Chapter 1: Storm in the Quiet
Nowhere to run from all of this havoc
Nowhere to hide from all of this madness, madness, madness
Madness, madness, madness
Sean knew the moment that Roy spoke that he wasn't just any prisoner. He was far too assured in the fact that, yes, he had seen ruins dating back to the first settlers down in those tunnels. He wasn't afraid or even wary of Mary or Sean himself, speaking steadily and looking straight at them.
Something's not right. Who is this prisoner?
While he carried on the questioning and assigned Mary to go and take a look at these so-called ruins, Sean's fingers itched to examine Roy's temples. If he wasn't a technomancer himself, there were very few other options for who he could be, with such knowledge and lack of deference to an officer whose abilities terrified everyone else in Camp 19.
He watched Mary walk away with the ragtag group, only slightly worried that she might find trouble--he was more worried about her being alone with a bunch of men than with the moles.
Young. Inexperienced--and remarkably untrained for her age. How does Aurora teach its technomancers?
Sean turned back towards the view of the bluff, sighing when he saw the same old view of the wasteland surrounding the POW camp. This place was dingy, dirty, nothing like the Source in Ophir, and Sean felt so isolated from his kin that it was as if he had lost a limb.
Camp 19 was a punishment, or at the very least an excuse to separate him from Zachariah. This place didn't really need a technomancer to keep the prisoners in line; many were far too jaded and beaten down to even think of escaping, and all the others knew that there was simply nowhere to go. The train and the rovers were too well guarded, and no one could survive a trek through the desert on foot.
For many prisoners, Camp 19 was a welcome alternative to the front. Sean didn't blame them. He'd fought at the front before, once years ago when he was a newly-minted technomancer officer and once when Zachariah was about 17, when he'd been sent out for a six-month deployment. He still remembered the panic on the boy's face when Sean had broken the news that he would have to go and fight, that he would have to leave Ophir for a time and that he might not come back.
Zachariah had surprised him, then, pushing forward and burying his face in Sean's chest, arms wrapped around his torso in an embrace. He hadn't asked Sean not to go, already old enough to understand that that would only hurt them both.
The older technomancer rarely cried, but at that moment he'd felt tears prick his eyes. He had hidden them then by pulling Zachariah close and closing his eyes tight, trying to imprint this moment, perhaps one of his last with this boy who was more family to Sean than he'd known since he'd been brought to the Source.
He had never actually called Zachariah his son, and Zachariah had never called him "father." But they both felt it, Sean was sure of that.
It was because of that bond that Ian had once pulled him aside, a grave expression on his face as he regarded Sean for a long moment.
"Sean. You know that it is dangerous to become too attached to a student, do you not? I worry for you. And for Zachariah. Our lives are fraught with peril, and often are far shorter than they should be. If something were to happen to one of you, would the other be able to bear the burdens our kin carry?"
Sean had only just resisted the urge to punch his beloved Grand Master in the face, to knock his hand off of Sean's shoulder.
"Abundance takes so much from us, Ian. You cannot tell me that I cannot care for anything at all, because that will kill me just as surely as anything else. Zachariah is family to me. I will not distance myself from him."
Ian had sighed, looking resigned. "Your fatal flaw, brother, is that you cannot stop caring. It always has been, Sean. But I will not interfere. I know what family means to you."
Sean blinked, suddenly shaking himself out of the memory. It wouldn't do to get lost in the past, not when the present was bleak enough as it was.
What was done was done. He had his orders, and he was stuck in this prison camp until the powers that be saw fit to call him back. Everything he could do to prepare Zachariah for the future, he had done. He had to depend on the younger man's abilities to keep him afloat, and to help Ian protect their kin.
There was, even in this place, paperwork to keep an officer busy, so Sean set himself to the task, reading through incident reports and signing his name where required.
Until he felt a tremor rumbling beneath his feet, indicating something was very wrong in the tunnels below. He hurried from his office, trying not to look like he was rushing--it wouldn't do to let these prisoners know he was unsettled. When he reached the mouth of the tunnel where the supposed ruins were, he met Roy and Mary there, the young woman leaning heavily on Roy.
Sean reached for her wordlessly, and Roy handed her over without protest.
"What happened?" he demanded, wrapping an arm around Mary's waist to keep her upright. She seemed too exhausted to reply, so Roy slowly began to explain. Sean could tell, now, that he was more guarded than before.
He's choosing his words carefully. There's something he doesn't want me to notice, some detail that will give away his secret.
"There was a mole queen down there. Massive. Couldn't be taken down by conventional means," Roy said, gesturing to the nailgun in his hand. "The lady there threw out some pretty impressive power in order to collapse the cave and seal it deep underground."
"Did she now," Sean replied, glancing down at Mary speculatively, then back to Roy. "Well, in any case, thank you for seeing her safely to the surface. She needs rest. I'll take care of her from here."
He carried her more than helped her, moving as swiftly as he could up to the quarters set aside for technomancers. She was quiet as he laid her down on her bed and went to get her a small ration of water.
When he came back, she was sitting up, pale and drawn, but a bit more awake now that she was off her feet.
"Mary," he said, handing the cup to her to drink, "can you tell me what happened down there?"
She swallowed the water gratefully, then set down the cup and pulled her knees to her chest. Looking at her, Sean wondered, not for the first time, how Aurora could have sent her to the front. Mary was a powerful technomancer, to be sure, but she wasn't cut out to be a soldier. She seemed to spend most of the time in Camp 19 just barely hiding her terror, clinging to him like a lifeline to guide her through eben the mundane. She was a child still--younger than Zachariah--and her short experience in the war had obviously traumatized her.
"Master..." she began, then trailed off. "That man. Roy. When the mole attacked, I panicked. I couldn't think. But he told me exactly what to do. With my powers, I mean."
She looked up at him. "He's a technomancer. He must be. The ruins were even a relic of the first settlers, like he said. He tried to hide it, but...he knew what he was talking about. No one knows those things outside of the order, do they, Master?"
"Very few do, it's true," Sean assured her. "He told you what to do, you said?"
"Yes. He told me to charge my fluid, and how to attack."
"Really." Sean looked out over the camp, thinking. "What in the name of the Shadow is he doing here, then?"
"I don't know, Master," Mary replied. "He doesn't seem...he was kind to me. I'm not sure what to think of him."
Sean hummed to himself, speculating. Based on what he knew about Auroran technomancers, they weren't shy about hiding their powers. They were revered within their corporation to some extent, though they were caged, too. And the chances of one being captured, brought to a POW camp? Slim to none. No ordinary soldier would have been able to subdue him.
Unless he wasn't using technomancy. Unless he was hiding it long before he got here.
"We will have to keep a close eye on him, Mary," he said, finally. "Get some rest. You did well."
"Thank you, Master."
Sean nodded to her, then returned to ask a few of the more competent guards to discreetly keep an eye on their unusual prisoner.
He was woken in the night by news that one of the rare couriers who traveled to Camp 19 had shown up with urgent information. Strangely, the man was asking to speak with him in private.
Sean dressed quickly, trying to gather his wits about him--news rarely came directly from Abundance, and even then it was little more than propaganda. To wake him up at this hour was unprecedented. Not even the news that the war was lost, which had come down a few weeks ago, had warranted this kind of reaction.
The courier was waiting in his office, obviously wary of the technomancer approaching him. Sean closed the door behind him as he entered.
"I'm told you have something pressing to communicate?" he said, coming to stand behind his desk--a shorn off half of an old locker with legs welded to it, a constant reminder, as far as Sean was concerned, of Mars' decay. Scraps were all that was left, and even those would run out some day. They needed to resume contact with the Earth, and soon.
"Sir, I--" the man swallowed. "You need to know, Abundance didn't send me. The Great Master did."
Sean gripped the edge of the desk hard enough that the rusty metal creaked.
"The technomancers in Ophir--they're in trouble, sir. So much has happened, I'm not sure where to start."
"What do you mean, trouble? What's happened?"
The idea that Ian would risk sending a message directly to Sean, all the way out in this godforsaken place where it couldn't even be disguised as a routine missive, had never even crossed Sean's mind. Something was terribly wrong. Something that meant the technomancers had nothing left to lose by endangering themselves this way.
"One of the young officers, Ian told me to make sure you knew it was Zachariah--"
No. Not Zach. Not him, anyone but Zachariah.
Sean felt his knees begin to give as soon as he heard the name. The man paused, obviously alarmed, as he nearly collided with the desk face first. Managing to pull up a chair,
Sean sat down heavily, swallowed, and gestured to the messenger to continue.
"Zachariah, he's been Viktor Watcher's target ever since he was made an officer. But he won't play the game. He resisted the pressure, but I guess that pissed Viktor off enough to send the whole ASC after him. They tore Ophir apart trying to find him--just him, specifically."
Sean held up a hand to silence the other man. "I need to know, now--is he alive?"
The messenger looked back at him steadily. "No one knows. But we know he got out of the city. He stole a rover. He had help from a woman, some musician who turned out to be a spy, and from Scott Seeker. I can tell you for sure that when I left the city, the rover hadn't turned back up. So all signs point to a successful escape, but we can't be sure."
Sean couldn't believe it. Even with help, Zachariah escaping the entire ASC, and stealing a rover no less, was so improbable that it was almost an impossibility. But if anyone could do it, Sean knew his protege was probably the one.
He had never been so fiercely proud of the boy.
After a beat, Sean recalled that the messenger had mentioned the other technomancers. He asked about their fate, cold dread a heavy weight in his stomach.
"They've been arrested, sir. They're locked up in the Source and under heavy guard."
"Arrested? You can't mean all of them, surely?"
"All of them, sir. I'm sorry. Ian wanted me to tell you: don't return to Ophir. They're going to call you back soon, and the minute you step off the train you'll be taken prisoner and locked up with the rest. And he told me to tell you, if you're going to find Zachariah, that Noctis is where he would look."
"Noctis? The legendary city? You can't be serious."
"Ian seemed to think it's real, and he sent me with a map to help you get there. Apparently, he's had some dealings with the merchants that clued him in to the city's location."
Sean examined the map that the courier handed over. Sure enough, he could see Ian's elegant penmanship on the page. And the geography seemed like it matched up to what Sean knew about the canyons immediately west of Ophir.
So, Noctis it is, then.
Suddenly, he looked up at the messenger and narrowed his eyes.
"Who are you, that Ian would trust you with this information? How can I be sure you're not ASC?"
The courier's expression changed, morphing from businesslike to furious in the space of a moment.
"It's...my daughter, Elise. She's a technomancer. Ian lets me see her sometimes, but now she's locked up there with the rest of them. Ian knew I'd be willing to risk bring you this news. If there's anything you or Zachariah can do to help them...even if you can't, keeping you out of Viktor's grip is worth something. That bastard." His hands had balled up into fists while he spoke, and his voice was taut with anger.
"Elise? Dark hair, dark eyes, about 14 years old? You're her father?" Sean looked the man up and down, and saw the resemblance almost immediately. Elise wasn't a student he knew well, but there were few enough technomancers in the Source that he knew them all by name and face, at least.
"Yes. She's my daughter. And if there's anything I can do to help get her out of there, and get Ian out of there...I'll do it. Ian's a good man. He's helped us a lot. So now I'm helping him."
Sean nodded. "Tell me your name, then."
"Jack. Jack Labour."
"Alright, Jack. I suggest you get some sleep after your journey. We have much to do."
Sean wished he could just leave the camp. But in many ways, he was as much a prisoner as the Auroran soldiers locked up here.
He would have to factor in Mary as well; he couldn't leave her behind. Once they had reached relative safety, she could decide if she wanted to stay with him or return to Aurora.
The question was: how could he get the train out of the station without the soldiers questioning him? Even if they didn't try to stop him, they would report his flight to Abundance as quickly as they could. The longer it took the ASC to realize that a technomancer had slipped through their net, the better.
When Mary came into his office that morning, she picked up on his mood immediately.
"Master, is everything alright? Are you well?"
Sean knew he looked awful. He hadn't slept most of the night before, and his hair was mussed from the many times he'd run his hands through it. He was sitting with a steaming cup of bandrek, a drink made of condensed milk, sugar, and spices. (With water so scarce, Mars citizens relied on beverages that used as little actual water as possible.)
A map of the camp was spread over the desk, multiple markings on it as Sean tried to plan a route out of Camp 19.
"Mary...there's been a...development. What I am about to tell you cannot be spoken of outside this room, with anyone else."
Her already-large blue eyes widened. Sean could already see the anxiety creeping in at their edges.
"Master...I promise not to tell anyone, and who would I tell, even if I could? But you are frightening me. What is happening?"
Sean sighed, explaining the message from the night before and his need to escape the camp. That he needed to find Zachariah, and save his brothers. That Abundance would soon descend on both him and Mary and lock them up with the rest of their kin if they didn't run now.
Mary listened, fussing with a piece of her dress as he spoke. When he finished, she lifted her gaze to meet his.
"This Zachariah...you're his master, too?"
"No. I was, for many years, but now he's a technomancer in his own right. But I still..." Sean swallowed. "It is difficult for me to put into words, Mary. He is like a son to me. And the other technomancers are like my family."
"What will happen to me when we find them? Will I become a part of the Abundance technomancers, too?"
"If you wish. But if not, you are free to choose your own path. I will not force you into anything, Mary, but staying here would be a death sentence for you. That is why I'm asking you to flee with me."
Mary nodded, closing her eyes. She sat still for a long moment, no longer even fidgeting.
When she opened her eyes, they were steely.
"I will go with you, Master. You saved my life, and you have treated me well. Technomancers need to stay together, whether we're from Abundance or Aurora, and I wish to help my kind. And perhaps...one day...your family will welcome me, too."
Both technomancers jumped when a knock came at the door.
"Enter," Sean called, straightening up in his chair.
One of the top lieutenants in the camp entered, looking grave.
"Sir, you had asked us to keep an eye on one of the prisoners, Roy. We believe he's planning to escape with one of the other prisoners--Innocence Smith, one of the newest arrivals."
"Is he now. Do you know the details of this plan of theirs?"
"We believe they've stored weapons somewhere, but we're not sure where. We're not entirely sure of the means they plan to use to escape the desert surrounding around the camp, but we know Roy's been speaking with the mutants."
Sean nodded. "Good work, soldier. I will consider this and let you know what to do about this little problem."
The man nodded once and left the office, recognizing Sean's dismissal for what it was.
"Master," Mary said, hesitantly, after the soldier had been gone for a few moments. "Perhaps...if Roy is really one of us...maybe he could help us."
"Perhaps he could, Mary. My only concern is what he's doing in this camp in the first place, hiding his identity as a technomancer. It makes me question what he intends to do after escaping Camp 19. You're sure you don't recognize him from the Source in Aurora?"
She shook her head. "No, I don't remember him. He could have been there when I was young, when I was first brought to the Source and was kept only with the younger students, but he certainly wasn't there when I started training with the masters."
Sean considered. Bringing Roy in on the plan was a massive risk, but it might be their best option. For one, he had no reason to believe that Roy would trust him in the first place; an officer asking a prisoner to help escape from the camp that was, in theory, run by said officer? It seemed like a mad proposal.
But if he is really a technomancer, and he has escaped the shackles of the Source...he may understand better than anyone the ties that bind me here.
There was also the risk that Roy would alert the other officers in the camp. Sean didn't think he and Mary could defeat so many soldiers between the two of them, technomancy notwithstanding. But if Roy was looking to escape, and was a man with no loyalty to Abundance...how likely was it that he would give them away?
"Mary. I want you to go and find Roy. Tell him we wish to speak to him about the ruins he found yesterday. If Innocence is with him, bring the boy too. Tell him whatever you need to to get them into this office without a fuss."
"Yes, Master. I will return soon."
Roy cursed silently when he saw Mary approaching himself and Innocence in the mess hall as they ate breakfast. The other prisoners gave her a wide berth as she passed, probably wondering why she was mingling with the prisoners in the first place.
Roy resisted the urge to stand up as she approached. The instinct to place himself between her and Innocence was strong, and it took him by surprise.
Jesus, Roy, you've only known him a few days. You're not his father.
Mary stopped beside his and Innocence's table. Out of the corner of his eye, Roy saw Innocence duck his head and swallow, obviously trying to hide his panic.
"Roy? My master sent me. He wanted to ask you about the ruins you found yesterday, but he did not get the chance to ask then. He was worried about my health and thought he could wait to speak with you until today. Would you come with me?"
"Of course," Roy replied, not seeing a way out of it. He didn't have the weapons he'd saved up with him, and with Innocence here, he didn't want to endanger the boy by provoking a confrontation. He began to stand, but then Mary spoke again.
"And your friend...would you come too, Innocence?"
Shit. There's no reason to call Innocence in. There's no way they don't know we're planning something.
"He doesn't have anything to say about the ruins. He didn't even see them," Roy said, trying to feign confusion. "Does he really need to come?"
Innocence stayed silent, looking between Mary and Roy. He was keeping a pretty straight face--Roy had to give him credit.
Mary set her shoulders and looked Innocence in in the eye, addressing him directly in a near-whisper.
"I know you're afraid. But you don't need to be. Come with us. Please."
Whatever Innocence saw in her face, it must have convinced him. He stood and gestured for her to lead the way.
Now Roy was genuinely confused. That confusion mingled with alarm when he and Innocence found themselves standing in front of Sean, the Abudance technomancer, and he heard Mary shut the door behind them.
Sean was standing, his palms on the desk in front of him. Roy was startled to realize that the man had dropped his emotionless mask and was actually showing his exhaustion.
It was taboo for technomancers to show vulnerability among the uninitiated. If Roy's time in the Source had taught him anything, it was to mask his real feelings--and to notice when a potential threat wasn't.
"You must be wondering why I've called the two of you in here. Before I start, I need to make sure you understand. You cannot breathe a word of what I'm about to tell you to anyone in this camp. Not to the soldiers, or your fellow prisoners."
"What is this about?" Roy asked, voice low.
"I know you're planning to escape." Roy opened his mouth to deny it, but Sean raised a hand, and he stayed quiet.
"I want to help you."
Innocence made a startled noise. "Um. Come again?"
"Listen to me," Sean said, brows knitting together. "Abundance has jailed my brothers and sisters. My protege has been branded a traitor and is being hunted by our corporation's intelligence services. Soon, I will be called back to Ophir, and Mary and I will be locked up with the rest of them. I don't doubt that we will be tortured or killed."
"Roy. I know you are a technomancer. You understand when I say...I am just as much a prisoner here as you are. I am asking you. Let Mary and I come with you."
"If you won't help me...at least take Mary. She's young and doesn't deserve to have her life cut short by the ASC's thugs."
"Mary. Leave it. I have seen too many young technomancers die in this war already. You shouldn't have to suffer because you had the misfortune to fall into Abundance hands."
Mary looked up at Roy, obviously distraught.
"Please. Please help us. We just want to leave, so we can help the technomancers in Ophir. And Sean has to find Zachariah. Roy, you know that they...don't let us have families. Zachariah is his family. He just wants to find him. Please, I am begging you." It was clear from the tremor in her voice that she was on the verge of tears.
For the life of him, Roy couldn't think of one thing to say.
Then Innocence turned to face his fellow Auroran.
"Roy. If they're agreeing to help us...I think we should take the offer. I don't know much about technomancers, but I can't think of a reason to make all this up. I want to help them get out of here. I've seen enough on the front to know that we're all the same in this damned war. I think we should all escape, together."
Roy stared at Sean as if looking hard enough would let him into Sean's thoughts. Sean stared back steadily, allowing his fear to show in his face.
"They've really arrested all of Abundance's technomancers?"
"Yes. All of those not stationed at the front, anyway."
"I suspect that Viktor Watcher, the head of the ASC, is planning a coup. Neutralizing the technomancers seems like a sensible step towards that goal. But the official reason is that Zachariah, my protege, committed treason. He has decided that my brothers and sisters aided him."
"Your Zachariah...he escaped arrest, I gather?"
Sean smirked. "He stole one of the army's rovers. They're less than pleased."
Despite himself, Roy couldn't help but feel a bit of admiration for the kid, whoever he was. He always respected a rebel, and escaping with a corporation's rover was ballsy as hell.
Something in him wanted to help this Zachariah.
"Alright. We're in."
Chapter 2: ain't got no place to call a home
We hear from everybody in this chapter! As they try to escape the desert hellscape in which they are trapped, and try to figure out what to do next. The kids are less than alright, though, so their dads have their hands full.
And is that a new character entering into our midst? He's been highly requested by people on the Discord, but this chapter is not exactly his shining moment. He'll get better treatment later, probably. Maybe. If he's nice to the other characters.
I'm back! This chapter was a bit of a challenge for me, because my brain wanted to go in a bunch of different directions. I hope I have a coherent result here for you all!
Let me know if the pacing is alright. I hope I'm not taking too long to move the plot forward, but I love digging into some of the world-building and characterization elements. Also, is the narration too choppy? I tried to stop and pick up in logical spots.
another hard day, no water, no rest
i saw my chance, so I got him at last
i took his six shooter, put two in his chest
he'll never say a word no more
oh, he'll never say a word no more
the devil got him good for sure...
ain't got no place to call a home
only chains and broken bones
--"Broken Bones" by Kaleo
When Roy mentioned starting a mutant rebellion, Innocence had a few concerns. One, all the mutants could easily get killed, because they had no armor and only improvised weapons. Two, it was possible that starting a full-on riot would hinder rather than help them reach the train, and therefore freedom, in good time.
But Sean agreed with the plan, and Innocence knew that he and Mary would have to go along with whatever the older men decided.
It wasn't that Roy didn't listen to him; it was just that Innocence had been in the military long enough to recognize when someone else needed to be in charge. At the end of the day, a decision had to be made, and Roy and Sean were going to be the ones making it.
Mary didn't voice her thoughts on the matter. She wasn't unfriendly, but she didn't speak unless spoken to, and in any case, she and Sean and he and Roy were trying to stay as separate from each other as possible. There wasn't a lot of time to socialize, and any meetings between the two pairs had to be away from the prying eyes of everyone else in the camp.
When the plan was set into motion, with Scum leading the charge for the mutants and the guards distracted, Roy handed Innocence a gun and an improvised mace made from a wrench and some other welded metal.
He was wearing a black glove, all of a sudden, one that Innocence hadn't seen before, and he wanted to ask what it was, but now was not the time.
He and Roy, accompanied by Jack Labour, the courier from Ophir, headed straight for the train ducking guards and other prisoners alike. Jack headed to the second car, carrying all the suplies they'd squirreled away for the journey.
Innocence followed, climbing aboard to use his scant electrical knowledge to ready the train for departure. Roy had made him take work assignments in the camp that would help him figure this out, but he still felt out of his depth.
Please, let me get this right the first time, he thought desperately, flipping a few switches and levers. He was watching the gauges and trying to decide how much longer it would take for the engine to be ready when he heard a rustling behind him.
Innocence had whipped around, widened his stance and drawn his gun before he even consciously decided to do so. It took him a long moment to realize that he was pointing his gun directly at Mary's chest. Her hands were up and her face was ashen, eyes flickering between his face and the nailgun.
"I--I'm sorry, I--" Innocence realized he still hadn't lowered his weapon and hastily did so, backing up and almost falling into one of the levers used to work the train's brakes.
He drew a hand over his eyes. "I'm sorry. It's--I've been at the front a long time, and I react poorly when someone comes up behind me. I didn't mean to hurt you, Mary."
It won't happen again, he wanted to say, but it would have been a lie, and he couldn't make the words pass his lips.
She seemed to have composed herself a bit, but he noticed a fine tremble in her hands as she lowered them back to her sides.
"It's alright," she managed to say, her voice brittle. "I just didn't know if I could help? Sean's making his way here, and then we can go once the train is ready?"
