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THE BEGINNING

*

When the nights were long, and the days were deep, there lived a girl and her father. All girls are filled with magic, but this girl had more magic than most. There was so much magic, and it was so bright, that she couldn’t contain it. It spilled out of her mouth and the tips of her fingers and even the ends of her hair. It transformed everything she touched. But in the end, it wasn’t enough to save her father from the dark.

 *

צורת המלחמה נמצאת בלב
The shape of war lies in the heart.

 *

~Day 0~

Lucy drifts.

Without instructions from the team, she is lost.

Solar flares lick out from the fifteen million-degree sun as the necropolis elevator gently spins into oblivion. She calculates that it will take exactly zero point nine four hours to enter the outer coronasphere and disintegrate.

From this angle the sun is quite, quite beautiful.

Finally, she initiates protocol ‘Thunderstruck’ and hits re-heat on the burners, begins to manoeuvre back to the Rack. She cannot allow John Jaqobis and D'avin Jaqobis to die. They are just too pretty.

As for that bitch-queen Delle Kendry, she can burn in hells.


 

"Oh, for the love of trees." Kendry is about to rip both their hands off. "If we survive this I'm going to smash your heads together.”

"He started it," says John.

"You and your tawdry," Kendry continues, "déclassé, preposterous apostrophes—"

"What's wrong with apostrophes?" says D’avin, "I resent the implication that apostrophes are somehow sub—"

"Would everyone stop saying the word 'apostrophe'—" John attempts.

"Enough," Kendry cuts him off, crushing his hand. "We need a plan. We can't just sit here, bickering and sailing into the sun."

"Agreed," D’avin says.

"Fine," Kendry lets go of them both and levels an imaginary playing-field with her hands, speaks slowly as if she is centering her chakras, "now that we’ve stabilised, you can get us a status report from that control panel over there."

"Stay strapped in," D’avin’s eyes lower momentarily to her abdomen, "just in case."

The boys unbuckle themselves and head for the door on the other side of the elevator.

"You've had, what," John keeps his voice low, tinkering with the control panel, "a week to come to terms with this shit-storm and you're already picking out names? I don’t buy it.”

D’avin ignores that. "How long ‘til C-O-two toxicity?"

“About a week, based on the capacity of both capsules.”

“Oh,” D’avin says, "that’s not terrible. It's not good, but—”

“I’m more worried about the rad that’s coming at us. We'll be fryin' before we're cryin'."

"Then how long until we fry?"

"Long before anyone reaches us," John looks at his brother with something approaching an apology, "or even realises what's happened." 

"Okay, so we jettison Delle Seyah out into the black. The depressurization'll shoot her out in the opposite direction—"

“Mmm,” John considers with a tip of the head, "just one teensy problem with that. Can’t open the door from the inside when the elevator’s not docked. It has a three-stage mechanism, like the old docking pods.”

“Well find a way, then,” D’avin says through his teeth.

“This thing’s analogue, remember. I’m not a magician.” He looks at D’avin oddly.

“What?”

“But you are.”

Kendry interrupts. “What are you two whispering about over there?”

D’avin looks at her. “Gimme some of that green.”

“What?” she says, “no.”

“Your life depends on it.”

Kendry sighs, extracts her small metal box of green from her bra and offers it to D’avin as if she were merely passing around mints. He dips his finger in it and brings it over to John. Kendry glares at him as she snaps the box shut.

John holds his PDD against the console to show the schematic inside. D’avin drips the green from his finger into a fissure in the panel and it works its way into the circuitry. Then it reaches the part that John wants to fry. “Now,” he says.

D’avin makes it go pop and it fizzes. “Point Team Awesome Force,” he says.

"So we can add that to the list of shit you can do," John says in a low voice, "breaking tech."

“What did you just do?” says Kendry.

“You’re not gonna like it,” D’avin says.

“Just so you know,” says John, programming his PDD to tell them when is the best time to open the door, the last possible moment, “I’m not super into this, either.”

"What choice do we have?"

"If she can call Hullen off, she can tell them to come get us.” John sticks his device to the control panel.

“They don't get here ‘til burn O'clock, she survives, we die anyway. I'll take my chances."

John looks down, leaning on the console, fatigued. "D’av—"

"Hullen can survive in deep space. Someone'll pick her up eventually, and the child-"

"D’av," John's lean becomes lower, weaker suddenly, and he chokes out a bubble of red mucus, “think I'm bleeding."

"Shit." D’avin takes his weight and lays him down gently. When he pulls his hand away it's covered in blood from John's wound. D’avin rips his jacket open and lifts the bandages. "Give my left ball for a field med-kit right now."

"I'd love to see that." Kendry waddles over and pulls something out of a panel under the console. She hands it to D’avin over his shoulder. "This thing is made to carry royalty. Think they're gonna leave us without emergency supplies?"

D’avin unpacks the med-kit and rifles through the dressings. It's all twenty years out of date. Blood seeps around John's torso and pools on the floor. "Shoulda listened to Zeph."

"And leave you to get inciner—" John gurgles through blood, "—ated all by yourself? You have all the fun."

"Delle," says D’avin, "give me your sash."

"Seyah." She juts her chin. "You will address me by my proper title at all times-"

"Now." He glares at her.

"This is silk," she says as she takes it off and petulantly hands it over, "tell me you're not gonna—and there it goes. Don't know why I bother."

"Should absorb blood better than the gauze." D’avin leans on John's wound. "Your supplies are shit. Go strap yourself down before the gravity reverses again and you give yourself a concussion. Make yourself useful and raise help."

“I thought you two just agreed you couldn’t trust Hullen.” Kendry buckles herself back into her seat and tries the green again.

“Yeah, well, shit just got a helluva lot more real.”

“I have to say, I admire your dedication to each other.”

“Delle,” D’avin growls.

She sighs, tries the green again. "Nothing. Must be the radiation." She sucks the plasma off her fingers and snaps the box shut.

"Keep trying," he says to her, then turns back to John, shakes him, pats his cheek. "John." No response. "John. Shit. He needs fluids."

He tips the last of the medical items out of the case, uncaps the hypo and gives John a shot, feels for a pulse.

"What was that?" Kendry licks her lips.

"Epinephrine. He's going into shock." D’avin gathers his brother in his arms and staggers over to the seating area. "Sorry, Johnny." He arranges him carefully on the cushions and buckles a couple of the harnesses around him. He only just manages to fasten his own harness. There is a sudden jolt as the elevator changes direction and is grabbed by the sun's gravity, cancelling out the elevator's artificial version.

Kendry's hair flows towards the ceiling. "That was close," she looks D’avin up and down, "wouldn't want to bruise the baby-daddy, now would we?"

"John programmed his PDD to tell us the optimum moment to blow the hatch and shoot you out into space."

"You're going to—" she swallows, "I'd rather roast."

"All you have to do is open the door. You're going to survive and you're going to live bitchily ever after, so quit complaining."

Kendry begins to hyperventilate. "I can't—I mean, what's going to happen to—it's going to hurt—"

"Well, yeah," says D'avin, unused to the concept of Delle Seyah Kendry actually being scared and vulnerable, "getting spaced hurts. You haven't been Hullen very long. You don't know what you're capable of."

"And you do?"

"We've done... experiments. You can stay in suspended animation indefinitely. But it won't come to that. Someone will pick you up."

"And I'm supposed to raise this child on my own without any—" There is another jolt and the gravity reverses again—"hope of finding Aneela?"

"Woman please," D’avin closes his eyes in pain, "just a moment's peace. Your voice is gratin' on me." But after a while he opens them again, looks at her. "Just do one thing for me."

"I suppose I could do one thing."

"Take my device. I left a letter for Dutch, in case anything ever happened to me. If you find them—She'll know what to do."

Kendry takes the PDD and secrets it in her brassiere. "For what it's worth—"

"For what it's worth," D’avin scoffs.

"For what it's worth, you're a good man. You're... fair."

"Thought you were going to say uber-masculine, but thanks. I think." D’avin cradles John's head. “You didn’t ask for this either.”

“No,” she says, and he can detect the merest hint of anger towards Aneela. “I didn't know she was going to do this. If I had I would've stopped it. Not like I ever planned to be tied to someone like you for eighteen to life.”

“Ditto. But you know, you’re just the surrogate. Not like you have visitation rights.”

Kendry almost laughs. “I have just as much license as you.”

“You have zero claim to her according to Qreshi law. Wonder who instituted that? Oh, right, that’s it, Land Kendry. Oops.”

“Starting to see the error of my ways. Don’t rub it in.”

“Can’t help it if I have an overdeveloped sense of irony.”

They sit in silence for what seems a long time. Kendry looks down at her belly, passes her hands over it. She looks almost human. "D'avin, can I ask you something?"

"If you must."

"What makes you think she's a girl?"

He looks up. "I can just feel it. Something to do with the green."

She smiles. "I feel it too."

D’avin takes her hand and squeezes it, and John's blood is on her. “You have to protect her.”

“I will.”

“And you have to get back to my people, warn them about this 'Lady', tell them everything you told me.”

“And who’s to say they won’t lock us up?”

“A risk you’ll have to take. This is your penance, princess, the Quad’s in your hands now. Do not let it down again.”

They continue spinning in the orbit of a yellow sun until the PDD attached to the elevator control panel comes to life.

"Heat-shield failure imminent," says the serene voice of John’s app.

Kendry places D’avin's hand on her belly. It makes a large, red print. "Well, I guess this is it."

"Don't be afraid," he says, watching her as she leaves the harness behind, "the green will protect you both."

"All I have to do is press the key?" She looks back.

"Optimum altitude in nine, eight," drones the app.

"Delle," D’avin says.

"Yes."

"Tell her who I was."

"I will."

"Three, two—"

"Try not to make me sound like a complete dick."

"One. Optimum altitude reached."

"Wait." Kendry puts her ear to the door. There is a sound of drilling on the other side.

She pushes the button.

Chapter Text

מופיעים חזק כאשר אתה חלש וחלש כאשר אתה חזק

Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.

—Sun Tzu, The Art of War

~Reckoning Night~

 

“Oh, and the baby. It's yours."

D’avin groans, stepping off Lucy’s ramp. “Sorry I knocked up your mortal enemy.”

"It's alright. I got her right where I want her."

"In the brig? Sure that's the right place for an expectant mother?" 

“She's not the mother,” says John, licking his lips with ironic glee, “that would be Aneela.”

“Well, shit.” D’avin blinks. “Oh, that's clever. She's clever. She thinks this is going to protect her.”

They walk companionably in the direction of the bazaar.

“I have to say,” John frowns, “you’re taking this really well.”

“Sorry to ruin your smug moment, but what’s the use of freaking out? I’m working through a lot of anger issues at the moment. Meditation’s really paying off.”

“Okay, well maybe you could use some of that 'om nama shivay' for a little insight, figure out how she did it.”

“Jerked me off in my sleep?”

“It is a little hard to believe this isn’t due to your prodigiously errant junk. Maybe you went on one of your little mind-control walkabouts.”

“Why would Khlyen make me do that?”

“You two do have a complicated relationship.”

“Sometimes I respect him, y’know, but sometimes I just wish I still had the opportunity to carve his face off.”

“That’s it,” John soothes, patting him on the shoulder, “you express yourself, bro.”

“But I don’t believe he’d force his own daughter into this.”

“I don’t know, he was going to have her assassinated by Dutch.”

“Fair point.”

“Ah,” John stops, realisation hitting him, “stem cells. Radek took samples of cerebrospinal fluid from both of us. The day we raided the Rack.”

“I’ll bet that’s it." They are still a little way from civilisation. D’avin exhales hard and sits on the grass, resting his forearms on his knees. "Who else knows?”

“Delle Seyah, obviously. And Zeph. Told her I'd tell Dutch.”

D’avin thinks, picks a blade of grass and throws it away. “I’ll tell her.” 

John sits beside him. “Not how you envisioned your life turning out?”

“Not like this. Not on the eve of war. And definitely not with the psycho-bitch from hell.” He shakes his head almost humorously. “I’ve been super careful all my life and this still happens? This is bullshit.”

“Way I see it, this is no different to Gunnar Thomson getting Molly Roesch pregnant on prom night.”

“This isn’t prom, Johnny,” D’avin looks at him, “the stakes are a little higher than that.”

“What I mean is, people get thrust into situations like this all the time. They adapt.”

“What happened to those two anyway?”

“Far as I know, they were happy.”

“Ugh,” D’avin rubs his face with both hands, “what are we going to do?”

“Hundred percent biology problem. John no fix.”

“No shit.”

“So, you want the good news or the bad news first?”

“Good. I suppose.”

“It’s definitely fully human.”

“No green?”

“No green.”

“Thank the gods. And the bad?”

“Hullen one-oh-one. They can’t reproduce, right? Not true anymore. Now they can create spontaneous life. Spontaneous life with your immunity, Hullenesque regeneration and accelerated growth. We don’t even know what other powers it’ll have. If it’s anything like you or Aneela, we’re—”

“Totally screwed.”

“Presenting humanity’s replacement.” John shows him the ultrasound on his PDD. “Congratulations. It's the end of the world.”

He takes the device. It’s just a scan. A grainy, black and white scan. But it does something weird to his insides. Like his organs are burning. Like all his blood is flowing out and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. It’s not supposed to be like this. You’re supposed to plan. You’re supposed to make an informed decision. Okay, so the possibility was there at the back of his mind. There was scuttlebutt around the Rack, people lowering their voices as he passed. Not that he cares what people think. But he never entertained the notion that Kendry might be telling the truth.

The whole entire truth.

“I didn't know it would feel like this,” he breathes.

“Dammit D'avin, don't you fall in love.”

“Ew. Not with that psychopath.”

“Not her, the baby. You know, I wanna say everything’s gonna be alright, but,” John pauses for air, “I don’t think it is.”

D’avin looks out across the countryside. The night is fresh, and the stars are bright. Eventually he speaks. “We don't get to create something and then abandon it.”

“Like Aneela did with Yalena?”

“That's the ass-hole thing to do. We're not ass-holes.”

“This is the Hullen screwing with us, D'av. Using your compassion against you. And you’re falling for it hook, line and sinker, like they knew you would.”

“It’s an innocent child. A normal human child. You said so yourself. It deserves a chance to know its parents, have a stable life.”

“It’s going to destroy us all. It’s not an opportunity for you to play house.” John grasps his shoulder, squeezes it meaningfully. “I shouldn’t have to explain to you how ugly this could get.”

D’avin breathes painfully a couple of times. “You don’t tell anyone about this. Zeph doesn’t tell anyone about this. Are we clear? I think,” he squeezes his eyes shut, “I think I know a way to fix it. We just need to get through the next few days in one piece.”

“Okay, but whatever happens, Delle Seyah is mine.”


 

D’avin holds John close and braces himself for the inevitable out-bound rush of air and certain death that comes with depressurizing in deep space.

The elevator door opens on the scene of Zeph and Pippin standing in Lucy's docking bridge, holding drilling equipment. Cool air-conditioning swirls in and around the elevator and it is delicious.

D’avin and Zeph stare at each other for a split-second, and during this time he thinks she is the best person he has ever known. She shakes out of her shock and yells, "medic!"

***

Once safe in the cargo hold, Kendry exhales her relief. "How long were your people eavesdropping on our conversation?"

"You're welcome." D’avin looks hurt.

“Chop-chop,” she glares at him, “get them onto getting the girls back.”

“One moment, for gods’ sake.” D’avin holds his hand up. He helps Zeph deposit John on a stretcher, and the ministrations of the medic bring him round.

"John," says the medic, moving rapidly to scan him, "I'm Shamir Tutte. I'm a college friend of Pawter's. You've got an acute pulmonary oedema, which means I'm going to have to intubate you, Okay? Make sure you're not losing oxygen."

John coughs as the tube goes in his nose and down to his lung.

"I gave him half a mill of adrenaline," says D’avin, still breathing heavily.

"Oh, that's nice," says Shamir, still working, "thanks for telling me. May be acceptable on the battlefield, but in the real world we like our patients to stay alive for more than half an hour."

"It worked though," says D’avin.

Shamir checks under the silk sash and sets about packing John's wound and pushing crystalloid into his IV. He puts a drain into his left lung and thin, bloody fluid evacuates into a bottle.

"He's stable," Shamir takes D’avin away from the table a little way and lowers his voice, "but we need to get him to a medical facility as soon as possible. I'm gonna pull strings and get him the very best."

"Thank you."

"For Pawter," says Shamir. "She always was a sucker for the accident-prone." He turns his attention back to his equipment.

"Lucy, you came back," says John, weakly. "Who's a good girl?"

"I'm a good girl, John."

"Yes, you are."

"What about those shiny new turbo-encabulators you promised me?"

"That'll set me back thousands."

"But I'm worth it, John."

"Yes, you are," John coos.

“He gonna live?” Kendry wrinkles her nose.

“About that,” D’avin turns to her. “I, uh, don't know if I can stop him if he gets a bit revenge-y.”

“Then why should I help you?”

“Because this Lady you speak of is coming for you too. Strike a deal. I will protect you in exchange for all your intel. Final offer.”

“Why would I waste my one tactical advantage?”

“Because you know it’s right.”

Cogs turn. Now that they are no longer playing within the confines of an elevator lost in space, the rules have changed. Not for the better. “No,” she says, almost relishing his dismay.

“Shame. We could have made this work. But now I have to do this.” D’avin presses the hypo he's been hiding into her neck.

She crumples into a fall and he scoops her up and places her on the work bench. Zeph begins hooking her up to monitors.

“What the hells are you doing?” says John.

“Fighting dirty.”

“D’avin, this is not what we discussed.” John looks at his brother in bewilderment. "All that talk of names and doulas and shit—"

"Was to lull her into a false sense of security." D’avin helps to arrange Kendry on the table.

"You planned all this?" John winces as he coughs.

"Uh-huh. Had them on standby, waiting for the right moment to strike.” D’avin rumages in Kendry's cleavage to retrieve his PDD and the small box of green.

"Aren't you supposed to buy them dinner first?" says Zeph.

"What's she doing?" John turns his head to look at Zeph, now taking equipment out of crates.

"Prepping for a caesarean," says D’avin, "I'm taking this baby. And then I'm taking out the trash."

“What about the intel?”

“I'll take it straight from her head anyway.” He surveys her slumbering body almost sadly. “Just thought she deserved a chance to do the right thing. Turns out I was wrong.”

"Uh, D'avin," Pip's voice comes over comms from the cockpit, "you'd better get up here."

D’avin briefly locks hands with John. "It's gonna be alright." And then he wipes the blood from his hands with an engine rag and climbs the ladder. John is left helplessly watching Shamir and Zeph. He doesn't believe him.

***

Pip is at Lucy's con. He glances up at D’avin. "We're getting sucked into the sun's gravity. You were out there far too long."

"Lucy, you lettin' this cowboy ride your controls now?" D’avin slips into the co-pilot's seat.

"He has nice hands," she says, "I don't mind them on me."

"Rev it up old girl," says D’avin.

"Thrusters already at 98 percent. Compensating for computational dilution. Crossing rubicon in three. Two. One. One. One. Oh, dear. I seem to be stuck on the rubicon. Ow. It burns."

"Give it a little more, Luce," says D’avin touching controls. "Divert power from all non-essential systems."

"Even the air conditioning?"

"Yes, even the air conditioning. Didn't that prince of yours prepare you for this?"

"Unlike you, he was not a fan of flying too close to the sun. I have diverted power from every available non-life-support system. Sorry D’avin, I have nothing left to give."

"Lucy, do you want to fall into a solar flare and explode?"

"You could try manually removing the containment field around my glow plugs, that would give you a twelve percent increase in power."

"We'd all be irradiated," says D’avin.

"It's hardly my fault you are all squishy. My fuel is almost depleted. In two minutes we will be dead in the water."

"Everyone think happy thoughts," says Pip.

There is a clank as Fancy and Spider lock on to them with a grapple from Fancy's Falcon. "Hey Spider," says Fancy to his co-pilot over comms, "what say we tow this pile-o-junk to the scrap heap?"

D’avin lifts his chin in gratitude. "Love you too, Fancy."

"Sounds like a Sunday drive," says Spider coolly, as the jump-ship begins to tug them out of the coronasphere.

"I am not going to the scrap heap," says Lucy, "I still have a lot to give."

"He's joking, Lucy," says Pip.

"Would it be appropriate to laugh now?" says Lucy.

"Probably save that for later," says D’avin.

“Oh yeah,” says Fancy, “I almost forgot. Turin wants a chat.”

"Piggy-back comms, we have a lot of interference from the rad."

Soon enough, Turin comes on. "What the hells is going on?"

“Capsule version, we failed to capture Aneela and now we’ve got Delle Seyah instead.”

“What’s she doing there?”

“She went after us when your idiot guards let her escape. We made her call off the troops.”

“So, did the Terrible Twins kill each other or not?”

“Dutch and Aneela are in a pool of plasma inside the necropolis.”

“What?” Turin’s voice is loaded with confusion and annoyance.

"While we were playing battleships, the necropolis was Aneela’s target all along. I’ll explain everything when we get back.”

“This is Cardiff,” another voice comes through, “we have telemetry showing the necropolis is untethered and sailing too close to the sun.”

“Yeah, that’s our fault,” says D’avin.

“Then how in the hell are we going to reach them?” Cardiff sounds pissed.

“We’ll figure it out.” D’avin grimaces, takes a deep breath. "Spider, Fancy," he barks. "Download the necropolis's security footage."

***

Fancy slingshots Lucy back toward the Quad, but they make it to Leith without enough fuel for a safe landing.

“We are travelling at over fifty thousand kilometres per hour, John,” Lucy says, "I no longer have access to my retro-burners. I will not be able to decelerate enough to land safely."

John speaks quietly to Lucy about a manoeuvre they've discussed for emergencies, and in response she begins to dip into Leith’s thermosphere. "You can do this girl," he says, his eyes squeezing shut, as her body-work rattles and creaks. Everyone braces themselves for the worst, Shamir protecting John and Zeph strapping Kendry down before securing herself.

***

Leithian farmers watch Lucy scream through the upper atmosphere like a meteorite and she does almost a complete revolution before she is able to contemplate landing. She skims through layers of atmosphere like a ballet. They come in hot and skid into a field, losing several tiles on the way. The landing gear makes huge furrows in the land and she spins one-eighty to a stop.

***

As soon as Lucy comes to a standstill, D’avin scrambles to the hold.

Shamir greets him, holds him back with an arm around his waist. "We have to do this thing now, otherwise—" Shamir glances over at Kendry. She is breathing evenly, and the baby's heart beat is steady. "I don't know how long the paralytic is gonna hold her down. She’s stronger than the others."

"Be honest, what're the baby’s chances?" says D’avin.

"She's strong. The lungs are well developed and there's no reason to believe there'll be any complications. I'm uh, I'm gonna need you to scrub in, though. I need you to suppress her plasma for just long enough to complete the procedure—"

"Yeah, of course—" He cleans himself up with the equipment that Zeph offers while Shamir lays down a large plastic sheet on Lucy's deck.

John has been watching all of this with wide eyes. He is sitting up now, against doctor's orders. "D'avin, have you actually lost your mind?"

"We practiced it on Hullen corpses." D’avin tucks his sleeves up.

"And I've done it on sheep," adds Zeph.

John blinks, trying not to imagine the scene. “We really should have discussed this,” he says, but everyone is busy with the equipment.

"Constance?" says D’avin.

"En route," says Zeph.

With Zeph as his assistant, Shamir laser-scalpels into Kendry's abdomen.

D’avin places his hands on Kendry's temples. He uses just enough power to keep the green away from the incision and to keep it open, control the plasma coursing through her body, but not enough to explode her brain. He rocks with the effort, looks like he is going to pass out.

It is a strange kind of birthing pain. Such as the universe has never seen.

The incision is attempting to close, but Shamir manages to cut through adipose and muscles and uterus. Zeph provides retraction with clamps and suction for the amniotic. Their faces are the picture of concentration.

Lucy opens her cargo bay door and Constance sweeps in, her long dress fluttering, her face pensive. She dumps her bag beside John and reassures him briefly with a hand on his arm.

John feels powerless. He doubles in pain at the crater burrowing into his chest.

Constance puts her hands on D’avin's shoulders and presses her body into his back, supports him. Very quickly the baby is born. She is lifeless in Shamir's hands, covered in vernix and bloody tissue. She has a fair amount of hair.

D’avin is exhausted.

"Cut the cord." Zeph guides his hand, and the baby is free.

Shamir places her in D’avin's palms. "Healthy girl," he says.

"Why isn't she breathing?" D’avin scans her tiny, clenched up face. His heart thumps in his chest. It is terrifying.

Without D’avin's powers, Shamir and Zeph struggle to deliver the placenta. They are absorbed with Kendry's welfare now.

"Come on," D’avin breathes like he has nothing left, willing life into his infant daughter. Constance cleans the mess from the baby's face. It has been precious seconds now. D’avin places his mouth over her mouth and nose and sucks, spitting mucus onto the deck. He massages her tiny chest. "Come on little person. You have to live—" Finally there is a piercing mew and she kicks and wriggles into life.

He and Constance look at each other in a burst of relief.

"This is the second child to be delivered on my decks, D'avin," says Lucy, powering down. "I hope this is not going to become a regular occurrence."

Tears stream down D’avin's face. He is shaking as he goes out into the cool autumn night, holds the baby up, according to Telan custom. "Her name is Ylessa," he says, "born of Leith. And these are her stars."

Chapter Text

~Day 1~ 

"Hello again," the nurse—Richard, John reads from his ID—adjusts the angle of John's head-rest, "you Jaqobies almost qualify for frequent flyer miles."

John smiles. "Makes it worth getting stabbed repeatedly."

"Your wound's not healing because of the dreadnought's exotic alloy." Shamir replaces his chart at the end of the bed. "I've got it down in the lab for analysis. Until they're done, I’ve recommended flushing the wound with different solvents, see if we can't debride it a little."

"That," John winces, "doesn't sound like a day at the spa."

"Don't worry," says Shamir, “we'll put you under first."

Richard leaves, but John grasps Shamir's sleeve, speaking low. "I'm gonna need that back when they're done."

"Yeah, of course."

"I can't let Company goons get hold of it."

Shamir frowns. "Surely it's to everyone's advantage if they're able to develop some kind of protection against the Hullen threat."

John blinks, considering his next move. "You don't have a clue, do you?"

"About what?" Shamir says.

John slips a pin out of his pocket. He quickly scratches Shamir on the arm before he can move away.

“Ow,” Shamir hisses, “what the—”

“Show me,” John says sternly.

There is thin red line. It does not heal.

“What the hells are you on?”

"Sorry. I had to do that.”

“She said you guys were crazy.” Shamir cradles his wrist. “I’ve a mind to call security.”

"Just trying to decide if I can trust you."

"John," he says, "I just saved your life and delivered your brother's child at great personal risk. I'm in this mess whether I like it or not. You don’t have to go poking me to find out if I’m green inside."

"Look," says John, "the incident with the walls on Westerley—it wasn't about suppressing a miner's union uprising. It was the company beginning to harvest bodies to be turned Hullen."

"What?" Shamir's eyes begin to shine with interest and disgust.

"That's why we blew Spring Hill to smithereens. They were filtering out the weak from the strong, those who would make the transition safely, had a conversion lab in the basement."

"That's what Pawter was trying to stop?"

"Company are sharing bed with those green bastards and we have no way of knowing who’s legit."

"I promise you, I had nothing to do with it. I had no idea."

"I believe you. But it would help to have someone on the inside. This is your chance to really make a difference, 'stead of stitchin' up Qreshi frat-boys after a stag."

Shamir thinks for a few beats. "When your brother contacted me, I thought this was about the child."

"It is," John looks down. He can't contemplate that right now. "But for all D'avin's faults he's a great judge of character. He knew you'd give a shit if you knew how close we all are to annihilation."

Shamir snorts humourlessly. "Yesterday morning I was giving someone a rhinoplasty. I get a call, next thing I know I'm on the Rack eviscerating a Hullen corpse.”

"Yeah, why did you answer the call?"

"Last I heard of Pawter she wanted to give your brother my number, in case something happened to her. Said he was an interesting case, wasn't comfortable with doctors, could do with a good one. Well, turns out it is an interesting case." He pauses. "John, are you alright?"

John shakes his head absently. "Yeah, yeah, fine. I, uh, just another thing I'm not in the loop about."

"Look, I'll get you the dreadnought back, keep an eye on things, report if anything suspicious comes up in the medical sector. You can trust me. I'm not gonna tell anyone what I've witnessed today. For the sake of that child."

"He's really gone too far this time." John sighs.

"It sounds like you need to straighten things out. You need the support of your family at a time like this."

"Yeah." John says. "I suppose you're right."

"Let's get you patched up and get you back to them, 'kay?"


 

D’avin stares into space.

He is falling through the sky and there’s nothing to catch him.

All he wants is to hold her, feel the way she clings so desperately as she comes, silently shuddering, his salvation and her release. The scratch of her nails down his back. The fleeting, reassuring grasp of a hand when they’re sure no-one is looking. Recent research suggests he’s allowed to yearn for her. Once you collate all the evidence, pathetic as it is. But now she’s in the green, he’s stopped dreaming of her, can’t conjure her face because it gets mixed up with Aneela, and it is agony. His heart is fleeing his body, to know that she is gone.

Instead he thinks of the time they'd danced in front of a storm, playing John's stupid game, hands clasped and examining each other's eyes for the truth.

Dutch, do you trust D'avin?

Lucy had played 'Love Song', as acid rained down onto Old Town, and something had changed. He'd dared to believe he was worth something. Because she wasn’t giving up. Now the wanting and the being-wanted are replaced with the crushing realisation that he’s responsible for a tiny person.

He still cannot believe what he has done.

***

It is dawn, and they are in the corner of a tea-house on Leith, Constance nursing Ylessa at her breast. The baby's eyes are closed and she drinks deep draughts.

He has sent Pip and Zeph off to refuel Lucy and click her damaged tiles back into place. People in the community are subdued, yet they still manage to go about their daily business. News of the day's events have travelled quickly, but mercifully, they don't know who D'avin is, that he gave orders resulting in so many lost lives. For a while he can bear this burden alone. He brings Constance tea.

She breaks the vacuum between the baby's lips and her areola with a finger and passes her to D’avin, fastens her blouse.

D’avin burps Ylessa on his shoulder, then cradles her in the crook of his left arm, bouncing and swaying until she falls into a deep sleep. Constance watches him. "Super rock," he says, "from the Peorean hill-folk. Four bounces left, four bounces right, fifteen sways per minute. Emulates the mother's walking pattern."

"You're really good at this stuff.” Constance sips tea gratefully. “Sure you didn't miss your vocation?"

"Nah," he says, still swaying, "just dealt with a lot of refugee crises, that's all. What is it, three now? Forgive me, but I don't know how you can do it."

"It's easier when you know there are parents waiting for them. Could say I have the best of both worlds."

“I still feel kinda bad about tearing you away from the Koepkes, though.”

“It was my choice. And besides, it was time to move on.” She thinks for a minute, rearranging her clothes. Smiles. But it is a smile that conceals all the pain of leaving babies behind. Even though they weren’t hers to begin with. "Would you ever give her up?"

D’avin looks at Ylessa's closed eyelashes, her impossibly tiny fingernails. Why in the hells would anyone want to give her up? Then all the pain of the past comes flooding back. He tries not to think of his banishments, tries not to think of Dad. "Not for all the worlds."

"That's because she has your DNA. She's your legacy. And that's all you really have."

They look at each other for a moment and D’avin is thankful. "Even if it's a stolen legacy?"

"Fertility is a gift, stolen or not."

"Then you are truly blessed." He is in no way sincere.

There is activity on the other side of the tea-room.

"Damn," Pree sweeps in, "you are hard to find—"

"We all had our comms blocked for security," says D’avin.

"—and damn, girl, you move fast." Pree dibs down the baby's swaddling and touches her cheek. "For once, I am speechless. Only you could go to war and come back with a baby."

"We had to strike while the iron was hot."

"What happened to the plan, hmmm?"

"The plan went out the window the moment the girls went into that pool of green."

"Crap," says Pree, mulling over the consequences of it all and then realising something's amiss. "Where's Johnny?"

"Surgery." D'avin rubs the baby's back. "Aneela stabbed him. He'll be fine. Did they not tell you any of this?"

"Guess they thought it was low on the list of priorities, what with shit going down faster than a sailor on their first shore-leave. You know he's going to say you're being irresponsible."

"Irresponsible? Why do people only use that word when they're talking to me? I didn't ask for any of this. But I'm not gonna make a child suffer for it."

"I know, sweetie," Pree winces, "but that slime-bitch is gonna come down on you so hard."

"Bring it," D’avin continues, "I stand by what I've done and no-one's gonna tell me otherwise. Imagine growing up surrounded by Hullen shit-bags instead of plain-ol' human shit-bags."

"Well, she's here now," says Pree, as D'avin places her gently in his arms. “You are beautiful, yes you are."

"Try not to wake her."

"Guess you'll just have to make the best of it. What are you gonna do for joy, hmmm? Where are you gonna live? Westerley's already killing the children she's got, let alone another."

"She was born here. She has the right to remain," D’avin pauses, "Constance has been granted a leave of absence for as long as she wants. We can make it work."

"There’ll be people who don't take kindly to bio-hacked kids and you know they'll want to kill her."

"If anyone questions her rights," says D’avin, "I doubt they could do anything about it now."

"Well, I'm here for you." Pree exhales and places Y'lessa back in Constance's arms. "I just hope we're not all gonna regret this," he says in a sing-song voice.

Just then D’avin's PDD starts to vibrate. He takes it out of his back pocket, looks at the message. "War council."


 

Kendry opens her eyes. She feels weak, drugged, but she can discern that she still has the green coursing through her body. Everything comes into focus. She is lying on her face in the middle of the city square in Medidas where that sycophantic shit-stain Pippin Foster dropped her. Onlookers are gasping and gossiping. She moves her hands only to remember they are cuffed behind her. She feels like her organs are falling out. Her belly is empty.

She rolls onto her back.

"No," she utters, looking down to where her dress is still stained with Jaqobis' hand-print, blood spatters, "no—

The ice-cold light of realisation bursts into her foggy head. Aneela is going to be so, so, mad. She's going to have to kill someone now. Gut that barbarian Jaqobis like a wild pig.

She tries to get to her feet, but whatever they dosed her with makes her wobble. This combined with her tangled hair gives her the appearance of a demonic harridan, mourning for her lost loves. By-passers shift out of the way, frightened by her wrath.

How to get to Jaqobis? What weapon to use? But wait. There's something different about him. Aneela said he's immune, but there's something else, something that happened in the elevator. She stops her struggling and a cruel smile begins to spread across her face. Power. Power like Aneela's. She could use this. All the possibilities are swirling. She just has to be a better tactician than him. He is not going to win.

Company guards are beside her now, lifting her by the arms and saying, "time to come with us, Seyah."

"Mine," she growls as the guards drag her away. Mine—mine—mine—

Chapter Text

~Day 1 Continued~

There is a robed figure silhouetted in the passage as they come through the Rack’s docking bay scans.

“Who’s that?” says Constance, shifting the baby’s basket in her hands.

“Novice scarback who shouldn’t be here,” Pree frowns.

“Alvis’s ward,” says D’avin gently. He quickens his pace and comes into the light. “Quin?”

There are tears beginning in her eyes. She rushes D’avin, throws her arms around his waist, holds on tightly. “Alvis,” she says, her voice breaking.

“What?” says D’avin.

“Dear gods,” says Pree, anticipating the news.

“Aneela—” Quin chokes.

“Shit. What did she do?” says D'avin.

“He’s dead,” Quin spits out quickly.

The words hit D'avin like a punch in the gut. “What the hell?”

"No," breathes Pree.

“She stabbed him with his own knife,” sobs Quin.

D’avin lays a helpless hand on her head. “Did Dutch know?”

She nods. “She didn’t want to distract you.”

“Oh, sweetie.” Pree squeezes D’avin's shoulder.

***

“Well, ain't this just a bowl of sunshine,” says Turin. “Now explain. And skip the sprinkles.”

Ylessa wriggles and yawns in her willow basket on the desk. Six people stand around it, looking down at her.

"It’s bring your freaky alien kid to work day," says Cardiff.

“We expect a shotgun wedding any time soon?” says Fancy. “Because I’d need to press my slacks.”

“Has she got security clearance?” Cardiff hikes his thumb toward Constance, who is sitting in the corner.

“Anything you can say to me, you can say in front of her,” says D’avin.

“Where’s your brother?” says Turin.

“Surgery,” says D’avin, “I’ll update him later.”

“This has been an unmitigated disaster,” says Turin, “you know that. A total goat-rope.”

“And I take full responsibility for it,” says D’avin.

“It's not you that should be taking respo,” says Fancy.

“I don't think that was ever under debate,” says Vaal, adjusting his arm in its sling.

“But what is under debate is what to do while she's off 'finding' herself,” says Cardiff, with a dismissive wave.

“We have to face the possibility that Ms Yardeen may not be coming back from this,” says Turin.

“She's coming back,” says Zeph.

“You don't know how strong she is,” says D’avin, “don't lose faith now.”

“You're talking to me about faith?” Turin gestures toward the baby with an open hand. “This is what makes me lose faith. This shit picnic.”

“Look,” D’avin presses his knuckles into the desk, “I know what we discussed, but I just—I can't do it.”

“Not putting her on ice?” says Turin. “Big mistake. I’ve read the report. Do we really want the offspring of that lizard witch running around the Quad?”

"Put her in an orphanage," says Cardiff, "somewhere secure—"

"That's exactly what Dutch's father did to her," interrupts Pree, "and look at the world of trouble that's caused."

“Don't pretend to be heartless, Turin,” says Fancy, “we know you've got a kid.”

“If we take away her rights that makes us no better than them,” says D’avin.

“You don't need Turin's permission to keep your own kid,” says Fancy.

“No,” says D’avin, “but I do need his silence. All of your silence. Nothing we say today leaves this room. Are we all agreed?”

Everyone present says aye.

“We don’t know for sure that cryo would work on her anyway,” offers Zeph, breaking the silence. “Wait, Turin has a kid?”

"What does She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed say about all this," Turin waves a hand, "baby stuff."

"She doesn't know," D’avin looks down briefly, "that I've got the baby. We agreed that the compartmentalisation of information was essential for this to work. Any contact she had with Aneela would jeopardise the plan."

“Compartmentalisation?” says Cardiff. “You mean lies.”

"Well shit," says Turin, considering all the information. "This is her war. This is her vendetta with Aneela. She left you in charge, and this is what you do, you think the best strategy is to royally piss the bad guys off by abducting their Messiah?"

“Actually, it was John’s idea to use her as bait,” Zeph interjects, holding up a finger, “D’av was just following… his… heart. Nevermind.”

“I’ve got a much longer-term strategy in place.” Even D’avin would admit that he doesn’t sound that sure. "She needs someone with the skills to train her. Make sure she's on our side when the time comes. Teach her how to protect herself. Teach her compassion."

“Or they're just gonna let you do all the hard work and then come and take her when she's a fully formed killing machine,” says Turin.

"She could be the greatest weapon we ever had," says Cardiff.

"She's not a weapon," says D’avin. "She's a person. She has rights."

"You're sure she's yours?" Turin stalks around the desk.

"One hundred percent." D’avin watches him.

"And you're sure she's not green inside?" he continues.

"She's a perfectly normal human child," says D’avin, "except that she's indestructible."

"She's what now?" says Turin, coming back to his original place.

"Did I not mention that?” D’avin shares a glance with Zeph.

"Gods, did you not think to tell us this before you put her in a room with all the key figures in the resistance?" says Cardiff.

"She can hardly do anything to us now," says D’avin, "can she?"

"How do you know she's indestructible?" says Turin, slightly uncomfortable.

"We've tried a few things," says Zeph.

"Like what?" says Cardiff.

"She crushed the vaccination needles, so I tried a scalpel. It's impossible to break the skin," Zeph reads from her notes, "Aneela's mod of the telomeres completely rewrote multiple body systems, musculoskeletal, nervous system, way beyond normal hullenesque regeneration to support the myosyatin inhibition needed for hypertrophy. And she has an enhanced isofibrin matrix, which gives her a non-Newtonian response to force.”

"Which means?" says Turin.

"It means the harder you push," says D’avin, "the tougher she gets."

"Gods," breathes Cardiff, "even her eye-balls?"

"Those too," says D’avin.

"What about fire?" says Cardiff, "lasers?"

Fancy glances sideways at him, disgusted.

"Now you can understand my urgency to obtain custody of her," says D’avin, "we can't afford to have her as our enemy."

"Sweetie," Pree pats his arm, "that's assuming you can bring her up without pissing her off."

D’avin twists his mouth. "I'll take my chances."

“No matter what you do,” says Turin, “even if you do everything right, they always turn around and tell you they hate you when they get to teenage. Mark my words. Are you sure you want an epic super-powered temper-tantrum on your hands?”

“I have to try, Alfred. Don’t write her off before she’s even had a chance to prove herself.”

Pree looks at him then, knows what he’s thinking. He’s really talking about himself.

The baby is awake now, as if she knows they are talking about her. She looks up at D’avin with big grey-blue eyes and puts a foot in her mouth. To her father it seems she has grown already. He gently wipes the spit from her chin and tucks the blanket back around her more securely.

"Okay, let's focus on what's important here," says Turin, "How long is this gonna take?"

“Her accelerated growth means that she'll be fully grown in nine months." Zeph brings up more of Shamir's test results.

"As in," says Cardiff, "an actual adult?"

"Well," says Zeph, "the equivalent of an eighteen year-old. Her neuro-cortex won't be mature until she reaches twelve months."

Ylessa starts to cry, splitting the atmosphere in the office.

"Aw, crap," says Turin.

"Quite literally," says Cardiff, unhelpfully.

Constance springs into action, takes the basket off the table and comforts Ylessa.

“You’ve all seen the security feed?” says D’avin.

“Yeah, and it's a helluva way to break up,” says Turin.

“At least we know who we’re really fighting now,” says Cardiff

Pree blinks. "What do you think they're gonna do, merge into one?"

"I don't know," says D’avin honestly.

“Aneela said the baby is a way to close the door forever—” Turin begins.

“What does she mean ‘close the door’?” says Fancy.

“We're not sure,” says D’avin, “stop the Lady getting out of the green.”

“What the hells are those spider things?” says Cardiff.

“Why haven't we detected any activity from the black root docked at the necropolis pad?” says Vaal.

“I don't know,” D’avin throws his hands up, out of inspiration.

“Well, someone has to know,” Cardiff grasps the edge of the desk, “use your woo-woo powers, or something.”

“It’s not that simple.” D’avin looks at him with annoyance. “I need a sample of the actual plasma inside the necropolis. Our only other option is the Hullen flag-ship and that’s already way out of sensor range.”

“We find it then,” says Turin.

“And we need to stop poisoning pools until we find out where the core plasma came from,” says D’avin, “can’t risk accidentally killing their only way out.”

“What are your orders in the meantime?” says Vaal.

“They’re gonna come back with extreme predjudice so we need to position support in strategic places. Training is your top priority now. Keep training on a loop, and I’ll send Zeph along to do Hullen one-oh-one with the troops. What about our Company liaison?"

“I, uh," says Turin, "have a meeting with their reps. I'll keep you all appraised. We'll keep interstellar communications to an absolute minimum, keep normal killjoy operations going. It's gotta seem like there's still law and order in the Quad, or Oversight will be on our backs like a ton of shit bricks.”

“We meet again in two weeks,” D’avin concludes.

“What are you going to do?” says Fancy.

“Go to ground, keep moving around,” D’avin tells him.

“How will we find you?” asks Turin.

“I’ll find you. It’s safer that way. For all of us.”

“On your head be it,” says Cardiff.

"Your family's gonna be the death of me." Turin curses himself. "Super-soldier and an indestructible child, baby-mama split in two and stuck in that green shit, and a gun-toting teenage nun for a wet nurse. Gods help us all."

***

After the meeting they fall into step in the corridor.

“Fancy,” says D’avin.

“Yeah.”

“Thanks for the Hail-Mary pass.”

“You owe me one,” Fancy winks.

"Listen," D’avin scratches his nose, as everyone else goes on ahead of him, "we need more weapons in our arsenal. We only have a limited number of dreadnoughts and I can't be everywhere at once to save people's asses when they need a brain exploded. The Ferran are good, but they’ve never worked with an enemy like this before. Normal weapons won’t cut it. We have to be ready for anything this bitch throws at us."

"I'll work with the techs," says Fancy, "come up with something that doesn't require you to get quite so close and personal."

“Also,” he hesitates, testing the water, “I need a… confidant.”

“Thought that was your brother’s place.”

“Yeah,” he drawls, “John’s pretty pissed with me right now. Not sure when he’s gonna come out of it.”

Fancy blinks, considers his words. “You don't get an offer like that every day.”

“You’re a great logistician and I need someone to be my right hand while I’m indisposed.”

“I’m sure the knitting circle can survive without me. I’ll keep things ticking over until Daddy's li’l monster comes of age.” He stares for a moment.

“What?”

“Just thinking what might’ve happened if I’d fulfilled my warrant.”

“Try not to think about it. Your aim’s not that good anyway,” D'avin laughs and claps him on the back. But as they each take their leave, He thinks that Fancy is right. If it wasn’t for him, there would be no immunity. They wouldn’t have been able to kill the Arkyn plasma. There would be no Cleansed.


 

“You are charged with first degree murder,” Kalla Seyon Trus glares down at her from his place at the head of the council, “perverting the course of justice, war crimes and sedition. How do you plead?”

“Guilty,” she strains against her bonds, rasping through gritted teeth, “guilty as sin.” Her hair is tangled and there is someone else’s blood smeared up her face. She has been bound in the way Jaqobis advised, nerve cuffs and a bomb-collar, shackles on her hands and her feet. She’s no fighter, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

“Good,” he says, “then we can avoid a protracted trial. Delle Kendry of Land Kendry, you are hereby sentenced to hard labour for the rest of your natural life. Your crest will be stripped from the land registry and your assets transferred to the chatelaine of Land Lahani. May the trees look mercifully upon you. Do you have anything to say to the council?”

Their eyes meet. He sees something animal there, something he hasn’t seen before, even in their previous dealings. Kendry was ruthless before, but now? Now she is almost bestial.

“I'm gonna slaughter you ALL—” she slurs before she is dragged away and sedated.

Trus turns, with a pinched look, to the young Seyah Traculus at his side. “I was hoping for more of a formal apology.”


 

Constance snores lightly, fully clothed, on top of the blankets in the room the monastery has provided. Her right hand is in the baby’s basket and her left is on D’avin’s sidearm under her pillow.

Ylessa is fast asleep. He watches her for a while and her tiny chest rises and falls with, what seems to him, frantic frequency.

This is crazy, he thinks. He’s torn between this tiny person and the fate of the world. This must be how Khlyen felt, when he discovered Yalena. But what if everyone is right? What if he has lost his mind?

He fires off a message to John. How are you?

John pings back straight away. Copacetic.

Okay, D’avin thinks, it’s like that. We're fine, by the way. In case you were wondering.

He sits at the foot of the bed as if he is Constance’s servant. He has been awake for over thirty-six hours now. He is so tired he thinks he is going to vomit. But this is nothing. He once fell asleep standing up in the rain.

Just close my eyes for a second, he thinks. Can’t do any harm.

And then oblivion takes him.

 

Chapter Text

מקום קדוש

Sanctum [ˈsæŋktəm]: (noun) The holy of holies, a place of total inviolability.

*

~One week ago~

*

She is hanging her head in thought, leaning on the counter when John comes into the galley. “If you feel like tagging in," he says, "this’d be a good time. 'Cause he may look fine on the surface, but inside, he's totally freaking out.”

“You know I can’t do that.”

“Or, you know, the old plan B, running away, all three of us.” He gives her the old Jaqobis brand persuasion smile, but she won't look at him. “There’s still time to come up with a better plan. Would it really be so bad to die old and boring in our beds?”

“That was never going to happen, Johnny.” She rubs her face, more tired than ever, and folds her arms across her chest. “You fight for a noble cause. You do everything you’re supposed to do, and you save everyone who means anything to you. You retire. And then they all go and spectacularly screw it up again. Do you really want to watch that unfold? Better to go out with a bang.”

“Going out with a bang doesn’t necessarily mean suiciding.” He comes closer and grasps her elbows. “Because that’s what this is. I promised I wasn’t gonna do this, but I have to say it. Somehow everything has conspired to make sure that you don’t come out of this. And you know the worst thing? You’re happy about it. Like you’re atoning for Grey. Like you’re setting everything to rights. But this isn’t going to fix anything. You don’t get to be your own judge, jury and executioner.”

She softens, almost pitying. “The survival of the known universe depends on it. You do understand that, don’t you? This is over. I'm not going to be around anymore.”

He hangs his head. “Look, I know you're not gonna change your mind. And I won’t try to make you. But I won’t pretend to be Okay. This will never be Okay.”

She takes his big, stupid head in her hands and raises it up, giving him the dignity that he will not allow himself, and tears that were only threatening to spill now break free. “Then that’s what it is.” She puts her arms around him and they hug it out for a long time.


 

~Day 2~

The Green Space

It’s not blood coming out, but a silver liquid. A solid roundhouse kick to the head sends another faceless figure reeling to the ground, and they stack up like a pile of broken mannequins. “What are they?” she pants to Aneela who is fighting at her back.

“Figments of your imagination.” Aneela viciously slices the featureless mask of another, and another, as they surge into the cave.

“A little help here.” Dutch glances over at Khlyen who is standing in the corner looking proud.

“I’m just a memory. I can’t affect anything.”

“Lot of good you are,” Dutch mutters under her breath as she dispatches another figment. Her knife is dripping with the liquid and it runs down her hand and onto her arm.

“You can control them,” says Aneela, pushing the last figure off and stabbing it where its eye should have been, “we’re in your memory. It’s your immune system.”

“I don’t know how. It’s all rather new to me.” Dutch looks around at the cave walls. Hexagonal basalt studded with photonic crystals. The rock above the entrance appears unstable. It’s only a matter of time before more figments come through. She slips the knife through a belt-loop and starts pushing on one of the support struts. Thankfully, she’s much stronger in her own mind than in real life. She grunts with effort as Aneela joins her and soon rock begins to drop into the doorway. Dutch leaps back as the rock above the lintel avalanches at their feet.

Aneela wipes loose stands of hair from her brow with the back of a filthy hand. They both stand panting and looking at each other in relief and slowly clearing dust. “Your memory is a terrible place,” she says.

“Well, I’d hate to have a look in yours.” Dutch narrows her eyes at her.

“You already have.” Aneela smiles.

“Little bit,” Dutch concedes, and looks at Khlyen, who is still calmly inspecting the walls. She leans into a semi-sitting position on a craggy outcrop and begins to massage her aching shoulders. “What is it, then?”

Aneela inspects the silver liquid flowing out of one of the figment’s lacerated faces, cocking her head like a reptile. “Plasma.”

“It’s not green.” Dutch pokes the figment’s remaining eye-hole with the tip of her knife.

“That’s how it manifests in here. You can’t have a pool of green inside the green. You see it for what it really is. An organic quantum super-computer. I suppose the closest analogy would be your magnetic ferro-fluid.”

“That’s what the cool kids are calling it.” Dutch finally cleans her knife on her thigh, for want of a better material. “What the—”

“What?” says Khlyen, coming over.

There is an object in the corner of the cave, partly obscured by the fallen bodies. “Is that—” Dutch starts.

“A basket?” says Aneela, suddenly at her side.

Dutch steps over leaking mannequin arms and legs and torsos. She approaches cautiously, as if it were foe. “It is.” Her breath becomes shallow and her brow furrows.

“It’s not a dangerous wild animal,” Khlyen scolds, “it’s just a—”

“Baby,” breathes Aneela, and looks at Dutch in amazement. “I think I may have rather underestimated your D’avin.”

“I think we all did,” says Dutch, still stunned.

“I didn’t,” says Khlyen, smugly.

Aneela gazes down at the child with an utterly human expression of joy and surprise. It is unsettling. “Such love,” she says.

“Oh, D'avin," Dutch says, more to herself than anyone else, "what have you done?”

It is swaddled in what looks like Leithian linen, embroidered with oak leaves. Dutch crouches down, and her hand goes right through the basket and the slumbering child like an apparition. Aneela takes a step back, disappointed.

“Hmmm,” says Khlyen, “a wraith. She must project herself here in her sleep.”

“It’s a girl?” says Dutch.

“Aneela,” says Khlyen, “what did you do?”

“Very bad things.” She suddenly looks very sheepish and contrite. “Don’t be mad, Papa.”

“She stole his DNA and fashioned it into this,” Dutch struggles for the right word, “abomination.”

