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Rated: XGC · Campfire Creative · Other · Sci-fi · #1836933
We come now to the dark times, the war and the death times. Times that will test us all.
[Introduction]
A header for the campfire Rebel Earth.


3257AD, Earth, heart of the rebellion

Oxford is gone, bombarded from above and abandoned below, and the war has truly begun. It has been five-hundred years since last Earth rose up against Deklahn, since they were crushed and subjugated to the worst that the Empire had to offer, but much has changed since then. Their school of rebels may be rubble, but many of their people and all of their ideas have survived, and now the rebellion, so long in hiding, has risen from the ashes to fight once more for freedom.

Around the world, hidden bases now rouse themselves, putting into motion plans laid down over centuries. Rebels, hard and fierce, come forth from the shadows and strike at the heart of Omega. It is for this that they have trained and for this they have planned. Once more into the trenches goes Earth, and Omega shall hear their war cries.

But Omega is watching, and Omega has plans themselves. They have always believed that Earth would once more rebel, once more prove themselves traitors. The Royal Family of England is captured, and many more world leaders head to the chopping block, strapped to a Doctor's chair or a Surgeon's table. And Omega has other secrets, terrible secrets; plans that infiltrated Oxford itself, and now seek to infiltrate the war.

Rebel Earth is rising. But will it rise for long?

*****


Oh, Earth, do not fear the loss of our symbols. Do not cry for despair. We are still here, Earth, and the war begins in earnest. You must not run from it, my brethren, but stand tall and proud against these oppressors. We will not abandon you. We will not leave you. We will never leave you.

We come now to the dark times, dearest allies, the war and the death times. Times that will test us all. But you must not lose hope and you must not give up.

Deklahn is coming. And we will be there to meet it.

*****


This campfire is the sequel to:
Renegade Earth  (XGC)
A secret school. A secret war. A chance to regain their honor beneath the hallowed Earth.
#1492298 by Professor Q


To the Authors: Admittedly, I was lax about this policy during Renegade Earth, but I am instituting a one month policy. Yeah, a month. If we're going to write 12-page additions, we're going to need time. Given the extended addition period, I won't really tolerate going over a month. Just sayin'. (Come November, we'll discuss NaNo.)

Rules is rules. We all know them by now. And we're too cool to need them spelled out. Any questions? Ask me. Shouldn't be, though, 'cause we got this. Feel free to throw crazy plot twists and whatnot in there. Just make them, you know, make sense. And do please talk to one another about things. Communication is the key to an amazing story.
Edward Godwin, somewhat King of England, was lost. Not physically, for his ragged feet led him unerringly through the terrain of Oxford town, but in every other respect, he floundered completely.

Three days ago, his mother Edwina, Queen of England and holder of his trust until twenty-five, had elected to die in order that he might escape Deklahn’s prison and find his sister Amelia at her rebel training program in Oxford. This morning, he’d found out that Oxford was gone, a pile of rubble and dead bodies, and no one knew who’d escaped, if any. And no one could tell him about Mia.

So now he was King of a nation at war—a nation without a King, as far as Omega was concerned—an orphan, and quite probably the last living member of his family on this planet. And he had no idea what to do with any of it.

From birth, he’d learned diplomacy and languages, history and philosophy and political theory. He’d had tea with ambassadors, and solved mock international emergencies with his future advisors. He knew to which rulers a bow was necessary and to which merely a nod would suffice.

He knew how to deal with Deklahn, when they came sniffing around like a pack of bloodhounds. But in all these things, his weapon was words. It was knowledge and charm and eloquence. In no manner did he actually know how to fight a war. And if Mia were dead, he would have to.

No one seemed to recognize him as he trundled his way through the streets of Oxford. Everyone knew that Edward had been captured, and more, everyone knew he was something of a dandy. Always perfectly coiffed and dressed, nails clean and polished, smile bright white. This dirty, tattered man could no more be their King than the King could be a beggar.

Everything in Oxford was chaos, except for the Omega camp he’d almost run into in his panic to get to the remains of the school. Beyond their electronic watchdogs, temporary barracks stood in organized rows, not a speck of dirt or human filth anywhere. Well, that might be because most Omega agents weren’t human. Not really. Descended of the first humans who’d long ago branched out from Earth to conquer their own solar system, yes, but humans no longer. So perhaps human filth was not to be expected.

Nonetheless, it was strangely ordered, reminiscent of old Roman camps from all those millennia ago, and cut an impressive swathe through the rubble and smoke surrounding it.

Edward did not approve of Omega or Deklahn. Of course he didn’t. How could he? But he did not particularly approve of Oxford and their war, either. And he was especially unhappy with his Mother, who’d decided to allow Mia to attend that blasted program after all his sister’s years of whining. And yet the thought of being angry with his Mother seemed somehow blasphemous, considering that she was now dead.

War was never the solution for anything. It was messy, it was chaotic, and one could never be assured of anything but death. Regardless of who won, people would die, cities and towns and schools would be destroyed, and irreparable damage dealt to the entire planet. As King, it was Edward’s job to protect his people. How could he be protecting his people if he was killing them for some ‘glorious’ cause?

Worse, his sister had elected to become part of it. She was learning to fight, to be part of an elite group of soldiers for whom their body was a weapon. Last he’d heard from Mother—for Mia never deigned to write letters like a proper sister—she was studying poisons and other such ignoble means of death dealing. A Princess of England, learning to become a veritable assassin. Edward didn’t know what to do about that.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want his sister to be happy. He wanted her happy more than anything in the universe—except safe. If she could not be safe and happy, Edward would much rather have her safe. She was a Princess of England, not some street harpy with nothing to prove and no duty to fall back on. Mia should be safe, and she should be with him, helping him rule their nation and steering it toward peace.

For, more than anything, King Edward of England wanted peace, even if it meant living under Deklahnian rule. He just wanted a touch more freedom for his people, a few more liberties and a few less indignities.

He knew Mia despised him a little, for that stance. Oh, she still loved him, for Mia was a person far more vastly capable of love than anyone he’d ever met, but there was a part of her that could never forgive that he would sacrifice complete freedom for peace. That he would accept a foreign power looming over them forever, simply because it maintained the status quo. It was the one thing they never spoke of, because Mia would quite probably break a few of his bones before the conversation was over.

Edward stopped running the second he came within site of the school. It wasn’t a small place, encompassing a fair few buildings and streets, but it had been completely demolished, from the glories of the medieval buttresses all the way to the faux-ancient facades of the past few decades. Not a single beam remained standing; they’d all collapsed into the tunnels below, likely crushing anyone beneath.

He wondered how many had survived. Likely a few: the smartest, fastest, and most prepared. The ones who knew how to react in a chaotic situation, or who at least knew to plan for such a contingency. Edward was not ashamed to admit that Mia was one such. Perhaps not a planner—no, she always went on instinct and had the forethought of a gnat—but definitely one who reacted well in situations of panic. If there was a way for her to escape, Edward believed she would have found it, and used it.

If there was a way to escape. Or, rather, that she had access to it. It was, after all, a very large school.

Sighing and leaning against a building, hiding in an alleyway so people wouldn’t see him so readily, Edward stared at the rubble and tried to plan what to do next. It was doubtful that he’d be allowed to comb the place for his sister. Omega would take care of the clean-up, gathering as much information as they could from the rubble, and the people of Oxford would be left wondering just who’d survived what.

It was truly war, and no one benefited from it.

There was a slight scuff on the cobbles behind him, and Edward made to turn, to see what had caused it, but was stopped by a sharp blow to the head. And everything went dark.
*****


Erik Mitchell was tired of darkness. He was tired of darkness and unwashed human smell and dirt and fright. He was tired of running hunched over, the press of human bodies keeping him from slowing or flagging in his run. And he was damned tired of not knowing where the hell they were going.

There was no way to tell how long it had been since he’d escaped into the secret tunnel beneath Oxford; Charon’s plan, no doubt. With Phelps, who’d been wheeled in first and was probably a mile ahead of him at least, a team of nurses checking again and again that he was still breathing, that his condition had not worsened in the dank tunnel. There were no lights—apparently the number of refractors they’d need to light the thing would have proved too great a burden on Oxford’s supplies—but the tunnel only led in one direction. And the river of bodies flowed inexorably onward, toward whatever escape Charon had planned for them.

Come to think of it, that damned Russian was probably behind this tunnel, too. It would be like Professor Nikolao to make it as uncomfortable as possible for everyone. Erik wondered if he’d gotten out, if Mia had managed to escape with him. Their salle was on the other side of the school, almost as far from the medical wing as could be imagined. They hadn’t wanted any of Laras’ ‘accidents’ to impede the infirmary in any way.

But it meant that the run from salle to tunnel was at least fifteen minutes, and they’d only had ten. Erik wondered if they were alive. He wondered if anyone he’d known was alive.

Mostly, he wondered if Mia were alive. The Princess would be a great loss, and not just because she could fight. Erik was no tactician, but a person had to be damned well blind not to recognize the strategic importance of someone like Mia Godwin. A lodestone, a symbol around which everyone could gather. A rallying point for Oxford’s survivors, who’d be scattered and devastated after the loss of their school and many of their friends.

The loss of their home, and before now, the symbol of their entire movement; the rebellion, freedom, escape from Deklahn. A chance to rise up and return Earth to its former glory. A symbol like that needed to be replaced in some way. And Mia was the perfect person to become that symbol.

If she’d survived. And if the Rebellion decided it needed one. Which it might very well not.

A low susurrus of whispers reached him, then, rolling back from the front of the group. Light! The end of the damn tunnel—literally—was even now being breached by the first of their entourage. Erik grinned and let out a sigh of relief. It had felt like days to him, and he was a pretty good judge of time after years inside a lab. He wondered where they’d gone. Where Charon had decided was safe enough for a huge group of escaped Oxford students to surface.

It was always good to get a clue into the mind that was Charon Trusko. Erik had been at school for three years and he had no more clue now than he ever did. A paradox wrapped in an enigma, as someone had long ago said. That was Professor Trusko. An unsolvable riddle.

Probably another hour went past by the time Erik caught sight of the light. After that, things went quickly, as the tunnel opened up and everyone surged forward, the thought of escape and rest giving their limbs new strength. Within twenty minutes, he’d run the last three miles—at least as far as he could judge—to the mouth, and burst forth into a room, the sunlight streaming in through massive holes in the wall.

There were ruins everywhere. In fact, they’d all poured out into one of the only fully standing structures as far as the eye could see. Ancient stones had tumbled and had not moved for hundreds of years, lichen and moss-covered now, home to insects and worms. A perfect place to hide, as no one had been there in years.

“Cambridge,” Erik whispered to himself. “Bastard took us to Cambridge.”

A soft chuckle with only the barest of hysteria rumbled beside him. “And why not? A school for a school.” Erik turned and saw Professor Trusko leaning against one of the giant pillars. “It reverted to the throne of England some years ago, after Deklahn decided they no longer wanted it, and King Harald was kind enough to give it to Oxford. He didn’t see much use for a crumbling ruin, either. Thought it might serve as some sort of outpost for us.”

Erik raised an eyebrow. “You’re looking remarkably clean for a man who’s just run eighty some miles in two days.”

“Such an American,” Charon replied. “Still haven’t adopted the metric system after all these years. What are you, one of three countries?”

Erik shrugged. “Ten at least, since Deklahn. They favor the old way, and several nations have given up the metric system in favor of ounces and miles. I am well aware of the metric measurement; I just naturally use the Americanism. You didn’t go through the tunnels, did you?”

Charon shook his head. “No. I drove. But I wanted to make sure everyone got here all right before we go our separate ways. Have you seen any of the Professors? Ortrun? LeGuerre? Nikolao?" And then almost as an afterthought. "The Princess?”

“No. Well, I’ve seen several of the Professors, but of the Russian and his Princess, no. I have a feeling they were too far to make it to the tunnel…” Erik looked down at the ground, a surprising tightness overwhelming his chest. They last time they’d spent any time together, he’d nearly killed Mia. She’d broken his face for the trouble, but it had undoubtedly put a damper on any friendship that might have developed between them. And then the rumors about she and Laras started going around, and he knew she’d never be a friend to him.

Laras had never been particularly fond of Erik, especially since Erik had decided to go into science instead of martial combat. The Russian never liked anyone who couldn’t ‘cut it’ in his class. Hell, he never liked anyone—except maybe Phelps—at all. Until the rumors had started circulating about he and Mia, Erik hadn't been sure he was even capable of human emotion.

Charon’s face quirked just slightly before he gained control over himself and sighed. “I am quite certain Laras had a back-up plan. He always does. We’ll have to meet up at the rendezvous point.”

“Where’s that?”

Charon shook his head. “Not you. Apologies, Erik. But the fewer people who know, the better. We’re at war now, and any one of us can be broken.”

The Professor’s words hit Erik like a baseball bat to the stomach. “War,” he breathed out. “Oh God.”

“Let’s just hope he’s with us, shall we? Now,” Charon straightened and tugged at his coat to straighten the lines. “I’ve got an announcement to make to everyone, and we have to deal with the logistics of everything. Don’t think we didn’t plan for this day, Mr. Mitchell. We planned for just about everything. Including this.”

Charon walked off, toward a place where the rocks fell to form a sort of dais on which the Professor could stand and speak. A sharp tap to his throat—the Professor attaching a sound amplifier, no doubt, so everyone could hear him—and Charon coughed. The sound reverberated throughout the entire hall so that everyone, even those wandering about in the fields, could hear. “Everyone, please gather ‘round.”

The space had not been build to hold the hundreds, if not thousands, of people that now attempted to squeeze in together for Charon’s message. Erik could barely move, pushed in on all sides by his fellows, but he tried not to think about it. Charon had something important to say; something that would determine their future as a rebellion. And war was on.

“Ladies and gentlemen of Oxford,” Charon began, his voice mellifluous, barely a tremble to reveal his obvious distraught state. “Our school is gone, and war has begun.” He held up a hand now, forestalling anyone from speaking. “I know, this is horrible news. This is the culmination of all of our worst fears and our darkest desires. We could not have wished for a worse start to our war of independence, but it is the hand we have been dealt and which we will now play.”

Charon paused for a moment and cleared his throat again. “Upon entering Oxford, each of you were given a number and told to memorize it. Some of your numbers began with a zero and a dash, others began simply with a number. Aside from the zero and the dash, each of these numbers is comprised of six digits. Erik Mitchell, what is your number?”

“323-647,” Erik replied. A gasp from a young woman near him. “Me, too!” she cried out.

“You are to get to Bermuda. Our scientific research facility is located there.”

A murmur ran through the crowd and Erik’s eyes widened. “Coordinates,” he called out. “Our student numbers are coordinates?”

Charon nodded. “Indeed. These are the locations of our various enclaves. Should Oxford ever be compromised, these numbers would provide you with your new assignment. You were told from day one that your student numbers were important and that they would identify you to your new location. Surely someone thought to figure that out?”

Thousands of heads shook in the negative. Charon frowned. “That kind of complacency will get you killed. You are now combatants in a war of rebellion! People will be attempting to find you and kill you, and to destroy every remnant of insurgence fomenting on this planet. From now on, each and every one of you is a traitor to Deklahn. You cannot afford to be so accepting. You must always feed your curiosity, challenge yourself and your fellows to do whatever you can to win this war. Because if we don’t, we die. And not only do we die, our planet dies with us.”

“Where are you going, Professor?” A voice called out.

“As I said to the last person who asked,” Charon replied, finding and eying Erik in the crowd. “For the safety of this position, the fewer who know the better. Anyone can be compromised. Remember that, too, when you share what you know. Anyone can be compromised. And where I’m going should be the last place on the planet Deklahn can get to.”
*****


“You think they’re reforming at Blarney Castle?!” Edward held a compress to his head with one hand and sipped at some tea with the other. It was awful stuff, but a good cuppa was what he needed right then, even if it was absolute drek. “Ireland, of all places?”

The man across from him shrugged, brown hair brushing over his shoulder and down his back. “That’s just what I managed to figure out for myself. I figured there must be a back-up command center of sorts—Charon and Phelps are too careful to have everything centered at Oxford—but no one ever mentioned it. No one ever talked about Ireland, but then we started getting communiqués from there a few months ago. I wasn’t supposed to know about them, of course, but nothing can stand in my way if I decide that I want to get something done. So I went searching, and I found that said communiqués actually went back several years. And not a single damn person ever saw those things except Charon and Phelps.”

Edward frowned. “So you figured that Blarney Castle must be the secret back-up location for the rebellion?”

“Well, yes,” the man replied. His name was Jeffrey and he’d apparently been living here for some time. Oxford town housed more than just the school, apparently. Something that even Edward and his family hadn’t known. Several safe houses were stationed about the town, meant for agents and spymasters to hunker down if they ever needed to come to the school for some reason. Jeffrey was a student, but he knew where all of them were. It didn't inspire much confidence. “It makes sense. It was a secret that Charon and Phelps kept, sharing only with Laras after he proved himself worthy. They even kept it from Stephens, which proved something of a blessing, from what I’ve heard.”

Edward raised an eyebrow. “How have you managed to garner this information? Are Oxford’s security protocols so weak that a student can so easily bypass them? I thought the school was supposed to be damn near impregnable.”

Jeffrey’s brown eyes sparkled with amusement, as if he knew a secret that he wasn't telling. Knowing Oxford, he probably did. “Well, nothing’s perfect. Stephens apparently turned coat some years ago and managed to keep it a secret. And I imagine Phelps gave away a bunch when he was captured. That’s pretty wide knowledge, actually. Everyone knows Phelps was taken and brought back. That’s the reason Omega blew us up and took you guys prisoner. Your sister got caught on some sort of hidden camera. Killed everyone she met, but couldn’t kill the stream.”

“You’re saying my sister…was a part of this operation?” Edward pulled the compress from his head and sighed. It had been Jeffrey who’d bonked him on the head, dragging him to a safe house while he was unconscious. When Edward wished to leave, he would be rendered unconscious again—preferably by less painful measures—and escorted from the town. These rebels were certainly careful. Apparently even the most careful of peoples made mistakes, however, or else Oxford would not be a steaming rubble and his sister would not have gotten caught.

“’Course. It was her idea, wasn’t it? Convinced everyone to go and get him back after the first infiltration got him taken in the first place.” Jeffrey sighed. “Listen, your Kingliness, there’s a lot you don’t know about your sister. Girl cursed me like a common doxy the night she got here, ‘cause I tried to break into her room. Knew it was hers, but they brought her in earlier than anything in the information said. Phelps didn't tell anyone. But she’s a right powerful personality, and she belongs with us. I don’t know what you’ve got planned, but I wouldn’t be trying to stop her or nothing.”

“It is none of your business what I plan for my sister,” Edward snapped. “But if you think she would have headed to Ireland, then I will go to Ireland.”

Jeffrey nodded and grinned for just a moment. “Good place for it, though. County Cork. Bunch of rebels from time out of memory. And hardly anyone knows about it. I just know it’s there and I can guarantee that no one else does." Now he grew serious, fiddling with his mug and staring out the window. "My job was to make sure that didn’t happen. I was part of a team that intercepted all incoming messages and security feeds and encrypted them before destroying the original. And I am the only person left of that very particular team left uncompromised. The rest of them are dead, and all of their information has been destroyed. All that’s left is encrypted out the ass, and I have forwarded it to Ireland. You want to know how I’m sure it’s Ireland? Because it’s my job to be sure.”

“You’re a Crypt Keeper?” Edward dropped his teacup onto the table and winced as it shattered. “Mother told me about you guys. Aren’t you the world’s biggest security breach?”

The man’s face fell and he looked down at the table, staring at the broken glass. “I am. That’s why, should I be captured, I am to kill myself rather than let them question me. My life depends on staying free. For that reason, I won’t be staying here anymore after you leave. For the rest of my life—or until this blasted war is over—I’ll be jumping from place to place. My entire life is in a backpack. Just a student, and I have the lives of thousands of people on my shoulders. Hell, an entire war's worth of intelligence floating around in my head.”

“Why do it, then? Why spend your life in such a manner? Is this war worth it?” Edward leaned back. His head was beginning to feel light, his eyelids heavy. Apparently, Jeffrey had put something in the tea.

The man nodded. “It is completely worth it. If my life can buy freedom for this planet, I will gladly lay it down again and again. Now, I will get you out of Oxford. You’ll have to get to Ireland by your own means, though I do recommend getting to Bristol and taking a boat of some sort. Sleep tight, your Majesty. I'll take care of everything.”
*****


The world came back to her in gradual degrees, darkness of mind coming to be replaced by an outward lack of light. Everything hurt—that hit her immediately—but she seemed able to breathe all right. Definitely had a broken nose, but she knew that already, and she seemed to have added a broken arm to the mix and quite probably a concussion. It was good she had managed to wake up at all.

Everything came back to her in a rush, then. The explosion that had rocked their salle. Laras pushing her out of the way, sacrificing himself to save her, a damaged lung for the trouble. Then another quaking blast that had caused the walls and ceiling to come down around them.

Laras had tried to demure, to stay behind, convinced that he would die. But Mia wouldn’t let him. She couldn’t let him. Laras could no more die than the sky could fall. A world without him in it, a war without him by her side, without his solid presence guiding and mirroring her own…it just wasn’t possible.

She wasn’t about to lose him. Because there was no point in winning the war if she couldn’t do it at his side.

There’d been a tunnel. Laras had had it built just in case they were cut off from the rest of the school, trapped in the salle. They’d been about to climb into it, frantically trying to get out of the room before it collapsed around them, when the ground had given way and she’d tumbled into the darkness. A brief flash of light behind her eyes, the crack of her skull against the rock below, and everything had faded to nothing.

Scrambling to her knees, wincing at the pounding of her head, Mia began to clamor in the dark, searching for something to light up. Laras would not have installed any sort of lighting in the tunnel—far too likely that someone could trace the power source and find them—but she had to be able to see. And she couldn’t hear Laras, not even his breathing, in the darkness.

He wasn’t allowed to die. But he’d already done damage to his lungs, and then he’d had to leap down here on damaged legs. He had to be all right, though. Laras Nikolao couldn’t die just when the war was beginning, just when everything he’d planned for was coming to fruition. He’d always wanted to leave Oxford; he couldn’t die when that was finally happening.

Mia forced herself not to cry. He wouldn’t want that. And she was done with tears, anyway. Her family was dead, many of her friends were also probably dead, and now Laras…it was just too much. No tears would come even if she’d let them. All was dead, all was numb within her, but for the butterflies of panic flitting in her stomach, wondering if Laras had actually left her. Wondering if she could do anything to bring him back.

Her hand alighted on her com device and Mia grinned, sliding it open and allowing the soft light to glow throughout the tunnel. It was finished, at least, and not merely packed dirt reinforced with steel rings, but it had nothing to Tada’s sophisticated tunnel leading them into Omega North. It would work, though, wherever it led. Hopefully close to this ‘friend’ Laras spoke of. She didn’t know how far she could carry him, and there was no way she’d leave him behind. Dead or alive, he was coming with her.

She knew he would mock her for her softness. He’d tell her that it was a waste of time to bother with him; he’d only slow her down, compromise her ability to take care of herself, be a distraction to what she had to do. But Mia didn’t listen to Laras at the best of times; why should she listen now, when he wasn’t even there to gainsay her?

Laras was lying about a foot away. Mia could see that his chest was rising and falling, but barely. With a sharp cry, she launched herself at him, ignoring the pain radiating through every last inch of her body. “Please don’t be dead, please don’t be dead,” she whispered, pressing her head to his chest and listening to a heartbeat. Nothing. She pressed her fingers to his wrist and let out a great sobbing cry of relief when she felt two solid, if slow, heartbeats.

“You damnable bastard. Do not die on me. You are not allowed to die on me.” Binding her hands together, she pressed at his chest in a solid rhythm, stopping only to breathe into his mouth. She knew it was useless to perform CPR on a man who had a heartbeat, but if she could kick start it just a little bit more, maybe she could get him out of here.

The only question was, how badly had he damaged his lungs and was she making it worse in attempting to breathe for him?

She had to get him out of there. She had to get him to the friend he’d mentioned. Where…where was it he’d said they lived? Greve House? Gleve? Glebe! Glebe House! The tunnel went in one direction, toward Marley Wood. Knowing Laras, it had only the one entrance. Probably came out of a tree, or something. “Oh well, nothing for it. I’ll have to carry you. It’s not that far.”

Laras was not a light man, and Mia was very injured, but her legs and back were fine, and the break in her arm was at the wrist, so she would just have to deal with it. It was a little pain against the life of her beloved Professor. Well, she guessed it was probably partner now that he had no one and nowhere to teach. Her lover, if not quite her friend. There was no way she was leaving him to die.

Carefully, wincing at the pain and trying not to do any more damage than had already been done, Mia gathered Laras into her arms and slung him across her back, bending at the waist. Laras had taught her that a woman’s strength lay in her core, in the power of her hips and legs, the abdominal muscles and the birthing cortex. If she wanted to bear the some sixteen odd stone bulk of her bloody Russian, she’d have to do it using that strength.

Slowly, stopping often to breathe and to calm the pounding in her head, Mia made her way down the tunnel, carrying Laras with her.

It was an inglorious start to the war.
*****


Glebe House was surrounded by trees and mostly hidden from the world around it, only a trail to indicate the approach. The park was huge, and Mia was exhausted, every muscle twitching and near to giving out, only sheer will keeping Laras on her back and one foot in front of the other. She supposed it was good that hardly anyone could find it, or else she might have been found.

The tunnel had only been a couple miles long, all things considered, but it had seemed a hundred to Mia’s pained limbs. It had not ended in a tree, however, much to her disappointment. Rather, it opened beneath one, the roots used to disguise the entrance. So, Mia supposed, she could at least take comfort in the Alice reference. And in the cover of the trees.

Breathless and beyond exhaustion, shaking and bleeding anew from her wounds, Mia forced herself to stop for just an instant as she came out of the tunnel. No one would look for them here. It was private property and the man who owned it was no fan of Oxford, nor of the rebellion. A transplant from Deklahn, he’d been an official of the Republic for a number of years before retiring at taking the property for himself. To build a tunnel beneath it had been daring, and so like her Laras that her breath caught for an instant in her throat at the thought he might die. Setting her jaw against such worried, Mia carefully pulled him into her arms once more, and pushed further into the woods, determined to see him safe.

Mia was not precisely used to sneaking, but a forest was no difficult thing in which to hide. The sun barely made it through the canopy, so a search from above would be difficult, and a search team on foot was unlikely. At least not for several hours, when the first Omega agent would decide that a few desperate souls might seek succor in the forbidden wood. And by then, they would be out.

Eventually, she found the house, an unassuming stone cottage of two stories and peaked roof. A carriage house stood on the left, a kitchen on the right. Mia wondered how to approach it; Laras had never explained to her (admittedly, she hadn’t let him), and he was now too unconscious to be of any help. It was a friendly place, but that didn’t mean she could just walk to the front door.

A sharp pain in her foot caused Mia to jump and she almost lost her grip on Laras. Where her foot had been a spike now stuck out of the earth, sharp enough to pierce her shoe and draw blood. Within moments, a wave of electric tingling washed over her, leaving every hair standing on end. She sighed. “I can assure you, I am who I look like, and he is exactly who he looks like. He said you were a friend and could help us.”

A light came on in the carriage house and the door opened a few inches. That was the only sign of welcome. Limping on her punctured foot, Mia forced herself to drag Laras the last few hundred years and through the door; it promptly shut behind her.

“The House of the Lord is always open to settlers,” came a voice from the darkness. Mia smiled despite herself. It was a code phrase, and one of the few she’d managed to remember over her year of training.

“The Blood of the Lamb is always comforting, but Freedom tastes sweetest,” she replied, drawing herself as straight as she could with Laras on her back, unwilling to let him go until she could be assured of his safety. “Please, he is dying and I can’t do anything about it.”

A man came out of the shadows, his face sandy and unassuming. “I am Joshua. Please, let me take your burden and give him what care I can. You cannot remain here for long; not if you wish to escape the tightening noose and make your way to the war.”

Mia sighed in relief as Joshua took Laras from her back. “My poor friend,” he whispered. “It is not time yet for you to die. You have too much yet to do, and the darkness is just beginning. And you, your Royal Highness, you do not appear to be well. It is a brave thing you have done, refusing to abandon him.”

“I couldn’t,” Mia choked out, blue-green eyes coming to rest on the face of her beloved. “He would have wanted me to, but I couldn’t.”

Joshua smiled. “Come with me. I will fix you two up, and then send you on to wherever you need to go. I imagine Laras knows well enough where he’s supposed to head when this is over, but I have no idea. All I can do is get you healthy and well fed, and outfit you for the journey. You will have to wait until he wakes up.”

Mia nodded. “It won’t take long. He’s a stubborn bastard and there’s a war afoot. As long as he lives, he’ll wake up just so he doesn’t miss the fun. Just make sure he lives.” Then her legs gave out on her, and Mia fell to the ground, unable to get herself up again.

Wonderful start to the war, indeed. She wondered, as Joshua called for help from one of the servants, if anyone else had survived and whether or not they were in better shape than she. Knowing them, she imagined not. This was not the war they’d wanted, and they were probably doing just as badly as she, all things considered.

The thought comforted her, and she allowed herself to drift off to sleep, safe in the knowledge that she was with friends and that Laras would be all right.
Burrowing temple pounding sharpness blinded his already closed eyes. Instinctively his hand rose to shield his face from the light. His brow furrowed tightening between his eyelids, but he couldn't bring himself to open yet.

A voice.

"If the brightest light is the one that shines in the deepest darkness, should not the blackest shadow be found from the glow of the most luminous shine?"

Tada's eyes flew open peering blindly into the shining light. It send rivets of pain through the backs of his eyes, but now he couldn't close them. That voice...

"Good. It's functional. Seven-three-eight is active." said the voice again. It was monotone if one could still call it that with its small ting of delight. There was a sharp click the light went out leaving large green and red spots in Tada's vision. Something in his throat caught. He had questions but he didn't dare speak. A tightening fear had taken hold of him. A fear that was somehow...nostalgic. Suddenly a sharp pain pulsed through his head. He shook it hard and brief from side to side in a sudden jerk. It was then he realized it was the only thing he could move. As he settled again and took in a slow ragged breath his vision began to settle and his brain took over.

White room. Impeccably clean, immaculate. Soft lights, direct, four overhead on in each corner of the room. His gaze rested on the aspect of horror in front of him. It wore a face mask not unlike a surgeon and it's eyes were large and dark having almost no color other than black. Still, it was mostly human looking and the expression of intrigue and some level of happiness could be seen in it's eyes. They had small wrinkles on the corners of them and short lashes looking very much human but altogether different in the same sense. Tada stared into it's eyes unwillingly. A hard swallow passed his throat and finally he managed to find speech. The combed back black hair had small streaks of gray in it that he didn't remember, but how did he remember this man at all?

"Where am I?" he asked in a dry voice. He had a good guess already given that this man was clearly Deklahnian and either a Doctor or Surgeon. Words washed ashore his murky mind.

"I believe I may have come to conclusion based on our notes on Deklahnian technology. I believe you may be something of a sleeper cell, Tada."

Ortrun! Suddenly it came back to him, all the things he didn't even realize he'd forgotten. The blackouts he'd been having the past few days had to do with what's she'd told him. His old professor. Sofia Ortrun had taught him everything she knew. He'd been close to her, he'd thought of her as more than just a mentor and then...

Unpleasant memories surfaced. He'd blacked out again shortly after she'd said those words. He came to in the process of having sex with her, and when he next came too he soon discovered that he had also become her murderer.

Infidelity? Deciet? Murder?

Then he remembered Paige. A stone dropped into his chest weighing on his heart. Paige, what had become of her? There had been an explosion he thought he remembered. Hazily, through a thick fog, but he felt the memory there. Had she made it out? Had Paige been...

"Seven Three Eight." called the man still staring down at Tada. He returned the gaze. "You are safe for the time being, but you will be commissioned again quite soon. The brunt of your task awaits."

"My task?" Tada asked pretending to know nothing. The Doctor smiled behind his mask.

"Don't worry, we'll be certain you know." Tada heard something to his left but didn't look. It sounded like the tapping of keys on a keyboard. The soft hum of electronics grew a little more audible and the typing sped a bit briefly. The Doctor glanced over and then looked back at Tada. "We've just brought you in for a bit of a check up and a little reprogramming." A dryness parched Tada's throat as he listened and shook his head slightly in more feigned ignorance. He gave nothing away to his knowledge but this man was hard to read.

"I don't understand. Please, I don't know what's going on. What happened?" he asked voice shaking with a steady tremble.

"Trust me Seven Three Eight, you do understand. Or, you will next you wake." said the Doctor.

Reprogramming? Tada thought. Then he really was a sleeper cell. An insurgent. What had been his trigger? He couldn't help but wonder now. Not to mention reprogramming meant he was programmed in the first place. It was doubtful that many if any of his memories from long ago were accurate. Maybe he was never at that orphanage. Maybe he'd been in a lab somewhere being 'programmed' while that happened. Hell, maybe they were wondering if he knew anything and had just told him that to throw him off? Still, the blackouts...

"I'm seeing some unusual readings here. Looks like he's been going offline at odd intervals for a several days now." came a voice from the side where the computer was. It sounded female, younger than the aged Doctor in front of him, but cold almost metallic.

"Blackouts hmm?" the Doctor said furrowing his brow and stroking his chin. He reached to Tada's right and picked up a scalpel twirling it in fingers briefly. Tada held his breath watching the blade. "Well have to fix that. We need to be certain he's functioning properly. Can you still attain full access to his memories?"

"Yessir."

"Good. Delete this event thus far."

"Absolutely s-"

He caught himself mid stumble almost falling to the ground. Dirt. He blinked and staggered forward more wavering heavy on his feet. Something was...

"Agh..." he groaned clenching his teeth tight. A brimming anguish was building in his head near the top of his spine. The back of his skull was pounding, throbbing, beating against the bone as if something was trying to force its way out. "F-fuck..." he groaned again dropping to his knees hard as he gave up trying to maintain his balance. He tried to reach up and touch his head and that's when pain exploded in his left arm. His eyes shot open wide and the throbbing in his cranium paled as Tada saw his arm. The damn thing was bending the wrong way. It took him a moment to realize what he was seeing was real, and how big a problem it was. His shirt was torn viciously with sheets of blood reamed from lacerations up the broken. His ribs pulsed with pain as well. Vivid, red pain. Two broken, all bruised. He clamped his eyes shut tightly and clamped his teeth together so hard that he felt one of his molars crack and bleed. There had already been blood in his mouth with his right cheek feeling a particular soreness as if his teeth clamped together suddenly on it. Tada took in a few steady breaths and then as big of one as he could with his injured ribs before taking hold of his mangled arm and giving it a harsh jerk. There was a loud sickening crack as it tore and popped back into place. Tada's forehead slammed to the wet dirt beneath him as he kept his teeth together with reddened saliva dripping from his lips. The pain radiating through is body was crippling. What the hell had happened to him?

"Do well G73-8. Ambulabo umbra Dei."

Where had he heard that? Tada's body shook with agony as he slowly grew accustomed to the pain that was tearing through him. Slowly he let out his breath letting thick salivated blood drip again. Slowly he brought his left arm gingerly up to his chest and reached with his right into his pocket pulling out a large piece of thin cloth. It was dirty like the rest of Tada, but he had no idea where he'd gotten it. Still, it'd have to do. He used it to make a sling to support the left arm and tenderly got to his feet wobbling a bit. His balance was off. There was a ringing in his left ear that he was sure was affected his equilibrium. There was no other sound coming to it after all. He felt his head roll on its pivot a little. He had to be more than a little shaken up not even counting the broken body. His chest hurt, and his legs were killing him. He must have been walking for hours. That's when he realized where he was.

"Oxford..." came a whisper from his lips. He was approaching from the northern section of what used to be the grounds, now laid to waste. Nothing but rubble. His heart raced and pounded against the walls of his heaving chest. Before he even realized he was running on his tired aching legs toward the destroyed school. His home. His sanctuary. It was all gone. Tada could see clear across the grounds now. On the other side was what appeared to be another Omega camp. A lump rose in his throat as the memories began to sharpen from their blurred and out of focus images.

"Let's make it believable shall we?" the Doctor asked. Grabbing a small mallet from the table to Tada's right. It had a curved head instead of a flat one that made Tada think of the Native American war clubs he'd seen in history books. His eyes widened as he felt his left arm stretched out unable to pull away with anything but his eyes. His gut wretched away, teeth set on edge. The hammer rose...

Tada shuddered continuing forward as his eyes scanned the grounds hoping to see and yet not hoping to see. Had anyone survived? How many had...

Tunnel

How many had made it to that tunnel? He clearly hadn't, but how'd he survive? Did they come right in and grab him? No, that would have blown whatever cover he had. Cover for what?

"It's obvious..." he told himself aloud. Everything was obvious. Even in his daze spotted with amnesia it was clear to him. He had never gone to Alpine whatever orphanage. He'd ever burned it down, he'd never lived on his own. He'd never grown up on the streets, or met Paige by chance.

"Paige..."

He had no history of his own. He was made, molded and formed into the perfect insurgent. Crafted. Tada continued toward the camp. He knew at some point he'd do what they wanted him to do. The only question was what did they want him to do? Did they want coordinates now that war was official? Did they want him to blow the place up? No, it had to be more than that. There had to be more than one place to fall back to. No way the rebellion was so short sighted that they'd only have one retreat point. It lead him to wonder how they organized the retreat though. It also told him he'd need to somehow make it into that tunnel or he'd have no way of knowing what was going on and no safe point at which to try and find where he needed to go.

Tada took a breath and let it out slowly trying to clear his head. Trying desperately not to think of Paige. Slowly he opened them and took in the sights of the area.

Rubble product of several explosions. Infantry had stormed the area shortly after the initial bombing. The camp must have been set up very quickly afterwards. The sun was nearly going down, he'd lost several hours. He had no real way to tell how long he was with the Doctor given there was no way to tell time there.

He needed to think of what he would do now. Thinking objectively was the best option and Tada knew it. The mission. The cause. He needed to think of what he could do to bring something of value back when he showed up, and he needed to figure out how to get into that tunnel. He needed to regroup. Eyes flashing back up at the camp more memories surfaced.

"Once you have found out the locations of all the fallback points you will forward them to..."

"...derstood."

"Good. Dr. Nival please forward G73-8's files to the beachhead."


"Files..." he whispered blinking once. That camp had to have some sort of important information about their plans and maybe placed they suspected of rebel movement. Not to mention they may have more information on Tada. Of course if he did get ahold of those files he would keep them to himself. Given that he'd made it out (and Tada couldn't imagine him not) Laras would probably not hesitate to kill the strategist if he became not just a liability but a risk. Tada couldn't count the Russian's protégé out either, friend or not.

Pushing the thoughts of his friends' fates from his mind he gripped tightly to his resolve and headed toward the Omega camp. If he was lucky this would go well. If not then...well it wouldn't matter how he made away from the explosion. The biggest problem would be when they extracted what he already knew from his brain as he knew they could do. Like they'd done to Phelps. Perhaps that was the fate they had in mind for him anyway once he had what they wanted.

The last few weeks of his life had been a wreck, but he was to blame. He'd fallen apart with it, now he would take control. There was no other choice.

"Paige, I will smile for you again like I promised." he said convincing himself that she was alive to give himself just that brief glimmer of hope before walking forward further and dropping the emotion from his face.

When he finally drew close the sentries stopped him with weapons pointed. He stopped but didn't look to them. One guard closed in slowly and looked him up and down slowly. Tada blinked and gradually met the man's eyes. The guard's face was hidden behind the tinted visor of a helmet. A slightly augmented voice spoke from inside the helmet.

"Identify yourself."

Blank.

Knocking on the door was a phenomenal feat; or at least it was when it came to this door. This door, a non-descript, grey-painted door, chipped and complete with curls of varnish, was a terrifying door. The heavy black knocker hung midway up the formidable thing, a dark grin slashed against grey, daring any man to lift it and knock. In the street, the door was almost forgotten. It was not a spiteful house, nor was the door. It was not a sad house, so nor was the door. It was not even a very big house and equally the door was proportioned to the size of its walls. It was simply dark, full of a gloominess that most people let their eyes travel over as if nothing there existed. It was the sort of house with the sort of door that recalls monsters under the bed – the way an adult treats it, as if by ignoring the dark, gloomy space the evil inside can’t snatch a body away.

This door was not impotent though, and as Andrei Tsontov approached its cold, grim threshold, the chill that ran down his spine made his whole body shudder. Insipid dawnlight crept along the cobblestones as he raised his hand once, twice, three times but still could not touch the black handled knocker. A line from a French book resounded in his head: quatre chocs violents a la porte de malheur. Steeling himself, focusing mismatched eyes on that snarling hammer, he reached out, touched the freezing metal, slid fingers around it without allowing the wince of horror tweak his features, lifted the handle, dropped it. Once. Twice.

BANG. BANG. BANG. BANG.

The barest chuckle caught in the air by his ear. Whirling round with a quickly caught yelp, Andrei raised a fist but found it blocked by an arm swathed in thick, dark wool. Hooded, enshadowed stranger, those weren’t word he liked in the same description. Not when he was backed into the doorframe, there was nowhere he could go and he hadn’t the room to fight back if this was –

“Пожалуйста, успокойтесь. You attract unnecessary attention.”

Andrei stuttered, words not forming even as that black clad arm pushed past him, unlocked the door and scooped him into the oppressive dark beyond.

“You bring me news that is most welcome.”

He was beginning to register the deep timbre of the stranger’s voice, the reverberations of rich baritone words echoing between what must be empty, stone walls. Footsteps too, sure and swift, walking away from him. This stranger wasn’t worried about him then – that made him even more nervous.

“You know what news I bring?”

“Of the war. It has begun.”

Andrei’s jaw twitched as if threatening to drop, “Yessir – but more sir.”

“More? What more can you possibly tell me. The only thing that matters is that it has begun. We will soon be making our move.” Sudden light, a rectangle of white opening ahead, the stranger’s silhouette passing through and disappearing: slowly, he followed.

“It has begun.” The rich voice was speaking, gleeful intonations clear as Andrei sidled through the door.

Inside gave reason to fear the door. Computer screen after screen, metal walls, maps, 3-D digital plans, more technology than Andrei remembered seeing this side of Europe.

“This place...”

“Yes.” A new voice, old and crackling with mirth sounded from a chair beyond which the strange, cloaked figure stood, “You must have done something to have been messenger to me.”

“To you?” Andrei’s eyes flickered between the chair and the stranger. Could they know of his most terrible mistake – his foolishness when the first signs of international unrest showed? Could they know... what he did, all those months ago? He thought no one knew.

“To me. You have likely heard of me.”

“No sir. I am just here to tell you about Oxford.” The fear in his voice made him angry – why should he be afraid of men that refused to show their faces?

“Oxford?” Perhaps the slight change in the old voice meant something though, “Deliver your message.”

“Oxford is gone. Bombed. No one is known to have survived yet.”

“None?” Old-voice asked.

“None.” Andrei agreed.

“Yet.” Shadow added.

“Yet.” Andrei admitted. It seemed impossible that the ‘yet’ made any difference – he had seen the destruction and had scoffed at the Britons who had thought such a place could ever be a proper site for rebellion. Such a prominent eyesore on the Rebellion’s name.

Silence drifted between them. A cold sweat slid down the spine of the young man.

“You are a good-looking young man – Mr Tsontov. Where are you from?”

“Same as you – I am a Russian.” The first rule was to never admit your position. He knew this, he would not be tricked so easily.

“Your address. If you please.”

“I have no address.”

It was a whistle and a thud that caught him unawares next. Then pain, sharp and cold and in his stomach.

“But with no address,” The chair spun round and Andrei was caught up in electric blue eyes, “How will we know where to send your body?”

*

“When will he wake up?”

“When he is ready.”

“He will wake up?”

“Oh yes – Death does not want this man yet, he is too dear a servant.”

“His servant?”

“He does the hard work so Death doesn’t have to.”

Soft candle-voices breathing in the air. They sounded a thousand miles away. Where was he? Light laughter. Two familiar laughs. One seemed almost lovely – did he love that laughter? Did he know these laughing voices? Was he dead? Maybe that questioner would have a face like a flower and call him her son. If he was dead – who else would care to ask after him? Was he Death’s servant? What was he doing...?

Pain flushed through his body when he tried to scramble for answers. That must be awareness... he was hurt... injured. Why would he be injured?

He focused on his toes, he could feel them, wiggle them. His legs too, knees – something hurt. Spine burning, brain numbing agony. An agony of omens. Whatever that voice said, Death couldn’t have been far away when this happened. Déjà vu – all he could think was that he had done this before, testing his body to see...

“His breathing changed.”

“It maybe time.”

Now, their voices weren’t soft. They bounced around his skull like overexcited atoms in the hadron-collider. It hurt.

“Come on, Laras. Wake up.”

“Come on. Open your eyes.”

“Can you hear us? Can you hear us, Laras?”

“Laras.”

Could they shut up? Just shut up. Couldn’t they see that their voices were raking his mind into mush?

“Come on. You’re with us aren’t you? You can hear us and you know that we’re waiting. The war is waiting for you.”

The war could be waiting a long, long time yet if they continued to talk. Their chat was going to kill him.

“Laras –”

“Will you shut up.” He tried to growl though it came out more as ‘wuhr yer shrrup.’

“LARAS!”

For fucksake couldn’t this imbecile understand their own language?

“I think he means for us to be quiet.” The second hushed in a whisper that barely appeased the Russian but at least the man with that noisy, stupid girl wasn’t a complete moron.

“Oh.”

Moron.

Shuffling sounds. Silence.

*

Moving was tiring. Everything was tiring. He was just about shuffling across the room now. Joshua said that his physical health before the ‘accident’ had helped to speed up the healing process but even that could only do so much. Mia laughed at him constantly even though her own physical therapy was lagging considering that before this she’d already been recovering from her coma. Then again, she could walk, so perhaps she was entitled to mock his stiff shuffling steps. Also, whilst he’d never admit it out loud, his mood had been foul since he woke up – the fact that everyone in the household cringed away from his presence not being lost on him. Smirking, he’d been comforted by that in the beginning – but not now. Now, he was almost angry at himself for behaving so badly towards his old comrade and provider.

Their days were short, everyone sleeping as long as possible to encourage healing. Their nerves were short, everyone keeping their heads low as hours counted down. Maybe Laras was the worst of them – but then it was his fault these people were in their precarious position. Tomorrow would be the last day in the little vicarage, however, their need to move becoming more urgent as the sun rose and set. When Mia had asked him where they were going, he’d grunted that he knew a place. The less that he said about it in any place keeping it as safe as it could be with Oxford gone.

Oxford was gone. He took a deep breath and tried to imagine what the land would look like without the dreaming spires and ancient colleges. Everyone knew that it had to happen at some point, many posited that it would be the linchpin to cause the war. They were right – it had fulfilled its purpose. Yet never had such a strategic tool seemed so costly to their morale. Such inauspicious beginnings, some might say, Laras knew better – no beginning was auspicious when a whole planet could be destroyed.

Tomorrow then – they left for Ireland and prayed that the wind rose to meet them.

*

Denny didn’t know what he thought of Mr Trusko, only that his name reminded him of the horns of extinct beasts: ‘tusks’, his mother had called them, the tusks of oliphants. The few other new arrivals were equally strange to him, they spoke different but not like the French or the continentals that had visited before. Their voices were staccato and made him think of old movies from the hidden stores downstairs.

“So, what you’ah sayin’ Mester Trusko, is waht? – are you shoe-ah that this is the call to be mekin?” Dylan asked, his tone sarcastic and serious at once, “Are you certine that this be the weh?”

“As sure as I can be, friend,” Trusko replied, similarly sombre, “But I can be pretty certain that this is the message we should be relaying at this time.”

“To Russia though?” His mother interrupted, “It is not that I distrust you, Charon, you know that, but Russia? When we have misplaced our own... link?” Carefully worded in dusty pink letters. Denny peeped around the corner to catch a glimpse of the discourse. Dylan was staring in his direction though and he quickly ducked back into the shadows.

“Our contact is a safe one – the best of his kind and more loyal than a trained bloodhound.”

“It’s on your head if this sabotages our colleagues.”

“I agree. But it will not. If there is one man in Russia, it is him.”

Denny knew they were making a call and the people at the end of that call would make a call and the people who took that call would bounce the call until it reached the right line and then that call would meet someone with a silk, smooth voice and a crooked, cruel grin.

“They’re calling the Raven.” Denny breathed, “And then the Raven will bring in – ”

“The Thunder.”

Denny jerked and spun around with young, wide-eyed innocence on his face, “Sir?”

Trusko stared down at him with amused eyes, “You’re very young to know such things.”

“I’m not that young!” He retorted and crossed his arms with a frown, “It’s just been my birthday.”

“Ah. All grown up then.” Trusko corrected, “You’re just very short then.”

“Am not. I’m the second biggest in my class.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Denny?” his mother’s exasperated cry made him back down, “What have I told you about this room?”

Quickly, he defended himself against the unsaid accusation, “I wasn’t in the room. I was outside it.”

“Peepin’ like ah wee imp your bairn.” Dylan added his two pence and Denny scowled at him.

“Was not.”

“Denny...”

“I wasn’t! I weren’t even looking at you.”

The adults shared a glance and finally his mother took his arm, “Come on. Back to the computers with ye.”

On their way down the stairs, as they passed the portrait of The Children of Lir, Denny glanced up at his mother. She was nibbling her bottom lip on the scarred side of her mouth. She shouldn’t really do that but he wanted to ask a question.

“Mammy?”

“Yes my dove?”

“The misplaced link... is it the princess?”

“No Denny.”

“The prince?”

“Not him either.”

“Then it’s the Raven’s son? The angry guy from Oxford? The one you guys were –”

“That’s enough. Ye’ll ken the truth when he gets here.”

*

In the midst of artificial lights, two men sat in jovial quiet. The hum of computer fans whirred around them. Smirking, or at least with facial muscles twitching into the closest thing this man had to a smirk, the more stooped of the two raised a glass.

“To the linchpin.”

Only the finest Russian vodka for the pair; the other man grinned widely as he raised his glass, teeth sharp and white and flashing in the light.

“To the war.”

And they drank with a dead man slumped in the corner.
The news report played on a screen, set into the side of a building in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“The destruction of Oxford was a strike at the heart of terrorism,” the man on the screen said. He had slicked back hair and a smooth smile, the kind that sharks and lawyers wore. “It’s a message to every terrorist faction that’s out there that we stand strong and united in the face of their actions. And make no mistake, this so called ‘rebellion’ are nothing more than violent criminals.”

Colt Banner stood outside the 4th Street bar, smoking a cigarette and watching the news report play out. He kept the brim of his hat pulled down so the cameras on every corner couldn’t catch the sneer tugging at his lips, the absolute disdain for what he was hearing.

“Anyone who associates with these outlaws will be tried and prosecuted as traitors, to the fullest extent of the law.”

He took one last look around before he threw the wasted filter to the ground, stomping on it before letting himself into the bar.

Traitors, terrorists, outlaws, according to the news they were the right hand men of Satan himself. They were a danger to the very fabric of the Republic. They were just supposed to kneel and accept the boot on the back of their necks, and the part that killed him was that most of them had. The alternative was imprisonment, torture, and eventually death, if they were lucky.

He headed inside the bar, the same program playing on the screen inside. The same slick man giving the same slick speech. No one even noticed it anymore. It was probably playing in every house, in every business. The government telling them to stay calm.

He ignored it, nodding his head at the bartender that didn’t blink an eye when he let himself into the back room.

It looked like nothing more than a safe set into the ground, and he made sure the door was shut and locked before he spun the combination. A ladder led down into darkness, the sound of drunkards and loud music vibrating through the walls next to him. He climbed down feet first, yanking it shut behind him and spinning the lock. Beneath him it was entirely too quiet, and he was doing his best not to think about why. He was failing miserably, anger burning hotly in his chest right next to dark despair.

There were only two people waiting for him. One was a man with a scar arching from the corner of his mouth up towards his cheekbone. The other was younger, a skinny kid with the same light brown hair Colt had and the same blue eyes. He was sitting at the wooden table in the middle of the room, toying with something in his hands. The only sound was a quiet clicking.

The kid looked up when Colt came down. He looked tired and Colt couldn’t blame him. “What’s the word?”

“Looks clear,” Colt told his brother. “But that doesn’t mean a damn thing.”

The scarred man sat in the corner of the room taken over by computers and screens. He had a headset on and his gaze kept flicking between security cameras that he’d managed to hack into. Colt never asked how. He didn’t know shit about hacking or spying, he was the man that pointed a gun and pulled the trigger. Fat lot of good it had done them, and for a minute his mind wandered to the body he’d just gotten done burying. Houston Mitchell, now nothing but another body rotting in the ground in an unmarked grave.

He’d been their leader, in charge of this little rebellion faction. Now he was dead, and the three of them in this room were all that was left. He scrubbed a hand over his jaw, trying not to think that he wasn’t prepared for this. He was a brawler, a fighter, but he wasn’t that smart or that organized. If it were just himself he’d go in guns blazing and probably go down that way too.

But it wasn’t just him he had to worry about. There was his kid brother, and he wouldn’t get him killed that way.

“You hear me?” he snapped. The man at the computer didn’t even look up, just nodding his head and tapping furiously at the keyboard. It drew a heavy sigh from his lips and he headed for the bottle of whiskey sitting on the scarred, battered table.

“What are we going to do?” Eli asked quietly.

He shook his head, because he didn’t have a good answer for him. His hand ran back through his light brown hair, tied back at the base of his neck. It had been a long three days, and he still had the cuts and bruises to show it. His ribs throbbed painfully and there was a slice over his forehead. His brother had matching bruises around his face and the whole mess had been closer than he liked to admit. Any closer and he’d be in a body bag, probably left where he fell until the government incinerated his body.

He took a pull from the bottle, making a face as it burned its way down his stomach. On the other side of the room was a chain link wall that held a veritable armory behind it. There were stockpiles of explosives and ammunition, guns and knives hanging on the wall. Anything they’d been able to get their hands on. It was enough to do some serious damage, but not if everyone was dead. He let his gaze settle on his kid brother and then snorted and shook his head. He tipped back in the chair, looking over his shoulder to the man at the computer. “You got anything for us Frank?” he asked. The man didn’t answer and he rolled his eyes. “Asshole.”

He was surprised when the man finally sat back, letting the headphones fall around his neck as he looked over his shoulder at the two of them. “We’ve got to run,” he said. There was a mixture of resignation and determination on his face. “We can’t stay here anymore.”

Colt sneered at him. “I ain’t running.”

Frank just shook his head. “No choice this time,” he said. “They know we’re here. The grid’s all lit up. They’re sweeping the city, wouldn’t be surprised if they bring the whole thing down around our heads.” He gestured at one screen that held an image of a smoking courthouse, flashing lights gathered around it as they tried to clean up the mess. Colt glared at it, feeling his ribs throb in sympathy. “They know they hit us hard last night and they’re determined to wipe out whatever’s left. We have to run.”

Colt growled under his breath, running a hand across his face. He scratched at the stubble on his jaw before craning his neck back again, focusing on the other man and the mess of information playing on the screen behind him. Just the idea of it pissed him off, but at the end of the day he was no stranger to running and hiding. They’d been doing it most of their lives. “How much time?”

Frank shook his head. “Not long. They’ve already started sweeping the city. It could be a day, could be an hour, could be ten minutes.” He looked back at the two of them, waiting for them to make the call.

He snarled a curse, slumping back in the chair. He hated the idea of running.

His gaze strayed to the armory in the back of the room. He wondered just how much damage they could do with that.

“Ten minutes?” Eli said. “Seriously?” His blue eyes widened, framed by dark circles of sleepless nights. It drew Colt’s attention and he focused on him for a long time. Houston was dead. Johnson too. Half their friends, a mess of people they didn’t know, and the Deklahnian government wouldn’t give a shit if they buried even more people under the rubble and dirt. Including his kid brother.

The sound of footsteps thundering overhead had them all jumping. His gaze flicked to the ladder he’d crawled down and the metal door at the top of it. His hand tightened around the bottle he held, the other one drifting to his gun.

“I ain’t running,” he said again. “What are our options?”

“I’ve got some contacts, but all the shit that went down at Oxford has got them cracking down even harder over here. The last thing they want is a worldwide uprising.” He let out a breath, typing furiously and switching screens. “I’ve got a contact in England, says he knows where some forces are gathering, but that’s a risk too. It’s already a warzone over there.”

He licked his lips, looking over the table at his brother. “So that ain’t running. It’s more like a strategic retreat.”

Frank snorted and ran a hand over his face. “Tell yourself whatever you need to. You want it, or should I keep looking? I’ll tell you now, there aren’t many other options. This is probably our best bet. I’m just saying, we can’t stay here.”

Colt growled and kicked at the chair across from him. When he glanced up, Eli was looking back at him and for a minute they had identical expressions on their faces. Then his eyes dropped to the table. “We should run, Colt,” he said. He opened his mouth like he wanted to say something more, but then he snapped it shut. “There’s not much left for us here anyway.”

Colt’s face fell. If he glanced at his hands he’d see blood and dirt, a sharp reminder of the people they’d lost.

“Do it,” he snapped.

Frank nodded and spun his chair back around. “I’ll get the location from my contact. He’s not going to be happy about it, but they’re not in much better shape right now. We’ll need flight clearances and pass codes, but that should be easy enough,” he said. His hands flew over the computer but he paused before drawing the headset back over his ears. “Eli, will that monster you built get us overseas?”

Eli chewed on his lip. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe? Probably?”

“That’s encouraging,” Frank grumbled.

“It’s what we’ve got so you can shut the hell up,” Colt snapped. He didn’t miss his little brother slumping lower in his chair and he focused on him for a long moment. The kid was still messing with whatever was in his hands, but he’d stopped asking what he was building a long time ago. Except when he’d started working on the helicopter. That he’d questioned, but it had come in handy on more than one occasion so he’d shut his mouth about it. They had it stashed at the junkyard, now they just had to get to it.

The footsteps came again overhead, loud and ominous. The music spluttered and died and all three of them went still, listening to the rumble of voices echoing through the wall. Colt tipped his chair back, glancing at one of Frank’s screens. It was security footage from inside the bar and he knew just from a glance that they were looking at uniforms above their heads.

“Shit. Frank,” he said lowly. “You might want to hurry up on those codes.”

“I’m working on it,” the man snapped back. He typed faster than Colt could keep track of, his eyes scanning the screens before he leaned over and plugged something into his machine. “Just give me a minute to transfer this over.”

“We might not have a minute,” he said. His gaze went back to the screen in time to see a man in uniform backhand the bartender. He ground his teeth together and then let his chair fall to the floor. His hand curled around the gun at his side. The shouting upstairs was growing louder, followed by the thump of a body hitting the ground. “Eli,” he snapped. “Head for the back.”

He heard his brother’s chair move, but didn’t look over his shoulder. He heard the jangle of keys and the squeal of the door opening.

The footsteps were louder. They were right overhead and when his gaze flicked to the screens he could see them right above the safe in the floor. He didn’t have to wonder whether or not the bartender had talked. He wouldn’t have had a choice.

One of his hands was on Frank’s arm, the other pulling his gun when the door above them opened.

He had enough time to get off a shot before the grenade fell into the small space with them.

He heard his brother shout his name, felt himself moving in the opposite direction, and then the blast was going off and all he was aware of was slamming face first into the chain link fence. Something hit his back, his head cracked into something solid, and he was crumpling to the ground. For a minute he wondered if he was dead, because all he could see was a bright light and there was just vague, fuzzy noise in his head. There was smoke on his tongue, coiling into his lungs and his body shuddered in a cough.

Then there were hands on his shoulders, tugging on his shoulders in a voiceless demand to get up. He tried to blink away the bright light, tried to roll over or move but instead it just sent off another cough, his whole body shuddering. He couldn’t feel his fingers and there was something warm and wet running into his eyes, something sticky on the side of his head.

“Come on,” Eli said again. He blinked, trying to focus on his brother as he yanked on his sleeve. “Colt we’ve got to go.”

He nodded his head, feeling the world tilt when he did. He felt his arm lifting as his little brother wrapped it around his shoulders. Then they were moving, slow stumbling steps through the armory towards the exit in the back.

Through the fog in his mind he became aware of the still, lifeless body they left on the ground behind them.
It had taken three days for Mia to find the gym. It was some sort of record for her, but not a very good one. She supposed being in a coma and then having one’s school bombed was a good excuse for such a gross lack of awareness, but it had never taken her so long to explore a place before.

The only thing that made her feel better about it was that Laras had yet to join her, meaning he couldn’t gloat. She couldn’t, either, but it was good enough for her that he would have to keep his mouth shut.

Of course, knowing Laras, he would say something anyway. He certainly hadn’t bothered to be pleasant to anyone during their stay at Glebe House. In fact, he’d managed to alienate everyone and to half convince Mia that leaving him behind might have been a good idea. He certainly seemed to think so, as he’d never once bothered to thank her for dragging him through a forest and to safety while one of her arms was dislocated and she had a mild concussion.

Joshua said she was lucky her body had had the benefit of such a long rest, even though she’d been in a coma during most of it. It had allowed her to heal injuries both old and new, and to recuperate her aching muscles. Laras had put her through a grueling regime, the Churchman said, which had actually served to weaken her substantially. Until her body grew used to such hard usage, she would need to rest more often or she would, ultimately, break down.

The only answer, then, was to get her body used to the hard work, because it wasn’t likely that a war was going to give her much time to rest. Hence, the gym.

It wasn’t the salle by any means, but Mia was just angry enough with Laras that the difference was calming. And, truth be told, she wasn’t sure she was ready to deal with the feelings bound up in losing Oxford. The only thing keeping her going was the hope that her friends had survived, that Tada and Paige would be waiting for her somewhere, that Shlomi and Jerry had escaped the war completely before getting dragged in.

She hoped Phelps was OK, and that rescuing him hadn’t been the worst decision that she had ever made. If going in to Substation North had ended not only with Oxford gone, but Phelps dead, Mia wasn’t sure she could deal with the guilt. They had all known the war was coming, that they had little time before Omega moved in, but going after Phelps had provided the final impetus for war.

The trade-off had been the rescue of her friend. If he was dead, Mia had doomed the world to war—and her family to imprisonment—for nothing.

She wondered if they were alive. She wondered if the only thing she had left in the world was war, and the mild disdain of her maniacal Professor. She wondered if he loved her, and if it would even make a difference.

It probably would. But it hardly mattered, since Laras had proven time and time again that he saw her as little more than a pair of breasts with a mean right hook.

Mia swung hard, fist connecting with the punching bag with a satisfying thump, and followed it with three quick jabs, trying desperately to keep her thoughts from running away. It was a losing battle—hell, it was a war with herself she had long ago lost—but she couldn’t help but try, nonetheless. It would help if her damned Russian didn’t keep butting his way in.

It seemed odd that Laras dominated her thoughts, but he did. For every worry about her friends, about her family, she worried ten times for him. For every flash of anger that Oxford was gone, she raged tenfold against him for being an asshole to everyone, for almost dying, for threatening to leave her completely alone in this war against Omega.

For not leaving her alone now, when all she wanted was the solace of physical exertion and muscle fatigue.

Glebe House did not have a particularly advanced gym room. Mostly everything was non-electric or self-powered, free weights and stationary bicycles. There were a few punching bags, of course, and a rundown treadmill that represented the only thing that actually required power. But what it did offer was the mats, a place for her to work on her martial arts, to twist and bend and flip her body against an invisible foe. To test herself against the best she could ever be, and regain the strength she had lost while she slept and healed.

It was mid-afternoon when Mia finally stopped, her hard won scissor kick finishing out the routine. Her muscles ached and her breath rasped. She could barely move, her overtired limbs protesting every twitch, threatening to collapse beneath her and leave her sprawling. Her heart tattooed in her chest, unused to the physical exertion she’d delved into without thought that morning. Looking up at the clock, Mia understood why. It had been six hours. Joshua wasn’t going to be happy with her.

Laras probably would, though. He was always pleased when she attempted to kill herself; said it made her tough. War never took it easy, he said, so you couldn’t afford to take it easy, either. Or something like that. He had a way of saying things that Mia had never been able to recreate. Mostly because she wasn’t that mean.

Gasping, Mia poured water into her mouth and onto her head to bring her temperature down before the Churchman came to cluck at her. She was supposed to be sleeping, or at least resting for their journey in the morning. In the few days since the bombing, Omega had pulled the noose even tighter around the entire countryside and even Glebe House couldn’t keep them safe for much longer. So, come dawn, they were headed elsewhere. Laras, Joshua, and she would finally be leaving Oxford for good, quite probably never to return.

Mia didn’t exactly know where they were going. Laras, his paranoia validated at Oxford, was determined to keep it secret until he deemed it safe enough to share. Presumably, that meant when the three of them were alone, which also meant that she had finally earned the intractable Russian’s trust. And it was hard to be mad at Laras when she was one of four people on the planet that he trusted.

It was then that her thoughts cycled to the worry, and she obsessed over whether or not he was healthy enough to go wherever it was they had to go.

Joshua was sitting on her bed when she pushed her way into what had become her bedroom. And he did not look happy with her.

“Your Highness, I thought I told you to spend the day resting. You are worse than Laras…”

Mia laughed, using her towel to wipe the last of the sweat from her face. “You think so, do you? Then you obviously don’t know Laras as well as you think you do. If he weren’t bedridden, he’d have been in there even before I was. The only reason Laras isn’t up and about is that his body won’t let him. Mine, however, will.”

Joshua rubbed his eyes with one hand and patted at the bed with the other. “Amelia, just because you can do something doesn’t always mean you should. Usually, it’s the opposite. It was a lesson that Laras never learned in all our time together at Oxford.”

Tossing the towel into the hamper, Mia joined Joshua on the bed, leaning against the wall and facing the plain-featured Churchman. “You went to Oxford together?” She laughed and shrugged. “I probably should have figured. Laras never trusts anyone he hasn’t spent years vetting first.”

“He trusts you,” Joshua reminded her, voice gentle. “And you’ve known him less than a year. But I am by no means about to give you the ‘don’t hurt him or I’ll hurt you’ speech, as I’m sure you two would probably kill each other and half the world if you put your minds to it.”

“You act as if we’re together. And we are most certainly not together.” Mia held up a hand to forestall the Churchman. “Do not say anything about the look in his eyes when he looks at me. I know I’m lucky said look involves something other than murderous disdain, thank you very much.”

Joshua laughed. “Actually, that’s the only look he’s given anyone since you brought him in here, even you…”

“Ah, so I’ve regressed. He’s angry I brought him with me, no doubt. I broke Laras rule number two six three, or some such nonsense. No matter that he’s alive because of it.” Leaning her head back against the wall, Mia closed her eyes. She was very tired. Much more tired than she cared to admit to Joshua, especially as it would prove him right. In all likelihood, she had worked far too hard. And she would feel it in the morning. “Ungrateful bastard.”

“Ha! You’re rapidly becoming his world, young lady,” Joshua replied. “As clichéd as that sounds. Laras, despite his surly nature, is a man who requires something to fight for. For much of his life, it’s been this rebellion, but rebellion is an abstract concept and very few people can fight for an abstraction. It is my opinion that you have become the embodiment of this rebellion for our Russian compatriot. Quite probably without his noticing. And that is a loyalty that few can ever match. His relationships, however fraught, however few, are deep. And your relationship with him takes it to a whole new level.”

Mia opened her eyes and fixed them on the Churchman. “Ah, then you wouldn’t be talking about the sex, then, would you?” she asked, and then giggled when Joshua actually blushed.

“Heavens, no. I’d no notion that you two had become…carnally involved.” His lips twisted. “This, of course, just adds a whole other level of…complexity to the entire notion…”

“You mean to say that we’re a sodding mess, I know. We most certainly are. The Russian and the Princess, a right fucked tale of misery. Of course, I’m probably the worse of the two. He’s a full-blooded young man and I’m a decently attractive young woman who can also—on a good day—break a few of his bones, which is a weird turn on, I admit…but I, I’m sleeping with my egomaniacal sadist of a Professor. I must have some weird daddy issues, or perhaps a deep-seeded fear of power and responsibility. Oh, I know! My whole life, I’ve been expected to be a leader of men…maybe I just want a man to throw me against a wall and fuck me, right, as a means of submission?”

Joshua blinked. “I see why he likes you. Anyone with that kind of attitude is bound to intrigue him. How did your PR team ever manage to convince us you were a sweetheart?”

Mia shrugged. “That’s why we paid them the big bucks. And I also kept myself under control a lot more readily. Truth be told, Edward kept me under control. He was built to be in the news. So he took care of the publicity stunts with Mother. I just had to show up and look pretty.”

“Frustrating for you, I can see.” Joshua sighed and scratched his head. “But you can’t take those frustrations out on your own body. I know that’s Laras’ plan, and it’s worked for him thus far, but you are not Laras.”

“No, I’m not Laras. But I am his student. If it worked for him, I’ll make damn sure it works for me.” Mia sighed, and rubbed her face with her hands. “It has to work for me.”

The Churchman didn’t reply. He didn’t particularly have to. They sat in silence for a moment, not needing to speak to say exactly what they were feeling. “You should get some rest, Mia,” Joshua whispered eventually, standing and brushing the wrinkles out of his clothing. He didn’t dress much like a Man of the Cloth, Mia thought, but she didn’t dress much like a Princess, either, so that was all right. She liked Joshua, truth be told, and he certainly didn’t deserve the hell Laras had put him through.

And Mia, of course. He didn’t particularly deserve a Princess who refused to listen to what was most definitely sound advice.

“I know,” Mia replied, unable to hide the yawn that tore through her. She stretched, her strength finally giving out, and plopped back against the pillows. “We have traveling to do in the morning. All the way to Laras knows where.”

Joshua smiled softly, pulling the blankets over Mia’s shoulders and tucking them around her. He reminded her so much of her Father in that moment that she couldn’t help but feel comforted and, however unlikely, safe from harm. It was a good feeling.

Sleep was not long in coming.
*****


“Took you long enough, Princess.”

Mia sighed and rolled her eyes, slugging a pack over her shoulders and binding her hair into a ponytail. It was dawn, precisely when she’d been told to be ready, but it appeared that Laras and Joshua had been waiting for some time already. And the Russian appeared fit, if somewhat anxious to be on the road. Apparently, spending so much time in bed had made him twitchy.

Joshua chuckled. “Now, Laras,” he chided, “you told her to be ready at dawn. And as the sun has barely peeked over the horizon, I daresay she is right on time. We were simply early.”

“On time is late,” Mia opined, muttering to herself as Laras glared at her over Joshua’s head. “Of course, we could just get going instead of standing here reprimanding me and wasting what little time we have. How’s that sound?”

Laras growled, but said nothing as he hoisted his pack onto his back and stalked out of the front yard. They had to move fast, taking advantage of the forest during the daylight hours, doing most of their traveling at night. Against her wishes, Joshua had insisted that Mia wear a cloak, at least until they got out of the area and beat the worst of the Omega scanners. He’d tried to get Laras to wear one, as well, but the Professor had just scoffed, dismissing the notion with a string of incomprehensible Russian. That hadn’t stopped Laras from supporting Joshua with regard to Mia’s disguise, of course.

At least it wasn’t as bad as the one Phelps had forced her to wear. She was a man again, unfortunately, but at least she didn’t have a harelip scar to deal with, or a body that would wilt in direct sunlight. In fact, the body she’d been given was surprisingly fit and quite handsome. She wondered who had been the model.

“Where are we going, exactly?” Mia asked, her voice deeper than her own, but not so deep as to be startling to hear. “The last time we went somewhere, I had to figure it all out on my own. And you’d at least given me a name…”

“Then you didn’t figure it out all on your own, did you?” Laras grumbled, jogging into the cover of the forest behind Glebe House. “Shut up and get moving. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover before the sentries get to this part of the forest.”

Joshua shot Mia a look, the light brown of his eyes more eloquent in that moment than any words could be, and took off into the forest. Sighing, Mia pulled herself into a jog and followed the two men.

She was not at her best this morning. After overworking herself yesterday, she’d fallen asleep quickly, but had slept only fitfully. Her overtired muscles had been unable to relax, and her anxious mind had refused to quiet. Joshua had been right, of course, and now she was going to spend the entire day exhausted, pushing harder than she ever should have had to for a brisk jog. In fact, she could already feel the strain building in her legs, the heaviness of her eyelids as the sun rose at her back.

This was going to be a horrible day. A horrible, horrible day.

“Mia.” Joshua had slowed his pace and now walked beside her, his legs long enough that his loping gait was more than enough to keep up with her slow jog. Mia, breath coming in short, but manageable gasps, looked over at him and smiled.

“What?”

