Partial Record of Persephone Squad’s Exploration of Tower Di, Carta Record 782356
Savannah the Prowler’s voice, over a black screen: “I’m almost certain nobody’s in there. I’m going in. Jeni, you stay here; Mac, you’re with me.”
The camera, mounted on Savannah’s helmet, activated. From the outside, Tower Di looked like a flower instead of Tower A’s blade, and it wasn’t nearly as tall. What looked like horizontal windmills rotated lazily at the point of each petal. The curtain wall was peppered with holes. Some looked like breakages, the ruination of time, elements and warfare. Other holes were far too regular: round, oval and at least three perfect squares.
Savannah moved forward, climbing over some rocks and a tangle of storm-tumbled trees that there was nobody to clean up. She ignored the incongruously-closed front doors and went to a round hole right beside them, stepping into near-darkness.
In addition to the recording equipment, Mac and Savannah each had a high-powered flashlight attached to the long-barreled guns, which they switched on. The light played across the internal walls, which were covered in the same alien writing that decorated the home tower. Here, it was a vivid purple instead of light blue. “We’ll want to make sure the words haven’t changed. At a glance, it looks like the same stuff as last time I was here. Not quite as uplifting as the wishes left behind at A, but I’ve seen far worse.” She strode on, turning her head and the camera slowly. “So far this looks normal for Tower Di.”
Lights flickered here and there, pale echoes of the sculptures that illuminated Tower A. All of the humanization of Tower A was missing: no courtyards, no kitchen, no doors designed for human convenience. The whole tower was like the upper levels of Tower A.
Savannah passed through a large room full of tanks. Each tank contained a single glowing mote drifting around a small, shadowed shape. Her footsteps echoed in the chamber and the motes hummed as she passed, each one a different tone.
Beyond the tank room was a poorly implemented crematorium, with the remains of half-burned wildlife laying in the ashes that coated the floor.
Savannah pointed down. “Ah. Human tracks.” She followed them to the other side of the crematorium, where the ashy tracks led into another tank chamber. This one looked abandoned, dusty and unlit. “I smell something bitter, and something briney. Stronger than elsewhere.”
The ashy footprints wandered through the room, and Savannah’s camera and light captured where the trail paused at dust-covered biomechanical tanks. Somebody had rubbed circles in the dust to peer inside. A smiley face had been drawn on one. Another had been smashed open and a wash of something now evaporated wiped away both dust and trail.
Beyond the second tank chamber was a room barely recognizable as a portal chamber. Three round pools of liquid, each one set under a complex machine that came to a point, seemed to serve as the potential portals. The dust here had been thoroughly disturbed, drifting into tiny dunes in the corners of the room. Savannah paced out shapes. “Bedrolls here, I think. And a fire. They had a regular little campout. At least four bedrolls.” She crouched down, and the camera refocused. “And blood here.” She glanced up, visually following the trail before moving after it. There were three exits from the hall, and the drops of blood led toward the back.
Beyond was a small lift. The lift itself was covered in blood, and Savannah backed away hastily. “I want to find the core and see what the AI has to say. I remember that this door was sealed before.”
Mac said, “In terms of native dangers, this Tower is very clean. They scoured it. No sign of living wildlife at all.”
“Yet they’re not here. Come on.” Savannah went through the one exit she hadn’t yet tried, and down a long hall. Broken wheels of a variety of materials began to appear on the walls, and when she went through an archway, the room beyond was covered in wheels of all sizes. The floor itself was a giant spoked wheel, slowly turning, and in the center was a column of faint light.
“Greetings!” Kentigern’s voice came from the column. “Greetings—” and it switched to an alien warbling. “I wish—” Savannah waited patiently through the extensive warbling that followed.
“Good afternoon, Di. Do you remember me?”
“Green and gold. Eyes and lights.” Then, in a voice eerily similar to Savannah’s, it said, “Do you remember me? You don’t want to be alone. Where did you go?”
“Good,” said Savannah, as if this made sense. “Can you tell me about who was here before?”
More warbling, interspersed with phrases in English. “Red and black. Shadow and desire. Tears. Agony. They brought words with them.”
“Can you show them to me?”