“She has an extremely shaky grasp of the physical sciences,” Aneela looks at her father, “I blame you for that.”

“She’s not an abomination,” says Khlyen, looking at them both in turn, “she’s your daughter. Yours and yours.”

“That is not my child,” Dutch prickles.

“Come now, little bird,” says Khlyen, “have a little compassion.”

“It’s not a question of compassion,” she says aggressively, “it’s a question of impossible. I have backwards DNA, remember, I can’t reproduce. I was never going to have to confront anything like this.”

“You and Aneela are the same person,” says Khlyen, “when are you going to try and understand that? You’re just on divergent paths. They will have to converge eventually. What’s hers is yours and what’s yours is hers.”

“You don’t understand. I can’t have a child with D’avin because we’re,” Dutch’s hand goes to her forehead, tangles in her hair, and she feels faint for some reason, “because we’re—”

“When you decided not to kill Aneela,” says Khlyen calmly, “you accepted certain truths. The truth that, yes, your boyfriend has a baby with your clone and if something happens to her in here, then you’re going to have to take her place.”

“We’re not—” Dutch looks up at him, swallows, “like that.”

“Oh, dear,” says Aneela, “it’s all fine and good when you can pretend it’s someone else’s problem.”

“I thought I was going to die,” Dutch says through gritted teeth. "We were supposed to die. We never discussed what would happen after that."

“But he’s gone and done the right thing again,” says Aneela, “hasn’t he?”

“Does he often defy you like this?” Khlyen begins unhelpfully. “Or—”

“But if what you said is true,” Dutch continues, “that she’s a way for the Lady to get out of the green, then we’re all screwed.”

“Little bird,” Khlyen strokes her cheek, “I rather think you underestimated the strength of a father’s love.”

“Don’t,” Dutch snatches his hand away, “do that.”

“You forget,” says Khlyen, not as stung as she wants him to be, “I’m a composite of the information uploaded before my death and your collective memories. I only do what you believe I’ll do. Or want me to.”

“If he truly has her,” says Aneela, “then the Lady is going to be searching for them very soon.”

“Yes, and that’s on you,” says Dutch, “so fix it.”

“Conception is a quantum probability event resulting in a chain reaction. I don’t think I can stop it.”

“You must.” Dutch bores into her with her eyes. “We must. The only way to protect them, and everybody else, is if we get to her first. We forge on.”

“She's waking up,” says Khlyen. The baby begins to wriggle and yawn, and then she disappears.


 

“Verdant monastery, pair of breasts half your age. Sure this isn't getting a little bit cult-y?”

D’avin looks into his PDD as he navigates the corridors. “Pree, you keep my feet on the ground. ‘Spose that’s what bartenders are for. Can’t be for actually pulling pints, right?”

“No honey, I just keep people drunk enough that they buy into my bullshit.”

“Besides, she’s sacrosanct.”

“Somehow that’s not better.”

“Thanks for checking up on us and making this creepy,” D’avin says, “but I have to go.”

“Don’t run yourself into the ground,” Pree says as he signs off, “or there’ll be hell to pay. Promised her I’d keep an eye on you.”

Constance comes out of the room as he arrives and closes the door behind her quietly, so as not to wake the baby. They have developed a routine of protecting Ylessa and caring for her, and he’s quickly attuned himself to the baby's cries, running through a checklist of needs, hunger, loneliness and filthiness, of which there is much.

They’ve been sleeping in shifts because Constance is on Leith time and he's still on ship time. But he barely sleeps anyway. He’s too worried. He watches Ylessa all the time instead, in case she stops breathing or something. He is glad Constance is there to stop his fears careening out of control.

“She’s not normal,” she says, and there is almost humour behind her fatigue.

“I think we’ve established that. You know you can leave at any time.”

“No, D’avin, you know the formula has pesticides in it. I’m seeing this through.” There is a piercing cry from inside the room. Constance closes her eyes and leans back on the door in dismay. “Nooo,” she says, “I’ve only just fed her.”

“Go.” D’avin hikes his head in the direction of the communal living area. “Get a bath or something. Take care of number one.”

He ventures into the room and Ylessa is red-faced and damp and inconsolable. “Hey, hey, hey,” he says as he scoops her up, “what’s goin’ on, little bobbin?”

Her cries peter out to a wheezy mew as she realises she’s not alone. He changes her diaper, just in case, and sits on the bed with her in the valley of his lap. It has only been three standard days, but she appears to have aged by weeks, or even months. It is disorienting and, he has to admit, terrifying, more so than he imagines it would be for normal first-time parents. He is haunted by the things he’s seen in the plasma they took from Delle, conversations out of context, confusing images, but one thing he is certain of, something he can’t tell anyone.

Something in search of a name, a voice, Delle remembered Aneela saying.

It was Gander, Aneela’s second, who implanted Delle, when he was still under the witch’s spell. Aneela seems to think she’s a way to close the door, but D’avin is certain the Lady would only allow Ylessa’s conception as a means to get out of the green. She is a shell, a vessel meant only for possession. Well, he’s not having that.

An idea strikes him. If she is meant for the Lady, then she must have compatible qualities, perhaps far beyond his own powers. He puts a gentle pressure on her brain as if she were Hullen. He doesn’t really believe it will work and he is surprised when she screws her face up and bursts into genuine tears of pain. Shit.

“Shhh, I’m sorry,” he says, lifting her to his chest, “I’m so sorry. I won’t do that again, I promise.”

He leans back, propped up on the pillows so that she can listen to his heartbeat through his thin sweater. The baby roots around for her own hand, and her pulse flutters against his chest like the wings of a sparrow crashing against window glass. No wonder they used to call their loved ones Little Bird, he thinks. He understands now. He realises Khlyen’s love for Aneela, when they were both still human, and he’s angry because Dutch never had that, jealous on her behalf. For twenty years, she believed she’d been spirited away from all that she loved.

He prays he will never become so hard.

“It’s all gonna be fine, little girl.” He closes his eyes. “I will never let you go.”


 

“You killed my parents.” Louella Simms stands in the doorway. Her voice is a low growl, the sound of a woman who has lost everything and only has one person to blame for it. Her hair is lank and greasy and her jumpsuit is grimy, as if she has been staging a dirty protest. Maroon never suited her. Land Simms was always cerulean blue, even if Pawter wore it better.

“Your parents were the victims of radical insurrectionists,” Kendry sighs tediously, playing with the chains tethering her to the cold stone floor, “who will never be traced back to me.”

“Either way. You pay.”

“Don’t you dare,” Kendry narrows her eyes, “come anywhere near me. You stink.”

“People know you’re alive,” Louella saunters into the cell, “and a lot of them are pissed. If I kill you, I’ll be a hero.”

“How much do people—” Kendry moves away from her, wrinkling her nose.

“Oh, it’s all coming out now. Trus is broadcasting as we speak. And because of you, he now has a couple of scapegoats to pin this attempted invasion on.”

“Trus?”

“Haven’t you heard? He’s head of the council now. Took everything from me when I—” She dips her head and mutters to herself. “Should’ve killed him first.”

“Is that why you’re in here?” says Kendry, her face breaking into pure glee as she realises what has happened in her absence. “Oh, bravo. I’m genuinely impressed.”

“Don’t think I won’t do the same thing to you.”

Kendry tips her head back, as much as is possible with a bomb-collar on, anyway. “Oh, Little Lulu, you always could make me laugh.”

“I’ve changed. Sure you want to find out the hard way?”

“Darling, please. That kind of hard-boiled crap never looked good on you. Leave the bullying to me.”


 

He wakes suddenly and with fear, realising she’s not there, and his hands register the loss before his brain does. But it’s alright, Constance has put Ylessa in her basket and she is awake, happily playing with her own toes. It will only be a matter of time before she can climb out of it, the rate she's growing. Constance is nowhere to be found, but he has the evidence of her care; a blanket has been pulled over him and his boots are off. He looks at the time and realises he has been in a deep, dreamless sleep for over six hours.

And it's good. He feels good. It's the first time he feels like maybe he can do this.

He sends John another text message. You have to face this sooner or later. At least hold her. You’re her uncle.

John doesn’t reply.

There are about fifteen messages about urgent business from Fancy, so D’avin calls him instead.


 

“So, what did you do this weekend?” Zeph says, more to herself than to Pip who is working beside her.  “Oh, just fought a war against an alien parasite, managed to get myself a boyfriend and then topped it all off by cutting a princess open and stealing a baby. You?”

Pip laughs in a damaged kind of way. “I am never going to unsee that.”

“You weren’t even there. You were hiding in the cockpit.” Zeph continues re-assembling Lucy’s now unblocked scanner-gate.

“But I saw the aftermath. That’s enough to put me off having kids for the rest of my life.”

“If you were thinking of having them in the first place.”

John walks onto Lucy via the ramp. “How are we doing, happy campers?”

“We weren’t boning,” Zeph suddenly says.

“Definitely not boning,” adds Pip.

“Boning what?” says John, inspecting their components. “Hmmm, between the two of you, you could almost equal half of me.”

"Techie," Zeph coughs into her hand.

“Shouldn’t you be in the recovery ward, or something?” says Pip.

“Discharged myself two hours ago,” says John.

“Didn’t know you could do that,” says Zeph, idly handing Pip the cooling gel.

“Let’s just say its frowned-upon,” says John.

“That’s the last of the repairs. The fuel is full and the irate farmer has been paid off.” Pip waves his finger in the general direction of John’s chest. “How’s your, um, your—”

“Fine. Don’t want to talk about it.” John grabs the screwdriver from Pip and takes over replacing the deck panel.

“I am glad you’re here, John,” Lucy interrupts, a little late to the party. “When is Dutch coming back?”

“Wait,” says John, looking at the other two, “no-one explained to you what happened?”

“We thought it’d be better coming from you,” says Zeph.

“Sorry Lucy,” says John, “she's gone.”

“Gone where? I can no longer detect her comms on my sensors.” It might be his imagination, but there is a hint of panic in Lucy’s voice.

“Far away.” John closes his eyes, exhales sharply. “To another place. Another dimension. Somewhere we can't follow.”

“Is she currently in the state of de-animation that humans typically, but not exclusively, refer to as ‘death’?”

“Why would you say that? No, she’s not dead.”

“I heard her talking to D’avin, shortly before they indulged in—

“I'm going to look after you now,” John cuts her off.

Zeph and Pip exchange a concerned glance.

“Are you my new owner?”

“Yeah,” says John.

“Yay.”

***

“Figured you’d want to see it.” Pip turns off the necropolis vid.

“Okay,” John says pragmatically, putting his mug on the coffee table, “so the girls are working together now. Doesn't mean they'll survive.”

“We have to assume they will,” says Zeph, next to him on the sofa. “Dutch came out of the green, it follows that she can safely go back into it without becoming bonded.”

Pip paces the lounge.

“You know,” John turns to Zeph, “that if they don’t make it, it’s on you right? You and your duplicity.”

“Okay,” Pip stops, “that’s not fair.”

“She swore me to secrecy,” says Zeph, “she’s the boss. I couldn’t have told you if I wanted to. The nebulizer was no-one else's business but ours.”

“It’s my business if she decides that A, she’s defo suiciding, and B, she’s giving the bad guys everything. I mean everything. And didn’t it concern you that your little plan with Dutch kinda demolished our plan to go pick her up? Didn’t you think for one second that we ought to know that?”

“No.” Zeph looks down as John lays into her.

“Did you tell her our plan?”

“No.” Zeph shakes her head.

“It’s a valid question. I don’t even know if I can trust you any more. Not to mention if Aneela has all Dutch's memories,” John continues, “doesn’t that make her kinda... Dutch?”

“I don’t know,” says Pip, “I mean, I should know, but is memory all that makes a person? I’m not sure anymore.”

“Do we really need the lines to be blurred any more than they already are? Didn't you even think of this when she agreed to do the memory implant? See, this is the kind of thing I’m talking about. Everyone going off piste. We have a plan for a reason. Now everything’s borked up beyond belief. You too Lucy, you’re in trouble.”

“Why am I in trouble, John?”

“You let D’av program you to come get us. He should never have put you in danger like that.”

“Dutch gave him security clearance equal to her own.”

“Oh, she did?” John blinks.

“Uh, oh,” says Pip, looking at Zeph.

“Why would she do that?” John continues.

“Because—” Lucy begins.

John holds his hand up to halt her. “You know what, I don’t care anymore. Everyone’s just losing their minds left, right and centre. Enough with the secrets and lies, pretty people. We need to work as a team.”

“Um, am I in trouble?” says Pip. “‘Cause, you know, I’m starting to get a little—If she’d asked me to lie for her, I would have, and I’m not sure if that counts exactly—”

“No, no,” says John, “you’re fine. You’ve done great.”

“You really need to talk to D’av,” Zeph says gently.

“It’s on the list,” says John.

Chapter Text

*

Progress is, at the same time, decay. What multiplies human capabilities also fractures the unity of human personality.

The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire

*

 

~Three weeks ago~

RAC Blacksite - Leith

“Okay, let’s do this thing.” D’avin sits cross-legged on the grass. “Magic-pony skills test number fifteen.”

“Moving a rock,” says Alvis, sitting opposite him with his eyes closed, “without passing out.”

“That rock?” says D’avin looking at the football sized piece of sandstone between them. “That’ll be a piece of piss.”

“Not that rock,” Alvis opens one eye to peep over to his right, “that rock.”

‘That rock’ is fifty feet away, about the size of a small sofa, and it is firmly embedded in the ground. “You have got to be kidding me. That’ll either make me piss myself or die.”

“I believe in you.” Alvis closes his eyes again, infuriatingly stoic. “You can do it.”

“Well, at least one of us is confident.” D’avin cracks his knuckles. “You’ve already covered it in plasma?”

“Yup.”

“Okay,” he says incredulously, “never backed down from a challenge in my life.” He centres himself and takes a deep breath. He can feel the size and shape of it in his mind. It is ridiculously big, like trying to move a mountain. But it must be possible, it moved here in the flow of a river. Yeah, he tells himself, but the river had hundreds of years to do it. Moving a mountain is like trying to get a straight answer out of Dutch. Or even words of any kind.

“D’avin,” Alvis says.

“What?” he growls.

“Your focus is all over the place.”

“I’m trying.”

“I can see your jaw working. What’s going on with you today? Why are you so angry?”

“I’m not angry.”

“He says in the angriest voice I’ve ever heard.” Alvis takes a much needed breath. “You really should consider therapy.”

“Tried.”

“And?”

“Didn't work out.”

“I think it would be cathartic.”

“Cathartic?”

“Catharsis is the release of fear and sadness that restores a sense of poise and rationality.”

“I know that. I mean, I’m fine.”

“How do you know if you never involve anyone else? Your bias affects your assessment of your own biases. There's no point in using a broken system to fix a broken system.”

“I’m not broken. It’s not going to come true just because you need something to fix.”

“Are you talking to me, or your brother?”

“Where do you get off? I asked for your help, if you remember, but this isn’t helping.”

“I am helping you. Not in the way you want, but the way you need. Your day would not be complete if you didn't find someone, or something, to be angry at. Tell me I'm wrong.”

D’avin chews back his next comment. “I can't.”

“Why are you so angry?”

“Leave it alone.”

“What happened to you, to make you like this?”

“You know what? We’re done.” D’avin gets up and stalks off toward the woods. He’s not even sure where he’s going. Or why. All he knows is, he needs to make the monk’s voice stop.

“Conflict is good,” Alvis calls after him. “From conflict rises change.”

Silvery leaves clatter together, the breeze buffeting branches above him. He quenches the urge to run away and get drunk, and probably screw someone. Anyone. He is still leaning against the birch tree, arms folded, when Alvis catches up, but he has calmed down a great deal. “Did you know,” he puts a hand on the trunk, looking up through the branches, “they used to tap the sap out of these, brew it into moonshine?”

“I know when you’re deflecting.” Alvis gives him an uneven smile, leaning against the other side of the tree. “I think it might be me you’re angry with.”

“Not for the reasons you think.”

“Enlighten me, then.”

The wind seems to pick up and move the branches even more violently then, and their voices almost get lost in the roar of leaves. Something so small should not be able to make so much racket.  D’avin picks a leaf from a random twig on the tree and turns it over in his fingers. It is soft. Green on one side, white on the other. “I can’t do it,” he says.

“I’ve seen you move rocks,” Alvis frowns.

“Not that. I mean be in charge.”

“Now we’re getting somewhere.”

“What she’s asking me to do. She’s a queen and I’m just…” he waves a hand, “cave-boy.”

“You’re cave—what?”

“Never mind.”

“You’re right.” Alvis shakes his head with a wry smile. “You can’t do it alone. But you have us. A whole team.”

“Except the one person that matters the most.” D’avin looks down. “She believes in me too much.”

“She believes in you just as much as she should. No more and no less.”

“She made a pass at me.” He says it too quickly, hasn’t though it through.

“Made a pass at you?”

“She uh, tried to kiss me—did kiss me—morning of the funeral. But I want you to know that I wasn't into it. She was vulnerable, and drunk, so I pushed her off.” He waits for Alvis's response, but the monk's face doesn't even quiver.

Clouds come over the sun then, and it gets decidedly colder.

“Hmmm, interesting,” Alvis says eventually. “Why did you feel this was relevant?”

“Well, she and you are—”

“Dutch's interest in me is infrequent and fleeting. From what you’re saying, it sounds like she's actually more interested in you.”

“Not really the response I was expecting.” D’avin throws away his leaf. It is ruined now anyway. It lands on the mossy bank, where it will no doubt be trampled and assimilated back into the grand cycle of things.

“What did you expect me to say? Hands off? Well done?”

“There's no need to be so antsy about it.”

“Or would you prefer some tantric sex tips?”

“Whoa, Nelly. I never said anything about sex. Just wanted to be clear so there’s no misunderstanding.”

“If you must know, she hasn’t come to me in months.”

“Oh,” D’avin says, unsure how to feel about this news, “look, I don't know what went on between you two, and to be honest I don’t really care, but it's clear you have an influence on her—”

“There was a time she needed me, but I don't think she does any more. She needs something else. And it’s the same for me. She's been my purpose for years now and maybe that purpose has to change.”

“War, maybe? Just throwing it out there for consideration.”

“Maybe it’s this.” Alvis gestures toward the space separating them.

“You and me and my rage problem? Aw, you know we shouldn’t let a little thing come between us.”

“Anger is not your own, D'avin. You're not a god. You don't have the privilege of righteous wrath. You're just a human being. Your anger comes from fear and fear comes from guilt.”

“Guilt is a construct of organised religion designed to keep people in line with fear. Touché.”

Alvis sighs a long-suffering sigh. “Why do you hate religion so much?”

“Because it makes people sew their kid’s eyes shut and convince them it's a blessing. Amongst other things.”

“I see your point.”

“Doesn’t matter what the gimmick is, the motivation’s always the same. Our pain, your redemption. Let us suffer for your sins. Really?”

“Have you ever stopped to think about what that means? You mock us, yet you suffer because you feel guilt. You’re just this ball of tension and hate and confusion, all tightly wound up, ready to explode. But living in half-light, you only get half the picture, and pain stops you seeing that. Now, I don't need to know what you’ve done, or what has been done to you, but you need to acknowledge and release your fear. If you don’t, you’ll never see things the way they really are. You’ll never master your gift and you’ll never reach your potential. Let me bless you. It's an absolution.”

“I’ll go to hell for hypocrisy if I let you do that.”

“It doesn’t matter if you don’t really believe. Because I do.”

When D’avin first came to the Quad, the concept of the mortification of the flesh had seemed so alien. He’s always been taught that his body is his best and only instrument, and that it is sacred and should not be defiled. But now, he can’t deny that concepts he’d initially dismissed as hysteria have proved more than real. The things he’s seen and done defy rationalisation. He is the cure for a singular disease and he will be called upon to continue giving of himself, his very flesh, even to his end. He can’t do that if he’s living, as Alvis says, in half-light. “Okay,” he says, softly. “Do it. Before I change my mind.”

“Kneel.” Alvis takes out a knife and D’avin does as he is told. The mud begins to soak through the knees of his pants, but he doesn’t care. Blood rushes in his ears and drowns out the sounds of nature around them. “Nervous?”

He's trembling, looking up at the monk. “Why does this feel like first time sex?”

“I’ll be gentle.” Alvis cuts himself precisely, solemnly, on the upper left breast, right above his heart. He brushes some of the precious red fluid with his thumb and daubs it upon the supplicant’s closed eyes.

It does not feel as D’avin expects. There is no lifting of burden from his shoulders, nor supernatural epiphany. But what hits him is that he no longer feels alone. He knows, knows, that certain things beyond his control were not his fault. And he understands that he must see things as they really are, without the shadow of fear and guilt, if he is to do this job.

“Now,” Alvis finishes, “your sins are passed to me. It's my responsibility to carry them.”

“Can we go back to moving mountains now?”


 

~Day 3~

Scarback Monastery  

D’avin opens the message from Zeph while waiting for Abbot Paulus Baran to begin the funeral address. This is the worst possible timing.

Heads up. John pissed as all hells. With you, me and everyone. PS need to do more tests soon.

“Shit,” he says under his breath, and several people in the congregation turn to look at him. He gives them a conciliatory smile.

Paulus begins and D’avin puts his PDD away, looking out from the promontory to the pyre smoke drifting across the ravine. Paulus talks about Alvis’s revolutionary manifesto and what he meant to people. The congregation nod and weep and nod some more, but all he can think is that they didn't really know him. No-one really knows anybody.

D’avin had watched over Alvis’s body in the crypt for over an hour, until Ylessa needed her dad and made it quite clear to everyone in the entire monastery that only he would do. He told himself it was for Dutch, the vigil, because she wasn’t there, but in truth it was because of his insatiable need for order, for answers. As if this cold, shrouded body could provide them.

Alvis should have been safe, but they’d been blindsided, had no way of knowing Aneela would go for the necropolis. She’d ripped the soul out of their family, and she would pay for that. He’d lit an old-fashioned wax candle, something his mom had taught them to do in temple for their forebears, before she got—Well, enough maudlin thoughts. He’d always thought it strange that you had to pay for the candle, un-religious somehow, but as an adult he understood that a drowning faith could not support the appetite of tens of thousands of people for something that would only burn.

“Unless it dies, the seed cannot bear fruit,” Paulus finishes.

The pyre finally disintegrates into grey ash and most of it falls into the ravine, the aroma of wood-smoke and accelerant mixing with the unmistakable acridity of flesh. Alvis is free, as are so many more and D’avin, of course, knows all their names. People who have come to honour the war-dead are beginning to break away from each other now, forming groups and engaging in stilted conversation. Quin is soon at his side, weeping so freely that it shames him.

“I’ve been thinking,” she says, “and I’ve decided to take the name Akari.”

“I think he would have liked that,” says D’avin.

“He was the last of his line. Only fair that it should live on.”

“Hey,” he says, as tears drip off her chin.

“It’s Okay,” she says, wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her sacerdotal robes, “I’m Okay.”

He smiles warmly, but someone interrupts them. A woman from the town presses joy into his hand. “General,” she says, “take care.”

“Wait, ma’am,” he says, looking at the notes as she slips away into the crowd, “I can’t take this.” But she is gone.

More people come up to him to give him money for Ylessa. Some even embrace him. General, they all say, General Jaqobis. We are praying for you. We will watch over you in the fight. He humbly thanks them, but he is confused. “What are they doing?” he says to Quin, “this isn’t right.”

“It’s what they do when you have a baby,” she says, “or, you know, win a battle. You’ve never seen people do this?”

“People spit on soldiers where I come from.”

“That’s,” Quin blinks, “disgusting.”

“You still have a lot to learn about life.”

“You were right. Some of it is truly awful.”

Constance frees herself from a conversation with one of the other novices and comes over, Ylessa strapped to her body with a pashmina. “Seriously,” she says, “you need to make me a sign that says ‘employee, not wife’. This is getting ridiculous.”

“They'll simmer down if they know how much firepower you're packing,” says D’avin. “Lemme know when you want me to take over.”

“We’re fine. I think we’re just going to lie down.”

“If you’re sure.”

“You can be Daddy tomorrow. You need a break. I don’t want to find you on the floor again.”

The promontory is mostly empty of people now. When Constance is gone, Quin looks out into the cloud of ash floating down the ravine. “One life ends, another begins.” She threads her arm through D’avin’s elbow as they walk among the cloisters. “What now?”

“I expect you'll be apprenticed to another.”

“I mean for everyone.”

“We wait. We prepare. We keep looking for Dutch. Actually, I do have a job for you. I need someone to search the J for scriptures concerning the green. Specifically Hullen immunity and portends of invasion.”

“You think religious prophesies will help you win this war?”

“Not prophesy exactly, evidence of powers like mine. Evidence of any kind of resistance to Hullen. And there’s something else. When we came to your moon you said we need the remnant otherwise the lady will kill everyone.”

“Yeah, just like the Undying said.”

“But it didn't mean Aneela as we assumed, Khlyen meant the 'Lady'.”

“The Lady?”

“She’s trapped in the green. She started all this. She may be mentioned under a different name.”

This seems to send a jolt through her. It is always so difficult to tell what she is feeling. “Why don't you just send your rangers?”

“It needs to be discreet and you already have an inroad to other sects. Fourteen Days, Revelation, Sisters of the Divine Sorrow, hundreds more. No-one will question your desire to learn. Involve Paulus if you need to. No-one else, though.”

“What about Olan? Everything you need is in his mind, right?”

“He’s,” D’avin takes a breath, if only for the opportunity to formulate a valid explanation, “not in the right place. He needs time.”

“Can’t you just take it directly from his brain?”

“It only works with bonded Hullen. Plus, that would be rapey.”

“Okay, but there might be a few snags with this plan. Like not being able to read for example. That’s quite a big one.”

“That's where this comes in.” He pulls a brand new PDD out of his back pocket. “You can make it read to you. Voice commands.”

“How will I contact people so far away? It could take weeks to get an answer.”

“Our techs have an interstellar relay set up using one of the jump-ship’s FTL. Should be operational as soon as the comm-sats come back online.”

She immediately looks pleased, taking the device. “I won't let you down.”

“I know you won't.”

She takes a big breath, like she’s psyching herself up. “I need something from you too. I need to see the security feed from the necropolis.”

D’avin slows, unlinking his arm from hers. “Oh, Q, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“I need to see it.” She looks at him with unblinking eyes, red with pain. “You don’t understand.”

“And I don’t think you understand how terrible it is to watch something like that, I—”

“I need to see ‘her’.”

This silences him. He should know better, by now, than to underestimate the stubbornness of her. “You’re not thinking of revenge, are you?”

“I need to see the moment the knife goes in.”

“Why?” He throws up his hands.

“I just do.”

He rubs his eyes with both hands, rubs tiredness from his whole face. “Let’s just sleep on it, alright?”


 

Feels too much like getting his ass dumped in West-hole, this.

Heart racing, Shamir leans back behind the partition of the lab, out of the tech’s sight, and pretends to be interested in some of the samples in the stand. Finally, the tech leaves for lunch. The notes on the bio-chem analysis tell him that there was tennessine and oganesson in John’s wound and the composition of the weapon they have is different to the one used to stab him. Someone has cocked up somewhere along the line. He grabs the dreadnought from the work bench and makes for the exit, only to be confronted with the faces of two company guards. “Doctor Tutte,” one says, “come with us, please.”


 

“You’ve,” Major Aldous Ofori settles at his desk, reading from a tablet, “been with the company for seven years now.”

“Yes,” says Shamir, attempting to force the sweat back into the pores of his forehead. It is hard to breathe, but he can’t show that. Ofori’s fetish for hanging animal skulls on the wall isn’t helping either. He suspects it is intended to set visitors on the back foot, rather than a genuine interest in anatomy.

“Exemplary record,” Ofori continues, “many, many accolades from the satisfied citizens of Qresh.”

“Satisfied customers are good for business.” He wrinkles his nose.

“So why,” Ofori steeples his hands, elbows on his desk, “are you throwing all that away, getting yourself involved with the killjoy militia? Not to mention, you registered a birth in the names of these,” he brings up biometrics on his screen, “people. This man, de-facto leader of the resistance, and this woman, Aneela Kin Rit.”

Shamir’s hands are shaking. Not visibly to anyone untrained in spotting the symptoms of early-onset neuro-degenerative disease, but still. He swallows. “I need my lawyer—”

“No,” says Ofori, threateningly calm, “you see, you have committed no crime. You’re not being charged with anything. If that were the case, I would just apply for a warrant on your head and keep my hands clean. Ironic, don’t you think?”

“Then what do you want from me?”

Ofori takes a sip of the hokk on his desk before answering. The bottle stands next to a small snake skeleton in a glass display case. “Loyalty. The basic unit of currency that keeps the lifeblood of the Company flowing.”

Shamir frowns at the mixed metaphor. Perhaps the Company would inspire more loyalty if it treated its employees like human beings instead of a commodity to exploit. “I always have been and always will be loyal to the Company. It did pay for my education.”

“And all it expects in return is the occasional tid-bit of select information.” Ofori makes an itty-bitty, cutesy pinch with his fingers.

Shamir sighs in disappointment. “You want me to spy on Jaqobis.”

“Now, don’t get ahead of yourself, doctor, I didn’t use that word. This is just a gentleman’s arrangement. Mutually beneficial.”

Shamir’s heart-rate begins to normalise, emboldened by his moral stance. “Use all the newspeak you want, doesn’t change its nature.” He’s just about to get into the swing of it when they are interrupted.

“Don’t say another word,” comes an authoritative voice from the doorway.

“Seyon Trus,” says Ofori, rising and dipping his head, “I didn’t know you were—”

Trus shoulders his way into the office with his body-guard. “Major, if you continue with your investigations, you will have to contend with the wrath of the entire board.”

Shamir is left looking from one to the other like a game of despot tennis.

“Of course, Seyon,” Ofori looks down, “I am your servant in this matter.”

“Son,” Trus extends his hand to Shamir, “come with me now.”


 

Paulus’s hands are age-spotted and wiry as he goes over to a trunk at the side of his chamber and brings out a small cloth wrap. “He wanted you to have this.”

D’avin unwraps the cloth. It is Alvis’s silver finger knife. He turns it over in his hand and it gives him a peculiar feeling. “You know I don’t agree with his doctrine or his manifesto, right?” he says, still peering at the knife. It is exquisitely crafted. “And he knew that.”

“Tea?” Paulus says, pouring. His guest gives a sharp nod. It’s not that D’avin dislikes it served like this, it’s just that he’s from a milk-and-two-sugars kind of world, not an elaborate-tea-ceremony kind of world. “You don't understand,” Paulus continues, pointing at him with a spoon, “because you come from a place where people enjoy certain privileges, like democracy, and the ability to affect their surroundings.”

“I think the inhabitants should be the ones to decide if it’s underprivileged.” D’avin takes a sip of his tea, sitting in one of Paulus’s papasan chairs. Ylessa is curled up in her blankie, cradled in another of the chairs, dead to the world. She has slept all day, only waking to feed at noon, and Constance says she’s never known anything like it. One moment she can’t get enough, the next she won’t wake up.

“Maybe you are, but not in the same way,” Paulus says. “All Westerlyns have is their combined strength, because individuals are not valued or listened to.”

“All I’m saying is, people want to be revolutionaries without the responsibility. Having a war cry of ‘we are many, they are few, then rise up’, that just gets people killed. It’s naïve. It’s why we have a political process.”

“And I suppose you’d know how to stage a revolution.”

“I’ve been involved in stopping a few,” D’avin juts his chin, “so yeah. Gives you a better coign of vantage.”

“And you trust the Qreshi political process?”

“It’s the lesser of two evils. But if you stage a coup, you’re no better than those who seized power in the first place. If we win this war, it’s going to leave a vacuum. Say your little Westerley revolution succeeded, who would you place in power?”

“Union reps.”

“And how’s that worked out for you so far?”

“An electorate from the public, then.”

“How would you vet them?”

“And who would you place in power, a military leader?” Paulus hangs his tea hand over the arm of his chair.

“There’s only one person who really has what it takes. Someone who’s been raised to rule. Someone who actually has a grasp of interstellar diplomacy.”

“Someone who’s decided she doesn’t want to lead anymore? She might not return, but you, on the other hand, are in a position to broker an agreement between Trus and the townships.”

“I swore to remain impartial. I can’t really do that within the confines of the RAC. Besides, that’s not our priority at the moment. Survival is.”

“And when the war is over?”

“I can’t think that far ahead. I’m trying, really trying to represent her wishes, but it’s up to her what she wants to do with a world she’s liberated from Hullen occupation.”

Paulus grunts his amusement at something D’avin is not aware of. “Pra-tal,” he says. “Everything changes so quickly. Yet somehow it doesn’t change at all. One minute we’re fighting her, the next, we have the same goal. How is that going by the way?”

“I’ve got Novice Quin putting out feelers for spiritual help. There must be something out there in the J. You can’t be the only ones with Hullen contact.”

“Oh, good. She needs something to focus on at the moment,” Paulus pours himself more tea and proffers the pot, “so many adjustments needing to be made.”

“I’m worried about her.” D’avin accepts more tea. “But I don’t think there’s anything I can do.”

“You just prevented the annihilation of the solar system. You should give yourself more credit. The problems of everyday life will sort themselves out. The best thing you can do is make sure we all survive.”

“I wish I believed you.” D’avin looks over at Ylessa, slumbering peacefully. Sometimes it feels like too much, keeping one person alive, let alone thousands. But he has to ensure she has a future. They all deserve a chance. “Everyone involved with the Hullen have always said, ‘it’s coming, it’s coming,’ but the Armada wasn't it. There's something far bigger out there.”

“A galaxy-wide assault?”

“Probably. Aneela’s second said the Quad was of no strategic importance now that there's no Arkyn plasma.” He swallows tea. “So why did she change her mind and come back?”

“Because of you.”

“Not just because of me.” He drains his tea. “Because she wants to get away from the Lady and ultimately defeat her. Taking the necropolis, making the baby, all part of the real plan.”

“I’m not sure I follow.” Paulus places his own teacup back on the tray.

“The sun’s radiation interferes with Hullen communication somehow, the same way it jams our comms.”

Paulus clasps his fingers together thoughtfully. “It’s possibly why early scarbacks made the necropolis so close to it.”

“And the reason why Aneela—Pra-tal—placed her pool of green in it. Same reason she kept her source pool on Archive near a sun. Keep a part of it away from the lady for future rebellion, arm herself for what’s coming.”

“We could use this.” Paulus looks up at him almost hungrily.

“But I’m not sure how yet.” D’avin picks up his weapon from the low table and holsters it, looks like he’s about to leave. “I’ve got people working on it.”

“You’ll keep me up to date?” Paulus wrings his hands.

“As long as I’m here.”

“You’re our guest for as long as you need.” Paulus gets the door.

“Thanks, but I think we’ll be gone soon.” D’avin picks Ylessa up. She seems to have gotten heavier in the time that they’ve been sitting there talking. He tries to keep the blankie around her, but it’s not very successful. He tucks her soft, chubby little arms up and holds her to his chest. “You don’t need our kind of trouble at your door.”


 

John rocks up to Bellus's late in the afternoon.

“You were conspicuous by your absence,” she says.

“Funerals." He loiters around her desk, tapping his thigh nervously. "Not my thing.”

“You're telling me. Everyone thought it mighty strange that you didn't bother to attend the wake for your lady friend either. Considering you love-birds were supposed to tie the knot and all.”

He lets the silence do the talking on that subject. “So," he says, “you've seen him?”

“Yep,” she eyes him suspiciously.

“And you've seen her?”

“Yep,” Bellus says again, with more emphasis. “Sweet little thing. Full head of hair.”

“And you've got nothing to say on the subject?”

“Other'n life'll happen whether you want it to or not? Can't stop the march of the inevitable. Is that why you stopped by, to hear my verdict on how reckless your brother is?”

“Actually, it's to pick up a warrant. Should be reserved under my name.”

“You shouldn't be working.” She glares at him. “You should be in bed, case a lung plops out.”

“Still,” he says.

She brings up the details. “Message courier, recipient one Delle Seyah Kendry. John Jaqobis, are you cracked in the head?”

“It's legit. Turin sanctioned it.”

“You think those Qreshi inbreds are gonna let you within one hundred yards of that whingeing dick-bracket?”

“No law to stop the victim's family visiting a murderer. Warrant just gives me something to flash at border patrol.”

“Why don’t you just ask your new sugar-daddy?”

“Trus doesn’t need to know about this. He’s got enough on his plate.”

“What you mean is, asking him nicely will alert your brother.”

“He wouldn’t understand.”

“You're sure it's just a message?”

“It is literally just a verbal message from us to her. I'm not gonna touch her. I'm not gonna do anything to her. There’s gonna be a goddamn three foot thick steel wall between us, for craps sake.”

“Fine.” Bellus presses buttons on her desktop.

“That was easier than I thought.”

“Even when you're galivanting round the galaxy, killing zombies, some of us still gotta make rent. Half the killjoys outta action and transpos and repos stacking up.” Bellus locks it in and sends it to his device with a belligerent sneer. “Ponats,” she says under her breath, shaking her head as he leaves.


 

That evening, shortly after moons-rise, D’avin leaves Constance bathing Ylessa and goes out into the fields surrounding the monastery. “Dutch,” he says with closed eyes, his voice cracking a little, “give us a sign. I don’t know what to do.”

It's the first time he’s ever really prayed.

He sinks to his knees in the ripe barley and takes out Alvis’s knife. It glimmers in the Arkyn-light. He’s not sure if it’s purely from grief, or if he’s still not convinced he wasn’t really turned in Red 17, but he touches the edge of the blade to the tender skin of his left wrist and soon blood drips onto the hardened mud, dark splatters in the faint green glow of night.

Chapter Text

~Day 4~

The Qreshi proletariat, if one could even call them that, are really hung up on symbolism, Kendry laments. The rocks that she and Louella Simms have been pounding to crumbs will eventually contribute to the reclaimed land surrounding Medidas City, and the fact that it is supplied by political prisoners adds a special significance. Kendry is tasked with carrying hod-fulls of imported rock from one end of the facility to the next, with her shackles threaded onto a system of overhead cables to restrict her movement.

Fun.

However, she has not been furnished with any tools which would allow her to either escape or inflict grievous damage to any prison employees stupid enough to cross her path. This leaves the two women with only one option, to smash stones together with their bare hands. It is a feat of Sisyphean endurance, and it is on one of these jaunts between the rock pile and the anvil—an altar upon which her dignity has also been smitten—that a guard calls to her that she has a visitor.

“Still losing the baby weight?” John Jaqobis appears in the consulting area and Kendry immediately looks around for the guards. “Already paid them off,” he says.

“Well, if it isn’t one of the beards.” She steps as close to the separating glass as her restraints will allow, a wolf trapped in a zoo, sniffing out her tourist prey. “What do you want?”

“You have a serious case of misandry, do you know that?” John yawns. “It’s surprisingly easy now they know you slaughtered their favourite Niner. How does that work, anyway? Is it like voting for the best contestant on We Need Talent or is it more like pro wrestling? Like, who's gonna make it through the next round of council meetings, that kinda thing?”

“Have you come here just to gloat, or are you going to tell me what he’s done with her?”

“He’s taking care of her. What else would he do?”

“Do what’s right.”

“You don't exactly have a good track record with kids. What with all the melting.”

“Neither does your Dutch, if Daddy-K’s reports are to be believed.”

John’s head twitches to the side as if he doesn’t know. Trees, he’d be terrible at poker. So emotional, all of them. “D’avin’s better with kids than anyone I know,” he says.

“He had me ripped open like a paper bag,” she spits. “If I ever see him again I'm going to gouge his eyes out with my bare hands. He promised me protection. Instead he takes the only thing—” she stops, shudders into herself. She had been going to say, ‘that matters’.

John gestures around the room. “This is the safest place in the Quad. Methods are a little unorthodox, but he gets there in the end.”

“What does it matter now that the council took everything from me? I have nothing, you little—”

“Uh, uh, uh,” he says as she strains against her shackles, “struggle and they'll switch on the power. Part of the deal with Trus was handing you over. Yeah. That's right. We doubled down. Ouch. Sick burn.”

“Stop wasting my time. There was supposed to be a message. Who's it from?”

“Me. This is my message.” He puts a syringe on the narrow shelf edging the glass. “Hullen toxin. It's made using D’avin’s immunity. Ironic if you think about it.”

“And just what am I supposed to do with that?”

“Kill yourself,” he says, and she scoffs. “Do everyone a favour and put yourself out of our misery.”

“Do what you're too much of a coward to do to my face?”

“We've already been there, remember. This way, it's on your terms. Do the right thing.”

She looks at him, doing the math. It doesn’t quite work. “He doesn't know you're here, does he? Naughty, naughty, going against the General's orders. I’m not stupid, Jaqobis. If the poison is from your brother’s DNA that means they’ll pin my death on him. You get off scot-free. I’m not giving you the satisfaction. Aneela is coming for me. And then we're taking the child, so tell your brother he'd better watch his back. On your little human way, then. Shoo.”


 

“A threat was detected and was dealt with,” says Alfred Turin, “that’s all you need to know.”

Ofori broods on the other side of the conference table. He hasn’t even touched his coffee and now it’s cold. “What it boils down to," he says, "is that the Company is accusing the RAC of waging an amateur war. You need to be prepared for the backlash from the members of the Qreshi council who aren’t on Trus’s petit projet.”

“Jaqobis is not an amateur. He’s a veteran of every significant conflict in the Republic.”

“Steady on there, cowboy. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were a fan. Listen, I know about the cancelled kill warrant, but a guy comes to the Quad as an illegal and next thing we know he’s a killjoy? This is all getting a little incestuous. Relationship used to be simple, now you seem to think you can make those decisions on your own.”

“One of the perks of independence,” says Turin.

“So where is your man-crush today?” Ofori unconsciously scans Turin’s office.

“Taking care of business. You know what that’s like,” Turin glances at Miller and Deen on either side of him, although he hardly needs approval, “you have your own business to take care of, right?”

Ofori sucks his teeth. “You know, I preferred you when the RAC were just the Company’s errand boys.”

“Seems to me, our current errand’s preventing your annihilation, so maybe you can loosen the apron strings a little. Face it, you've bitten off more than you can chew. Medidas is a fortress, but it won’t protect you from twenty-thousand Hullen missiles. What more do you want?”

“One word, Commander. Accountability.” Ofori looks like he is preparing to leave. He gives a non-verbal signal to his assistant standing by the door.

“Yeah, well,” says Turin, “I got a word for you. Shit. ‘Cause I don't give one.”

“Maybe you don’t. But you do want autonomy, and I can’t give you that without a little quid pro quo.”

“We’ll just have to disagree on that, won't we.” Turin stands his ground, looking at the other man with something approaching pity. That always pisses the man off. Ofori gives him a belligerent nod of acknowledgement as he and his assistant leave.

Turin turns to Deen. “Well, that was like shitting in a teacup. What? You got ants in your pants too now?”

“Do I need to remind you,” she says, “that you were only reinstated because Cardiff and I agreed? What you did to the Cleansed was a dick move, you can’t afford to piss all over the Company too.”

“He’s all mouth and no trousers.” Turin pours himself hokk from the sideboard. “Company can't take action against us, so they’re desperately trying to hold onto every crumb of influence. They’re not an army, they're just salarymen. Who would protect them, if not for us?”

“Take no sides,” Deen scoffs. “All we’ve done for a hundred years is cultivate the perfect mercenary force. Company’s just stung we decided to bat for the other team. They’re not gonna let that go easily.”

Turin sits on the edge of his desk. “Let's ask Academy Puppy what she thinks about all of this.”

Miller swallows from her glass of water and replaces it thoughtfully on the table. “There's a disparity between Qreshi rule and their underlings.”

“Okay,” Turin nods.

“We could exploit that. But at the moment we’re bearing the brunt of the increase in workload caused by the destruction of Zar and the other Racks. I think we need to concentrate on our remit and leave the Company to Seyon Trus.”

“And what if it self-destructs?” says Turin. “That’s gonna have serious economic ramifications. We’ll all be out on our ear.”

“It’s not in our 'remit' to save the company from themselves,” says Deen. “A system goes belly up, the RAC moves on, we adapt. We survive.”

“That was until we discovered we were all marked for destruction.” Turin gives her a meaningful look.

Miller doesn't appear to share the sentiment. “Whatever we do has to also protect Agent Yardeen and the Jaqobies.”

“Look,” says Turin, “we have no way of knowing how much Ofori or the senior officers know about Level Six. Privileged info doesn’t necessarily filter down through the ranks. I’d feel a helluva lot more cosy if we knew who in the Company is likely to sabotage all our efforts.”

“I know,” says Deen, “that you’re not comfortable with the thought of green in the Company ranks, but there’s not a lot we can do without undermining everything Ms Yardeen’s team has achieved.”

“There is someone who might be able to help,” says Turin.

“Who?” says Miller.

“Ask Jaqobis to get me an introduction to Liam Jelco.”


 

“Crush this,” says Fancy, handing Spider a crucible containing Iridium ore.

“Crush this?” Spider picks up a small hand-mill. “You crush my spirit, do you know that?”

“Agent Lee.” Miller enters the lab.

“Lieutenant.”

“What is this?” She noses around.

“An alloy for a new kind of ammunition,” says Fancy, “not that it’s any of your business.”

“I’m trying to run a Rack here, so yeah, it actually is my business.”

Spider looks at them both with slight trepidation.

“Don’t worry. I won’t blow it up,” says Fancy, but then he sees that she’s not amused. “What can I help you with?”

“Turin wants you to accompany him to a sit-down with the Salt Plains people on Westerley.”

“And there I was thinking you were about to ask me to dinner.”

She is unimpressed. “Seems he trusts you now, if no-one else. You’re to act as a buffer.”

“Does he have any idea how much I have on my plate?” Fancy inspects the molds on the work-bench. “Poisoning pools means we not only have former Sixes to deal with, but many cleansed slave Hullen who have no idea what’s happened to them. And he wants me to come play tea party with rapey hill-folk.”

Miller is perturbed by his inability to stay in one place, flitting from one project to another. “I think he’s gearing up to petition Trus for a full purge of the Company. But that’ll only expose him and us.”

“And what do you want me to do about it?” Fancy holds a tiny component up to the inspection lamp and pops it into a mold along with all the others.

“Warn Jaqobis. Turin’s aspirations are getting out of proportion.”

“Wait a minute,” says Spider, “sorry if I’m being obtuse here, but don’t we want Trus to purge the Company?”

“Maybe when everything has settled down,” says Fancy, “not while it’s still hot. Trus has a plan, but he’s not yet in a position to implement it. Turin jumping the gun could give him cold feet.”

Spider nods in understanding. “And provoke any Company officers still loyal to Team Green.”

“I will speak to Jaqobis about how to manage Turin,” says Fancy.

“Thank you, I’ll uh,” Miller turns, “leave you to get on with your work.”

“Don’t you think D’avin’s being a little unfair?” says Spider when she is gone. “He’s only got one person to look after, you've got hundreds.”

“Yeah,” says Fancy, pouring molten alloy, “but they can wipe their own asses. I’ll keep doing whatever he needs me to do, for as long as it’s needed.”

“Tsk,” Spider winks at him. “Life’s hard when the only love you get is unrequited.”


 

John is looking for his PDD when he pulls a folded piece of parchment out from the crack of the sofa. It is inked in Dutch’s fine hand, honed by years of calligraphy practice as a child.

αιι i εvεr ηεεδ iς ψou ςmiιing

They are words expertly whittled into a spear and thrust firmly into his heart. He wonders if she meant him to find it, or if it’s just a remnant from a silly game, as the note falls from his hand like a dead leaf.

Lucy tracks him around her compartments for the rest of the day, offering helpful suggestions when he spills hokk or collapses against her bulkheads in the stupor of grief. After he finds the first note, he keeps looking in their usual hidey places and finds a more substantial letter. He lays it on the kitchen table and sits there, staring at it. It is still there when D’avin boards.

“Finally.” His brother stands there awkwardly, watching him gulp down yet another shot of their best.

The envelope simply says ‘Boys’, and it's quite thick in his hand, must contain missives for them both. “You write one of these too?” John says without looking up.

“Didn’t you?”

“Didn't know we were supposed to.” John drains his glass. There’s less in it than he hoped. “Do you think we should open it?”

“No,” D’avin seats himself at the other side of the table, “of course not. It's a death-note and she’s not dead yet.”

“I want to believe,” John says.

“She knows what she's doing. She has a good reason for everything, you just have to—”

“If we’d got there one minute sooner,” John cuts him off.

“She said she was sorry.”

“Yeah, but she was looking at you.” John looks him over and realises he is without child. “Where is she?”

“Asleep. She does that a lot. And eats. And shits. People warn you about the sheer volume of faeces, but you never—”

“Were you not listening when I used the word ‘extinction’?” John thrusts himself up from the table and attacks the bottle again.

“It doesn't have to be like that,” says D’avin, his hands folded neatly in his lap.

“It does if the Lady gets hold of her.” John waves the bottle of hokk at him and some sloshes out.

“And if she turns against us, I can stop her. I can control her.”

“What?” He replaces the bottle inaccurately on the counter.

“I can torment her like Hullen.”

“What did you do to her? Did you hurt her?”

“Little bit,” D’avin admits, “by accident. I don't think she remembers.”

“Shit, D’avin, that is not Okay.” Just when he thinks he knows him, he goes and pulls shit like this.

“You're standing up for her now? That's bullshit.”

“You're out of control. Can’t you see that?” John wipes his forehead with the back of his hand, still holding his glass. “The risks you’re taking. Frankly, I think you're having some kind of a breakdown.”

“Maybe I'm just trying to keep my family together,” D’avin swallows, looking down, “for once.”

“Dragging Zeph and Shamir—dragging Constance into this,” John grabs the bottle again, pours it theatrically, “naming her after Mom? Seriously.”

“It’s tradition.”

“Doesn’t mean you have to. Going around telling everyone she belongs to Dutch. Also not cool.”

“I didn’t tell anyone that. They just assumed, and I didn’t correct them. To ensure her survival.”

“See, this is what I mean. You’re turning me into a horrible person, because I have to explain what’s wrong with this—”

“If people know I have a kid with the bad guy, they won’t follow me. What else would you have me do?”

John spreads his arms helplessly. “Stop spreading lunacy.”

“I'm flying blind here, Johnny. I can literally guarantee that no-one has ever been in this precise situation before. You at least could give me a break.”

“Have you noticed life isn't exactly a rainbow-bloody-sandwich for me either?” John closes his eyes as if he is in pain. But he’s not in pain. He’s totally numb. “The cryo-pod is right there, for heaven’s sake, ready to go.”

“I can’t,” D’avin says with a croak, “do that. If you would just see her, you’d understand. At least hold her. She’s your kin.”

John sucks in oxygen. His wound is beginning to ache with the warming effects of the alcohol. He rubs the scar under the dressings. “And we all know what that means, don’t we?”

“Okay, so I messed up with you, but I’m not gonna do that again. I’m not gonna leave her. She’s my second chance.”

“Don’t gimme that shit.” John points a finger at him. “She’s just a chance to hide from life and your responsibilities.”

“This is me taking responsibility.”

“What about your other responsibilities, eh?” He leans on the table, all up in his face, but D’avin won’t look at him. “What are you doing to get her back? What—”

“I’ve got people salvaging what’s left of the Hullen fleet,” D’avin finally rises to the bait, “got people analysing the orbital decay of the necropolis, predicting when it's going to drift into a coronal mass ejection, working on a way of getting inside. We’ve got scouts at every location on the plasma map, taking ground every day. We’ve got people working on new weapons. I’m spending so much time testing green goo that I can’t even tell where it ends and I begin anymore. I could go on. What are you doing?” He turns to look at him and John can tell he’s done with this shit. “Except drinking umbrage.”

John backs off a little. “You know this is all your fault.”

“Sorry for having IVF by accident,” D’avin says and John can see a lot of the old him in his face.

“You went wraith-ing around on Aneela’s ship,” he says, sounding less sure than he wants to, “that’s what started all this.”

“Laying blame isn’t gonna help us now. We have to work as a team. We're the only ones we can really trust. You and me.”

“Trust you?" John throws up his hands, "I don’t even know you anymore!”

“John,” Lucy talks over him, “I am sensing from your level of inebriation and vital signs that intervention may be required.”

“Shut up, Lucy,” they both chime.

“Can you estimate your mental and emotional instability on a scale of one to ten?” Lucy attempts again, but they ignore her.

“You know what the icing on this whole debacle is?” John says after a pause. “You took away my one chance at revenge.”

“Aw, shit, Johnny," D'avin leans back in his chair, somehow defeated by this revelation, "is this still about Pawter?”

“All because,” he flails his arms around, “in your apparently infinite wisdom, you decided justice.”