“I am not one to say I told you so, but…”

“You told me so, I know,” Mia replied, resigned to the admonishment. “It’s OK, though. This way, Laras gets to feel like he’s in better shape than I am, which means he’ll get to berate me later about letting myself go, which means he’ll be happier and, thus…”

“You and I will be happier. Don’t tell me you planned that.” Joshua raised an eyebrow. “You are not a planner…”

Mia laughed. “And you know that after three days…how? But, no, I didn’t plan that. I came up with it just now, on the fly. Makes sense, though, right? A little bit of suffering now and we’ll be much, much happier later. Indeed.”

“If you two want to keep flirting back there, I’m sure Omega would just love to wait until you’re done,” Laras called over his shoulder, a threatening growl lingering just under the faux joviality of the tone. “And, Princess, don’t think I don’t notice how out-of-shape you are. We will rectify this when we reach our destination.”

Mia grinned, winking at Joshua. “I think we’re in the clear. I’ll be in better shape than he expects, but at least now he can stew on what he’s going to do to me later…”

Joshua blanched. “I’m not sure I want to know, Princess.”

“You’ve a dirty mind, Joshua.”

“I know more than I want to know, Princess.” Smiling, Joshua hiked his pack up on his back and stared ahead of them at the slender form of Laras, who’d stopped momentarily and now watched them, something indescribable in his eyes. “We should move more quickly. I’m not entirely sure Laras is happy with us.”

Mia shrugged. “He’s never happy with us, Joshua. But, you’re right…we should definitely get moving, or else I might end up dead at the end of it. Or abandoned. And since he’s the only one who knows where we’re going…”

“Right. Let’s go.” Joshua sped his gait and Mia, with a sigh, followed.

This was going to be a horrible day.
*****


Blarney Castle was still standing after all these years. It was out of the way enough that Omega had never thought to destroy it and, from what Edward gathered, it hadn’t been used as a substation for long. Hell, tourists still made their way up the stairs to kiss the famous stone, which made money for the local Omega offices. No one could ever have thought that beneath its ancient stone floor lay the heart of a rebellion.

It was dark and the tourists had long since gone home, but the security certainly remained, so Edward moved quickly and quietly through the shadows. He wasn’t used to this—he wished Mia were there with him, to help, to give him the confidence to keep going—but he had to do it. He had to find a way to get into the Castle, into the underground bunker that was the heart of his sister’s rebellion.

He had to know if she was alive. His baby sister. The only family he had left.

No one had told him how to get in. Jeff the Crypt Keeper had only pointed him in the right direction and left him to figure it out along the way. He could only hope that wandering out for a bit and not getting caught by security would somehow work. There was no way he could pound on the walls—that would quite probably set off an alarm somewhere, and end up with him recaptured. And that would defeat the purpose entirely.

Edward did not like feeling as if he had no control over his own actions. Everything was dependent upon the beliefs and actions of other people. People he didn’t necessarily approve of. People who’d taken his baby sister and turned her into a cold-hearted killer. And then doomed the world to war.

But Edward would have to deal with them now, because the alternative was living alone in a cave somewhere until it was safe enough to come out. He certainly couldn’t go to Deklahn. Mia had personally made sure of that, when she'd been stupid enough to get caught on camera.

There was a jab in his foot and Edward cursed. A watchdog trigger. An older model commonly used by the rebellion, which was comforting, but then again, this was an older site. It was quite likely that Omega had never thought to update the security measures around this place. And now Edward could only wait.

“Who told you about this place, Your Majesty?”

Edward spun around and faced a man he had never seen before. He had an unassuming, but handsome enough face, and his eyes sparkled with intelligence. There was a weight to him, a sense of purpose. But also of deep despair. It seemed that this was a man being dragged in far too many directions for a single human to bear. And, Edward saw, he was more than capable of standing up to it. Whatever pain he suffered, he would suffer willingly, for the benefit of the rebellion.

So, he was one of those radicals who'd stolen Amelia away. “Who are you?”

The man smiled and folded his arms. “Not here, Edward. You know, has anyone told you you look very much like your sister?”

“Answer my question.” Edward snapped, dragging every bit of royal hauteur to the fore, and injecting it into his normally lilting voice. He did not like this man and his mocking smile, nor the self-awareness in his bright gaze. This was a man who knew too much, and understood how much more he knew than anyone else.

By way of answer, the man laughed, dismissing Edward with a wave of the hand. “And if the watchdog didn’t confirm who you were, that would have. You’re just as bad at it as your sister is. Come, Edward, and I’ll bring you downstairs.”

So this man knew his sister. It was not a mark in his favor. “Is Mia here?”

The smile disappeared. “No. She and her Professor have yet to be seen. But a lot of people are trickling in around the world. We have to move stealthily and that often means slowly. We have every hope she will arrive at her destination soon. Now follow me.”

Scowling, Edward followed the man. His sister was still missing. “If you people have gotten her killed…”

“We people, Edward? Your sister is part of ‘we people’, by her own choice. If you are going to blame people, you must include her.” The man had led him to a wall toward the back of the castle, one that very few people would ever visit. He waved his hand in front of the stone and waited for a moment. “Mia is just as much to blame as anyone, if blame must be assigned.”

“I know,” Edward replied. “I am very much aware of how much my sister has to answer for. I’m here to find her, make sure she’s safe, and force her to realize just what she’s done. To all of us.”

The man raised an eyebrow as the stone in front of them dissolved into nothing. Edward hadn’t seen this technology before. Someone downstairs must have been a genius to create such a thing without Omega tech to use. “Well, your Majesty. Come on in. And, to answer your question, I'm Charon Trusko. And, until Laras turns up or Phelps awakens, I am the leader of the Rebellion. Nice to meet you and, please, watch your step.”


“I’ll give you fifty for the Mahon and thirty if you place us on the isle of Haulbowline.” Laras growled in a voice as close as he could manage to English, “If you can set us ashore on Hop Island the deal is done.”

“Aye. An’ if ah was to set ye ashore on Hop Island ah’d be done too.”

“What about the deal of the Linney Loch?”

“Ye were dealin’ with me late dearthair when ye struck such a deal – now such times as these, ye know.”

“I do indeed.” He was now all but snarling, threads of Russian emphasising his words, “I say again, fifty favour you if you get us to Mahon.”

The man stared hard at him, as if assessing the credibility of the wiry young man that stood crooked as a thumb in front of him. It was rare to find a stranger in Llanelli. Most of the townsfolk were of the retiring kind, older gentlemen that moved south and away from the politics of British life and menopausal women looking for the revitalising winds of the Celtic Sea to give them a new lease on a waning life. He and his kin were only a generation younger than most of the town elders, part of a group that had fled after the massacre in London twelve years prior. It was then that his younger brother had contacted Oxford, discovered his failings and sworn to help the one man who had offered him any encouragement. That man was this odd looking fellow with the flashing blue eyes before him, the waxy sheen of his pale skin revealing a sickness of health that was no doubt meant to be ignored.

“Stuart,” his brother had whispered over cider in their local pub, “Though Stephans, the guy what interviewed me said ah weren’t qualifiable, this young kid says to me: If you’re loyal enough to stand by our world, you won’t listen to him. You’ll find your own way to fight. Just like’t. All bludy oighty-toighty like. But ah liked him. Weird lad but he were right.”

Five years after that, there had been a visitor, a slender young man with a shock of dark hair that had the old ladies gossiping for weeks. No one had spoken to him. No one knew what he was doing in town. Some had said it was an Eye, a spy come to report back on the quality of the town. Others posited that it was a lost soul, come to bury his past in the beauty of the village. Few ever saw his face or knew enough to give details of his visit. Only two were witness to the stranger’s visit, Stuart’s brother and Stuart himself, although the latter was involved by chance not invitation.

Fifty days of supplies of all kinds required for a captained vessel to take the young man and any travelling with him from Llanelli to the shores of Mahon, with Hop Island as the best outcome. His wide-eyed, determined little brother had shaken the hand of this man as Faustus shook the hand of the devil. Yet Kenny was no longer around to give his soul to his ‘rebellion’, he had disappeared, vanished into a black bag. At night, Stuart still wondered if his brother’s body had been cast into one of the many pits that burnt with quicklime, if his last words had been spent in screams, or if he was out there, somewhere, part of a rebellion that initially cast him out for his artificial leg.

“Ah have nae love for ye, nae for this war – but it is here and ah love me country and ah loved me wee brother. Ah will do what ah can if you’ll give us the fifty days and give me a favour.”

“Mr Jones, your brother spoke of you with fondness when he visited Oxford, I would give you a favour for just being his blood. Set your terms.” Laras’ countenance held a careful mask of sincerity though he was sure Mia would have seen the cautious glimmer of furtiveness in the set of his mouth and eyes.

Stuart himself could see it, knew that the foreigner was worried about any additional cost to himself despite the warm words. He exposed his soul anyway:

“Find out what happened to Kenny. Be he dead or out there living. Ah would love to know.” Stuart barely kept his voice from shaking.

Laras eyed him, wariness gone but lacking any assertive emotion to encourage the Welshman’s courage, “If you would honour this promise for him, I will do what I can to discover his whereabouts.”

“The white dock on the hour of sunset. We’ll be using the outgoing tide and the lady darkness to help our going. God be with us too.”

Stuart Jones, whose apolitical agenda had never been questioned in his forty-seven years, knew he turned on more than just his heel as he left. Believing in lying low and letting the world take its course had always been easy – it was safe, his family and his friends stayed out of danger. Yet, passing the homes of those people now, leaving the sick man with his thinly veiled accent and pretty words, made his heart thump with excitement and started a churning relief in his belly. Perhaps, Kenny felt this when those blue eyes had pierced him, like the world depended on him and his contribution. Maybe he’d known how sweet action tasted after the long years of idle stagnation. The massacre had taken their sister, Kenny’s leg, his confidence – perhaps it was time to take at least one of those back.

Watching the stocky man’s retreat, Laras felt little satisfaction at the outcome. Though he knew they were lucky to have anyone willing to captain them across the Irish Sea in such conditions, when the coasts were so heavily monitored, he also felt the hollow of frustration that Kenny was no longer there. The older man had been a simple sort – quite voice, not the brightest but loyal and determined and strong. That he’d had one leg hadn’t bothered Laras, after all the man was as swift-footed as anyone with the improvements to android technology. It was the fact that Kenny was meant to join him at Blarney but this man would never consent to that. Faking their captain’s death, protecting himself and Mia from discovery, would be impossible with Stuart at the helm. He scowled, more at his negativity than at the dilemma as he knew that pessimism wasn’t going to help in this instance. It didn’t matter that the journey was complicated. Once, the trail would have run from the pastures of Oxfordshire up towards Bangor and Caernarfon before the Irish Sea was broached en route to Dublin. From Dublin there was a steady road through the Ferns to Cork and finally their castle destination. But over the years, the land had changed and now from Coventry to Preston was almost uninhabitable – flood land that swelled the earth and destabilised the ground, deserted towns that had never recovered from the first war and the biggest Dehklan army ground that lacked a prison complex on the Isle of Britain. So that meant they had to bear South, run round towards Chipping Sodbury and take the rickety Severn Bridge into the wetlands of Wales. The hike down the coast too was a precarious venture with the tides always threatening to swallow more of the land then predicted and their non-native appearance all too conspicuous.

Now though, alone in the alleyway behind Kenny’s old home, Laras could feel the ache throughout his body, the damp from nights spent in ditches, weariness from hours spent awake listening to every crack and rustle between trees. They still had the worst to go – the journey from Llanelli across to Bude and Bude to the uncertain terrain of Cork.

The history of Cork counted against it during the first war. Its reputation, its nickname of ‘the Rebel County’ making it a hotspot for blackbagging scum before, during and after the failed war. The Elysian Tower became known for the number of disappearances. The brightly coloured high street famously painted every door red in honour of the blood spilt and every woman from the street was then even more famously executed. Of course, this cemented the town hatred for their intergalactic brethren and whilst most left the city, a Corkonian was one man you would always trust.

Unlike this Stuart from Llanelli. Laras couldn’t help but snipe inside his head.

Waiting a moment more, he followed the man’s exit, heading towards the derelict house where Mia no doubt whispered with Joshua the same way they had whispered the whole trek from the priest’s home to this godforsaken hole in the Welsh countryside. No matter how he tried, that whispering made him edgy, knowing they spoke of him, not knowing what the words were between rushes of breath. He’d tell himself they were just talking of the mundane, the nature of their journey but then he’d catch their furtive glances and feel that cold hollow within him clench. With a snap, he clamped down on the odd stirrings of unidentifiable emotions and locked them away.

*

Mia watched the sun, gradually sinking over the coast after the beach curved into the mist beyond Gorseinon. The light glowed deep towards the horizon, casting an orange-gold warmth over her face. Three long, gangly shadows shimmered along the sun-dappled cobblestone. The streets were peaceful. Vague humming tugged deep, dull chords to remind them of the traffic of the M4 only a few miles away, whilst the chitter-chatter of old women blended with the inanity of the seagull gaggles. A soft sigh, caught up and snatched into a salty breeze, tickled Laras’ ear and he felt a fleeting longing for a place where this misplaced peace could take true form. Looking out across the water, white horses broke across the grey, twilight sea, a constant rushing roar as they chases the waves up the shingle. On his left, the quiet clergyman held a contented look upon his face that had Laras wanting to smash his nose, although he tamed the urge with a reminder to himself of services rendered.

“Thank you, Joshua.” Mia’s voice was as soft as her sigh, “For everything. For helping us. If we can ever repay you...”

“Never mind that,” replied the clean-shaven man of cloth, “when this war is won, you can take me for coffee.”

She smiled, skin caught in the exquisite tones of sunset over the sea, “Thank you, all the same.”

Laras caught the eye she was sending him and nodded his agreement, even though his skin was tingling with the desire to move and leave this part of the journey behind them, “Thanks. I’ll have some vodka shipped for you.”

Whether his spirit was well-accepted or not, he’d never know, he moved away.

When Mia finally came to join him, her voice was far from warm, “He’s gone. Are you happy now?”

Saying nothing seemed the best option.

“Are you ignoring me entirely now?”

“No.” He grunted reluctantly, knowing how recalcitrant the princess could be when she wanted.

“Are you going to tell me where we’re going now?”

He glanced at her, blue eyes catching the last rays of light from the sun so that for a minute they burnt with all the ferocity he was feeling for her, for the war, for his rebellious heart, “I will tell you when we are far offshore from here. The likelihood of being heard here are no less than anywhere else on land.”

Her own eyes brightened with the onset of darkness, “Somehow, you make paranoia seem reasonable when you talk like that.”

“It’s not paranoia when they’re actually trying to kill you.” He said drolly and he was surprised when she laughed.

“That’s a phrase that’s going around these days.”

“Been going around for years.”

“Centuries.”

Laras was about to reply, when footsteps echoed behind them and they span, both ready to spring in less than a heartbeat.

“Will ye two lovebairds shut yer gassin’ an’ get ye skinny asses on me brig?” Stuart stood there, his hulking form with its protruding neck and scowling eyes, glaring at them, “Ye might have listened to ye own advice Mester Ruski.”

Laras bristled. Mia placed a hand on his arm and sent him what he was sure was meant to be a warning look but which just increased his ire. Whatever peace had lain between them for that brief moment evaporated. It wasn’t Mia, god knew it wasn’t, but fury burnt his blood and danced in his veins, crying out for him to run, to fight, to do anything but walk so uselessly about. Once they were in Ireland, it would be different he was sure.

“Get ye on board, we’ll be in for a long, bumpy nigh’ ahead. Ah hope yer not awash with seasickness arrenithing.” Stuart nodded at the inky water, “She’s not in the best of moods.”

*

“Blarney?” Mia sounded bemused, “I thought it was destroyed? Years ago.”

“No. That was a ruse. Only a select few even knew about it.” Laras’ eyes flickered to the cabin door. He’d led her outside, under the pretence that he was feeling queasy, to tell her the truth, “There are places similar to this all over, though none quite so strong, or secure.”

“But didn’t...” She hesitated and he knew the question.

“Stephans had no knowledge of it.”

“You’re sure?”

“Indeed. He was more a part of the cover – part of Oxford Above more than Below. His role gave him a powerful position for Them but a... lesser one amongst us. Only a handful of Oxford tutors knew about Blarney. Myself, Edward and Charon amongst them. I believe Sofia was also party to the truth though only via communications.”

“And we have to get there? Tonight?”

“Before sunrise preferably.”

“I see...”

“It’ll happen. He’ll set us on the Mahon.”

Going quiet again, the silhouette of her face caught the sheen of the sky like a blue halo, “What do we do with him?”

“Kill him?” Why had that come out as a question?

“You can’t do that! He’s helped us! I say we take him with us.”

“And let him in on the secret this rebellion relies on?”

“Knock him out, take him whilst he’s unconscious and –”

“Carry him to Blarney?”

“Yes!”

“In our condition?” He winced at the admittance of weakness but knew that the burly captain wasn’t going anywhere on his back for a good week or so more.

“Could we bind him? Send someone from Blarney to get him?”

“There’s no guarantee.”

“Well you can’t kill him.”

“Are you ordering me Princess?”

“Royal command so stuff it, Laras.”

He chuckled. Perhaps the sea breeze tasted a little sweeter the closer they were to Ireland.

"Have a seat. Tada, was it?" said the man in front of him. Tada's mind struggled to catch up. This was a small room, no doubt inside one of the buildings in the Omega camp. The man was taller than Tada; his hair was blond and well kempt as a military man's should be. His eyes were an emerald green and he had a jagged scar on the right side of his face just in front of his ear all the way down to the side of his chin. The man had light scruff and set down a cup of steaming coffee on the desk in front of him. It was cluttered with paper, information. Pens and jars for them, a stress ball, a voice recorder, a stripped gun. There was a laptop facing away from Tada, but as full as the desk was it was everything seemed to be in its place. Tada nodded and took a seat in front of the desk as the man sat down. There was no name plaque or anything to identify him.

"Thank you." Tada said in regards to the seat. The man's brow rose as he looked up at Tada folding his hands together in front of him.

"Oh, my pleasure." he said. His accent was German perhaps. Maybe a touch of Austrian. Chances were good his heritage lay here on Earth on a highly European influenced colony. The man's Omega dress was more obvious than his background though. He was wearing his dress clothes in fact. Tada noticed the way the man sat. Comfortable but alert. Eyes locked on Tada's face, searching for queues to figure out the man in front of him. There was a slight smirk on his face though as if he'd already accomplished his task or was enjoying the challenge. Tada couldn't tell the difference on this man, it meant it didn't matter. In his mind he'd already won. Tada was being studied, or in worst case had been studied. It was normal to be sized up, but something was wrong. "What brings you here Mr. Tada?" asked the officer, "Tada. Hmm, odd name. Never heard it. Where are you from?"

"I..." Tada paused and ran a hand through his bloody hair. It had grown a little long again. He could heart Paige in his ear telling him he looked better with it cut. It would have to stay in the back of his mind. "I'm hurt. I really don't remember much at all." he lied as his memory lit up even as he spoke like it had done every other time. The man nodded a little keeping his eyes on Tada. They flicked to the corners of his mouth and then brow. Tada saw him searching but didn't know how much he was giving away. Pain was throwing him off his game a little, but he could also use its expression to mask what he wasn't sure skill could hide.

"Memory loss. I see. Don't worry," he said giving Tada a smile. It looked sincere as they come, but Tada knew it was porcelain. He was at a sharp disadvantage with the profiling that was going on. "The Surgeons must have hit a wrong wire or something. I'll call them immediately."

"What about my memory? I feel I'm forgetting something important." Tada continued keeping an air of confusion to his voice and face as if he'd gotten on the wrong subway at a station and couldn't remember where he was supposed to board. It would really help if he could remember how he'd gotten in this room. After all, since that damn incursion that freed Phelps these blackouts had ravaged his memory and his life in general. His subconscious had become a war zone. Hell, his consciousness was the biggest casualty.

"You haven't forgotten anything Tada. That's the issue we're having." said the man. A shock when through Tada though he staved off his surprise and opened his mouth to speak but the man held up a finger.

"I caught you off guard? I saw your shield come up. It's a brilliant mask you wear Tada. No need for it here." he said standing and motioning for Tada to follow him. A panic was beginning to settle into Tada's chest.

Fuck, who is this guy?, he thought to himself as he followed the confident man. He was being played, and he was being played well by an expert. The man was learning something about him firsthand beneath the guise of Tada's that seemed flawless against everyone else. This was bad, and that's unfortunately all he could discern so far. Actually, he couldn't help but feel this guy had him at a real disadvantage. Inside information likely. After all they'd just gotten a load of files on him.

"I don't understand." Tada continued the lie. The man chuckled.

"Come now Mr. Atherton just stop it. It was cute at first, but now it's just pathetic." he said walking from the room toward a tent. Tada didn't remember ever hearing that name before, but he could only assume it was his surname. Where the hell he'd gotten it was a different mystery altogether. There were medical supplies and other things stacked outside of it. Large boxes of syringes and autoneural stimulant packs. Those things were used in the field a lot as a quick boost causing the brain to release augmented adrenaline through the body along with painkillers and clotting agents in the bloodstream to stop bleeding. To his understanding Tada learned that it would give a sustained boost to performance in combat situations but leave the user in a sedated state once the effects wore off to promote healing. All in all it was meant to be used on people in critical condition and NOT for fighting.

They drew closer to the tent and Tada knew if he let himself get caught in there it was over. Whatever this guy had figured out about him was bad news. His danger sense blaring in his ears, Tada looked around frantically. He was in no shape to fight and there were several soldiers and other officers walking around. Two of the Deklahnian grunts came up walking behind him without so much as a signal. Suddenly his eyes caught sight of what he wanted. A different tent that had cords running into it, one of which seemed to be a networking cable. It was thin, brightly colored, and easy to spot. The only trouble was how the fuck was he going to get in there and find what he wanted without getting caught, and/or blowing whatever part of his 'lost memory' facade was keeping him from getting shot in the chest.

They reached the medical tent. He had to think fast. His hand to hand was limited with such minimal use of his left arm so dozens of scenarios had to be thrown out. Still, he had only one idea at the moment he might be able to implement with his current abilities. The man in front of him pulled back the curtain and motioned politely for Tada to go inside and stopped him just as he was entering and patted him on the back.

"It's good you've cooperated with me so far. It would've been such a waste to have had to shoot you, Tada. This way, everyone's happier. Trust me." he said smiling and beckoning the Surgeon inside to come out and speak with him. The Surgeon nodded and looked to his female assistant giving her a brief nod as well before heading past Tada outside with the officer. Tada scanned him briefly seeing him slip a cigarette into one pocket and lighter into the other of his coat. He'd been just about to have a smoke. As the coat fell back into place Tada spotted the pistol in his pants. The assistant looked to Tada and walked briskly and brazenly forward pulling him by the arm to a lay-back operating chair that seemed to also lie down into a table when need be. He felt like he was visiting the dentist. Wait, of course it did. They must have had those sadistic bastards there as well. He sat in the chair and she laid it down flat. She had a filled syringe in one hand, likely an anesthetic that would end up being used on him soon. Just as she went to latch the locks on his wrists he sat up slowly.

That's when his brain kicked into Tada mode again. The table behind her had an odd hammer like object on it. Flat blunt end, hooked at the other. Use unknown. There were empty syringes and a few stim-packs there as well. An IV was in the corner, Full. There was alcohol, a flask of what he assumed was whisky or some other booze, hydrogen peroxide, large wraps of bandages, styptic, gauze, sutures, pliers, tongs, tweezers, several scalpels, a small mallet, a box of latex gloves, several other fluids he couldn't identify. He did however also spot some cyanide. A bag sat by the odd hook hammer. There were no personal accents to this tent. It was a cold unfeeling workshop. The assistant stood in front of him seeming about to react to his movement by pushing him back down.

"Oh, one moment I had a question." he said looking at her and hold up one finger being sure to hold it between himself and the syringe she was holding The way she held it was defensive as if it was a weapon. As if she'd had to use it on someone before. She looked a bit startled and took it from her pocket. He kept his finger between it and himself.

"Yes, what is it?" she asked forcefully. "Quickly, we must begin the procedure." He smiled at her and she seemed momentarily confused by his grin. That moment is all he needed. Using his raised hand that he'd tactically placed while holding up his finger he knocked aside her syringe armed hand as he coiled the muscles in his legs instantly. Pushing off of the bottom of the table with his foot he hurled the point of his elbow into the apex of her trachea. He heard the telltale pop of its collapse and detachment from the esophagus. Her throat would begin to fill with blood that would pour down her throat and into the open windpipe down into her lungs. Immediately her eyes went wide with panic and surprise, but Tada pulled her trembling soon-to-be-corpse onto himself as if he were lying down. She fell to her knees at his side still leaned over the table. Tada slipped the syringe from her hand and held it in his hand hidden beneath his forearm. From the other side of the room it would seem she was either checking his breathing or examining his nostrils for some reason. Tada held his breath praying that the officer didn't return inside with the Surgeon. With great discomfort Tada slipped his fucked up arm from its sling. It's movement was barely there, but he could feel his fingers again and the elbow wasn't completely shattered to his surprise. That's when a memory surged back to light.

He was biting down hard on the towel in his mouth as the Surgeon smashed his arm once more with the mallet. Red, electric, grinding agony exploded through his elbow and he wailed into the muffling of the towel. "Oh that's a good sign. That carbon fiber skeletal weave holds together well. Torn tendons and several ligaments, but the bones hold together. Perfection."

Apparently his ribs weren't so lucky. Still, he could give his left arm about a 45 degree bend before it tried to go limp. That should be enough. If not, he'd have to make due.

Once his heart stopped pounding in his ears he began to make out the voice of the officer.

"I don't want him getting up and walking out of here a rebel again Dr. Gere. Is that understood.?"

"Yes sir."

"I should hope I don't have to report anything else to General Gyle. If you cannot get the job done, I will bring someone who can. Is that understood? I've already sent word back to the major's camp about Dr. Howell's mistake walking in here pretending to be suffering from full memory loss when he clearly had slight disorientation at best. Had I not been here he'd have likely fooled you all and made off with something important. Hell, just getting away without the problem fully solved would be bad enough. Check him out again, if you can't fix him keep him sedated. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes sir Commander." came the Surgeon's voice again.

"Good, my coffee's getting cold." Footsteps. Some lead away, others toward. Good. Tada's breath returned to him. It was time. The curtain peeled back and the Surgeon approached.

"Nilena what are you doing?" he asked harshly but inquisitively. He reached her grabbing her shoulder. The moment he pulled and felt the dead weight, Tada lurched forward, flipped the syringe around in his hand, and jammed it under the man's Adam's apple all the way back toward his spinal column and pushed the pump all the way down. The Surgeon stumbled back and Tada grabbed the front of his collar pulling him forward onto the table as he himself slid off letting the female's corpse fall to the side. Dr. Gere convulsed on the table and Tada grabbed the sadistic looking tool from near the wall. It looked like a hammer with a hook on the back but there were small grooves in the front of the hammer to make several small spikes in the impact point like a meat tenderizer. Whatever the hell that thing was for he had no idea, but for now...

The sickening crunch that echoed from the Surgeon's head was reminiscent of smashing a walnut on a stone counter. It wasn't terribly loud though. Of course it left a bit of a mess, but their job was messy. It would be alright if he played it right.

He came from the tent clothed in the oversized white coat of the late Dr. Gere. Having tucked the gun that Gere was carrying in his pants Tada was a little relieved. Best to have it and not need it than need and not have. Otherwise, the facemask and the circular pair of glasses hid his face nicely and his hair color luckily matched close enough that one of the small hair covers worked nicely for him to hide the difference in cut. He walked briskly and with purpose. The last thing he wanted was to be questioned. He went straight for the tent with the network connections. There were indeed computers in there, and file cabinets. Even Omega couldn't shirk the value of hard copies he supposed. Several of the soldiers there looked up at him and one stood up quickly.

"Dr. Gere, what are you doing here? Is something wrong?" she asked. Tada narrowed his eyes quickly reacting to her highly respectful demeanor. Her hands were slightly closed in some kind of nervousness. She was afraid of this Gere, their rank must have been pretty high. Tada's eyes blanketed over her uniform quickly behind the glasses.

"No corporal, but I need the files on G73-8. Immediately if you please." he said doing his best to imitate the Surgeon's voice. He got close. He coughed a little and cleared his throat hinting that this was the reason for difference in tone. This seemed to suffice as the woman simply nodded and ran over to one of the cabinets and pulled out a folder then sat at one of the computers. She began typing and brought something up on the screen. Tada quickly snapped his fingers and wagged them toward his palm as to say "Give it here." She looked confused.

"Sir, there is no computer in the medical tent..." she said tentatively. Tada didn't budge and simply held out his hand more forward. The corporal nodded and clicked a few times before removing a small flash drive from the cpu and handing it to him. He took it and swept from the tent as quickly as he arrived. His heart was racing. Now the hard part. Getting the hell out of this place in few enough pieces to review his info and regroup at wherever the fuck he was supposed to go. He made his way back into the medical tent. Either he was lucky, or damn good because no one seemed to take notice so far. Once there he essentially threw a fit. Knocking every liquid in the tent over on the bodies and on the floor before pulling the lighter and cigarette out of the dead surgeon's coat pocket and tossing the coat onto the pile of what had to be explosively flammable substances given the flame with a cross through it symbol on most everything he dumped over. He grabbed a small bag from the corner, emptied it, took some sutures and bandages, money from the assistant's wallet inside, grabbed an extra clip of pistol ammo from the side compartment, also took the cell phone, and put the files and such in the bag. Next he took one of the stim-packs from the table and took a deep breath before putting it in a syringe and jamming it into his arm. He grunted hard as the stimulant coursed through his veins accelerating his healing and adrenal surge suddenly. His heartbeat began to thunder through his body and he shook his head and rolled his eyes in his head once before focusing.

"Whoo, damn. That's impressive shit." he growled to himself quickly needling one of the long strips of flammable bandaging from the top of the tent to the pool of flammable liquid so that when the flames reached the top they'd quickly ignite and burn down to the alcohol. It was time. He would light back of the tent and let the rest take care of itself. After all, he didn't want to be anywhere near this concoction when it lit up.
................................................................................................................................................

Commander Adlar Hoch smiled to himself as he sat back in his chair content that he'd done a good job yet again. As General Gyle's lead officer in charge of keeping tabs on their local sleeper cell, he'd enjoyed actually doing some leg work in his job for once. It'd had been so long since he'd gotten the chance to work with the G73-8. Damn did it feel good to outsmart that bastard too. Genius level intellect required an equal to conquer or it seemed oh so useless. If only he got to do that more often. His cell phone rang and he sat forward straightening tightly when he saw the name.

"General."

"Hoch. How's our boy?" asked steel and gravel voice of the General. Adlar smiled to himself.

"He's quite good General, but I prove better."

"I don't expect good from you Hoch. I expect goddamn immaculate."

"He claims memory loss but I see through his ruse. He's in the hands of Dr. Gere right now getting you your results. The moment the new operation is done we'll get him back in the field and sniffing out those rebel dogs."

"You had better hope so. When I put someone in charge and they perform sub par work I tend to get restless. Howell made me restless. I had him take some time off and he decided to get some Dental work done. On the subject, how are your teeth Hoch? Maybe you could use some time off too."

"No sir. Nein, my mouth is fine. You'll see soon enough I have no distractions. My work will speak for itself." he said before a smell stopped him cold. Smoke. One of the grunts tore into his building looking panicked.

"Sir, the medical tent is on fire!" he shouted.

"What the hell!? Get the fuck out there and put it out! Now!" shouted Adlar jumping up and running out leaving the General hanging.

"Hoch? Hoch what the fuck is going on?" barked the voice left behind.

Once outside he could see the flames rising on the tent nearing the top. A few men were at the back of it hitting it and throwing mud and sand at it trying to slow it or put it out. Thus far it didn't seem like anything inside had caught, but where the hell were the Surgeons!?

"Get back! Get back away from-," Adlar ran towards it shouting at his men when suddenly the entire tent exploded violently. He was knocked on his back from the force of the neon plume that went into the air and suddenly looked up horrified as the orange flames now engulfed the entire structure. The soldiers who were standing nearby were on the ground and not getting up. Unfortunately they couldn't be treated. Soldiers ran up hurling buckets of water and sand onto it as a few others approached with the hose to blast it. Adlar got shakily to his feet and looked around in awe. He couldn't believe this. He couldn't believe this was happening. That's when he saw something running across the rubble of Oxford. He whipped out his gun and marched toward the thing that approached the horizon and fired a few shots at it until some of the men looked up at where he was shooting.

"Get him! GET HIM!!!" he bellowed sending a group of soldiers after the figure as the rest struggled to get the chemical fire under control.
................................................................................................................................................

Tada ran stumbling on his right leg every step but moving with as much speed as he could muster. A glance back saw a small squad hurrying after him, four in total. He pulled the pistol from his pants and kept going hearing a bullet hit a piece of stone next to him. He instinctively ducked his head low as he ran. There were some woods close by that stretched into the countryside. He could make it. With a quick whip around he took a few shots at the approaching soldiers making them duck behind some rubble he'd passed long ago. They moved exponentially faster than him and his busted body, but that stimulant was helping. It had probably served as the difference between life and death. Still, he had to get rid of those guys. This shit pistol would never get through their body armor and if he was close enough to headshot one of them they'd be close enough to gun him down with those rifles easily. A few more yards and he turned again taking a couple more shots and hearing a few bullets whiz by him. He dove to the side and hit large piece of a wall that had been blasted away from the school. Their rounds would likely go through it but it was still cover. Crawling behind it on his one good arm he had to think. He was only a little way from the woods where they'd have a lot more trouble hitting him, he may even be able to lose them. Still, if they lived they'd be able to take information back. At that distance that man would have to check the inside of the tent to make sure Tada himself hadn't died in the fire before they knew it was him. It would be brief, but it was still something that could slow them down. Not to mention it would delay the advanced pursuit which was something he definitely needed.

"Dammit." he cursed beneath his breath. If he shot up from behind that stone they'd put a few slugs in his back and his story would end right then and there. Game fucking over. Tada gritted his teeth. He desperately needed a ploy. Finally he heard them closing in preparing to circle around and corner him. Instead he put his hands up as high and he could after tucking the gun back into his pants and slowly stood.

"Keep your hands up. Keep them up!" shouted one of the soldiers as Tada stood. A second soldier closed in and came around to take the gun from his back.

Think, he commanded himself. He had to come up with something. Now. As the man circled around to disarm him Tada spun around him and pulled the pun from a grenade on his vest. The soldier immediately let his rifle drop to it's sling and grabbed the grenade to hold the spoon on it. In that instant Tada drew his gun again and pointed it at his the man's head.

"Don't move, and unless you planned on dying here today you better keep you hand on that grenade." he instructed seeing the other three soldiers keeping their guns trained on him even though he was behind their friend. When no one fired he knew his ploy was working so far. One of them began to try and slowly circle out. "I said don't move. Don't. Fucking. Move." he growled. The soldier paused and staid still. Tada grabbed his new hostages collar and pulled him along as he backed away. He had to depend on the man not being able to sense how weak the arm was. No choice but to bluff. This situation sucked.

"Look, just stay calm. You know you can't get out of here like this. If you kill him it's over for you. Let's do this peacefully yeah?" said one of the soldiers.

"Drop your weapons." Tada commanded. He was stalling. That wasn't going to happen.

The soldier shook his head. "You know I can't do that mate, but look it's fine alright?" he said. As Tada began to back up slowly with is hostage the other three men continued to maintain a distance comfortable for them, following him. They were well trained. He didn't doubt if it came to it they would shoot through him though. He had to do this carefully. Tada felt his hostage tense so he thrust his knee against the back of the man's leg crippling his balance for a moment so he couldn't try anything.

"You think I won't do it? I kill him, he drops the 'nade, we all go up. You want that?" Tada spat. "I'm as good as dead if I go back there. I don't mind taking you bastards with me." Tada switched his face to the other side of the hostage's head and moved a little to the side. Two of the soldiers were trying to line up a shot on him.

"No man. No, we can work this out. No one has to die." the soldier coaxed. Tada was a little closer to the woods now. These guys weren't likely to be using armor piercing rounds so this guy could be used as a shield briefly if need be. Tada glanced at his surroundings for a moment then held his breath. "Just drop the gun and-"

The shot tore through the head of his hostage, the hand released the grenade. He had 3.5 seconds. The soldiers were stunned for just a moment as adrenal shock took hold, their muscles tightened and mind reeled to settle into the proper process.

Tada's arm whipped forward pulling the trigger again and tagging the soldier in front of him clean through the jaw almost in the same motion he'd used to kill his hostage. The man spun around and hit the ground. Tada slid his arm around the neck of the corpse he was holding and he wrapped it around to pull it close.

It REALLY fucking hurt.

The body was heavy and he was forced to fall backward with it. Shots whizzed over his head and hit the body armor of his dead hostage a couple of times. One bullet grazed his side just before he hit the ground.

Two seconds.

Tada squeezed the trigger again hitting one of the men again but in the side as they turned to run and take cover. Tada dropped the pistol and grabbed the grenade pivoting his hips to coil his muscles and rearing back to wind up for the throw.

One second.

He threw the grenade as far as he could toward the direction they were running, slammed his eyes shut, and pulled the body on top of himself.

Everything went blurry for a second, but not quite black.

The planet shuttered and heaved beneath him and his world went into a sideways skid making his vision lopsided and leaving a ringing in his ears that had a slight hiss to it not unlike reaching high altitudes before your ears pop. His chest felt heavy and his legs felt weaker than overcooked noodles. Quiet. Eerie ringing. There was a writhing feeling in his spine and gut.

Taking a moment to breath Tada rolled over and began to try and stand. His knees did not cooperate as he wound up stumbling several feet and almost falling back down. His vision was nothing but odd blurs, waves, and echoes of sight. Bright in too many spots and dark where it counted. Something was moving strangely and different than everything else. Tada narrowed his eyes straining to see what it was as he stumbled forward without thinking. Suddenly it hit him.

"Oh ffffuck." he slurred through his daze. The shape was the soldier he'd hit in the jaw. He knew because the blob was holding a dripping area on its face. His vision began to string together lining up at the frayed seams until he saw the soldier clearly look up at him with agony, tears, and rage in his eyes.

"GraaaaaaAAAAGH!!!" he roared holding up his rifle. Tada's eyes shot wide and he bolted to the left hearing gunshots go off. He saw another large piece of stone -thank God- and tripped his way behind it rolling as he heard lead decimate stone. Large pieces popped off and shattered through on the boulder as Tada rolled. He heard the gun click and the soldier growl angrily. Knowing the guy had to have a sidearm Tada leapt up and tackled him over the rock grabbing his wrist so he couldn't point the gun. The man rammed his forehead into Tada's nose making him reel backward, but Tada clenched his teeth and weaved right to avoid the next headbutt. He tried to secure a mount on the man but the soldier pushed him over and rolled on top. Tada wrapped his legs around the man's waist securing a high jiu-jitsu guard and reached across the man's face pressing hard on his hand making his fingers push towards his elbow until the hand opened and released the pistol. The soldier roared and bit Tada's arm hard. Tada hissed and tried to hit him with his left fist but it fell uselessly against his face. Knowing he needed to try something that would actually work, he grabbed the man's left wrist and hooked his leg above the should and wrapping it around the back of his neck trying to work for a triangle choke. The soldier put his other arm underneath Tada so it couldn't be pushed beneath his chin and used to choke him. Tada growled loudly and rammed two downward elbows into the man's head before the soldier lifted him up high and slammed him down against the boulder. Tada's world swam in pain and breathlessness for a moment and when the shock was over he realized his guard had opened and the man lifted up and came down hard on his left arm with his knee. There was a loud pop, a surge of pain, and Tada knew the arm was again useless. The man sat on top of him, blood pouring from his open face like some kind of walking dead and he raised a gloved fist bringing it crashing down into Tada's defenseless head. The punch struck with the force of a brick sending Tada's head against the rock hard. His vision returned to blurs and wisps. Another punch. His eyes began to roll back already. He brought his right arm up to try and cover but the fist struck anyway sending his head against the rock again.

"Are you okay?" It read knowingly. Tada scoffed and shook his head sighing and responding.

"Yes. Why do you ask?" Lying was much easier over text message. Especially now when his brain, his single most dependable weapon, was a wreck.

"I just haven't seen you smile in a while. Something seems off. Did we make a mistake, Love?" She capitalized 'love' as if it was his new name. Title. She must have always felt this way. Felt he was her love. Her One, perhaps. Maybe if he wasn't losing his sense he'd have felt the same way. She was beautiful, she was intelligent, and she was...Paige. A pain rang in his chest sharply. In her innocent affection he'd couldn't fathom telling her what he'd done. So unlike him. Not him at all. At least, Tada would like to think it wasn't. Infidelity? Murder? Deception? What was he becoming? He had just typed back

"I'm sorry, I'll smile for you the next time I see you okay? I promise."


His eyes flickered open again to see the soldier grabbing the handgun to aim it and fire it into Tada's head. It was almost funny. In the end the immaculate strategist was wrong. It wouldn't be the blackouts that would be the death of him after all. It had been a good run, but now it came to an end. He only hoped Paige would carry on well without him. Perhaps it was better she didn't find out what he'd become.
................................................................................................................................................

Adlar heard three more gunshots in the distance. What the hell were those idiots doing? How hard would it be to kill one man? He dismissed it. He had bigger things to worry about, the fire was finally coming under control but they were down to the bare bones on medical supplies since the tent was burned down, he didn't know for sure if G73-8 was dead in there or if he was the cause of the fire, and he had five men dead and three injured from the explosion. This was a small camp and those losses would reflect very poorly on him. If his men hadn't gotten the situation under control by the time they got the fire out he'd take the rest with him safe a few technicians to finish the situation. Then it dawned on him that he'd left the General hanging on the phone. His stomach sank like a stone down into the hull of his scrotum. Adlar walked quickly to his office again and dialed back.

"General I apologize. There was a fire and my men and I are getting it under control. There's no need to worry u-uh everything is fine now. I'm sorry I hung up on you, you have my full attention again General Gyle, sir." he rambled feeling like his tongue was tumbling around in his own mouth. The silence on the other end of the line made him increasingly uneasy. "General Gyle?"

"I heard you Commander." came the voice in response, "Unfortunately for you I decided to ignore you. I trust I didn't miss anything important?"

"Uh..." Adlar cleared his throat rubbing his face nervously. "No sir."

"Good. I'll be coming to inspect your work soon. I expect to-"

"But G-G-General I-"

"EXCUSE me, did I interrupt you while you were speaking?"

"...No sir."

"I damn well expect the same courtesy Commander. As I was saying: I expect to meet your star player when I get there." said Gyle before quickly ending the call. Adlar dropped his phone. He was ruined. A demotion was imminent, but if he could catch that man, and he prayed to God that it was Tada he could possibly avoid the Dentists. Most who returned from them ended up being effectively useless other than their merit as examples of why you'd rather just die than let them have their way with you. He quickly grabbed a bucket of water. First things first, this fire had to die. He had to trust his men's abilities. Besides, it was quiet now. They should be on their way back by now. Even if it was just a body, that was enough. That would be just enough.
................................................................................................................................................

General Gyle tossed his phone onto his desk and shook his head before standing. There was a knock at his door and he shouted to come in. General Cobb entered,

"General Gyle. I heard some rather characteristic cursing coming from in here a little bit ago. Thought I'd sate my curiosity." he said with a bit of a gleam in his eye. Gyle turned and straightened the name plaque on his desk slightly. It read "Hector Gyle Senior Infiltration Officer". Indeed, he was the head of the Sleeper Cell Program. G73-8 was in fact one of the more successful projects, but given it's recent malfunctions it was quickly falling back in his eyes of importance. At this point its termination would be almost as beneficial as its recovery.

"I believe Cell G73-8 has escaped and is still malfunctioning. I have reason to believe anyway."

"That's a damn shame Hec. Bout makes me wanna cry." joked Cobb. "Don't tell you'll be packing up if he gets away from us?" Gyle looked up at his fellow officer and raised his eyebrows, though was partially obscured by the patch over his right eye, the other by the long thin scar that ran over it toward the center of his face over his mouth.

"It'd make me feel the same way Tim." he answered standing up straight and facing his friend and smiling. "That is, if I gave even one one-hundredth of a shit about that waste of carbon and water. I'm more concerned with Commander Hoch's lack of effectiveness. 'Tada' showed promise. Lot's of it and would be quite valuable if resecured -which has not been ruled out- but it is not a priority. I have my priorities quite in line." he said moving past Cobb and patting him on the shoulder. "You didn't think I only made one of those did you?" Tim Cobb smiled and chuckled to himself turning and following Gyle from the office.

"So, what's with the G?" Cobb asked curiously.

"Come again?" Gyle asked. Cobb waved his hand a little.

"You know, the 'G' in G73-8 or G73-0 through 9 or how ever many you got. Is the G for Gyle?" he asked. Gyle let out a sigh and shook his head.

"No sir. The damn G stands for Goddamn as in Goddamn Idiots Can't Tell a C as in 'Cell' from a G as in "Gimp". That's what the damn G stands for." Hector grumbled. Cobb looked disbelieving at him for a moment.

"Well I have always told you those damn gimps -as you say- in the office can't tell their ass from a hole in the ground, but really? Are you fuckin' with me General?"

"No more than your wife is while you're fifteen and a quarter thousand miles from her."

"Touche. Though if you care to take a bit of my advice Gyle, I'd just tell people it stands for your name."

"Will do."
......................................................................................................................................

Twenty Minutes Earlier...

Tada opened his eyes slowly seeing the soldier fall over on his side, blood oozing from the side of his head and his arms. Where had those three gunshots come from if Tada himself was still alive? He slowly sat up still a bit shaken and dazed seeing three figures running towards him. Vision swaying he turned over and tried to stands slowly. The figures reached him as he began to see in focus once more. Two were men and one was a female. A familiar looking female.

"Tada?" she said surprised. Tada's heartbeat swelled for a moment until she came into view. Dark hair, green eyes, light freckles.

"Jess?" he asked remembering the girl from when he'd first sought out his instructor Sofia Ortrun. She was a dissembler, a double meant to fill in for operatives above ground. He remembered she'd flirted with him then. Right now he was just glad she was there and could fire a gun. He'd be dead otherwise.

"What the hell are you doing way out here alone?" she asked clearly shocked. He groaned and stood holding his arm.

"No time to explain that now. We need to get gone."

"No shit!" barked one of the men looking into the distance seeing the smoke rising over the outer grounds that obscured them from view. "Did you start that fire, man?!" he shouted. Tada ignored him and looked around at the bodies of the soldiers he'd killed. 'That's where the Omega camp is isn't it? Fuck! What were you doing?!"

"Grab my bag from behind that rock." Tada commanded beginning to pull the grenades, ammo, and sidearms from the bodies. The man just scoffed,

"I didn't even want to come out here. We need to run, now."

"They will catch you, and you will die. I don't care if you wanted to come out and help me or not. What matters is you ended up doing it and that's the situation we're in. Now do you want to live or not?" Tada asked with keen sharpness in his voice glancing up at the man. The other male looked at his friend. "Good, I'm Tada as you heard." Jess nodded and looked at the two.

"Come on go get it, he knows what he's doing." she said kneeling and helping Tada.

"What's the plan super brain?" she asked glancing up at him. He didn't look up at her.

"I have some sutures in my bag I can use them to make some booby traps near the entrance to the forest."

"What about civilians?"

"If this plan works they won't be there long enough for that to be a problem." he said. "He may be getting desperate at this point. We need that. He's smart so I have to do something he won't expect. Something below my caliber." Tada continued.
................................................................................................................................................

Adlar stared at the scorched pile of ash and black soot. That could very well be his future there. That stain on the dead grass and dirt his dreams and ambitions. He'd already reached so high, why stop here? He took a breath and looked to his people. There were only twelve of them standing. Three in the field, 5 dead, 3 injured. Small camp indeed. Of course, with the General's arrival would also come the bulk that would truly flesh out the camp. Until this day Adlar had looked forward to it. To getting this area finished up and then transporting off to another area. He ordered six with him and the other six to tend to the fallen and wounded. It was one man. Just one man.

They neared the area full of large fallen rocks seeing two of the dead soldiers. Adlar clenched his teeth and moved forward. "I don't believe this." he muttered to himself before looking at his current team and motioning for them to search around the forest edge. Adlar noticed the stripped gear from his men. "Be careful, there may be traps." he said turning over one of the men seeing a hole clean through his jaw and shaking his head.

"Commander I found something." called one of the soldiers spitting out his gum. "Looks like a tripwire." he said. Adlar smirked and took a knee near it staring at the wire.

"Nylon, he used the surgical tools from the tent. I must say this is less than I expected from our pet project." he said tsking and standing again. The third soldier was slumped against a nearby tree.

"Hey Commander, Mills still has his grenades on h-"

Had Commander Adlar Hoch had a few more minutes he may have chosen to look again at that wire. Doing so may or may not have told him that this particular nylon surgical suture had been 'worked'. That is, burned/melted and shaved down with a sharp blade. It's tensile strength was considerably weakened to the point that a thread that would hold without reduction in strength for several years would snap in just minutes. The stressor would be another thing he failed to notice because he was assuming Tada was operating below maximum capacity. Two branches were pulled down somewhat and had the chords tied to their ends thus creating a pull. Of course even if he noticed these things all he'd be able to do was run. Still, it would be better than what actually happened.

Every grenade lined along the forest edge and attached to Lenny "Grinny" Mills's vest exploded almost simultaneously.
................................................................................................................................................
They heard the explosions go off and then silence. The wait afterward was harder than the wait before. Several minutes passed in silence before Tada finally stood up behind the tree, his arm placed again in a makeshift sling.

"I'll go check it out." he said walking forward. Jess followed him. He looked weak, hell he felt weak. That stimulant had worn off and now his body was trying to wind down to heal. Tada wanted to die. Actually no he didn't. He'd had plenty of opportunity. When he got to the edge of the forest again several trees were damaged or fallen and there were bodies across it, that Commander included. A quick check left him with nothing but a sigh of relief. Dead. All dead. Tada stood up straight and breathed for a moment before heading back toward the group. Jess touched his arm.

"You alright?" she asked looking concerned. He only glanced at her but picked up that she'd filled out a bit. She was quite thin before, much more on the slim side. Now it seemed she'd been training a bit and packed on more muscle and fat, but the good kind of fat. The kind Tada himself actually needed more off. Those blackouts had ruined his diet and he frequently found himself starving and often would black out again before he ate. There was no telling how many days he'd gone with no food.

"I'm alright." he responded as they reached back to the other two guys. They all continued deeper with Jess leading and holding his bag for him.

"So, you gonna explain yourself? Tada right?" asked one of the guys.

"Yeah."

"I'm Nolan, this is Rick." he said pointing to the more quiet guy next to him. "You know Jess apparently." he said. Tada nodded.

"Alright." he said again staring listlessly forward. He noticed his perception of things was wobbling a little. "I need to rest." he said suddenly. Jess turned and looked at him and suddenly went over and grabbed him and set him down. Nolan and Rick looked shocked.

"Whoa man what's wrong?" Rick piped up. Tada shook his head brushing Jess's hands off of him.

"Nothing, calm down I'm just....I'm just exhausted." he said feeling something wet coming down his nose. At first he thought it was from eating a nasty headbutt from that soldier during their fight. Then the dizziness set in. Spots appeared in his vision, nausea, suddenly his vision went white, then black, then everything was far too bright and he was falling back. He tried to take a deep breath but his chest was heavy, eyes rolling back, what was wrong with him. Something was speaking to him, muffled at first then growing louder as everything faded.

Ambulabo umbra Dei
They landed the helicopter in the middle of rural Pennsylvania to refuel. The next stop was the coastline and that’s where everything would get dicey. Colt had no idea if the codes Frank had downloaded were going to work. He didn’t know if they would even make it over the ocean or if the beast would survive whether or not they got clearance. He had no idea what was going to happen next.

His brother stood next to the metal monstrosity, filling it back up while Colt stood guard. There was no real civilization for miles, just a small, darkened farmhouse at the edge of the field. The lights had come on when they landed but no one had left the building.

He wondered if they’d called the authorities. Maybe they were already on their way. Or maybe they thought they were the authorities.

“Are we going to make it?” Eli asked. The words came from behind him, small and tired.

Colt’s face fell, but he didn’t look behind him. His thumb caressed the gun around his hip but it didn’t make him feel any better. The words stirred a faded memory, the tone similar even if the words weren’t. Right after their parents had died, and Eli asked him what happened next. Emotion stirred in his chest, doubt and fear playing tug of war in his mind until he pushed it all down and just tightened his fingers around his gun. “Of course we’re gonna fucking make it,” he said, his voice gruff.

His brother snorted and Colt couldn’t tell whether he believed him or not. He wanted to ask if he was okay because all their friends were dead, but he kept his mouth shut because the answer was probably no and he wouldn’t know what to say after that. Instead he kicked at some rocks and finally looked over his shoulder at the kid. “You should take a nap or something before we make the coast.”

Eli made a face at him. “Maybe you should take a nap since you’re the one who got a grenade dropped on his head.”

“It’ll take more than a grenade to kill me.” He laughed as he said it, but his hands were shaking as he dug his cigarettes out of his pocket. His head was still pounding, cotton shoved in one ear and blood drying on the back of his neck.

His brother didn’t laugh, but he heard his voice as he hopped back up into the helicopter. “I hope you’re right.”

He snorted, attention turning back to the farmhouse. The lights had flicked in, a small glow against the darkness, a star in the blankness of space. He wondered for a heartbeat about the people inside, whether they were afraid of their government or happy with them or just didn’t think about it anymore. He felt a stark loneliness, like maybe he and Eli were the only ones in the world who still cared, and if his brother really did at all. They didn’t talk about life philosophies or what the endgame was.

For his part, Colt was filled with a particular brand of bitterness. He just wanted to rip the whole thing down, and then never replace it. He wanted chaos and freedom, the government left in a pile of rubble and humanity to be forced to take care of themselves, to stop bowing their heads and accepting what other people told them as truths. He wanted anarchy. He wanted creation through destruction.

He thought he was probably going to die before he saw anything close to that. Everyone he knew had. Houston was dead, and he’d thought that man was indestructible. He’d taken bullets to the chest, had more scars than any normal man could survive.

Except he hadn’t. He was dead and Frank was dead and everyone they’d ever known was dead and gone. The only hope they had left was a quiet, secretive message that someone had slipped to Frankie and even that could just lead them straight into more trouble.

The problem was that it was the only plan they had. If it were him alone, he’d just keep fighting until he died in a grand explosion.

But he had to keep his brother safe. Which meant they couldn’t just sit around waiting to see if anyone had followed them from New Mexico or if the strangers in a distant farmhouse had already called the authorities? Maybe spinning red and blue lights were already on their way.

He sucked on the cigarette in his mouth and then turned back to the helicopter. “Of course I’m right,” he yelled inside. His boots were loud against the metal rungs and he grinned through smoke and ash on his face when he leaned his head in. “I’m always right. Thought you’d have figured it out by now.”

Eli was in his pilot’s chair, leaned back and looking small and tired. “You always think you’re right,” he told him.

Colt shrugged. “It’s the same thing. You gonna get some rest or not?”

His brother shook his head. “Can’t sleep.”

He wanted to argue with him, wanted to tell the kid to roll out a sleeping bag and sleep while he could, because the flight wasn’t going to get any easier from here. They watched the coast closely, probably even worse thanks to all the troubles over in the British Isles, and they’d be lucky if codes were enough to get them through. They might be flying straight to their deaths.

“Fine,” he said. “Let’s see what this death trap can do.”

*****


There was a buzzing in Colt’s ears. Like words spoken through water.

Smoke tickled at his lungs. Houston’s voice came from a distance, rough and grating from years of fighting, inhaling smoke from grenades and bullet casings. “Sorry about your folks, Banner,” he said. It was followed by a clap on the back, jarring him in the small metal chair. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the old man, grizzled and scarred as he put his other hand on Eli’s shoulder.

His little brother had his arms wrapped around his ribs, holding on tightly as their world fell apart. His voice was small and echoed weirdly in his ears but his lips never moved. “Colt?” he said. He lifted his head and his eyes were sad and glazed.

He blinked as his brother said his name again, the helicopter shuddering as the fighter jets made another pass.

“Turn around now and land your helicopter.” A stranger’s voice blared through the speakers and into Colt’s ear. “Only official government craft are allowed to leave at this time.” Out the window he could see the ocean below them and the coast line stretched out behind them, a line of lights reflecting off the water. In front of them were ocean and dark clouds, lightning flashing before their eyes. A storm in front of them and a storm behind them. They were trapped firmly in the middle.

“Shit,” Eli said. His head craned over his shoulder. “What do we do?”

His hands tightened on the handles of the turrets. He smirked at his brother. “I hope this thing works.”

Eli made a noise and turned his head back towards the approaching storm. “Shit,” he said again. Bright light split the sky in front of them as lightning danced across the clouds, a loud rumble followed. There was the scream of an engine as the jet darted in front of them, the two of them taking up flanking positions on either side of them. “I repeat, turn around and land, or we will be forced to fire.”

“We have authorization,” Eli said. Ahead of him, the first drops of rain started to strike the windshield, blurring their vision as the dark sky loomed over them. “I sent you the clearance codes. We have permission to leave.”

“My orders are to let no one out of the country,” the man’s voice shot back. “This is your last warning.”

“Just keep flying,” Colt told Eli, his voice growing hard. Then he yanked the door open, rain hitting him immediately. A cold wind rushed through, below them the waters choppy and dark. He distantly hoped they didn’t crash and die in the middle of the ocean. He had an irrational fear of sharks. If he was going to die he’d rather die in an explosion or getting gunned down.

He slid back behind the turret and felt a thrill of satisfaction when he started to fire. There was a flash as bullets flew from the barrel, the whole thing shuddering in his hands as he fired into the rain and the dark. Sparks lit off the jet as he razed the side.

The engines screamed as it peeled away, the second one following in its wake.

“They’re behind us,” Eli told him. “I hope you can survive missiles too.” His voice came from a long ways away, the rain growing heavier. It hit the deck in front of him, boots already soaked and face stinging from the sharp slap of water against his skin. Thunder rumbled and roared, almost drowning out the rotors above them and the two jets that were falling into place behind them.

Gunfire erupted against the tail end in a sharp burst. Colt let out a stream of curses, ducking his head as a bullet shattered the metal wall in front of him and back out the other side. “Can you swing us around?” he yelled.

“You’re insane,” Eli told him. “I just want you to know that, before we both go down in flames.”

The helicopter tilted and he was grateful for the shoulder straps holding him down as it careened to the side. A hard gust of wind struck them and he heard his brother cursing, the console screaming as lights and warnings went off. Colt gritted his teeth and swiveled the turret behind them, letting off another burst of gunfire. An arc of bullets cut across both of them, but the second jet managed to peel off before he could do any damage. The first one didn’t. He saw it tilt in the air before it flew past them.

The engines were still roaring as it crashed into the ocean, smoke rising from the engines. He didn’t see the pilot eject, but he’d stopped feeling guilty about that a long time ago. There were only two sides in this war, and he’d picked the wrong side.

“The problem,” Houston told him. He ground a cigar between his teeth, the ash scattering across his pants as he loaded a shotgun in front of him. “Is that the same people you want to save are the people you have to kill.” He took the cigar from his teeth and grinned at him. It was dark and never reached his eyes. “That’s the world we live in. You prepared to live with that.”

“Yeah,” Colt told him. “Yeah, I’m prepared to live with that.

“I can’t see the second jet anymore,” Eli shouted back at him. Colt swiveled the turret but all he saw was rain and shadow, pouring down from the sky and swallowing them up in darkness. His heart pounded loudly in his ears, water running into his eyes and blurring his vision. Lightning crashed across the sky and he heard his brother yelp as it split the air right next to them. He felt the hair on his arms rise up, electricity thick in the air.

The second jet peeled out of the darkness with guns blazing. He cursed and yanked back on the triggers on instinct, bullets scattering into the night as a row of them struck the helicopter. Metal screamed against metal and sparks lit up as gunfire blazed across the deck. He heard his brother shout, heard crackling as a stray bullet caught his console and then the jet disappeared on the opposite side.

Alarms went off, quiet against the roaring of the storm and the spinning of the rotors above them. But Colt could see holes in his brother’s console, his hands white-knuckled around the controls.

Then Eli’s voice came again, quiet and muffled.

“Shit.”
The sound of bullets drew ever closer, inching their way toward Irena and the heart of the bunker. Every step meant a dead colleague, a murdered friend, a butchered lover, and was one step closer to her own death. There was no way she was getting out of here. Not unless she was going to betray the rebellion. And that would never happen.

Omega had gotten there early this morning. Someone had tipped them off, she supposed, warned them that the popular nightclub was more than it seemed. That rebels hid there, tucked away behind a bookshelf, an old speakeasy trick from the days of prohibition so long ago. Some concerned citizen had effectively murdered them.

It had been good for the Chicago enclaves, truth be told. They were at the heart of the informational black market, gathering stolen secrets from around the nation and encrypting them for the journey across the pond. Sometimes Brazil, sometimes Russia, more often than not the halls of Oxford, the information all came through Chicago.

It all came through her.

It was probably for the best that Omega wasn’t interested in taking captives. The Doctors would have no trouble getting everything she knew, extracting it one morsel at a time from her unwilling mind. She’d lost a brother to those bastards. She’d had a run-in herself with the Surgeons a few years back, before Jaime had decided to break her out.

Irena limped—her hips had never quite healed after the Surgeons had shattered them—dragging her broken body across the room and to the computer. They’d known Omega was coming. Eventually, Omega came for everyone. But no one had dreamed an entire nation would be wiped out in a single morning.

It had started in New York, in D.C. and Miami, the port town at the heart of the food smuggling operation. At the same time, they took Seattle and San Francisco. Los Angeles had managed to hold out for a while, she’d heard, just long enough to send a file—a huge file, with everything they had hidden in its depths—and destroy their mainframe.

Within minutes, Omega had rolled across the vaunted American plain, toppling every city, taking every town, killing every person even suspected of being a rebel. Building their way to the heart of the American rebellion, to Chicago, to her.

L.A. had warned her, but the message had come just as a flash bomb exploded down their stairwell, black-clad men swarming, shooting indiscriminately, into the heretofore hidden halls of their home. Irena had scrambled, crawling toward the computer and locking the door behind her. She hoped it would buy her enough time to do what she needed to do.

Someone screamed, the wretched, painful shriek of violent death, and Irena closed her eyes for a moment, fingers flying over the keys unabated. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she could feel the sweat trickling down the back of her neck. They were no more than ten feet away, and she had so much left to do. She had to hope the others could hold them back for just a few more moments.

Irena was not afraid to die. She’d known she would from the moment Jaime had joined the rebellion, taking her with him. Her big brother was the world to her, and without the love of supportive parents—who knew where they were, after all these years—wherever Jaime went, Irena was sure to follow. And Irena had known she was following him to her death. But the sound of it, the icy chuckle of the reaper crawling its way toward her, that scared her.

The thought that she would die before she could finish here, that America would fall and all of its work be lost, frightened her more than anything.

Jaime was dead, had died rescuing her from Omega Substation West almost ten years ago now. He’d gone down screaming, a visit to the Doctor’s chair gone wrong, some experimental drug eating its way through his brain. She’d hacked into the feed a few days later (after she’d healed enough to sit up and work) and watched, forcing herself to stare as her brother served as a lab rat for Deklahn.

She still had nightmares about the Pythia, about what they’d learned that day, about what Jaime’s life had bought them. That video was still in the computer. And it would be, until she sent it off into the world, and destroyed the mainframe. Omega didn’t need to see it, didn’t need to know what Irena knew, what America knew. What the whole rebellion now knew.

The shots grew closer by the second. How long had her colleagues bought her? Two minutes? Three? Enough to get done what needed doing. She’d planned for this years ago, written a program into the computer that would take care of everything. Every file, every piece of information on her hard drive would live on, safe in the hands of the English rebellion, and Omega would never be able to recover it.

Superior technology never won out against a desperate underdog.

They were at the door now, turning the knob, kicking at the metal frame. Irena had had it installed some years back, as a last ditch defense. It would only gain her a minute, but that was all she needed now, fingers desperately pounding the keys, activating the program, waiting for the last of the files to send before she hit enter.

The door behind her flew open just as the last file sent. Irena turned and smiled, her finger pressing down on the enter key even as the Omega agents opened fire.
*****


Charon Trusko was a very busy man.

It was probably a good thing that he basically ran himself ragged these days. Exhaustion was the greatest remedy against thought, and he had far too many dangerous recollections roiling about in his head these days. Too many sorrows clung to him. Like bits of straw, they stuck, ‘til he was nothing but a raggedy scarecrow of painful memories with but the semblance of a man.

Too bad he was in charge of an entire planet’s rebellion. He might have had time to become a proper drunk, like the authors of old. Max wouldn’t have minded seeing that, truth be told. He’d never seen a genius drunkard before, like Hemingway or Poe. It might have been inspiring.

If Max were being honest with himself—and he usually was—Charon was probably not the best person to be running a war. From what Max could tell, the Englishman was a peaceful man at heart, a man of ideas. Someone—something—had driven him to this. Omega, more than likely, like so many others who’d come to their banner.

Max wasn’t sure it was enough for a leader to be a rebel only by necessity. He’d always thought the rebellion needed a firebrand, a true believer, not one who’d chosen it only because he’d been burned. Someone like…well, someone like Phelps.

How Max wished Phelps would wake up. Without him, Professor Trusko was alone. Naomi was dead, and Sofia had never turned up. And Stephens…Stephens had died betraying them.

Hell, Max thought, running a hand through his hair and staring at the latest information out of America, he’d have been happy to see that Russian walking through that door right about now. At least it would have gotten the King off of everyone’s back.

Max did not like Edward, truth be told. The King was too young, far too young, to shoulder the burden of rule, and he had not handled it well. Like Charon, Edward was a man of peace. Unlike the rebel, he was unwilling to fight for it. And so the young man sat around in a constant state of sullen disapproval for everything around him.

It did not make Edward a popular man.

Charon had mentioned once that he saw a lot of Mia in her brother. That they were both entirely too stubborn for their own good. But at least the Princess was adaptable, and had the virtue of being useful to the rebellion. Edward knew peace and the maintaining of it. And worse, he seemed to think less of those putting their lives on the line to reclaim it.

“Mr. Trusko, I’ve got the latest on America.”

Charon turned to follow the voice, twisting the ring on his left hand as he did so. Days like this were hard on the man, hard on everyone, really. America had never been a powerhouse, not really. Instead, they’d been the heart of a worldwide black market, supplying food and advanced tech from right under Omega’s nose. At least, that’s what they’d always thought. “What have you got, Max?”

“It’s not good, sir. Every major enclave has been wiped out. The American government seems to have known where each and every one was. They placed a series of rats into each major group, and allowed civilians to squeal on the others.” Max looked up from the reports flashing their way across the screen. “It looks as though they’ve been planning this for a long time.”

Rubbing his eyes, Charon sighed. An entire nation taken in a single day. True, America had supported Deklahn in the last war, and in every year in between, but the loss was horrible nonetheless. There were good people over there, good people who’d given their lives to the cause, and now they were gone.

“Are there any survivors? Any at all?” Charon stared at his hands, and at the flash of the gold ring on his fourth finger. Max had done a little research of his own when the Professor had shown up a few weeks ago. He knew that the ring represented what Charon was giving up to be here. But Max would never share that information, not unless Charon revealed it first. Max would never betray this man, who’d given up everything to fight with them. Even if it wasn’t enough.

No one else needed to know what it meant. That he was alone. And every day he spent fighting, they spent torturing the woman he loved. “We didn’t lose them all, did we?”

Max shook his head. “I…I don’t think so. But maybe. A couple of guys managed to get out…on a chopper of some sort. That transfer I sent to their computer guy, he managed to decrypt most of it before the big bads showed up. Destroyed their whole computer interface while he was at it. Two brothers got out, apparently. Younger built some sort of helicopter.”

Charon looked up. “A helicopter?”

“Yeah, an honest-to-goodness helicopter. But…it was shot down over the ocean.”

“So, we did lose everyone.” Charon sat, his body crumpling into a chair. Around him were arranged the secrets of an entire rebellion, above him an ancient castle, thousands of years of war and politics weighing down on him. Max could feel everyone’s eyes on them, eyes full of worry and sympathy. Eyes that shouldn’t see this man’s weakness.

Oh, if only Phelps were awake. If only someone were here, someone Charon could lean on for support. Max felt his heart break. No one should have to shoulder a rebellion alone and, until Phelps woke up or the Russian arrived, Charon would have to do it.

“No, I don’t think so, sir,” Max replied. “We hacked into a satellite. One of the brothers survived. The elder. Colt Banner. He’s in bad shape, but he was alive as of ten minutes ago. I dispatched a rescue team. They should be there within a few hours.”

Charon smiled. It was unexpected, even for him. “Will he survive long enough for us to get to him?”

Max nodded. “I had Lanie look at him. Hard to tell over a satellite collection, but she seems to think he’ll survive as long as he isn’t disturbed. Lucky for him, Omega seems to be sure neither brother survived. They’ve turned around.”

“Our only advantage in this damned war,” Charon muttered. “That our opponent has such superior fire power they have become damnably arrogant. Good work, Max. Good work everyone else. We’ve lost too many good men and women today, and taken a huge blow. Let’s see if we can rescue at least one.”
*****


Aiden Magnusson missed America. Ever since he’d left Boston for the hot springs of his ancestral homelands, he’d wanted nothing more than to go back. But it was too dangerous, and even he had to acknowledge the wisdom of staying far, far away from American shores.

He’d lost a lot of old friends today, during the culling of the Stateside rebellion. The Boston enclave had gone up in smoke—literally—in the early hours of the morning, and the destruction had cascaded from one group to another right on across to the Pacific. Every single one of them dead, all that information gone. They’d been prepared for such a contingency, of course—nothing fell into Omega’s hands—but no one had ever dreamed…

There was one survivor, as far as they knew. And now they were on their way to save him.

It was not the homecoming Aiden had dreamed of. In the five years he’d lived in Iceland, training and serving the rebellion in whatever capacity he could, he’d always hoped that one day, in his lifetime, he’d return to America as a liberator. And then he would stay forever, home once more.

He had never dreamed he would be alone in doing so.

There weren’t many Americans in the rebellion to begin with, and now there were even fewer. No more than a hundred in total, if one counted the escapees from Oxford. They’d trickled in all over the world, showing up at enclaves from Bermuda to Siberia, the last remaining Yanks in a war of worldwide freedom.

One more waited them at the end of this journey. One more, and that was all they could get.

Aiden would take it. This one was bound for Ireland, apparently, though Aiden wasn’t sure what the Belfast enclave would need him for. They were almost entirely a way station, a place for weary travelers to heal up and rest. Well, Aiden supposed, that probably answered his question.

Colt Banner was definitely in some need of healing, if surviving a helicopter crash was the sort of thing that hurt people.

Around him, the night swallowed four more figures, all dancing along the shore, nothing but the breeze and the sound of the ocean clashing with the earth to guide them. The trip from Iceland had only taken a few hours in that boat they’d stolen (some mechanical type had fixed it up for more stealthy purposes), and they’d be out again as soon as they found this Colt person.

It felt good to be on American shores again, if only for a few moments. Aiden’s parents had lived here, and his fiancée, before they’d all been killed in an Omega raid. They were common enough in the good ol’ U.S. of A., where the government did more to help the tyrants than to help its own people. Especially if those people were not supportive of the regime in place.

As hard as it was to admit, Deklahn had done OK by the United States. They had enough food, good medical care, the best technological advances the galaxy could offer. If it came at the price of freedom, well, it was a full stomach and a safe life. Americans were always such a practical group.

It had ended up being good for the rebellion, in the long run. The black market out of America included some of the most important technologies the rebellion possessed. But it had made being a rebel very, very dangerous.

And, in the end, it had cost them their lives.

Aiden had always known Omega could be harsh. He’d never known they could infiltrate an entire nation’s rebellion and kill them all in a single day.

Ahead of them, a black lump lay pressed up against a palm tree. Aiden nodded and rushed along the sands, four shadows dancing behind him. As they approached their mark, Okoë surged forward, her healer’s hands pressing deftly into Colt’s wrist. “He lives,” she whispered, African accent evident even in her voiceless intonation. “But he has lost a lot of blood. We need to get him on the boat immediately. He might not make it to Ireland.”

“Oh he damn well will,” Aiden replied, voice harsh in the darkness. “We have orders. Plus, he’s American. And he’s all that’s left.”
*****


Laras was in a surprisingly good mood, and this made Mia happy, in turn. She was tired of his sullen silences, his tight-lipped refusal to share anything with her. It was more like Oxford now, the two of them together, testing one another, challenging the other to keep up, to work harder, to prove themselves against the laws of physics. Working themselves to exhaustion, the limp lassitude of their muscles reminding them every evening that they were better, stronger than the day before. That their bodies were finally healing in their entirety.

