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Sink or Swim

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PROLOGUE

 


 

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

—T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton.

 


 

The stack of paper in her hands was pleasantly thick and heavy, and Pyro had nearly dropped it when Miss Pauling leaned across the desk and handed it to her. She recovered, mostly, and leaned back in the stiff and squeaky chair to get a better look at it. Something was written on the front, typed in heavy black ink. Pyro considered this as she glanced around the tiny, tightly packed office she had been called into.

“You remember that I can’t read, right?” she said.

“Yes,” said Miss Pauling, as crisp as ever, and folded her hands neatly onto the desk. Her nails were each an immaculate purple. “I’m required to serve you that, but I can read it to you if you’d like. Otherwise I had just planned to give you the overview.”

“Oh,” Pyro said, leafing through it. It looked incredibly boring, whatever it was. Every page was laden with dense, impenetrable gibberish, and the only images she could find were the Builder’s League United logo. When she let the papers fall flat again, she had already lost interest. It was likely more garbage about company policy and contracts she barely remembered signing. Her gaze, instead, flit out the window just behind Pauling’s narrow chair, where a bird had just perched on a stack of crates in a sunny gap between the shadows of the building. It was yellow, a bright spot in the drab February landscape, and to Pyro’s eye looked very relieved to have found somewhere to stand that wasn’t covered in frost.

Birdwatching, Pyro had discovered over the last four and a half months, was a thing that took a particular kind of person to do. Scout had gotten bored and left ten minutes into the first time he’d tried it, which was only to be expected. Truth be told, Pyro didn’t find it particularly engaging herself. She kept at it for two reasons: firstly, according to the ragged field guide she had procured (and which she had gotten Esau to read to her), eastern kingbirds could be found here in New Mexico—and secondly because there really wasn’t a whole lot else to do when you were under lock and key, except sit in one place and wait for birds to fly by.

Perhaps lock and key was exaggerating things, but still.

“So,” said Pauling, and Pyro turned her attention away from the bird, which wasn’t a kingbird anyway. “I hope you know you’ve always been an asset to this team, Pyro.”

“Even when I needed to be babysat?” Pyro said dryly.

“Any effort expended was worth the result,” Pauling said with her professional smile. “There were certainly some unforeseen hiccups, but I don’t regret recommending you for the team.”

Unforeseen hiccups. Pyro allowed herself a wry smirk at the phrasing, which lived right up until Pauling continued, “With that said, I really am sorry to have to tell you that this is a severance packet.”

The words hung in the air for several seconds, like lingering smoke. It took that long and perhaps a bit longer for Pyro to put real meaning to the words. When she did, she could not stop herself from looking down at the folder again. The heavy black ink was still nothing more but shapes on the page to her, but now she knew what they meant. Now she knew their intention.

“You’re firing me?”

This time, Pauling’s response was not quite as brisk. “That’s more or less what’s happening. I’m sorry.”

“Why?”

It was complicated, Pauling explained over the next twenty minutes. It had a lot to do with her and Scout abandoning their mission in Minnesota the year prior and consorting with Esau, which did not make sense to Pyro, especially given that they had brought Dell back alive at the end of it all. Sort of. His body was alive, anyway. Wasn’t that what the last four and a half months had been about, detaining the three of them for investigation? Hadn’t BLU pretty much come to the conclusion that she and Scout hadn’t done anything harmful to the company? Pauling conceded this, just before launching into a half-dozen other crimes Pyro hadn’t been aware she was guilty of, along with a few she was. All those times she and Scout had gotten into physical fights, for instance, and when Pauling had caught her looking at the folders in Mannworks.

“And, well,” Pauling finished, “we might have been able to overlook all that—heaven knows Medic’s just as bad—but as we were researching all of this, it came to light that your signatures on the contracts aren’t all valid.”

For a good few seconds, Pyro very seriously considered getting up and leaving. Instead she chewed her lip and said, as evenly as possible, “What does that mean?”

“Well, you signed them all with an ‘X’. That would have been fine, and it was for most of them, but for the signature to be binding someone has to witness it.” Those immaculate purple nails drummed the desk. “Four of your contracts have no evidence of witness. You’ve technically never been accounted for as a contracted mercenary like the others. You’ve been on the books as a risk consultant.”

