. “I think the Dust wouldn’t mind.”

Innocence shook his head. “What about our house in New Life? And our garden, and the people there? We need to return.” He sighed. “Maybe later…”

The day was sunny, although the dust raised by the storm made the sun look like spilled tea in the sky. Roy unbuttoned his jacket. To the north, the shadow of the storm loomed like the shroud of nightmares. Roy hoped that it would die out before it gets to New Life.

He hadn’t spoken with Tenacity about his leaving. He thought that neither Tenacity nor Innocence would ever forgive him for leaving without any word.

Derailing to Joane’s base was ruining his plans. He had absolutely no idea why Joane wanted to see them, and if she wanted to tell them something — what could she tell to a rogue Technomancer, a headhunter, and a war survivor anyway? — why hadn’t she told it before, when they had been in the Dust village?

Maybe he could slip out in the night, persuade Innocence and Tenacity to take a break on the base, then leave… How could he leave, though? Maybe take one of the Ultimum trucks… But he didn’t learn to drive properly.

He rubbed his forehead. Maybe it wasn’t worth it. He decided he would ask Mary, in private, if they got some news about Abundance Technomancers, if they were hunting him down still. And only then he would decide on his actions.

He was delaying the inevitable again.

Temperance chirred and nudged Roy’s palm. “Where’ve you been all night, huh?” he laughed, scratching the hound’s mighty back. Temperance rubbed himself against Roy’s palm.

“I’m sure that he’s made a few friends,” Tenacity noted. “But you didn’t want to leave us, did you?” Temperance whined, tickling Tenacity’s hand with his antennae. “I never said that you were a traitor,” said the headhunter, patting the hound. “You won’t leave Innocence alone, yes?”

Temperance nodded, making Innocence snicker.

Roy watched Tenacity looking at Innocence and the dog with seriousness, then the headhunter shook himself and turned his gaze to the road.

Roy didn’t like Tenacity’s behavior, but he could only wait — wait and keep an eye on the headhunter.

In an hour they could see the familiar hemisphere of a dome.

Roy frowned in confusion. “I thought we were moving away from the Dust village.”

“We did, it’s not the same,” said Innocence. “This dome is smaller than the one in the village.”

Innocence was right, and the crater itself was, too, smaller and looked younger, its walls almost intact.

“I hope it’s Joane’s,” Tenacity said.

They must have been spotted because big gates, the same construction as in the Dust village, opened before them.

“At least…” Roy croaked and cleared his throat before continuing, “At least we know who helped the Dust to make the dome.”

“Maybe it’s the Dust who engineered the dome, and then they helped to make it in Joane’s base,” Innocence noted.

There was a single watchtower beside the gates, and Roy didn’t spot any weapons on it.

Tenacity huffed, ducking a bit to look from under the roof of the truck at the tower. “Not the most secured settlement.”

The walls of the crater weren’t reinforced like they had been at the Dust village, and behind the gates there were no streets and houses, only a big complex of buildings made from the rosy stone.

A figure in a coat, standing behind the gates, waved them to stop.

“Mary!” Innocence exclaimed.

Tenacity turned the engines off, and Innocence was the first to hop out of the truck with Temperance alongside him.

Roy followed with a smile.

“Hello, Innocence, hello, Roy,” Mary’s melodious voice sounded. “I thought you would stay with the Dust for a while.” She was smiling at them, and the sun dimmed by the dome danced in her curly hair.

“The Dust helped us with the supplies, and we decided to go to you as quickly as we could,” Roy explained. “Joane seemed so desperate for us to hurry up and come.”

Mary’s smile fell, and she nodded. Roy had never seen her so grim before. “Yes, it is very serious. Hello, Tenacity,” she waved at the headhunter.

“Then lead the way, lady,” Tenacity said.

Roy watched how she moved, flowing, graceful, for a few moments, then shook his head and followed.

Tenacity walked faster and tugged at the heavy door with a grunt, bowing then before Mary. “Ladies first,” he said with a grin.

Roy huffed a breath and shook his head. Mary only nodded and walked in.

It was all tight spaces and corridors, although much cleaner than most of the places Roy had been in, and better lit. Long light tubes were hanging from the ceiling, illuminating the corridors with strange white light that made the shadows and corners look more sharp. Sunlight was pouring in through the open blinds. They walked a few twisting corridors that made Roy question the architecture of this place and the logic behind it.

Mary stopped in front of double doors and knocked, then pushed. They opened with a groan, and Roy hurried to help her. He had noticed that many doors here had been made sturdy to endure big damage, and it made him think about explosions. They never actually asked what kind of research Joane was conducting.

The room behind the doors was surprisingly ordinary, if not for tools and devices that flickered and hummed. Joane was bent over one of the machines, looking at the screen. Her long coat was a mess, as was her hair, carelessly tied into a high knot.

Mary gestured at the chairs standing in half a circle in the middle of the room. They took seats as Mary approached Joane and touched her shoulder. Joane startled and raised her head to Mary.

“They are here, Joane,” Mary said quietly.

Joane blinked a few times, then looked at them and nodded. “Good.”

Mary went to one of the machines and took a kettle and a few cups, pouring something with a strong herbal smell.

“Thank you,” Joane took her cup, smiling gently at Mary. Then the Ultimum woman took a chair, put it in front of them them and straddled it, cradling the steaming cup in one of her hands.

Innocence got up to help Mary with tea and brought cups for himself and Roy.

The tea was strong but sweet, with slight sour tang.

“The herbs are from the Dust village,” Joane commented. “Really refreshing.”

“Surely, you haven’t asked us to visit you just so you could let us drink this good tea?” Tenacity said.

Joane shook her head. “No, not only for that.”

Mary took a cup and perched herself on the desk behind Joane.

“I want to hire you,” Joane said at last and pointed at Roy.

“What? Are you not mistaken?” he frowned. “I’m not a man for hire.”

I am,” added Tenacity.

“But you, Roy, are the only free Technomancer except Mary.”

“There’s Errant, too,” Innocence added.

Joane waved dismissively. “Errant is not available.”

“What do you need Technomancers for? And why is Mary not enough for you?” Roy asked.

“I think I would need every Technomancer I could get.” Joane sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. Roy noticed the shadows under her eyes. She must have not slept well, if did it at all. “Besides, Mary said you are good with technology.”

“To a certain degree, yes,” he nodded, sipping the tea. It was really good. “That doesn’t answer my first question, though.”

“This is not going to be easy,” she sighed again, smoothing her hair, then turned the full force of her gaze at Roy. “I know what Relics are for. Well,” she added with a wave of her hand, “most of them anyway.”

Roy leaned back on his chair.

This is interesting,” Tenacity drawled.

Joane glared at him but it didn’t have any effect on the headhunter. “They are part of one construct, or rather, one system.”

“That much we know already,” Roy huffed. “I mean, the Technomancers know. Some giant pre-Turmoil construct, most probably made by the first colonists.”

“But I know the purpose they all serve, the main purpose. They all are a part of the machine that used to stabilize the magnetic field of Mars. Then something happened, I think an asteroid impact, that damaged the machine and led to the Turmoil. Solar winds blew away some of the atmosphere, and people died because of severe doses of radiation. And we still have regions of Mars completely uninhabitable.”

Roy stared at her. “Okay. That makes sense. What do you need me—” he threw a glance at Mary who went to fill her cup again, and corrected himself, “us, the Technomancers, for?”

“The machinery there must be extraordinary—”

“But why do you think the colonists had the technology of this scale?” Tenacity grumbled. He held his cup in one hand, his arms crossed over his chest. “I mean, it’s not even like our truck. It must be more complicated, to affect the whole planet.”

“But they came from Earth,” said Innocence, “and they had the technology and the means to do it. Why wouldn’t they have something to change a planet?”

“Who says they really came from Earth and that Earth really exists?” Tenacity asked quietly.

The silence was thick and stunned.

“That’s not the question here anyway,” Joane said after a pause. “I want to see the machine. Maybe we can make it work properly, or at least learn from the pre-Turmoil technologies.”

Roy shook his head. “I still don’t understand why you need me,” he admitted. “I can tinker with some tech, make traps, fix guns, and shoot electricity, but that’s all. And where do you intend to go? Relics are found everywhere on the planet.”

“I know where we should go,” Joane nodded.

“Woah, lady, Roy didn’t say that there is a ‘we’ yet,” Tenacity exclaimed. Then he narrowed his eyes. “You need our truck, too, don’t you? That’s why you asked all four of us to come here.”

Joane’s eyes widened. “Four? Ah, the dog.”

Temperance chirred and huffed, turning his back to Joane and going to lie behind Innocence.

“Your truck has proved to be more useful than those of ours,” she continued.

Tenacity grinned. “Then you have to hire me, too, because the truck is actually mine, and Roy can’t drive.”

Roy held up his hands. “Wait, wait, nobody’s going anywhere… Where exactly are you going, Joane?”

“There must be an entrance of sorts to the main complex of the structure near Olympus.”

Roy almost dropped his cup. “It’s like, on the other side of the globe!”

“Yeah, and the trains don’t go there,” Tenacity added.

Joane beamed and clapped her hands. “Well, that’s what your truck is for! I’m sure it can carry a team of my experts, equipment, and supplies.”

“If you hook everything like a slumbering drilling worm behind the truck, then yeah, sure!” Tenacity said with false cheerfulness.

Joane’s face fell. “I meant, inside the truck.”

“If you want to make it to the Big O and have enough supplies for the trip there and back, you have to either reduce the team or make them go on their own. The truck is big, but it’s not that big.”

“This… changes my plans, but I need to have a look at the vehicle.”

Tenacity growled. “We don’t have a deal yet.”

Joane got to her feet and started pacing, undoing her hair-knot and doing it again, getting more agitated with each step. “You have to understand that this is important. This is planet-size big. If it turns out to be what we think it is…” She stopped and sighed. Mary touched her elbow and handed her a steaming cup — her own cup. Joane smiled. “Thank you, dear.”

Tenacity cleared his throat. “We had our own plans.”

She turned back to them, her expression hardened. “What can be more important than examining the technology of the past?”

“Returning home,” Innocence answered. “Tending for our garden. Helping people of our village.”

“We are trying to help people, too!” Joane left the cup on the table, untouched, stopped before them and put her palms together before her chest. “Listen. The atmosphere is not so easily blown away by the solar wind. The Relics must be a part of structure that somehow had been stabilizing it — that is, until the asteroid impact. It must have damaged the machine — or machines, if there are many of them, — and the atmosphere became unstable and was blown away. If we can make it there and examine the device, we will be able to restore it. Think about it, just think about it! Making the atmosphere whole again, making Mars habitable again! Almost half of the planet is inhabitable due to radiation and extreme heat—”

“There is no one to live there anyway,” Tenacity interrupted her. “There are too few of people, and they are struggling as it is. The soil in the regions where the radiation is high is most definitely poor, if not dangerous. Nothing can grow on it. How the people are going to live there?”

“Not now, not right away, of course, but in time, with generations—” Joane pinched the bridge of her nose again. “No, no, you won’t be able to understand. Why am I even bothering? Just tell me if you want to make a deal or not. I’m ready to pay in Serum, equipment, our technologies, whatever you want.”

“You are really desperate,” Roy said.

It must have been hard if she had jumped on the first opportunity she got, trusting complete strangers with her knowledge and theories and asking to work with her.

“Yes, I am desperate,” she snapped. “Mars is desperate! Humans are dying out, as a species, even mutants are dying.”

“What about other Ultimum teams? Can’t they help you?”

She huffed out a breath. “They don’t know shit, if you ask me. They don’t want to know shit. They think that making new hybrid crops or domesticating moles would help. But it won’t.”

Roy narrowed his eyes. “What else do you know? Don’t try to hide anything.”

“It’s not a knowledge,” she said hesitantly, not looking him in the eye. “More a theory or a hunch, a feeling, because we don’t have the proper equipment. But I think — I feel that there is a storm coming, a massive solar storm, and it can blow away the remains of the atmosphere. Mars will become completely inhabitable. We won’t survive.”

Roy let out a heavy breath.

“A-are you sure?” Innocence asked, with a soft tremble in his voice. He leaned forward in his chair.

She shook her head. “I’m not. But I can feel it. And if it really hits…”

“It will be too late for us,” Tenacity finished for her.

“When I said this to others, they laughed at me,” Joane resumed pacing. “Suggested to built bunkers, go under the ground, hide the population under the towns, use the old sewers and tunnels. But it would take years to built proper network, underground farms, establish life. And it’s even harder to convince the people and the authorities, even more harder now that the two most powerful Guilds are at war, one of them devastated by it and the other closing the borders.”

Roy nodded. “General Honour would probably listen to you, but the Technomancers are not that easily convinced.”

“Mine is but a lone voice in the dusty wasteland.” Her eyes were pleading. “I’m running out of options. When I saw your vehicle and learned that you, Roy, are a Technomancer, the same Technomancer Mary told me about, I had hope. And you, Tenacity,” she turned her gaze at him, “your survival skills are invaluable in the wastelands. You are the best on Mars. I understand that it all sounds suspicious and dangerous, but I need to know if I’m right. If we can do anything. Maybe something would prove me wrong about the solar storm. A device to make me sure I am wrong. Clearly, the pre-Turmoil technologies are much better than anything we have now. We are just using scraps from the old times.”

She paced a few times again, her mouth moving without sound like she was talking to invisible audience. Then she stopped again. “We are dying,” she repeated, insistent. “People die from hunger, decease, thirst. We need to dig into the ground more and more to take out drops of water. The authorities of the two biggest Guilds won’t listen even to those of my colleagues who breed new crops and plants. We can’t survive only on tomatoes and mole meat. One or two generations more — and there will be no humans on Mars. I’m asking you to help. I’m ready to pay anything you want. Yes, I’m desperate, I’m not ashamed to admit it.”

Roy exchanged looks with Tenacity. The headhunter seemed to be lost in thoughts. Innocence was fumbling with the cup, twisting it in his hands.

“Why other won’t listen to you?” Innocence asked at last. “You have good reasoning, and I think… I think it’s important.”

Joane smiled ruefully and shook her head. “I’m a pariah in my Guild, mad Joane who speaks about the end of the world. They think I’ve lost my mind studying the Relics and going to the places with unstable atmosphere. We’re starving, and they intend to feed people, making new closed water systems, but they refuse to look on the big picture. They are too busy surviving the today, they can’t look into the tomorrow.”

“What about the Dust, their village?” Roy asked. “They seem to live just fine, even prosper. Their village is one of the most healthy I’ve ever seen, well-protected, with water and enough food.”

“The mutants have nothing to lose, so they accept Ultimum’s inventions and technologies right away. Besides, most of them used to work at factories and mines, so they know their way around technologies. They use all they have.”

“But you still don’t like them,” Innocence said bluntly. His grip on the cup tightened. “Why you don’t like them?”

Joane crewed her face. “They are… different, and you can’t say what’s going on in their heads. And more than that, they are somehow connected to the Turmoil. They admit it themselves.”

“So, you don’t like them for no reason at all,” Roy leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms.

“I’m not a bigot!” Joane exclaimed. “Don’t be deceived by that village, in other places they steal and kill.”

“Just like all people,” said Innocence quietly. “If you push them too far.”

Joane closed her mouth with a snap, breathing hard, then rubbed her forehead. “They are sterile, and in a few decades they will die out, too. They won’t survive. The point is, are you going to help me or not?”

“Sterile? But I heard that…” Roy clamped his mouth shut, not willing to go into the memory of the experiments conducted by the Technomancers near Green Hope. Giving human women to the mutants to… breed them like animals. He shook his head. “Never mind.”

“Do you have enough supplies to provide for the way there and back?” asked Tenacity, all business now. “And I mean, not only food and water, but also ammunition and guns, maybe heavy guns.”

“Do you take me for a fool? Of course I have everything I need.” Joane snapped again. “Ammunition, maps, I only don’t have a pathfinder.”

Tenacity nodded. “I’ve been in the area a few times.”

Roy raised his eyebrows, but the headhunter ignored him.

“I-I would like to go,” Innocence spoke. He put the cup down on the floor at his feet, and his fists were clenching and unclenching on his lap. “I’m not as skilled as Tenacity, or as valuable as Roy, but I can fight, I was on the war. I can protect you, and I can drive.”

“I’m not letting you go alone, Innocence.” Roy locked his eyes with bright blue eyes and saw there that Innocence wasn’t going to back away. “Are you sure?”

Innocence nodded. “This is important for all of us. And even if it turns out we shouldn’t be worried, then all the better.”

Roy looked at Joane and sighed. “Innocence believes in you, and I only have to follow him. I go where he goes. There, you have me.”

“And I’m not leaving them alone,” added Tenacity. “But you have to provide everything I say.”

Joane smiled. “Thank you.”