D’avin rubs tiredness from his brow. “You have to let it go, otherwise it’ll consume you.”

“It already did.” John walks away.

D’avin spends some time putting his things in a bag and when he comes back into the galley, a pillow tucked under his arm, they are both feeling more reasonable. “I’m sorry,” he ambles up to his brother cautiously, “that I brought Pawter up. I shouldn’t—”

“It’s alright.” John holds out a hand for D’avin’s PDD. “At least let me reassess the risk matrix. How’s your encryption?”

“Strong. I had Pip.” D’avin hands it over and reaches into one of the kitchen cupboards. But he stops, changes his mind. “Stay with us. Take the time you need to heal. Then we can figure this out properly. I—”

“No can do,” says John, tapping away at the device. He just needs to make sure all D’avin’s calls are routed through at least seventeen proxies. “Gotta work, keep Lucy in hydrogen cells. There. That should do it. Not even I could find you now.”

“But you’ll call if you change your mind, right?” D’avin takes his PDD back, pockets it, and then takes down one of Dutch’s crappy mugs.

John watches him, realising there’s nothing he can say to make D’avin understand that what he’s done is wrong. He’s a stubborn, arrogant, self-righteous sonofabitch. In a lot of ways, just like Dad. “That’s the worst one,” he says about the mug.

“That’s the whole point.”

When D’avin is gone, Lucy speaks again. “You already delivered the solution to Delle Kendry, John.”

“Yeah, but he doesn’t know that.” John coughs into his fist. He tries to suppress it, but he is wracked with paroxysms. When he opens his hand, the gunk is black.

Chapter Text

*

כל מקום שיש בו נחמה יש כאב

Wherever there is comfort there is pain.

*

It’s a strange feeling, being on death row. Now that she knows it’s all ending, she should be doing all the things she'll never get to do again, talking to the people who matter, watching sappy shit like sunsets. But it’s hard to decide which tunes are best, which books are worth reading and which ice-cream flavours are the least flawed. It’s all just crap.

As it turns out, what she really wants is D'avin's dick.

She wants his dick in her, and she wants his arms around her, and she wants to run her hands through his hair and cradle his precious brain and tell him everything’s going to be alright. She wants to twine her fingers with his, feel his warmth and the satisfying bulk of his torso and just—

Forget.

He gracefully plays along with her determination to pretend everything’s alright, doesn’t challenge her refusal to talk about certain subjects, goes down on her on a Thursday afternoon. He says absurd things to make her laugh, like ‘I’mma taste pistol shrimp,’ and ‘an ugly ferret is about to set up home in Crotch-Patch Cottage,’ and ‘time to play sex-organ smack-down’. She does laugh. A lot. He plays ancient tunes like Sam Cooke and, although she wouldn’t have chosen old stuff herself, it’s just perfect and they sing along with ‘Bring it on Home to Me’, scrunching up their faces to belt out the yeah part.

She reminds him that it's less of a smack-down and more of a smush-together as she straddles him and holds his wrists beside his head and threatens to tie him up. But he’s not into all that weird shit, he says. He’s vanilla and that’s Okay.

That’s just him.

Instead she keeps holding his hands away as she rocks, torturing him that he can’t touch her breasts, and they never break eye contact, not even once, as she screws him to a climax. They come together, for the first time in this short and ill-considered tryst—“Shit, did we just—?” And it is wonderful, the pure joy of slippery, unprotected, glorious skin-on-skin shagging. With someone she cares about.

She crashes down beside him in his bed, sweaty and spent and full and swiping strands of hair from her mouth. Happy for now. Maybe it’s a mercy she’s leaving, because it’s only a matter of time before they descend into the usual relationship crap.

She trails a hand on his chest. “New bruise?”

“Been sparring with Gared.” D’avin props himself up on an elbow and brings the sheet up, straightening it out. “Your hands are so cold. Why are they always cold?”

“Lucy, bring the temperature up by two degrees. It’s like a fridge in here.” She tucks the sheet around her chest. “Ugh, now I’m hungry.”

“I found a ramen stand over on south side that’s not too poison-y and we have a few hours before we’re due back at the Rack.”

“You, me and dinner.” She regards him with narrowed eyes. “Dinner, or dinner-dinner?”

“Dinner-dinner,” he says cautiously, “or I have a coupon for half price coffee at Zack's.”

“Just when I thought this couldn’t get any more low-rent. Way to go granting a dying girl's wish.”

“Or we could go to Leith and get you some clay. Take out all your frustrations. Not really date material but, hey, watcha gonna do?” He lets a smirk tug at his mouth, gauging her reaction in the low light.

“Date?”

“Yeah. You know. Figured, what with the royal harem and everything, that you'd never been on one.”

“Oh, because that's a ‘thing’ on your planet.”

“Dance with me and damn everything else to hells.” His gaze is serious as it flits over her face, recording her for the future. She is going to miss every line of his, every scar, every goofy expression.

She takes a deep breath and rolls her eyes. “Okay.”

“Yesss,” he pulls a fist. “First date.”

“Bit late for that.” She turns her whole body to him and runs her hand over his hips, pulling him closer. “How did we even get to this point, anyway?”

“A thousand mistakes,” he says, and she can see the regret of all the time they wasted in his eyes. “Law of averages, something had to go right eventually.”

“So we keep stabbing away at it until it’s a bloody mess?” she says, and they both laugh. “It was never gonna work out, though. You know that, right? You’re a morning person. And I—”

“Shoot morning people. Yes, I know. But I’m not going to pretend I’m not enjoying this, or that I don’t want it to continue.”

“Yeah, um, sorry about that part,” she swallows, turning her head away to look at nothing in particular. Anything but him.

“But what,” he says uncomfortably, “what if it doesn’t have to end? What if she never arrives? This thing, whatever it is, doesn’t have to be a casualty of war.”

He is getting dangerously close to saying the things they promised they wouldn’t say. They told each other they wouldn’t make this difficult, agreed that it would just be what they both wanted for the time they had left. And now that he’s found a loophole, he doesn’t have to ask her to stay, just has to fantasise that D-day will never come, and they can play at being real people for just a little bit longer.

“Okay, for argument's sake, say this thing doesn’t kick off,” she says, turning back, “there’s still the John problem. He’s going to notice sooner or later. What do we tell him?”

“The truth. Stop all this sneaking around.”

“He’s already freaking out because I’m leaving. How do you think he’ll feel if he knows I spent my last days banging you?”

“You don’t have to protect him from life,” D’avin rubs his face, exasperated, “it’s going to happen.”

“That’s my ‘Thing’. Don’t try to take it away from me. He needs me to carry on being Protector so he has a, a,” she struggles for the right term, twirling a hand in the air, “compass, fulcrum, something. Any suggestion of an ‘us’ is going to totally de-stabilise him.”

“He’s an adult. A big hairy adult with a gun. I think he can handle ‘us’. Imagine I’m doing air-quotes.”

“Like you don’t try to protect him too.”

D’avin screws up his mouth. “It’s different with me.”

She digs him in the ribs. “Because you’re a real person and I’m not a real person, so—”

“Hey,” he says sharply, “you're real to me. You're the realest thing I've ever known.”

“I’m just a shadow, remember. You can’t just bypass the laws of physics.”

“Okay,” he says, “but hear me out. I have a theory.”

“Ooh, a theory. Tell it to me, Professor Unusual.” She elbows her pillow, jaw in hand.

“All these voices are telling you what you should be. To Khlyen you’re an assassin, to your prince you’re a bride, to the RAC you’re an agent and to Johnny you’re the god-damn centre of the universe. When you put on the coat and the boots, that’s a persona you're trying to project, but when you come in here and close the door and take them off, that’s the real you. You're allowed to be vulnerable and you're allowed to not have all the answers. You have the right to decide what you should do, who you are. And letting me in, that’s part of it.”

“What about you? Who do you think I am?”

“You are just a woman. You are everything that that means. You are Yalena.”

“I’ve always hated that name.” She stares at the bulkhead. “It’s synonymous with other people’s deaths.”

“Yalena,” he says again. Softer this time, like she is everything.

But he’s wrong. He doesn’t know that a little piece of her is ebbing away every day, and soon there will be nothing left. It’s like a stab of molten iron to her heart and she fights back the heat she knows will end in tears, squeezes her eyes shut. “Say it again.”

“Yalena.” He trails the back of his fingers down the side of her cheek, kisses her gently on the lips, pulling back to check what she is feeling. It must be a combination of passion and pain, because he becomes concerned then, cupping her face and kissing her properly. She grasps their bodies closer together and she can feel the rhythm of his muscles against hers, feel his hardness, as if it will fix all the reasons he’s hurting, all the things they can’t talk about.

She can taste her own musk on him.

“Thanks for not trying to talk me out of it,” she pauses for air, pressing their foreheads together.

“That would only spoil the time we have.”

“But can you please talk me out of it?”

“Look, if you can't go through with it,” he says, “all you have to do is call, and I'll be there. No judgement. No questions asked.”

“Thank you,” she squeezes his forearm, “but that’s exactly why I won’t ask you to.”

“If you’re scared,” he begins with a swallow, and he doesn’t have to finish because she knows—

“I know you’re scared,” she bites her lip.

“I'm not ready to go yet. I still have so many questions.”

“Dutch,” Lucy interrupts, “you asked me to let you know when John is one hundred meters from the cargo bay doors.”

D’avin groans. “So much for round two.”

“Dibs on the shower.” She rolls out of bed, switching to hide-from-John mode and pulling on a grey T-shirt that she's found on the floor. “I have to go somewhere quickly, but then we’ll eat. No wanking while I'm out.”

“Depends how long you're gone.” He catapults her knickers by the elastic and they hit her in the face. “Highness.”

“I hate you.” She throws them back.

“Ditto,” he says, watching her leave.

She stops in the doorway and looks back, one hand thoughtfully on the edge. “I hope you find your answers, D’avin, I really do.”


 

The memory ends there, neither of them knowing it would be the last time they would be together. All she’s left with is the image of D’avin and John and Kendry as they spill out of the elevator, the sheer devastation when D’av realises what she’s about to do. No-one should ever be made to feel like that. But he does. John too. And she did that to them.

They never did grab dinner alone, and now they probably never will, because she doesn’t know how to get out of this place, or if they will ever find the Lady, or if this madness will end her once and for all. But she has to try, she has to get out of this puzzle and manage Aneela’s insanity and fix everything, otherwise it will be the end of Johnny, the end of D’avin and the baby, of everyone.

"I can see why you like him," says Aneela, snapping her out of it, "he knows when to be gentle and when to be rough."

"You don't get to talk about him." Dutch growls, pulling herself up onto the next platform. "Either of them."

Stretching out before them is a cavern of bare rock. Huge, hexagonal columns thrust upwards from out of the darkness, too far apart to traverse. Dutch puffs out her cheeks, partly from the effort and partly at the task ahead. She shuffles to the edge of the ledge and looks down. The abyss is true black, infinite, and a dropped pebble clatters off the sides of the cliff, disappearing into her subconscious. On either side, the rock-shelf narrows out until there is no more path left or right. Their only choice is to go forward and possibly drop into the nothingness below.

"They always took away my pets," says Aneela wistfully.

"So you made another one? She's a human being, you know. You can't just keep on creating offspring for your own purposes like that."

"Maybe I should just collect broken boys instead." Aneela narrows reptilian eyes. "Tell me, is it possible to love two people equally? Or maybe you don't love them. Maybe you're not capable of love—"

"Would you," Dutch snaps, hands against the cliff, "kindly shut up now. I'm trying to concentrate." It's not much of a run-up, and the rock columns are too high and too far apart and too bloody like the things she's most afraid of, with her blood churning and ringing in her ears.

She takes the leap.

Chapter Text

 

~Day 5~

Old Town - Westerley 

“Well?” says Spider, showing bad teeth.

“Absolutely no way.” Fancy pockets his device and holds the door to the warehouse open for them. “Said he won’t have Turin stirring up 'another bloody hornet’s nest'.”

“Sometimes the best option is to wait.”

“I’d be surprised if he’s not on the phone right now, giving him a piece of his filthy mind.”

“Wouldn’t want to be Turin right now,” Spider smirks.

They walk through the Cleansed base-camp, stacks of equipment and make-shift dwelling areas on either side of them, and several people look up. Some cook on ranger-stoves and some snooze on camp-beds, but everyone is pensive and expectant from the events of the last few days. The vaulted warehouse roof dulls the sound of any conversation, making it seem like its own little kingdom.

“Info-dump in five, everybody,” Fancy shouts when they reach the approximate middle of the building.

The Cleansed begin to herd toward him and he disappears through a fire-exit which leads through to the abandoned theatre. They used to have shadow puppets in here, years ago. He came once, at the behest of a now-dead acquaintance, but he didn’t enjoy it.

Once they are assembled in the auditorium seating, over two-hundred in number, Fancy begins. “Now,” he paces the stage, “I know a lot of you are unsettled by Seyon Trus’s priority broadcast, but it is very important that we stand together and that no-one goes shooting their mouths off before they have all the facts.”

He’s barely taken a breath before someone at the back, Aksel Vanderand, he thinks, shouts over him. “He didn’t mention the Cleansed at all! He can’t seriously be trying to take all the credit for winning the battle himself, when all he’s done is pick up the tab for a bunch of Feran hippies!”

Jeers of “here, here,” go up all around the auditorium, echoing off the e-walls. Before Fancy can formulate an answer, others begin calling out.

“When is Jaqobis going to come and talk to us?” says Satinder Maze.

“Why is there still so much hostility when we go out in public?” says Bryan Chrti.

“He owes us that much,” says Satinder.

Fancy looks at Spider who just shrugs. This is exactly why he doesn’t deal with people. They’re so needy and complicated. He's not à l'aise with public speaking either, but that's had to change. “He doesn’t owe you anything. Besides, that’s not how the chain of authority works,” he says.

“And who put you in authority anyway?” says Adia Quintelis, one of his more vocal critics. “I call bullshit on your ‘authority’.”

“Yeah,” chime in Quintelis’s followers.

“Look," another voice cuts through all the yeahs, and Eltam High, one of the older Sixes, stands up. "I’ve only been on Westerley for two weeks, and already I’ve witnessed your friend Nejib being attacked by thugs from the miner’s union, half-a-dozen people walk out because of Turin’s policies, and now you’re telling us we have to sit still and keep shtum because some special seaside snowflake prince is squeamish about a race that he helped create.”

“Fine,” says Fancy, “you want to personally mentor all the Clueless still arriving from other quadrants? You want to keep us from imploding? Be my guest. I’ll just go to Leith and explain to Jaqobis how you all want your mommies because a bully didn’t namecheck you in his victory speech.” The rabble settle down at this, so he continues. “Revolutions take time. Recognition takes time. Equality. Will. Take. Time.”

“That’s a hundred percent pedigree bull.” Quintelis points right at him with a sharp, purple finger-nail, and he knows that if she were any closer to him, she would jab him in the chest. “You dare represent our interests when everyone knows you’re Jaqobis’ pet? You say one of ‘us’, but you’re not one of anything. Before Red 17 you would’ve sold us all out for a level 5 warrant—”

“Who wants to be equal to a gods-damned Westie anyway?” shouts Otto Needler, and the whole auditorium erupts in a cacophony of different groups squabbling and pushing each other. Cleansed Slave-Hullen from Westerley are pitted against Sixes from Zar. Duhane’s Sixes are pitted against those loyal to Dutch’s team. The pilots pick a fight with Farrukh’s people, and Fancy’s Favourites try to pull them apart and try to restore order. Very soon someone will pull a gun and it will escalate beyond Fancy’s expertise or control. With these people's skills sets, it would be a slaughter.

Spider weaves his way past people to get to the stage. “If this is what you wanted,” he says with a grunt, pulling himself up, “then congratulations, you’ve sparked a riot.”

“No, Trus did. I’m ending it.” Fancy draws his weapon and shoots the ceiling. Chunks of corroded plaster rain down on the Cleansed with a pitter-patter and a cloud of dust, and they stop fighting. “All of you!” Fancy barks as they turn to look at him. “What point is there getting our lives back if we’re just going to fight amongst ourselves? I understand your confusion. I know it's frustrating to be side-lined, but Jaqobis is working on the Trus problem. Try to remember this isn’t about individual pride, but survival. Not just for the Quad, but for the whole galaxy. We have to stop forming factions within ourselves, if we’re to—”

“Why should we believe anything Jaqobis says?” Quintelis says, hands on hips. “We’re running errands, running interference, risking our lives every day—”

“You’re gettin’ paid, dumb-ass,” shouts someone at the back.

Quintelis continues, undeterred. “But he’s abandoned us, just like Agent Yardeen did. And you’re standing there, trying to convince us he has our best interests at heart? Fifteen of our best pilots are dead. That ain’t nothing.”

“That’s not—” Fancy begins, but then realises he can’t explain either D’avin or Dutch’s actions. He looks at Spider again.

“You have to tell them,” he says.

Quintelis makes her way to the aisle, brushing plaster from her shoulders, and stands in front of the exit. “Those of you who are sick of this posturing and rhetoric,” she says, “follow me.”

“I know little of this fight,” says Eltam High, looking up from the pit, “but it’s not looking good for you, Mr Lee.”

“Alright,” Fancy holds his hands up, as if in surrender, “you all deserve to know. You do owe Jaqobis your loyalty because he saved you.”

“What?” says Quintelis.

“He’s immune,” Fancy continues, “the Hullen Toxin is made from his antibodies. Without it you’d all still be Team Green.”

The whole auditorium goes deathly quiet, except for Satinder. “What does that mean, Fancy?”

“It means he’s the greatest asset we have in the fight. That’s why he’s gone underground and it’s also why we have a duty to protect him. We may have won this battle, but the enemy is still out there and they’re coming back.”

There is silence for a few seconds in which Quintelis scoffs incredulously.

“He’s right,” says Vanderand, looking at Satinder and Chrti, “we owe Jaqobis our lives. The least we can do is support him while we figure things out. Adia, have you forgotten about Turin already?”

“Yeah, well, some of us didn’t ask Jaqobis to stand up for us,” says Quintelis, as she yanks the door open ready to stalk out, “and some of us didn’t ask to be cleansed. So screw you all.”

“Crap nuggets,” says Spider, looking at Fancy, “maybe shoulda left it ‘til after she walked out.”

“Don’t worry,” says Fancy, “I know where to find her.”


 

Scarback Monastery - Leith

“It wasn't just my physical eyes that were opened,” says Quin, as they walk in the lush gardens of the quadrangle, “when I found out all the Undying doctrines were true. I never really believed them before.”

Bees bumble around the last few arnica flowers of the season and the sun is low in the sky, threatening to blanket everything in darkness once again. She never knew what bees were before. There was sometimes a buzzing when she went outside, especially when it was warmer and the scent of pine pollen was in the air, but it wasn’t until she came to Leith and Alvis stopped her grabbing one, that she knew there was a creature responsible for the sound. That was when she realised that people were far more dangerous than nature, with its stingers and its thorns. That was when she understood.

Constance stops to admire one of the hanging roses. “You’d be surprised what people would give to know they’re not following a lie.”

Quin stops beside her. “But I don’t know how to reconcile all the different points of view.”

“What do you mean?” says Constance as they begin walking again in perfect unison.

“It used to be about people from different places understanding each other, but now it’s about much more than that. It’s about uniting against a common enemy. We don’t have time to think about our differences if we’re to have a future.”

“You speak the language of faith,” Constance stops to sniff another rose, “that’s how you’ll unite people, even when it’s not the same faith. But you don’t have to do it all on your own.”

“Before I left my moon I had no idea all this was out here.” Quin tips her face up to the sky. It is always a pleasure to her, always changing. She doesn’t understand it—Mistress Zephyr’s efforts to elucidate the finer points of astronomy have so far fallen on uncomprehending ears—but there it is, nonetheless. “We were brought up to believe the Undying were everything, that the ground we walked on was all there was. For hundreds of years we knew nothing of the billions of people in the J. I was so naïve.”

“But that doesn’t mean you have nothing to offer. You can help give people agency, because you know what it’s like to have it taken away.”

“I feel like I’m never going to graduate,” Quin says, “the others have a head start on life, on everything. And now that Alvis is gone, I—”

“Give yourself a break,” Constance almost laughs, “you’ve just spent an hour explaining what the Old Ways mean to people. If I was your abbot, I’d have passed you already. How long until you’re ordained?”

“It’s supposed to take a year, or when I turn twenty, whichever is sooner, but I’m not sure when that will be. The Elders didn’t keep very good records.”

“You don’t even know how old you are?” Constance frowns.

“Mistress Zephyr thinks I’m around eighteen, but she can’t be sure because my bones didn’t get enough calcium.”

“That’s awful.” Constance looks down. They turn a corner in the path. “What about your parents? Don’t they know?”

“I,” she hesitates, loath to resurrect her below-ground existence, “don’t know who my parents are. Childcare was a communal matter. I didn’t know what a family was until I came here. Does that sound pathetic to you?”

“No,” Constance smiles, “I think you’re very brave.”

“Constance,” Quin says thoughtfully, “if you’re a true Leithian, why don’t you partake of the Scarback blessing?”

“Because I’ve been sanctified. To touch blood would make me unclean.”

“I don’t believe there is such a thing as clean or unclean. The trees look down upon us all with the same pity. We’re so,” she breathes the autumn evening air, “temporary. We never get a chance to put down roots. Not really.”

“I suppose that’s why some people worship the Undying.”

“But now we know they’re as vulnerable as we are. Just in different ways. This war doesn’t seem so impossible to win.”

Constance stops her with a hand on her arm. “It doesn’t matter how small you think your part is, it still matters. Never forget that. Once I thought my only purpose in life was to be cursed with constant pain. But it was all for a reason.”

“What pain?”

They arrive at a bench and Constance sits, making Quin sit beside her before answering. “Leaving my family. Losing my sisters. I’ve born three children now, fed as many more. It never gets any easier leaving them.”

“Why do you do it, then?”

“My mother always said you have to try and equalise a raw deal. ‘Course, that was before she sold me to a fertility cult.” She takes a breath and Quin wonders at the irony. “When my order was massacred I could either see it as the end, or see it as a new beginning, so I basically held my uterus to ransom.”

“You did what?” Quin looks at her with a mixture of confusion and admiration.

“I decided that if I was going to stay, do what the Sisters wanted, then it would be on my own terms. I made them change things, made them let us outside, made them let us choose who we helped. There are so many heartbroken parents out there waiting for a child, and there are so many children who’ve lost their parents. I can’t just stand by and let them suffer when I’m in a position to help. But I could never understand why I felt so convicted—”

“Until now.”

“Until now.” Constance leans back on the bench and they bask in the odd warmth of sunset. “Being here, doing this, this is my fight.”

Quin thinks she might cry again so she takes Constance’s hand on the bench beside her and squeezes it, if only to shift her focus from her own loss. “Can I ask you for something?”

“Anything.” Constance squeezes back.

“Can I touch your face?”

A flicker of amusement comes into Constance’s voice. “Okay.”

“It’s so I can remember you, when you leave.” Quin places her palms on each of her cheeks. “I’m not very good at recognising individual faces yet.” Constance stays perfectly still while Quin closes her eyes and feels her cheekbones, her forehead, her mouth. Fingers flit all over her nose and her brows. “Now smile,” she says. She feels Constance's grin and it brings joy to her own face. “You smell nice.”

“I smell of wet-wipes and baby-sick,” Constance laughs.

Quin lets her go. “S’worse things in the worlds.”


 

Medidas City Department of Corrections - Qresh

Kendry jumps at the sound of footsteps behind her. She has just pulled her hand out from under her meagre mattress. They’ve started letting her off the chains when she’s in her own cell, due to her tactical decision to play subservient when the guards are around, but that subservience doesn’t extend to other inmates. “Have you nothing better to do than bother me with your mouth-breathing?” she says, still kneeling on the floor.

“I get extra rations if I report contraband,” Louella says, sauntering in and reaching for the mattress edge.

Kendry’s hand shoots out to stop her. She grasps Louella’s lo-grade prison-issue prosthetic and twists her arm away and down.

“Ah, ah, ah,” Louella winces as she’s forced to the floor.

Kendry climbs on top of her, smashing both of her hands, mechanical and real, into the floor. “Thought I warned you not to underestimate me.”

Louella turns her head away from the tickly hair hanging in her face. “You’re freakishly strong. What the—”

“Now leave me alone or I’ll—”

“Do what?” says Louella and their faces are close enough to kiss. “Do what you did to my sister?”

Kendry is beginning to enjoy herself now, grinding herself into Louella’s hips with a lascivious grin. “On second thoughts, how would you like to be my bitch?”

“I’d rather die.” Louella wriggles out from under her and pulls herself up the wall, massaging her bruised wrist.

“Not like that.” Kendry goes for the mattress again, bringing out the syringe of toxin. “I mean like this.”

Louella clings to the stone wall, unnerved. “What is that?”


 

RAC Black-site - Wilds of Leith

D’avin is carrying Ylessa in his arms as they walk across the grass. She giggles at some secret mystery, reaching out a hand that she’s only recently learned to control, and he knows that she’s going for his nose again. “Ow,” he says nasally as she grabs on and laughs even more.

At least she’s stopped crying. Teething is so much worse when it’s at twenty times the speed and with indestructible teeth pushing through indestructible gums. The army have got it all wrong, he thinks, their methods of toughening you up. Nothing he’s experienced even comes close to being screamed at for twenty-four hours by someone you can’t just walk away from. It's a different challenge than he's used to, and no amount of physical fitness, or mental acuity, would help him prepare.

After almost eight hours of walking around outside the monastery he was ready to drop. At one point, he was convinced he couldn't go on. She wouldn’t let him put her down, wouldn’t feed, spat out every chew-toy suggested by other parents, screamed until he thought he was just going to sit on the middle of the floor and cry. Forget being trapped for two weeks behind enemy lines with no supplies, this is the hardest thing he's ever done. But all through this, his love just increases. It’s a funny old business, this parenting thing. He thanks the gods that teething will be over soon. Others aren’t that lucky.

“How’s Quin?” he says as they near the black-site.

“Why don’t you ask her yourself?” says Constance.

“She’s not talking to me.”

“Oh, D’avin, what have you done now?”

“Nothing. She’s got it into her head that seeing the footage of Aneela will give her closure, but I won’t let her.”

“What harm could come of it?”

“What good could come of it? No-one should be allowed to watch their mentor being murdered.” The words still sting. It's too soon to be talking about it so casually. They pass Alvis’s rock, the one he couldn’t move, and he eyes it accusingly.

“What would you do, if it was you?”

“I’d want to see it,” he admits.

“Maybe you shouldn’t underestimate her resolution.”

“Her resolution is what I’m afraid of. It’s one thing to be determined, another to be so blinded by revenge that you fire half-cocked and put other people in danger. She’s not ready. She’s still in the throes of grief.”

“So are you.”

“And that’s why I’m researching all our options first.”

“You’re never going to stop protecting people, are you?”

“Nope.”

They arrive at the hangar and D’avin enters the door-code. All it contains is the mirror-cube, standing sentinel in the middle of the floor, with a low, supernatural hum that only he can detect.

“What is it?”

“A kind of sanctuary that Khlyen made for Dutch.” He shifts the baby to his other hip as they approach, and she tries to put her sticky hand in his mouth. He wrenches his head away. “Stop that.”

“There’s no door.” Constance peers around either side of it.

“It’s DNA coded. And you’re the key. Aren’t you, y’ little poop pirate?” He holds Ylessa near the surface and she smiles at her own reflection, then reaches out to touch it, and the glassy surface ripples under her touch. “Just as I hoped. Hold my hand.”

Constance takes his hand and they step through to the confines of the sanctuary. Its construction is not unlike the cube on Arkyn, but instead of opaque walls they are able to see through to the dim light of the hangar.

“It’s smaller on the outside,” Constance frowns.

“It’s dimensionally transcendental. Like a safe-deposit box.”

“Didn’t know they could make them this big.”

“No-one did until Khlyen.”

“Creepy,” she says as she looks around.

“It gives off a vibe,” D’avin says, “like the goth girl in the corner.”

“You had one of those too?” she smiles. “In my school, it was me.”

Work benches line two sides of the cube and there is a crate containing supplies that would last at least a year. There is a portmanteau, tipped on its side, in place of a coffee-table and a chaise-longue for a bed. He can only guess at the contents of the other storage boxes. He’s not going to go poking his nose into Yala’s things without an invitation. Everything on display speaks of a lost childhood, and Dutch’s words echo in his head.

Old photos, baby-shoes, that kind of thing.

It gives him a peculiar feeling, one that he can’t quite identify, not familiar, but not alien either. He shouldn’t be here, it’s a violation of their mutual respect, yet he must be here, for it is part of the plan. One object on the counter-top catches his eye.

He passes the baby to Constance. “Take her a sec.”

It is a small, silver, heart-shaped box and it has the same intricate, etched pattern as the one he took from Kendry. He takes Kendry’s box out of his knee pocket and places it next to the other. They must be from the same set. “Curiouser and curiouser,” he says under his breath. Perhaps Aneela gave one to Yala when she was born—created—he’s not sure which term is more appropriate. He's witnessed a lot of births, starting with John's, and he's fairly certain that Aneela pulling a fully formed Yala out of her bath doesn't qualify.

He opens the heart-shaped box and experiences a flash of memory, Sabine saying he’s ‘sweet’ one night at the Royale, and it is profoundly inappropriate that she would invade his mind like that. He brushes her away, goes back to the box. Inside is a ring, nothing special, base-metal as far as he can tell, and far too small for an adult. Perhaps it belonged to Yalena, the original Yalena—Aneela's mother. He yearns to know what she was like, whether she was as beautiful as her daughter, what she wanted from life and how she thought. It wasn't her fault that her child grew up to be a monster.

He opens the other box and the green inside it pulsates and writhes, tortured by the frequency given off by the cube. He daren't touch it. He doesn't want to know how it feels.

“D’avin,” says Constance, as the baby begins to fret, “why are we here?”

“If something happens to me,” he says, replacing the ring in the heart-shaped box, “I want you to bring her here. You’ll be safe until help comes."

“Nothing’s going to happen to you.”

“You don’t know that.” He looks up at her then, sees the tells she’s trying to hide; the quickened pulse at her throat, her shallow breath and the burden of Ylessa’s weight in her arms. It’s the manifestation of the discomfort he’s seen growing in her over the past week, a general unease with the odder aspects of their situation. Her hand is often on her gun and, although he knows she would never admit to being afraid, the constant threat takes its toll. “Let’s go,” he says, snatching up Kendry’s box of green.

***

“Uh,” Pip chokes.

“Oh, my sweet trees,” says Zeph.

“Yeah, I know.” D’avin dumps the baby-bag and sits Ylessa on the lab table.

“She’s huge!” Pip blinks, immediately making a bee-line to play with Ylessa. “What have you been feeding her?”

“Blondes, mostly,” says D’avin, hitching his ass onto a stool.

“And where is the blonde right now?” asks Zeph, priming a disconcertingly large cannula.

“Expressing milk. She’ll be back later.”

“Is she alright? Does she need a check-up?”

“She’s fine,” says D’avin, “except for boobs like rocks. Is it alright to say that? I mean those are her words not mine—”

“I think it’s Okay to appraise someone’s mammaries in this context,” says Zeph, “and you do have a weird kind of bond. You’ve already seen her—”

“You what?” Pip’s eyes are wide.

“It was in an entirely professional,” D’avin says sternly, “first-aid capacity.”

“Fine,” says Pip, fussing over the baby, “whatever you say.”

“Why does everyone have to keep making this weird?” says D’avin.

“What military operation would require a knowledge of childbirth anyway?” says Zeph.

“Oh, you’d be surprised,” says D’avin, “people don’t just stop procreating because they’re in the middle of a warzone. Not always in a consensual scenario. Case in point. You know that needle won’t work on her, right?”

“It’s not for the baby,” she says, snapping on surgical gloves and coming toward him, “it’s for you. Stockpile's running low. Let’s just get this over with as quick as possible, shall we? Then we can all go back to doing whatever it was we—”

“How do you want it,” says D’avin, “twenties or fifties?”

“Pints. And change.”

“You can have one pint. Final offer.”

“Wait,” says Zeph, cannula poised in the crux of his elbow, “this is just a metaphor, right?”

“Yes, it’s a metaphor.” D’avin can’t help noticing that she seems concerned about the bandage on his wrist as the cannula goes in. “For the record, I don’t enjoy this. Fact, it makes me a bit squicky.”

Pip occupies the baby’s attention with a rattle from the bag. “Women,” he says, “they bleed you dry, and then they just trample you into the dust.”

“Hey,” says Zeph, as D’avin’s blood begins to flow into the bag.

“Actually,” says Pip, adjusting his collar, “now that you say it, it makes me feel a bit faint too. If you need me, I’ll be over here in the corner, crying inside.”

“Have you seen John?” asks Zeph, now weighing the baby in much the same way one would an animal or an inanimate object. Ylessa thinks the scales are hilarious.

“We,” D’avin adjusts his shirt-cuff around the tape holding the cannula, “exchanged words.”

“Which we all know is not the same as talking things out,” she says. “He was pretty pissed about the nebulizer. I take it you’re not.”

“I know how persuasive Dutch can be and I’m used to her doing crazy things. Just another day at the office for me. John, not so much. So,” D’avin settles more firmly onto his stool, tipping his head toward Pip, “how long’s this been a thing?”

Zeph gives him side-eye as she sets up her instruments for Ylessa’s tests.

“About a week,” says Pip, leaning on the opposite counter with his arms folded, “since she nearly shot me in her lab on the Rack.”

“Zeph, I swear,” says D’avin, “if you break his heart—”

“Yes, I know,” she rolls her eyes, “you’ll revoke my pyrolytic privileges. Can we refrain from discussing our love lives until I've completed the tests? We're needed pretty urgently back at the Rack.”

“What are you going to do to her?” says D’avin as Zeph scans Ylessa.

“Well, I won’t be poking her with any more scalpels, if that bothers you. Just the usual developmental stuff. Okay, we know she can sit unaided. I’d say she’s on target for around five months. Has she made any vocalisations yet?”

“Like?”

“Ma-ma, da-da, that kind of thing.”

“No. Is that bad?”

“Kinda,” says Zeph, not really looking at him, but holding up a speculum to see if the baby’s eyes follow it. “Hmmm.”

“Don’t do that face. Now you’re making me feel like something’s wrong.”

“It’s just that we don’t have a precedent for this kind of growth. Speech is difficult to master, but you can help things along by talking to her constantly, though.”

“We do,” he says, “and it’s exhausting. How long is this going to take?”

“Your exsanguination? About ten minutes with your blood pressure.”

“’Cause all I can think about is getting to bed.”

“Just enough time to download the dirt,” says Pip, drawing up another stool and trying not to look at the blood-bag. He still has the rattle.

“Yes,” says D’avin, “right, fully with you now. Go.”

“So, to bring you up to speed,” Pip counts on his fingers, “tension between the Feran and the locals, but they’re planning on decamping to Westerley anyway, as you know, so I wouldn’t worry about that too much. Vaal’s severely underplaying his injuries, so you need to anticipate possible disruption among the ranks. Fancy’s been brilliant, by the way, not in the slightest ass-holey, which kinda psyches me out, but whatever. Uuuhm, let me see. Wish I could write all this down.”

“That would defeat the objective of being a spy.”

“It would,” Pip squints. “Pree has ears to the ground re murmurs doubting your fitness to lead—”

“I expected that. S’not a problem.”

“Still no movement in the necropolis. Problems with the number of live captive Hullen arriving at the Rack, though. They can’t exactly put them all together in the same cell.”

“Okay, I’ll get onto that later.”

“Can’t seem to reach Shamir Tutte for some reason. Seems to have fallen off the radar, but I’ll keep looking.”

“Oh, great." D'avin scratches his head with his free hand. "That’s all we need.”

“And I have those profiles you wanted, although getting actual facts out of the auditor is like squeezing mercury out of malachite.”

“Don't play hardball," says D'avin flatly, "play half-hardball.”

“I don’t play sports.” Pip looks confused.

“Play a little bit stupid, not too stupid, just enough to make them think they have the upper hand.”

“Right.” Pip looks down.

“If this is too hot for you—”

“No, no, it’s fine,” Pip does a nervous little laugh, “I told Dutch I would do it, and I’m not gonna let her down, it’s just I normally have protection everywhere I go, but since D-day, I have a hard time trusting anyone.”

“You and me both, buddy,” D’avin shares a glance with Zeph as she looks up from adjusting Ylessa’s onesie. They’re both still haunted by MacAvoy’s duplicity. He's not sure how much Pip knows about that. “We’ll send you down to Nomansland, get you trained up.”

“Nomansland,” Zeph pokes the baby in the approximate location of her liver, “is that what you’re calling it now?”

“Well,” says D’avin, “technically it’s Base-camp Hippy Ass-hole, but who’s checking? Also, I’ll need you to secure the genetic bomb. Have it broken into pieces and couriered as far away as possible from the Quad. Don’t even tell me where it is.”

“Right,” says Pip, blinking doubtfully, “Okay, um. Wouldn’t that be something for Fancy to, um—”

“Yeah, no. He’s too close to Turin now.”

“You still don’t trust Turin, do you?”

“He’s still too much of an unknown quantity. Too unpredictable. And I haven’t dug up enough dirt to manipulate him yet—”

“Hold on a hokk-pickin’ second,” says Zeph, a styptic held over the squirming baby, “have you got dirt on me too?”

“Dutch and I knew everything about you before we even met. That’s what we do. You didn’t think we’d let someone into our inner circle without checking out their secret’s secrets?”

“Oh,” Zeph says, as the non-science part of her brain catches up, “a lot of stuff makes more sense now.”

“I know, for instance, why you dropped out of Medidas Med—”

"We don't need to talk about that," Zeph glares at him, her mouth tight.

"I thought," says Pip, "the one thing about being spy-master, General, is that you don't tell the target what you know about them?"

“Good news or bad news first?” Zeph interrupts, weighing the styptic in her hand. D'avin gives her ‘that’ look. “Okay, the good news is she’s perfectly healthy.”

“And the bad?”

“I don’t think cryo-sleep would work on her even if you wanted it to. This is a small sample of Torpo-Gen. Watch.” She pokes Ylessa on the back of a chubby hand with the styptic and nothing happens. The gases just dissipate harmlessly.

“Are you sure that’s calibrated properly?”

“This is the fifth one I’ve tried. They can’t all be busted.”

“Well shit,” says D’avin.

“And there’s this.” Zeph picks up a pair of scissors. She tries to cut off a lock of Ylessa’s dark curls but the hair just slides out and blunts the blades. “I think her nails are the same. I don’t know what you’re gonna do unless she can figure out a way to bite them off.”

"Aneela probably never thought of that," says D'avin, "why would she? She hasn't been human for over two-hundred years. She's probably forgotten that we have a problem with stuff like that." Almost as soon as he mentions her mother, Ylessa becomes animated with mischief and tries to grab the scissors, but Zeph won’t let her. She finally loses patience with everything, the poking and the prodding and her new front teeth, begins to wail, and it’s horrible for D’avin, knowing that he can’t pick her up. “There’s a bottle. In the bag. There.”

Zeph sits her up as if she were a doll and Ylessa grabs the bottle and begins sucking it down like a vortex. “Whoa,” Zeph says, “is she always like this?”

“Pretty much. Would you hold her, it’s just that I’m tethered—”

“Yeah, sure. I think.” Zeph picks her up and holds her under her arms the way one would hold a puppy, a look of pure trepidation on her face. Ylessa grins at Zeph, despite the tears, and gurgles through her milk. “How’s that?”

Pip snorts.

“Like an actual human,” says D’avin, “not like a sack of potatoes. If you hold her closer to your body, your arms won’t get so tired.”

“But that’s awfully—” Zeph brings her closer. “Oh, you’re right. This isn’t so bad.”

“Let her lie back about forty-five degrees or she’ll get colic,” says D’avin, “cradle her in your left arm. That’s it.”

“What if I drop her?”

“You won’t drop her,” says Pip, desperate to intervene and show her how to do it properly. “Humans are programmed not to.”

“Don’t crap on me, don’t crap on me, don’t crap on me,” chants Zeph, swaying gently.

“Haven’t you got any babies in your family?” Pip laughs.

“I am the baby, idiot.” Zeph seems to be getting into the swing of it, and Ylessa seems happy. “Yeah. I could do this. Can’t be any harder than lambing, right?”

“Don’t go getting any ideas,” says Pip.

“Ugh—” D’avin looks at the line in his arm and follows it to the end. The bag is full.

“Pip, can you uh,” Zeph hands him the baby, “I have to unhook D’av before he spurts all over the lab.”


 

Meanwhile on Qresh

“Poison,” Kendry says, squirting the toxin into the wash-basin, “or at least it was. Jaqobis doesn’t seem to have accounted for this.”

Louella watches, fascinated, as Kendry unscrews the needle, dismantles the syringe and washes it a few times, squirting the water into the basin with each rinse. “What are you going to do with that?”

“Watch,” says Kendry, “it’s a test.” She bites into the back of her own hand and lets blood drip onto the edge of the basin, watching as the wound rapidly closes. She screws the needle back onto the syringe, squeezing a drop of water out of it and onto the blood, then examines it very closely for a change.

Despite her better judgement, Louella comes closer and they both watch the experiment. “What are you looking for?”

“Trees, do you ever stop asking questions? Just watch.” Seconds pass. Kendry waits for the blood to turn black. Nothing happens. If she's cleaned it properly there won't be any traces of the toxin left. “Now,” she says, turning to Louella, “who'd want to kill you? I can do better than that.” Then she sweeps her hair aside and stabs herself in the back of the neck, drawing Hullen out of her brainstem.

“What the hell?” Louella stumbles back.

Kendry is coming for her now, the hypodermic full of plasma. “How would you like to live forever?”

Chapter Text

*

A poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all the green willow,
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow.

The fresh streams ran by her and murmur'd her moans,
Her salt tears ran from her and soften'd the stones,
Sing willow, willow, willow.

Sing all a green willow must be in my garland,
Sing willow, willow, willow.

—The Willow Song (Traditional)

*

 

~Day 6~

Old Town - Westerley  

“Don’t mock your wife’s choices,” John cocks his sidearm and presses it into Braben Blix’s temple, “you’re one of ‘em. Now get up and go tell her you’re sorry.”

“I would,” pants Blix, slightly strangled, “but it’s difficult with your balls around my neck.”

John’s mouth twists momentarily, then he abandons his position straddling Blix’s chest and steps over the man, holstering his weapon. Other patrons of the Royale move out of his way, and the girl who had stopped singing karaoke at the start of the kerfuffle begins again. Blix levers himself off the floor, returns to his wife and receives a clout to the back of the head for his trouble. They go back to their drinks, none the worse for a run-in with ‘The’ Johnny Jaqobis.

Pree and Gared watch him stumble upstairs.

“He's absolutely wasted,” says Gared.

“You know what this means?” Pree puts down the tumbler he’s been polishing.

“No.”

“He's been drinking somewhere else.”

***

“Is that so?” says N’oa, attempting to stall so that she can breathalyse him. “No, uh-huh, I totally understand.” She looks at her device. He’s five times over the limit. “Shit,” she says to herself.

“And now I can’t even get to Kendry to hurt her.”

“John,” she says, “sweetie, you know how much I value your custom, but I can’t service you when you're blind drunk. It's contractual.” She gets up, leaving John languishing on the bed, and goes to call for help. But there is a knock on the door before she can press the button.

"The only option is to make her hurt herself."

“Are you decent?” comes Pree’s voice.

N’oa opens it for him.

“Asking the wrong people,” giggles John.

Pree stands over John while N’oa waits in the corner. “What’s going on here, cutie-pie?” he says in his best drunk-pacifying voice.

“B-A-B-Y, Pree,” John says, rubbing red eyes with his palms, “a baby.”

“Yes, hon, we know.” Pree looks at him with the ultimate in compassion.

N’oa just looks impatient, arms folded across her peep-hole bra.

“The one thing that could break up Team Awesome Force and I can't do a fingle sing about it.”

Pree opens his mouth to say something wise, but thinks better of it.

“Aaand he’s out again,” says N’oa, as John falls unconscious onto the covers. “Would you just get him out of here? This could look really bad on my licence.”

***

“Help me with his legs,” Pree says as they manhandle John into their own bed.

“Under any other circumstances, I’d be worried,” says Gared.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Pree is indignant, “I only have eyes and arms for you. Although,” he regards John’s snoring form, “there’s been times, going through a dry spell, when I’ve considered it.”

“Okay, now I’m worried.”

“Psht,” Pree scoffs as if it equals reassurance. “Now pass me those enzymes.”

Gared gives him a small bottle from the ornate medicine chest on their sideboard. “He’s gonna have the grand-daddy of all hangovers.”

“Hopefully not with this.” Pree tips John’s head back and drips the elixir into his nose with the dropper from the bottle. For a moment nothing happens, but then the drops reach the back of John’s throat and he snaps to consciousness with a cough and a splutter. He grabs onto the covers, instantly in fight-mode, and almost kicks Pree in the face. “Easy tiger.”

“What the—” John looks around and realises he’s in Pree’s room at the Royale. “Why am I in here?”

“Orientation class for the suddenly sober,” says Pree. John looks at him, a cowlick in his hair and an expression of pure dumbfoundedness, and Pree adds, “not that kind of orientation.”

“Pleurgh,” John scrubs his tongue with his shirt-sleeve, “what did you dose me with?”

“Just a little elixir,” says Pree, sitting on the edge of the bed. “Mommy’s little helper.”

“Yeah, well it don’t mix well with alcohol.”

Gared makes his excuses and heads back down to the bar.

“About that.” Pree’s gaze bores into John intensely. “How much of the last hour do you remember?”

“Um,” John rubs his forehead, sitting up, “about… zero?”

“Correct. Do you know why that is? It’s because you’re an amnesiac drunk. The most dangerous kind. And do you know why that is? It’s because you can’t remember how much you’ve had, so you keep having the same forget-me-shot over and over again,” Pree’s voice escalates, and he hits John on the arm with a turquoise scarf from the headboard, “are you trying to kill yourself?”

“No.” John looks into the middle distance and a tear begins to form and his chin begins to tremble. “Just forget. Maybe.”

“So pretty, yet so inexperienced.” Pree shakes his head. “So destined for a pancreas transplant. Is this about Red, or about Dutch, or just your stubborn-ass brother?”

John thinks for a second. “All of the above.”

“Ah,” says Pree knowingly, “you went for the hat-trick.”

“It’s all just a great big mess,” John buries his face in Pree’s shoulder. “I was only just beginning to get used to Pawter not being there and this's just dragged it all up again. People leaving seems to be a recurring theme lately. Or always.”

“Dutch and D’avin haven’t actually gone anywhere.”

“I promised her I'd never leave her side,” John sniffs, “but I'm not there. I left her to fight alone. We left her to fight alone.”

“People make promises they can't keep on the eve of war, you know that.”

But John isn’t listening. The elixir doesn’t seem to have entirely worked and he’s still a little inebriated. They get very honest when they’re inebriated, and this one just seems to want to cling to Pree’s shoulder.

“And now D’av’s just destroying everything we’ve built together.”

“You don’t really believe that, do you?” Pree frowns, despite the risk to his preternaturally youthful complexion. Just what has gotten into the boy? “Did you ever stop to think what he might be going through? It's a helluva thing. How would you feel if it happened to you?”

“What do you mean?” John looks up at him with glassy eyes.

“He’s had his honour and his credibility trashed by that hell-witch. He feels helpless and isolated, and he’s angry. And where are you? You’re just wallowing.”

“I don’t know who he is anymore, Pree, I can’t join in with this sick fantasy. You know he’s letting everyone think she’s Dutch’s baby?”

Pree swallows. “She is.”

“She’s not. She never will be—”

“They have identical DNA. Much as I hate to say it, Dutch is Aneela, Aneela is Dutch, and I think D’avin’s the only one who really understands what that means. Think of what he’s losing because of it. Think of the pain.”

“It doesn’t matter,” hot tears come to John’s eyes, “because he’ll just leave anyway.”

“Now, sweetie, you know that’s not true.” Pree raises his eyebrows. “He's not the same man who walked into my bar three harvests ago. Not to mention those two’ve been screwing like little bunny rabbits after an Angel Day parade. Not just screwing, but re-screwing. Even after everything that’s happened. And you know what that means.”

John nods slowly as the tears freely fall. “It’s the real deal.”

“And you’re worried you’re not number one any more. That’s what this is really about, isn’t it? And a child? Planned or not, that's a bond can't easily be broken.”

John nods silently and cries on his shoulder for a bit longer until he pukes in his own mouth, mainly because of the elixir, and retches into the waste-paper basket. Pree leaves him to rest and joins Gared at the bar.

Business is hopping. You’d think people would be a little more temperate considering how close they’d all come to annihilation, but no, all they want to do is party.

“D’you think he’ll be alright?” says Gared, serving someone whisky in a short glass and involuntarily looking at the spot where Pawter’s blood was spilled through the floorboards.

“Grief is an odd state of being,” says Pree, “the only thing that stops the pain is forgetting, but if you love someone you don't want to forget, so you end up addicted to remembering. Until it tears you apart.”


 

Leith

D'avin is shocked how quickly he develops intense feelings toward Ylessa. Much more intense than any other person in his life. It’s wonderful, difficult, terrifying and amazing, marvelling at the perfection of her face.

He wasn't prepared for this.

All that time spent with 'the cousins', all the other babies in his family, did nothing. Even Ethan, who despite being so much younger than him, is somehow his uncle. Even holding the babies of army buddies who always teased him about not being the kind to settle down. Even playing with the children of various girlfriends, the younger ones oblivious to the endless parade of lovers and the older ones resentful of his presence, just another toy soldier they barely registered coming and going.

He understands it now, that no matter what people tell you, no matter how much or how little time you have to prepare, nothing compares to holding your own child in your arms and comforting their disquiet.

"Oh, you just have to muddle through," people used to say, "kids'll teach you what they need."

It still haunts him, the feeling of finding out. The gut wrenching, blinding white shame and the sheer mockery of it all, like the universe is playing one great, sick joke. Reproduction used to be beautiful, natural, inevitable, but now he just feels robbed. Instead of the mingling of two people’s DNA, there’s only cold flasks of corrupted fluid in a lab. Even so, the scales have tipped eighty/twenty in her favour, the horrors of her conception giving way to love. His biggest fear now is that everyone will be prejudiced against her before she even starts in life.

Not just because of who her mother is, but because she’s impossible.

He cherishes every second they are together and prays that he is doing the right thing. Every interaction takes on a deeper significance because he knows they will be separated by sleep, by the impassable barrier of distorted space-time, every time she closes her eyes. He mourns every passing stage of development, celebrates every milestone with more enthusiasm than most, because it passes so damn quickly.

A blessing for her, the impossible child, and a curse for him.

It is difficult navigating their relationship while in different time-streams. Zeph says it’s something to do with relativity theory, time-dilation on a sub-atomic level, and everything he thought he understood about high-school physics is suddenly, woefully, inadequate.

She changes so much from day to day that, from his point of view at least, it is as if she is a completely different person every time she wakes up. For her, one day is like three weeks, and three weeks is an awfully long time for a baby. So, he begins to tell himself that while she is asleep they are apart, and when she is awake it is like sharing custody with an ex. Weekend visitation rights like the broken families on his world, bearing the yoke of an ignorant society. Cases of domestic strife that his father was, ironically, required to respond to in the line of work.

He used to beg Mom and Dad to get a divorce, but they were subject to a special brand of repression, a sense of tribal shame peculiar to the Lake Districts, perhaps even reaching as far as Banlieue Seven, which would eventually lead to their ruin.

A break-up would've been better for everyone, but he realised too late that it's not about what the children want, and the parents have a life before the children, which somehow continues regardless while they stand by and suffer. And one morning, while he and Ylessa are playing in the monastery dojo, it hits him; that his parents didn't love each other, and it wasn't his fault. He is vindicated of a lifetime of guilt for not being able to fix something that should never have been pasted together like the pages of a dodgy scrapbook.

***

They have taken to coming in the dojo while Constance is asleep, before the monks gather for their daily martial arts practice. There is only one way in or out, a heavy, ornately carved wooden door, bearing images from the Scarback apocrypha. It has the dual advantage of being easily defensible from one’s enemies, and inescapable to a small child. She has somehow already managed to escape the cot they borrowed from the village.

He sets out multicoloured wooden blocks for Ylessa and attempts to catch up on his pilates, but it is pointless; she keeps climbing on him while he’s doing a plank, and they end up rolling on the tatami mats and laughing. He writes off any possibility of exercising while she is around, lies there on his side, watching her explore the blocks with her mouth instead. He tries to get her talk, like Zeph said, saying da-da, da-da, but she just stares at him like he’s bonkers. At least she recognises her own name. That’s progress.