The irony of this skipped lightly over Pyro’s head on its way out the door. She was busy turning things over in her mind. Fired. Severance. No longer part of BLU.

“I did try to get you reinstated, but,” Pauling went on, “it’s been decided that we don’t particularly need additional mercenaries at this time. Or consultants.”

Fired.

“Do you have any more questions?”

 


 

“Where’s Shep?”

The air was crisp, still, and carried on it a taste that was sharp and refreshing in Pyro’s mouth, even while her breath turned to smoke in the cold. It felt good on her face as she picked her way across the fenced yard, a slog of mud, gravel, and ice. This was one of the very few outdoors places she and Scout had been allowed into unsupervised since November, and she knew the safest spots to put her feet better than she strictly would have liked. At the other end of the yard, with ears red from the cold and a baseball and glove in his hands, Scout himself stood squinting at her. For some unfathomable reason, he was wearing shorts. “I dunno, he’s your dog,” he said.

Pyro folded her arms across her chest and came to a halt in front of him. “Thanks. Helpful. Have you at least seen him?”

“Not since yesterday.” He shifted his weight onto his back foot and pitched the ball with a snap of his wrist. It shot across the yard with pinpoint accuracy, hitting the center of a crude target drawn on a grocery bag and falling to join a host of other baseballs that had collected against the dented fence. “You checked the dining hall?”

“No, but he doesn’t really like it there.”

“What kinda dog doesn’t like food?”

“He’s scared of the cook.”

“Smart dog,” Scout said with a grin. “Dunno. Help me pick this crap up and I’ll help look.”

This seemed reasonable to Pyro. A few minutes later, with Scout’s baseball things deposited in a filthy milk crate that lived in the yard, the two of them were yet again meandering without much aim through the BLU headquarters. When Pyro first arrived, she had found it overwhelmingly large. This ceased to be the case, about two weeks later, after she’d learned the layout of the place, and after two months it became downright cramped. Now, four months in—four months of BLU keeping her and Scout for “investigation”—all she could ever think about the place was how it was overstuffed with people and frequently smelled of things Pyro did not want to inquire about. It would be such a relief to get out, she thought to herself again, and wondered if she should tell Scout about her conversation with Pauling.

Shep, the dog, was not in her room. This was technically where he was supposed to be at all times if Pyro wasn’t supervising him. That had been a pretty key caveat of allowing her to have someone bring him to her during her confinement, and had been thrown out the window almost immediately. The big German shepherd was mostly well-behaved and very much liked people, and with nothing much else to do Pyro had taken to properly training him. Or trying to, at least. This was another thing she was not very good at, but she hoped Shep would forgive her for that.

Shep was not in the dining hall, as predicted, nor was he in Scout’s room or sleeping on the couch in the break room. “Esau might have him,” Pyro mused aloud as they slipped past a trio of men in jumpsuits carting yet another pallet of crates to God-only-knew.

Scout made a vague noise. “Thought Esau didn’t like dogs.”

Pyro shrugged. “Dell did. Shep doesn’t know the difference.”

“I guess not,” Scout said.

Pyro did not particularly like Esau’s room. Her room was better, and so was Scout’s, both located around the middle of the building complex. They both looked out on something that could almost be described as a courtyard. When they had first arrived the courtyard had been so stuffed with construction equipment and unmarked crates you couldn’t see the ground, along with unsecured weaponry lying about at random because in Pyro’s experience no one in the company had ever heard of weapons safety. As the months passed, these had slowly begun to disappear. Now the courtyard played host to nothing but half of a rusting tractor sitting on four large, badly-damaged crates that Scout swore made noises and moved at night.

Despite the improbably threat of ghosts or captive cryptids, it was still better than Esau’s room. Pyro’s room was, luxuriously, larger than a closet. Pyro had also never had guards posted outside her door, either. At least those were gone these days. Esau, on the other hand, was squirreled away in what had to have been a room once used as storage for something toxic, because she got a headache from the latent chemical smell any time she went in there. (Esau claimed he had gotten used to it.) At least it had a window, she supposed as she and Scout rounded the corner into the tiny hall that lead to it, and saw that today his door was open. Scout got there first, peering inside and rapping his knuckles on the metal frame. “Hey, Esau, you got a dog in there?” he said as Pyro caught up with him. She looked in as well, and as always was met with mostly darkness.