“But it’ll take weeks for us to reach the Big O,” said Tenacity, scratching his beard. “And considering that we have to cross both Abundance and Aurora territory…”

“We don’t have to do that,” Joane said. “I can arrange a train for us that will drive up until Medusae Fossae. The Shadow Line there is intact, as far as I know, only poorly maintained.”

Tenacity frowned. “And from Medusae Fossae we have to go on our own. It will take us, what, about two weeks on the train?”

“Six days, if everything goes well,” said Joane. “The train is ours, Ultimum, and upgraded. It’s faster than the regular ones.”

“I’d like to not go too fast on the ‘poorly maintained’ railroad,” Roy admitted.

Tenacity patted his thigh. “That means, four or five days on the road until Olympus itself, if I estimated it right. The terrain there is pretty smooth and good.”

Joane nodded. “And the sandstorm should already be reduced to regular winds when we come there. If we have a deal, I’d like to start as fast as we can.”

About two weeks there and two more weeks back. And they had to think about the return way. Going on the outskirts of Aurora territory was probably out of question, because they were on the very borders of the habitable zone and Roy wouldn’t want to risk Innocence and Tenacity’s well-being. Maybe they could somehow arrange a train going through the southerns parts of Aurora territory… And he could sneak away during one of the stops.

He hoped that Innocence’s garden wouldn’t be damaged beyond all hope during those weeks.

At least, Abundance Technomancers wouldn’t think about trailing him to Olympus. Not one sane man would.

“The train will be waiting for us tomorrow in the morning,” Joane’s voice shook Roy out of his thoughts. “I’d like to see the truck, Tenacity, to plan our team and supplies.”

The headhunter got to his feet and grinned. “After you, lady.”

Mary watched Joane and Tenacity with a wary look.

“What?” Roy asked her.

She waited for them to go away, then approached him and Innocence, rummaging in her pockets. “Look, I wanted to show you.”

“The cards?” Innocence moved closer.

Mary nodded, unwrapping the deck. “New cards.” She slowly turned four cards face-first.

One was Wisdom, with Joane in golden and white dress that draped her in many waves. She was sitting on a white throne and holding a glowing golden orb in her hands, and her forehead was adorned with a golden crown.

The second card was the Wanted Man: Tenacity, in his usual attire complete with open jacket, was hanging upside down with his arms spread wide. Curiously, the clothes didn’t seem to comply to the gravity. His legs were roped to a rock on Mars plains.

The Mystery card had Mary as the character, in her blue dress that Roy knew from the first time they had met her, and with the halo of metal and light around her head.

The last card was Paths, featuring Roy himself. It was disturbing how detailed it looked, how clearly resembled him. The card version of him was facing the viewer and standing on a forked path. One of his hands was gloved with the Technomantic glove, while the other was bare and open. But the most disturbing feature was his eyes, staring right back at Roy in the flesh, almost glowing, one golden and one blue.

It made chill run down his spine.

“When…” he croaked, “When did they become like this, before we came here or right now?”

Mary shook her head. “Before, just tonight. I didn’t catch the moment they changed, but when I turned them, they were already like this. These are the only new cards…” She trailed off.

Innocence’s hand found his and squeezed. “Are they trying to tell us something? I wonder if they predict the future or shape it…”

“How can this be?” Roy asked, pushing the words through tight throat. “I’ve never encountered a technology like this.”

“Neither have I,” said Mary. “But I think Innocence is right, and they are trying to show us something. They seem to know that you would make a deal with Joane.”

Roy covered the cards with his free hand. “Tell me if any new cards appear, okay?”

“I will.” She packed them again and put into the pocket of her jacket. Only then Roy noticed a sliver of blue under it, a thin scarf.

“You’ve made a scarf out of your old dress?” he asked, happy to change the topic.

She smiled. “Yes. I told you I wanted to keep it, but it was completely ruined, so I made it into a scarf.” She made a step back. “Come! I’ll show you where the kitchen is and where you can rest for tonight.”

They walked after her. Innocence didn’t took his hand away, and Roy was relieved he didn’t.

***

The facility was well equipped, which was no surprise to Roy, but it looked like people rarely lived here, and it was no surprise, too. Mary said that Joane’s team was not very big — rarely Ultimum teams were big, — and most of the time it was split in two or three lone teams that were in expedition somewhere.

For now, it was empty except for Joane and Mary. Mary said that those who had been with Joane in Flammarion-4 went to neighboring bases, to share ideas or something.

The facility was kept neat and clean, almost too clean, although there was no escaping sand and dust that trickled into everything and covered everything no matter how hard you tried to keep it away from things.

The sun, seen through many open blinds, was tilting towards horizon. Mary showed them the rooms where they could sleep — simple, designed to accommodate two people at once, — then led them to the mess hall, much like in Flammarion facility, only smaller and empty.

“How did you come to be with Joane?” asked Roy after they ate lunch, a mole stew with some vegetables he didn’t recognize, and crunchy bread, and tea. “You told me the short version. What’s the long one?”

They were sitting on a green couch, and Innocence was leaning on one of its arms. The room was warm, and Roy didn’t have to worry about Innocence getting cold. Innocence slipped his feet, bootless, under Roy’s right thigh, and he had to keep himself from beaming like a madman.

It didn’t seem to deceive Mary in any way because she was smiling a private smile, leaning back on the other arm of the couch and sipping from a cup.

“I was looking for a job in a town, and some men were eager so suggest one.”

Roy winced. “I guess it was not a very good job, not a, you know, decent kind.” He felt a spark of anger and had to suppress it. It was all over now, and Mary was safe here. Well, as safe as she could be with a bunch of scientists.

“No, it was not,” Mary admitted. “And hearing that, a woman told those men to ‘fuck off’,” Mary imitated Joane admirably and made Roy smile, “and said that she would hire me.”

“So, she didn’t know that you are a Technomancer at first?”

“She didn’t. But I said it right away, and she asked me to join her for real, be a part of her team. She studies Relics and ancient tech, so it’s convenient to have a Technomancer at hand. That’s the long version.”

“Not exactly longer than the short.” He looked at her. She was peaceful, not the nervous and ethereal girl he had first met, but a woman who knows her strengths and weaknesses, a person who has a home and knows that she has a place, and he smiled. “I’m glad you’ve found peace for yourself.”

She was beautiful, tanned from working outside, her hands not the gentle and smooth hands of someone who never knew hard work, but calloused and strong. Color rushed to her cheeks. “I’m glad, too, Roy. You should go to sleep, we will rise early to get on the road. At least,” she nodded at Innocence, “get him to sleep.”

Roy turned his head to look at Innocence who curled up with his palms under his cheek, and the sight made something weird happen with Roy’s heart.

“When Tenacity returns,” Roy mumbled, hiding his heating face, “boot him towards the bedrooms, okay? He’s our driver, and I prefer him well-rested when he drives.”

“Of course, Roy.” She got up and took the cup from his hands.

Roy looked at her, meeting her eyes. “What?”

Mary has a look of curiosity on her face, like Temperance. “You really care about them both, right?”

She was right, and Roy… He wasn’t ashamed to admit it to her. “I do care, and I care about you. You know this.”

She nodded, smiling, and went to the sink with empty cups. “There is a shower down the hall, if you want.”

This facility was a true blessing.

Roy got to his feet, careful not to jostle Innocence who by then was curled up like a small child, one of his legs dangling over the edge of the couch. Roy bent down to him, contemplating carrying him in his arms. He was not opposed to the idea, but he didn’t want Innocence to wake up somewhere in the middle of the night disoriented and not knowing how he got there.

So Roy touched his shoulder, basking in Innocence’s sleep warmth, and called, “Let’s go to bed, okay? Your back will hurt if you continue sleeping here.”

Innocence stirred, moaning softly. “Roy,” he mumbled and tried to sit up.

It made Roy smile, probably like a fool. He didn’t care.

He took Innocence by his hand, hot and placid, and tugged slightly. “Come on.” He didn’t dare to look at Mary who was washing cups at the sink and probably watching the whole thing.

Innocence reached out his free hand and pressed himself to Roy for a moment, the heat of him creeping under Roy’s jacket and making him swallow. Then just like that, Innocence moved a little bit away, rubbed his eyes and staggered to his feet.

His throat tight, Roy led him out of the mess hall and down the corridors to the bedrooms. The blinds in the room he chose were half-open, the air warm and making his head spin a bit. Dust danced in the golden light, the smell of clean sheets and sun-baked floor almost overwhelming.

Roy hesitated at the threshold and felt a heavy weight leaning on his back.

He smiled and reached back with his free hand to pat Innocence’s side.

“Okay…” Innocence mumbled, leaning on him even more.

Roy half-turned to him, letting go of the warm hand, and wrapped his arms around Innocence’s shoulders, resting his chin on the crown of his head. Innocence’s hands immediately sneaked around his waist and squeezed hard.

“There is a shower here,” Roy said quietly. “You want to shower?”

Innocence moved his head slightly that probably indicated a head-shake. “No. Want to sleep.”

“Let’s arrange your sleeping, then.”

He reluctantly let Innocence go and guided him to the bed. Innocence sat there, with his eyes half-closed. He crouched, then remembered that Innocence had removed his boots in the mess hall and cursed internally. He had to go to the mess hall and bring them here.

“Then you should, uh, undress.”

He escaped the room when Innocence started tugging at his shirt.

The shower was, indeed, down the corridor, a small bathroom with a shower stall, and Roy took his time turning the water cold to clear his head, washing dust and sand out of his hair. After rummaging in the cabinets near the shower stall, he fished out a towel.

He took his boots and padded towards the mess hall. Mary was absent, and Tenacity and Joane had clearly not returned. He took Innocence’s boots, too, and returned to the bedroom.

He put both pair of boots at the door, then straightened.

Innocence was on his stomach, a thin blanket covering him to waist. The tanned skin of his back was golden in the light seeping through the blinds.

Walking past his sleeping form, Roy closed the blinds.

Innocence’s blond hair was unruly and curling at the nape of his neck, grown out. His chin looked like it was dusted with fine sand because of the stubble. Roy stopped himself before reaching out and placing a palm at Innocence’s back. He didn’t want to wake him up.

He remembered the bony kid with a distant, hollow look in his eyes, when he first saw him in the P.O.W. camp. He was different from this young man, bulky in his shoulders, with the dust of stubble and tan, smelling of earth and plants, with calloused hands and heating skin.

It made Roy long, he didn’t know for what, just the ache in his heart, not the ache of the inevitable partying ways, but the ache of something more.

And as much as Innocence thanked Roy for the rescue in the camp, Roy felt that it was Innocence who had rescued him, again and again and again. He was not worthy of it. He was just a crazy selfish bastard and a trained killer with inhuman abilities that would inevitably cost him his life, not the hero Innocence thought him to be.

Roy covered his face with his hands and sat like that for a long time, listening to Innocence’s peaceful deep breathing.

***

Something wrong was going on, and it was what woke Roy up. He opened his eyes, adjusting to the darkness. It was hot, and he was tangled in the sheets, his bare chest covered with sweat. He didn’t remember lying down.

The noises that woke him up were soft whimpers and stifled sobs, silent, barely audible, but to Roy’s ears, they were louder than a storm.

He nearly fell, hurrying up to the other bed. He could only see a faint dark outline of Innocence’s form, and relied more on touch than on sight, scooping Innocence in his arms. He sat down on the bed and pulled Innocence onto his lap, rocking him slightly, holding tight.

Innocence was trembling, and tears were running down his face pressed to Roy’s chest. Arms encircled Roy, Innocence’s palms scorching hot

He moved his fingers over Innocence’s back, drawing circles and patterns, recalling the plants Innocence had drawn on the blinds back in the house at New Life.

“Shh, I’m here. Nightmares again?” he whispered, catching a few blond strand with his lips.

Innocence turned his head slightly, pressing his damp cheek to Roy’s heart. “I-I saw you,” Innocence whispered back, fervently, and his voice was as trembling as his form. “You were holding onto my hand, slipping from a cliff, and I couldn’t hold you. You looked at me and then just…” His breath hitched, and Roy rubbed between his shoulder blades, shushing him again. “Then you just let go and fell into colorless void. And I couldn’t even call your name, it was so silent, suffocating me…” Innocence trailed off with a sob, his arms squeezing around Roy so tight.

Roy didn’t mind.

“I’m here,” he just repeated. He was not very good at this, not even after so many times he had held Innocence after nightmares or bad memories coming back suddenly because of some noise or smell or detail. And he was angry at himself for being useless, for not being able to protect Innocence from all of this.

Innocence’s trembling subsided, the only noise was his shuddering, heavy breathing that was making a patch on Roy’s chest moist. “I knew you were dead, fallen into that void.” Innocence pressed even closer to him, almost like he wanted to crawl under Roy’s skin.

Roy would have opened himself and welcomed him in, anything, everything to protect him.

“You won’t go anywhere, will you, Roy?”

He swallowed, his heart clenching. “I can’t promise that,” he whispered after a moment and felt nails digging painfully into his back. He wondered distantly if they were going to leave marks that would last.

“Don’t go.”

“I can’t promise it,” he repeated, even if it was killing him. “You know what that card with my face on it means? The Paths card? It means being torn apart, it means being forced to choose. Me being a Technomancer… I can’t just forget that. I can’t run away from that, no matter how much I want to.”

“But you don’t have to! You don’t have to run, don’t have to choose. Don’t have to forget. You are you, with your Technomancy and your past and everything you’ve done…”

“There will come a day,” he spoke, desperate, “when I would be forced to choose and forced to answer for what I’ve done. But maybe before that, I will have to go away to protect you. I’ll do anything to protect you, even from myself.”

“You must be thinking that I’m desperate because I have nobody else,” Innocence said after a moment of silence. “But I’m not. I just…” he stopped himself as if he wanted to say something and then thought better of it. “Just don’t go. Please.”

Roy slid his hand down Innocence’s spine, feeling every ridge of the bones. “I can’t promise anything. I’m sorry, Innocence.”

Innocence was silent again, then pulled back, not meeting Roy’s eyes, and moved to lie down on the bed, facing the wall. “Okay,” he whispered.

Roy’s heart was ready to shatter, he wanted to apologize for everything, but it was futile and couldn’t make things better. Then he reached out to Innocence’s jacket that was hanging on the hook in the wall, just over the bed. Roy rummaged through the many pockets, found the thing he was looking for and, clenching it in his fist, crouched near the head of Innocence’s bed.

He put the thing under the pillow, and a hand immediately reached under it. “Wind said it could protect you. So let it protect your dreams.”

It was the bone triangle with the whale and Roy feared that Innocence would reject it.

But Innocence didn’t. “Will you stay with me, too? At least for tonight.”

Roy smiled, relieved, and tugged the blanket Innocence was under up to the warm shoulder. “Of course.”

He turned, sitting on the floor with his back leaning on the bed. Even from that position he could feel the heat emanating from Innocence.

***

He waited until Innocence’s breathing evened out, and got to his feet, hissing at stiffed joints.

It was well past midnight. Roy looked at Innocence and assured himself that he was asleep.

He put on his jacket but didn’t button it and walked to the mess hall to discover that the kitchen part of it was occupied. A small lamp was alight on the counter, but only served to make darkness thicker. Joane was sitting at the table, a cup in her hands, looking into empty space.

“You should be sleeping,” he said quietly, going to the kettle and checking it. It was almost full and still warm, and he poured himself tea from a small tea pot and added warm water.

Joane’s gaze followed him when he went to the table and sat opposite of her.

“There is too much to do, and I’m too nervous to get to sleep,” she said, her voice hoarse. “We loaded the truck, and it’s good that everything Tenacity wanted was in the storeroom. We can set on the road in the morning with no problems.”

Roy nodded and tasted the tea. It was thick, the sour taste sharper now, and Roy missed Innocence’s refreshing herbs. “How much people will you take?”

“Only two, Mary and me.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Really? That’s enough for you?”

She nodded, then shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t really know what’s waiting for us there, and I can’t ask anyone from my team to take the risk and go with us.”

“But you asked us,” Roy pointed out.

“And you agreed to go.”

He snorted but didn’t say anything.

They were silent, and Joane kept looking at him.

“What?”

“You’re very close with that boy.”

He frowned. “What’s your point? You have a problem?”

Joane opened her mouth, but a hand sneaked to her neck and stroke her.

“His name is Innocence,” sounded Mary’s voice. “And he is Roy’s apprentice.”

Roy didn’t hear her steps. She had obviously rouse from the bed, because her hair was a mess and she was in a dark-blue nightgown.

She bent over and kissed Joane on the cheek. “He is right. You should sleep.”

“I can’t sleep like this, you know it,” Joane replied with a tenderness in her voice. She looked upwards into Mary’s eyes and smiled. “I’ll sleep in the truck.”

Mary squeezed her shoulder. “We still have a few hours before the sunrise, if you want to do something.” She disappeared into the darkness.