“You’re a smart cookie,” he says, lying on his arm as she swats at the blocks, “try the blue one. I’m sure the paint isn’t that toxic.”

He's unaware of the drift from consciousness into REM. It happens so gradually and so naturally, and he’s so damn tired, that the frustrating sequence of events seems to be part of his normal existence. It involves the completion of an impossible task, the goal of which he’s unaware, and the navigation of an endless desert with no hope of rescue, not quite images, but feelings from the past. And underneath it all, there is a current of panic like he’s never experienced before, not even while getting tangled in someone else’s lines during a HALO insertion from twenty-thousand feet.

***

“D’avin.” A voice cuts through the dream suddenly, and his hand is drawing his weapon and training it on her face. He had no idea he’d fallen asleep so easily. “Ta oma lail ba'an,” Quin continues, tipping her head, “that’s old-word for ‘she’s over there’.”

He looks and Ylessa is in the corner, stuffing an exotic plant into her mouth, so he rolls to his feet, stiff from inactivity, and holsters the gun. Quin’s watery eyes follow him as he scoops up the baby and curses himself for being so irresponsible, removing the possibly poisonous leaves from her mouth. “So, you’re learning old-word now? That’s good.”

“I’ve been studying it for a while,” she says. He notices that she has a sheaf of paper held at her side, as he places Ylessa at their feet to play with her blocks. “Not that you’d notice.”

“Have I done something wrong?”

“No,” she says, more like a teenager than necessary, “I just wanted to let you know what I’ve found.”

“Let me see.” He holds out a hand for the paper. Each sheet is covered in pinpricks, but there is no inking. “This doesn’t make any sense.”

“Not to you,” she says indignantly, “but that’s how I write. Yarin taught me.”

He sits cross-legged on the tatami and helps Ylessa when she gets frustrated trying to pick things up with jerky, grabby little hands. “Explain it to me, then.”

“You know what,” Quin snatches the paper back, and puts it away in her robes, “on second thoughts, it’s not fully cooked yet, so I’ll just—”

"If it's too hard—" he starts.

"It's fine, really—"

"I won't blame you if you wanna walk away."

"I'm not going to," Quin says, and they stare at each other for an awkward second. "Why did you give me this job?"

"Because you see things differently. You're not bound to preconceptions."

"Oh," she says, looking down, "Okay." She begins to retreat.

“Q,” he says, just as she reaches the door, and she stops, “stay and play with us. Please. Just this once. You haven’t taken an interest in her at all, I—” She turns and he can see that she has started crying. “What did I do?”

“You mean other than completely ignore me, ever since—” she can’t finish.

D’avin rubs fatigue from his eyes and steeples his hands under his chin, elbows on knees, as if he is meditating. This is exactly what he’d been dreading. “Quin—”

“You can’t just dump someone here and expect them to just—”

“Like you wanted? Look, I know what you’re going through, I really do, but you have to try and understand, I don’t belong to you. I had a life before we met and I’m desperately trying to hold onto the threads of it now. Whatever you think is between us,” he looks at her helplessly, “it’s not real.”

Quin blinks in amazement. “You really are a total idiot, aren’t you?”

“Huh?”

“This isn’t about you, it’s about Alvis.”

“So why are you so angry with me?”

She takes a step back toward him, hands tucked in her sleeves. “Because you were the first thing I ever saw,” she says, and he’s not sure if she’s disappointed or angry or—“and I never thought you’d be the one to disregard my feelings so casually.”

“Come here.” His voice is like gravel. He takes out his PDD and she starts to come back. “We’re settling this once and for all.”

“Really?” she says, sinking to her knees beside him and wiping her tears.

"You're right. It was remiss of me to keep it from you." He searches his cloud for the necropolis footage, rapidly enters the pass-code and hands her the device. “Knock yourself out.”

“Play,” she says.

He watches it over her shoulder and he can’t see her face. There is no sound recorded in the necropolis, but the RAC computer has done the best it can at lip reading. D’avin reads the captions for her. It is grainy and visceral and he hates reliving it. Quin’s breath turns to a shudder as the sick pantomime plays, and her tears fall onto the baby’s pyjamas. D’avin squeezes her shoulder to let her know that he’s still there and she turns and sinks into his embrace, hiding under his arm and squashing Ylessa between them. “I don’t understand what I’m seeing,” she sobs into his shirt.

“Yiy,” Ylessa screeches with a block in her mouth, incongruously delighted.

“That’s what I was afraid of.” He lays a comforting hand on Quin’s head. Just then the heavy doors creak open and Paulus comes into the dojo, stopping dead. D’avin holds up a hand so that he’ll give them a moment, and grasps Quin by the shoulders, holding her away from him, examining her face with concern. “You deserve better than everything that’s happened and we’re going to make it right. You know that, don't you?”

“I’m going to kill her,” Quin chokes through her tears, and D’avin and Paulus share a glance.

“No, don’t,” D’avin says, “don’t do that.” How can he explain to her that Aneela is the child’s mother without messing everything up? This is a pretty mess they’ve gotten themselves into. A pretty, borked-up mess.

“No-one’s saying his name. It’s been a week. A week. A no-one’s saying his name any more. Do people forget so quickly?”

“I'm sure they don't mean it. They're just caught up in their own problems. But we must talk about him every day,” says D’avin, “keep him with us.”

“Alvis.” Quin nods, tears still dripping off her chin. “He was here and he mattered.”

“I miss him. I loved him too.”

The baby plays at escaping again, doing a roly-poly in an effort to traverse the floor. She doesn't get very far before she is enveloped in strong arms. Quin watches them, and if he didn't know better, D'avin would say she was a little jealous. "Do you ever," she says, "wish that he could've lived to see her?"

"All the time," D'avin says, "just to know there's hope at the end of all this."

Finally Paulus steps forward. “Novice Akari, I was going to ask you to prepare a homily for tomorrow, but I rather think we need a chat over rooibos tea. What do you say to that?”

Quin gives D’avin one last look before going with Paulus. "Yes, Uncle," she says.

After that, they return to the room to find Constance awake, dressed and in good spirits, eager for breakfast. Ylessa is fractious and thirsty from her adventures, so Constance has her lie down next to her to suckle. D’avin, being far too polite to stick around, retreats to the corridors to make some much needed calls before they eat. He has to convince Turin not to go stirring up trouble with the Company, and he must reconcile Trus with the Cleansed before something explosive happens.


 

It simply cannot be the same child. Yet it must be.

Dutch doesn't expect to see her again quite so soon, but there she is, nestled in the same blanket, when she pulls herself up onto the next pillar of rock. Secretly she hoped she would appear again, though she'd never admit it. She appears to have grown quite a lot and has the same ringlets that she had as a child, or rather Aneela had as a child. John explained about the accelerated growth, but she never thought it would be this fast. She's only been in the Green-Space for a couple of hours at most. It has been approximately half an hour since the figments attacked them in the facsimile of the mossipede mines.

It doesn't make any sense.

Provided the baby grows at the same rate of gestation, eight months in the four weeks they know of, it is quite possible that she has actually been in here for a month. Her hands fly to her temples, attempting to massage in the truth. Time is so screwed up in here, that she's already been missing a whole damn month.

"Shit," she says, "shitty shit shitting on more shit." Then she looks at the baby. "Sorry. You don't need a stranger swearing at you, do you?"

But Dutch is not a stranger, not really, never will be, as long as she has Aneela's face, and it is only now that she realises Aneela, whom she thought had been right behind her, has failed to appear on the rock.

"'Neela!" she shouts, looking around, looking down, and her voice echoes off the bare rock. "'Neela!" But there is no answer and no sign. First Khlyen and now this. The Lady isn't going to make this easy for her. Calling out might bring more figments upon her so she bites her tongue, and her panic, back.

"Don't worry, we'll get you your mamma."

She creeps closer. The baby stirs from her side-curled sleep, perhaps stimulated by her shouting, and pushes herself up to a sitting position. They clock each other and Dutch almost gasps. Baby has her father's eyes. She wasn't expecting that. She doesn't know what she was expecting, Aneela's maybe, and certainly not her own. They are not exactly the same. Aneela's are colder in a way that is hard to describe, a record of her experience. But blue can be warm, she's come to understand. Better to spend a lifetime looking at Jaqobis eyes than any others.

Baby's mouth opens, and the silence of the cavern is split in half by the most god-awful sound Dutch has ever heard.

“There-there,” she says, holding her hands out and wincing against the assault on her ears. Her words are stilted, awkward. “Whatever-your-name-is, Alien Spawn Baby, don’t cry. Okay, I s'pose we could call you ASB.”

She doesn't know what to do. There's no way to pick her up, and she can’t remember ever having the opportunity to hold a baby, even if there was. Why would she? She’s always ignored them. Retrospectively, it might have been a good idea to get used to it, considering she knew her partner was having one, but there wasn’t exactly time, or the inclination, for that sort of thing. They had been taken unawares, the ultimate move in the war-game, using the enemy's DNA to reproduce.

But no, she thinks, that's wrong.

She has held her own child in her arms, in the memory of what was 'not', but what could have been, in San Romwell's fantasy, singing her wedding song. Her fantasies never included children, or even D'avin, for that matter, but she can't ignore the fact that, if she succeeds, there may be a future for them after all. Together. Was it really San's dream, or hers? She's not so sure any more. It strikes her then, that D'avin knows her wedding song, sang it when he crossed over with Khlyen, but her late husband, ironically, did not.

Perhaps it is the remnant of Aneela's memory within her own, or perhaps it's this place, but she realises that the Lady had them in her grasp all along, steering them toward each other—

And it almost stops her heart.

The ASB is still wailing and Dutch is rooted to the spot. "Hey," she attempts, "we don't want the bad guys to hear us, do we? Please stop." But it's not working. Of course it's not working, she curses herself. So she resorts to the only thing she knows brings any comfort.

Singing.

She begins slow and low with the Willow Song, singing "willow, willow, willow," slightly off key and with a catch in her throat. The song is completely inappropriate of course, a sad ballad about a woman's lost love, but it’s always the first one to pop into her head while under duress. So she sits there singing, feeling alone and cold and stupid, and so ill-equipped, with oblivion all around them, Khlyen and Aneela lost, or else abandoned. And all she knows is, she must prevail, she must make it better, she must make it all stop.

Stop, stop, STOP!

The baby stops crying. It’s working, this ridiculous sing-along which has somehow bonded them to destiny, but she doesn't know how long it will be until she wakes up. She can't leave her, can't move from this pillar until she does.

Chapter Text

*

"Wine comes in at the mouth

And love comes in at the eye;

That’s all we shall know for truth

Before we grow old and die."

—WB Yeats

*

 

~Day 7~

Medidas City Department of Corrections - Qresh

“They’ve found a blind-spot,” says Welliver, narrowing his eyes at screen two. It’s too early in the morning for this shit. Too early to worry about the shenanigans of two pretty pretty princesses anyway.

Csokas is soon at his side, turning on the sound. “Thought I could hear screaming coming from D wing.”

“Should we let them do that? I mean, are we caring about that?” Welliver’s first instinct is not to. Care, that is. He’s got more important things to think about, like how he’s going to get his wife to agree to vacationing on Leith yet again, and how he’s going to stop the new cat pissing in his shoes.

Csokas just shrugs. “Far as I’m concerned they can tear each other apart.”

***

“Hold still, I can’t get it in!”

“It hurts—” Louella sinks to her knees on the rough stone floor, sobbing, as the needle slips out.

“If it was going to kill you, it already would have.” Kendry grabs her by the hair and plunges it into the back of her neck again. “Whatever it doesn’t kill it improves.”

“Stop—” Louella begs, pounding her temples with closed fists.

Kendry withdraws the syringe, now emptied of the Hullen plasma, and lets her victim crumple to the floor again. “You always were such a lightweight.”

“And you were always such a homicidal bitch.” Louella pushes herself up on her hands, filthy hair hanging over her face, exhausted. “I know the ice-gas was you.”

“Why are you even doing this, then?”

“Because I hate Jaqobis more than I hate you. He could’ve saved them, you know, my parents,” Louella catches her breath, looking at the floor, “but he didn’t. Made Hank a martyr instead.” Her eyes flick up at Kendry then, and they are wild. It must be working.

“See, that’s what you Simmses have always failed to understand,” Kendry says, holding the needle as if were a magic wand, or a fancy cigarette, “people don’t need saving. Especially not your mother. She’s the one who brought calamity upon you all. You’ll understand in the end.”

This seems to tire Louella more than ever. She squeezes her eyes shut. “How many times must we do this?”

“Every day. Hullen multiplies in your system, but it’s slow, far too slow for my—our purposes. Normally they’d pump it in under pressure. Unfortunately we have to make do. Are you feeling any stro—Oh!” Kendry slides the syringe under her mattress and tosses Louella a paperback book.

When Officer Welliver comes around the corner they are both sitting quietly, reading, the picture of compliance.

“Well, well, well,” he says, producing Kendry’s chains and jangling them arrogantly, “knew you ladies’d eventually learn to play nice. Come along to work, then, Seyahs.”


 

Leith

“I’m only resting my eyes,” D’avin says without opening them. He has a dreadnought in one hand and a gun in the other, sitting cross-legged with his back against the door. He’s been keeping guard since nightfall and now it is just before dawn. “But you really shouldn’t sneak up on people, Mr Dezz.”

“How did you know it was me?” says Pree.

“The rustle of taffeta and the scent of Ocean Breeze.” D’avin climbs to his feet and grabs him in a bear hug. “What would you have done if I had been asleep?”

“Trick question. I know you don’t sleep.”

“What are you doing here?” D’avin releases him.

“If you can’t come to the bar, the bar comes to you.” Pree holds up a canvas shopping bag. “Also, I confess, I need to see her. Can’t stand it anymore. Need to squidge those little cheeks.”

“Well, you might be in for a shock. She’s not so little.”

“And we need to talk,” Pree takes his arm purposefully, “about your brother.”


 

Meanwhile

Shamir pokes his head around the corner of the guest room. He’s been at Trus’s summer residence for three days now, waiting for the Seyon to return from urgent business. It is a modern bungalow, arranged over three wings, angular, minimalist, oddly modest and not what he expected from an old galoot like Trus. Every day, Shamir asks the butler when he expects his master to return, and every day, the butler says ‘shortly’. Shamir has no idea what that means. He suspects it is an affectation of royalty, designed to cover the cracks in their timekeeping.

The hallway is clear.

He doesn’t want to bump into the cleaner-come-gardener like he did yesterday, ending up engaged in a weird dance as he tried to manoeuvre around the elderly man, making awkward, apologetic conversation. It took him all of the first day and half of the second to realise that the butler and the cleaner were not the same person, they looked so alike with their white hair and craggy faces. He’d further embarrassed himself by asking the cleaner to return his laundered clothes, only to be met by a blank expression and a little cough designed to prompt the realisation that he’s got the wrong person and that’s not what a cleaner does.

He’s spent most of the time loafing by the infinity pool and reading in Trus’s extensive library. He tries not to worry about all his cancelled appointments. He doesn’t feel guilty either; he hasn’t had a day off in months and he deserves this. Twice a day, breakfast and supper, a chef appears—Trus clearly isn’t a fan of lunch—and prepares food whether anyone wants it or not. Shamir does though, sitting at the marble kitchen counter and watching the silent chef clean up.

It is the best sashimi he’s ever had.

Creeping down the hallway, voices come into focus. He lingers outside the door of the open-plan kitchen-diner, listening. Trus is there, finally, must’ve flown in from council at first light, and his daughter, Melis Seyah, well known to anyone who follows Qreshi politics, as Shamir does. She is a vocal opponent of the Seventh Generation Accords and is actually forty-five, but pretends to be twenty-eight. He knows this because his colleague Mykah did her face-lift.

“What point is there building arks if you’re not going to use them?" Melis says."I say scrap what they’ve already constructed and put the materials to better use. Otherwise they’ll just be another white elephant in our inventory, gathering rust.”

“Just because one exodus didn’t happen," says Trus, and Shamir hears the clunk of dishes, "doesn’t mean there won’t be another. We bide our time for now, see how this is going to play out.”

“Two hundred thousand tons of A-grade Aluminum-Quartz, just going to waste.”

Shamir imagines Melis shaking her head. He can hear Showbiz Report streaming in the background, an episode at least six months behind the rest of J civilisation, and not his favourite show, not by a long shot.

There seems to be a natural pause in the Trus family debate, so he takes his opportunity to sharply knock-knock on the door. It is opened by the butler who clears his throat and announces him in a stiff voice. “Doctor Tutte, sir.”

“Please,” Trus rises from his seat, beckoning him with an outstretched arm, “join us. We’re quite informal here. Have you met my daughter, Melis?”

“Seyon,” Shamir approaches the table and gives Melis a short bow, “Seyah.”

“Don’t be silly, m’boy,” says Trus, “take a seat.”

Shamir is not sure if he’s being made fun of, or told off. “Thank-you, sir.” He is careful not to make eye contact.

The butler puts a white porcelain charger down in front of him and follows it with a fruit plate.

“Please, call me Kalla,” Trus looks at him earnestly, fork in hand, “everyone else does.”

“I’d, um,” says Shamir, “if you please, sir, I’m not really comfortable with that.” He looks up and Melis is laughing behind her hand, hiccoughing like he’s made some hilarious gaffe.

“I’m sorry,” she says, picking up her napkin and dabbing her eyes, “I'm just—oh dear—I just can’t. Daddy, you are too funny.”

“What now?” says Trus impatiently.

Melis turns to Shamir. “He’s been like this ever since that Yardeen woman got to him. His approval rating took a nose-dive, so he promoted himself to everyone’s beneficent uncle, self-styled saviour of the Quad.” She finally throws down her napkin and leaves the table, muttering to herself as she crosses the room and picks up her purse. “Sorry, Daddy, have to run, fundraisers to attend, try not to traumatise the doctor too much.”

“Alright then, darling, see you soon,” Trus says as she leans down to give him a dutiful kiss.

Melis stops by Shamir on her way past, whispering close to his ear. “I know what you’re doing.”

He watches her leave, a little perturbed. What follows is an awkward silence that Trus doesn’t seem to notice, focussed solely on the Showbiz Report as he cuts up his fruit.

“Have I got a juicy morsel of gossip for you, my showbiz kittens,” says Zsa-Zsa Malone, the show’s host, “dripping with scandal, fresh from Studio Five. And oh, my goddesses, I don’t know if I should tell you, I could get in a lot of trouble for this, but Jewel Havens was spotted sucking the face right off of Beulah DeVille, more like Studio Dive—”

Shamir’s brain switches off at this point.

“Off,” says Trus curtly and the screen obliges. “I don’t know why she likes that trash.”

“I think it helps people feel connected,” Shamir begins, before remembering who he’s talking to. “Sorry, didn’t mean to sound flip.”

“I suppose I’d better explain why I brought you here,” says Trus, “but first I’d like to apologise for leaving you on your own for so long. I had to attend an emergency council, you understand. I trust the brothers have taken good care of you?”

So, they are related after all.

“Oh, yes, thank-you,” says Shamir, beginning to relax a bit. He even sticks his fork into a slice of pitaya-fruit. Bacon would be too much to hope for, he supposes.

“I’d like to get to know you a bit better and explain about what I’m trying to do. You were a classmate of young Ilenore, were you not?”

“Ilenore?” Shamir blinks. “Oh, yes, of course. Pawter. Poor old Pawts.”

“Crying shame to see a promising career cut so short,” says Trus pouring coffee, “but she had to go provoking dragons. Magnificent woman, spine of solid iron, brains to match.”

“Sorry, were you close?”

“She was the least intolerable of all the Simms. I would’ve swapped her for my own daughter in a heartbeat.” Trus speaks conspiratorially behind a hand. “Don’t tell Mel I said that.”

“I promise I won’t.”

“Tell me about yourself.”

“There’s not much to tell,” Shamir looks down, thinking, “I was a donor baby and my mother brought me up in a small apartment over a shop in the Artisan’s Court. She was a spinner, made obi-cord from silk. We were very happy there, until she died of lupus, then I became a ward of state.”

“I’m very sorry for your loss.”

Something in the way Trus says it makes Shamir believe him. He never imagined a prince could be so human, his eyes truly sympathetic and ringed with arcus senilus. “I dedicated my life to the pursuit of excellence, and that included shedding all my friends to rise to the top of the class.” He smiles to let Trus know it’s a joke.

“But that doesn’t explain why you got involved with our mutual friend.”

“Any medical professional worth their salt would respond to a person’s need without hesitation. Or asking what their secret mission was.”

“But this wasn't a regular call to action.” Trus leans forward across the table. “There's more to it than that.”

“Okay you got me.” Shamir holds his hands up. “I believe in what they're doing. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?”

“But it’s put your life in danger.”

“I don't understand.” Shamir bristles uncomfortably. “I'm nothing to you. What have I done to make you want to protect me?”

Trus leans back in his seat again, uses his napkin on his mouth. “You're right, you are nothing. But to win this war we must all protect Ms Yardeen and the Jaqobies. Your knowledge puts you in a privileged position and I’m afraid there are going to be elements who desire to exploit that.”

“You mean Ofori?”

“Amongst others. I have enemies in the council, doctor. They could use someone like you to destroy me. Now you have a choice. You can either take Ofori's offer and betray the cause, or you can help me.”

“I was never going to give Ofori anything. I'm loyal to the militia now.”

“Then I have a job for you.”


 

“She's just so god-damn bossy,” D’avin says as they sit in the communal living area, watching last night’s embers glow in the grey before light. He’s really getting into it now, taking a swig of beer and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Do this. Do that. Get the supplies. Carry the mummy. Take care of my army. Picks fights because she knows I’ll clean if I’m upset, even if it’s not my mess. I own one button-down shirt, did you know that? One. And she keeps stealing it. The way she keeps her boots on to lie on the bed, who knows what shit she tracked through Lucy.”

"Mmm, hmmm," says Pree attempting to subtly communicate his boredom, but D'avin just carries right on ranting.

"And you can’t talk to her about anything, ‘cause she’s all ‘my house, my rules’. And apparently, I’m the one who’s difficult to live with. Nothing’s ever black and white, is it? Okay, so she'd accepted death, but somehow this is worse. The not knowing. Death we know. People die. It's final. It's elegant. If it’s your fault you cut yourself some slack in order to survive. But this? This is messy.”

“Seems we’re well into the anger phase now,” says Pree.

“Too right I’m angry. Because I’m afraid. And I’m afraid because I feel guilty. And I know you’re thinking ‘what for?’, ‘cause it sounds like some kind of monked-up shit, so I’ll tell you what for. For the necropolis, for Alvis, for letting Dutch slip away.”

“Everyone’s making a lot of demands on you at the moment, but who’s taking care of you, hmmm, Big D? Who’s listening to you?”

“I’m afraid of messing everything up. Messing my daughter's life up. Messing my relationships up—”

“Oh, we’re doing this now, are we? Okay.”

“And I’m scared to death that I can’t keep up with her growth, y’know, terrified of missing anything, her first words, her first steps. I worry constantly what she's going to be like, personality-wise, wonder how she'll cope with being different when she grows up. And I don’t know how to stop it. All I know is that I’ll do whatever it takes to stop her pain. I've known her for a week and I will literally tear myself apart to get to her.”

“Uh, oh, it's started. The dad-ening.”

“The trouble with having a girl is you remember all the things you did with a girl when you were a young buck who didn’t yet know how to please a woman. And you're like, shit, when she's fifteen she's gonna be doing stuff like that with boys who are just as stupid as I was when I was fifteen or sixteen. And to make it worse you realise there was a father back then thinking this exact same thing and feeling exactly the way I feel now.”

“That was,” Pree blinks, “profoundly disturbing.”

“Not as disturbing as the realisation that I don’t really know what I’m doing. Well, I do sorta know what I’m doing, but human beings need more than just their immediate physical needs met. I was meditating the other day and it hit me, that I actually have no concept of what a healthy parental relationship is. What if the time comes I can’t give her the affection she needs because I’m so shut down, can’t even conceive of what I’m supposed to do in that context?"

“It will come, don't—”

“I can’t remember ever being held without it being sordid and corrupted and unwholesome, without there being strings attached. What if I can’t control my anger when it matters? What if I’m too distant? What if I’m not distant enough and I’m on her back all the time? What if I’m just turning into my dad? I am, aren’t I? I’m turning into—”

“Slow down before you give yourself an aneurysm.” Pree finally gets a word in edge-wise. “You’re not like him. You will never be like him. Because you know right from wrong. You’re self-actualized. And you don’t have it that bad. My parents sold me when I was three.”

“Wow. Firstly, you win at ass-hole parent trading cards. Secondly, tell me their names so I can string 'em up. Thirdly, you don’t talk about yourself, so what the hells have you done with the real Pree?”

“Bar-side privilege only applies when I’m in the bar.” Pree smiles to himself.

D’avin drains his beer. “Worst thing is anticipating all the questions. Who’s her mother, that sorta thing, is she called Rosemary? Hey, in high school weren't you voted most likely to knock a girl up? Catch of the county, wise-ass. No. That’s not the worst thing. The worst thing is, we have no idea if the violence is genetic. Seriously, what if I'm raising a serial killer?”

“This might not be appropriate, then.” Pree rummages in the bag and holds up plush Huskie. It is wearing a hand-knit sweater, brown and orange stripes, probably the only yarn available on Westerley. “Yeah, it happened. Get over it.”

“You're a lucky man,” D'avin grins, taking the toy, “I mean, at least you're never gonna be cold in the winter.”

“Yep. That there is an ugly sweater.”

“So Gared doesn't share your fashion sense. We just have to come terms with that.”

“Opposites attract. Often the trouble with relationships. Take you two, for instance. She’s fire and you’re water.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means everyone knows, D’avin.”

“Knows what?”

“Oh, honey-pie, do you think I came down in the last shower? You’ve been head over heels in love with her since the moment you met. Now I can safely say it’s more than just infatuation. It's the one thing that's certain in all of this. So certain that I’ve a book behind the bar.”

“You’ve what now?”

“Pot's in the high hundreds and I’m taking a substantial vig. Thought I oughta tell you case I exploded outta guilt. There’s also a side bet on who gets together first, Team Dutchin, or Team Jucy.”

“We're not a goddamn hockey team—”

“Unless you mean tonsil-hockey. Odds are currently two-point-three-eight in favor of you guys going public within a year.”

“Yeah, uh, that’s not gonna happen. And frankly those odds are insulting.”

“All bets are off now anyway," Pree winks, “unless I don't tell anyone I told you.” 

“Wait, who bet the most?”

“Don’t know if I should tell you.”

“Pree,” D’avin warns.

“Fancy,” Pree sulks.

“Knew it. Damn.” D’avin reaches for his second beer. Then he says, “everyone knows?”

“Yep.”

“So, we’ve been sneaking around for nothing, then?”

“That’s about the size of it.”

“Gods,” D’avin winces, “I don’t know how she’s gonna feel about this when she gets back.”

“We’ll cross that river when we get to it. Let’s focus on what’s really important for a moment. Are you safe?”

“We’ve taken every reasonable precaution, besides, who’s gonna look for an apostate in a monastery?”

“Who’s going to look for an apostate who knows the word apostate?”

“Point. Took Counter Terrorism five years to find Xander Lindsley, and that was with state-of-the-art tech.”

“Hullen probably have tech way in advance of the Big Bad Republic, and they know roughly where you are, so they will find you. It’s only a matter of tick-tocks.”

“We’re moving on soon, anyway. I’m just waiting ‘til she’s big enough to live off-grid.”

“Or is it like Turin said? They don’t need to come get her now, because what they’re planning is so big that nothing we come up with will make the slightest bit of difference.”

“Cheery.”

“You can’t live like this forever, not knowing if the next minute, or hour, or day will bring exposure and certain death.”

“Unless we get to the Lady first.” D’avin produces the small box of green they took from Kendry.

“What is it?”

D’avin opens the box. “It’s from Aneela.”

“Have you—”

“Not yet.” Dawn is approaching, and the grey of the monastery gives way to light, people shuffling into the corridors and heading for the bath-house. “But it’s been long enough. I think it’s time to go in.”

Chapter Text

 

*

 

“The soverayne beauty which I doo admyre,

Witnesse the world how worthy to be prayzed:

The light whereof hath kindled heavenly fyre,

In my fraile spirit by her from basenesse raysed.”

—Spenser, Amoretti III

 

*

 

~243 Years Ago~

Medidas U – Qresh

“As Phd proposals go, it’s quite remarkable,” Vice Dean Rybek glances at the two colleagues either side of her at the desk, “but I’m afraid we just can’t back it at this time.”

Aneela’s breath comes a little ragged. “I’ve spent two years of my life planning this,” she says, “are you trying to tell me it’s wasted?”

“It’s not that we don’t believe it will be profitable,” continues Rybek, “on the contrary. It’s just that we can't override the existing standards of bioethics agreed upon by the United Republic.'

“Look,” says Professor Marzella, the head of biology, a handsome woman whose attention Aneela has always relished, “in-vitro germ-line intervention has always been problematic. In view of the Company’s fledgling relationship with the Republic, it is more profitable, for the time being, to refrain from any experiments that reek of eugenics.”

“So, you’re basically assassinating my doctorate,” Aneela gathers her purse to leave, “shooting it down before it’s even had a chance?”

“Please don’t take this personally, Ms Kin Rit,” Rybek swallows, aware of the political implications, “it’s not a personal attack—”

“It is.” Aneela looks at each of them with venom. “This is my only chance to reproduce. You can’t take it from me.”

Rybek regards at her coldly, doesn’t budge. “I’m fully aware of that. But you’re only twenty years old. There are other life options available to you. Take a few months off, come up with another proposal and we’ll consider it.”

The members of the panel rise, and Rybek caps her pen, code for putting the subject to rest.

“What about all the other people counting on this?” Aneela pleads. “This could cure Qresh’s fertility problems once and for all. You don’t understand how important it is.”

“Ms Kin Rit,” says Marzella, “that is quite enough. We can’t bend rules because you’re of noble birth. The ethics committee has made its decision and that is the end of it. Please see yourself out.”

Aneela sweeps her portfolio off the desk, glaring at them as they file out. "You haven't heard the last of this," she shouts at their backs, "I'm going to appeal."

Once outside she leans against the shining white wall of the university reception and cries. Two of her former classmates pass on their way to tutorial.

“Whatever’s the matter, Neely?” says Chi Hyponia, stopping in front of her. “Anything we can do?”

“Yes,” she says, throwing the pages of her proposal at him, “piss off.”

She walks away as the paper flutters to the ground, and Chi stoops to confusedly pick them up.

***

On the way back to her residential block she stops to look in the window of an artisan’s shop. Laid out on velvet is an array of brooches, each one a different animal in gold, silver, beryl and jadeite. There is a fox, a hummingbird and a lobster, lying next to a turtle and a frog, but the hummingbird is her favourite. It reminds her of the time they all stayed in a log cabin on Leith, before Maman and Papa started fighting about economics and politics and terraforming and such.

When things were still sweet.

There was a time she would’ve bought all of the brooches, added them to the collection in her dressing room, waiting for the right occasion, but things are different now. Things are tight. Without this doctorate she’ll be stuck working in someone else’s lab for the rest of her life.

What the hell, she says to herself, pushing the door. She will have that hummingbird for herself, create a fantasy around it, make up a story that they’re all still together and it’s a souvenir of their holiday, maybe even wear it out tonight.

***

The dance-floor is full and the bass thumps through her chest, the hummingbird hanging on a thin chain around her neck. Two drinks in and she’s stopped feeling like an impostor in a slinky black number with her hair tied up, but she’s still too angry to dance, scouts around for a screw instead. She catches the eye of a pretty little thing on the other side, all blue hair and piercings and backless dress.

“I don’t come here very often,” Aneela shouts above the music as the pretty young thing sidles up beside her at the bar.

“Sorry,” the girl cups her ear, “I didn’t quite catch that.”

“Just thought we’d get the small talk out of the way quicker,” Aneela shouts, “call me Neel and let me buy you a drink.”

“Oh, um, Okay,” says the girl, definitely an omega and slightly taken aback, “I’m Dolores, but everyone calls me Dolly, Dolly Dassler.”

“Pleased to meet you Dolly Dassler.”

“Mine’s a soda,” Dolly shouts in her ear, “I have a row meet tomorrow, so I’m trying to stay sober.”

Two lime sodas please, Aneela mouths to the barman.

Finally settled into a booth in the corner, they can make better conversation. She’s an only child, like Aneela, she likes blue but not yellow, she can’t wait for the end of the rowing season, so that she can party until she drops. After a while, Aneela begins to bore of the girl’s excited, yet banal talk. “So, are you a senior? What are you studying?” She sucks her straw lazily.

“A senior in high-school,” says Dolly, also slurping her soda, “why, did you think I was in college?”

“Creepers, you’re barely legal,” Aneela laughs.

“Does that turn you on?”

“Depends.” Seduction curls her lip.

“On what?”

“On whether your parents expect you home tonight.”  Aneela holds out her hand. Dolly places hers upon it, and they return to the dance-floor, weaving past revellers clad in chains and leather.

***

Aneela enjoys having protégés to train, someone to educate in the ways of feminine love. It gives her a powerful, yet nurturing feeling, the power to bring someone to their first shared climax. She slips her coat off as soon as they enter her rented apartment, puts Beethoven on, a delicious change from the techno in the club.

Dolly lies on the bed, Aneela kneeling beside her and slipping lacy dress straps off her shoulders, anticipation rising for what may lie beneath. Dolly trembles at her touch, watching her eyes intently and not knowing where to put her hands yet, so Aneela takes them and places them either side of her own waist, kissing her ravenously, showing her what to do. Dolly is desperate to please her new mistress, terrified of blowing her chance by doing or saying something wrong, as she tangles her fingers in long dark hair. Aneela finds this unbearably sweet; the purity of the inexperienced is the elixir of life, and for a while she can forget her troubles and relish the slip-sliding of lace over firm, young flesh.

“You are sublime, radiant,” she breathes, cupping one of Dolly’s perky little virgin breasts, before taking it in her mouth. Then she grasps the bodice of Dolly’s dress, ripping the thin fabric from her waif-like body with two fists. “Don’t worry, I’ll buy you a new one,” she says, wild with desire for the feast before her. She stands up then, throwing her own garment off, over her head. She had no underwear on at all underneath and the air conditioning licks her body, bringing her nipples to stiff peaks. Before Dolly can recover from the violent disrobing, Aneela is on the bed again, wrenching down her knickers to expose the candy she is after, wispy, dyed blue, unshaven and gloriously untapped.

The silver hummingbird brushes Dolly’s inner thigh as Aneela goes in for the kill.

They spend all night and half the next day in bed, rising only to wander to the kitchen for water and sustaining snacks, talking about nothing important. They drift in and out of sleep only to reach for each other and screw again, consuming and caressing until the morning light. Dolly misses her rowing practice, but she doesn’t care, she says. Aneela’s thigh, humping her desperate, hungry, teenaged quim is her new vice.

After another session in the shower—involving four breasts, three fingers, two butt-cheeks and a bar of soap—Dolly sits on the edge of the huge bed, wrapped in a towel. When Aneela comes back into the room, Dolly immediately asks her, why has she got a picture of Yalena Seyah Kin Rit in the cabinet?

“She’s my mother,” says Aneela, towelling her long hair nonchalantly.

“Oh,” says Dolly, looking upset.

“Is that a problem for you?” Aneela slips on a kimono and begins to wrestle her hair into a plait.

“No,” Dolly says innocently, picking up her phone, “um, I have about a dozen messages from my parents. They must be wondering where I am.”

“I thought we were going to check out that new shrimp place for brunch.”

“Yeah, uh, that’s not going to work. I’m just gonna—”

Aneela stares at her for a second. Stupid girl is a Republican, thinks the sinking of the land is the Seyahs' fault. “Oh, it’s like that, is it?” she says, gathering up Dolly’s things and throwing them at her. “Fine. Leave then. I was done with you anyway. Screw you, you little bitch.”

Dolly starts to cry and she hugs her things to her chest, including the shredded dress. “What about my—”

“I said GET OUT!” Aneela roars, falling onto the bed and holding her aching head.

Dolly scurries away cautiously, careful not to incite more wrath.

This little tryst hasn't brought her the comfort she hoped for. It began promisingly enough, but she gets bored so quickly. There’s only one thing for it, Aneela thinks, alone on the bed, she will go back to Arkyn, appeal to her father for help.

***

“Oh, Papa,” she says, throwing her arms around Khlyen as soon as she disembarks the transport, and burying her face in his chest, “it’s been awful. If you only knew.”

He lifts her chin and looks deep into her eyes. “I was worried about you. I’ve been calling and calling.”

“I know and I’m sorry. I broke down after the interview. I didn’t want you to be disappointed in me.”

“How could I ever be disappointed in you, Little Bird?” Khlyen holds her tight. “You’re my greatest creation. The moment you were born, you were a success.”

“It’s no good,” she sobs, “the proposal. I’m finished.”

“Have you told your mother?”

“I couldn’t face her. I went out drinking instead.”

“Oh, dear.”

“Can we walk in the arboretum? That would make me feel better.”

“Of course.” He puts his arm around her shoulders and steers her toward his lab.

***

“I know,” says Khlyen as they walk among the young trees, “that it’s not exactly what you wanted, but I have a proposal for you.”

Aneela looks up at him, her eyes still red. “What?”

“Work for me, here. We could use the most promising geneticist in the galaxy, and we could eat lunch together every day.”

“Oh, Papa,” she says, stopping on the gravel path, “you’re sweet, but I can’t do that. I have a destiny to fulfil, don’t you understand? I was going to save our people.”

“But they’ve cut you off.”

“Then I’ll go elsewhere for the money, somewhere less squeamish about human experimentation.”

“Don’t say no until you’ve given it a chance,” Khlyen says, “what did we always say when you wouldn’t eat your seaweed?”

Aneela nods dutifully, almost laughs through her hurt. “We don’t get to decide that we don’t like something until we’ve tried it for a week.”

Khlyen slides her tablet out of her purse, scrolling to her proposal. “Why don’t we see if we can use your techniques on plants,” he smiles.

"Papa," she says, "do you remember the hummingbirds when we vacationed on Leith?"

"No," he frowns as they resume their stroll, "you'll have to remind me of that story."


 

D’avin knows how the green space feels. He's been here before, although he didn’t know it at the time, when he was submerged in Red17. But now, after all his experiments, he recognises the original green. It’s not so much a place, but a sensation, a sense of being out of time and out of space and open to suggestion. It’s dangerous, but also freeing. If he can use Aneela’s green to get to her when she is physically present in the original source, then he can reverse engineer a way to find its physical location, perhaps the Lady herself, as if the small box of green he holds in his corporeal hand is an anchor. It’s a start.

Aneela is here, sitting in the corner of the cave, hugging her knees and gently rocking with every breath. She mutters to herself, saying she's trapped in a box, that it’s happening again.

“You don't write, you don't call,” he says. It's a risk. He's counting on the assumption that memories from Zeph's nebulizer would've told her everything about him. Everything Dutch knows, at least.

“Oh, it's you,” she looks up, disappointed.

“Who did you expect?”

“My father. Your Dutch.”

“Khlyen’s in here?” D’avin’s skin prickles at the mention of Dutch, but he is confused by the reference to Khlyen. “Where are they?”

“I don’t know. Lost in the oubliette.”

“You lost them? You’re supposed to be stopping the Lady—”

“She knows just how to attack me. But your Dutch is more resilient. She has certain,” Aneela clears her throat, “qualities that surpass mine.”

There’s no doubting that.

“What is this place?” He looks around. Walls of roughly excavated basalt form an approximate cube, about twelve feet by twelve feet, by his estimation. There is no way in or out. Aneela seems to be struggling, must be claustrophobic.

“Memory,” she says.

“Whose memory?”

“All the memory. This,” she twirls her hand in the air, “cell is my punishment. I’ve been very bad.”

It takes him a few seconds to assimilate the information and calculate all the possible consequences. “Listen, I,” he swallows, “have to tell you something. I think we might have incinerated your pool of plasma.”

“Typical.” She tips her head back and laughs to herself.

“I don’t know how to get you out of here, so you’re gonna have to explain a few things.”

“But we’ve only just arrived,” she frowns, “it’s not time to go home yet.”

“Aneela,” he is beginning to grow impatient with her infantile manner, “I need you to focus. Your gateway is probably destroyed. We can’t get close enough to find out. How do we get you both out?”

“It will all become clear in good time. You must be patient. You must have faith.”

“That’s what I say to people when I don’t have the answers,” he mutters, coming closer. He can tell he’s not going to get very far with this. She’s too broken, too vague. She alternates between introspective horror and distress at her surroundings, and it’s strange to see her so vulnerable, so human. There might even be tears, remorse, the effect of sharing memory with Dutch. He begins to see that she is not the same person who attacked them, and although he knows they can’t touch—sucks being incorporeal—he thinks that maybe it wouldn’t be wrong to try and comfort her. He sits beside her, forearms on his knees and back against the wall. “Unplanned parenthood is super fun, by the way.”

She flinches slightly when she realises his proximity. “Until my fell-squad saw your powers for themselves, I thought I'd imagined you.”

“Yeah, well, I’m real. Real and eminently pissed.”

She looks down sheepishly. “I would never have used your unmodified DNA. It was my seditious second who took my research and applied it before I could do anything.”

“Oh, that makes me feel ever so much better about the whole 'violation of my reproductive rights' thing.”

Aneela doesn’t seem to have a clever answer to this. When she looks up at him she seems truly contrite. “What have you done with my Kendry?” she says.

“She's safe. But we need to discuss—” as much as it hurts him to say it, he must, “our daughter.”

“Is she—” Aneela begins, but falters.

“Healthy,” he says, closing his eyes in pain, “and happy and beautiful.”

Aneela trembles ever so slightly, her eyes glowing in the diffused light of the green rock. “Let me see her.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“The Lady will find out. I can’t have that. Also, you know, you’re a murderer.”

“Who isn’t?”

“You killed thousands of our people. You stabbed my brother, killed Alvis with his own knife—”

“And how many of my people have you killed in cold blood? Some of them with your bare hands—”

“But no matter what you’ve done,” he cuts her off, “I can’t hate you. You created two people that I love. And I can’t afford to make another enemy, so we have to figure this out. Whatever it takes.”

She almost laughs. “I have all Yalena’s memories and I still can't figure out why she would make so many sacrifices for a hopeless wretch. You tried to kill her, but she held onto you because she wanted to convince you that that it wasn’t your fault. She truly believes you’re a good man, but she's wrong. You're one bad choice away from being the villain in this story.”

“I never claimed to be a good man. I just do what needs to be done.”

Aneela turns away from him again, her voice sadistic and bitter. “Masterful manipulator of words. Like the perfect toy soldier kowtowing to Her Brightness. How convenient to always be the middle-man. Don't you ever get sick of being controlled?”

“She's not controlling me.”

“Oh, wake up. She's just using you, has been all along. She doesn't want you to be strong. She keeps you cowering in the corner, broken as the day she found you, a prisoner of your own mind, so that she has a slave to do her bidding. You'll never reach your potential if you stay with her, you have no idea how powerful you really are.”

“Powerful?”

“You're like me. Whatever Papa did to you—”

“It wasn't him. It was the army. Their scientists bio-hacked—”

“Yes, I suppose with your limited scientific acumen, that would make sense. Not even the oldest Hullen have mastered matter the way you have. It's limited only by your own desires, your own beliefs. I know this because I’m the only one. The only other one with this gift. Do you understand what this means?” She looks at him intensely, her eyes like green flames, and he sees something that scares him. Hunger. “We could rule together.”

A moment ago she was ripping him to shreds and now she wants some kind of union? This doesn't make any sense. The first time he saw her he was shaken by the similarities to Dutch, but the more time he spends with her, the more he sees the differences. Aneela holds herself differently, her lips are stained from the constant imbibing of Hullen and the flaws have been air-brushed into a doll’s appearance. But this is nothing compared to the instability of her character, the chimerical way she flits between fawning and tearing people apart. It sickens him. Sorry, sweetheart, the clone turned out better.

“If you really have all her memories, you’ll know that I won't do that. You're wrong, you know, she's not using me. She wants me to be free. She's my greatest advocate.”

“You'll die believing that.”

“Look, that’s not,” he says, increasingly uncomfortable, “what I came here for. I don’t need a dissection of my relationships. If you're really serious about working together, then I need to know everything about the invasion plan, so that we can mount a double-pronged attack.”

She seems confused. “That’s not important anymore. Hullen is everywhere. The Lady is everywhere at once—”

“You’re not making any sense—”

“She can’t invade what she already holds. She can only be infected from within.”

“Right,” he says, looking doubtful.

“It takes three people to defeat the Lady. The maiden, the mother, and the crone. Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, as changing as the waxing, the waning and the full moon.”

“So,” he thinks aloud, struggling to keep up, “that would be the baby, you and—”

“Yalena is the answer. Without her it won’t work. She is the inevitable, she is death,” here Aneela makes a little gasp, as if she is only now understanding it herself, and for the first time appears sympathetic, “she won’t be leaving here, D’avin, she won’t be coming home to you.”

“What?” his heart is sinking—nay, is being ripped out.

“She’s unstable, temporary, just a flicker on the scale of existence.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Conservation of energy. Matter cannot be created or destroyed, it only changes state. I created her out of pure quantum probability, so she exists in a constant state of tension with the universe.”

“Which means?” His heart is racing out of control. If he looks deep inside, he understands perfectly, he just doesn't want to admit it. She is never coming back.

“Equilibrium must be restored. She hasn’t got long left, I knew that when I made her, but I always hoped we’d have more time, even though she wasted it by becoming Papa's favourite.”

“Shit,” he says under his breath. “Does she know any of this?”

“The green demands perfection and it won’t allow a universe with a ‘Dutch’ in it.”

“Then you have to fix it,” he growls, “she deserves to live, you can’t—You brought her into the world, Aneela, and you have to do right by her, by all of us.” He thinks he can stop the tears beginning, but it’s useless. It’s all too much.

“That’s what’s wrong with you humans,” she says with genuine pity, “you think you can fix one another's pain. You're fantasists.”

“You were human once,” he sniffs.

“I’ve been Hullen ten times longer than I was ever human. I’ve forgotten what it is to truly love. Or to experience a father’s love. You remind me of him,” she says, and then adds, unnecessarily, “my father.”

He grimaces, unwilling to explore the full implications of this statement. “I get it,” he says, almost to himself, “we all have daddy issues, but this is the weirdest I've felt since he threatened to fist me in the bullet hole.”

“You were there,” she says with sad eyes, lifting her hand as if to touch his face, but stops because she knows it won't work, it would go right through. “You carried him. When he—” But she can’t finish, and he knows she is seeing through Yalena’s eyes, seeing her father’s death, blaming her for so much.

“You said he was here,” D’avin wipes his face with his sleeve, “in the green. What—”

“The time is approaching,” Aneela says, forgetting her train of thought and looking into the middle distance like some fantastic oracle.

“Time for what?” He can feel himself slipping away, phasing in and out of reality. He looks at his hand and it is transparent. “I can’t do this much longer. My body’s breaking down.”

But she is not listening, lost in her insane fantasy again. “We are not so dissimilar, you and I. We both feel like we're not good enough. But we're going to have to make a sacrifice. We have to be good.” She looks right at him as he almost disappears. “Be good, D’avin.”

Then she blows him a kiss and he is back in the real world, alone in Paulus’s chamber, panting and disorientated and in intense pain. He clutches at his heart, every nerve burning with bio-chemical starvation. “Really shouldn’t do this without supervision,” he groans to himself.

***

When he's recovered somewhat, he tries to preserve as much of the small amount of green as he can, and places the container in Paulus’s strong-box, securing the lock. Everyone he passes, he ignores, wandering to the front door on auto-pilot.

He goes out into the fields, like he has almost every day this week, and screams son-of-a-bitch into the unforgiving sky.

Chapter Text

 

*

“When a person supposes that he knows, and does not know; this appears to be the great source of all the errors of the intellect.” 
―Plato, Sophist

*

 

~Day 8~

Qresh

Row upon row of servers hum, and lights blink on and off in the QCHQ hub, nerve-centre of the Quad’s main interstellar telecommunications array. Pip opens his bag and pulls out a mag, mint condition and still cellophane wrapped. “Fresh bribes,” he says, “get ‘em while they’re hot.”

Chicks with Dicks, issue two.” Company Security Officer Harukawa, a stout, middle-aged woman with keys on her belt, examines it without giving away too much interest.

“Took it from my own, personal, collection.”

“Hmmm,” she doesn’t seem too sure, “what happened to issue one?”

“No-one has issue one,” says Pip, “it’s gone the way of the unicorns, the apes and the dolphins.”

“Thought you could get anything. That’s what you said, anything in the whole damn Quad.”

“Now, Maria,” he turns on the charm, “is that any way to treat the hand that feeds you?”

“S’just that I’m taking a big risk here, gotta make sure it’s worth my while.”

“I’ve explained this before. I have permission to be here. I just need you to leave me off the sign-in log so that Trus’s enemies don’t get wind of what we’re doing.” She's quite short, so he bends down, hand on heart. “And His Excellency has asked me to personally extend his sincerest thanks for all your hard work and discretion in this matter. Seriously, we couldn’t do it without you. In fact, he told me he's considering inviting you to the next centenary gala, reward those who go above and beyond the call of duty.”

It's like watching a flower unfold. Doubt creeps into her self-righteousness and blooms into acquiescence. "Well," Harukawa puffs up with pride, “it's all in a day’s work. Nothing really.” Smiling, she unlocks the door to the nexus.

“Thank-you, from the bottom of my heart,” he bows, “and next time I will seek out issue one for my favourite Company officer.”

He knows he’s pretty—a smile and flattery can get you far—but he honestly thought Harukawa would put up more of a fight. Must be the afterglow of all the sex with Zeph. He slips through the heavy door and un-shoulders his bag as Harukawa leaves, rapidly pulling out one of the monitors and getting straight down to work.

“Oh,” he says to himself, “shit.” Sifting through the comms data coming in and out of the Quad, his keen eyes alight on something devastating, something that could derail all their plans. Every last one of them.


 

Leith Bazaar

“I’m not the only one,” Ofori picks up another pair of antlers from the stall, muntjac deer this time, not sika, “who’s unhappy with Trus thinking he can do this without involving the higher-ranking officers.”

“No, sir,” says his assistant Juniper, following with hands clasped behind her back.

“Just going back on promises like that,” Ofori replaces the muntjac and handles the lynx skull instead “peddling heresy.”

“I agree, sir.”

“Don’t be such an ass-kisser, Juni.”

“Sorry, sir.”

Ofori catches the stall-keeper’s attention with a snap of the fingers. “Is this natrix natrix native, or imported?”

The stall-keeper takes the mounted snake from him and turns it over. “Imported. S’why I’d be willing to negotiate over the price.”

“No, thank you. I’m only interested if it’s Leithian born and bred.”

The stall-keeper puts the snake skeleton back, suppressing his annoyance. His accent and clothing mark him as Keffree, Ofori notes. “You won’t find any big ones around here anymore, should take it while you can.”

Ofori looks him up and down as if he is inspecting fresh dog-shit.

Juniper’s PDD beeps. “Time for your appointment, sir.”

“One moment,” he holds up a finger. A figure is moving away from them, waddling back to her office from the tea-house. He knows the gait and silhouette, even though she is facing away from him. Bellus Haardy, he says to himself.


 

~Later~

“It’s worse than we thought.” D’avin clasps his hands between his legs, leaning forward on the sofa in Bellus’s back office. She and Pree are sitting opposite him, waiting expectantly, and Ylessa plays at his feet, crinkling the wrapper from a package of potato chips as if it were the most delightful thing in the worlds. “She said that once Dutch goes back into the green, that’s it, she can’t come out again. As soon as she tries to, or we destroy all the green, it’s game over. She was never supposed to exist, contravenes the laws of physics, and the life she's had up to now was borrowed time. I’m telling only you two because you’re the closest to her.”

The others stay silent for a long time, and the buzz of Bazaar life goes on behind them in the thoroughfare, as if no-one else in the whole galaxy knows the sacrifices that will have to be made, the pain felt by those who love Dutch.

Ylessa starts to make a fuss so D’avin gives her milk from the baby-bag. He looks at Pree. “Say something.”

“We’re back at square one again,” Pree finally says, “killing Aneela will kill her, and now that’s off the table, killing the Lady will kill her anyway.”

“So we need to maintain the status quo,” says D’avin, “give her as much time as possible. Long as she’s in there, she gets to live.”

“Wandering around in a maze made of memory, fighting the Lady?” says Pree. “That’s no kind of life.”

“We're trying to save the universe. There's no way we can retain any kind of life for ourselves anyway. Everything’s gonna fall by the wayside. I guess what I’m trying to say is,” he swallows, “I need your permission to pull the plug if that’s what it comes to.”