"Ah. The engine is warmed up, and we can leave the station now, if we have to," Innocence replied, gaze returning to the gauges and assessing them. Everything seemed to be in order. "But waiting a minute or two would probably be better. It's not quite fired up yet, and I don't want us to break down halfway across the desert."
She nodded. "Alright, that sounds--"
At that moment, a crackle of lightning lit up the entryway to the train car, and Mary quickly powered up her barrier, moving to stand between Innocence and any possible threats. Even with her protection, he kept his gun at the ready. The sound of gunshots and people yelling was louder now, closer than when Innocence had boarded the train car.
The flashes of light continued, but no one entered for what felt like an eternity. Innocence knew he and Mary couldn't have been waiting there for very long, but time seemed to stretch out as they waited for someone to come and attack them, to make it past Roy and Sean and stop their escape before it started.
Maybe the anticipation was why Mary very nearly electrocuted Sean as he burst through the doorway. He only avoided the shock by throwing up his own barrier in a blink.
"Master, I'm so sorry, I didn't--"
"Don't worry about it, Mary. Innocence, is the train ready?"
He nodded jerkily, full of adrenaline. "Where's Roy?"
"Here," the older technomancer shouted, rushing in behind Sean. "Innocence, let's get the hell out of here!"
The relief that Innocence felt when the train started moving made him weak in the knees. He very nearly collapsed, suddenly feeling as if he'd just run a marathon.
We did it. I can't believe we did it.
He was pulled out of his thoughts by Mary gently touching his shoulder.
"Are you all right? You look ill."
Innocence shook his head back and forth to clear it and drew himself up. "I'm fine, thanks, Mary."
She pursed her lips. "You should sit down, I think."
"I should really stay up here with the train controls--"
He was interrupted by Roy, who had his hand braced against the doorway and was looking over the younger man with furrowed brows.
"She's right, Innocence. We won't need to stop for a while. Rest back in the second car until we get closer to Shadowlair."
"You're not," Roy replied. "Just go, alright?"
Innocence huffed and moved past them into the train car, quietly relieved to have a moment to recover but feeling a little irritated with himself for wearing out so easily. He sat down near Jack, who was looking pretty relieved himself, and leaned back against the metal wall of the car, closing his eyes.
Now that they were actually on their way, Roy could take a moment to consider what their little party was going to do once they actually reached Shadowlair. He and Sean were still standing near the train's control room, with Mary just inside.
"Sean," he said as something occurred to him. "You and Mary are going to need to change clothes."
Roy rolled his eyes at Sean's affronted tone. "You can't wander into Shadowlair looking like you just waltzed out of Abundance's Source. We're already going to have to convince the city's soldiers to let us in, and they're not just going to let two unidentified technomancers enter Aurora unchecked."
"We're three unidentified technomancers," Mary pointed out in her clear, quiet voice.
"Yeah, but I don't look like a technomancer. I can pass as a regular soldier who just escaped a POW camp. You're both in full mancer kits. You're not getting past the gates dressed like that."
Sean sighed, rubbing his temples. "You're right, of course. Let's see what we have in the supplies Jack brought on board."
Mary followed Sean, leaving Roy alone at the head of the speeding train.
He couldn't believe they'd actually pulled it off, but then again, Roy Temperance had spent his life escaping from cages. Camp 19 had only been the most recent.
He would have to be careful in Shadowlair, and they'd have to find a way to get out of the city and reach Noctis quickly. Remaining there would only increase the chances of Roy being caught by...well, everyone who was looking for him, and Mary was in danger too, if any technomancers in the city recognized her. She'd only been with Abundance for a short time, and she would be known by sight to anyone from Aurora's Source.
Roy wished there was a way to reach Noctis from Camp 19 directly, but the railways on Mars post-Turmoil were extremely limited. Only the major corporations could afford to maintain and operate trains, and even the ones they did have had only a limited number of tracks left to take. Many of the tracks were buried in sand now, rusted to the point of being unusuable, or had been scrapped to make something else, something more immediately useful in the aftermath of the Turmoil.
Noctis didn't have any railways leading directly to it; no city that wanted to remain hidden on Mars could, and in any case, even the merchants of Noctis probably weren't interested in the massive investment a train would require. From this remote location, Ophir and Shadowlair were the only destinations. Alliance could be reached from some railways, but not this route, and in any case, it was prohibitively far away.
No. It would have to be Shadowlair, then Noctis, then...somewhere. Roy honestly wasn't sure what was next for him after that, or for Innocence. The kid had family in Shadowlair, so presumably he'd want to stay with them, but it was also possible he'd be drafted back into the army at some point if he remained in Aurora. He might be just jaded enough to follow Roy and the others to the legendary merchant city.
Mary was obviously hoping to join up with the Abundance technomancers, but Roy had no such plans. No way in hell was he tethering himself back to his "brothers," not after years spent trying to escape the technomancer order's restrictions.
No, he'd help Sean and Mary reach Noctis--but after that, they were on their own.
Sean was not impressed by Shadowlair's slums.
Cramped, dark, and noisy, he was already missing Ophir's Exchange, with its clean lines and open plazas. He knew he shouldn't judge this place; Ophir's slums weren't much better, and in any case these people were simply doing their best to survive. But he was judging. A bit.
Another thing that did not impress him: the civilian clothes Jack and Roy had found for him to wear. He felt ill at ease in the grey-ish black trousers, brown shirt and improvised chitin armor. It was all a mismatch, and the armor didn't fit his torso the way his technomancer coat did. But he blended in with the populace, so he knew he'd have to accept it.
He'd had to discard the circlet and metal accessories he typically wore on his head, as well; the only bit of kit he still had was his right glove. He felt vulnerable.
Sean Mancer did not handle vulnerability well.
He was surprised to notice how much more at ease Mary looked here, dressed in a pair of fitted brown trousers, a navy blue shirt, and a cropped brown jacket held in place with a strap across the collarbone. Her wavy hair was out of its tight bun and had been pulled into a low ponytail that reached her shoulder blades. Then he remembered that this was her home at least to a point--he knew she'd been born in Shadowlair.
The plan was to find Innocence's parents and leave him with them--Sean wanted to reach Noctis, but did not have the heart to skip the boy's reunion with his family--and, if his parents consented, to use the house as a place to lie low for a few days while they planned their journey.
"It's just here, around the corner," Innocence said, leading the group, obviously trying to contain his excitement at seeing his family again. Sean's mouth twitched up, pleased for the boy.
Until they rounded the corner and saw the wreckage that had been Innocence's home.
Oh, child, Sean thought as Innocence fell to his knees.
Roy moved to the younger man's side, kneeling next to him and putting a hand on his shoulder.
Mary edged closer to Sean, her hand over her mouth. Sean carefully reached out and put an arm around her shoulders, pulling her into a gentle hug, and she moved to rest her head on his shoulder.
After a long moment, Roy pulled Innocence to his feet, looking back at Sean with his mouth set in a grim line.
"We need to get out of here. We can figure out what happened later, but we can't be caught out in the open."
Sean nodded, and turned back the way they had come, only to see a squadron of Auroran soldiers rushing towards them.
Beside him, he felt Mary stiffen, then felt the crackle of technomancy. Sean put up his barrier, and rushed forward to bring the soldiers up short. He and Roy stood between their younger counterparts and the soldiers, though Mary had an electric arc primed and ready and Innocence had pulled out his nailgun.
The ensuing fight was brutal, and Sean had to use a few focus injections in order to push through the group of armored opponents. They prevailed, though, and Roy immediately led the way from the street and deeper into the slums.
After they had distanced themselves from the fight and people were no longer giving them a second glance, Sean asked Roy where they were going.
"A place I've laid low before. It's out of the way, should be safe for a few days," Roy replied.
When they reached the little hideout with a ladder leading up to a second-story platform and a small bedroom, all of them sat on the floor of the upper level and looked at each other, Innocence slumped in between Mary and Roy.
Mary reached out to touch his shoulder.
"Innocence, I'm so sorry...what do you need? Can we do anything?"
He looked up, eyes blazing.
"You can help me find the people who killed my parents."
Sean sighed. He had been afraid of this.
"Innocence," he said, "listen to me. I am deeply sorry for your loss, and you have every right to be upset and angry. But how is revenge going to help you? You are a fugitive POW, you are not interested in going back into military service--which is compulsory in Aurora, I believe--and you are in the company of three rogue technomancers. Any attempts at revenge are going to draw attention to you. Attention you don't need."
"He's right, kid," Roy said, speaking in a gentler tone. "I don't blame you for wanting answers, but it's not going to bring them back."
"Shut up!" Innocence shouted, knocking Mary's hand off his shoulder violently. "I can't just do nothing! They were my parents. Someone destroyed their home and their livelihood. You don't understand. Technomancers aren't like normal people. You don't know what it's like to have a family, to love somebody enough to die for them--"
He was cut off by a sharp slap to the face, and Sean was shocked to see Mary's hand raised. The girl was leaning into Innocence's space, her face very close to him.
"Do you know why I don't know what it's like to have a family, Innocence?" When he didn't answer, she repeated herself, raising her voice. "Do you?"
He shook his head.
"I was born here, just as you were. I had a mother who took care of me. But then I accidentally shocked someone when we were at the market one day, and hours later, soldiers were on our doorstep. I never saw my mother again. I barely remember her. I was raised in a compound that I wasn't allowed to leave until they sent me to the front when I was sixteen. So maybe I don't know what it's like, but don't speak about me, or Sean, or Roy, that way. Not ever. You don't know anything."
Mary's hair was starting to crackle with static, and Sean could see the beginnings of an overload coming on.
"Mary. Breathe. You're going to overload. You need to calm down."
Mary looked back at Sean, instinctively taking a few deep breaths. After the twitching at her temples had ceased, she cocked her head at him curiously.
"Master, what's an overload?"
Sean blinked. "You can't...you're nearly an adult, Mary. The Source can't have failed to teach you what an overload is. That's basic education."
Mary shook her head.
"We never learned anything about that." She looked to Roy questioningly. "Roy, do you know what an overload is?"
Roy sighed and nodded. "I do, but only because I learned the hard way. After I escaped the Source. They don't teach technomancers about overloading in Aurora."
"What? What do you mean?" Sean responded, torn between fury and disbelief.
"It keeps technomancers from leaving the Source," Roy said quietly. "Because they can't control it. They're afraid to leave because they don't have the masters to help them regulate themselves."
"That is--Mary, I'm going to teach you. No arguments."
"Alright, Master. Thank you." Mary looked a bit bewildered by the turn the conversation had taken, but accepted Sean's proposal.
The tension had broken. Innocence had his hand over eyes, and it seemed that the wind had been taken out of his sails.
Sean finally broke the silence. "So. Our main objective is to find a way to reach Noctis from here, but...if it's possible, perhaps we can find out what happened to Innocence's parents as we work."
Roy nodded. "I have someone in mind that I was going to go to anyway, and she knows something about most things going on in Shadowlair. Charity's an old friend, and I know she'll help us out."
Neither Innocence nor Mary said anything, off in their own worlds for the moment.
"How about the two of you rest here?" Sean suggested. "Roy and I will go speak with this Charity and see what we need to do to move forward. We'll come back and fetch you if there's a need."
The two younger members of the group were obviously struggling to keep up with the pace of things, Innocence especially, which was understandable given the news about his parents.
The young man nodded, then wordlessly got up and headed to the bedroom in the corner of the hideout. He closed the door behind him.
Mary lifted her head. "Master...are you sure?"
Sean nodded. "Yes, Mary, don't worry. You've done well so far, and in any case, Innocence is in no shape to be running around fighting guards. I think it's good that we leave someone here to keep an eye on him. In any case, I'll feel better knowing there's someone watching this place, to ensure that we're not compromised."
Mary perked up, obviously pleased to have a task set for her.
"I will keep watch, Master. Good luck."
Mary hadn't realized how tired she was until she was alone in the hideout. Well, she wasn't alone, exactly--Innocence was here, but he obviously needed privacy.
She wished she could lie down in a bed, but it wasn't an option. Not yet. When they reached Noctis, perhaps she could have a day of rest.
Now that she had a moment to pause, Mary felt like she hadn't rested in months. Which was more or less true, given her deployment to the front and subsequent rescue by Sean. Every moment of every day had been about survival. And for the first time in many years, she realized that she was fast reaching a crossroads, one where she could choose a path. To stay with Abundance's technomancers, to strike off on her own. She could even go back to Aurora's Source if she really wanted to.
She could go right now.
Her small chamber in the Source suddenly seemed like a paradise. Her small bed, a few treasured pre-Turmoil paperback books, a neatly organized closet and a small workbench where she could work on her equipment. There was order in that place, a set schedule to the days, clear objectives to be completed. Even if it was a prison, it was a comfortable one.
But the moment she thought about returning to the masters who had raised her, Sean's face entered her mind. She thought of his desperation to escape Camp 19, to escape the trap that was closing in on him, to free his kin.
Perhaps rebellion was contagious. Mary certainly seemed to have caught it from Sean. Before him, she never would have considered the Source a cage. It had just been home. The place where she belonged, the niche that was the only place where Mary could really fit into the world. But now...now she could be something else, something more or something less than a technomancer officer in a long line of technomancer officers. The whole world was right here. Close enough to touch.
She jumped. Something. There was something wrong in the area below. A shuffle of sand that was a bit too loud, a shadow sitting just in the wrong place. How long had she been sitting here, lost in her thoughts?
Mary quickly climbed to her feet, checking the number of fluid and health injections on her belt. Her technomancer glove was still on, and she flexed her left hand, always her dominant one for casting.
Need to get into cover. Need a good vantage point.
She slipped into a corner to the right of the ladder, giving her a good a view of anyone who might try to come up. There was no noise coming from the room where Innocence was, and she prayed to the Shadow that he would stay where he was until the danger had passed. She couldn't risk warning him--a conversation, even a quiet one, would alert whoever else was here.
A grunt from the bottom of the ladder. She tensed, setting her feet wide, ready to throw out a powerful first attack.
Soon enough, the head of a man with long hair and a beard popped up over the railing. Mary waited, barely breathing.
He reached the top and stood on the upper level, looking around casually with one hand on the large, wicked-looking gun at his hip.
He hasn't seen me yet. Now, Mary, now, do it.
An electric arc flew from her hands, one with the power to drop a buffalo toad. The man's body contorted and he fell to the ground in a smoking heap, choking out a curse.
Innocence, naturally, chose that moment to emerge from his room.
She wasn't listening, running forward to pull the man's weapons from their holsters. His fingers twitched in her direction, but at the moment he was still too paralyzed to stop her.
"Innocence, take these. Put them in the back room, and come help me tie him up, before he recovers."
The young man nodded, eyes darting between Mary, the guns and the man on the ground. He disappeared into the bedroom and brought out a length of rusted chain.
"I found this near the workbench back there, can we use it...?"
Mary nodded at him, trying to appear more confident than she felt. "That will do."
But inside her mind, she was sending out silent pleas for help.
Sean, Roy, please come back soon. What does one do with a hostage?
Chapter 3: symptoms of the culture
An interlude between Shadowlair and Noctis. Sean and Roy run a few errands for Charity, and have a few moments to talk. Roy remembers the past. Tenacity gets an unexpected offer.
Hey everybody! I'm back. This chapter is shorter than the first two, but it is sort of a transitional chapter. It felt like I'd be forcing it if I made it any longer. I'm pretty sure the next chapter will be longer, because it's when we get to Noctis! (And Zachariah. Father-son reunion time! Plus, Sean gets to meet The Squad.)
Let me know if this is rushed. I kind of felt that, but again, I think this one is just naturally shorter and I need to not worry about it. Also, I wrote a technomancer prayer in here and I've never written a prayer before, so...hopefully it passes?
Last time I saw you said "What's up?"
And pushed right through
Then I tried to catch you
But we're always on the move
--Foster the People, "Sit Next to Me"
Somewhere between Charity's bar and the office of the banker he and Roy were supposed to be meeting, Sean decided that he didn't just dislike Shadowlair; he hated Shadowlair. Wave after wave of thugs coming for the payout they were carrying didn't seem to be deterred by the fact that their comrades were going down painfully in front of their eyes.
As Sean swung his staff into the chest of a black-clad woman frantically reloading her nailgun, he heard a shout to his right. There, Charity's usual hired help was bleeding out into the sand.
"Roy! Courier's down!"
Quite, Sean thought bitterly to himself, shocking the living daylights out of the man who had felled their companion. By the time the two technomancers had waded through the crowd of enemies, the man who Charity had sent with them was obviously dead.
Sean paused for a moment over the body, murmuring the traditional prayer for the innocent used by the Order.
Waters of Earth, recieve this sacred life;
Wash the soul clean and shield it from the killing light;
This spirit was ours to protect;
We ask that you forgive we who let it pass into your hands
When he looked up, he found Roy at his shoulder, head inclined and eyes closed. The other technomancer looked at him after a moment, then nodded, and they continued on their mission without speaking.
Once they had finally delivered the money to the banker, he and Roy took a moment to rest in the man's office, drinking a dense cup of pulpy passionfruit juice the man had generously offered.
Sean hadn't tasted passionfruit since he'd been sent to Camp 19, and the sharp tang of one of the few fruits that grew plentifully on Mars felt like a shock on his tongue.
Roy spoke after they had been sitting a while in weary silence.
"You would still use the old prayers, even for someone you didn't even know? Someone uninitiated, and Auroran?"
"Of course," Sean said, surprised. "It is an essential tenet of the Order as I know it to protect life and pay respects to its passing. It does not matter whether or not the person is a technomancer."
Roy huffed out a breath, leaning forward and putting his hands on his knees.
"I keep thinking that I'm a free man, after all these years away from the Source," he said, "but then I get reminded that I'm just as brainwashed as everyone else in Aurora."
Sean didn't ask him what he meant, instead taking a sip of his drink. Waiting in silence, he had found, was more effective in getting someone to talk than asking pointed questions was.
"They teach us that Abundance is a militant, fascist state with no respect for life, that sees its citizens only as tools, and that the technomancers there are ruthless--not respectful of the ways of the Order as Aurorans are. I had enough independent thought to know that there was life for me outside the Source, but not enough to realize that nearly everything they taught me about the outside world was propaganda."
Sean hummed. "They're right about one thing: Abundance does see its citizens only as tools, technomancers included. But I suspect the same thing is true here in Aurora."
"You suspect correctly."
"Really, we're more alike than different, if I've learned anything over the years."
"You're right," Roy replied. He extended his hand to Sean, who took it after a moment's hesitation. "I apologize for asking you about the prayer. I shouldn't have been surprised that you offered it to that poor bastard."
The other man blinked. "Ah...no apology is necessary, Roy. We both have a lot of unlearning to do, I'm realizing."
"That we do."
They finished their drinks in silence; then Roy stood.
"Shall we go find this missing girl for Charity?"
Sean nodded. "Let's get to it."
It had been a while since Roy had intentionally killed someone, but he couldn't say he regretted taking out the pimp who had been holding Charity's girl hostage. He noticed a conspicuous lack of protest from Sean, though the man did take a moment to say a prayer for the man--the prayer for a felled enemy. Roy respected the other man's adherence to the Order's teachings, even though it wasn't something they shared.
The girl was walking between him and Sean, obviously relieved, but so weary from the beatings and living in fear that she was having a hard time keeping pace. She stumbled, and Sean caught her instinctively.
"Are you alright?"
"I'm...I'll be fine," she said weakly. "Once I get back to Charity's place. I just needta rest awhile." She pulled out of Sean's hold and crossed her arms over her chest, not looking either man in the face.
"Of course," Sean replied, not making a move to touch her again.
No one spoke for the rest of the walk. As they moved from the marketplace to the Sands, Roy relaxed marginally--fewer guards here, and even though the people were packed in more densely than in the better parts of town, they were less likely to report anything--say, seeing two wanted men wandering around--to the authorities.
Anyone living in the Slums knew that the best way to stay alive was to stay invisible. Being the best or the worst at anything tipped the scales in favor of guards or gangs--which were essentially the same thing in slummers' eyes--noticing you and trying to get whatever it is you've got.
Roy knew how they felt. He envied them, truth be told. He longed for the anonymity that would allow him to fade into a crowd and build a life that wasn't centered around running away.
Shadowlair had always felt more like home to him than the Source, anyway. He'd lived here when he was young, before being picked up by the Watchers and brought to the Source. He had hazy memories of watching the fairy lights strung across all the buildings as he was carried on someone's back, the smell of spiced mole rat in the air, a couple shouting somewhere, distantly, in the background. And sometimes, he could almost hear music, the soft sounds of strings being plucked and a man's voice singing in a melancholy tone. Roy didn't know how to describe these almost-memories. They were in his head, but they weren't, no matter how often he had gone inward to try and make them more real,to create a foundation that he could build a self on that was free from technomancy. Something he would see or hear or smell would suddenly transport him somewhere else, but it would pass, and he wouldn't be able to bring the images and feelings back.
Sometimes he hated Shadowlair. Because it made him remember a past far beyond his reach.
I'll be grateful when we can get out of here and get to Noctis. I've never been there. There's nothing to remember.
Finally, Charity's place came into view, the neon lights and intricate metalwork of the patio looking nearly garish in the middle of the drab slum neighborhood.
The girl quickened her pace, nearly falling into Charity's arms when she reached the older woman. Roy and Sean stayed a respectful distance away as the two embraced and talked in hushed tones. After sending the girl inside the bar, Charity waved them over.
"Thank you for bringin' her back to me, boys. Happy to hear that you killed the asshole who grabbed her."
"It's no problem, Charity. Happy to do it for my best girl," Roy replied.
She shook her head, smiling. "Ever the hell-raiser, aren't you, Roy? Well, you've always put that fighting spirit to good use, so I suppose I can't complain."
Lowering her voice, she continued. "While you two have been helping me out, I've been digging up all my old contacts, seeing what I can find. I do have a little information on the boy's family, and on the Resistance, if he still wants it. And I found a trader who's willing to take you out to Noctis, in return for some serum and the two of you guarding the caravan while it's on the road."
"Charity, you are a godsend. Can't believe no one's swept you off your feet and married you yet."
"None of that, Roy. You'll make me blush."
Sean cleared his throat awkwardly, interrupting their easy flirting. "When will the caravan be leaving? And how much serum do we need to pay the merchant?"
"Sorry, honey," Charity said, and Roy enjoyed watching Sean blush lightly at the endearment. "Didn't mean to ignore you. The caravan leaves tomorrow at first light--you'll be on a shadow path for the first part of the trip, so traveling during daylight is an option. I suspect he's gonna have you travel through the full day and night, and then you'll rest during daylight on the second day of the journey. He wants 500 serum, but you can probably haggle him down to 400 since you two'll make damn good guards for the caravan."
She gave directions to the meeting place the merchant had given her, mostly speaking to Roy, since he had a better understanding of the city. She also indicated where Innocence could meet the Resistance if he wanted to join up, and explained what she knew about his parents.
"Bad business, that. Orders came down from the Dowser to take out all known members of the militia, because now that the war is over, they aren't useful so much as they are a threat. Armed, organized, and not beholden to the government? Good old Wisdom didn't want them around."
"So Innocence's parents were killed by Aurora?" Sean asked. "I hate to say it, but it sounds like something Abundance's ASC would do. It's unfortunate to find the same kind of strong-arming tactics here."
Charity nodded. "I've heard a few things about your ASC. None of them good."
Something occurred to Roy, and he spoke up, glancing at Sean.
"Have you heard anything about them recently? I mean, in the last few weeks or so?"
Charity shook her head.
"The war only just ended, and it's chaos out on the front as soldiers are getting shifted around. It's hard to get information about much of anything outside of Shadowlair right now." Her eyes narrowed. "You got something going on with them, Roy? Have you managed to piss off everybody on Mars?"