Roy almost choked on his tea and smirked at how Joane’s face heated up. “She knows her way around people, doesn’t she?” he said.

“Yes, she does,” Joane nodded.

Her hand was twitchy, brushing the rim of the cup, then she nodded to herself and got up. “I’m going to try to lie down. Good night, Roy.”

Roy saluted with his tea, shaking his head a little. He suspected Joane and Mary wouldn’t be sleeping for the few remaining hours.

Nursing the cup in his hands, he was thinking about nothing in particular, when someone else entered the room. Roy blinked at Tenacity, who in reply blinked at him, clad only in the baggy pants.

Roy got up and went to the kettle. It was already cold. He refilled it and put it on the stove.

“Why are you not asleep?” he asked then added, looking at the headhunter, “Want tea?”

Tenacity nodded.

They waited for the water to boil, then Roy filled two cups. He handed one to Tenacity and sat perched on the counter.

Tenacity straddled a chair. He looked disheveled, worn, and thoughtful.

“I could ask you the same.”

Roy shrugged. “Innocence had nightmares. I can’t sleep when he has nightmares.”

“Ah, you’re guarding him.” Tenacity lifted the cup to his mouth, and his eyes twinkled with laughter. “Would you protect me from nightmares, too?”

“Only in your dreams,” Roy grumbled. He remembered how he had held Innocence in his arms, pressing him to his chest, and imagined holding Tenacity like this. To his horror, he discovered that the feelings it evoked in him weren’t that different from when he had Innocence on his lap.

To shake this revelation off, he took a gulp of his tea and gasped as he burnt his tongue.

Tenacity was smirking.

“But he’s protecting me from my own demons,” Roy said to distract Tenacity.

“Whatever it is you’re thinking, he needs you.” Tenacity reached out and put a palm on Roy’s arm, warm and big. “He needs not only your protection, he is very capable of standing up for himself, but he needs you, Roy.”

He nudged Tenacity leg with the sole of his bare foot. “Someday he’s going to see that I’m not a hero.”

“He knows you already, everything about you, better than you know yourself.”

Roy shook his head. “Maybe. I fear… I fear that one day my true self comes to surface again, the killer, the murderer. And he would reject me for good.”

“He is a killer, too,” Tenacity said quietly. “And he knows it. And I am a killer, like you both. But that’s not all what we are. He is still Innocence, the person you—”

“Don’t,” he croaked, voice tight, just this short of pleading. “Just… don’t say it aloud.”

“You…” Tenacity’s eyes widened, and Roy turned his gaze to the floor. “You are afraid of it,” the headhunter said at last, incredulously.

He snorted. “I am.” He rubbed his face, sighing. “I don’t know what to think or what to do. Everything’s a mess. I was supposed to die in a gutter, knifed in a back alley, or hunted down by my fellow Technomancers and put down like a mad dog. Or maybe go completely nuts. I don’t deserve any of this,” he gestured around, meaning Innocence, meaning the house at New Life, meaning… everything. “And some day it all would be taken away from me.”

“It won’t be taken away.” A hard hand squeezed his knee. “Not when I can help it. You deserve this, you deserve good life.”

“Yeah,” he snorted again, trying to ease the tension, “and instead I am driving with a crazy lady halfway around the globe to find nobody knows what.”

“Well,” Tenacity grinned. “At least we’re having fun, and I must say that the sights at the Big O are amazing, you’re going to love it.”

Roy huffed. “And no sign of civilization in days around.”

“Where did you see a civilized place on this piece of rock? There is only sand, my friend, and let’s drink our tea while we still can.”

Roy smiled, and they saluted to each other with their cups.

“You sure you don’t want to sleep more?” He frowned at the headhunter.

Tenacity shrugged. “I’m fine. Besides, you don’t need me to drive until we get to Medusae.”

“And where is Temperance?” Roy took their cups, already emptied, and wash them in the sink.

“Is sleeping in the bed assigned to me.”

He looked at the headhunter. “I don’t think Joane would be pleased to know about it.”

“He’s a clean dog. I washed him in the shower before going to bed.”

Roy tried to imagine Tenacity washing the big hound in the tight space of the shower, and his mind shortcircuited right away. He shook his head and turned off the water.

“I thought hounds don’t like water.”

“Well. They don’t need to be washed that frequently, and don’t need as much water to drink as we do, but they love it all the same.”

He grinned at Tenacity. “Whatever you say, Old Hound.”

The headhunter moved towards him, but then turned his gaze to the window. “It’s sunrise already.”

Roy walked towards it and opened the blinds. The window was facing east, and a line of blue and light was peeking over the top of the crater.

“I should make a breakfast,” he said, then turned to Tenacity. “Go and wake Innocence, will you?”

“Yes, sir.” Tenacity got to his feet with a smirk, then, going past Roy, put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “Everything’s going to be fine.”

He could only nod.

***

Joane and Mary, crispy-clean, walked into the kitchen first. Mary helped Roy make the breakfast, and they chatted as they made it, speaking about Shadowlair, and Green Hope, and the war, though they avoided — by the unspoken agreement — talking about the Camp 19. Joane was busy making notes in a small journal wrapped in thick leather.

Innocence and Tenacity came after them, but first Roy heard Temperance’s trotting on the floor. The hound was chirring, nudged Joane on her shoulder, earning himself a glare from her, then rubbed his side at Mary and received a pat and a smile.

Temperance tickled Roy with his antennae, and Roy laughed and gave the hound his breakfast, a whole molesteak.

Innocence was quiet, probably still under the bad spell of the nightmare, but then he raised his head and saw Roy, and a smile brightened his face.

“Good morning,” Innocence said quietly, and for a moment, Roy could feel as if they were the only ones in the room.

“Good morning,” he nodded.

Roy caught Tenacity looking at them with a smirk, and coughed, hiding his embarrassment, and turned to the kitchen to give everyone their breakfast.

After the breakfast Joane looked at her watch and said it was time to go.

Roy went with Innocence to quickly pack their bags, put on his scarf and jacket, then wrapped a scarf around Innocence’s neck. He could tell that Innocence was excited, bubbling with energy, the shadow of the nightmare completely gone, and Roy could feel it channeling into him, too, electrifying him.

He smoothed Innocence’s hair, grown out so much that it covered his ears. “I like it,” he said before his mind could catch up. “Your hair, I mean, this long.”

Color rushed to Innocence’s cheeks, and Innocence turned his gaze to the floor, fumbling with the scarf Roy had just wrapped, red and bright. “Th-thank you, Roy.”

He snorted and ruffled the smoothed hair. “We’ll cut it if you want.”

“O-okay.” Innocence waited for something, shifting from foot to foot, then moved quickly and hugged him, then took his bag from the floor and ran away.

It took some time for Roy to stop grinning like an idiot.

It was good. Everything was good.

They met near the purring truck. Temperance was already inside. Roy got in first, then helped Innocence and Mary. Joane was the last. She simply closed the main door to the base and went back to them.

They didn’t head to the main gates leading out of the crater. Instead, they circled the base itself to the small station.

The train was already waiting for them. It consisted only of single control car and a flatcar for the truck. They would spend all six days of the trip to the mountain in the truck, sleeping, walking around. Though Joane had promised a few stops, they had to be brief.

That meant no actual cooked food, only dried meat, dried bread and dried vegetables.

Joane had brought surprisingly little of equipment with her. She had said, it wasn’t worth it, bringing a big team and a load of precious tools. The mission was to recon the mountain and the ancient complex — if it even existed, — and if her theories and assumptions would prove true, she would gather a proper expedition later.

And if something happened to them, Joane’s team wouldn’t lose their precious tools.

Nobody knew what could happen.

Tenacity said that only few people in their right mind would go so far to the area near the big mountain, there were no human settlements in days around, no sources of water. Wild drilling worms traveled between the Three Peaks and Olympus, and the headhunter had seen some of them, but even wormhunters wouldn’t go so far, because there were more convenient places to hunt the worms.

And of course, there were stories of empty towns and ghost figures and devils roaming the desert plains. Roy had heard plenty of them in his time, in bars and villages, from the people too drunk and too afraid. But if nobody ever went to the area, how could people know about those things? These were just scary stories people made up. There were enough dangers and horrors without ghosts.

When the headhunter moved the truck up the ramp onto the flatcar, then he and Roy together fixed the machine in place. The ride was supposed to be fast, so they had to make sure the truck wouldn’t move along the way.

Roy was sure he would die of boredom. He would have practiced Technomancy with Mary, but there was precious little space in the back of the truck, now that it was crammed full of supplies. They were ready to spend at least four weeks on their own, although Roy still hoped they would find packs of moles and add fresh meat to their rations.

Tenacity admitted that he hadn’t seen moles those times he had been in the area, but he had no hounds then, and Temperance was trained to hunt for moles, among other things, and so if they wouldn’t find moles, maybe the hound would.

Roy considered the worms, too. He had never thought how worm meat would taste like. He hoped they wouldn’t have to know.

The train jerked and groaned and began quickly gaining speed.

Roy went into the back of the truck.

They had opened the blinds here. The winter was coming closer fast, and Roy hoped they would finish the mission before it would become too cold in the northern hemisphere.

Innocence was seated on one of the crates with dried vegetables, his journal on his lap. The movement of the train was smooth now, and it allowed Innocence to write and draw. Roy leaned on one of the tall water canisters, his arms crossed over his chest, looking at Innocence.

Joane approached Innocence and sat on the nearby crates.

Roy stiffened as she began asking Innocence about his past, and Aurora, and Shadowlair, and the last days of the war, the days of Abundance’s defeat, and General Honour’s rising to power, and death of Dowser Wisdom. At first Innocence was hesitant, but her questions were polite and never touched upon the most sensitive subjects, like Innocence’s war experience or his parents, or how he ended up being so tied with Roy.

Mary was nearby, listening closely, and Roy trusted her to stop Joane.

He went into the cabin.

There was no need in a driver, but Tenacity was on his seat, his arms resting on the steering wheel. Roy took a seat, too. The plains moved past them in a blur, and only distant mountains seemed to creep ever so slowly.

These were Ultimum lands, but they didn’t seem inhabited, and for a moment, Roy felt so alien, looking at Mars, at the vastness and the scales, and it wasn’t welcoming, never had been, with its heat and radiation and dangerous animals, the few that had been there.

It was said that on Earth there were thousands of different animals, those that could fly, those that could swim in water. Roy thought about the small carving on the bone that supposedly depicted one of such creatures.

Maybe there were other creatures on Mars, but Roy had only seen hounds and moles and drilling worms in his life, and he had moved around a lot. Maybe Mars didn’t want humans to find the animals.

If people really had come from Earth… Roy couldn’t imagine why somebody would want Mars, if the stories about how Earth looked like were true. Give up green and water and animals to go here, with the sandstorms and barely enough water and no crops? No sane person would do it.

The legends were that it wasn’t always like that on Mars. Before the Turmoil, it was good, no less than Earth itself. And there was water, plenty of it. They said it even fell from the sky, and it had been called “rain”.

He couldn’t imagine water falling from the sky.

He couldn’t imagine these plains being full of life.

And yet, there was wild, savage beauty to it, the emptiness, the harshness. Mars didn’t forgive anything, and humans could only hide in their towns, huddle together, try to survive. Mars was the only master here, and nobody could tame this planet.

Humans had tried to do it and failed.

And they were moving to hunt the secrets of Mars.

Chapter Text

I haven’t slept since I saw him, not for an hour. I’m driving and driving and driving, making short stops in the night. I take a short walk, embracing the darkness, feeling its fingers on my skin. Such silence! And in this silence, if I close my eyes, I can hear Mars breathing.

I return to the truck, and there is a bone triangle waiting for me, always, regardless of where I have left it. I touch it, tracing the faint lines of the carved whale, and it fills me with energy. It’s not the same bone we have found in the Flammarion site. The whale changes position every night and he has eyes as dark as cosmos, and filled with stars. It sings to me the songs of old, and I catch myself humming then while I’m driving.

I don’t sleep, I don’t eat, I don’t drink.

Only me, Mars and the whale, watching, watching.

I’m going into the darkness.

Chapter Text

A few hours later Innocence touched Roy’s shoulder and offered to eat. Dried meat was not the most wonderful thing, but it had to do.

Joane was asleep, her head on Mary’s lap, and Mary herself was leaning on one of the canisters. She didn’t seem uncomfortable sitting on the floor and sleeping in this position.

Despite Roy’s foul thoughts, time moved fast, and as he went back to the cabin, they were moving into the darkness of the night. It waited for them like the great unknown.

When they turned on a lamp over the driver’s seat, Roy sent Tenacity into the back and said to Temperance that Tenacity had to sleep. The hound followed the headhunter and didn’t stop chirring insistently until Tenacity gave up, spread the bedroll, and lay down. They didn’t turn off the engines entirely so that it wouldn’t get cold in the truck, but Tenacity didn’t spread the bedroll into a blanket.

Joane and Mary moved into the bedrolls, too, and Roy smiled at Joane who cuddled with Mary.

Innocence was sitting on the crate, the journal already closed in his hands, looking into the window. It was pitch black outside, and Roy told Innocence that it was time to sleep.

He was dozing off himself, lulled by the movement of the train, and they put their bedrolls onto the floor, side to side. Since they didn’t have any plans for the next day, they could sleep in, and it was the good thing.

Roy turned off all lamps leaving only one in the cabin and one lamp in the back, and then lay down between already snoring Tenacity and Innocence who curled up in his bedroll. They both, as if they had discussed it beforehand, rolled closer to him from both sides, the bulk of the headhunter’s body and Innocence’s heat.

And he didn’t wish to shove them away.

Innocence laid his head on his shoulder, and Tenacity tucked his face into the crook of his neck, making Roy angle his head awkwardly, but they were warm, and so very alive, and he fell asleep with that thought.

***

Roy was going restless. Near the nightfall on the third day they made a stop and went out to stretch their legs. It was darkening fast, and quite cold after the warmth of the truck, but Roy enjoyed it nonetheless.

Temperance chirred happily, running around but never going too far, and Roy, smirking, started to chase the dog. After that they ate dried meat with bread, looking at the stars bright and high in the dark sky. Tenacity was teaching Innocence the names of constellations.

Joane returned from the control car and said they were moving even faster than they had planned before, because the railway was in surprisingly good condition. It was possible that their train trip would be cut down to five days instead of six.

Roy was all the more happy.

Joane joined Tenacity and Innocence, looking at the sky, and pointed at Earth. It was not more than a small bleak dot, a weak flame in the darkness, so pale compared to other stars.

Roy had been occupying himself with writing these days. He tried to recall all songs he knew and write down as much of them as he could remember. Some of them came easily, some were just a melody with words faded in his memory. Sometimes he could only recall a verse or two and no more.

He hummed under his breath to remember the songs, and noticed how Tenacity or Innocence looked at him, listening intently.

He promised to himself that after the mission to Olympus he would sing to them. Before he vanishes, leaving them once and for all.

At the dawn of the fifth day they entered a canyon. The walls of it towered around them, steep and intimidating. Roy called Innocence into the cabin. “Look at the walls!”

Innocence, yawning, propped himself on the seat and looked out of the window. “What are those stripes? It is as if they were carved. Are those a pre-Turmoil formations?”

Roy smiled. “No, it’s only the wind. It blows away soft sand and stone, and only the hardest rock remains, and it carves these claw-marks to show that it’s the only master here. These are called yardangs.”

“Yeah,” sounded Tenacity who was at the driver’s place, “and if you look at them from afar, they are like vertebrae of a giant beast. Wormhunters say that yardangs are protruding bones of Mars.”

Innocence watched the moving walls with parallel claw-like marks that were kilometers long. “Or maybe they are bones of the Medusa. This place is called Medusae Fossae, right?”

Tenacity nodded.

Roy frowned. “What is the Medusa?”

“A monster who could turn living things into stone with her gaze. It’s an old Earthen legend…” Innocence trailed off and lowered his head.

Roy put a hand on his shoulder. Innocence probably learned about the legend from his parents or the books they had. “Hey, you okay?”

Innocence shook his head and tried to smile. “Yes, Roy, it’s nothing. This place is called ‘Medusae’, so I suddenly remembered the legend about that monster, and maybe these, these yadrangs…”

“Yardangs,” Roy corrected him with a smile.

“Yardangs, yes. Maybe these are remains of a giant creature that Medusa has turned into stone. But in truth, I like wormhunters’ version more.”

Roy laughed. “Yeah, me, too. It’s frightening to think that there is a creature that can turn everyone into stone.”

“Actually,” said Joane, leaning over the back of Roy’s seat, “we know only a small fraction of things about Mars. I don’t think these rocks are bones or something like that, but most probably, there were giant animals on Mars.”

“Then another question arises. What could have caused their extinction?” asked Tenacity.