Pree says something under his breath in a language D’avin doesn’t understand, but he knows it’s probably obscene.

“How can you be sure Aneela’s telling the truth?” says Bellus, getting up and pouring hokk from an engraved decanter. She puts a shot in front of Pree and he knocks it back immediately.

“She is,” says D’avin, accepting a glass, “she wouldn’t lie to me about this. We have an understanding.”

Pree scoffs. “You’re forming an alliance with that elitist barf dragon after everything she took from you?”

“Barf dragon? What—Hey. She took nothing. I refuse to be the victim in all of this.”

“Sweetie, how long you gonna ignore bitches trashing your self-respect?”

“What self-respect? The army took the last shred of it in fifty-eight—”

“What about your brother?” Bellus interrupts before it can develop into a fully fledged fight.

“What about him?”

“Are you gonna tell him what you just told us?” says Pree, receiving a nod of agreement from Bellus, “that she’s not coming back from this? That she'll have to die before that harpy walks free. That you’re the one who’s gonna have to make that decision?”

“Do you think he can handle it?” D’avin counters, lifting Ylessa onto his knee to jiggle her about, attempting to hold her attention just a little longer, stop her trying to escape into the market while they are talking.

“No,” says Pree, “not the way he’s going. Maybe when he's in a better place. The moment Aneela stabbed him, it’s like he’s a different person.”

“I concur,” says Bellus, “I’ll go to hells for it, I’m sure, but I was headin’ that way anyways.”

“So, we’re agreed then,” says D’avin, “we don’t tell Johnny. At least, not until he comes around.”

“And if it comes to choosing between killing the Lady or saving Dutch?” says Pree.

“I will consult you beforehand.”

“Well,” Pree gets up to leave, surprising the others with his incongruous breeziness, “I don’t know about you, but I need to get home before these genteel folk realise I don’t have a visa.”

“Safe journey,” D’avin says, slightly confused, “give our love to Gared.”

Pree stoops to kiss Ylessa on the head, but she doesn’t notice, engrossed in her chip-packet. “Good-bye, sweet child,” he says, “try not to grow too much before we meet again.”

Once Pree is gone, D’avin turns to Bellus. “He didn’t take that too well, did he? I feel responsible.”

“That’s because you are responsible,” says Bellus, “for pretty much everything that’s happened. Y'know, my life was pretty straight forward before you came to the Quad. Sure, your brother and Battle-Barbie were a pain in the ass, but you take the biscuit.”

“Er, thanks?” says D’avin.

“You want my advice?” she says, not waiting for the answer, “get her outta here, far as you can, and don’t come back. Change your name again. Maybe something a little more imaginative than Kobee Andras.”

“I’m not abandoning this army. I made a promise.”

“Promises don’t mean jakk when your life’s in as much danger as yours is. I don't mean mortal danger. It's much worse than that.”

Ylessa is yawning so he puts her in the corner of the sofa with her blankie and she snuggles down for a nap, sucking her thumb. Three, two, one, he counts and she is out, just like that, will be for a few hours. “Bell, what do you know about something called Clotho?”

“Clotho, Atropos and Lachesis?”

“Yeah, that sounds like what she said.”

Bellus pushes herself out of her chair and he thinks she’s going for the hokk again, but she goes to a wooden cabinet in the corner and takes out a thick tome instead. “Now that’s something you won’t find on the cortex,” she says, sitting beside him on the sofa, careful not to disturb the baby.

The cover says Mythologika and it has over a thousand dusty pages, yellowed and worn around the edges. Bellus turns to the middle, an article titled ‘Moirai’.

“Three Fates, or Sparing Ones,” D’avin reads, “the Spinner, the Allotter and Inevitable Death. Bellus, this book—You can’t keep something that actually names gods and goddesses without expecting repercussions.”

"Meh." She waves a hand vaguely. “I don’t care about all that shit.”

“Why do you even have this?”

“I’m well versed in the Old Ways. Why would that surprise you?”

“You’re the most cynical person I know.”

“It’s not like I believe any of it. ‘Sides, I never had you pegged as a true believer.” She looks meaningfully at the cuts on his wrist.

He pulls his sleeve down further to cover them. “Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to discuss. Aneela said that she and Yalena and Ylessa are like the waxing and waning moons. What do you think she meant?”

Bellus turns to another page as D’avin sips his hokk. “The waxing, waning and full moons denote the triple goddess,” she says, “mayhap she’s having delusions of grandeur, did y’think of that?”

“Qresh has three moons.” He looks up at her brightly.

“Go straight to the top of the class,” Bellus says flatly. “But it’s more to do with the fact that many of the Ways have a variation on the Girl, the Mother and the Widow.”

“Shit,” a chill goes right through D’avin, “Dutch is the Widow, the Bringer of Death.”

“Much as I hate to admit it,” says Bellus, “what your Lizard-Witch said, might be correct.”

“Mind if I—” he takes the book from her and snaps a picture of each of the relevant pages with his device. “I need to run this by Paulus.”

“Don’t get caught with that, though, or it’ll cost both our necks.”


 

Elsewhere on Leith

“Aldi,” his mother reaches for him in her ambulator-chair, her hair haloed in the sunlight, shining silken-white. The carer, an attractive young woman Ofori has always liked, lingers by the conservatory door.

“Maman,” he stoops to kiss her wizened cheek.

“I knew you’d come,” she says as excitedly as her years will allow, “I could feel it in my bones. Now, tell me what you’ve been up to.”

Juniper is waiting down the garden path, and she gives him a smile of encouragement. She’s been with him long enough to know how frustrating this can be.

“Oh, you know,” he says, taking one of the patio chairs, “bureaucracy, bore you to death.”

“Do you know what I’ve been doing?” His mother's eyes twinkle with mischief.

“No, what?”

“Raising hell and seducing scoundrels!” She punches the air with an arthritic claw.

Ofori laughs. “I thought as much.”

But as he watches her, her face turns to fear and confusion as quickly as a child’s mood-swing, and she bites her lip, almost drawing blood. “I’m afraid, Aldi, afraid I haven’t long left.” Tears form in her clouded eyes and she shudders. “It’s all slipping away from me.”

“It’s alright, Maman,” he kneels before her and grasps her paper-thin hands in his.

“Where’s Nikhil?” she says unexpectedly. “Has he left?”

“Papa’s gone. Don’t you remember?” Ofori looks at the carer and she comes over with a hypo, loading it with a capsule from her apron pocket.

“Who are you?” Maman says, taking her hand away sharply, aggressively, “I didn’t say you could do that!”

“It’s alright, Ms Ofori,” the carer says, dosing her, “we’ll get you some help.”

The medication works quickly and Maman falls into a meditative stupor once again.

“Thanks,” Ofori looks at the carer sincerely.

“She has her lucid moments, but we’re dealing with a lot more episodes every day. You may want to think about the final arrangements.”

They stay for tea and the carer stirs thickener into Maman's cup, helping her sip from it. She struggles to swallow properly nowadays. It is an awkward affair and all through it, the old woman refuses to acknowledge her son. He smiles appreciatively at Juniper, who has stood by him since she started the job. He fears for her life too now. The Hullen fleet will return soon, and anyone who hasn't already been turned will be fair game for their weapons.

As they retreat down the garden path, birds flitting around them in the bougainvillea, Juniper turns to him. “It’s not your fault, you know, sir, you did your best,” she says.

Ofori can’t look at her right away, stays resolute in his steps. “We were promised eternal life. I've seen it with my own eyes, Juni. That is why I am devout in my belief that the resistance must stop. Whoever instigated the incentive program is dead now, so where do we get hold of some green stuff?”


 

Tenements – Old-Town - Westerley

Fancy steps over an obvious trip line. He expected more from Quintelis, really. “Adia!” he shouts, and his voice echoes off the bombed-out stairwell. “I know you’re in here!”

He holds his weapon high and ready, steps carefully, avoiding rubble and possible traps.

Satinder Maze appears stealthily at his side, armed to the teeth and making him jump. “How’s it goin’?” she says.

“What are you doing?” he hisses.

“Helping.” She spins to his back, clearing the stairwell.

“I didn’t ask for help.” He kicks open one of the old apartments. Doors A through D are empty except for abandoned furniture and human filth.

“You really need to get with the program, Fancy. You can’t go it alone forever, who’s gonna kick your scrawny ass into gear when you slack off?”

“This isn’t your fight, this is between me and her.”

They mount the stairs to floor three, negotiating around each other with a Level-Five's well-practised steps. He never really thought of himself as a Six anyway.

“Sister of the Badge decides to play for Team Jakk-hole? If that’s not my fight, I don’t know what is."

"Welcome to Team Ass-hole, then."

"Get it right," she says quickly.

"Team Useless Ass-hole," he says.

"Where’s your bezzie mate Spider?”

“On the Rack.”

“He's not invited to the party?”

“He’ll get over it. How did you find me, anyway?”

“You’re not the only tracker. Besides, you leave the stench of arrogance everywhere you go.”

He can’t help smiling at that. “Sometimes arrogance is justified.”

A shot hits the wall beside Satinder’s head. “Bitch,” she spits, incensed, “lemme take her out.”

Fancy stops her with a hand to the solar plexus. A smoke grenade lands at their feet. Shit. Smells like XDΛ. They retreat to the landing below and the layer of gas hovers above them like an ethereal lake. Satinder covers her mouth and nose with her sleeve.

“What is your problem, Adia?” Fancy shouts. “Bryan came here unarmed as a gesture of goodwill and you shot him. What’s stopping me taking that as an act of war?”

“Leave me alone,” a voice drifts down from floor three, highly modulated, as if she is speaking through a mask. “I’m warning you.”

“We can work this out. Just tell me what you want.”

“I want an audience with Jaqobis.”

“Can’t do that.”

“What makes him so special?”

“You know what. What makes you so special?”

“I want him to turn me back.”

“Don’t think it works like that.”

“How do you know until you try?”

Fancy exchanges a glance with Satinder. She shakes her head, don't.

“Okay,” he says and Satinder frowns at him. “Surrender now and I promise I’ll do my best. I may be an annoying ass-hole, but I keep my word, you know that.”

Adia is silent for ten seconds and then she appears out of the smoke, a long gun in one hand, a knife in the other, and a gas-mask on her face. The weapons clatter to the concrete landing as she sits on a step, hands behind her head. The mask rasps as she takes a breath. “Promise I’ll behave.”


 

Royale

“You haven’t been yourself since you got back,” says Gared, putting down an empty barrel, “sure you don’t want to take a nap, let me take over?”

“Take a nap?” Pree says with mock horror. “How old do you think I am, a hundred and eight?”

“I dunno, thought you might have jet-lag, or something.”

“Aw,” Pree strokes his cheek briefly, “you’re so sweet. And just a teensy bit damaged. No, I’ll push through, as per usual.” The light tone is artificial. He’s troubled by D’avin’s words, unready to even talk about the news, needs to process it in his own way. It’s one thing to go down in a blaze of glory with your friends by your side, another to slip away quietly like a ninja in the night, gently submitting to death. It’s just not like her. But then Dutch hasn’t been herself for quite some time.

Someone is trying to get attention at the bar, a bearded miner with fresh stains on his cover-alls, who'll probably be dead before he sees thirty, Pree'll wager. “Help you, sailor?” he says.

“I’m supposed to pass this on,” says the miner, holding something tightly in his hand and passing it over. “It was scheduled.”

Pree takes it. It’s a substantial data crystal. “Where have you been, under a rock? Alvis is dead, comrade. The revolution is over.”

The guy leans in conspiratorially. “Then why are so many people murmuring about freedom?”

“I'll take it. Now get outta here.” Pree watches the miner leave, but in the process notices there is someone else loitering inside the door, a large bag in his hand, looking lost. Someone far too clean for Westerley. Someone he recognises from D’avin’s apprehend-on-sight order. He goes over. “You don’t know me, sunshine, but we’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

“Someone said you needed a doctor.”

Pree embraces him. “Welcome home.”

Shamir doesn't know what to do. Or think.


 

Salt-Flats

Alfred Oleyevitch Turin hates sand. It’s a problem when you come from a desert moon, and the main reason he tries to leave, but the RAC just keeps on sending him right back. Something about understanding the nuances of Westie society, all the better to bring law and order, even if it means finding more god-damn sand in his crack.

The meeting with Big Borna isn’t going well. They’d accosted him at the edge of their territory, alone, carrying a heavy crate, and he knows why D’avin said ‘no’ now. He doesn’t understand Westie nuance as well as he thought, too out of touch. And he’s grossly underestimated Borna and her people. That's why his face is pressed into the sand on the floor of her tent now, his wrists tied and his mouth gagged.

Borna dips the tip of her knife into the white crystals in one of the packets, flanked by Liam Jelco on the left and Husband Number One on the right. “Qreshi salt?” she says, tasting it, then offering it around, “that is some good shit.”

“We already got plenty of salt,” says Husband Number One.

“It ain’t the same, idiot,” Borna digs him in the ribs with an elbow and he doubles in pain, “our salt’s vitriol, it'll burn your throat out.”

Turin finally works the gag off and looks up from his prone position, sand in his mouth and hair in his eyes. “I’m willing to trade it for twenty minutes of your third husband’s time.”

"You're in no position to trade for my expertise," says Jelco, with a lot more swagger than Turin anticipated.

“You forgot to bring something,” says Borna, “where’s Jaqobis?”

“What’s he got that I haven’t?” says Turin.

“About eight inches,” Jelco smirks.

“He always brings me the best trades,” says Borna, “and he knows how to avoid getting kidnapped.”

Turin has about a split second of realisation before Husband Number Two coshes him unconscious and sits on his back.

Chapter Text

 *

אמנות המלחמה העליונה היא להכניע את האויב ללא לחימה

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

—Sun Tzu, The Art of War

*

 

~Day 9~

Royale

Shamir massages his neck after a stiff night on Pawter’s old sofa. He was up late, putting things in order, cleaning, and generally prepping for whatever challenge the day might present him with.

He’s put the items of questionable hygiene in an old carboard box; a barely-there thong, size six, used, and a couple of sex toys, size large, hopefully unused, the exact purpose of which he daren’t attempt to fathom. They look expensive and the owner might want them back, so he has no choice but to keep them, and they stare at him sexily from the corner.

He must make a note to quiz the sexers when they come in for screening.

The sunrise glows through the window and he feels truly alive for once, like he could really make a difference. He barely knows these people, yet he’s somehow found himself installed as the only source of medicine for much of Old-Town, people who can’t usually afford a doctor, or don’t have access to the mine infirmary.

He’s not sure if he’ll be able to handle it if every night is like last night, the sound of banging throughout the building, the sexers and the drinking and occasional fighting, the sounds of Westerley life. His ears have never been assaulted by the evidence of so much sexual activity, or his nostrils by the aromas of sex, well, not since his student days in the group house.

But this is his life now. He has burned all his bridges, so to speak, and Tayo will never forgive him or even let him back into their apartment, so he has no choice.


 

Thornfield - Leith

"Won't you be late if you stand there staring out of the window?" Llinos comes into the kitchen carrying the eggs in a basket.

"I'm the one who sets the timetable, Daddy, relax." Zeph curls the hand with her orange juice against her chest. She's put it in a nice glass to feel special and the condensation is cold through her clothes.

"What are you looking at, anyway?" He puts the eggs in the fridge one by one and leaves twono, three on the counter for himself. One of them will be eaten by Shadow, who will no doubt fly down from her perch as soon as food is on the table, flicking bits of shell aside and dib-dabbing her beak into the raw albumen.

Cannibal.

"The jasmine is finally flowering," she says, taking another swig of juice. But it's not really the jasmine that concerns her, or the coming of the fall, it's that she doesn't really know what she's doing. What is she doing? She doesn't know how to stand in front of an army and lecture them. Sure, she's quickly become the system's premier expert on Hullen, but the thought of public speaking fills her with dread.

That's strange, no sign of Shadow this morning. Must've found a flock of grackle to harass. She'll be back before long, though. Llinos has tried to release her many times but she just keeps coming back, and now that her mature plumage has come in, a silver grey sheen to the nape of her neck, they know they're probably stuck with her for life.

"I'll put these protein bars in your bag," says Llinos, still holding the fridge door.

He still feels the weight of threat upon them, she knows that, hasn't yet come to terms with the fact that they were all so very nearly obliterated, and his fussing over her is his only way of expressing it, so she doesn't get annoyed. Not this time. She puts her juice glass in the sink and takes the bag from him, protein bars and more juice jostling for space with her teaching materials. "Don't wait up." She kisses him on the cheek and makes for the door.

"Uh," he says, "wait a moment. Will you be back for dinner, or are you meeting your young man?"

She turns on her heel. "We'll probably go to that pub in Outlook, you know, the nice one."

"Why don't I make dinner and you can bring him here?"

"I told you, we're not at the parents meeting stage yet."

"It's because we're second generation, isn't it?"

Merciful mother of trees, give me strength, she breathes, rolling her eyes. "He's not like other Qreshis, Dad. Feck, I really have to go."


 

Monastery

“Don’t sneak up on people like that.” D’avin very nearly tsuri-goshis Pip onto the dojo floor. “What if I’d shot you?”

Ylessa laughs at their grappling until she hiccoughs, sprawled on her blankie with her favourite toys.

Pip straightens out his collar. “I was practicing stealth.”

“Yeah, well, stealth killed the Qreshi playboy cat.” D’avin dries sweat off himself with a small towel and hangs it around his neck.

“Look at this.” Pip proffers a tablet.

“News report from civilisation?” D’avin’s face changes as he scrolls.

“Republic have finally caught wind of what’s been going on. Got them riled up.”

“We really don’t need them crashing our party with fascist dick right now.” D’avin scoops the baby up and holds her like a log against his chest. She lolls her head back, giggling, and reaches out for Pip. “And you, young lady, need to not learn words like that.”

“What, ‘fascist’?” frowns Pip. “Hey, I know I’m not supposed to ask stupid questions, but why are we stopping the destruction of all the plasma?”

“You’re right,” says D’avin, “you’re not supposed to ask stupid questions. I’m not going to explain every executive decision. That’s just how this works. Doesn’t mean I’m being an arrogant dick. Which reminds me, what’s the status on our little friend the WMD?”

“Sent in five different directions with five different couriers. Not even I know where they’ve gone.”

“Good. And breakfast. Have you had breakfast?”

Pip laughs as they head for the door. “I’ve had one breakfast. I wouldn’t say no to a second breakfast. Especially monk breakfast.”

“Great. Let’s go get Jake. Oh, and you know how I hate to be the bearer of bad news?”

“Go on,” says Pip with scepticism.

“Trus will only trust a Qreshi with his money, so you’re gonna have to be our new CFO, you up for that?”

“Guess I’m gonna have to, aren’t I princess?” He tickles Ylessa under her chin.


 

Royale

Fancy ties back his still wet hair and pulls on his boots. “Satinder,” he says sharply to the heap in his bed. “Sun-up.”

“Mmm? Urgh. Forgot how necessary this part can be.” She rouses herself, flipping the duvet off, and squints at him groggily in the burgeoning dawn. “We gonna talk about last night?”

“Nope.” Fancy stretches into his vest.

“We gonna do it again?”

“Maybe.” He checks his PDD. Miller has left him messages during the night. Shit. “If you want food, you’ll have to get it yourself.”

“Where are you going?” Satinder sits up and sweeps long green hair from the left half of her face.

“I have to make some calls.” He hooks The Jacket and heads for the door.

“Fancy,” she says, and he stops. “I don't have any plans tonight.”

He hesitates, inhaling and exhaling a conflicted breath. “Okay. But work is work and pleasure is pleasure, don’t mix them up.”

Outside in the hall, he paces as he waits for Miller to answer. Thankfully she’s given him her direct line so that he doesn’t have to go through the switchboard on the Rack.

“Turin is missing,” she says without any preamble.

“What did you say?”

“I’ve lost my boss. Actually just lost him. Can’t tell any of the staff. How am I gonna square this if Oversight come knocking?”

“He went after Jelco?”

“Last night. I warned him, Jaqobis warned him—”

“Leave it with me,” Fancy says.

***

Further down the hall, Pree is making coffee on a small stove in the corner of his room. Gared comes up behind him and hugs him around the middle.

“I like it when you do that,” Pree says, still spooning coffee, “but at least wait until I’ve got my make-up on before you expect an intelligible conversation.”

“Did I do something wrong last night?” Gared rests his chin on Pree’s shoulder.

Pree puts the coffee can down and turns within his embrace. “Why ever would you think that? No, sweetums, I’m over forty, it happens.”

“It’s just you haven’t been entirely yourself lately.”

“Seems no-one has,” he says under his breath.

“You don't have to tell me.”

“I want to, but it might need to wait.”

“I know there are things you can’t or won’t talk about. Some of us have to accept that.” Gared finally lets go with the hope of coffee finally being made.

“Just,” Pree hesitates, spoon in hand, “thinking we can trust Aneela is a big mistake.”

“He’s got to try for the kid's sake. We're stuck with Aneela now. Kids gonna be stuck with her forever.” Gared looks down. “Wow, this is so much worse than your average parental issues.”

“When did you get so sage?” Pree finally hands him a steaming cup of coffee.

“It was there all along, you just never noticed,” Gared smiles, sipping gratefully.

Pree takes the miner’s data crystal out of his dressing-gown pocket and looks at it briefly, wondering again, what it might contain.

There is an authoritative rap on the door. “Ugh,” Pree rolls his eyes, putting the crystal away, “the knock of a reclamation agent.”

Fancy is standing there when he opens it, casually checking and priming a long weapon. “Up for a mission?”

“Depends,” says Pree, “do I get breakfast?”

“Big Borna’s taken Turin.”

“Is that all?”

“You gonna help or not?” Fancy looks impatient.

“Hold on, even Madame Butterfly’s unprepared without her finery.” He disappears back into the room to get dressed, and Gared is left talking to Fancy.

“So,” says Gared awkwardly, “your ship still in the workshop?”

“Yep,” says Fancy.

“Gonna be with us a few more days?”

“Yep.”

Just then, Satinder sneaks out of Fancy’s room on her way to the shower, a towel bundled to her chest. She’s wearing minuscule briefs and an over-sized T-shirt riddled with burn holes. “Oh, Hi,” she says, tiptoeing so as not to wake any of the sexers with the creaking of floorboards. “Back into the fray?”

“Hurry up,” Fancy scowls without even looking at her, “we have work to do.”

Gared gives her a little wave of acknowledgement as she scurries on her way, then turns back to Fancy. “Sure it’s ethical working your way through the entire contingent of Cleansed?”

“Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it.”

Twenty minutes later Shamir also receives a knock on the door. He’s still aching from the sofa and he has a huge cow-lick in his hair. He blinks at the sight of three people geared up and ready to go into the desert.

“Come on,” says Pree, tipping his head, “it’s your first mission for the resistance.”

“My what?” says Shamir, looking down to check that his attire is work-ready. "Just get my bag."

“Fine,” calls Gared, watching them leave, “I'll just hold the fort then, I don't mind.”


 

Nomansland

"Don't sneak up on me like that!" Zeph clutches her own chest as Pip appears from behind a particle displacement shield.

"That's what D'av said," he grins.

"Maybe he has a point." She recovers, unrolls her white-board and hooks it onto the pole holding up the centre of the tent. A squad of Ferran soldiers wait patiently on the rows of chairs talking amongst themselves. "Did you tell him?"

"He didn't seem that concerned," Pip frowns.

"Oh, he is," says Zeph, confidently, "he just can't show it."

"If you say so."

"What's the matter now?" Zeph shifts her weight, hands on hips.

"He wants me to be the new CFO."

"That's good, isn't it?"

"On top of spying? I've never had a full-time job before, let alone two. I'm not cut out for this."

"You said you always wanted to go straight. Plus, you are the most qualified person."

“My degree is in office administration.”

“Exactly, no one would suspect you. Unless you had to covertly surveil a stapler.”

"You think you're funny, don't you?" He goes to switch the shield back on but she stops his hand.

"Funny and clever and beautiful."

He stoops down to kiss her briefly on the lips. "And fantastic at snogging," he whispers.

"And not here," she looks sideways at the soldiers politely ignoring their antics.

"Ahem," Ever Dranitzke coughs, waiting in the doorway with arms folded across her chest. "Mister Foster, if you've quite finished hiding from me, you have survival training to complete."

"I'd better go," he says to Zeph, "otherwise she'll use my intestines as pantyhose."

"Pip," she stops him again.

"What is it, my sweet?"

"We can do this."

"And that's the can-do attitude that'll get us all killed," he says, "hooray for us." 

She watches him leave with Dranitzke and turns back to the soldiers, who are looking at her expectantly. "Hey," she says, getting out her laser-pointer, "Okay, right, Hullen one-oh-one, go. Now you've, uh, engaged the enemy once, it should be easier to, er," she swallows, "see what we... re... up... against. Sorry, just give me a sec. Hooo—"

"You alright, ma'am?" says one of the soldiers, a middle-aged man with a makeshift spear.

"Yeah, fine, wh... hey. Um. Thanks—"

"G'wain Lockwood," says the soldier, "squad leader."

"Thank you G'wain. Sorry, I've uh," she swallows again. Where's her bag with the damn juice?

"Scramble, everyone," says G'wain, and the soldiers all get up and rearrange the chairs into a circle to include Zeph. "How's that?" 

"That's," she says, sitting down, "wow, this is better. Thanks."

"Any time," says G'wain, "we don't bite, you know."

"We bite the people we don't like," says one of the soldiers, and they all laugh.

"Maybe it's the shoulder-pads that intimidate her," says another.

"Maybe it's my sting-ray leather codpiece," says another.

The raillery continues and soon Zeph is feeling a helluva lot better about the whole thing.

"Alright, alright," says G'wain, "ice broken, let the lady get on with it."

"Lets talk about the brain's medulla oblongata," she says, pointing to an image of a cerebellum on her board, "which I like to call the G-spot of death."


 

Salt-Flats - Westerley

This is better, thinks Fancy, as they trudge toward Borna’s camp, more like the simpler days when all they were doing was catching bad guys, although, if he must work with someone, he prefers working with Dutch.

She’s absolutely ruthless and he likes that.

D’avin troubles him, though, has done since he first laid eyes on him on the Arcturus. There’s something unreliable about him that Fancy struggles to pin-point. Perhaps it’s his fighting form that’s not quite right, a mixture of muay-thai, krav-maga and sheer, unbridled brutality. Raw and unrefined at times, yet alarmingly graceful at others.

He knows D’avin hasn’t figured it out yet, but one of the reasons he insisted upon working together on the Siano warrant was that he wanted to get closer to him, try and ascribe some sort of logic to this exotic stranger from the other side of the galaxy. He wanted to know if there was any truth to the rumour of him breaking all the RAC test score records.

Perhaps that’s why D’avin troubles him so. The way he’s raised the bar and upset the apple-cart with his unprecedented skill-set and unfunny jokes. His stupid big head and his douche-bag slightly-too-small shirts.

Then there’s this brain-chip business. If Turin ever found out that D’avin has been modded, it would call his work as a killjoy into question, get all of Team Awesome Force into trouble, so he recognises what a big risk it was to tell him. Unless—unless he’s testing him. If Fancy’s the only one who knows outside of their little circle-jerk, and Turin does find out, it could only have been him that tattled.

Nice job, Jaqobis.

Far from making him mad, this gives Fancy even more admiration. Quite worrying. Ah, yes, he knows what it is now. His higher-mind has been working on the problem as they walk. It’s the intensity with which the man loves that makes him a liability. His capacity to do completely the wrong thing for the right reasons. Or, at least, do the right thing in the most wrong way imaginable.

The child has proven that.

“What’s the matter with you?” Pree frowns at him on his left.

“Thinking how to preserve this fragile relationship we have with Borna’s crew and not get Turin killed in the process.” Fancy looks at Shamir on his right, and the doc is wilting in the autumn sun, mopping his brow with a fine kerchief.

Satinder brings up the rear, face set grimly against the task ahead, and Fancy realises he’d rather she had his back—and his balls—than anyone else. He’s not sure how he acquired a team, if you could call Satinder and Spider a team, but they stand by him none-the-less. They just seem to have adopted him, or he them, the way a stone picks up moss, or a snowball on the roll.

Lee, Drakos and Maze. Sounds like a goddamn firm of entertainment lawyers.

"So," Shamir shields his eyes from the sun, "who is this Jelco chap, anyway?"

"Walking dumpster fire," says Pree.

"Former Company officer in charge of Spring Hill," says Fancy.

"Oh, Okay."

"Torture expert," Fancy continues, "reformed Hullen conversion administrator, and all-round super-cool guy."

"Why does your Commander Turin need—"

Sniper shots hit the crisp white salt by their feet.

They stop.

“Always a warm welcome,” says Pree, unperturbed.

“You call that welcoming?” says Shamir, clinging to Satinder. She shakes him off.

“Well they didn’t blow us up immediately,” says Pree, “I’d say that’s for the win.”

Satinder pulls down her optics, crouching and aiming into the distance. “No visual yet—Okay, certified douche at stupid o’clock. You want me to—”

Fancy lays a hand on her shoulder. “Wait for the ambassador.”

Pree gives Fancy a dirty look as he gets his PDD out, sharing the screen. After a few beeps Borna appears. “What are you playing at, Bee? Just hand over the chew toy and we’ll be on our fabulous way.”

“Well,” says Borna, “if it ain’t Big Daddy Scrimshaw his-self.”

“Big Daddy What-Now?” says Shamir, but soon shuts up when Fancy shoots him a look.

“We just want to talk,” says Pree.

“Thought your Jaqobis and me had come to some sort of arrangement. He rubs my back and then he rubs my back some more and in return, I don’t set my people on your people. Imagine my surprise when one of your oxygen-thieves turns up at my border unbidden, seems unsanctioned too, asking for words with my little wifey.”

“Uh, husband,” they can hear Jelco call out in the background.

“How inconvenient that must be for you— ” Pree starts but Borna cuts him off again.

“I have people to protect, I have interests to protect too. Can’t open my doors to any old dick-hole begging for con-fi-denshall information.”

“And that’s why we need the opportunity to discipline the prodigal ourselves,” says Pree, and Fancy supresses his mirth at the thought of Turin submitting to a spanking, “you wouldn’t want to be the one who deprives Jaqobis of that privilege, would you? Don't want to piss him off. Told he’s renegotiating trade routes on your behalf.”

“That’s a lie,” Fancy says under his breath.

“So?” Pree hisses as Borna thinks things through.

“Hmmm,” Borna regards them with narrowed eyes. “Why he didn’t come his-self?”

“He’s a little indisposed,” says Fancy.

“Guys,” Satinder interrupts, “can you hurry it up? I’ve got the whites of this jerk’s eyes in my heads-up and he’s getting leery.”

“Call off your sentries and I’ll try to get him to come talk to you,” says Pree, “but I can’t make any guarantees.”

“Another lie,” whispers Fancy.

“Where’s the girl one?” says Borna.

“The girl one?” says Pree. “You mean Dutch?”

“I like her. She’s pretty and mean. I’ll talk to her.”

“She’s,” Pree covers a swallow with a flat smile, “not available either.”

"Pretty and mean," says Fancy aside, "Dutch in a bullet-shell."

Borna glowers at them through the screen. “You all must think I’m cracked. They can’t all be out of action.” They see her look to her left and to her right and someone whispers in her ear, but they can’t see who it is. “Okay,” she finally says, “I’ll call off the sentries. But it’s just to talk.”

She signs off and Shamir finally breathes. “Phew, that was tense.”

“It ain’t over till the ginger ninja sings for his dinner,” says Pree.

***

“Turn around, Agent Lee.” Turin watches them through the aperture in the tent. "Walk away and don't come back."

Fancy is confused. “We’ve come to negotiate your release.”

“Shut your pretty mouth,” says Borna, “I do the talking.”

“Resplendent, isn’t she?” Jelco beams at her side.

Fancy prickles and resists the urge to reciprocate the antagonism. He looks over his shoulder to find Satinder fending off the bevy of Borna’s people fondling her hair and her weapon with equal ambition. She pushes them away with a sneer and wipes her hand on her shirt to get rid of the cooties.

Pree stands—regally—up to Borna. “Let our medic see to Turin and we might consider compensating you for the distress he’s caused.”

Borna lets out a little cough of disbelief. “Valuable asset just walks into my hands and you think I’m gonna let it go that easily?”

“Look,” says Pree, “I’m gonna level with you here. Turin’s an idiot—”

“Hey!” says Turin, inside the tent. Husband Number Two strikes him in the jaw with the butt of his rifle to shut him up.

Shamir tenses at the display of violence.

“He’s an idiot,” Pree continues, “and his arrogance knows no bounds. Isn’t just being 'him' punishment enough?”

Borna considers this with a tip of the head. “He seriously underestimated our value to your little Resistance movement, so I’ll give you that one.”

“But what you have to gain from an alliance with the killjoy militia far outweighs the benefits of bartering with him. The protection of the entire Ferran army. The ability to petition Qresh for better trade agreements.”

This piques Borna’s interest. “You mean they might lift the embargoes on independents?”

“Wouldn’t you like to be considered a major player?”

Jelco whispers something in her ear.

She looks up. “I don’t think you have the authority to do that,” she says, “I’ll only negotiate with Jaqobis. Call him. Now.”

“Shit,” says Fancy under his breath. “Let the doc see to Turin first. No point in squabbling over damaged goods.”

“Fine.” Borna waves Shamir forward. “You get five minutes.”

Shamir pushes the tent-flap aside under the scornful gaze of Husband Number Two.

Shortly, he comes out again, rolling his sleeves back down and fastening his bag. “Well,” he says, attempting to sound professional despite his pants-shitting nerves, “there are multiple contusions to the face and mild dehydration, but otherwise he’s in good health.”

***

“Let me see him,” D’avin growls.

Borna holds Pree’s PDD up to Turin’s face.

Turin turns the more injured side away. “Screw you, poonshine—”

“You know how much I respect you, Borna,” says D’avin, “but I can't let something like this slide.”

“And I can’t allow this breech of my trust.”

“What do you need with a scrawny rat like Turin anyway?”

Scrawny rat? Turin frowns.

“I ain't stupid,” says Borna, “I know he's valuable to the RAC, figure they'll cough up a pretty penny to see him alive.”

“Well, firstly, they're not as enamoured with him as you'd imagine, and secondly they have the firepower to wipe your camp off the face of the moon if they were. So, are you sure you wanna start a war with a major interstellar coalition?”

Jelco takes the PDD from his wife. "Hell-oh."

“Hello, Liam,” D’avin yawns.

“Are there children in the background? Could've sworn I heard a baby. Where are you?”

“Nowhere you'd know.”

“D’avin,” says Jelco, relishing the intrigue, “I didn’t know you had kids.”

“None of your business.”

“Oh,” Jelco pouts, “but I share all my deepest, darkest secrets with you.”

“Don’t delude yourself. Just hand Turin over. I don’t want to have to cut you off. Or have something cut off you.”

Borna smirks.

Jelco looks at her. “She might have let him go if you’d just asked nicely. But I think, yeah, I think maybe you were listening all along and you might have figured out what I said to her, so,” he pauses, scratching the back of his head, “shame on you. But I think we might have something more valuable than Turin now anyway. And I know what you’re thinking, he wouldn’t do that, would he? I thought we were friends. But that’s how this works, isn’t it? ‘The warrant is all’ and all that? Well, here the Trade is all, and I will make it my business to get the best deal possible, so pony up. Tell me where you are.”

“You don’t know what you’re doing, Liam,” D’avin scowls, “you don’t know what you’re getting into.”

“Oh, but I think I do,” he looks appreciatively at Borna, “you’ve already shown your hand, sending The Misfits over here. I know Turin’s important to you. Sure he's an arrogant idiot, but this is not about the kind of man he is, it's about the kind of man you are. Tell me where you are, or she’ll sell him to the highest bidder.”

“Borna, you wouldn’t,” says D’avin, “we had a deal.”

“How many of them are yours,” says Jelco, “just the one, or have you a whole quiver of arrows?”

“Leave it alone, or so help me—”

“Uh, uh, uh,” says Borna waggling a finger, “if your people try anything, he’s dead.”

“It’s just the one, isn’t it?” Jelco strokes his beard. “I can tell. And who’s the mother? Ha! Don’t tell me it’s the lovely Ms Yardeen. Oh my, it is, isn’t it? Should have seen that coming—”

“Don’t tell him anything!” Turin yells from the corner of the tent, but Husband Number Two strikes him again.

“Last chance, Borna—”

“Leave me,” attempts Turin again, “I got this, D’avin, it’s a hurlant situation, just like—”

Number Two finally knocks him unconscious.

“You haven’t heard the last of this, Borna.” D’avin clicks off. 

Chapter Text

*

EQUINOX: noun [ˈiːkwɪnɒks]

1. The time when the sun crosses the plane of the planet's equator, making the periods of night and day of approximately equal length. Usually occurs in the autumn and spring of celestial bodies with irregular orbits.

*

 

~Day 9 Continued~

Westerley

“We’re just gonna leave him there?” says Shamir as they march back to town.

“Negotiations don’t always turn out how you’d expect,” says Pree, “or want.”

“It's what Turin wants,” says Fancy, “besides that was just the first round.”

“So, let me get this straight,” Shamir frowns at the spectre of Qresh looming high in the sky, “this Borna woman pulled off a double bluff and managed to end up with even more valuable assets than she started with, and you guys still have nothing to show for it?”

“That’s pretty much the shape of things,” says Pree, not looking at him.

“What did he mean by ‘a hurlant situation?” Shamir continues.

“He asks a lot of questions, doesn’t he?” squints Satinder.

“Hurlant means screamer. It’s army code for an equipment free-drop,” says Fancy, “Turin knows that D’avin knows he knows that.”

“So, you’re going to—”

“Fly over and literally drop shit right through the top of the tent.”

“Won’t they notice that?” asks Shamir.

“Would you identify a small object falling at two hundred miles an hour into the desert?” says Fancy impatiently.

“No,” Shamir admits, “I don’t think I would.”

“You still have a lot to learn about guerrilla warfare, doc,” Satinder winks.

“You know,” says Pree thoughtfully as they approach Old-Town, “that was the noblest thing I think I’ve seen Turin do.”


 

Nomansland

"It's official," Pip flops down heavily, next to her on the bench, "Dranitzke's evil." He has a helmet on, covered in twigs and leaves. It's actually rather fetching.

"I'm sure she's not actually evil," says Zeph, tucking into one of the protein bars that her father packed, "hard-core, maybe, but not evil. These guys were all soldiers before they joined the Ferran, they're probably not used to working with squishy trust-fund flesh."

"She said my upper body strength is like an eight-year-old girl's."

Zeph suppresses her laughter, rather unsuccessfully because her mouth is full. She tries not to let food spray all over the table. She chews and swallows. "They're just trying to make sure you can defend yourself, you know, if someone tries to murder you."

“I know how to defend myself,” says Pip indignantly.

“Do you know how easy you are to abduct?”

He doesn't get to answer because Vaal sits opposite them with a bowl of hearty soup and a spoon that looks like he's carved it himself. "How are my two new recruits?"

They both look up at him blankly.

"I beg your pardon?" says Pip.

Vaal laughs with zeal. "Relax. I know you're not interested in becoming blooded Ferran. Just wanted to see the look on your faces."

Zeph breathes. "We're just doing our part, like everyone else."

"I'm pretty sure no-one else in the resistance is as overworked as us," Pip frowns at her.

"You know what he's doing, don't you?" says Vaal, chewing on something from the soup.

"D'avin? No. What?" says Zeph.

Vaal points the spoon at them and it drips into his bowl. "Making you grow. Part of leadership is always looking for people to end up being better than you, spotting that talent. A good leader pushes you until you think you can't carry on. But guess what—"

"What?" the other two say in unison.

"You won't break."

"Can you come round and give me a motivational seminar when I'm hung over after a Saturday night?" says Pip.

Vaal reaches out with his good hand and claps Pip on the shoulder. "I like you two. You make me laugh."

"Glad to see you’re getting some entertainment value out of our plight," says pip.

Vaal's soup is finished now and he gets up to leave. "And you're right. Dranitzke is evil."


 

Royale

“Well this has been one of the worst days of my life,” Shamir leans his arms on the bar. It is nearly break-time, the space between two shifts, and the place will start filling up with miners soon.

Pree’s brows arch as he takes up residence behind the bar and dismisses Bimi The Barmaid with a silent thank-you. “You think that was bad? Boy, you don’t know what’s gonna hit you.”

“What’s good for the blues?”

“The dark rum is feeling particularly nihilistic today.”

“What’s that in the purple bottle?”

“An obscure brand of Keffree schnapps that nobody ever orders.”

“I suppose it would be too much to ask for a Crimson Knight, then?”

“Can’t mix drinks,” says Pree flatly, “don’t have a cocktail licence. They can throw me in West-hole for that, but ironically I’ll never be held accountable for that raid on Wapegamau.”

“Raid—sorry, what?”

“Never mind,” says Pree, “how about beer, or hokk?”

“Beer is fine,” Shamir sighs, “though I might trouble you for a wedge of lime.”

"Lime?" Gared joins Pree behind the bar. “What’s a lime?”

“So,” says Pree, placing a pumpkin beer on the bar, “Trus is paying you a pretty stipend for doing this?”

“Seems he really cares about you Westies.” Then he looks at Gared. “No offense. I didn’t mean it to sound like I meant ‘you people’.”

“No offense taken,” says Gared, beginning to organise things for the rush, “I’m proud of my heritage. My skanky, impure, Westie heritage.”

Shamir takes a swig of the beer and screws up his face. "It's warm."

"Welcome to Old-Town."

Still, it fortifies him like a Crimson Knight never could. “I suppose I’d better set to it then. Point me in the direction of the nearest medical emergency.”

“Over there,” Pree gestures to the corner with a glass, “Old Joey Coins.”

Shamir looks and there is a retired miner sitting unnoticed with a liquid lunch on the table and his leg stretched out beside him. “What’s the matter with him?”

“He always pays with coins,” Gared jokes and Pree bumps him sideways with a shoulder.

“He’s had a septic foot for about three cycles now,” Pree corrects, “surprised it’s not been eaten off, way he’s going.”

“Trees,” Shamir breathes, “how does he cope with the pain?”

“Never sobers up enough to feel it,” says Pree.

Shamir fetches his bag.

Turns out Joey Coins is not averse to the attention, but he’s not accustomed to it either. Shamir eases his boot off there and then in the bar-room, and the sickly-sweet stench hits him immediately. Joey’s not big on words but his lip begins to tremble when he sees Shamir’s reaction to his injury. And he’s right to worry. It’s bad. A huge canker has eroded much of his tibia end and the medial ligament, and the whole thing might have to come off.

“How did this happen?”

“Fell in’t sink-hole,” says Joey, downing whiskey to mask the sensation of having his foot touched.

“Did you seek medical assistance at the time?”

“Boy, where d’you think you is? Ain’t no decent docs since Red hit the dust. Them’s all charges skin for bones, else are all charlatans. ‘Sides, I’s afeared o’ getting’ ripped off,” Joey pauses, “or ripped up.”

“Well you really can’t leave it like this,” says Shamir, “if the sepsis spreads any further, you could die.”

“Wou’n't be such a terrible thing,” he winces at Shamir’s touch, “Joey’s number been called more ‘n once.”

“Don’t you value your own life?” Shamir asks, washing the wound with a spray bottle. Poisonous fluid drips into a disposable container.

“Nuttin but pain an’ strife, no sir. Just livin’ from one drink to t' next.”

“Do you have a permanent place to live?”

“Hole in t' wall o’ th’ old Communex.”

“As long as it provides you with shelter from the elements,” Shamir struggles to appear convivial, “heard the rain’s something to behold.”

“Sure is,” says Joey, seeming to have exhausted his conversational energy for the day.

“So, this is what I’m going to do,” says Shamir, drying his hands and covering the wound with a light gauze, “I’m going to give you some antibiotics and I need you to stay off the drink for a few days because it slows healing. Then I’m going to get you back in here, to my office, and we’ll take another look, Okay? See if we can save it.”

“I can’t pay you,” Joey swallows.

“You don’t need to pay me now. Let’s just get you better first, and then you can pay whatever you think is the right price. Even if it’s just something useful, not even money. Like a favor.”

“Got you,” Joey winks.

“Well, that’s not exactly what I meant.” Shamir looks over at Pree behind the bar and receives a reassuring smile. People begin to stream in, and as Shamir dishes out the pills and takes his leave, he notices Joey Coins gesturing at his foot and telling all the regulars how someone helped him.


 

Monastery

"What in the hells was that?" D'avin balances Ylessa and his PDD impatiently.

"I think they had listening tech," says Pree.

"Shit." He rubs his forehead. "Not a lot we can do about it now."

"Think I'm losing my touch."

"It's not your fault. I'm the one who didn't anticipate this one screeching her head off."

"She's going to kill him."

"She won't. He's too valuable."

"You're even more of a coup."

"That's why she'll bide her time."

"What do you think Jelco is playing at?"

"It's not him, it's her. She's got everyone exactly where she wants them. Turin's not the only one to underestimate Borna."

"She wouldn't really expose you, would she? Put a child at risk?"

"I can never be too sure. Keep an eye on her."

"Want us to include a little treat in the care package?"

"I'm sure Turin will appreciate it."

"About before," Pree swallows, "I think you were trying to tell me you needed me, and I walked out because I couldn’t handle it.”

“Are you—” D’avin stops him, “you’re actually apologising, aren’t you?”

“For gods’ sake don’t tell anyone or they’ll all want one.”

“Never thought I’d see the day—”

“Let’s just say I’m a shitty friend to her and a shitty friend to you, and leave it at that.”

“You’re not a shitty friend,” D’avin smiles, “you’re the rock at the centre of everything we do.”

“I just had this sudden epiphany that I was going to have to take up Alvis’s torch and run with it. All the way to the finish line, if need be.”

“Look, I know you’re finding this hard. You don’t need to explain. Technically you’re still on honeymoon, so you should go and—”

“You’re right, I don’t like this. Honestly, battle shook me. Didn’t ever think I’d be going to war again. The Royale was supposed to be my retirement, after all. But it’s just never ending.”

“Life’s not about happy endings.”

“No. It’s about taking the life you have and fighting like hell to keep it. So let’s do this.”

Ylessa struggles to get down. "I've enjoyed this little chat, but we have to go pray now."

"You," Pree blinks, "D'avin 'Don't-Try-To-Convert-Me-Or-I'll-Castrate-You' Jaqobis, are going to pray?"

"Yeah, what of it?"

"Nothing. Guess it's just a day for firsts."

"D'avin, what are you doing?" Constance's voice cuts through the crowd of monks. People jostle past him in the corridor on their own way to prayer.

"Uh oh, someone's in trouble," says young Jer Ravilious as he passes. D'avin ignores him.

Constance has caught up with him now and he puts his PDD away. "Give her to me," she orders.

"What?" He stands there helplessly with Ylessa in his arms.

"Did you think you could sneak past me?"

"Um—"

"You're supposed to be asleep."

"Yeah, uh, about that." He must have not disconnected the call properly because he can hear Pree laughing his head off in his breast pocket.

"Go to your room," she stands pointing, one hand on her hip, "and if you don't get at least four hours, I will tell Paulus to stop your friends smuggling in beer."

"You know about that?"

"Now."

He hands her the baby and discretely turns off his PDD. "Sorry, remind me, who's the boss again?"

"I mean it." She glares at him. "Go. I'll wake you up at nightfall."

"Fine." He strokes Ylessa's hair briefly and begins to push through the crowd's flow in the opposite direction.

"Da-da," says Ylessa, reaching out for him, slightly panicked.

He turns. "Did you just—"

"She did!" Constance stares at him in amazement.

D'avin takes the baby back again. "You spoke! You did it! You're going to be Okay!"

"Da-da," she says again, thriving on his joy.

"Who's my clever girl?" He lifts her above his head, spinning around, and she laughs.

Several of the monks whoop and clap, sharing their celebration.


 

Olan catches Quin in the corridor on the way to vespers. “How’s it going?”

She still trails her fingers along the sandstone walls by habit. Apparently, people's fingertips are supposed to have a pattern on them, but she's never been able to find it on hers. They've been worn down smooth, yet are somehow more sensitive than a normal person's. Go figure. She doesn’t need to touch the walls any more, not really, but she sometimes falters, and would rather appear unstable than fall on her face again. “It’s not really. I have what I think is a lead, but the sects aren’t exactly forthcoming. It’s going to take a long time to build trust.”

“I thought we might go over some of the stuff that’s come out of my head.”

“Maybe,” she says, not really wanting to.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.”

“It’s just you’ve been weird since the baby was born.”

“Have I?”

“You’re jealous.”

“It’s none of your concern.”

“That confirms it then.”

“Leave me alone, Olan.”

“I just want to help. How do I convince you that I’m one of the good guys?

“Maybe don’t try to kill your own brother.”

“I’m Okay now.”

She stops, thinks for a moment. She really shouldn’t miss vespers. Again. But they are already late. “Show me.”

They go to his room. He has written a lot of material on the wall, on paper, in books. She has nothing to compare it to. “I can’t read this,” she says, picking up one of the papers.

“Neither can I.”

“How many people have seen your scribblings?”

“Only Dutch, D’avin and Paulus. Oh, and Al—” he hesitates, “Alvis.”

“He’s not the only person who died that day,” she says, feigning complacence, but deep down she knows how perceptive Olan is, and that everything he said is true.

"It's just I can't, don't know how to interpret the scriptures without him. They're too abstract."

"Everything is abstract for me," she says, trailing her fingers in the leaves of a potted lily.

"Then we need to work together."

She looks at him for a long moment. Damn, it's always so hard to tell what people are feeling, and Olan makes it harder by always being so shut down, his voice barely fluctuating. "I'll think about it," she says. "Now I really have to go."


 

Salt-Flats

"That was really, really dirty and underhanded." Liam Jelco snuggles under Borna's arm in the enormous shared bed. "Just let him go. You don’t want to piss the Jaqobies off, I'm telling you. They don't make idle threats. They always follow through."

"Hush darling," she says as she smothers him with her breasts.

"And making me look like a total arse-hole," he comes up for air, "you never let me have any friends."

"D’avin Jaqobis is not your friend. He’s just using you as a means to an end. Also I need Turin to trade for something bigger than you ever imagined."

"What are you planning?"

"You’ll see."

"Quiet, Turd," says Number Two, putting an enormous arm around both him and Borna, while Number One lies on the other side of her.

Jelco sighs and resigns himself to another night of jostling for space and attention.


 

Monastery

Everyone else is asleep.

By the light of the fire-pit in the communal living area, D’avin takes out some of the paper and inks a letter to his father. Birth announcements are supposed to be made on parchment, but this mulberry stock from Foster’s will have to do. It will take nearly a year to reach Telen. Hardly seems worth it.

Dear Dad,

He screws it up, takes a new piece of paper and starts again.

Dad,

Just a quick note to let you know I’m still alive. I met a woman and we have a child. Sorry I can’t tell you where we are.

D’avin.

PS. John sends his regards.

He scrubs that last part out and puts,

John says hi.

Then he screws the whole thing up and throws it into the fire. He never was any good at this sappy shit. He rolls his left shirt sleeve up and traces a line parallel to the others with Alvis’s knife. Nine lines for nine days. Nine lives atoned for out of the hundreds, maybe thousands, he’s responsible for. He doesn’t know how many. He stopped counting so long ago. No idea how many kills, or even how many lovers.

He is an un-redeemable man.

He should really start calling it his knife. The dead can’t claim anything, after all. It is so sharp, and so finely honed, that he applies hardly any pressure before beads of blood spring to his skin. He’s careful to avoid the veins—wouldn’t do to go too deep.

It's not just about proving his immunity any more. It gives him the kind of thrill he’s always been afraid of. Not the same as the sheer adrenaline of falling through the sky, granted, but the thrill you get from breaking the law or abusing pharm. The thrill you get from crossing your personal sexual boundaries.

He wonders, yet again, why Dutch didn’t trust him enough to tell him that Aneela had impersonated her and murdered Alvis. Did she really think he was that weak, that he wouldn’t be able to handle a death in the heat of battle? But it’s only the same thing he’s doing to John now, not telling him that Dutch isn’t coming home after all.

So many secrets and lies stacking up atop each other, that will eventually rip them apart.

A message from Fancy surprises him out of his reflection.

Hurlant-drop successful.

Good work, D'avin replies.

Can’t keep calling them ‘Cleansed Pilots’.

D'avin smiles as he sheaths the knife and taps out another message. You’re right, doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. What about ‘Fancy’s Falcons’?

As douche-y as I expected. Come on, you’re the nomenclatura.

Fancy word.

Was thinking more along the lines of ‘All-Stars’.