Roy laughed. "No, no, I'm not the one who's fighting with them. My friend here...his son has a target on his back. Sounds like they chased him out of Ophir recently. Was just wondering if you'd heard anything about that."
"Shit," Charity said. "I wish I had heard something, now that I know that." She turned to Sean. "Sorry about your son. You're trying to find him, then? That's why you want to go to Noctis?"
Sean inclined his head. "It is."
"I wish you luck. Most parents around here just...let their kids fall into the cracks, or can't provide them anything better than a hand-to-mouth existence. I try to help the ones I can, but...it means something, that you're trying to save yours. I hope it's not too late."
"Thank you, ma'am," Sean said, his voice barely carrying over the noise of the neighborhood. "I wish you the best of luck, as well."
Roy looked between them, and when the moment had passed, he said his goodbyes to Charity.
"I'll miss you, Charity. Take care of yourself. I hope I'll see you again one day."
"You too, Roy. World needs more like you."
Roy expected to return to the hideout to find Mary and Innocence asleep, or maybe one of the two awake and on watch. Which was why, after he and Sean had entered and closed the door behind them, checking to see if they'd been followed, he jumped at the sound of someone yelling.
"Untie me, you little bitch!"
Sean was already sprinting towards the ladder by the time Roy heard the reply, obviously from Innocence.
"Don't talk to her that way! You're lucky she didn't do worse to you."
"Shut up, pipsqueak. Wasn't talking to you. Now let me go, dammit!"
Why is that voice familar? Roy thought to himself, as he followed Sean to the second floor. I know it from somewhere...
He nearly fell backwards off the ladder when he got a look at the captive's face.
The other man's head snapped towards him.
"There you are, dammit. Some Mancer from the Source sent me to find you."
"And look how that worked out for you. What the hell happened?"
Innocence burst into the conversation from behind Sean, who had moved to stand between Tenacity and the two younger group members.
"Mary ambushed him and shocked him so hard he was paralyzed! It was amazing. Then we took his guns and tied him up. He didn't even know what hit him!"
Sean glanced back at Mary, pride on his face. "Well done, Mary. Impressive."
She beamed. "Thank you, Master." Then she looked back at Tenacity.
"Now what do we do? I was waiting for the two of you to get back, we weren't sure what should happen once we tied him up..."
Roy sighed. "Well we can't let him go, one because he's a mean bastard and you don't want to fight him, trust me, and two because he could go raise the alarm and let the Source know we're here."
"I'd rather not kill him, if we don't have to," Sean said. Tenacity scoffed.
Roy rolled his eyes. "Don't be an asshole to the guy who's trying to keep you alive, Tenacity. It's not going to help you out."
"You might as well kill me anyway," he replied gruffly. "I can't go back without completing the contract; you know what the Source is like, Roy. They don't take kindly to failure."
"Hey...how much money do you have on you?"
Everyone turned to look at Roy, bewildered.
"What has that got to do with anything?" Innocence asked.
"Yeah, what the hell does it have to do with anything, Roy? Enlighten me."
Roy shrugged. "Well, we need at least 400 serum to get out of the city tomorrow morning. If you...contribute whatever you have towards that, you could come with us."
"...are you stupid, Roy?" Tenacity asked. "Why in the hell would you bring me with you?"
"I second that question," Sean said, glaring at Roy.
"Well, we need the serum. Plus, you said it yourself, Tenacity: the Source isn't just going to let you walk away. And Sean, you said you didn't want to kill him. So...he comes with us, he lives and we get an extra gun. Makes sense to me."
There was a thoughtful silence as everyone considered the proposal.
"I suppose that does make sense," Mary said, finally. "But I'd prefer that we keep his weapons to ourselves until we're well out of Shadowlair, just as a precaution."
Innocence nodded. "That seems fair."
Sean was the last holdout. Finally, he grimaced and agreed that this was probably the best option.
Roy looked at Tenacity. "Well? What do you say?"
Tenacity was staring at the group in disbelief. "Well...shit. Ain't like I got a better offer. I'll do it."
"Promise me you'll leave Mary and Innocence alone, alright? If you get trigger-happy once we give you back your guns, take it out on me and Sean, not them."
Tenacity nodded, shifting against the chain binding his hands. "I won't lay a hand on 'em."
"Good," Roy said, setting to work on releasing Tenacity's bonds. "Now, we should rest. We've got a long journey come morning."
Chapter 4: say what you need, does it make you uncomfortable?
Our escapees finally reach Noctis. Roy isn't interested in martyrdom (but he is interested in Tenacity.) Innocence isn't sure which road to take. Sean just wants to see his kid. And Mary watches everything and tries to figure out where she fits in.
We're finally in Noctis! Honestly, this chapter kind of wrote itself. As in, I did not plan for a lot of this. But I think it works! If you can't tell by now, I'm all about the fix-it vibes, and I just want everyone to be happy. Poor Innocence. Somebody needs to protect him. Roy and Tenacity are kind of jerks in this one, but I feel like they're actually just like that as characters (not that they're terrible people, well, Tenacity probably is, let's be honest, but they're just not the nicest or most selfless. They're likeable jerks. Mostly. Just...not in front of the children, you guys!)
Mary does pretty much all the narration for this one, with the exception of a tiny bit in the middle. She's definitely become more of a main character than I originally planned. Also: Niesha appears to be a big sister in the making.
I know people probably want to see some Zachariah/Andrew love, because I mean, who doesn't, they're adorable, but I haven't gotten there yet! It will happen in some fashion though. Eventually. One day.
Let me know what you think!
Free makes you nervous
It must feel like you're almost human
--Dead Sara, "Lemon Scent"
Mary had no good memories of traveling in the desert.
Like most Martians, she'd lived in the city where she'd been born for her entire life. She'd never had to travel more than an hour to get anywhere in Shadowlair, and even that kind of trip was rare; after being taken to the Source, she'd rarely been allowed to travel farther than the upper echelons of the marketplace.
Then, the war. Hours upon hours breathing the stale air inside of an Auroran rover, the choppy progress through the shadow paths making her stomach turn. And moving on foot across the sweltering heat of the front, trying to stay low, hearing the dying screams of soldiers in the trenches.
Now she was packed inside a sandsail along with Innocence, and she had to admit that this was at least a smoother ride than one experienced in a rover. They were tucked into the cargo compartment, protected from view by bolts of patterned fabrics piled in the nets that hung in the interior of the sandsail. The cargo holds were streaked with nets that ran from the bow to the stern, and this was where the merchants kept their wares to keep them from bouncing around too much as they moved across the sands. Beneath the nets, there was enough space for a person to lie on their backs--two, if you were talking about people with small frames like Innocence and Mary.
The two were shoulder to shoulder, and they hadn't spoken since the journey began. There was no telling if and when they'd encounter bandits or Auroran convoys, and they didn't want to risk giving themselves away. Besides, Innocence seemed lost in his own thoughts as he watched the emerald fabric gently swaying back and forth above him, and Mary found that her stomach was tight with apprehension.
Things were about to change.
Even though it had only been about a week since their escape, she'd grown used to their group of four, and she'd been used to trailing Sean for some time. But now, if they found Zachariah as Sean hoped, and they joined with whatever allies he'd found, their group would grow. And she'd have to find her place in it.
She had faith that Sean would not toss her aside, but she still feared it.
Both she and Innocence tensed up as they felt the tug of deceleration, followed by the sounds of shots fired. Roy and Sean had told the merchants that if it came down to running or being captured by bandits, the caravan should leave the two technomancers and Tenacity behind to cover their backs and get the two younger members of the group to safety. Mary held her breath as she waited, listening for the crackling sound of technomancy outside.
It never moved far from the sandsail, and after a few long minutes she heard Roy give the all-clear. Boots clunked above their heads as the technomancers and the mercenary climbed atop the craft.
"Close one," Innocence breathed, not turning to look at her. They were uncomfortably close together, and they both preferred to keep facing upwards rather than be nose to nose.
"Yes," she replied, and nothing more was said.
A few moments later, or at least it seemed so to her, Innocence was gently touching her shoulder. She'd slept through most of the journey.
"We've stopped," he said. "I can hear them anchoring the sandsails to the dock, so we must have arrived."
She nodded, and waited for Roy or Sean to open up the hold.
When the sunlight came in, it seemed painfully bright after such a long time in the shadows. Mary rolled to the side and pushed at the nets where they weren't connected to the inner walls of the hold. The cloth shifted to the side and she emerged, taking Roy's hand and climbing up and over the lip of the hatch.
She expected her boots to hit sand, but instead she heard the clank of metal. She looked down to see a raised platform, then looked up.
Her mouth fell open as she surveyed Noctis for the first time. It was built into the canyons, so much of the structure coming from the natural landscape and not from things that people had built. The rock walls were grand and imposing, and it was nearly impossible to believe that the people here had been able to build so many homes into the sheer cliff faces.
The wind tasted strange here, she realized as she gaped. She'd never realized before how the air in Shadowlair and Camp 19 tasted of rust and metal. Here it was...something else. Something she couldn't name. But it was fresh, and cool, and she filled her lungs with this strange new atmosphere.
Music floated around in the air, coming from nowhere and everywhere, the sounds of strings being plucked and something like bells ringing. People in all sorts of dress milled around in the streets below, going about their day without noticing the newcomers. One little boy chased another outside a market stall, both children giggling and shouting to each other, obviously unafraid of anyone reprimanding them.
She was startled out of her thoughts when she felt Sean's hand come down on her right shoulder.
"It is...something to behold, is it not?" he asked quietly, reading her mood as easily as always.
"It's astonishing. Beautiful," she said, looking up at the canyon walls again.
"I've never seen anything like it," Innocence said to her left, turning around in circles as he tried to see everything at once. "How long do you think it's been here?"
Roy hummed thoughtfully. "A lot longer than I thought, based on how much they've carved out these canyons. It's incredible how long it took rumors of this place to reach the corporations."
Sean squeezed Mary's shoulder. "In any case, we need to go find the ruler of this city. Dandolo."
"I imagine he'll have questions about rogue technomancers coming to his city," Mary said as they moved towards the palace. "Will he think we're spies?"
"I doubt it," Tenacity said, addressing her for the first time since the scene in the hideout. He seemed to speak mostly to Roy; they obviously had some kind of history together, but Mary hadn't been around them long enough to get a sense of it. "If we were spies, you all wouldn't openly admit to being technomancers. Too conspicuous."
They were climbing the steps of the most opulent building Mary had ever seen. Aurora had always preferred utility over presentation, and even the Source and the Dowser's offices were fairly understated. But this...the doors gleamed with bronze that was stamped with intricate patterns, and it was so tall compared to all the other structures around it. The palace definitely made a statement.
As they made their way through the airy inner courtyard, she heard Innocence make a squeaking sound. She glanced over to see what he was looking at, and raised her eyebrows when she saw the group of courtesans lounging on cushions amid silken tapestries.
She looked back to Innocence, who was now doing everything he could not to look back at the scantily-clad group of men and women. His face was redder than Martian sandstone, and she couldn't help it. She giggled.
"Shut up!" Innocence hissed.
"They're not going to bite you," she said, grinning at him.
"Unless you pay them enough," Roy added. Tenacity chuckled, shooting Roy a loaded look.
Innocence made a noise like a dying ostrich, and Mary laughed so hard she began to hiccup.
"Roy." Sean admonished sternly, but his lips were twitching up at the corners.
The other man shrugged, smirking, as they climbed the last of the stairs to the palace's upper balcony.
"Well, well, it's rare that I see such a jovial group of travelers, and technomancers no less. Noctis seems to be collecting you these days," said an unfamiliar voice. He was watching Mary as her laughter tapered off, smiling good-naturedly.
"What do you mean "collecting" technomancers? You've seen others?" Sean demanded urgently, and Mary stopped laughing abruptly at the change in tone.
Dandolo raised his hands, palms up. "Yes, yes, friend, no need to be dramatic. But before I answer your questions, I need to know what brought you here."
Mary, Innocence and Tenacity remained largely silent as Sean explained their situation, with Roy interjecting at certain points. Dandolo nodded along, the perfect picture of the sympathetic listener.
Mary found the man unsettling. She wasn't scared of him, exactly, but she saw the glint in his eyes. Shrewd, was this man. A man without cunning would never have been able to control a city such as this. She feared that Sean, in his desperation, was giving away too much, but she could think of no way to stop it from happening without letting Dandolo know that she mistrusted him.
"I see, I see. A fascinating tale. And an impressive one. I will not make you wait any longer: Zachariah is alive and well."
Sean let out an explosive breath, and Mary reached out for his hand. She squeezed gently, trying to ground him, and he squeezed back.
"Where is he?" she asked as Sean composed himself. "May we see him?"
Dandolo shook his head. "He's not in the city just now; he's running an errand for me. But he and his friends should be back in the next day."
"An errand?" Innocence asked.
"Of course, dear boy; everyone in Noctis has to earn their keep. And Zachariah, in particular, has trouble on his heels. Harboring him is dangerous for us."
Sean's eyes snapped up to Dandolo's face. "What do you mean, dangerous for you?"
"One of my spies, Niesha, was the one who got him out of Ophir with the help of his doctor friend. All reports from my spies since that escape, and from the information she gathered while in the city, suggests that Viktor Watcher has become obsessed with your Zachariah. And all technomancers, to some extent, but his fixation on Zachariah is...troubling. Will it lead him here? I fear that could be the case."
"I had hoped he would let Zachariah go once he slipped the net," Sean said. "But this is...the most powerful and ruthless man in Abundance is bent on killing my son."
"The rest of your kind are in danger as well," Dandolo said, looking grave. "Zachariah intends to return to Ophir to free them once he has finished with the tasks I've set him."
"That's insane," Roy said, scowling. "A suicide mission. And for what?"
"We have to help him," Sean said. "I'm glad I reached Noctis before he made the attempt; it will not be easy."
"We don't have to do anything," Roy said. "You and your son can go ahead and get yourself killed for the Order, but Innocence and I aren't part of this."
Mary blinked, feeling hurt well up inside her. She kept her face neutral, but she wanted to shout at Roy.
They need help. They need us. We helped you, didn't we?
"Roy..." Innocence began.
"No. We are not getting involved in some damn technomancer crusade." Roy turned to Dandolo. "If you've got work that needs doing, the kid, the merc and I will do it."
"I second that," Tenacity grunted.
Dandolo had said nothing during the argument, but Mary knew he hadn't missed a thing.
"Let me get you settled into some quarters. You have had a long journey. After you've had some time to breathe, come back to me and we will discuss what comes next."
One of Dandolo's people led them to some small but well-kept rooms near the back of the palace. The group followed in uneasy silence.
When they had reached their accommodations, Roy, Innocence and Tenacity sharing a larger room and Mary and Sean in two smaller ones, they all stood awkwardly.
"I suppose this is it," Sean said, voice cool. "Thank you for helping us reach the city."
Roy nodded stiffly. "Thanks for helping us escape." He turned, disappearing behind the hangings that served as a door to the room. Tenacity followed.
Innocence looked up at them both, wearing an ashamed expression.
"I...I'm sorry," he said.
Mary shook her head.
"It's not your fault. Thank you, Innocence. We'll...see you later."
He nodded and retreated into the room with his companions.
The two blondes looked at each other.
"Well, I suppose now...we rest, and we wait for Zachariah to return," Sean said. "You do not have to assist in the rescue if you do not wish to, Mary."
"No," she replied firmly. "I will help."
He nodded, the ghost of a smile on his lips. "We will get them back, and face the future together."
Alone in her room a short while later, sitting barefoot on the bed with her knees drawn to her chest, Mary felt a familiar anxiety in her chest. The future was always a threat, it seemed. She leaned her head against the wall and closed her eyes, praying to the Shadow for peace.
She kept praying for a long time.
Sean awoke slowly from a deep, restful sleep, unsure what had woken him. He sat up and found himself face to face with the 22-year-old he'd been searching for since leaving Camp 19.
Zachariah was sitting in a chair next to the bed, where he'd obviously been waiting for Sean to wake. Neither of them seemed to know what to say.
Finally, Zachariah did something familiar: he threw himself forward, wrapping his arms around Sean and resting his forehead on the older man's shoulder, the way he had used to when he was young and waking from a nightmare. Sean hugged him back fiercely.
"Master--I mean, Sean--I can't believe you're here. I thought..."
"It was a near thing, Zachariah. But here we are."
He felt the younger man nod against his shoulder, apparently unable to say more. After a few long moments, Sean leaned back, his hands on his protege's shoulders.
He looked into the face of this young man he had raised, taking in the familiar scarring on the right side of his face, his perpetually-messy black hair, his tanned skin, always many shades darker than Sean's own.
"I am so proud of you, my son."
Zachariah burst into tears.
When Mary woke after her own fitful sleep, she could hear soft conversation in the next room; Sean's familiar voice and one she didn't recognize that could only be Zachariah's. She lay in bed, listening to the soothing rhythm of the conversation for a while, then got up, dressed, and headed out into the city.
The two of them needed time to talk and to learn what had happened to the other. Mary, meanwhile, wanted to see more of Noctis, and she couldn't try to sleep any more.
Her wandering feet took her from the palace steps into the market, but she didn't linger too long at any of the stalls, given that her pockets were light at the moment.
How am I going to get serum? I barely have enough for a few days' food.
She walked for a long while, trying to get a feel for this strange new place. When she strayed near the sandsails, she heard a woman say her name.
"Mary, right? You came to the city with Zachariah's master Sean, didn't you?"
The blonde turned to see a dark-skinned woman to her left, her hair pulled up in a bun except for a portion that hung straight over the right side of her forehead.
"Yes, that's me," she responded warily. "Who are you?"
"I'm Niesha," the woman responded, extending her hand to shake. "I'm a friend of Zach's. I saw you walking around and thought I'd introduce myself."
Mary took the proffered hand. "Dandolo mentioned you. He said you helped Zachariah in Ophir?"
"That's right. It was close, but we got out and managed to get here. Now we're doing some work for Dandolo. We just got back in the wee hours of the morning."
"I heard Zachariah and Sean talking in the palace. I wanted to give them time alone."
Niesha nodded. "That makes sense. Hey, do you want to get something to eat? I'm buying. You can tell me all about your trip here."
Mary hesitated a moment. Most of her life, she had been in a society so insular that meeting a stranger was impossible. And after meeting Sean, he'd been the one to make the decision to befriend Roy and Innocence, and to tolerate Tenacity. But Sean wasn't here. Mary had to decide about this stranger on her own.
"Alright," she replied shyly. "That's kind of you."
Niesha smiled. "Come on, let me get you the best sand lizard kebabs you've ever tasted."
"That won't be difficult. I've never had sand lizard kebabs."
The other woman laughed at the joke, and Mary felt herself relax. A little, at least.
Not long after they'd sat down at one of the tables near the marketplace, someone approached.
"Can we join you?" a young man with only one arm asked, referring to himself and the biggest mutant Mary had ever seen. They obviously knew Niesha, so she looked to the older woman for a sign.
"If Mary doesn't mind," Niesha replied mildly.
"I don't mind," the blonde said quickly. The young man smiled and sat down, then offered his hand.
"I'm Andrew. One of the ragtag crew helping Zachariah."
"And I am Phobos," the mutant said, nodding to her.
"I'm Mary, but you already know that," she replied, flustered by the attention of not one but three new people.
"Mary was just starting to tell me about breaking out of Camp 19," Niesha said, obviously trying to help her out.
Phobos' gaze sharpened. "I have heard many stories about the mutant rebellion in Camp 19. I would be very interested to hear your tale."
Andrew blinked at her. "You're an escaped POW?"
Mary shook her head. "No, I'm...I was...a technomancer captured by the enemy."
Silence followed. No one seemed to know what to say to that, so Mary hastened to break the tension.
"Sean found me, badly wounded, when he was traveling to Camp 19. The train taking him there stopped a few times along the front to pick up prisoners. He was consulting with one of the technomancer officers when he saw me fall. I was shot by a Hunter, and I overbalanced on the lip of a sand dune and tumbled until I was lying on my stomach in No Man's Land. The sun was coming up, and I thought it was all over. The soldiers covered Sean while he retrieved me. He brought me with him to Camp 19, since he knew I'd be safe, and helped me mend there. Then everything happened, and we escaped, and then we went to Shadowlair, and then we came here. So, ah, it's fine. I'm fine, now."
Niesha reached out and placed her hand on top of Mary's. "It must have been terrifying, waking up in a strange place. I've been held prisoner before. I know what that's like."
Mary shrugged. "It was no more terrifying than being on the front." She looked the older woman in the eye. "I wasn't very good at being a soldier. Everyone could see it. I can't believe I survived at all."
"How old are you?" Andrew asked suddenly.
His mouth twisted into a scowl as he looked at her. "They sent you out as an officer at sixteen?"
"...yes?" Mary said, uncertain why he suddenly seemed angry.
"Is that common in Aurora?" Phobos asked, his gaze gentle. It put her at ease, and she focused on him.
"It became common, as the war went on. Aurora went through soldiers quickly, and we were always a smaller population than Abundance. That's why they recruited the local militias to fight on the front, too. But anyone fifteen or older was of age to be deployed. That's what the Dowser told the army, after the war started." Niesha left her hand on top of Mary's, and she let it rest there.
"I'm sorry, Mary, I'm not angry at you," Andrew said, after a long pause. "I'm angry at them. You're a child. They should never have sent you away."
"Oh, um...that's...it's alright?"
The young technomancer wasn't sure what to say. She hadn't considered herself a child in a long time, and neither had the masters at the Source. A childhood was, in fact, a rare thing on Mars. And technomancers didn't do...whatever this was. This openly showing emotion and concern about someone else.
The war simply was. Everyone had to go. It was just life.
Andrew sighed, and Mary felt that she was missing something, but then Niesha squeezed her hand.
"So, care to tell us about your daring escape from Camp 19?"
Mary told them matter-of-factly what had happened, and found in the group a captivated audience. Niesha asked her questions about the conditions of the camp and how Sean treated her, and Phobos wanted to know about the mutants and how a deal with them had been struck. Andrew asked her about Sean and Roy, and what they were like, and what they were planning to do now.
Night was falling by the time she had finished, and she felt tired, but happy that she seemed to have made new friends.
Then suddenly, Innocence was at her elbow.
She felt Andrew and Niesha both tense as he drew close to her, and realized that they had no idea who he was. She turned to him deliberately and greeted him.
"Innocence, I was wondering where...you...is...everything alright?"
He looked slightly panicked, and shook his head, sitting down as she moved to make room for him. She introduced him to the others, who were looking less defensive and more puzzled, now. Innocence still hadn't said anything, and now that he was next to her, she cold see that his face was bright red again.
"Innocence? There's a vein popping out of your forehead. Is everything--"
"IwalkedinonRoyandTenacityandtheywerenakedandIwillneverunseeit." Innocence was steadfastly staring at the table now, hands gripping his knees tightly.
"Hm. That explains a lot."
His head snapped up and he glared at her. "You wouldn't be so calm about this if you had been the one to see them, Mary! How am I ever going to look them in the face again?"
"Do they know you saw them?"
"How should I know? I didn't hang about to compliment them on their form!" Across the table, Andrew choked on his drink and spiraled into a coughing fit. Phobos clapped him on the back, while Niesha raised a hand in front of her mouth to hide her smile.
"Well," Mary said thoughtfully, "That explains why Roy offered to let him travel with us. They must have been together at some point before. It makes me wonder if Tenacity would have really gone through with the contract on Roy's life."
Innocence stared at her. "That is not the point, Mary."
She rolled her eyes at him. "It'll be fine, Innocence. I used to stumble upon other technomancers together all the time."