“A cataclysm. Something like the one that had lead to the Turmoil. Something big. I don’t know. It’s hard to go on expeditions when the governments won’t cooperate. The guys leading two major Guilds don’t care about any of this, it’s good enough that they allow us free pass through their territory. Silver Peane, too, doesn’t want to know anything that doesn’t lead to immediate success, although I must admit they financed a few expeditions before.”

Near dusk the train got to a halt at last.

Hopping out of the truck, Roy saw that they stopped at a ragged station, a simple slab of stone shorter than even the control car. Wind left its claw marks on its surface, like it wanted to turn it into a yardang, too.

One of the doors in the control car slid to the side, and a woman hopped onto the platform, drowning in the thicket of sand nearly to the middle of her calves. She cursed, tugging her boots out of the sand, and jogged to the end of the platform, as close to the truck as she could get.

She had a lovely face and even more lovely greenish eyes, and her vest was worn-out and dirty. She waved at Roy, and her skin was the color of brown rock walls surrounding them. “That’s all, guys, the final stop!” she yelled. “Move your monster, the train can’t go further.”

Roy waved back and went to help Tenacity to get the truck down from the flatcar. Innocence and Mary was lowering the ramp, and Joane went to the control car.

Tenacity moved the truck down the ramp. The sand was thick here, and Roy hoped that the truck would not get stuck in it.

He was glad to get out, although he couldn’t properly flex his legs because of the thick sand that sucked his boots in, but it was better than being confined in the tight space.

It was quite warm in here, and the smell of sun-cooked rock was thick and pure. Roy jogged into the shadow cast from on of the walls of the Medusae Fossae, watching Tenacity easing the truck and then turning it to face eastwards.

Joane appeared on the flatcar and helped Innocence and Mary to get the ramp back up. Then they loaded back into the truck.

The train began moving backwards. It got back for a few meters until it reached the circle on the railroad where it turned the right way, and the Fossae swallowed the train.

***

They drove along the old railroad to go out of Medusae Fossae. There were a few turns in the canyon to the left and right, but the railroad went on and on to the east.

Many times they lost the sight of the rails under the thick blanket of sand, but something — a lamppost, remains of a platform, rusty rails themselves, twisted and protruding from under the sand like broken carcass of a dead animal, — showed them the right way.

By the time the sun was setting behind their backs, they drove out of the Fossae and turned north-east.

Innocence got up slightly in his seat and pointed to the horizon. “There are mountains ahead!”

Tenacity chuckled beside him, speeding the truck some more. “No, Innocence, those are not mountains. That is a mountain, the mountain. Olympus, big and mighty!”

Innocence shook his head in disbelief.

True, it was hard to believe it. A dark shadow the color of old rust dominated the horizon, far away, but unmistakable. It was almost horizon-wide, the summit disappearing in the sky. From tales and stories Roy knew that it was so tall that it pierced the atmosphere.

Days away, it was already towering over them — an ancient giant.

“At least we won’t get lost,” Roy noticed. “Do we know where exactly we have to enter the… whatever we’re going to enter?”

Tenacity nodded. “Joane gave instructions, and I hope I’ll be able to find it.”

It was hard to navigate here. Unlike the terrain in Aurora or Abundance territory, the ground here was almost absolutely flat, only the mighty mountain dominated the view, and apart from rocks and dunes of sand, there was nothing to put your eyes on.

The truck was moving easy and fast here, and rosed clouds of sand. If anybody wanted to hunt them down, Roy thought grimly, it wouldn’t take much effort to find their trace.

He looked out of the window. Sand was flowing from the crest of one dune into the valley between the dunes and then up another crest. The wind was horrifyingly strong. Maybe their trace would be covered.

They decided to make a stop for the night so that they all could sleep — and Roy firmly stated that he would watch over them for the whole night — and then Tenacity and Innocence would start driving in shifts without any more stops. Mary asked to teach her to drive, and the headhunter agreed to do it during the day.

They stopped near one of the rocks, and was wide enough to provide some shelter. After dark the wind calmed down, and it was getting cold fast.

Roy took Tenacity and Temperance for a hunt, but they didn’t manage to find anything. Temperance whined and didn’t accept food until Innocence reassured him that it wasn’t his fault. Tenacity turned on the inner heating as they accommodated for the night.

Temperance jogged with Roy outside, but Innocence refused to let Roy go until Roy put on a cloak. It was heavy and smelled of dust, but it provided good protection from blowing wind. Walking around the truck, Roy got warm. He didn’t put warm gloves on, though, leaving his Technomantic glove open, just in case.

It was quiet, that night, and Roy listened to the song of wind and whisper of moving sand around him, and he hoped that every night would be like that.

The air was dry and freezing cold just before the dawn. Tenacity went out and guided Roy inside the truck, and someone — Mary, probably, — shoved a steaming cup with blessed hot tea into his hands, and then he was lowered on his bedroll, buried under the pile of blankets and with Temperance warming his side.

He woke up to a distant chatter, his head pounding from dehydration and his tongue thick in his mouth. He dug himself out from the messy pile of blankets and drank from the nearby cistern. He threw a glance at the cabin and found Mary on the driver place, Tenacity near her, supervising. Joane was standing behind Mary, probably saying something encouraging. Innocence was on the leftmost seat.

Deciding that all is good, Roy got back to sleeping.

Tenacity drove at nights, and Roy stayed with him for a few hours, then went to the back, and Innocence draped himself all over him. Then, when they changed early in the morning, Roy woke up with Tenacity breathing into the back of his neck, and Roy couldn’t get himself to stand up.

***

On the third day Roy was good and well-rested. He was chatting with Innocence who was driving, and Tenacity, joking, sharing stories and legends from the past. Tenacity was a treasure holder of different stories, and he was a good story-teller, too.

At first, he didn’t feel it, and when it started, he thought it was vibration of the truck and the purring of the engines. But then it got louder, sounding in short bursts unlike the constant rumble of the engines.

They all fell silent.

Temperance chirred behind them. He was looking at the window to their left, beside Tenacity, his antennae moving restlessly.

“What is it, boy?” Tenacity asked, his eyes wary.

There was a hill Roy didn’t notice before.

And it was moving forward — parallel to the truck and against the wind.

They heard the rumble again — and a wail that cracked the sky. The ground shook, and to their left, in front of the “hill” the sand got sucked downward, and two dark tendrils appeared. The sky cracked again.

“It’s a drilling worm!” Innocence cried out, half in awe, half in fear.

The beast appeared on the surface, its tendrils working to crush the ground before it. They could see only the back of the beast, dark-violet and dusty. It was moving so fast that it was going level with the truck. Then it wailed again and dove into the ground once more. The cracks turned north, the sand seeping into them.

It all happened in ten seconds.

They all stared in silence.

“I didn’t know they are so fast,” Roy managed at last. “And that big. The tendrils are three times the length of this truck, I think. The one I fought was way smaller.”

“Maybe it’s because nobody hunts them here,” said Tenacity thoughtfully.

“Maybe this one is not even that big,” Innocence added.

They all sat in silence for a few moments.

“I only hope that they won’t hunt us,” Roy said at last.

***

On the fifth day of their road trip the mountain was the only thing they could see in front of them. It was just after the dawn, and blue haze was moving at the foot of the mountain.

Tenacity was driving the truck, and Joane sat near him, voicing directions.

The mountain was yellowish-red, and old, very old. Roy had an unnerving feeling that it was alive, too, a slumbering giant that could wake up at any moment. It was silent around them, even the wind calmed, bowing before the old colossus.

Roy raised his head, but couldn’t see the summit.

Joane leaned forward, looking closely at the giant mountain, then pointed at something. “Move there, please!”

Roy, standing behind Tenacity’s seat, could see a dark crack in the wall of the mountain — a stark contract on the body of the mountain.

It took them half an hour to get there, and what looked like a small crack now towered before them, taller than anything artificial Roy had ever seen. It was pitch black inside it.

“I guess we should go look,” he muttered.

“I could drive inside,” said Tenacity, “but I better not risk getting stuck in there.”

Roy had a strange feeling he couldn’t decipher, the feeling of unease that was getting more bothering when he looked at the sharp uneven edges of the crack, like a mouth full of teeth, but they had to go, they promised Joane. “I think we should split—”

“No,” said Tenacity firmly. He looked up at Roy, gray-blue eyes relentless. “There is no reason for someone to stay in the truck with no-one around to steal it or do anything likewise. We go together.”

Roy thought about it then nodded. “Okay. We scout the ground, see what we can find there, then get back for any supplies or tools if there’s need for them.”

Tenacity killed the engines. Innocence handed Roy a nailgun, holding a nailrifle in his own hands.

Roy looked at him, then said, “Be careful, okay?”

Blue eyes studied him, then Innocence nodded. “I will. I promise, Roy.”

He smiled and ruffled Innocence’s hair, then righted Innocence’s scarf.

“Come on, guys, let’s do this!” Tenacity called, going past them with his crossrifle already on his back.

They hopped out of the truck. Joane was holding a nailgun adorned with green helices. Mary only had Technomantic gloves on, her fingers already half-curled, ready to send electro-arcs to any enemy.

Roy tugged at his own glove. “Let’s go.”

Tenacity sent Temperance ahead of them, and the hound trotted forward, turning his head from side to side. He didn’t seem disturbed by the dark crack in the wall like Roy was, but the hound was cautious nonetheless.

The lack of sound bothered Roy, and he fell into step with Tenacity. Joane was behind them and Mary and Innocence were in the rear. Roy would prefer Innocence closer to him, but they needed one shooter and one Technomancer guarding the front and the rear, so that was it. Roy doubted Joane had as much training as Innocence had had during his time on the war.

Roy looked threw a glance upwards, and his head spun with how terrifyingly huge Olympus was.

Temperance dove into the darkness with wary ease. A gush of cold wind slapped Roy across the face, bringing a smell of something unusual, like electricity and old metal, sour and stingy. Roy exchanged glances with Tenacity and went after the dog.

He almost moaned in frustration when he saw a seamless wall of dark metal, but then the ground shook and the metal made a screaming, almost human sound and parted, two halves of it sliding right into the rock of the mountain.

Behind the gates was a big cave, the dome smooth and glistering from the lights the team turned on. Most of the space was dominated a big humming machine with wide black cylinder in the center of the cave. Roy spotted two doors, leading to the right and left.

Joane strode to the machine and began fussing over it. The hum became a low purr. “It’s working…” Joane breathed out.

Like stars in the night sky, lights were flickering to life along the main console of the machine. Then the square of screen in the middle of it changed from darkness to dimmed white, and words and letters started to run from the bottom to the top.

Joane bent over it, tapping here and there. She laughed. “It’s a treasure unlike anything else, and it’s working!” Her eyes, bright with laughter and joy, were running from one thing to another, deft fingers flying over the console.

“What is it?” Roy bent over the machine, too.

“It’s a treasure,” she repeated, breathless.

He chuckled. “Yeah, I got that. But what kind of treasure?” He eyed the lights and switches and buttons. Some had words written under them, but Roy didn’t recognize the language.

Joane was silent for a moment, scanning the screen, then her eyes widened. “All kinds of treasure… It’s from the first colonists, as I predicted it. And it seems they had thought out it thoroughly.” Another pause. “Oh God… They’d brought plants and animals here. I don’t even know what those plants are, but there is information about them, how to tend, to grow, to breed, to harvest... So many of them, plants and seeds!”

“Where is it all?” Tenacity asked, getting closer, too.

“I don’t know, maybe it’s just what they planned to bring but never had— Wait, there is a seed storage. It’s…” She put coordinates on the screen.

“It’s under the Three Peaks,” said Tenacity, nodding.

“This is invaluable. I should call for Anor’s group, they’d kill for the storage.”

“What about animals?”

She tried to pry more information out of the machine, but shook her head. “I don’t know. Maybe they didn’t have time to bring them here. There’s nothing in particular about them.” She worked more, then let out a long and flowery string of curses.

“What?” Roy croaked, clenching his left fist.

“This is… This is just how I imagined it.” Joane lowered her head, then pushed herself back from the terminal, and crossed her arms over her chest.

She seemed lost in thoughts for a while. “I was right,” she nodded to herself and gestured around. “This whole structure is a part of a giant complex. It was built by the colonists. It’s big, and I mean, planetary-scale big. Essentially, there are two rings that are placed just under the surface of Mars, one under the equator, and one going through the poles. As I understand it, the atmosphere and magnetic field were unstable when the colonists had gotten here, so they built these rings to stabilize it.”

“A huge conductor.” Roy bent over the machine and looked at the screen. It presented an image of the planet with blue coordinate grid. Two rings encompassed the planet, tinted with golden yellow. “But the conductors must be wired to a generator,” he added.

“Yes, and apparently, there is a generator.” Joane pressed on the screen, and two points, one green and located on the intersection of the equator ring and the pole ring, and one red, on near the north pole.

“Two generators.”

“Yes…” Joane sounded distracted, reading data and text at her side of the screen. “Shit, it’s bad.”

“What is it?” said Innocence.

He was trying to take a look at the screen, and Roy moved to the side and pulled him by his arm. “Come here.”

Innocence hesitantly stepped forward to the machine, and Roy hovered behind him, his hands on Innocence’s shoulders and his chin resting on the crown of his head.

“The thing is,” said Joane, “that the impact event that had led to the Turmoil disturbed one of the generators.” She pointed at the red icon. “This one, on the north pole. That’s why the atmosphere gets more unstable when you go farther and farther from the equator. The equator generator was damaged, too, but it’s still working, albeit ‘hiccuping’ from time to time. The colonists had a monitoring system—”

“Yeah, if the colonists are even real,” Tenacity mumbled.

“What do you mean by that?” Mary spoke for the first time since they arrived here.

“Aw, come on, guys,” the headhunter drawled. “Don’t tell me you’ve never questioned it. The tales about us coming from Earth… I mean, nobody’s even sure why the Turmoil happened! I get it,” Tenacity raised his hands when Joane opened her mouth, “’the impact event’, but that’s just your theory. And do we have a solid proof that there were colonists here?”

Joane gestured to the humming machine. “Is this proof not solid enough for you?”

“No,” Tenacity shook his head. “This might be just an experiment someone is playing on us, or, you know… Just tales. To justify the governance of the Guilds. All proof we have is tunnels and piles of junk metal we call Relics. And this machine, showing us the data about seed storage and a conductor the size of the planet equator. Why don’t we have anything else? Not even the tales of how exactly we got here!”

Roy walked to Tenacity and put a hand on his shoulder. “Look, Old Hound, what we have here is a huge complex of tunnels, yes. But we haven’t explored it fully yet, and there might be even more proof of Joane’s theories, of the old tales, what have you. Maybe even a ship or something. But right now the important thing is, we possibly have a storage that can solve the food issue, and something that can stabilize the atmosphere. Or not?” He frowned, remembering what Joane had been saying before Tenacity interrupted her. “What that monitoring system was made for?”

His heart froze when he saw how Joane paled.

“Joane?” he called quietly.

“There is a solar storm coming,” she spoke, clutching the edge of the machine. “Just like I said before. And with unstable equatorial generator and without the polar generator…” she trailed off, shaking her head.

“The atmosphere won’t last,” finished Innocence. “It will be blow away completely, am I right?” He looked at Joane, and she nodded.

“I don’t understand what we can do,” Tenacity grumbled. “It’s a tech we don’t really understand and tinkering with it…” He waved dismissively. “Besides, can we really fix it?”

Joane shook her head slowly. “I don’t know. The readings here don’t tell me much about the polar generator. The only thing is certain — it’s not working.”

“A-are you sure about the storm?” asked Innocence.

She shrugged. “It will happen, eventually, now or some time later. In any case, Mars is doomed. Humans on Mars are doomed for sure. We can sit and wait, maybe try to forget the whole thing…”

“Or we can try to do something,” said Mary. “We should at least try to see what happened to the north generator.”

“You are all insane,” Tenacity snorted. “The polar area is uninhabitable, most likely radioactive.” He paused. “How are we going to get there?”

Joane turned to the screen again. “It is said that there is underground network of trains connecting the generators. It’s going parallel to the rings. But it seems that part of the tunnel had been blocked. There is no energy along the line.”

“Then the only way is traveling on the surface,” Roy said, scratching his chin thoughtfully.

Tenacity cocked his head to the side.“You are going there?”

He shrugged. “Worth a try, I think. Maybe the radiation is not that bad. And considering that Mary and I are Technomancers, with added Joane’s knowledge… Maybe we can do something to fix the generator. Only that…”

He turned to Innocence and opened his mouth, but Innocence talked over him. “I’m going, too.”

Roy sighed. “Look, I don’t want you to—”

“I. Am. Going. Too.” Innocence’s hands balled into fists.

It seemed that there was no point in arguing. Roy sighed. “Okay. But you will listen to me, okay?”

Innocence beamed. “Okay, Roy.”

He only shook his head.