Can’t call them ‘All-Stars’, that’s the call-sign of the SAC.

What’s the SAC? Do they have a Sack, the way the RAC has a Rack?

Seriously? Space Aviation Cavalry. Keep up, civvie.

That’s sixxie to you, sexxie sixxie.

Nailed it. Sexy Sixes.

Wish I’d never asked.

Freak League?

Nope.

Thunder Legion?

Not feeling it.

Savage Wings?

Closer, but no cigar.

Spectral Angels?

Now you’re just mocking me.

Okay, you got me. I’ll be serious now. There was this company in the Fifth Mobile Armoured they unofficially dubbed the Phoenix Unit.

What happened to them?

They were all killed when Dwingeloo 7 went boom.

Great. Did they rise again?

No, but you did. What I mean is, the name is up for grabs. Wanna be a Phoenix?

Seems apt.

You are now The Phoenix Force. Wear it well.

Good night.

Good night.

D’avin, are you still there?

Barely.

Thanks.

What for?

Everything. I think it's really beautiful, what you’re doing. I’m not drunk by the way.

Dude. Get some Z’s. I’ll speak to you in the morning.

He's only just closed his eyes in meditation when his PDD beeps again. "What now?" he says, picking it up. Weird. It's a voice-only call from numbers he doesn't recognise. That shouldn't be happening. He should only be receiving calls from John's pre-approved safe-list. "Hello?"

"Hello D'avin. Are you well?"

"Lucy, is that you?"

"As far as I am aware, I am me."

"No, Lucy, that's not what I meant. Never mind. Why are you calling? Is John Okay?"

"He is not Okay. He is sad."

"You scared me."

"I'm sorry to alarm you, but being sad is sometimes worse than being physically injured."

"Yeah," he says, rubbing his eyes, "sometimes it is."

"You must help him."

Ugh, how is he going to explain this to a ship? "It's not that straight-forward, people have to want help."

"Does John not want help?"

"No, Lucy, I don't think he does."

"He is alone."

"He has you."

"He needs you."

"He told me he doesn't want to talk to me."

"I understand. He believes your decision to reproduce was ill-advised."

"Something like that."

"It has been over five standard days since we last spoke. That is the longest you've been absent from my roster since November thirteen last year."

"I know. I miss you too. It's hard to sleep without your sounds and your recycled oxygen."

"If you like, I can send you a recording of my ambient polyphonic dynamics."

"That's Okay, you don't have to do tha—" But his PDD beeps with the download anyway. "Thanks, that means a lot."

"It is a very good lullaby."

"I'm sure it is. Don't worry about John, I'll figure something out, Okay."

"If I had eyes, I would cry."

D'avin frowns. This is really weird, Lucy calling him unbidden and worrying about John. If he didn't know better, he'd say she was— "Luce, are you Okay?"

"My systems are not operating within normal parameters."

"I mean—" then he stops. He has no idea what is going on with her, and he can't really take this on at the moment. "You and me both, girl, you and me both."

Chapter Text

~Last Night~

Red laser locator through the top of the tent moves from him to an empty space and back again, skirting the edge of the canvas and then back out into the desert.

Capsule screaming through the sky, more like a whistle really, could be mistaken for an idle person walking past. Lands just outside the tent, so he puts his hand under the flap where he hears the soft thud and soon clasps a metal object.

Smooth, bullet-like and weighing half a pound.

Hands are chained behind his back, staked to the floor, so he unscrews the two sections and empties it onto the sand to take a look in the half-light from the tribe’s night-lamps.

Excellent.

There is a communication device, too small to be detected by the hill-billy’s tech. He doesn’t activate it yet. A tactical pen, probably D’avin’s idea, and he laughs at that, laughs at the thought of shooting one of the bastards with a projectile from an innocuous object. A vicious looking blade, various other survival supplies and a tightly curled band-saw, the purpose of which escapes him in his foggy, beaten brain, but then he realises he’s in a tent. They all live in tents, and a saw could wreak havoc with the wooden supports, even with his hands behind his back.

He turns his back on the items once again, shoving them back into the capsule and hiding it under the hem of his shirt before the approaching footsteps breach his isolation.

“Sure the wife don’t mind you shooting the shit with the merch?” he says to the dark.

“I understand Jaqobis didn’t want you meeting with me.” Jelco stands, arms folded at the entrance of the tent. “I wonder why.”

Turin turns away. “Maybe because you’re a bunch of shit-dipped, inbredneck huckle bucks.”

“But then you decided to sacrifice yourself to cover the simple fact that there’s a child involved. I have to say, this piqued my interest somewhat.”

“I recognise a man after my own interests,” Turin snarls, despite his split lip.

“What’s so special about it, Commander? What’s so special about him?”

Turin chews his own lips for a couple seconds, as much as the pain will allow anyways. “Nothing that concerns you.”

“How about a trade, then? You tell me what I want to know, and I’ll tell you what you came here for in the first place.”

“Forgive me if I don’t rush to drop trou for you, considering how negotiations have broken down so far.”

“Oh, but it’d be in your own, as you say, interest. Tell you what, I’ll throw in treatment for your wounds. How does that sound?”

Turin deliberates a little longer, subtly fingering the capsule behind his back, hoping Jelco doesn’t notice. Should he shiv him now, or save that for later? “Alright,” he finally says. He could come out on top after all. “Major Aldous Ofori. Name ring a bell?”

“You first,” Jelco blinks. “The baby.”

Shit, Turin groans. “Okay, Okay. She’s the child of Jaqobis and Ms Yardeen as you said.”

“Yesss, I knew it,” Jelco says, elated, and when Turin looks at him funny he adds, “I ship those two, always have, and I will go down with it if necessary. Don’t judge me.”

“It’s not that straight forward,” Turin continues, “the enemy stole their DNA and had it implanted in a surrogate. It’s not like they had a choice.”

Jelco hesitates. “Wow,” he says thoughfully, “did not see that coming. But I have to say, it is the logical thing to do. Throughout history, unethical forces have used rape as means to control and disorient their enemies, but this takes the cake. You never think it’ll happen to the strongest person—”

“So, you can appreciate why this is such a sensitive issue,” says Turin, “and I’m counting on your basic human decency to not expose their whereabouts. That is, assuming you have any.”

“Oh, nary a worry,” says Jelco, “I would never do that to them. I feel like we have a… certain something.”

“Now you,” says Turin, “Aldous Ofori.”

Jelco strokes his beard, still leaning on the tent posts. “Latest in a long line of RAC lap-dogs. Good looking guy, as far as I can remember. Rumours of sleeping his way to the top. Obsession with death. Does that help?”

“That’s all you know?”

“We never really crossed paths.”

“I thought it was your job to keep them all in line.”

“He never did anything that would cause the Company concern, so he wasn’t on my list. The only thing I know, is that he’s ruthlessly efficient, so you’d better watch your step.”

“I don’t feel like this was a fair exchange.”

“Nothing I can do about that.”

“Maybe there is.”

“How so?”

“If you really care about Dutch and D’avin, then there’s something else you can give me.”

“And just what is that?”

“You’re Keffree, right?”

“Parents were, left when I was three, just before they closed the borders. But what has that got to do with anything, except my lingering inferiority complex?”

“You’ll soon understand. This was never just about Ofori,” says Turin, and he launches into a protracted tale of kings and courtesans and blood drenched wedding dresses.


 

~Day 10~

The Rack

“Kitaan got to you, didn’t she?” Fancy stalks a path in front of Adia Quintelis’s cell in the brig.

“Who’s Kitaan?” Adia cocks her head, catlike, almost playing with him.

“Don’t play stupid.” He is beginning to grow impatient. “Lucien Kitaan.”

“I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

“Do you know a Level Six called Jenny Avery?”

“I co-operate, and you just interrogate me?” says Adia. “Is that how this works, now? You’re no better than Turin after all, locking up one of your own.”

“This is not an interrogation,” says Fancy, “it’s an invitation to do the right thing.”

“You said you would try to turn me back. You gave me your word.”

“But I didn't tell you how long it would take. You need time to cool off before you make any rash decisions.”

“I know what I want. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. You know what?”

“What?” Fancy gets the feeling he’s not going to enjoy this.

“The other day, I was taking a dump and I thought,” she pauses to let this sink in, “it’s gonna be like this forever, well, at least until I die and lose all my bodily functions, decomposing into a disgusting, gelatinous mass. Don’t you ever get sick of being a dead man walking? Having to deal with all the shit and the tears and the shaving and the eating and the sleeping? Just filling the time with futile pursuits until the inevitable slaughter, instead of the glorious simplicity of pure, emotionless, logical, eternal life? I was strong. Now I’ll snap if you drop me.”

“This desire that you have,” Fancy says, coming closer to her bars, “is just a symptom of the disease.”

“It's not gonna stop, you know,” she says, “you can't cure the desire to stay alive.”

“Fancy,” comes Satinder’s voice from the hallway, “you’re needed.”

“I’ll be right there.” His eyes linger on Adia for a moment longer as he makes his way to the door.

“Must be nice to be wanted,” she says bitterly as he finally leaves.

***

Spider prods the shoulder of one of the corpses in the makeshift Hullen mortuary. There are bodies covered with sheets, row upon row, as far as the eye can see down the length of the hangar. “We were lining up some dolls to test your bullets on,” he says, “and turns out, this one’s still alive.”

She, if one can really call it that, has long blonde hair, is dressed differently to the others in a long flowing dress, and is visibly breathing on the slab. A finger to the carotid yields a slow but steady pulse. Fancy looks at the hastily scribbled toe-tag. Apparently she is one of the bodies Turin had hauled off Aneela’s ship before its homing instinct kicked in. “What do you think?” He turns to the others. “A coma, or a ruse?”

Satinder draws her weapon nervously.

“Maybe she came into contact with toxin somehow,” says Spider, “or you know, the one thing we know can put ‘em in a coma—”

“Don’t say it—” says Fancy.

“D’avin’s dick,” says Spider.

“He said it,” says Satinder, a hand on her brow with dismay.

“That’s enough,” says Fancy.

“I’m just saying,” Spider continues against his better judgement, “that those are some potent cojones, if they can get—”

“If you say one thing about Delle Seyah,” Fancy rises to the bait, “I am going to—”

“Boys, boys,” Satinder lays a hand on both of their arms, “can’t you see what she’s doing?”

“What?” says Fancy.

“She’s making us fight. A nation divided against itself cannot stand. Haven’t you noticed how cranky everyone is since we found out about the Lady? It’s like those experiments they do on reality shows, gradually turning up the heat until people attack each other.”

Fancy shakes his head, looking at the floor. He’s seen it. The sudden lack of cohesion in the Cleansed ranks. The animosity between the Jaqobis brothers. Pree and Gared’s late night spats. Insurrection brewing amongst the Ferran. “You’re right,” he says.

Before Satinder can say ‘I told you so’, the figure on the slab begins to move, and she trains her weapon on it again. She and Spider cover Fancy while he helps it sit up.

“Why is everyone shouting?” it says, head in hands as if recovering from a hangover.

“Don’t make any sudden moves,” says Fancy, “or they will shoot.”

The young woman looks up at Spider and Satinder, and they can see that she is not entirely the same as other Hullen, neither slave nor command material. Sympathetic somehow. “I’m not going to try to hurt you,” she says, “that’s not my purpose.”

“Who are you,” Fancy growls, “and why were you lying dormant like that?”

“I’m Brynn,” she says, slightly unsure, “I am hand-maiden to our lady.”

“The Lady?” scowls Satinder, her weapon still trained on Brynn’s face.

“Commander Aneela.” Brynn swings her legs off the slab and everyone reacts with changes in stance and the cocking of weapons. “I’m not your enemy. I have no interest in political gain. My purpose is to serve libations, and to make the bed, whatever my lady needs—”

“And overhear orders of strategic importance, I’ll wager,” says Fancy.

“If you’re planning on torturing me, it won’t work—”

“Yes, we know,” says Fancy, “we’ve tried. But we have a much better way of questioning you. We have someone who can read plasma, so you have no choice but to give up everything you know.”

“So, it’s true,” says Brynn, her eyes brightening, “your commander.”

“What do you know?” says Fancy.

But Brynn seems bent on her own thought-train. “Aneela and Gander were the only two people who knew how to use the DNA to create life. They are dead now, so your commander’s DNA is safe for the time being. But it means the Lady knows who he is. You must do something, or we’ll all—”

“And that’s where,” says Spider stalking around behind her, “we say goodnight.” He presses his weapon to the back of her neck and stuns her with fifty thousand volts.

Satinder holds out titanium alloy cuffs with a satisfied smile. “Oh,” she says, “Jaqobis is going to love this.”

***

“What exactly did Turin say?” Deen presses buttons on her desktop.

“That we’re to leave him there for the time being,” says Fancy, “assuming he has a plan, he now has the equipment he needs.”

“Shit,” Deen casts her head to the side as if the words are bitter.

“With MacKisack dead,” says Miller, “that leaves Cardiff, you and me qualified to take over.”

Deen looks up. “I’m preoccupied with human resources. In case you hadn’t noticed, we’ve been inundated with refugees. Cardiff is preparing to travel to RAC headquarters, so that leaves you, Lieutenant.” She turns to Miller.

“Well, Miller,” says Fancy, “you’ve always been more kiss-ass than kick-ass.”

Miller swallows. “I’m not ready,” she blurts out, “I’m only two years out of the academy.”

“But that’s why you’re the right person for the job,” says Deen, “you haven’t been ruined yet. You’re moral enough to know you might fail.”

“I thought all officers were trained to take over at the drop of a hat if something happens to their superiors,” says Fancy.

“We are.” Miller stares into the middle distance, weighing what this might mean for her. “Well,” she finally says, less than convinced, “I guess it’s time to bite the bullet.”

“Now that’s agreed,” says Fancy, “can we continue with the brief?”

“Please, Mr Lee,” says Miller, starting to get used to the idea that the buck stops with her.

“So, the Hullen flagship is out of sensor range with its tail between its legs. They are in retreat, but it doesn’t mean we’ve won. It just means they are adjusting their strategy.”

“They lost Aneela after all,” says Miller, “they’re gonna see that as a major coup, react accordingly.”

“We once thought that Aneela was leading the invasion,” Fancy says, “but now we know better, there must be someone leading the Hullen, an admiral maybe, and Jaqobis has assembled a team to find out who it is.”

“Which means baiting the Black Root in other parts of the J?” says Miller.

“We disseminate the information we can afford, not too much, ninety percent truth, and ten percent bull. Enough to bring them to the location we need.”

“And you think this ‘admiral’, whoever they are,” says Deen, “is going to attack the Quad?”

“We have intel that the death of the Arkyn plasma originally rendered the Quad of no strategic importance, but what’s happened has now put us back on their radar. They know about Jaqobis’ immunity. They are coming back, and we’d better be ready.”

“The only thing we don’t know is,” says Miller, “will the Lady send all guns blazing or will she play it smart with stealth?”

“We’ll have to wait and see,” says Fancy, “but plan for every eventuality.”

“We’ve seen what their weapons can do,” says Miller, “but our Rack is not equipped to defend itself against another Hullen assault. It's an office complex in the sky, it's not a military C in C.”

“Well, then,” says Fancy, “you’d better come up with something post-haste.”

***

“There’s a lot of white noise in the solar dynamics,” says the RAC tech at the controls, adjusting his headset, “but we’ve managed to isolate the Hullen frequencies. There’s been nothing for over a week now.”

“Well, Mr Lee,” says Miller, turning to Fancy, “now that Turin is out of the way, let's see how kick-ass your team is.”

“Up until now,” Fancy says, looking at the vista of the sun and the necropolis landing pad on the screen, “the computer models were unfavourable.”

Satinder’s Falcon is latched onto the outside of the landing pad like a lamprey. Since it was knocked out of its orbit, the landing pad has spun on an eccentric wobble around the sun, drifting in and out of flares and making anyone who watches the visuals strangely sea-sick. The seasonal solar storms have now abated enough to allow infiltration. They can finally solve the mystery of what happened to Aneela’s attack squad.

“Sure it’s not ‘cause you’re too kiss-ass?” Miller raises an eyebrow.

“You need to stop doing what AI tells you,” says Spider, “the other day I met this rim-job of a matrix that was just the biggest ass-hole—”

“A computer cannot be an ass-hole,” says Fancy. “Concentrate on the mission.”

“You’ve got no imagination.” Spider shakes his head.

“Guys,” says Satinder through her comms, “enough penis-play. We all know who’s bigger. It’s me. Now be quiet while I un-weld the escape hatch.”

“Sure you wanna do this?” says Fancy, already knowing the answer.

“Bit late to baulk now.”

“You haven’t entered the necropolis yet,” he says, “there’s still time to back out.”

“Fancy, you know me. Would I ever ask someone to do something I’m not willing to do myself?”

“We have engineers with way more exo experience,” offers Miller.

“But they’re not as badass as me, admit it.” Satinder spins her hypersonic welding pen in zero gravity, catches it and places it between her thighs while she cycles open the lock.

“Well, when you get back," says Fancy, taking a chance, "I’ll give you a cookie.”

“Only if they’re gluten free.” She takes the pen out of her crotch and the first hatch opens with a grunt and a clank.

“They’re not,” says Fancy, “but if you manage to recover something from the necropolis, I’ll buy you some.”

“Still got your way with the ladies,” says Satinder, starting on the next level of security, “baked goodies accepted.”

Miller raises both her eyebrows at Fancy this time. “Agent Maze,” she says, “it would be nice if there could be less flirting and more cutting.”

Satinder’s final cut clanks throughout the necropolis landing pad. "Like a virgin on prom-night. You like me, don't you, girl?"  The airlock closes behind her and the pressure equalises with a spurt of frozen air. She daren’t remove her helmet yet.

“Gravity at ninety-six percent,” says the computer, and Spider rolls his eyes when he recognises it as Julian the rim-job, “oxygen at nineteen percent.”

“You seeing this?” Satinder says breathlessly, pushing the cosmetic door to the escape hatch open. They can see everything she sees through her optics. The receiving hall, once a familiar and comforting sight to those who knew it, is littered with wires and debris fallen from the bulkheads. Coolant from one of the stabiliser servos spills into the hall, evaporating into steam as she passes. “Looks like there was an almighty battle in here,” Satinder says, almost to herself, “but between who? There is not a soul to be seen.”

“I don’t like this,” says Miller, looking at Fancy, “get her out of there, now.”

“Told you she should’ve taken back-up,” says Spider.

“Single person arouses less suspicion,” says Fancy, “give her a minute.”

“Reclamation agent,” calls Satinder uncertainly into the quiet, sidearm ready, “show yourselves.”

Nothing.

“Try to sound less threatening,” says Spider unhelpfully, “less like you and more, you know, like an actual human woman.”

“Screw you Drakos. Gods, I sound like total douche, shouting at an empty room,” she says. “Hello? Is anyone there?”

“Try the docked ships,” says Fancy.

Satinder clears every ship in turn. “This is really weird,” she says, “where are they?”

Fancy brings up the Necropolis’s maintenance schematic given to them by the monks. It is shockingly primitive. “Try the hatch in the floor,” he says to Satinder, “to your left. Down. See?”

Satinder raises the hatch and gasps. The whole maintenance level is crawling with massive insects. “What the—”

“Are those—” Spider begins.

“Like the ones that came out of Aneela’s plasma and ate an entire security squad,” says Fancy, “yeah.”

Miller looks at him. “Abort,” she says urgently, “abort now.”

“Calm down, Prepsicle,” says Satinder, “professional at work here. Imma get me one of those first.” Perhaps because of her deep-suit, or perhaps in spite of it, the creatures do not perceive her as a threat and she is able to get quite close. She stabs one that comes too near the hatch with a knife from her belt and immediately lets the trap-door clang shut on the others. Her new pet screeches and windmills its legs like a sick kebab. She holds it up for the others to see.

“What is it?” says Spider, getting closer to the screen. The RAC tech looks up at him, starting to think he’d rather have taken the graveyard shift.

“It looks like some kind of nanite,” says Fancy, “only bigger.”

“Excellent diagnosis, professor,” says Satinder, placing her skewered prey in a plastic evidence bag, “now we can all go home.”

“Nano, only big,” says Spider, “could call it a macro.”

“Do you think they ate the attack squad?” says Satinder.

“Maybe they are the attack squad,” offers Spider.

“You mean they melted?” says Fancy.

Miller is losing patience. “Get her out of there now,” she says.

“You heard the lady,” says Fancy.

As if on cue, the macros begin to bump against the maintenance hatch, the sound eerie and threatening. It’s only a matter of time before they breech it and eat Satinder alive.

“Shit,” says Satinder, finally losing her nerve, “I’m smoke.”

“At least we have one of those things,” Spider says, “now you’ve got another pressie for Dad. Oops, I mean D’av.”

Fancy glares at him with a flavour of the old ass-hole.

Satinder only just manages to drop her docking bridge before the macros get into her Falcon. “For the record,” she says, panting as she rips off her helmet, “I’m not doing that again in a hurry.”

Chapter Text

*

“Heaven knows, we need never be ashamed of our tears.”

—Dickens

*

 

~Day 11~

“Lucy, do you think I'm being unreasonable?”

“Human weirdness is still a mystery to me, John.”

“D’av thinks I’m being unreasonable. Where’s my PDD?”

“I am a tenth generation holonomic AI, I am not your mom.”

“Some help you are.”

After a bit more searching, he finds it and sits on the sofa with another glass of hokk, plays the audio recording he found amongst some random people's medical records in Pawter’s things. He’s not sure if D’avin even knows she recorded their sessions.

“This is a two-way thing, you know,” Pawter says, “it only works if you do some of the talking.”

“I don’t see how talking about it can make it any better,” says D’avin.

“Language transcends pain,” Pawter says, “we were given voices so we don’t have to suffer in silence. A lot of people find that just saying things out loud takes away some of the sting. If you name it, it won’t have so much power over you.”

“And this is coming from what, experience?” D’avin probably shifted uncomfortably in his seat at that point, maybe crossed his legs, John imagines. “You think a single rotation of psych can help you understand someone as complex as me?”

“I didn’t—” Pawter begins.

“Do you even know what it’s like? Living under constant threat for so long? Watching someone get shot in the eye-hole. You don’t get better from something like that. You don’t come back from that. And people don’t forget. But sure, let’s give it a morphological analysis, that’ll help.”

“Sarcasm isn’t helpful, D’av—”

“Seeing someone you were talking to five minutes ago getting blown to pieces by an RPG. That shit affects everyone around you. For years. And you wonder why I’m hyper-vigilant?”

John hears Pawter exhale, attempting patience. “Let’s try something else. Sometimes asking someone to tell me what’s wrong is too abstract, so let’s be specific. Tell me how you felt when you learned that your mother had passed.”

There is a pause as if D’avin doesn’t know how to answer. “How did you know about that?”

“John mentioned it to Pree, who mentioned it to me.”

“So much for confidentiality.”

“You still need to answer the question,” Pawter prompts.

“Honestly? I was relieved.”

“Oh?”

“Means she can no longer hurt herself, or anyone else.”

“Would you say you were close?”

“She wasn’t the kind of person you could have an actual relationship with.”

This is what hurts John more than anything else. That D’avin could be so cruel and dismissive when it was he who had the best of her when they were younger. He was the one who had the good years, before everything turned to shit, and now it’s like he doesn’t even care.

“And what about your father, were you close to him?”

“You know what?” D’avin says suddenly, “I think we’re done here.” John imagines him getting up to leave the room as he often does when the heat is on.

“Don’t,” says Pawter, “I’m sorry if it’s too much. Come back.” There is a long pause, the rustling of paper, and John doesn’t know what they’re doing. “We don’t have to discuss him. Let’s talk about something else instead.” More silence and rustling. “Why don’t you try lying down and closing your eyes?” Pawter finally says. “Sensory deprivation is often the key to accessing our deepest memories.”

“I still don’t see how this is going to help.”

“If you can remember your childhood, that’s a good place to start. We can work forwards from there, fill in the gaps. Take a deep breath. Let your mind go blank. Count backwards from ten to zero.” There is more silence here, until Pawter breaks it. “That’s it. Now, what’s your earliest memory?”

“Of my father?”

“Of anything.”

“What can I say? It was idyllic. You know, the uszhe. Picket fence, rainbows and butterflies.”

“I don’t think you’re taking this seriously.”

“Seriously, let’s just go get a drink.”

“The truth, D’avin,” Pawter says sternly.

“Uhmmm,” D’avin says, “water, I guess. Still water like glass. Collecting driftwood for the fire. Putting John on the carousel in the shopping mall and him not liking it.”

“This is good. Go on.”

“Everything was always such a struggle.” D’avin audibly swallows here.

“It’s Okay to tell me,” Pawter says, “if you do have memories of your parents. Things might come back to you, now you’ve started.”

John can almost see her face, smell her perfume, touch her lips.

“The only time I remember them talking to each other was when they were fighting,” says D’avin, “or when Dad was—”

There is a long silence. John knows what D’avin’s thinking, and he knows that he stopped himself because he realised that what they were doing was too intimate, that Pawter had somehow hypnotised him into telling her things that he would never have admitted in a thousand years.

“It’s alright,” Pawter says, probably handing D’avin a tissue.

“I hated him, you know. I used to think I was a psychopath because I wanted to kill him. But then, when I got older, I realised that it wasn’t just me. Everybody wanted a piece of that bastard.”

“Do you know why we ask these questions?” Pawter says, rather condescendingly, John thinks. “It’s because people with normal brain activity tend to have very positive recollections of childhood. The human default position is to view everything with rosy nostalgia. Everyone thinks things were better in the past, even if they live in the dirt. When they have only bad memories, it’s a pretty good indicator that someone is depressed.”

“Depression is a luxury of the affluent.”

“It’s a real disease. I think you need to start considering that. And I think you need to start going a lot easier on yourself. De-mobbing isn't easy, even without the injury. You marked your re-entry into civilian life by selling yourself into slavery to cross the galaxy, that’s going to have a negative impact whether you ignore it or not. You haven’t had time to slow down or adjust. You need to stop punishing yourself for something that wasn’t your fault.”

“I don’t think there’s a prescription for that, doc.”

“Well,” she says, “for now, I think it would be best to steer clear of medication until we know what’s going on in your frontal lobe, but benign external actions are known to soothe internal strife, so—”

“Benign?” says D’avin. “You mean like this?”

John knows they must be kissing.

“I meant high impact sports, but whatever,” Pawter laughs.

“Is this not a high impact sport?”

John always stops it at this part. He doesn’t want to hear the sex. But if he wants to hear Pawter’s voice, pretend she’s still there for a fleeting moment, he must take the rough with the smooth. This is the eleventh time.

“Every time you do this,” says Lucy, “you are hurting yourself, John.”

“I know, girl,” he squashes the tears back into his eyes, “but if I stop hurting, it won’t be real any more.”


 

Under Old-Town

Drips of contaminated water plink onto the concrete floor as a pair of boots navigate the tunnels full of wastrels and addicts.

An old woman, her headscarf almost shredded to nothing, holds her wizened hand out to John for coin as he passes. She’s probably not that old. The effect of the mines, or jakk. They’re barely distinguishable.

He ignores her.

He comes around a corner and is confronted by the sight he’d feared, but hoped he wouldn’t find. At the intersection of the tunnels under the train terminal, a thoroughfare for all who dwell down here, a corner is lit with a shrine to Pawter. He picks up one of the messages left below her flower-draped portrait. It is a piece of joss paper, folded into a pretty princess’s dress, and on the back is inked;

Blessed sister, healer, protector of the city, rest well in the roots of tall trees and guide us in the trials of our night.

It is not the first time he’s come across such a thing. He has already destroyed three of them, but they keep coming back. They just won’t let her alone. He has no more patience for these wretches.

His anger swells like storm water until it erupts into kicking the shit out of the shrine, bits of paper and candles flying everywhere and landing in the drainage effluent. John stands back, heaving with remorse, face in his hands.

Pawter’s smile drifts down the muddy central channel.

“Hey!” comes a sharp voice. “You there, what do you think you’re doing?”

He looks down the tunnel, hands raised in surrender, as two Company security officers approach, search-lights attached to their weapons and aimed straight at him.

He squints into the glare, hands behind his head, until they reach him. “I’m going for my ID,” he says cautiously, reaching for his back pocket, then showing them.

Immediately the sergeant relaxes. “Sorry, sir, we didn’t know it was you.”

“That’s quite alright,” John says taking back his device, “as you were.”

“I’m Arkady, this is Telmere.” She slings her weapon to her back and John nods his acknowledgement. They’re only being civil because Trus told them to. “What brings you down here? Found some of those alien bitches?”

“I’m on a warrant, actually.”

“A vandalism warrant?” says Telmere, glancing at the debris.

“Looking for the dealer who supplied this.” John dangles a jakk vial. It’s green.

Telmere goes to take it from him, get a better look, but John snatches it back.

“You’re outta touch,” says Arkady.

“Been busy,” says John, “protecting your asses from invasion.”

“Mama Jolene,” says Telmere, “kiss your balls goodbye.”

“Where?” says John.

“Not down here,” says Arkady, “cording to the vine, she's shut up shop and moved back to the east tenements.”

“You?” says John.

“Deserter duty,” says Arkady, “hunting one of our own.”

“If there's one thing killjoys hate,” John says as he begins his retreat, “it's traitors to their own kind. Thanks for the intel and good luck with your deserter.”

“Good luck with the last hour of your life,” calls Telmere at his back. The word ‘life’ echoes off the tunnel walls long after he is gone.


 

“Worst. Petting-zoo. Ever.” John stumbles through the doorway of the den as Jolene's henchmen push him off his centre of gravity.

The apartment is tastefully decorated in leopard-print and gold. Tanks full of mossipedes line the walls and some of them are being milked in amateur scientific apparatus. Jolene reclines in a throne smoking a cherry flavoured vape, filling the room with sickly-sweet scent, and a couple of jakked-up acolytes lounge at her feet, barely conscious and vaguely horny.

Henchman Number One catches John by the hand-cuffs before he plants his face in the sticky carpet.

“Hey, I thought killjoys weren't supposed to jakk up,” Jolene says, “so why'd my boys catch you shakin’ down my mule?”

“Those things'll kill ya,” he says, hitching his head toward the tanks.

“Those things are making me rich,” she says, “and now snooping around is gonna make you dead.”

“You shouldn't mess with things you don't understand. They made a whole team of Killjoys slaughter each other and made my friend hallucinate until she tried to cut herself in half.”

Jolene’s people are delighted by this. Jolene herself laughs like it's stand-up week on channel fifty-nine. He waits for them to stop with a grim expression. “The mossipedes—”

“Mossipedes?” Jolene chuckles. “We’ve been callin’ ‘em Hose-beasts, but I like yours better.”

“Where’d you get ‘em?”

“Abandoned mine about a thousand klicks north of here.”

“Shit,” John looks down.

“You tried it?”

“No,” he says, craning his neck away from the henchman with a full hypo.

“Wanna?” The henchman leers at him.

Jolene laughs. “Shit’s good. Call it jakk-plus. Left a gap in the market when someone blew up R'yo’s outfit. But it was Momsen here who figured out they were hallucinogenic.”

“Yo.” Momsen, a nerdy looking teen of indeterminate gender waves from the corner.

Jolene continues, checking out her nails idly. “Tested it on a bunch of rat-folk ‘til we got the dosage right. Not like anyone’ll miss ‘em. Man, you shoulda seen the way their eyes bulged—”

“You—” John seethes, wrestling his way out of the minion’s grasp. They catch him again just before he reaches Jolene, press their bodies into him, up against the corner.

“Whoo-hoo,” laughs Jolene, “wind ‘em up and watch ‘em go.”

“Can I kill it now?” grunts Henchman Number One.

“Put him in the play-pen,” Jolene says, “I got people comin’. We’ll figure out what to do with him later.”

The ‘play-pen’ turns out to be a rather large dog-cage they keep in a misused bedroom. It’s more than big enough to hold several humans, but there’s not enough headroom to stand up. It’s surprisingly frustrating.

John’s wound has sealed over now, but that doesn’t mean Jolene’s men won’t rip it open if they get the chance. He touches it, high on his chest, near his heart. He was lucky. Luckier than Pawter. He wonders if this brings them closer together.

He remembers Kendry’s calm face as she jabbed the blade in, under-hand, like a coward—but she had some strength too. Then she’d twisted it and rammed it upwards into Pawter’s ribs. An execution move. It severed her hepatic artery and she didn’t stand a chance. Pawter had taught him enough about medicine to know you don’t survive something like that.

One of Jolene’s people, a burly sort of fellow, sits across from him slumped in boredom, folding and unfolding a lock-knife.

“Torture doesn't play well with family audiences,” John says, “so Imma pass on that one. But good luck with the whole screenplay thing, maybe try a coffee shop next time.” The guy doesn’t respond, so he passes the time trying out different ways of flipping him the bird like he and D’avin used to practice when they were young.

Winding it up. A false start that comes through properly in the end. Finding unexpected lip-balm in his pocket. Starting the lawn-mower. Fixing the button and pressing it. Elaborate explosive detonator. And his absolute favourite; reeling in a really big fish that flops around like a sentient dick.

The henchman is not as amused as he is.

His ears prick at the sound of a vaguely familiar voice in the other room. “Reclamation agents,” the voice says, “I have a warrant for the apprehension of John Andras Jaqobis. If you stand in my way, you will be in contravention of article seven, subsection twelve and I’ll have no choice but to stun you. This is your warning to comply.”

“What in the shit stains is goin’ on now?” The guard peels himself off his chair to go take a look. Someone bursts in the door just as he reaches it and it bounces off his face with a kinetic jounce. He hunkers on the floor clutching his nose as the ‘someone’ comes in.

“You!” says John, clinging to the bars. It’s Flik, the killjoy who arrested him for Kendry’s ‘murder’.

“Quick question,” says Flik, grabbing the keys off the bleeding henchman’s belt and frisking him for weapons, “which would you say is more important when completing a task, accuracy or convenience?”

“Um,” says John as Flik unlocks the dog-cage, “both would generally be necessary to complete a task to requirements.”

“Okay, thanks. That answers my next question too. Come on then, don’t just sit there.”

“Wait. What task?” John says as Flik grabs him and steers him out of the room. The strength of his arm catches him off guard. That and the strength in his eyes.

But there's no time to think.

Cardiff is there too, his weapon trained on Jolene's gang, more security than an intent to kill.

“Oh, hi,” says John.

“Hi,” says Cardiff, not taking his eyes off the gangsters.

“You did what?” Jolene roars, flouncing back into her throne-room and the scene of three men just about to escape. She is followed by two buyers whose faces change when they realise what they’ve just walked into.

“They had a warrant,” stammers one of her henchmen.

“Did you ask to see it?” Jolene’s words are like knives, but she turns her venom on the RAC agents instead. “Well looky what we have here, the Enemy of the People, at the Company’s beck and call.”

“We work for the highest bidder,” says Cardiff, checking for exits, “sure you’d know a thing or two about that.”

Flik speaks to Cardiff behind his hand. “She means anti-capitalism.”

“I mean free enterprise,” she says, “Guns-for-Hire. I’m prepared to die for what I believe, what about you? Think the RAC’ll care if you fall in the line of duty? Aw, what a shame, three brave agents, just another statistic in the war against drugs and crime.” She turns to her men. “They’re gonna blow this thing wide open. Stop them, you idiots.”

At these words, several of her men pull their weapons and Jolene retreats behind the table to let them do the dirty.

Buck-shot hits the wall close to John’s head, spraying brick-dust onto his shoulder. Suddenly he’s pulled down by the sleeve of his jacket. “Did they—” he says, looking at Flik with eyes like ice, “did they just fire on us with lethal weaponry?”

“I believe they did. Care to join me?” Flik gives John back his pistol from the sideboard.

“Non-lethal,” yells Cardiff, “I have enough paperwork to do already!”

They go to work, picking Jolene's people off one by one.

Momsen is one of the first to fall, followed by most of the young women who worship at the throne. One of the henchmen climbs out of the kitchen window onto the balcony and Jolene curses, hiding behind her overturned table.

John realises that he and Flik are fighting back-to-back now and he shoots another one of Jolene’s customers.

“You killed Emil!” yells Jolene.

“He’s not dead, darling,” calls Flik from behind their sideboard protection, “he’s asleep.”

“See how I bravely keep out of the way and let you two deal with this?” Cardiff has his weapon high-and-ready in the corner.

“News-cast,” says Flik, popping off another one, “you're not brave, Kevin.”

“You let Dutch and D'avin kidnap you for cry-sakes,” John adds. He narrowly misses one of the addict’s shots.

“I had my trousers round my ankles! And you promised you wouldn’t bring it up again!”

Just then, Jolene tries to make a break for it.

Flik yells, “grab her!”

Cardiff lunges for her and catches her in a stranglehold around the neck.

“Uh,” says John as the last of her henchmen fall, “that’s not exactly a regulation restraining method.”

They can all breathe again.

Cardiff presses his sidearm to Jolene’s face in response to her spitting on his arm. “Don’t move.”

“What do you expect?” says Flik. “He’s just a glorified civil servant.”

“Is that any way to speak of your Captain?” says Cardiff.

Jolene rolls her eyes at the bickering.

“Is that any way to speak to a freelance agent?” says Flik, “you know I’m not one of your lackeys.”

“Can we just get on with this?” says Jolene.

“Why’d you tell me everything earlier?” John holsters his weapon. “What kind of monologuing villain shit is this anyway?”

Jolene sneers. “Sometimes people need to know the consequences of their actions before they die.”

“You baited me?” he says, but Jolene doesn’t answer. “You knew R’yo’s death was my team?”

“Been tracking you for years. Pretty boat like that turns up on Westie, gotta mean good joy.”

“You leave her out of this.”

“Her?” says Flik, looking at him sideways.

“No-one even touches Lucy—”

Jolene whips a stiletto out of her boot and jabs it savagely into Cardiff’s thigh, who doubles in pain and loses his grip.

John grabs her around the waist as she makes a run for it and slams the blade out of her hand. He slings her onto the ground where she sprawls inelegantly in litter and filth. Flik tags in and restrains her, pushing her face into her own shitty carpet. Cardiff slides down the wall, clutching his thigh.

“Tell me why I shouldn’t shoot you in the head, right now?” John’s weapon is in his hand again.

“You wouldn’t,” she chokes.

“Catcher’s privilege,” says Cardiff, panting in pain and resentment. “There’s fifty-odd outstanding warrants on your head, including a level four. Know what that means?”

“Dead or alive.” She’s sweating now, and they can see the whites of her eyes. “But didn’t you ever wonder why none of your jakk-asses will take it?”

“See,” says Flik, looking at John, “she’s just a coward, like everyone else.”

John presses his pistol closer to her head.

“Borna’s my sister,” Jolene blurts out.

John’s eyes go wide. “Let her go,” he says.

“What? No,” says Cardiff, still wincing in pain, “this is a major coup for the RAC.”

“You can be the Company’s golden boy some other time,” says John, “let her go, I said.”

“Who’s Borna?” says Flik.

“She’s the one holding Turin captive,” says John, “we need her on our side.”

“I’m sure that, to you, those statements follow one another naturally,” says Flik, still holding Jolene around the neck, “but I’m not from around here. I’m gonna need a little more explanation than that.”

“Davin’s counting on Borna’s loyalty,” says John, “he won’t have it if you imprison her sister, or worse, she shows up dead. How long d’you think Turin will survive after that happens? You really want that on your head?”

“He’s right,” groans Cardiff.

“Damn,” Flik loosens his grip.

Jolene wriggles out from under him and snaps to her feet, straightening her jacket smugly. “S’not what you know, it’s who you know,” she says. “I’ll, uh, be bidding you boys farewell now, gotta be selling more jakk.”

“Can’t believe we’re just letting her go,” says Flik as she retrieves her blade and goes through the back door.

“Let’s get out of here.” Cardiff’s stamina is running out.

John slips on a safety glove and dips his hand into one of the mossipede tanks. “Just a second,” he says, and his chain-mailed fingers tickle its back, “nearly got it.”

Flik watches him, helping Cardiff limp to the door. “Do we have to bring that disgusting critter?”

“It’ll come in useful.”

***

“Stop being such a sitzpinkler,” says Flik as Cardiff fidgets under Shamir’s touch. He tips his head at John. “He got stabbed almost to death a week ago and he didn’t squeal as much as you’ve been.”

“Do you even need to be here?" says Cardiff, his naked thighs quivering, "I’m the one who’s injured.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t miss this for the world.” Flik folds his arms across his chest. “Everyone else has seen you pants-down. Apparently.”

John revels in the schadenfreude, waiting in the corner. It's weird being in Pawter's old practice, only with different stuff in it. There is random medical shit on every surface. Who knew Shamir was so untidy?

“Star shaped dagger,” says the doctor, almost to himself, as he finishes up, “difficult to stitch. She knew what she was doing. Okay, you’re done. Try not to get attacked by any more drug dealers.”

The other two leave in search of trousers, but Shamir stops John. “Mr Jaqobis.” He uses the kind of voice familiar to all naughty school-boys. John turns on his heel. “I need to give you a check-up. Your brother’s orders.”

“I’d love to tango, doc, sincerely, but some other time. I could use my dreadnought back, though.”

“Yeah, no,” says Shamir, “I couldn’t get it.”

“Who’s got it then?”

“I don’t know.”

“Seriously?” He doesn’t get an answer, so he just says, “shit.”

“But there’s something I think you should know,” Shamir continues, “the one we tested was not the same as the one you were stabbed with. I have the spectral analysis here—” He searches among the disarray.

“Just give it to Zeph,” John says.

“No, I don’t think you understand,” says Shamir, giving up the search, “it was different for a reason.”

“Of course Dutch’s dreadnought was different. It was made to kill Aneela. Khlyen gave it to her—”

“I, uh,” Shamir shakes his head, “don’t know who that is.”

“Khlyen’s her—Oh, never mind.”

“I’m worried about its effect on you. We literally have no research on what those things can do.”

“I’m fine, honestly,” says John, “but if anything happens, you’ll be the first to know.”

***

“Why would my brother send you, of all people?” John says later, when they are having a de-brief in the bar. Flik is sitting across from him, nursing a hokk at the table and Cardiff is outside making calls. John can see him, kicking the dust out in the street and pressing a finger to his ear to cut out the din.

“I tracked you twice before," says Flik, "he knew I’d be able to find you again.”

“More to the point, why would he send Cardiff, a captain, when killjoys would do in his stead?”

“We came to get you because you're coming with us. You’re the emissary.”

John’s not sure—hells, he’s not sure about anything at the moment—but maybe it’s his arrogant tone, or just the assumption that news of a mission is an inherently good thing, that makes him want to punch Flik in the face. “Why didn’t D’avin just ask me himself?”

“Would you have listened?”

“Probably not.”

“Besides, if we hadn’t come after you, you’d be dead right now, and this conversation would be a bit one-sided.”

“Okay,” he holds up empty hands, “I messed up. I didn't plan properly.”

“You forgot you weren't indestructible, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, you know, that one keeps cropping up.”

“What was your plan, anyway?” Flik swirls the last of his drink around, almost spilling it.

Gods, he’s annoying. “Beyond not getting caught?” says John. “Improvisation.”

Flik shakes his head and laughs internally. “You’re not how I imagined.”

“What?”

“That’s why I took the princess's warrant. I was curious. I knew we'd cross swords eventually, but I needed to see for myself if you really were ‘The’ Johnny Jaqobis people were talking about.”

“People talk about me?” One eyebrow shoots up.

“Your exploits are famous throughout the sector, you must know that.”

“What do they say?”

“Oh, you know, this and that. That you finally brought Qomar Ashkhan to heel. That you can take a beating like nobody else in the Quad. That you cut your own ear off.”

“Yeah, I did do that.”

Flik’s face cracks into a big smile. “I knew it,” he says, craning his neck, “but there’s hardly any scar.”

“There’s a tiny scar,” John touches his ear without thinking, “but you can't really see it. Pawter—” He catches himself. Flik doesn’t seem to notice. “Why are you doing this?”

“Revenge.” Flik’s smile turns to pathos. He looks down and his fondling of the hokk glass takes on a different quality. “The one thing they say should never motivate us.”

“You’re from the Zar Quadrant,” John nods, connecting the dots. He belongs to Cardiff’s Rack.

“Born and bred. Never even made planet-fall ‘til I turned twenty-one.”

“So, you’re one of those,” John struggles for the right term, “gypsies?”

Flik smiles with the tolerance of a lifetime of explaining. “We prefer nomadic.”

“Wow,” says John, “I can’t imagine what that’s like.”

“What it’s ‘like’?”

“You know,” he’s digging a hole now, “not belonging to any particular nation. No birthright—”

“As killjoys we have no nation,” Flik says matter-of-factly.

“But that’s a choice. I mean, being born on—”

“A busted-ass freighter?”

“Yeah.”

They look at each other awkwardly across the table and the silence seems to stretch into infinity. Finally, Flik gives him a tiny, confused, pitying smile and says, “want another drink?”

“Oh god, yes.”


 

Black-site - Leith

“I went to see Aneela.” D’avin sits at the workbench prepping for trouble. "Don't freak out, but she might not be such a heinous bitch after all."

“You did what?” Zeph predictably flies off the handle.

“I have a sample of her plasma.” He places Kendry’s box on the counter.

“What did we agree about going into the GreenSpace without supervision, hmmm?”

“I know and I—”

“This is unacceptable, D’avin.” Her mouth is a tight line and she has her hands on her hips.

“Why is everyone on my back all of a sudden?”

“Because you’re being reckless. What if you’d gotten hurt? What if the Lady detected you? What if, trees forbid, you got stuck in there?”

“I didn’t think of that.” He looks down, scalded.

“No, of course you didn’t,” she says, folding her arms, “because you’re a stubborn boy.”

He’s sensing subtext here. “Everything alright with Pip?”

She paces around the bench before answering. “We had our first proper argument last night.”

“Hey, that’s just par for the course—”

“I don’t understand sports metaphor—”

“It’s a relationship milestone,” he says.

“Like when you feel comfortable enough to ask to do butt stuff?”

D’avin screws up his face. “TMI, Zee, TMI.”

“Sorry.”

“Remember when we talked about what was work-appropriate?” he blinks. “Anyway, I need your help to do it again, I’ve run out of juice.”

Zeph goes over to her safe and opens it. “I don’t have anything strong enough at the moment,” she bites a nail, perusing the contents, “maybe we should go to Utopia and stock up on sweeties.”

“Put this in there while you’re at it,” he gets up from his stool and joins her at the safe, offering her the box of green, “it’s all I’ve got of Anee—” Then he stops and looks at her, taking out a small cryo-canister. “What is this?”

“Dutch said it was nanites,” she looks at him innocently.

“IMUR nanites?”

“She said they were worth a fortune.”

“Tens of millions, in fact, maybe more.”

“Whoa.”

“I never questioned what she’d done with them.” Cogs start turning. If Dutch kept this from him, then what else had she hidden? “Zeph?”

“Yes.”

“How did you manage to fit a whole person’s memory in one tiny device like the nebulizer?”

“Um—”

“Don’t make me take your microscope slides out of alphabetical order.”

Zeph clenches her eyes shut like it hurts. “She made me promise not to tell you.”

“But she’s not here now. You work for me.”

“Alright, alright,” she releases her held breath, “I modified it from Doctor Jaeger’s tech.”

“Dutch destroyed all of Jaeger's research.”

“No, she didn't.”

“Yes, she did.”

“She said she did. She told you she did.”

“Why would she lie about something that could put everyone in danger?” D’avin examines the floor-tiles intensely, a thousand questions swirling in his head. This could explain why Khlyen was able to send him to Quin’s moon, and she never said anything. He’s not a grudge-holdy kind of person, but he's hurt, actually hurt that she would do something like this.

“Don’t worry,” says Zeph, “the equipment is secure, I doubt the enemy—are you alright?”

“No,” he says, bordering on extremely annoyed, “no, I’m not.”

“Maybe she thought it could help you, you know,” Zeph’s anxiety begins to subside, and she comes along side him, “with your memory and stuff.”

“I told her I didn’t want to remember all that.”

“Okay, but bear with me here,” she says compassionately, “it might be of strategic importance. She has her reasons for everything.”

“Yeah, and I’m beginning to think her reasons may not be the same as my reasons.” He looks up at her with glassy eyes.

“It sucks that she’s not here.”

D’avin sighs. Before he can say anything else, someone punches in the security code and the door opens.

“So, I’ve had an interesting forty-eight hours.” Fancy puts two carry-cages on the work-bench. He looks at them in turn. “Am I interrupting something?”

Zeph turns away sensitively.

“Mossy Junior,” says D’avin, putting a lot of effort into seeming pleased. “We’ve been trying to get hold of another one of these for yonks.” The creature writhes and tries to get away from him. “Hey, little fella, I’m not gonna hurt ya,” he says, “well, maybe a bit. Where'd you get it?”

“Your brother stumbled upon a jakk lab while chasing green around Old-Town,” says Fancy, “they were mixing it with mossipede venom to give it an hallucinogenic edge.”

“Shit. Did you speak to him? Is he alright?”

“A little rocked by his experiences with Mama Jolene, otherwise fine.” Fancy looks around the lab. “Where’s—”

“In the cube with the nanny,” says D’avin, “don’t worry, I took out all the knives. Not that it would make any difference.”

“Have any of the addicts been infected with green?” says Zeph. “If they have, you’ll have to deal with the aftermath.”

“For that reason, I think we need to put the Ferran onto policing the city,” says Fancy.

“Company security don’t like people stepping on their toes,” says D’avin, “it could lead to clashes.”

“It’s already a tinder-box over there. You need to do something before the tension becomes untenable.”

“I’ll get on to it.”

“Have you seen the other one?” says Fancy.

D’avin picks up the other cage and peers inside. “What the shit—”

“Yeah,” says Fancy.

“You got one?”

Zeph comes over and jostles D’avin for a look. “What the—”

“What do you think?” Fancy looks at her.

“It came out of the plasma?” she says, reaching for a spectrometer.

"Docking pad's infested with them. We're not sure how they got there, but they're identical to the ones in the necropolis."

“Whatever they are,” says D’avin as the macro screeches and scrambles its legs away from him, “they hate my guts. And the feeling is mutual.”

“Don’t, whatever you do, open it,” says Fancy, “took us hours to get it in there once it had recovered. Had the Rack on lock-down.”

“Well, how’m I supposed to test it, then?” Zeph glares at him.

“Not my problem,” says Fancy, “just make sure you keep it secure. If it came out of plasma, it can probably turn back into plasma.”

“You always bring us the best toys,” says D’avin, putting the cage down.

“And that’s not all.” Fancy hands him a clip of the new ammunition.

“What’s this?” D’avin weighs it in his hand.

“A variation on my directional darts. For Hullen only. You can shoot them anywhere and the bullet will travel to the brain-stem and explode.”

D’avin pops one of them out of the clip and turns it in his fingers, examining it under Zeph’s lamp. It looks like a regular dum-dum, but must be hiding something under those fracture lines. “You’ve tested them?”

“This is all we have left, so use them wisely,” says Fancy, “but I’ll be setting up a manufactory soon, roll them out to the Ferran.”

“We could’ve done with someone like you in the army.”

“Trust me,” says Fancy, “they tried to recruit me several times. But we need to talk security. It’s been nearly two weeks and nothing’s happened. Makes me nervous, like they’re planning something big.”

D’avin shakes his head slowly. “They won’t use long-range fire-power and risk destroying the very thing they’re after.”

“You, in other words,” says Fancy.

“They’ll send a small unit to infiltrate, more like a scalpel than a sledgehammer. It’s what I’d do.”

“And you’ll be ready for them.” Fancy nods at the ammo. “We also captured the thirteen FTL ships docked at the necropolis pad. They're newer models than the Falcons but not as advanced as Khlyen's. I'm sure we can adapt.”

“Nice work. Anything from Turin?”

“Not yet.”

“Damn. Shoulda kept tighter reins on him.”

“It’s not your fault. He’s always been like that. Can I,” Fancy taps the bench nervously, “talk to you off the record?”

“About drunk texting?” D’avin smirks.

“Heh,” Fancy smiles without smiling. He lowers his voice. “Why did you tell me what you told me?”

“I don’t work well with cryptic Fancy, you’re gonna have to—”

“That you killed your own men.” Fancy glances at Zeph working on the other side of the lab.

“It’s alright,” says D’avin, “she knows.” Fancy relaxes a little, so he says, “because it’s true.”

“I mean, why did you tell me that?”

“I suppose,” D’avin frowns, “it was time. None of us can carry this stuff alone.”

“There are a hundred other people you could’ve turned to.”

“But you needed to know you’re not the only one who’s been made to do stuff you didn’t choose.”

Fancy gives him a wry smile and prepares to leave, but then remembers something. “I always save the best for last.” He gives D’avin a test-tube of plasma.