"My life is ruined," Innocence moaned, ignoring her calm reply. "Roy's like my dad."
Andrew had recovered by now and was barely suppressing his laughter. "Man, they didn't waste any time, did they? My guess is Roy was planning this from the minute he saw Tenacity."
"You poor thing," Niesha said to Innocence, but she didn't look very sympathetic with the corners of her mouth twitching upwards. "That's awkward. Aren't you sharing a room with them?"
"Not anymore!" Innocence burst out. "I am not going back in there, ever, for the rest of my life. I will sleep in the hall if I have to." Andrew snickered.
"I'm sure there's somewhere else you can stay," Mary said, patting his shoulder. "Niesha, can we put Innocence somewhere else?"
The spy nodded. "Of course, of course. Though you'll have to go back into the room to get your things." She looked at Innocence, taking pity on him and ending the conversation. "Want to go now?"
Niesha offered to walk the two teenagers back to the palace, and they bid farewell to Phobos and a still-smirking Andrew.
As they walked, Niesha looked at her consideringly. "Do you use a staff like other technomancers?"
The blonde shook her head. "I trained with one, but it never really suited me. My technomancy has always been strong on its own, but I've never been able to complement it with a weapon."
"Your armspan isn't long enough for a staff," Niesha said. "You'd do better with a dagger or a nailgun. Something light. I could teach you."
"You wouldn't mind?"
"Would I have offered if I minded, Mary?"
She smiled up at the other woman, who was only slightly taller than her. "I'd like that. Thank you."
They set up a time to meet the next day, and then Mary headed to her room, leaving Niesha and Innocence to deal with the Roy-Tenacity situation. When she emerged into the hallway where she and Sean were both housed, her mentor emerged from his quarters.
"Mary! There you are! I was beginning to worry. You've been gone for hours."
She smiled. "Don't worry, Master, I just wanted to explore Noctis. And I met some of Zachariah's friends. We talked for a long time."
"I hope they were polite," Zachariah said, emerging through the doorway behind Sean. Mary nodded.
"Sean's told me all about you. He says you're as tough as any student he's trained. Including me." Zachariah grinned good-naturedly and extended his hand. "Zachariah Mancer. Nice to meet you."
They shook. "Mary Mancer. Formerly known as Mercy."
Sean looked between his two proteges, beaming. "I'm glad you're both here."
Mary ducked her head, not wanting the two men to see the blush on her cheeks as she felt something like belonging well up in her chest.
"Well, now that I've finished doing work for Dandolo, we can plan the rescue mission for our brothers and sisters," Zachariah said, growing more serious.
Sean nodded. "We'll begin preparations tomorrow. For now, Mary, get some rest. We'll see you in the morning."
Mary slept much more soundly that night.
Chapter 5: ain't no rest for the wicked
Roy, Tenacity and Innocence try to find their feet in Noctis, but thanks to some incompetent criminals, things get...complicated. Roy should have listened to Innocence when he warned him off this job.
I do have to thank the Discord for inspiring many of the events in this chapter, because there was a certain character I was trying to figure out how to incorporate and I have applied headcanons from some other Discord members! And that all led to a nice plot twist.
I know everybody wants to get to the part where we save the Technomancers from the ASC, but we're still not there just yet. We'll go get the electric grandads soon! Probably.
Let me know if you have any feedback, editorial or otherwise.
Oh there ain't no rest for the wicked
Money don't grow on trees
I got bills to pay, I got mouths to feed
There ain't nothing in this world for free
Oh no, I can't slow down, I can't hold back
Though you know, I wish I could
Oh no there ain't no rest for the wicked
Until we close our eyes for good
--Cage the Elephant, "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked"
When he woke up the next morning, Roy's first instinct was to go back to sleep. Then he remembered that he wasn't alone in bed, and then he remembered that he and Tenacity weren't alone in the room.
He sat straight up, hair askew, and upon seeing Innocence's bed untouched, began panicking. Not that Roy was admitting to panicking; he told himself that he was just rightly concerned for the boy's safety. Innocence was young, and while Roy hadn't pegged him for a wild child, who knew what he'd gotten into in Noctis that would have kept him from coming back at all?
He swung his legs over the bed and reached for his pants, then paused. Probably a quick shower was in order first, he grudgingly admitted, glancing over to Tenacity.
As he started to rise, though, Tenacity's arm swung over haphazardly and a hand closed around his wrist.
"The hell are you going so early?" Tenacity mumbled into the pillow. Other than the hand grabbing Roy's wrist, he looked like he was still dead asleep.
"Don't worry about it, Tenacity," Roy said, rolling his eyes and pulling his wrist out of Tenacity's feeble grip. "There's something I gotta go do."
Tenacity lay still for another moment, apparently giving up on keeping Roy in bed, then his head jerked up and he glanced over to the left.
"...Where's the kid?"
Roy was already halfway to the sand shower when he replied, "I dunno. Have to get out there and find him." He turned and fixed Tenacity with a wry look. "And don't try to get in the shower to help me 'rub my back', Tenacity, I really need to get moving."
Tenacity grinned back. "I don't know what you're implying, Roy."
Roy shook his head and got under the pipe that served as a showerhead in all but the wealthiest quarters on Mars. He pulled a chain hanging to his right, and sand started flowing.
Noctis was a city of many wonders, but they weren't miracle workers. Without the heavy-duty transport and military resources of a corporation, there was simply no way to obtain and protect a large enough water supply for bathing. Water for drinking, laundry, and cooking was rationed heavily as it was; that meant sand showers for everyone in the city. Though there were rumors that Dandolo had a bath that was large enough to fit 10 people which was connected to a private water supply. In some versions of the legend, the tub was actually made of gold.
It probably wasn't true, but you could never really know with Dandolo.
Roy scrubbed the sand through his hair, trying to figure out where to start looking for Innocence. He supposed asking Sean and the other technomancers was probably the best option, since Innocence was most likely with them, or had at least been with them at some point. He wasn't looking forward to the chilly reception he was sure to recieve, but stubbornly told himself he didn't deserve it. He didn't owe the Abundance technomancers anything. Momentarily, he thought of Innocence's face after he'd said that they weren't going to be helping and, briefly, felt a pang of remorse.
He's young and naive. His name is Innocence, for Shadow's sake. He'll learn.
He stepped out from under the sand and pulled the chain again to stop the grainy current, then went back to dress. He thought to himself that he really needed to get a second set of clothes to change into so he could actually get these washed.
Roy decided to forgo his armor, at least for now. It was a little paranoid to automatically assume that Innocence was in danger.
When he stepped out into the corridor, Mary looked to just be leaving, fully dressed and equipped with her technomancer gloves. She turned when she heard him, then smiled.
"You had an enjoyable night, I assume?" she said before he could ask about Innocence, bringing Roy up short.
She cocked her head. Her amused expression was uncannily similar to Sean's, and Roy wondered whether they weren't really father and daughter after all.
"You know, you and Tenacity? I gather you were busy."
"You gather. How so?"
"Innocence caught you, panicked, and told me. And all of Zachariah's friends. So. At least you and Tenacity don't have to worry about sneaking around."
Roy felt a mortification that he hadn't experienced since he'd been caught by his master fooling around with another apprentice back in his teenage years. He narrowed his eyes at Mary, trying to contain the flush working its way down his throat.
"We will never speak of this again."
She shrugged and went on her way.
"Wait. Where is Innocence?"
"Oh, he's back towards your room, at the end of the hall on the left. Niesha found him an empty suite to stay in," she replied without turning around.
Roy dragged a hand down his face and sighed explosively once she was out of sight. Great. Just great.
Roy went in the direction Mary had indicated, stopping in front of a bronze-colored door. He took a deep breath and knocked.
It took a moment, but the door swung inwards to reveal Innocence. When he registered that Roy was his visitor, his face immediately turned the color of his scarf.
"Hey, Innocence," Roy rubbed the back of his neck. "Uh, about last night...sorry. About that."
"You could have just told me and I would have found somewhere else to sleep," Innocence said, sullenly.
"It wasn't exactly planned. Tenacity and I go back, and it just. It just kind of happened."
"Anyway...we need to try and find some work around here."
"Yeah," Innocence breathed out, obviously relieved to move on to a different subject. "Should we go and see Dandolo?"
"Yeah, as soon as Tenacity's up and about," Roy said, ignoring Innocence's "kill me now" expression at the mention of his name.
Dandolo, as it turned out, had two jobs for them. One he wouldn't discuss, simply saying that he would call on them when the time was right. Roy felt his bullshit sensors tingling, but said nothing.
The second involved luring out some thieves, some of whom had set up shop in Valles Marineris.
"I need you to find the gang members stealing parts from our wind turbines, who I am fairly certain are members of the Vory. Talk to my man Theo at the turbine station; he's got the details."
Innocence cleared his throat. "Who are the Vory?"
"Forgive me," Dandolo replied, "I forget that you are from Aurora and not Abundance. The Vory are a powerful criminal organization headquartered in Ophir, but with eyes and ears all over Abundance. I fear that their leader, Anton Rogue, has set his sights on Noctis."
Tenacity nodded. "Heard of the guy. Seems like somebody not to be fucked with. He has some guys in Shadowlair, too, but I only know that because they hired me for a few jobs. They're not widespread enough to be well known."
"I'm sure they will be soon," the merchant prince replied, baring his teeth in a rare display of anger. "They are a cancer on this planet."
Roy felt certain that that was the most honest statement Dandolo had made thus far.
"So, talk to Theo at the turbine station, find thieves who are stealing parts, and, I assume, kill thieves? Or did you want them brought in alive?" Innocence started, glancing at Tenacity with wide eyes at his casual mention of murder.
Dandolo spread his hands out, palm up. "Well, I've always said the only good Vory is a dead Vory. These are likely relatively small fish, and I expect bigger will come along soon--but this theft is endangering Noctis. It needs to come to an end."
Roy nodded. "Understood."
Dandolo nodded and turned back to the group of hangers-on who always seemed to surround him, and the three men took the hint and headed out.
"Uh, Roy?" Innocence asked after they had left the palace.
"Do you really think it's a good idea to fight a powerful gang? Especially since they have people in Shadowlair...couldn't they sell us out?"
The technomancer shrugged. "I'd rather stick with Dandolo than try to go full independent mercenary, and if he wants us to fight these guys, we're gonna fight 'em. Besides, you heard what he said--these are small-timers. Nothing we can't handle."
"Besides," Tenacity said, "we're going to kill these guys anyway; no one'll be left to report back."
Innocence's face fell at the reminder, and Tenacity scoffed.
"Kid, you've gotta toughen up if you're going to survive out here. Kill or be killed. Get used to it."
"I killed plenty of people in the war. I don't need you to explain death to me, Tenacity."
Now and again, Roy felt as if Innocence was undergoing a change right in front of him. He'd go from naive, awkward teenager to ancient, world-weary war veteran in the span of a moment. In some ways, he was both, Roy knew. Gentle and angry, meek and bold, peaceful and deadly. His two sides stood out in sharp relief.
The technomancer knew better than many that war did that to people. He'd seen it time and time again. But watching Innocence, it seemed to him more terrible, somehow, than it ever had been before. As if something precious had been lost that this boy would never get back, and what remained of him to save would never replace what was gone.
Roy snapped back to the conversation, realizing that the tone was of the argument was sharpening dangerously.
"Don't get smart with me, boy."
"I'm not a child!"
"Aren't ya? That would explain why you cling to Roy's skirt the way you do."
"At least I didn't try to kill him and then take the first opportunity to get under his skirt!"
Tenacity raised a hand to strike the kid.
Suddenly, Roy realized that he had his dominant hand outstretched, glove crackling with power, and that Tenacity had been shoved backwards, away from Innocence and onto his back. It looked like he'd been tossed, though Roy was sure that wasn't right. Between the two, a transparent forcefield oscillated, pushing them apart.
Is it possible for a technomancer to create a field that shields anything other than themselves? It's inconceivable to create a shield without points of contact to the mancer themselves, but...that's what I just did.
"Roy?" Innocence's shaky voice made him realize he'd just been standing there, hand outstretched. He straightened, drawing his hand in and cutting off the electricity with a snap.
They all stood for a moment, Innocence blinking uncertainly at Roy, Tenacity looking furious, and Roy staring at his hand, trying to figure out what the hell had just happened. Finally, he spoke.
"Come on. Let's get to the turbine station."
They had an audience. Noctis citizens were watching warily, most of them fixated on Roy as the clearest threat of the three. Most of them looked away as the trio hesitantly started moving forward again, but a few bold individuals continued to gape openly.
Roy didn't say anything, moving to walk in between Innocence and Tenacity. None of them spoke until they reached their destination.
Innocence hated this job.
It was bad enough that he had to work with Tenacity, whom he didn't trust as far as he could throw him. But he hated killing. Really, he preferred to avoid fighting altogether if possible.
Roy and Tenacity had decided that Innocence should act as their rear guard, taking position well away from the place where they planned to confront the thieves. According to Roy, he was there to make sure no stragglers escaped, but Innocence was certain that it had more to do with separating him from Tenacity.
He still wasn't sure what had happened back there with the...magical glowing ball of light that had kept Tenacity from hitting him. Obviously, Roy had done it to protect him; there was no question about that. But he didn't understand why Roy had looked so startled by the whole thing. Roy seemed to have ironclad control of his own technomancy, and this time was no exception. He'd broken up the argument without hurting either Innocence or Tenacity. Still, his obvious confusion was puzzling to the younger man.
Innocence heard the first shouts from the fighting, and shifted his stance to make sure he was ready to fire as soon as someone approached. He concentrated on what he could hear, listening for any signs that someone was coming closer to his position.
Still, he didn't have any warning before something large and heavy hit him in the back of the head.
I'm going to be sick.
Innocence decided he was not going to open his eyes ever again. The pain in his head was enough to make him nauseous, and it felt like everything around him was swaying oddly. He was jostled up against something suddenly, and couldn't help but groan.
"Is he waking up?"
The voice was unfamiliar, and didn't sound particularly concerned. More like mildly curious.
"Hey kid, you awake?"
"Unfortunately," Innocence gritted out, attempting not to vomit.
"Don't worry, we'll give you a health injection when we get to our destination. We're almost there."
Innocence decided that it was in his best interest to at least try to open his eyes after all, vomiting or no, and saw that he was wrapped up in some kind of cloth. He could see light through it, but nothing specific. Just vague shapes, nothing that would give him a clue to his location.
The air was cool and tasted metallic, which was odd, because almost nowhere on Mars was cool. He remembered the same cool, damp air from the mole caves where he'd gone to retrieve Roy's stash of weapons in Camp 19.
Does that mean I'm underground, then?
He was clearly being carried over a man's shoulder, and felt them start to move straight upwards--a ladder.
Somewhere up ahead, he heard someone shout "Locusts are cleared out! Come on through!"
Innocence vaguely remembered that locusts on Mars tended to live underground, or at least in caves. So that remark made sense, he supposed.
Where am I? Who brought me here? Why was I taken in the first place? And what about Roy? Is he all right? Oh, and Tenacity.
The clang of a heavy door was followed by the sound of people talking, walking, music playing--the sounds of a city. That narrowed down his location, at least. No one seemed to be stopping whoever was carrying him; they moved through the crowds with ease.
Bile seemed to be coating his mouth and throat, and the throbbing in his head remained absolutely agonizing. It was hard to deduce where he might be when he could barely focus.
Finally, they entered a building or a compound of some kind, the noises of the city cutting off abruptly as the door sealed shut behind them. Innocence was placed down on a couch and the sheet unwrapped from around him, and he winced as the light in the room hit his eyes.
"Who in the fuck is that? Because it sure as shit isn't who I asked you to bring in."
"But, boss, he was with a technomancer who came to shut us down--"
"There's more than one technomancer on Mars, dipshit. This ain't Zachariah, and it's not his little spy friend either."
"I was promised a health injection," Innocence groaned. "But, you know, take your time. Don't rush on my account."
The voice of the boss, whoever he was, sounded nearly approving when he spoke again.
"Well, he's got some fight left in him. Heal him up. I want to talk to him."
"Sure thing, boss--"
"That doesn't mean you're off the fucking hook. You had better stay in the compound until I tell you otherwise."
Innocence barely felt the prick in his neck over the pain in his skull, but it quickly began to recede. He breathed deeply as the health injection did its work. Slowly, when he felt marginally less nauseous, he sat up and opened his eyes.
"Feeling better? Good. Now tell me who the hell you are."
The man in front of him was bald, wearing a black leather jacket which was for some reason layered over a button-up and tie. His face was lean and his nose crooked, obviously broken multiple times.
"I'm Innocence Smith. Would you mind terribly, I don't know, telling me who the fuck you are?"
"Who in the fuck is Innocence Smith?"
The teenager had to think about that for a moment. How did one answer that kind of question?
"I'm an escaped POW, former Auroran soldier, fugitive from the law, companion to Roy Temperance. Who is the technomancer your man mentioned earlier, incidentally."
"Christ. I could tell these idiots to find me the Dowser and they'd bring me a whore."
"You haven't answered my question, Mr....?"
"Rogue. Anton Rogue."
"Ah. I see you've heard of me."
"Just a bit." Innocence cleared his throat, trying not to sound terrified. He tried to think of what Roy would say in a situation like this. "So, ah, Anton--can I call you Anton? What can I do for you?"
Anton quirked an eyebrow, clearly amused at his attempt at bravado.
Well. So much for that.
"What can you do for me? I had hoped to get my hands on Zachariah Mancer, or at least his friend Niesha. I have plans for an operation that I could use their expert advice on. It's a matter of...paying a debt to an old friend, I suppose you could say."
"Well, I'm flattered that your men thought I was beautiful enough that I might be Niesha."
The crime boss' eyes narrowed. "So you know her, then."
"Er, not well. What did you want her to do?"
"The Grand Master of the Technomancers is an old friend of mine. Really, probably the only person who I can call a friend. Viktor Watcher has locked him up in the Source. I'm hoping I can rectify that."
Innocence smiled tentatively. "Well, uh, good news, Sean and Zachariah were planning to break them out when you kidnapped me. So they've got that in the works."
"Sean is alive? Good for him, stubborn kid."
"...how old are you? Sean's...old."
"I'm going to ignore that remark," Anton grumbled. "Fuckin' kids these days." He looked over Innocence speculatively. "Well, if you're good enough to run with Mancers, that's good enough for me. You're going to help me gather information while we wait for Sean and Zachariah to make their move."
"I'm going to what?"
"I've got you here, might as well make use of you. Anyway, once they get here, you and I are going to help them break Ian and the others out."
"I don't have a choice here, do I?"
"Smart boy. You can go back to Noctis with the technomancers if you want, but what's the point of sending you all the way back now? None, as far as I'm concerned. Besides, you're not from Ophir. No one will recognize you. You're actually quite suited to the kind of work we do here in the Vory. We'll need to give you a new name, though."
Innocence sighed. He understood Anton's point there. And he could think of one name...
"How about Roy?"
"That'll do. You'll be Roy Labour to anyone who asks while you're in Ophir. Now, let's get to work."
Well. Ophir gangster was something Innocence never thought he'd add to his resume.
At least it keeps things interesting.
Chapter 6: your hands protect the flames
Our brave heroes try to figure out what to do next, but they're interrupted by a catastrophe. It remains to be seen if they'll all survive long enough to free the Abundance technomancers.
Plus, dumb boys in love.
Let me know what you think of this chapter! I'm not quite happy with it, but I can't put my finger on why. Sorry about the angst; I gave you some fluff to make up for it!
Also, the science is like...30% real. But it's mostly me doing my best, which is not very good as science goes.
Icarus is flying too close to the sun
And Icarus's life, it has only just begun
This is how it feels to take a fall
Icarus is flying towards an early grave
"Would you care to explain how, exactly, you managed to lose an entire 19-year-old boy?"
Zachariah glanced between Sean and Roy, watching for any signs that this fight was about to get physical. He stayed close by his mentor's shoulder, ready to intervene if Tenacity or Roy got any ideas.
Really, he didn't dislike Roy or his mercenary partner. They reminded him of Dave, bitter and cynical but not malicious in intent--just more dedicated to their own agenda than to any larger ideals.
Thinking of Dave made him wonder, uneasily, if the man had survived the journey from Ophir. It wasn't exactly easy, and Dave hadn't had the benefit of a rover. After everything that had happened, with Jeffrey's betrayal and Zachariah being chased out of the city by the ASC, he understood why Dave had done what he had. He didn't like it, and he didn't regret demanding that Dave get out of the city, but he could see that they'd both simply done what they'd had to do.
Roy's raised voice snapped him out of his thoughts.
"I don't need your goddamn condescension, Sean. What I need is to figure out who took him and where he is! Don't treat me like I'm one of your apprentices!"
Sean's lip curled. "You're giving yourself too much credit. None of my apprentices are nearly as irresponsible as you are, Roy."
The sound of a gun safety clicking off had Zachariah moving fluidly in front of Sean, simultaneously pulling his shield off his back and raising his heavily-modified mace.
"Step back, Tenacity."
"You're the one with your weapons drawn, kid."
"And you're the one getting ready to draw yours. Do you think I don't know how fast you can draw those pistols? Back off and calm down."
Tenacity's left hand remained on the grip of one of his guns for a long moment, then he removed it, grabbing Roy by the arm and pulling him backwards a few steps. Zachariah waited to sheathe his weapons until both the mercenary's hands were where he could see them and well away from his holsters.
"Now, let's talk about this," he said, looking around the circle of friends and allies. Everyone was here, including Niesha and Mary, who had come straight from a training session and were glistening with sweat.
"You were trying to wipe out some Vory thieves?"
Roy huffed. "Yes. We had Innocence stay back from where we were planning to actually confront them, to keep any from getting away, but when we finished the fight he was gone. No body, no weapon left behind."
"Well, the who is pretty simple then. The Vory have him," Zachariah replied. "Question is, where are they keeping him, and why Innocence?"
"You don't take someone home just to kill them," Niesha said grimly. "Too messy. They want him for something else."
"What could Innocence possibly have that they would want?" Roy asked, running a hand through his hair. Zachariah noticed that Tenacity's hand remained securely on Roy's upper arm, gripping lightly.
"Who knows what Anton is thinking?" Everyone turned to look at Sean. "What? He's the leader of the Vory. If they're going to the trouble of holding the boy somewhere, Anton knows about it. It sounds like he set up this whole operation to catch Innocence, or perhaps Roy. I can't fathom what his plan is, though."
"You're on a first-name basis with Anton Rogue?" Andrew asked. He was standing close by Zachariah, which the other technomancer tried not to read too much into. That, and the fact that over the last few days Andrew had seemed to be at his elbow most everywhere he went. And that he insisted on accompanying Zach on every mission for Dandolo.
He just remembers you as a childhood companion, Zach. Stop getting excited every time he smiles at you, even if it is a really, really nice smile. And it reaches his eyes every time he laughs at one of your stupid jokes. And...focus, Zach! Teenaged boy missing, Vory involved, need to find him.
Sean shrugged in reponse to Andrew's question. "He and the Great Master are best friends. They grew up together, and never stopped corresponding even after Ian was put in charge of Ophir's Source. They're closer to brothers than friends, really."
Andrew blinked. "I don't remember the Order being in bed with the Vory."
"We're not. Ian and Anton largely avoid any knowledge of each other's professional work. Mostly they drink and talk about boys together," Sean replied, rolling his eyes.
"Wait...what?" Zachariah turned to face his mentor, eyes wide. "Actually, I totally believe that Ian spends his free time talking about Connor. Those two are hopeless. Though I can't believe Anton actually listens."
Sean chuckled. "He doesn't have a choice. Anyway, the point is--I think our best chance to find out what's going on is to send someone to chat with Anton when we return to Ophir to rescue our brothers and sisters."