Temperance went to Tenacity and chirred, rubbing his side against the headhunter. “Well, it seems we have to go, too, pal,” Tenacity grumbled. “It’s near winter, and it’s going to be cold up north, real cold.”

“How do you know?” asked Joane.

Tenacity turned to her, and his gaze was daggers and nails. “I know what I’m talking about, lady. I’ve been far north enough to know what real cold is. And I assume you want to go right now?”

Joane nodded. “No point in delaying it. Besides, conditions are worsening…”

“They are,” the headhunter nodded.

“Do we have enough supplies, though?” Innocence asked.

“We have to be careful and spend it sparingly,” Tenacity answered. “Search this complex to find everything we can. I have warm clothes in the truck and we have heating inside, and water is just enough to get us directly to the north, and if we use it carefully, it would be enough to get back. Up until the ocean we have an opportunity to hunt, but I wouldn’t rely on that. So, all in all, I have to say, yes, we can go now.”

“We would lose too much time if we go back to my base to resupply,” Joane said. “And Aurora—”

“Is not an option,” Roy shook his head. “They’d arrest us the moment we step on the territory of the Guild. Not to mention that they could possibly be seeking for me or Tenacity. I wouldn’t risk that.”

“There is an ocean?” asked Mary. “I have never heard of one.”

“Yeah, according to old tales, there had been an ocean up north,” Tenacity said, “but during the Turmoil — or some time after it — it froze.”

“There is no way we can make it liquid again?” Innocence asked. “Is it big? We could have solved the thirst problem, too.”

Tenacity shook his head. “It’s probably radioactive anyway.”

“Speaking of which, how are we going to protect ourselves?” Roy asked

“We can’t,” Joane said. “But the radiation is not so bad as people usually think. At least, we can test it.”

“Or die trying,” Tenacity grumbled.

“But at least do something,” Innocence added.

Tenacity looked at him, then nodded. “Yeah. Do something.” He looked odd, thoughtful, and Roy reminded himself to confront him about it. And try to talk Innocence out of going with them… But come to think of it, how could he leave Innocence? How could Innocence go back, with the truck going north?

Roy guessed he had no choice other than to take Innocence with him. Unless they all go back, there was no other way.

***

Upon rummaging through the complex, Tenacity had stumbled upon a storage room. It had thick jackets of some sleek fabric nobody of them had ever seen, and it was changing color depending on how the light fall onto it. They took the jackets to the truck, along with thick blankets made of the same material. It seemed to be an emergency storage, there were packs of food — tasteless briquettes wrapped in thin foil, but they were refreshing. Even Temperance took a bite, and they decided to take it with them, too.

Together with Innocence Roy traveled through the tunnel going north, but there was no light except for their small lamps, and Roy was concerned they might fall into a cavern that could have opened during the years of desolation. The tunnel was wide enough for two trains, and there were two railroads, so Joane was right about an underground way. Only they didn’t have a train here, so it was pretty much useless, and at some point the tunnel could have collapsed. They didn’t have time to check. Besides, the gates leading into the complex weren’t big enough for their truck to fit in.

Tenacity estimated they had one day to circle Olympus, then it would take them one more day to reach the ocean. The ground was flat and even, so they could manage good speed. They decided to make one stop before going to the ocean, try to hunt moles, if luck allows. Then… nobody knew what could wait for them on the ocean.

When Roy approached Tenacity about this, the headhunter shrugged and said, that yeah, he had seen the ocean, but never went further and didn’t know anyone who did.

Just before they set on the road, Mary asked Roy to come. He stiffened and went to her. She took the card deck out of her pocket.

“New cards?” he asked, and was surprised to hear his own voice so hoarse.

She nodded. “Four again. Power, Spirit, Fortune and Knowledge.” She took out the cards. Clearly, they depicted the four Guilds: Power had the two hammers and half of the cog wheel on the red background — a symbol of Abundance; Spirit was Aurora’s symbol, a tower with rays of light emanating from a triangle, on a blue background; Fortune was depicted by silver ingot and red vines of Silver Peane; Knowledge had two entwining helices on green field, the symbol of Ultimum.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Roy asked, looking at the cards as if they could answer him.

“I don’t know,” Mary shook her head and packed the deck back again. “Do you think they are trying to warn us?”

Mary’s eyes had a shadow of fear, and Roy stroke her hair lightly. “Don’t fret about it, okay? I’ll make sure everything will be okay with you, all of you.” He smiled, though didn’t feel light in his heart.

It seemed to calm Mary, though, and she smiled back. “Alright, Roy. I trust you. Let’s go?”

“Let’s go.” He nodded, took her small hand and they both walked to the truck.

Chapter Text

The Great Labyrinth, the great mystery of Mars… Along with other mysteries, of course. Mars is a planet of mysteries, don’t you think? We have so many rumours, half-legends, half-drunk tales. We never write them down, only tell them from mouth to ear and they change and change until they lose any sense.

What had caused the Turmoil? Why the Dust look like that? Did we really come from Earth?

What lies in the Noctis Labyrinth?

Not many are courageous or desperate — or insane — enough to go here. I am not the first, but I am desperate, and maybe insane, too.

Part of the rumours is true. There is darkness here, great darkness in the depths of the Labyrinth. I can see clear sky overhead, a wide patch that is embraced by the walls of the Labyrinth. But as I look around, the darkness creeps closer and closer.

I should stop writing. Soon enough I won’t be able to see anything.

Maybe it is my final writing.

If it is, then…

I’m sorry, Aust, that nothing could happen the way I wanted it to…

I love

Chapter Text

The sun was already falling below the horizon when Tenacity started the engines once more. Roy went to check on Mary, Joane and Innocence who were settling for the night. Temperance decided to take watch near Innocence. That is, sleep beside him. The blanket they had taken from the Olympus facility had proved to be warm, and Roy used them to cover his teammates.

Tenacity had stated that he would drive during the nights. After saying goodnights Roy went to the cabin to sit with the headhunter. Tenacity turned on the headlamps, and they were lighting up the path for them.

“You don’t like it,” Roy said at last. “Why?”

Tenacity shrugged, his eyes not leaving the road. “It’s futile. We are going to die of radiation or starvation or thirst. The machine in Olympus might be lying, gone mad. Maybe there is no storm. Maybe there is no other generator, and we are going into the void.”

“And yet, you go,” Roy said quietly. He searched Tenacity’s face for any clue, a key to his thoughts, but the headhunter seemed too distant. “You could have said no, and without you and the truck, we couldn’t have gone there.”

Tenacity shrugged again. “You want to go, Innocence wants to go. And I just follow you two, that’s all.”

Like he followed Roy to Shadowlair, ditching the contract with the Technomancers who wanted Tenacity to hunt Roy.

Like he followed Roy to storm the Source.

Roy’s heart clenched, and he reached out to pat Tenacity’s left knee and frowned when the headhunter winced. “Sorry. You hurt?”

Tenacity shook his head, glancing at him for the first time since the beginning of the talk. “Just old wounds reminding of their existence.”

“You’re too old, Old Hound,” he smiled at Tenacity, trying to ease the tension and turn it into a joke.

Tenacity laughed. “Yeah. I am. And so are you.”

“I am not old,” Roy grinned and stretched on the seat. His jacket was open, and his shirt rode up, showing a sliver of skin underneath. Not only Tenacity could tease. “I’m fresh and young and new, and very handsome.”

“You keep telling yourself that,” Tenacity grumbled, but Roy caught him sneaking a glance down his torso, and smiled to himself.

He leaned back in his seat, and rolled his head to the right to study Tenacity’s face. His beard was bushy, and it made Roy envious of how it could look fresh and well-kept no matter the circumstances.

“I’m just glad you’re with us, you know?” he said quietly.

Tenacity turned to him for a brief moment, and they locked their gaze. Roy didn’t turn away.

Then Tenacity smiled and looked back at the road. “I am, too, glad to be with you, my friend.”

***

Roy woke up near the midday, stiff and groggy, but the stunning view before him turned his mood into another direction. They finally had circled Olympus, and now plains and plains of Mars were before them, undisturbed by craters or hills.

“Wow,” he breathed out, moving into upright position. “This is beautiful.”

“It is,” answered Innocence.

Roy looked at him. Innocence replaced Tenacity behind the steering wheel, and Temperance was near, with his head lowered to Innocence’s lap. Innocence looked confident, and Roy made a mental note to thank Tenacity for teaching Innocence.

“Why didn’t you wake me up?”

“You were asleep. You need sleep, Roy,” Innocence said, turning to him and smiling.

“You alright?” Roy asked. “I’m going to eat. Do you want something?”

Innocence shook his head. “No, it’s fine. Thank you.”

Roy couldn’t help himself and ruffled Innocence’s hair before going into the back.

Joane was sitting on one of the crates and scribbling in her notebook. Mary was near her, her hands gloved and tiny sparkles jumping between her palms, brows furrowed in concentration.

Tenacity occupied most of the space on the floor, curled under one of the blankets, and another blanket was folded under his head. Roy cringed at how uncomfortable it looked. He kneeled beside him and gently moved Tenacity’s head to his lap, scratching behind his ear. Tenacity muttered something, but didn’t wake up. Just like a dog, Roy thought with a smile.

“What do you think we’re going to find there?” Roy asked, carding fingers through Tenacity’s thick hair.

Joane didn’t even raised her head from her notes. “Machinery. Generator. Nothing. I don’t really know,” she said, looking at him at last. “Judging by the logs in the Olympus machine, the polar generator had been working perfectly before the incident. I hope the colonists had made some fail-safe system to get it going again, or left instructions on how to fix.”

“But if not?”

“Then I’m going to pull every string I have to fix it. Gather all the Ultimum teams, blow dust from the old agreements and have other Guilds help us. It’s for the best of everyone, after all. Even if the machine is wrong and there is no storm, it’s going to be here some time later. We must fix the magnetic field and stabilize the atmosphere. We just have no choice. Your friend,” she gestured at the headhunter lying on Roy’s lap, “is a master survivalist, and you, too, know a thing or two, I believe, so we are going to make it to the pole. And if not…” She shrugged. “I left notes for my team. They would follow us to Olympus and then to the north.”

“You are not afraid of dying!” She didn’t seem like the type, and it surprised Roy.

“I am afraid of my work being lost, but I took precautions, so it wouldn’t happen. My own life matters not when the whole Mars population is at stake. And there are people who would continue my work if I die. So no, I’m not afraid of death.” She returned to her notes.

Roy noticed that Mary had been listening to the conversation, looking at Joane with gentleness in her eyes, and he smiled.

***

They made a stop just before the sunset and had the great opportunity to witness gruff Tenacity rising from Roy’s lap. Roy had sat with him the whole time, but Tenacity didn’t comment on it, only gave Roy a lingering look, the one that Roy couldn’t decipher.

The stop was near a crumbling rock that looked out of place, like someone had forgotten it here. A big crack ran down the half of it.

“Are we near the ocean?” Joane asked.

Tenacity, for some reason looking thoughtful at Temperance, answered, “Yeah, pretty much. You don’t see it, because it’s covered with dust and sand, but if you get a broom and sweep it all away, you’d see the ice. Tons of water, but inaccessible and absolutely useless.”

Innocence looked around with longing. “Maybe we can move it from here…”

“Not a good idea,” Tenacity said. “ It’s thick, hard, and probably radioactive. Or, well, who knows what’s been marinating in it these years? You’d lose too much time on transportation and melting, and it can be completely useless.”

“You seem to know many things about it,” Mary noticed.

Tenacity dismissed it with a wave of his hand. “I’ve been to many places throughout my long life.” Then he put his crossrifle into his arms. “Temperance has sensed something. Roy, I think it’s time for a bit of hunting.”

And indeed it was. Temperance had smelled a trace of a mole pack nearby, wild younglings, hunting by themselves without a nest nearby. Temperance ran after one of the biggest ones, and they managed to kill it. They didn’t have means to preserve fresh meat for too long anyway, so they didn’t chase the others.

Roy was shivering by the time they got back to the truck with their kill. He didn’t expect it too be that cold.

“You better go inside, Roy,” Tenacity said, but he sounded distant, barely even noticing what his hands were doing, skinning and hacking the meat and putting it on the stove. His gaze lingered on Temperance who was chewing on a bone.

Roy nodded and quickly followed the order. He wrapped one of the wonderful blankets from Olympus around himself. Truth be told, he wasn’t used to such cold, and it affected him badly. He was shivering all over, his toes numb. He thought that maybe it was time for him to dress better for the outside and put one of the Olympus jackets on.

For now, he settled on going out to the stove, wrapped in the blanket. He warmed up fast, and it made him sleepy, and he barely noticed when Innocence shoved a steaming bowl into his hands. It tasted delicious, although with a hint of burnt meat. They still had bread that miraculously hadn’t crusted. Roy chewed his food down and wondered how many warm meals they have left until they would be forced to go on dry food again.

Not much, he estimated.

He quickly said goodnights and retreated into the truck. Wrapped in the cocoon of the blanket, he fell asleep.

***

He didn’t understand what had woken him up. Looking around, he gathered his surroundings. Everyone was asleep, Joane and Mary snuggling into each other, Innocence hugging a pillow made out of bedroll.

Tenacity and Temperance were missing. He rose, trying to not wake everyone up, threw one of the Olympus jackets over his shirt, put on his boots and looked into the cabin, but it was empty, too. He took out a nailgun that Innocence stored under his usual seat, and went outside.

It was dark, he could feel the vastness and emptiness of the plains around him. Shaking his head, he waited until his eyes adjusted, and noticed, at last, a small light that wasn’t a star in the sky.

Checking the gun, he ran towards the light, accumulating electricity in his left hand. But then he stopped and shook it off his glove.

Tenacity was kneeling before Temperance, his arms wrapped around the hound’s neck. Temperance was chirring quietly, his antennae sagging.

“What’s going on?” Roy asked, his voice hoarse from suspicion and bad feeling.

Tenacity startled then looked at him, and Roy recoiled. The gray-blue eyes were empty, looking past him. Then the headhunter fixed his gaze on the ground.

“He must leave,” Tenacity whispered. Roy had to get closer to hear him. “We can’t take him with us. He wouldn’t be able to survive in the cold.”

Temperance chirred and pressed closer to the headhunter. He was massive, weighed maybe like Tenacity himself or even more, sturdy and fierce and loyal.

“They are adaptable, the hounds,” Roy objected, but already knew that Tenacity was right.

“They are not,” the headhunter shook his head. “They can’t survive in the cold, they become sleepy and go into hibernation. Nobody of us can leave because we can’t survive in the plains. But he can.”

Tenacity leaned back a little and smiled, patting the side of Temperance’s neck. “You can take care of yourself, right, pal? Maybe start your own pack, find others. You are big and strong and smart, you’ll manage. You served me well for half a year. It’s time to part ways.”

Temperance chirred, cocking his head to the side, then looked at Roy and chirred again.

Tenacity got to his feet. They looked so alike, the hound and the man, and their shadows danced on the ground, entwining and overlapping.

The headhunter patted Temperance’s head and stepped back. “Go. Go now!” He waved his arms at the hound, and the dog backed away, lowering his head, his eyes big and bright. “Go away, you are free again!”

Temperance chirred, backing away until he was almost out of the circle of light, then turned his back and ran into the darkness.

For a few moments, they could hear his steps and chirring, then everything went quiet again.

Roy moved to Tenacity and wrapped an arm around his shoulder. “I’ll explain everything to Innocence in the morning,” he said, voice tight.

Tenacity nodded. He was trembling in Roy’s arms.

It took him some time to convince Tenacity to lie down and sleep some more. Once the headhunter nodded, tense, and let Roy wrap him in a few blankets and push him down on the floor, Roy took a blanket for himself and went outside. Sleep evaded him. He sat down on the ledge, his feet dangling over the tracks, and put a light tube beside. The cold was almost suffocating.

He stared into the darkness for hours.

Hearing a rustle behind himself, he shook himself and threw back his head.

Mary, holding Joane’s jacket close around her throat, looked down at him. “I’m sorry that Tenacity had to do this,” she said quietly.

Roy raised his eyebrows. “You overheard us?”

She nodded. “Yes. I’m sorry. I couldn’t sleep and saw what you did.” She paused. “Temperance is a good hound. I hope he finds a new life.”

Roy nodded, too tired and stressed to answer.

“I have something else to show you.”

Roy moved to the side, and she sat beside him. He wrapped the blanket around her shoulders, and she pressed herself to his side. She worked her hands free from under the fabric, showing him the card deck. “Two more.”

She turned them face-on, and Roy groaned. “That is unnerving already!”

The cards were the Relics and the Ocean.

They sent shivers down his spine. The Relics card had the same Relics he had seen partially excavated near Green Hope. The Ocean was not much better, it had the view that was spread before them. Somehow, the cards seemed to follow them.

“The Ocean is this place,” Mary noted.

“And I’ve seen these Relics before,” Roy said grimly. “I don’t understand. Maybe we should throw them away.”