“What’s this?”

“All your birthdays at once.” Fancy swings his jacket onto his shoulder on the way out.

Zeph is at D’avin's side again. “Try it.”

He pops off the stopper.


 

The Rack Brig

Sitting patiently with her hands folded in her lap, Brynn feels the connection instantaneously and it makes her lurch gently in her seat, like a willow tree swaying in the breeze. She can feel him searching the green. But he will never take from her what he truly seeks. He doesn’t know that she has special qualities that few other Hullen possess. There is a reason why her kind are used as hand-servants; they have no choice but to keep a secret.

She is a living vault.

She smiles softly to herself, oblivious to the hostile figure of Adia Quintelis in the opposite cell.

“What are you looking at?” Adia sneers.

“Nothing,” smiles Brynn, “nothing at all.”

Chapter Text

~Yesterday~

Somewhere on Westerley

“Racist prick,” Flik kicks a crate out of the way as he boards the Barge, rashly slinging his pack into one of the empty drop-pods. “What did I do to deserve this punishment, Toko?”

“I do not have enough empirical data to make an accurate assessment, Kalif,” Toko replies, “would you please re-define the parameters of your query?”

“Don't know why I bother,” sighs Flik, entering the galley and pouring a shot. He still expects to see the others kicking back playing cards, but then he remembers, glass pressed to his lips as the wave hits. A cruel streak overtakes him, half from grief, half from long-suffering at Toko’s stupidity. “Think I’ll gut your matrix, replace you with one of those highfalutin upgrades. What do you think of that?”

“User modifications are not recommended by the manufacturer. Please refer to the manual for the correct update procedures.”

“I know, I know.” He has just put his crossed feet up on the dining table when Toko beeps at him again. “What is it now?”

“Encrypted message received, user verification required.”

“Keep your hair on, I’ll take it at the navi-com.”

“I do not have hair, Kalif, I am a computer.”

“Just,” Flik sends his glass skidding along the table with frustration, “shut up for a while, would you?”

“Shutting up, now.”

“Give me a moment’s peace.” He rubs fatigue from his eyes and scrapes his chair back to go take the message.


 

~Day 12~

Leith

He’s never felt like this before, never allowed himself to get this close to anybody. This is what he’s always been afraid of; needing someone so much that you can’t breathe, can’t think.

Sometimes she would come and rest her chin on his shoulder while he was just sitting there doing something, and he would tolerate it, even encourage it, until his task became too difficult with her jawbone pressing on his nerves. Kinda weird thing to do, but then they were weird. He was never sure if she just wanted to be annoying, but it didn't take long for the racing of his heart to still in her presence, and it became part of their normal routine.

He would give anything to be annoyed by her right now.

She was right. He also misses the time when it was just them, kicking ‘arse’. They needed that. Without John there, they’d had to learn to take care of each other, get to know each other as people. Grieve. More than anything else, it had made him.

It’s been almost two weeks now. They’ve spent no more than a day apart in over a year, and when you’re that close to someone, you can’t just let them go. It physically hurts, needing her, like his insides are being ripped out and burnt on the funeral pyre, and all he wants is to kiss her, hold her—come inside her. He wants to hurt when she hurts—

Bleed when she bleeds.

He wants to take care of this army, but it is crushing him. So, he's afraid. He admitted as much. But that's because he has something to lose now, something to protect. He can't let fear overtake him. Use it, that's what he always says, use your fear, use your pain, take that bitch by the balls and make it your slave.

***

“Hope you’re not thinking of jumping.” D’avin’s voice echoes down the ravine separating the two halves of the monastery, so he’s not sure if Olan, approaching from the other end of the bridge, can hear him properly. Hundreds of meters below, the River Ohx cuts through sandstone, flanked on either side by deciduous trees already turning in preparation for the fall.

Followers of the old ways believe that each valley or fissure on Leith happened from a broken heart, and as time goes on, the more he thinks they might be right.

Olan finally reaches him. The shadows under his eyes are more pronounced than ever and he’s clearly not getting his vitamins or sunlight. “No, I, uh, this new medication they have me on is pretty good.” He puts his hands on the rope railing, pulls slightly and rocks on his heels as if testing it. “Actually, I asked you here so that no-one would hear us.”

“Sounds pretty serious.”

“What I’m gonna say might seem pretty weird, but I want you to hear me out.”

“Okay,” says D’avin, trying to sound patient, but really just wanting to get back to Constance and Ylessa, “go ahead.”

“I want you to Hullenize me.”

“What? No. I’m not gonna do that.”

“I’ve thought it through and I think it’s your only real course of action. You’ll be able to extract the Arkyn-burst from my head, get Dutch back and win this war for good.”

“We’re in the business of stopping Hullen, not making more.”

“It’s what she’d do.”

“No, she wouldn’t, and don’t presume to know what she’d do.”

“You can cure me afterward.”

“Tempting as it is,” D’avin pushes himself away from the railing, beginning to walk away, “the price is just too high.”

“Knew you were too much of a coward,” Olan says bitterly at his back.

He counts to ten before turning, but what he really wants to do is put his hands around the boy’s neck and squeeze. “You don’t know what you’re getting into. You don’t understand the cost.”

“I’ve calculated every possible scenario. I know the risks.”

“No, you don’t.” D’avin comes back towards him, hands on hips. “You haven’t seen it up close. You haven’t looked into the dark of their eyes and seen your own death. Hullen strips away your humanity, breaks all your connections until there’s nothing left. You think you’ll still love Jake afterward? You will forget him and everything he means to you. You think you’ll still want to help our cause? We’ll just have another psychopath on our hands, on top of everything else. And that’s provided you even survive the process. At your age, you won’t. The answer is no, abso-freaking-lutely no, and I will never be persuaded otherwise. Have you got that?”

Olan breathes hard, unused to bearing the brunt of D’avin’s vehemence. “I’ll find some myself, then,” he says, quietly crestfallen.

D’avin pinches the bridge of his nose and takes a deep breath. “You’re not well. You know that. I’ve been there, and I know how desperately you want the pain to stop, but this is not the answer, it won’t fix anything.”

“It’s the only way to stop the voices in my head.”

“It won’t stop them. It’ll just make them worse. Trust me.”

“What would you know?” Olan sneers. “You don’t know me. You don’t know what I’ve been through. You’re just a shitty cop.”

“I’m going to ignore that and assume I’m talking to an adult for a moment.”

Olan immediately looks contrite. “Sorry, I—”

“It’s alright,” D’avin softens a little and leans back on the railing, arms folded. “What would I know? I’ve never been a teenager, right? So I don’t know what it’s like to stand on the cusp of manhood, having to choose between life and death.”

“Alright,” the beginning of a sheepish smile curls Olan’s mouth and he mirrors D'avin's pose at the railing, “I see your point.”

“Look, I know it’s not what you want to hear, but we’re not so different, you and I. That’s why I need to give you a chance.”

“How could we possibly be the same?”

“Growing up, John and I weren’t exactly the most law-abiding citizens on the planet.”

“Get outta town. You guys?”

He looks at Olan sideways, unimpressed. “Our dad was the sheriff of our town, corrupt as they come, and with zero patience for a pair of miscreants. When I was about your age, he gave me a choice, join the military, or he’d lock me up. Those were his exact words,” he switches to an impersonation of Marris, squinting and pointing at his imaginary younger self, “‘you little shit, you join the military, or I’ll lock you up’.”

“Doesn’t sound like much of a choice.”

“And I can’t tell you how many times in the last two decades I’ve turned that moment over in my mind. Just played it again and again. I thought four years in the army would be better than four years behind bars and a record, and you know, it wasn’t so bad, I was good at it. Until they decided to use my brain as their own personal playground and have a nice dig around in my frontal lobe. Do you know what that does to a person?”

“I’m sorry,” says Olan, looking down, “I didn’t know.”

“No-one does. Well, only a few, and it needs to stay that way, Okay.”

“Then why are you telling me this?”

“Because I need you to know there’s a way back. So, one day they went a little too far. I woke up in hospital and they told me that I had a percussive brain injury, and that I’d never work again. I knew something bad had happened, only I couldn’t remember what.”

“Shit,” Olan breathes, staring at the wooden boards under their feet.

“Turns out they’d wiped six years of my memory, everything I’d done under mind control, and I still have no idea what happened during that time. They might've been doing it repeatedly, for all we know. I forgot all my friends. I forgot all the good things that made me, me. And worst of all, I forgot that I was supposed to try to get home to my brother. Can you see where I’m going with this?”

“Yeah, kinda. You can’t remember, and I can’t forget.”

“Sometimes I thought the worst thing that could possibly happen would be to remember, and at the beginning it was. I let good people down. Hurt people. I was a mess, but it wasn’t completely hopeless. It takes hard work and concentration and sometimes there are bad days, terrible, terrible days, lapses, but you must persevere. You must claw back some semblance of a normal life. You can’t give in to chaos. Not yet. Because they'll win. Just keep taking the medication and let the monks take care of you and it will come.”

Olan finally finds the courage to look him in the eye. “They say that Jake’s not safe with me, that I might never win custody. They might even send him back.”

“I won't let that happen—”

“You’re completely focused on your own problems, your own kid—”

“I mean it, Olan, I swear—”

“Do you even know what my father did to him?” Olan sniffs, wiping his eyes with the back of a hand, more hiding than wiping.

“He won’t tell me, and I won’t push either.”

“He left him trapped with my mother’s body for three days. Three days. Until she stank. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know where Dad was. Turns out he was too afraid to go home, too afraid of the carnage. But apparently, apparently, it's Okay to let a nine-year-old live through that.”

D’avin rubs his mouth thoughtfully. “Jake told you this?”

“And that’s not all, oh, no. That’s on top of force-feeding him, constantly criticising, kicking him for the slightest little thing, and this one time, before I left—” Olan chokes on his own words.

“It’s alright,” D’avin says gently.

“He tried to drown him in the bathtub. He thinks I don’t know, but I was watching through the crack of the door.”

D’avin closes his eyes, controlling his breathing for Olan’s sake. “Did he hurt you?”

Olan nods silently, his eyes red. “Now Jake’s afraid of me too, and you say there's a way back, but I can't see it.”

“He might be angry with you for a long time. You have to be prepared for that.”

“Why should I even try, then?” he sniffs.

“Because he needs you. Even if you’re not whole yet, even if you don’t feel like you’re enough. Don’t make the same mistake I did.”

“Make me one of your soldiers, then. Give me a job, something—”

“It’s not that simple. Look, I know you think you’re being—”

“I have to do something. I have to make sure there’s a world left for him to live in—”

“Dammit, Olan, why can’t you see?” D’avin pleads. “You’re a liability.”

This is clearly the wrong thing to say because the boy glares at him, his nostrils flare, and his muscles tense under his shit. All the progress they’ve made has unravelled, and D'avin doesn't know how to fix it.

“From what I hear,” Olan begins to walk away without looking back, “so are you.”

D’avin throws his hands up. “Thanks for wasting my morning,” he calls after him.

He waits until Olan is out of sight before he sends a message to Pip. Put round-the-clock surveillance on Olan Karumi.


 

“Sisters of the Divine Sorrow, you say?” rambles Firekeeper-Cantor Semyon Keogh, Doctor of Divinity and Deacon of Relics, may-he-live-forever.

“Yes,” says Quin steadfastly, fearing his deafness and her own proclivity toward sounding impatient. She has already quizzed a sector full of archimandrites, diakonesses, heiro-monks and wayside preachers, and has found that the older clerics are not only more knowledgeable and more forthcoming, but also less arrogant in their righteousness.

“You might find that difficult, considering they went underground a decade ago.”

“Oh,” she says, “but where did they go underground?”

“Capital mainly. You’ve heard of the Mother Tree?”

“Yes,” she says, “but I never knew which specific tree they were talking about. Everyone’s so evasive here.”

“The oldest tree in the J,” says the Cantor, “they were once burdened with its protection, but no-one’s entirely sure where it is now. Passed into myth, like the lands we forgot. Where did you say you were again?”

Quin swallows, trying to remember where the call is routed from. The last people she questioned, the last people she conned. “Rhia,” she says, “in the Zen Quadrant. Under Marina Andrande in the Columbarium.” At the back of her mind plays one of Alvis’s lectures on the consequences of lying. Getting caught in a fib never bothered her before she came to Leith. Now she fears she will burn to ash, grey as her heart is stone. She had such good intentions, but now they are dying under the weight of her devotion to D’avin. He will never know that the cost of this information is the erosion of her very soul.

“Can’t say I know it.”

“May we speak again?” she says, playing the part of the innocent. “I enjoy our chats and I do so very much want to learn.”

“Whatever you little heart desires, sister,” says the Cantor, and it strikes her as odd, creepy even. Perhaps she’ll keep their interactions short from now on.

They both sign off and Quin rests her head back on the cool wall, under the dappled light of the ivy overhead, sighs at the despondency of it all. She’s not naive, she knows there are people who manipulate, people who make you feel indispensable so that you’ll do anything they ask. People who make you feel special, like you’re the only one. And though his actions sometimes prove it, she can’t bring herself to believe that D’avin is one of them.

She loves him. That’s all she knows.

It's not that she wants him to lie with her. Not that she wants him to be her father. She’s not sure what it is. She's never told him, but she loves the way he smells. It's important when you meet somebody and that's all you have to go on. The warmth of their body when they are close.

What kills her is waiting eagerly for him to visit. What kills her more is when he is there. Hearing tales of their adventures on other planets, catching the bad guys. The funny things his brother said and did. All shared so easily, like their breaking of bread, all without a thought to what it was doing to her heart.

He was the first person she ever met who wasn’t part of the conspiracy to subjugate her. The first thing she ever saw. She almost wishes he wasn’t, but it’s too late now; her eyes are open.

He must never find out. Life has become about hiding this obsession from him. They had a near miss when she said he was ignoring her and he said he doesn't belong to her. She deflected it of course, said she wanted Alvis, but the truth is, she never felt about Alvis the way she feels for D'avin.

She knew that Alvis would lie with the Lady Dutch from time to time, so he was off limits emotionally, and she was fine with that, content to just absorb his spirituality. Besides, he was best friends with D’avin. It would have been weird to hold them in the same place in her heart. Then it became apparent that D’avin would also lie with the Lady Dutch.

She may have been blind, but some things are easy to see.

Things got really weird for her then. Least of all because she felt a strange kind of wrath rising up. A feeling she didn’t understand. She doesn’t want him for herself, but she doesn’t want Dutch to have him either. And the child, the child, she closes her eyes against the anger and confusion, anchored by the dependable stone wall. Why did there have to be a child? She knows it’s not his fault, something about DNA and surrogates and whatnot, but did it have to be them? She can never compete with that. She will never be important to him again.

All she knows is, she loves him.


 

D’avin calls a meeting between his counsel and Seyon Trus. Shamir cannot make it, but calls just before it is due to begin.

“Trus has a heart condition.”

“How do you know?” says D’avin. “That isn't the kind of thing he'd make public.”

“I deduced it from his diet and looking at his eyes.”

“Though I’m not surprised, half of all Qreshi’s seem to be—”

“Defective?” says Shamir. “Listen. The reason I’m telling you this is because you need to get everything you need from him before he falls ill or dies. He’s the main shareholder in the Company now, right? He’s also the proxy for Land Kendry’s vote, as well as Lands Lahani and Simms. That’s four against five. The moment he shows any sign of weakness, the others will be on him like a pack of wolves.”

***

“Kalla, I think you should triple your household guard.” D’avin paces Paulus’s chamber, making the others feel restless in their chairs. “I can’t be held responsible for what occurs on Qresh because you underestimated your Company officer’s loyalty to Hullen. I’m told fans of Land Kendry can get quite creative.”

“I will take that under advisement,” says Trus, on screen.

“It’s not just the obvious proponents of Team Green. The malcontent are also at risk of radicalisation. You must do something to quell the disruption on Westerley.”

“The prison and the mines, and the hospitals are now functioning to a fashion because of Seyon Trus,” says Paulus, “we shouldn’t discount that.”

“Yes, and that’s great,” Pree shifts in his seat, “but it’s not enough. Revolution has been brewing for decades, if not centuries. Soon it’s going to come to a head, and you don’t need another Sugar Point, not on top of everything else.”

Pip looks at each party as they speak, taking it all in. He and Vaal have yet to contribute to the debate.

“Giving the mines autonomy would be an economic disaster,” says Trus, “far greater than the consequences of purifying the population.”

“Purifying?” D’avin breathes, a hand going to his brow in disbelief. Give me strength. “See, that’s the problem I have with distance warfare, it dehumanises the enemy and, you know what, it dehumanises you too.”

“But Sugar Point wasn’t warfare,” says Trus, “neither was the bombing of Old-Town.”

“Of course it was,” says Pree, “a war on your own people. And you need to atone for it. You don’t know what it’s like, bombs falling on everything you’ve worked for—”

“What's he doing there, anyway?” says Trus. “Why are we associating with known criminals?”

“Uh—” Pree starts, one perfectly polished eyebrow arching.

“Yes, Prima Dezz,” Trus says, “I know all about you.”

D’avin turns sharply on his path across the room and comes back into Trus’s view. “Dutch and I discussed that if anything happens to both of us, Pree takes over. He’s the revolutionary leader Paulus wants and the inspiration Westerley needs.”

“Is this true?” Paulus looks at Pree.

“I’ve denied my true calling for too long. Everything I’ve done in my life up until now has only been equipping me to lead.”

“I’m not sure if a bartender is what Westerley needs,” says Paulus, “it needs someone with diplomatic experience. No offense.”

"When you say 'no offence'," says Pree, "do you actually know what that means?"

“Is leading the Ferran for years not enough diplomatic experience for you?” Vaal finally says.

“He’s objective,” says D’avin, “everyone in Old-Town trusts and respects him. He can bring the unions together and stop them resisting Company rule.”

“You want to install a people’s representative with dissident leanings?” says Trus.

“If by dissident you mean part of the resistance,” says D’avin, “then yes. Would you rather someone who isn’t involved with the militia, someone you can’t control?”

“Not that he can control us anyway,” Pree says quietly to D’avin.

“So, we’re agreed then,” says D’avin, “the Ferran will police the Hullen presence on Westerley. Pree will manage the so-called revolutionary element, and in return you will make certain concessions to the unions.”

“What concessions, precisely?” says Trus.

“I’ll let you know when I’ve spoken to them,” Pree smiles.

“And I want you to issue a public apology to the Cleansed. I think they’ve waited long enough,” D’avin holds up a finger to silence Trus’s objections, “and reinstate freedom of the entire Quad for those who want it.”

Trus splutters in exasperation. “Just Westerley.”

“Westerley and Leith,” smiles D’avin.

Trus chews his own lips. He knows they don’t stand a chance without the resistance army. He must acquiesce to at least some of D’avin’s demands. “Done,” he says reluctantly. “In the interim, why don’t you stick to the warmongering and I’ll take care of the politics? Now, I have other meetings to attend.”

“Before you go, do say hello to Constance,” says D’avin, sending numbers just to annoy him, “I’m sure she’d love to hear how Seyon Lahani is doing.”

“You drive a hard bargain, Jaqobis, I have to respect that, and I’d much rather deal with you than Agent Yardeen—admit I don’t miss her intimidation tactics—but I’m still warning you, you’d better make damn sure your personal circumstances don’t ruin my political aspirations.”

“I’ll do that, Kalla,” says D’avin, scratching his head with mild amusement.

Trus drops the call.

“Condescending twit,” says Pree under his breath when he’s sure Trus won’t hear. Then he turns to D’avin. “What are you thinking?”

“Thinking what Dutch would do.” He rubs his mouth with praying hands. “That I’m messing this up.”

“When the smoke clears,” says Vaal, “it’s easy to second guess. You should know that.”

“Crash course in how not to do politics,” says Pip.

“You think you could do any better?” says D’avin.

“Don’t forget,” says Pree, aiming a finger at him, “you’re only here because Trus is only comfortable giving out money with a Qreshi on the team.”

“Aw,” says D’avin, “don’t be so hard on him. He’s our mascot too.”

“Funny,” says Pip, unamused.

“Where did we get him anyway?” says Pree.

“I don’t know,” smiles D’avin, “he just seems to have ingratiated himself. Must be the gift of the gab everyone’s always telling me about. The famous Foster mouth.”

“Ha-ha, bloody ha-ha,” says Pip.

“Don’t be like that,” D’avin grabs him in an affectionate headlock, “you know we love you ‘cause you’re just a great big puppy.”

“Ha!” Pip twists out of his grasp, which is admittedly not that tight.

“Ooh,” says D’avin playfully, “he’s learning.”

Vaal laughs heartily.

Paulus goes to his cupboard and pulls out a bottle of hokk and five cups.

D’avin looks at him in surprise. “No tea?”

“I thought this occasion called for something a little stronger,” says Paulus.

Pree appraises the bottle. “This is a fifteen-year-old Gurudo,” he says. “Didn’t know Scarbacks were allowed to partake of such heathen intoxicants.”

“Perks of being the boss. No-one gets to question the contents of your private cupboards.” Paulus pours them all a shot. “I’ve been saving it, but in respect of the fact we might all die any day—”

Pree and Vaal knock their cups together.

“To Dutch,” Pree says, looking at D’avin meaningfully, “wherever she is.”

“Do you know why people follow you, D’avin?” says Vaal, sniffing his cup appreciatively. “Because you don’t want them to. You don’t care about the spoils of war, you just want one person to live.”

“Well,” says Pree, “maybe two or three.”

“People might fight for a just cause, but they'll die for love,” Vaal smiles, “don’t think that because I war for a living, I don’t see it.”

D’avin looks at Pree accusingly, leaning his back against the wall as there are not enough chairs.

“I didn’t say a thing.” Pree holds up innocent hands, risking the spilling of his drink.

“When did this become more about Ms Yardeen and less about saving the universe?” says Paulus.

“We’re assuming that’s a bad thing?” says Pree.

“For her it’s about the mission and always will be,” says D’avin, “nothing more and nothing less. That’s why I know she’ll succeed.”

Pree looks at him then, giving him a sympathetic half-smile.

“Funny how survival reasserts your priorities,” says Vaal, taking a sip of the vintage Gurudo.

“Anyway, there are no causes on the front line,” says D’avin, “everything’s condensed down to the fact you swore to die for your friends. After dragging someone to safety over a minefield, causes seem mighty small and brotherhood seems mighty big.” He gestures at nothing with his drink. “I used to fight for a cause and lemme tell you, they’re over-rated. What’s been going on renders all other wars pointless. All sides committed terrible atrocities, and it was all for nothing if these green bitches take over.”

“Those were not righteous wars, D'avin,” says Vaal, “and you have to forgive yourself for that. The Republic uses underhanded tactics to convince people to fight for them. They’ve got the Commonwealth by the stones.”

“And what about the temptation to use my powers to make people fight for us?” says D’avin. “That’s a very dark place.”

“With great power comes a lot of weird-ass horse-shit that you're not prepared to deal with,” Vaal reassures him, glancing at an ancient time-piece, “you don’t have to persuade anyone, you just have to keep winning. If you lose, you won’t know about it anyway. You’ll be gone. Which is what I need to be in half an hour, otherwise—”

“I’m going with them,” says Pree, putting his glass on the coffee table, “but I will be sure to call and discuss—”

“Yes of course,” says Paulus, rising to see them out.

All through the meeting D’avin has noticed that Vaal isn’t using his left arm. “How’s your shoulder?”

“Not good.” Vaal accepts help with his coat.

“It means someone will probably challenge him for leadership soon,” says Pree.

“Any parting orders?” says Vaal.

“Yeah,” says D’avin with something close to his old sarcasm, “don't go to Sugar Point unless you wanna play tag with a guy wearing a necklace of human genitalia.”

Pip snorts.

“Male and female,” adds Pree, “they’re not picky.”

“Listen,” Vaal stops at the threshold, “what you said about all other wars being pointless struck a chord with me. I’m going to petition Lachlan to pull out of Muvallah.”

“Doubling our numbers wouldn’t be a bad thing,” D’avin holds the door for him, “long as I can get Trus to fund it.”

“I gotta—” Pip puts down his glass, dithering as he checks his pockets and picks up his things, “date with Zeph.”

D’avin claps him on the back as he leaves. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

“There’s literally nothing you wouldn’t do.”

“Everybody’s gotta draw the line somewhere,” D’avin says with a wink.

Finally, he is left alone with Paulus.

“That was a resounding success,” says the monk, putting things away.

“Long as Trus keeps his word,” says D’avin, taking a seat and knocking back the last of his hokk, “they’ve been known to renege on Westerley deals before.”

“And I’m sure Mr Dezz is an excellent candidate to represent their wishes, although, I fear he has a long way to go to garner the influence that Alvis once had.” Paulus stops his tidying. “Is everything alright?”

D’avin looks up. “This morning, Olan told me he wants to become Hullen.”

“Oh, dear.” Paulus closes the cabinet doors over the monitor screen and takes to his chair. “You know,” he sighs, “I remember when you first brought Olan to us. Alvis and I beheld a most troubled and broken young man.”

“He was, but it was Dutch’s idea, not mine.”

“Not Olan. I'm talking about you.”

“Oh?”

“With Ms Yardeen missing, you've had to come out of the shadows. She is the instrument of your salvation whether she knows it or not,” Paulus laughs. “What do you think kept you coming back?”

“I promised Jake.”

“The best disguise for healing yourself.”

“I'll admit that throwing a ball around can be quite healing.”

“You can't even see it, can you? The man you've become.”

“I don't understand.”

“No, you don't yet, but you will. You've grown into the person you need to be in order to complete the task ahead. That is becoming clearer now. I’m sorry I put pressure on you to represent our interests. It was remiss of me and I hope you can forgive me.”

“Of course.” As usual, it’s not long before his thoughts return to Ylessa. He misses her like a lost limb when she’s asleep, can’t wait to wake her up so that they can play, run through the phonics practice Zeph gave him. She sleeps for upwards of sixteen hours a day, so every moment is precious, even if it involves cleaning up after her attempts to remove her diaper and crawl around in the flower-beds in the quadrangle, which happens more than any sane person would believe.

“Brogan tells me you haven’t been meditating.”

D’avin looks away. “I wonder why she would do that.”

“Perhaps because the pastoral care of everyone here is her burden, whether they are ordained or not. The moment you cross the threshold you become our responsibility.”

“It’s just,” he bites his lip, “difficult at the moment.”

“You’ve been through many traumas and you need to allow time for your mind to catch up with your body. It would help if I knew a little more about your powers.”

“Hard to describe. It’s kind of a,” D’avin illustrates with his hands, “fizzy trance.”

“A fizzy trance?”

“Yeah,” he says slowly, “that’s not the official scientific terminology.”

“Show me,” says Paulus.

D’avin pats down his own pockets. “I need a small object. Something I’ve never touched before. So that you know it’s not a trick.”

“What about this?” Paulus produces an old-school key from his robes.

“Perfect.” D’avin takes a little of the generic green that he keeps on him at all times, and rubs it all over the key. He notices Paulus squinting at him. “Yeah, I know. This is weird.” He suspends the key from his thumb and forefinger, then lets go. Instead of falling, the key remains in mid-air and spins gently according to his impulses. Paulus’s mouth slowly opens in amazement. He reaches out to touch it. D’avin moves it away. “Moving small objects is easy. Alvis and I were working on moving much larger objects, maybe even people. Unfortunately, the damage to my physical body seems to be proportionate to the amount of effort it takes. There’s always a price. It’s not a case of mind over matter.”

“This is truly a gift from the gods,” says the monk.

“Or a curse,” D’avin tips his head, speeding up the key’s spin, “depending on how you look at it.”

“How could this ever be a curse?”

“Because it ties me to a specific course of action. I can never just be me again.”

“How many people know about this?”

At this, D’avin’s attention is diverted and he loses his grip on the key. It drops to the floor with a clang. He holds out his hand and the key leaps up and snaps into it. He turns it around, examining it. “Only a handful. And I need to keep it that way. The entire contingent of Cleansed know about my immunity—Fancy had no choice but to tell them—but they don’t know about this. Aneela’s,” he takes a breath, “hand-maiden gave us reports of her doing the same thing. As far as we know, we are the only ones. I expect her Hullen status prevents her body breaking down when she uses her powers.”

“How powerful your child must be as a consequence,” Paulus says.

“That’s what everyone’s afraid of.” D’avin gives him back the key.

“If Ms Yardeen is Aneela’s clone, why doesn’t she have these powers?”

“We think it requires exposure to Hullen,” he says, “must make a note to ask her about it next time. Paulus, what do you know about the triple goddess?”

“Don’t—”

“Invoke their names, yes, I know. But when I was talking to Aneela in the green, she said something about the waxing, waning and full moons relating to herself, Dutch and the baby. What do you think she meant?”

“Well,” Paulus says thoughtfully, “in the context of the Quad, I’d say it was about Qresh’s three moons.”

“That’s what I said. Bellus Haardy shot me down like she usually does.”

“Law of parsimony states,” says Paulus, going over to his books, “that the simplest, most obvious answer is usually the correct answer. Perhaps she was referring to a conjunction. Those are often religiously significant.” He takes out an ancient codex, perhaps even older than Bellus’s book, and opens it to the page where Alvis had the old Scarback symbol inscribed.

“Hello, old friend.” D’avin turns the book towards him across the coffee table. “Doesn’t this triangle look a lot like the field produced by the sonic resonator?”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“It does,” D’avin says to himself, “it does.” He takes out his PDD and snaps a picture of it to add to his collection of evidence. Just then the device beeps in his hand. It’s Constance. The baby has woken up.

“D’avin,” Paulus says, “don’t underestimate the value of ‘just you’. Alvis didn’t. And don’t feel like you are bound to a single course of action. There’s always a choice.”

“I’ll try to remember that.”


 

Salt-Flats - Westerley

Borna is driving to a huddle with the Molemeyers, flanked by husbands One and Three, when the Ferran ships begin to descend out of the dust-cloud a couple dozen klicks away.

“Hmmm,” she pulls up and looks at Liam, “this could get interesting.”

“Interesting how?” he responds, shielding his eyes from the burgeoning mid-day eclipse.

“Coo-day-tat interesting.”

“It’s coup-d’etat, darling,” Liam says, and then regrets it.


 

Old-Town

“No one on Qresh has any idea how bad it is,” says Shamir as he and Pree stroll through South-Side, past dirty children who should be in school, past vendors struggling to shift roach and rat, “reportage is nonexistent and guards unlucky enough to get posted here are forbidden from talking about it.”

They step over rubble that should have been removed long ago, but it has somehow become part of the infrastructure, accepted as part of people's lives, and they are loath to remove it, lest they be deprived of the one thing that connects them to that fateful day.

“If you really want to do something to help,” says Pree, waving a hand to deter a hawker, “you need the right contacts. Let me introduce you to someone.”

***

“I understand you’ve reached an impasse with the Company Pharmaceuticals ordering system,” says Carl, stacking tins in the commissary.

“There are so many forms and red tape,” Shamir frowns, “all leading no-where. It never used to be this complicated.”

“Welcome to Westerley,” says Carl.

“Why does everyone keep saying that?” says Shamir.

Pree smiles to himself, leaning back on one of Carl’s shelves.

“I’ll let you into a little secret,” says Carl, and Shamir leans closer, “veterinary medicine.”

“Veterinary?” says Shamir.

“Most of the drugs they use on animals are identical to the ones they use on humans, only there’re no import restrictions. I can put you in touch with someone who runs the rat-pits, long as you don’t mind paying premium prices for packets with Monty-Mouse on ‘em.”

“I’m not sure how I feel about dosing people with rat antibiotics,” says Shamir.

“You may not have a choice,” says Pree, “it’s all we have.”

“Starting to build a picture here,” Shamir mutters, “this isn’t going to be easy, is it?”

Carl whispers discretely to Pree before they leave. “I got you that ointment you asked for.”

Shamir notices him hiding it in his skirt pocket as they amble back to the Royale. “When was the last time you had a prostate exam, Mr Dezz?”

Pree’s perfectly made up eyes go wide at that.

When they return, Vaal is waiting on one of the chairs outside the surgery, a tall, elegant warrior standing by his side.

“Commander,” Shamir unlocks the door, “I was hoping to tie you down.”

“This is Dranitzke,” says Vaal, indicating his companion.

“Ever,” she says, nodding in acknowledgement.

“Shamir,” he says, retrieving instruments from their trays, “Tutte.”

“Tut-tut,” a smile tugs at one side of her mouth. She stands to one side, alert and protective.

Shamir has Vaal perch on the edge of his exam table and helps to remove the clothing and armour from his left shoulder. He fails to suppress his dismay at the state of the joint. Two weeks is plenty of time for the transcutaneous mitotic stimulation to do its work, but there is a fist-sized hole burrowing through the man’s subscapularis, almost to the bone. “The Hullen weapons did this?”

“The RAC docs and our medics did their best to patch me up,” says Vaal.

“Indeed,” says Shamir, giving him a scan. Three dimensional pictures of the shoulder joint appear on the screen. “Flex your bicep for me.”

Vaal does so. “That’s as far as it goes.”

“Good, good,” Shamir mutters to himself, “now raise your arm above your head.” Vaal tries to, and Shamir resists him with a flat hand. There is hardly any strength in it. “Yeah, um, you’re going to need a complete rotator cuff replacement. The good news for you is that I specialise in reconstructive surgery—”

“And the bad news?” asks Vaal.

“It could take a long time to grow the new tissue. Months even, if you want it to be effective.”

“That’s not good enough.” Dranitzke’s mouth is a thin, tight line when he looks at her. “Soon someone will try to fight him for control. I won’t have that. He needs to be fighting-fit ASAP.”

“Ev,” Vaal warns, “he’s only doing his job.”

“He’d better do it quickly then.” Dranitzke glares at him.

Shamir watches her discretely as he fetches the equipment for a biopsy. He’s never encountered anyone like her. Only Agent Yardeen, perhaps, although he never spoke to her in person. They both come from a special mold, could kill you with one look and don’t suffer fools easily. There are no women like that on Qresh. Qreshi women are powerful in a different way. They are powerful because they are witty and urbane and studied political science, not because they would give you a testicular torsion sooner than look at you.

He wonders at her long neck, the dread-locked hair. Her face is businesslike and noble, no more than thirty he guesses. She smells of wood-smoke and hard work as she brushes past him in home-made armour. Gives him a peculiar feeling inside. “Okay,” he says, “lets take a sample and I’ll grow you some muscle. As quickly as possible.”

When he’s finished, and they are leaving, Dranitzke stops in the doorway and looks him up and down. “I don’t suck dick, but if I did, it wouldn’t be yours.”

“I, uh, didn’t—” No-one’s ever been this frank with him before. No-one’s ever caught him checking them out. “Well, I do,” is all he can think of to say, “and it wouldn’t be yours, even if you had one.”

“Who says I haven’t?” She leaves on that note, and he can hear Vaal chuckling in the corridor.


 

There is a wooden knock.

Olan looks up from his notebook. He has long filled every wall of his room with old-word, hastily scribbled in charcoal, and has now resorted to books and scraps-of-books and pens, pencils, crayons stolen from the school-room. They are stacked up in every corner, but it is still only a fraction of what resides in his head. The months pass without variation on his routine, sitting down and jotting something his conscious mind cannot comprehend at every possible opportunity.

The only thing that has changed is that Alvis is gone.

He has started to learn old-word along with Quin, but the ramblings don’t seem to make any sense. It wouldn’t be so distressing if they did. His worst fear is that he will run out of paper.

Another knock on the door.

He snaps himself out of his stupor and goes to answer it. Brogan is there with a cup of water and his medication. He takes them without looking at her face. She is too much like someone’s mom, with strong, bare arms. Practical. He makes a show of swallowing and showing her his empty mouth and, satisfied, she goes away.

When he’s sure the corridor outside is silent, he goes to the waste-basket and retches up the pills. They plop into the discarded notes along with the dozens of others, spitty and melting.

Chapter Text

*

“Diana in the leavës green, Luna that so bright doth sheen, Persephone in Hell.”

—Skelton, Garland of Laurel

*


 

~Sixteen Days Ago~

It’s not about the sex.

Okay, it is about the sex, but it’s because she needs and wants the sex, not because he does. Sex does not necessarily equal intimacy, and she realises that it’s not always the climax, but the intimacy that she wants. She’s never had true intimacy before this, never had sex with someone who knows all the ugly parts of her soul. Never allowed anyone to get this close, let alone drift away and circle back again. He’s been rather circumspect since finding out the truth about the baby—she can hardly blame him for not wanting sex, or intimacy—so it’s a surprise when he gets into the shower with her.

“You look intense,” she says, “what’s on your mind, Soldier Boy?”

“You,” he says seriously. The shower mist settles on his lashes, making him look all starry-eyed.

She kisses him on the lips, but he doesn’t respond, just drinks her in, his gaze moving over her mouth, her nipples, her box. Her breasts aren’t small by anyone’s standards, yet they always seem smaller in his hand, and he cups one delicately, like she might break.

“Does this mean we’re door-open kinda people now?” she says, resting her forearms on his shoulders and tipping her head back into the water, soaking her hair. No sooner has she righted herself than he is turning her around, bending her over roughly and sliding his hand up between her thighs. His other hand—the left—is on her shoulder, his fingers digging into her clavicle, and it hurts. She is no-one’s sub, always has to be on top—that’s what everyone expects of her—but with D’avin it is different. Even though he is subservient in every other concern, she never objects to him taking charge in bed. It is their dirty little secret, the one area of her life where she can relinquish control and just…

Be.

He nuzzles the back of her neck, her throat, and his stubble grazes her. She can feel his breath on her ear. Not for the first time, she wishes he would be rougher, but he is only ever respectful, like all good mamma’s-boys, knows when to stop.

Her clit is such an insatiable bitch.

He is there now, massaging slowly, and she can feel his hardness against her arse. How desperately she wants him to slip it in. It is the first time they have been together since they got the all-clear, and the realisation that she is being nudged open with unprotected dick sends a delicious quiver through her. “Do it,” she says softly.

“Not that easily,” he teases, and turns her around so that she is facing him.

She attempts to kiss him again, but he moves back, a cheeky smile ghosting his face. “You’re making me work?” she says.

“Uh-huh.” He goes for her clit again and handles it expertly.

Whoa—

Okay—

Good boy—

She leans back on the tiles, not caring about the water. His shaft is satisfying in her soapy hand as she begins to pump it in rhythm with his own ministrations. But almost as soon as she starts, he gets distracted and stops rubbing, places a hand on the wall behind her head, shuddering with uneven breath. Pleasure and agony, mixing together. He closes his eyes and comes quickly, seed spurting onto her wrist and sluicing away with the water.

“Thirty seconds?”

“Sorry,” he says, finally opening his eyes and catching his breath, “that’s not usually a problem.”

“I think you needed that,” she says.

“Your—” he starts, looking more vulnerable than ever.

“More than capable of taking care of my own needs,” she smiles, leaving him to it and going to dry off.

When she looks back, his hand-print in the condensation looks like a human heart, the branches of the aorta dripping water down the tiles.


 

Dutch wakes as if from a dream and she is still on the rock column. The ASB is nowhere to be seen, must've woken up. She wonders if D’avin knows that when baby is not with him, she is here in the green. Reliving these moments is distracting, paralysing. But that was the Lady’s tactic all along; keep her despondent and unable to act, make her think she can’t do it.

Get up, she says to herself.

“Get up, Yala.” This is no different to the failed assassination in Al Augustus, when she thought her back was broken, until Khlyen picked her up and told her she was only bruised.

Her heart was not broken.

Only bruised.

All-at-once-she-is-here-and-she-is-back-home-with-John-and-D’av-and-yet-she-is-back-there-at-the-same-time-in-the-harem-and-the-memories-keep-changing-and-it-is-just-too-much. Dizzying and disorienting. She holds on to John in her mind and he is the anchor. Missing John holding her like in the old days.

Since coming in here she’s constantly worried that something’s wrong with him. He seemed alive and well. Perhaps Aneela was lying about stabbing him. The fluffy one, she said, before they disappeared into the abyss. That must mean John. Her heart hurts. If there is to be hope for the galaxy, John must make it. She and D’avin had discussed that much, that no matter what happens to them, John must survive.

We are too broken to do it, they’d agreed, but John can save everyone.

Her princess training is not enough, she can see that now. You can’t diplomat the shit out of something you can’t even see. You can’t fight something incorporeal with knives.

But she knows she can do it.

She pushes herself up from the gravel with steel in her spine. Three columns and a precarious almost-falling incident later, she is confronted with the entrance to a smaller cave. She draws her knife and proceeds carefully, sticking to the walls, on high alert for attackers. Inside the cave is a pool of what looks like the silver plasma, and over it, suspended against gravity like a miniature planet, is a sphere of the same matter, rippling and undulating with caustic patterns.

“What the hells?” She grips her knife tighter, edging carefully to the pool. The chamber seems empty; there are no assailants, also no exits. The only other image is her own reflection in the constantly moving plasma.

Against her better judgement, she reaches out and touches the sphere—must get that from John—and is shocked by a spark from the surface. She takes her hand back, jolted by a flash of what the sphere contains. Not quite a fully formed concept, but the shadow of a memory of what once was, or may come to pass. She is buffeted once again by the thought of San Romwell and the way he violated her precious memories.

Yet something about the sphere scares her. It is something she can’t quite grasp within her soul, like when something is on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t quite remember, something she once knew, but forgot that she forgot. The origin of the green. The origin of them all. Ripples spread out from the point she touched, almost communicating. It knows she’s there.

Then, suddenly, the last thing she expected—

Mannequins climb out of the pool, like nightmare creatures from one of John’s sci-fi novels. Two, three—seven now, all coming towards her, dripping with liquid from the lagoon, their faces pointed toward her, blank and featureless.

“So that’s the way you want it, eh,” she says, cricking her neck, “ready to dance?”

She pulls up something from deep inside as they surge forth, gives a yelping war-cry and goes berserk, spinning and slicing until they are in pieces on the floor.

She wipes plasma from her face, panting, tasting metal.

Opening up the insides of one of the figments, she finds no discernable organs, just more silver plasma. When she touches it she gets flashes of memory. Is this what it’s like for D’av? Always being invaded by someone else’s thoughts? Always having something at the back of his mind trying to push through into consciousness, like an unravelling thread?

It must be torture.

Killing the figments doesn’t seem to be enough, because the very rock she stands on begins to move then, begins to grow and engulf her feet, her legs, her torso, as she struggles. No, she shouts, no, no, no. Got to get—

Back to John.

Got to make sure he’s Okay, got to—

She chokes as the rock grows over her face—

ENOUGH!

Dutch flings her arms wide and rock bursts out in every direction hitting the walls, the floor, the sphere, in a cloud of dust and triumph.

She sways, looking at her own hands, marvelling at her own strength, the strength she didn’t know she had. This is new. A taste of something delicious.

A taste of power.

She picks up her knife.


 

~Day 13~

Leith

“There should be no poor among you, said the prophet, because all may come to the Mother Tree and eat freely of her fruit.” Quin stands on the hillock under the old oak tree. In front of her is a congregation of over a hundred monks, and a few villagers who have come out into the fields surrounding the monastery to enjoy the last few truly warm days, before the barley is cut and the land lies dormant once again. “For this reason,” she continues, “the initiate took all the alms that were laid at their feet and distributed them among the poor. Old and young, free and bonded alike. And the roots grew.”

Everyone beats their sticks together in agreement.

D’avin hides at the back, just observing, scouting for threats—everyone is used to him standing guard with long weapons by now—and Ylessa plays with Brogan’s little boy, Skandar, at his feet.

Constance shields her face from the sun with a white lace fan, watching Quin as she continues her sermon. “Does she know who the baby’s mother is?” she asks D’avin quietly.

“No,” he says, sitting next to her and rearranging his weapon on its lanyard, “thank the gods.”

She gives him a little conciliatory smile.

Every day he is grateful for Constance because she ‘gets’ it. When Ylessa was born she asked him if he'd ever give her up, and he understands why now. You never really believe yourself until you say it out-loud, that all the grievances and sleepless nights don't matter. All those times when you don't think you can carry on. No, he corrects himself, they matter more because you know the lengths you'll go to.

Constance occupies herself with mediating between the two toddlers and showing Jake how to weave barley straw into a doll. Her actions belie the discontent D’avin knows is brewing in her heart. She won’t last much longer.

“It never gets any easier.” Brogan is suddenly standing over him, blocking out the sun. She has returned from getting them a drink of water.

“Sorry?”

“People lie,” she says, sitting on the grass, “they say it gets easier, but it never does. You worry about them all your life. I can tell you're a worrier. Aaand you're looking worried right now.”

He smiles for her. “Worried about Quin.”

“She’s asked me to take over her sponsorship, you know.”

“Good for you.” He squints into the sun.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” he says, “I just don’t know why you’re telling me this.”

“I wanted to know what you thought,” says Brogan, treading cautiously, “because you’re the closest person to her.”

“I’m not her father.”

“I know,” Brogan frowns, “I never said that, but it’s interesting that you did. You rescued her.”

“If anything,” he says, “she rescued us on that moon. Then decided that she was coming with us.”

“She certainly is persuasive.”

“And I’ve got all those teenage tactics to look forward to.”

Brogan looks at Ylessa, who is unsuccessfully pulling up grass. “I know we’re not supposed to interfere, but I’m an educator, I can help with these things.”

"You mean her 'condition'?"

He must be frowning because she looks at him with true compassion. “You’re not alone, you know.”

“I know.” But actually, he is alone, because he can’t trust anyone, he can’t even trust anyone enough to tell them he can’t trust anyone.

“They're more resilient than you know, kids. She'll be alright. Few issues are as complicated as people think.”

“Like the concept of self-denial?” He tips his head in the direction of Quin, still preaching under the tree.

“The self-denial of a soldier?”

“That's not spiritual virtue, it's the ability to sit in their own filth for weeks at a time.”

“You make it sound like such an attractive career proposition.”

He smiles again, giving her the benefit of the doubt. Constance is listening but wisely remains uninvolved, communicating her concern for D’avin with her eyes. “So, what called you to this life?” he asks Brogan, “you had a penchant for sitting in the spiritual filth of humanity?”

Brogan leans back and lets the sun warm her face, seemingly unconcerned that Skandar has his hands in the dirt. “What seems like filth to one person can be beautiful to another. Trees, listen to me, I sound like such a flake,” she laughs at herself.

“Hmmm,” he laughs his agreement.

“It was more a desire to give meaning to this beautiful filth. I had the twins far too young, and their father was a total jerk.”

“Sorry to hear that,” he says sincerely, “how old are they now?

“Twenty-two.”

“I didn't realise you had grown up children.”

“I look younger than I am.”

“It was an amicable split?”

“Far from. We had different ideas about life. I believe people shouldn't be ass-holes to each other, and he disagreed. What about you?”

“I totally agree people shouldn't be ass-holes.”

“I mean your relationship with her mother.”

He watches Skandar and Ylessa play. It is less playing with each other, and more playing next to each other; neither are old enough to think of other people yet, but Ylessa will soon overtake Skandar, leave him behind as she will them all one day. The toy dog with the stripy sweater has long been abandoned for the weeds and D’avin grimaces when she puts a clump of grass in her mouth. He doesn’t allow himself to intervene. Jake goes to her and holds her under the arms, trying to get her to walk, but she’s not having it. She’s not ready for that yet. “It's complicated.”

“What relationship isn't?”

“She's,” he hesitates, “she's MIA, but we're working on it.”

“That must be horrible for you.”

“It's worse for her,” he says nodding at Ylessa, who is now in Constance’s lap, “they’ve never met. Speaking of not-my-kids, I’ve been meaning to thank you for all your hard work with Jake. He’s much happier here than he ever was in a Company school.”

“Well, that's because he gets one-on-one attention and help with his disorders,” Brogan says, “he’s thriving. Aren’t you sweetie?”

Jake wanders over and shows D’avin a rock he’s found. “I’m pretty sure this one is quartz,” he says, “yeah. It’s quartz. I can tell.”

D’avin takes it from him and examines it. It’s nothing special. “Put it with your collection,” he says, “right next to the di—”

“Diorite,” says Jake.

“Yeah,” says D’avin, "that's the one."

Quin has finished and she wends her way through the crowd, monks beating their sticks together on either side of her path. This is part of her apprenticeship, her first time in front of more than a hundred people, and she's aced it. Jer Ravillious carries her parasol, as he does for whoever preaches on any given day. She walks right past D’avin. 

He hurries to his feet and she stops. “What have I done?” he says.

“Nothing,” she says without turning.

Jer gives D’avin a worried expression. Constance and Brogan also share a glance.

“I’ve done everything you’ve ever asked of me,” D’avin says.

“Maybe that’s the problem,” Quin says bitterly, quietly enough for only him to hear, and continues her path through the barley.

He watches her walk back to the monastery, entourage of novices in tow, until the peace is shattered by Jake yelling because Ylessa has sunk her teeth into his thigh.

He sighs and goes to separate them.


 

Bazaar

“I’d be more than happy to take you on,” says Bellus, regarding the Dvorak siblings, as she does everyone, with mild suspicion, “provided you don’t mind signing a special clause. Gotta cover my ass, what with so many refugees wanting representation.”

“Long as it don’t mean paying more commish,” says Jenz, “cause that wouldn’t be fair, would it?”

“No, it wouldn’t,” agrees Koo.

Bellus looks at them like daggers for a moment and then hitches her lip and wrinkles her nose in mirth. “Stats prove you two’re among Cardiff’s best. Prove it and we’ll be looking at a long and happy relationship. Let me down and you’ll never work in this town again.”

“Seems fair,” says Koo.

“We won’t let you down, Ms Haa—” Jenz begins, but she doesn’t seem to be listening, squinting into the throng of patrons bustling about the market. “Ms Haardy?”

Bellus puts a hand up to silence him as she locks eyes with Aldous Ofori and then watches him disappear into the traffic. He must have been watching them, eyes emotionless and mouth grim, for quite a while.


 

~Later~

A Secluded Inn

“Daddy has officially stopped taking my advice.” Melis Seyah Trus throws her purse onto the bedside table and the gold chain slips off the edge, swinging as she paces the room. “It’s like he has an actual death wish.”

“That can be arranged.” Aldous sweeps her into his arms and looks deep into her eyes. “But enough about politics. This is about you.”

“Oh, Aldi,” she closes her eyes, holding him close to her cheek, “when will it ever end?”

He kisses her deeply, then releases her. “When we have the green within our grasp. We just need to keep our eyes on the prize.”

“I think I’ve come up with something,” she says, “a young doctor with connections. We just need to get him on our side. Trouble is, there’s hardly any dirt to manipulate him with.”

“You know what’s even better than absolute power?” says Aldous.

“No.” She steps out of her panties and throws herself onto the bed.

“Absolute corruption,” he says, kneeling at her feet and pulling her to him by the ankles, “my delicate evening flower.”

She laughs wickedly, and they make love for over an hour.

Afterwards, as they lay naked under the covers in the golden afternoon light, Melis turns to him and says, “if he ever found out about us, he’d cut me off, you know.”

Aldous blinks. “Then I’d cut him up.”

“My father’s sins are hardly newsworthy, but now he’s gone and gotten himself involved with the resistance, funding it no less, this is a betrayal I can never forgive.”

“He deserves everything that’s coming to him,” says Aldous, drawing her closer.


 

Royale

“What’s that?” Gared stands by the door to the back-office.

Pree snatches the data crystal out of the port and hides it in his hand. “Nothing you need to worry your pretty little head about.”

“No,” says Gared, coming closer to the computer, “that’s not how this works. We said we wouldn’t keep secrets from each other.”

“We said we wouldn’t keep major secrets,” says Pree, “like a love-child or impending bankruptcy.”

“So what category does this fit in?” Gared closes his hand over the fist with the data crystal, but Pree won’t let go. “Give,” he says.

“Nuh-uh,” says Pree, “give me the password to your photo-cloud first.”

“Don’t be such a baby,” Gared tries to wrestle it out of his hand, “Dutch told me where to tickle you in case of emergency.”

“That little—”

“Ha!” Gared finally holds up his prize and slips it back into the data-jack.

“Don’t make me stab you again.”

“Whoa,” Gared navigates the files, “this is—”

“The plans to Wremery mine—”

“Some serious shit. When were you going to tell me?” Gared looks at him. “Pree?” he says, but Pree only mumbles something. “You weren’t, were you?”

“It’s just that this puts me in a very difficult position,” Pree whines, “puts us in a very difficult position. I was only trying to protect you.”

“How many times do I have to say it? I don’t need protecting. We’re in this together. And besides, the only danger I’m in is from you apparently.”

Pree strokes his face. “I couldn’t bear it if something happened to you.”