Ireland was beautiful, more beautiful in fact than Mia had remembered. It had been all but destroyed in the original rebellion, and was now a mismatched patchwork of old and new, ancient rubble piled next to shining new buildings. But what remained was the beautiful countryside, the emerald that gave the island its name. And, from what Mia had heard, its rebellious spirit also remained, which was precisely why she and Laras were there now.

They’d left the sea captain unconscious and tied up, back on his ship. Mia hadn’t wanted to do it, but it was either that or kill him, as neither she nor Laras were in any condition to carry him for any distance. He’d done his job well, guiding them upriver to the Mahon, leaving them with only a night’s journey to Blarney.

“You are alright,” Laras whispered, turning his head just enough to glance down at Mia. It wasn’t a question, not really. Laras knew that Mia was doing just fine, pressing onward at his side with hardly a rasping breath. His good mood had simply made him more expansive, more willing to speak inconsequential things, friendlier even.

Laras was on his way to war after weeks on the sidelines. Mia couldn’t help but be pleased for him, and thrilled that the last couple of days had been a respite from his insufferable sullenness. She was even beginning to like him again.

“I’m fine,” she replied, squirting some water into her mouth, and offering some to Laras. He declined with a shake of the head. “We’re almost there, I figure. Only a couple of miles. We’ll be there well before morning if we can keep it up. How’re you doing, my lean mean Russian machine?”

Laras smirked. “Just fine. The air has done me some good. I can feel my strength returning to me.”

“I’m glad,” Mia replied, pushing her away through the peatlands of County Cork. The transformation had alerted her to their growing proximity to Blarney Castle. Mountains in the distance, rich agricultural lands surrounding them, friends ahead. “I…I wish there was some family waiting for me.”

Laras did not sneer, nor did he mock her, which was as much a surprise as anything. He really must have been in a good mood. “I am sorry you lost your family, Mia. But that’s what the rebellion is for. Fighting so that none of that has to happen anymore.”

“You’ll fight at my side, Laras? You won’t abandon me?” Mia turned to stare up at him, eyes tracing the shadow of his face in the darkness. She was overcome by the sudden urge to take his hand in hers, but she decided not to push it. Even Laras in a good mood was not the holding hands type.

“As long as you keep fighting, we’ll be fighting side by side.” Laras shrugged. “Maybe not physically, but spiritually. It’s the rebellion that counts, Amelia. Everything else is of secondary importance.”

Mia nodded. Not really, Laras. Not for me. Never for me. Just don’t go and get yourself killed, you stupid man. I don’t think I could bear it. “I understand.” The two fell silent for several minutes, the darkness surrounding them as they jogged across the countryside.

“Hold,” Laras whispered eventually, as the two of them reached the edge of a copse of trees. Beyond it, Mia could see Blarney Castle rising toward the sky, largely untouched, only the natural decline of stone wearing it down over the years. She’d visited it as a child, even bent backwards to kiss the stone. Everyone had joked that she and Edward hadn’t needed to kiss anything to get the infamous gift of gab.

The two of them could certainly talk.

“I don’t see anything besides that one Security Guard,” Mia replied. “Do you know where the watchdogs are?”

Laras nodded. “Ours and theirs. I’m waiting for that Security Guard to turn the corner. From that point, we have five minutes to cross the compound and get to the back. When I say go, you go. Follow me, step where I step and nowhere else. Am I understood, Mia?”

“Yes, sir.” Mia’s heart began to pound, a nervous energy that set her limbs to twitching. It was the same feeling she got before a fight, a humming excitement suspiciously like the thrilling warmth of sexual arousal. She licked her lips and nodded. “Whenever you’re ready, boss.”

Laras took her face in his hand, staring down at her, eyes serious. “You step where I step and nowhere else. I will not have you alert Omega we’re here.”

“I got it, Laras!” Mia insisted. “Have a little faith in me, will you? I think I’ve earned it by this point.”

He stared a moment longer, his hand grasping hard on her chin, body tense. Mia smiled, willing herself to stand still, hands at her side. “I suppose you have,” he said eventually. “Substation North proved that.” Laras nodded and dropped his hand. Mia felt a surge of disappointment. She’d wanted something more from this moment with Laras, some sign that he cared for her, that what they’d had at Oxford…that it had meant something. The last time they’d been together, the day Oxford had been destroyed, Mia had been so sure…

And now they were at war. Now, when they should rely on each other more than ever, Laras would decide to pull back. He would hide behind necessity, behind duty and honor. It was how Laras worked.

“Thank you,” Mia whispered. “I only ever wanted your respect.”

“Don’t fuck up and you can keep it.” Laras turned and watched as the guard rounded the corner. “My every step.” Without another word, he slipped out from beneath the cover of the trees, zigzagging what looked like a random pattern through the night. Taking a moment to memorize his steps, Mia pushed away every disappointed feeling, took a deep breath, and stepped into the night.

It was a dance, Mia mirroring Laras’ every move, an exhilarating waltz between the two of them, hearts beating a tattooing rhythm and the wind whistling a haunting melody through their ears. Laras was every bit as graceful a dancer as he was a fighter, and Mia gained a newfound respect for her Professor as she flowed behind him, blue-green eyes following every line, every step, every twist.

Mia nearly laughed. This was the most fun she’d had in days, dancing like this, feeling this joyous freedom coursing through her veins. She wondered if this was what Laras felt about war, about fighting for the cause he believed in, using skills so hard won. If so, no wonder he was so happy, so exuberant. He was fulfilling his purpose, finally and after all this time.

Mia hoped it would last. Unlike this dance, which she could see was ending just ahead. Laras had stopped and turned, watching Mia dance with a slightly bemused expression on his face. He was smiling slightly, arms crossed and hip cocked outward. Mia chuckled as she came to a stop beside him, her arms splayed out like a gymnast. “What the hell was that about, Princess?”

“The dance,” Mia replied, smiling. “The dance we shared, you and I.”

Laras raised an eyebrow, one side of his mouth quirked up in amusement. “Well then, follow me. No more watchdogs, and they know we’re coming, but we still need to be careful. So quit that twirling.”

Mia nodded and followed her Professor as he slipped into the shadows of the castle and rounded one, two, three corners before coming to an out-of-the-way wall toward the back of the edifice. Rolling up the sleeve on his right arm, Laras waved his wrist in front of a malfunctioning wall sconce, the kind of which was installed to keep the place lit at night, but had probably never actually worked. Watching, just behind and to Laras’ left, Mia gasped as the wall dissolved into nothing, revealing a set of stairs into an unlit corridor. “Whoa.”

“They’ve got some sort of ingénue down there. I’ve never seen the like, even from Omega.” Inching forward, Laras went in first, Mia checking the night around them once before slipping in behind him. The wall reappeared immediately, and the hallway lit up as soon as the last stone was in place. “Come on, Princess.”

Twenty steps led to a corridor, perhaps three-hundred yards long, and Laras led her down the well-lit hallway, slowly, carefully, one step at a time. No matter how much he knew about what was down here, Laras would never just stalk up to a door and barge in without being prepared. Mia smiled softly. He never changed. She’d felt the scans the second they walked through the door—the Palace had tons of them—which meant that if this place weren’t friendly, they’d be dead already. But Laras was a creature of careful control and nothing was ever going to change that.

The door opened at the end of the hall, and a man slipped out. “Professor Trusko!” Mia cried out, waves of relief and joy crashing into her, nearly sending her staggering. “You’re all right!”

Charon smiled, tight lipped, but Mia could see genuine pleasure in his eyes. “Of course I’m all right. We were worried about you two. Please, please, come in. Mia, I think there’s someone you’re going to want to see.” He shook Laras’ hand and then Mia’s, and Mia could feel the jolt of a handheld watchdog. She tried to hide the wince. “Apologies, Miss Godwin. I had to test you.”

“Of course,” Mia replied, blowing on her hand. “I understand. Who’s this person I’m going to want to see?”

“Amelia?” A voice escaped from inside the room behind Charon. A soft voice, full of confidence, pitched with careful consideration. A voice she knew, had known from the moment she was born. A voice she had never thought she would ever hear again. “Amelia? Is that you? Mia?”

Mia grasped Laras’ hand and squeezed, her entire body trembling with nervousness and joy, overwhelmed by the feelings buffeting every nerve. “Edward…” she breathed out as Charon moved aside and opened the door farther. Looking at Laras, eyes wide with hope and fear, Mia let go of the Russian’s hand and inched her way into the room beyond the door.

Her brother stood there, whole and healthy and…alive. “Edward!” Mia couldn’t move. Her feet refused to part from their spot on the floor. She could sense Laras and Charon come up behind her, could feel Laras’ arm come around her waist to steady her. Her heart pounded in her chest, her tongue failed her, she could do nothing but stand, leaning against Laras for support as her brother crossed the room and stood in front of her.

He wasn’t smiling, but then neither was she. “You’re…alive,” Mia breathed out, her knees shaking. “H-how?”

“Mother. She sacrificed herself so I could escape. She told me to find you, to help you.” Edward looked over at Laras, and Mia couldn’t fathom what passed between the two in that moment. She could barely function, could barely grasp the words that had come out of her brother’s mouth. “To help you undo all the damage your rebellion has caused.”

“I thought you were dead,” Mia replied, still unable to move. “I…I missed you so much.” Before she knew what she was doing, Mia had thrown her arms around her brother’s shoulders and buried her face in his chest, bawling in huge, overwrought heaves. “I’m so sorry, Edward. I’m so sorry.”

Laras came up behind her, taking her elbow and turning Mia so her head rested against his shoulder. Just then, her knees gave out, the exhaustion of the past few weeks finally catching up with her, and Laras swooped to take her into his arms. “Charon…where are the rooms?”

“I’ll show you,” Charon replied, even as Edward stepped forward. “I think I can take my sister to her room, thank you.”

Laras raised an eyebrow. “With all due respect, no. Not the brother who blames her for all his woes. I will take her to bed. You and I will have words in the morning.”
*****


Edward sat alone at the table, a steaming cup of tea in front of him. He was a habitually early riser, no matter how late he’d stayed up the night before. No one had joined him just yet, but if what he knew about Mia’s infamous Russian was true, Edward was sure he wouldn’t be alone for long.

The weapons professor did not disappoint, pushing his way into the kitchen only a few minutes later, pouring for himself a mug of hot coffee and sitting across from Edward, blue eyes daring and bright despite the early hour. Edward smiled, but his lips did not part. “Mr. Nikolao,” he said eventually, after sipping at his tea for a few more moments. “Good morning.”

“Professor Nikolao,” came the reply, equally as nonchalantly, after as many moments in silence as Edward himself had waited. Ah, so the reputation was earned. And Laras had not missed a damn thing from the night before. Which was probably just as well. Edward had not wanted to upset Mia so soon after reuniting with her, so a certain amount of subtlety had been required to get his message across.

Edward did not like this Laras Nikolao. He had not liked the possessive flash in the Russian’s eyes where Mia was concerned, nor the way Laras’ hand had lingered on her waist. It appeared, of course, that the feeling was mutual. “Your school is rubble, and you teach no classes. Are you truly a Professor?”

Laras’ lips curled upward, but the eyes flashed cold. “Perhaps, Mr. Godwin. Perhaps, not.”

“Your Majesty, if you please. While I understand the jist of your inexpertly formed thrust, I am still in possession of a realm. And I still represent these people. A crown is a symbol. A Professorship is not. Nice try.” Edward sipped at his tea once more. “It’s sad, really. I’ve heard so much about you, the rabid dog all chained up with no one to play with.”

Laras shrugged, leaning back in his chair. “That is not precisely true.” Now his blue eyes sparkled, wry with amusement.

Edward acknowledged the point. “Ah, yes, my sister. I hear she is something of a chew toy for you.” Edward blinked slowly, his face impassive, eyes the calm brown of his father and grandfather. “Quite the favorite, from what I’ve gathered.”

“Well, I can’t quite say that she squeaks. More of a low-pitched moan, depending on the position…”

Rage surged through Edward, but he forced himself to chuckle and pour himself another glass of tea, blowing on it to give himself time to cool off. “You know, I’m going to do you a favor, my lovely brutish Russian, and refrain from sharing that with my sister. She would take it as an affront, of course, and we all know what she’s capable of when she’s angry. I would so hate to see you injured for a stupid comment. You’ll just have to owe me later.”

Laras’ eyes sliced into the air between them, his face hard. “I owe you nothing, Edward. I am not in the habit of dealing with little shits like you.”

“Oh, well, now I’m just disappointed. You went and ruined a perfectly fun game. Now I suppose I’ll have to just dispense with the threats, all subtlety gone.” Edward sat up in his chair and leaned over the table, fixing his steadiest gaze upon the dangerous Russian across from him. “You are fucking my little sister. And that is a problem, because you are not nearly good enough for her. She is the only family member I have left in the world, and you are certainly not going to continue with your ridiculous conquest. You are nothing compared to her, and not simply because she is the heir to the throne. My sister feels…very deeply and I will not have her heart broken by some testosterone-ridden cretin like you. If you will not cease your strutting about like the ridiculous peacock that you are, I will simply have to do a little…snipping, and remove you from her life. Now,” Edward stood and cocked his head to the side. “I do believe I’ve made my point. And I assume you will act accordingly, yes, Mr. Nikolao?”

Edward wasn’t sure what he had expected out of the Russian. What he did know was that he’d always been able to read people, to figure out just how far to push, how far he could push before things got dangerous. And he was sure that he’d pushed the Russian.

So why, then, did Laras just smile and sip at his coffee? Had Edward miscalculated? “We’ll see, Your Majesty,” he said, rising. Edward became aware of how much taller Laras was than he, and how much larger. “But I suppose that would be up to Mia, wouldn’t it?”

“No,” Edward replied, shaking his head. “She’s the Heir to the throne. And, more, she’s my baby sister. It very much isn’t up to her. Especially when she’s making such a huge mistake.” Nodding his head by way of dismissal, Edward turned and left the room.

Mia should be waking up soon.
*****


Mia could sense someone in the room with her. She’d felt it as soon as she’d woken up, a tingling along the ridge of her spine and a twitching in her fingers. A year had Oxford had done little to diminish her dislike for being watched, and here she was without a weapon to defend herself. She would just have to hope surprise was enough.

“Mia, I know you’re awake. So you can stop calculating how to break my neck now.”

Sighing, Mia pushed back the covers and sat up, scooting back so she could lean against the wall. “Edward,” she admonished, “you know I hate being watched.”

“I just sat down five minutes ago. You’ve had a habit for sleeping eight hours your entire life. I was just waiting for that mental alarm of yours to go off. We need to talk.” Edward crossed his legs and shifted his weight in the chair so he was leaning all the way back. Mia felt a sense of foreboding rise in her chest. She knew exactly what Edward was going to say, what he was going to force her to think about, to accept.

Her brother blamed her for Mother’s death, blamed her for stealing their one remaining parent out from under him. Edward had always been closer to Edwina. She’d been his strength, his rock, the support system that he’d so desperately needed. And now she was gone, because Mia had chosen to save her friend.

Mia had known there would be consequences to her actions. She was not so caught up in her ideals as other people seemed to think, and she had known that she was making a choice that would have serious consequences. She had known that she was sending the world to war.

Losing her mother was awful, but Mia knew that she was not the first and she wouldn’t be the last. That was what happened when a world went to war.

“I suppose you want to discipline me for making a decision you disagree with,” she said eventually. “You never did support the rebellion.”

Edward rolled his eyes. “You stupid girl! How could you get caught on camera? How could you not know Omega would be filming? I get that you love these people. But was it worth it? Was saving your little friend worth killing your mother?”

“My little friend?” Mia was furious, her hands trembling as she fought to keep her voice down. Of course Edward would see it that way. Of course he would decide that it was just a selfish decision to appease her need for heroics. He always did. “Edward Phelps is one of three or four people still living who can win this rebellion. And more, he is the man who recruited me, who watched over me. Mother trusted him with my life, and I was just supposed to abandon him?”

“He knew what he was getting into,” Edward replied. “He joined this stupid rebellion. Why is his life worth more than Mother’s?”

“From what I gathered, the Queen joined this rebellion just as much as Phelps. She knowingly made the choice to give financial support, and sent her daughter to Oxford to join it. Why is the Queen’s life worth more than Edward Phelps’?” Mia turned to see Laras leaning against the doorjamb, his arms crossed. She could see the anger in his eyes, in his every muscle. Phelps was worth a great deal to Laras, and here was Edward dismissing his importance with a wave of his hand. “Why cheapen her sacrifice?”

Mia smiled. “Good morning, Laras.”

“How are you, Mia?” Laras was pointedly ignoring Edward and Mia wondered what had gone on between the two during those ‘words’ Laras had promised when they’d arrived. “You are sufficiently recovered to begin training again?”

“Of course. I look forward to it. My muscles are itching for a workout.”

“As much as I appreciate your concern for my sister, this is a conversation for family. I am sure you two can catch up when I am finished here.” Edward’s voice was cold, colder than Mia had ever heard it. Oh, the conversation must not have gone well. That was unfortunate.

“No, Edward. He can stay. You know how I feel about family. Save each other’s lives a few times and I’m pretty sure you count as family.” Mia shook her head. “And as Phelps is like a brother to Laras, I’m sure you can tell him to his face that Phelps should have been left to die.”

“And this is the problem with you ideologues. You’ll fight for your freedom all right, but what are you going to do with the smoldering ruin you win?”

Laras crossed the room, coming to stand beside the bed, directly across from her brother. It felt like the angel and devil standing on her shoulders, only she could watch them, and they would do their own fighting. But, then, which was the devil and which the angel? “The point is to win before it’s a smoldering ruin, Edward. I’m thinking you don’t quite understand war, do you?”

Mia shot a pointed glare at her professor, forestalling any further male posturing. She understood perfectly well what Laras felt about the rebellion—she felt it herself—but now the Russian was itching for a fight, and she had no wish to see the broken mass her brother would become if this became physical. “We’re just doing it to help them, Edward. You have to know that. To help everyone be free.”

Edward choked out a laugh. “You want to help people? Is that what you think you’re doing?”

Laras answered without hesitation. “Yes.”

“You demagogues and your rabble-rousing. Do you really think the people you supposedly fight for give a damn about freedom? Freedom doesn’t put food on the table or a roof over a head. It doesn’t provide safety. And, in this case, freedom destroys lives. It steals children and eats them up. This war of yours, this great cause, who do you think it’s going to help? And just who is it going to hurt? You two get to fight for your grand causes, put your life on the line, sacrifice yourselves like a group of heroes. But what about after the war? Who puts it back together? Who takes those lives you’ve destroyed and puts them back together?” Edward shook his head. “Freedom.”

Edward made the word sound like a curse, spitting it into the air as if it pained him. Mia watched him, emotions flying from rage to sympathy in the span of seconds. Laras, in turn, stared down at her, his eyes burning with ill-concealed anger. It was in her court, she knew. Laras wanted her to deal with this on her own, giving her the courtesy of handling Edward rather than breaking several of his bones.

Mia appreciated it, especially since if anyone was going to beat her brother to a pulp, it would be her. “Safety, Edward? Since when is anyone safe in this world? I understand that civilians suffer just as much as we do in a war, if not more. There are always innocents that die, always people thrown into the wrong situation. But how is that different than now? You talk about food on the table and a roof over a head. But then, you and I have never had to accept a pill in lieu of food, every nutritional necessity in a single capsule, except you’re still hungry when you’re done. And a roof means nothing if an Omega agent can throw you into a black bag for seeing the wrong thing, hearing the wrong thing, taking the wrong turn. A child screams out, innocent, laughing, and they’re dead by the end of the day. At least this way, they can feel as if it might end someday. That the death of their child or their mother or their Queen isn’t in vain. Mother sacrificed herself so you could live, Edward. Don’t you want it to mean something?”

Mia looked over at Laras—he nodded at her—before crawling out of bed, taking her brother’s hand in hers. “Edward, we don’t want civilians to die. If I die, I want to die knowing that I’ve saved someone else, a family, a city, a country. People like Laras and I are here to make sure that we don’t turn over a smoldering ruin. We’re here to die if need be so they don’t have to.”

Edward shook his head. “You’re the Heir to the throne, Mia. Your job is to be there to help put it back together. Let these people destroy it to free it. We have a responsibility to be there for them when it’s all over, to put the pieces back together. We are the Crown.”

“No, Edward, you are the Crown. I’m just the spare. And the spare has a long history of joining the military, of going off to war. Hell, Edward, I could create a page-long list of Kings just bearing your name that led their nation to war. There was a time when that was precisely what being King meant. It meant you led armies to war and men to die.” Mia dropped her brother’s hand and turned to stare out of the artificial window put in to trick the mind into thinking it was aboveground. “I know someone needs to be there to put the puzzle back together. I know that. But the Royal family needs to be willing to fight, needs to show the world that we are willing to shed some blood for them. That we’re not content to watch while other people die for us. That is my role in this war. That is what I am good at, and where I will do the most good. It’s what I want, Edward. Really.”

Mia turned around, her eyes scanning the room, coming to stop first on Laras, whose eyes shone with what Mia could only hope was pride, and then Edward. Her brother wasn’t looking back at her, and refused to turn around. “If that’s how you feel, Mia, then…then I can only say one thing. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to, that I could appeal to your sense of duty. But…but what happens to me if you die? You’re the only person left in the world for me. The only person I love on this whole planet. How am I supposed to hold it together knowing that you’re out there putting yourself at risk every day? How can I put the world back together if I’m broken up inside? Have you thought about that?”

Before Mia could reply, Edward turned, planted a kiss on her cheek, and stormed from the room. Well, Mia knew he was storming; to anyone else, he practically sauntered. Edward hardly ever showed so much outward emotion, and Mia was shocked. And shamed. She had never stopped to think about what she was doing to Edward the brother, only Edward the King, as if the two weren’t one and the same. She’d thought about all the people she would benefit, but she’d never once stopped to think about the one person who’d be most affected by her putting her life on the line. Laras might be hurt to lose her, but would he be heartbroken? Mia wasn’t sure. What she did know was that Edward would be destroyed, and she was running headlong toward just that eventuality.

“Oh, Laras,” she breathed out. “My poor brother.”

“Poor brother, indeed.” Laras did not sound convinced. “Come, Mia. A workout will do you good, and I can see your muscles atrophying from here. If you want to stay alive for your poor, poor put upon brother, you need to get back into fighting shape. As it stands, a strong wind would kill you. Plus, Charon wants to see us at some point today.”

Mia flashed a look of annoyance at her tutor, but she wasn’t particularly upset with him. Laras was right; she did need to get back into fighting shape. The best way to keep Edward from being upset was simply to stay alive for as long as possible. And she wasn’t going to be guilt-tripped into leaving the rebellion. Not when she’d already lost so much to it. “Fine then,” she replied, “I could use something to punch.”



The first thing he heard was a whirring, the lungs of a machine and the bleeping, beeping of a mechanical heartbeat. He wondered where they were coming from, all he saw was blackness, blackness and perhaps little spots of lightness in the blackness. There seemed to be window patterns, in purples and blues and reds, stained glass swirls against his blindness. Was he blinded? He didn’t remember being blinded but perhaps he had been?

*

“You know, we could always declare a free state – down with the monarchy, establish a parliamentary war council.” He mused aloud as they stripped out of their sweat-drenched clothes, it had been a good session, both of them actually sparring with the full force of their bodies rather than having to hold back due to injury or weakness, “Republic versus Republic and all that.”

Mia was dripping, the taught curves of her body catching in the yellow light of the castle’s Room. It wasn’t as good as the one he’d designed in Oxford, but it was enough for what they needed. He’d likely make improvements if they stayed longer than anticipated. It depended on the movement of the Revolution. Charon was still holding all the cards close to his chest though they both knew a conversation was coming that they couldn’t avoid. Where did the rebellion go from here? Rumours talked about the continent – the dark, shadowed box Laras kept locked away in his mind held whispers of Russia.

“A parliament? What would be next a commonwealth?”

“Only an interlude, so we don’t have to deal with noisome worrywarts.”

The inflection on his words made her laugh. Shaking her head before she drank deeply from their water bottles, she continued his game, “And who would be Cromwell? Not you my tactless friend.”

He grinned. “I’m far too Machiavellian. No – our Prince would be Charon, of course.”

“My brother’s not that bad.”

“He’s insufferable and a coward.”

Mia’s eyes flashed dangerously as she rounded on him, clad only in her sports bra and shorts, “He is no coward.”

“Then what do you call that little display we saw earlier? Oh Mia, you’re all I have, if you die I am nothing blah blah.Cherka.”

“That’s the talk of a man that just saw his mother slaughtered before his eyes! Killed so that he could escape.”

Now his ire rose as flashes of pale skin splattered with gore and dirt that had long ago scorched themselves onto his retinas. A gurgling sob seemed to echo in his ears, the sound of lungs full of warm red blood, bubbling up over feather pink lips, “I witnessed my mother cut down by Dehklan too princess, you don’t see me wavering on the side lines and wanting to appease her murderers.”

Mia stopped, staring at him, her eyes flicking over his snarling countenance and he realised exactly what he had admitted. He was sure she had known this. Perhaps she had not. Perhaps she cared little enough for his motives that she forgot. Blood and war was all he knew, he understood his failings, but for her to defend her brother on the grounds that he was traumatised, “He should use that pain to be stronger, not as justification for his own weaknesses.”

Mouth opening and shutting like a fish for a moment, she seemed to be unable to vocalise the words that longed to spring from her pretty lips.

“What princess, realise your precious brother’s as spineless as –”

“Don’t you dare fucking say it Laras, not everyone has a heart as hard as yours!”

*

Whirring and beeping. Beeping and whirring.

He could feel heaviness now, a deep, bone-weary heaviness. Something pressing on his chest that, every time he spared his focus, augmented.

*

Something clenched in Laras’ stomach, though he chose to ignore it, focusing instead on not letting the lingering memories overwhelm his thoughts. A drifting idea, how jumpable Mia looked as she smouldered on her brother’s behalf, crossed his mind. He pitied himself for a moment, wishing for a moment that he hadn’t caused this fight so he could make her bend to his whims once more. But then if he hadn’t riled her up, he supposed he wouldn’t be having this problem.

Glaring at each other became tiresome, he snorted and she blinked, spinning away with that killers grace he had beaten into her. If once she had been a natural, now she was on the cusp of all that she could become – fully in control, synchronised entirely with her body, a living breathing weapon of mass destruction. Not that her feeble minded relative would ever make it easy for her to attain such exquisite prowess. It was a good thing she only lacked diversity of experience now.

*

Thirst. His whole body was alight with thirst. His veins throbbed with the need for water. His throat itched and ached and burned. Something blew cool air into his gullet and antagonised this outrageous, desperate need for water. The idea of water made his whole body tremble and quake.

Water.

Water.

Burning.

Burning.

Some lines from a poem he heard when he was young.

Whirring. Beeping. Water. Burning. Air in his lungs. Burning. Burning. Water. Water. Water.

Were those his lips? Moving lips?

“Water.”

*

They hadn’t walked far in the horrible silence when a small chuckled escaped Mia’s lips. It sounded oddly bitter and more than a little bit strained,

“I should have known you two wouldn’t get along.” she said, tone rueful, “You’re far too different and both far too stubborn.”

“You wound me.” Laras replied dryly, accent drained into an artificially British mimicry of what Mia supposed was meant to be Edward. He raised a supercilious brow, “However will I recover?”

Her lips quirked this time and it looked like a shadow of her usual grin, “I’m sure the sickbay has something for it.”

This was too inviting, too much to deny for the sake of some petty quarrel, he turned abruptly, seizing her arm, pressing her back against the wall of the corridor.

“Laras...”

“Mia.” He smirked and made to kiss her.

“NICK-OLO! P’INCESS ‘MELIA!” A small, excited voice burst into his moment and he felt his shoulders tense as if to strike without thinking. Mia thought first and pushed him away so they looked merely dishevelled. Her expression was amused. He sneered.

It was Denny, the Irish lad who’d discovered the warning for the Oxford attack.

“PHELPS IS AWAKE!” He bellowed, running at them on small, clapping feet, “Mammy sent me! He woked up and is talking!”

Unable to process the words, Laras looked over at Mia, whose expression must have matched his own for incomprehension. He couldn’t dare hope, he couldn’t dare –

But his feet were running before his brain could catch up with him. It didn’t matter that he only had a vague recollection of where the sickbay was or where the private room his friend had been set up in was relative to that. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t believe this, that his heart was soaring and breaking over and over as he hoped only to dash that hope then hope again. If he had paid attention, he’d have heard Mia’s voice calling after him, her feet thudding behind him. He might have felt the residual pain in his ribs, although ignoring pain was hardly unusual. Spinning round corners, bursting through hallways, the constant echo of foot on stone, the people who saw him darted to the side, murmuring confusion, interest, concern.

Phelps waking up. Phelps awake. Phelps woked. Phelps alive and talking.

More stone, more non-descript old walls, more chill, dimly lit passages whirred past. Third corridor on the left should take him past the infirmary, Phelp’s room was maybe four doors down from that. He could always pause to ask if necessary.

Edward stood in the doorway that he knew lead to his friend’s room.

“The doctors are seeing to him,” aired the King, “They’re not admitting visitors.”

The way he spoke made the ‘visitors’ sound like a contagion. The way he said ‘doctors’ made the ironic spin capitalise the word in Laras’ head. He snarled, desperate in that moment to lunch and wrench that head so hard the neck snapped. A hand on his soulder stopped him and the smell of earthy cologne.

“I’m sure an exception in this case will be made, your highness.” Charon’s smooth voice cut over Laras’ harsh breathing.

“If they will not admit their King, who only wishes to welcome his fallen solider and thank him for his service, why should they admit this panting lunatic?”

Laras was spitting inside his head. Cursing the King and his ego and his pathetic values. He refused to yell, instead saying in a dry, dull voice unaffected by his run, “Why would they let a stranger with a fucking stick up his skinny fucking ass in rather than that soldier’s comrade and friend?” In his head he continued: Why would they let anyone who would see us surrender and fucking mock his sacrifices visit and offer pointless thanks when we, who fought with him, who lost him would be relegated to observers.

“Laras –” Charon chided, “There is no need for this.”

“You’re right.” He nodded, letting a sneer curl his lips rather than the myriad of emotions tumbling through his system, “I would like to see Phelps now.”

Edward’s eyes flashed, eerily like his sister’s in the way that they burned. If Edward could see the Russian dead or cast out, he would, Laras could see it. Shame that spirit wasn’t less petty, less ridiculous.

Laras met that stare: You’re not my king, he glared, this isn’t even your kingdom, not that you even have one anymore.

*

“Water. Water.”

“Mr Phelps we cannot give you water. You can’t swallow it yet.” The nurse was insisting, her face crumpled in distress. That face was all lines, her pale, Irish skin dry as pasteurised milk, “We’ve got fluids in you.”

“Water. Water.”

Over and over, a single discernible word that slurred and slipped across the cracked lips smeared with Vaseline. Laras stood at the foot on the bed, staring, dumb still at the sight of his friend’s closed eyes and dark, fuzzy scalp. Deep, ugly scars showed the cruel Doctored wounds beneath that fuzz. Would Phelps ever recover and be the man he was? Shaking his head, Laras knew he couldn’t expect the same man, he had to stop thinking like that. Whoever Edward Phelps was at the end of this saga, he would not be the man that caught his eye in a sea of enemies and nodded his decision and acceptance. This would not be the father that had gone to rescue his children.

Dimly, he wondered if Greggo’s sight had been treated by now. The Phelps children had been sent to Edinburgh to stay with one of the Clans, refugee camps full of rebels injured or in need of seclusion.

“Water. Water. Water.”

That slow, deep mantra, echoed in his head over and over even when the man paused to wheeze. Charon moved round the Russian, coming to stand by one of the machines, “You’ll get water soon. Just wait til you can swallow.”

Laras found himself wanting to say something. Perhaps he could crack a joke. He wasn’t very funny though.

“Don’t want you drowning now you’re coming back to us,” He finally muttered, hand twitching, “You’re going to be fine now.”

The nurse nodded, even though her patient couldn’t see it, “It’s a miracle, Mr Phelps. You’re going to be grand, even if you have made my head light this last hour.”

Laras glared at her and she glared back.

Lingering outside, Mia and her brother were no doubt waiting their turn. He hoped they could persuade the King to back off until Phelps was truly conscious but he doubted it. If Mia was permitted to enter, her awful relative would be too.

“Water. Waaaarrrr-”

Phelps began to cough and splutter. The nurse dashed forward.

He left. He couldn’t wait and watch and see if this was all some terrible end. Brushing past the royal family, he stalked away into the castle.
Glenn Tyde couldn't help but smile.
"Hey honey, check this out. Did you hear about this?" he asked walking from the dining room into the kitchen to show his wife the headliner of the newspaper.

SEEDS OF REBELLION CRUSHED!

He tapped it with his finger and showed it to her still grinning. "It's about time. After they cleaned up the Brits I knew it was just a matter of time. These traitors are like a virus I tell ya." he said. His wife furrowed her brow a little and stared at the page reading briefly over it before nodding in agreement.

"Alright dear yeah you were right. Wow, to think right here in the states we had those fools. And so many of them. I do feel bad for the people nearby those enclaves that had nothing to do with it though. Must have made an awful scene." she said going back to washing potatoes. "Do you think Helen heard anything?" Glenn nodded his way back to the table sitting down.

"Yeah and I can't wait to hear what she has to say about it. Haven't heard from that girl in a while now." he said. As the words left his mouth he felt a little worry for his beloved daughter. She did after all live in Chicago attending an art institute. She was a wonderful painter with an imagination as vast as there ever was. He couldn't help but wonder if something may have happened. "As a matter of fact she should be out of class today. I think I'll go ahead and call her again."

He picked up the cell phone and stared at it for a moment trying to remember how to work this thing since they weren't paying for long distance on their landline, and according to Helen this cell phone plan had it. Fumbling with it for a bit he finally found his list and called his daughter.

It rang. Five, six, seven times. Glenn couldn't remember the last time it rang more than about three times. He shook his head and heard the beep remembering to speak. "Hey sweetie it's Papa. Haven't heard from you for a bit so I thought I'd call." he lifted the newspaper again. "I uh...was gonna ask you about this here news. You know about all that shootin' that's been goin' on taking down terrorists and rebels and such." he smiled as if face to face with her. "I like how they went in proper order to. Figures they come straight here after cleaning up in England. Still it's hard to believe we had traitors like that here in the states. Hell I was hoping to hear some more info babe, you're right there in the hotbed so I know you had to hear something. Anyway, call me back honey, okay? I love you, talk to you later." he said hearing his wife shout how much she loved Helen from the kitchen before he hung up.

Suddenly there was a knock on the door. Glenn got up and walked over to it to answer. They didn't usually get visitors and they weren't expecting company. He looked through the peephole to see two men in suits. Glen frowned a little bit in suspicion. He swallowed hard and opened the door.

"Hello Mr. and Mrs. Tyde. I'm Detective Don Moore and this is Detective Ted Sass. Can we come in?" asked the first man pulling out his badge and showing it to them. Glenn stammered for a moment and looked back at the table.

"Um, yes of course. Please sit down." he said backing away to let them in and sit down across the table. They nodded and came in sitting at the other side of the table. Glenn heard his wife approaching. She was wiping her hands dry and walked up behind him.

"Honey what's wrong?" she asked. He shook his head and looked at the detectives. They motioned for Harriet to sit as well. She did so though very tentatively. Detective Moore cleared his throat.

"This is Detective Moore and Sass. Is there a problem detectives?" Glenn asked just before Moore spoke. The detective gave a small pause at his words and looked very briefly at his partner before turning his gaze to the two again.

"When's the last time you heard from your daughter Helen Tyde?" he asked. Glenn's heart sank deep in his gut and he felt his wife grab his hand tightly.

"Um it's been about three weeks I'd say." he said. The detectives looked to each other again momentarily. "Uh she was um...she was telling us about art school. She'd found a buyer for a couple of paintings or something and was going to get to attend a showing with a couple of her other classmates who'd made the pick I believe." he added. Moore nodded,

"And that's it? She didn't say anything odd? Did she ever say things out of the ordinary?" he asked. Glenn shook his head as he tried to think.

"Why? About what?" he asked.

"Anything about rebels? About Oxford, or American enclaves?" asked Sass from the side.

"Detective, this family supports our government. We raised her well. The only thing we ever said about any of those things is how foolish they are, and disagreeing on whether America had a rebel presence or not."

"And which side of that argument did she take?"

"Detective I think we deserve to know what the nature of these questions are." he said harshly before swallowing hard. Fear, anxiety, pure apprehension was saturating his face. Glenn felt his wife squeezing his hand hard now. It shook with horror.

Please God no. Please let her be okay. We've been good to you please don't-

"Helen Natasha Tyde was identified as one of the bodies in a rebel enclave." said Moore. Harriet gasped and clasped her hands over her mouth. Glenn felt his world fall to the floor and shatter. He was going to be sick.

"No. No sir." he said shaking his head and swallowing the quick rising phlegm. "You must be mistaken." he barked hands shaking and suddenly dropping his head into his hands. "Oh God. Oh God Helen what did you do? What did you do!?" he cried clenching his fingers in his hair.

"She was reported to have fired on the incursion team there and was one of the first casualties." Glenn rose and held his wife as she broke into wailing sobs. Tears began to stream from his own eyes and he held back the heaving of his own sobs.

"Detective our daughter. Our...our little baby girl, no. No she would never do something like that. You must be mistaken. You have to be wrong. She was..." he gasped once and tightened his chest holding back the broken weeping in his heart. "She was going to be a painter." he wheezed barely keeping it together.

"Mr. Tyde did you have any idea of her activities? Has she sent you anything in the past six months? Flash drives, compact disks, or tapes of any kind? Anything that can store information?" Moore asked again having to raise his voice over the sobs of the mother.

"No...no sir." Glenn answered sighing twice trying to let some of the cold harsh wind out of his chest, but it wouldn't part. It simply grew heavier and heavier as realization set in. "She was just a child."

"Mr and Mrs. Tyde you have our condolences. It can't be easy to find out your own daughter was a traitor. Nor can it be easy to find she died that way."

"You heartless-!"

"Calm down Mr. Tyde." ordered Moore holding one hand up to the soon to stand Glenn. Glenn staid down and shook his head. "You understand my job? I'm just doing what I can to make sure those who adhere to the law are taken care of. Safe. That includes you. You understand if it's found out that you -and that's either of you- have ANYTHING to do with her rebel activities your entire family -immediate and distant- will be investigated? You understand what will happen to you and yours if things go further than they have to right?"

"Yessir I do." he said sighing again and holding his weeping wife tightly. Hot salty tears streamed down his face against his lips. "I know. All I know is that I love my daughter. I just know I love her so much..." he choked and shook his head. "I'm sorry detectives we have nothing else for you. Please go." The two detectives nodded to one another and stood. Sass took a card from his pocket and placed it on the table. Moore patted it and pointed to it.

"Keep that, and when your head is a bit clearer think hard. Think carefully. If you remember anything or find anything call that number. Make sure her death isn't in vain alright? You don't want to lose anymore family to the rebellion."

"Yessir." Glenn said as the men left. He closed his eyes letting memories flood behind his eyelids and spill over the sides and down his face. Her smiling face full of missing little teeth. Her birthdays with twice as many candles as she was old because she loved blowing out a bunch of them, her first pair of glasses, then contacts, getting her braces off. She'd grown into such a beautiful young lady. Glenn's head fell onto his wife's and he let out his sorrows shaking and shuddering as the broken pieces of his heart shattered on the empty floor.

"She was our baby..." Harriet choked out.

"I know honey. I know." Then suddenly he remembered something she'd sent him.

Anything that can store information?

The cell phone.
................................................................................................................................................

"If he doesn't wake up soon we'll have to leave him behind. We can't afford to stick around like this or lug him around."

Male, late teens to early twenties. Smoker, anxious, withdrawals. Sore throat.

"You jackass he just saved our lives!"

Female, early twenties. Non smoker, distraught, grief. Jaw injury.

"Jess I'm aware of that but wouldn't it be stupid to sit around here potentially wasting the lives he saved? We need to keep moving."

"Nolan is right."

Male. Mid twenties, smoker. Calm, annoyed, considering. Missing teeth, removed by impact. Swelling in right cheek.

"No. Nolan is NOT right. That's bullshit and you both know it. Give him a few minutes."

Footsteps. Close. Right next to him. "Tada? Tada come on wake up. Please wake up."

Perfume, weak barely lingering. Lilacs. Chewing gum, cinnamon. Spat out hours ago. He scrunched his face a bit and groaned slowly opening his eyes with several blinks.

"Fuck..." he groaned sighing and sitting up slowly. "Oh...yeah we need to move. They're right Jess." he said trying to stand. His legs were a bit wobbly and Jess reached out to steady him but he kept his balance. The two other guys were embarrassed that he could hear them but said nothing.

"Oh good, I'm glad you're up. That was brilliant what you did. What happened though?" Jess asked standing with him. Tada shook his head and touched below his nose still feeling a bit of blood.

"I'm really not sure, but if it was a concussion I probably wouldn't be up right now so I'm not too worried. Where's my bag?" he asked. Rick held it up.

"I'm got it boss. No worries. You look worse off than me so I'll carry it." he said. The way he spoke was definite. No question in his usually silent voice. Tada nodded and let him have his way.

"Just don't lose it, there's some important stuff I need to look at in there later." he said dusting himself off and wincing a little at the pain in his arm.

"Right." said Rick. Nolan got up and looked around some before staring at Tada gain.

"Okay well let's get going." he said. Tada looked at all of them once. They did seem anxious to get out of here and he couldn't blame him. After all they'd really lucked out. That camp was primitive beyond words. Very few watchdogs and they weren't using wireless for some reason. Maybe they were worried about interference from under the rubble or something nonsensical. Still it was kind of funny. Had the camp been up to date chances are Tada would be dead or otherwise indispose.

"Where exactly are you going?" he asked. The three looked at each other briefly.

"Well we're going to hide out in the countryside for now. Not much else we can do." Rick said. Nolan shrugged.

"We're certainly not going to fucking Blarney." he said.

"Blarney?" Tada asked scratching his head.

"Yeah, location 519-857 got shut down years ago." Rick agreed. Tada's brain sparked.

That number!

"5..19-857? Hmmm, does anyone else remember that number?" he asked. They all looked at him. "Well it's my student number. You say that's the coordinates for Blarney Castle?" he said. "Too spot on to be a coincidence." he thought for a moment and turned to face where he believed the coordinates would lie from his current location. "I think we should go. Oxford was bound to have a contingency plan, thus the tunnels. This must be it."

"Are you daft?" barked Nolan. "Look I get you've got some kind of super brain or something but we just told you that location was shut down forever ago. Either come with us or go get yourself killed but we have to move. Besides, none of us have that number." Tada shook his head.

"It doesn't matter, if our allies are there they will help. Besides, you really think your plan makes more sense?" he asked glaring at Nolan. Jess looked nervously between them as they spoke.

"Let's see. Hmm. Countryside- low population, few electronics, few soldiers, lots of hiding places. Blarney Castle- huge tourist attraction, crawling with electronic watchdogs, and fortified to the gills with soldiers. I'm fairly on with this. Your idea is suicidal Tada. Seriously, come with us." Nolan pressed. Tada stepped up to him.

"Where do you think Omega expects stragglers to run to?" he asked. "I promise you if you try and hide somewhere that obvious you Will. Be. Found. It doesn't take as much effort as you think it will to comb the rurals with the man power that Deklahn has. Not to mention with as shitty as that camp was there's no way that bringing it down has made a single one of us any more safe. In fact an investigation will fall much swifter now. We need to stay off the beaten path and we need to get underground fast." he said looking to Jess for some support. "Come on." Jess's gaze slowly drifted from his and back to Nolan.

"I'm done with this. I respect your abilities Tada but you're wrong about this. Good luck man, but we're out. It's to risky to do on a hunch." he said shaking his head and turning, taking Tada's bag from Rick and tossing it to Tada. "Are you both coming?" Rick nodded and looked to Tada.

"Good luck Tada." he said. Tada frowned and nodded to him and looked to Jess. She bit her lip and shook her head.

"I'm sorry." she whispered turning. A hand grasped her arm quickly and stopped her from walking away.

"Listen to me Jess. You're going to die if you follow them. Come with me." he said. Her eyes trembled in his and she swallowed and looked away again.

"You're right sexy when you command like that." she said trying to lighten the mood. It had no effect. "Look Tada, if you want to go to Blarney I can't stop you, but it's suicide. You want to find Paige I'm sure, but if she made it out after that do you really think that's where she'd go?" Tada's eyes widened.

"What do you mean?" he asked sternly.

"Tada," Jess sighed, "Paige was helping people escape. I was one of them but one of the last. That's why I got separated from the main group and met up with Rick and Nolan. She said she'd seen you and she was going after you as I was leaving. If she went back for you and she not with you now..." she said pausing and looking up at him. "I'm so sorry Tada." she said. Tada's mouth hung for a moment and he slowly closed it clenching his teeth behind tight lips. "I just don't see how she could have possibly-"

"She's alive Jess." he said. "She has to be alive."

"Let's go." called Nolan.

"Come with me. Not necessarily to Blarney but at least into the hills. There's more country there anyway. Don't stay here in England." he said looking up at the two men. They looked at each other. "Come on, did you really have any idea what you were heading toward?" he asked. Nolan sighed and ran a hand through his hair.

"Alright, now you have a point. Okay, but just a little bit. Just until we hit the hills and then we'll split up. I'm not going anywhere near Blarney Castle."
...........................................................................................................................................

The walk had been a relatively quiet one. Tada was mostly in his head as usual especially with this new information.

If she went back for you and she not with you now...

She had to be alive. Tada opened his eyes and looked up again. They had made a small camp and fire but the fire was kept low despite the chill in the night air. The others were eating what seemed to be protein bars. Jess tossed one to Tada that landed in his lap.

"You alright over there?" she asked. He simply nodded and stuck the bar in his mouth eating it slowly. He opened the bag and took out the files. Hard copies, again lucky. Old school file folders and the like. It made this much easier on him, it's like Omega was handing it to him on a silver platter. He could do nothing with the flash drive for now but those files would be a good read. He flipped through them briefly reading nothing for now however. This was too important to look at with the others around. A note possibly a letter yet to be sent at the end of the folder fell out. He saw Commander Adlar Hoch's name attached to it. The man he'd been interrogated by had worn commander rank so this might be interesting.

Subject "Tada" is having problems it seems. The remote neural relays seems to be transmitting a fluctuating signal. Far too weak at times and strong on others. It's been this way since we tried to bump the strength of the return signal up the day of the infiltration that freed Edward Phelps. There must have been a interference of some sort or a change in the variables. These cells are much too sensitive for malfunctions like this. If we assume too much control the illusion of them naturally falling into these roles is broken, but in his case there isn't much choice but to override and run his brain strictly by the hard codes. He seems to run fine in this state other than his cognitive awareness being extremely choppy during this time. As long as nothing happens to make him lose connection completely we should be able to salvage his mind once we get to work on him again.

All things considered we may have some major overhauling to do soon. Among the dead we've managed to identify Paige Summerstone who was a strong romantic tie for Subject G7-38 and he may react less than favorably. Still, I believe we will be able to work through this given enough time.

The soldier responsible for Ms. Summerstone's death has been dealt with.


Tada stared at the note for a long time. This was a dream. A nightmare. Had he really just read that? His eyes scanned over the name again and again.

Paige Summerstone. Among the dead. DEAD.

He chuckled to himself. It wasn't funny at all. It was the worst joke he'd ever heard in his life. His mind seemed to have snagged on it unable to process this bullshit excuse for comedy before he finally heard Jess's calls. He looked up at her staring quizically into her face. She cocked her head to the side.

"What's wrong?" she asked. He swallowed and quietly put the files and notes away setting the bag aside. He chuckled again and shook his head waving her off for a moment.

"Tada?" she pressed trying to study his face.

"It's nothing it's stupid. It's just..." he paused and swallowed hard as the words formed on his lips. "Paige is dead." he said aloud. He didn't see Jess's expression but she gasped.

"Oh my God..." she whispered sitting by him and staring at him. "Tada? Tada are you alright? Oh my God how did you find out? What is that paper?" she asked. He simply shook his head and looked at her for a moment.

"Jess, can you just...just leave me alone for a little while?" he asked quietly.

"Tada this is...I'm so sorry." She said. Tada sighed once and closed his eyes again.

"Please Jess." he urged.

"Is that really all I can do to help?"

"Jess..." She stammered for a moment looking worriedly at him and then closed her mouth and got up going back over to the other two.

"What's up? What happened?" Nolan asked.

"Someone close to him is dead. It's not really my business to explain." Jess answered. She was offended. She was upset with him for dismissing her aid. Jess seemed to care a great deal about those around her. She'd be more pissed if she knew he was overanalyzing her actions to keep his mind busy.

"Oh," Nolan replied. "That's a shame. We've all lost people though. It sucks..."

Tada fell on his back and stared up. It didn't seem real. The feeling wouldn't sink it. He wanted to cry, to scream, to lash out to cry fuck the world, but nothing came. It's like his well of emotion suddenly went dry the one time it should really erupt. He felt as if his heart has simply shriveled and faded in his chest. He had nothing to care with anymore. It was all gone. Actually, perhaps it's simply that he didn't believe it. He knew it was true given that message but for some reason it just wouldn't find a base in fact for him.

Paige is dead. Gone. Never to be seen again. You will never hold her in your arms, you'll never kiss her again. You'll never smile for her like you promised.

Just when he thought that not even he could put that nail in the coffin that last thought struck a chord and suddenly he could barely breathe. His throat closed and his chest tightened suddenly. He made a strangled noise trying to choke back the tears he'd begged for and now he didn't want them. Not here not now. At least now he knew he could, but there would be plenty of time for that some other time.

"Baby...I'm so sorry." he whispered to himself taking a deep breath.

"Oh this is bullshit." he heard Jess growl. She got up and walked over to him tapping his chest. "Come on." she said. Tada took a deep breath and opened his eyes staring up at her.

"Jess what's going on? I thought I asked you to leave me alone."

"I know what you said." she replied still staring down at him. Tada clenched his teeth and slowly stood shaking his head at her. The other two looked on as she lead him deeper into the woods. When she stopped he put his back to a tree and folded his arms staring at her. She huffed once and looked on at him. "Well?"

"Well what?" he said rolling his eyes as if she was being ridiculous. She was. There was nothing wrong. Well, aside from Paige being dead but that thought was airy and hollow it him holding no footing. He could simply not believe it.

"Out with it. Come on." she said waving her hand at him in irritation.

"What the fuck are you talking about Jess?" he said still giving her a look that said she was out of her mind.

"Cry. What the fuck's wrong with you?" she said. "I heard you start up and then you stifle it like you're some kind of juggernaut. She was important to you yeah?"

"Jess don't do this."

"She meant a lot to you?"

"Jess let it go. It's nothing."

"Tada!" she shouted stepping up to him and making him look at her instead of through her. "It will kill you. Harboring it up like that in some tiny bottle. It WILL explode. It will go off and you will not be the same when the smoke clears. It's not nothing. Let it out Tada."

For some reason her demanding he rope in his emotions and release them did just that. They were the wrong ones however.

"Let what out?" he growled at her pushing off the tree and leaning down to her face. "I don't feel anything Jess. I don't know why but I had to force those tears out just to make sure they were there. I don't know what's wrong with me but I can't do it! I just can't. I can't believe she's gone, I can't grieve for her, I can't even feel the pain I need to feel because I'm beginning to think I don't really have those emotions to show."

"Oh shut the fuck up. Tada I lost my brother, my little sister, and my boyfriend in that bombing. We were all a part of it, we knew the stakes, and we knew it would be hard, but you know what I did when I got out? I bawled my eyes dry. I haven't stopped until today. Do you know why? Because I don't want to get overwhelmed by it."

"Jess, you don't know what you're talking about." he said. "I'm sorry you lost so many loved ones but my way of dealing with it is different than yours. It's none of your concern." Tada said looking away from her.

"Tada you stubborn jackass." she sighed running a hand through her hair. "Something made you feel those things. It's surfaced and every time you try to drown it out it's going to push back harder." Tada let his eyes slide over to her.

"I...the last thing I told her." he began and his eyes fell. He felt hers on him again. "I told her I'd smile for her. She was worried because I hadn't been smiling lately so I promised her I would. Now I'll never get to." he said. "That made me sad. Not the fact that she'd dead. Not the fact that she suffered or felt fear and loneliness in her last moments. Not the fact that I wasn't there for her and will never get to marry her, have kids, or any of that. The fact that I can't keep my promise in the end. That one stupid, insignificant fucking detail is what makes me weaken. I can't accept that."

"Tada, do you really demand such perfection from yourself that even your own tears have to pass your standards? Do you want me to slap you?" she said grabbing his chin and making him look at her. Tada gave her a warning look.

"Now is not the ti-" Smack! He blinked and looked at her in surprise holding his left cheek.

"The fuck?"

"Don't try and threaten me Tada. I'll do it again." she said not budging from her spot glaring at him. "Let yourself be human for God's sake."

"Be human?" he said quietly no longer able to meet her gaze. His lids closed again and he imagined Paige's face again. Then came Ortrun and the blood. He hissed and shot back against the tree sliding down into a seated position. He buried his face in his hands. "Jess I..." he started and sighed looking up again as she stood in front of him. Tada shook his head, "Jess, that's hard for me."

"Being human? What letting go of that incredible intelligence for a moment in lieu of normal mortal folly? Dropping the godlike charm that seems to grace your every feature? Letting yourself do something you know is illogical and detrimental to some greater cause? It's easy Tada. It's so easy that we all do it every day. That's what makes it a struggle for you. It's easy. Why do you insist on doing everything the hard way?" she asked. "Just for a moment. Be weak. Just for a moment, that way that same weakness won't be there when you need strength."

"Pretty words Jess, but you know they don't mean anything. That's not how it works." Tada said shaking his head again.

"And why not? It's all mental. It a way to control your morale. If you can believe in it then yes it can work that way." she urged. Tada chuckled a little bit.

"That's why I'm going to Blarney." Tada said sharply. Jess sighed.

"I know you are Tada." she said nodding. "I know."

"Then why won't you come with me?"

"Because Tada I don't think it's the right choice." she began but Tada grabbed her hand and stared right at her.

"Jess listen to me." he commanded. She stared at him shocked. "If you do what those two are saying to do you're going to end up dead. I promise you that."

"Tada..."

"Blarney may be some gross coincidence but if we can't get in we can always go with another plan. No false sense of security. Try and get that through to Rick and Nolan. Please."

"I don't...I can't in good conscious do that Tada." she said. "Besides, you're changing the subject." Tada sighed and dropped her hand falling back against the tree. Jess stood there and stared at him for a moment.

"If you say so. It was nice knowing you." Jess rolled her eyes.

"Alright, I'll go back. I can tell you don't want me to be here while you're feeling this, but take the alone time Tada. Give Paige those tears and then rest. Tomorrow we'll figure the rest out okay?" With that she walked back to their camp. Tada stared up through the forest canopy staring at the stars. He wanted to talk. Really he wanted to talk to Jess about this but he felt wrong. Perhaps it was just the pride, but he couldn't do it. It didn't help that he wasn't entirely sure what to do with these emotions. Crying? That just didn't seem like enough to him. They were only tears anyway, it would accomplish nothing. It would change nothing.

"God," he said feeling the strangeness of the word on his tongue. A word he'd never considered a person. A ghost. A spirit if it was even that. Right now though, if that spirit did exist, perhaps it was his best bet. "I don't have the arrogance to pretend I know you're there. If you are though...then Paige is with you. I know she believed in you, and I need you to tell her I'll smile for her again. It may take some time, but I swear I will. I'll survive all of this no matter what and I'll do right by her. I just want her to know that I...I..." suddenly the tears wouldn't stop coming and he fell forward on his hands. "Oh fuck Paige I'm so sorry." he sobbed uncontrollably heaving spasms in his chest and everything. He let out a laugh at the image of himself. "I know this is so pathetic. I've never cried like this in my whole life and here when I need to be strong for you I can't....I can't even...." he pounded a fist into the dirt and sobbed some more. It all came rushing past the floodgates and every image from his photographic memory surged to the surface of her beautiful face. Even worse were all the things he couldn't remember. All the things that had happened without his control. He wept for his lost love and he bled the tears of his betrayal and shortcomings.

You will never hold her again. You'll never kiss her, tell her you love her. You'll never have a normal life with her. This war will consume you. This fight will drag scars of strive through your mind. She will not be there to kiss your wounds. You Tada, are alone.

He sobbed again laughing in spite of himself between surges of grief. "I just hope even in my blackouts I made you happy." he said shivering. "Even if I walk in the shadow of God, I'll continue to walk. This journey isn't over." Tada took a breath and sat up jaw tight and arms shaking. "Paige you're gone. I have to take care of myself or I will be too. My memories are the most precious thing left of her. If I fail then they're gone too." he said sitting back against the tree. Tada stood slowly and sighed. He'd found an old acquaintance and a saving grace, but soon she'd be gone too. He had to embrace the solitude for now. Until he found the rest of the rebellion he was effectively alone. A pain suddenly shot through the back of his head and then pulsed and grew slowly building like a wailing siren. His ears began to ring loudly for a moment and then it all finally grew to a standstill.

According to the note they'd fucked him up something good with all their coding and wiring. He only hoped it wouldn't ultimately kill him. Even worse, he hoped it wouldn't start working properly. If it did, he could bring the whole rebellion down around him. Hell, anything he did was a risk. His biggest goal to get back to his allies was hell of a risk, but he didn't have a choice really. There was no safe place for a rebel.

Tada wiped his eyes and went back to their camp. The two guys nodded at him and Jess gave him a small smile.

"So you guys won't reconsider going to Blarney with me?" he asked once more.

"Hell no." Nolan said kicking back and closing his eyes.

"Sorry Tada." Rick answered.

"Goodnight Tada." Jess said with clear avoidance. Tada smirked and lay back himself. He liked Rick, but he was stubborn and uncommunicative. Nolan was an ass who thought he was smarter than he was. Jess...

"Fuck." Tada whispered to himself. He knew what he thought of Jess. He certainly hadn't given up on getting her to come with him. She was a bit on the brink and he didn't like the thought of letting her walk straight into her death. He'd convince her tomorrow. As his eyes began to close he began to hear voices in his head that made him frown. He couldn't open his eyes once they started. His body stopped moving and he had trouble discerning whether or not he was trying to move it.

"You should be able to delete it from there. It's going to take some work so get to it."

The voice was male, rough. Probably mid forties. It had smoked for a long time and quit none too soon. It was harsh, commanding, and confident. Tada felt a sharp pain and then silence again. Weird dreams he supposed. Weird fucking dreams.

Charon stayed long enough for the Russian to finish his meeting and for his Royal Highness Edward
Godwin the Throneless to start his own far less emotional meeting before taking his leave. He
considered following along after Laras to talk to him about taking some of the command of the
revolution himself, but mentally shook his head once again. The Russian would come to him when
he was ready, he'd had a lifetime of practice ignoring people coming to ask him for favors.

The fine matte-black shoes Charon wore made little sound as he strode through the facility. Most
of Oxford had been a legitimate school, so the artifice of revolution had to be subtle. The new
headquarters had no appearance to keep up. If it was discovered, it didn't matter how clever the
possible explanation, no air of legitimacy would be accepted. Where Oxford relied on obfuscation
and absence of evidence, Blarney had to hide deeper, knowing that any of the open secrecy Oxford
had been able to survive would be instant death for the revolution and everyone who was a part of
it.

All of which meant it was, by necessity, one of the most advanced facilities ever constructed by
human hands.

No one was ever allowed to get close to Blarney with anything that used any form of satellite
uplink, no trackable devices were ever brought close. One lesson they'd learned from Oxford, at
great cost in lives, was the danger of being too coordinated. Naomi was the most dramatic
example, but not the only one. Gaining access to the sides of Oxford that he hadn't seen before
had opened Charon's eyes. The former Spymaster had been compromised and had thus lost her entire
network, barring those few lucky and skilled enough to survive the traps and ambushes waiting for
them, but the other aspects of Oxford had suffered even worse.

Especially the logistics side of the revolution.

Blarney's most advanced technologies were the ones that made it self-sufficient, and they were
essential, now. Not a single one of the smugglers and black-market dealers that the revolution
had used with Oxford had survived, at least not that anyone in the revolution had been able to
tell.

Coordination was key to opposing a force as powerful as Deklahn, but it was also the easiest way
to get caught. Even the most carefully-coded and stealthily-sent message had a chance of being
detected, and increasing the sophistication of the technology used to send the message protected
from some methods of detection while becoming vulnerable to completely new forms of intelligence.

Charon smiled to himself as he approached the room he'd found himself spending most of his time
in since arriving. It was a good example of the kind of thinking they'd needed to employ to
survive.

The security for it was seemingly simple enough. It had a pad for his thumbprint, a lens for
his eye, and a numerical keypad. The first two would be considered the real security by common
logic, but spymasters had long since devised means, both gruesome and technical, to bypass such
security. The simplest of these locks, the numpad, was actually the key one. The number series
was needed, but more important was that the pad also detected variances in pressure. Certain
keys needed to be pressed with just barely enough pressure to make contact with the key, others
needed to be mashed into the pad.

Human error prevented it from being too precise, but someone dusting fingerprints or even
scanning the recent entries to find out which buttons had been pressed in what order would never
be able to decode that particular subtle password, and Charon had never written down the pressure
needed. He'd show Laras personally once the Russian was ready for it.

The room beyond was deceptively empty. It had four matte black chairs, all facing inward, each
with a trio of transparent screens set in the air before it. He'd taken to calling this place
the 'Cell', but it was officially the rebellion's central command and control. Charon took his
time crossing the room, settling comfortably in the chair furthest from the door. The screen in
front of him lit up with all the reports that had come in since he'd last been in the seat.

Keeping a continuous line of communication to the outside world would be an almost literal beacon
for Omega to track, so Blarney used a packet system. Hard lines ran out to multiple
communications facilities, all of them completely legitimate and Deklahn-supportive, and tiny
bits of data were piggybacked onto each transmission going through each facility. Even someone
specifically watching for a change in the amount of traffic would see nothing, and trying to
track the efficiency or size of the traffic going through legitimately would find increases in
the amount of information present miniscule enough to be atmospheric interference, with no single
coherent piece of data included in any one transmission.

It wasn't perfect and Charon was all too aware that it was inevitable that they would eventually
be discovered in Blarney as surely as they were exposed at Oxford. It did give them the best
chance Charon could imagine of remaining hidden long enough. A part of him wondered if the
numerous other hideaways that had been designed in case he had been a traitor were as well
hidden.

Coordinating the entire revolution was actually not much different from what Charon had been
doing before. The main difference between information analysis and actually giving the orders
was the responsibility of making the decisions. That responsibility weighed heavy.
Casualty reports were always first, Charon made certain to read through the numbers lost, not the
names. Everyone would be remembered by name, but Charon didn't have the mental capacity,
fortitude, or time to dedicate to such an endeavor yet. He took in the numbers and processed
them as data, like everything else.

The reports that had been coming in in the time since Oxford's fall painted a clear picture. The
revolution was off to a rocky start, but it was alive. Thousands were dead amongst
revolutionaries, sympathizers, and innocents completely oblivious to anything who happened to be
in the wrong place at the wrong time. Several attacks had been launched on Deklahn facilities
and Omega-run outposts in particular, presumably by smaller groups that had remained independent
and silent to avoid detection. Charon had no illusions, the vast majority of the people involved
in those multitude of attacks would be dead soon if not already, but it was an invaluable
distraction and a morale victory to show that Oxford was not the end of revolution even if the
people who'd been plotting there -had- perished in the flames.

That the official word did not claim to have killed off all the rebels was troublesome, but not
surprising. Omega wasn't stupid enough to release propaganda that obvious, and as the revolution
and Charon in particular knew well, would prefer people they could coerce into working for them
as double-agents inside, which would be easier if they were honest that a rebellion did, in fact,
exist.

Charon swiped his hand across the screen, clearing the casualty reports and bringing up logistic
assessments, with totals on one screen and what had changed since the last update on another. He
stared at the displays for long minutes, calculating in his head what could be done with what was
available and what would have to be done to gain more of what they needed.

Another swipe of his hand and his central screen lit up with the most important difference from
analysis: requests.

Everything any revolutionary required ultimately had to come through this console, for the time
being, at least. Mundane supply requests were fielded by separate quartermasters, but more
unique requests or requests for general supplies beyond a certain amount, an amount that would
notably impact the revolution's full total of whatever available, had to be approved first.

Everyone had known even before Oxford that having one person or a group of people knowing
everything would mean total loss if they were compromised. The fall of most of Oxford's outlying
and specialist cells to internal betrayals made it clear that even dividing things up was no
safeguard. Charon was rapidly reassigning the people who were left to train the people they'd
had waiting for various tasks, making sure to mingle the differing specialties better so that one
deep enough betrayal wouldn't leave any part of the revolution without any given capability.

A chime sounded, drawing the acting head of the revolution's attention, his eyes flitting about
the room incoherently for a moment as he stopped focusing on his reports. His senses returned
after a few seconds, the former professor's gaze taking in the more mundane notification on his
belt.

The tiny device there was no more than a receiver for a short-range signal too weak to penetrate
Blarney's outer walls, but Charon had found it invaluable for ensuring that he was constantly
kept up to speed on particularly important issues. The words he saw there he had been waiting to
see for quite a long time.

He replaced the plain device onto his belt and looked around the empty room in silence, then
allowed himself to slump in his chair and heave a heavy sigh. When he rose and walked away, he
left the personalized pager in the room.

*****

It was not a surprise that the Russian wasn't answering the door when Charon knocked, he'd seen
the look on the man's face when he'd left Phelp's room and he'd known Laras long enough, if from
a respectable distance, to be able to read when he was angrier than usual. Rank did have its
priveledges, however. First checking with the door panel that Laras was alone in the room,
walking in on him and Mia would be a marvelous way to start this talk, Charon input a simple door
code, the skeleton key to the residence rooms.

The room was dark and it took Charon a moment to think to check the time, silently cursing
himself for having lost track of how long he'd spent poring over reports and numbers in the Cell.

He slid the dimmer on the lights just a bit, enough to see without being harsh on the Russian's
eyes.

"Didn't you hear any of the stories about what I'd do to people who interrupted me in the middle
of the night at Oxford?"

Charon couldn't resist smiling, partially because Laras had clearly already been awake. "If I
recall correctly, most of them involved catching you in the middle of some nefarious plot
involving bodies or silver bullets or virgins. Or was it all three?"

He could hear a heavy sigh from across the room as Laras sat upright, his adjusting eyes just
making out the man's silhouette. "What's that you've got?"

"Something to help the evening pass." Charon crossed the room to the nightstand and the single
chair beside it, taking the seat himself and setting the two glasses down, not waiting to fill
both with the clear vodka he carried in the third and final item he'd brought to Laras's room.

"It can be difficult to get better quality drink, and there is precious little opportunity for me
to indulge, so I thought I'd share what was left of my private stock."

A shadowy hand took the glass closest to it, tilting it back as its partner found its way to
Charon's lips. They both finished their first glass each before Laras spoke again. "You're here
to get me back into the center of things."

"Yes and no." Glass clinked as he poured another drink for himself. "I am here to request that
you help me run the rebellion, but I am going to let you decide if you want the job or not."

He could practically hear Laras's eyes roll. "Passive-aggressive bullshit won't beat Omega,
Trusko. Are we going to politely request that they please stop murdering everyone that happens
to get in their way, if it isn't too much of a bother?"

Charon laughed, taking another sip before continuing. "Hardly, but we've got just a bit of
breathing room at the moment, so I'm not going to try and force you to pick anything up faster
than you want, only offer to immediately make you part of it."

The room was quiet for long seconds before Laras's voice spoke again. "How bad is it?"

The voice answering him was carefully neutral, machine-like. "We're the only senior members of
the revolution confirmed alive, you, Phelps, and I. Everyone else is either dead, missing, or
dead by our own hand."

Both men shared a brief moment of angry silence while considering the traitor that had very
nearly destroyed them and who -was- responsible for the loss of Oxford.

"Fully three-fourths of the various agents and division heads are confirmed dead, though most of
their successors were able to get free of the various traps that had sprung up around us all. By
all reports and trends, we're in the clear. Omega has no major leads as to where we fled to and
we've only got a few more people unaccounted for, none of whom actually knew about Blarney to be
able to give it up if caught."

The quiet drew on while the Russian processed what was said. "None of this is surprising enough
to wake me up. Why did you? Which of your mind games couldn't wait until morning?"
Charon swallowed down his apprehensions before continuing. "Our facilities here are fully
operational and manned. I've not received formal notification yet in the Cell, but I expect to
soon and it would be best for morale if I had orders waiting regarding our first step. Up to now
everything has been reactive, saving and salvaging everything possible. Now we're ready to shift
gears again and seriously get into the business of revolution, which means we need to start
picking targets."

He lowered his head with a sigh. "I am just one man. I make the best judgment calls that I can,
but it is dangerous having one person making all the decisions, especially when that person is an
analyst. I see the big picture and pointedly cannot see the individuals involved. That's a
necessary viewpoint but a narrow one, and even with me not receiving completely clear information
on everything I am able to paint a much more complete picture of the rebellion as a whole than is
safe."

In the dark he could see Laras lean forward, his eyes finally adjusted enough to make out a few
facial features. "So don't let them take you alive."

A sardonic grin found its way across Charon's features. "I don't plan to. I've had two methods
of ensuring that Omega won't since my third day here, as a matter of fact. I'm an English
professor, Laras. I believe in the power of words. Even if I didn't think the rebellion itself
was better suited to having multiple people making the decisions I personally believe very
strongly in the need for people to check each other. We all have our weaknesses, our pains, our
breaking points. It is neither fair nor possible for any individual person to be expected to be
perfect or even as close to such as possible."

Laras's hand reached for the bottle, pouring himself another glass of the intoxicating liquid.
"You are going to regret inviting me to second-guess your judgment very soon. I'm not some
cartoon conscience."

"I do not doubt either of those facts for a moment."

"One more question. The Cell?"

One more grin, his most genuine one of the evening, curled Charon's lips. "I'll show you in the
morning."

The two men sat in the dark until the bottle was drained, keeping their respective thoughts to themselves while the alcohol flowed, eventually leaving Laras alone again and Charon moving slowly in the hallway outside until he managed to make it back to the door of the Cell. He made it to his seat and even pulled up another fresh batch of casualty reports with a hand wobbling from the drink, mostly from an Omega raid on a civilian textile factory that had pro-rebel sympathies, before he fell asleep.
Two Days After the Destruction of Oxford

The rescue effort was not going well. Sergeant Cyril Breakwell had gone into the rubble with high hopes, but two days of finding nothing (and worse than nothing) had chipped away at that confidence until only resignation and responsibility remained. And yet the teams continued the search, determined and increasingly desperate to find any survivor they could.

“Many of them seem to have escaped somehow.” A voice broke into her reverie, which was probably a good thing, if the turn of her thoughts was any indication. Cyril looked up, shaking her head slightly to clear the growing despondency, and faced the other occupant of the room.

“Excuse me, Ensign?” Cyril blinked, her liquid blues focusing on the young man. Ether Acton was fresh off the boat from Deklahn, by way from any number of planets on the edge of the Milky Way galaxy. Probably from the Hannibal System—they had white skin, didn't they?—if Cyril recalled correctly. Reliable enough, she supposed, but perhaps a bit too earnest in his support of Omega's more...punitive measures. And with the strangest red eyes.

“Thousands of the rebels seem to have escaped before the school was destroyed. We can't figure out how—most likely a system of tunnels now completely inaccessible—but they were somehow warned. Omega Oxford is clearly compromised. Shall I recommend a purge of the local offices?”

Cyril held her hand up, forestalling Ether before he signed the forms himself. “That won't be necessary. We've long known the rebellion has access to information we would prefer to keep secret. That they found out was more a matter of lucky timing than anything else. If they had known earlier, there wouldn't be any mangled bodies, would there?”

Ether sneered. “Those vermin? Probably left their decoys behind to facilitate the escape.”

“Ensign, with all due respect, you've been Earthside for five minutes. What you know about these rebels would fill a thimble...maybe. Do not presume to make assumptions about them and their behavior. They may be our adversaries, but they are not our enemy, and they are not evil.” Cyril stood. “The fact that most everyone managed to escape is a miracle. Thousands of lives were saved. Families were spared. And we are not here looking for survivors to punish. If Omega always acts the villain, why are we then surprised when our opposition believes themselves the hero?”