He startled when Mary’s hand touched his. “Or maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe they are showing us the right direction.”

“Right — for what?”

Mary shook her head. “We have to wait until the deck shows the last card.”

They sat in the silence, snuggled together under the blanket. When the sky began to lighten, Roy sent Mary to sleep.

He waited until he could see nearby rocks, turned off the light tube and went into the truck. He checked that everyone was asleep, then took the stove that had been placed near the cabin and put it outside. Moving around the sleeping team, he took meat that they stored in the fridge. He watched the sunrise while cooking.

It was a tremendous view, the blue light covering the sky like the watery paint Innocence liked to use.

He missed Temperance’s presence already and couldn’t do anything about that feeling.

He heard movement in the truck. The breakfast was ready, and he braced himself for the talk with Innocence, but then cursed.

“You forgot something, Roy,” Innocence said. He had the kettle full of water and the packet with herbs in his hands.

Roy stepped aside when Innocence walked to the stove. Their breathing was leaving clouds in the chilly morning air.

Innocence placed the kettle on the stove. “Temperance is gone, yes, Roy?” he asked after a while.

Roy swallowed hard then walked closer to Innocence and put a hand on his shoulder. “Yes. Tenacity let him go. It is for Temperance’s sake. He’d be better in the wild.”

“He is a good dog,” Innocence said, not turning to him. “He protected me there at the mining site. When the Technomancers came.”

“He is the best hound I’ve ever seen,” Roy smiled. “He’ll be okay.”

Innocence nodded. “I hope so.”

Roy paused then moved even closer, hugging Innocence from behind.

Innocence chuckled. “He shares a name with you, after all.”

Roy snorted. “Yeah, and he spent some time with us, learning a trick or two. He’ll be okay, really,” he repeated softly.

***

Tenacity refused to let Innocence drive. The headhunter’s face was gray, his eyes devoid of all laughter that was always there, and Roy didn’t like it one bit.

With some difficulty, he managed to convince Tenacity that they had to stop for the night. As they went farther and farther to the north, more and more patches of ice cleared from dust and sand were appearing. The ice twisted and lightened up, reflecting and swallowing the lights of the headlamps, making everything seem dream-like.

The only consolation was that nighttime here was shortening.

When they stopped, nobody expressed the desire to go outside. They were eating dried meat and bread and drinking hot tea. In the back of the truck, the blinds were open, welcoming the stars and the darkness inside, and the silence was crawling in with them.

It was scared away, when Mary suddenly dropped her cup and rushed outside. Joane cried out and ran after her.

Roy looked at them, stunned, then put down his cup and followed.

There was a figure several steps in front of the truck, and Roy’s heart froze when he recognized the stern face, the black military coat and white hair. One of the glove — the left one — was missing. Missing because Roy had taken it.

When he had killed the man.

“Sean!” Mary shouted.

“No, Mary, wait!” Joane dashed after her and grabbed her jacket, but with a dry, loud sound the sleeve tore off.

Joane couldn’t keep her balance and, slipping on one of the clear patches of ice, landed on her left arm. She cried out, and that made Mary turn to her at last.

Roy ran to Joane and kneeled beside her. Tears were streaming down her face while she cradled her left arm to her chest. From the slight protrusion that shouldn’t have been there, Roy could tell that her arm was broken.

Mary dropped on her knees, too, pale, her eyes wide. “Joane…” she choked out. Her hands were trembling.

Joane turned to her and tried to smile, though her face was twisted from pain. “You could have slipped, running like this, my love,” Joane managed. She started to shake.

Roy wrapped his arm around her waist and helped her to get up, letting her lean on him. “Come on, let’s take a look at your arm inside, okay?”

Joane nodded.

“I didn’t mean to—” Mary startled, her gaze wandering. She threw a glance over her shoulder and sobbed, covered her mouth with her hands.

Roy frowned and looked where she was looking.

There was no trace of Sean there.

Tenacity made a splint and sling for Joane’s arm. Roy contemplated sending Mary with Joane back to civilization in the truck, since Mary had learned how to drive, but she was too shaken, and the nearest village was too far, days, if not weeks away.

Joane had fallen into slumber. Mary was at her side, stroking her pale cheeks and hair. Innocence and Tenacity, both disturbed by the events, Temperance’s leave and then Joane’s injury, took a nap, snuggling with each other. Each of them jerked awake from time to time, eyeing the two women.

Roy forced some food and water into Mary, and then into Joane when she woke up. She fell back asleep almost immediately after chewing on a piece of bread.

Only after everything had become quiet, had Roy allowed himself to think about the event.

Sean, the Abundance Technomancer who had for some reason been sent to overlook the Camp 19 where Roy and Innocence had met, also had been Mary’s lover and mentor. And Roy had definitely killed him when the Technomancer confronted him and Innocence on their way to freedom.

Roy touched the glove that he had been wearing at all times now. He had taken it from Sean’s body. When he had fled the Source, he promised to himself that he would never wear Technomantic gloves again, but in the P.O.W. camp he needed to protect Innocence and himself, and Technomancy was his best weapon.

That… thing that Mary had reacted so intensely to was definitely real, because Tenacity and Joane were the only people in their little company who had never met Sean, and they definitely saw him.

First, the cards that had their faces on them and the places they visited. Then this.

Roy wasn’t prone to mysticism unlike many of his Technomantic kindred, but he didn’t believe in coincidence either.

***

He shook awake, his heart clenching, but then he calmed down, listening to the breathing around him. He spotted a small light and, stifling a groan of discomfort, went to the cabin.

A small lamp was glowing blue on the console panel. Mary was on the chair, with her legs on the seat and arms wrapped around them.

Roy sat near her and called, “Hey.”

“I didn't mean to,” she said, her eyes fixed on the darkness outside, but unseeing. “I'm sorry. I know he is dead, but for a moment I just...” She trailed off and shook her head.

“Did you love him?”

Mary had followed Roy and Innocence from the P.O.W. camp into the heart of Aurora, Shadowlair, where she had gotten into trouble. She had probably been harassed, but Roy never asked. It caused her to lose control of her Technomantic abilities and she overloaded, a massive burst of energy erupting from her.

Roy had been nearby at the time and had found her in the debris of crushed crates, surrounded by moaning and barely conscious thugs. He had taken her in, promised to teach her to control the overload. She had asked then if he was going to sleep with her.

He had said no.

“I don’t know,” Mary answered at last. “I loved him, I think, but it is different from how I love Joane. He was using me, but also he was the only person who understood me, as a Technomancer understands another Technomancer. Joane was using me, at first, too, but now she loves me with all her heart. She doesn’t see a weapon in me. For him, I was just a project, like a pet, beloved, but still a pet. For me, he was the world… I thought I moved past him. It seems I haven’t.”

He put a hand on Mary’s shoulder. “You have moved,” he said softly. “You are different now. You are with Joane because you have chosen to do so.”

Mary’s grip on her knees tightened. “And now she is injured because of me. Because there is some part of me that still would like to follow Sean.”

“She is going to be fine. And she knows you didn’t do this on purpose.”

Mary hid her face in the crook of her elbow, and her voice cracked, “I don’t want her to hate me. I love her.”

“She won’t.” He stroke Mary’s hair.

She shifted and rummaged in her jacket, wiping her eyes with the other hand.

Roy froze. “New cards? So soon?”

Mary nodded. “See for yourself.”

He unwrapped the deck. There were four new cards. One made his heart skip a beat. It was the Orchard, with Innocence on it, depicted among pretty green trees and colorful flowers, a serene smile on his face. Innocence would like to have an orchard like this one, but despite the beautiful scene, the meaning of the card was usually ominous, although Roy couldn’t remember it exactly.

The other card was called “Torn”, and it had Roy’s own figure. He was standing on the road going far to the big mountain that he recognized as Olympus. There was a silver globe on top of the mountain, pouring silver light down on his figure, but it only made the two shadows on either side of him sharper. The shadows looked like hounds with bared sharp teeth.

The third card, the Wanderer, had Tenacity on it. He was standing on a cliff, darkness surrounding him, but he was holding a small lamp high in his hand. It was emitting blue light, like a star.

The fourth card made Roy frown in confusion. It depicted a canyon, but since Mars had lots of canyons, Roy couldn’t tell which one it was. The image was disturbing in a way he couldn’t describe. Only a small patch of the sky was visible with how high the walls of the canyon were, but the most disturbing was the darkness waiting further down the road.

“I don’t recognize the place,” Roy admitted.

“It’s Noctis Labyrinth,” said Tenacity.

Roy turned to find him bending over his chair, studying the card in question.

“It’s the exact place I’ve been at, only without that dark thing,” Tenacity pointed at the end of the road on the card. “And the Labyrinth is much bigger. A weird place. It’s wide, but there is not much light there even when the sun is up high. And folks say, once you delve into the Labyrinth, soon you will find yourself in complete darkness. Then after a while it starts glowing blue.” The headhunter shrugged. “Probably just tales. I followed one guy to the Labyrinth. He never came back.”

Roy stared at the card, then packed the deck.

“You okay, Mary?” Tenacity asked softly.

“Better,” she smiled at him. “Thank you for helping Joane. I’m indebted to you.”

Tenacity waved. “Don’t even think about it. You’re part of the team, and she’s part of the team, so I’m taking care of all of you. She’ll be fine.”

Mary nodded. “Roy said the same.”

Roy leaned back and looked up into Tenacity’s face. “Why are you not asleep?”

“What about you?” Tenacity smirked then nodded at the window, “The sun is crawling up. Time to get going.”

“I’ll go and get us food,” said Mary, putting her legs down from the seat, but then stopped. “Roy? May I ask you to take the cards? I don’t… feel like they belong to me anymore. They make me uneasy.”

He smiled, hoping that it was at one bit reassuring. “Okay.” He took the cards and put them into the inner pocket of his jacket. They were a weird weight.

***

They decided that Sean was just a vision they all got from exhaustion and not enough sleep and too much new impressions. Tenacity also assumed that it could have been the radiation. Joane objected and said that there was surprisingly low level of radiation here, as low as in other parts of Mars. She said it was maybe due to them traveling near one of the stabilizing rings.

Or something.

But the thing was, the visions returned.

The next day, again near the nighttime, they all were in the cabin. The doors were open to let chilly fresh air in. The sun was falling under the horizon like an eye of angry god, closing from the world. Light-blue paint was spilled on the sky, and bright red was flowing on the ground.

They were chatting, Innocence and Joane sitting on the ledge, Tenacity and Mary on the seats, and Roy standing near them.

Joane was doing good, considering all things, her hand in a sling. She had been sleeping most of the time, but when she woke up, the first thing she did was search for Mary and smile to her and say it was okay.

Roy was the first to notice that Joane tensed. She put down her meal — a meatstripe and a piece of crusty bread, then jumped off the ledge, a soft whimper of pain escaping her lips.

“Joane, where—” Mary asked, but then paled and reached out to point at something.

As darkness was creeping across the ocean, there was a figure, standing at the edge of it.

Roy flexed his fingers, jumped on the ground and moved after Joane.

It was a boy, a couple of years older than Innocence, and Roy recognized the shape of his eyes and his unruly dark hair. The boy was dressed inappropriately for the cold, wearing a leather jacket too big for his scrawny figure, and wide pants.

He was breathing, but his breathing didn’t made air cloud around him, unlike Joane and Roy’s own breathing.

The boy’s gaze was fixed on Joane, both sadness and longing.

Roy reached out to gently stop Joane, but she did it herself and even made a step back.

“No,” she shook her head, and her voice cracked. “No. You are dead. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Joane moved back and stumbled upon Roy. He wrapped his right hand around her shoulders. Joane didn’t look at him. “Please… Lead me to Mary,” she whispered. She was trembling so hard Roy had to catch the blanket wrapped around her shoulders.

He turned with her, although the thought of leaving his back to that… creature, whatever it was, made him uneasy. They slowly walked to the truck.

Mary was on the ground, her gaze breaking Roy’s heart. He stepped aside, and Mary pulled Joane into a careful embrace, avoiding pressing on her injured arm.

“It’s okay,” the Ultimum scientist said. “I’m fine. I’m going to be fine.”

They made her sit on one of the chairs. Innocence turned on the stove right inside the truck and made hot tea with soothing herbs, then gave cups to Joane and Mary.

Roy turned to look outside, but it has already fallen dark. He closed and locked the door, though he didn’t feel anyone’s presence anymore.

Mary was on the seat beside Joane, stroking her injured arm lightly, eyeing her over and over.

“It was my son, Joel,” Joane spoke at last. “Well, my brother's son, in truth. But one day Nathan said he didn't want to spend all his life in the expeditions and went to seek for better life, for the sake of his family. He went to Abundance, I think. But he never returned, so we raised Joel together with his wife, Liana. It had been a bad year, a year of famine in Ultimum, and roaming Dust. They pillaged our base in search for food, but we had been starving ourselves. And they were mad. They killed Joel and took Liana, but I managed to shoot her. I didn't want to even imagine the things they could do to her. It had been a bad year.”

“You never told me,” said Mary quietly.

Joane took her hand. “This is not your burden.”

“True, it is yours,” said Mary firmly, “but I am here for you, to share any burden you carry.” She leaned forward and pressed a kiss to Joane’s forehead.

Roy went to the back, leaving them alone, and checked the water supply. Five canisters were still full.

“Do we have enough of it?” he asked Tenacity.

The headhunter shrugged. “I don’t know, Roy. The ocean looks the same, and I don’t even know how much we drove today. I’m marking our way on the map, but the compass doesn’t work anyway. We might be going in circles!” He emphasized it with the circling gesture, but winced.

“What is it?” He caught Tenacity’s arm, but the headhunter moved away from him.

“Nothing,” he grumbled. “Just stiff from sitting behind the wheel, is all.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.” Tenacity moved past Roy and started picking the blankets from the pile they were in. “Let’s sleep while we can.”

Roy could taste the lie the headhunter was trying to feed him, but he didn’t say anything. He helped Tenacity spread the blankets, half-listening to Joane and Mary and Innocence talking in the cabin.

He lay under the blanket and moved to offer his shoulder to Tenacity, as they had slept the previous nights, but found the headhunter huddled in the corner as far from Roy as he could.

He was surprised at how it actually hurt him.

“Good night, Tenacity,” he whispered, turning away from him.

“Good night, my friend.”

The quiet reply startled him. He was not prepared to hear a reply.

***

He didn’t know how much he slept, but it seemed as if he didn’t sleep at all.

Tenacity was still lying far away from him, almost near one of the canisters. The bedroll to Roy’s left was a crumbled mess, indicating that Innocence had slept there.

Joane was held carefully in Mary’s embrace, their chests rising and falling peacefully. Roy crouched near them and stroke Mary’s golden hair, then rolled up his own blanket and put it between Tenacity and the canister so that the headhunter wouldn’t hit his head on the cold metal.

The door of the truck was closed and the warmth wasn’t seeping outside. He opened it and shivered at the cold.

Innocence was on a nearby rock, sitting on a spread blanket and crunching bread.

“Do you want some tea?” he asked when Roy approached him.

He shook his head. “No, not yet. We’ll wait until everyone is up.”

“Sit with me?”

Roy obliged him, and Innocence immediately leaned to his side.

“It’s beautiful here,” Innocence said.

Roy turned his gaze from Innocence to the vast panorama. “It is. There, see? I think that’s the place.” He pointed at something on the horizon that looked like a distant hill.

“Is it? Then we are going to be there soon.”

Roy wrapped an arm around his shoulder and hesitated before asking, “Do you miss it? New Life, I mean.”

“I miss the garden. And the people, a little bit. But between being here with you and Tenacity and Mary and Joane and Temperance—” Innocence shook his head. “No, without Temperance now. But between this and being in New Life without you all, I would have chosen being here. The loneliness was painful before you have come to New Life.”

“I’m sorry,” Roy said quietly.

Innocence turned to him, and there was a small smile on his lips, and he opened his mouth, but then turned to the horizon.

Roy followed his gaze, and his grip on Innocence’s shoulder tightened. “Innocence…” he choked out, but wasn’t fast enough to hold him.

He rushed after Innocence but tripped on the blanket and hit his shoulder hard against the ground. He scrambled to his feet and lifted his head.

Innocence was already in front of her. “Mom!” he cried out.

Roy rose at last. “Innocence!”

She was beautiful, eyes as blue as the sky during the dawn, and in her face he saw Innocence’s features, the nose and the lips, only her hair was dark instead of his blond.

“Innocence, no, stop!”

Innocence threw him a gaze over his shoulder. His eyes were filled with tears, and he turned to the woman again.

“He’s using you, Innocence,” she spoke in a soft voice. “He doesn’t care about you.” She reached out her hand. “Come to me, my boy.”

“Innocence!” Roy cried at the top of his lungs and launched after him.