“You took my eyes,” said the column of light, plaintively. “My eyes and my fingers. Why do you ask for what you know I can’t do?”
“That’s terrible,” said Savannah calmly. “Can I return them to you?”
“No,” said Di, sadly. “All gone now. It was very interesting, watching the youngest give birth. It was like she was a tank. I wanted to see how it worked, but the lightning asked me not to. So I didn’t. I hope they come back. I liked being defended.” It paused, then said, “The land has changed.” Then it was back to alien singing again.
Savannah said, “I have another request for you, Di. Can you open a portal to an emergence point?”
“No! No, I can’t. The lightning bridged the gap, and with the lightning gone, I can’t find it anymore. Earth… We hear the whispers of Earth. Dreams and shadows. A shining world.”
“Did you provide them with latchkey devices to return to you?”
“They had their own. All modified, according to the archive instructions.”
Quickly, Savannah said, “Archive? Where are the archive instructions now?”
“Gone. All the architectural plans, gone. They are going to build something else. So many of my processes and supplies were damaged. But things can be replaced. It’s just a matter of time.”
The column of light lowered its voice, as if tired, or confiding something. “And then, I won’t be necessary anymore. Won’t that be nice?”
Kwan, who seemed to have developed grey streaks in his dark hair overnight, dropped a huge stack of newspapers on one of the classroom tables. Jehane was back in class again today; it had become the path of least resistance. And everywhere she looked outside of the classroom, she saw Laurel.
Perspective, that’s what it was. She felt bad about Elian and Rohan, but it just didn’t compare to what had happened to Aya and Slade, and Laurel’s grief.
“Today, we’re going to go through newspapers and see what we can put together from them. You all know that the Earth media is a good resource for us—”
“We need to figure out a way to get a constant internet hookup,” grumbled Jolie. “Print is dead, you know? What are we going to do when all these papers go out of business?”
Amusement flickered in Kwan’s eyes as he passed around the newspapers, matching them up to the languages people had been studying or grown up with. Jehane got three French papers. “I think by the time we have to worry about that, clever kids like you will have worked that out for us. A craving for Facebook must be good for something, after all.” Jolie looked embarrassed and buried her nose in a Russian paper. Kwan went on. “The media has already put together a pretty good timeline of attacks in various cities. What we’re looking for is information in details they can’t possibly know enough to correlate. Unusually armed men. Unexplained violent murders. Vigilante activity.”
“Thefts?” asked Natalie.
Kwan nodded. “Thefts. Animal attacks.” Natalie tore a page out of her paper and put it aside.
Jehane looked down at her own papers. Her eyes followed the pictures more than the words, and in irritation she flipped to deeper in the paper, the stories with the smaller headlines. A police blotter. Aya wasn’t described anywhere.
“Is this bioweapon really a weapon?” asked Rohan. “I thought it just made people sleepy.”
“And made Nightlights really powerful,” said another boy with red hair, around Jehane’s age. “It must be a lot easier to fight Awakened when the effect is active. Seems like a useful tool to me, they’re just using it at the wrong time. If we had it and only turned it on when people were already asleep, whoosh! Wow!” The boy swung an imaginary sword around. “It could be a big help.”
Kwan’s gaze ran over Jehane to Ajax, then to Natalie. “For their own good, eh? That’s an old argument, Sean.” Natalie shifted uncomfortably beside Jehane, but Jehane kept her gaze fixed on Kwan. When he turned to her again, she wasn’t surprised. “What do you think of that idea, Jehane? Being sedated for your own good?”
“Um, no one likes it, sir. But I can’t say it’s never useful.” Kwan raised his eyebrows at her and she ducked her head. “Sometimes things go wrong,” she mumbled, and smoothed the paper in front of her. “But this isn’t that,” she said suddenly and raised the paper. “It isn’t hypothetical. This is happening, and there are people in cars, there are pilots in airplanes, there are people who can’t afford to suddenly lose focus or fall asleep.” She glared at the red-headed Sean and he boggled at her.
She pushed the papers across the table and stood up. Then she caught a glimpse of Laurel through the window in the classroom door and sank back into her seat again.
Natalie followed her gaze, then whispered, “Has Laurel been bothering you?”
Jehane slouched back in her chair. “She thinks I can find Aya.”