The young man trembled, his queer eyes flashing. Definitely Hannibal System. Whatever species had been there first, before humanity stumbled onto the planet surface and spread like vermin, they had not handled anger well. “These rebels...these, these traitors need to be quashed like insects beneath our heel. If they die, it is merely one more step toward the end of their infestation. Your sympathy for the rebellion is suspiciously like support, Sergeant.”

Cyril rolled her eyes and came around her desk to stand before the young man. She was nearly a foot taller—Nevsky grew them big—and used every ounce of her not-inconsiderable will to bear down on the young Ensign. “Are you implying what I think you're implying, Ensign? I, your Sergeant, who has been an Omega Agent for twenty years without a single incident to mar my record? Because I would think long and hard before you continue with that line of thinking, Acton.”

Ether blinked. “Yes, sir. Of course, sir.”

“You must start to think of these people as humans. Misguided, mistaken humans, but humans nonetheless. And Omega has not been kind to them. In the five centuries since the last rebellion failed, we have treated them like prisoners on their own planet, blaming generation after generation of Gaians for the actions of their ancestors. Is it any wonder, then, that they have become exactly what we have told them they are?” Cyril leaned against the desk and crossed her arms, raising a dark eyebrow and staring down at her subordinate. “You will send more teams into the rubble. If there are any survivors, they are running out of time. It is long past time for Omega to be the hero. Dismissed.”
*****


Everything hurt. Breathing was knives, blinking an electric probe, moving taking that Synterine hit for Mia.

Wait. Who was Mia? How did he know that name? Where had he heard it before and why, why did it engender such feelings of camaraderie within him? Did he love this Mia? No...no, he didn't think so. Friends then? Perhaps. Perhaps not quite friendship, but more of an alliance.

Almost friendship. Almost friendship with this Mia, for whom he had taken a hit of Synterine.

He remembered Synterine. It was deadly, a poison meant for silent kills. Apparently, he was immune, or else he would not now be awake. He would simply have fallen asleep and never awoken, not even to pain and darkness.

Why was he in darkness? Such darkness that not even his not-inconsiderable eyesight could penetrate the shadows around him. He couldn't move much, but he could move and he didn't think there were any broken bones. And there was air trickling in from somewhere, or else he would have asphyxiated hours ago. There was no knowing how long he'd been lying here, unconscious, his body trapped in this pitch black prison.

How had he gotten here? He couldn't remember. Trying to think about it sent sharp pains slicing through his head, flashes of dark light dancing before his eyes. Phelps would say he had a concussion, and was lucky to be alive at all.

It was funny, but he couldn't even remember his own name, but thoughts of such clarity and precision popped up every so often, teasing him with the life that dangled in front of his blind eyes. He knew, for example, that he had once been a student at Oxford, but something had caused him to leave. And he had cursed in French when he'd first woken up, though his thoughts swapped between English and Hebrew, so he knew languages.

And he knew that he now suffered from a broken heart, if the agony raging in his chest was any indication. Something had torn through him, something so horrible that it left his already labored breathing ragged, brought wracking sobs of despair from his bruised lungs and stinging tears down his bloody cheeks.

Whatever it was, perhaps it was a blessing that he did not remember. Perhaps he had not forgotten on purpose, but it was a side effect that he could not hate.

Being pinned in a chasm, surrounded by a mound of rubble and without any clue how he'd ended up there, on the other hand, was not particularly pleasant. And neither was the thought that, unless he could find a way out, he would die here, a broken shell of a man trapped in his own ignorance.

A man with a purpose that he couldn't even touch, because he couldn't remember what it was.
*****


King Edward Godwin was alone.

Not metaphorically speaking, though that was also true he supposed, but literally. Mia was probably off celebrating by fucking that Professor of hers against a wall somewhere, and Edward Phelps was surrounded by a cadre of nurses formidable enough to turn the tide of Armageddon. Charon was locked in his cave, leading this silly rebellion by the skin of its teeth and losing years off his life in the process. No one else would speak him. And so Edward sat alone in the library, a bottle of Port steadily emptying its way into his mouth, trying to forget the sight of his mother as she threw herself from the van.

She'd been hit by a bullet almost immediately, through the shoulder, leaving from the back and burying itself into the door of the transport vehicle. Someone seemed to have realized then that she was the Queen of England and she got several more steps before an Omega thug slammed the butt of his weapon into her face, shattering her nose and sending blood spraying through the morning air. But Edwina had been a strong woman, much stronger than anyone had ever known, and she kept going, drawing the attention of more and more of the men escorting them to prison transfer.

Edward hadn't said a word, hadn't spared his mother a tear or even the barest sound of dismay, as he'd sneaked out of the van and tore into the side streets of London. He hadn't let out the cry of anguish that had threatened to burst into the world, the wail of loss that he'd carried with him day and night since his mother's sacrifice. Not a single tear, not the barest sign of weakness, not a single indication that his world had been shattered around him.

Was it any wonder, then, that he'd decided to shut himself up in a library and get righteously drunk? He'd thought about finding a woman from amongst the number here, but the brief comforts of sexual release were nothing to the moral superiority he insisted on keeping over Mia and, most especially, the Russian. And the mess it would cause set his head spinning. No...the comforts of a woman were not his to sample.

Everyone had always assumed that Mia was the dreamer, the fighter, the revolutionary. And for two out of the three of those, they were right. Edward did not believe in fighting—he was a man of peace, of diplomacy and compromise—and was certainly never going to set the world afire with the idea of revolution. But he had not been without dreams. His had simply been quieter, and he had been quieter about them.

Edward held no love for Deklahn. He loved their secret police even less. But he loved war least of all. He'd always believed that there was more to Omega than cruelty and defamation. There were planets throughout the Galaxy that lived just fine under Deklahnian rule; hell, there were nations on Earth that survived more than comfortably with their Republican counterparts. All they needed to do, all they'd ever needed to do, was convince Deklahn that Earth was no threat to them, or the viability of the Republic.

It didn't have to be true. Earth could dream of rebellion all it wanted, but without an enemy, without Omega, what need was there for such dreams? The world would live on in peace, in prosperity, in safety. And no one needed to die.

Edward used to dream of the day he brokered that peace. The day he would save Earth from itself and from Deklahn. The day children could laugh again and mothers could feed their families with more than just pills and powders. When vegetables weren't illegal and books censored. It would be no crime to celebrate Earth's history—was it not, after all, the home and birthplace of the Republic—and everyone would forget that Earth was once a prison.

They would call him a hero, of course, but Edward would not preen; he had not done it for the glory. Mia was far more self-aggrandizing. She lived for the attention being right and brave and true garnered for herself and her Cause. She loved taking stands and daring others to stand against her. And she stood for causes as much for the glory as for the cause itself. She wanted adversaries; lived for finding a person so opposed to her that debate and discourse must be the product of their meeting. Mia loved proving other people wrong and, consequently, herself right. Any opportunity to show the world just how much she cared.

And she did care. She probably cared far more than Edward, who bore the cool detachment of the hyper analytical. It was just that, for Mia, every cause became part of a larger one, a part of the big, grandiose, idealistic dream his sister had for the world. She believed in justice, believed in fairness and equality and everybody being happy and healthy and loved. And so she turned the smallest fight into the greatest cause, sometimes forgetting that people do not always like to be turned into causes. His beautiful little sister, always fighting to make something better, even when it didn't necessarily warrant a battle.

Edward took a long swig from the bottle and smiled. Mia, for all her wildness, for all her supposed disdain for tradition, had a rather rigid view of the world. Either things were right or they were wrong. Either they were fair or unfair, just or unjust. And she always strove to make the world right. No matter what got in her way and just what she had to plow through to get what she wanted.

Peace was an impossible dream now. There would be no deal, no heroic rise, no Gaian Renaissance under Edward's keen eye. Mia had seen to that. The revolutionary. The fighter. In the end, her dreams would come true and Edward was left to either support them, which he could not, or stand aside, which he would not. Not when Mia's plan would put the lives of so many in danger. Not when it would, most importantly, put her in danger.

Mia had never cared much for her own safety. She charged head first into situations without a thought, never stopping to consider what her latest crusade cost, what the consequences of her actions would be. There was only the ideal, only the notion that something somewhere wasn't right. But in not considering herself, Mia also trivialized the pain she would cause if she were hurt or, God forbid, killed during one of her stunts. And this wasn't just another of her pet projects. This was war. And she had put herself on the front lines. Had molded her body and mind into that of a polished killer, a super soldier capable of killing a man with her hands.

Had taken upon herself the duty of saving the world.

Edward did not deny that her argument the other day had been a sound one. What was the Royal Family if not the last line of defense for their nation? Royals often served in a military capacity. And who was Mia to call for a war that she herself would not participate in? He understood the logic.

Understood it, but could not accept it. Not when it meant putting his baby sister at risk. Not when it meant letting her run off with a mad Russian and his death wish. A Russian she seemed dangerously infatuated with, and perhaps more than that. Laras didn't seem to recognize the look in Mia's eyes, but Edward did. The silly girl had gone and fallen in love with her weapons professor and, worst of all, the moron refused to see it. Or, rather, to see and ignore it, because the implications were far too frightening.

Chuckling to himself, Edward stood and wobbled about the room, his head spinning. Laras Nikolao was a powerful man. A man who could probably kill Edward a hundred different ways and still have a hundred more to use, but he was terrified of the thought that he might love little Amelia Godwin. That he, the big, tough warrior whose only love was the rebellion, had something he cared about more than fighting. And it was making her fucking miserable trying to deal with it, but the imbecile didn't seem to notice.

The idea that Mia was in a sexual relationship with Laras sickened Edward, and not just because it was weird thinking about his sister having sex. It sickened him because Mia deserved so much more than a muscled man-child who used her as a stress reliever and a punching bag. And more so because Laras had undoubtedly been the one who'd stolen Mia from him, had turned her into a hardened warrior; had taken a fresh-faced idealist and turned her into a cold, calculated killer. And he didn't even appreciate that she loved him.
No doubt the Russian found Edward's emotional state laughable, even sickening, seeing it as nothing more than weakness. And Edward had no doubt that there, at least, he could rely upon Mia to defend him. The Godwins were an emotional lot. It was what drove them, what made them get up in the morning and face the day. Laras, who made a habit of repressing his emotions, could never understand that his actions were not a mark of strength, but of fear. A bone deep terror of losing control. What Mia understood, and what Edward understood even better than Mia, was that while letting one's emotions run unchecked was certainly weakness, letting them run was the heart of strength. And Laras would need to learn that lesson or find himself a broken waste of a man, abandoned by everything and in control of nothing.

Edward wondered whether he wanted to prevent that from happening or cackle in delight when it did. He supposed it all came down to Mia.

And didn't it always come down to Mia.
*****


Mia threw one last punch—a hooking jab that had actually managed to surprise Laras on occasion—before steadying the bag and sinking to the ground, breathless from fatigue. Her muscles were not just limp, but overcooked, and would probably be completely useless as appendages for some time. But she felt good, nonetheless, and every moment spent in the Room, as Laras had dubbed their training space, was a step toward not only full recovery, but improvement.

War would chase them to the cliffs of their own endurance, threatening to dump them over the edge of their own lack of preparedness. Hadn't Laras said something like that, in that nails-on-a-chalkboard gruffness of his that he liked to adopt at his most exasperating moments? She was obviously paraphrasing. Rather, she was adding the twist of rhetoric, preparing herself for the day she would have to be more than a fighter. When she would have to be the symbol Phelps had promised her she would be.

She hadn't seen him. First Laras had stormed from the room, a brush with humanity that had left him dismayed and, predictably, irritable. When Edward had gone into the room—the King-of-no-subjects gone visiting—Mia had not followed. Phelps would not want to see her even if he could. They had not parted as friends and, unlike he and Laras, there hadn't been even the slightest moment of recognition, a jolt of understanding, of forgiveness.

He probably wouldn't even notice she wasn't there, anyway. And if he did, the Phelps of old would most certainly have approved of her decision to find Laras.

Except that she had failed. Wherever he had gone after barreling into the hallway and nearly bowling Mia over, she had not been able to find him. He'd probably gone and done something stupid like go above ground. Living in an underground bunker had never suited him, and he likely chafed under the constraints he had thought to escape when leaving Oxford. Dealing with perfectly normal, human emotions had never been the Russian's strength.

In fact, if the man could be said to have a vulnerability, it was his inability to reconcile the human with the warrior, the rebel with the man. And Mia worried that it would get him killed one day, if she wasn't there to protect him when that dam finally broke.

After searching as much of the bunker as she could, Mia had returned to the Room and given herself over to physical pursuits. He would find her eventually, if he wanted to find her at all. More than likely, he would hide himself away until a braver soul than she dared entire his demesne. Rather, a soul that hadn't quite given up on dealing with the man's temper tantrums.

As much as she wanted to forgive him for insulting her brother, Mia wasn't sure she was ready to. He seemed to have given up the fight, if the almost-moment in the hall had been any indication, but they had never actually resolved the very real issues reflected in his outrageous stance. Issues that they would have to discuss if they ever wanted to be in an adult relationship, borne of mutual understanding and respect instead of physical need.

Edward was a difficult man to like sometimes. Mia, who knew him better than anyone, had always understood this about her brother. But he was one of the kindest people she knew, despite his tendency to be perhaps a little too cerebral in his dealings with others. He was not a weak man, or a coward, or any of the other insults Laras had hurled his way. In fact, his careful consideration of duty came not from a place of cowardice, but one of compassion. Edward did not do what he did because he was afraid; he did it because he believed it was the right thing to do.

In that, Edward was probably a better person than just about anybody here, in this bunker full of people who believed freedom was worth any sacrifice, even that of safety and life itself. They would destroy the planet if need be, all for the glory of some ideal called freedom. They would trap humanity in the world of the rebellion, shaping their lives and movements as surely as did Omega.

Did it really matter, then, if the end was something as fundamental as the right to eat a vegetable, or read a book? Mia certainly believed so, but she did not think Edward was a coward for disagreeing.

There was a commotion in the hall. Lifting her head, Mia stared at the closed door of the Room, wondering if perhaps, against all belief, Omega had managed to track them down. She pushed herself up, arms shaking as clambered to her feet, breath still coming in great gasps and face hot from exertion. Quietly, her training taking control of her already spent muscles, Mia crossed to the door and, carefully, opened it a crack.

No one appeared to be dying. If anything, they were excited, coming together in hushed tones and fervent glances in the hall. Something had happened, but nothing bad. Nothing that would require her to kill anyone, anyway, which was, in its own way, quite good. There was no way she was going to be any help in her current condition.

'What the hell has happened?” Mia pulled the door open and popped her head into the hall. “You lot are making enough noise to bring Omega down on us.”

“There's a new arrival. Dropped off this morning by a rescue team. He's American.” One of the girls—Mia didn't recognize her, but that wasn't surprising given her limited acquaintance—tittered, running her fingers through her hair. “And he's so handsome. Much better looking than that Russian fellow.”

Mia raised an eyebrow. “He is, is he?”

The other girl elbowed her friend, recognizing not only Mia, but her relationship with 'that Russian fellow'. They'd made no secret of their carnal indulgences, and apparently the gossip pool had flowed over from use. “I dunno. He's American. If you like that sort of thing...”

“And he's a fighter. I wonder if they'll fight.” The first girl giggled again. “Those two...shirtless...”

“Before he gets to Laras, he'll damn sure have to get through me, so don't go pulling out the vibrators just yet,” Mia snapped. “Where is he?”

“With Charon and Laras in the entrance hall.”

That explained why she hadn't been able to find Laras. If he had gotten pulled in with Charon, there were places he could go that she couldn't follow. He'd been moved up in the world after the bombing—second-in-command until Phelps managed to get back into the swing of things. If Phelps came back enough. Since Charon had made Laras his conscience—and wasn't that hilarious—he had the run of Blarney. Mia, Princess or no, was just a foot soldier in the cause.

Being a Princess helped, of course. Especially when she insisted upon getting her way in everything.

“Ah, Princess, I was wondering when your curiosity would get the best of you.” Laras was leaning against the wall of what everyone had dubbed the Entrance Hall. The corridor from the surface spilled into an atrium of sorts, from which hallways branched in every direction, each protected by a keypad and any number of other tests. Being number two, Laras could go down any of them.

Mia was allowed down two, which galled her more than it should have. She was used to not being able to go everywhere at Oxford, but being part of the rebellion proper, and the woman who'd killed the traitor Stephens...well, she'd thought it would mean more. And it pissed her off that she needed to be with Laras to go to the weapons room.

“Well, when a man comes in who puts you to shame, I just have to see.” Mia turned her most winning smile to the man standing beside Charon. “The ladies are all atwitter now that you're here...?”

“Colt,” the man replied, voice clipped from exhaustion. “Banner.” He turned his eyes to Mia, and slowly raked them over her as if a man starving for anything beautiful. She noticed that he had the same blue eyes as Laras; lighter, perhaps, less dangerous. No, not less dangerous, less controlled. This was a man who acted on impulse, swinging hard, fast, and impetuously. Judging by the scars, he was a man who fought often, as well.

A brawler, then. About as different from she and Laras as could be. And maybe not quite as handsome as her Russian, but there was something in the line of his jaw and the casual grace with which he held himself that was undeniably attractive. The look he was giving her didn't hurt, either. Exhausted or no, this man appreciated her charms.

“I am Amelia Godwin, Princess of England and, I suppose, Heir to the throne of Great Britain. Nice to meet you.” Holding her hand out, Mia smiled as Colt wiped his hand on his jeans and reached out to take it. “You are from America. I sympathize with your loss.”

Colt's eyes sharpened then, as he tore them away from the curve of her hips, and Mia was reminded of Laras for a moment. “What do you know of my loss, miss?”

“No specifics. But I have lost most of my family, and a number of friends in the last few weeks. And loss can always tell loss.” Mia smiled softly, and let her hand drop from Colt's, eyes moving to wear Laras was scowling at her. “Forgive me. I appear to have taken you away from something important.”

The American shook his head, and Mia could see for the first time just how much of a toll his last few days had taken. Whomever he'd lost had been important to him. Someone close. And it was this loss more than the loss of home and country that had nearly broken Colt.

But he hadn't broken, and this is what made him a fighter.

“Nothing important, miss,” he said, glaring at both Charon and Laras. “I appear to be getting the orientation. You people sure know how to treat a man. First I'm dragged to Iceland, then dumped in Belfast and subjected to incessant prodding. Then I'm blindfolded and shoved into this place like a fucking prisoner instead of rebel.”

“You should just be glad we came to get you at all,” Laras grumbled, eyes shifting from Colt to Mia and back. Mia wondered what he was thinking. In an actual human, she would have guessed jealousy, but this was Laras, so there was no telling what was going through his head. Maybe he was just displeased that another fighter had come through for him to browbeat into submission. At least he wouldn't sleep with this one. Hopefully.

Colt sneered. “Yes. I'm just fucking thrilled. Your charity and kindness fair take my breath away. Just give me the code to the gym. I need to hit something.”

Mia smirked. “May I offer myself as escort and punching bag? I could always use a new man to pin...”

Blinking, Colt returned Mia's comment with a sly smile of his own. “Little thing like you? I'd like to see you try.”

“Oh, darling. You've got no idea. You're lucky I've just come from a workout. You might actually stand a chance.”
*****


His throat was dry, lips cracked and bleeding. It had been almost two days without any water but his own sweat, and that had all dried up now. He needed to get out of here or he would die.

It was probably for the best, he thought. To live would be to eventually remember.

And he didn't want to remember. No matter how much curiosity raged within him, the burning need to know, to understand, to work everything out for himself...to know would be to break the ever-tightening cord of sanity within him.

Everything hurt. It hurt worse with every passing minute. But he relished the pain. The pain meant he was closer to dying.

He took a deep breath and felt something rattle in his chest. Must have broken a couple more ribs than he'd thought. It was a mini miracle he'd lasted this long.

Just a few more hours now, and he would slip into oblivion. He would die, and the pain would be gone.

Gone.

And he would finally be free.
*****


Ether Acton was not enjoying his time here on Earth. It was a miserable little backwater shit hole full of traitors and fuckers. Even the women, who'd suck your cock for an apple, were toothless hags, empty-headed and sagging. He was pretty sure one of them had given him something. But so long as his bitch Sergeant had him on corpse duty, he couldn't spare a moment down at the infirmary tents.

But damn did his sack itch.

Miserable fucking planet. He'd as soon turn the thing into a glass desert. Then he could watch as the flesh tore from their traitor bones, and the blood turn to ash. Maybe he'd take one or two of the finer women with him, as booty.

Maybe that Princess of theirs. He'd seen a picture, and she was sweet. A murderous bitch, of course, but one with lips like pillows. A few bruises would pretty her right up, and then she'd lift for him on sight. All that one needed was a little breaking and she'd moan right pretty.

Despite the itch, Ether felt himself stirring and forced his thoughts away from what he'd do to the Princess of England. Until he made it to the infirmary, his prick was out of commission. Whichever fucking whore had done this to him was going to beg for death when he was done with her.

It was hot, and Ether found himself hankering for an ale. Only a few more hours and he could go back to HQ and spit in Cyril's face. Traitor-loving cunt. Probably let them all go if she could.

She could rot here, for all he cared. Go up in smoke with the rest of these shit-for-brains Gaians. As far as Ether was concerned, humans had long outlived their usefulness, and anyone who coddled them or, worse, venerated them, deserved to share their fate.

“Ensign. We've found something!” A Deklahnian regular came bounding up to him, breathing hard in the thin, Gaian air. He must have been from one of the denser systems.

Ether backhanded him without another thought. “You will salute your superior officer, you little shit.”

The soldier, skin dark and built wide, saluted, murder in his bright eyes. “Sir. We have found a body, sir.”

“Throw it in the pile with the others.”

“I think you misunderstand, sir.” The soldier stood tall. “This one's alive.”


With a wrench and groan, the raggedy man pushed himself over the wall on to a narrow street. Staggering as he dropped to the cobbles, he felt his knees buckling, he moaned again in a language like old Spanish. Barcelona, the city of the Catalans, stronghold of Dehklan, home of horror... His breath rattled in his chest. He stumbled and tripped but hobbleran the street, round the corner, brushing the walls with a trail of dark liquid that would glint red in the light. Across the road to a door with a lionhead knocker that he lifted and dropped heavily.

“It’s me. Miguel Ruiz de Cervantes.” His hoarse voice was desperate, “Please. Please. Pozhaluysta.”

Nothing. His body caved inwards, curling in on itself as his hand still clung to the knocker.

“Fútil!” He muttered over and over, “Fútil, fútil.”

The sound of a thousand locks clunking free seemed terrifyingly loud in the silence of Barcelona. The door gave way like a tombstone, exhaling a dank, foul-smelling breath into the deserted street. Slipping inside, he lurched through to a corridor that sank into darkness. Stuffy, the heat inside had turned the air fetid and reeked of damp. Spiralling threads of grime and dust hung like white hair from the ceiling.

“Santa Mare du deu...” Miguel placed his hand on the wall now, wrapping the other hand around his middle as if it might help hold him upright, “Gràcies Maria.”

Haltingly, as if all the desperation that kept him moving had run out, he picked his way through the dark. Drops of blood followed him. Unreality closed in on him the further he shuffled. Nestled beneath his eleventh rib was a bullet, another hole pierced in his mutilated skin. He was bleeding. Santa Mare du deu... He had to remove it soon, cauterise the wound. His brother had shot him. Little Poddy... oh dolça mare...

“What did they tell you about me, Poddy...? el que t'han dit sobre mi?”

“They probably told him the truth. Vash otets prevratil vas v pervyy raz.”

Yes... his father had turned him in the first time.

Miguel Ruiz de Cervantes was the kind of guy that lived for happier times. He carried a photo in his right breast pocket. It sat between the silk inner lining and a ragged handkerchief bearing the initials DMS, looking back upon a memory that was so far away and strange to him now that it almost felt as if he could not remember it, except when fixing his dark eyes on the faded photographic images. In it was a young couple. A boy on the verge of manhood, normal looking, not be more than seventeen or eighteen, with honey coloured hair that curled around his ears and against his dark, half-Gaian features. His arm wrapped round the girl’s slim waist. She might have been younger, her hazel eyes were so bright and happy beneath a thick brown fringe, listening gleefully to whatever his lips whispered into her hair. A teasing look was upon his face... so carefree and thoughtless. Miguel stared at it now, his fingers tracing over the defamiliarised characters. Even now, the warmth that the photo carried coursed down his hands, into a grimacing smile, feeling as if he had recognised two old friends in them. Behind them was sunlight, a village on a green hill, around them white flowers with pink tipped petals. She had one in her hand, held carefully between her fingertips.

He wished he could remember her name.

He had come home one afternoon, a bright afternoon so distantly remembered it was devoid of realism. He had been settled at the table with his father, a single candle burning overhead that sent shadows spinning in the corners of the room. They were in silence, staring at one another, a conversation waiting to be broached sitting with them. The front door opened and shut, stirring them unhappily. Padded feet, a tentative knock...

His father rose from the table: “Poddy! Que està a la meva botiga si vostè està a casa tan aviat?”

“Pare, em va tancar. Hi ha un home aquí.” His little brother’s voice was high-pitched and young... at least he believed it had been in every retelling... He thought he remembered how the boy had shuffled from foot to foot in front of their father, knowing he shouldn’t have left the shop, knowing that their book business could hardly afford an afternoon of closure.

“Qui?”

“Un home amb un rostre negre.”

“Un africà?”

“No, pare, un home amb un rostre negre i ulls vermells. Porta una màscara que penso.”

“Un doctor?”

“No un cirurgià. El seu nom és Fumero i el seu català és dolent.”

Flinching, their patriarch made some gesture, sometimes it was scorn, sometimes it was nonchalance. Miguel thought his father’s name might have been Alvar or Arnau.

“Ell ha d'entrar.” Sometimes resignation.

“Pare...” Miguel began but a glance silenced him and they heard heavier footsteps upon the roure floor. Cold steel in his right hand, he had curled his fingers around a kitchen knife no pointier than a letter opener. Standing, slowly moving towards the back of the room, a stifled laugh in the hallway.

“Is he here?” They were the first English words he had ever heard spoken. Miguel spoke it himself, he read in English but never... only on video tapes. His blood ran cold at those words... and his father...

“Yes.”

That stinging betrayal matched the bullet in his side but it had hit clean through his heart.

“Snap out of it, Senyor.” The Russian voice brought Miguel back into the room, “We cannot have you dying now.”

“Dying?”

“None of that. You need to report what you have found about Stromson.”

“Stromson...”

Two large arms wrapped around him, lifting his frail body away from the wall, “My friend, you are a great man but a great fool, stay awake until we are through to our Vault.”

“Vault?” He felt hot, feverish, cold, all over vague and indistinct, slurring together and popping apart, “Poddy shot me.”

The arms tightened ever so slightly, “You talk nonsense, Senyor. Talk to me about Stromson.”

“Stromson,” Miguel repeated, head falling to rest on a great shoulder, murmuring one more thing before his world dimmed, “is in Ireland.”

*

The Cell did not live up to its name. It was not dark or cold or lined with bars. It was the opposite, like touching the outside world, like basking in sunshine. Laras found himself grinning. The room was about the size of a rounded tennis court and plummeted deep into the Earth. Layer upon layer of technology lined the walls. Most of the information that was processed above ran through these computers, through programmes designed to pick out which clues were sent to which people. No one person had access to it all. Except those with access to this room. Laras lifted his face to the ceiling, expecting blue sky as the room was so light, bright as if the day actually filtered into this manmade cavern. Soft yellow lamps burned above them, he glanced at Trusko whose attention was focused on him.

“I’ve always wondered what someone else’s reaction to this place would be like. Unfortunately, I could not see my own.” The same sardonic smile that he had seen in his quarters was upon Charon’s face again here.

Laras didn’t hide the thrill he felt in his spine as his eyes roved The Cell’s design. “I expected something darker.”

Buttresses supported the walls, spiralling downwards towards a central desk below them, lit with thin white lights that trailed down from the strange ceiling. Churchlike... it was the only word the Russian could think of in English. Chasovnya...

Trusko laughed, his jocular expression fitting the sudden elation that rose in Laras’ soul, “It is quite a feat in technology.”

“Ogney...” He began, “Sorry, the lights-”

“Sun lamps. Apparently, young girls used to use pure UV versions to make their skin brown back when the Windsors rules. It wasn’t very safe and after a few decades the practice died out. But a century or so ago an engineer who worked here rediscovered the technology and recreated them so that the light softened. Made them more lamp-like. Don’t ask me the mechanics of it, essentially means that people like you and I, destined to hang out in ‘Cells’ no longer have to lose our natural glowing complexions.”

Laras snorted, “So we get a suntan down here.”

“Not exactly, but we won’t end up looking like prisoners of Montjuic.”

“And the rebellion is not quite so undeveloped as believed.”

Charon smiled again, “Something like that.” He waved his arm ahead of him, gesturing to the white painted stairs that twisted around the walls, “Come see the rest.”

The explanation that followed made the hair on Laras’ neck prickle. The Cell had been designed in the first Rebellion, but it was so far hidden inside that it was never discovered. If it had, there was no way Dehklan would have left it standing. Kept of every blueprint and every map, the entrance secreted behind normal looking stone walls, there was one way in and three ways out. To enter, one first needed to know where the epic of Lancelot and Guinevere hung, in the lowest part of Blarney. Three stones along and there was a groove, tapped twice on each side and it revealed a coded alarm system. Each number of the keypad was fingerprint sensitive and the code had to be entered within twelve seconds. From there a full hand scan occurred, then a retina scan. A doorway revealed itself, materialising between the stones as if dissembling, and then one entered the body room. Each man that stepped into that room had to declare themselves, respond to randomly selected questions and most importantly, undergo a biomass check. Should an invader try to infiltrate the room by using the body of an accepted agent, the biomass check should detect and incinerate them. Charon had presumptuously assumed Laras’ compliance and set him some basic questions that he could change in private once they were in The Cell. At this point, Laras grudgingly admitted that he could not have done better himself, his paranoia as close to appeased as it ever was.

Furthermore, the structure was actually five times smaller than it could have been, the walls stratified with every protective material they could afford back then and reinforced now.

“They tell me this place was gutted and refitted when they reclaimed the castle and it’s the most up-to-date informatics centre in the human world right now. Greater than anything America or Russia can dream up, even The Raven.”

“The old man is still up to his tricks.” It was not a question.

Laras’ eyes had sharpened and Charon Trusko observed. Noting the way the Russian’s shoulders pushed back, tensed, all the muscles coiling for a fight.

“He has many under him, many loyal acolytes.”

“He is a devil.” Laras spat.

“And may I remind you of the rumours I mentioned before?”

“Oxford’s students may have thought me cruel but they never thought me evil. Even when they longed to blazon my cheek with a T.”

“His contacts are rigorous, thorough. He is a worthwhile ally.”

Laras’ arm shot out, spinning Charon to face him, “Believe me when I say, that svoloch is no one’s ally.”

“And you see, this is why we need two of us.” Charon’s tone was light and Laras tried to ease the temper itching in his bones.

The two additional exits were also coded, using them would instigate a fifteen second trigger, if the passwords were not administered then the whole castle was lost. The idea, Trusko added, was that they were only for escape usage. If The Cell was breached then the Rebellion would suffer a loss far greater than Oxford. Both exits also joined onto escape tunnels, one leading to an underground channel that could be used to flee into the Irish Sea, the other leading away towards the city. Again, his usual concerns were assuaged.

Whirring greeted them as they stepped onto the main concourse. The desk, that had seemed punitive from the high entrance, loomed over them now. Laras split from his companion’s side, walking the circumference with a vague sense of awe. He had thought this thing was myth.

“This is her, isn’t it? The Shield of Evalach.” He wondered, listening to her electric pulse, taking in the mammoth amounts of information that flickered across the screens.

“Part of her.”

“Part of her.” Laras nodded, “Others come here.”

“Glad to see you’ve not been completely entranced. Yes, the highest ranking Irish also work here from time to time. You’ll likely meet Algor Hogg down here before you’ll meet Randall or Caoilfhionn – those two prefer actual daylight.” Charon met him in the middle, “But the rest is down here.”

Placing his hand on a key pad, he leant in, speaking words just loud enough for Laras to hear before turning on his heel and marching towards a piece of wall that really... just looked like a piece of wall. He walked right through it. Laras snorted, fucking dissembling walls. Old technology, highly underrated these days. He padded after Charon, hoping the wall didn’t solidify after too long or something equally tricksy.

“This is the real ‘Cell’, if there must be a causal correlation between name and place.” Charon muttered. It was much more like a bunker than the rest he had revealed. There were wide desks with holographic panels running through them, displaying maps with symbols for enclaves and outposts. The walls were full of books, maps, partially lined with computers on one side. And it was darker, the lights were old and dim compared to the peculiar sunlamps, “Only we have entrance here.”

A light flashed yellow in the corner, a high-pitched whine filled the room. Charon pressed a button a dashboard Laras had hardly noticed.

“Number One.”

“Our bridge has been crossed with the desired asset.”

“Very good. I’ll be up to see the asset’s condition shortly.” As the light faded and the noise dissipated, Charon shrugged apologetically towards Laras, “We have a new arrival. The sole surviving American.”

“And we’re bringing him in.” Laras felt his hackles rise, “To Blarney. You think that wise?”

Charon fixed him with a look that might have worked on him in his first year as an Oxford student, “He is the last of his kin, he has lost his family and his countrymen.”

“Loss is not a reason to bring him to Blarney, like some poor substitute. Loss is no reason to give him access to the Caers.” Laras moved away from emotions he barely gave attention, “How can we trust an American? All of them were meant to die. What if he was ‘meant’ to survive?”

“He has passed each test we have given him, in Iceland and in Belfast.”

“And since it is too late and you asset has arrive, I insist that he has limited access codes until such time as his loyalty is proven.” Laras all but snarled, “This is why you wanted me down here, Trusko, do not pretend to be affronted now.”

The annoying smile that had lingered on Trusko’s face was absent now but grudging respect remained, “I would never pretend such a thing with you, Nikolao. But let us meet Mr Banner now.”

Banner. Laras silently admitted that he had heard of the Banner boys and their handiwork Stateside. Jealousy for their freedom had plagued him when Stephens had trapped him inside Oxford. He frowned, he still didn’t understand why Stephens failed to remove him from the war entirely, why he hadn’t had him killed before he could do the damage his mentor so feared. Had there been a reason for keeping him alive, other than breaking Oxford apart with a believable Russian traitor? Russia wasn’t trusted in the war by either side, it was too easy to make him the turncoat but... Stephens also knew him. Surely he should have predicted that between them... Wincing, Laras noted that Stephens probably hadn’t factored in the Princess... that she had been the wildcard and... But then Stephens had brought her in to cement England’s guilt...

It was their relationship that remained accounted for: Mia’s loyalty to her bastard professor, her stubborn determination, her goddamn effect on Laras. He should probably talk to her at some point. He supposed she was probably worrying about him after his reaction to Phelp’s condition. But then, he could also remember the disappointment in her eyes after he’d rant against her beloved brother.

Silence swept over the two ex-professors as they strode back through the bunker and towards the upper levels of the castle. Neither was eager to talk. Laras noted the winding route, the old portraits on the walls, now of old war leaders and Irish heroes. The Irish were as trustworthy as the Russians were unreliable, they couldn’t help but feel Gaian pride. When they reached the foot of the staircase that led to the entrance hall, Laras took one last sweep of the older man, noted the troubled soul behind his eyes and the promise of a future in his gait. He would not mind working with Charon Trusko. He only hoped that his conviction remained true.

*

When Paulo came home, he realised that someone had already opened the bookstore. It might have been his father but that seemed unlikely since his father never emerged before lunchtime these days. No, it felt ghostly. The smell of coffee hung in the air and there was something lurking in the usual bookish silence, a tension that wafted round him even as he stood, waiting for the unexpected. Seconds ticked by, he wasn’t sure what he waited for. Patience, however, was a necessary skill in his trade – of both books and other, less innocent commodities. The shop was too still, frozen, timeless. Wet boot prints were visible on the floor, drying into the roure floor.

Taking a slow step towards the counter, Paulo wondered if he could make it to his gun before his intruder appeared. It would be better than being caught unarmed. Or maybe letting them know he was there would route them out. Before he could take another step or open his mouth, a foreign baritone echoed unnaturally through the heavy shop.

“Amic, bon dia. Com estàs?”

Paulo’s sallow skin turned the colour of off-milk, “Y... Ye...Yeats.”

“Wilbur Yeats, this time. I do hope you don’t mind the intrusion.”

Wide brown eyes darted around the room, he still couldn’t see his companion, couldn’t tell where the voice was coming from.

“Què és el que vols? What do you want here?” No, no, he needed to check the Yeats’ identity. “Were you looking for anything in particular?”

“I am looking for a book on travel, preferably Amsterdam.” As all Yeats were, the accent was that peculiar Irish of the upper class, over-ground kind. And Amsterdam. That was the first password.

“I’m afraid we’ve sold out of travel guides but we have a few Dutch novels near the fireplace.” Fireplace, he was sure that was the right response.

“And I’m afraid that the light is too dim. Do you have any fire?” Second password. Deu... Deu... Santa Mare...

“In a shop full of books, the fire is guarded. You might have come in the summer, unless you are a southern bird.”

“Indeed, Senyor Segura. Such a funny clue to get into a password isn’t it: ‘southern bird’.”

Paulo’s instincts were screaming at him to run, or snatch up his gun and shoot the intruder. But he still couldn’t see him and he was sure, beyond sure, that the man was some kind of demon. Nonetheless, he forced his shoulders to relax, smiled uneasily and stepped towards the counter again, two steps, turned to glance around the room.

“Will you not show yourself Yeats?”

“I think not this time. I have come here to do you a service. Are you the owner of this... shop?”

“No. The owner is my father. Senyor Segura is my father.”

“So Segura and Sons applies to you both.” There was a terrible pause as the pluralised ‘son’ echoes around the room. The Yeats seemed to take pleasure in driving the wound deeper, “And to your ill-fated brother, I assume.”

“My brother is dead.”

“Is he now?”

“He was shot, trying to escape Montjuic eight months ago. He was buried in an unmarked grave behind the castle.”

“That is what you ought to tell me. But you know and I know that you know that your brother did not die. He escaped.”

Paulo’s eyes bugged in astonishment and panic, “Excuse me?”

“You like to make your life difficult, Senyor. I was told it ran in your family. But I’ve come here as a friend,” there came a tittering laugh, as if the word ‘friend’ was some antiquated concept for fools and beggars, “But listen to this – your brother escaped. If he comes to you, you would do best to pass it along in the normal manner.”

“My brother would not come here,” Paulo insisted, “We are practically estranged even if he is not dead. None in this house would welcome him. What does he even have to do with this? He was a rebel twenty years ago. He was taken by a Surgeon.”

“An undesirable of the first kind.”

“Yes. Yes. Indesitjable.”

“So if you saw him, you would let us know. You would make sure that we were made aware of his presence in Barcelona?”

“If my brother lives, you will be the first to know.”

There was a pause, the shuffle of feet and he was sure the back window opened. A draught blew through the room, chilling him through.

“The package is in the usual place. We expect our delivery next week.”

As the sibylline laugh echoed into oblivion, Paulo felt the room return to normal temperature, felt the ache in his jaw fade as his teeth unclenched. When he was sure the Irishman had left, he hurried to the door, turning the sign to ‘Closed’ before stumbling back to the safety of the counter. His hand reached for the gun beneath. His fingers closed around its cold barrel, tugged it free and into his lap. It felt heavier than it had in days, despite the fact that only three days prior he had shot a man and had yet to reload the bullets. He had shot his brother. His brother, who worked for the Russians. His brother, who was apparently of interest to his Irish clients. But the French had told him that his brother needed to die... weren’t they all on the same side?

“Miguel... what have you done to deserve this?”

*

Colt Banner was a fighter, a thickset, broad-shouldered man with a thuggish face and too many scars. Those scars were identifiable. He would never be of use outside of a fight with so many markers. There was a red, raised ridge on the back of his neck, sliding down from his hair line and Laras was sure that must have come from his recent crash. Medicine may be able to speed up the healing process but wounds like that were always difficult to conceal. Charon had asked Laras not to jump to conclusions as they climbed the stairs earlier and Laras swore to reserve his opinion, to hold back on passing judgement for the meantime... Admittedly, as in the case of both Templeton and Amelia, he granted that occasionally his prejudices could be detrimental... and perhaps he could remain cold to this man until he had determined his worth. Phelps had often said that he’d learn more of his compatriots if he forwent censorship.

“Welcome to HQ.” Charon said in an amusingly magnanimous voice, “We are glad you made it.”

Banner’s blue eyes sharpened and his scowl deepened, “Yeah, me too.”

Laras tried not to smirk at the grimace that fleeted across Trusko’s face. One point to the USA. The following conversation was mainly password exchange, checking and double-checking each other’s identities. It was a system of spy codes, all innocuous to the untrained ear. Laras rolled his eyes at some of them. Colt appeared to be trying not to do the same. As the codes began to settle, he noted Mia stepped out of a side corridor, glancing around before alighting on the new recruit. He squashed the flicker of a smile before anyone, least of all Mia, could see it.

Leaning back against the wall, he gestured to Charon to round it up before announcing her arrival, “Ah, Princess, I was wondering when your curiosity would get the best of you.”

Her eyes still hadn’t drifted from the blond American and that infernal smile played about her lips, “Well, when a man comes in who puts you to shame, I just have to see. The ladies are all atwitter now that you're here...?” She smiled brightly at the American and Laras noted the way that Banner’s eyes darkened at the sight of her.

“Colt Banner.” The American drawled, his voice low in a way that made Laras’ blood burn.

Princess Amelia Godwin began her introduction, placing a hand on her hip and Laras almost snarled when he realised how Colt traced his eyes along the curves of her body. They were hardly hidden behind her tightly fitted sparring gear. She apologised to the American too, sympathised with him in the way that Charon had attempted earlier. Didn’t she realise her foolishness? And now she was sharing her own loss with a stranger – she hadn’t even been assured of his identity yet – and she was telling him about her family. Had she learnt nothing from Phelps? Nothing from him? Charon’s exasperated gaze met his and he let a fraction of frustration show. Solidarity, he hadn’t expected Trusko to acknowledge his equal frustration with the overeager, overly trusting Heiress.

She seemed to notice at last, finally looking him in the eye as she spoke, inquisitiveness evident as usual. But Banner interrupted before they could answer, glaring at the Rebellion’s Number One and Two in succession. Complaining about his treatment, “I appear to be getting the orientation. You people sure know how to treat a man. First I'm dragged to Iceland, then dumped in Belfast and subjected to incessant prodding. Then I'm blindfolded and shoved into this place like a fucking prisoner instead of rebel.”

Burning anger settled in his stomach as he saw that goddamn sympathy flash in Mia’s eyes again but he snarled out a retort before the Princess could let slip something about his own loathing of being trapped, or her own treatment at Oxford. Colt Banner needed to know nothing more than what he and Charon told him at this point.

“Your charity and kindness fair take my breath away. Just give me the code to the gym. I need to hit something.”

Laras scowled.

Mia fucking flirted, leering at the watery-eyed brawler, “May I offer myself as escort and punching bag? I could always use a new man to pin...”

Charon rested a hand on Laras’ shoulder as he started, teeth gritted and knuckles whitening, “I need you to come back to The Cell, Laras, let them go. Mia will be a good experience for him.”

Mia didn’t look back as she led the way towards the Salle, Banner walking just far enough behind her to continue his lewd appraisal. Laras’ heart beat hard in his chest and he knew, in his gut what he’d been trying to deny.

Colt Banner was not to be trusted.

*

Later that night, Mia walked down the passage to Laras’ quarters. She’d assumed that her Russian had been busy with Charon, hence his absence from the arena that afternoon, but she wanted to tell him that she had bested the American, even if only by accident. Her teacher didn’t need to know that.

She wandered back down to the arena, surely Laras couldn’t have avoided her and the gym, all day? Her curiosity rose as she saw a small crown listening in at the door of the Salle. Many of them scarpered when they noticed her, others sent her a look that had her hurrying to join them. Beyond the wall, they could hear the Russian ranting, the smack and thud of fists on dummy opponents.

“Ochenʹ plokho, chto printsessa delayet veshchi tak trudno dlya menya... Ona ne ponimayet... Kak ona mogla ponyatʹ.... Kogda ya ne mogu ponyatʹ eto sam. Yebatʹ mudak , i chert vozʹmi vse! YA nenavizhu yeye!”

The blood drained from Mia’s face as if she understood some fragments of whatever the man inside was screaming.

“I wouldn’t listen, Miss Mia. Mama knows everyone inside and out and she says he’s very fond of you.”

“Thanks Denny.”

He smiled sweetly, the way only children smile.

Project 866 "Linear Path Theory"

Hypothesis

If a certain personality harbors certain events, then that personality will have specific goals pertaining to those events.

Test

Subjects G73-0, G73-1, G73-2, G73-3, G73-4, G73-5

Each subject will be specifically engineered to cater to certain lifestyles and built around certain memories manufactured to create specific goals.

The controlling factors will be genetics, physiology, looks, and memories. Once the desired personalities are created the subject will be tested for specific responses. Should these tests prove positive we will move forward with further subjects.

'Hardcoded' handles will be installed for first hand manipulation as a safety measure.


Tada put the files away again and let out a deep breath. It was a pain in the ass to read while walking and they had been on the move for quite a while. No one had spoken much, but Tada figured out a few things. One of which was part of Nolan's seemingly aggressive nature. He was attracted to Jess and viewed Tada as a threat. Taking the crisis into account Tada couldn't hold it against him. It would naturally trigger a little aggression, but Nolan wasn't sure where it came from or where to direct it so Tada became a bull's eye. He was also suspicious of Tada probably given the speed his arm had healed. Jess was slightly awkward around Nolan and Tada knew she was already certain of Nolan's intentions with her, but he hadn't quite pinned down if they'd had sex or anything of that nature. Judging by Nolan's aggression he'd say that wasn't the case. Rick was consumed with grief and was dealing with it very stoically. He'd sunk into a pool of reason and serenity in order to avoid a breakdown. Tada felt bad for the man, but nothing could be done about it now. In fact, Tada figured one other thing out.

He himself was starting to bury Paige.

This was not something he wasn't sure about, but it was coming increasingly difficult to think about her. He wanted to call her to memory and bask in her imagined presence at times, but something stopped him. It was something unknown but quite apparent. In fact he wasn't sure why it was happening.

That was a lie.

He knew those voices were a clue. Someone was trying to get rid of those thoughts and those memories so he could function properly. Maybe he wasn't too weak to fight it. It seemed more like a part of him wanted it gone. Then again that was the same as being too weak to fight the process. It would be better for the rebellion anyway. From what he could tell these engineers or whoever and whatever the fuck they were couldn't really read his entire mind, but more of the way Ortrun's machine could track certain strong thoughts that would translate into words. Most thoughts were less speech or person to person communication and more instinct. Even the logical parts weren't always words that could be translated by a machine. This made him lucky that with all the goings on in his brain the only one prominent enough for them to affect was the memory of Paige, or at least the attempted memory.

Tada closed his eyes and stopped for a moment. What a sad fucking hypocrite he was. After all that sobbing and swearing to remember her here he was possibly trying to forget her. He in his own mind, her final sanctuary; was killing her. Everyone looked over at him.

"What's up?" Jess asked. Nolan turned toward him waiting for his answer. In truth, Tada hadn't even noticed he'd stopped walking. He must have been getting mentally exhausted to show so much. Now he had to come up with an excuse.

"Nothing I just thought I heard something. Don't worry about it." he lied. Jess listened for a moment as did Rick and Nolan before they continued on.

It would be so much easier to just forget her, but I can't. I know I won't. I know that even if they try and take it all away I won't forget. It's all far too deep seated.

The thought that they could even do that was merely conjecture anyway. He'd yet to read anything that said that was a possibility. Perhaps he was just giving himself an excuse. Perhaps he needed one. Could forgetting her be the best honor of her memory? After all, if he couldn't get over her how could he finish what she started? How could he aid the rebellion? Then it hit him.

Why the fuck did he care about the rebellion? Time for some self analysis.

The orphanage had instilled a sense of duty in him. At first it was about vengeance and later he realized he'd burned it down because he had to. They were corrupt, wrong, evil. Those people had stolen the freedom and the innocence of all the children there. They had to be stopped. They were. No one else was willing or brave enough to do what had to be done. Maybe they were too young? Too socially and mentally inept? For whatever reason he was the only one willing and able. How would he live with himself if he'd stood by and done nothing? He couldn't fully forgive himself for killing all the workers. Some of them he didn't really know. They could have been good people, but it was over now. After that he'd lived on the street.

The streets showed him the state of the world. This wasn't a pretty sight from beneath the veil of Omega's rule. The world around him was like a callous on one's heel with a bruise underneath. The real pain was covered in a thick, hard layer made to look like the surroundings, but no matter how flesh colored it was the bruise was always visible if you took a good look at it. And it always hurt to walk on.

He was eventually adopted by a military man named Evan Leeles and his wife Mara. Evan was strict and cared little for what Tada wanted in life. He was called by the name Ash then and went by several names meaning 'freedom' just to spite the man. Tada may have owed some of his brilliance to Evan's rigid study courses and stubbornness. Mara was a silent whisp of a woman always following her husband having no prominent personality of her own in his presence. When she was alone she would try and interact with Tada like a caring mother would. This gave him his softer side, but her unwillingness to show such care when Evan was around gave him his mistrust and lack of ability to depend on others which lasted through his teens.

Tada left as soon as possible and struck out on his own. He was barely scraping buy and getting around mainly on his smarts and ability to read people before he met Paige. At first she just liked his tattoos. Sekai and Sakae. Ironically they had nothing to do with the actual anti-Omega movement at first. They were initially to piss of Evan and symbolize more of a rebellion against what others demanded of you and to seek glory in your own feats, not to support Oxford.
Things changed however.

Why though had the rebellion appealed to him so much? Was it because of his likely fake father figure's strictness? Was it his falsely implanted sense of responsibility from the orphanage? Was it just the fact that a beautiful woman pulled him away from his shitty apartment into her cousin's house to try and get him involved? He wondered how Dustin was doing anyway. He had to have heard that Oxford was swept from the map by now. After all he didn't live far from it. In fact, there was a good chance he was dead as well for just that reason.

"Hey Jess," he started suddenly not looking at her, "why'd you join up with the rebels anyway?" He felt her glance over at him and then back ahead.

"Oh, well a lot of my family has been a part of it. My dad was actually a professor there, but not a part of the spy stuff, just a regular teacher who was there to keep up airs."

"Why didn't you mention him as being a casualty of the bombing?" Tada asked immediately. He'd barely even processed the information. Jess seemed a little taken aback by his sudden question.

"Oh...well he quit a few years back. Probably couldn't handle the stress. He wanted to pull me out but it wasn't happening. I loved what I was doing. I love what I did."

"What you did?" Tada looked at her this time. Nolan peered over and met his eyes.

"Did. Yeah. Because that part of OUR lives is over Tada. You're the one who can't accept that remember?" That was particularly hostile, bit Tada knew it had been brewing for hours. Tada cocked his head to the side for a moment. Before his filters engaged hot words shot from his mouth and he couldn't stop them.

"You got a problem there Nolan? I'm a genius, I'm really good at solving those. You on the other hand may need a little help with yours." he said. His words had a slow burn to them. They didn't come out blazing like rockets. They rolled like grenades, counted down their timer, and then went off. Nolan took a moment to process that Tada was confronting him.

Boom.

"Yes I have a fucking problem." he snapped walking up to Tada. Jess and Rick immediately grabbed his arms to hold him back. Tada stood firm smirking a little at him and folding his arms.

"Really? Do tell."

"Because asshole you're trying to get Jess -US killed! For a supposed genius your idea is one of the dumbest things I've ever heard! How dare you come down on me about..."

His voice trailed off. Tada's mind wandered again letting the man vent. Nolan wasn't a threat really even though Tada was still injured and needed to heal more despite whatever was allowing him to recover so quickly.

Why had he chosen the name Tada out of all the other Japanese words for freedom? After all, the form of 'free' Tada meant was in concern to price. Free of charge. That sort of thing. What sort of significance did that hold. Actually the fact that rebels don't really get paid for the mere act of rebellion was kind of fitting, but it also meant sole, only, mere, and common. Something not outstanding. This was fitting as few things were remarkable to him. Most things were composed of parts and each of those parts was simple. At least the way he saw them. That was good enough. At least it'd have to do for now.

Still, the fact that his memories were likely fake drove a hard point home to him. Why go back to being a rebel when it put the entire cause in danger? The only purpose he could serve them was their downfall right now. Was that a subconscious urge of his? To bring them down as he was meant to?

No, he knew it wasn't that simple.

"...that's my problem!" shouted Nolan in conclusion. He jerked his arms away from the other two.

"Nolan, if you honestly believe I'm trying to get you killed why would I have waited? Why would I bother trying to lead you to Blarney?" Tada asked.

"So we can be captured and interrogated." Nolan responded.

"Then why follow me?" Tada knew the answer to this one.

"Because Jess if following you goddammit!" he barked glaring at Tada, "And once we reach the hills we WILL turn around and we WILL get away from you. You'll be on your own Tada. If you don't get it yet, I don't know your loyalties. I don't trust you." Nolan said in a huff. Nolan knew it was reaching to say those things. That it was in fact ridiculous. Tada knew that Nolan knew how far-fetched his ranting was. It was at this moment, for some reason -likely the emotional stress he was already under- that the fact that Nolan said them despite how foolish they were made Tada sick. The fact that he knew how idiotic he sounded and still had the gall to shit out such an argument brought forth a fury. Tada slid through Jess and Rick grabbing Nolan's collar and pulling him close. He stared right into Nolan's false bravado bearing eyes. How dare this bastard question is motivations right now. How dare he poke holes in his reasons. How dare he try to expose Tada right now the one time he was unsure. The on time he wasn't confident. The one fucking time he didn't know himself.

But he did know. He knew and Nolan was about to know as well.

"I fought my way out of an Omega camp," Tada started. Word pushed from him without thought. They came straight from inside him. Unprocessed. Genuine. Raw. "I nearly died killing off the remaining soldiers. I set the whole motherfucker ablaze myself. How is that the action of someone with enemy sympathies?" he growled. Nolan swallowed hard and Jess touched Tada's shoulder lightly. He didn't let go. "They killed her. They. Killed. Her."

Paige

"They killed almost everyone I cared about and there weren't many of them believe you me. I don't even know how many of us are left, but I want to find them. I want to see this through because I've lost too much now to let it all go. It's not like before when I could have just disappeared and been replaced. It's not like I can come out of this thing without scars now. It's not like that anymore."

This is why

"I have to finish this for the ones who can't. For the one's I knew wanted this so badly they died for it. For the ones still fighting for the fallen. I can't just stop now. I never fucking could. You wanna know my loyalties? I'm loyal to the ones who see dreams and goals as responsibilities not impossibilities. I'm loyal to those who fight for that freedom and who decided it was the only way to live and the only thing worth dying for. Fuck politics and sides. That passion is what drew me in. They wanted it so bad I couldn't help but want it for them. Now I want it for me too."

This is why I'm doing this.

Tada pushed letting Nolan fall to the ground. The man stammered for a moment and then hung his head. "Tada hold up man. Look..." he slowly stood and shook his head shrugging a little. "Hey I'm sorry. I uh...I just..." he didn't seem to have his words together. Tada sighed. He'd been talking as much to himself as he had to Nolan. Those fake memories didn't matter. Paige's memory was real even if it was slipping from him. There were people he liked. Mia, Shlomi, Ortrun, now Jess involved. Some of which were surely dead, some of which he wasn't sure, and one of which was still on the precipice of deciding that. Tada just shook his head. He couldn't possibly rationalize right now.

I'll just have to find a way to make it work
"Drop it. Forget it. Just forget about it Nolan."
................................................................................................................................................

Glen slid slowly out of bed, his wife sleeping soundly after hours of sobbing. He made his way into the living room and sat down in front of it. The cell phone. His gut was tight as he flexed and unflexed his hands anxious at the thought of finding something within. He wondered what he would do if he did. The silence was only diluted by the steady ticking of the clock.

2:26 a.m.

Finally he reached a shaky hand out and picked it up from the coffee table. He let out a harsh breath and ran on hand through his hair. "Okay..." he whispered to himself opening it. It took him a moment to navigate through the phone. None of the text messages seemed suspicious, but he couldn't remember how to delete them so they were all there. All one-hundred-forty-eight of them. He began reading through their conversations. Tears built up every so often threatening to bring heavy weeping again, but he kept himself together or pulled the pieces back into place very quickly. There was nothing even remotely suspicious, but chances were good that he'd still have to hand over the phone if he didn't want to get arrested. Still, he wanted to know if there was anything at all she had tried to tell him.

It was almost 4 o'clock now and he had to work at nine, but he kept looking. Then he noticed something. The voicemail. There were two. One was from when she first gave him the phone and the other one was from a few days before her birthday. As he remembered it even before he had that phone she'd always call a few days before her birthday and tell him the same thing.

"If I can't make it down there for my birthday for some reason promise me you'll at least go up in the tree house for me kay? Love you daddy, bye!".

But she had never failed to make it down for her birthday. She made it there every year so he never had a need to go into the tree house he'd made for her years and years ago, and certainly not a reason to look around.

She always did though. Every year.

He stood suddenly and looked out the back window into the dark at the beautiful work of wood sitting in the oak.

"Glenn?" came Harriett's voice. Glenn's eyes shot to the hall and met her form.

"Honey? It's okay go back to bed." he said.

"Come back to bed you lunatic what are you doing?" she asked sounding aggravated that he'd left her alone. She seemed stable for now, he didn't want to open the wound again right now. They both needed to sleep.

"Okay okay, I'm sorry honey. I'm coming." he said putting the phone down and watching his wife walk back to their room barely awake enough to even move. He let out a puff of air and looked to the tree house again. "Tomorrow." he said to himself going back to bed.
................................................................................................................................................

Tada lay on his back staring at the sky through the sparse trees. They'd reached the hills and would part in the morning. Jess sat down next to him. Tada staid down and kept staring at the sky.

"So you lost your boyfriend did you?" he asked. Jess sighed and looked down at him.

"You're the rip off the bandage type aren't you?" she asked sounding a little offended but forgiving.

"Sorry."

"Yes I did. His name was Gale." she said looking off into the distance now. "He was sweet. I met him shortly after I met you actually. He was a dissembler like me, God awful though." she said with a chuckle. She twirled a piece of her hair and continued, "Gale has a heck of a sense of humor though. I absolutely could not be mad at him with his goofy grin. There was this silly little duck noise he'd make and poke me on my side. I don't know why it made it so much worse when he'd do that sound," she began to laugh. Tada couldn't help but smile watching her reminisce, "I would just laugh so hard. Him tickling me was the reason we had sex for the first time. That bastard." she looked down at her hands and swallowed hard before taking a deep breath and looking over at Tada. "So what about you? What do you remember about Paige right now?" she asked. Tada closed his eyes.

"Well, we had this thing. I mean, we both knew we had feelings for-"

"Loved." she interrupted. Tada looked up at her.

"Don't hide behind stuff like 'had feelings for' or 'cared about' or 'liked'. You knew you loved each other right?" Tada smiled and looked skyward again.

"You're right. We knew we loved each other for a long while, but it became almost like a game. It was basically how long we could build up the sexual and emotional tension before one of us broke and just pounced the other." he said with a chuckle.

"Who won?" Jess asked with genuine curiosity in her voice. Tada smirked despite his gut turning over beneath his abs. He had no idea.

"You, Jessica, are far too interested in my sex life." he joked. Jess turned red from what appeared to be a mix of anger and embarrassment.

"Don't call me Jessica! It's just Jess and you know that." she growled pressing a skinny girl finger hard into the softest part of his side. Tada recoiled and nodded holding up his hands.

"Okay okay, honestly I don't remember he said." Jess looked appalled.

"WHAT?"

"No I mean, it just happened really. I guess in the end we both won." he chuckled in spite of himself. He knew he'd made her happy, and that would have to be enough. It would just have to do. Jess seemed to accept that.

"Oh I see. A blind flurry of thrown clothes and exposed skin and suddenly you two were...together. Makes sense after all that buildup." she chuckled, "Were you each other's firsts?" she asked curiously.

"Yes." Tada answered immediately. It was a dead giveaway. Jess tsked and wagged her finger. If she only knew who his first really was she'd have a much more dynamic reaction. The guild of Sofia Ortrune sunk into him again and he swallowed it for now. There would be time for self depreciation later. He'd had enough today if he could help it.

"Tada you dog you let her think that? Well, it's okay. Your secret is safe for now." she said patting his shoulder lightly. There was a pause. "I'm sure it made her happy to think that. Wherever she is now I'm sure she-"

"She's dead now." Tada said suddenly. He looked up at Jess. "She's dead now Jess."

"You don't believe in an afterlife Tada? Okay, did she?"

"Paige did, yeah." he answered closing his eyes.

"Well, then maybe you should keep an open mind huh?"

"Maybe."

"Hey don't start shutting down on me alright? Come on now. It might help to believe she's in a better place. I do." Tada shook his head.

"I can't believe that yet. For now, I have to believe that if there is a better place we have to make it here. The afterlife can wait until well...after life."

"I'm not sure it works that way." Jess said nervously. Tada sat up and looked at her with eyebrows raised.

"Oh, I wasn't aware you made the rules of the afterlife Jess. Please do tell me how to get there." Jess punched him in the right side of his chest. Tada winced and cupped the area.

"No need to be an ass. Stop it or I punch the other tit." she threatened. Tada stared at her bewildered for a moment and then laughed a little. Jess began to smile some. Tada collapsed back again and let out a sigh. He looked over to her and noticed her looking at him a little nervously then back over at the others.

"You want to come with me don't you?" he asked not breaking his gaze. Jess swallowed and looked down at him.

"Tada, of course I want to come with you, but...look," she said brushing her hair from her face, "I have an idea."

"Okay."

"I'm going to go with them." she said definitely. Tada sat up on his elbows and furrowed his brow.

"You've lost me."

"I'm going to go and try and convince them to go to Blarney. I actually know how to get there and everything."

"How will you get in?" Tada asked her sitting up fully.

"I don't know that yet. That's why I'm talking to you about it. How did you plan to do it?" she asked. Finally someone got curious about his plan. Well, or lack thereof. The plan in itself was very ambiguous. It would have to be invented as he went along.

"Honestly, I don't really know yet either. I'm just confident we can get there. Especially if I have your help. You were a dissembler after all. Your specialty is stealth and espionage." he admitted. Jess sighed and rolled her eyes.

"You don't have a plan?"

"That's not 100% true. I do have a plan, it just happens to be wet cement at the moment." he said, "I'm sure they expect operatives to trickle in given the way things ended. They must have some way of identifying us when we get there. We just have to do a little leg work."

"Good," she said smirking, "Then I should have no trouble getting to Blarney. From there things will take care of themselves. This'll be easier than I thought."

"That's not what I meant and you know it." he said furrowing his brow. Jess shrugged.

"Tada, I've decided now. If you truly believe they'll die if they keep going I owe it to them to try and turn them around even if I put myself in some danger." she said. Tada's face tightened and he plopped back down on his back resting his hands on his stomach.

"I just hope you don't take too long. There's no telling how long you guys have, or me for that matter. That's why we have to get moving toward Blarney as fast as possible. You're not going to budge on this though are you?"

"No. No I'm not." she said shaking her head but looking sympathetically at him. Tada suddenly remembered her telling him to allow himself to be human. For some reason that sank into his mind right now. To allow that weakness to hit him while he still had time. That meant there was a good chance this was his last opportunity to feel that weakness. Grief. The thing he'd been avoiding so heavily that he'd already stumbled along some of the stages of the Kübler-Ross model. The five stages of grief. He'd felt the denial if only briefly, and now he was at what? Anger? That didn't feel quite right. Perhaps there were forces at work trying to numb his grieving, or that was his own convenient excuse to mask it himself.
..............................................................................................................................................

There was far too much information in this kid's brain. Tiera wasn't confident in General Gyle's decision to try and remove the hard coding remotely like this. Apparently he believed it had become corrupted somehow, but with so much data it was a miracle the kid functioned at all and defragmenting a person's brain was so far gone it was closer to the realm of magic than science right now. If anything 738's brain was far more organized than a typical persons save recent developments and still it was impossible to clean it all up. The removal had already caused some glitches but nothing severe. He had heard them speaking because Michaels had left the damn microphone on which they didn't ever even use. It had been meant to be used to add certain commands verbally for convenience but it was too much of a hassle and could only be used when only one person was in the room. She should probably just uninstall the damn thing. Still it was strange that he'd managed to hear them given he had no real hardware in his body save the ECS units which had no receptors to translate any kind of radio waves aside from their own signals. It was interesting but she had no clearance to explore the anomaly.

She quickly realized how right the General was. The coding was littered with useless data and threads that could be doing only harm and no good. Somehow it had bled into his own impulses like a rock sinking into soft mud. The hard coding was supposed to be completely independent of the subjects own thought processes. In G73-8's case this was becoming a serious problem. His level of thought processing was high enough to already have him unwittingly on the verge of madness. This could be all the push he needed. Teira chewed at her thumbnail for a moment pondering the best way to go about following her orders. If she left things as they were their own messages would feed directly into his conscious thought. His independent thought. The thoughts that were supposed to be left alone. The ones he could remember. Well, the kind he would remember not remembering. Tiera knew that was not an option. She grumbled a little in frustration. This was the one thing she never read about in sci-fi novels and the like that inspired her technology fascination. The glitches, the mistakes, and the fuck ups. No science was perfect and damn if all if this mess of information pudding that was 'Tada' wasn't a great example of that.

Several minutes passed as she clicked away studying the slowly changing hard code. It was as fascinating as it was frustrating that was for sure. She was indeed looking at the data inside of a human mind. Well, a synthetic human, but a human all the same. It had a strange sense of power too it even though in his state if she tried to mess with anything too much he'd likely spit blood, smell colors, and then kill everything within reach. At least that's the severity that popped into her brain. "Remove it from here, huh?" she muttered to herself. What was likely happening was that his own conscious mind was trying to process the hard coding. Her eyes widened. That would explain a lot of why Gyle wanted it gone. That could drive him nuts quickly. The hard code was not the kind of data that could be processed by a human brain without a command attached to it which would negate his consciousness and send him into blankness until they were done doing whatever they had to do. This issue might explain why he remembered that there were gaps in his memory. It was a strange theory indeed, but it worked on paper. Regardless she had to get rid of it soon and 738 would have to deal with it on his own. He wouldn't notice the loss of the code too much, but anything that'd gotten mixed up with it may not disappear entirely. After all, removing that kind of memory in a person was impossible to do manually. There were always bits and pieces to trigger a connection, and recreate the whole blasted thing. Sometimes she hated her job.
................................................................................................................................................

Sleep was difficult that night. The knowing was eating away at him. The knowing that he was a mess and that he couldn't cope with it right now. It seemed he was still in denial. It made sense. There was this odd part of him that no matter how many times he told himself Paige was dead it didn't feel real. For that reason it was like he couldn't think about her at all. He rejected the thought and everything that went with it. It made sense he supposed. Right now, it just had to wait. He hadn't the strength to confront her death truly and wholly. Besides, that file could have been some sort of fake. Maybe he was meant to find it to think she was dead.

It made sense...except that it didn't at all.

For now he just had to let the grief run its course. For now he just had to let himself feel like she was alive there at Blarney waiting for him. Perhaps it was a bit like Schrödinger's cat. Perhaps until he reached Blarney she was both alive and dead and his arrival would determine which reality he was a part of. That would have been possible in a world where he'd yet to read the confirmation of her death. The world where her body was never found by anyone. Where Jess didn't see her turn back to go after him. The world where she was still an unobserved cat in a box. The world were there was a chance she was alive. There really was no way out aside from forgetting the whole mess. Forgetting her life, her death, all of her. Forgetting or ceasing to care. This solution was an unfortunate impossibility.

Tada closed his eyes again and waited for darkness to take him. At least behind his eyelids she lived. She lived in his dreams and for now he could stay there. He could sink beneath the comfort of his dreams, of his realm of fantasy safe from the harshness of the world around him. Safe from the harshness of this cold earth beneath him and the coldness inside his chest.

Tomorrow would be his journey to Blarney. His journey into the box. The open box with the spilled poison. The place where both realities collapsed into one truth. The one of which he was still in denial no matter how many times he tried to move on.
................................................................................................................................................

Dawn was on the horizon and they began to stir. Tada nudged Jess until she rolled over looking at him with her hair a mess and one eye open. He leaned forward and whispered to her.

"I'm heading away now." She furrowed her brow and sat up. Rick and Nolan began to move hearing his voice. He glanced over at them and back to Jess. "I want to get moving early. There's just enough light and it's a long trip. I don't plan on stopping until I have to." he said. Jess nodded and bit the inside of her lip. He really believed her when she said she'd try and turn them back. He had no choice, she was far too good at what she did. Dissemblers had their amazing ability to control what others saw in their body language. Tada had some skill in the matter, but never so much that he'd be able to fool...well himself. If she had simply told him what he wanted to hear, Tada would never know it. He did however know enough to realize he'd never know; not that there was much consolation in that. "So uh..." he looked at the other two, "Hopefully I'll see you all soon." Nolan sighed in frustration, but as Tada stood he did as well in a rush.

"Hey Tada wait a moment." he said walking over a little wobbly having just woken up. "Look, even with that stupid outburst I had man I have to say I hope you make it. If there's any hope at all that Blarney is what you think it is then I wish you the best of luck finding it." he said. Tada smiled at him. He did so more for Nolan's morale benefit than of his own happiness.

"Thanks." he said glancing at Rick who just nodded toward him and rolled over to get up slowly. Nolan nodded as well in finality and turned beginning to gather his things. Tada grabbed his bag and headed off. Suddenly Jess was behind him and spun him around wrapping her arms around him.

"Good luck Tada." she whispered. "I'll see you soon enough. You better make it." she said looking up at him. "See you."

"Yeah." he answered smiling more genuinely at her. He indeed hoped to see at least Jess again. Her bringing Nolan and Rick would be even better. She went back to getting her things as well and Tada turn again walking away. Walking over such a vast expanse of land was in itself a slow goodbye but it was so final. Once they parted there would be nothing either party could do for one another, and Tada most of all was on his own. As the sun came up and was blocked by the hills that he left behind him casting a massive shadow it came to his mind again.

"Ambulabo umbra Dei. I think I can do that."
A yawn was always the first thing out of Charon's mouth after waking before he got to Blarney. Now he hardly felt he had the time to indulge in the little bit of routine before he had to answer some urgent query from someone or other. He couldn't have anything on the level of urgency the Cell was intended for sent to the little lap-sized pad he kept on the stand beside his bed, but working out a few non-essential logistics issues, purely internal so no one getting to his pad could see any external contacts, was a reasonably calm way to start his day.

That a shot of his remaining vodka, at least. He was going to miss that when he ran out, but he could hardly requisition a bottle of alcohol in the midst of all the other possible catastrophic security breaches.

A sardonic grin curled his lips as he picked up the pad, briefly noting the closed drawer hiding both the vodka and his various pills. Most were simple enough pharmaceuticals, and he intended to keep most people thinking that's all any of it was. Having Laras around meant he was able to get some actual sleep in his actual bed, instead of an hour of sleep and a pill to keep him alert. He still wanted his alarm to die a creative death, though.

His morning ritual of less-important work was also a chance for his just-waking mind to wander a bit, to process things with a fresh mind. He'd found occasionally that would let certain things click into place that otherwise wouldn't, and the first thing that came to mind this morning was Mr. Banner. That he'd needed Laras to insist on being cautious with him was mildly troubling. For all the time Charon had spent as a double agent between Oxford and Omega, he'd still let his hopes of saving someone from America override his good sense in a serious way.

So why had he done that?

The man was a prime suspect as an Omega plant. He was someone that no one at Blarney had much prior experience or direct contact with, he was handsome in a way that wasn't immediately obvious, given his scars, but was more primal and animalistic than the more dignified poise of most of the rebels, and he was from an area that no one else had gotten out of alive, raising dozens of questions about the sort of odds that it would have taken for him to legitimately escape. He'd been written off as a casualty for a reason.

A chime sounding broke his train of thought, his second alarm to remind him to actually get out of bed. He replaced the pad on its stand, tapping a few more times to finish acknowledging the internal memo while making a mental note to tell the person who'd sent it that he needs to correct his own grammar. Practiced motions got his morning shot of drink poured and swallowed in about the same amount of time it takes for the shiver it sends through his body to dissipate, the man rising to dress and face the day once the sensation had passed.

**********

Leaving the Cell always felt strange to Charon. There was always more to be done, no matter that he never left without completing the more urgent matters, so part of him always felt like he was being derelict to leave the little room. On the other hand, he recognized that he was only human and needed to take care of himself as well. Having someone else to share that burden with was a welcome reprieve, even if Laras handled things notably differently than Charon would in his place.