"Will we have time, Sean? Once Viktor gets word that we're in the city, we'll only have limited time to get out."
"We do not need the entire group to go the Source. In fact, we'd have to leave some of our people in the Underworks in any case, because it would be impossible to get a group this big through the crypts unnoticed."
Zachariah looked around the group. "So...any volunteers?"
"We'll go," Roy said immediately, Tenacity nodding once behind him.
Amelia made a derisive noise, having been unusually quiet up until now. "Yeah, but you guys don't know Ophir. It's not like there'll be signs saying, "shady crime lord this way!!!" You'll never be able to find him in time."
"So we need to send someone with them," Zachariah said.
"Honestly, Zach, Phobos and I don't know the Underworks or the slums well enough to be good guides," Andrew offered. "So...I think we're out. Besides, I'm going with you to free the other technomancers anyway."
Zachariah tried not to smile like an idiot at Andrew's stubborn loyalty. Instead he turned to Niesha, but before he had even opened his mouth, she stopped him.
"No. I can't. Don't ask me, Zach."
They all looked at her in surprise, but she offered nothing more.
"Zachariah, I do not think that--well, I do not believe that I would be the best choice to deal with that man, or his Vory. I do not have the, ah, stomach for it, you might say. If stomach is the right organ, perhaps the liver as the body's filtration system might be more apt..." Scott trailed off, muttering to himself, and everyone ignored him as per usual.
That left Amelia. Zach and the others turned to look at her, and she crossed her arms, scowling.
"Oh, for fuck's sake. Just because I said they needed a guide didn't mean I was volunteering!"
"Amelia..." Zachariah said pleadingly. "There's a 19-year-old kid at stake here. Please, do it for him?" It didn't take her long to crack under the technomancer's doe eyes.
"Fine! Fine, I'll do it for the kid, but you owe me 10 times over, Zach," Amelia said, pointing her index finger at him.
"Thank you," Roy said quietly. "We'll pay you back, I swear."
"You'd fucking better. Anyway, here's the thing: we can't all go to Ophir anyway. There's no way I can fit us all in the rover with all the supplies we're bringing, and unless one of you can pull another vehicle out of your ass, a few people are gonna have to stay here."
They debated amongst themselves for a while, determining that Sean, Zachariah, and Amelia were all essential to the mission. Scott volunteered to stay back, which made sense, and Niesha told Zach that unless he needed her, she didn't need to go on the mission either.
"Mary can probably stay too," Niesha said. "I'm giving her some weapons training anyway."
"What? No! I'm going to help!" Mary insisted, looking at Sean for confirmation. He looked back, speculative.
"Perhaps...Mary, perhaps it is not a bad idea for you to stay here."
"What?! But Master, you said I would be going with you!"
"Hear me out, Mary," the older technomancer said, raising one hand palm up.
Zachariah felt a strange sense of deja vu while watching them. He knew, in Mary's place, that he would have thrown an absolute fit had Sean tried to leave him behind. It would have felt like an insult, an acknowledgement that he couldn't keep up with Sean. Or that Sean didn't need him. Mary was particularly young, too, so she had an even more difficult time understanding the measured approach Sean tended towards.
It was odd, he thought, to be so soon out of his own apprenticeship and already thinking like Sean and Ian did about their younger charges. It was disconcerting.
"Mary," Sean was saying, "if Zachariah and I don't survive this...at least one technomancer needs to survive to continue the search for Earth."
"But there are plenty of technomancers in Aurora! Let them find it! I'm going with you."
Something pinged in the back of Zachariah's mind, a sudden sense of dangerdangerdanger, and he tried to tune into his senses to figure out what was setting him off.
The accident years earlier with Andrew had damaged his brain's parietal lobe, the one responsible for integrating and processing sensory information. He had trouble with identifying tactile sensations--heat, cold, sharp, soft--and his brain couldn't figure out what something was just by the feel of it. He could see an object and identify it, but if he tried to find something in the dark with his sense of touch, it was hopeless. He'd had to relearn ways not just to carry out everyday tasks, but to fight and to identify threats in his capacity as a soldier. Sean and Ian had actually worked together to devise strategies to help him, Ian searching for and translating texts from the initial colonists and the neurological research they'd done that led to the technomancy mutation.
"Your condition is called Astereognosis, Zachariah," he'd said, sitting next to Zachariah and Sean in the chapel and showing the boy a diagram of the brain on a tablet. "It just means your brain isn't terribly good at connecting with your hands and your sense of touch. It can be overcome. We will help you."
The teenager had looked down at his lap, lip trembling. "I'm never going to be a real technomancer like you and Master Sean. I can't do things right."
"Zachariah, look at me." Sean had said, firmly, and the boy raised his head up. "You simply do things differently. And you are going to be a great technomancer when you are grown, because you are not going to give up. Do you understand me?"
Zachariah had nodded, wiping at his eyes. "Yes, Master."
His ability to interpret touch may not have worked, but his other senses did. Suddenly, he could taste ozone, a telltale sign of an oncoming burst of technomantic power.
Roy came into his line of sight, moving towards Mary, and Sean's tone became more urgent.
"Mary. Mary, you're going to overload, take deep breaths--"
Zachariah didn't remember deciding what he was going to do next. He remembered the urgent pull on his arm, which he later realized was Andrew, and he remembered the sensation of hitting the ground, his arm around Sean's waist pulling the older man halfway on top of him. Roy was shouting and throwing up a barrier, and he had a sense of people scrambling away as fast as they could.
The next thing he became aware of was pounding in his temples and feeling like he'd been fighting for days. Both his hands were outstretched, and he was holding up a barrier, but he had no real sense of what was happening.
Then Sean's voice was at his shoulder. "Zachariah. We're safe. You must let go of the spell now."
"I--Master, I can't--"
"You can, and you will. I know you can do it, son. Everything will be alright."
When he cut off the flow of his power with a snap, his legs gave out. He was unconscious before he hit the ground.
Sean had known since he'd started training the boy at age ten that Zachariah had a tendency to act first and think later. As he'd honed his instincts over the years, it became a trait that typically served him well, and it was what made him so proficient in combat. He didn't need an eternity to weigh his options; his body and his mind could agree instantly on what action to take.
Watching his former apprentice create and hold a forcefield large enough to protect not only himself and Andrew but to create a protective wall between Mary's overload and everyone behind him, he was both grateful and terrified of the boy's powerful instincts. Even when the overload had subsided, he and Andrew remained ensconced in the barrier, though Zachariah was shaking with effort.
"He has to stop," Andrew croaked, trying to lift himself off the ground with only the one arm. "He's going to kill himself."
Sean scrambled to his feet, putting a hand on Zachariah's shoulder that he was certain wasn't going to register with the boy, not with his particular condition. Short of knocking him out himself, Sean's voice was the only thing that might be able to break his focus.
When it worked, when Zachariah responded, Sean wanted to cry in relief. Then the younger man passed out, and Sean caught him with a grunt, lowering him to the ground.
There was a lot of noise surrounding them--Dandolo was fast approaching with some of his guards, trying to figure out the source of the noise, and Roy was bent over Mary, swearing and checking for a pulse.
"Is everyone alright?" he heard Andrew ask, voice steadier than it was moments ago.
"Yeah, we're all fucking peachy, what the fuck just happened?!" Amelia yelled back.
Scott crouched down next to Sean, who was checking Zachariah's vitals. He was breathing, and his pulse was erratic, but evening out with each breath.
"Have you got one of those fluid injections, Sean?"
"Administer it immediately, then follow it up with a health injection." Sean did those things without thinking, feeling his heart twist as Zachariah convulsed at the administration of the fluid injection. It was a natural response after an overreach by a technomancer; the body was trying to process the excess of electricity and complete imbalance of fluid.
He held his son down as he seized; Andrew moved to help as best he could, his face drawn and pale.
Scott had already moved on to Mary, obviously the more serious patient, by the time Sean had finished administering aid to Zachariah. He couldn't help it; he pressed his ear to the young technomancer's chest, needing to hear his heart beating. After a moment, Andrew spoke.
"Is he...is he going to be OK?"
Sean lifted his head and nodded. "He needs to rest and he'll need to eat and drink when he wakes up. But he'll recover, and quickly, if I know Zachariah."
Andrew breathed out a sigh of relief. He relayed the message to Niesha, who was speaking with Dandolo, and to Amelia and Phobos, who helped load Zachariah onto a stretcher.
But Mary's survival was still in question.
Scott was bent over her, for once completely silent as he worked. Moving over to kneel next to Roy, Sean watched the erratic, stuttering rise and fall of Mary's chest.
"One of you, I need a controlled shock over her heart. Now," Scott demanded.
Roy reached out, pressing a hand firmly to her chest, and her body jerked with the application of technomancy. Scott used a stethoscope to listen to her heart and lungs, and Sean wasn't sure where he'd gotten it--perhaps the man was carrying around a medical kit just in case.
"Again," the doctor said, and Roy complied. Mary's eyes snapped open at the second shock, and she made a choking noise, followed by a desperate gasp for air. Roy made a small, pained noise, snatching his hand back as if he'd been burned.
Sean moved into Mary's field of vision and spoke to her.
"Mary. Can you hear me? You've had an overload; if you are still drawing on power, you need to stop."
Her mouth moved, but no sound came out. Then suddenly, she went limp, the seizing in her body cutting off abruptly. Scott injected something into her system, and she didn't so much as twitch.
"That's all we can do for now," the doctor told them. "She needs rest and to be hooked up to a saline drip, and we'll just have to see."
Neither of the older technomancers asked what he meant. They knew the dangers of an overload, and the lasting impact it could have on a technomancer's faculties even if they survived.
"I'll carry her," Roy said quietly, and the three men rose and moved towards the palace.
Later, Sean was eating dinner with Amelia, Niesha and Phobos. For hours he had been moving between Zachariah and Mary's bedsides, until Andrew had finally told him he would watch over Zachariah, and Roy and Tenacity would watch over Mary.
Go sit down, Master. We'll keep watch, and you need a break.
Sean had been momentarily surprised by Andrew's use of his title, having forgotten that Andrew was a technomancer at all. Apparently, the boy had retained enough of his training to revert to Source hierarchy automatically. Sean thought of Connor with a pang, remembering how destroyed he had been after his confrontation with Andrew in Ophir.
He'd entered Ian's office without knocking as he usually did, only to find the two highest-ranking technomancers in Abundance curled up on the floor together. Ian had been sitting against the wall, Connor's face pressed into his chest. The Great Master had looked up at him wearily, then nodded his head at the desk to indicate that Sean should take on some of the paperwork waiting to be finished there, given that he was obviously going to be busy for a while. The younger man had collected the most pressing forms and silently departed, with Connor not even noticing that he'd come in at all.
Sean didn't blame Andrew for being angry. He had every right. But still, it had hurt to see Connor, his mentor of so many years, in so much pain. Regret was a powerful weapon, and inflicted wounds not easily mended.
"So," Amelia spoke up. "Sean, or whatever I'm supposed to call you. Are we still heading for Ophir tomorrow? I mean, I know what happened today was fucked up, but...after what happened to Zach..." she hesitated, looking away for a moment. "Well, I'm just saying, I wouldn't want to leave my people alone with Vik the Dick for any longer than necessary."
"Thank you for helping him escape. Both you and Niesha," Sean replied, nodding to her. "I haven't yet had the chance to speak with you, or I would have thanked you sooner."
"Well, this girl held me at gunpoint," Amelia said, gesturing to Niesha, "so I don't know that I deserve points for heroism. I drove the rover because I had to...but I'm glad I did. It ended up being the right thing. And Zach's not so bad, now that I'm getting used to him."
Sean chuckled. "I'm glad you feel that way."
He paused, taking a long swig of his drink--something vaguely alcoholic and fruity.
"To answer your question, Amelia, yes--I believe that we will be setting out tomorrow morning. Zachariah...well, I'd prefer if he stayed here, and he may need to. But not having him along will make things significantly more difficult."
"Well, let's hope he wakes up soon, then."
The Source was a hive of energy, as it was the break period between classes and students were milling around in the common spaces. The youngest apprentices moved in packs, still unsure of their footing in the grand and austere halls of the Order. Older students, some recently outfitted with their very first technomancer kits, stopped to exchange gossip about the latest trysts and scuffles among their peers.
Zachariah had just gotten out of his physics lesson and needed to get to his history class soon, so he took a shortcut through the combat training area. Skirting the edges of the space, he looked curiously to see Connor working with Andrew to demonstrate a technomancy spell.
Andrew was the best student when it came down to pure technomancy. Everyone knew it. He had even surpassed some of the actual masters, even though he was only 14. Zachariah knew he was better at actual combat, but his raw power paled in comparison to Andrew's.
"Alright, everyone, we've already gone over the class time. That's enough for today; head to your next classes."
Andrew stayed behind with Connor as the other students dispersed, asking him something about the move they'd just demonstrated. Connor nodded, and the two faced each other and fired up their powers.
But suddenly, Andrew's electric arc flared, and he fell to his knees, clutching at his arm. Zachariah turned and started moving towards him without thinking, instincts telling him to help.
"Andrew! Draw your power in, as I taught you in meditation--"
"I'm trying, Master, I can't--it feels like I'm on fire, it hurts, I can't!!!"
As he drew within a few feet of the two, Andrew's power exploded out into the room. Zachariah felt pain explode through the right side of his body, a crushing force bearing into his torso and head. He was unable to tell what exactly was hurt as he slammed into the floor of the training room, his head cracking against the metal. But he couldn't hear it. He couldn't hear anything except screaming and the crackle of lightning and Connor calling, calling--
Zachariah shot up in bed. He was out of breath, like he'd been running, and it took him a moment to realize that he wasn't in the Source at all.
"Zach?? I'm right here!"
His head whipped in the direction of the voice only to see Andrew, alive and well next to his bedside. Unable to help himself, he reached for the other mancer's hand, threading their fingers together. Andrew didn't try to stop him.
"Are you OK? You were having a nightmare, I think, and...you said my name."
"I was..." Zachariah brought his free hand up to rub at his right temple. "I was dreaming about the Source, about what happened when you overloaded."
"Oh," Andrew said quietly, sounding subdued. "Wait--you were there?"
"I was only a few feet away from you, Andrew. I was...I don't know what I was trying to do, help, I guess. You were obviously in pain...I didn't understand what was happening."
The other man made a soft, wounded noise and tried to disentangle their hands, but Zachariah squeezed firmly, holding him in place.
"I didn't know I hurt you, Zach," Andrew whispered. "I'm so sorry. You don't have to forgive me."
"There's nothing to forgive."
"How can you say that?! That scar on your face is my fault, isn't it?! And I don't even know what else I did to you!"
"It was an accident, Andrew. We were kids."
Andrew pulled his hand out of Zachariah's and used it to grip his chin gently, turning his face so that he could look him in the eyes.
"Tell me what I did to you. How hurt you were. I need to know, Zach."
Swallowing, Zachariah gave him a basic explanation of the brain injury he'd suffered, along with scarring on his right side, broken ribs, a fractured skull and dislocated jaw, and a few broken fingers. Andrew listened in stony silence, watching his expressions.
Finally, he leaned back with a sigh, and Zachariah had to stop himself from leaning forward to follow.
"Zach. I can't believe...you can say I'm forgiven all you want, but you still don't have to be my friend, or help out with my arm. I mean it."
"I'd like to be more than just your friend."
The statement hung in the air, Andrew's eyes widening in surprise and Zachariah's in panic.
Oh shit, oh shit, I didn't mean to say that, he knows, ohshitohshitohshit--
"Um." Zachariah squeaked. "That...was not how I was planning to say that. Can we pretend this never happened? I'm just going to go die now."
In spite of Andrew's best efforts to remain solemn, a grin was spreading across his face. "Oh, no you don't. You asked me out, Mr. Mancer. No takebacks."
It was very hard to focus on the conversation with Andrew's eyes sparkling like that, Zachariah thought to himself. It wasn't fair.
"I'd like to be more than just friends too, Zach."
"Really?!" Zachariah couldn't stop himself from grinning like an idiot, blushing from head to toe. "Because I'm kind of an idiot, and you're so nice, and charming and cute, and you're basically the most beautiful person I've ever seen and. Oh, shit. Shutting up now. Sorry. I just. I like you so much."
Now the other technomancer was blushing, a pretty pink spreading across his pale cheeks. "That...might be the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. And yeah, you may be an idiot, but luckily for you, I find that endearing. Plus...your shoulders. They're so broad and...and yeah. So I think I'll keep you."
Zachariah laughed. "I knew all that Guardian-style training would serve me well one day."
"I'm going to kiss you now."
And he did.
Chapter 7: god love all the people that have warned you
"So what you're telling me is that you're an Auroran POW who escaped from an Abundance camp in the company of a rogue technomancer, who then crossed hundreds of miles of desert to reach a legendary city that isn't supposed to exist. You were then kidnapped by the most ruthless crime lord on the planet, who decided to hire you for undercover work, which led you straight into the heart of ASC-occupied territory...where you stumbled into us."
Hey everybody, I'm back! I moved and also took a vacation, so it took me a little longer than usual to update. Let me know what you think of the chapter.
In this chapter, a bunch of dudes make a bunch of choices. Some of them are good. Some of them are a little less than.
(the lyrics at the beginning of this one are about Jeff as I've written him here, in case anyone is curious)
Feels just like I don't try
Looks so good I might die
All I know is everybody loves me
--OneRepublic, "Everybody Loves Me"
Innocence hated this job. He was beginning to sense a theme here.
First I have to pretend to be an electrician, then I'm playing mercenary, and now I'm working for the mob. Why do I get stuck with all this garbage?
The electronic music playing through the speakers was giving him a headache, and all the neon lights weren't helping, but Innocence tried to keep his discomfort off of his face.
He had an eye on the gentleman in the corner who seemed to be trying to recruit the bar's patrons to fight in some kind of contest. Luckily for him, he seemed to have failed the arena manager's assessment, the man's eyes passing over him only briefly before moving to a woman on the teen's right. Her biceps were thicker than Innocence's neck, and she seemed to be a much more interesting target.
At least this getup is good for something, Innocence thought to himself as he resisted the urge to rub his face for the umpteenth time that night. The lavender lipstick would smear all over, and the eyeliner he was wearing was already contending with the heat in the room. One light touch could blacken his eyes.
A black mesh tank top offered a little relief from the sweltering bar, but the tight-cut dark pants one of Anton's girls had poured him into were doing the opposite. He wished this Jeffrey Hunter would show up already so he could eavesdrop a bit, see where the man went after leaving Curiosity's, and then head back to the Slums for the night.
A low-level anxiety marinating in Innocence's brain was telling him that perhaps he'd already missed his target, but he shoved down the thoughts. If Jeffrey showed up, Innocence would spot him. If he didn't, well, that was Anton's problem.
Someone jostled their way through the door, pushing indignant patrons out of the way. A girl in a pair of pink heels started swearing at the intruders, but abruptly fell silent. Suddenly people were scurrying out of the way, and Innocence straightened in his seat as a wave of apprehension swept through the crowd.
The whites and greys of ASC armor were easily recognizable against the dark shadows of Curiosity's lounge. It was a group of four, the two at the front obviously clearing the way for whoever was following.
When they reached the bartender and ordered a round, he stopped in the middle of making a drink and went to work immediately. The group claimed a table across the way from Innocence, obviously looking to one man in a specialized helmet for his approval.
Innocence forced himself to relax, slouching in his seat and taking a drink of the dark ale in his cup. Was Jeffrey in this group? Hard to tell, with everyone in identical armor.
The group's leader leaned back in his seat and pulled his helmet off with a flourish, surveying the bar with a look of practiced disinterest.
That's him. Jeffrey Hunter.
Innocence was reminded of some of his officers from the front, young and newly promoted. They acted casual, as if they were oblivious to their effect on the soldiers around them who feared their authority, but name-dropped and emphasized their rank at every opportunity. Really, they wanted nothing more than the attention and power over the others around them, and they wanted everyone to know who they were. What they could do, in favor or in retaliation. Jeffrey was one such man, Innocence thought, and instantly hated him.
For a while, the soldiers drank and played dice, talking and laughing too loudly at whatever Jeffrey said. But the officer's gaze began to rove around the bar. His interest in his companions was dwindling, it seemed, but Innocence wasn't sure what entertainment he was looking for in the downtrodden people here. He wasn't sure he wanted to know.
The teenager got up to refill his drink, wary of being made as a spy and not a normal patron. He took his eyes off of Jeffrey to speak to the bartender, and was handing over his serum when he heard a voice to his left say, "I've got it."
Only three times in his life had Innocence felt his blood run cold. Once on the front when he'd faced down his first enemy soldier; once when he'd awoken in a rover on the way to Camp 19; and once when the soldiers had forced him to his knees in the sand showers.
The moment he looked up and saw Jeffrey Hunter leaning casually against the bar in full ASC armor, checking him out appreciatively with a smirk on his face, was the fourth time.
"Hey there. You here alone?"
Innocence nodded, eyes fixed on Jeffrey. He'd forgotten about his drink entirely until the ASC officer darted his eyes to it, then to the table where Innocence had been sitting.
"Mind if I join you?"
"Uh no--it's fine," Innocence said, clearing his throat. He picked up his drink, willing his hands to steady so it wouldn't slosh everywhere.
Jeffrey took the seat facing the bar before Innocence could object, meaning the younger man's back was to the room. He could practically feel the ASC soldiers' eyes burning into his back, and it was an effort to look at his companion rather than turning around.
"So, I guess you're an officer then?" Innocence asked, not entirely sure what Jeffrey wanted in the first place. He was supposed to be a pretty boy out on the town, but Anton hadn't exactly handed him a manual about how to make appropriate conversation.
"Yeah, I've moved up the ranks pretty quickly in the ASC," Jeffrey said, settling back into his chair. "I've worked as a Hunter, and as a spy, and now I'm a corporal. Even helped get rid of that technomancer officer that everybody's talking so much about."
"Wow, that's amazing," Innocence said, leaning in just slightly. "That sounds really dangerous."
"It was," Jeffrey said, looking satisfied with his new companion's admiration. "I could tell you the story, but--eh, you've probably heard all the gossip already. You might not find it interesting."
"No, I would! Tell me, please?"
Jeffrey's smile widened as he launched into the tale.
Innocence didn't have to pretend he was listening. He noted down every detail, especially mentions of Viktor Watcher and his plans for the technomancers. As a part of his story, Jeffrey explained how he'd been recruited and the channels he'd used to stay in touch with Viktor.
It didn't take much prompting to get him to go on after he'd finished that first story, especially as the bartender appeared to be compulsively watching their table and bringing drinks whenever theirs got low. Innocence drank one cup to every two of Jeffrey's, hoping that it wouldn't raise any red flags.
"Don't like your drink?" the officer asked him, conversationally, when the younger man didn't sip his fourth ale for the full length of one his tales.
"Oh! No, it's not that, I just...have you looked at me? I'm a lightweight. Need to pace myself, you know."
Jeffrey's answering smile made him feel what he imagined a locust felt when about to be eaten by an ostrich.
"You don't have to worry. I'll take care of you, you know."
Innocence's answering smile was shaky. "O-Of course."
The night felt like it was stretching on forever, but Innocence was getting valuable intel. And it wasn't as if he could just get up and leave. He wasn't sure if the ASC officers were still there, but he imagined if so, they were as ready for Jeffrey to get up and leave as he was.
The officer was obviously feeling the effects of all the alcohol he'd imbibed, and his eyes glinted as he leaned across the table into Innocence's space.
"Hey, want me to show you something? You've never seen anything like it before, I promise you."