Natalie frowned. “I can explain to her that it doesn’t work that way.”
“It could.” Jehane stuck out her lower lip. “It seems like it’d be as useful as going through newspapers and trying to assemble a ridiculous dossier of details. We’re not going to notice anything a hundred thousand frightened media consultants haven’t. We’re not going to find the important thing, like where they are now.”
Natalie gave her a worried look. “It seems like it would be very dangerous. Especially given that various authorities are on the alert now.”
“It’s true, and nobody trusts me not to lose it at the first sign of trouble. But dogs are useful for tracking things down. Sometimes you need a dog. Just keep me on a leash.” The Prowlers had real dogs. She was probably insulting them; they were cute. Cute and useful.
Natalie closed her fingers around Jehane’s arm, but didn’t shake her. “That’s not what I meant and you know it. Look at Kwan. If anybody else gets hurt, what do you think he’ll do?”
“Other people are going to get hurt before this is over.” Jehane wrapped her hand around Natalie’s. “I can’t stand the way she looks at me, Natalie. You’d look for me if I vanished, wouldn’t you?”
Natalie’s fingers tightened on hers. “Of course.” And truly, Jehane didn’t even need to hear Natalie’s answer. Seth might push her when she needed to be pushed, but Natalie would always come for her.
“Then I have to do it for her. We can’t just leave Aya in the dark, and Laurel falling after her.”
Natalie looked down. “Well, at least we have starting places now.” And she picked up one of the newspapers, which had, alongside a list of previous attack sites, possible future ones that fit the same profiles.
“All right,” said Elian’s quiet voice. “Go.” The portal activated.
Jehane stepped through the silent void between portals and emerged on the other side. The cacophony of Earth burst over her, and she closed her eyes and concentrated. The mundane noise became a hum, and the faint songs of the ordinary people vanished. An Awakened slithered in a nearby building, and another clattered down a back street. But there was no hint of the echthroi or their cambions.
She shook her head. Natalie, standing beside her and holding her hand, stepped backward, tugging Jehane along. They passed again through the silence and arrived back at the Portalry. “Nothing,” said Natalie, and they went to the next portal.
“It will be a small area,” Jehane warned Laurel.
Laurel’s eyes were wild with hope. “But they use the same emergence points. It could work. It could help.”
The Council had authorized the ‘experiment’, as long as Jehane took along a bodyguard. A handler. The news had flown through the Tower and by the time they’d worked out a schedule with Elian that would take them through the portals at the quietest hours of the night, the Portalry had filled up with observers.
They were far quieter than any crowd Jehane had ever experienced. Their shadow music sang of curiousity, anticipation and excitement, but nobody spoke, as if they feared breaking her concentration. The pressure brought by such an attempt at silence was amazing, especially given how useless it was. The shadow music of their anima was far louder than any whispered commentary could be.
“Can you focus with them here?” whispered Natalie.
“I think so.” They stepped through the next portal. This time she detected only one Awakened, and no cambions. And through the next portal, no Awakened, and barely any humans, even though she could see some moving in high windows across the street.
She slumped against the Earth side of a portal frame. “The more I focus the narrower it gets. The less I hear.”
Natalie’s grimaced. “I’ll make them all leave.”
“No, it’s not them! It’s— I’m listening for one thing. Or maybe two. And I’m not finding it, but everything else is going away. I don’t know if I’m concentrating too hard to hear anything.”
“Maybe don’t concentrate, then? What do you usually do?”
“I just… exist. I interpret what I hear but I don’t stretch for it. But my range is so small, if I don’t stretch, how will I hear them?”
Natalie squeezed her hand. “Do what you’re best at.” She hesitated. “Is ‘just existing’ what you did before the Tower found you? I’ve never wanted to bring up bad memories before…”
“I was thinking about that before, for Elian…” Jehane mumbled. She remembered.
She was ‘emotionally disturbed’, but the world was insane. People walked around with monsters attached to their bodies, or with oozing sores they didn’t seem to notice. Sometimes they would tend to a mild hurt, while ignoring the gaping wound in the side of their head. And the monsters, the monsters fed upon them. When she was very small, they didn’t notice her. But that didn’t last. When she tried to fight them off, the adults who were supposed to take care of her instead held her down for them. The only salvation was hearing their approach, and learning how to hide. After she learned to listen, she spent all her time still and quiet, waiting for the awful sounds to intrude on her awareness.