But then, that was also part of why Laras was perfect for the job. Even from a purely practical standpoint Charon knew from first-hand experience how much easier it was to predict the actions and trace the trail of someone working on their own compared to two people with entirely different reactions and methods.

Thinking of Laras reminded the former English professor that there were more ways to get some daily exercise than simply running on a treadmill. As bad of a thrashing as the Russian had given him when they'd squared off to work out their issues in a manner Charon had hoped would enable bygones to be bygones, a part of him had relished the chance to physically fight someone, even if that someone was an ally.

So much of Charon's life had become about letting others do the direct work, first because he wasn't fully trusted, now because he's too important and too good at the deskwork to risk wandering into the field. At least too important for anything he'd seen cross his desk so far.

The door to the gym opened before Charon could get to it, Mia stepping out with a towel across her shoulders, one hand using half of it to wipe her brow clean of sweat.

Charon raised a hand in greeting, using it to hold the door open as she stepped into the hall. "Good afternoon, Mia. How is today's workout?"

She shrugged her shoulders, dripping the towel back down to drape across them. "I'm keeping in shape, though you have been keeping my usual sparring partner busy enough to have me constantly looking for someone new to drag onto the mat for some bruises."

The man chuckled at the mental image of horrified exercising rebels offering up one of their own as a sacrifice for the martially-minded princess. "Well if you happen to catch me on my way in, feel free to pull me into a spar."

Surprise widened Mia's eyes before they narrowed at what she likely took as a subconscious challenge. "I didn't know you sparred with anyone. I thought you were more of a desk man."

"I did accompany everyone out into the field from time to time, as you yourself have seen." He didn't elaborate any further on that particular mission. "I am not as practiced as I once was in the martial arts, but I try to keep myself fit. We're all rebels, after all, whether we find ourselves most often behind a desk, in a shadow, or looking down the sight of a gun."

"I'll take you up on that offer the next chance we both get, but I won't take it easy on you just because you're out of practice."

Charon let his grin widen slightly. "Oh, I would never expect anything less. One more thing, before you go."

A hand planted on her hip as she listened. "Try not to warm up to Mr. Banner too quickly. Remember that he still only has limited access to everything."

A familiar frown made its way onto Mia's features before she answered, arms crossing in front of her bosom. "Yes, I know, we have to be suspicious of everybody, it's part of the job, I get it. You don't have to drill me whenever someone knew shows up."

The grin on Charon's face chilled with his reply. "It is more than that, Mia. He was the only survivor from America. Absolutely no one else came out of there alive. Do you realize what the odds are that a single person actually made it out? Alone? It is far too possible that he was meant to escape, even if he isn't an actual double agent, for us to be so buddy buddy as to flirt at a first meeting."

Mia's frown turned to a glare, actual anger in her eyes as she opened her mouth. Charon kept talking before she could do more than breathe in. "It may not have been conscious on your part, I don't really care, Mia. So much of human interaction is basic subconscious reaction, there's a very good reason while skilled dissemblers take such a long time to train and spend so much time studying the person they are going to be impersonating. You were far too friendly with a possible security risk and you're angry that I'm being so unreasonable as to actually point it out to you as if you were intentionally flirting with him right in front of Laras."

The anger remained in Mia's eyes, but at the Russian's name her cheeks tinged with a faint shade of red. "I do not think you were doing anything of the sort consciously, Mia, which is exactly -why- I am telling you this right now so that you -can- be conscious of your actions, interactions, and most especially your reactions to the people around you."

The anger simmered, but the glared faded back down to an unhappy frown. Mia's voice was calm, collected, but her tone left no water unfrozen. "Then thank you, Mr. Trusko. I will try to remember that the next time I am introduced to the last surviving rebel from an entire country."

Charon heaved a sigh, his mind whirling in the time the gesture afforded him. "Please forgive if I seem harsh. Matters of security have been rather insistent on my mind lately." Mia didn't need to know that he'd initially reacted even more favorably than she had to Colt's arrival, at least not until he could figure out why he'd reacted that way at all. He was smarter than that, and he'd even already written the man off as dead.

"I guess I can expect you to take it out on me whenever we have that spar, then?"

Mia's frown faded still further, not into a smile, but at least neutral. "That sounded like an invitation to get pinned to me. Let off some steam, Professor Trusko. Even trained dissemblers do that every now and then."

He watched her go, sighing inwardly while resisting the brief compulsion her words sparked in his less-cultured brain to watch her hips sway with her walk, waiting until she was out of earshot to whisper another response. "Not all of us get to blow off steam the way you and Laras get to at the end of the day, princess."

**********

The tech sitting in one of Blarney's receiving rooms was bored. She understood that her job was vitally important, monitoring the lightning-fast transmission of information through the very brief periods that it was notably safe to bring full messages through their otherwise total communicative silence was one of the most technically essential jobs in the entire facility.

That didn't make it any less boring to watch screens of code flash by almost too fast to see.

She blinked, eyes narrowing as something ticked at her subconscious. She flipped a switch, recording the datastream flowing past her eyes for a few seconds and the few seconds prior, then another switch to pass the actual stream on to her backup as she went back over the section that had triggered the mental alarm.

It took long minutes of tedious searching, line by line, and still she found nothing. Playing it back at full speed, however, gave her the same gut feeling that something was there, that she was missing some pattern. She transferred the pages of data to a chip isolated from the main network and carried it by hand to a special chute at the far end of the room, dropping it in.

Fifty feet deeper in the facility, that chip was removed and plugged into a computer on its own network, unattached to anything even remotely important. Three analysts studied the code streams for nearly an hour before one of them finally found a pattern. The message that emerged was gibberish, and finally they were stumped.

On a hunch, one of them offered to hand-deliver the chip to the only person at Blarney who'd had direct access to Omega covert encryption codes in the past.

Charon heard the door chime, sighing as he strode from his shower in a towel to answer. It wasn't often that anyone came to him asking him to take a look at any sort of code-breaking or analyst work anymore. Considering it a nice distraction, he placed the datastreams into his personal non-networked pad at his bedside before dressing and leaving his room to go about the remainder of his day.

It wasn't until Charon got back to his room, well past 3am, from the Cell that he poured himself a nightcap and actually looked at the data. He nearly dropped the tiny glass when he saw the jumbled words.

It wasn't a standard Omega code, it wasn't anything official at all. It was a personal code, one that was created specifically for him. Janus Duval had learned a long time ago that it came in handy being able to contact exactly one agent at a time if he needed to, and his ability to craft ciphers was just one of the talents that made him so good at running Omega in Europe.

The message was simple enough, and the implications chilled Charon to his bones. This message had come through the datastream, meaning it originated in multiple places. Omega did not know where the message was coming from, but Janus was proving that he had more than one agent within the rebellion's extended network in a way that only Charon would be able to actually interpret. It only took the man a few minutes to piece the message together. He didn't even need to write it down.

"I do hope you get this message, Yance. This is how you will receive your future instructions. My agents have discovered the identity of a rebel informant, a certain Mrs. Hannah Yearling of Bristol. She will be killed tomorrow at noon if she is in her apartment. I know for a fact that she is supposed to be there, so if she is not I will consider it confirmation that I can contact you in this manner. Your first assignment is therefor an easy one. Save her life, and standby for further instructions."

It was impossible. Charon closed his eyes for a moment, gritting his teeth as he searched his memory for the information about the target. She was a regular informant. She didn't provide any vital intelligence, but was one of many who gave day to day information that helped people like Charon see the big picture and notice when certain things were shifting behind the scenes. Sometimes the only warning before a major event was something as simple as a delay in local road repairs so that the Republic could move machinery or personnel. Hannah was also married, with four children. A boy and three girls, the youngest was three years old.

Charon's voice was quiet in the tiny room, hissed through clenched teeth. "I am not your servant, Janus. I am not your agent. Omega does not own me." He lowered the glass to his nightstand, reaching to fill it again. "But she won't die just so I can prove that."

He swallowed the vodka with one hand while the other placed an urgent order to have Mrs. Hannah Yearling and her family relocated immediately, not to Blarney, but someplace as safe as possible. A second order commended the analyst for bringing the cipher to his attention, and instructing that any such further indecipherable code be brought to him as soon as physically possible in the future.

The second message was sent as he poured still another glass. Janus didn't own him... But the rebellion simply could not afford to stop trusting him, now. As far as anyone else knew, the code was the former Spymaster's.

Charon held up his glass to the empty room. "You always did have more faith in me than you should have, given your position, Naomi. I hope you don't mind me including you in this little lie. I need you to keep believing that I'm not going to go back on my words, or on Lydia's."

The vodka went down smoothly, the glass hitting the nightstand a bit harder than Charon had meant it to as he laid his head back on his pillow. "You both deserve that much, whether either of you is still alive or not."
Rio de Janeiro

The streets were filthy, but that was nothing new. In all the years he'd been there—and since joining the Rebellion he'd never once left the favela for long enough to spit—Heliodoro Ferreira could count on one hand the number of times he'd seen the pavement that supposedly made up the streets. Omega had never bothered with the slums, the shanty towns that had been a part of the grand city since slavery a millennium past and more, preferring to forget them, to sweep them under the rug like a hard-pressed housewife. No one bothered to come here, content it seemed to let the vermin scurry about in the shadows of the city's great South Zone. Less than a mile away, the President of the Galaxy could hang glide from Pedra Bonita to the beaches of São Conrado, never once noticing the paint-bright decay of Helio's home.

It was all to the best, he supposed, catching an apple from the local vendor and pressing his teeth into its flesh. If Omega wouldn't set foot there, the Rebellion would. And they would flourish under the blind eye of the not-so-secret police.

They were lucky, Helio knew, stepping into the shit-ridden street and flashing his white-toothed smile to the beautiful ladies, that Omega cared so little about the favelas all about Rio. Their little rat dens were safe, tucked away in buildings that should rightly be condemned, and sometimes even had. Human excrement smeared the walls, and the dirty puddle in the gutter was more like to be urine or sick than actual water. Half the time, there was no power, and the rest was so weak even televisions had a hard time running for longer than ten minutes. Most of these buildings hadn't seen plumbing in decades, and none but the mad and the suicidal drank from the wells.

It was, all in all, the perfect place to fight a rebellion. After all, who would suspect a high tech operation in such a place? Truthfully, they were safer here than the underground tunnels of Oxford ever were.

December was hot in Rio; summer here in the Southern Hemisphere, in fact. Helio had dressed for the part, wearing bright colors and light fabrics to better allow the summer breeze to breathe. Against the dark brown of his skin, they did little to keep him inconspicuous, but that was exactly the point today.

Today, he was to pass unheeded into the balnearios, where lived the Omega agents. And, once there, he was going to plant a little seed in their systems. Nothing big; just a tiny program file, compact and unnoticeable, ready for when they would need it. Ready for Carnival.

Helio grinned, his hazel eyes bright as he paused on the edge of Rocinha. Ahead of him stretched the gleaming whites and golds of the rich districts, where supped officials and dignitaries and everyone that Deklahn wanted kept happy. Once a tourist town, always a tourist town, Helio thought with an impish twist to his lips. Only now it was the whole galaxy come to drink in the sun and sand and to dance the samba and the Bossa Nova down the Sambódromo, where the floats of Carnival would parade in just a few short weeks.

Following the first rebellion, in which Brazil had been as fiercely pro-Earth as the staunchest Irishman or Russian, most of the nation had been destroyed and locked in chains. Brasilia had been razed, its people executed almost to a man following the collapse of their walled defense. But Rio—beautiful Rio, with its pristine white beaches and sultry-eyed women—had been spared. Or, at least, the tourist destinations had been spared, used as a retreat for high-ranking officials and their guests. The favelas had sunk to their worst and been forgotten, allowed to rot as punishment.

Ah well, Helio supposed, dancing to the music floating on the air above, breathing in the spice of meat on open fires, and laughing as street performers pulled coins from behind a bewildered child's ear. Where other cities had died, Rio lived on, content it seemed to exist in peace with their captors.

Beneath the city, however, and in the crumbling ruins of the shanty towns, Rebellion beat like a second heart. And Rio would never forget. They would never allow the hate to dissipate from their blood, nor the chance at freedom to fade from their dreams. This was a place founded on the backs of slaves, and no one had forgotten how to smile through their loathing, or to fight without fighting.

This was the City of Rebels, and of them Helio was King. King of the Cidade Maravilhosa, the marvelous city. And did he ever have something marvelous planned for Omega today.

Copacabana was as famous now as it had ever been, when some singer had written a song about it all those years ago. Vacationing Omega agents still squeezed themselves into too-tight bathing suits and burnt themselves raw beneath the blazing sun. In fact, if there was one thing the balnearios were good for, it was identifying every Omega agent in the city. The downside was, of course, that so little happened worth watching. It was hard to be a Rebellion in a city where no one was suffering; there was no one to save or injustices to avenge. Really, it had forced the organization to get a little creative.

Hence this little virus Miguel had cooked up for him today. In a few weeks, when Carnival distracted everyone with its sequined splendor and Omega's systems went into an effective shut-down in the South American region, the little critter would chew a hole right through the firewall and chow down on every bit of information it could find hanging around their servers. One of the benefits of a worldwide network was, of course, that the little bugger would find all sorts of goodies, even if they hadn't even passed through the Rio regional office, and could transmit them to a hub. From there, Miguel could send it anywhere, and no doubt leadership would see it.

Helio sometimes wondered if it was such a good idea to have the various factions so isolated. On the one hand, Omega could never crack a system that wasn't there, but on the other, Helio was never sure his information got to where it needed to go. He and Miguel could only send it to the next hub, wherever the randomized signal decided to end up, and hope it made it to whomever was in charge of this thing. It was all well and good to operate in Rio, where Omega agents barely carried weapons let alone tossed citizens into black bags (seeming to prefer neglect and reputation to any outward signs of aggression), but what about a place like Spain, where the bastards were thick as lice on the ground and a whole lot nastier? Wouldn't it be easier to have a global network of support? It certainly seemed to work for Omega most of the time.

Grabbing a newspaper from a vendor and tossing a few coins at the proprietor in a way he'd seen the tourists do before, Helio tucked it under his arm and strolled into the still-standing Copacabana Beach Hotel, a shining white edifice reserved for the highest ranking officials. Its bar was open during the day, however, to anyone, and had the benefit of a public-access network. Just the sort of thing Helio needed today, and the reason he'd come here instead of one of the closer beaches.

“Olá, eu quero uma cerveja, por favor.” Helio knew the Omega agents preferred to drink whatever they thought the locals liked otherwise he would never have ordered a beer. He didn't really like the stuff, preferring wine or mineral water when he wanted something to drink, but it would be so much easier if people assumed he was a local Omega officer. In Rio, the pronouncements against Gaians joining the secret police were not so strong. After all, the city was so peaceful, and the locals seemed to have learned their lessons after the last rebellion. And who wanted to destroy someone's hard-earned vacation with such unpleasantness as another rebellion? Let the rest of the world deal with that nonsense.

Omega disgusted Helio. Had they ever thought to treat the whole world like they did Rio? To move on from the first rebellion and quit assuming the whole planet was one step away from an uprising? Truthfully, the damned Galaxy had brought this upon themselves, as far as Helio was concerned. Pretend there's a rebellion for long enough, it'll turn out to be real. Tossing a few bills onto the bar, Helio pointed to the network port and smiled. “Eu vou estar usando a rede. Por favor, envie a cerveja.”

The barkeep nodded his understanding and Helio made his way over to the machine. No one even noticed him as he walked. Something he'd learned over the years—and he'd been a rebel for over twenty of them now—it was easier to blend in than to stay hidden. Let people see you; so long as you met their expectations, they wouldn't even notice you were there. You could flow through a room of your enemies, so long as you looked the part. No need for cloaks or dissemblers. Those were far too fancy for his liking. Better good, old-fashioned spywork and legs on the ground.

Sitting at the machine, Helio reached into his pocket and pulled out a container. Inside was a disk, onto which Miguel had uploaded the virus. On its surface, the disk was a file containing information about a child's birthday—invitations and RSVP cards—which was just the sort of thing Omega agents would expect. And when they clicked on the new file, as they did anything sent through public network machines, Miguel's little handwork would clamp on and bury itself deep. In the coming weeks, it would remain dormant, unnoticeable to any system scans, until the timer went off and Carnival began.

A waiter arrived with his beer and Helio tipped him, making very sure to do so in cash. It was much harder to trace paper money, and the Rebels under his tutelage made sure to use nothing but specie and paper in any transaction. Let nothing of yourself remain. Do not give Omega an inkling, much less an actual clue, that we are here and that the city is anything more than a happy tourist spot. It is this that keeps us safe. Not our safeguards, not our hidden bunkers. It is our anonymity, and the freedom to walk the streets with a smile on our face and a song on our lips. Do not ruin that for us.

With a quiet ding, the file finished loading and Helio removed the disk from the machine. Taking a few last sips from his beer, Helio rose and left the bar, noting as he did so that not a single person would realize that he had gone. Good. Time to head back to Rocinha, and to the slums. The seed was planted; now it was time to wait for it to grow.
*****


Atop the walls, Giancarlo Alfieri could almost pretend that the world was good, and that the same peaceful winds that danced through the trees surrounding his home caressed the cheeks of children everywhere. Take a step to the left, however, and the illusion of peace died with the fallow fields, salted and dead for nearly five centuries. A step to the right and even the peace of Monteriggioni was lost to the trappings of martial invasion; a traveling circus of death, laid out in neat rows and marked by invisible lines of shock and awe. Omega sat all around them as it had for decades now, the flat plains surrounding the hilltop town providing just the right amount of space. Leadership hid behind the walls themselves, up at the great villa and in the one-time Church. It didn't matter much; God had abandoned them long ago if ever He had existed.

No, that didn't matter much, as far as Giancarlo was concerned. Not when the once soothing breezes had turned traitor, bringing with them now the scent of meat and bread, and the sound of laughter and satiation. Peace died its last death then; this time within him. Not long ago, he would have tasted that meat and bread instead of wishing for it; dreaming of it, in fact, as his stomach churned in his sleep. Not long ago, his children would not be crying for want of food, kept alive by pills but hungered still. Wine had flowed through the streets; a product, of course, of the town's close relationship with the Omega encampment just outside the walls. Gardens had grown in window sills and even in piazzas, used to flavor the food with fresh herbs and vegetables.

Since the rebellion, these had disappeared, the privilege revoked and the old rules reestablished. A strict curfew had gone into effect, and anyone caught outside after sundown was never seen again. Tossed into a black bag and taken to the Surgeon for what the locals had taken to calling 'Med School'. It didn't matter the reason, even if it were Omega themselves; see outside at night and never see the dawn again. Giancarlo had lost a cousin that way not that long ago, and a child had been taken just two days ago.

Sighing, Giancarlo headed for the stairs down into the streets. Thinking of curfew had reminded him just how little time he had to be indoors. Not that Monteriggioni was large; far from it. There were fewer than two hundred citizens inside the walls these days—most lived just outside, in the sort of half-city between the town proper and the encampment—and most of them were pushed up against the walls, leaving the best properties for Omega agents. But it was far better to be firmly inside, with the door bolted behind you when the sun disappeared behind the horizon.

Just before he opened the door into the town proper, Giancarlo heard a scurrying in the darkness. Freezing, he scanned the shadows, watching for the slightest movement, ready to pounce. In the weeks since Oxford had been destroyed and the world had gone to war, the animals had gradually disappeared from the streets. A few days of living on pills and water, and first the fish had gone, then the cats and the hamsters and the guinea pigs. Finally, and oh had the wailing hurt his heart, the dogs had disappeared, laying down their lives in one last proof of unassailable loyalty.

There had been no laughter since the dogs had gone. But the children had eaten real food and their stomachs had quieted for a time.

Diving suddenly, Giancarlo squeezed his hands together, choking the life out of the rat squirming in his grip. They were rare these days, and worth more than the entire treasury. Not much in the way of meat, but it was better than nothing, and they were running through their stores so much faster than anticipated. Pretty soon, they too would be relying on the pills to keep them alive, and the water to keep them full. And their children would cry themselves to sleep.

“Mi dispiace, piccolo topo,” he whispered, watching the life leave the eyes of the rat. “Ma devo sfamare la mia famiglia.” Grimacing, he continued in English, the language favored by the various Omega factions. “Blame the rebellion.”

Putting the rat into his inner pocket, Giancarlo headed into the streets, hurrying silently through the tiny alleys toward his home. He didn't want anyone to know what he'd found; people had been beaten for less. And that would be a death sentence this close to curfew. He had no wish to wake up strapped to a table, his bones broken and blood turned to acid.

“Papa, you are almost too late! Andiamo! Andiamo!” His wife stood in the doorway, worry creasing her face and lip chewed until bloody. She'd done this for months now; a nervous habit picked up when she'd been forced to burn her garden. Truthfully, Giancarlo wasn't sure it was nervous so much as angry; she bit her lip to keep from screaming at the Omega agents she blamed for all their misery. Filomena was always the spitfire. Only fear for her children kept her from joining the Rebellion herself, Giancarlo was sure.

“I am here, Mena. I am here. And I have caught us a rat for dinner.”

Grimacing, his wife turned and bustled into their house, her hips swaying beneath her skirt as she stalked toward the kitchen. “Come, then, I suppose we have to feed our children something today.”

Sighing, Giancarlo followed Filomena, closing the door behind him and bolting the latch. “It's better than using up the stores we've set aside. That's every bit of food we've been able to set aside for the last ten weeks, since we got word of Oxford. Once it's gone, we're down to pills like everyone else.”

Wiping her hands on a dish towel, Mena growled. “And here I saw a whole pig turning on a spit up at the villa! Those agents sup like kings and we're left with scraps, if anything at all. If I could wring all of their necks, I would. And I'd feed them rat for their last meal!” Dark eyes burning, Filomena took the rat Giancarlo offered up and slammed in on the counter. “See how they feel eating vermin!”

“Perhaps it's not they who should be eating rat, dearest. This village was doing just fine—better than most, in fact—before the rebels decided to start a war.” Giancarlo stood next to the window, staring out at the street as the last of the townsfolk darted into their homes and slammed their bolts down. Monteriggioni became a ghost town at night, the sounds of the living giving way to the silent dancing of the wind and the periodic whistles of Omega sentries. They patrolled the town every night, looking for anyone foolish enough to miss curfew.

They made a game of it, in fact, often attempting to trick people out of their houses only to arrest them. Giancarlo had heard there was betting.

“Do not blame this on the rebellion, you maledetto idiota!” Twisting, her dark hair flying, Filomena brandished a knife at her husband. “They are trying to free us from these miserabili bastardi! To make sure our children have a world in which food cannot be taken away on the whim of these pazzi roaming the streets now! We have lived under the thumb of Deklahn for far too long, il mio amore. And they have treated us like traitors all this time. Well, they wanted a war...now they've got one!”

Frowning, Giancarlo crossed his arms. If his wife shouted any louder, they'd have the street teams at their door any minute. “Pace, una bella. They will hear.”

“Let them. It is what they expect from us, and if I am to be treated like a malvagio traditore, I might as well act like one, no? My children are starving, marito, but that is not the worst of their problems. What is food in a world where the mind dies? What is peace when fear wages war with our souls? What is life when there is no freedom to live?”

“It is life, Filomena. And freedom means nothing if we are all dead, so keep your mouth shut before they come knocking at our door!”

Straightening, eyes narrow as she crossed the kitchen to stand inches from her husband, Filomena Alfieri pointed her finger at his face. “Death is preferable to non-life, idiota amato. We must give the Rebellion a chance, no? A chance to wipe this scum from the face of the Earth that we might live a life worth living. That is our duty to them. To find a way to stay alive just long enough for them to send Omega packing. Survival, Giancarlo, which is something you're good at. Survival that we might yet see something more. And then there will come a day when survival won't be necessary.”

“Perhaps, Filomena. Perhaps. If we are not all damned to Hell first. And only if the Rebellion wins. If not, we are doomed to something less than even survival. And I will feel no need to say 'I told you so', though you will know I was right.” Sucking at his teeth, Giancarlo turned from the kitchen and headed to the basement. There was something there they could eat with rat; of that he was certain.
*****


Miami

It was a few days past the solstice, but Miami seemed to have missed the memo. Almost eighty-five and sunny, Aiden was wilting in his suit and stood out like a sore thumb amidst the dark-skinned exotica on offer in this part of the world. Maybe choosing Miami hadn't been such a good idea, after all. Hardly anyone spoke Spanish and those that did certainly wouldn't know the slang that had developed in this part of the world. This was going to end badly.

No...it would be fine. They'd planned this whole thing out, and everyone had agreed that the Port of Miami was the only likely place for their mission. Large, multicultural (to a point), and year-round, Miami was a major hub for supplies coming into and out of America from not only the rest of Earth, but the entire Galaxy. Most new Omega agents landed here before being shipped off to other parts of the world, so a person could be here for less than a few hours before moving on to their final destination. Transience was good for remaining hidden; strangers weren't suspicious in the least, and no one bothered to remember faces.

Omega wasn't perfect, Aiden had found. There were cracks in the armor and holes in the fence of their operation. Arrogance, for one. And complacence, especially in the rank and file and in the Deklahnian regulars that did so much of the dirty work. For every Doctor, there were ten far keener to get down to Rio for Carnival or California for Disneyland. And every once in a while, there was one—the rarest of them all, and the most beloved—who actually believed what Omega was doing was wrong.

Aiden had heard tell of these, but he had never once met one. They usually ended up dead.

The flight here from Iceland hadn't taken long. Once he'd sent out the file to the old Oxford hub—someone would find it, he was sure—and checked all of his Omega IDs, it had been a matter of hours to book a flight and get to Miami. They were all coming at different times and by different means, each making their own way to the rendezvous point; the Americans come back to their homeland, ready to avenge their fallen brethren.

It had started a few months ago now, just a few days after America had fallen. They'd gotten together, maybe twelve of them, and gotten piss drunk one night in London (the only place everyone could actually fake the accent believably). Raging, roaring drunk, the kind that wiped away memories and pain together and left common sense limping in the dust. Some time between tearful toasts and vengeful boasting, they had hatched a plan. Later, when light ceased its cleaving misery, they had perfected it.

Omega assumed the rebellion in America was dead. As far as the Rebellion was concerned, there was only one survivor, and he had disappeared into one of the European enclaves...maybe even the secretive heart of the rebellion, where whatever remaining leadership could be found. No one, therefore, would expect a new enclave on American shores. Omega would not be looking for one, and the Rebellion wouldn't even know it existed. Except leadership, of course, and whomever they had scanning the networks for information. Wherever Charon was hiding himself, he would be sure to know.

The idea was to stay secret. Unlike other groups, who could sometimes even engage in open battle with Omega agents (albeit on the small scale), this one would operate completely underground. They would have no hub, or even computers. Their only communication would occur by boat and with Bermuda, the science enclave in the Atlantic. Their only contribution would be whatever foodstuffs and technology they could steal, and the latter only in schematic form. They would otherwise be just American citizens living in Florida to escape the snow and freezing rain.

American citizens who liked to travel to Bermuda of a weekend to do some fishing and drink some rum. And make secret drops every once in a while.

Public transportation had improved vastly since Aiden had left America seven years ago. A train took him to within half a mile of his destination, and afforded him an air conditioned ride instead of an energy sapping walk from the airport all the way to the shore (a distance of several miles). He was able to pull his jacket off and change his shirt and shoes without much fuss, either, stepping into the lavatory in one outfit and out in an another entirely. He'd even sprayed his hair a darker color and slipped in a pair of colored contacts. While he still didn't look much like a local, he was much less noticeably foreign this way. And much cooler in a t-shirt and shorts.

The final walk up to the ruins of Vizcaya Museum and Gardens was made carefully, with a camera around his neck and a map unfolded in his hands. For some reason, Omega had never gotten around to demolishing the old house after a fire had all but destroyed it. They'd kept the gardens open as a tourist location for some time, but disinterest and neglect had shut the gates forever at least a century before. Perhaps some historically-minded agent had it bookmarked for renovation, but for now it served as a hangout for local teenagers looking to get lucky.

Aiden had never realized how much he hated palm trees until he jumped the wall into Vizcaya's gardens and they all but disappeared. Built in the early 20th century, it had been modeled after an Italian villa, complete with carefully shaped gardens and open-air atrium at its heart. And its builder had apparently hated palm trees as much as Aiden, or at least found them inappropriate for his grand new house. Making his way through the overgrowth, Aiden found himself wondering what the place had looked like in its glory.

“You look like Hell.” The voice surprised Aiden, who jumped and dropped into a defensive stance without a further thought. He relaxed a moment later when he realized it was just Justin, who'd evidently arrived before him. "What? Did you walk all the way from Vesuvius?"

Aiden recognized the first password and shook his head. It was just like Justin to jump straight to formalities. Well, if Aiden were being honest with himself, it was more than just a formality. It was the difference between life and death, security and infiltration. "Nope. Just by way of Devil's Canyon. What about you? Did they serve tomato soup on the plane?"

"Alas, no. They served linguine." The second password. Ye gods, what was the reply to this one again? Oh yes...something especially inane.

"I prefer the chicken cacciatore."

Justin grinned and took Aiden in a hug, careful to avoid the impermanent dye in his hair. "Seriously, man. You look like a fuckin' tourist."

“That's the point. No one around here pays any attention to the damn tourists, anyway,” Aiden muttered, running a hand through his hair before remembering he'd sprayed in a dye. “Oh fuck.”

“You're doing well,” the one-time Brooklyn native drawled. “Sweating like a whore in Church. Then again, I'm doing the same. You're the only one here yet. I imagine most of us won't get here 'til nightfall. Oh, and Erik is staying on Bermuda.”

Aiden tilted his head in confusion. “Is he? Why?”

“Apparently he received orders from HQ to work with some new information they got. One of our fallen brethren managed to send it off before she died, and it included a lot of stuff on a serum Omega has been using to get information out of prisoners. They want him to do something with it, I think. He's being rather sketch about it.” Justin was a tall man, with dark skin and a head shaved clean to keep everyone from seeing he'd gone bald some years past. Leaning against a tree, he shrugged. “I suppose it's for the best. We needed someone on the island.”

Aiden nodded. “And he's the best we've got with poisons. Wasn't he working on synthesizing a cure for Synterine? Something like that. If they need him on Bermuda, he can be our contact. And this way we can use signal stones instead of something more high tech and keep our visibility low.”

“True.” Wiping the sweat from his forehead, Justin grinned. “Come on, then, I've found us a hiding spot for the next few hours. Leave the others a trail; they'll be along presently. So, I hereby call the first meeting of the New American Rebellion to order!”
*****


With a grunt of exertion, Mia flipped Colt onto the mat beneath them and wrapped her arms around his neck just tight enough to make her intent plain. In a real fight, he would be dead now, spine severed with a twisting break. It was the fifth time today their sparring had ended this way. Truthfully, Mia wondered if Colt was just letting her win to feel her flesh press against his. It was a gratifying sort of thought; the idea that he desired her left Mia flush with pleasure and tingling with a burgeoning desire of her own. After all, it had been weeks since Laras had looked at her that way, and Mia missed that feel of him against her and the heat of his presence at her side.

It was not as if she liked Colt overmuch; at least not in the way he seemed to like her. The similarities he shared with her Russian were just enough to trick her lonely limbs and untouched skin, but he was not Laras. He was not even a very good stand-in, when it came down to it. But he was enough like him that Mia could almost just pretend that the American whose arms wrapped around her was, in fact, her beloved Professor. That Laras had not abandoned her to Charon and the war, leaving her behind to rot and wallow.

“So...” Mia said, untangling herself from the mess of limbs she and Colt had made of themselves, “I daresay you owe me a drink now. Five times in a row is it?”

A careless smile and toss of the head left Mia's heart pounding. It was not as if Colt weren't handsome. In some ways, in fact, he was far more appealing than just about any man she had ever met, possessed as we was of a roguish disregard for not just authority but everything. There was a sense with Colt that America had never ceased being full of cowboys, and that spirited independence made up the lion's share of his blood. He did things for the sheer, unholy hell of it, and if he got in trouble for it, well then, at least it was an adventure.

But he was not Laras. And she would not use this man to slake her loneliness, no matter how much Laras' absence stung.

“Darlin', a drink is the least I owe you,” he drawled, pulling his shirt over his head and toweling the sweat from his skin. Mia blinked rapidly, lips parting as his muscles twisted and coiled, before closing her eyes and turning away. No, you idiot. Quit panting like some horny schoolgirl. You're the Princess of England, for God's sake. But still she peeked, one eye opening just slightly as she stared over her shoulder at the American.

It didn't help that she understood him. She was hiding here in the salle as much as he was. Hiding from her losses, from the memory of the home that had been stolen from her. Waiting for a chance to lose themselves in the Rebellion; for orders, for an opportunity to fight in the war to which they'd dedicated their lives. Feeling as if the world were moving past, leaving them to rot in the underground passages of Blarney Castle. What else could they do? They were not part of the Round Tables; they were not privy to the secrets. They could only wait here, and hope that the war did not pass them by.

Perhaps she could goad Laras into being his old self tonight, free from gentle ministrations or cursory performance. A reminder of what had once been between them, and which war had stolen. The Russian had found his true love here in Ireland, and whatever tenderness he'd felt for Mia seemed to have melted away. It was hard to blame him. Mia loved the Rebellion as much as Laras did, she just loved him equally as much. Her Russian, on the other hand, had dedicated his life to war. He was a soldier. Nothing and no one could hold the same place in his heart as glorious rebellion.

That didn't make it feel any better. And it certainly didn't stop her from wishing he would try just a little bit more to understand how she was feeling. After all, he'd been trapped once, and it had taken Mia to free him from that misery. She didn't think it was too much to ask for him to return to favor.

“You all right, Princess?” The tone in Colt's voice painted a very clear picture for Mia of what the American thought afflicted her. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“No. I'm fine,” Mia replied, picturing Laras as she spoke. She doubted anything would come of these feelings within her. It was just frustration and loneliness that buckled down on her today. Mia knew Laras was busy with Charon, and that the needs of the rebellion were wearing on him. What did he need with a clueless young woman so far out of the center of things, who stuck to his side like a tick? She'd always known the Rebellion would keep them apart, but she'd just figured he would...

Mia felt used sometimes. He never spoke to her—their lovemaking, if the term fit whatever it was they did at night, was silent but for staggered breathing and half moans—and seemed too preoccupied even to spar as they once had. Hell, if Phelps had been a girl, Mia would wonder what Laras needed with her at all.

She winced, thinking of the one-time dissembler. He had awoken, but his recovery...And Laras had taken it far harder than anyone but Mia could have guessed. They'd all known how close the Russian and Phelps had been, but very few had known just how important that relationship had been to Laras. The Englishman had been Laras' moral compass, and now he was a drooling mess. It wasn't his fault that Mia couldn't fill that role for him no matter how much she wanted to; who was she to deny him what he did need, no matter what it did to her?

She claimed to love that damnable Russian, after all. And what wouldn't someone do for a person they loved?

“Mia?” Colt's voice was soft now, truly concerned. The American had proven himself remarkably sensitive to the feelings of others; something that endeared him to Mia and just about everyone else in the enclave. It was hard to keep from pouring your heart out to that that kind intuition; no wonder Colt had led his own cell back in America. A good leader always inspired trust and loyalty in his men. Only Charon's warning—and the sense that her confession was not something he would want to hear—kept Mia from spilling forth her feelings. “Are you sure everything is all right?”

Nodding, Mia forced a smile. “Yeah. Fine. It just...this war is taking it out of a lot of us. And Phelps...my brother...I feel like the people I care the most about are suffering and there's nothing I can do about it.” So much for keeping her mouth shut.

“And Laras, too, I take it.” Colt grimaced. “I don't understand...”

Mia shook her head. “No, you don't. Laras and I have been through a lot, Colt. Far more than most people here can understand, and more than those who do know will share with you. Come on, let's call it a day and get something to eat. I haven't seen my brother in a few days, and I'm tired of him hiding from me.”
*****


When Mia walked into the mess with the American, Edward couldn't help but smile to himself. No matter that the man was a virtual carbon copy of that Russian, it pleased Edward to know that the relationship between Mia and Laras was loosening. And more, that it was all Laras' fault. After all, Mia would never do anything to harm it. If there was anything Edward knew about his sister, it was that she was unassailably loyal to people she loved. Nothing short of treachery would break the bonds his sister had built with another person, and she would do everything in her power to belie such actions. No...if there were problems, it was all the Russian.

Edward was not entirely without sympathy for Laras, of course. Professor Phelps' seeming recovery had faded into dead-eyed catatonia not long after he'd woken up. Whatever Omega had done to his brain had permanently damaged his capacity for higher level functioning, and the limited medical facilities here at Blarney would not be able to treat him. The most they could do now was make him comfortable and hope for the best.

Laras was not taking this well. Between his seemingly never-ending responsibilities here at the underground heart of the rebellion, and the subsequent lack of freedom that this represented, the Russian was like a caged tiger; he lashed out any anyone and everyone, including Mia, though he apparently was astute enough not to push the Princess away entirely. Whether this was a conscious decision or some underlying recognition of his own feelings for Mia, Edward wasn't sure, but the Russian still had her collared and chained, and always at his beck-and-call.

What Edward didn't understand was Mia's continuing attachment to him. Loyalty aside, she was not someone to be used and tossed away. His sister was a passionate woman, prone to ill-considered measures whenever feelings were involved. Rash and temperamental, Mia had never before tolerated bullshit on this scale. Whatever hold Laras had over her, it was considerable indeed. Enough that Mia stuck with him no matter how ill he treated her.

Perhaps it was Mia's tendency to give far too much to those she deemed in need. She had a ridiculous tendency to mistake arrogant disdain for secret pain—some romantic nonsense gleaned no doubt from too much literature—and to take some measure of their pain upon herself. “My sister,” Edward muttered into his tea, “the martyr.”

Eventually, Mia saw Edward and crossed the room, motioning for Colt to leave her for a bit. “Brother,” she said by way of greeting. “It's been a few days. Where have you been hiding from me all this time?”

“Oh, here and there. There is a group of people here who want to do something about the poor and the hungry left destitute by this war. And as there is nothing I can do to stop this insane venture, I might as well help the people having their lives ruined by it.” Edward sipped at his tea, ignoring the annoyance warring with pride in Mia's eyes. He was well aware of what he was doing here with his sister; he was playing to both sides of her personality, the warrior and the nurturer. The weakening of her relationship with Laras—and if anyone represented the war in his sister's heart, it was that Professor of hers—was something Edward would definitely use to save Mia's life.

Edward did not want to lose his sister, to either Laras or to the rebellion. If this war must be fought, let it be fought by others who had nothing to offer but their bodies and their lives. Mia was needed to help him put the world back together, when war had destroyed it. Their blood and name were a symbol of leadership, and worthy of trust, but with it came the responsibility to act upon that trust in the proper manner. In times of chaos, when the masses needed a leader to guide them, a beacon to light their way and an example by which to live, it was the world's leaders who needed to stand strong. Like it or not, Mia was one of those leaders. She had no business wasting herself on the field of battle.

If it meant manipulating her ideals to keep her safe and make her understand this grand responsibility, Edward was not above doing just that. After all, he was King. And more, he was her elder brother, and the only family she had left. It was what Mother would have wanted.

“I am glad you have found something with which to occupy your time,” Mia replied, measuring each word. “Best be careful not to insult these people, however, brother. They are rebels, too, though they do not fight as such.”

Edward sat back. “And I am, in turn, glad that you see this. They are indeed rebels. Why must you then spend yourself upon the field of battle?”

Mia raised an eyebrow, and Edward knew she believed she had worked out his entire plan. Not that he had been particularly subtle about it. This was the way to win his sister over, in any case. “Because that is what I have to offer. I have not the quick mind of a spymaster, nor the patience of the dissembler. Tada used to spin me 'round in circles with his ideas and when he finally gets here, you'll see damned well why I fight. Because it is what I am good at.”

“How do you know this Tada is not dead? Blown up with your school and long gone due to your rebellion's miscalculation.”

Sitting back, Mia crossed her arms against her chest, drumming her fingers against her biceps. Edward noticed that she was not the same, soft girl she had been growing up. Or even the last time he had seen her. She was by no means a hard woman, either, all angles and sharp edges, but she had obviously been spending far too much time in the gymnasium. It was as if the sister he had known was melting before Edward's eyes, leaving behind a ruthless killer that would—and could—break his neck on a whim. “Tada is far too smart to die.”

“Even the smart die in war...”

“This is true. So I might as well fight and die than spend this time hiding and hoping for the best. At least then I would have had a part in this effort. That foodstuff you want to donate to the people of Ireland? It comes at a price. And people like Laras and I pay that price that others may live. If this is not the role of the Royal Family, I don't know what is. You hide here, Edward. You survive until the end, when you may crawl out of Yggdrasil and begin anew. The rest of us will fight.”

Edward shook his head. She was getting better at arguing with him. Probably all those hours spent dealing with that infernal Russian. “You know everyone died in Ragnarok?”

“Sacrifices must be made. Who am I to say I am beyond such sacrifice simply because I was born to this family? If you're so worried about keeping the family going, find yourself a woman and get to having children. At this rate, they'll be full grown by the time we win this thing.”

“The Russian has poisoned your thoughts.” On cue, as if his ears were burning, Laras stepped into the lunchroom, his eyes scanning for Mia. And there was the American pointing to the table where Edward sat with his sister. Grimacing, Laras nonetheless made his way over, every move coiled and graceful. “Speaking of which...”

Mia turned in her chair and beamed. “Laras! So you are alive yet.”

“Well, the enclave still stands, so it also stands that I would be alive,” the Russian replied. “Your throneless Majesty. Good afternoon.”

“Sit down, Laras,” Mia said, pulling a chair out for her lover. Laras did so, his hand running along Mia's back in what Edward was sure was a calculated sign of ownership. So the Russian understood this game as well. “We were just discussing Edward's latest venture.”

“Yes. I have decided to join one of the redistribution teams,” Edward replied coolly, sipping at his tea. “I was hoping to convince Mia to join me.”

“Amelia is needed elsewhere.” Laras' eyes were hard as he leaned into the table, arm still draped along the top of Mia's chair.

Edward sat back, eyes trailing from Laras to Mia and back again. Mia looked vaguely uncomfortable, but resigned to the battle being fought through her. Edward and Laras stood on opposite sides of a chasm and validation came in the form of Mia's choice. It was petty and beneath them both, and yet here they were, and Mia understood all of this. That she still had not chosen blood over lust was disappointing, but Edward knew his sister well enough to know that family loyalty will out.

Of course, now that she had decided Laras was family—and she had seemingly elevated him to a position equal with Edward's own—the situation was far more difficult.

“I see. To do what, exactly? Lift weights and spar with yon American gentlemen? It was my belief that no one had ventured out of this particular enclave since the beginning of the war. Charon has you all on a very tight leash, and none tighter than you, Laras. What am I taking my sister away from if not tedious exercise and boredom?”

Laras did not rise to the bait. “You are not privy to that information, Edward. As a bystander to the war, you have elected to be removed from the goings-on here in Blarney. Go, by all means, and deliver food to civilians. It is necessary work and I'll not begrudge you. But Mia is needed where she is, as is, I might add, her choice.”

“She has responsibilities elsewhere...”

“Oh for God's sake, Edward,” Mia spat. “What responsibilities? It's no guarantee this war will end in a victory and I'm not going to sit around twiddling my damn thumbs in the hope that other people win it for me. War is the only choice now. Unless you plan on turning yourself in to seek a peaceful solution?”

“You know that isn't possible,” Edward replied, voice hard, but quiet. “Your rebellion saw to that.” He could feel eyes upon them; hard, unfriendly eyes. Most of them were turned upon his sister, though a fair few seemed fixated upon the Russian at her side. At least Laras enjoyed their respect. Edward wondered when public opinion had turned. When had the denizens of Blarney decided Mia was not to be trusted? He wondered if she had noticed. Mia liked to pretend she didn't care what people thought of her, but that wasn't true; she cared more than most people. The idea that these people had turned against her would hurt Mia very much.

Edward wondered who would be the one to tell her? He certainly wouldn't; she wouldn't believe him. No, it would have to be someone she trusted. Hell, even the Russian might have a hard time making her see that she wasn't winning anyone over with her impassioned words. Edward wished he could tell her. He wished he could make her see. She was his sister, after all; he didn't want to see her hurt in any aspect.

“Mother saw to that, you mean. When she sacrificed your life for you to stay out of Omega's hands.” Mia sat back in her chair, and their Mother's eyes stared out at Edward. There wasn't much of her in Mia, but those eyes more than made up for it. “She was as much a firebrand as I. I just can't hide it anymore.” Edward felt a wave of disdain wash over the Dining Hall then. Hell, even Laras noticed, though the Russian made no move to defend his lover. "It wasn't as if you were doing anything."

Eyes narrowing, Edward leaned forward and hissed under his breath, trying to bring the conversation to more private levels, but unwilling to give up. No matter how much this would damage Mia's reputation, he had to keep her safe. He wanted her to be happy more than anything, except safe. He wanted her safe more than anything, even if it meant damaging her place here at Blarney. He'd find a way to fix that later. “We were doing just fine until you got caught on camera. Incontrovertible proof that not only was there a formal rebellion acting against the wishes of the state, but the Royal Family of England had supported it. If you hadn't gotten caught, we would never have been taken in and Mother would be alive now!”

“You don't know that!” Mia shot back. “You just know she wouldn't have died the way she died, not that she would still be alive. She sacrificed her life so that you would have a chance to live and to do something with yourself, but you are the one who chose to take that chance and come to Blarney. And she sent me to Oxford because she knew we owed something to this world and that we are the stewards of our people. Mother wanted us free, Edward. Every decision she made was to give us a chance to fight.”

“Mother and Father might have wanted us free, but they wanted peace, as well! Everything they did was to keep the peace between Earth and Omega that our people might live unmolested. Father worked with Omega every day on a treaty!”

“And they killed him!” Next to Mia, Laras frowned. Apparently, this was information Mia hadn't yet shared with her Professor. They'd never let it leak to the people, and they never spoke about it amongst themselves. Hell, Mother had half convinced herself of the lie by the time she'd died. Edward hadn't expected Mia to keep the secret from her lover, though. This was surprising news, and good news, at that. “They poisoned him with Synterine and left him to waste away. Omega didn't want peace with us. They never wanted peace with us. And Mother decided what Omega's peace was worth when she sent me to Oxford. Why? Because peace is worth nothing if it is bought with tyranny.”

Edward looked away. “Father died believing that peace could be won. But you are right; it is now too late for that to happen. Omega will not let this end until one side or the other is destroyed. And the battleground will be this planet and these people. They will bear the brunt of the destruction and the pain and the loss. And they will need someone to look up to. They will need you, Mia.”

“They have me, Edward. They have all of me and more. I am willing to lay my life down for my people. What more can I have them?”

“Your continued life,” Edward replied. “You can survive for them. And you can help them survive.”

“That's what you're for, brother. I am there to show we are willing to die for them, and you are there to show that we'll be there to put the pieces back together. Both of us are necessary in our roles, Edward. We cannot sit back and let others die in our stead just because we are Royal. They have to know we have just as much to lose as they do, and that we believe their freedom is something worth dying for.” Mia looked over at Laras for the briefest of moments—the Russian was staring at the table, and she couldn't see enough of his face to guess what he was thinking—before turning back to Edward. “You're right, Edward. We are a symbol. We do have to provide the right example to our brethren. But not because we're Royal. As far as I'm concerned, Edward, we can't be Royal without a throne. And I don't see a throne around here. We're an example because we, and all of these people, are fighting for what they believe in. And that's all that counts."

Edward shook his head, wondering who had put it into her head that being Royal meant nothing. Who was she to throw away Father's legacy? The legacy of her blood and her name and everything that came with it. “You are being selfish, Mia. Glorifying war and death and sacrifice. If you die—if the symbol of leadership dies—what will happen then? What message will you be sending except the...futility of this war? You mean something to them. If you die...”

“So you want me not to fight because I may die? And because that might upset people?” Mia raised her eyebrow. “Have you considered it might inspire them?”

Edward felt a wave of annoyance crashing from Laras. He was fairly confident it was at Mia. Even the Russian understood how ridiculous Mia was being, and how self-absorbed. It had always been a problem for her; she had always so desperately wanted to be a hero. “Death is inspirational now?”

Mia shrugged. “We don't remember the Alamo for nothing. Listen, Edward, I know you don't want me fighting because you're worried about me. And because you're surrounded by people who probably don't know what they'd do with themselves if we won this war. But this is where I belong. It's what I am good at. And unless I do die, I can still help you put this world back together. I can still be the leader you want me to be.” Sighing, Mia leaned forward and laid her hands on the table. “Staying here is no guarantee I'll survive, in any case. You are just as likely to die delivering that food as I am fighting. Both crimes are punishable by death, you know.”

“You cannot be comparing assassinations and combat to a behind-the-scenes mission to drop foodstuffs at predetermined places, Mia. Your actions put you in the direct line of fire. They make you a soldier on the front lines of a war in which we are vastly out manned, out gunned, and out supplied. You throw yourself into danger on purpose. Is it so much to ask to keep yourself safer than you do?” Edward glanced at Laras, wondering what sort of disdainful comment the Russian would have for him. It didn't particularly matter to him what Laras thought of his more emotional responses; Mia was his sister, and the only family Edward had left. What brother wouldn't do the exact same thing to see his sister safe?

Mia looked down at the table, as if waiting for Laras to speak. She knew his temperament better than anyone; he equated true emotion with weakness, and feared his own attachment to anyone or anything. His own devotion to the war came as a product of his own self-inflicted detachment. In order to insulate himself from human loss, he refused to acknowledge the requisite connection and, indeed, had come to regard it with disdain. Edward wondered what made Mia so special, and why Laras worked so damned hard to hold her at arm's length. It upset him to see Mia so hurt by this man, this Russian who was willing to use Mia's devotion to keep himself safe and who didn't seem to give a damn what he did to her in the process.

Edward understood Mia better than anyone. Even if he couldn't support her decision to remain by that man's side, he understood what drove her to do so. Mia abhorred disloyalty. She no doubt believed that, on some level, the Russian needed her, even if he was unable to admit it to himself or others. And, truthfully, Edward agreed with her. Laras needed Mia far more than Mia needed Laras, even if Laras couldn't or wouldn't see it. But Mia's hope that he would one day come to his senses was not, to Edward's belief, worth dragging herself through his mud. Mia did not need to take Laras' troubles upon her shoulders. And Laras did not deserve to have Mia by his side.

The Russian had no idea how lucky he was to have Mia, and just how much he should appreciate her loyalty. Or even what her continuing devotion to him would wreak. If Edward couldn't get his sister away from Laras, he would never succeed in getting her off the battlefield. So long as Mia stuck by him, she would fight. Of that, Edward was convinced. Unless he could find a way to keep her occupied off the battlefield, of course. Something Laras would approve of. Something he would support. Perhaps then Mia would be happy to stay at Blarney. Perhaps Blarney would be happy to have her stay.

Laras did not reply, seeming almost not to care what Mia said or did in this moment, and Mia sagged slightly in disappointment. Edward forced himself to stay silent. He could no more fight Laras than take down Omega, and he wasn't prepared to put Mia on the spot and choose between them just yet. This was a conversation they could have a few more times before it came to a head, and Edward knew enough not to force the issue. Let Laras cut the rope between them, and it would be Mia cutting him down to size. “Edward...I love you. But yes...it is bad to think I deserve to be safer than these people. Who the fuck am I to say I'm more important than anyone else here? I signed up to fight and, first chance I get, I will fight. No more should be said about it."

Edward blinked. That last comment had won her some sympathy from the crowd; Edward could feel it in the loosening of the tension in the air. It had not won much, but at least some people thought well of her here. He would have to find a way to keep her safe while protecting her from the disdain of her fellows. Something to keep her safe and well-respected. “I...very well, Mia. We will continue this conversation later.”

“I think not, Edward.” Mia's face was hard as stone, and it brooked no argument. Edward stood and walked away, leaving Mia and Laras alone at the table. It was going to be much harder to keep Mia safe than he thought. Well, it was no matter. Mother had made him promise to look after his sister, and he was damned sure going to keep that promise.

Even if it meant forcing her to stay put, when she clearly wanted to do so much more.
*****


Rocinha

Helio sometimes wondered how it was Miguel kept them running. Even without an electrical source, the hacker somehow kept the lights on and the networks running. Between that diminutive Mexican and his team of computer nerds, their enclave had a more sophisticated network than just about everyone. Perhaps better even than Omega, who had all the resources in the world.

So, when Miguel admitted that he was stumped, it concerned Helio. And that was exactly what his hacker was doing now, eyebrows furrowed over dark eyes and lip pressed between smoke-stained teeth. “I don't know, boss. This is definitely beyond me.”

“What do you mean it's beyond you? You're saying this code is too complicated for you to crack?” Helio leaned against the wall of the affectionately named 'war room', a white-walled edifice lined with computers, network devices, and scanners. At each hub was a body, each hard at work monitoring their information systems. Rio stole food and information, and Helio would be hard pressed to decide which one was more important. Here in Rio, only the people in the favelas starved, and it was all Helio could do to keep them alive without drawing suspicion from their absentee overlords. Outside of Rio, however, Omega had cut food lines and resupply to any nation even suspected of rebellion.

In America, they'd begun the public executions of anyone connected to the now-dead rebellion there, not content it seemed to punish only those directly involved in the efforts. No, they had to kill their friends, their families, and anyone who might have been connected in any way to the rebellion. 'Sympathizers' they were called. 'Sympathizers' and 'consorts'.

It was for this reason that Helio worried. This latest batch of apparently undecipherable information had come from America and only know had it landed in their hub. That was not entirely unexpected. Some information, if it was not particularly time sensitive, could bounce around between the randomized hubs for weeks before actually stopping. Especially if whomever sent it thought the information was particularly...potent, so to speak. The Rebellion did not have a shared network; the closest they got were the hubs, information dumping grounds accessed remotely from the nearest office.

Rio's, for example, had an IP address that landed you somewhere in the middle of Costa Rica, where no one had lived for hundreds of years. It was thought that these hubs would keep the enclaves safe from Omega, though that had hardly proven true in America. Of course, the government there had no compunction with spying on its own people and the average American was fiercely pro-Deklahn. But still...Helio had theories on the hubs, and he wasn't sure they were helpful in the least.

“I am saying this code is too complicated to crack. I am also saying that I think it's legit, from what I can understand of it.” Miguel leaned back in his chair and tapped his fingers on the arm rests. “This is from America, all right, and I'm at least 80% sure it's from a Rebel.”

“Explain.”

Miguel leaned forward and pointed at the screen. “See this line here? And this? These are pretty typical of rebellion code. OK, um...basically, no matter how separate we are, we're all bound by the stuff we send to one another. And there are certain fail safes and code phrases we all put into our stuff to make sure we can verify things. You know, spy stuff...only on a computer. Well, each part of the world has, like, slang...and then each writer has their own style. This line here? That's a sure sign this came from North America. But this one? This one I don't understand at all. It's way beyond me. As in...it's too good.”

Helio frowned. “Then why are you only 80% sure?”

“Because this here...” Miguel pressed a key and a few lines on the screen were suddenly highlighted. “This here is Omega code. It's like a thin patina...almost as if someone borrowed it, or had to hide the real information behind the Omega junk. Like...like someone who'd infiltrated a substation, or something. Or a local office. But it could also be some careless Omega hacker who didn't cover their tracks good enough. It's not as likely...Omega engineers are very good.”

“But Omega has issues with complacency. You know that as well as I do.”

Miguel shook his head “Nah, man. Not their engineers. Not their code writers. I mean, I can't tell you for sure because it'll take a better hacker than me to break through this shit, but I'm pretty sure the Omega code is just another layer, you know? Or a sort of protection from Omega itself. I think this is important information, Helio. And I think whomever sent it wanted to be very sure it was kept safe.”

Helio sucked on his lip for a moment and scratched at the stubble on his unshaved chin. He was heading out into the streets again later—a resupply of medical supplies had been 'lost on transit' and he was due to go get them—and he needed the beard as part of his disguise. “So what do you suggest?”

“Suggest? Send it on to someone more equipped than I to take this on. I'll highlight the Omega code and add a few notes of my own about my theories and send it on to another hub.”

“Which one?”

Miguel shrugged. “Belfast, I think. It was Oxford's hub, and I have no doubt whomever is in charge of this whole shindig probably checks up on it fairly regularly. Leadership wouldn't have moved too far from the school, anyway, so it could be that wherever they are still uses the Belfast hub as it is. It's not where I'm sending it that intrigues me.”

“What is, then?”

Laughing, Miguel turned an incredulous look upon his friend. “Man...this code comes from America. And it's from a few days after the Fall, which means whoever sent it might still be alive. Think about it. The last living survivor of the cull of America and they're the best damned hacker I've ever seen. Could be some damn good news for the Rebellion and I want to know what it is.”

“Well then, leave a note saying you want a translation when they're done. And it's on your head if this turns out to be an Omega trap.”

“If it is, it's a feeble one, and if I could see through it you can be damn sure whomever opens this thing will see through it. Calm down, boss man. The Rebellion won't come crashing down because of one file. Or...at least not this one. This one I can all but guarantee is a good thing, and it might just be the thing we've been waiting for. From the ashes rise the American Phoenix...”

Helio raised an eyebrow. “I don't recall paying you to write poetry, Miguel.”

“That's good, 'cause I don't recall getting paid. And hey, don't you have a drop to get to?”
*****
*Note: This is Quaddy. Due to a technical incident, the first portion of this addition is, in fact, the final portion of the previous addition (added by myself). It will remain this way until I get the issue solved. Thank you.*

Max rubbed his eyes and leaned back in his chair, exhausted. He'd been filtering through Irena McMahon's information for days now, trying to find all the relevant information to send on to Bermuda, and it was getting exhausting. More, he had been forced to watch every video and read every report the American had managed to steal from Omega, and there had been hundreds of them, if not thousands.

Some of those images stained the back of his eyes, and only an ever-increasing pile of sleeping pills was putting him to sleep these days.

Sighing, Max closed out the program, sending the latest files to the Bermuda office—or, rather, to their hub on Easter Island—as he did so. Perhaps it was time to check for something other than videos of a man being tortured. The thought that Professor Phelps had been subjected to that...

Max shook his head and sipped at his tea. Best not to think of Phelps at all. Best to just keep his head down and as much of this information from Laras Nikolao as possible. The Russian looked like he needed even more pills than Max to sleep at night, and Max did not want to make things worse. From what he'd gathered, Laras was barely holding together. In fact, from what he'd gleaned from the gossip pool, the Princess was the only thing keeping him sane at all, and that via a healthy dose of self-sacrifice on her part. Scuttlebutt around the enclave—and especially amongst the techno-types like Max—was that Mia and Colt were actually fucking, but Max didn't believe that.

After all, Laras was still functioning, and Denny's 'mam' seemed perfectly convinced of the Russian's affection for his young protege. If she were sleeping with someone else, not even Laras' studious lack of concern for human emotion would be enough to keep him together. In truth, the saga of The Princess and her Russian had become something of a real-life soap opera for Blarney; a romance to distract them all from the horrors of war. At least for some of them. Others preferred to talk about how little Mia was contributing. About how she locked herself away in the gym for days on end, barely deigning to show her face. As if being Laras Nikolao's student was enough to get by on; that she didn't need to prove herself to them.

Some among them accused Mia of thinking far too highly of herself, just because she was some fucking Princess. Like her name and her blood made her special.

Max didn't think those things even crossed Mia's mind. He was good at reading people; better at it, in fact, than he was with computers. There hadn't been an Oxford in his life, or any formal training, but Maxwell Hatfield was a codebreaker and spymaster of some skill. He'd learned the hard way, on the streets, by losing tails and breaking into secure facilities with a charming smile and some forged documentation. His skill set was long and it was varied, though most people seemed to think he was just a hacker of some middling skill. And none of Max's training indicated that Amelia Godwin thought her name made her special.

She was an arrogant girl, that much was obvious, and Max could not begrudge the people who disliked her for it. But he could wish they would look just a little bit deeper. Arrogance was not Mia's foremost quality; it wasn't what made her who she was. In that regard, it was loyalty, stubborn will and overwhelming heart that defined her. The arrogance, then, for anyone who took the time to truly look, came as a defense mechanism. It lashed out when Mia felt lost or scared or when she floundered. In that, she was no different than anybody else; in fact, it made her more like Laras than anyone. Then again, Laras' intransigent iron will did him no favors, either.

It didn't help that Mia kept having the most obnoxious arguments with her brother, the King of No Throne. Max believed Edward was playing games with his sister; pushing her toward a goal only Edward himself understood. Perhaps he truly did want to keep Mia safe. It was an admirable quality, though one that some would not respect. Even rebels were human--well, especially rebels, given the non-Gaian nature of their enemy--and family was important everywhere you went; Edward's fear for his sister was tolerated far more readily than Mia's big talk. And if what Max had heard was correct, his Throneless Majesty (was that what Laras called him?) had finally deigned to become part of the Rebellion himself, albeit in a support position.

And Amelia was spending her time in the salle, training with the American, who was only slightly better liked than the Princess, and that because he seemed to want nothing from anyone except time to grieve.

All she needed was a chance to prove to everyone how special she was. And Max knew she was special. He saw it in the Russian's face whenever someone spoke ill of the Princess, and even just when her name was mentioned in passing. Laras was very, very good at hiding his emotions--one of the best Max had ever seen, actually, and that was saying something--but he was not good enough to hide everything where Mia was concerned. Annoyance, yes, and an ever-growing disappointment, but also respect and admiration, and some unknown flicker of what Max would have called love if he truly believed Laras understood what it was. Amelia Godwin, Princess of England, had the Russian's respect; there were not five people in all of Blarney could say that. And if she could just prove it to everyone...Max had a feeling she would surprise the lot of them.

He hoped so, at any rate. Max saw much in her to admire, and far less to dislike. And even those qualities might yet be useful.

Sighing, Max pulled himself out of his thoughts and checked his console for anything new. A few seconds, and it became apparent that something had landed in the hub; something earmarked, as much as anything could be, specifically for leadership. Brows furrowing over grey eyes, Max leaned in and unraveled the 'wrapping', a series of notes and indexes from the hacker who'd sent the file along. Scanning them quickly, Max turned to the bulk of the file and leaned back, unprepossessing features slack.

"Hey, guys, could someone find Denny? I have a puzzle for him to look at."

The following begins the new addition.
*

Laras Nikolao, student, was not a nice young man. The girls thought him good enough to look at, the boys thought him good enough to envy, but as a character: no, he was the sort of person most did their utmost to avoid. They said he studied all day and drank all night and when he wasn’t drinking or studying he was playing some wretchedly archaic instrument that evoked a grand sense of pathos. They declared he lacked humanity for his stalwart, iron opinions that rarely relented to encompass the arguments of others. Moreover, his unforgiving, uncompromising nature that allowed him to complete complex moral decisions within moments rather than echoing into debate, which seemed equally unjustifiable and obdurate.

What Edward Phelps saw in him, no one could quite understand. How could the kindest, most chivalrous young tutor at Oxford stand the ruthless and unmannerly Russian? How could Edward Phelps possibly support Laras Nikolao’s ascendance into the teaching faculty of Oxford’s underworld? Everyone could see he was brilliant, that he existed on a knife-edge of cuspate intelligence. But he was awful. He was truly the most thorny-hearted bastard in the entire town, if not the entirety of England.

Edward Phelps, however, saw a different kind of young man to everyone else. When asked, he gave that humanitarian smile that made the callow students swoon into place, and told them in a pleasant enough tone that: “Mr Nikolao is one of the most proficient and loyal men, I know, Miss (or Mister) So-and-so, and if his application succeeds, I will be honoured to have him as one of my colleagues.”

And then he would nod, very matter-of-fact, and leave, wondering all the while if his best friend could possibly thrive under the regulative eye of Oxford’s idealistic undergraduates.

Only now, lying in a white room with a sharp-sighted woman as his nurse, Edward Phelps struggled to remember why exactly he had so much faith in the insensitive visitor that attended him daily. Speaking harshly of multifarious schemes and people that barely twinged in his own memory, the Russian vented as if the patient Phelps understood. What that patient never admitted was that he no longer remembered anything. Instead, he sat in silence; staring and wondering why all his thoughts echoed back round to the only person who religiously visited and whose identity was reduced to snippets of uncomfortable memory.

*

The full meeting was the same as it was every week: long. Twenty people gathered about a roundtable, swapping information and Laras only knew the names of about seven of them beside himself and Charon and only Fiona, the dark-skinned, dark-eyed, half-Irish girl seemed to have a drop of sense in her. Perhaps that was unfair but unlike her petal-voiced committee leader, she at least lacked the endless compassion that encompassed most of their discussion.

Meetings like these talked over the primary actions of the rebellion. The big news stories across the world, the latest non-integral data, the most recent thinktank ideas – those were the subject of the full committee meeting. In Laras’ opinion it was a waste of time. Not only were they tediously drawn out, but they covered subjects of such tiny importance because of the inclusion of so many higher members of the rebellion. They couldn’t afford to discuss anything of greater significance because to do so would be dangerous. So instead, they ended up puttering around rumours and petty scandals that meant little for the revolution.

Except today it seemed: today they were discussing the fact that nothing had happened since the Fall of Oxford. World-wide confusion seemed to be echoing through the intelligence streams and reports of Omegan success stories – new enclaves found and destroyed – were being spread through every media source available, despite the fact that not a single enclave mentioned existed. It was a battle of smoke and lies that they were waging and currently, it seemed, they were losing.

Laras had argued that it was because they needed to be seen to be doing something, even if it was something small. Everyone else, except Fiona, disagreed. They were looking for something bigger – a statement. How could they not see that statements were what destroyed the first Russian rebellion, that statements were to blame for the deaths of hundreds in every riot, every public display of defiance, that statements dropped the bombs of Oxford and would drop something far worse on the revolution if they were too bold now.

An older man was talking now, salt-and-pepper brows wiggling up and down as he described an idea for yet another ridiculous ‘statement’. “So we have at least five hundred kept somewhere around the ruins of old Amsterdam, some are likely trapped in the floating prisons, others... maybe collared and put into the camps up North from there...”

“We’ve gone through it though Algor, it’s unfortunate but there’s no real benefit in releasing these people now when there are no resources to aid them in their recovery.” Caoilhfinn’s soft voice interrupted carefully, fixing Algor Hogg with a chiding look, “We can’t support such a break out.”

It appeared that another infamous staring match was about to happen across the roundtable, with Caoilhfinn’s peaceable expression making the ragged skin of her half-scarred face seem all the more angry and painful to witness. Algor Hogg rolled his eyes but it wasn’t him that broke the silence.

“Yer min that ef thur was tew meny like yer Limey here...”

“Wheck-!”

Everyone was staring at Laras then their eyes flickered to the speaker: Wheck whose countenance was dour, glaring at the Russian with a scowl of dislike, “Dun sugah-coat et Caylin, et weren’t rocket science. But et’s no like the basterd were be here ef no fer Mester Nikolao.”

Laras’ hands were in fists and Charon’s hand gripping his arm was all that kept him from leaping across the table and slamming the wiry Northerner through the ground and into hell. His blood was boiling. Edward Phelps was a goddamn hero.

Caoilhfinn spoke fast, apparently trying to avoid the rising tension with an argument to appease the two men, “Trapping people into a worse situation than potentially the one they’re already trapped in...”

But Laras wasn’t listening, no one really was and the word ‘trapped’ rang round his head over and over like a drum. He was trapped listening to these morons and their moral dilemmas. He was trapped listening to fools like Wheck who understood nothing of true loyalty or sacrifice. He was trapped in this castle, just as he had been in Oxford, just as he had been under his father’s regime and he was trapped. Trapped. In this goddamn seventh circle, trying not to let his fury unleash upon his supposed allies.

His voice was stiff and cold when he spoke, “We will not be touching Amsterdam.”

If Amsterdam referred to anything other than the sunken city, it remained unmentioned.

“Then what do we do? We need a move – every enclave we’ve heard from has expressed their concern that no movement has been made since the mass media attack that precluded the fall of Oxford.” Algor Hogg seized the chance to move the dialogue away from Laras and Wheck.

“Well,” Charon began, noting the opportunity for what it was, “The Yeatsians have been passing messages all week but I wanted your opinion on the matter before making any moves.”

“Hmmm... the Yeatsians aren’t exactly always reliable.” Caoilhfinn murmured, “But I read the information too... it does seem sound.”

“Not nothing wrong with the Yeats-boys.” Wheck growled, “Nothing wrong with’em. Ef they’re saying The Cambridge is in Europe then I believe them.”

Laras hardened himself to Wheck’s eyes, once again upon him, as they flashed with glee.

“The Russians deny it, however.” Hogg added, “What do you think Max?”

Max, who had been quiet until that point, unlaced his fingers from in front of him and spread them in the universal gesture of suggestion, “There has been no intel to suggest The Cambridge is in Europe.”

“That doesn’t mean much when she’s meant to be the best out there.” Added Fiona, “She’s not just anyone. She’s The Cambridge. If anyone’s going to find out about her, it won’t be the Caers.”

Max bristled, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“What it means,” Laras interrupted, “Is that almost any report that makes it to our communication links will be invalid. She’s too good. She’ll say she’s in one place and then turn up somewhere else. It’s far more likely that someone like actually be where word-of-mouth places her than technology.”

“And ye’d knoo abit that better then ehnyone. Bein’ a Ruskie yerself.”

Laras growled and almost rose to his feet though once again Charon was stopping him. He snarled at the older man, bearing all his white teeth in a parody of a smile, “Get off me Trusko.”

“Aye, let yer doggie do his worst.” Wheck was on his feet across the table, hands in fists and grinning, “Leyus see how beard his bite es.”

Charon was very very calm, his gaze unfathomable as it turned from Laras’ pale face to that of the leaner Wheck, “I can assure you, you have no desire to see how much damage this man can do to you.”

“Sit down, Wheck.” Caoilhfinn said in the closest tone to a snap.

Laras’ muscles coiled, ready to break away from Trusko, ready to attack as he hadn’t in far too long. He was caged in this dance of politics and politeness and he wasn’t built for it. Not now, not ever. And people thought he was falling apart but damn-it he was better than that. He was far far better than that. He was simply angry.

He was angry with Trusko for leashing him when he’d just broken free. He was angry at his throneless majesty for his spineless sycophancy. He was angry with Phelps for hiding away behind glazed eyes. He was angry with these bumbling Irish fools with their moral discrepancies and volatile hierarchies. He was angry with Mia for being so bloody needy, acting all the while as if her actions were a martyrdom because she wasn’t permitted into the inner circle as she so desperately wanted. He wanted the woman he’d fought alongside, not this speech-making girl that pitied him with her eyes and panted after the burly, brainless American.

Everyone was staring at him again and he noticed he was still standing though Whelk was sitting, smirking with satisfaction across the table. Charon’s hand was still warm upon his shoulder. With a shrug he glared first at Trusko, then the room and sat back in his chair. Willing the meeting to end.

But something nagged at him as they began to move forward with their discussions, as talk of The Cambridge resumed.

What were the Russians planning? What was his father up to?

Kirill Stepanovich was a hard man, a hard player in this grand game of cat-and-mouse. For that’s all it was, Laras realised, bitterly wishing that this dithering would subside into sense. It was game still and his father, The Raven, he was probably the only one who not only took the progression of the revolution as seriously as he did, but also delighted in it. He was the closest thing to a kindred soul at this junction and it sickened him to admit that even to himself. Perhaps his father’s nurturing hand had shaped him more than many liked to admit, least of all characters like Charon and Phelps, but listening to these men and women talking of statements, talking of heroism and morale... it painted a complicated picture in Laras’ mind. The Russians were men of action. They were revolutionary terrorists. But they were also the most likely to see the importance of small moves, chess-moves, that took them closer and closer to taking the King instead of aiming for an early gambit.

He glanced at Charon, whose face was shuttered and benign. Perhaps that wasn’t a fair assessment. The Russians were bold, they liked to distract, upset and usurp but they were unfocused, radical and unreliable. Charon played the game. Laras played the game. These Irish were brilliant minds, determined revolutionaries. The whole nation was one of rebels and they all suffered for it with their impoverished cities, their disease-ridden and starving population. But they hadn’t acted yet and that was clouding their judgement. Oxford had made the first move. Pawn to E4. Dehklan had responded with E5, implicating Laras as a traitor. Oxford had lost Phelps, sacrificed on F4 to take control of the centre and attacking the King-side, the heart of Omega’s control. But then Oxford had moved again, Bishop to C4. Oxford had fallen, checkmated by the alien Queen but now there was Blarney... King defended by a well-placed Knight on F3.