Innocence's mind could come up with several somethings Jeffrey might want him to see, and he wasn't interested in any of them. But there was only a split second to decide, and--
"OK, show me."
Jeffrey laughed, obviously pleased. "A sense of adventure! I like it. Come on, let's get going."
Innocence turned to see the other soldiers rising at Jeffrey's signal, and wasn't sure if he was happy or nervous that they would accompany him and Jeffrey. He'd rather not be alone with the man, but then again, one man was easier to subdue than four, if it came to that.
They made their way through the Slums, the officer joking with his squad, obviously unworried about wandering around the Vory-dominated neighborhood in the dead of night. Anton wouldn't be fool enough to attack the ASC directly, Innocence supposed, even if the attack was simply a mugging.
When they hit the security checkpoint, the young man realized that they were headed into the Exchange, and momentarily panicked. He didn't know if he'd be able to get back through the checkpoint and to the Vory headquarters--and Anton was preferable to Jeffrey and the ASC in terms of his own personal safety.
Stepping into the Exchange was like entering a different world. The streets were empty, the buildings were towering, and the Abundance logo was everywhere. It felt more like a scale-model of a city than a place where people lived, Innocence thought, and was nearly knocked off his feet with longing for his parents' home in Shadowlair. He'd never missed anything so much in his life as he did his family and their rundown little shop in that moment. The sound of the door constantly opening and closing, Innocence's mother, Patience, behind the counter chatting softly with regular customers, his father Resilience in the back loading new product from the caravans.
Innocence snapped back to Ophir, pushing the memories to the back of his mind with effort.
Those looked like barracks ahead. Bile bubbled up in Innocence's throat as he considered what might await him there. But the only people that went inside were two of Jeffrey's company, one electing to go with them to do...whatever it was they were doing.
As they moved through the streets, one building continued to loom ahead of them--the Administrative Headquarters, otherwise known as the Dowser's palace and Viktor Watcher's lair. They were heading straight for it.
Innocence began to pray silently.
"Come on, it's this way," Jeffrey said easily, waving Innocence over to the right once they'd scaled the steps to the palace. "We're going to visit our friends at the Source. Bet you've never seen a real technomancer before, huh?"
Connor Mancer sighed as he organized his books for what felt like the tenth time today. He hadn't left the Source in the nearly two weeks since the mass arrest of the technomancers.
Fear had turned into restless anticipation as captivity had continued through the days and, now, looked to be stretching into weeks. Every technomancer had been questioned individually, but there had been no torture yet. He and Ian had endured the brunt of the ASC's attention, and that was how they were trying to keep it. Their protective instincts demanded that they keep their brothers and sisters safe safe as much as possible, especially the children.
There was little to do but wait in the meantime. Classes and training had been cancelled by the ASC for the foreseeable future, and Connor wanted to stay in the cell they'd assigned him rather than going to the others and giving the impression of camraderie. The last thing they needed was suspicion that they were plotting something.
There was a knock on the door. Connor tensed up, but went to answer it briskly. Jeffrey, Zachariah's former subordinate was there, bringing someone else with him. Unfortunately, this wasn't unusual.
Jeffrey had brought by a number of people, showing off the caged technomancers as if they were animals in a zoo. Connor preferred that he be the one showed off, rather than Ian--he was better at keeping his mouth shut in the face of the mockery.
He's trying to impress this one, Connor thought as Jeffrey carried on with his condescending chatter and jeering at the technomancer's helplessness. By the Shadow, he's young. Is he even of age?
The boy, dressed in an outfit Connor would describe as risque, seemed to be playing along rather than genuinely interested. Then, he looked up at Connor speculatively.
Jeffrey turned to shout an order to a nearby soldier who was guarding the Source, and the boy chose that moment to make his move. He staggered and fell against the door, and Connor reached out to steady him instinctively. Jeffrey turned back to them.
"Shit, are you alright? You weren't kidding about being a lightweight." The boy mumbled something in response, and Jeffrey shrugged and gave Connor a commisserating look, as if to say, what can you do?
"Well, I'm not taking you all the way back to the Slums, kid, I've got things to do." He appeared to be writing off his companion moments after trying to impress him, now that it was clear the boy wouldn't be of any use for the rest of the night.
"What am I supposed to do?" the boy asked in a small voice.
Jeffrey shrugged. "Technomancers are supposed to have magic powers, right? Maybe it'll work for your hangover. Stay here until morning, then one of the soldiers can escort you out and you can get back on your own."
The boy opened his mouth, as if to argue, then shut it quickly when Jeffrey looked at him with a raised eyebrow.
"Well, that's settled," Jeffrey said, clapping the boy on the back so hard he stumbled into the doorframe. Connor winced in sympathy. "Thanks for the good time, kid. See you around."
The technomancer and the young man watched him saunter out of the Source, then Innocence looked up at Connor and gestured to the room beyond. Connor stepped back and allowed him into the room, and the boy closed the door behind him.
"Sorry about that," the young man said, leaning back against the door wearily. "But god, he's careless, isn't he?"
Connor blinked. "Excuse me?"
"He just gave me hours worth of intel, then left me alone with a political prisoner. Not a technique in the ASC spy handbook, I'd imagine."
The technomancer crossed his arms. "You're not drunk, and you wanted to be left here. Why?"
The boy scoffed. "I've got a better chance of surviving a night here rather than with him, first of all," he said. "Second, I thought, hey, while I was here, I'd let you know that Sean and Zachariah are alive. And they're coming here, to save all of you."
"What?!" It was admittedly too loud, but Connor was surprised. Innocence hissed at him.
"Keep it down, will you?"
Naturally, this was the moment when the door was shoved open so hard that Innocence stumbled forward and fell on his face.
"Connor! Are you alright?! What is going on in here?"
Ian's face was a mask of worry that morphed into confusion as he saw Connor just standing there, then Innocence on the floor.
"...my previous question still stands," Ian said after a moment of awkward silence. "What is going on? And who are you?"
Connor's reply was interrupted by the sound of an ASC soldier approaching, and Ian stepped back out to assure the woman that it was fine, they were just having a small argument, and they wouldn't cause any further disturbance. He had never been so thankful for Ian's ability to turn on his charm at a moment's notice.
It worked on me, after all.
When Ian stepped back into the room and closed the door behind him, Innocence had moved to a sitting position on the floor, one knee drawn up and his arm balanced on it.
The Great Master of the Technomancers raised a brow as he took in the boy's attire, then turned to his husband.
"Is this your way of letting me know that you want to spice things up? You could have asked me to wear mesh if that's what you're interested in."
"Ian!" Connor squeaked, face turning bright red.
His husband grinned. "Well, normally I'm the one caught in compromising situations. You can't blame me for making the most of this." He sobered as he looked down at the boy.
"Are you going to introduce yourself?" he asked in the voice Connor recognized as the one he used to coax answers out of troublesome students.
"I'm work for Anton. My name's Innocence, and yes, that's true, despite this ridiculous outfit."
"Truly? Anton sent you?" Ian asked, brightening. "I'm impressed that he found someone who could get past the ASC to reach us."
"It wasn't exactly planned. Long story."
Connor sighed wearily and extended a hand to Innocence, pulling him off the floor and seating him in a chair. The boy reminded him of so many of his students--baby-faced, reckless teenagers--and he had to resist the urge to wrap him in a blanket and refuse to give him back to the ASC officers.
Not that he'd be any safer with us in here than he would alone out there, things being the way they are.
It was already difficult enough resisting the urge to coddle Ian. The wrinkles at his temples seemed to deepen with each passing hour, and Connor couldn't remember ever seeing him so exhausted. Ian was bearing up well under intense pressure, but it was showing in the slope of his shoulders, the slowing of his steps, the silence that was beginning to overtake his usually boisterous personality.
Connor couldn't bear it. He would rather have faced a firing squad himself than be forced to watch Ian slowly break.
"What exactly are you doing for Anton, Innocence?" he asked.
"Well, I was supposed to be keeping an eye on Jeffrey Hunter," the boy said. "But then he decided I looked like his date for the night. He brought me back here to show off." His face fell. "I'm sorry about that, by the way. The things he said to you, the way he's treating you all like...like animals in a cage."
"It isn't your fault. You needn't be sorry," Connor said, touching Innocence's shoulder gently.
The boy's mouth pulled into a thin line. "Well, someone should be."
Ian shot Connor a look over Innocence's head. This boy was nothing like Anton's usual...employees. It was impossible to know whether he was telling the truth about working for the crime lord, and if he was, where Anton had found him. His virtue name alone was a red flag.
"Anyway, I was supposed to be tailing Jeffrey, and I did get a lot of useful intel. But I thought when I came here, I should tell you that Sean and Zachariah are alive. They're planning a rescue mission. And Anton wants to help."
Ian grabbed Innocence's arm forcefully, turning the boy to face him. "How do you know they're alive?"
"Well, Sean and I did escape from Camp 19 together," Innocence said. "And after a lot of excitement, we found our way to Zachariah in Noctis. At least before I got kidnapped by Anton, they were alive and well and planning to come for you."
"Anton kidnapped you? From Noctis?" Connor asked, eyebrows rising to his hairline.
"He thought I was Zachariah. Or Niesha. Uh, I don't know if you know who Niesha is, but she's a friend of Zachariah's. She's the one who helped him get out of Ophir."
Ian rolled his eyes. "Sounds like Anton's boys. The man can't hire good help to save his life."
"So what you're telling me," Connor said, trying to steer Ian back to the topic at hand, "is that you're an Auroran POW who escaped from an Abundance camp in the company of a rogue technomancer, who then crossed hundreds of miles of desert to reach a legendary city that isn't supposed to exist. You were then kidnapped by the most ruthless crime lord on the planet, who decided to hire you for undercover work, which led you straight into the heart of ASC-occupied territory...where you stumbled into us."
"I escaped the Abundance camp with three rogue technomancers. But yes. Wow. When you put it like that, it sounds insane."
"With three--" Connor looked to Ian for help. "Sean was the only one there!"
"No, there were two from Aurora. Sean adopted the younger one about a day after meeting her, though, so I don't know if she counts as Auroran at this point. The other one was a prisoner."
"...that does sound like Sean," Ian finally said after a long silence. "Adopting anyone under the age of 25 who gets within ten feet of him. He definitely takes after you."
"Well, he was my apprentice," Connor said with a small smile. He took Ian's statement to mean that Innocence had passed the test, and that Ian believed his was genuine.
"I should probably get going soon," Innocence said, looking down at his lap. "Before they get suspicious."
"Will you be alright on your own?" Connor asked. Innocence nodded, then hesitated, obviously debating something. Then he spoke.
"I know this place is like a prison, but after meeting you...well, I can see what the technomancers mean when they talk about family. I don't blame Sean and the others for missing it." He cleared his throat awkwardly. "Uh, so is there anything you want me to tell Anton?"
Ian stepped out of the room briefly, then returned with a small, battered tablet. Connor's eyes widened.
That's not a tablet. It's the tablet.
"Bring this to him," Ian said. "But before I give it to you, I need you to understand something. This is likely the most valuable artifact you will ever touch. It is a relic of the first colonists. You must keep it from the ASC at all costs. Do you understand me?"
Innocence nodded. "Yes, sir. I swear I'll make sure it gets to Anton safely."
"Tell him that I said to keep it safe, and that if anything happens to me, that he is to deliver it into the hands of Connor, Sean, or Zachariah only."
"Good. And tell Anton I said thank you."
Connor walked the young man out of the room, both of them silent as soon as they were within earshot of the ASC soldiers. Innocence was handed off to one of the operatives without a word, and he didn't look back as he descended into the plaza.
Connor wanted to watch him go until he couldn't see him any longer, but he knew it would look suspicious. He turned on his heel and headed back to Ian, praying that his husband hadn't just made a terrible mistake. The tablet would be safer away from the Source...but they had no guarantee of where it would end up now.
Ian has always been a gambler. Let's just hope the odds are in his favor this time.
Chapter 8: cause we all know what's on the line
It's time. Sean and Zachariah are closing in on the Source, and they're ready to break the doors down and fight for their family. But Sean learns that perhaps even family can break sacred rules.
I'm back! Sorry for the long delay. I was traveling a lot last month, and this chapter was honestly a bit tough for me. Fight scenes are not my forte. As always, let me know what you think!
One thing: it occurred to me that I should have mentioned this earlier, but the Zachariah that I write fights in the Guardian style. That was how I played my first-ever Technomancer playthrough, so that's the style that I automatically assign to him in my brainspace. Just in case anyone was wondering when you're reading through the fight scenes!
P.S. connor+ian 4ever
sound off the sirens
we're in the fire
sound off the sirens
it's do or die
--Sam Tinnesz, "Sound Off the Sirens"
Sean felt Zachariah's shoulder bump up against his periodically as the rover drew closer to Ophir. The two mancers had opted to stay in the back, less to discuss strategy than the unspoken fact that these might be their last hours together.
Andrew was on Zachariah's other side, probably thinking something similar about his newfound partner. Sean had smiled to see them emerge from the palace holding hands that morning, trading shy looks while Amelia and Niesha teased them good-naturedly.
It wasn't as if Sean hadn't wanted more than anything to keep Zachariah alive before. But now, he realized that the possibility existed that his son would be able to live freely with someone he'd chosen. Someone he truly loved, and who loved him.
Andrew and Zachariah could choose their own path without a constant fear of separation and punishment hanging over them, but only if they could survive Viktor Watcher and remove the threat of Abundance from the surface of Mars.
Sean knew he, Ian, and Connor would all die to make that possible.
There was little chatter in the rover as they closed in on their destination. Roy and Tenacity were huddled together, looking weary, and Phobos was up front with Amelia, enjoying the extra leg room. The mutant leader planned to risk his life with Sean and Zachariah in the assault on the Source, but both mancers knew his help had a hefty price: nothing less than backing the movement for mutant freedom.
It was strange, Sean mused, that it had taken this long for mutants and technomancers to throw in their lot with each other. When he thought about it, it was a powerful alliance. The bulk of the corporations' workforce aligned with its most powerful soldiers and spiritual leaders. Without the technomancers, no corporation could stand up to the others, and without the mutants, their infrastructure would begin to crumble in a matter of weeks.
Mars was so harsh that constant vigilance was needed to survive. One hole in an overhead sun screen could wipe out an entire city block. Sand in the wrong generator could mean no power to a city's water recycler for a week, and that meant no washing, no cooking. Sean wondered if there had been a plan to terraform the planet when Earth first conceived of colonizing Mars. It was hard to imagine that they planned to live on the planet as it was.
Whatever plans the first colonists had had went out the window with the Turmoil, along with thousands of lives. Nothing the Abundance technomancers had found among their ruins could lead to a real change in the living conditions on Mars, though it was possible someone somewhere else on the planet had found more. Sean had often dreamed about what it would be like to travel the planet freely, to spend his time in study with Ian and Connor and unlock all the mysteries the Earthlings had left behind.
But reality was cruel, much like Mars.
All at once, the rover was in shadow as they passed beneath Ophir's outer shielding. Sean felt more than heard Zachariah take a deep breath beside him.
The entrance to the Undercity was surprisingly crowded, given that it was supposed to be secret. Multiple sandsails were parked in a neat row along the sides of the cavern, and Amelia carefully pulled in alongside them.
There was a moment of unnatural stillness among the passengers as they came to a stop after such a long journey, no one wanting to move first. Sean closed his eyes, taking one last moment to steel himself, to sit next to his son in peace. Then Amelia hit the switch to open the back of the rover and climbed out of the front seat with a huff.
The merchants watched them as they came out of the rover, an unusually large party and one obviously well-armed, and kept their distance. No merchant from Noctis survived the passage from the secret city to the corporation towns without learning when to intervene and when to do nothing; Sean knew the small army leaving the rover had nothing to fear from these nomads. In fact, one of the men gave him a nod, having arrived in the city hours ago prepared to assist with the transportation of technomancers back to Noctis. Three sandsails would bear the bulk of the mancers across the desert, and any overflow would have to cram into the rover and bear an uncomfortable trip back.
It had been agreed that the group would split immediately once in the Underworks, with Amelia leading Roy and Tenacity on the fastest route into the slums and Vory territory. Zachariah, Sean, Andrew and Phobos would head for the technomancy door leading into the crypts.
The team rescuing the technomancers would send off the sandsails first, ideally with Ian and Connor on board, and then wait as long as possible for the other team to return with Innocence. Amelia had grudgingly agreed that Sean could drive the rover back if it came to that (Zachariah, on the other hand, was not allowed to so much as touch the dashboard, because "if Andrew looks at you while you drive, you'll swerve into a dune.")
Amelia clasped Zachariah's elbow before they parted.
"Good luck, and don't get dead," she said, with the same determination in her face that she had when she drove the rover through the desert.
"Same to you," Zachariah replied, and that was that.
The younger mancer lead the strike team up into the Underworks, having learned its nooks and crannies while he was serving in the army. It didn't take long to run into their first enemies.
"Don't they send soldiers down here to keep the vermin at bay?" Sean shouted over the crackling sound of lightning. A large mother storm locust was sending out shockwaves, buzzing angrily as its children spread out to fight the intruders.
Zachariah laughed as he lifted his shield. "The army's stretched too thin, Sean. Abundance figures anyone stupid enough to come down here can take their chances with the locusts and moles."
"I do not blame them," Phobos grunted, squashing a locust with his massive mace.
Fighting through the Abundance soldiers blocking the way to the crypts was time-consuming, but ultimately fairly easy. The four men took a moment to catch their breath in front of the doors.
"While we're here, don't forget, we have to grab at least one technomancy kit to build Andrew an arm with," Zachariah said.
Andrew shook his head. "We shouldn't stay here any longer than we have to."
"Well, we should obtain all the kits we can carry before we leave," Sean replied. "We'll need all the resources we can get to maintain a large group of our kin in Noctis."
Zachariah nodded. "Everybody be on the lookout."
There were ASC soldiers in the crypt itself, which made Sean unaccountably angry. He had known they would be here, guarding this exit as well as the outer door, but seeing them here, thinking of Ian and Connor and all the others trapped in here like rats, made him throw out a particularly vicious arc of lightning at one of the soldiers. It overwhelmed even the protective mechanisms in her armor, and she dropped like a stone.
This fight was more brutal than the one in the Underworks. These were the elite of the ASC. By the end, Sean found himself breathing hard, and could see to his left that Phobos was doing the same.
"If they build an army with soldiers like these," Phobos panted, "Viktor Watcher will be running Mars in no time at all."
"That's what I am afraid of," Sean replied.
Zachariah and Andrew were waiting near the stairs up into the chapel, checking their health and fluid injections. There was an ugly bruise forming on the right side of Andrew's face, and Sean winced in sympathy.
"Andrew will go and get the mancers from the eastern classroom and lead them down here, then down to the sandsails since we've cleared the Underworks," Zachariah said.
"That's likely where the bulk of the population is being held, since there's nowhere else to put them. The three of us will handle the soldiers in the chapel and get the senior technomancers out of the western barracks."
They had already gone over this plan, and everyone nodded. Andrew moved swiftly and silently to the eastern stairs, while Sean took point on the western side.
There was a group of soldiers in the middle of the chapel. They had to keep them distracted from Andrew and his charges, then take them down. If these soldiers went after the students, the four of them would be too small a group to protect everyone.
Zachariah charged up his shield, then went running into the fray like an ASC-seeking missile. Phobos and Sean followed, dividing up the soldiers on either side of the main group.
It was a long and difficult fight. Sean found himself on the business end of a rifle more than once, milliseconds away from being shot at close range, and he was dodging one of the shots when he felt a baton across his back, knocking him to the ground. Exhausted, he struggled to get up with a heavy boot pressing down on his upper back. The steel tip dug into the space between his shoulder blades, and Sean felt the back of his jacket begin to give under the pressure.
The weight was suddenly gone.
He jerked up to see Ian standing over a bulky ASC soldier, staff in hand. Then a rifle shot streaked just past his left cheek, and moment later he heard the thud of someone hitting the ground.
Sean scrambled to his feet to find Connor wielding one of the heavy rifles used by the army, handling the bulky weapon as if it were no more than a nailgun.
I didn't know Connor even knew how to use one of those.
He shook off his surprise and launched himself back into the fight, weaving around his enemies and applying his staff artfully. Technomancy was almost completely out of the question now, with his fluid so low and his injections nearly exhausted, so his attacks came purely from his physical combat training.
Ian and Zachariah were at the middle of things, as usual, drawing all the attention and fighting with brute strength and heavyhanded technomancy. Sometimes Sean wondered where Zachariah had picked up his preferred style of combat--a technomancer could be taught the basic techniques, but you couldn't teach a person how to apply them. Watching his former student and former master fight side by side, he realized for the first time that Ian had likely inspired much of the boy's tactical thinking.
Sean and Phobos had come to be on the same side of the fray, and they both faced one of the large, brutish soldiers at the same time. They nodded to each other and moved together, Sean targeting the weak spot in the armor at the soldier's hips, Phobos going straight for the head. When the soldier fell, the ensuing silence was a shock to the system.
"Everybody still in one piece?" Zachariah asked, breathing hard next to Ian.
"I believe so," Connor responded, a little ways away from everybody else. "We should get out of here quickly, though."
"I agree wholeheartedly," Ian said, clapping Zachariah on the shoulder. "I've had enough of the Source to last a lifetime."
Sean, meanwhile, had moved to the eastern side of the chapel. The large classroom was empty, though it was obvious that many people had just been inside with the debris strewn about. He couldn't hear Andrew or any other voices below in the crypt, so it seemed as if they'd gotten out.
"Sean! Are they all gone?" He could hear Zachariah calling from across the way, obviously headed to the officer's barracks in search of the technomancy kits.
"They're out," he responded. "We should join them as soon as you have what you need."
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than he heard noise from the front of the chapel, and then Ian swearing.
Sean turned to see a company of ASC soldiers scurrying over the barricade, led by none other than Alan Mancer.
"I'm sorry to cut your little reunion short," the young mancer said, smirking, "but I'm afraid we still have some unfinished business."
"Alan," Ian said, already holding his staff at the ready, "this will not end well for you. Turn around right now and leave this place. I'm giving you the choice."
"What, and lose my chance to put you in your place, old man? I've got the entire ASC behind me, what makes you think--"
The sound of a rifle shot rang out, and a small hole appeared right in the center of Alan's forehead. He fell forward without making a sound.
For a moment, the only sound in the chapel was that of a rifle reloading.
Sean looked at Connor, open-mouthed. His old master's face was blank as he aimed at the approaching ASC soldiers, the move reminding Sean that he needed to get moving.
"Sean! To the crypts, now!" Ian roared, grabbing Connor by the arm and pulling him back towards the stairs.
"I said now!"
As experienced a soldier as he was, Sean still couldn't resist such a command from Ian, and headed for the eastern stairs, checking to see that Phobos was right behind him and that Zachariah was with Ian and Connor across the way. The five men broke into a dead run towards the technomancy door that would block the ASC soldiers from a direct pursuit, Zachariah and Sean pausing only to lay their hands on the panels to open it. They pushed through, Ian still holding on to Connor's arm, and sealed the door up behind them.
"This way," Zachariah said, obviously sensing that Ian was in no mood for delays. They moved swiftly through the Underworks, relieved to find no enemies had filled in the areas that they had cleaned out earlier.
When they reached the sandsails, Sean breathed a sigh of relief to see Andrew there. He stopped what he was doing as soon as he saw them and ran straight for Zachariah.
"Are you OK? We've almost got everybody loaded up for Noctis; we can hurry if the ASC is in pursuit."
"We're all fine, just exhausted," Zachariah replied. "But if we can finish loading up the sandsails and send them off, I'll feel a lot better."
Connor and Ian looked at Andrew in wonder.