Jehane breathed out gently as the local Awakened grew in her awareness, and stepped back through the portal again. Carefully she paced over to the next one. On the other side, she paused and breathed out again, letting stillness fill her.
All her memories of her childhood inevitably ended with Malachi. She thought about his shadowed eyes and his music, and the way he saw inside of her, past the quiet stillness to the child underneath. She wondered if he could see her even now, if every time she sensed him, he could sense her.
It was oddly comforting, until it faded.
With a start, she realized she was hearing Malachi himself, distantly; a fading signature moving away, and interwoven with broken piccolo heights. The wind across the water was changing, like the water was draining away and the wind was forgetting how to blow.
And then it was gone.
“What? Is there something?” Natalie asked. Jehane tilted her head, then wrapped her arms around herself. “We’ll come back,” said Natalie.
They took notes, but the echo wasn’t enough to move on. And there were more emergence points to test.
It took hours. The audience, so silent at first, began to sigh and leave. Maybe they’d hoped for a miracle from the strange girl with the same nature as Lailoken. Maybe they’d just hoped for more drama. Whatever the reason, their departure made Jehane feel as if she’d disappointed them.
But not everybody left. Natalie and Seth took turns escorting her when she refused to take a break. Laurel stayed in the Portalry until they forced Jehane to stop for the day, and the next morning, when they started the portal sequence all over again, there she was.
Hatherly lingered, too, watching closely. At one point, he offered to escort her as Seth and Natalie did, but shyness overwhelmed her and she decided she’d rather wait for the people she knew better. He was kind about that, too.
Each time she went back to the city where she’d sensed Malachi’s presence, she heard more echoes. Malachi again, and the horrible twanging discordance of Tainter, and once a whisper-soft sweetness that she thought might be Aya. But the sweetness was breath across broken strings, and she couldn’t bring herself to mention it to anybody.
The fifth time she went through, they were all there, and all nearby. She stood and listened for several moments, trying to decide if now was the time to send out the gathered forces.
Then, she felt a twist inside. She’d felt it once before, the last time she’d seen Malachi. They’d activated their mysterious device. As she listened, the city fell asleep around her.
“Now,” she said. “Here. We can find them.”
“Their experiment feels like being drunk on adrenalin. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to lose control.” Natalie faced the small army that had materialized in front of the portal to Detroit in response to Elian’s announcement. “And it takes a while to figure out how to use your body again. I didn’t spend that time, and I regretted it. And the more you use the new strength, the more exhausted you are when it goes away.” Her gaze ran over the faces in the crowd. The Tanist was there, absolutely refusing to be left behind. Savannah the Prowler and her teammate Mac. Seth and Jehane. Rose and Kotone. Kwan and Laurel and Hatherly. Darby and Xu Ming, whom Seth had spent his novitiate with. The air sizzled with excitement. After days and days of reacting and waiting, everybody was eager to finally do something proactive.
Natalie was pretty sure that eagerness would get them into trouble. The field that enveloped Detroit took eagerness and turned it into disaster.
She raised her gaze higher and saw Ajax lingering at the door at the other end of the Portalry. As soon as he met her gaze, he raised two fingers to his brow in a casual salute, then vanished. Mild annoyance whispered: he wasn’t even going to see them off?
But she didn’t care. She didn’t care.
At a word from the Tanist, the rough crew piled through the portal to Detroit, as fast as possible. Natalie was pretty sure there wasn’t going to be a repeat of the last time they’d gone after the echthroi; she’d checked the transmitter herself while waiting for the crew to assemble. But nobody could be sure, so anybody who wanted some action pushed.
The experiment zone was in full effect on the other side, and Darby immediately leapt into the air, calling, “Wheee! This is sweet!” as he landed on an awning. Then he overbalanced and tumbled off to land in a heap. “I’m fine!”
The Tanist inhaled deeply, as if breathing something fine. “This is… amazing. I feel young again.”
“Yes, yes. Ma’am.” said Natalie. “But we don’t know how long it will last. If we’re going to find them, we have to move quickly. Jehane, lead us.”