Only now... now it was complicated. Because everyone wanted to move to G5. They were determined to go on the attack, to play the Gambit. But Laras didn’t think that Omega was that stupid. They wouldn’t defend their pawns and that was the premise of the King’s Gambit – defense, preservation of the front line, humanity on the side of the enemy.

Could this table be so naive?

They continued to speak around him and he listened with half an ear. They mentioned a visit from one of the Yeats in the coming week or so – one of the greater poets. They planned a larger meeting for when that man’s arrival was confirmed. Max chimed in with something about a puzzle he’d given Denny, something from Rio that caught Laras’ attention but that train of thought was quickly lost as Caoilhfinn chided her second for including her young son and Max defended his action but pointing out that the boy was one of the best that they had. Privately, Laras agreed with the Irishman. He might be an annoying suka but he wasn’t useless and that Denny kid was a clever lad, a brilliant resource for the Blarney contingent.

As time whittled away, their discussions came to a close. Laras removed himself with little haste and little acknowledgement for those around him. He was half way to a decision, to find Mia and go a round or two in the salle as it had been a while since they’d had a decent spar, when Charon indicated that they return to the Cell. Disappointment and frustration burnt through his chest but he followed... maybe whatever the older man needed wouldn’t take as long as that bloody meeting. Almost as soon as they arrived, however, that hope became buried behind anger.

“Are you...” Charon paused and recollected his thoughts whilst Laras glowered at him from across the Cell, “Laras, as much as I understand that Wheck was out of order in there, I need to know where you stand. I need to know that you’re not struggling as some have suggested.”

Knowing that this question was coming wouldn’t have made it any easier. Drawing himself up to his full height and straightening his shoulders, Laras made sure that Charon’s gaze could not leave his. Perhaps, he owed Trusko an explanation for his own humourless chagrin. He understood, after all, that he was needed in this role because he was above suspicion, because he was privy to more information than most, because he had experience and because he had connections. What was it that boy always asked him when he was caught eavesdropping? For some reason the words escaped him but his answer was always the same – that the cause was his blood, his body and his soul.

“Trusko-”

“Charon.”

“Whatever. You wanted me here. You wanted me doing this.” He bit into the word with derisive bitterness, “And I accept it. I have no struggle with it. Not with the roundtable. Not with meetings. Not with idiots like Wheck.”

Charon arched one brow.

“For every idiot like Wheck there’s one that I can find it in myself to respect...” He reluctantly admitted as he could see the disbelief forming on his companions face, lit up as it was by artificial sunlight.

“But I’d bet you couldn’t name them.”

“Have a little faith, Trusko.” Laras smirked, “Fiona, is tolerable. Has a head on her. Shame she’s so frail... I’m tempted to have Dylan teach her to shoot if she can’t already. Dylan’s the Irish one that used to run with the Sewer Rats, had a few conversations with him and he’s an alright bloke. As is Max. Pretentious fucker but he’s... he reminds me of some of the old crowd.”

Charon smiled a wan sort of smile, “You seem collected now. Yet your little stunt the other night has everyone talking.”

“My little stunt.” Laras snorted, “I don’t like Colt Banner. I don’t trust him. And I don’t like that we’re keeping him here.”

“And this has nothing to do with his relationship with Mia?”

“They are sparring partners. Though what they do beyond the mats is hardly my concern.”

“Don’t lie to me, or to yourself, Laras.”

With a small harrumph, the Russian crossed his arms across his chest and scowled, “She acts like she did when she first came to Oxford, bantering with her brother for respect and anticipating my decline over her actions. Right now, what she does with Mr Banner is my concern only in that I feel he puts this place at risk. As I have thought since the beginning. Beyond that, if she wishes to take on a new teacher, let her.”

“Colt Banner is a highly respected fighter, Laras.”

“And his unfound body, his miraculous disappearance won’t bring attention towards us? Towards Western Europe?”

“Their helicopter went down in the ocean – not finding a body is hardly a surprise.”

“They are better than that. They are better than us!” Laras snapped, “They don’t care how long, how hard or how many die in the process of discovering people like us – they have bodies to spare. So why do we think they will give up on finding Banner? They chartered parts of the ocean that we could only dream of before their arrival. They have technology that can track the way winds, tides, jet streams, tectonic activity – how anything can affect the ocean or the wind. Come on Charon. You’re smarter than half of these Irish. Don’t play stupid with me.”

“How much of this is about Banner, Laras? How much of it is about what our esteemed colleagues have been saying?”

The anger flooded out of him as his previous pensive mood swept back into the forefront of his thoughts, “You know how I feel about these discussions. We’ve talked about this.”

“And I have asked your opinions on sending an agent to Russia and you have acknowledged that the risk of them simply being killed by The Raven are too high. So what do you want from us?” Charon was always so eloquent... so authoritatively judicious that Laras couldn’t help but calm even more.

“They are too high.” Laras turned his face to the mechanical sun that burned high above, his shoulders tensing and untensing as he searched for the words he needed to say, “I believe that if The Cambridge is in Europe, she’ll make herself known to us when that Yeats gets here. You heard the news from Barcelona – I think there’s likely a Russian presence there too...” He couldn’t explain his intuitions but he knew his father, he knew the long game that man enjoyed playing, “And I believe he’s doing it to lure us out. To make us come to him. I don’t know why... there’s not quite enough pieces yet in play but... we’re coming to the end of the opening now. Do you realise that?”

Charon’s face was dark and serious, his expression older than it had been just a few weeks ago, “I do.”

“I don’t think that our comrades understand that.”

“Nor do I.”

Pacing around the screens, Laras eyes flashed in their glow, taking in the information streaming through their system, words leaping out, others beyond his comprehension, all of it coded beyond natural language.

“I need to get out of here, Trusko. You need to let me out of here.”

“I’m happy for you to do so, but-”

“Do. Not. Lie. To. Me.” Laras hissed, “Do not say you willing when you follow that willingness with an excuse.” You sound like Stephens.

Charon bowed his head just slightly in defeat, “I was merely going to admit that the only mission we can send you on currently is to deal with your fisherman. The one you had deliver you to Ireland.”

“I thought we dealt with him?” Laras was puzzled now, hadn’t they met his terms with food for his family.

Nodding, Charon continued with a wry smile, “Indeed, we did. He’s come back though. Luckily he remembered the channels we gave him but not quite as quietly as we might have hoped...”

“Stop baiting me. What does the fucker want?”

“One of the Yeats contacted him.” Laras was beginning to wish he’d never heard of a Yeats. “Apparently it’s not only a poet we can expect in the next few weeks. Some of what look to be our own are also crossing country to reach us.”

“Who?”

“That’s what we need to find out. He won’t speak to anyone, the fisherman. He says he doesn’t give credence to any other that you or Miss Godwin. I was going to send Mia anyway but since this outing might aid the both of you, I’ll leave it in your capable hands. He’s in Belfast.”

*

Pain rumbled through his broken body like hunger had through all those weeks in Montjuic though at least now he was not cold. Probably the warm smells of cooking wafted through the air, the scent of some delicate soup that would not damage his damaged constitution. His shoulder throbbed, a burning sort of heat that pulsed inside – Miguel lay perfectly still. That pain meant he was still alive. His brother hadn’t... his brother wasn’t his murderer, not this time.

With his eyes closed he took in the sound of his partner moving around their underground lair. First in the makeshift kitchenette, humming a tuneless Russian popsong, then moving into the hallway, placing something solid in one of their trunks, going back into the kitchen, stirring the soup no doubt. In a minute, he was sure Lev would come to him and ask him about Stromson. Sure enough, thudding feet drew close, carrying with them the smell of food. He would have cracked a smile but he first had to focus on ungluing his eyelids.

“I can hear you thinking, Miguel.” Came the familiar Russian drawl, “You think loud.”

As his goldish eyes final broke into the dimly lit room, the raggedy Spaniard let out a little cough that was all he could muster of a laugh.

“Come, I’ll help you sit. It hurts but movement will be good for your body. There you go.”

Lev was a gentle sort of giant, even though both his names intimidated most who heard it uttered, though as he settled his injured partner into an upright position and dribbled water between dry, cracked lips it was hard to imagine why. Blond haired and brown eyed, the man was attractive, unscarred and wholesome looking – the sort that the Dehklans liked to stick on pro-campaigns as signs of their Gaian strength... or maybe not... since Lev also bore a distinctly Russian legacy in his bone structure and appearance. His neck bore the branded tiger, a flagrant design of anti-authoritarianism. The rest of the man’s body was covered in those tattoos, signs of seniority, kills, anarchism, rebellion. He had them all and bore them with pride. Unlike Miguel, whose body was a canvas of hardship, the younger Russian was physical, whole and strong...

“Check me out when you are well, solnishka.” Lev grinned and reached for the soup that steamed on the small side table beside them, “You ready to eat?”

Miguel managed a small ‘yes’.

It felt like hours, making Miguel all that he needed, pausing occasionally so the sick man could rest. It was interminable – this weakness, this pain...

“I have painkillers. But food must be eaten before them.” Lev explained, “And they are making you likely sleepy. But we need to talk more before you sleep.”

“Amic...”

“We have heard the French are after your death, they will kill you if they can. I believe, like our friend, that they told your Poddy and this is reason for him shooting at you.”

Miguel nodded. He muttered something and Lev asked him to repeat it but he shook his head and coughed a little, beginning again, “I worked for them, for the French. Long ago.”

“We know this. You were imprisoned for it.”

“Yes...” Miguel shuddered, “And I suffer for it even now... but...” His memories were dim... “Vaig tractar d'oblidar. I tried to forget everything I could when I was taken in... They didn’t know how much I knew and the technology in Espanya was rudimentary. We were not a problem state then...” He began his story.

Back when he was just a very intelligent young man, fresh out of the Escola Internacional de Barcelona, a strange man in a dark suit had approached him, given him a card and asked him to dial the number on the back for more information.

Miguel hadn’t understood back then, but it had been the first part of recruitment.

He would call that number and as soon as his identity was logged he was a doomed man – either he joined up or he knew too much to live. The French weren’t particular about killing off liabilities from other countries because every man that turned them down represented a supporter of the enemy. It was a bloody era. The Spanish had had a suspected ‘enclave’ hanged only weeks before: lynched in the street by Pro-Omegans. The dead had been a mixture of local Catalans and the odd international. For months, throughout the city, men and women were black-bagged in the night, dragged away and never seen again. Doctors and Surgeons walked the streets, their masks giving them away. Some people bowed in deference to them, others froze in an admixture of fear and uncertainty, some made the sign of the evil eye or crossed their chests.

“Santa Mare.” They would all whisper, “Preservar i protegir tots...”

Miguel hadn’t know the risk he was taking in dialling that number, of contacting the man in the dark coat. But his ideologies had never sided with the Empire. He was a Gaian through-and-through, despite his slight alien inheritance – the peculiar tilt of his eyes, the blacked skin along his spine. His mother had come from a solar system somewhere closer to Dehklan than to Earth although she’d fallen in love with Segura and his planet, she had died after her third child had taken too much of her strength. Or so his father said.

When he spoke to the French, they told him a different story. Of a woman’s faith that the Empire, as great as its ideals may have once been, had failed to uphold its integrity or its promise to those planets it claimed as its own. They told him that his mother, a beautiful woman with gold eyes, had attempted to contact her own kin about the mistreatment of Gaians at the hands of their Dehklan rulers. She mentioned key terms ‘freedom’, ‘dictatorship’, ‘tyranny’ and ‘deceit’. It meant that her conversations were logged and traced back to her. Being an alien herself, her death could not be hidden in a black bag. Should she disappear it could cause an intergalactic incident. So instead, during her pregnancy she was fed a slow acting poison by her physician. The poison was an early, weaker form of synterine. It was the reason for her untimely demise and for the deformities and subsequent death of his baby sister.

The story had won his heart for the revolution. He became a translator. Attending the Universitat de Barcelona, he learned more languages than most – both Gaian and intergalactic. He was a fast learner because he already spoke Spanish, Catalan, his mother’s alien tongue, French and Italian. He snapped up dialects as if he was born to a region. No one was better than he was. But being so good drew attention. The Dehklan government attempted to recruit him and he delayed them at first, citing his father’s ill health, his brother’s young age, their motherless family... he used university as an excuse for staying too – declaring a desire to continue his studies. It was the wrong move.

With his maternal heritage, his natural talent and his discrepant behaviours, he became a person of interest. The French, unaware of this development, continued to pass information on to him. He was privy to more secrets than most although often in fragments so that he could only pass on half a message if ever discovered. Several months passed of this. Increasingly, Miguel noticed things that didn’t fit quite right... men that appeared too often in his daily walks to and from university, visitors to the shop that came into the shop but never bought anything, women that approached him that were too far out of his league for him to believe that they were interested in his scrawny nineteen year old ass... Things began to fall out of place.

Trying to find some defence, seeking something that would force the French to protect him, he made connections. Connections between translations, descriptions between places and people and meetings. He ensured that he knew more than they wanted because he hoped that would mean they would aid him as he became more and more certain of his betrayal. There was a girlfriend, another student who danced with him and he whispered to her of leaving Spain, moving to Italy, visiting the lost city of Venice on one of those underwater safaris. But he had to break it off, tell her that she was one of many... all to protect her and it broke his heart. He did everything he could think of doing. Then he found it – pieced together through snatched of conversation, through snippets of newspaper articles and grapevine gossip, through French coded secrets and false reports, through what went unsaid and through what was questions. He found the one place that no one would ever find and he disappeared for over a week.

His plan was to gather his father and brother , the girlfriend he had lied to and hide with them there for a short time, to send a message to the French, to anyone that would help them, to escape. He would use his knowledge of where the first Spanish Rebellion had hidden themselves as his bartering chip, his get-out-of-jail card. But when he went home... his father had already been approached. A surgeon was coming.

“They wanted to know what I know.” Miguel shook with the knowledge he’d kept inside for so long, “Volen saber tot... They want to know what I know still. How could they find it? They are not Catalan. They are not Gaian.”

“My friend. You are a lucky man that you are now Russia’s and that I like you and that you are worth more to both of us alive than dead.”

Miguel managed a watery smile, “I remember more daily... I will eventually remember where Barcelona hid and I will show you. Prometo.”

*

It was almost midnight when they reached the front door of Belfast’s safehouse, if it could really lay claim to that title.

The group was uneasy, feeling troubled at the simplicity of their visit, even though they logically knew that it should have run exactly to plan just as it had. Four shadows, each of them indistinct in the half-light of dusk, crept through Belfast’s streets. They had travelled through the underground system for the past two hours and their slight relief at being back in the open was tainted by the faint smell of disquiet.

There was no need for conversation, everything had already been said – so as one shadow gestured for the others to follow, they did so in silence. Three taps on a stone wall that revealed an alarm system camouflaged in the brickwork. A personalised passcode, fingerprint recognition. Then they slid towards the side of the wall where a doorway now opened for them. Ushered inside, there was a computer screen and voice recorder that demanded each state their number and purpose. Two and two had different purposes though they each were let through after a minute or two of processing. None of them missed the airvents above them that no doubt would have leaked some kind of gas into the antechamber had they not passed the tests.

Once inside they were divided – no goodbyes were said.

Mia and Laras were left to walk through the old fashioned hallway alone.

They hadn’t said much during the journey, even before they hit the underground and Laras could tell it was annoying the princess. After their conversation at lunch, with her petulant brother attempting yet again to stake his claim on her, he’d indicated that she join him in one of the meeting rooms – her face lighting up with some sort of elation as if he was about to make her dreams come true. He’d felt no satisfaction when she saw two other people, Caers that were transferring to Belfast, and Charon already waiting for them. And now he was sure she was going to bring up whatever woe besieged her bosom now. It would be vastly inappropriate if she did but he was beginning to expect that of her... and it both surprised and disappointed him.

Knowing that his mood towards her hadn’t been kind in recent weeks, understated as that admittance was or not, he simply didn’t know how to express his frustration in a way that wouldn’t ruin whatever it was that ran between them. How could he tell her that he struggled, no he fought against his better judgement every time he saw her because his regard for her was higher than she deserved with her petulance and caprice? She was a great asset, an ardent advocate for all that he and the revolution stood for, a brilliant mind... and yet she undermined it when she undermined him, when she beggared herself for attention, be it his or the castles. Everyone spoke of her and her new sparring partner. Everyone discussed her actions around Blarney – from her public arguments to her flirtations. And whilst many respected her on the surface, he heard others talk of her less kindly. It... pained him and usually he interrupted with a glower or a harsh word to demand their silence.

Perhaps it would have been better, had someone else her age come with them from Oxford. But Paige was likely dead, Shlomi and Tada unaccounted for, Jerry as yet unreported. Various students were finding their assigned spots across the globe but there was yet no news of any coming to Ireland.

Mia sighed beside him and he closed his eyes, reigning his tongue as he rarely did. Now was not the place for this.

“Stop that insufferable sighing.” He snipped into the silence.

“My insufferable sighing?” She retorted.

Laras scowled, “Do you see anyone else sighing?” Mia glared at him, the sort of glare lesser men might have quailed at but he met it, “Later.” And his voice was tight with control.

The silence fell deep between them once more, accompanying them as they walked, hanging like a shroud until they reached the man they sought.

By this time they had an escort but they hardly said a word between them, simply guiding them to the old boatsman whose grumpy, wrinkled countenance puckered at the sight of them as if sucking on a particularly sour apple. The room they kept him in was secure enough – a sort of comfortable cell, with what Laras could see was a sofa-bed in one corner, the coffee table that they sat around, the plush chairs and carpeted floors. It wasn’t a dungeon and he was thankful for that, at least the man couldn’t complain of his captivity based on quality.

“Yer bloody came. Took ye long enuff.”

“We came because you demanded us come.” Mia jumped in straightaway, “What did you want of us?”

“And ah thought o’ye as the nicer like of ye two.” The old man grumbled.

“She’s no nicer than me, she just hides it with a pretty face.” Laras drawled, “So, Mr Jones, will you tell us your business with us?”

“Aye, but ye could offer a man his tea.”

Rolling his eyes, Laras caught Mia’s eye and the edges of his mouth threatened a smirk, “I’m sure our friends will bring tea for you.” She said more sweetly than before, sarcasm woven through with artful precision. Laras did give away his humour then.

“Well aye. Aye. They ‘avn’t been ‘alf bad to me.”

“Of course not. We are not heathens.”


*

“Do you think it’s true?” Mia’s voice was small as they entered the rooms they were to stay in overnight. They were simple enough, small sitting area, two pocket bedrooms and a bathroom. Typical officers barracks, he supposed. “That Tada is coming this way?”

“I believe that the Yeatsians would not send us this message with him unless they thought it necessary for us, or one of us, to be here to verify his character when he arrives.”

“That’s why he would only speak to us?”

“I believe so...”

He shucked his jacket to the side and tugged the black tshirt over his head, casting it away. His skin was pale in the light and he could see her eyes raking over his chest, tailing down to his abs and the waistline of his combats. Smirking, he turned to her, raised a brow, “I thought you wanted to talk.”

“I...” she paused and swallowed, “You’re being an ass, Laras.”

“Am I?”

“Yes. You are.” Her hands were on her hips, her eyes defiant and angry.

“Well then,” He spread his arms and hands wide, “Talk to me, princess. I’m all ears.”

“Why are you being like this? You’ve been off with me since we got to Ireland!”

Laras said nothing, just quirked the other brow.

“God you’re infuriating!” She finally yelled as her patience snapped, “You treat me like shit, Laras Nikolao and for fucksake it’s getting old!” Seeing he wasn’t going to reply, she continued, “You don’t talk to me. You don’t tell me anything. You appear after it’s dark and you just...”

“Fuck you?”

Mia stood there. Her eyes large and looming in the half-light and he almost wanted to apologise. But how could he apologise when she was the one who repeatedly put him in this position – this uncomfortable state where he couldn’t defend her neediness, even to himself.

“If you’re looking for a declaration, princess, you’re asking the wrong man.” He said, voice calm and cold, “Do you think I’m ignorant to the impression my colleagues have of me? Trusko took me aside earlier to talk about my feelings.” He couldn’t help the sneer that crept into his voice, “Everything I am. Everything I want. Is this Revolution.”

“Don’t you think I know that?” She interrupted, her face turning into the expression that he now considered her ‘royalty’ face. It was eerily similar to her brother’s. “I know that. I know you.”

“Then why insist that I change for you? You claim to know me. Then know me.” He drew close, so close her eyes fluttered almost closed and her breathing hitched in her chest, “I cannot tell you what you want to hear: not about the rebellion, not about the plans we form. And people are not only talking about me, printessa. They talk of you.”

“Me?”

“Everyone in the castle is polarised – some victimise me as you so ardently seem to desire. Others victimise you. They doubt you.”

“Doubt me?” Her voice was very very small, “Me?”

He dropped his head to hers, touched his forehead to hers, closed his eyes against her skin and let a hand rise to touch her shoulder in the closest gesture he could come to soothing and wished he didn’t have to do this.

“Charon is not the first who has raised concerns about you. Others gossip. They talk of your relationship with me, with Banner.”

She jerked away and he knew in that instance he had gone too far, “Is that what this is about? Your jealousies?”

Snarl forming before he could control it, “Jealous? Of Banner?”

“Because people talk about him and me? Because you think we might be screwing each other?”

“No!” He reached for her but she pulled back.

“Because you’re insecure?” She ranted on, “Because you’re falling apart and everyone can see it. Because he’s stronger than you? Because he’s be-”

A deadness settled in his shoulders as she shut her rant off, “Say it.” He murmured, “Say it.”

“Laras... I didn’t...”

“Say it. Go on Princess Amelia. Say what you were going to say.”

Voice trembling: “He’s better than you.”

The silence fell heavier than ever. Ringing with her words, every nook and cranny seemed weighted with her horror at what she had said. Her eyes begged him to realise her mistake but he wasn't listening anymore. He had tried. He had bloody tried. Turning on his heel, he slammed into the adjoining room. He ignored the call that followed him but couldn't ignore the girl that followed him through to the bedroom.

"Laras, I didn't... I didn't mean that."

"Don’t lie.” He felt he was saying that a lot these days, “You don’t lie enough.”

“I’m angry! You’re being an asshole and I’ve got a right to be angry! I didn’t mean –”

“You meant it. Don’t try to fucking lie. You can’t fucking lie.”

“Please.” She was properly begging and he span, muscles coiling to attack.

She met his blow with her own and then they were fighting. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t kind. He struck her across the face. She caught him in the stomach. Fists and feet, knees and elbows, nails, bones, muscles, skin. They crashed against the wall, sprawled across the carpet that burnt his exposed flesh. Swinging her fist into his jaw, she exposed her middle and he felt a rib almost crack beneath his own blow. His nose was bleeding. Her teeth were stained red. And he could taste her blood as she kissed him, smell his own mixed with the scent of their sweat as he responded. And he hated her. He hated her in that moment because she wouldn’t listen and she wasn’t lying and she didn’t understand. And he hated her for doing this. And he hated... he hated... She moaned beneath his touch and he rolled her onto her back, relieving the pain where his skin was raw.

Maybe tomorrow. He'd try again.
It was clear there would be no forgetting. Not about Ortrun, not about his coding, and not about Paige. All this time he'd had to himself he could feel there was something slipping away from him, from the reaches of his memory. Now it was gone. Tada wasn't certain of what that was if it was anything specific. Small details that he used to know, title of the last book he read, the color of the last car he rode in, where the trees had been in the courtyard of Oxford. Lots of little things that maybe someone else would attribute to time passed, but for him it was a noticeable change. When he recalled most memories from his time as a rebel (not counting the blackouts of course) they were still the way he'd first recalled them. These things were seemingly just...pulled away from his mind like he was defragmenting or something, but some data was lost in the purge.

Due to this a lot of his time spent walking and pondering drifted to his beloved details. A small spiteful smirk curled his lips. "Post Traumatic Stress huh Tada? You wish..." he told himself taking a drink of water from his canteen as he remembered how he felt when the blackouts first started. After that mission to rescue Phelps which was he wasn't completely proud of. Sure, it probably counted well for him on his resume but in the end he personally had to consider it a major failure. Then again, everyone had made it out of something that could have easily been a suicide mission. It was stressful being a strategist forced into crowded hallways and having to fight hand to hand alongside the likes of Laras and Mia. Those two were demons he could swear it. He could only hope they'd both made it out. Well, it was hard to imagine just about anything killing Laras, but Mia being his friend, younger and less experienced than Laras, and a bit less of an unknown to him was too human. Lots of humans died in that bombing. Still, she had been prominent in his memory and he hadn't seen any mention of her death in the report like Paige's was which gave him hope.

He'd be in town before dark which was something of a relief, but of course he had to be careful in town. He was still in England after all and Oxford rebels and survivors of the blast who didn't get to get on the Plan A escape boat were probably relatively high priority pick ups. From there, he'd need to get to Ireland and make his way to Blarney ASAP. The longer he spent out here the more danger he'd be in of being caught. Surely though, given his number and everything that happened there had to be other students that had made...

"Students?" he said out loud to himself. The word both felt and sounded silly exiting his mouth in light of recent events. They were rebels. They were soldiers all of them now as they had been before. Student had an odd connotation to it. There was a sense of safety, of sanctuary in the word student. Students had to learn, they had teachers to protect and educate them, they have the world watching them wanting them to thrive and be a success in the world. The student was accepted, nurtured, guarded. The rebel was none of these things. Rejected, deprived, and destroyed. That was the point. Oxford being the hub had been a full cover. A sort of irony that served as facade against the scrying of their enemies. The school was what was there to be seen, to want to be seen and thus it was the only thing. This rebellion was something that endangered it. The university was full of bright eyed students who needed to be protected from these dark hearted rebels. It was near perfect, but a few slip ups and that facade crumbled almost as fast as the walls of the school itself during the assault.

They were no longer students. They no longer hid in a school. If Tada was right, and he often was; their base was now a castle. An ancient bastion against attack and destruction. Perhaps no one else had really thought about that step in that particular direction, but the symbolism bared itself easily to Tada. From student guarded in the school, to soldier defending the walls of his king's domain. In this case however their king was not a who, but a what.

It'd been near a week now that he'd been traveling and he had to wonder how much longer he'd be doing so. It was near 400 miles or so between Oxford and Blarney so likely a long while before he'd get that and that was only if he took the short route. He was closest to Fishguard which would be convenient but reckless. Rosslare, he thought it'd be taking him too if he chose that route. He likely would not go directly. Though he'd been shooting almost randomly across the area on his way here, he could still be tracked. There was no way around it, he'd simply slowed the process. Now that he had left a winding nearly invisible trail, he needed to hit his destination with haste.

Tada was really not enjoying this 'you've lost bits of your memories' tripe. He had a map and everything now, but it wasn't a particularly new or well taken care of one so he had to piece both that and his memory together. That had been a few days back at a rest stop along the road into town. His biggest worry now was that he'd had to wind between near the road and away since there were some access restrictions along certain ones and there were actually patrols mounted along them. That was surprising, but it was still troublesome. He couldn't imagine what kind of blockage there would be trying to actually access a ferry itself, but he'd have to come up with something when he got there given whatever the situation permitted.
...............................................................................................

It was a sunny day today. A Tuesday, a work day normally for Glenn Tyde. Harriet made pancakes on Tuesdays if they had the ingredients. She'd grown up in the country and couldn't stand mixes, Harriet insisted on making them from scratch as she did most things. The woman was absolutely spoiled on homemade chicken fried steak. Glenn was from Colorado and it wasn't something he'd eaten too often really, but hers was to die for. Glenn never failed to compliment her on her cooking and it was for her cooking that he managed to get up early in the morning on work days. Before they married, he got up about half an hour before he had to leave, now he worked at nine but was up at seven. That woman was a miracle worker and he wasn't really sure what he'd do without her care and wisdom. Sure she was always a bed and cover hog, and her feet were constantly fifty degrees cooler than the rest of her body, but she was his cold footed cover hog. Twenty-nine years they'd been married, twenty-nine years and the counting if he was lucky. He only wondered if she would go back to being that woman he married now. He couldn't help it. After all, he wasn't sure he could go back to being the same now that Helen was dead. Now that she died a rebel. A traitor to her country and her people. A thing that if anyone called her by it, he'd destroy their face like when he boxed in college and won the golden gloves award as an amateur.

Glenn's eyes opened and immediately went to the clock. 6:04 a.m. This was not uncommon now, to wake up for no reason other than some idiot part of his brain kept hoping that Helen would just show up one morning. His cover hog of a woman was still in bed and not soundly sleeping. She mostly lay in bed now not willing to get out and face the world for the time being. She grieved hard with a mother's pain. Some days, Glenn had the strength to hold her up, and other days he didn't. Today was one of the days he felt weak and overwhelmed.

It was the tree house that made him feel that way. He'd been up there a few days ago. He'd gone in and looked around. He'd spoken to Helen's memory a bit, and then he found a box. Most of it was just pictures of her and her friends. Some of her and family, he and Harriet. Some small semiprecious and non precious stones she'd found when she was younger. A preserved four-leaf-clover, and a few flowers. Below it all there was a false bottom with a key. Glenn had wondered if it was to her diary, but it wasn't. Her diary key was on her person. This was something else entirely. Too big, too crude to be to that store bought diary. This key looked handmade. Glenn had held it for a while wondering what he was supposed to do with it. What it went to. Nothing in the box seemed to be secret really, nothing like that at all. Glenn had spent some time up there with the box pulled up from the small hatch in the floor of the tree house. The one he'd made there so they could put snacks in it when they stayed up there all night. When he put the box back finally is when the other odd thing had happened. It made a hollow sound when set down. It had been very faint. Had he not built the darn thing himself he probably wouldn't have even been able to tell there was a difference.

Another false bottom. It was a thick one and barely even movable. Glenn managed to slide the snug panel of wood away from the second hole that he hadn't built. Beneath it was a small plastic bag with a folder in it.

Marked maps, names, coordinates, some sort of codes like an encryption. He wasn't sure if it was a decryption code or something else. Glenn had no such knowledge. The only thing in there that he really understood was a note. A simple one in her handwriting.

I'm sorry daddy. Please dispose of these. I love you.

Then there were some rather detailed disposal instructions. Shred paper, soak for 1 hour in rubbing alcohol, burn, place ashes in Helen's urn.

And he did. But now what? Helen was still gone, sure they'd be safe now that there was no more evidence of her rebel activities left there. He'd filled the tree's second false bottom with some other trinkets he could pass off as toys or things she'd forgotten when younger and placed the box back where it went. Not to mention the detectives seemed to have some pity for them. That pity however, would not bring their daughter back.
.................................................................................................

Some time had passed now and he finally made some progress. He'd the small town in Wales on the west coast called Fishguard. All he had to do was talk about not wanting to wait for the big superferries and reservations and such and just wanting a simple rustic trip across the channel. Luckily people seemed to understand that sentiment and were happy to begin pointing him around the town until he finally found someone who told him about the boatman in Llanelli. It wasn't a certainty but they said if he moved quickly he could probably catch a ride from there, but he'd need cash.

This wasn't a problem. In fact, he didn't need to get there right then. This was a pretty large town and thus easier to find nooks and crannies where Omega may yet not delve. It was a good opportunity. If he could get across that was one step closer.
...........................................................................................................................

Indeed Llanelli was bigger. Significantly bigger than Fishguard. Still it was late by the time he made it there, quite so. The moment the option to rest came Tada's fatigue began to swarm upon him causing his feet to slow and his shoulders to slouch.

It may be a good idea to stay in town tonight. he thought to himself looking around trying to spot an inn or hotel. He didn't particularly like the idea of staying here overnight, but he had tourism on his side. It was far more scarce nowadays, but still frequent enough that it was hard to pick up on an outsider, and his Asian heritage made him stand out enough for him to cherish that brief advantage. After all, east Asians in general made up less than 2% of the population in the U.K. Tada was half Japanese though, and his features were just so lessened that he could at times blend in or look even more foreign depending on the company and attire. Right now there weren't many people around at all. Most had turned in for the night and the few that were out were doing so. There were a few officers walking around as well which further motivated Tada to duck away for the night. He'd have better luck in the crowds. Luckily for him there was plenty of money in that officer's wallet he took from the tent at the base.

It wasn't long before he sat on the bed of his hotel room. God it was expensive for a quaint little place. Tada couldn't help but wonder if it was always this expensive to stay in. Then again he wasn't the only one who'd 'missed his ferry'. Apparently there'd been a blockage on the freeway and there were several inspection points along some of the roads in that slowed people down.

He'd lay there for a while, slowly losing his mind unable to sleep. Unable to stop thinking. Wondering. Planning. Closing his eyes tightly one thought pushed to the front of his mind. He needed a drink.

He was wrong. Tada knew he was wrong. No one ever needed a drink, ever. Dammit if he didn't want one though. It was true he needed to keep a clear head and get his act together for tomorrow because once he hit Ireland if no one had contacted him things would get more complicated. Still, maybe it'd be good for him to stop dwelling on it for a little while. No need to get hammered, just something to take his mind off. He decided to lie down for a moment before getting back on his feet. He probably wasn't going to drink anyway. Tada rarely if ever did. He drifted a little and thought, "I should get up."

That was the last thing he remembered.

In the dark, the phone was ringing. It was a dream through, wasn't it?

Eyes open he still heard it ringing. Tada's arm flailed out in it's direction as he cleared his throat and took a breath. His hand hit the receiver and knocked it from the base. Luckily the phones here were rather up to date and this didn't automatically answer them. They were like cell phones with a chord and a base like a landline. He grabbed it and put it to his face where he could read the buttons with his blurred vision pressing the green one and holding it to his ear.

"Hello?" came his gruff voice. The voice on the other side was Irish.

"Nobuo. Sorry to call so late." it said. Tada's body rose a little more tension hitting him. He'd signed in at the hotel under the name Nobuo Tachibana, but who else knew that?

"No problem," he said playing along for now. Who was this?

"Not going to ask who I am, Tada? I appreciate it. You've no need to worry however. There is no tracing this line." Tada swallowed once and glanced in near blindness around the room.

"Who are you?" There was a pause on the line. A silent Really? in a sense.

"Just call me Yeats. What matters is the message I have for you. Be at the white dock at sunset. Bring a coin for the trip." With that he was disconnected. Tada looked at the phone to see where the person had called from. Anything. There wasn't even a record that a call had been made or received. No calls glowed on the screen. Surely they hadn't reset it already before his stay was up. No, this was the work of someone on his side. At least he hoped so. He lay on his back again staring at the ceiling having some trouble believing that really just happened.

As he awoke that next morning he had to sit up quickly and look around. He was still dressed. No woman (or man, thank goodness) beside him. No hangover. No odd taste in his mouth. Tada sighed a little and got up. Clearly, he'd been more exhausted than he thought. Lying in a bed for him had been like a sharp thump to the back of the skull. It was morning and he had no recollection of tossing or turning. Maybe that's what he needed instead of a drink, now he felt much better. Tada batted away the melancholy thoughts that plagued him daily now in lieu of a plan of action. It was time to hit the port again and see if he could find a quick ride across.

The daytime crowd was much easier to move through without worry. It was a positively bustling place here. Now just to find the right person. Really, he hoped to find a clue. Something that pointed him in the right direction. Above all, it would be really nice if his allies had some sort of retrieval plan going on. Then he remembered the phone call. He'd been so tired and it'd happened so suddenly he'd nearly forgotten it completely. What the hell was with his brain dropping the ball like this? Sure he could chalk it up to fatigue, but still. He was forgetting things and having trouble remembering. Details escaped him sometimes now. He couldn't even remember the color of the outfit on the receptionist. That was easy stuff. Hoping this problem went away soon he focused again on the call. The white dock. The white dock at sunset. That would be his first step to making it back. Soon. It would all come together soon.
"Bring a coin for the trip..." he muttered to himself. "A reference to the ferryman? To Charon?" he wondered if it was really that. Well, Yeats didn't exactly try and submerge the reference in context or anything. It had to be that.

Sunset finally came.

Just as it was told to him her got there in time to meet a man. This man and looked worn and worked. Weathered. He was old, or at least he looked it. Like a sea captain from a story that tells of a hidden sea creature that destroyed his boat and crew. His face was drawn to the center and pulled down near toward his chin which was naturally jutted pushing his mouth up like a frown. At least it was when he noticed Tada, his lips tightening together as if he used his mouth to focus his squinting eyes. A small smile creased his face when the rebel hiding his weariness moved toward him.

"Oye thar." he called lifting his head to look less inquisitive of Tada. Nodding Tada glanced around once and saw that there were in fact quite isolated.

"Oye," he responed looking up at the man, "So, know a place I can take a trip over to Ireland?" he asked hopefully, "I have cash." The man seemed to think for a moment.

"I th'nk I cun lug ya ovar. No nid fer tha cosh. Kip yer coin mate. Compliments o' tha ferryman." he said grinning and walking over toward the vessel. Tada stared for a moment and what that old man had just said forced a slow but full smile to the rebel's face. He was on his way home.

It was such a relief to be on his way to Ireland. This boatman who introduced himself and Jones. Stuart Jones, had told him that they'd be heading to Belfast to avoid certain routes. This was fine with Tada and it was nice to know that there was no one around to pick up on confidential information for a while. Still, he wasn't sure how much this guy knew so he still kept his lips buttoned during the ride. After being dropped off, he'd have an escort, but Jones didn't know who it'd be. Tada was confident it would be someone from Blarney, and that was an even bigger relief. Besides, the resting he'd get done was nice given they'd be on the water for a few hours, though he and Jones talked a good portion of it. The old man was rather chatty, as were most of the older folks Tada had spoken with. He must not have had much family left, or lost them rather recently. He seemed to speak almost out of necessity rather than convenience at times. Telling stories and just chatting in general. Tada didn't mind, but it made him feel a bit for the man, especially since he couldn't share much himself. Stuart understood though. He knew what Tada was.
................................................................................................

Belfast was huge. Tada had said goodbye to Stuart Jones and made his way into town. He'd been told to go toward the southern end of the city and he'd meet his escort outside an old fashion style tavern called Ale&Ale's. Tada didn't get the name, but he didn't care. As long as it was his next step. Still he had to wade through a million people to make his way there. Despite the rest and the bit of food he'd received he was still worn out. Exhausted and exhilarated. Moving toward he felt like he was both heavy, and floating through. Something in the back of his head told him he was making a mistake somehow by moving so quickly but he couldn't help it, especially with what he saw next.

Tada's eyes widened, his mouth dropped, and his heart nearly stopped. "Mia?" he whispered squinting and slipping through the crowd closer. The young woman he saw was looking the other way and seemed to be scanning the crowd over there. She had the dark hair, the curves, the height. Maybe...

He had to stop himself from calling out to her, but he definitely didn't want to accidentally sneak up on her. This girl's muscular tone matched hers too. It had to be Mia. He smiled and reached her reaching up and touching her shoulder lightly praying she didn't whip around and crack him in the nose.

"It's me, I've missed...." he stopped when she turned to face him. Dark brown eyes. The mental picture of Mia's face popped into Tada's head. She had green eyes. Vibrant, almost unnatural green. Oh shit. An obvious blush showed on his face seeing this girl who looked almost exactly like his best friend. His best friend who happened to be gorgeous. The woman smiled at him and looked a little surprised but bemused.

"Me? Who exactly are you, Me?" she asked smiling at him. Tada took a deep breath and cleared his throat looking down clearly embarrassed.

"Oh boy, I'm sorry. This is...embarrassing." he said trying to slip into his Japanese accent again and avoid her gaze. Her face was a little different. Mia was better looking facially and in the hips, but Tada was biased so that may have been inaccurate. Still, he wasn't going to stare at her to confirm or deny that. Stuart hadn't been sure if he'd need to stay here the night or not and the last thing he needed was to end up sleeping with his besty's doppelganger and then having to talk to her at some point later. That is, if she was alive. He realized that was partially why he would have been so excited to see her. It was confirmation.

"No no, it's fine. Were you looking for someone hun?" she asked. He chuckled nervously and pointed further south and just kept walking as if he was dumbstruck. He heard her giggle and then quickly turned and kept moving. Foolishly, he hadn't made sure she was in the right spot to be Mia. That spot was about a block ahead. He could see it, and then soon he could see another head of black hair. He was more hesitant in his excitement. As soon as he got close enough she was looking in his direction and her green eyes lit up. Tada's chest was full of clouds. He floated over to her and finally exhaled,

"Mia!' he wanted to shout, but he kept his lips closed and just walked in front of her saying it at a level tone. Her name. She grinned and hugged him instantly. It wasn't like he was calling her by Amelia Elizabeth Lynn Chesterfield Godwin or anything. Mia was not a princess exclusive name.

"It's good to see you. Very good, Tada." she said. Her grip was tight, she was strong Maybe stronger than him. She looked it even in modest clothing. When she released him she was still smiling. "Come on, let's go. We've got plenty of ground to cover." she said walking toward the end of town. Nodding Tada followed.

"Great, not like I haven't been doing just that this whole time." he said moving to her side. "Really though, it's so good to see you Mia, you have no idea." he said. It was in his voice, he'd been wearing down and seeing her had really helped him pick himself up. "I was worried you know."

"Of course you were. You better have been." she said playfully glancing over at him and seeing him smile a little. "You look exhausted though. You going to be okay?"

"Are we getting a ride?"

"For a while."

'Then I think I'll be fine."
......................................................................................................

A car. An honest to God modern mode of transportation. Tada was practically melting in the seat. Making progress with no effort. Now this was living. Mia was still holding back on what she'd say so he knew they couldn't mention anything too confidential.

"So," Mia began. She reached over and grabbed his hand, "how's Paige doing?" she asked. He sighed and kept his straight face. She probably was hoping for at worst, and "I don't know, or haven't seen her lately."

"She's not with me anymore." Tada squeezed her hand. Mia swallowed and nodded blinking a few times.

"I'm so sorry. Are you sure it's for real?" she asked looking at him as if probing his face to make sure he really meant what she thought he meant. Tada simply nodded. She sighed and he could see her jaw tighten. She was saddened, but her body language expressed both sorry and anger. It was suppressed and well done, but he saw it. "Are you gonna be okay?"

"One day at a time. I'm young. I'll just have to move on." he said feeling his mouth begin to dry and his lips purse. She patted his hand.

"That's a good outlook." she said with faux optimism. Tada nodded and looked over at her,

"Enough about that, how's Laras?" he asked. He really couldn't see Laras having died, but even the strong died in war, and there were bombs involved. Mia answered curtly.

"He's fine." she said a little too short. Tada's brows raised. "We're fine." she repeated smiling a little. Tada could tell she knew she'd slipped a little too much of her current state in there. "A few disagreements is all. Nothing major." Tada nodded. He could only surmise they weren't getting along swimmingly. Which wasn't entirely abnormal, but he still hoped for the best. Of course now all he could think of is how they'd cope if one lost the other. Just pray it doesn't happen.

"Ah I see. Well, that happens ya know?" he said, "You just gonna make sure it's not over ego stuff. Fights that stem from the ego can only be resolved by letting that ego take a hit." Mia nodded in agreement.

"Easier said than done though." she replied. Tada couldn't argue with that.

"So where we headed again?" he asked,

"Kilkenny. Small place. We'll go from there." she responded.

"Right on." he said nodding. Mia raised an eyebrow and looked at him.

"Right on? Tada..." she seeming to not believe he'd just said that.

"Righteous?"

"No." He thought for moment and tried again.

"Sweet." She shrugged seeming to accept it.

"It'll do." Their conversation staid very tame for the rest of the ride. Tada felt himself getting a little anxious to get out of the vehicle no matter how comfortable it was. He wanted to speak freely again. He wanted to come out from this undercover bullshit. It was time. Time to be informed again. Time to be in the loop. In the fight. "So you've been gone a while." she said looking out the window again seeming preoccupied counting something. Bushes if he had to guess. "It's been more than two weeks."

"Feels like longer than that really." he admitted. Mia nodded leaning back in her seat.

"Yeah, it does."

"By the way, I met your doppelganger." he said, "About a minute before I spotted you. Almost seriously embarrassed myself." he said with a chuckle.

"I have a doppelganger? Where was she?"

"About ten feet from the Ales&Ails." Now he got the name. He hadn't even really looked at it. Maybe his brain was starting to activate again. Good.

"Really? She honestly looked that much like me?" Mia adjusted shifting her hips to face him seeming genuinely interested in this.

"Yeah, except she was way better looking. If I wasn't still depressed about the break up I may have had a go at her myself." he said nonchalantly. Mia's face reddened just slightly and she thumped him once in the arm. He hissed and recoiled surprised by how much it hurt even though she just tapped him. Her knuckle tagged him right at the crest of his shoulder where there was little muscle to protect him, and judging by the look on her face -one of satisfaction and amusement- she'd definitely aimed there.

"Shut up you." she barked trying not to laugh.

"I'm so glad you can tell when I'm joking." he said rubbing his poor shoulder.

"So did you see a double of me or not?" she asked.

"I certainly did." he said straightening back out and slowly leaving his arm alone. "She wasn't nearly as lovely as the Mia I know and love." Mia flipped her hair dramatically,

"That's better." They shared a brief laugh. A reprieve from the seriousness that loomed on the horizon. The seriousness that Tada looked forward to now, but he knew at some point he'd miss moments like this. They weren't in school anymore. They were really at war.
........................................................................................................

"This is it huh?" he asked looking around Kilkenny. There wasn't a lot to it really. It was a few buildings and dirt roads for the most part. At least where they were. Mia nodded.

"Yeah, we'll walk there from here. I hope you feel a little rested from the ride on the boat and just now. We've got a bit of ground to cover." she told him. Tada nodded,

"Yeah I'm fine. Even if I wasn't I'm too excited about having a roof over my head to stop now. I'm ready to get back into it." Tada heard himself saying it but he felt a strange numbness in his body now. Like maybe this all wasn't really happening. Like maybe he'd really died back there when that soldier had been about to smash his head with a rock. Maybe that's where he was. Lying in a field with a head looking much closer to a rotted squash than a face. That was a bit of a fleeting thought though. He felt it in his gut, all of this would soon get very real. It had to.

After that bombing and the destruction of Oxford there was no longer that sense of safety in just being at a place with allies. At any time, things could get moving again and someone could get lost in the commotion. The environment he was going into was no doubt much different than that of Oxford. Easily defining the two for him would be the lack of Paige that set the two places apart.

"I hope so. How'd you figure out where to go?" she asked as they were already on the outskirt exiting town.

"Hm? The student number. They're coordinates. I noticed back at Oxford that a lot of us had the same number which would make them effectively useless as identification unless they were meant for specific groups. Like mine and likely yours would be 519-857. Those are coordinates for Blarney Castle. That's a little too much to call a coincidence in my book so I ran with it." he said. Mia looked at him as if something he'd said didn't add up. He watched her face for a moment as she turned away.

"Right, that makes sense." she said continuing walking beside him. Tada raised a brow.

"Mia, what?" he asked not letting her shake off his eyes. "Mia? Did I say something odd?"

"It's nothing Tada. Let this one go." she said. Tada could see the tension in her jaw set as she seemed to process something and come to a conclusion.

"Mia...Mia you're setting your mind to something." Tada said with warning in his voice. "Hold on, what's up? What did I say?"

"Tada." she said with an even deeper warning than his looking over at him with her piercing almost shaped eyes. He met them for a few second and then sighed conceding and letting her win that one. He looked forward again and stuck his hands in his pockets. "Thank you. Anyway you look pretty rough. What happened on your way here?" she asked. Tada was a little surprised. She blew off his questions that easily and just moved on from there with no remorse. Cold. He wondered what made her harden over like that. She was still clearly the same girl...woman, but something had taken its toll on her patience. Likely Laras. That was something he wouldn't bring up. If she wanted to talk about it, he'd let her bring it up.

"Oh, well....quite a bit actually." he said. The bag with the files and such was over his shoulder hanging at his side away from her, the left one. He wondered if she picked up on the subtleties of that. It was bouncing off of his hip as he walked ever so often reminding him of his secret. He almost wanted to tell her. To tell someone. Really, maybe he should. Maybe he had to. "About that, I um..." he paused and scratched his head. "I need to talk to you about it before we get there." Mia looked up at him and then back in front of her. They were coming up on a hill.

"I see. Well go ahead. What happened?" she asked.

"Well I came to in an Omega camp." he said. Mia's head turned to look at him again this time with wide eyes. He'd said it now, but he could still hit the brakes an just tell her how he escaped. He could leave out the details of his blackouts, fake memories, objectives, and the murder of Ortrun. How could he though? How could he live with that alone? He just couldn't. The constant mental turmoil he had to swallow to keep going had taken its toll. If it was not the programming in his head being faulty that was causing his slipping, it was the stress, the guilt, and the grief. Tada knew he could only fool himself and those around him with his mask and his wall for so long. The cracks were showing from the inside. At least this way, at least this way he was doing something about it.

"What?!"

"I did, and I know why. I've known why for a while now." Don't let up, Tada. Just tell her. Even if she stops trusting you. Hell, even if she kills you right here you've finally done something about it. You didn't hide it and wait for it to backfire on you. At least you weren't that bad. Right? "Ortrun knew as well. She figured it out." he said. Mia grabbed his shoulder an stopped walking facing him toward her.

"Tada, go on." she urged her eyes intense on him, probing for more information. She'd taken to it quickly.

"I'd been losing time. There were these huge blackouts where I'd wake up having no idea what I'd done. I was losing hours, days, and losing track of where I was. Every since the raid to rescue Phelps it had been like that. Ortrun figured out it was happening, but she made the mistake of telling me. I blacked out again and I..." Tada felt himself choke. He tried to continue and gagged closing his mouth and his eyes trying to get his face to work, his lips to move, and his stomach to settle as he actually said it. "I killed her." The moments the words left his lips he felt cold, and he regretted it. The color drained from Mia's face. "It was not at a time when I was in control. They've stopped since then. The blackouts were because I was..." he paused, her reaction unsettling. She was shaking her head and backing away.

"Tada..." she said. Her chest was heaving. Tada could see it, her adrenaline was starting to pump. She was ready to fight him. "What are you saying?"

"Mia, listen to me. Let me finish explaining. I'm not-"

"Tell me you're kidding."

"Mia please..."

"Tada, tell me!"

"I'm trying if you would just-"

"Tada!"

"MIA!" he screamed at her. His fists were balled and his face red. His eyes full of rage. He'd snapped. A bad move at that time. A snarl appeared on Mia's face. "Please, as my friend. Just hear me out. I won't take a step closer." She seemed to deflate slightly as if willing to listen. Tada knew she wanted it not to be true, she'd listen if it didn't mean beating the pulp out of her friend she'd just been so happy to see. No doubt she could. Tada swallowed and let out a breath. He needed to talk, now.

But how much could he share with her? She would want to keep his secret, but she'd have to tell someone, and Tada couldn't fault her for it. He couldn't put her under that much pressure, having to choose between her faith in him and her place in the Rebellion. He just needed time to figure things out and then he could tell Charon everything himself. For now, he would just vent what he could, and he could fill everyone in later. He hoped that would be enough to vent some of the pressure within him. "I woke up in an Omega camp...and they were trying to get information from my head. I must have walked there when I was blacked out. God, if I had known anything...what might I have told them?"

"So you were at a camp this whole time?" she asked. Tada shook his head. He could see her muscles relaxing slightly.

"No, that's where I woke up. I escaped and burned it down on my way out. I stole some files and some supplies and burned the thing to the ground. It was dilapidated and obsolete. I'm not sure why they still had ethernet cables and things like that, but it sure helped me overwhelm them. I would be dead if I hadn't run into a few other rebels though. Jess, Nolan, and Rick."

"Where are they now?"

"They're," Tada paused, "I don't know. Nolan and Rick didn't trust me enough to come to Blarney just on the change that our student numbers were coordinates. They figured Blarney was shut down and that I was wasting my time. Jess decided to go with them and try to get them to turn around but I'm not sure how far they got or if they're on their way. I'm fairly sure Jess will be coming if she's still alive." he said. "We parted ways, I reached Llanelli and got a call from some guy called Yeats."

"Okay." Mia said nodding. "So hold on. Let's go back to this blackouts-you-might-be-a-liability thing. Do you think they're connected? The blackouts and Omega?"

"I don't know." Tada said shrugging. "How about this." He unzipped the bag and set it on the ground stepping away. "It's the beige folder in there with a red stamp that reads has the name Gyle in the center of a star. That file has all of it. What I need from you Mia is to trust me. I've struggled with this already, and now I think I can use this against them somehow. I just need some time. Mia, I wouldn't have bothered to tell you if I didn't trust you, or if I had some kind of malevolent intent. I'm telling you because I trust you, and I have to tell someone. Take that file, and if you read it and don't think we can turn that around into something that can blow up in Omega's face then you turn it in to Charon." he said. Mia took it out and looked at it once then back at Tada. Her face was that of consideration. She saw in him her friend, but a potential liability. She didn't want to turn him in at all, no doubt it would hurt her deep, but she didn't show a bit of it. She swallowed once and closed her eyes briefly.

"Okay Tada. You're my friend, I'll trust you for now. But I can't look at this. If I do, and there's anything in there that makes you a liability, I'd have to turn you in myself. I need you to show this to Charon. Show it to him and let him figure out what to do. Will you?" she said. Tada smiled.

"Okay." He knew she would. "I knew you would trust me." Mia couldn't help but smile seeing how sure he was she'd believe in him.

They talked a little more on the matter as they continued the rest of the way. Tada explaining his blackouts and what happened with Ortrun. Mia would mention that she didn't understand why Ortrun wouldn't think objectively and NOT tell Tada. Not something he could answer himself. He ended up telling her everything. About he and Paige, and about how he escaped, his journey there, everything except that he really did think unclean thoughts about her doppelganger for a little while there. That was his business alone. By the end of it they were at Blarney. Mia had lightened a little and Tada could only guess that she was happy with his sharing of the information, confident like he was that they could turn it around into something good. He only asked she keep it a secret until he was ready.

With Mia's guidance and a little luck they avoided the watchdogs around the castle interior. It was a wondrous structure, he'd never seen it before. This ancient castle with the lucky stone. As they approached what appeared to be an area that wasn't well visited they stopped at a stone wall. "There a secret knock or something?" Tada asked folding his arms.

"In a way," she said waving her hand in front of it. A few seconds passed.

"Maybe they're asleep." Tada quipped with a shrug. Just as he finished speaking the wall seemed to melt like it was made of warm putty. In its place was an entrance. It was the threshold to the next enclave. The next chapter in their journey for freedom. For glory. Rebellion. Senkai, Sakae.

"Out-fucking-standing." Tada said breathlessly.

"Welcome home Tada." Mia said smiling at him before leading him down.
“Fucking traitors,” Ether muttered, voice harsh. “Why the hell are we treating this asshole? Let's just kill him and be done with it.”

Cyril sighed and unfolded herself from her habitual slouch. “That is quite enough, Ensign! You are dismissed until 0900 hours tomorrow. Do with yourself what you wish, though if I were you I would visit the infirmary. I can smell you from here.” Blue eyes remained calm as the young Ensign glared in her direction, murder in his red gaze as he saluted. It was done poorly, and Cyril could have demanded he do it again, but truthfully she was tired of the man's presence.

She wondered what it was that Omega had seen in him, and grimaced as she came to the realization that it was probably exactly what she hated in him the most that they had admired. Omega was a cruel organization, and it seemed keen to spend its violent urges upon the people of Earth. Abusiveness seemed a common enough trait in Omega and its supporters; why then did Ether seem so particularly worrisome?

Pushing the thought from her mind, Cyril approached the young man lying on the bed and carefully, not wanting to disturb him, wiped the blood from where Ether's blow had broken the skin. Scalp wounds always bled far too readily, and far too copiously, for their size. Either the Ensign's blow had been glancing, which Cyril knew it had not been, or this young man was made of particularly strong stuff.

Cyril supposed it had to be the second; after all, he had survived two days buried in rubble and had slipped into unconsciousness only when the medical staff had given him a sedative. The other men under Cyril's command had reported to her immediately upon his rescue from the ruins of Oxford, fearful of Ether's reaction. He had been awake, and he had been cogent, they said, though it seemed the explosion had taken its toll.

The beautiful young man now sleeping before her had lost much of himself in the bombing of Oxford. He remembered nothing. Even the most advanced tools at her disposal would not help Cyril bring this man's memories back to him. Only time would tell, the medical personnel had told her. Until then, they would treat his wounds and heal his body.

“Were you a rebel, pretty man?” Cyril asked, voice soft. “Did you take up arms against the might of Deklahn?”

Not everyone at Oxford had been involved in the rebellion. There had been an entire group of people devoted to the “surface”, or the cover; the front for the school's more nefarious, underground dealings. Perhaps this young man had simply been caught in the machinations of the traitors' organization. A true victim of this senseless violence.

Cyril found herself wishing, rather selfishly, that he wasn't simply an innocent. She wanted him to be a rebel in truth. She wanted to know what had driven him into the arms of treachery; what had compelled him to turn against the wealth and safety and prosperity of Deklahn? Cyril well understood the role of Omega's cruelty in creating this rebellion; she wanted to know what drove someone to actually join their fate to that of the uprising. Cyril wanted to understand these Gaians.

Earth had fascinated her for years. She was almost eighty years old by the reckoning of her people—the shortened years of her planet meant that she aged more than double the rate of Gaians—and had spent almost sixty of them completely and utterly engrossed by the stories of Earth and its history. Like many children of the Empire, she had learned of the Folly of Earth and its first rebellion. Unlike many, she had never hated them like she was supposed to. She had never pitied them, or feared them, or taken to heart the lessons the stories were supposed to afford her.

Cyril Breakwell had, for so long as she could remember, admired the spirit of the Gaian populace who'd rebelled against what they saw as tyranny. The only thing she had never understood was why Deklahn was a tyrant in the first place. From what she could gather, it was the rebellion itself that had brought the worst of Omega to Gaian shores. So then...what was it about Earth and its people that abhorred Deklahn so? How could anyone turn against their rightful government, and especially one that had brought peace, stability, and plenty to the entire Galaxy?

The dark young man before her, so unlike that foul Ether and his rotting manhood, could answer those questions. Of course, if he were a rebel, she would have to send him to the new Substation North, up in Iceland now that the Scottish site had been so decimated. And there he would meet with the Doctors.

Perhaps she should wish for him to be innocent, after all. At least then he wouldn't have to be tortured.
*****


“Professor Trusko,” Mia whispered into the silence of the library. It had taken her some time to track him down. Since returning to Blarney with Tada, she'd not seen anyone except Colt; even her brother had been gone most of the time, off on one of his missions of food and good will. She'd taken to hanging around the one place Charon was likely to be whenever he wasn't behind The Door, which she'd taken to calling the wing in which all the important stuff seemed to happen. Finally, three days after Tada had first come among them, she'd found the Leader of the Rebellion sitting at a table, reading Shakespeare.

Charon seemed almost to wince, and Mia felt a surge of guilt rise over her. He was always so busy, and here she was to bother him with something that must seem so trivial to him. But she had to know. Ever since Tada had revealed the secret of her student number, she'd been unable to think of anything else, not even the horrible circumstances of her friend's Omega tampering. The thought that she didn't belong at Blarney—that she had never been meant to come here, that no one thought she was good enough to be in Ireland—had haunted Mia, keeping her awake at night and throwing her mind into a tailspin. She hadn't even been to the training room, fixated as she was on assuaging the anxiety burdening her every step. “Amelia. Good evening,” he said eventually, closing the book and rubbing his eyes. “What can I do for you?”

“I...I was wondering something, and I was hoping you might be willing to help me.” Mia entered the library proper and looked around. Empty. That was good; she didn't particularly relish the thought of revealing her insecurities to perfect strangers. Even admitting them to Charon was difficult. The thought of going to Laras made her insides churn. “Tada...well, Tada told me something on our way back to Blarney, and I was wondering if you would confirm something for me.”

A ghost of a smile crossed Charon's face and Mia wondered if he wasn't thinking of Oxford, back when he'd been a proper professor and not just called one. “Yes...what is it?” His voice was slightly wistful.

“Tada and I have different student numbers. He says his corresponds to Blarney...and I...”

Charon frowned and Mia could see how exhausted he was, and perhaps just how much he had needed this period of peace. “You wanted to know why it was that you didn't have the same number, I suppose. Why you weren't invited into the hallowed halls of Blarney and the Heart of the Rebellion straight off?”

Mia bit her lip. “N-no, Professor...just...I...”

“Did you think you would just waltz in here and take a seat at the Round Tables? Lead squads, take down Omega with your bare hands?” Charon stood, hands pressed against the dark wood of the reading table, and his eyes were bloodshot. Mia shook her head, frightened at what had become of this man she'd trusted, but he would not let her continue. “And what exactly have you contributed to the Rebellion to earn yourself this place in its core?”

“I...I just...” Mia stumbled over her own tongue. In a way, he was right. She had thought she would find a place here. She'd come with Laras to Blarney because she'd assumed that was where she belonged. And now here she was, knowing that she wasn't even supposed to be there; that no one thought she had proven herself, or that she cared enough about the Rebellion to deserve a place at its heart. She had hoped it was an oversight, that she had won a place for herself, that everything she'd done would mean something to these people. To her fellows in the Rebellion. “Professor...”

“No, Amelia. List your achievements, however short that list may be.”

Gulping, eyebrows furrowed in distress, Mia chewed on her lip for a moment, lacing her fingers together. “Well...um, I spearheaded the movement to rescue Phelps. And on that mission I took down Templeton and Stephens, two traitors to the cause. And...” She wondered whether to reveal the next one. She and Laras hadn't even spoken of it, and perhaps it wasn't hers to tell. Deciding not to, just in case Laras didn't want it known, Mia continued. “And I'm one of the best fighters by virtue of my ability to fight Laras Nikolao to a draw.”

Charon's lips twisted into a bitter smile. “And as I seem to recall, you came back from that mission unconscious, having fought beyond your natural abilities. You also accomplished this as part of a team, without which you would have died. But yes, you were instrumental in the success, however short-lived, of that mission. What else have you done?”

“Um...” Mia began, at a loss for words. Wasn't that enough? What more did these people expect of her? “I've...I've dedicated my whole life to the Rebellion. I once tried to poison an Omega officer for killing my favorite bodyguard. Admittedly, I was all of five...”

“And you think this makes you special, Princess? You think your dedication is any greater than anyone else here? That it makes up for your woeful lack of experience and your tendency to make poor decisions, and your all-too-trusting nature? How about your disgraceful behavior since arriving; behavior which, I might add, would have horrified your Mother? Do you expect us to overlook these black marks because you are Amelia Godwin and you are supposed to be a leader? Because you're Royal?” Charon's voice was harsh, accusing, as he crossed to the other side of the table and came to a stop scant inches from where Mia stood. “Your blood makes you no more ready to lead than your dedication, however admirable that may be.”

Mia struggled to keep from crying, so embarrassed and enraged had Charon's accusations made her. Before she could help herself, she spat out the one last credential she had left to her, desperate to make him understand that she just wanted to be part of the Rebellion. That she deserved to be there, at Blarney, even if she wasn't ready to be a leader just yet. “I saved Laras Nikolao's life in the aftermath of the explosion,” she whispered, not trusting her voice to remain steady as she lost her battle with self-control and tears flowed freely down her face. “I carried him from Oxford to Glebe House rather than let him die.”

This shocked the Englishman. She could see it in his eyes. But the surprise died quickly, suppressed by control and cold rationality. “And for that I am sure he is very thankful. But it is not enough to prove your readiness. It's not only myself and Laras you need to prove yourself to; it is your peers. Your fellow believers, who somehow make time for the Rebellion every day while you hide in the training room with that American. Who don't have screaming fits with their brother over whether or not being Royal makes them special, and then do nothing about it; as if saying the words were enough to convince anyone.”

“But...I would die for the Rebellion. That's all I was saying...that I can't hide away and do nothing...”

“Funny, but to most of the people down here, Amelia, that's exactly what you are doing.” Charon leaned against the table, arms crossed, rumpling the lines of the suit he so fastidiously insisted upon wearing. “You scream and you rant and you pull out all the rhetorical stops, but when it comes time to put up or shut up, you seem to be missing.”

“Then give me something to do! Send me where I'm supposed to go and be done with me!” Mia spat, crossing her arms defensively against her chest and forcing herself to stand her ground for just a moment longer. “How am I supposed to do something when I can't even go top side? I can't even help my brother!”

“If you can't even answer that question, why would you think you'd be ready to lead this Rebellion?” Charon's challenge was quiet, devoid of accusation, but Mia felt the sting of the blow nonetheless. She felt the fight go out of her, then, as the cold truth settled hard on her shoulders, and her arms hung listless at her sides. Charon seemed to take pity on her; he sighed and came forward to place a finger under her chin. “Amelia, I do not doubt your skill or your dedication. But this is not Oxford. And the sooner you remember that, the sooner we can move on from this nonsense.”

Eyes red from crying, Mia nodded, hiccupping as she fought to catch her breath. “Y-yes, sir. I...I will do something about that, sir. Prove myself.”

“I am sure. And now, if you would leave me to my reading, I've only a short time in which to enjoy it.”

The dismissal was kind, but it was a dismissal nonetheless. Fighting the urge to salute, Mia nodded instead and practically fled from the room, desperately forcing herself to keep from crying as she did so. No one else needed to know how much this conversation had hurt her. What she did need was help getting started. She briefly considered finding Laras, but the Russian would probably just mock her. And Edward was gone, though that was probably just as well; he'd just use it against her. That left the American and Tada; one would just reinforce the rumors, and the other had disappeared behind the Door three days earlier.

There was only one person to whom Mia could turn now: herself. And she had absolutely no idea where the hell to start.
*****


They moved silently through the night, barefoot and swathed in shadows, to the drop zone. The air was thick with moisture, almost enough to chew, and cold; not a good combination for the people of this all-but Ghost Town. Too many had died here in recent weeks, the weather weaving its way into their lungs and their hearts, clenching tight with claws and rancid teeth. Omega's ever-tightening control over Eire had doomed these people to starvation and disease; they died for the sins of their ancestors.

Most of them didn't even support the Rebellion. Not directly, anyway. Then again, they didn't support Omega either, which Edward supposed was enough to doom them in the eyes of the secret police.

In the days since taking a place in this team, surrounded by ardent Rebels who'd devoted their entire lives to the so-called 'noble cause', Edward had come to understand them far more than he would have ever believed. It was hard not to, when it was their actions keeping an entire nation alive after the government had abandoned them out of spite. The Rebellion had not caused their suffering—Omega had never trusted Ireland, and this had in turn led to decimation—but had instead been there to alleviate it somewhat.

Edward wished Mia were with him. He missed his sister dearly, and the actions of the last week had only strengthened his resolve to see her torn free from that Russian. Here was good work, true and honest work keeping people safe. Why did she insist on fighting? What stubborn will had forged her soul?

She'd only become more intractable since returning from Belfast. Something had happened between she and the Russian, and though she'd become quieter since returning, Edward could sense that whatever had occurred had only strengthened her resolve. She would fight. She would bring Omega crumbling down by sheer will alone if she could. And though her declarations of support had ceased, Edward knew his sister would kill all of Omega if given the opportunity.

His sister was growing up, but it was not in the way Edward had hoped. She was finally becoming the woman he'd always wanted her to be, but she had set herself against the path he had been desperate for her to take. Edward wondered if he should just accept it; after all, he loved her more than anyone.

“Edward!” A harsh whisper brought him back to the world. Akiko was glaring at him, her black eyes shining in the darkness. “You plan on just standing there all night or do you plan on doing your job?”

Flashing a grin, Edward bowed his head and trotted off down one of the side streets, dropping a care package at each door he passed. He quite liked the little Japanese woman despite her absolute refusal to acknowledge his Royal identity. Edward supposed it was smart; out here, there were no Kings. There were only Rebels and the people they helped.

Come the end of this war, Edward would be King once more. Until then, he supposed he could just be Edward Godwin. But he would never forget his duty. And he wished Mia would remember hers, as well. He wished she were here with him; she would have enjoyed helping these people and leaving the enclave. She was rotting at Blarney, trapped beneath the Earth with that Russian who refused to let her go.

Edward returned to the group after his last drop; they were waiting for him in a thicket of trees just outside the town. Akiko had her arms crossed against her chest and looked displeased. “Would you care to explain why the hell you decided to take a trip into la la land back there?”

Shrugging, Edward leaned against a tree. “I was thinking about my sister, if you must know. I'm worried about her.”

Akiko sympathized with Mia, he knew. She knew more than Edward did about the goings-on back at Blarney, including why Mia and Laras were being kept tethered tight. The Japanese woman was a doer, as well; being trapped was the worst sort of Hell.

Others in the group were not so commiserative. “I'd be worried about her too,” another of the group whispered. Anton, from the sound of it. “She's been fucking her way through every muscled meat head in the joint.”

Edward grimaced. Fury blazed within him and, for just a moment, he completely understood why it was Mia seemed so determined to fight. “You shut your fucking mouth. My sister is no slut.”

There was a snort from someone behind him. Anton, again, and his damned prudishness. “She spends all her time with that American. Thick as fucking thieves, those two. Heard she's just trying to punish Laras for leaving her high and dry.”

“Well I heard she's just pissed no one threw a fucking parade when she arrived. Like she's hot fucking shit because she's got Laras Nikolao's cock in her fucking mouth. That's the only damned reason she's here.” Ah; that was Hector. He just liked the idea of Mia on her knees, if Edward didn't miss his guess. It was a disturbing thought, forcing Edward to keep his mind studiously blank; he did not want to think of his sister sucking anyone off. It was bad enough knowing she was sleeping with Laras.

Tony chuckled. “Hey, if I were Laras, I'd keep her around too. No offense, Edward, but your sister is smokin' hot. Plus, Laras ain't no better. You've seen the way he struts through the corridors like he's the only one around here with any fucking brains. Even if he did only bring Mia for her conjugal skills, that's more goddamned respect than the rest of us have gotten from him.”

There were a few mutters of agreement. Hector, however, argued back. “The Russian might be a dick, but at least he's got skills. He's more than proven himself. Mia just sits around as if she's waiting for an engraved fucking invitation to join the Rebellion. Oh yes, your Highness, we would just simply adore having you come in and rescue us! You're our only hope.”

Taking a deep breath, Edward closed his eyes and quelled the anger within himself. Lashing out again would only weaken him in everyone's eyes. Let them see their words don't hurt; make them respect you. “I see. You've been thinking about this for a while, have you? And if this is the time to deal with this, then so be it. I suppose Omega isn't looking for us as we speak...”

Akiko came up beside him and rolled her eyes. “Get it over with, Edward. Pull the damn bandage. If these assholes want to waste our fucking time, this isn't the worst place we could do it.”

Edward had never been more thankful for the small woman at his side. Smiling softly, he took her hand and kissed the palm. “My baby sister is many things, but she is not the kind of woman to sleep around. We all know her relationship with the Russian. It is not something that makes a good secret. But the day my sister betrays Laras is the day the universe comes to an end. Got that?”

Akiko walked into the middle of their group and slashed her hand through the air. “Enough, guys. You're being a bunch of shits. What the fuck do you guys know about Mia's situation? Not too long ago, you were all complaining about Edward.”

“At least he's useful.” That was Hans. A physician of some repute, and of decided opinions. He did not much care for Laras, either, if Edward recalled correctly. He dealt with everyone's injuries; people who threw themselves into the fire for no other reason than they enjoyed it were at the top of his list. “What has Mia done for us to earn our respect?”

“How is Edward Phelps?” Edward shot back. “Is he alive now? Might he recover at some point?”

Hans shrugged. “That depends on a lot of things. But yes, he is alive.”

“It was Mia's idea to get him back, you know? And yes, I understand she would never have come to this place if not for her relationship with Laras. But I don't think he would have brought her here to be his...his concubine. My sister proved herself to him; she has his respect. Do I understand why you might want her to prove herself again, to you? Of course I do. But it's not like any of you have given her the chance. I doubt one of you here has even bothered to introduce yourself to her. Everyone took one look at her and decided she thought she was better than you. No one gave her a chance even to mourn our Mother, much less a chance to be involved in any smallest way. You accuse her of wanting to lead, of expecting everyone to greet her as the conquering hero, but what evidence do any of you have of all that? You can't judge her when you haven't even bothered to talk to her.”

“She might have introduced herself to us,” Eliza whispered. “We would have welcomed her if she showed any interest.”

Edward shook his head. “And how was she to do that? She's only allowed down one corridor. You have the run of Blarney, minus a few select rooms. How was she supposed to come find you to show this interest? My sister is lost. She doesn't know how this place works. All she knows, all she has done so far, is train. Minus one mission, all she has done is train. She doesn't want to lead; she wants to fight. And she doesn't understand why no one is giving her a chance, however small, to contribute. She knows she has to prove herself to you, but not a damn one of you has bothered to tell her how. And then you turn around and blame her, and call her useless, and accuse her of...of fucking her way to a leadership position. Or of thinking she's too good for you. If anyone here thought anyone was too good for you, it was me. And yet you gave me a chance. Hell, you approached me.”