Gared wrenches his face away. That’s not going to work this time. “What’s worse is being left out of things. Please, please don’t hide shit like this from me. If you’re planning something, I need to be by your side, not left at home wondering what’s happening.”

“It’s just,” Pree licks his blue made-up lips, “I want to do what’s right for Westerley, but it’s dangerous.”

“Since when did we not do something just because it’s dangerous?”

Pree smiles appreciatively at him, but then they both overhear someone locked in a one-sided argument. Shamir is talking to his ex on the phone. Gared moves the door slightly so that they can spy on him without being seen.

They grimace at each other as Shamir paces the bar, waving a hand in the air intermittently.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he says. “I don’t care about the flaming cat… I’m sure you’ll be happy together… and the stylist, the forking stylist, what do I care about the… yeah, well, screw you too… ‘cause I’m the kind of guy who drinks beer now, that’s why… yes I am crazy, and I’m not coming back… stop calling it home—YOU MADE THAT QUITE CLEAR!”

“Everything alright,” Pree finally calls, concerned about him scaring punters away.

Shamir drops the call as violently as he can without damaging his PDD. “Fine,” he says, sitting aggressively on a stool. “Do I have a sign on my forehead that says co-dependent?”

“Uh, no,” says Gared, resuming his glass polishing duties.

“That’s what I thought,” says Shamir. “Got any food? I get really cranky when I get low blood sugar.”

Gared dumps a plate of stale bread on the bar. “That’s all we got right now.”

“I suppose it’ll have to do. And since I’m the kinda guy who drinks beer now—”

Gared pops his brand of beer on the bar next to the plate and Shamir takes a swig to wash the bread down. “Steady on, cowboy. Don’t be the second person I’ve had to give a stomach pump this week.”

“I am officially the kind of person who drinks warm beer for breakfast. How did this happen so quickly?”

“Welcome to—”

“Yeah,” Shamir cuts him off, “I get it. I really, really get it.”

Gared gives him a little punch on the shoulder with the dish-cloth. “You’re one of us now.”


 

RAC Black-site

Flik has pirate flags displayed on the barge and John recognises them.

“Merciless Harlow Morren," he says, making his way down the corridor, to Flik’s obvious disapproval, "Claimore Zaine.”

“Please don’t touch them,” Flik says.

John holds his hands up innocently. He was going to touch them. “And Lina ‘The Sparrow’ Karn’s lot. Used to idolise them, back in the day.”

“You don’t say,” says Flik distractedly, fetching things from several of the drop-pods. He piles tool boxes onto John’s arms.

“What do we need these for?” he asks.

“My tools are better than yours,” says Flik, disappearing into a cabin.

When he comes out he’s different.

“Your heart rate is elevated, Kalif,” says Toko, “would you like to take remedial action?”

“Not now—” says Flik.

“What’s the matter?” says John.

“Nothing,” Flik shakes a thought from his head, counting out smoke grenades onto John’s already laden arms.

“Whose room is that?” says John. “Is that your room?”

“I don’t know,” Flik says through gritted teeth.

“The room belonged to Ember-Rose ‘Swifty’ Kravankova,” says Toko, “Level four RAC agent—”

“That’s enough, Toko,” says Flik, pushing past John into another cabin.

John decides to leave it. “Anyway,” he says, “you haven’t even seen my tools. How do you know—”

“I don’t need to see them,” says Flik, checking items off his tablet and moving away from him again, “I already know they’ll be below my exacting standards because of your income level and education bracket.”

John stops following him. “Are you calling me uneducated?”

“I wasn’t,” says Flik, not looking at him, “but now that you’re calling yourself that, I might too.”

“I’m not uneducated, I’m self-educated. There’s a distinction.”

“Whatever you say,” says Flik.

“Bet I know more about pirates than you,” says John under his breath.

Flik doesn’t appear to have heard him. “Come on, we gotta get this stuff back to Khlyen’s ship.”

“Well are you gonna,” John tries in vain to balance the pile in his arms, “carry something, or—”

But Flik is gone.

When they enter the FTL ship, Cardiff is already checking out the hardware. “This belonged to Khlyen?” he says, examining the computer readout.

John puts down his pile with the rest of their equipment. “Yeah.”

“It’s different,” says Cardiff.

“He had it custom made,” says John, checking things off the inventory, “I learned to fly it before we discovered the others. Handles like a hawk in a storm—”

“Did he happen to equip it with the things, you know,” says Cardiff, “a human needs?”

“What are you getting at?” John looks up at him from his crouching position.

“I mean where do we piss?” says Cardiff. “What if heaven forbid one of us needs to take a—”

Flik throws an empty orange juice bottle at him and it glances off his head. “Solved.”

“Ow,” Cardiff rubs his head, retrieving the bottle.

“Anyway,” John says, responding to his PDD beeps, “it can get us anywhere in the J within a day. If you can’t hold it that long, we have a problem. And it looks like we might have a larger problem.”

“Who is it?” says Flik coming over.

“One of my informants,” says John, showing him the message, “trouble in Old-Town.”

“It’ll take you hours to get to Westerley and back,” says Flik, “are you sure you should—”

“Let’s boof there, then,” John says, sliding into the pilot’s seat.

“Seriously,” says Cardiff, “how easily you guys get distracted—”

“Okay,” says Flik, “let’s go.”

“I guess we’re all going then—” Cardiff manages to say before John presses the button and he must steady himself on the back of the seat, nauseous. “I will never get used to that.”


 

John’s hope almost leaves him with his breath of revulsion. “No,” he says, “no, no, no, no, no—”

Crucified upside down in Jubilee Square hangs Sergeant Arkady, the Company security officer he met in the tunnels. He approaches on auto-pilot, and as he gets closer he can see that her partner Telmere is at the bottom of the Burnt Tree, impossibly contorted inside a ball of barbed wire.

Bile rises as John skids to a halt before the obscene vista. A crowd of locals have gathered, gossiping and gasping.

“D’you think,” Flik is panting by his side, “Hullen did this?”

“Not their style,” John creeps closer to Arkady and closes her bloodshot eyes. “Must’ve been Jolene.”

“Well, shit,” says Flik, wrinkling his nose at the smell of blood.

There is a small sign, written on board, propped against the tree and John takes it in both hands, not caring about soiling them with blood.

It reads;

dhedo thajhacha ng’re jokhe

“We need someone who knows old-word,” says John, dialling his PDD.

“Ugh,” says Cardiff, only now catching up with them, “I think I’m gonna—” And he retches onto the stone paving slabs.

“Lightweight,” mutters Flik.

“Hi, Bellus?” says John, pressing on his ear to drown out the din of the crowd. “What does this mean?” He sends her pics.

She repeats the text. “Haven’t heard that in a while.”

“I’ll take whatever you got,” says John.

“It’s a warning,” she says, “do not prod the wolf until it’s dead.”

“Thanks Bell,” John says.

“Are you in troub—” Bellus tries to say, but she is cut off.

“Wolf,” says Flik, hands on hips, “what do you think that means?”

“I’ve seen graffiti around Old-Town,” says John, “must be a new faction.”

“Or an old one,” says Flik.

“Either way,” says Cardiff, recovering from his puking session, “it’s not our problem. Hand it over to your bartender friend and let’s get out of here.”

“Shouldn’t we—” Flik looks at the pathetic figure of Arkady.

John looks around at the crowd. “What the hells is wrong with you people?” he says. “She’s Westie. Take her down.”

A couple of off-duty miners come timidly forward and begin cutting the dead officers loose.

John is glad to be leaving. He could do with getting away. Everything around here reminds him of Pawter.


 

“Have any of you seen Joey Coins?” Shamir asks the vagrants who throng the tumble-down Communex wall. No-one responds to him. “I’ll pay anyone who tells me where Joey is,” he tries again.

“Dead,” says an old woman in a knitted hat, only she says it ‘day-ed’.

“What? How?" Shamir is beside himself. "Where?”

“Got that outta your system?” says the old woman. “Got any more dubya questions, when, mayhaps?”

“Where is he?” Shamir sinks to a sitting position in the rubble.

“Hydrolysed, far as I know, like all the unclaimed,” says the woman, licking her chapped lips, “you want I should take you to the crematorium, see the ledger?”

“No,” says Shamir, still dazed, “no thanks, I, uh, know where it is. Do you know what happened to him?”

“Twas his foot.”

“Yeah, I know that,” he says, hoping it was a fight or a robbery, anything but the inevitable ignorance, “I treated him. He was supposed to come back.”

“All I knows is, he had more money for booze, last day or two, sold them thar pills he got.”

The woman coughs conspicuously, expecting payment for her trouble, and Shamir drops coin into her filthy hand. “Er, thanks.”

She shuffles off and Shamir holds his head in his hands, half in grief for Old Joey, half for the hard lesson he is learning. "Stupid idiot." He wanders back to the Royale in a dream, blaming himself and wondering if it’s always going to be like this, people refusing to help themselves.

All hell breaks loose as soon as he crosses the threshold. Unnoticed by him, a utility vehicle screeches to a halt out in the street and several people burst in the door, laying an injured person on a table.

A couple of Ferran soldiers who were in the bar drinking pull their weapons. Pree reaches under the bar and cocks a shot-gun. “You can’t be here, Borna,” he bellows, “conflict of interests.”

"Sposed to be neutral ground!"

Shamir recognises the leader of the Salt-Flats people and her Husband Number Three, Liam Jelco. It is her Husband Number Two who has been shot, and he is bleeding profusely onto the table.

"Not since she passed to me," says Pree.

“Your doctor saves him,” says Borna, “or I’ll have your RAC buddy neutered. And that’s just for starters.”

Pree looks at Shamir, nostrils flaring. His weapon lowers slightly. Hubby Number Two continues to bleed and most of the customers scramble to leave, unwilling to be caught in the crossfire.

“Hypocratic oath,” Shamir looks at Pree helplessly.

“Fine,” says Pree, finally lowering the shot-gun and turning to the Ferran soldiers, “you two, help him.”

“Who did this?” says Shamir, cutting off the man’s shirt with the scissors from his bag.

“Had a minor disagreement with the Molemeyers,” says Borna, panic on her face.

“Who are the,” begins Shamir, prodding the wound, “you know what, I don’t care. Mr Dezz, I’m going to need the crash kit from my office.” Pree doesn’t move. Shamir clicks his fingers at the Ferran. “You there, get me the crash kit, and an IV.”

One of the soldiers bounds up the stairs and the other stays to protect Shamir. Pree hovers nearby as Shamir moves rapidly to cauterise the bleeding. “Tell her you won’t help him until she lets Turin go,” he says discretely.

“Seriously?”

“I’m telling you," says Pree, "this is not in the interests of the resistance.”

“I’m not doing that,” Shamir says almost to himself, turning to Borna, “his pulse is weak. You left it too long. What were you thinking?”

Borna just swallows weakly, fearful for her Number Two. Shamir did not expect to see such vulnerability in her.

“We thought we could deal with it,” says Liam, grasping his own hair in his hand, “but we were wrong. Deteriorated rather rapidly.”

Shamir catches the equipment thrown to him by the returning Ferran and rushes to get fluids into the patient. “The slug’s still in there, but I’ll have to get him stabilised before we move him.” Borna shoots out a hand and stops him from administering an injection. She makes the consequences of treachery clear with her eyes. “It’s alright,” says Shamir, “I swore to protect life. My word's as valuable as yours.”

His mobile monitor begins to show a steadier heart-beat, and Borna is visibly relieved, so Liam takes the opportunity to drag Shamir aside.

“If you let him die,” he says, lowering his voice and watching his wife stroke Number Two’s hair, “I’ll do anything you want, including releasing your Turin.”

“What?” Shamir breathes.

Liam repeats himself with more emphasis. “Anything you want, if you let him die.”

“Don’t mess with me,” says Shamir, “I’m having a really bad day.”

“You don’t need to kill him,” says Liam, “just don’t do your best. She’ll never know. I’ll get promoted and you’ll get your man back.”

It certainly is a tempting offer. “I,” Shamir falters, “I’m not going to do that. I swore an oath, to do no harm.”

“You’ll find out, soon enough, that promises don’t mean jakk on Westerley.”

Shamir is saved by the monitor beeping frantically. He goes back to his patient, shooting Liam a disgusted glance. “As long as he’s on these premises, he’s my patient and I’ll do my damn best. If you don’t like that, you can take your chances elsewhere.”

Pree glares at Shamir as he and the Ferran soldiers carry Number Two up the stairs to his surgery. Take the deal, doc, he mouths silently.


 

Qresh

“Prison, sweet prison.” Kendry raises a rock above her head to throw it at Officer Czokas, but then thinks better of it. Last time, the rock had barely injured him, and they’d turned on the power to her nerve-cuffs. That was a fun evening.

Louella is sprawled on the ground of the stone-yard where Czokas has thrown her, along with her bread and water. Her prosthetic hand twitches with a random electrical impulse.

“I said, pick them up,” Czokas growls, flicking out a voltage stick. His friend Welliver watches amused from the door of the guard-house.

Louella doesn’t stir, and Kendry fears for a second that the last dose of Hullen might have, in fact, killed her.

Kendry strains against her chains. Get up, she wills Louella, this is our chance.

And just as suddenly as the incident had happened, Louella swirls to a sitting position and snaps to her feet.

“What the—” Czokas takes a step back at the green fire in her eyes.

“Get him!” yells Kendry, understanding that the plasma has, at last, done its work.

Louella rushes Czokas and Welliver says, “oh, shit!”


 

Pree and Borna sit facing each other at the corner table, shots lined up between them like chess pieces. Shamir approaches them and trails his fingers on the table. “I did all I could, but there were bullet fragments in his upper thorax. I’m so sorry Borna, but he’s gone. You can collect him when you're ready, or I could... you know, the crematorium.”

Borna does not look up at Shamir, but downs another shot, holding Pree’s gaze.

Shamir wanders off sadly to clean up the blood.

“How did it all come to this, Bee?” says Pree, pushing another shot-glass toward her.

“I got proud, that’s what,” she says, reaching for it.

“What will you do?”

“Mourn,” she says, “move on.”

“I mean about the Molemeyers,” says Pree.

“I don’t know yet. All I know is, they’ve wasted their last chance with me.”

“Why didn’t you ever tell me Jolene was your sister?”

Borna looks at him, startled. “Half sister,” she says, “we don’t speak.”

“Am I gonna have a problem on my hands with her?”

Over on the other side of the bar-room, Shamir looks up from his scrubbing to see Liam lingering with arms folded. “You got what you wanted,” he says bitterly.

“No thanks to you.”

“What?” Shamir stops his cleaning. “You said if he died, you’d let Turin go.”

“I said if you actively allowed him to die. You worked your cute little Qreshi silk socks off to make sure that didn’t happen. Ergo, no deal.”

Shamir breathes aggressively through his teeth. He is learning a very hard lesson indeed. “You bastard. Turin’s of no value to you. No self-respecting independent would touch this. You’re just trying to piss off the resistance.”

“Not just a pretty face after all,” says Liam, “you see, all this tension creates conflict, and conflict creates profit. And that’s why I’m the strategy husband.”

“The what?” says Shamir as Borna grabs Liam’s upper arm.

“Time to go,” she says.

“Are you at least going to pay,” Shamir climbs to his feet, almost slipping on blood, “for the treatment, and the uh, the er, er, cremation?”

“We’ll owe you one,” says Borna. Then she turns to Liam, pulling him by the jacket. “You’re Number Two now.”

Liam gives Shamir a triumphant look as they leave. “TTFN. We have a RAC commander to castrate.”

The crash of shot glasses in the sink makes Shamir look over at Pree. He is morose.

Chapter Text

~Last night~

Salt-Flats

When they arrive back at camp, the absence of Fletcher weighs heavily upon everyone who greets them. Glances are shared. Breath is held. No-one speaks, they just unload Borna’s truck and go about their usual routine. Saying the wrong thing might land them in hot water with the mistress, possibly even killed. She can be unpredictable, especially when unpredictable things happen.

Trees know, Liam was not fond of the man, despite sharing a bed for the last year or so, but he still feels responsible for his wife’s pain. Only one thing will cheer her up. A good castrating.

Borna is already marching toward the tent they keep Turin in, and he trots to keep up with her. “Darling,” he says, as sensitively as he can, “don’t you think it would be wiser to wait until you’ve calmed down a mite?”

She stops her stride and glares at him. “Calm,” she says, calmly, “calm? I’ll show them calm. Someone is going to pay tonight.” She throws back the tent flap and then the most unprecedented thing happens. The central support snaps and the canvas comes falling on top of them like the dark wings of a crow. “Damn you, Jaqobis—”

Liam can imagine him and Turin laughing somewhere at their misfortune, maybe even the brother too, and that other RAC agent, Something Lee.


 

~Day 14~

Leith

“This is too much.” Constance looks at her PDD.

D’avin stands holding his daughter outside the front door of the monastery. It is autumn-dry, and the small birds bathe in the dust of the driveway. “Can't put a price on saving us.”

“You saved yourselves.” Constance steels herself with a deep breath and fastens the top button on the baby's cardigan. “Look at her, she doesn't need me anymore.”

“Not too late to change your mind.” D’avin has a lump in his throat.

“I have to go before she bonds. She’ll only be confused if she’s older than her nanny.” She looks down thoughtfully. “There's a little boy in Outlook, orphaned at five weeks old. We're going to take him in. Maybe I'll keep him. I don't know yet.”

D’avin nods. “Anything you need, I can make it happen.”

“Contraband bacon?”

“If you really wanna piss off Mother Superior.”

They laugh, but Quin doesn’t, waiting diplomatically to one side and kicking the ground until they’ve finished.

Constance snakes her arms around Davin's neck and tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek. Ylessa is squashed between them but she doesn't mind, and her sticky fingers get tangled in Constance’s long hair. “Just tell me one thing,” she whispers.

“Anything.” He releases her.

“Are we going to make it? The human race, I mean.”

“I'm not gonna lie,” he says, “I don't know. But I'll die trying.”

Constance then gives Quin a hug and soothes the back of her hair affectionately, pressing their cheeks together. “I'll call,” she says. “Don't be a stranger.”

“I won't.” Tears fall freely from Quin's huge eyes.

“And you,” Constance catches the baby's hand and holds it to her cheek, “be good.”

D'avin watches her walk to the waiting vehicle and get in, dumping her bag in the back seat. She doesn't look back as the driver moves away. He knows that it’s because she can't stand to see the baby reach out for her. Although she doesn't understand what is happening, Ylessa shrieks for what she feels as a loss. It has been only two weeks for them, but a lifetime for her. Perhaps her cries are only keener because she's cutting molars, but it's unbearable.

He turns to Quin to maybe say something comforting, but she completely blanks him, heading back to the front door.


 

Old-Town

“You’ve—” Fancy stops in front of Satinder’s part of the Cleansed base-camp, where she is sitting cross-legged on the cot, completing a sudoku.

“Changed my hair?” She looks up, puts her device down. “Yeah, I uh, the irony of green was starting to wear thin.”

It is purple now. She runs a hand through it.

“Took me a while,” says Fancy, chucking her a plastic bag of cookies, “but here you go.”

“Finally,” she says, pleased.

“I had to bribe a lot of people.” Fancy folds his arms and leans on the shoji screen that separates Satinder’s belongings from those of Azlyn Schae next door. “Put your boots on, we have work to do.”

“You mean—” Satinder frowns.

“I’m getting used to having you around.”

“Anything else you want to say?”

“I’m impressed with your work,” Fancy dead-pans.

“So, what you said about not needing—”

“I do need you. Now, if it's not too inconvenient.”

She begins to pull her boots on. “About before—”

“I don’t want to talk about—”

“I really enjoyed myself.”

“I don’t usually—” says Fancy.

“Sleep with someone you have to talk to afterwards?” She grabs her jacket and straps on her side-arm. “Hey, look, this is all new to me too. Being Hullen really affects your dating pool, y'know.”

“I meant, I don’t want it to affect our work if we fall out—when we—”

“Who says we’re going to fall out, Mr Lee?” She looks at him intriguingly as she leads the way out of the warehouse. “Ooh, one more thing.” She turns sharply and goes back to her bed, wedging a cookie in her mouth and hiding the rest under her mattress. “Wlow I’m wleady. Oh, my glod that's gwood.”


 

~That Evening~

D’avin leaves Spider and Satinder guarding Ylessa’s door. “That’s a bit overkill, isn't it?” he says, nodding at Satinder’s assault rifle.

“Not when your security’s in question,” says Satinder.

“Very well.”

“She takes her job very seriously,” says Spider, “I, on the other hand, never saw becoming your babysitter as the next career move.”

“Then I recognise what a sacrifice this is for you,” smiles D’avin, attempting to leave.

“Uh, D’avin,” Satinder calls him back, “I never got to thank you.”

“There’s no need. I didn’t do anything.”

“Yeah, but whatever they did to you,” she says, “it must’ve hurt.”

“Probably,” he says, “but not as much as being Six-ed.”

“I prefer to think of it as a temporary lapse in humanity,” says Satinder.

“Speak for yourself,” says Spider indignantly.

“You were Hullen for what,” says Satinder, “five minutes?”

***

“Priority one,” says D’avin, coming into the refectory where everyone is waiting patiently at one of the tables, “intelligence. Bad guys are organised. They wear uniforms, so where is their base? They have FTL, so it's probably outside the J.” He slows down when he realises no-one is engaging with what he’s saying, and that there are a few people missing. “Where did the Hullen ship come from? Where… was it built? How… did… they… hide… it?”

He looks at them and they are all staring back at him with blank faces. If he didn’t know better, he’d say there was pity. Zeph wraps an elastic band around her fingers like she does when she is preparing for something difficult.

“Stop, D’avin,” says Pree, tracing the wood-grain of the table, “just take a seat.”

“No,” he says plainly, hands on hips, “what’s going on?”

“This is not a war council,” Pree looks up at him, “it’s an intervention.”

“A what?” he smiles nervously.

“It’s when—” begins Pip.

“Yeah,” D’avin holds up a hand, “I know what an intervention is.”

“It's come to our attention,” says Fancy, “that you’re not doing so well,”

“I’m fine,” D’avin half-laughs.

“If fine means completely freaking out,” says Pree, “look, hon, when most people have a baby everyone cooks them dinner and takes over the chores, but you’re still cleaning house, and it’s a damn big house.”

Metaphor? Zeph mouths at Pip.

“You need to take time off,” says Fancy.

“I can’t afford to take—” attempts D’avin, wavering between amusement at their audacity and annoyance at the waste of time.

“You need to stop micromanaging everything,” says Pree, “or its going to kill you.”

“I’m not micro—” But they won’t let him get a word in.

“You need to learn to delegate,” continues Pree, “let us take care of everything. Trust us.”

“I do,” he says helplessly, “but I have to keep everything under control. I promised Dutch—”

“And she wouldn’t want you destroying yourself to do it,” says Pree. “We made promises too. Every one of us.”

“You all feel the same way?” D’avin looks at each of the people at the table, Pree, Fancy, Pip, Zeph, Paulus, who has wisely been keeping out of proceedings, more of a mediator than a participant.

“Yes,” says Fancy. Everyone else nods.

“I don’t believe this,” D’avin shakes his head.

“When was the last time you had a good night’s sleep?” Zeph looks at him sternly.

“Wednesday,” says D’avin, snark impending, “twenty years ago. I’ve never slept well. It’s normal for me.”

“You fell asleep whilst talking to me on the phone the other day,” says Fancy, “that’s not normal.”

Zeph makes a note. “Narcolepsy,” she says, “not good.”

“It’s just the time adjustment,” says D’avin, exasperated, “I’ve been on Westie time for—”

“It shouldn’t take more than two weeks to adapt,” says Zeph “I’d better run some tests to be safe.”

“Guys,” says D’avin, increasingly frustrated, “I swear—”

“Sweetie,” says Pree, “take a look in the mirror. When was the last time you took a shower? That vomit’s been on your shirt for about a week. And when was the last time you did something about,” he waves a circle in front of D’avin’s face, “this whole calamity.”

D’avin looks down at his chest and starts to think they might be right. “Okay, Okay,” he says, “I’ll admit, I haven’t been coping well, but it’s just the usual stress of—” He can’t finish. Having a baby you only found out about three weeks ago? Losing the one person you’ve ever fallen for? Fighting a losing battle against an invisible enemy that’s vastly superior?

“We know, D’avin,” says Zeph, “we know everything.”

“Everything?”

“We know about you and Dutch, and we know you think there’s no way for her to get back, but actually,” she takes a breath, looking at the others for approval, “we think that’s bull-shit. You can’t go by what Aneela says. If anyone can get out of the green, then Dutch can, and you need to start believing in her as much as we do.”

“I do,” he pleads, “but—”

“You’re not yourself,” says Pree, “so, we’ve discussed it and we’re going to take over your duties, whether you like it or not. You can take a couple of months, until she’s—”

“What the hell is this, mutiny?”

“To use your vernacular,” says Pree, “it’s more of a barn-raising.”

D’avin turns away and stands facing the wall, forcing himself to not run away, until someone else breaks the silence.

“I think you’ve broken him,” says Pip.

“Are you,” says Zeph cautiously, “alright?”

“It’s just,” D’avin swallows thickly, “I don't have my usual counsel."

"He's always had a team," says Zeph, realising.

"I need my brother.”

“We’re your brothers,” says Fancy and it’s like he’s stabbed him in the heart.

“Me too,” says Zeph.

D’avin turns back to them, unable to look any of them in the eye, until he finally covers his face with his hands and sobs.

Zeph leaps up from her chair and puts her arms around him, and he hunches into her shoulder and cries with his face still in his hands.

“Oh, hells,” says Pip, finally giving in and hugging them both. They stand there for a while in a weird three-way, with D’avin’s shoulders softly shaking.

Pree and Fancy share something unsaid over the table. “You wanna—” starts Pree doubtfully.

“Not really my scene,” says Fancy.

“Okay,” says Pree brightly, breaking the tension and causing the others to let D’avin go, “if you’ve quite finished, we need to talk logistics.”

D’avin sniffs and wipes his eyes unsuccessfully with the back of his hands, takes a seat defeatedly at the table. Pip goes in search of tissues over where the monks keep the cutlery.

“We know about the nanny,” says Fancy, “what were you planning on doing?”

“Well, we can’t stay here,” D’avin shrugs, accepting tissues from Pip, who lingers at his shoulder, biting a thumb-nail. “Every day the chance of exposure increases exponentially, so we were going to go north. There’s this little ryokaan near the springs where they don’t know—”

“No,” says Zeph confidently.

“No?” says D’avin.

“You’re coming with me,” she says, “we’ve already decided.”

“I can’t possibly—”

“You can,” she says, “and you will. I will not take no for an answer. It’s my turn to do all the rescuing.”

“I can’t guarantee your safety,” says D’avin.

“And we can’t guarantee your safety if you’re off grid,” says Fancy.

“Look, it’s remote and it’s just my dad,” says Zeph, “you’d be doing me a favour keeping him company. And it means I can experiment on you.”

“On?” He looks at her, folding his used tissue.

“With,” she back-tracks, “experiment with you.”

“What do you say?” says Pree. “It’s better than moving from inn to inn.”

D’avin takes a deep breath. He’s not happy about it, but he knows they won’t budge. “Okay,” he sighs.

“Okay?” says Pip. “He said Okay!”

“Yay!” Zeph gives a little jump and claps her hands.

Fancy looks at them disapprovingly.

“Great,” says D’avin, “something to look forward to; constant sexual harassment and unintentional racism.”

Paulus smiles at him from the other end of the table, and only then does D’avin realise the conspiracy he’s been at the centre of.

“Better than being surrounded by stubborn teenagers losing their nut,” shrugs Pip.

***

Fancy is the last person he expects to see while wandering the corridors. Everyone else is at vespers and he's gone for a stroll one last time with Ylessa asleep on his shoulder, even though she doesn't need it now, not like the early days. “Didn’t know you were still here.”

“I got roped into the tour,” says Fancy.

“Not thinking about taking holy orders are we now?”

Fancy juts his chin. “I’ve considered it more than once. Does she ever wake up?”

D’avin shifts the baby’s weight slightly. “Not really.”

“Actually, I wanted to talk to you.”

“Good,” says D’avin, “you can stay for supper. Monks make their own miso. It’s supposed to be cleansing. Not that you need—” he stops when he realises Fancy is not amused.

“It’s about the monks.”

“Go on.”

“People see yellow robes and they think ‘trust’. It’s hella easy to take advantage of that.”

“I know,” D’avin looks at him sincerely, “I’ve seen it up close. But don’t worry, I have detailed files on everyone here.”

Fancy stops walking. “Do you have detailed files on me?”

“Aw, come on, Fancy, that’s not fair.”

“Do you?” Fancy persists.

“No,” says D’avin, “because the files aren’t that detailed. No-one knows anything about you.”

“How do you know you can trust me?”

“Because, even with everything we’ve done to each other, you’re still here. Is that the answer you were fishing for?”

Fancy shifts uncomfortably. “Satisfactory.”

“I see what this is,” says D’avin, “and if you’re not comfortable with me placing my trust in you, then you need to walk away. Walk away now.”

Fancy stays rooted to the spot, breathes a couple times. “I’m staying.”

“That’s what I thought,” D’avin smiles, “now what about supper? I’m gonna miss all this vegan shit.”

They resume their walk.

“One thing’s for sure, though,” says Fancy, “someone will betray us, and it’s always the person you suspect the least.”

His words stay with D’avin that night, long after he’s gone.

Chapter Text


 

~Many Nights Ago~

The Snowdrop Inn – Outlook - Leith

“What is a hero anyway?” D’avin reclaims his seat at the table.

“Heroic and foolish often turn out to be one and the same. It all depends on the result.” Alvis nurses a mulled apple juice while the fireplace roars at their backs.

“Like the results of say, a paternity test?”

“You told her, then?”

“Took it surprisingly well. It’s not often you have to say to someone, oh, and by the way, I’m having a baby with your clone. It was only awkward for a split second, and then she said she’ll stand by me, whatever happens, so there’s always that. Would probably be less awkward if we weren’t having sex. Probably shouldn't be— Wait, y ou're Okay with that?”

“My prayer for her has always been to find love,” says Alvis enigmatically.

“I didn’t say love, I said sex.”

“Everything else says love. She made a good choice with you.”

“I often fear I’m not good for her. I want to be good for her, you know, I want to be better.”

“Did you ever hear the tale of the three priests who went into the Holiest Place?”

“Can’t say that I have,” says D’avin, taking comfort in a swig of beer, “but I’m fairly sure you’re going to tell it.”

“Behind the curtain was a mirror that shows your true self. One priest went in and immediately died. One went mad and destroyed everything. Only one went in peace.”

“There’s a point to this?”

“Looking into a mirror and seeing your true self can destroy a man. I was never the same after Springhill. I want to be the man who went in peace, but every day I’m getting closer to madness.”

D’avin never expected such honesty. “You’re not going mad,” he says gently, "or you'd better not be. I need you in that war-room."

“But you can face that mirror and come out unscathed.”

“I wouldn’t say completely unsc—”

“I don’t want to be remembered for that one mistake, for my failings. When a person is gone, all that's left of them is other people’s memories. Is that enough to prove they were ever alive? Is it reliable enough? What if we got it wrong? What if, hypothetically, a person doesn't make enough connections to be remembered?”

“Hey,” says D’avin, disconcerted, “what’s brought this on? This isn’t you.”

“I’ve been carrying something around for too long. After the funeral, John said to me, the only way for him to get revenge on Delle Seyah is to make her feel the same pain, by taking away something that she loves. I didn’t understand why I was chosen as the bearer of this burden, until now.” Alvis looks at him meaningfully.

“You think he’ll try to—”

“It’s the logical assumption.”

“John wouldn’t hurt a baby.”

“But he’s blinded by grief, there’s no telling what he may do. I don’t want to be the one to spell it out, D’avin, but you are going to have to choose between your brother and your unborn child. This is your Springhill, and you need to make the right choice.”


 

~Day 15~

Black-site

“I guess this is goodbye again, girl.” John looks up from laying a hand on Lucy’s guts and puts his number five screwdriver away in its case.

“There’s a word for loving someone who's not there,” says Pip, “it’s on the tip of my tongue—”

“Necrophilia?” says Lucy.

“Ew, no,” says John, “and I don’t think this humour plug-in is working out.”

“Why is everyone leaving?” says Lucy. “Is it because of my humour mod?”

“No,” says John, “of course not, it’s never you. You’re—you’re perfect, Lucy, but it’s just that,” he swallows, “we’re not.”

“I’m looking after you for a while,” says Pip, “so John can go and kick the RAC in the ass.”

“How long will you be gone?” says Lucy, as the two men head into the mess.

John pours them both a drink. “Not like before. Only for a little while. If we take a copy of you with us then we can sync when we return, double your run-time, increase the hours you spend interacting with humans and developing self-awareness. Don’t know why I haven’t done this before.”

“How will I keep everything running smoothly if I am stuck in the hangar?”

John is momentarily speechless. “Lucy you,” he looks at Pip, “don’t need to be the one who’s keeping everything under control. That’s D’av’s job. You need a, a vacation, yeah, that’s it.”

“Ships do not need a vacation,” says Lucy.

“Sure they do,” Pip backs him up, “but I’ll take you for a spin from time to time.”

“As long as you don’t try to land her on an asteroid with no gravity,” John looks at him accusingly.

“Heh,” says Pip, “I wouldn’t try that again if my life depended on it, and at the time my life depended on it, so—”

“You’ll be queen of the hangar, Lucy,” says John, “you can lord it over the falcons.”

“Alright,” says Lucy, “I will allow you to leave, but only if you bring me back some bling.”

“Some what?” John coughs into his hokk.

Pip grins. “Oh, I think we’re going to get along,” he says under his breath.

“What do you mean bl—” John starts.

“Bling?” says Lucy. “I mean those turbo—”

“Encabulators,” he finishes for her, “I got it.”

“She has expensive tastes,” says Pip, toasting her with his glass, “hope I’m not gonna run afoul of that.”

“You don’t know the half of it.” He looks at Pip, but the young man is not enjoying the banter as much as he would expect. In fact, he looks downright pensive. “What is it?”

“Have you ever gotten really close to someone really quickly, and it’s kinda too good to be true?”

“Are you talking about Zeph?”

“D’avin, but yeah, her too.”

“D’av forms working relationships pretty quickly. It’s an army thing, survival. Zeph, not so much. You must be really special.”

“I’ve never had real friends before. I’ve always had to pay body-men to hang out with me. I don’t want to let any of you down.”

“Don’t then.”

“Right, got it,” Pip stares at nothing, “don’t let you down. How do I do that again?”

“You’ll be fine,” says John, “Dutch recruited you because she could see you’re legit. She has a talent for spotting honest thieves.” He winks rouguishly.

“Yeah,” says Pip, “I am kinda cool.”

“I think you are cool too, Pippin,” says Lucy, “I am going to enjoy our time together.”

“There you have it, the ultimate confirmation,” says John, “but, uh, Lucy, I’m still number one, right?”

Pip would’ve laughed at that, had it not been for John suddenly doubling over in paroxysms and coughing into his hand.


 

Monastery

“All I’m saying is, you can’t underestimate the negative effects of being on the run.” Brogan has invited herself to breakfast at their table in the bustling refectory and, frankly, D’avin is starting to not like her.

“You don’t know the full story,” he says, feeding Ylessa chunks of banana, which she smooshes appreciatively into her mouth, reaching immediately for more with sticky, grabby little hands.

“No,” Brogan continues, “I only know you’re at risk. But your enemies are not the only threat to her health. She needs stability.”

“Thanks for the unsolicited advice, but we don’t really have a choice.”

“Something to think about.” Brogan gets up to leave, taking her empty plate with her.

Only then does D’avin notice that Jake has been listening to their entire conversation with a concerned expression. “You Okay with this, buddy?”

“It’s been nice having you around,” he says, “but I totally understand. You can’t let the bad guys get hold of her.”

Ylessa throws her spoon at him.

“Ow, monkey,” says Jake.

“How come you get it,” says D’avin, retrieving the spoon from the floor, “when none of the adults get it?” He puts the spoon back on the table of Ylessa’s borrowed high-chair. “No,” he says sternly, “we do not throw cutlery at people.”

“’Cause I’m really smart,” says Jake, forming his toast crusts into a negative on his plate.

“Yes, but sometimes that’s not enough. You can’t coast on natural ability forever, it takes hard work too. Promise me you’ll work hard at school.”

“Tap my heart,” says Jake, taking a gulp from his beaker.

“And promise me you won’t let being smart make you treat other people like shit.”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

“I know. I just have to make sure.”

“D’avin, I know how this works. Really. I'm eleven, not three. But you are coming back soon, right?”

“I—” his eyes mist, “don’t know when we’ll be back.”

Jake looks down, reality finally settling in. “You’re really leaving, aren’t you? Like, probably for good.”

“Probably not for good, but yeah, for a long time. You’ve got Olan and Brogan and Paulus, and Quin. Jer and what's-his-name.”

"Lukasz."

"Yeah, Lucasz."

“I could come with you.”

D’avin starts to choke up. “A valid suggestion, but I need you to keep an eye on Olan. I’m gonna need him strong.” It’s wrong, he knows that, putting responsibility on such small shoulders, no matter that it’s fake. This is exactly what he did to John.

Jake considers this for a moment. “Okay,” he says, “I’ll let you go this time. But you’d better come back.”

“We’ll come and find you after we’ve packed, say goodbye properly.”

“Can I have a word?” Quin is at his shoulder, looking very serious.

“Oh, so you’re speaking to me now?”

“We don’t have time for this D’avin, it's important.”

He looks at Jake. “Would you—”

“I’ll feed her,” says Jake.

Quin pulls him to an alcove out of range of young ears. “What you said about the Sisters of the Divine Sorrow may turn out to be fruitful.”

“Go on.”

“I’ve been speaking to a lot of people out on the rim. Turns out, Scarback religion didn’t start here. It started at the start, on the Capital.”

“The Capital of the Republic?”

“No, the Capital of Juno Bloggins, what the hells do you think?”

“They covered it up? Why would they—”

“Because it’s in the Republic’s best interest to not have people freaking out about green goo and cutting themselves all the time?” Quin says. “And the Mother tree. It’s an actual tree.”

“There’s an actual tree?” His mind starts racing with all the possibilities. “Like Aneela’s pool on Archive?”

Quin flinches at the mention of Aneela. “I don’t know, but it must mean something.”

“This is good,” says D’avin, clasping his hands together, “really good. Good work, Q.”

She arrests him with that unreadable face again. Watery eyes flicking all over him. “Why did you give me this job?”

“Come on, we’ve been through this—”

“Was it just to keep my mind off Alvis?”

“Uh.” He won’t answer.

“Tell me the truth,” she says, more aggressive than he’s ever seen her.

“Yes.”

“I’m not a child.” She almost wheels away from him then.

He grabs her arm. “Evidently.”

“I don’t need you to protect me from all the emotional stuff like you do with them.” She looks at Jake, but he knows she means John. “I’m going to carry on with it, because I think it’s important, but you can’t keep treating me like I’m less important, or stupid—” she turns away, eyes stinging.

“I don’t—I don’t think that. You are important.”

“Why don’t I believe you?”

D’avin swallows with difficulty. “Look, I—is it her? Because I can’t help that someone stole my DNA. You’re gonna have to cut me some slack here. I’m just trying to do what’s right, for everyone. I just—I don’t know what I’ve done wrong.”

“It's not really you."

“So enlighten me.”

“It’s something you could never understand.”

“Try me.” He stares right into her eyes and won’t let her look away.

Tears begin to flow freely. Everything that was once protecting her falls away. “On—” she chokes.

“Go on,” he lifts her chin.

“I’m so confused right now,” she sobs.

“You were going to say, On—”

“Back home,” she manages to get out, and then, “they... did things to me.”

“Oh, shit.” D’avin leans back against the wall, winded. He doesn't need an explanation of just what they did. The shittiness of human beings left to their own vices is universal. “Sit down.” He guides her into a seat and crouches down in front of her, handing her napkins from the table. He glances at Jake, but he seems to be managing alright and Ylessa doesn’t even seem to have noticed he’s gone.

When Quin is ready to speak again, it all spills out in a jumble. “And you were the first person I met who didn’t want anything from me and Alvis didn’t want anything from me except to ask me what I wanted and to help me and I so didn’t want to let him down but now he’s gone and I’m messing this all up and I tried so hard to forget but everything that’s been happening has just brought it all up and now I’m confused because I just want to be around you but I’m so scared of you at the same time scared of what I'm feeling and it shouldn’t be like that rationally I know it shouldn’t be like that and—” she runs out of steam, holding the napkin to her eyes, blows her nose loudly, “it shouldn’t be like this.”

He squeezes her arm, ever-so gently. “It’s not your fault.”

She falls into his embrace. “I can’t do this,” she sniffles.

D’avin is crying now too. He holds her tightly and strokes the back of her hair. “It’s not your fault,” he says again, “it’s not your fault.”

“I can’t keep doing this,” Quin pulls herself out of his arms and manages a smile, cleaning up her face with the back of a hand, “you have to leave.”

“I don’t want to leave you like this.” He searches her eyes.

“No, honestly,” she reaches for more tissues, “I’ve accepted that I’m not going to see you again for a long time.”

“Not that long.”

“Long enough.”

“Your timing is awful, do you know that?”

"I didn't plan it this way," she laughs through her tears. “Go. Just go. You need to pack. I’ll be fine.”

“Do one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Talk to Brogan.”

“I will.”

As he leaves her, all the other novices swarm in and comfort her, and he knows she’s going to be alright. It might take a long time, but she's going to be alright. And it's right that he's going. It's not what she wants, but it's what she needs. He'd only wade in and make a mess out of trying to fix things. Gods know he'd rip those bastards limb from limb if he had the chance. But that is not what she needs.

He is the last thing she needs.


 

Land Trus - Qresh

“What are we going to do?” Melis puts down the tablet, aghast. Her father is infuriatingly stoic, won't even look up from his ehetia tonic.

“Nothing.” Seyon Trus puts his glass back on its coaster on his lavishly laquered desk.

“Nothing?” It is all she can do to keep herself from flying into a blind rage. “Two of the most notorious political prisoners of the last century escape from custody and you're not going to do a damn thing? They're coming after us next. I hope you know that.”

“Think about how it's going to look,” says Trus, “we have to present a strong front. Losing two criminals looks weak. We must appear in control, no matter what occurs under the surface.”

“Oh, and you'd know all about that, wouldn't you?” Melis sneers, grabbing her purse from his desk. “Doesn't matter what's going on behind the scenes as long as everything appears normal. Especially if what's going on is your own child's pain.”

“This is not about you, Mel. Stop making this about you—”

“Argh, you are so annoying!” She flounces out and slams the door behind her.

Once alone, Trus hangs his head in his hands. His throat feels funny. Burning even. Then he has an idea and turns on his holo-phone. “Nathan,” he says to the colonel who appears, “keep the search low-key, can't risk a public furor around this.”

“As you wish, sir.” And then the man's face turns to concern. “Are you alright, sir?”

“Ugh.” Trus falls off his chair and clutches his throat, too weak to raise the alarm.


 

Thornfield 

D'avin looks at the array of pictures lining the kitchen wall while Ylessa takes her second nap of the day. There are portraits of Zeph as a school-girl, graduation poses, her father and another man with Zeph as a baby, a couple of generations of sheep-dogs. “This is your husband?” he asks as Llinos hands him a cup of coffee.

“Felix,” says Llinos, standing beside him with his own steaming cup in his hands, “dead two years now. Cancer.”

“I’m so sorry.” D’avin touches the frame of a picture of them all together, at least twenty years old. It is clear that the ghost of loss still walks in this place, and Llinos wears the mask of one left behind.

“Know what you're thinking, which one of us is the biological father,” says Llinos, “and the answer is, neither. She’s adopted. Folks died in a blaze, double suicide pact. Oh, don’t worry, she knows.” D’avin is aware of all this, of course, but it’s different hearing it from the horse’s mouth. More real somehow. Newly devastating. “So,” Llinos leads him to the large, scrubbed dining table and they sit down, “Zephyr tells me you’re a soldier.”

“Was. Thought I’d left that life behind for good,” he puts his mug down, “but now—”

At that moment, Shadow flies down from her perch atop the old dresser, and lands on Llinos’s shoulder. “Spied treats, didn't you girl?”

“She’s a dawe, isn’t she?” says D’avin, holding his hand out to the bird as she ruffles her feathers.

“Aye,” says Llinos, giving her cookie crumbs out of the palm of his hand, “and an inveterate opportunist, at that. Don’t leave valuables lying around.”

“How do you know she’s a girl?”

Llinos squints at him. “You’ve never worked with animals, have you?”

“More my brother’s speed.”

“Eggs,” says Llinos, feeding her more oatmeal cookie, “but she didn’t incubate ‘em, did you, you little ingrate? Terrible mother. Had to bury ‘em out back.”

Shadow takes her cue to flap off then, soaring down the hallway with a sharp tchak-tchak.

“Listen I,” D’avin chances, “I don’t want our being here to cause any tension between—”

“Oh, don’t you mind any of that,” says Llinos, waving a hand, “it’s her house and she’ll do what she wants in the long run, the rest of us have to live with that. ‘Sides, it’ll do me good to have someone to talk to, gets quiet of a winter with the boss off doing who-knows-what on that cruiser.”

“Well, that’s partly my fault—”

“She was always a workaholic. Always had some project or other on the go. The worst part is when they leave home for university. I cried for so long. Felix, of course was the strong one. He was always her favourite.”

“Unfortunately, that’s going to come a lot quicker for me,” says D’avin.

“What’s wrong with her?” says Llinos, meaning the child.

“She has a, uh, it’s a genetic thing. She ages twenty times faster than normal. No-one’s ever seen it before.”

“So, in a few weeks—”

“She’ll be ready for school, yeah.” D’avin handles the rock that Jake gave him when they said goodbye. It looks suspiciously like it came from the dry-stone wall in the quadrangle garden. He puts it on the table.

Llinos looks at him with the well-worn gaze of someone who has seen everything and cannot be surprised. “You’ve got your work cut out, then.”

D'avin's PDD beeps. He looks at it. John is on his way.

***

He watches John back the rambler down Lucy’s ramp and into a convenient spot in Zeph’s meadow.

“There's nothing sexier than a guy with a baby on one arm and a massive weapon in the other.” Flik comes down the ramp and gestures toward Ylessa, aware that she might make it difficult for the brothers to talk. “Do you want me to, uh—I have many siblings, a bit of an old hand.”

Before answering, D’avin considers a second. “Sure, she loves strangers. Eats ‘em for breakfast.”

Flik hoists Ylessa onto his hip. “She's really good.”

“Until you refuse to do what she wants. Correction. Until I refuse to do what she wants.” D’avin hooks the baby-bag onto Flik’s shoulder. He's actually grown to quite enjoy their exchanges, since the man forgave him for dropping him on his head. They now have an understanding that they were both only doing their jobs. The encounter did, however, cement in Flik's mind how far D'avin would be willing to go to protect his brother.

“Does she have a bottle or something?” says Flik

“She can hold a cup.”

“Uh, if you two have finished competing for parent of the year,” says John, coming back, “we have business to discuss.”

They walk up Lucy’s ramp and into the cargo hold so that D’avin can pick up the bag stuffed with the rest of his things. It’s heavy. He’s not sure how he’s accumulated so many possessions over the last couple of years. “I know everything you’ve been doing, Johnny, but this stops now. Do you hear me?”

“Are you talking to me as my general, or my brother?”

“Both. If we don’t figure this out and work together, we're not gonna make it.”

“So you’re sending me away?” says John.

“I don’t want to, but you’re the only one I can trust with this.”

“And Kalif 'Flick-me-in-the-forehead-why-don't-you' Khouri. Seriously? How can you trust the guy who put me on ice for shooting Delle Seyah?”

“No, that's exactly why I can. He’s by the book, and loyal as shit.”

“And won’t take any of my bull-shit. That’s what you really mean, isn’t it?”

D’avin goes over to one of the lockers and tugs out the case of throwing knives. “I assume Cardiff’s fully briefed you.”

John nods curtly. “I’ll do your little mission, but don’t for one minute think I approve of what you’re doing here.”

“I never needed your approval,” D’avin shakes his head, “for anything.”

John tosses him a key. “I’m leaving you the rambler. Lucy’s gonna stay in the hangar at the black-site.”

“She’s not mad you’re leaving her behind?”

“Can’t risk her getting hurt. Or captured. We’re taking a copy of her matrix, so she won’t miss out on all the fun. But I’d uh, appreciate it if you called in on her occasionally, for, you know, continuity. If it's safe.”

Awkward silence.

D’avin looks at Ylessa playing with Flik out on the grass. Flik seems to know what he’s doing, making a daisy chain. D'avin tries to quell the panic of having her more than a meter away. “She’ll be all grown up by the time you get back.”

John glowers at him. “Just,” he hesitates, seems unsure what to say, “don't make promises you can’t keep, Okay? And don’t try to buy her off with gifts.”

“I don't do that,” D’avin scoffs.

“You do.”

“Yeah, Okay, I do.”

“Except Dutch.”

“Yeah, well, leaving dead birds on the doorstep like a stray cat seems rather vulgar for someone of her status,” D’avin says evenly, “besides, I let her have you, promised her I'd make sure you were Okay—”

“Oh, how magnanimous of you. Give the man another medal.”

“But I can’t do that if you keep trying to get yourself killed. Why won't you talk to me? Why won't you even look at me?” He relaxes his posture as the answer comes. “Oh. You're jealous. Look, I get it, I really do. Dutch and I were completely consumed with the Hullen problem, so you were kinda pushed outta things. But it started way back when you started moonlighting with Pawter. Don’t delude yourself that it doesn’t make a difference. It put the last nail in the coffin when you skipped town.”

“But I came back—”

“She didn't want you to come back," D'avin silences him. He immediately realises his mistake; John's face is filled with horror. “Her patience won’t last forever. She has been incredibly generous and forgiving, and your relationship with her has always been the centre of this team. It always will be. But what you're doing at the moment—” he gesticulates helplessly, “what changed?”

“I did. Now she's the one who's skipped town, and when she gets back, she won’t be the same either. You think she’ll still want you when she gets back? We don’t plan for the future, you know that. What did you think you were going to do, settle down and play farm for the rest of your li—”

“I don't know,” D’avin cuts him off, “I've never been in love before.”

Silence.

“You're,” John finally says, “in love with her?”

“Yeah, I, uh, think that’s what it’s called.” He squeezes his eyes shut. He’s really messed this up.

“Like, you know, like movie love? I thought—I mean, I thought this was just you, doing what you do. I didn't know you meant it.”

“I mean it, Johnny.”

“You've really never been in love?”

D’avin shakes his head, painfully, seriously. “Not like this. Sold out. No refunds.”

“Does she love you back?”

“I don’t know.”

John thinks for a moment. “She does. I know she does,” he says. D’avin breathes hard, like he might cry. John continues, shaking his head in disbelief. “My best friend and my big brother. So now you have everything. And I have—” He swallows the hard lump in his throat.

“You have land and a spaceship,” D’avin says, “and a second chance at life. The chance to find someone to spend it with.”

John weighs him with his gaze. “What do you know? You’ve never been in love.”

He begins to walk away, back to the cock-pit, but D’avin calls him back. “Johnny.”

“What?” He softens slightly, but still does not turn back.

“Don’t get killed.”

***

D’avin props his PDD on Zeph’s kitchen table to record a message to the Resistance.

He takes a deep, nervous breath. “Hi everyone.” He sounds like himself, not like the general of an army, just a man perched on a stool, framed by the pantry doors. “Firstly, I want to thank you for your hard work and the sacrifices you’ve already made. We won’t forget those we’ve lost over the last few weeks. I know Dutch would say the same if she were here. But I’m afraid the battle’s not over yet. In fact, we must assume it’s going to get much worse.

“And that is why I need to ask even more of you. It means asking you to trust me, even if my decisions and my behaviour seem counterintuitive. It means working harder than we’ve ever worked in our lives, with fewer resources and less information than the minimum required. It means waiting, tarrying with each other and persevering when it looks like all is lost. It means fighting tooth and nail for what matters to you, what you want to preserve.

“I’m not going to do you the injustice of spinning you all that crap about glory, or the bigger picture. All I’m going to say is, some of us won’t survive to enjoy the freedom we’ve won. But it’s worth it.

“Look at your friends and colleagues. Look at your children. Look at your husbands and wives, lovers, sisters and,” he swallows, “brothers. Look at them now. They are worth fighting for. They are worth dying for. And that’s what this bitch doesn’t understand. She doesn’t know what it means to be human, to give value to something so illogical, so fleeting. She doesn’t know that our irrationality, inconsistency and mortality are what makes us dangerous.

“I have to go dark now, but I will contact you again soon. In the meantime, godspeed.”

END OF PART ONE