Jehane, her face pale and drawn, nodded. She’d barely rested the past three days, but Seth believed she’d hold up and Natalie trusted Seth.
A spring dawn brightened the eastern sky as they moved across downtown, but the roads hadn’t yet become crowded with morning traffic when the experiment hit. Now, they seemed desolate. A few cars sat at stop lights, unmoving, their drivers slumped over the wheels. They passed a wreck embedded in a storefront. Somebody had extracted the driver and the passenger and laid them side by side a few yards away from the accident, their wounds untended. The distant smell of something burning wove around the ordinary smells of the city. A bus had jackknifed at an intersection, stopping just short of a sedan that had rolled into the middle of the crossing. Some of the passengers of the bus had disembarked before giving into their drowsiness.
In the distance, a siren rose and faded away. “Not everybody’s succumbed,” said Seth quietly. “I’ll keep an eye on Kiley.” He slipped back to pace beside the Tanist.
A moment later, Kwan said, “Everybody, down. Be asleep, now. Guns under cars.” Natalie slumped behind a car, as did most of everybody else. Seth tugged the Tanist down.
A group of people appeared from the midst of the stalled cars, heavily armed and armored, including full masks. They moved forward carefully, like a single creature stalking new territory. The intermittent buzz of radio communication accompanied them.
It wasn’t the only thing. Awakened prowled alongside them, flanking them, not attacking them.
The squad of Special Forces worked their way up the street, pausing once to inspect the cars involved in another accident before moving on. When they were out of sight beyond an abandoned building, Kwan belly-crawled to the center of the group. “This is bad.”
Darby said, “We just avoid them. Maybe we can move on the roofs.” He flashed a brilliant grin.
Xu Ming shook his head. “Worst thing to do. You can bet those guys have air or even satellite support.”
“You mean they can see us?”
Kwan said, “Could be. As long as we’re careful and we don’t wave guns around, whoever’s looking at the pictures is probably going to be focusing on other details.”
“Yes,” said Jehane quietly. “There’s a lot of cambions around. At least nine.”
“That’s fantastic,” said the Tanist bitterly. “Monsters, caught on camera. What are the military types doing here?”
“Trying to find out why the city is asleep, I imagine,” said Kwan, an edge in his voice.
“They’re going to get in our way. And what the hell are those Awakened beside them? We have to find the echthroi before they do.”
“The echthroi have already split up,” said Jehane.
“Take us to Malachi, then,” ordered the Tanist. She stood.
Jehane looked down, then began to creep alongside the cars. Two streets over, they came upon another Special Forces team.
They heard the gunfire first, and the shouting. The squad was fighting a six-legged cambion half-composed of oily smoke. Their bullets slammed into it, tearing away pieces of its substance, but not doing much to slow it down. One of the squad was already down, and as the Guardians looked around the bus, another one fell to a great hooking claw.
“They need help,” said Natalie, not bothering to keep her voice down.
“They’ve got plenty,” snapped the Tanist. “Look.”
There were Awakened attacking the cambion, and fighting some of the cambion’s own entourage. It was astonishing. The squad didn’t even seem to be aware of their invisible allies, and Natalie couldn’t imagine how it was possible. And yet it was.
But it wasn’t enough. The squad’s allied Awakened weren’t as powerful as the cambion’s own Awakened.
“We’ll be right back,” said Natalie, and leapt around the bus, letting the force manifested by the experiment fill her. Seth followed her, and Darby, and finally Xu Ming. The cambion, damaged and distracted, had no chance. Natalie wasn’t sure what its weak point had been, but under the onslaught of four stage 3 weapons, it collapsed.
The squad was less than grateful. Scarcely had the monster collapsed than the remaining soldiers had guns pointed at the Nightlights.
“Jump,” said Natalie.
And the squad was tired. However they were staying awake, it hurt their reactions, especially when faced with an unexpected pack of teenagers. There was a rattling of gunfire as Natalie flipped herself to the top of the bus and her companions vanished to rooftops.
The gunfire stopped, and she paused, too, flattening herself on top of the bus. One of the soldiers wrenched his mask off and shouted, “What the hell are you?”