There was a shuffling of feet. “Yeah...OK,” Hans whispered. “I get it.”

Edward's eyes were hard, his face stony, as he turned away from the group. “I admit that she can be difficult. She doesn't know what to do in the quiet moments. If you showed her kindness, gave her something to do, I think the problems would be alleviated.”

“Between you and me,” Tony began, flashing white teeth in an easy smile. He was a tall man, a few inches over six feet, and lanky, with dark eyes and even darker hair. He also happened to be the prodigy behind the cloaking devices protecting Blarney's main entrance. “I'm afraid of what she can do to me. They say only the Russian is better.�”

The tension was gone in that moment, and Edward laughed with the rest of them. “Rest assured, my friend, that is true. And sometimes I wonder if they're not equals.”

“Shit, if she's looking for something to do...” the Italian began. “You think she could teach us a few things?”

Well there was an idea. “Honestly, I think she'd enjoy kicking your asses.”

Akiko grinned fiercely. “Well then. There you have it. We've wasted enough fucking time on this. Let's get the hell back to Blarney, where we can all show the Princess just how fucking contrite we are by volunteering to let her kick our asses. And maybe Edward won't have to worry that shits like you are insulting his sister.”

They disappeared into the night once more, back toward Blarney and back toward his sister. Edward wondered how she would feel about what he'd said here. She always did like grand displays of affection, and grandiose actions. The big speech right before the battle had always been her favorite part of a movie. Anything to galvanize the troops and stir the emotions.

Maybe Edward could accept her being a fighter. So long as she remained at Blarney, it was unlikely she would do any actual fighting, and she would not leave the Russian, even if it meant a chance to get out and do something.

Training others to fight seemed safe enough, he supposed. And it would give her something to do. Yes, Edward thought, he could very much support this idea.
*****


The darkness parted and he awoke. “Ungh,” he choked out, opening his eyes and blinking at the light. “Wha...?”

“Oh, you're awake! Good!” A woman overtook his vision then, large and blue-eyed. Her features were broad and flat, and her skin was just a little too green to be Gaian. Red hair was chopped short, and it did nothing to hide the general unruliness of her face.

Then she smiled. And he lost his breath for an instant.

“Are you all right? Do you need anything?”

He thought about that for a few seconds. Did he need anything? “Water,” he said eventually, his voice croaking. “Water, please.”

She stood then, and he saw she was wearing a uniform. An officer's uniform, no less. She was an Omega agent. And if the feelings of caution, of careful guardedness edging on fear, meant anything, that meant she was a very dangerous woman. But she didn't feel dangerous. Dangerous people didn't have smiles like hers.

“I am called Cyril,” she said when she returned, and her voice was rich with command. “Sergeant Cyril Breakwell of Caesar Regiment. We were on search and rescue duty for Oxford. You are the only person we've managed to pull alive from the wreckage. The physicians say you're suffering from acute amnesia. Do you not remember anything at all?”

He shook his head, sipping the water, relishing the cool comfort it offered. “No. Nothing.” Nothing that he wanted to give away to this woman, at any rate. Caution reared its head within him. She would not be so friendly if she knew he were immune to Synterine. That much he knew. “I...I remember...an explosion.”

Cyril nodded eagerly. “Yes. The bombing of Oxford was a few weeks ago. We found you three days after the explosion, and you've been here recovering since then. Were...were you a student at Oxford?”

He didn't remember. But the caution bubbled once more, and so he answered, a misdirection to turn her thoughts from him. “I studied languages,” he replied. “At least I think I did. I seem to speak French and Hebrew well enough along with English...”

Disappointment warred with relief in her eyes and he knew he had answered correctly. “Languages. A good subject. Well, I will leave you to it. If you remember anything, please contact me. And...between you and me...if a white-haired cunt of a man comes in here, signal for the physicians. Immediately.”

Nodding her head, the woman stood and marched from the room. He watched her, confused. Where had he ended up, and why was he here? And how long could he keep them at bay until they somehow figured out who he was?

He wanted to know himself, of course, but he got the feeling that remembering would be quite a lot better than having it remembered for him. And even he hadn't forgotten what the Doctors could do if this woman decided to call them in.

Shlomi Assad knew he was in danger, and he had no idea why. Or even who the hell he was.
*****


Mia took a deep breath and entered the dining hall, plastering a smile on her face as she did so. She wished Tada was here with her instead of off with Charon and Laras; people seemed to have taken to him quickly, and much more favorably than they ever had to Mia. It had been good to have a friend; someone who liked and appreciated her for herself rather than for what she could do or give to the Rebellion. Someone who knew her just as Mia and not as Soldier. Or as Sister and Heir, determined to keep her locked up and safe forever.

She hadn't realized how much she had missed that until she and Laras had gone to Belfast together to meet the Boatman. Even their fight had been sublime; the tension had waned, and for just a few moments, it had been like before, back at Oxford, when they'd gone days without seeing anyone but the other. When Mia had believed she would mean something, and do something important; before Blarney, before Edward, before war.

It had come crashing to a close the next morning when she'd found him leaving, returning to Blarney with a gruff farewell and abandoning her to wait for Tada. As if he had gotten from her what he wanted, and could not wait to get some distance between himself and his 'needy' lover. He didn't even seem to be trying anymore; any sign of tenderness was just a means to an end with him, and the end always seemed the same. The idea that she could want something as silly as an affirmation of his feelings for her...it was absurd, apparently. Absurd and needy and distracting, as if Laras must choose between his relationship with her and his place in the Rebellion. And as if she must make that choice herself.

And then came Professor Trusko, and the revelation that perhaps she wasn't so deserving of trust as she'd thought she was. That she offered nothing to the Rebellion, and had not even begun to prove herself. Combined with what Laras had told her, however motivated by jealousy as he had been, it seemed that opinions toward her were not so positive as she had believed. No one even thought she should be there, much less that she had anything to add to the Rebellion. Well, no one except Tada, and his wouldn't exactly be a ringing endorsement if anyone found out the truth of his identity. Mia didn't quite think it was fair of them to judge her so harshly. It wasn't her fault she was here, after all; it was Laras that had dragged her with him, expecting her to follow. And worse, the Russian had done nothing to change their opinions, despite knowing very well of what she was capable.

Mia was desperate to change their belief in her inadequacy, and if Laras would not help her, she would have to do it herself. So she'd abandoned her hiding spot in the gym and come out amongst the populace to try and prove herself to them, by whatever means necessary. That she had no idea how to even begin was beside the point.

A few people looked up as she walked in, and none of them were particularly friendly. How had she missed this for so long? Mia had always prided herself on her observational skills, and yet she hadn't even noticed the curdling of opinion toward her. In the weeks since she had arrived, a rather large subset of Blarney's denizens had decided they did not like her very much. It hurt, but Mia supposed she could not blame them; she had not behaved well at all, if Charon were to be believed. And she had no reason to believe he wasn't.

Maybe she should just stay in the training room and work on keeping in shape. On the off-chance that Charon decided to send her somewhere, it wouldn't do to let herself go to ruin. Biting her lip, Mia fought to keep from grimacing; she was just looking for an excuse to run away. She'd never been good with self-recrimination. Facing up to the problems of her own making frightened her; it was a skill she'd never developed. And running away would ruin any chance she had of proving herself worthy of Blarney, and of the Rebellion.

“Amelia!” Edward waved at her, a smile on his face, and Mia smiled back, grateful for the distraction. “Come join us for lunch!”

Her brother looked happy, and this made Mia happy in turn. Their relationship had soured, and Mia realized their very public arguments had probably not helped her cause; especially since he had apparently moved on and she insisted upon hiding herself away with Colt.

The American was not well thought of, either. But at least he didn't gallivant around pretending to be someone important. And that was the heart of it, Mia thought, as she walked toward her brother's table. Being a Princess or a King didn't matter for shit in this place; all that mattered was how hard you fought, and how much you were willing to give.

Mia hadn't really been doing much of that, she realized. And it was time to change. Damn Laras to hell for being an ass, but he had done her this one service of late.

“Um, hi!” Mia said, as the group shifted to allow her to sit next to Edward. “You guys didn't have to move on my account!”

A golden-skinned man, no more than thirty, shrugged. “It's no problem at all. Name's Antonio, but you can call me Tony.” Pausing to shake her hand as Mia sat down, Tony leaned in close as soon as she had settled herself in the seat. “Listen, I understand you can kick my ass.”

Mia blinked, taken aback for just a moment, and then loosed a laugh that boomed over the sounds of the lunch room. Around her, the others at the table laughed as well, and others in the dining hall turned to look at them, some smiling almost reflexively. Mia noticed none of this. “I...I probably can, yeah. Laras was a good teacher. Outrageous, but effective. Why do you ask?”

“So he can have his ass kicked,” muttered the yellow-haired man at the other end of the table. “My name is Hans. I'm one of the infirmary techs here. And just so you know, if you take this idiot on as a student, I would very much appreciate it if you didn't send him to me.”

“Shush, Hans,” Tony demanded. “I would very much appreciate knowing how to hold my own against an attacker, thank you very much.” Turning back to Mia, Tony smiled again. “Not all of us are trained in how to fight, you know. Most of us here are computer people, like the rest of this enclave. But if I'm going to put my ass on the line, I'd like to know how to protect it.”

“You seem very concerned with your ass,” Mia joked. Turning to the girl he'd had his arm around since coming to the table, she raised her eyebrows. “Is it worthy of protecting?”

“Oh, God! I'm so rude!” Edward cried then as the woman rocked her hand back and forth, causing the table to laugh again. “I forget you're not acquainted with everyone. Mia, you've met Tony, and I figure you've gathered that yon physician is Hans, but going around the table, this lovely young woman is Akiko, that is Hector, Eliza, and Anton. Akiko is a specialist in Omega code, Hector and Tony are behind the technological advances of our underground lair, Eliza intercepts incoming messages, Anton is a mix of ranger and media specialist, and Hans is our very own medical personnel.”

Mia stared at Tony and Hector, mouth agape. “You two invented that door?! My goodness, it is an honor to meet you both. That is, without a doubt, one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in my life and I would gladly kick your ass if you would explain even some small amount of its working.”

Hector grimaced, green eyes hooded and disapproving. “You cannot know. It is a secret,” he mumbled, voice harsh and accent thick. He couldn't have been in Ireland long; he sounded like he'd left Greece only the day before.

“Oh...” Mia looked at her hands. Hector was one of those who did not care for her much. “Well, I guess I'll kick your ass simply for the pleasure of knowing I am helping such a genius. Truthfully, I've not had a lot to do since getting here. I would like to contribute more—what good am I if I just sit around here letting the war pass me by—but I appear to be under orders to remain underground.”

Eliza, she of brilliant brown eyes and hair dyed a most magnificent green, smiled. “You would be doing a great service if you taught self-defense, Mia. At least until you receive orders. Aside from you, Laras, and the American...there are only a handful of people here trained in combat. It makes no sense, I know, but fighters are almost never sent here. Unless they're like the Russian, of course, and then they have no time to help us.”

“You wouldn't want Laras teaching you, anyway. He's got a habit of letting people go unconscious if they fuck up. If I listed all the injuries I've sustained in the last year-and-a-half, you'd probably go into shock, Hans.” Mia was rewarded with a half-smile from the dour Norseman. “Basic self-defense, yes? Nothing that would impede your ability to do your jobs?”

Tony laughed. “We're not made of glass, dear, but yes...nothing that would incapacitate us. What do you say? Establish the Amelia Godwin School of Self-Defense?”

“I would love to, Tony. Whatever I can give to the rebellion. And whatever will help you keep up the good fight. You guys didn't have to wait this long to ask. I would have done it whenever. All of you. All I ask is you show up in proper attire and listen to me; I don't want any of you to get hurt.” Mia looked over at Edward and smiled. “And you, brother? Are you going to learn some self-defense?”

Edward shook his head. “No. I'm a pacifist at heart, I think. Plus, it would be weird having my behind handed to me by my little sister.”

“Why? What else would be new?” Mia replied, arch as ever. She felt as if she had regained some of her equilibrium; the belief in her abilities, and in what she could do with them, slowly returned. And if this wasn't an opportunity to prove herself, what was?

“Because I don't want all these fine people knowing I was beat up by a little girl growing up. But tell you what...I'll run logistics for you. Scheduling and the like. I know that's not a gift of yours.”

Mia gave an exaggerated sigh. “Alas, I am not perfect, as much as I would will it so. I'm crap with computers. I am vastly appreciative that none of you have delved into techno-babble. I'd be completely lost.”

Tony raised an eyebrow before smiling in amusement. “Well, anything to be of service. And maybe these lessons will keep your mind off being stuck underground. That must be really difficult. I know I couldn't imagine being turfed.”

Mia nodded and thought for a moment of Laras. An almost perfect stranger had seen her struggle more readily than her Professor had. The one person she would have thought to sympathize most of all, and yet all he turned upon her was disdain and condescension. Their fight in Belfast had felt so much like the old days, when it had just been Mia and her Russian, and yet he had rolled off of her after and disappeared into his own room. They hadn't spoken at all since her return; it was almost as if he'd forgotten about her entirely.

He was busy, she knew. But these people had made time for one another, and now for her; why couldn't he? Why wasn't he even trying? Unless she'd been wrong and he didn't care for her at all. Maybe she had been just another student, albeit a particularly gifted one. A student stupid enough to sleep with him, and to be his punching bag when it was needed.

She didn't think she was asking too much. Some attention; some sign of affection. Some evidence that he bloody well cared about her, even if he cared more about the Rebellion. Some notion that her health and well-being meant something to him; that he would feel sorrow if she died. That she would be more to him than just another casualty in this war.

He'd cared about Phelps, after all. Enough that the Englishman's loss was tearing him apart. Did he not care about Mia even half so much?

“It is difficult. And I think I have perhaps not been handling it so well. I appreciate this opportunity very much, guys. It might not be a big contribution, but I'll do my best to prepare you for any eventuality.”

“Great.” Tony stood and grinned. “I await our first lesson with pleasure. Until then, I do believe it is my time to report to that great round room of computers and relieve Max. He's been at it for hours, and I don't think he's enjoying it much.”

“I, too, must report. Until later, Edward. Amelia.” Akiko stood and nodded her head to them both, though Mia saw her eyes soften when she turned to Edward. An overwhelming urge to insinuate herself and push them together arose in her then, but Mia pushed it away. This was exactly the sort of behavior that had gotten her into this mess in the first place.

“Thank you, Edward,” Mia whispered to her brother then. “I don't know what you did, but I've just got this feeling you're involved somehow. Thank you for accepting how much I want to fight...I know it was hard for you.”

Edward shrugged. “It is something you care for, sister. I could no more deny you than I could deny my humanity.”

“I dunno...sometimes I wonder, brother.” Standing, Mia grinned at everyone. “It was a pleasure meeting you. I look forward to our lessons. I will speak to Charon and see if he will give us the secondary gym space for our efforts. Well, I will if I can track him down. He's busy. Until we see each other again!”

Still grinning, Mia headed out of the dining hall. She felt rather like an idiot, all giddy and excited over something as silly as teaching people how to block a punch, but it would give her something to do. At least until Charon gave her orders. She would finally be contributing...which was more than she could say even a few hours previous.

Maybe it would help her earn everyone's respect once more. Or for the first time. Whichever.
*****


Erik Mitchell stared at the information in front of him and cursed. And when he clicked to the video, he turned and puked up his lunch into a wastebasket.

“This is the shit they want me to work with?” he asked himself, rushing to the facilities and desperately washing his mouth with a fluoride rinse. His stomach churned; there was no way he would be eating anything else for the rest of the day. Pouring himself a glass of water, Erik wondered if he would ever eat anything again, or if he'd have to become one of those pill popping masochists just to survive.

A couple weeks earlier, a file had landed in his console, marked for his eyes only. It had bounced around the world for a bit, as was typical for important information, so he had no idea where it had originated except that it came from HQ. From wherever Charon had gone after leading them all to Cambridge and damning them to war.

Well, he knew who'd written it. An American, who'd sent it off just as Omega came knocking; one last bit of defiance as the bullets sprayed and the Eagle died. Patriots one and all; Erik still mourned their loss. That didn't stop him from feeling relief at his own absence from the States; if he hadn't studied at Oxford, he'd probably be dead now, too. It did ensure that he walked around every day with a ball of guilt pressed against his heart, of course.

Bermuda was rather nice, all things told. He'd rather have been in Miami with the others, but the file had ended any chance of his going. He had to stay at the science enclave; they needed his expertise. They needed him to tease the secrets from Omega's great evil.

When he'd learned this was the stuff they'd used on Phelps, Erik had understood completely. It wasn't just about the knowing; it was about the chance to fix the spymaster's brain. It was about an opportunity to bring him back from the brink.

Staring at the information once more, teeth clenched against the heaving of his innards, Erik wondered if there was anything he could do at all. He wondered if perhaps Omega hadn't taken it too far for even the best of Earth science to figure it out.

Oh, Erik could understand the biological compounds well enough. A serum that super-charged the memory cortex, causing the mind to go into hyper drive; anyone injected with the stuff would, without any control over the situation whatsoever, remember whatever it was the Doctors wanted them to remember. When combined with the extra-ocular device, Omega could watch a person's memories like home movies, exactly as they had happened. The problem of forgetting, after all, was a problem of retrieval, not of storage.

Stroke the right synapse, and a person could remember their whole life as if it had happened only a few minutes earlier. And it seemed that Omega had figured out how to do just that.

The problem was the damage they did along the way, and whether or not it could be healed. Or if Edward Phelps was doomed to the consequences of this attack forever.

Rubbing his eyes with thumb and forefinger, Erik forced himself to open the file once more. His hand hovered over the screen as he debated whether to watch the next video. The diagrams this nameless American had provided were more than enough to understand the chemical compounds of Psycho-ocular Stimulation Serum, called the Pythia. Why then did he need to watch the videos?

Closing his eyes, Erik pressed his fingers to the screen of his console, and listened for just a moment to the screaming. The visuals weren't particularly clear—the hack job had been proficient, but cautious—but the sound...that carried through, as if from the next room. Erik shuddered; they were drilling into his skull. That was as far as he'd gotten.

Erik forced himself to look, green eyes almost unwilling to open as the sounds of crunching bone and splattering brain matter ceased. The Doctors did not speak, their masked faces calm and precise as they yanked the drill from the subject's head with a liquid squelching. Erik tried not to see Professor Phelps in that chair; he knew he owed it to this unknown Rebel to stand vigil over his suffering. The loss of a beloved Professor was no more tragic than the loss of this unknown soldier.

“We will administer the serum now,” whispered a Doctor, sotto voce, as if unwilling to reveal even so much identity as gender. “Understand, young man, that it will cause you pain. It may even kill you. We will record our findings.”

Phelps had been attached to an extra-ocular device, almost like a projector, but this poor sap had a needle jabbed into his skull. Erik winced, but forced himself to watch. He needed to learn; this man's sacrifice needed to mean something. Something good had to come of so much suffering. Erik vowed to do something; even if he could not save Phelps, he would not allow the Pythia to go unanswered.

Omega would have their cruelties visited upon them; that Erik promised.

Erik's feelings of righteousness were short-lived, as the young man began to scream. It was harsh and primal, almost inhuman in its throat-splitting terror. Then the thrashing began, and the subject began to throw himself against his restraints, tearing at his flesh. Erik heard the crack of broken bones, saw the skin splitting as jagged edges poked their way through flesh, winced at the popping of the subject's joints as they separated from the pressure; all the while, the man struggled, desperate to escape from the serum tearing its way through his synapses.

Seconds later, blood began to pour from his eyes, his ears, his nose. It bubbled from his lips, frothing as it mingled with his saliva, pouring down his front. And then, as Erik watched, horrified, a gray mass began to mingle with the red of the subject's blood, falling in gloopy drops from his ears to the white tiles beneath.

It was not much later that the man's struggles slowed, the screams quieted, the blood ceased flowing.

The man was dead within moments of injection, broken limbs hanging, tongue lolling from his bloody mouth. And then the video went dark.

“Phosphobyaxeline-B,” Erik muttered to himself, in disbelief. “They boiled his brain. They fucking boiled his brain!”

PB-2 had, at its nascence, been intended as an anti-septic. It sterilized just about anything it came into contact with, and its use for medical procedures had made even the most desperate of field surgeons reasonably safe. Unfortunately, in high enough doses, it proved caustic. If Omega had refined their serum with it, they'd basically just injected acid into a man's brain and allowed him to burn to death.

At least they'd learned something from it; no trace of PB-2 had been found in Phelps' blood, which HQ had also forwarded to him. Of course, that he was still alive was a testament to its absence in the current incarnation.

Erik rather suddenly needed air. He needed to get out of this lab, and away from this file and this serum he was supposed to figure out, and Edward Phelps, who needed saving. And the war, which needed winning. And...

Pushing himself away from his desk, Erik marched out of the lab, waving his hand before every sensor, pausing just long enough for the system to recognize him as he made his way toward the surface. He knew these things were important, and that they kept him safe from detection, but Erik wished he could just walk around normally, without the fear of Omega looming over him, without the knowledge that one wrong move would mean death.

Of course, the only way to do that was to keep working on this serum. To bring Edward Phelps back, and develop an inoculation against the Pythia. Perhaps even to turn the Pythia against Omega itself.

Stepping into the deepening shadow of twilight, Erik made his way toward the shore. He didn't know what anything was called—hardly anyone lived on the island these days, and they subsisted almost entirely upon weekend tourism—but he did like the half-moon bay. It relaxed him.

There was someone standing in the sand when Erik arrived. That wasn't odd. Other scientists liked to get out once in a while, and Erik was hardly the only person on the whole damned island; there were almost thirty of them these days. It wasn't the only science enclave—there were others for mechanical developments, and another still for biology. Bermuda housed the chemists; the people who might blow something up if they weren't careful.

This didn't look like one of his fellows, however. In fact...

“Nice weather we're having, isn't it? I'd expected a hurricane, but we haven't gotten one yet.”

The man turned and smiled. “It's coming. And if it isn't a 'cane, it'll be a tsunami.”

“Well then, I'll just have to bring out the rum.”

“I prefer whiskey.”

Erik grinned. “Of course you do, you damned drunk. What are you doing on the island so late in the day? Won't it be hard to get back?”

Aiden shrugged. “We're just on our way back, actually. Came for a few drinks. And to drop off a package for a friend of mine. For her Uncle.”

Nodding, Erik came to stand next to his friend. He was taller than the Bostonian, and bigger; anyone staring at them would wonder which was the scientist and which the spy. If someone knew what they really did, of course. Either way, an Omega officer would just kill them both and call it a day.

“I'm glad your day went well. Did you find her Uncle?”

“I did. In his usual spot,” Aiden replied, not taking his eyes off the water. “It's pretty here. And not sweltering, like fucking Miami. I'm really beginning to loathe that place. It's hot and sunny, and then it's hot and rainy, and then I wonder why the state doesn't just charge people for free sauna time. You could spread the air on bread, it's so thick.”

“You decided to move there for your career,” Erik admonished.

“It had the best opportunities. Doesn't mean I have to like the weather. Or the locals. If there are any left. You're never sure if the person you're talking to will be there next week. Makes it hard to network.”

“Any news of the war?”

Aiden schooled his face to neutrality, but Erik saw the slightest grimace in his friend's face. “Omega has done well destroying enclaves. Of course, half of them aren't even real. But, from the sound of it, the Rebellion is on its last leg. The stories are all over the news.”

“Cut the legs out from under us. If the civilians despair, they'll be more likely to turn on any known rebels just to end the war sooner.”

Aiden nodded. “They're trying to destroy us without even fighting. They don't want this war to get hot. Rumors are flying that other planets are taking notice. If our rebellion goes well, Omega is afraid it might spread to other sectors of the Galaxy. Their wars of conquest are unpopular in some quadrants. And more, they can't spare the men for too long. They need this done quick, and they need it done...decisively.”

“Propaganda.”

“Indeed. What news on your front? How go the studies?”

“Poorly.” Now it was Erik's turn to grimace. “No...not poorly. I am learning...but it is a tough path. I think I might be able to parley it into something useful, however. Something...extracurricular. Extra credit, so to speak.”

“Something...dangerous?”

“For the enemy.”

Aiden grinned. “Good.”
*****


Mia stood in the atrium, twiddling her fingers as she waited. She mostly ignored the people around her, keeping her eyes on the Door, knowing that Charon and Laras would have to come through it eventually. Let them stare at her; let them wonder what the hell she was doing pacing the door-lined entryway to the Gaian Rebellion. They would know soon enough what she was doing there, and their curiosity would be sated.

Perhaps one or two of them would stop glaring at her as if she were nothing but a waste of space. They didn't know a damned thing about what she could do, and so should not have formulated opinions, and yet the gossip about her had spread in an unstoppable tide of vitriol. Instead of figuring that she was here for a reason, some seemed to have collectively decided that Laras had brought her to Blarney for nothing more than to sate his carnal desires. After her conversation with Edward, Mia had forced herself to watch far more closely what other people said and did when she was around. Most, thankfully, seemed to still be generally in her favor (or carefully neutral); a growing minority, however, were vocal in their mistrust.

That would change, and soon, if Mia had anything to say about it.

Her brief flirtation with self-pity had mostly ebbed in the hours since her conversation with Edward's colleagues. Whatever could be said of her—and Mia was aware of just how much could be said of her—she was not prone to wallowing. She did flounder on occasion, treading water as she struggled to right herself, but once she had a plan of action, Mia Godwin did not sit idly by as her reputation suffered.

More, she finally knew how to contribute to the Rebellion. And that was far more important to her than the opinions of others, no matter how much those opinions mattered.

Still pacing, her arms crossed now against her chest, Mia thought about how she was going to broach the subject of giving defense lessons. There was plenty of space in the gymnasium; a whole secondary room that was used for little more than storage, in fact, of extra weights and floor mats. And so long as no one's training interfered with their work, Mia couldn't think of a reason why someone couldn't choose to spend their free hours learning to defend themselves. In fact, it seemed strange to her that such a thing hadn't yet been implemented here at Blarney.

Mia guessed that fighters were usually needed elsewhere, and the few who were needed here were far too busy to show a bunch of computer techs and science types how to block a punch or get themselves out of a headlock. Never before had an aimless, restless Princess been tossed into the halls of Blarney and left to fend for herself.

The only problems she could think of would be whether or not Charon and Laras thought she deserved the position. There could potentially be quite a few people coming to her soon, particularly if Edward did his job as well as he'd promised to, and what if Charon thought she was in no position to teach them anything?

What if Laras didn't think she was good enough? He seemed to approve of her fighting abilities well enough—though, truth be told, he hadn't ever said anything to that effect—but that wasn't really saying much. 'Well enough' was the Laras Nikolao equivalent of barely mediocre; would he think enough of her to let her teach others? Or would he decide to be his usual, perverse self and deny her what she wanted just to see her scramble? Truthfully, she respected him enough to treat this seriously; but what would his serious opinion be?

A lot was riding on this question. Giving these lessons was her chance to prove herself to the Rebellion; to earn her spot here at Blarney, and shut everyone the hell up.

The Door opened and Charon stepped out, following shortly by Laras. Mia's heart hitched in her chest upon seeing him; her Russian didn't look happy. It was even worse than the malaise that had followed him around back at Oxford, when Stephens had kept him turfed; a sort of caged-tiger restlessness that seemed to be slowly overtaking him.

Mia wondered if the trip to Belfast had perhaps been something he'd needed as much as she had. It did rather look like being stuck at Blarney was killing Laras; perhaps even literally so.

Laras was the first to see her, and, for half a second, Mia thought she saw something in his blue eyes. Something bright. Whatever it was, it was gone so quickly, she wasn't sure she had seen anything at all. He was doing an excellent job making it clear that she was hardly priority one; any pleasure on his part was likely just the product of her imagination.

“Princess,” the Russian stated, any strain very well hidden behind gruff swagger. “Were you waiting for something?”

“You and Charon,” Mia replied. “I need permission from the two of you for something I would like to do.”

Laras raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

Mia looked to Charon. “I have been approached by a number of Blarney's denizens requesting that I begin instruction in self-defense. They feel that their lack of said skills could present a danger, and, given my...abundance of free time, I am the best one for the job. There is a secondary space in the gymnasium that is little used currently, and we would obviously create our schedule based upon everyone's free hours. My lessons would not prevent them from doing their jobs as necessary; it would simply train them in the basics should the day come we need to defend Blarney. I...know you don't owe me anything, Professor Trusko, but I would really appreciate this opportunity to do some good for the Rebellion.”

Charon turned to Laras. “What do you think?”

“It's your decision, Trusko. But I say let her try. Miss Godwin's competency will soon reveal itself, even if it is only to teach the many-headed multitude how to fall as well as she.” Laras crossed his arms and turned away, as if divorcing himself from the situation and dismissing her entirely.

Mia forced herself—and it was quite an effort—to remain silent, her eyes still on Charon, face impassive. Only Laras could make permission sound so much like a damned insult. She wanted nothing more than to say something smart in reply, or maybe even smack him. At any other time, and in any other place, she would have, and enjoyed the result. But this was too important and her usual reaction wouldn't do her cause any good, so Mia stayed still, her hands clasped behind her, and waited for Charon to reply.

For his part, the Englishman seemed amused by the display. Unless Mia missed her guess—and she was reasonably sure she hadn't—he knew exactly what she was feeling in that moment. Bringing his hand to his chin, he rubbed at a beard that wasn't there—he shaved more fastidiously than anyone Mia had ever met, except perhaps Edward—as he looked from Mia to Laras and back once more. “Well, I see no harm in it. Quite the opposite, in fact. I approve your request. You may begin immediately.”
*Got cut off again. Right about the same length as last time. So...here's the rest.*

Perhaps it was inappropriate, but Mia rushed forward and gave Charon a hug, brightly exuberant in her excitement. “Thank you so much, Professor Trusko! You are welcome any time! I will begin cleaning out the space right now. Thank you, thank you, thank you! You absolutely will not regret this!”

“I should hope not, Amelia,” Charon replied, gently extracting her. “This is a provisional approval. Should your lessons prevent any member of this enclave from doing their job, I will suspend these classes forthwith. Do you understand?”

Mia stepped back and nodded, a flash of annoyance shooting its way through her. Of course Charon would only think of the potential harm she could cause; he still didn't think she deserved to be here. She would just have to prove to him twice over that she belonged at Blarney; more, she would have to prove to him that she belonged behind the Door, student number or no. “Yes, sir. Of course.”

“Very well then, Amelia. You may get started.”

Mia turned on her heel and ran down the all-access corridor, where the gymnasium was located, not even bothering to acknowledge Laras as she left. If he insisted upon being an ass and undervaluing her skills as a fighter, she would just have to prove him wrong, too. And unlike Charon, she felt no compunction showing that Russian just how she felt about him. Second-in-Command or no, he had no business insulting her! As if she could do nothing but get hit and fall down prettily.

Well, she would enjoy proving him wrong. The rebels of Blarney would be the best trained non-combatants the rebellion had ever seen.
*****

Colt was alone in the Room when she got there, sitting in the middle of the floor and staring at an abyss only he could see. And from what it looked like, he hadn't moved in some time, not even bothering to leave for food or sleep.

He was hiding here. Hiding and mourning, and basically behaving in a slightly-less-unhealthy manner than how Laras would have in his situation, but only because he wasn't drinking himself into a stupor. She didn't push him, but Mia thought that the loss of his brother was hurting him greatly. And how could it not? His nation and his family, all in one day. Everything he'd had was gone, and now he was trapped here in Ireland with nothing to do and no one with whom to do it.

There had been Americans at Oxford; hell, one of them had tried to kill her once during a friendly fight gone wrong. Some of them had been training as fighters with the other, less crazy, Professors. If there was any way for Colt to find them...to...

But no, he was stuck here now. Charon wouldn't want to let him leave; he barely let anyone leave, and certainly not someone like Colt, whom the Englishman wasn't even sure he could trust. Laras' work, no doubt; Charon's instincts on the matter were far better than the Russian's, whose jealousy had colored his opinion in a very negative way.

Colt was not the nicest of people, but that didn't make him untrustworthy any more than Laras had been the traitor back at Oxford. If anything, pleasantness was the hallmark of the traitor, making it far more likely that Charon would eventually turn on them. No...Colt was just far too much like Laras for either man to like the other.

And then there was the matter of Colt's very apparent interest in her, and Laras' ridiculous belief that she somehow belonged to him. That she existed solely to be abused by him, and jerked around by his increasingly irrational mood swings. Perhaps the Russian just liked making someone else unhappy; misery did love company, as someone had once said. Maybe he just liked making life difficult for her because Charon was making life difficult for him.

Maybe, and this was far more likely, Laras was just an asshole, and couldn't admit to himself that being jealous of Colt meant he cared for Mia far more than he thought he did.

“Colt I'm glad you're here. I need your help.”

“Do I have to bury a stiff for you?” Colt shook himself from his thoughts and stood, wiping his hand over his face. “'Cause I think the ground's too rocky for that. We'll probably have to burn it.”

“No, I took care of that already. I need your help clearing out the other half of this room. Some of the stuff is a little heavy for me, and you're just the big, strong behemoth I need for this sort of situation.” Mia tossed her head at the extra equipment piled up in the secondary workout space.

“Ah. Big, pretty, and dumb at your service, darlin'.” Colt grinned and wiped his face with a towel after unlacing and removing his gloves. Mia felt a sort of tingling in her stomach. He really was very handsome when he smiled. “Me strong.”

“Thanks! I appreciate it!” Mia tossed her hair into a messy bun and went to work clearing some of the lighter items, stacking them against the walls to clear the center. She just needed a space big enough to line with mats; her students would have to learn to fall, after all, and since that was all she was good at, she was determined to do it well.

Colt followed behind her, lifting the heavier and bulkier items. “What're we doing this for, anyway?”

“I've gotten permission to teach self-defense. Well, Charon said provisional permission, so long as I don't hurt anyone.”

Colt frowned. “In't that the point? You hurtin' people? In any case, darlin', why'd he worry you'd hurt someone?”

“That'd be Laras,” Mia replied, stacking some old boxes atop one another. “He might have intimated that I'm only good at being hit and falling down, though he also said that was more than good enough for the people here. So, basically, he was being an insulting ass to not only me, but to everyone here at Blarney. No wonder so many people hate him.”

“But not you.”

Mia sighed. “No, not me. I can't hate him...it's...it's complicated.” Quirking her lips to the side, Mia turned and propped one hand on her hip. “That sounds so dumb. But it's true. We're the epitome of 'it's complicated'.”

“I can see that,” Colt replied, eyebrow raised. “He don't treat cha right, you know. You...you're practically family to him, from what I can see. And you just don't treat family like that. It ain't done.” Frowning, Colt pressed his hands to his back and leaned backwards; his spine cracked in several places. “You just don't fucking treat family that way.”

Mia couldn't help but look away, dropping her hand and crossing the room to where a pile of boxes were strewn all over the floor. “Yeah,” she replied. “But you don't abandon family, either. Not if you can help it at all. Plus, he's the one being an asshole. I lose all my street cred and the moral high ground if I turn around and abandon him now.”

“Right.” Colt finished moving the heavy pieces and brushed his hands on his pants. “That sounds like a healthy fucking relationship. You clambering for the moral high ground and him wanting to see how far he can push 'fore you give up. Mia...you know that ain't gonna end well.”

“Colt...it'll be fine. He's...he's just stressed, is all. We'll go on a few missions eventually, and that'll clear his head, and we'll be fine.” Mia finished the last of her work and turned to Colt. “He's transferring his aggression to me; that's nothing new. I'm not trying to be a martyr or anything...it's just something you deal with. Like you said...family.”

Shrugging, Colt crossed the room and picked up his towel and water bottle. “I hope you're right. Yer lover's quarrel won't do this conclave any good. The Princess and the Russian...and one of ye bein' the second-in-command won't help none, either.”

“You're just jealous,” Mia joked as she and Colt headed for the door.

Colt did not return her smile. “Yeah, so? It doesn't take away from the validity of my point. What you two have ain't healthy. And if you guys don't learn how to talk in a way that doesn't involving fighting or fucking, y'all are gonna crash and burn.”

Mia pursed her lips and brought her hands once more to her hips. “Again, Colt, we'll be fine. We've gone through this nonsense before. After Oxford blew up, he didn't say anything nice to me for days. And that was just because he was too injured to move. Being trapped here at Blarney is far worse. I appreciate your sentiment, and the fact that you're worried about me, but Laras and I...we'll be fine.”

Colt laughed, and it was a bitter thing. He turned to her, eyes darkening as they took in the tight cotton of her training clothes.” Five minutes ago, you were callin' him an asshole and determined to prove his ass wrong. Now you're defendin' him and your relationship. You don't hear how crazy you sound. You shouldn't have to twist yourself in all different directions to make this thing work.” Bringing a hand up to brush her cheek, Colt shook his head. “You have another option, you know.”

"What? You?" Mia replied, incredulously. Still, she leaned into the caress, almost without meaning to. It was amazing how such a simple gesture could set her heart to pounding. If only this were the right hand, and the right voice, and the right man to go with it. “Colt...”

The hand dropped away, and Mia was left with a feeling of emptiness. She desperately wanted that hand back. “Listen, I ain't pushin'. I think you're the prettiest thing my eyes have seen in almost a decade. I think you're the reason I'm still here. But I'm not saying all these things to get you to bed. I'm saying it because I have lost too much, and I don't want to see you go through that loss. Before Laras breaks your heart...”

“I don't want to talk about this anymore.” Mia turned. “I appreciate your help with the equipment. If you're ever there while I'm giving lessons, please feel free to join in or help out. But please, Colt, worry about your own heart and whether or not you're going to keep on hiding out down here punching your woes away. You're a fighter, for God's sake, and you don't even need to prove yourself to anyone! Do you know what I would give to be in your situation right now?”

The seducer was gone in an instant, and Colt's hand returned, this time gripping her chin as dark eyes blazed. This was a side of the man she had never seen before; it was one that Laras might have been right about. “In my situation?" he snarled, fingers digging into the skin of her cheeks. "You mean your country destroyed and your family all dead? My brother was all I had left. Would you prefer we trade places so it was Edward and not Eli got shot down by Omega? I don't think so. Having to prove yourself to the Rebellion is all well and good; having to do so when they think you might be a traitor is a tad different. When the time comes for me to do something, I'll do it. I will follow orders and do my damnedest to fight this Rebellion. But I am smart enough to stay the hell out of the way until then. I don't go picking public fights, Mia.”

Stricken by the truth of his statement, Mia opened her mouth to reply, but nothing came out. Frowning, she turned away, breaking his grip in her face with a snakelike slither. She eventually gained enough control to say, “Fine, yes. I apologize. You're just trying to help.”

Her Colt was back in an eye blink, eyes soft and smile broad. Still, Mia was concerned. What if he lost control again? Did this bode something deeper? Maybe she should talk to someone about it. “Accepted. Let's get lunch.”
*****


Max hated these meetings. Problem was, he hated sitting behind his computer even more. Especially when that computer kept spitting out torture and death.

The Round Tables, as everyone had taken to calling the gathering of Blarney's great minds, rarely accomplished anything. No one could agree, and those that could tended to be the assholes. Laras usually succeeded in pissing everyone off, but that was something he could do just by looking at a person; the meetings were just a chance for him to insult people openly. And if Max were being truthful, Laras was usually right.

It didn't help that Charon had the whole enclave on lockdown, except for a few groups here and there. Laras and Mia had gone out a week or so ago. Mia had returned the following week with a new arrival...and a new attitude. Max liked this new Mia; there was something about her that was very attractive, actually. For the first time, Max saw someone he would be willing to follow, should the occasion ever arise.

There was also Akiko's group, of course, but Charon couldn't very well keep them underground; not if the Rebellion wanted to at least pretend they were about the welfare of Earth's denizens. And they operated on such an erratic schedule, even the Professor's reticence had melted before necessity.

“Max, have you sent the files from Irena McMahon on to Bermuda?”

Shaking himself from his thoughts, Max turned brown eyes to Charon and nodded. “Everything was passed on to their hub. I cannot guarantee they have gotten it, but I am reasonably sure it got there.”

Wheck grunted. “Don't know what good that'll do. We got no idea if'n our information is gettin' where it's supposed ta go. Omega is running circles 'round us, folks.”

Charon took this opportunity to nod, and to clear his throat. Everyone turned to him, lowering their voices expectantly. “I have had some thoughts on that regard, actually. I believe it is time that we begin to change our Rebellion. We cannot fight on a global level if we are not a global initiative. As it stands, we are a group of disparate city-states and the Persians are landing at Marathon. As it stands, Deklahn is using our loose confederacy against us; they kill indiscriminately and declare it a victory for the Imperium. And we can't even determine whether or not they're actually killing rebels, or just pretending to. We have to change this. We have to create some sort of...worldwide network. Or else we risk being isolated and exterminated.”

Max nodded decisively. “I agree,” he replied, before the room could explode into screaming and disagreements. “Listen...I sit in front of a computer every day. Sometimes I get files that have half of their information missing because it didn't make it to the right hub. We are running a war effort based on old receipts and telegraph wires. Right now, we are built as a defensive unit. Semi-autonomous enclaves that serve a small area, and retreat into anonymity at the slightest brush with danger. Well...we're not preparing for a war. We're not running an underground club anymore. We are officially at war, and we need to begin working as an army.”

One of the fighters—Max didn't know his name—coughed and shook his head, a cup of coffee steaming in one hand as he scratched his graying beard with the other. “That's all well and good, but we are vastly out-manned, out-gunned, and out-supplied. And it's not as if our war is a vastly popular one. There are big sections of this planet that would just as soon see Deklahn in charge. Should we all be turned over and killed, they would use that as a bargaining chip for lessened restrictions and a much smaller Omega presence. We have to fight a guerrilla war. That's the only way we're going to survive.”

“And since when does guerrilla warfare mean uninformed warfare?” Max challenged back. “I agree that we cannot fight a traditional war. We must use what we've got, and our relative anonymity is at the heart of our bag of tricks. But!” Max paused, meeting everyone's eye as he spoke. “But, the key to running a guerrilla war is a series of well-timed, well-choreographed strikes. We have to learn from the past, and confederacies never do well in wars. Hell, that's the reason the Empire exists at all! To fight wars, to conquer the Milky Way and eventually as much of this universe as possible! We want to fight a war, and we want to fight it well. Right now, our isolation is killing us. Where once it kept us safe, now it is keeping us weak. I am with Charon on this. In fact...I think I know just the people with whom to put him in contact.”

Algor slammed his hand on the table. “Whoa whoa, we haven't decided we want to do this yet.”

“You're the one who wants the big show,” Fiona charged, lilting voice betraying her half-Irish ancestry. “Talking about rescuing every last prisoner this side of the Caucasus. At least this will actually get something done that'll make a difference.”

“Yeah,” Algor replied, sarcasm tightening his throat as he rolled his eyes. “Because we're supposed to leave trails of information all over the Goddamned planet. Like breadcrumbs all the way back to Blarney, and to the heart of the Rebellion. To every single enclave, just like we can do with Omega's systems now?”

Charon sighed, looking at Laras before standing and crossing his arms. The Russian said nothing, his blue eyes content to watch the proceedings with all of their usual hauteur. He had been a vocal dissonant lately, especially on the matter of large scale attacks. What he thought about a global network, Max could only guess, but he thought Laras would quite probably support the concept. It was a sound strategy; a way of guarding the board, and allowing the pieces to communicate directly with one another. The Russian's adherence to strategically sound actions couldn't help but support this plan.

“With all due respect, I think I know a little more about Omega's communications systems than anyone at this table. If my opinion counts for anything here,” Charon's eyes glided around the table, and Max couldn't help but think about the times Father had glared down his nose in disapproval. If only Charon had glasses. “There is a way for us to do this by piggybacking our signal on theirs, and using their code to render ours anonymous. I've made up my mind on this, and we will begin research into how something like this can be done.”

There was some grumbling around the table, into which the Russian's chuckle sliced like a hot knife through butter. It was a condescending sort of laugh; the kind Laras had mastered some time ago, from the sound of it. Perhaps right around the time he was becoming a legend in his field. Everyone at the table, Max included, felt the full force of the fighter's intent.

“Don't start with me, Russian!” Algor shouted, lunging across the table. Thankfully, someone managed to grab hold of his coat and sat him back down, but not until he got one last insult across. “Sa-mi bagi mana-n cur si sa-mi faci laba la cacat, fucker!”

“When the fuck did you learn Romanian?” Max blurted out, just as Laras asked, “What the fuck did he say?”

“Listen man, you don't want to know,” Max answered, shaking his head, “It's...it's not pleasant. Seriously.”

Algor smirked and crossed his arms as Caoilhfinn pushed him back into his chair with a hard look to her eyes. “No, no Maxwell...tell the dog what it means.”

“No. You're just trying to bugger up this whole meeting because you think it's funny,” Max replied. “Behaving like fucking children, you lot are! As if we don't have a war to win. As if we aren't getting our asses handed to us right now. We haven't had anything resembling good news in weeks, in case the lot of you hadn't noticed. The most we've got is a file what's barely been authenticated, and we haven't even begun to figure out what it says. And what do we spend our meetings doing? Arguing for or against the one thing that might actually give us a fighting chance! So shut the fuck up, all of you, and let's move on.”

Everyone blinked at him for a minute, but Max didn't back down. They underestimated him. Like everyone always had, except for Caoilhfinn, of course, who just smiled in amusement at the chagrined faces all around her. She'd taken him up off the streets, given him a place with her rabble, and understood better than anyone how good Max was. After all, she hadn't found him; he had found her, and she was better at hiding than just about anyone.

“I want to know about this Tada kid,” Max announced, sitting back in his chair. “Why are we letting him in so quickly, when we know less about him than we do even Colt? What has he done for this Rebellion to earn him a spot in the Round Tables?”

Charon cleared his throat, no doubt to hide his amusement. “His skills are beyond doubt. A veritable prodigy, actually; he scored near perfect or perfect on every test we gave him at Oxford, and thus he was assigned to Blarney in the event of Oxford's destruction.”

Max raised an eyebrow. “But...then why aren't we letting Mia in? She might not have scored perfect scores, but wasn't her number assigned to her before Laras agreed to take her on? Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't she your only student that year?”

Laras nodded, not saying anything else, and Max turned back to Charon. “So...she might not have scored well on the entrance exams—and I've seen her scores, it's not like she barely scraped by—but she placed well. And, in everything else...in experience, in skills, in all measurable areas, she and this...Tada are equal. Why, then, are we showing such favoritism toward him?”

“And why the concern for the Princess?” Fiona asked, raising an eyebrow, her face revealing quite clearly what she thought of the situation.

Max frowned. “Because I don't believe we are being fair to her. We have kept her locked up because she hasn't proven herself to us, because she has no experience, no data by which we can judge her. But then we ignore all that when it comes to Tada because he may or may not be a prodigy in an area we already have representation for on this very board? What has he done to earn a spot in this councils?”

“You have already answered your question, Maxwell. His skills are raw, yes, and untempered, but they are undoubtedly there. They are...astronomical...prodigious, and they fit a need. When someone that good comes along, they get a spot. It's not fair, but this is war, and war cannot be fair. Amelia cannot be given a spot just to assuage her feelings.”

“Be that as it may, Professor Trusko, we cannot give Tada a spot just because he's preternaturally gifted. We need to build a rapport with him; we need to be sure of his loyalty, and his experience. A gift means nothing if the boy doesn't know how to use it. What has he done besides plan that attack on North?”

Charon shrugged and steepled his fingers against his chin. “Well, he escaped Oxford and got here for one.”

“So did Mia.”

“She had Laras.” Charon pointed to the Russian, who crossed his arms and looked down at the table. “And thus, had help.”

“Presumably, so did Tada.” Max sighed. “Listen...I'm not saying put Mia on the council. While she might be the second best fighter here—and she probably is—she isn't ready for leadership yet. But don't excuse this Tada kid from those same rigors simply for the sake of simplicity. We either have the same standard for everyone or we have no standard at all. So he has a good mind for chess; so do half of the people at this table. And, guess what? Those people have far more experience playing chess than this kid does. His inexperience will cost us one day. By all means, let him into operations. He needs to learn to harness that gift. But don't bring him into the Round Tables and then deny that same chance to Mia for the simple reason that her skills aren't as special. That's not how you run a war.”

“You certainly have strong feelings about this,” muttered someone from the other side of the table. “By your own admission, Amelia should be brought in on operations.”

“She should,” Max replied, nodding. “We cannot be prejudiced against her. If we bring Tada in, we bring her in. As far as I am concerned, they are equals. They are both at the top of their respective skill sets, but they are both lacking in experience, decision making, leadership history...all the important things. So, if we are going to excuse all that and give Tada a chance to prove himself to us...we need to give Mia the same. War might not be fair...but an army has to have standards.”

Charon tapped his fingers on the table, bringing everyone's attention back to him. “Actually, I have an announcement on that front. Amelia has recently asked for and been given permission to begin self-defense classes here at Blarney. Anyone who wishes to learn, or to practice, may do so on their own time. I recommend to...most of you that you take her up on her offer.”

“Self-defense classes?” Max asked. “When did this come about?”

“Not long before this meeting, actually. It's quite likely Miss Godwin is still preparing the gymnasium for her use.” Charon cleared his throat and tapped a few things into the screen in front of him. “You can probably find her there when this meeting is done. If not, find her brother; he'll be involved somehow.”

“Like I'll take lessons from that little girl,” came a mutter from the other side of the table. “So she can teach me how to fall gracefully and cry for help?”

Laras raised an eyebrow and fixed an impassive stare at Algor, who'd done the muttering. He didn't say anything; the look was more than enough to quiet the other man. Algor seemed to sense that he'd pushed it too far this time; insulting Laras was one thing, but insulting Amelia was quite another. “She is my student,” the Russian said eventually. “She does far more than fall down prettily, of that I can assure you.”

Max quirked a grin as he stared down at the table. So Laras had come to Mia's defense; insulting the Princess was entirely off the table. Now, the only question left was whether or not he'd done it for the girl, or for his student. Max wondered if Laras knew.

Charon sighed. “I can see we've reached the end of our attentions. Very well...there's only one more thing and then we can go. The files we've authenticated in the last few days, with Denny's help I might add, seem to indicate that our Mr. Banner is not the only American to make it out of America alive. In fact, if the information we've received is true...we have the files of a full-blown spymaster in our possession. A spymaster who, if we can prove her identity, infiltrated Chicago Prime itself.”
*****


It was getting hard to run. And, not for the first time, Ariadne James wished she'd taken the time to get and stay in shape while living in Chicago. Problem was, it was hard enough to stay unnoticed in a place like Prime, where everyone was constantly looking for her and she had to convince them to look someplace else.

She'd been born with a computer in her hands. Or so her parents had liked to joke, before they'd been shoved into a black bag one night for the crime of being just a little too smart for the neighbors' liking. Life was like that in America. Omega might not be out to get you, but the government sure as s*** was. People were shoved before Congress on a weekly basis and convicted of treason as if Omega had a quota they wanted their supporters to fill.

Ari had watched as her parents were executed on live TV. She'd been thirteen years old.

The next twenty years had been her revenge.

Omega had been at her door within a few hours, come to collect her and send her to one of their special camps like all the other orphans. She'd watched them from a few doors down, hair freshly dyed a nondescript shade of brown and sunglasses over her equally brown eyes. There had been tears for a few minutes, after her parents had slipped into death, but Ari had never been stupid. They would come for her. And she knew what they did to the orphans.

The first few months had been hard. She'd made her way to Chicago from the piece-of-s*** Kentucky town her parents had decided to hole up in, trading favors for rides from skeezy transport men. At night, she'd ruin them, her fingers flying over the keys of her Device, anger hard and tight in her belly.

Chicago had been a hard place, too. For weeks on end she would roam the streets, stealing what she needed to survive, always staying just under the radar. It had taken every trick in her repertoire to stay alive; every computer skill she had, and more. Ari learned to become different people; she learned how easily a dye and cut job could change you. How a coloring lens in the eye could turn you into a different person.

She learned to walk a different way in each neighborhood; to walk like the people who lived there, as if she'd been born and raised on those streets. She learned to talk like them, too, each word just slightly different; only a native would ever notice. Once she'd mastered Chicago, she'd try out different places.

Four years on the streets turned Ariadne into a shadow chameleon, unseen and always changing. She knew what to say and how to say it. No one thought twice. No one could even remember seeing her. At first, she'd been convinced Omega was looking for her, so she'd learned to lose a tail. And then she learned to leave a false one, both physical and coded.

She operated on a level too primitive for Omega to conceive, and for four years no one even knew she existed.

Until the Rebellion found her.

To this day, Ariadne wasn't sure where she went wrong. Where she'd left a hint. Maybe the Rebellion was just that good at paranoia. But they found her one day in Wicker Park. And they brought her to them.

For ten years, they trained her. For ten years, they made her better than she had ever been. They took her hatred from her and they gave her purpose. They turned her fear and they made it a weapon. Her skills at hiding became a barb. She could be anyone and no one, depending upon what they needed from her.

Eventually, they needed her to do the impossible. They needed her to infiltrate Chicago: Prime, the heart of Omega and Deklahn on this half of the planet.

She did this, too, though it took everything in her power to accomplish it. It took her blood, and the human heart pounding in her chest. And she gave up the name her parents had given her at birth. Hell, she couldn't even remember it anymore, so deeply had she given herself to the ruse that she was Ariadne James of planet Arixos, Khan Quadrant.

There was an Ariadne James, of course. In fact, it had been her heart they'd placed in Ari's chest, once they'd found her and murdered her. A computer specialist, like so many from Arixos, come to Earth, stationed at Chicago: Prime. She'd looked a lot like the woman who'd stolen her identity; it hadn't taken much to make them a match. Some hair dye and new irises, really, though they'd flattened her thin nose to match the people of Khan Quadrant.

And of course, the new heart and the new blood.

The rest had to be faked, of course. She'd researched Ariadne; had invented a past so thoroughly like hers that she actually forgot where she'd come from. She mastered the tongue, and the lisping accented English of Arixan speech. She changed her diet, and forgot her preferences. She learned Omega code from the others in her bunker who studied it constantly. She learned the salutes and the chain of command.

She could never learn to hate humanity. But she had good enough at faking it that no one could tell the difference. It was a sort of inbred racism; the kind that someone didn't even know they had, or believed they had overcome. A flinching reaction to the smell of human sweat, or the cloying cacophony of human voices.

And she never forgot what Omega had done to her country, and what that country had done to her family. What fear had wrought for the whole of Earth. But she kept this to herself; she kept this buried so deep even her new heart could not forget the feeling.

They said a dissembler would never work. Omega would see through the cloak. They needed a spy; someone who could create an identity with nothing but flesh and blood and ingenuity. She was not pretending to be a person; she was becoming her. Ariadne James was dead; her heart beat in a new woman's chest. No dissembler could ever handle that.

More, no dissembler would ever get into Prime.

But she had. Ari had infiltrated Chicago: Prime, and she had been there for six years.

Then came The Morning. And the American Rebellion had crumbled, leaving almost all dead. A few ex-pats around the world, of course, and it was likely that at least one had managed to escape the slaughter. But the Rebellion was dead in America, and Ariadne had every reason to believe that Omega would come for her next.

She'd stolen everything she could. Every file she could reach with her clearance—and a few she wasn't supposed to see—she took. Schematics, schedules, personnel, codes; everything, in short, that the Rebellion might need. Everything she'd spent six years filing away for a rainy day, just as she'd been told. And, one night, she'd simply run, securing her path as best as she could behind her. Sweeping her steps into invisibility and tying all the loose knots; Omega would not even know she had gone.

She became a chameleon once more, albeit with the blood of the Khan running through her veins. It was almost exhilarating, being so free again.

It was also exhausting, and she would need to stop for the night. She wasn't going to get to Rio in a day, after all. Chicago was thousands of miles from her vacation hideaway, where she could melt into the sun-baked beaches and warm Brazilian days. Perhaps find herself a wealthy suitor and set herself up as his Mistress.

Omega would never find her there. And it was just the place to lie low while she found the Rebellion once more. After all, someone had to have gotten her files. And she had so much more to give.
“You remember Penzance, Phelps?” Laras sat at his friend’s bedside, talking to him even when he slept. He’d heard that conversation was meant to help but there was no proof of it, “Weird kid. I didn’t like her. But you brought her to me to learn Russian even though she only had three months left at Oxford. And she picked it up...”

His voice trailed off. He cut a cheerless figure in the room. Bent over on the chair, elbows on his knees, hands holding his head, fingers clawed into his head. His breathing was shallow as he tried to keep it under control.

Phelps was leaving today. Leaving Blarney whilst the seas were good and the route possible. He was headed somewhere more sophisticated, where they could better tend to his needs. The knowledge didn’t make goodbye any easier. Even those who had never met the man when he was... as he was before – Charon had to stop himself from thinking ‘alive’ – grieved for the Briton whose name was synonymous with several acts of heroism. Sending Phelps away was the only way forward for their fallen comrade but his loss resounded even more keenly in the knowledge of his imminent absence.

The man in question remained in bed, half-jabbering, half-aware. Some days he had childish conversations about small things that caught his attention: the light, the colour, the sound, the smell. Mostly, he moaned and shifted, begged in gibberish for water or relief. His skull had three small rods inserted into it, indelicate looking probes that attempted to negate the neurological charges that fizzed through his brain and triggered his agonies. Where he was going there was meant to be better technology, medical treatments that should have been public domain but were instead patented by corporate conglomerates to be sold to the idle wealthy for sport.

Finally he found his voice and began again, trying to explain to a man who could barely understand that someone was with him, that he was shipping out that afternoon. “She picked it up way too quick and then you told me that she’d lived in Bosnia. Ha! ... Well she’s at the enclave you’re going to. Working – working on a cure for injuries like yours. Brain implants. Technology developed for Alzheimer’s patients. Usually it combats amyloid build up but... it should be able to be tweaked to help with memory problems. There are these little wires they can hook you up to... They don’t know if it’ll work...”

It was unlikely to work. Penzance said that the damage done to Phelp’s brain was likely irreparable. The human memory wasn’t like a chunk of data waiting to be plugged in like a game cartridge. The human self wasn’t something that could be pointed out. The ‘person’ inside the brain was just fragments of a thousand neurological explosions all working together, creating the story of a self. The brain scans could reveal the emotion circuits of the limbic system, the control systems of the frontal lobe, all the fairypalaces of impulses linked together to form a swirling human cortex... but could science rediscover Phelps? Could they bring him back? Penzance’s answer hurt more than he’d expected. Any attempt at a cure would be an experiment.

“They’ll come for you soon, Edward.” He reached a tentative hand out but it never made it, trembling instead over the pale skinned arm. Pulling back, he shook himself upright, straightened his spine and face, finally rising from the chair. His eyes were closed as he turned away. “You’d better wake up you prick.”

Guilt scoured his insides as a vague shadow of relief passed through him as he left the room. Seeing Phelps broken was an agony. Knowing he might not have to watch him die was... Laras felt the sting on his own betrayal and wished he didn’t feel. It was easier before. Before Mia. Before Phelps. Before Oxford. A heart of stone was valued then.

Now they wanted him rational. They wanted him compassionate. They wanted him strong. They wanted him human. He didn’t know how to be everything.

The world around his was dark and close and hot. The world outside breathed light rain, the coolness of the Irish wind. He wanted to be out there.

His feet led him back into the bowels of Blarney.

*

Her name was Pemberly Sage. She was a triplet with two mothers, one was Gaian and the other was a bit of something else and that was the reason she and her sisters had funny eyes. She grew up in Egypt and spoke seven Earth languages and a spattering of tongues from across the cosmos. She was a doctor, focused on neuroscience but now she worked on chemical symbiotic antidotes and Mithridatium. She’d survived Russian with Laras Nikolao, graduated two years ago, and she actually hoped he might be still alive even if he was a bit mean sometimes. She didn’t like eating meat but she liked the smell of it cooking. Her least favourite word was ‘exercise’ because it reminded her of school in Cairo when they had to run laps in the sun. Joining the revolution wasn’t really expected of her because she was kind of geeky and no one ever noticed her but that was ok because it made her good at being part of it. She worked hard. Really hard. And she was slightly in love with Erik even though he was younger than her and had a really bad haircut.

He was sat across from her at a table and looking kind of green and kind of thoughtful. Ruminative. She liked that word. And in Bosnian it was zamišljen which had a similar pensivity to the way it was spoken. It was the adrenaline and noradrenalin twisting his insides out of shape like a panic. Pemberly inferred that it related to his project as he was quite clearly attempting to cognitively process something unsavoury. His central and sympathetic nervous systems would be in flux but instead of a rush, it was nausea. A bundle of raw nerves, his heart was probably pounding, his stomach churning, the beginnings of a headache seeping into his temples.

She had always found it interesting how similar the differences were between revulsion and sexual arousal. Fight or flight.

The lights flickered around them and the sound of the generators drone microfractionally louder. Everyone’s eyes flickered with them – glances of concern, frustration, irritation, aimed at the lights as if they thought the electrics understood their discomfort. Energy remained a constant source of worry for Bermuda. They relied on generators for the most part, solar panels and wind turbines. But it wasn’t always easy, especially if the upper echelons of their faction believed there were scouts out. At those times, everything stopped. Only the bare minimum of technology was permitted. They had to be sensible. Pemberly understood this. She liked it about as much as everyone else, but she didn’t grumble and groan like Elspeth Norton or Adam Fibbon who worked in Biochem-III. No, she was quite content as long as the power to the labs was never lost – and lost it should never be. The labs were the heart of the Bermuda base. Like a human body exposed to the cold: natural, biologic homeostasis becomes unbalanced, body temperature decreases and causes excitations of the sympathetic nervous system, vasoconstriction slows blood flow to the extremities, focus falls on keeping the heart beating even whilst the pulse and respiration rates decease, cellular metabolic processes shut down... Eventually, tachycardia occurred when a body lost heat though... Pemberly shrugged, she knew it would be the death of the Bermuda base too if they lost so much power – there were unsteady chemicals here under close thermal conditions, weapons that might destroy them if they weren’t kept stable.

“Pemberly?” It was Aiden, he usually didn’t bother with her because she didn’t much bother with him.

She offered her funny smile - she’d heard it likened to a grimace – and lifted her face, “Yessir?”

“New transmission from your sister.”

“Penzance?”

“No, Paloma.”

“Oh.” Her memory rolled through their previous messages and nodded, “Okay then.”

He stood there, shifting his weight only when he realised that she was not going to break his gaze but nor was she going to leave to collect the message from Paloma Sage.

“Alright then...”

She smiled again, stretching thin lips over glittering, white teeth. Paloma was the plain one, the spy that sank into everylife and dissolved into the normal world like a rat into darkness. Penzance was the medic, she wanted to heal and help, she was prettier than Paloma but not as feisty. Pemberly could predict their words and actions down to the firings between synapses.

A puff of a sigh gave away his frustration as he turned to leave, probably to talk to Erik. She had a theory about what Erik was doing. She also had a theory about her upcoming promotion to his team. No one had mentioned it yet but she was a neuroscientist and he was working on something to do with nuerology; plus, she was the secondary expert on drugs these days since Eraldo Rodriguez was blown up on the mainland and Gwyneth Green became her boss. They would rather keep Gwyneth where she was, that much Pemberly was sure of, and that meant she’d more than likely be transferred in a matter of days to the top secret not-so-secret assignment alongside the incredibly attractive but incredibly young Erik.

Humming to herself, she decided to wait a moment or two more before checking on her sister’s message. She was sure it would be to do with her assignment in Edinburgh, using all that hard learned psychological warfare to undermine the certainty of a nation through a selection of certain linchpin individuals. That was the plan and Pemberly thought it all very well but believed it was rather redundant if the rest of the globe wasn’t similarly undermined. A human brain could function adequately with only a few minor impediments should a singular area be damaged. A planet was akin to the brain in this sense, it was a network built off of other networks, layer upon layer of them. Damage one and there was a moment of panic, of renegotiations. But leave it a little longer and the rest of would compensate, utilise its own plasticity until it returned to a high, albeit abnormal, level of functionality.

Pemberly Sage arose from the table and with precise motions brushed the crumbs from her jeans, donned her lab coat and gathered her papers. The small smile that often played about her mouth dangled there unconsciously as she passed by exactly fourteen tables on the way to the exit. She saw Erik glance up as she passed and noted the way his pupils dilated slightly. His pulse no doubt had quickened again. Perhaps he even wondered what she looked like naked. She knew she was.

*

Great article.

That was the general consensus. Newman sat at his desk, feeling an unfamiliar isolation. His half-enclosed work station, usually treasured for their almost privacy, now cut him off from the chatter and droll conversation of the crowded office around him. He could think of nothing to assuage this sensation crawling within his stomach.

Great article though. Ground-breaking. You’ll be promoted for this. Make your name, it will. The empire treasures those who see the truth like you, mate.

Right. The empire. The government.

Oxford Terrorists Underground Den Revealed

That was his headline. His article. His breaking news. An enclave found and destroyed, the rebel base and all their efforts shut down.

A block of flats in Edinburgh has been revealed as a terrorist cell specialising in weapons dealing, confirms government insider. Alan Newman reports.

Sounded snappy. Sounded interesting. People wanted to read this kind of thing. Didn't matter what side anyone was on - rebels were news. Every outlet in the country was churning out stories. Mostly speculative thoughts about terrorist politics. Sometimes about those brought to justice in the tribunes. Occasional sob pieces following the lives families torn apart when a son or daughter was lost to youthful gullibility.

In a raid early Saturday morning, the IGP sent twelve officers into the Oxgang apartments on information supplied by conscientious civilian, Owen McKaigh. McKaigh, whose flat overlooks the tenement in question, had noticed unusual, suspect behaviour.

“It wasnt normal,” He said when asked why his suspicions were raised, “All those people coming and weird deliveries in the middle of the night. It didnt sit right with me.”

The plot that McKaigh inadvertently uncovered has lead to a rise in government security measures, with hundred of armoured military vehicles deployed to secure the city, particularly the Scottish parliament buildings and the ruins of Edinburgh Castle - tipped as a possible hub for insurgents.

Graeme Belzira, a correspondent for the OMEGA task force dealing with the recent threats says that high level terror plots were undoubtedly under discussion. He added that a security source confirmed local intelligence services discovered tens of rebels, all trained in weapon use, had arrived in Edinburgh over the past few weeks after the destruction of Oxford, links to which have been confirmed. It is likely that many from other regions also joined in preparation for the implementation of a large plot.

The source described the plot as dangerous, and suggested it was to include explosions and suicide attacks aimed at inter-galactic embassies in Edinburgh and local sympathisers, in addition to operations aimed at the OMEGA military headquarters, similarly attacked six months ago.

In a global alert, OMEGA has released information detailing safety precautions and a wanted persons list. They have also revealed that similar plots in continental Europe, including Spain and Germany, North America and Southern Asia have been uncovered.

More details on page 3. Full story on the insurgent faction page 5.

That was his front page. And it was his second article on page five. His words that burned behind his eyes. That echoed on every stranger's tongue.

Newman rubbed his fists into his eyes, scrunching his horror into each new wrinkle in his face. He could have aged years since he wrote that article and he'd believe it. He felt weary. Emptier than he was but a twenty year old freelancer who couldn't afford to eat.

Insurgent City: Life Under Radar

The Oxgang apartments where a raid took place on Saturday morning was proven to contain twenty-five unknown persons acting as part of a thirty strong terrorist cell. Who and why are still under debate, but the apartment blocks itself reveals much of the story.

Ha! He scoffed. He shuddered. He hated that sentence.

“Who and why... reveals much of the story.”

He’d not gone inside the apartments the first time round but he’d witnessed video footage from the government agent, Belzira. Photos of the damage done to OMEGA soldiers involved in the raid. Clips of the scene: rows of illegal tech lining the walls and shelves, glittering, full of boxes with illegible labels. Dark stains on the walls suggested where the skirmish had occurred. Debris and broken furniture.

“The boxes contained ammo.” Belzira had explained, “High powered weapons. Ingredients for some serious explosives. You have to understand, Newman, these were dangerous men.”

Dangerous. Yeah. Right.

Newman turned the conversation over and over. Did Belzira believe what he was saying or was he, the reporter, just meant to accept that it was to be believed? Those snippets of footage, the commentary, the photographs. When you put them all together it seemed impossible to refute.

And then there was the truth. Buried behind yellow tape and lines of military dogs. Deep in his gut he’d known that going into those rooms would blackball him. He’d always listened to his gut before. But then... crime rarely overlapped with politics til now. Or so he’d thought.

He’d taken everything home with him. Looked at it all. There were raids across the continents – dangerous men taken out by the IGP. But at the same time there were the arrests of six men from Russia who’d blown up an old Weegie woman’s house. Four men and three women put on trial for creating cocktails containing doses of synterine and elpheterine. Two men and five women, one with a small infant, placed in a containment facility for the pamphleteering of immoral religious practices. They were all small enough cases but with huge numbers of people... too many... why would six men with no prior connections to an old lady blow up her house? Patterns from Edinburgh to the Gorbals. From Scotland to England to Europe and America.

All these stories – the low profile cases - were criminal, yet their trials were notoriously quiet, their appearances in prison oft limited. Plus, looking over the figures, Newman couldn’t count the number of people he’d written about who’d died in prison, or transferred out without a trace.

He groaned again. Fisted his eyes. Scrubbed the back of his neck. All of this doubt because of those thrice damned apartments. And the woman that sent him back to them.

She was quite the lassy. A young thing, pretty mouth, pretty blue eyes. Blond. Dyed. Bit plain but a nice smile that almost seemed sad.

“I’m Yeats.” She’d introduced with that smile, “We should talk, Alan.”

He’d no clue who she was or why but he agreed. They walked together. She’d offered him coffee and he’d accepted. An Americano with a dash of hot milk. She drank a flat white with caramel. Conversation strung itself naturally between them, waves of discussion pulled like the tide. Eventually, she’d invited him back to her place. A quiet, spacious studio with darkened windows and soft white lighting.

It was only after they lay tangled together in white sheets that she leant over, almost for a kiss, and whispered to him about his headline. About what he should look for and the truth hidden in the walls of that Oxgang flat.

When he’d woken, she was gone. Smart girl.

His gut said to ignore her – that she was rotten somehow and this was the wrong situation for him to be plodding around heavyfooted. He wasn’t that good at investigative work, not really. Right pace, right time... that’s how he’d ever scooped anything. But his head and heart... they felt differently... they told him that he wasn’t going to sleep right til he’d gone have a look.

Standing, Newman rose from his workstation, gestured to his phone-laden colleague that he was popping out and scarpered for the door. Thinking about that day wasn’t comfortable whilst in that office... he’d heard rumours when he was a bairn about what the Doctors could do with thoughts. He wouldn’t be surprised if they could read minds too.

It was almost thirty years since he’d really worried about Doctors.

On that day, he’d taken the Low Road. The underground tunnels, accessible by anyone who knew about them. Most places had them built in the first war but they were quickly and cheaply done, largely considered unsafe. However, it was a well-kept secret that these tunnels linked the homes in Oxgangs. Same with Sighthill. Probably the same in most suburban areas targeted in the early years of the empire.

Inside tells the rest of the story. Room upon room is dedicated to an arsenal vaster than those confiscated earlier this month in America. ... Belzira admits that it is likely some of these weapons were going to other cells with similar destructive missions. ... This reporter learned, by examining the details of this building, of the unswerving focus on causing as much damage to Edinburgh as possible. ...

Lines spun round in his head like they had since he’d entered the block of flats. He’d peered out of the windows of the building, half expecting a gun in his face, or an undead rebel to rise and... Newman scowled at his train of thoughts. His own cowardice aside, he’d not wanted to see differently to what he’d written.

Creeping on unsubtle toes, he’d seen the lines of boxes, just like in the photos. He’d seen the walls and their darkened stains, blood spatter. Noted the floors. It stank of urine. Had one of the rebels wet themself? He snorted. So much for terrorists. Cowards. The computers were empty and dark, a few flickering buttons here and there making him start when they caught his eye. Notebooks – of paper – unseen for years, fluttered in the draught. He reached out, fingertips stroking the rough page and inky printed words. Cursive writing. Columns. Black and red.

Cornmeal in black. 15 in red. Broccoli in black. 3 in black. What could be Coffee Grounds in black and possibly a 1 or a 7 in red next to it.

Food stocks?

Newman glanced around. Why would they be worrying about food in a place like this? With people coming and going, it wasn’t hard to find food in Edinburgh. It was tough in Appin country, those places to the North associated with thieves and rebels. None breathed in Balquhidder, not now, not honestly. North, Nor’west... aye that was bad land now.

He flicked through the pages. Nothing about arms. A scrawl in one corner about defence system needing tweaking. Defence didn’t mean the same thing as militant attacks though.