Innocence shook his head, made a step forward, then one more and more, speeding up, and then ran. “Mom!”

The world seemed to slow down around Roy, and he wanted to scream.

Innocence suddenly spread his arms and disappeared. The world rushed at fast speed again, and Roy ran and fell on his chest and managed in time to catch Innocence by his arm.

The edge of ice cut into his middle, and the sudden drop made air leave his lungs.

Innocence was swinging over a deep crack, Roy couldn’t see the bottom of it. Innocence’s face was turned to Roy.

“You don’t care about me,” he heard Innocence say in broken voice.

“No, it’s not true! I care about you, I need you, please!” He gripped the edge with his free hand, trying to hold them both, feeling his glove tearing on the ice. His shoulder was stretched painfully on the verge of dislocating, and he groaned, tugging Innocence up. He grabbed his shoulder with left hand and took him over the edge.

He rolled on his back, breathing hard and staring into the sky that turned yellow without him noticing it. When his heart stopped drumming in his ears, he turned to Innocence, and his gaze slammed into jacket-covered back.

“Innocence…” he called, his voice hoarse, and reached out.

“Don’t touch me,” came a quiet reply, and Roy jerked back.

“What she said, it’s not—”

“Leave me alone.”

He left to the truck. He wanted to be alone for a while.

Was that what he had been so afraid of? Innocence’s rejection.

She was not right, he repeated to himself over and over again. She was not right. Or was she?

He had been using Innocence, yes, in a way that Innocence was his reason to live, and more, his reason to be better than who he really was. At least, try to be better.

She was not right. But that didn’t matter, because Innocence believed her and rejected him.

The muscles in his arm hurt, as if Innocence’s weight was still there, dangling over the void. He sucked in a breath, recalling the dream Innocence had told him about before, only the roles were reversed in reality. He had been so close to losing Innocence — and he had lost him anyway.

It was ironic, probably, how years and years of abuse, running, hiding couldn’t crush him, but being rejected by Innocence could.

She was right, he thought, he used Innocence. The silly brat had been looking at him as if he was a true hero while he was not. But it was so addictive, to be seen like this, and he wanted to bask in this adoration.

He slid the floor close behind himself and leaned on the water canister, its side cooling his temple.

It was good to not be a monster at least in someone’s eyes, even if he couldn’t be anything but a monster in his own eyes.

Roy sniffed and rubbed his face. It was suspiciously quiet, and dark, too, and he had to do something, feed everyone, check Joane’s arm, see that Tenacity was in the right state of mind, reassure Mary. Face Innocence.

Just a while longer…

He heard the steps, and his heart stuttered. He couldn’t quite see the outline of the figure in the darkness, because his vision was blurred. The steps stopped before him, but he couldn’t reach out, fearing he’d be rejected again.

Then arms, made strong from working in the garden, wrapped themselves around him, and Roy’s knees gave up. They slid down together, and a heavy weight landed on his lap, warm, and shaking and fragile, and he heard muffled sobs.

He pulled Innocence closer to his chest, closer, so tight that he had almost gave up breathing. “I’m sorry, Innocence, I’m sorry…”

“I don’t care if you use me.” He could barely hear him in the darkness that wrapped them in its cloak, but he thought he could feel the words, spoken against his neck. “I need you. I didn’t… No, I did want to hurt you, and hurt I did. Forgive me, Roy.”

His heart was breaking like old rusted metal, because that was good, right? That should be good, Innocence was not mad at him…

“She just appeared there, and for a moment, I though she was real—”

“Shhh.” He put a palm on Innocence’s head, and felt how Innocence lifted his head.

“Roy?” Innocence whispered, but Roy felt it more than heard, because Innocence’s lips were warm against his jaw, and his heart was breaking and breaking and breaking with soft metal tinkle.

A hand slipped under his jacket and put something heavy into his inner pocket. The bone triangle was warm from Innocence’s heat.

Roy's throat was tight.

***

Roy already expected to meet two more visions, one for Tenacity, and another for himself. For that reason, he wasn’t leaving Tenacity for too long.

The hill they had seen with Innocence recently turned out to be a flat mountain they were to approach in a day. The sun had been barely setting at all — the never-closing eye of a mad god.

Joane suddenly got worse that day, although her arm seemed to be fine. They couldn’t wake her up, and she was sweating and thrashing on the floor in the back of the truck, and Mary wasn’t leaving her side, stroking her hair and wiping her face with a damp cloth.

Innocence was with them, taking care of them both, murmuring soft words to Mary and holding her hand.

Roy couldn’t stay inside anymore.

Tenacity had stopped the truck for the night that wasn’t night at all.

Roy wrapped a jacket tighter around his shoulders and put a scarf over his mouth. Tenacity was standing outside, with a blanket over his shoulders, smoking a thick cigar.

“How are you not frozen already?” Roy muttered into the scarf.

Tenacity smiled at him, a tight, weary smile. “I’m a man-heater.” Then his smile turned into a genuine grin. “I heat men.”

He punched Tenacity on the shoulder, and they both laughed.

But Tenacity’s laughter died quickly, eyes darting to the distance.

And that was it.

That was she.

Clad in a sleeveless jacket and too big pants, sporting the same reddish unruly hair that Tenacity had. The resemblance was striking.

“Tenacity…” Roy whispered and reached out to clasp Tenacity’s shoulder.

The cigar fell out of the headhunter’s fingers, he stepped forward, but Roy crossed his path and leaned on him.

“Please…” he whispered. “Please!”

He could smell the rich burning scent of the cigar with Tenacity’s every breath, and the faint undertones of sweat and leather of his jacket.

“Please…” he repeated, putting his right hand under Tenacity’s jacket, on his side.

His hand touched something smooth and wet, and he cried out, jumping back.

Tenacity blinked and looked at him. “Roy, I…” His gaze darted over Roy’s shoulder, and Roy turned to see.

She was still standing there, sadness in her pale blue eyes.

“I can’t,” Tenacity told her. “I’m sorry. Not now. You have to wait.”

She was there for a moment, then nodded and turned to leave.

Roy looked at Tenacity.

The headhunter slouched, hiding his face in his palms.

Roy touched his wrists, circling them gently. “Hey.”

Slowly, Tenacity’s arms fell, and Roy guided him to the truck and made him sit on the ledge. Roy quickly returned to the spot where Tenacity had stood on, and picked the blanket that had been around Tenacity’s shoulders. He wrapped it around Tenacity again, then tried to smile. “Hey, look at me?”

Tenacity raised his head, and a smile appeared on his lips, painful and forced. “My sister, Serenity. I think you guessed it?”

Roy nodded and sat with him, and Tenacity leaned onto his side.

“She was too old to be your daughter, so yeah, I guessed that it was your sister or something like that.”

Tenacity sighed, and his breath flew away in a tear-shaped cloud. “I was born in Tierville, my parents were merchants. They wanted me to inherit everything. But unlike you, Roy, I only sleep with men, and they believed that we had to provide children for people of Mars to survive. Father booted me out of home when they found out I like men. I had to stay with my then-lover. In the morning my sister came in and hugged me and said she loved me, told me I could always go to her if I ever needed anything. I promised I wouldn't get lost.”

Roy wrapped his arm around Tenacity’s shoulders, rubbing his fingers together. They were wet with something dark, but this had to wait. He listened patiently.

“I had to go and find a job, worked as a mercenary. I returned a year later and found out that Technomancers executed my parents. I never found out why, maybe they wanted the shop or something. And they took my baby sister with them. I didn’t find her.”

Roy felt his heart freezing. “You never told me,” he said quietly.

“There's nothing to tell.”

“Then why did you—” helped me, a Technomancer? he wanted to ask, but Tenacity waved him to shut up.

“They would have maimed you and raped you, those guys. You were desperate. Handsome.” Tenacity chuckled softly. “And a decent guy, as I learned. It didn't matter that you were a Technomancer. Maybe I needed reassurance that not everybody who can shoot lightnings out of their hands is a bad person.” Tenacity paused then sighed. “You had a nightmare, that night. Thrashed like a bastard, I could barely hold you. Weeped like a child. And you was on the run, and maybe I wanted to be a good guy for once, and I knew how it feels when you have nowhere to go. But I had my sister, in my mind, and you obviously had no-one.”

Roy turned his head to the side and rubbed his cheek against Tenacity’s hair. Then he had brought his wet hand before their eyes. “And what is this, my friend?”

Tenacity tensed and moved, jumping off the ledge and leaving the blanket behind. The headhunter slowly unbuttoned his jacket and tugged it aside to show his abdomen.

The skin on Tenacity’s left side, just under his ribs, was completely black and glistering under the light of the sun, as if painted. Roy had seen enough horrors in his life, and that looked like a thing straight out of nightmares.

“What is this?” he whispered.

Tenacity closed the jacket and buttoned it back up, and only then Roy noticed how he moved, slower than ever. But that wasn’t exhaustion that Roy had brushed it off for before.

It was something worse.

Tenacity remained standing, but didn’t meet Roy’s gaze. “I got into a sandstorm, not far away from the Noctis Labyrinth, just after we parted ways at the Source. Had to hide in a cave for a day or more, I don’t know. I had fallen asleep and woke up to find this thing on my thigh. It’s spreading, and it’s painful, and I’m getting weaker. I have shown it to the doctors I trust, but they couldn’t do anything about it. It’s not radiation, it’s not a burn, it’s not anything known.”

Roy realized he was trembling. He put a hand over his face and dragged in a shuddering breath. “No.”

Tenacity looked at him with softness in his eyes. “A hound knows when it's dying. I know I'm dying, Roy. I'm sorry.”

He got up. It was cold, and his hands were trembling, so he put them behind his back. He paced a few steps, panting, choking. “Don't tell Innocence,” he whispered. “Please.”

“I won't. I understand.”

They were silent for a few moments, Roy desperately trying to stop shaking. Then he surged back to Tenacity and touched their foreheads together, his fingers threading through thick hair dusted with sand. “We will find a way,” he managed, gritting his teeth. “We will. I'm not letting you go this easily.”

Tenacity embraced him, his big hands heating even through the leather of Roy’s jacket and his shirt. Tenacity was big, and hot as Mars itself. And dying.

Roy thought that if they manage to keep Mars going on, Tenacity will go on, too.

“You and Innocence, you two are all I have,” Roy whispered, his eyes squeezed shut. He was trying to not embarrass himself with sobbing.

“And Temperance?” Tenacity asked, smile evident in his voice. His breath was hot on Roy's face.

Roy barked out a hysterical laugh. “Okay, you three are all I have.”

“And Mary? Joane?”

“Mary and Joane, too.” He pressed closer, tugging at Tenacity's hair slightly. “We will find a way to help you, and we will rebuilt the house or maybe move to the Dust village, and we will find Temperance, and you will live with us, too.” Roy could feel Tenacity’s rapid, shuddering breathing.

“I'm scared shitless,” Tenacity whispered. “This is an enemy I don't know how to fight. I was meant to get a nail to the head either from the hundreds of people I pissed off or from my own gun. Or drink myself to death. That's how I thought I would go down. And I started thinking about the past, about... About my life, you know?” Tenacity leaned back and wiped his cheeks. “And I realized, what a lonely life it was. Fruitless. I wanted to do something right, for once in my shitty life, Roy. So I came to you. The truck, my Serum, everything I own is yours. You with Innocence have a home, and you need things.”

Roy shook his head. He needed a few moments to find his voice again. To find words that wouldn’t tear his heart out of his chest even more. “Where the truck comes from, by the way?”

Tenacity was silent, then answered, “From a friend.”

He looked at Tenacity incredulously. “A friend?”

“Okay, from a fuck-buddy. We fucked. Satisfied now? He had no family of his own, and he died and left me the truck.”

“Not only fuck-buddies, then,” he said quietly.

“For him, no. My mistake. I can't make friends, Roy, I can't have lovers. But I've made a mistake of letting him fall for me, and I've made a mistake of—” Tenacity stopped abruptly and rubbed his face, then said softly, “It doesn't matter now. I'm sorry it came out like this. I didn't want you to know, I wanted to slip away some day, leaving everything to you, and fade into the sand and dust. It's what I always do, go away and never come back.”

“But you came back for us.”

Tenacity nodded. “I did. You're special, after all.”

He smiled at the headhunter. “Let’s get back inside, then? I don’t want you to catch a cold.” He took Tenacity’s hand and opened the door. As they got inside, he felt how, for a moment, Tenacity’s fingers entwined with his.

“How is the weather?” Innocence asked, going out into the cabin.

“Cold,” Roy answered.

“Joane is better. She is asleep, but it’s peaceful now.”

“Good.” Tenacity went into the back, and as he got past Innocence, he ruffled his hair.

“Wh-what is this about?” Innocence had a puzzled look on his face, his gaze following the headhunter.

Roy shrugged. “He just really likes you. I’m kinda hungry, let’s find something to eat. May I also ask something?”

Innocence smiled. “Yes, anything, Roy.”

“Could you draw Tenacity for me? I’d like to… remember how he’s now, all messed up and dirty and with grown beard, so that I could joke at him later.”

Innocence frowned, but Roy turned to the main console.

“Okay, Roy,” he heard from behind. “Is everything alright?”

“Yeah, of course. Sure. Go to the back. It’s really cold, and you are only wearing a jacket.”

Only when he felt that Innocence went away did he allow himself to wipe moisture from his face.

No. He wasn’t going to give up. He won’t let Tenacity go like this. Not ever.

Chapter Text

The Dust always says that they have made a deal with a “devil”, a “black-eyed man”, and thus they endure their punishment for it.

And I have seen him, Aust. The black-eyed man. The god of riddles and the void and the songs of bones and blood. And now I know my own fate.

Everything has been leading to this very moment of clarity — the moment of choice.

But first he answered my questions. He said he had seen my every choice and everything it may lead to, every step I could have taken. I asked him… if there was time or place or another life where I could have been with you. And he said that it was one of the possibilities.

And it is enough. It is enough to know that I could have been with you.

He is waiting for me to choose, I think he knows what I’ve already chosen. What must be done. I think he finds it amusing, though his black eyes betray nothing.

Time has no meaning here, but out there in the world I have to be quick if I want to help someone I have met. I see clearly the choice he is already making, and the consequences of this choice, and other possibilities, other choices he might make.

I want to ask the darkness-eyed man, if I’m even allowed to interfere, but I already know that I might do whatever I want.

This is… frightening.

Absolute freedom.

So much freedom.

Chapter Text

When Roy woke up, they were already on the move. He half-expected to see the last vision this day, but around what felt like noon, the mountain had moved on them, two-headed, short but wide, and absolutely white.

Joane felt much better and she was sitting with Tenacity in the cabin, wrapped in the wonderful blanket from Olympus, holding a map in her hands. “I think this is it. Assuming that our calculations and records of our path are right.”

“We’ll find out soon,” Roy said.

“There is an opening!” Innocence pointed out.

It was a straight line, so out of place here where the forces of nature ruled for decades. It was the height of their truck, but not wide enough to get it through. It made Roy wonder what means of transportation except trains the colonists had used. The walls of the portal were encased in dark metal, the same as in the Olympus complex, and Roy didn’t notice any seams in it. It was as if the portal was made entirely in one piece and then infused directly into the body of the mountain.

He knew for certain that nobody on Mars currently had technologies to do such a thing, and it made him think about just how developed the technology had been before the Turmoil.

Or maybe it wasn’t human-made at all, but this thought was too terrifying to think it further.

He looked at Joane. “You should—”

“I’m coming in!” she said, her gaze burning.

If not for the arm that she was forced to hold on a sling, he would have thought that Joane had healed completely.

He gave up. “Alright. But be careful, okay?”

“I’ll watch over her, Roy,” Mary said. She looked better, too, now that Joane seemed fine.

He put a hand on Tenacity’s shoulder, gripping it for a moment, then went to the back to get the equipment, guns, spare nailclips, and warm jackets they had taken from the Olympus facility.

Mary helped Joane to put on the jacket. When Tenacity took the crossrifle from Roy’s hands, Roy noticed how he winced. “You okay?” he asked softly.

The headhunter looked at him intently, then smiled. “Yes. Yes, I’m okay, Roy.”

Tenacity was a horrible liar.

Roy jumped out of the truck first. “I thought it would be colder,” he said to Joane.

“I thought that, too. Maybe it is the generator affecting the temperature here?” She looked into the dark depth of the portal. “Just to think that the colonists had the means to locally control climate… It could change everything for us.”

They decided that Roy would lead the way, with Tenacity and Mary at the rear.

Roy flexed his left hand and tightened the grip on the nailgun in his right hand, missing Temperance so much.

The portal was dark, and he had to slow down when he stepped inside, to let his eyes adjust. He made a few steps and noticed a small glow further down the road.

He raised his head to try to see the ceiling, but the walls, made of the same seamless dark metal, went up and up, disappearing into the darkness.