Natalie wished she could answer, but what could she say? She met the soldier’s eyes for a moment, then jumped away.
The rest of the Guardians had moved on while Natalie’s crew distracted the soldiers. Natalie jogged up to the back of the pack and slipped in. Seth was already there, and she’d seen the other guys on a rooftop as she caught up. The Tanist strode along at the front, as if she knew where they were going.
“I just want to know we’re going to Aya. We are, aren’t we?” Laurel paced alongside Jehane, in the middle of the pack. “You could show me on a map and I could go get her. Move her someplace safe before the fighting starts.”
Jehane shook her head. “She’s where we’re going. But—”
“What?” asked Natalie.
“What does that mean?”
“Um… since he wasn’t near the limits of my range, I think he went through a portal.” She glanced at the front of the group. “Should I tell the Tanist?”
Hatherly, walking on Jehane’s other side, said, “No. That would just distract her, just as she’s doing her best. Best to avoid that, don’t you think?” And he smiled, thin and old and empty.
Ajax leaned against a wall, looking out the window to the orchard.
“They’ve left, Ajax,” said Elian.
“Why are you telling me?”
“I know you want to come haunt the Portalry,” said Elian. His voice contained a compassion Ajax didn’t like hearing.
“It’s not a big deal.”
But after a few moments, he wandered back to the Portalry, all the same. While the troop of echthroi-hunters had departed, the Portalry still had plenty of people. Both of Natalie’s parents were there, standing with an older woman who looked like she’d been crying a lot. One of the teachers, Evelina, sat in an armchair, knitting furiously, with three of her students clustered near her.
Ajax drifted along the portal installations, toward the ingress location, wondering how long it would take them to get into trouble, and if he wanted to be here when they returned. Natalie had made it clear she agreed with him that spending time together was a bad idea, and now he couldn’t decide if he wanted to convince her they were both wrong.
“Uh-oh. There’s an incoming activation signal,” said Elian. “It’s Aya’s latchkey.”
Silence swallowed the murmurs of the hall. Even the clicking of the knitting needles stilled. The weeping woman with Natalie’s parents cried, “Well? Open it!”
“I—” began Elian.
“Open it,” said Ajax. He let the tension of the moment fall into his hand and his stage 2 weapon manifested. He still couldn’t summon it when he was calm, but this was much better than only being able to summon it while calm. The bar of light felt solid and powerful in his hand.
“Opening the portal.”
The ingress installation glowed and rippled. Then the substance of the portal parted around a form. It was a man, smaller than Ajax, with a bald scalp decorated with geometric shapes. He wore clothes that looked like they’d been ripped from a rack somewhere without consideration for style or size; the long-sleeved dress shirt still had a tag on despite the great rents in the left side. He hadn’t shaven in days, but part of his beard looked to have been burned. His eyes were shining. In one hand, he held a morning star; in the other, the latchkey. A creature that looked like nothing so much a as a dire wolverine with spikes along the back lurked at his side.
Not young, not Malachi. The other one. Tainter.
“Oooh, it worked!” A big smile curved Tainter’s mouth. “What fun.”
Ajax pointed his bar of light at Tainter. “Get out.”
Tainter stepped forward and looked around. “We’re in the henhouse now, Rend, my boy. Oops!” He giggled.
Ajax didn’t wait. Elian was maintaining the ingress portal. The invaders were still getting their bearings. He rushed them, spreading his arms low and wide to catch the cambion with his fist and weapon as his shoulder struck Tainter. His size and momentum carried all three of them back through the portal again.
As they fell through the void, Tainter shifted underneath him. When they emerged on the other side, still moving, Ajax sprang to one side just in time to avoid Tainter’s weapon.
Tainter laughed. “Fancy dancing!” He darted at Ajax again, and Ajax caught his advance on his own weapon this time, shoving him backwards. As Tainter stumbled, Ajax tried to figure out where the cambion had gone. The experimental energy filled him, but he had no time to explore it. Tainter came in low, and the cambion came out of nowhere on his other side. Ajax kicked the wolverine in the snout and pushed Tainter between the two of them. Then he let Tainter go and ran, opening up enough distance between them so that he could get his own bearings.