Esau had the following: one bunk (rusted), one folding chair (rusted), and one cardboard dresser (not rusted, but not for lack of trying). He had a very small, dusty window that had been painted shut, and a single bare lightbulb that squatted like a terribly large spider on the ceiling, and gave up about as much light as one. Right now he also had one very big German shepherd sitting at his feet from where he was reclined and reading on the bunk, whose ears jumped forward as he caught sight of Pyro.

“Hey, boy,” Pyro said to the dog as he materialized in front of her, stepping on her toes with his massive paws and thumping his tail against Scout’s thigh. Scout leaned back for all of about two seconds before he crouched and started ruffling Shep’s fur with both hands. This had the desired effect of causing Shep to completely forget about his owner, and the less desired one of devoting all his attention to saturating Scout’s nostrils with his tongue.

With Scout sputtering as he was assaulted, Pyro squeezed herself past both of them to meet Esau as he got to his feet and limped over. “Good afternoon,” he said in the unaccented tone she was still not entirely used to hearing out of Dell’s mouth. “He’s been hanging on me a good bit, today.”

“Looks like Scout will trade you,” Pyro said. “Did he behave?”

“Oh, mostly. You can certainly say he listens to me. I suppose he was very obedient for Dell, too.”

“Yeah,” said Pyro, and remembered the green smell of cotton plants in late spring.

“April, hey, get ’im off me!”

Shep’s attack had succeeded, and he had Scout almost flat on his back while the dog whuffed and snuffled him. Pyro did not fully register that Scout was addressing her at first; she seldom did when he used her name. He was, in fact, the only person who used her name at all. “April—!”

She whistled, one long low note. Shep stopped at once and turned to look at her, ears up like satellites. A hand motion and a heel later, and he dropped his hindquarters onto the cement by her boots. She ruffled the fur on his head, and said, “So I just got fired.”

Pyro thought this would be a rather dramatic announcement. She had come up with some pretty good things to say to the questions she expected her ex-teammates would have. So when Scout said, “Oh, you too?” it really did take the wind out of her sails.

“What?” she said, running through something like thirty reasons BLU would never fire Scout. “You can’t be fired.”

“Free country.”

“Why would they fire you?”

Scout got to his feet and shrugged. “Whole lotta reasons, apparently, but mostly ’cuz they don’t need a scout no more.” His nose wrinkled. “Guess they got RED Spy for recon, or something like that, Miss P said.”

Pyro found she was having difficulty coming to terms with this. If she was fired, sure, she was surprised it hadn’t happened sooner. But Scout? “I guess if we’re not fighting RED anymore,” she said carefully, “then it makes sense they would get rid of people…”

“I believe the place is folding,” said Esau. There was a simultaneous twisting of necks for Pyro and Scout to better stare at him. “Haven’t you noticed?” he said. “It’s half as busy as it was when we arrived. I’ve heard talk about selling all sorts of the equipment, their company shares, that sort of thing. There’s fewer and fewer people around. I expect that the money dried up.”

Pyro had not noticed. Pyro was also not very observant of these sorts of things. It still felt like a surprise, even given Esau’s apparent confidence in the matter. “But it’s BLU,” Pyro said. Esau shrugged. “No, it’s BLU! They paid all of us this insane money for years, why would it dry up?”

“Do you know how BLU makes its money?”

“Well—” Pyro hesitated. “No.”

Esau said nothing more, just lifted one eyebrow as he looked at her. This took Pyro’s mind off the topic at hand entirely. It was a very Dell thing for him to do. Esau mostly seemed to do Dell things just around the time she had started to forget he had ever been someone else.

Scout dragged her back into it with as much grace as he usually had. “I mean it don’t make much of a difference either way, does it?” he said, drumming his fingers on his hip. “We’re both canned, that’s that.”

“Yeah,” said Pyro, and scrubbed her fingers through her shaggy hair to get it out of her eyes. “Well. Damn. Okay.”

This seemed to sum the conversation up.