The glow ahead, coming from an archway, was familiar, a faint light-blue of electro-arcs.

Roy threw a glance back. He walked a few tens of steps, but it seemed like he was walking for an hour or so, judging by the distance between him and the entrance. “Huh, weird,” he muttered.

As his team followed him, he turned back to the glow. It seemed to go from below, and he stepped through the archway to find a set of wide stairs leading down. They were clinging to one wall with their right side, and banisters on the left were metal, too, showing an intricate flowery pattern that didn’t seem to repeat.

Roy leaned over the banisters to look down the stairs. The blue glow was emitting from below, and had a soft pulsating nature to it, like a beating of a heart.

Roy closed his eyes and listened carefully. He could hear a low, almost inaudible hum. There definitely was something down there.

They started descending down the steps that seemed to go on and on forever until they reached another archway.

It opened to a vast room, it’s walls metal and seamless. There was yet another archway to their left, and a square metal podium protruded from the ground near it.

Most of the space was dominated by a large cylindric device that emitted the flickering glow they had seen. It’s pulsation was uneven and weak, like breathing of a dying person.

Roy lowered his gun and walked towards the device, sparing a glance to what seemed to be a control console.

The device was made of glass or some other transparent material. Roy peered inside. It seemed to go down under the floor for many meters.

Roy put his gun into his left palm and touched the glass with ungloved right hand. The cylinder was warm, but only barely, and with every pulsation it went a little bit more warm, but only for a moment.

“It seems that this is our generator,” he said, turning away and walking to the control console.

Joane was there already, looking at the monitor screen that was filled with data. “Yes, but it’s barely working.” She shook her head. “I don’t know if I can do anything right now.”

“Maybe we should go back to Ultimum and bring more people here?” Tenacity offered. He and Innocence walked out of the second archway, circling the podium. “We found the railroad and the train. It’s big enough to get the truck on the flatcar, but I have no idea how we’re going to get it down here.”

“And the train itself is not working,” Innocence added.

Roy looked at the podium for a few moments, then walked towards it. He jumped on it and looked around.

“What are you doing, Tech-boy?” Tenacity asked.

There was a slim column at one corner of the podium. Roy strode to it and hummed in content. There was a lever on it.

“I doubt they used the stairs to get everything they needed down there,” he said and pulled the lever. The podium — the platform — was slowly lifting towards the ceiling. Roy looked up and saw a widening crack appear up above. He shook a few ice crystals that fell from it out of his hair.

He reached out his hand to Innocence. “Come on! I can’t drive but you can.”

Innocence hesitated but then smiled and took his arm.

Tenacity snorted and shook his head. Roy put his tongue out and smirked. The headhunter waved in reply.

There was no railing on the lifting platform, so Roy leaned on the column, careful to not touch the lever again.

Innocence stood beside him, close enough that Roy could feel his warmth.

“I’m sorry, Roy,” Innocence said.

“For what?”

“For what happened… then… I didn’t mean to—”

Roy shut him up, wrapping his arms around Innocence. “It’s okay, I already told you that. You know that you are important for me, right?”

Innocence answered to his embrace by tugging at his jacket. “I know,” came a muffled reply.

He didn’t want to let go yet, but Innocence didn’t seem to want to get free either. They stood like this until cold crept under Roy’s jacket. The platform jerked and stopped.

“I guess it’s our stop,” he moved away, releasing his grip on Innocence, and smiled at him.

In the light of the day, Innocence’s eyes were infinitely deep. Innocence nodded.

They both looked around. The truck was mere steps away. “Okay, let’s get to business.”

Innocence started the engines and drove the truck onto the platform while Roy waited by the control column. Once the truck was on the spot, he pushed the lever, and the platform began to descend.

“Any news?” he asked, when they were back down in the cave.

The pulsation was as weak as before.

Mary shook her head. She was beside Joane at the control console. “Nothing. We don’t understand how this thing works or how to, at least, get it back into working properly again. But we managed to find the map of the train line. The main railway goes south to the Olympus facility, parallel to the stabilizing ring, then it crosses the equatorial line. It is an underground part of the Shadow Line. There is a point near the crossing with the equatorial part where we could get back to the surface.”

“Yeah, only if we manage to set the train into motion,” Tenacity grumbled, reaching out his arm and helping Roy off the platform. “That old pile of rust is missing something, but I have no idea what.”

Roy nodded. “I’ll go take a look. And you search there, maybe you’ll find something useful. And Innocence will drive the truck onto the flatcar.”

He walked along the truck as Innocence drove it onto the flatcar. Its configuration was not that different from any other flatcar Roy had seen. Then Innocence waved to him and went back to the cave to help Tenacity.

Roy smiled and walked towards the control car of the train.

The tunnel was big, wider than the mining tunnel on the ‘Peane mining site. Roy briefly thought about Wind and the Dust village. Would he have a chance to see them?

Tenacity’s illness, or whatever it was, complicated matters even further. Roy couldn’t leave him like that. He had planned to leave Innocence on Tenacity, but now that wasn’t an option because Tenacity himself needed help.

Maybe they should ask Joane if there was anyone in the Ultimum Guild with medical specialization. There must be a way to help Tenacity.

Roy wasn’t going to give up on him.

The control car, the “pile of rust” as Tenacity described it, was actually in a very good condition, and much more advanced in technology than most of the trains Roy had seen. It was big, a mighty locomotive facing the darkness of the tunnel.

There wasn’t any rust, only a slight layer of dust on everything, but considering that they were possibly the first human beings visiting here in decades…

The door was open, and Roy pulled himself up on the ledge. Inside was a spacious room, clean of any trace of personal presence.

He ventured into the rear part and opened a sliding door to reveal the machine room. He was not really surprised to see a cylinder of blue, a smaller version of the generator in the main cave of the facility. So, this thing wasn’t powered by solar energy, but rather by some unknown source. Which wasn’t surprising either, because this train had likely operated underground most of the time and couldn’t accumulate enough solar energy on a regular basis.

But the train’s generator was lifeless, even more lifeless than its bigger brother.

Roy closed the door to the machine room and went to the control console. It was clean of dust, probably swept by Tenacity, but as lifeless as the train’s heart.

He put his hands on the console, leaning on it. He had no idea what to do.

Roy felt a soft pulsation, and at first he thought it was connected with the pulsation of the big generator, but it was close. In fact, it was just under his jacket. He took out the card deck. Touching it with bare fingers of his right hand, he sense the pulsation. He unwrapped the deck and put it down on the console. Roy’s hand hovered over the topmost card, its back to him, then he let out a slow breath and turned it face-on.

Then turned one more card and then another.

He placed them beside the deck, looking at them and trying to decipher their meaning.

He had already guessed what — or rather, who — would be on the Technomancer card, but it was disturbing nonetheless. It was his portrait — the same portrait that Innocence had painted long time ago, the one that had been the only framed picture in their house.

The second card was the Sun, depicting Innocence standing on the ground, with his arms spread welcomingly, his eyes closed and his lips curved in a smile. He was glowing, the source of the golden light on the picture, gentle and warm and soothing.

Roy smiled.

The third card was New Life, and Roy didn’t know what he was expecting. Anything but the obvious, it seemed. It was the panorama of New Life, its main street running to the distant horizon, only there were more houses than he had remembered when leaving the place. He could see their house in the distance. And there were gardens and orchards by every house.

What made the picture weird, besides the green plants, was an orb hovering in the sky above the town. It was big, green and blue and white, almost as if children that were playing in the middle of the street threw a ball into the air and it stayed there. Roy thought he recognized it, from descriptions in old stories and legends, and the books he had read during his studying in the Source.

Earth, a hypothetical cradle of humanity.

He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back, looking at the three cards, thinking.

The right edge of the New Life card was glowing, a faint, blue-ish glow. He rubbed his eyes, but the glow didn’t go away. Roy slid the card further right, and a half of it became alight. He moved it around until all the lines on the card were emanating this glow, and lifted the card. The outline lingered on the control panel, as if someone took a silhouette of the card with glowing paint. Roy touched it and startled when the rectangle dipped and slid to the left, opening a small compartment.

“So you are keys,” he muttered, looking at the cards, then reached into the compartment and took out a small book.

It was an actual book, printed on paper-like material. The book was Roy’s finger thick. He looked it through. Apparently, it was a manual, and although Roy recognized the script and some words, most of the words evaded his understanding.

But there were layouts and diagrams, lots of them, depicting the various machinery of the train, and the reactor or generator, a cylinder much like the one in the generator hall.

And designs.

Then, as if the gates in his mind finally opened, he understood what must be done.

He remained motionless for a while, looking at the idea in his mind from every possible angle, then flipped through the manual once more and nodded to himself. He scooped the cards and putting them back under his jacket.

Roy tugged the glove on his left hand up and flexed his fingers, then went to the machine room and opened the door.

He pressed his left hand to the lifeless cylinder and closed his eyes, frowning, calling for his powers. The hairs on the nape of his neck stood as he accumulated as much electricity as he could without overloading, then exhaled sharply, channeling it into the generator.

It left his body with a faint crack.

He took a step back, admiring his work. The cylinder was now full of pale blue light, pulsating steadily and hard, like a healthy heart.

Roy smiled to himself and took a flask from his belt. It was half-full. He downed it all. The water had a metallic taste, but it was fine. Just what he needed.

He jumped off the train and returned to the cave.

“I fixed the train,” he announced. He went straight to the control console and tugged off his glove, stuffing it into his pants pocket. “You should go now.”

“Roy? Are you not going?” Innocence voice was filling with desperation.

He didn’t answer. He stripped off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. Then turned to them.

They were all standing before him, Mary, and Joane, and Tenacity. And Innocence.

He smiled at them. “Go,” he repeated softly. “I’ll take care of the generator.”

Mary was the first one to catch up. Smart girl, he thought with pride. She was a good Technomancer. “You are going to overload yourself,” she said quietly, and color drained from her face.

“It’s worth a try. But you should go. I don’t know what might happen when the generator turns back on again. Or what might happen if everything goes wrong. So please…” his voice wobbled. “Please, go.”

“You are going to die!” Innocence cried out and rushed to him, but Tenacity grabbed him by the jacket and held. “You are ready to die!”

“Maybe. But it’s not the worst way to give my life.”

Then Tenacity raised his crossrifle. “I won't let you do this, Roy.”

Roy clenched his fists and set his jaw. “I have to.”

“No, you don't!”

“I'm the only one who can do this—”

“We lived well before this, without this machine!” Tenacity was yelling. “I won't let you die here, I won't let you leave Innocence like this! Please, Roy, don't force me!”

The crossrifle turned to Roy’s hand.

“I’ll shoot your palm, and you won’t be able to use it.”

He inhaled sharply, the armor of calm cracking. “I'm not doing it for the Guilds or the people, I'm not doing it for the planet. They all can go to hell for all I care.” His voice gained strength and volume, and his heart was beating fast, like a drum, like a quake. “But you're here. I'm doing it for you all! So that you could live, so that you could go to other places, away from the Guilds territories, so that you could grow plants.” He looked at Innocence, pleading. “Please… Go now. Or I’ll make you lose consciousness, then take you to the train and do what I must do anyway. Please, Innocence!”

“You said you would stay.” The glow of the generator was dancing on the tears on Innocence’s face, flickering like tiny stars. “I can’t go without you.”

“You can. You must! I am broken. You all,” he gestured at them, “had your visions, of the people you have lost. But I didn’t! I am a man without the past, I am a killing machine, trained to dominate and break, and I am broken! I am being hunted, and will always be hunted. One day somebody would come for me, and kill you to get to me. I have lost you once, I’m not going to let this repeat. Go!”

His vision was blurred, and he tried to stop it, but couldn’t. He looked at Tenacity. The headhunter’s face was gray, the light of the generator making his features sharp and wild. “Look after them, alright? Look after Innocence. I know I can trust you with the most precious person I’ve ever had.”

In the silence he could hear Mary’s sobbing and he could see Innocence trembling.

Joane’s good fist was clenched. “Roy, don’t—”

Tenacity nodded. “Yes, Roy. I’ll take care of them, I promise.”

“Roy…” Innocence whispered.

He smiled. “You are going to be fine. See you later, Innocence!” He turned to the generator and didn’t watch at them going.

He heard the train departing and waited for a few moments, counting the pulsating of the generator and comparing it with the beating of his own heart. It was definitely slowing down.

So, now or never.

He circled the control console and walked to the blue cylinder itself. There were clouds in the blue, dark shapes that he recognized. He patted the pockets and took out a small triangle.

The whale was small and dark-blue, with black eyes that flickered in the pale light of the generator. Roy put the bone triangle on top of the control console.

Then he pressed his spread palms to the generator and closed his eyes.

Calling for his powers had never been easier. For many years he had suffocated them, controlled them, held them — and himself — in heavy chains. He had guarded them as a dark secret. For so many years being torn between the Technomancy and humanity…

But now his power surged in him, filled him, and he was at peace with it.

He was a free Technomancer, deciding his own fate.

“Strengthen me with raisins, refresh me with apples for I am faint with love…”

And he let it flow out of him.

The sound was that of a quake, deep and low. It made him fall back, and he screamed but no sound came out of his burnt lungs. He could smell the burning flesh — his burning flesh — and the overwhelming metal of electricity.

He gasped for air, his vision going black and white, pain blooming through him like a fierce flower of fire.

That was the end, and his mind would process it all.

A shadow appeared, shape as human and then transformed into the drop-shape of a whale.

Roy’s lips moved, and the last breath left them.

Chapter Text

Aust… Austerity… Joel. I’m sorry for what have never happened and for what could have happened should I chosen differently.

I will watch over you from now on, always. Forever.

I will watch over this whole planet.

The Void is waiting for me.

 

…Hello, Roy.

Chapter Text

There was a sound, soothing, almost like a wind, steady and gentle. It was monotone, repeating over and over again with leisure, and lulling him into sleep. He had never heard anything like this before.

Soft wind was caressing his skin, cooling and calming, almost like a touch. He couldn’t remember when he felt a touch like this the last time. He probably had never felt anything like this.

There was a chirring, and it finally hit him. He tried to open his eyes, and groaned because his face felt as if it was on fire.

Then he heard footsteps and a thump when something landed near him and moved to lie on him, trembling, whimpering. He felt warm moisture on his neck.

“Roy…”

He shifted past the pain and wrapped one arm around Innocence’s shoulder. “Hey,” he croaked.

And opened his eyes.

The first thing that he saw was the sky, the blue of the dawn spilled above him, blue as the eyes of his Innocence. Turning his head slightly to the side, he saw Tenacity kneeling near them, the biggest grin tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“Hey, Electroguy,” Tenacity said, and his voice wobbled.

Then a hand touched his face, and he saw Mary bending over him. She leaned down to him and placed a kiss to his cheek. He reached with his free hand and touched her palm, and then his hand was enclosed in Joane’s hands.

“Are you… all dead, too?” he managed. His throat felt as if he hadn’t had a drop of water in years.

Innocence lifted his head from his shoulder and looked at him as if he had said something really stupid. “No,” Innocence whispered. “The train went to the surface at the intersection, and then we saw Temperance, and he led us to you.”

Roy looked around, as much as he could in his state. The hound was jumping around them all, chirring. Temperance noticed his gaze and jogged to him and tickled him with his antennae.

Mary was holding something at the edge of Roy’s vision.

“What is it?”

“Two last cards.”

“The cards, right.”

She held them out over him so he could see.

One was the Planet — the globe of Mars as he undoubtedly recognized the peak of Olympus and the Noctis Labyrinth south of the mountain, but the planet itself was of unusual colors, greens and blues and whites and yellows, so blindingly bright.

The last card was the Shadow, a familiar figure of Errant. He was imposing, clean-shaved and wearing the dark coat of Abundance Technomancer. His gaze was unyielding and his eyes completely dark, iris and sclera alike. There was a silhouette, a shadow standing behind him, in the shape of a man, but not quite. It was shifting and changing right before Roy’s eyes.

He thought about the shadow he had seen before waking up here, and he averted his eyes from the cards.

Tenacity’s jacket was open, as he usually wore it, a show-off, and there was nothing except the usual scars on his side. He caught Tenacity’s gaze, and the headhunter nodded, smiling. “It’s gone,” he said quietly.

Roy started laughing and groaned in pain. His whole body was hurting, but he didn’t seem to be burnt. Weird.

He remembered being burnt to the core.

The soft wind touched him again, and he could smell something strange, moist and salty…

He turned his head to the right.

“Huh. That is what they call ‘an ocean’, right?”

It was enormous. It was lapping almost at his side, and if he stretched his right arm, he could almost touch the water… So much water.

“I guess, that solves our thirst,” he commented.

Innocence turned his face, too. “Yes, Roy,” he murmured. He didn’t seem to get off Roy soon.

Roy didn’t mind it. He didn’t mind it at all.

***

And then, the whales returned.