It was a city street. He was in front of a skeletal half-completed high-rise construction, covered in graffiti that suggested nobody had cared about finishing it for months or years. Cars lined the curb, some of which contained sleeping occupants. Across the street was a run-down brownstone. It looked like further down the street was also further downtown.
Tainter grinned fiercely and moved after Ajax. Ajax hesitated just a moment, tempted by the cinematic half-completed high-rise. But he didn’t think the energy rushing through him would let him fly. He took off down the street instead, rounded a corner, and ducked behind a car. When Tainter leapt around the corner, moving like he had springs in his shoes, Ajax tackled him, tried to bang his head into the ground, and got an elbow in his own solar plexus instead. He rolled away, stumbled to his feet, and Tainter knocked him down again, bringing his weapon around. A thick spike caught in Ajax’s shirt and tore it, slicing a thin line into his skin. Ajax pushed hard and twisted backward at the same time. He mis-estimated the amount of force at his disposal and for a moment his vision was all stars and darkness. He squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again.
He was on the pavement, staring at a black combat boot with a dark trouser leg blousing out. A moment later, the long, thin muzzle of an extremely military-looking gun descended to introduce itself to him.
Ajax sat up in a hurry.
“Don’t move,” barked the man behind the gun, his voice distorted by the mask covering his face. Five of his brothers also had guns leveled at both Ajax and Tainter.
Ajax didn’t move. Tainter, on the other hand, laughed so hard he choked, then leapt straight into the air. Ajax wasn’t moving so he didn’t see exactly how the echthros vanished, but he imagined it involved balconies and rooftops. Two of the soldiers fired after Tainter, and Ajax, still trying to find his stolen breath, was intensely grateful the guns were pointed high when they clattered.
One of the soldiers spoke into a radio, describing Tainter’s flight. The first one said, “Toss your weapon away.”
Ajax realized he was still holding his stage 2 weapon. He could see a line of red along the glow, and wondered when he’d managed to catch Tainter.
“Your weapon, now!”
“I can’t.” He mimed a tossing motion and the weapon vanished. Then, hastily, he raised both hands over his head, his palms open. This seemed to satisfy them, for the moment.
“Keep your hands up. Who was that?” was the next demand.
“An enemy. Can I stand up?”
“An enemy,” sneered the soldier. “No shit. On your feet.” He lowered his gun an inch or two, though and most of the others followed suit. “What are you doing running around? Why aren’t you incapacitated?”
“I don’t know. Why aren’t you?”
“Willpower. Training. A little speed. These fucking masks aren’t doing a damn thing except getting in the way, that’s for sure.” The speaker pulled his mask off and tossed it aside. He looked like the protagonist of a dozen video games, with eyes like he’d tapdanced over Hell. “You know anything about what’s going on here? And don’t lie, because we have your godddamned light saber on video.”
Ajax let his gaze slide around the street, and realized Awakened were prowling around the squad, attention focused outward, away from the squad. He wondered what kind of ‘training’ the soldiers had been given. A moment later, as an Awakened bumped against a soldier’s leg, he realized that they couldn’t see the creatures, didn’t know they were there. Wonder blossomed, prompting him into openness.
“I know there’s a weapon. A device? I don’t know. And I think… I think it makes people who are immune to it really… fast and strong.”
“Like you’re immune to it.”
“Yes,” Ajax admitted. That brought the barrels of the guns back up again. He kept his hands in the air and stayed very still.
“What about the monsters?”
“Monsters?” If they weren’t seeing the Awakened, that meant they’d seen cambions. “What are they like?”
Another soldier said, “Horrible things, nearly unkillable.” He shuddered.
The leader said, “They— they undo years of discipline. You don’t know them?”
“I know them a little. Ah… that’s what my weapon is for. Fighting those things.” And in the back of his head, Ajax thought: The Tower already thinks I’m a traitor. But I think these people are going to get killed. What would happen if we just luminated all of them? Does the Tower know about how Awakened act around them?
For the first time, something other than determination and anger flickered in the leader’s face. “Yeah?”
“Corp, Squad Charlie’s spotted another….” said the radio guy.
“Right,” said the corporal. “You’re coming with us, kid. I hope, for your sake and ours, you’re telling the truth.”