"Andrew...how did you get involved in all this?" Connor asked, beginning to reach his hand out but stopping himself, remembering their earlier confrontation.
Andrew shook his head. "I'll explain when we're somewhere safe."
"Of course," Ian replied. "We should get to Noctis." He glanced over at the sandsails. "I see that Melvin has things well organized, as usual."
"Go," Zachariah said, tilting his head towards their transportation. "I need to stay for a bit longer; we're waiting on our friends to finish up some other business in the city. Sean, Andrew, if you want to head back, Phobos and I can wait for the others."
"I don't mind waiting," Andrew replied, grabbing Zachariah's hand and making them both smile. Sean didn't miss the look Ian and Connor exchanged with each other.
Sean hesitated. After everything that had happened, he hated to separate from Zachariah again. But he was weary from the fighting, and he wanted to confer with Ian and
Connor about the Order's next move. Not to mention that he felt they would need some assistance in settling the technomancers under Dandolo's authority.
Besides, it isn't as if Zachariah won't be following me in a few hours.
"Zachariah, if you're sure...?"
"I'm sure, Sean. I'll see you back in Noctis soon."
After a farewell embrace, Sean followed Connor and Ian back to the sandsails, and as soon as they were securely on board, the vehicles began to slide smoothly out into the desert.
Ian and Connor were sitting shoulder to shoulder, one of Ian's arms curled around his husband. Connor was leaning into the larger man, fatigue and relief settling on his features.
"Ian," he said softly, "we are free. I never thought..."
Ian squeezed him closer. "Neither did I."
Sean gave them a moment, looking out on the dunes as night fell across the landscape. In truth, he couldn't believe it either. That they'd gotten out without losing anyone--unless you counted Alan. He was a traitor and a weasel, but he was still a technomancer. And Sean wasn't sure how he felt about the way Connor had dispatched the boy.
It went against every tenet of the Order to take lethal action against another technomancer. Self-defense was allowed, of course, but there were plenty of ways to defeat an enemy without killing them. Connor hadn't even made an attempt to do so.
The ASC had been hot on Alan's heels, true. It wasn't as if there was time for a protacted confrontation.
Still. It didn't feel right. Not to Sean.
And perhaps the problem was that it was Connor, who even more than Ian had shaped who he was at his core. Connor had always been reserved, non-confrontational, by-the-book. Sean knew he had served in the army like all the other technomancers, but it was difficult for him to imagine Connor fighting to the death in the trenches. He'd never spoken about it, never cited any of his own experiences in training. Even when Sean had become an officer and begun training students himself, when he and Connor became peers rather than master and student, Connor had never discussed his soldiering days or combat tactics with him.
Hours upon hours of chess games and thousands of cups of the bitter green tea that Connor favored had passed between them, and Sean felt a bit perturbed that there was obviously so much he didn't know about his mentor and friend.
He turned to face Ian and Connor, who were both looking at him.
"You seem lost in thought, Sean. You're not hurt?" Connor asked, peering closely at the younger man in the deepening shadows.
Sean shook his head. "No. No, there's just so much that's happened. And I don't like leaving Zachariah behind, though I know that's foolish."
All true enough. He wasn't ready to discuss his true thoughts with Ian or Connor yet, and in any case they could wait until a more opportune time.
"What business kept him behind?" Ian asked curiously.
Sean began to explain, but he paused when they suddenly looked shocked. He asked them if there was something he should know.
"Well...we met Innocence," Connor said slowly.
"I found him alone with Connor while skimpily dressed in the middle of the night," Ian interjected, a smile in his voice.
"Ian! You're making it sound scandalous!"
"A senior technomancer officer and a pretty boy off the streets caught together in the Source? That sounds scandalous to me."
"I'm divorcing you."
"You've been making that threat for two decades, dear."
"Hmph. Well, maybe one of these days I'll follow through. You see if I don't."
"I love you, Connor."
Sean had seen this routine enough that he knew Connor was giving in by now. He could never stay angry with Ian for long, and it wasn't as if he was really angry this time.
He cleared his throat. "If we could get back to the topic at hand? And without Ian's embellishments, please."
Connor huffed smugly, and Ian put a hand over his heart.
"Sean, my boy, you wound me. Truly."
The story finally did get told, and when Ian brought the tablet up, Sean couldn't hold back a noise of disbelief.
"You gave it to Innocence to bring to Anton?" he hissed, mindful of the merchants around them who might not be too discreet.
"I didn't know what was going to happen, Sean!" Ian said, running a hand through his hair. "Even if you did come for us, the escape might not have gone off well. A million things could have gone wrong. I wanted to be sure the tablet wouldn't fall into the hands of the ASC."
"Connor! You let him do this?"
"I've never in my life let Ian do anything," Connor replied, dryly. "He did it himself. I was not consulted for this decision."
Sean sighed, slumping back in his seat. "This is all madness."
"Truer words were never spoken," Connor replied. "Are we drawing near to Noctis, do you think?"
"We're getting close, yes. We'll have to get everyone settled, get some rest, figure out our next move."
Ian reached over and clapped Sean on the shoulder. "Thanks to you and Zachariah, we now have the time to do all those things. Thank you, Sean."
The younger man smiled. Despite everything, it seemed that something had finally gone right.
Chapter 9: muscle and blood and skin and bones
Kids these days think having electrical powers and fighting giant mantises in the arena is cool, but you know what's really cool? Standing by your dumb friend when he tries to sacrifice himself.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
If you see me comin', better step aside
A lotta men didn't, a lotta men died
One fist of iron, the other of steel
If the right one don't a-get you, then the left one will
--Tennessee Ernie Ford, "Sixteen Tons"
This was going the opposite of right. As in, it was going very, very wrong. Amelia, crouching behind her shield as acid splashed against its surface and onto her boots, wondered what sins she'd committed in a past life to make things go tits up like this.
They'd started their trip through the slums with a stop at Scott's clinic, where Amelia quickly found the notes that Scott needed to make Andrew's arm. Zach had asked her to grab them if she could, and let it never be said that Amelia Reacher wasn't a good friend. Plus, she couldn't leave Andrew hanging--the guy had been through enough in his life.
He deserved to have a cool new robot arm.
She'd found Anton easily, and a quick flash of technomancy from Roy had been their ticket straight to the boss' office. A tense but level conversation followed, and Innocence had been brought out from somewhere in the complex.
Roy had immediately wrapped the young man in a hug, then checked him over for injuries. Amelia had certainly not been touched by the obvious bond the two shared. And if Tenacity told anyone that she'd shared a small smile with him as Innocence and Roy reunited, she was telling everyone he was a dirty liar.
But a quick burst of sound coming from one of Anton's communicators had put an end to all the good vibes. He'd grabbed his comm, nearly crushing it in his grip, and listened as someone told him that there was a fight underway at the Source--and that an all-hands bulletin for the ASC was imminent.
Anton swore. "Your friends are already inside the Source. We have maybe ten minutes to stop a call from going to every ASC soldier in this city. Once that happens, the Source will be overrun. Ian's good, but not that good." He scowled at Roy. "You didn't mention that they were already on their way into the crypts."
Roy shrugged. "Now you know."
"How do we stop the bulletin from going out?" Amelia asked, uninterested in bickering. "Just tell me what to do. I didn't do Zach a favor just for him to die on me before he can pay me back."
Anton barked some orders into his comm before responding. "There, I've got my people in the barracks and the palace working to delay the response for as long as they can. Which is not that long, not for an incident like this."
"I happen to know that Viktor is at Curiosity's right now. He's a huge fan of the fights in the arena there. The longer we can keep him from being tipped off, the better chance Ian and the others have."
"So...what are you saying?" Roy asked.
"Well, a good fight, something that holds his interest, would be a powerful distraction."
"Oh, goddamnit. You mean us, right?" Amelia asked.
"Well, yes. You three could stand up to the biggest and baddest things I've got in those fights. Let's move."
"Wait, what about me?" Innocence asked asked the group fell in behind Anton, who was moving as quickly as he could through the street without attracting attention.
"You're with me. We need to make sure none of Viktor's ASC flunkies can reach him while the fight is happening." Anton pulled a mask over his face as they walked towards the neon lights of the bar, making him look like just another Vory thug.
Tenacity nudged Amelia. "You ready for a fight, Red?"
"I'm always ready," she scoffed. "Hope you and Pretty Boy can keep up."
Tenacity chuckled. "He is pretty, ain't he? Don't worry, between you and me we can probably make up for Roy."
"Only if you can keep yourselves from getting distracted during the fight," Roy shot back, winking at Amelia. She gagged at the implication.
Innocence piped up. "If you think that's bad, try walking in on them."
Amelia grinned. "Oh, look what you did, Roy! Kid needs a new name 'cause of you."
"Will you chucklefucks focus? We're about to head in. It's time to get this done."
Amelia and Tenacity both gave the finger to Anton's back, making Roy and Innocence duck their heads to hide their laughter.
Curiosity's had never been Amelia's favorite bar in the slums--it was the biggest, sure, and it had the arena, but the drinks were shit and the lights gave her a headache. She preferred having a nice, strong drink in the peace and quiet of a back alley shithole.
Plus, this place was always full of Vory and ASC assholes. It was a wonder that they hadn't gotten into some kind of turf war yet, but Anton probably kept Viktor's palms well-greased with serum. And, if Zach was to be believed, the Resistance worked out of this place too. Bulgakov was one smart bitch if she could maintain that setup.
"Wait," Amelia said. "I'm kind of a pin-up girl for Abundance. Viktor will know my face. I need something to cover up with."
Anton pulled something out of his coat and handed it back to her. Turning it over in her hands, she realized it was one of the respirators workmen used when out in a dust storm. It would cover the lower half of her face, like half of a gas mask.
Innocence was scrutinizing Anton, studying him until the man turned and snapped, "Do you need something?"
The boy shrugged. "Just wondering how you fit that in your coat. Do you have a bunch of secret pockets? What else are you hiding in there? Anything cool?"
"I'm the leader of the Vory. I need to have multiple disguises available at all times."
"So...you do have a bunch of secret pockets?" Roy asked. "Any wigs or anything? You'd look great in a blonde wig, Anton."
Amelia snorted, then pulled the respirator on, making sure the strap circling her head was securely fastened so the thing wouldn't slip off in the arena. She also grabbed her own set of tinted driving goggles and put those on too, for extra protection.
The crowd wasn't too dense yet, as it was still only early evening. Their little group moved through easily, Anton leading them to a darkened back corner where a beady-eyed older man stood watching the crowd.
"These three need to go into the arena as soon as possible," Anton said, smoothly pushing a handful of serum into the man's hand. "The Vory would consider it a personal favor."
"What kind of fight are the Vory looking for?" the bookie asked, stuffing the serum into his vest hurriedly.
"The toughest one you can give them. Anton Rogue is requesting the all-star package."
The bookie's eyes widened, then roved over Roy, Tenacity and Amelia. "Are you fucking serious?"
Amelia saw Roy and Tenacity exchange sharp glances as her gut tightened. She hadn't expected this to be easy, but whatever was waiting in that arena was going to be more than a small challenge.
She wasn't in the habit of praying to the Shadow. Amelia Reacher feared no sunlight or desert, traveling over her dusty red planet as she pleased. She believed in the divine grace of steel and well-oiled machines. A well-equipped garage was the closest thing she could imagine to a church.
But when she came up against a problem that a wrench couldn't solve, there was one other thing she tried. She talked to her father.
Not out loud; not ever. She figured if there was an afterlife and Mark Reacher was still watching over her somehow, that he could probably hear her thoughts just as well as her words.
The priests said the Shadow was a guiding hand, that it drew the maps of Mars and carved out the way for mankind to follow. That it was a protective god standing between humanity and the cruel sun that parched the mouths and disfigured the bodies of the abandoned children of Earth.
Amelia had only known her father's guiding hands when he taught her how to hold a drill for the first time. How to fit one piece into another piece into another piece to make a whole, miraculous engine that rumbled and groaned and moved like it was alive.
So she tried to picture him now, to hold him in her mind long enough to send a message.
Dad, I don't know what's about to happen, but I'm afraid. Help me find the way to the other side of this thing, so I can beat Zach's stupid head in for getting me involved in all this.
She startled when Tenacity nudged her shoulder, opening her eyes to find him frowning down at her.
"You alright, Red?"
"I'm fine," she said, pulling herself up to stand straight. "Just thinking about...something." Amelia breathed in deep, then exhaled sharply.
"OK, I'm ready. Let's do this. Whatever it is we're doing."
Tenacity nodded once, and they moved off together, shoulder to shoulder, following Roy and the bookie to the arena's entrance.
"Let me announce ya to the crowd, get 'em hyped up for ya, then when I tell the people to give ya a warm welcome, come on out through these doors. I'll get back in here and then you'll see the gate across the way go up. Your opponent will come through there. You can begin attacking as soon as they enter the ring, and anything is fair game--mines, grenades, rifles, whatever you want. This is a fight to the death. Any questions?"
"Is there more than one round?" Roy asked. "What happens after the fight is over?"
The bookie chuckled. "You won't want to go more than one round after you fight what's waiting in there, trust me. If you survive the fight, you'll just come back here into the holding area, I'll pay you your winnings, and you'll head out."
"You ain't gonna tell us what's in there?" Tenacity asked, crossing his arms over his chest.
The bookie shook his head. "Nope. Telling you isn't gonna help you win. Either you can beat it or you can't. And the crowd loves to see the look on people's faces when they see it for the first time."
"Well, let's get this over with then," the mercenary replied, the furrow between his brows showing his concern.
Roy took point, Amelia and Tenacity flanking him on either side, as they waited behind the door for their cue. Loud shouting from the crowd made Amelia's back muscles lock so tight they ached. The people of Ophir wanted to see some blood spilled in the sand tonight.
"Give our challengers a warm welcome, folks!"
Roy pushed the doors open, swaggering onto the field and looking the picture of confidence. Amelia admired his ability to flip a switch and put on a mask, to pull the gaze of the massive arena to himself with ease. The crowd immediately zeroed in on the technomancer, though if they had known he was a technomancer, this fight would have ended before it began. Viktor was somewhere up there, looking down, watching.
Roy selected a spot in the arena to stop and get into place for the fight, and Amelia and Tenacity followed, taking up position an arm's length away on either side.
The gate began to rattle and rumble as it was raised. Creaky machinery lifted it only slowly, leaving Amelia to wait, sweat beginning to bead at her temples. She had never been good at waiting. The anticipation was beginning to get to her.
No sooner had the gate groaned to stop than a massive insectoid leg came out from the shadows behind, slamming down into the ground in front of it.
It was followed by the body of the biggest mantis Amelia had ever seen.
"What the fuck," Roy shouted, barely audible over the roars of the crowd. The bookie had been right; whatever was showing on their faces was egging on the crowd, adding to the whole spectacle.
Amelia was surprised the damn mantis was even able to move with such a giant stomach sac, hanging down the way it did and no doubt altering the creature's balance. She glanced at Roy and Tenacity, finding them staring right back at her.
"Any helpful tips?" Tenacity shouted, pulling his guns out of his holsters.
Everything is just like a machine, Amelia, she could hear her father saying. People and animals, even. We're all just a bunch of different pieces put together, and we need all the pieces to work together for us to live.
Never let a living thing scare you, junior. You're smarter than anything is strong.
"Hit the red part! That's its stomach, if we can bust that open it bleeds out!" She grinned, all teeth. "Plus, it'll hurt like a bitch. But get out of the way if it rears back. It'll come down hard enough to break you in half."
"Got it," Roy shouted back. "Let's get in there!"
"Wait," Amelia replied. "It spits acid too! So watch out for that."
"For fuck's sake," Roy yelled, charging forward just the same.
Afterward, Amelia only remembered the fight in bits and pieces. She was incredibly grateful for the upgrades Zach had made to her shield, making it immune to the mantis' acid with poison-proofing resin he and Scott had made to deal with the creatures in Valles Marineris. She found herself running back and forth between Tenacity and Roy, shielding each of them in turn from the mantis' blows and acidic spit. She left the offense to them, falling instinctively into her tendency to defend rather than attack.
A particularly brutal sweep of the mantis' arm that would have killed Tenacity slammed into her shield, and it forced her to one knee. Something cracked in her forearm, the pain oddly dull as it spread to her hand and up her elbow.
She looked up at Tenacity, teeth gritted. "I can't take much more." Her boots were being eaten away by the acid on them, and she could feel the burn of it higher up on her ankles and shins.
Then she got back on her feet, raised her shield, and charged underneath the mantis' legs. She could hear Tenacity firing shots into the mantis, trying to hit the bulging red organs it was struggling to protect.
Amelia and Roy made eye contact as she arrived next to him, and they moved together, both striking the mantis' stomach at the same time.
Her mace connected with the fleshy sac as she hit harder than she'd ever hit anything. She felt the impact in her teeth.
Then she felt the awful sensation of bile and intestines pouring out over her hand, onto her arm and shoulder and spilling all over, pulling her down with their weight.
She tried to pull out from underneath, but she was exhausted. The mantis was going to come crashing down on top of her any moment, but she didn't have the stamina left to move quickly out of the way.
Suddenly, an arm around her waist pulled, pulled, pulled, and it was painful, but she was dragged out from under the mantis' offal.
"Amelia, come on," Roy breathed harshly in her ear. "Move."
With Roy's momentum tugging her along, she was able to stagger forward, giving everything she had left, pushing for the open sand that was out of the mantis' way. He was still pulling her, dragging really, as he moved as quickly as he could across the arena. Another pair of hands, Tenacity's, picked her up off the ground enitirely as he and Roy broke into a run to reach safe ground.
The crowd was deafening, and the mantis crashing to the ground shook the whole stadium. Tenacity planted Amelia back on the ground, but with everything going around she still felt like the world was swimming around her. Suddenly her head was moved to the side and she felt a prick in her neck.
Tenacity let her head go after Roy had administered the health injection, but he kept one hand on her shoulder, looking her up and down warily.
Amelia groaned as the health injection began knitting up the bones in her shield arm and generally dulled the aches and pains in her body. It made her feel a little bit more conscious, but she was still exhausted to her core.
"You with us, Red?" Tenacity asked. She nodded.
"Yeah. Yeah. Thanks."
"Good," the mercenary replied. "Gotta say, Roy and I wouldn't have survived that fight without you."
"Yeah, tell me about it," she said, rolling her eyes. Tenacity scowled at her, but there wasn't any real displeasure behind it.
It was a relief to be back in the holding room of the arena. The quiet washed over the three warriors as soon as the door had closed, and Amelia felt her shoulders slump.
The bookie was looking at them with wide eyes. "That was incredible."
"Yeah, yeah," Roy said, impatient. "Our winnings?"
"Oh, yeah, let me get them for you--"
The door behind the man opened, neon light spilling in from Curiosity's, and Viktor Watcher stepped into the room.
Time seemed to slow down as a new surge of adrenaline hit Amelia like a freight train. She straightened, the ache in her muscles fading into the background.
She'd met Viktor a few times before, being one of the rare Reachers who actually got to leave the comforts of Abundance and explore--with the corporation's best interests in mind, of course. And she'd never liked him. She didn't like many politicians, but Viktor was one of the worst. His ASC crackdown had extended even to her garage, putting new limits on what Amelia could do without supervision. It took some serious balls to encroach upon the independence of a Reacher, whose work scouting Shadow Paths and seeking out colonist ruins was seen as vital to any corporation's success.
Amelia had seen trouble coming a mile away, and regretted now that she hadn't used her own visibility and clout to at least try and stop Viktor's power grab. She had always been devoted to her work, telling herself that she wasn't interested in politics and just wanted to do her job. She'd thought that was that.
But now, getting to know the technomancers, finding out what it was really like inside the Source, meeting people like Andrew and finding out how life was for the people at the bottom of the heap--which was a majority--she saw everything differently.
Abundance was a house of cards, waiting to topple. And everybody below the top was going to get crushed when it did.
Roy and Tenacity were looking quizzically at the newcomer, but when Tenacity looked at her out of the corner of his eye and saw her expression, he gave Roy's shoulder a firm squeeze in warning.
"That was impressive, Ms. Reacher. I'm surprised, however, that you think a pair of goggles and a gas mask would keep me from recognizing the so-called poster girl of our beloved corporation."
Before Amelia could say anything, Tenacity stepped in front of her.
"I don't know what you're talking about, Robocop. She came in here with our mercenary outfit, and once we collect our winnings, she'll be leaving with us, too."
Viktor laughed out loud.
"Oh, that is excellent. You actually think you can bluff your way past me? It's refreshing to meet someone too stupid to be afraid of me."
Tenacity started to say something else, but Viktor pulled out a sleek-looking nailgun and pointed it at his chest.
"Move aside. I'm not going to tell you again."
Amelia grabbed onto his arm and shoved him out of the way, forcing him to stumble into Roy with a surprised huff.
She tugged off the gas mask and goggles. "Good to see you again, Vik. Flattered you could take a break from waving your dick all around Ophir just to come threaten me."
"I'd watch my tongue if I were you, Reacher. It's said that on Earth that cutting out the tongue was used as punishment for society's criminal element. I'm considering bringing the practice to Mars."
"Yeah? Surprised you have time for it with all the other sadistic shit you get off to."
"Where is Zachariah?"
"I don't know."
"Don't lie to me."
"I'm not. He took my rover and dumped me in the canyons. Why the fuck do you think I came back here? Where else was I gonna go, Vik? I'm lucky to be alive."
"If that's so, and you did not participate in his escape, then why didn't you report back to the Administrative Headquarters as soon as you arrived back in the city? That's what a good citizen of Abundance would have done, Ms. Reacher."
She scoffed. "Think about it, Vik. Two minutes after you recognized me, you came in here with a gun. I knew you wouldn't believe me."
Viktor gestured with his gun. "You are coming with me to the Exchange. These two gentlemen will be detained for questioning. Any resistance on your part will lead to their deaths."
Amelia gritted her teeth, but said nothing. She headed out the door, hands up, and felt the gun press against her side briefly as she passed Viktor.
Tenacity and Roy fell into step behind her, and the small group headed for the exit. Amelia couldn't see any sign of Innocence, and hoped he had enough good sense to head for the Undercity. He was a smart kid. She was willing to bet he could find his way to Zach.
They were heading through the market when she heard Viktor swear behind her.
"Something wrong, Vik?"
"Keep moving, Reacher."
Amelia's mind was racing as she tried to come up with a way out of this. Even if she bolted into the crowd right now, Viktor's men were everywhere. She was exhausted and injured from the fight with the mantis; she could take one, maybe two guys on her own before she crumbled. Plus, the minute Viktor registered that something was up, he would shoot either Roy or Tenacity (or both.)
They had almost reached the stairs on the far side of the market when she heard a yell.
"Hey! Viktor! You want me? I'm right here!"
Viktor turned and fired blindly into the area where the voice had come from.
"Mancer! Come out and face me!"
Tenacity grabbed her arm and almost jerked it out of the socket, he was moving away from Viktor so fast.
I really need to talk to Roy and Tenacity about this dragging-me-around thing.
Innocence was gesturing wildly from the way they'd just come and Roy and Tenacity headed straight for him, dragging Amelia along.
"We need to go, now, Phobos and Andrew have the rover all ready in the Undercity," he hissed as soon as they were in earshot.
"What about Zach?" Amelia asked. "Why isn't Andrew with him?"
"Because he lied to Andrew and said he was just going to help me do recon, now come on, Zach told me he can take care of himself."
"What?! No! I'm not leaving that idiot here by himself! You go! Tenacity can drive. We'll...we'll figure something out."
Tenacity scowled. "If you stay here, you're gonna die with him."
"Better that than live knowing I abandoned my friend," Amelia shot back. "Go. Now. No time."
She sprinted off in the direction of the yelling and shooting. Exhausted or not, Amelia knew she couldn't just leave. Zachariah was a better person than she was. He'd put her in a tough situation, yeah, but Viktor was really the problem. All Zachariah had ever done was try to help people, to be kind and loyal. Amelia had barely lifted a finger her entire life to help others.
Plus, Zach was a good friend. The only one she'd ever had, really, besides Scott. She couldn't let him die alone here.
She finally caught sight of the rogue technomancer in question. He was running away from Viktor and a few ASC officers in pursuit, electricity crackling at his fingertips.
She looked around frantically, trying to find something to help. She ended up grabbing a grenade off of one of the market tables, and lobbing it at the officers with a shout.
"Zach! Grenade in!"
He glanced over at her, eyes widening, before sprinting in a wide arc back toward her.
"You were supposed to go with the others!" he shouted.
"Not leaving you here, dumbass! Now what do we do?"
"Uh, I don't know, kind of figured I was gonna die here, didn't plan very far ahead..."
"For fuck's sake," Amelia yelled, narrowly ducking a shot from Viktor's gun. "Follow me!"
They wove through the slums, making their way to Amelia's former garage.
"That shield thing you did back in Noctis," Amelia panted as they ran, "you think you could do it again?"
"Yeah, but I'd probably die."
"OK, fine, guess that means no room for error. Now as soon as we get inside, barricade the far door, I'm going to need a minute."
As soon as they were in the garage, Amelia ran for her pile of spare parts, still in the same place as it had been when she'd left the city.
Spare generator, spark plugs, fuel, battery acid, ignition hookup....
She didn't have a blueprint for this, had never made it before, but she was pretty sure it would work. If not, well, she didn't have any better ideas, and maybe she and Zach would at least die before Viktor could torture and kill them.
"Amelia, they're going to get through soon," Zach said, looking down at the mess of parts she was hastily assembling.
"Yeah, yeah, see where the ramp goes out into the sand? Pull out that blue panel, we can crawl out that way when I'm done."
A shriek of metal from across the garage notified them that the ASC was moments away from entering. Amelia sprinted in that direction, holding her creation, then flipped the ignition. It began to rumble and shake ominously as she headed back for the makeshift escape tunnel.
Ophir was full of holes and byways. The city's structure wasn't nearly as efficient and airtight as Abundance would have liked people to believe. Amelia's father had showed her this cramped crawlspace when she was young.
He held her chin between his fingertips and gazed into her face, eyes serious.
"Amelia. You might need this someday. Don't ever--ever--tell anyone about this passage. Don't use it unless you absolutely have to, OK, junior? Just remember, this is the panel you take out. Promise me you'll remember."
"But why wouldn't I use the door, Dad?"
"Just promise me, Amelia."
She nodded, confused. "OK, Dad. I promise, I'll remember."
Mark Reacher had had foresight, she had to give him that. Amelia wondered what he would have done about Viktor as she crawled behind Zach, hissing at him to hurry.
They had almost made it out from under the ramp and into a larger tunnel leading out into the Undercity when a deafening boom shook the entire Slums. Amelia could feel it in her bones, could feel her teeth rattling with the force of the blast.
Zach, to his credit, just kept moving, sliding out into next tunnel and reaching his hand out to help her in. Metal was shrieking, the garage collapsing overhead, along with at least part of the city block.
Zachariah mouthed something to her as they tried to find their way out of the trembling, groaning maze they now found themselves in.
Amelia closed her eyes, and thought of her father.
Thank you, Dad.
ALL OF THE AMELIA FEELS
I HAVE SO MANY
Also, here's a list of people who are going to kill Zach for his choices in this chapter:
8. Sean, again
Let me know what you think!
Chapter 10: lost and bitter
Everyone is sad. Plus, Mary gets a new job offer.
I am so sorry for the long wait! The holidays happened, and I've been working on a job search since the beginning of the year, which has eaten up most of my writing energy.
This chapter...not that much happens in this one, and I'm not sure I'm totally happy with it, but it does introduce a new plot twist which I've been thinking about for a long time, and which honestly may spawn a spinoff fic. I'm not sure yet. Let me know what you think!
oh, i had a dream that you couldn't hear me screaming
tried to tell you everything but it wouldn't stop you leaving
--Bishop Briggs, "Dream"
Niesha knew something was wrong the moment she caught sight of the group returning from Ophir, even though they were some distance from the palace. For one thing, it was too small. For another, she could pick Andrew out and see that he was walking at a distance from the others. A significant distance.
She slipped out of a side door, lowering herself down the ladder to the sandsail loading platform, and began moving towards the small party. Sean, Ian and Connor were sure to hear of their return soon, and she wanted to get to Andrew before they did.
The relationship between Andrew and the masters was bound to be strained for a while yet, if they managed to patch it up at all. Niesha knew she'd stand by Andrew no matter what happened--he was one of a handful of people she'd met over the years since the reeducation camp who hadn't tried to use her or own her. Even Dandolo, who she trusted and respected, used her to some extent. But not Andrew. He was kind, beneath all of his well-earned bitterness.
As she drew closer, her heart sank. Zach wasn't with them. And neither was Amelia, which was strange given that they'd certainly come back in the rover.
Andrew had picked up speed the moment he'd caught sight of her. Niesha swallowed, bracing for whatever news he brought.
To her surprise, his long arms were around her the moment he was close enough. He buried his face into the crook of her neck, and she could feel his fingers curling in her shirt.
It's bad. It's bad, it's bad, it's bad...
"Andrew? Sweetheart, tell me what's happening," she soothed, hugging him back.
He made a choked, wet sound, fingers tightening in her grey top.
Niesha didn't say anything else. She pointedly avoided asking where Zach was, and she didn't push for any other information. Her friend was in a bad way. There was no point in pressuring him.
Roy, Tenacity, Innocence and Phobos were all looking guiltily at Andrew, having come to a stop behind him.
"Gentlemen?" Niesha asked, voice icy. Phobos was avoiding her gaze. He never avoided her eyes.
What had happened in Ophir?
"We're--" Roy swallowed. "We're back."
"I can see that, Roy. I can also see that not all of you are back."
One hand came up to cup the back of Andrew's head, holding him close as she'd done for the other kids back in the camp when things became too much. They would use her shirt or her shoulder to muffle their sobs while the guards patrolled all day and all night.
Niesha hadn't cried in that place, ever. She'd simply collected the tears from the others, and she'd carried them in her heart ever since.
"Well, there were...complications. Amelia and Zachariah had to be left behind."
Andrew began to shake.
"What do you mean, they had to be left behind?"
"Viktor caught on that something was going on. He caught Amelia, Tenacity and I. Zach drew him off so we could escape, but Amelia insisted on staying to help."
"They knocked me out and put me in the rover," Andrew croaked, lifting his head up to look at her. "They came back without Zach and Amelia, and I said I wasn't leaving without them, and they just..."
He took a deep breath, gazing up at her with red-rimmed eyes.
It made her want to kill someone.
"Zachariah wanted to keep you safe, Andrew," Phobos spoke, finally. "It's what he--"
"Don't say that!" Andrew shouted, pulling away from Niesha and rounding on the mutant leader. "Don't fucking tell me it's what he would have wanted! Like he's dead! He could still be alive!"
A crowd was gathering now. It was certainly a sight to see Andrew shouting--everyone in Noctis knew him, more or less, and not a one of them had ever heard him raise his voice.
Niesha put a hand on his shoulder.
"How about we go back to my quarters, Andrew? We can talk more there. Roy and the others can go and explain to Sean what has happened."
As quickly as it had come, Andrew's anger seemed to vanish, leaving him exhausted and upset. He nodded to Niesha, and the two of them walked back through the crowd.
She took them back under the sandsail platforms to open yet another side door into the palace so that they wouldn't run into anyone on the way in.
The soft chimes hanging atop the palace suddenly clacked together shrilly. An ill wind heralding an oncoming sandstorm, Niesha thought, instinctively looking at up at the sound. Sure enough, she watched as some of the palace staff moved to the windows, affixing light metal shutters to seal the building.
It was just as well that Dandolo wouldn't have any work for her to do for the next day or so at least, as sending an operative out into a sandstorm was a death sentence. Niesha had heard stories about people having the flesh ripped from the bones in these storms, but she wasn't sure that was true. It seemed far-fetched that even a Martian sandstorm could do that.
All the same, she didn't want to find out.
She directed Andrew to her own chambers, small but neat and well-furnished. Being close to Dandolo had its perks--soft sheets and silken cushions among them.
Andrew sat down and put his head in his hands. Niesha knelt and put her arms around him, and they sat like that for a time.
Finally, Andrew shifted, and she retreated, rising to pull a coveted bottle of palm wine from a cabinet. Palms were one of the very few trees that grew on Mars, but still few enough that wine was a rarity. Niesha had stolen this bottle from a wealthy Assembly member in Mars during one of many missions there.
Andrew didn't look up at her until he'd had a sip from the glass.
"You're wasting your rich-person alcohol on me?"
She smiled. "It's not a waste. I have to drink it sometime."
"I've only had wine once before," Andrew said, taking another sip. "It's sweet, huh?"
"Dandolo told me once that there were a lot of different kinds of wine, back on Earth," Niesha said thoughtfully, looking into her glass. "They used some kind of special fruit called grapes to make most of it. They can't grow here, though."
"How did they make so many kinds from the same fruit?"
"I don't know. He said there were different kinds of grapes on different parts of the planet."
Andrew sighed. "What am I going to tell Sean?"
"You don't have to tell him anything."
"You don't understand, Niesha. He's going to want an explanation from me for why Zach's gone. I left a fellow mancer behind. That's unforgiveable."
"You didn't leave anyone behind, Andrew. They forced you to go." Niesha hesitated. "And Andrew, you're not a technomancer. Sean can't put the Order's expectations on you."
He flinched, and she instantly regretted her words. Despite being a spy, she'd always found Andrew's feelings about the technomancers difficult to navigate. He hated them, but he wanted to be one of them. He had described them as dogmatic and unfeeling, but she'd seen the way he lingered over colonist artifacts in the markets. His technomancy burdened him, but she'd overheard him talking with Zachariah enough to know that he missed it terribly.
"I'm sorry, I didn't--that wasn't the right thing to say, was it?"
"I know what you meant, Niesh. It just...stings. Seeing them all again, and the way Connor and Ian looked at me when we were in the Undercity...Connor reached out like he was going to hug me. I don't know what to do with that."
"You can love someone and still wrong them gravely."
"No amount of love can fix what they did. What Connor did, or at least let them do."
"Maybe not," Niesha sighed. "But Andrew...I don't think you really believe that. I think--"
"Andrew," she replied, pushing on, "you obviously miss Connor, and the others. I think you're doubting the way you've felt all that these years now that you're realizing it may be more complicated than you thought. I'm not telling you to get over it, or anything like that. I just think...maybe you can talk to him. Maybe it will make things better."
They sat in silence long enough for Niesha to refill both their glasses.
"Do you think Zach's really dead?" Andrew finally asked in a small voice.
"I have no idea, Andrew. I don't really know what happened. Do you want to tell me?"
"...can I have more wine first?"
Mary was slowly walking up and down the hallway outside her room, trying to get her legs back under her after her disastrous overload. Scott had told her she'd need to stay in bed for at least three days, but she was already stir-crazy after only two.
She felt terrible about what had happened. Niesha and Scott had explained everything when she'd woken with a splitting headache, a dry mouth, and full-body soreness. Nobody had been hurt, but they easily could have been.
Now, with some generous portions of water, tea, and food, she was beginning to regain her strength. Scott had marveled at her rapid progress, and she'd let him take a blood sample for some kind of test he wanted to do. He seemed harmless enough, and he had saved her life.
She couldn't believe that Aurora didn't teach its technomancers about overloads now that she'd experienced one. Sean's shock and disbelief about her training made sense.
Anger had begun to boil up in her once she'd woken up, realizing how much danger Aurora's Order had put her in for the sake of maintaining control. As soon as Sean had time, she would be ready to learn, she vowed to herself.
Mary knew he'd returned with the technomancers, but she hadn't met any of the others yet. Were Zachariah and the rest back, she wondered? She hoped so. It would be nice if everyone could be together in one place, finally, so they could all figure out what to do about Viktor.
Suddenly, she was aware of quiet footsteps coming closer. Thinking Scott or Sean were probably on their way and would have a fit if they saw her up and about, she quickly ducked back into her room and got into bed.
A rush of anxiety spiked through her when someone she didn't recognize came through the door instead.
Flexing her left hand instinctively, her anxiety became full-blown panic when she remembered that she couldn't use technomancy right now, and she had neither a dagger or a nailgun within reach. She opened her mouth to shout. At least someone might hear and come to help.
"Wait! I am not here to hurt you. I just want to talk to you."
"Don't come any closer," Mary warned, pressing herself into the corner that her bed was tucked into.
The woman stopped and put her hands out, palms facing Mary. She didn't see a technomancy glove, just a nailgun hanging on her belt. Her brown hair was shaved on the sides and pulled back into a neat bun, and she was wearing nondescript olive green and brown clothes. Not a uniform, so not a soldier or a member of the ASC, and not a technomancer either.
"Who are you?"
"That's--complicated. It will take me a few minutes to explain."
"Then start talking."
"My name is Devotion Grant. I work for General Honour Grant."
Mary blinked slowly. "And this is not supposed to alarm me?"
Devotion glared at her. "I told you I would need a few minutes to explain. I do a lot for the general. I'm his right hand. But right now, he wants me to be a spy."
"You look young to be a spy."
"I'm older than you are!"
"How do you know how old I am?"
"I'm a spy, like I just said. I'm 18, and you're 16, so I'm older."
Mary shrugged, conceding the point. "Alright, but why are you in my bedroom?"
"Well, you're from Aurora, so you know how powerful the technomancers there are. General Grant doesn't like that. He wants to find out their secret. How they rose to power. Why the dowser is giving them so much freedom."
Mary's eyes widened. If she could have conjured up a worst-case scenario for the Order, this would have been even worse than anything she could have imagined. If Honour truly was seeking the Order's secret, then it meant the technomancers would need to defend themselves on two fronts. The full might of the Abundance military and intelligence apparatus was already trying to pin them down. Now they would have the Auroran government after them, too?
"I can see that you realize what the general's success would mean for the technomancers across Mars. That's why I am hoping you will help me."
"Help you with what?" Mary asked angrily. "You're working for the general!"
Devotion sighed. "Only because I want to keep my enemy close. If I'm working side-by-side with General Grant, I am privy to all of his plans. And I am in a position to keep them from succeeding."
"What makes the general your enemy?"
"My brother is a technomancer in the Auroran Source. I don't know how the techomancers won the favor of Dowser Wisdom, but my instincts tell me if the General finds out it will mean the end of them. My brother included. I won't let that happen."
Mary's eyes narrowed. "So who is your brother? If he's in the Source I must know who he is."
"Generosity. And before you say that he's never mentioned having a sister, that's because he doesn't know about me. He was very young when they took him away, and I was only a baby. The general doesn't know I'm his sister either."
It was certainly plausible, as Mary knew from her own experience, that Generosity would have been removed from his family at such a young age. She wondered, suddenly, if she herself had any siblings she didn't know about. Certainly there hadn't been any other children in the home when she'd left, but that didn't mean her mother hadn't gone on to have more.
The thought frustrated her. Perhaps one day she could track her mother down and ask her in person...but that day would not come soon. She turned her attention back to Devotion.
"Even if I believe you, that still doesn't explain what you want me to do for you."
"I was supposed to find Roy and recruit him after we realized that he had returned to Shadowlair," Devotion explained. "Rogue technomancers are hard to find, and he was the only one we knew about. But he was already gone by the time I reached his hiding place. Then I found out, after some digging, that two other technomancers were with him, and I followed you here."
"The reason Honour wanted me to recuit Roy was because he hoped that he would help us in ways that only a technomancer could. Roy knows how technomancers think and what their priorities are, and could help us unlock their secrets. But it doesn't have to be Roy that helps. If I bring any technomancer back who isn't affliated with the Source in Aurora, he will accept them and let them in on his plans."
"And...you want me to help you thwart his plans?"
"So let me see if I have this correct. You want me to trust you, an admitted spy for Aurora's top-ranking military officer, and return with you, alone, to the custody of that officer. You then want me to engage in high-risk counterintelligence operations while pretending to work with that officer, all while in Auroran territory."
Devotion crossed her arms. "I didn't say I was asking you to do something easy. But I can't save the technomancers alone. That is why I need help."
Mary sighed. "Can I have time to think about it?"
Devotion nodded. "I need time to stock up for my return trip anyway. Come find me near the sandsails in three hours."
She turned on her heel and left, leaving Mary sitting in bed. The blond leaned back against the headboard and sighed, crossing her arms over her chest.
When he found out about what had happened in Ophir, rage was a mild way to explain what Sean felt. He was only able to break Roy's nose before Ian and Connor got a hold of his arms and pulled him back.
"How could you leave him behind?!" The air was beginning to hum with electricity as Sean struggled to get out of his fellow technomancers' grip.
"Sean, calm down."
"I will not calm down, Ian! These people left my son to die! At the hands of the most sadistic man in Abundance, no less!"
"And how will overloading help Zachariah?"
Roy put his hands up placatingly, surprisingly peaceful despite being punched in the face. "We had to make a call. Getting the tablet out of Ophir was the most important, and Zachariah understood that."
Sean spat at the other man, his saliva landing on Roy's boots. "It's no coincidence that you, Innocence and Tenacity had to be the ones to bring it back, though, was it?"
Roy's arms dropped to his sides. He looked to a point somewhere over Sean's shoulder, not looking him in the eye.
"He could still be alive. He and Amelia were born to raise hell."
"We can only hope," Ian replied icily. He didn't support Sean getting into a fistfight, but it was clear that he was furious with Roy, too.
"M'sorry," said another voice from behind Roy. When they looked, they saw Innocence. His eyes were full of tears.
He walked up to Ian, who let go of Sean as he approached, and held out the tablet.
"M'sorry," he said again. The words were shaky, barely audible, and they served as a balm to Sean. Maybe Roy and Tenacity were cowards, but he couldn't look at Innocence and say that the boy didn't feel the gravity of what had happened. He knew it, and accepted it, and that was something.
Ian took the tablet. "Thank you. Let us hope it was worth the price we paid."
Innocence wiped his eyes. "I have something else," he said, pulling out a comm unit. "I don't know if we can do anything with it from here. It's Viktor's comm. I stole it at The Curiosity's so he wouldn't hear about your escape right away."
"Let me see," Connor said, reaching for the comm. He fiddled with it for a moment, and it suddenly squawked to life, making Sean and Innocence startle.
"Sir...no sign...ASC patrol lost in sandstorm...Source completely empty, no stragglers..."
"Hmmm, I'm only getting bits and pieces of the conversation," Connor said, switching it off. "But this is definitely still an active unit, and tuned to ASC channels."
"Can we boost the signal?" Ian asked.
"I can go talk to some of the others, and together we may come up with a solution. But it can wait, I think, after this news."
"Yes," Ian replied, putting a hand on Sean's shoulder and squeezing. "It can wait."
"Where's Andrew?" Connor asked suddenly, hand halfway into his jacket pocket. "You haven't mentioned him, but he's not with you."
Roy and Tenacity traded an uneasy glance.
"He wouldn't leave without Zachariah," Innocence said quietly, looking at the ground. "Phobos hit him in the back of the head with his mace and we brought him in the rover with us. He woke up on the way back...and then Niesha took him somewhere as soon as we got into Noctis. He's probably still with her."
"You forced him to go?" Connor asked. "And he just...woke up in the rover, not knowing how he got there?"
The last question stuck in Sean's mind, and he realized what Connor was thinking: twice now Andrew had been bundled into a vehicle against his will, taken to parts unknown, and been separated from people he cared about in the process.
"I think we've heard enough," Ian said firmly, guiding both Sean and Connor away from the others. "Let's go rest for a bit."
They ended up in Ian and Connor's room, part of the palace complex off of the tiled courtyard. Sean was between the two older men, something he remembered from the time that Zachariah had been injured years ago.
He'd been in the chapel when he heard the crash, turning towards the noise to see part of the Source collapsing. Moving on instinct, he'd run toward the noise and begun pulling students from the debris, herding them in the direction of their quarters to get them away from the scene. He and the other masters had moved towards the source of the collapse, pushing aside debris as they went.
Whole sections of the Source were damaged. The shock from Andrew's overload had rippled outwards to rattle the complex's very foundation, but it had also shorted out a lot of the building's wiring. There were fires and small explosions as the Source's systems failed to process the surge of power.
At the time, though, Sean hadn't known what caused the damage. He was on autopilot, searching for any survivors before worrying about anything else. The idea that a student had been at the center of the blast, or that Zachariah might be at ground zero, didn't even cross his mind.
He had been the one to find Connor, unconscious and pinned under various pieces of rubble. The older technomancer wasn't badly hurt, having thrown up a shield at the moment of Andrew's overload. Only and concussion and a broken wrist had to be tended. Carefully moving aside everything pinning Connor down, he had gingerly picked him up and struggled through to the far side of the room where a path had been cleared. Ian was there, directing everyone, but when he'd seen Connor in Sean's arms he'd dropped everything.
"He's alive?" he'd asked Sean, who nodded in reply. "Oh, thank the Shadow."
He'd brushed a tender kiss to Connor's forehead before directing Sean to the infirmary.
That was where he'd been when they brought in Andrew and Zachariah, broken and bloody. Sean remembered the world slowing down as he recognized Zachariah's face, registered his injuries, and watched Scott, who'd come to the Source after the explosion was heard throughout Ophir, rush to save his life.
Someone told him later that his knees had buckled as soon as he'd seen his son, but Sean didn't remember that. He just remembered the sick, hollow feeling that rippled from his chest and invaded every part of his body. And he remembered that Ian and Connor had sat on either side of him at Zachariah's bedside for weeks, saying nothing as he gripped a slender hand in his.
It was the same now. It all felt the same, but there was no hand to hold. He couldn't see Zachariah's chest rise and fall, couldn't put his ear to his sternum to listen to a heartbeat.
Just as they had all those years ago, Ian and Connor didn't try to comfort him with platitudes. They just stayed close, two solid presences to remind Sean that not all was lost.
After what could have been ten hours or ten minutes, there was a knock at the door. Connor answered it, and after a moment, Andrew came in with a jug and several glasses.
"I thought maybe I would bring something for you. You've been in here for a while." He shifted from foot to foot just inside the doorway, not meeting anyone's eyes.
"Thank you, Andrew," Connor said, taking the glasses and gesturing for him to sit.
Sean didn't have much to say. He felt numb, and he had no quarrel with Andrew. He appeared to be the only person who'd put up a real objection to leaving Zachariah behind, and his eyes were bloodshot.
Connor must have noticed too, because almost immediately, he asked, "Andrew, are you all right?"
Connor's eyes narrowed. "Have you been drinking?"
Andrew rolled his eyes. "Yes, I had a few glasses of wine with Niesha."
Andrew sighed. "Connor. I'm an adult. You can't act like my father after..." he trailed off.
Connor winced. "Of course. You're right."
After a few awkward moments, Ian spoke up.
"Andrew, would you care to tell us how you got involved in all this?"
Another sigh. "You don't want to hear about my life. We're all depressed enough as it is."
Sean could hear the bitterness in the boy's tone, and heard an echo of himself. But Andrew was too young to be so cynical. Or he should have been.
"Please," Connor said, voice breaking. "We've--I've missed you, Andrew. And I know it's my fault that we've been apart, but please tell us something."
Andrew looked into his glass for a long moment. Then he looked Connor in the face for the first time since he'd come in.
"How long do you have?"