Looking around again, his eyes picked up on details he’d taken in, assimilated into the image he already possess.

That door was where the IGP burst in, knocked off the top hinges. It was done with force. That pin there... between his fingers he could see the logo. Pristorf. German made gas canister. First mentioned by the Lauder Report in ’45 when the police defended their use of it against peaceful protestors. Nine had died from inhalation of the noxious fumes.

That had been thrown into this enclosed room no bigger than an office cubicle. The chair behind him, pushed back in a hurry, upturned as the terrorist scrambled away, probably scattering these papges of notes that he’d been previously, diligently scribing. Every page was on rationing.

Spatter across the wall. That same man had been shot – no bullet marks though. Clear shot. Maybe an Ion Projectile. Could blow out a man’s brains with no sound, no telltales.

The door behind him then opened. Two more were shot out. Easy. Too much spatter for one and in varying directions. One might have been a woman, or a youth, the spray went down, as if the attack came from above.

In a daze, he moved along the hall. The wiring was ripped out from the back of the computers. Three more dead in here. One fell into the shelves, pulled those boxes down on top. But they were still breathing, losing blood from the chest and then with a silent shot, a second round in the head where a smaller pool lay.

Along here... here in this bedroom. Four bunkbeds. Minimal comforts. No personal affects. One dead, again the shot taken from above as the rebel cowered in the corner behind the door.

There was no sign that these men and women fought back. In each room, the spray indicated only Gaian blood. Certainly, there was no sign that artillery had been used in self-defence, or that there had been much struggle at all... Newman couldn’t understand. Surely a terrorist cell would be prepared? Would have drawn their weapons? Had at least a few with combat training?

Instead, there was just this... all signs of a massacre. And the final room. Four rows of blood in a line as if four men had been forced to kneel before they were executed.

He’d fled, knocking over a box as he went. Full of white flour. Bile rose up in his mouth. His eyes burned.

Newman shook himself. He was on the pavement, looking up at the castle from Lothian Road. Seeing it glowering, a half ruin where it had been bombed, a half statement of Gaian architectural prowess. The spires of St Cuthbert’s and St John’s pointed at the sky.

That trip was almost a week ago. He’d written and rewritten article after article. Everyone wanted more from him. More of the lies. More of the fabrication he’d sold them after it had been sold to him. The loneliness of his understanding gnawed at his chest.

“Bawz.” He growled. Dialect thickened the way his mam never liked. Shoving his hands into his pockets, “You minky basturd. And when your life was so fucking good tae.”

He thought of the girl and tried to fathom what she wanted him to do now.

*

“And Penzance is looking after our old friend, the professor. It’s a terrible business.”

“Oh I heard he was sick. No sign of recovery?”

“Not from her perspective. He’s stable and occasionally conscious but he spends a lot of time heavily medicated.”

“Only time will tell I suppose on that one.”

“Indeed.”

“So tell me about your date with the reporter.”

“Oh he’s ever so charming. I don’t know if I’ll see him again though.”

“Scottish?”

“Very.”

“Perhaps you’ve dated enough of them for a while.”

“Hm, again we’ll see. I don’t know if I’ve given up on this one yet.”

“Well let me know. I have my own eyes on someone currently.”

“Oh?”

“He works close to me.”

“Oh naughty. Office romance.”

“Terribly young too. I’m such a cradle snatcher.”

“You’re wicked, that’s what you are. But I’d better go. I just wanted to let you know how things were.”

“I’ll keep an eye out for any news.”

“All best then sister.”

“Awedna Yahjeh.”

“Awedna Yahjeh.”

*

It was as if he could feel Nikolao coming. The sudden silence behind the heavy doors to the hall were a sign but Charon felt the actual rolling power of the Russian’s turmoil, a storm that promised pain and a headache and heartache all in one. Although busy, Charon paused as the doors slid open and shut and allowed Laras into their sunlit crypt in the belly of Blarney.

Everyone knew what day it was. The castle rang with the knowledge. It was not affecting the Russian well... and Charon had more bad news to tell. He knew what to do, how to respond: to not lean back and flinch, to not panic and to certainly not give any empty condolences.

Exchanging the briefest of nods, Charon watched out of the corner of his eye as Nikolao went for coffee. His hands were shaking. In fact, he looked the man over more carefully. The pallor of his face was extreme, the skin almost waxy in the unnatural light; dark circles rung his eyes so that they appeared sunken and their blue glare lacked malice as if the tempest had been sucked out of them.

One thing you can’t hide... when you’re crippled inside, Charon thought. Indeed, whilst he knew it would only be a moment before the rawness of emotion lay quashed within the Russian’s damnable cold heart, it still pained him to compare this man to the one he had known in Oxford. Without Phelps, it seemed that his precarious support system needed remodelling. But he could sympathise with the reluctance to incorporate the young princess at so delicate a juncture. Not only was the war at a crucial stage but Phelps had been one of the elite, one of the central cogs in the wheel. Mia’s involvement at Blarney remained at the whim of Laras Nikolao as her superior. And whilst Phelps had been an even match for his dark haired friend when it came to wit and war, they had been antithetical in their characters – one restrained, the other turbulent; one cold, the other compassionate; one cruel, the other kind. Mia represented a female version of Laras at times. She was stubborn and loyal and restless as the wind. The fact that she cared for public opinion, redeemed and condemned her for the same reason – it differentiated her from her teacher but it also made her obsequious. She railed against injustices in the loudest voice possible. In that sense, she needed to learn the power of quietness as Nikolao had. If you could call it ‘quietness’. Charon smiled ruefully to himself.

Acerbic as he was, Laras Nikolao’s thorns did the job of a thousand plaintive speeches. The people saw him act, his expectation that they follow, and they complied. No one else could as effectively command the immediate preparation of maps for the global network Charon envisaged.

Since its first mention, there had been dissent – a handful of vocal opponents to the scheme. At first, despite his best efforts to see the Russian speak up on behalf of the communications system, he’d been rewarded with the merest flick of a weary eyebrow and a disinterested glower.

And then the unexpected but much desired had happened. It had begun with when Laras sat down at the Round Table and everyone knew something had changed. The more uncertain characters avoided eye contact. Including Whelk. Laras, however, stared resolutely ahead, pale face a weary mask of distaste. They didn’t know it as their conversation continued around the latest addition, but he wasn’t just listening, he was waiting.

“This is the third one this week.”

“Three? This week? We’ve not - ”

“We’ve not heard anything in almost seventeen days about these enclaves. Nothing.”

“Last we heard... Last we heard everything was fine in Cologne. And Edinburgh sent us that report on the Dumfries supply link.”

“The third?”

“Yes. The third cell publically defamed and vilified for the masses.” Where the burr of the Irish accent did little to conceal his colleague’s dismay and fear, the flat vowels of Charon’s voice disguised his fury well. Fury it was, for nothing else could set the leader’s eyes aflame like anger. His avian features, uplit by the holograph before them, were pinched tight as he glared around the table. Laras did not escape the Englishman’s glower, though he did raise an eyebrow in response. He had been there when this had come to Charon’s attention. “How many times can I say this? It’s our lack of communication between cells. Our isolationism.” Charon continued, too calm and quiet not to be hiding something.

Laras sat back and listened to their conversation repeat itself over and over. He waited until their quiet murmurs and the anxious discussion subsided. And when everyone acted like adults, the Russian was more than capable of exerting his not immeasurable mind to the rigours of the chessboard.

“It’s a cold war.” He said, more to himself than the Table but they were all listening, “We’ve said it before. And as Trusko has illustrated, it is our isolation weakening us. We hear news from Cologne that says they’re doing well, OMEGA claim to have decimated their position. We cannot tell if it is the truth. The people of Earth have even less information than us. A global communications network...” He paused and looked around, eyes sharpened against theirs, “That would let us undermine their propaganda campaigns, small signs of our survival. They say they’re defeating us and that we are terrorists. But we’re able to organise humanitarian teams to refute their claims. The tides turn in our favour. It would be a more powerful statement than any attack could be.”

He raised a hand when Whelk opened his mouth to sneer.

“The Yeats are working on linchpins, they’re pooling their talents, undermining the networks from the inside. We’ve seen our enclaves vilified. We’ve also seen more and more online traffic looking up information that’s illegal, that supports us, that duplicates and echoes down the lines until it includes a dozen, two dozen, maybe even three dozen new citizens who doubt and defy our illustrious government. Doubt is a disease OMEGA cannot afford to fight. This is what a Global Communication Network would support. We unpick the threads of their support and they will fall. More than that, they will be forced to show their hand. No more cover ups. No more of our men and women slaughtered because we’re two days behind on information. This is why we need to expand. We call out to the French, the remaining Spanish, the Germans, the South Americans and the Russians.” This last word was bitten out between teeth that flashed in a mockery of a grin, “There’s no arguing, gentlemen, ladies. There’s only one way to win and it is not fighting our own shadows. It is destroying theirs.”

It was the longest statement he had made in that room and it unfolded like a thing that unfolds.


Charon mused on it, watching the man whose face was now so drawn and bloodless he was positively vampiric. Glancing at his watch, he grimaced. Today was the day, with only a few hours to go. He didn’t really want Laras down here like this, though he knew the man wouldn’t drop his game even for emotional anxieties such as the ones he currently faced. The man let his mask fall for only a moment in this room but it would never rupture elsewhere if he knew Laras. And he felt he finally did know the Russian. It was a shame he couldn’t say the same for anyone else in Blarney. Charon sighed, he didn’t want to tell Laras about the first contact between Blarney and the Russians. He noted the averted gaze, the determined inattention on Laras’ face as he studiously avoided looking at the clock hanging above the computer consoles.


*

Jab. Jab. Upper cut. Right hook. Left hook. The satisfying smack and smart of fists on leather.

Laras was alone in the gym, likely alone in his wakefulness too. It was later than late, or extremely early, and he’d seen no one in hours. Mia had retired with a look he supposed was intended to be meaningful but which he’d been in no mood to recognise. She was trying, he knew it. He could see it in the determined lines around her mouth – all too familiar from their early days in the Oxford salle when she’d been just as dogged in her attempts to prove herself to him. Now it was the whole castle.

He span, slammed his knee into the bag and watched it swing with satisfaction. Perhaps, when he considered it like this, he could admit the peculiar distaste in his throat was envy.

Right hook. Left. Left. Double jab. Duck. Swipe.

But to have followed her tonight... To endure another evening of her glances, her passive-aggressive questioning about Charon, Tada, the Round Tables had been replaced by a cooler silence full of doe-eyed insinuations. He couldn’t talk to her about it. She knew that. Snarling, swiping the sweat from his forehead, he began the sequence again.

Breathing labouring, it was like his own albatross hanging about his neck, weighted with guilt and misery. He didn’t understand why he felt it so keenly. Sweat prickled his brow and his back. Leaning his head against the bag he let his heart rate slow just a little before he launched himself around and span into the middle of the mat again. He settled back into an opening stance and began the next sequence.

Slow claps diverted a little of his attention as his fists smacked into the bag and his leg jutted out for the kick. Banner stood in the doorway, sly eyed and with a sarcastic smile that didn’t suit his all-American face. Colt Banner was a brute compared to his own lean muscle. A hulking figure with a broad chest and arms as thick as some men’s thighs. On a second glance, he was not quite as tall as Laras, but certainly broader and with eyes just as hard. Colt Banner didn’t like Laras Nikolao.

The Russian’s mouth curled.

“Come to play, Banner?”

“Naw. I hear you ain’t so hot these days.”

That would have riled him at Oxford. But even if he didn’t trust the American as far as he could throw him, compared to Whelk, such paltry slurs were nothing. Laras slammed his fist a last time into the bag, finishing the round. Ignoring the slight.

“Fact, way I been hearing it, yous’all foam and no beer.”

A small smirk slid over Laras’ face, “That right?” His blues eyes were cold, luminous with his quashed emotions.

Colt grunted in what Laras assumed was meant to be an affirmation, raking the Russian over with his eyes, scornful and glowering.

“I daresay there remains a reason why none have dared to say similar to my face.” Laras mused.

“Don’t want to upset your delicate feelin’s.” Banner snipped with an amusing, false British accent.

But even the humour didn’t blunt the shot punctuating his armour. If the cold man of Oxford ever had doubts, they were now. He’d been a traitor and a scapegoat but he’d always had himself, his own fervour. He knew, caged up in this labyrinthine ruin, he was half of himself again – pacing and growling – not so different to the man who snapped and snarled beneath Exeter College. Only now his wish for war and action had come true but at what price...? Maybe this was guilt, after all wasn’t this his dream, his deepest wish? And hadn’t Phelps been the sacrifice? No. That wasn’t right. The only ones to blame were Templeton and Stephens. But then hadn’t he been the one who trained Templeton and trusted Stephens to the point of stupidity? No. That wasn’t right either –

“Pah. You’re a mess, Nikolao.”

“And your wit is unparalleled, Banner.”

“You even talk old.”

Laras rolled his eyes. He didn’t much care what Colt Banner thought of him or his abilities because his knew that he was brilliant at what he did. That much remained indubitable, whether his heart revolted or his head clouded, he was still Laras Nikolao. He could and would brush this off. Banner wasn’t worth his time. He finished off the round, pivoted, readied in a new stance and began the next sequence. These practises blew off steam, but mainly kept him running through the motions, teaching his body anticipation.

“Slow,” drawled the American. Then, “Weak.”

The Russian ignored the list of slurs building up in the echoes of the salle, collected between the smack of flesh and leather.

“If you want to criticise me,” he grit out as he finished that sequence, “At least come up with something true.”

The American laughed loud. It wasn’t a pleasant laugh. It was about as comfortable as the one Laras owned. They were two uncomfortable men with a great wasteland of uneasiness laid out between them and it was dark and it was cavernous.

“You’re nothing great. You look like hell. You’re tired. You’re cracking.”

“Ah, but I will always look better than you.”

“You’re meant to be so good, and that princess so special. But I whoop her ass more than she even touches me.”

“You’ve said enough.”

“Hit a nerve? Realised what it says about you when your own protégé proves she’s no more than your bootycall. That she’s moving on to the one real fighter in this damned hole?”

This was from a man that Mia trusted. That she considered her friend. Laras could take the insults. He could accept the barbs because they washed off his back just like they had since his father had brought them over from Russia. But God even he could admit that her attempts to prove herself in this latest situation weren’t as futile as the American’s smirk belied. Maybe she shouldn’t be here at Blarney. But then neither should Banner and so he could say, without remorse, “Go fuck yourself, you dissembling, fen-sucked asshole.” He realised he’d said it aloud seconds before he heard the growl in Banner’s throat. “Hit a nerve? You insult a woman who defends you with vehemence, you pribbling, ill-bred skainsmate. And who bothers to teach those without her skills. What do you do? Hit some bags. Kill time in your pit of self-recrimination. Spout lies to your fellow soldiers. You. Are. Nothing.”

Laras faced Banner, eyes dangerously dark with only flashes of cold fury lighting them as he stepped towards the brutish mammet. That same loyalty had once been his and he had treasured it as much as reviled it, but at least he’d had the honour to insult her to her face. There was no dissembling, no deception with Laras Nikolao.

“I’ve been fixin’ to go a round with you.”

“That right?” Laras repeated, his mouth twitching into a smile, sharp and cruel as a knife.

“That’s right.”

Undoubtedly, the impending fight would depend on skill and an instinct for the kill, both of which burned ferociously in Laras. But he was sure it would flare in Colt Banner too. When they’d first met, he’d recognised a fighter. He’d sensed a kindred passion in this man that transformed into his nemesis.

But he’d insulted Mia and somewhere in the back of his mind, he was determined that the only one who could do that was him. Her brother could go fuck himself. Whelk and his goonish bigotry could take it and shove it up his lily-white Irish arse. And Colt Banner would suffer for daring to do so to his face. Insults to himself were a-less-than-entertaining reality. But to Mia. Well that gave him every right to break this assholes ribs.

And like with every fight he went into that blissful state of knowledge that there were only a few moves. The skill lay in combining and countering them. In stringing the dance together, playing at a promise that each motion would fulfil itself as it must, breaking that promise and expectation just when the pattern was emerging. But unlike any fight, he did not slip into it as himself. Mia trusted this oaf that sneered behind her back at her hard won, undeniable prowess. It was her fight that he adopted.

He became her.

Feeling his body move as she moved: the cuts and parries of their arguments, the signature roundhouse that reminded him of every success, the elbow in Banner’s face, the kick to his kidney. Every one of her strengths, Laras became. Every one of her weaknesses, he admitted.

Colt’s blows were powerful. They hailed down, fast and unabating. Grabbing Laras’ arm, he wrenched the Russian over his shoulder, pulling them both to the ground. Laras rolled backwards, flipping the tables. The frown on Banner’s face had him grinning. Let him wonder at the déjà vu. Back on their feet, Colt’s stance was solid whereas Laras span around him as Mia did, seeking out the weaknesses. Testing the defence. Striking out perfectly. Shrewd little woman that she was.

Laras could sense every fault. The way she held back too long and gave Colt time to land another kick to his upper leg. The way her hands dropped away from her face when she moved in for a strike of her own. He wondered why he’d never done this with her as an exercise. Becoming her... perhaps he had more to teach in these rooms than he’d thought.

A large hand seized his upper arm and yanked forward. Laras staggered, gracelessly tripped as he span before catching himself, barking a laugh at himself, the way he remembered doing that move on his student before. He reacted as she had, throwing his weight into the spin and taking the power of it into his own hands. Colt growled, noting too late what his opponent was about. He careened towards the wall, staggering, off-balance and trip-trapping across the mats. The give in the ground worked against him, made Laras’ job that much easier. He pressed his advantage. Struck again. Again. Hard and fast to the kidneys and spleen. Again, upwards, inwards to the gut and groin.

Laras felt alive for the first time in days – connected to Mia like he hadn’t been in months. Perhaps he could admit that he missed those easy days at Oxford, between the fight and the fall. He could imagine the smile on Phelp’s face, that infuriating, knowing smile and the snake didn’t churn in his spine.

Colt righted himself at last. Eyes bright and hollow. There was something missing in the American – Laras could see it now and was surprised he hadn’t seen it before. Had he been so sunk in himself that he couldn’t recognise misery for misery. His own body felt full, adrenalin and power rushing like a tide through his blood and bones. His muscles ached. The few blows that landed now smarted and burned. He was better than Banner. Mia was better than Banner. He ducked low, rushed forwards and with a smooth feint that Mia had taught him to recognise, he aimed left and struck fast with his right. Banner yelped and flew backwards, crashed into the floor and lay there, sprawled, panting, defeated, done.

Laras’ breathing was ragged, bubbling with laughter. It wasn’t a happy sort of laugh but it wasn’t bitter, it didn’t break in his chest and it didn’t ache and churn.

“She fights like you.” Banner’s voice lilted through the room, rough and oddly demure.

“Or I like her.” Laras grinned but did not meet the eyes of his downed opponent, he was still reeling from the fight, still relishing the rush of life in his veins. Still: “Amelia Goodwin was my student. I know her body. I know her fight. Every time you go against her on these mats, she is practising. She is toying with you.” As Colt went to open his mouth in response, the Russian cut across him, “Indeed, even if she does not realise. If she was not trying to learn from you, you would never best her.” Laras’ blue eyes pierced Colt, the fizzing electricity of adrenaline in his body whirling just below the surface, “And do not assume that you’ve fought me.”

“What you call that?”

“When I say I know her, I mean it. Every move I made was her move. Every nuance of that fight was her fight.” Laras swept dark hair from flashing eyes and grinned, savage as the battle, “That was her defeating you. She could kill you as easily as she killed Alex Templeton.”

Even in Blarney everyone knew about Alex Templeton. Colt Banner winced. His hand came to his head and dabbed at the blood matting his sweaty hair. “Your strength, though.”

“I held back.”

The American laughed, barked between pants. Laras knew he should offer his hand to help up the other man but instead he took a step back before sprawling on one of the mats. The familiar smell of rubber and sweat made him relax. It might not be Oxford but this salle wore the same stink.

“You ain’t treatin’ her right you know.” Banner had eased himself into a sitting position, rubbing at his jaw now, hands moving in a systematic motion to check for bruises and grazes caused by unbound blows.

“It’s complicated.”

“Funny, that’s same as she said.” Colt leant back on his hand, dropped his head towards his shoulders like he no longer thought Laras was a danger and he supposed he wasn’t, dropped down like this on the mats like an exhausted child after their first ever gymnastics class. But he wondered at himself for falling like this, for his apparent lack of threat. Bruises were already flaring up across the American’s face and he knew that even holding himself to Mia’s style, he’d struck several blows that would hurt tomorrow. He should have broken a rib though.

Laras sprung to his feet with cattish grace, staring down at the American who would be fool to ignore the promise of pain in his eyes should he mention Mia again.

“And just think, Banner, you have yet to fight me.” He left the salle, ignored the few early-morning faces on his way to the Cell.

The American’s bellowing guffaws reverberated through the halls for many minutes.

It was hot; hot enough that the rubber on his shoes was probably melting. Hot enough that it was almost worth the disease to jump into the Ganges for sweet relief.

Not quite hot enough that he would duck into the tea shop next door and let the Omega agents see his face. There wasn't anything could make him do that, except maybe the visage of Kali herself gnashing her bloody maw upon his fellows in the street. And even then he'd try to get as far away from both as possible.

That was because getting caught by one was only slightly worse than being taken by the other, and Amrit could not have told you which was which. Not with this war going on, and Omega trying like hell to destroy the rebellion before either side got to the field.

Padma said it was a spy's war, a secret war. A war of lies and secrets and misinformation. And the rebellion was losing, badly. Omega was destroying them, sometimes without even laying a finger on a single living rebel.

It was enough to say there were rebels. Enough to kill a group of people and claim rebellion, when no one would dare to say otherwise. It was easy to find a group and to plant evidence, to write phony articles and convince civilians that the rebellion was nothing more than an ill-organized rabble of terrorists and murderers.

It was enough to turn the people of Earth against the very people fighting for their freedom, by convincing them that rebellion was treason. As if the whole Republic weren't founded on a traitorous act. As if the government on Deklahn wasn't steeped in blood and terror worse than any filth they could spread through the streets.

But it was working. And the people were turning. The rebellion was reduced to patching holes and picking up the pieces of what Omega left broken in their wake. They were treading water, hoping that the next day didn't bring the end of their war. That the battles would be over before they ever, really began.

India would not turn so easily, Amrit knew. They had suffered greatly under the Republic. It was no worse than their suffering at any other time, but the Republic had promised them more. They had sworn to right the wrongs, to bring peace and plenty and abolish the old ways that caused so much heartache. They had shouted their legitimacy to the heavens, even as they slid a knife into freedom's back. And when their reign had come, they had spread their treachery to Earth.

No wonder Earth rose up, Amrit thought, turning the page of his newspaper and staring once more at the column of print snaking across its inky pages. He wasn't really reading--really, he didn't have to, so long as he turned the pages at the right times--though he moved his eyes as if he were. The training went deep. If it didn't, he would die.

This was a spy's war, Padma said. And Amrit Lakshmi was a spy. That meant it was his turn to fight, and his turn to keep the battle alive long enough for the soldiers to take the field.

He wondered when that would happen as he turned another page, waiting for the time to make the drop, switching his feet every so often so his shoes didn't stick to the sidewalk. In his pocket was a disk, and in ten minutes a man would come around that corner. Amrit was to give him the disk, hidden in a section of the newspaper he now read, and then the man would continue on his way to the train station.

Amrit did not know this man. He did not know where the information went, only that it would get somewhere. If the man did his job right and did not get caught. If Amrit had not been compromised.

There was so much to worry about with Omega playing spy versus spy. As low tech as the rebellion was, it was human error that got them killed. And human error was common; far more common than it should have been.

But this drop should be simple enough. A business man stopping to ask a local if he were done with the business section, and taking it with him on the train. A man in a gray suit, with a red pocket square and a matching tie. He would stop to tie his shoe and notice that Amrit had laid the business section on the bench next to him. He would take it, and with it the disk.

And Amrit would return to the enclave, never knowing what it was that was on that disk.

He wondered where it was going, as he slipped the disk from his pocket and folded it into the business section that he laid down on the bench beside him. Amrit switched to the comics and made sure to chuckle. Draw just enough attention that they know you're there, but not so much that they remember you. Seem natural. Do not seem like you are waiting. Seem like you are enjoying your newspaper as you sit in the shade.

Where was this disk going? What information lay hidden there for more important eyes than Amrit's? Would it reach the mythic center? The base of operations so secret no one even knew it was there, much less where it was? Would information like this even need to go so far? It was not as if the rebellion were organized. What had the fight in India to do with the fight in Russia? Or the fight in America, though Amrit had heard what happened there.

It was almost time. Amrit kept reading. He read a comic he liked and laughed softly before turning the page and switching legs. It really was very hot out here. He hoped the fan was fixed in the enclave.

A man knelt before him, tying a shoe that was not actually untied. He was wearing a gray suit with a red pocket square and a matching tie. As he stood, his eye landed on the business section next to Amrit. "Excuse me, are you finished with that? I'm running late and don't have time to purchase a paper for myself today."

Amrit smiled and picked up the business section, careful to keep the disk hidden. "Of course. There's a good article on page five."

The man nodded and took the paper, slipping it beneath his arm and thanking Amrit. He walked toward the train station and boarded the train.

Amrit sat back and read his comics.
*****

"All right. It's good to see that everyone is wearing appropriate attire. I know it seems stupid, but you want to make sure that the shoes on your feet are supportive, at the very least. And it's best to have clothing that has little excess material, as well as breathable materials. Later on, as we advance, I will ask you to wear normal clothing and we will work through scenarios regarding attacks outside of the gym space, but for now...well, you're beginners and I think getting the basic moves down will be hard enough."

Mia stood in front of twenty-one people. She recognized Tony and Eliza, who'd managed to sign up for classes at the same time, but no one else. Apparently, news of her lessons had spread like wildfire through Blarney, and Edward had his hands full with all the scheduling. He was keen to give Mia her own time, free from lessons and teaching; time for her to relax, or to socialize.

Time for him to convince her to join his missions, as if Charon would ever let her go.

"Now. Before we do anything, I'm going to take you through a warm up. Moving your body the way I'm going to force you to move is best done when your heart is already pumping a bit and the blood is flowing. Again, I understand that a fight won't happen in ideal conditions, but that's why I want to take the time to strengthen you now. I want to condition your muscles so that your moves are instinctive. But that also means stretching and building your muscle strength. I know none of you want to be soldiers, but well...it might come to that. And screaming as you jam your foot onto an Omega officer's boot isn't going to help much."

A few of the students chuckled at that, though most simply stared at her, as if waiting for the actual instruction to begin. They were giving her the chance to prove herself a capable teacher, but that was all. There would be no favors here; either she succeeded now, or she would have no students left. "I want all of you to take at least thirty minutes a day for semi-strenuous exercise. Including days you have class. Anything to work on your endurance. The moves I teach you won't mean anything if you have no stamina. Because, really...a lot of self-defense is based on a single phrase...hit 'n git."

Laras had not taught her that phrase. He would never advocate running from a battle. But Laras was a walking weapon, and he had spent much (if not all) of his life conditioning his body for such man-on-man combat. This was the man who considered guns cheating except when they were necessary. But these men and women standing in front of her weren't combat experts. Their best bet was to hit someone hard and run. Later, she would work on disarming techniques, so running didn't mean ten steps and getting a bullet to the back of the head. But first...hit 'n git. And stamina was important for running any sort of distance.

A group of people who spent all their time in an underground enclave probably didn't get much by way of exercise. Unless there was another exercise space she didn't know about, which was possible. She didn't like to think that an entire group of soldiers--even if they weren't in combat roles--was foregoing proper exercise. But almost none of the faces in here had ever set foot in the gymnasium, so perhaps their duties to the rebellion were more important than keeping themselves fit.

"Hit 'n git was the motto of the security guys who taught me when I was younger," Mia continued. "And it's exactly what it sounds like. If someone attacks, you hit them and you run. And it's the foundation of everything I'll be teaching you here today. Eventually, we will move on to more advanced fighting techniques, just in case git isn't an option, but I figure we better start with the basics. Unless you want to end up in the infirmary and without any lessons at all."

"What sort of stuff do you recommend for our daily exercise? Cardio? Strength training? Yoga?" A man stood in the back of class. He was tallish, but skinny, and nondescript everywhere else. Only his eyes--a penetrating greenish-gray that reminded Mia of a documentary she'd once watched on birds of prey--were extraordinary. A spy if ever there was one.

Mia smiled. "Any of those things will work. I recommend alternating between them, though a bit of yoga daily wouldn't hurt any of you. You are aware of how to strength train without much by way of equipment, yes...?"

"Max. Max Hatfield." The man--he was maybe twenty-seven, same as Laras, though there the comparisons ended--smiled back at her, waving. "I work in the round room."

"Ah, the one Tony needed to take over for," Mia replied. "Nice to put a face with the name. Anyway, the lot of you know how to do strength training without equipment? You can use your own body weight to do a lot of the movements. If not, I'm going to cycle through a few of them today. Really, I apologize, but for the first couple lessons, I am going to run you through a lot of tedious exercises. I want to see your form and your stamina. Depending on what I see, I'll plan out the pacing of the actual lessons. Eventually, I want you to be able to hold your own against a Deklahnian regular."

Mia remembered when Laras had thought she was good enough to fight a regular; remembered, too, the sting of the insult. For someone like her, who made her body a weapon, it had been an insult. For the people standing in front of her, it was as best as could be expected of them. If an Omega agent ever caught up to them, one good hit and a chance to run was the best they would ever be able to do. Unless they had years and a teacher like Laras.

"Now." Mia clapped. "Pair off. Pick a buddy. Sounds weird, I know. But you'll need an opponent for the duration of your stay here. After today's conditioning, the first thing you'll be learning is how to get hit. Max, you can pair with me."

"With all due respect, why would we need to know how to get hit? Isn't the idea to hit first and run?" One of the other guys in the class, a big guy who seemed to know his way around a weight rack, asked. "If we get hit, we've already lost."

"Only if you don't know how to take a hit," Mia replied. "Sometimes you get blindsided. You will get hit. And if you can't take that hit and attack back, well...you're done for. I'll do my best to teach you how to sense that someone is there, but...that trick takes years. And it takes getting hit hard enough to see stars...a lot of times. I hope all of you know our guys in the infirmary. I was on a first name basis with the ladies at Oxford."

Seeing that everyone had paired off, Mia walked to the front of the room. "Now. A warm-up. And I'll see how good you guys are for fitness. Then I'll go through the basics of taking a hit. Sound good to everyone?"

"I thought you were going to just work us out?" Meathead again.

"For a couple of lessons, I'll work you out, yes, to test your fitness. But I plan on moving right into the basics right away. You can learn how to take a hit or slam your hand upward into someone's nose no matter how fit you are. Learning to get out of a headlock or to get out of a hold will require a bit more by way of strength. If I see that all of you are fit today, I will forgo that part of the lesson and move straight into techniques. So long as all of you promise to do your thirty minutes, of course. And I will be able to tell."

Meathead scowled. "I didn't come here to learn how to do jumping jacks." There were a few nods of agreement from the group, though most everyone stayed still, simply watching.

Mia sighed. She could see that she would have to prove herself physically; that she could actually handle herself in a fight. It wasn't enough to hear that she had learned from Laras; they wanted to see for themselves. Mia supposed she couldn't blame them. She would have demanded to see, too. "Fine. Want to see something? Attack me. However you wish. Try for realism, please. A real attempt to hurt me, if you would."

Shrugging, the man cracked his neck and charged at her. It was terribly unsubtle, and Mia could practically feel Laras' disdainful stare from somewhere inside her own head. He would simply have moved out of the way and let the Meathead take his way into the wall, but Mia was under orders to keep everyone in working shape, so she did it the hard way. Grabbing the fist he swung, Mia turned the force of the attack, twisting underneath the man as she pulled on his arm. There was an audible pop as it dislocated, and Mia used the man's momentum to throw him to the mat. "Have I made my point?" she asked, releasing his arm and pressing her weight against his chest. Laras would have simply dislodged her, but this wasn't Laras and she wasn't planning on fighting anyone today.

Meathead yelled, choking on his own spit as he scrambled to put his shoulder back together. Quickly, Mia grabbed his upper arm and pushed, waiting for the click, unmoved by the way the man squirmed beneath her. "You'll be fine. The shoulder will be weak for a bit, but I'm sure the guys in the infirmary will have an anti-inflammatory for the pain. When you come back for your next class, you will be respectful and you will assume that I know what's best. This is my classroom and, in here, I am the master. Do you understand that?"

Glaring, Meathead pushed himself to his feet and left the gym, heading for the infirmary. He would be fine, though the shoulder would hurt for a while. If Charon asked, Mia could honestly say he charged at her. She could have broken the bone, after all. And the lesson had been required.

Outside of this room, she might be the grunt, but in here, she was supreme. If anyone came into her classes thinking that they could disrespect her, they would leave just like the Meathead. "Max, it seems you have a partner for today, after all. Lucky you." Looking up, she could see the spy nodding, while Tony, who stood next to him, seemed just barely to bottle his mirth.

The rest of class went easily. This was her first group, and Mia hoped that they would spread the word of what had happened to the Meathead. She really didn't want to repeat the action, though of course she probably would. Everyone would want to test her, to see if she really was as good as gossip made her. If Laras were beyond such tests of dominance, she was not, and Mia wondered if that made her the next best thing to challenging the Russian himself.

Her students were attentive, and far more fit than she had hoped. There really must have been another fitness room somewhere, or else everyone here possessed far more ingenuity than Mia had given them credit for. Which was probably the case. If they hadn't bothered to get to know her, she had similarly failed to get to know them.

They learned to take a hit really well, though Mia was pretty sure there would be a few bruises. Hopefully that wasn't too much for Charon's sensibilities, though of course bruises never stopped anyone from doing their job. "OK, great. Yes, move with the hit. If you do that, a lot of the force is lost. If you're going to take a hit, make sure it's in a place you're willing to take it. If you can't do that, then you'll want to minimize the damage. Good. Good."

Mia felt good. She was finally doing something again, though she would never have guessed that she would be the teacher instead of the student. She'd been at Oxford for less than a year, and outside of Laras had done almost nothing by way of real training. And even Laras still had a lot to teach her, though he was understandably too busy to give her those lessons. What business had she to teach anyone anything? There was still so much more left to learn.

"Max," she called, after she ended the class and reminded everyone for the umpteenth time to exercise daily to build their fitness level. "Mind if I talk to you for a bit?"

"'Course not. I could use something to drink. Want to go to the caf with me?"

"Sure." Toweling herself off, Mia followed Max out of the room and into the corridor. "So...what exactly do you do here, if I may ask? I understand if I can't. I think I'm finally getting better at figuring out what I'm allowed to ask. Growing up in the Palace, I suppose I should have gotten used to not knowing everything, but I think it just made me even nosier."

"Well," Max replied, after a moment, "I can't tell you exactly what I'm working on, but I typically work on codes and encryption. Before I came to Blarney, I was more active on the street level, but now I'm more of a desk spy."

Mia groaned. "Ugh, encryption! I was pretty good at it, but I hated it. I'm just not terribly patient. It didn't help that my teacher kept disappearing for weeks at a time, leaving me to figure it all out on my own. Got to the point I just stopped doing it and spent all my time with Laras. And then shit went down and it didn't really matter I'd never got past the spy equivalent of Chapter Four."

"What can you do?"

"Uh...slide codes? Book keys. Stuff like that. But obviously I always had the book and the slide. As far as actually breaking a code...nothing. I'm awful at stuff like that."

"Charon was your teacher?"

Mia nodded. "Well...when he was there. You know how it is. I think Laras would have been gone a lot more, too, if circumstances had allowed."

"What else do you know?" Max grabbed a water for himself and Mia and the two of them walked toward a table in one of the less crowded areas of the cafeteria. A few of her students had also come to the dining hall, and some waved to her, or pointed her out as they spoke to their companions. Meathead was going down as Blarney legend now. Everyone would know by the end of the day. Oh well. He shouldn't have forced the issue.

"Not much. My dissembler, who was covering for me up top, was captured, so I spent a lot of the year taking biology and algebra. Laras was the one constant. If you don't mind the confession, I kind of miss him. I miss that it used to just be the two of us. I know I shouldn't...I know I should put the rebellion first and whatnot, and I do, but...gah, sorry. We barely know one another. Sorry. Charon's always telling me not to trust people so easily."

Max tilted his head and smiled. His eyes crinkled and Mia thought Max must have smiled a lot. "I think Charon would be OK with me. Promise. Laras thinks quite highly of you, you know. I think part of him wishes it was just the two of you again, as well."

Mia shrugged, trying to appear more nonchalant than she felt. Fighting, or even the pale facsimile thereof, had left her desperately aware of how little she saw of Laras these days. And how badly things went when they did see one another. Maybe she was being unfair to him, asking too much. But, then, how could a snippet of normalcy be too much? She shouldn't have to hear from everyone else that he 'thought highly of her'. Shouldn't she be able to hear it from him? Why should she have to decipher meaning from every movement, or discern truth from tone? When she finally spoke, she forced herself to sound dismissive. "Nothing we can do about that now. And I don't mean to burden you with my problems. Really, I don't. So, uh...as far as spy stuff...nadda. I can basically break people and that's about it. The only reason I know how to reset a shoulder is because Laras dislocated mine enough that I learned by watching the nurses."

Max sat for a few moments, staring at her, gauging. "How many people are in this room?"

That wasn't the question she'd been expecting. "I dunno...thirty...forty. Something like that."

"Thirty-seven."

Mia turned and counted quickly. "Holy shit. You got that with one look?"

Max nodded. "The thing with being a spy is that you have to notice shit. You have to see and you have to observe. Details that seem trivial to you are the jackpot to a good spy. And you have to do it quickly. It's like...you said you can sense an attack?"

"Sort of. I'm not as good at it as Laras is. It's not sensing so much as...expectation. Constant expectation. If you were to reach across the table now, I'd be ready. If someone were to come up behind me, I'd be ready. A constant state of preparation. But...it's not tense, or anything. It's just natural. Like breathing."

"Same with spies. It's natural to look around and take everything in. You are just always looking, watching, seeing. Making mental notes. And what you see tells you everything you need to know about a situation."

Mia pursed her lips. "You're saying I should have learned all of this at Oxford?"

"Basics, yeah. Same way I'm learning the basics of how to fight, you'd learn the basics of how to spy. If you want, I could teach you. Or, at the very least, send over some reading material. And we can practice after lessons."

Mia smiled. "I think that sounds great." Looking around the room, Mia thought for a moment, biting her lip. If Max was offering to teach her, maybe others would, too. She could throw Charon's accusations right back into his face. Become someone worthwhile to go behind the Door and join the Round Tables. Someone who could shape the rebellion and be a leader of men. "Bit more than basics, though. If I can."

"Sure...but, why?"

Mia dropped the smile and wrapped her hands around her water bottle. "Because I have no intention of staying at the bottom, and if I'm going to move up the chain, I'm going to need to become something special. Not just Laras Nikolao's student, always in his shadow, judged by how I compare to him. I don't just want to be a redundancy."

Max nodded, serious. "Sure. I can definitely help you with that. When do you want to begin?"

"Now, if you can."
*****

"Princess Amelia Godwin, what can I do for you today? Dislocating more of our mechanics' shoulders? You've not made someone bleed, have you?"

Hans the Physician lowered his chart, darkening the screen with a pass of his hand. A small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, belying the disapproval in his tone. They'd become friendly in the last few days, since Mia had first shown up in the infirmary asking for a preponderance of first aid kits. "Just in case," she'd said. "I don't want to send every scraped knee or pulled muscle to you, and there will always be injury when teaching people how to injure."

Shaking her head, Mia smiled. "Out of everything, Hans. I've had so many busted heads and broken bones, I feel like I might just take your job soon," she joked, hopping onto one of the beds and kicking her feet through the air rather than letting them dangle. "But no...no real injuries. Nothing a cloth and a bandage can't handle. I've mostly got sore muscles and people complaining at the lack of bathroom time. We could really use a soaker tub."

"I'll get right on that," Hans deadpanned. "Right after the feather beds and the flower petals."

Mia chuckled. "I mean for sore muscles. Not for luxuriating. The way people are worked down here, I'm not surprised they're dealing with rebellious limbs. There's no real time to recuperate. If they're not working, some of them, they're training. I've warned them that they need to take it easy, but I think a lot of them genuinely enjoy the physical release. And their bodies aren't really equipped to handle it yet."

"What did you do to deal with it? I'm guessing Oxford didn't offer soaker tubs."

"You really wanna know, Hans? It involves Laras and might offend your medical ears." Mia waggled her fingers, lips pursed in wry amusement.

Hans scowled. "That man...is insane. His teaching methods are nothing less than barbaric. It's like he's got no concept of being human."

"You've got to admit, it's effective. A few months under his direct tutelage and I was so inured to pain, I was able to kill a man in hand-to-hand even as I was bleeding out." Mia loved telling Hans her horror stories, just to see the normally implacable physician turn vaguely green. "Got stabbed at some point and kept going."

"You're just as insane as he is! You can't see that that's insane?" Hans walked to a counter a few feet from the bed and began organizing field kits. Word was, people were going topside soon, though everyone always shut up whenever she came close. This being on the fringes of the rebellion thing was beginning to lose its sting, but it was slow going. Mia was getting very good at piecing snippets of conversations together to figure things out.

Mia hopped off the bed and joined Hans, helping him separate the piles of bandages and unguents and stitch kits into individual packets. One for each member of whatever team was going on mission. Low tech enough to remain unseen by Omega scans, good enough to keep someone alive if something went wrong. It seemed like that was the whole idea of the rebellion; stay hidden, be good enough.

But if they were staying hidden, how were the people supposed to keep believing in them? Shouldn't they be giving them some sign? Some measure of hope? Edward's friends were feeding Ireland, and Mia was sure there were other teams elsewhere, but Deklahn could give them food, too. The only way to help them was to win the war, yes, but didn't the rebellion also have a duty to buoy their spirits and keep their hopes alive? They couldn't let it burn out...and Omega would be very good at burning it to ash.

"It's what is necessary. I need to be able to keep fighting through any pain. I confess I was not as good at knowing when to stop, but I think I've figured that trick out now. Laras couldn't be merciful, or else that mercy might come to bite me in the ass. Omega certainly won't be merciful."

Hans sighed. "He never turns off, does he?"

Mia's lips twisted. "No," she said, firmly, trying and failing to keep bitterness from creeping into her voice. "He doesn't."

"His loss," Hans replied. "Can't be a happy existence. Personally, I can't wait to shuck this coat and stop being a rebel. I can't imagine what it's like not to know how to stop."

"There's more to him than this rebellion." Mia's hands stilled. "There has to be."

"I don't know, Mia. I've never seen someone as tightly bound to his creed as Laras is. I suppose it's good for the rebellion. I still find his methods of teaching...distasteful. You were being serious when you told me he watched you fight another student and never intervened, even after you'd broken a bone and sustained a concussion?"

Mia brightened. "Yup! Erik Mitchell. Chemist of some sort. Should not ever be allowed to fight. Can't control his temper well enough. Laras always stressed control. He at least managed to teach me martial control, if nothing else. You know...I haven't seen Erik since then. I hope...I hope he survived Oxford."

"I'm sure he did," Hans replied, without much conviction. There was nothing sure about the bomb that had destroyed the rebellion's training school. And since hardly any of those students had been assigned to Blarney--just Tada, from what she could tell--there was no way of telling who had survived. And Tada had told her himself that Paige was dead. "You could ask Charon. He oversaw the evacuation."

Mia nodded, concentrating on the field kits in front of her. "You know," she said, a half chuckle hissing out of her nose, "it's a good thing I'm not going topside. I have no idea how to do any of this stuff. Well, I mean...the cleaning and bandaging, sure. But the stitching and the proper use of these...liquid concoctions. I got nothing. What are these things even for?"

The look Hans turned upon her would have been comical if it weren't so grave. "Are you...are you serious?"

"Usually, no. This time...unfortunately. I actually just had a conversation about this with Max the other day. My time at Oxford was really limited, and my education limited even further to Laras' tender ministrations of pain and anger. I spent most of my time in normal university courses after my cover was compromised."

"So you have no idea how to do even basic field medicine?"

"Uh...no. Which sucks, as it could have helped after the explosion. It left Laras and I largely incapacitated, me slightly less so. Teacher to the last, he got me out first." He had believed he was going to die anyway, of course, but then again, he'd protected her during the first explosion, as well. Almost died before the war began, and all for...her.

Mia shook her head. That was the last time he'd done anything to help her.

"Well, then...it is my duty as a physician to remedy this situation. And...because I know you're going to be stuck with Laras for the foreseeable future, I'll throw a bit more of the intermediate stuff in there, too."

Raising her eyebrows, Mia laughed. "I'm picking up teachers left and right this week. Apparently, I'm about to be as busy as everyone else in this damned place."

"What do you mean?"

"Max is teaching me espionage and cryptography. I'm on a one-woman mission to make a name for myself. I should have thought to come to you, as well..."

Hans nodded. "Yes, you should. Being able to break people and spy on them is well enough, but you have to be able to keep your body together in the process. Not to mention keeping your fellows alive."

"You're right. Thank you for the offer. It was stupid of me not to realize gauze and bandages wouldn't be enough." Mia thought for a moment, staring at the now complete packs for those people heading out on missions. "Is there anything else you think I should learn while I'm at it?"

"Oh, yes. You never even received the basics of a real Oxford education. Rebels only specialize in one field, but they at least learn the basics in others."

Mia tipped her head from side to side as she thought. "No one ever combines specialties?"

"Not usually. It's believed that trying to do too much causes your performance to suffer and lessons your ability to contribute to the rebellion in a meaningful way."

"Hmm...Well, fuck that. I always did like doing things my way. Teach me anything you think I need to know, Hans. Everything."

Hans regarded her, gauging. It was the same look she'd received from Max, and Mia wondered where everyone in the rebellion had learned to do it. Was there a class on reading people? Then again, Max had never attended Oxford, so maybe it was just a look people learned when they'd been a rebel for a while. "You are a very earnest young woman."

"I guess. I just want to help. And..." Mia sighed. "If it's ever just Laras and me again, I want to be his partner and not his student. That means I have to have something to add to the mix. Something Laras can't really do, if there's anything."

Hans gave her a wry smile. "You care far too much what he thinks, Mia. He's not special."

"Of course he is. He's Laras Nikolao. He's very special. He's an asshole and he has no idea how to treat people, as well as a disdain for feelings, but he is special. And yes, I care very much what he thinks."

"OK, OK." Hans seemed unsurprised by her vehemence. "Well then...why do you care so much what he thinks?"

"Probably because we always want what we can't have," Mia replied with an exaggerated grin. "So. What else do you think I should learn?"

Hans shook his head. "Strange girl. Let's just worry about getting you caught up first. Then we'll turn you into a super woman. I'll get some of the others to get in contact with you. You were right when you said you're about to be a very busy woman. I hope you do OK without a lot of sleep."

Mia laughed. "Are you kidding? Laras didn't respect the boundaries of sleep. So long as I get a couple of hours a night, I'll be OK. Let's just hope all the schedules work out. If Charon finds out I'm pulling anyone from their jobs or anyone is letting me into restricted areas, he'll have all of our heads."

"Let us worry about that, Mia. You just show up and learn."
*****

"How are you feeling today?"

Shlomi blinked his eyes open and groaned. "I'm feeling remarkably better. Seems Omega has much better medicine than we've got here."

Cyril's smile dulled perceptibly. "Yes. The Republic has advanced greatly in the time since Earth came under the auspices of martial law. But not enough to reclaim your memories, it seems. No progress on that front?"

"No." Shlomi lied. Things had been coming back to him in snippets over the last few days, spears of awareness tearing through the haze of his amnesia. With every new piece of self-awareness, Shlomi realized he needed to tread carefully. Much of what he remembered was criminal, and no matter how sympathetic this Cyril Breakwell was, she was still Omega.

She was still the enemy.

"That is a shame. We cannot return you home if you've no idea where home is. Your family must be terrified for you."

This time, he was unable to keep the cynicism from twisting his face. "My family has given me up for dead and had a memorial in my name, if such things are still allowed where I am from. Here on Earth, when someone doesn't come home, it means they're probably in a black bag somewhere. Or visiting the Doctor's office."

"You've a low opinion of Omega." Cyril leaned against the edge of Shlomi's bed, her uniform crisp against the rumpled sheets and ragged edges of his hospital clothes. "That talk sounds rebellious."

"It is the truth. And only the hardest of hearts would turn away from the suffering of those families. I am not a monster to think these people deserved it." Shlomi pushed himself up in his bed and leaned against the wall. "I don't think I was a Rebel," he lied, voice smooth, "I think I only studied languages. But one isn't a Rebel just because they disagree with some of what the Republic does."

It was hard to call Deklahn the Republic. For his entire life, Shlomi had known it as the Imperium, the evil empire out of lore. Sure, it was only whispered, and any Rebel worth their salt could cover it up if necessary, but it still hurt. Deklahn was no Republic. They had not been voted into power; they had seized it in a bloody coup. They had killed anyone who stood in their way and hidden themselves on a planet no one could attack in force.

And then they'd all but destroyed the one planet brave enough to stand up for what was right. No; Deklahn was no Republic.

Cyril frowned. "I suppose not." Looking around, as if checking for spies in the corners--like a spy would leave any signs of their presence, Shlomi thought--Cyril sighed. "I don't always agree with Omega's methods. But..."

Shlomi looked up at Cyril. A discussion of ideals with an Omega officer? How...interesting. "But, what? You disagree with their methods, but you still work for them. And well enough to become a Sergeant."

"I see the good Deklahn does. Peace...at least within the Galaxy and among the planets who used to squabble. A strong economy. Safety. Security. A good standard of living for even the poorest of planets. Happy, healthy people."

"Unless you disagree with them. Then you get the Gaian Treatment, I suppose." Shlomi's lips twisted, as if a lime had been squeezed over his tongue. "The example of 'what not to do'. The tale to scare your kids at night so they know what happens to dissenters. What is the cost of this peace? This prosperity?"

Cyril's eyes bored into Shlomi. "I think you might very well be a Rebel, young man. You certainly speak like one."

"And will you kill me for my words, Sergeant? Like Omega always does with people who speak out against their methods?" Shlomi sighed. "I understand prosperity. I see how one might have to break a few eggs to gain a lasting peace. My objections are only to what Deklahn would do to maintain their peace. Where is their supposed legitimacy if they must wring it free with blood and fear?"

"Earth stood for the continuing corruption of the old system," Cyril challenged. "They didn't want to lose their power in the galaxy, and voted down the new government. For the good of the whole of humanity, the Deklahnians had to do what they did. It is despicable, but Earth had to be brought to heel."

"Again, I speak only for the continued degradation of my home. I don't remember much of the last few years--hazy patches I can't even begin to make sense of--but I have been alive for a number of years, and I remember the earlier ones. I know how people live where Earth was made an example of most harshly. What excuse is there for punishing these civilians? What wrong have they ever done to Deklahn except to be born in the wrong country on the wrong planet?"

Cyril stood and crossed to the window. "I agree with you there. There was no reason to continue treating Earth as an enemy. A period of punishment for the original rebellion and the people who supported it, but...Earth should have been forgiven long ago. Brought into the fold. Shown all the good Deklahn can do. Instead...they have seen only the worst of what this government is capable of."

Shlomi let Cyril's words wash over him. It had been dangerous to speak out as he had; only the feeling, deep in his gut, that she would listen had freed the words from his lips. He'd always been a good judge of character. Now he just wondered how far he could push her. "Perhaps that would have made things different. Comfort and prosperity are ever the enemies of humanity. Maybe rebuilding and moving on from the original rebellion would have calmed the fire in Gaian nerves. But I know many humans--Gaians--think the cost too high for Deklahn's brand of prosperity."

"How do you know this?"

"I grew up on Earth, ma'am. And as little as I remember of Oxford, I remember that."

Cyril's eyes turned calculating. "Do you remember anything else?"

"What, like the location of their super secret base of operations now that Oxford is gone? All their battle plans now the war has begun? I remember feelings most of all, Sergeant Breakwell. I remember how it felt at Oxford. I sensed the seething hatred for Deklahn and all it stood for. And that sticks with a man. But battle plans and secret bases? One, they wouldn't tell someone like me...I wasn't even part of their club, so far as I can remember...and two, even if they had, what makes you think I remember?"

"You speak as if you remember a great deal." Cyril's eyes bored into him and Shlomi fought the urge to chuckle. She might be willing to discuss ideals, but Sergeant Breakwell was just data fishing; hoping that he might say something unwittingly and reveal rebellion secrets.

Shlomi smiled, but it was not friendly. "I remember growing up on Earth. I remember the feeling of hunger in my stomach even though my body was getting all the nutrients it needed to survive. I remember playing around the ruins of holy places. I remember the keening of the women and the howling sobs of the men whose loved ones disappeared. I remember being beaten by an Omega agent because I tripped into his path. I remember seeing fat Americans and healthy Japs. I remember the calculating look in their eyes, knowing that Omega and Deklahn had turned those nations into gladiatorial arenas. And those were the people who'd supported them. I do remember a great deal, Cyril Breakwell. What I do not remember is if my hatred ever overcame my fear."

"And your name? You remember all of this...and you do not remember your name?"

My name is Shlomi Assad. "No. It seems the only memories Omega sees fit to leave me are the ones that hurt the most."

Cyril's eyes held far more empathy than Shlomi was prepared to accept. "I'm tired. I think I'll sleep now, if you don't mind."

"Of course. Call me if you need anything."
*****

Gaian blood was very, very red, Ether noticed as the young woman squirmed beneath him. Much redder than the stuff in his veins, at any rate.

"Shut up," he hissed, "or I'll use the knife again. Understood?"

The woman nodded and Ether grinned. These Gaians were so malleable, so soft. For all their treasonous venom, their half-witted devotion to this putrid hole of a planet, they all wanted nothing more than to be fucked.

"I want you to moan for me...is that understood?" Leaning down, Ether ran his tongue along her neck, tasting the salt of her sweat and the metal in her blood. He shuddered. For all their faults, Gaians tasted so good. And this was a celebration, after all. A few more field promotions like the one today and he'd be off this hellish toilet and back to civilization.

"Y-yes," she squeaked out. Ether didn't know her name; didn't care to know her name. She was just a whore, a pretty young thing he'd found playing in the street. Young enough he knew she was intact, that he was breaking her; old enough that her body had outpaced her mind by a fair margin. And she moaned so pretty.

Ether had decided he didn't want to pay anymore, either in money or in pain. This one would have no diseases--he'd be the first, after all, to taste her--and no one on Earth ever seemed to look for the ones that went missing. He'd fuck her, make her squirm and moan, and then scream when he sliced.

No one would look for the body when he was done. Gaians went missing all the time, apparently; so much that their brainless relatives wouldn't even bother to search. She'd be just another black bag, to borrow their singularly lackluster language. He could have her as long as he wanted.

It was good to feel his cock hard again, and whole. Ether's pleasure had dimmed somewhat in the days following treatment. It had taken every ounce of imagination he possessed to get it to rise to the occasion. Thank the child-fucking God of this fetid backwater for that Princess of theirs; planning how to break her had made even the sight of his rash-lesioned manhood and the pain of the treatment disappear into the back of his mind.

"Say...you wouldn't happen to know where Princess Amelia is hiding these days, would you?" Ether took his teeth to the girl's nipples. She screamed, stupid thing. Couldn't even follow instructions he'd just given her. Oh well, she'd look just as pretty with a broken jaw and maybe she'd scream less. "Do you?"

The girl shook her head and stifled her cries as Ether grabbed her shattered mandible. "Too bad. I'd rather fuck her. Oh well. Turn over then."

This time, the girl moaned. And Ether didn't even mind that it was in pain.
*****

"Professor Trusko, I am sorry to interrupt your reading again, but this is the only place I seem able to find you these days."

Charon looked up, quashing the annoyance that tickled at the base of his throat. He supposed it was only fair that Amelia would seek him out when he was in the library. She deserved the right to speak to him as much as anyone else, even if she always seemed to choose the worst times. Perhaps he should make an effort to be in the open areas more often; at least then, she'd be more likely to find him when he wasn't trying to hide.

God, but he was tired. And though he was pleased with the Princess' gumption in asking him about defense lessons, he could only assume that she had come to him with yet another of her asinine observations.

"Yes, Amelia? What is it?" He removed his reading glasses--he hadn't needed them nearly as much before now, but he guessed that was what happened when you took charge of a Rebellion--and placed his book upon the side table. Shakespeare, again. What was it about the Bard that attracted earnest young Princesses?

"I came to talk to you about Tada, Professor."

"Ah. Has young Maxwell convinced you that he belongs in operations no more than you do?"

Mia's response was rather surprising, and not at all what Charon had expected. "Of course not. I will abide by your decision to bring him behind the Door, and hadn't questioned it. It is not my concern what you do; only what I do."

Hmm...perhaps she was learning. "What then?"

"When I brought him back from Belfast, he told me something. Not...not the student numbers. Something else. Something I thought he needed to share with you. I wanted to give him a few days to do it himself before coming to you."

Charon sighed. The petty squabbles of children weren't exactly a pressing concern, or a concern at all, come to think of it. If the two friends had had a disagreement, it was between them. Still, best to humor the girl just this once; she had earned some consideration, after all. "Yes?"

"He's been having fugue states. He goes about as if everything is normal, but he can't remember what he has done. He said it was like...losing time. And he confessed to...to murdering Sofia Ortrun during one of these fugue states. He doesn't remember doing it, but he did. And then...and then, after Oxford...well, he doesn't remember the explosion at all. He just remembers waking up in an Omega camp with probes stuck to his head. He has no idea if he's given anything away..."

Charon held up a hand. "Tada has made all of this known to me. He told me the day after he arrived." Still, the girl had come to him. She had not allowed her friendship with the boy to color her actions; she had put the Rebellion first, and done her duty. Charon made a note to tell Laras; the Russian still felt responsible for the Princess, having brought her to Blarney in the first place, and deserved to hear that she'd done something smart.

"Did he...did he show you the file?" Mia's eyes were worried, and she twisted her hands almost without realizing it. She was disgustingly awful at hiding her emotions; perhaps that was his fault as much as hers. After all, he had never really taught her such things. And yet, she would have to learn if she were going to advance within the Rebellion. No one in Blarney would give her quarter, least of all himself.

Wait. File? "There is a file?"

Mia's eyes hardened. "He didn't show it to you. I trusted him to show it to you. If I weren't so worried about him, I wouldn't even have come to you..."

"Perhaps you've finally learned the dangers of trusting people. Even the people we love the most don't always do the right thing."

"I still trust him." Mia crossed her arms; always feeling so defensive. How on Earth did she and Laras survive; the both of them were unable to give an inch. "But...I also worry that whatever is in that file is dangerous; that it has something to do with Omega. I'm pretty sure he stole it from the camp where he woke up."

Charon sat up. "I will...I will look into this. Thank you for telling me, Amelia" Standing, Charon brushed past the Princess and loped toward the door to operations.

Max was already running through it by the time Charon arrived. "Trusko...word from Denny."

"Denny? What? I don't have time for this...I have to find..."

"It's the file from Rio. Denny's broken it. And, Charon...it's from Prime. All of it is from Prime. Blueprints, guard schedules, personnel lists. Charon, there's even battle directives in there. Everything that Omega has already done is in that file, and there's pages more of things they haven't even tried."

Charon felt his heart stop within his chest. "Authenticated? From a Rebel?"

Max nodded, smiling. "Completely verified. Apparently, Chicago got someone inside Prime a few years ago; someone deep cover. When America fell, this agent sent on everything she had collected and some more besides."

"Then all of it is useless. They would have changed everything to cover the breach."

Max shook his head. "They're doing everything exactly as it says."

"So they know we have it and are lulling us into a false sense of security. Let me see these files, immediately." Charon followed Max through the halls, to what the denizens of Blarney affectionately referred to as the round room. On the far side sat Denny, fingers flying over the keyboard. Half of the room had gathered around him, their own work forgotten until a glare from Charon sent them back to their seats. "Get Laras," he ordered the man sitting nearest. "Bring him here."

Max sat down next to Denny and pointed to the screen. "She's good, boss. Covered her tracks impeccably, looks like. No way to trace it back to her. She didn't steal anything so much as make a duplicate. Has Omega made a big show of finding a rat?"

"They wouldn't. Someone infiltrating Prime makes them look bad."

Laras pushed his way through the door then. Stalked, more like it. The Russian was always coiled for an attack, though of course only the best trained eye would notice that. In fact, he and Mia moved in much the same way. She had more of the dancer in her, a certain fluid grace that Laras didn't possess. His movements were more like those of a tiger. But they were undeniably similar. Charon couldn't help the smile that tugged at the edges of his mouth. They were quite the mirror of one another.

"Trusko."

"Laras. It seems the Rebellion had a mole inside Chicago Prime for quite a number of years. Did you know about this?"

"If I had, so would you."

Charon shrugged, his mind full of the possibilities. What this a trap, or a boon? How could the Rebellion turn this into an advantage? "I suppose so. What do you think?"

"It's likely Omega knows about this."

Max looked up. "There's a way to test that, though. We can watch for a while. Stop an attack or two, see if Omega mixes it up. If these files are useful, they'll keep using them. If they figure we know, stopping a couple of them should cause them to abandon the plan, right?"

"That might work. It's all the more imperative we get the network up and running. Laras, how soon will you be ready to take a group to the surface?"

"In a couple of weeks."

"Good. If we're to make use of this, we need to press our advantage as soon as possible. We need to be a worldwide force in as short a time as we can. Denny, see if you can't get a message to the man in Rio letting him know what he sent us. Helio will want to hear." Max had put Charon in touch with Rio as soon as the last Round Table had ended, and Heliodoro had been a fount of useful information. The site there traded in information, and were masters of covering their tracks. As soon as Charon found an equally suitable site in the East==somewhere in Russia, perhaps, to bring their wayward brothers into the fold--they would form the three heads of Cerberus.

Max nodded. "Uh...hey, Professor." The boy licked his lips and looked over at Laras for a moment before returning to Charon. "I was thinking. Maybe you should send Mia on some of these missions. She's...taken a step on her end, maybe...maybe it's time to show her some good faith."

Amelia. And he still needed to speak to Tada about the file. He would do so, but the boy could wait a while. For now, he needed to deal with this. There was already someone from psych working on Tada's fugue states. Charon would speak to him the next time they met.

"I don't believe she's ready yet to venture above ground. Her inexperience..."

"Will never become experience if she is never given the opportunity to grow. Laras will be there and so will I. If ever there was a time and a place to this, it's now."

Charon sighed. "What about you, Laras?"

The Russian shrugged. "Any damage she might cause would be minimal, and the benefits may outweigh the risks. I will watch her."

"Very well. Amelia may go along. But if anything happens, I'm holding both of you responsible."
*****

This was typical. You spend months escaping from the cold white north of Chicago to the sunshiny paradise of Rio, and manage to arrive on the one day that it's raining.

I'm pretty sure the world hates you.

Ariadne James slipped into the streets of the South Zone feeling woefully unprepared for the advent of rain. Her hat seemed more droopy than floppy in the pressing humidity, and the bright colors of her bathing suit and sarong stood out in ways that were borderline conspicuous.

"Oh dear," she pouted, full lips pursing prettily. "I seem to have arrived at a most inopportune time."

Spotting an Omega agent, Ariadne crossed her arms under her breasts, consciously pressing them upward and together, and shivered. In situations like this, she thought, it was best to use what the universe had given you. And science, she amended in her head. The real Ariadne had been a lot bustier than she.

It worked like a damn charm. Dark eyes darting from her ample decolletage to the shapely line of her legs and back up to her lollipop mouth, the agent changed course and made a beeline for where she stood, alone and distressed in the Rio air port. "May I be of service, ma'am?"

Ariadne knew the drill. She smiled before digging into her satchel, bending over just enough that she threatened to spill out of the top of her suit. "Here is my identification, officer."

"A widow?" The officer saw the black bar slashing across the top of the screen. "I am sorry for your loss." She could hear his libido churning thoughts behind his dark eyes.

Ariadne sniffled, rather well she thought. "My friends all saved up to send me here...to...to relax. They said I needed to allow myself to enjoy life again. My husband..." Here, Ariadne gave way to huge crocodile tears, careful to look up at the officer just as they danced on the edge of her thick lashes. "Those rebels got him," she spat out. "He was stationed in Dallas."

Before she'd gotten too far, Ariadne had checked the casualty lists. Not many Omega agents or Deklahnian regulars had died on Judgment Day, as the scourge of the American rebellion was called. But a few had, especially as word had leaked of the mission. As the Imperium worked its way toward the center of the nation, the rebels had gotten better prepared. Not much, but enough that Ariadne's 'husband' had lost his life.

"One mustn't think that way, ma'am," the Omega agent crooned. They were not particularly cautious here in Rio, she'd found. That was why she'd picked it. Their heads were full of their paradise, and their paradise was inviolate. Ariadne supposed it was true; she hadn't found any sign that the Rebellion had a foothold here. The perfect place to hide while she made sure her trail was solid.

Leaving Prime the way she had, Ariadne had to make sure they didn't notice she was gone. She'd been a low-ranking tech, careful never to rise through the ranks where anonymity gave way to notoriety. And when it was time to leave, Ariadne had made sure to work that anonymity to her advantage. So far as Omega was concerned, Ariadne James had been transferred back home to Arixos for some R&R following an illness. No one would check on her there.

And no one would wonder whether she had come back. Or, if they did, they would investigate her for treason and find out she had never gone home. Still, though, it was best to make sure everything was going according to plan.

As far as the information was concerned, they wouldn't even notice that it was gone. It wasn't, really; she'd just made a copy. And she was good enough to hide her work from the most intensive of scans. She'd been in charge of maintaining that software, in any case, so a few changes here and there hadn't really taken much effort.

"I try. But it seems the weather has no wish to cooperate. And here I am dressed for a sunny day on the beach."

"Well...let's get your bags and get you settled into your hotel. Where are you staying?"

Ariadne smiled and trailed her fingers down his arm. This man didn't have the rank that interested her, but he would make a fine stepping stone along the way. "The Copacabana," she replied, smoothly. "I arranged to have my bags sent ahead."

"If you'll allow me to escort you, Mrs. Hardt, I'd love to see you safely there."

"Oh, you are such a dear," she cooed. "But you are on duty, are you not? I wouldn't have you reprimanded on my account...?"

"Hiinaer, ma'am. Pyoter Hiinaer." He sounded disappointed, but resigned. Men really did forget to think when the blood rushed downward. If it were up to Ariadne, there would be a lot more women in charge. "If I may...come and see that you have arrived safely when I am off duty?"

Ariadne pulled her lips into a tight--and inviting--smile. "That would be nice. Perhaps the rainy weather is just what I needed."

Pyoter cleared his throat and showed Ariadne toward the transport vehicles, which would take her to her hotel. They were essentially rickshaws, but propelled by proton technology rather than human effort. More modern vehicles were not allowed in the South Zone for fear they might ruin the ambiance. "The Copacabana Beach Hotel," Pyoter ordered the computer as he helped Ariadne aboard.

"Until later then," Ariadne purred, letting her fingers linger on his hand. "It's been some time since I felt the touch of a man upon my skin."

Then the rickshaw was off and Ariadne was chuckling to herself, deep and impish, as she watched Pyoter shake like a wet dog and head back into the concourse. It wasn't the first time she'd used sex to get what she needed. The miscalculation of her arrival had been righted and, more, she had wormed her way into Omega's good graces once again. From Pyoter all the way to the top.

A man in a white linen suit caught her attention at the edge of Ipanema. And that was strange, because there was nothing conspicuous about him at all. It was simply instinct that caused her to notice him as the rickshaw scooted past. Something about just how smoothly he fit in to the scene; a beautiful, caramel-skinned man in a white linen suit with a flower in the lapel and a dance in his step. Even with an umbrella over his head, he looked like the kind of man who graced the covers of travel brochures.

He looked a little too much like he belonged, and blended in to the scenery far too well.

Ariadne gasped. Did the Rebellion actually have a presence here? After all, Rio was the perfect city in which to hide; no one at all was looking. But she hadn't been able to find any evidence of such a thing! They were very good if they were able to hide from her. And she had been hoping to get back into the Rebel business. She'd chosen Rio thinking no one would find her; it seemed that her assessment was true.

"Stop," she ordered the rickshaw, jumping from the cabin and onto the sidewalk, keeping her eyes on the man as he headed down the street. He was moving slowly, but purposefully, stopping to engage but never long enough to be memorable. Pleasant and inconspicuous by his very open behavior. No one would think twice about a man like that in Rio.
Ariadne ducked into a shop. She couldn't follow after him in what she was wearing; it was far too bright, and stood out on such a rainy day. Grabbing items at random, she paid the amused sales woman in cash, explaining that her luggage had been lost and she'd been caught in the rain. In a few short moments, she was out on the street again, this time wearing a far more suitable outfit for the neighborhood. It was a bit garish for her tastes, but exactly what a tourist caught without her luggage might buy.

Ahead of her, the man was buying a coffee. He stopped to play with the barista's hair and offer her the flower in his lapel. He really was very good. Ariadne had to admire someone who could work like this; someone who was good enough to play the long con, and swindle Omega right at the heart of their pleasure city. He had to be the leader.

Rather unfortunately, Rio was a city best experienced in the sunshine. With gray clouds grumbling ominously above, the colors seemed muted, and the streets were abandoned. The vendors with their pretty flags and charming smiles were huddled beneath awnings and tucked within the confines of walls. Street performers drank beer, and the smells of life fell to the dampening effects of the rain. The beaches churned, their waters gray-green and frothing white as waves crashed to the purest albino sands.

But even if it were subdued, it was not quiet. Music poured from the shops, a curious symphony of melodies that had nothing to do with one another, refrains stitched together with only your steps to connect them. And the coffee shops were full to overflowing. Ariadne imagined that the hotels were similarly crowded, and the beach houses. Best of all, there were still people on the streets; even tourists, who took today to brave the shops.

The man took a left at the end of the last row of shops. That was strange. Left led to the nearest of the favelas, and there was no reason for a man like this to head into the shanty towns. There wasn't even enough power in these parts of the city to light a house, much less run a top secret--and highly advanced--rebel operation. What was this man playing at?

Ariadne rounded the corner and stopped. "Oh...I don't want to go this way," she muttered.

The man was leaning against the wall, slicing an apple with a small knife and humming to himself. "No, I imagine you don't."

Turning, she meant to head back the way she had come when a hand wrapped around her arm and pulled her close. "Why are you following me?"

Ariadne shook her head. "I...I wasn't. Please don't hurt me. I was just shopping. I...I'll scream. Do you want me to scream?"

The man laughed. "By the time anyone arrived, I'd be long gone. And no one in this part of town really likes to help Omega any more than they have to. Tell me...why are you following me?"

Licking her lips, Ariadne looked up at him, eyes wide. "I..." she began, breaking eye contact. "I thought you were cute."

A scoff. A scoff? That's all she got? "You're pretty good. But you haven't been on the streets in a while, I'm guessing. Been sitting behind a desk for a long time. Tell me, did you think to have a little adventure while you were on vacation? Sometimes the desk agents like a little danger." The knife danced along her collar bone and, despite herself, Ariadne shivered. A spy, but one far more versed in death than she.

"I'm not..." she gulped. "I'm not Omega. I escaped...I escaped the Imperium. American."

"That lie only works if you look remotely human. You, young lady, do not." The knife moved, and Ariadne saw that he had drawn blood. "Though your blood says otherwise."

"You are part of the rebellion," Ariadne whispered. "I...I am a spy. Codename Labyrinth. I...I saw you. Marked you as a rebel. I..."

The man dropped his knife from her neck. "Spider?" he repeated, voice thick with recognition. "If you are a rebel...prove it. Or else I'll kill you and make it look like the ocean took you. It happens sometimes. Stupid tourists doing stupid things. Omega barely looks into it any more."

"Sure...sure. Just...just get me to a computer. I can prove it."

The man pulled her close, the knife pressed into her back. To anyone else, it looked like two lovers strolling together. He really was very good. Well, Ariadne thought; you'd hoped to get back into the rebel business. You just hadn't thought it would be so soon. "You'd better be able to," he whispered into her ear, voice hot against her skin. "I do not suffer fools."
*****

It was too bad that Anton was scheduled to work whenever Mia had free time. He was the only person with survival training that Max was on friendly speaking terms with, and Hans was busy enough shoving years of first aid training into the poor girl's head to find another one. So, here he was, waiting in the atrium for the Princess' lesson to end, going over the details of everything Anton had seen fit to give him.

From what Max could gather, the Romanian was no fan of England's dear Heir Apparent. He certainly seemed to give his help only grudgingly, after much persuading by his fellows in that food drive gang of Akiko's. But the information was good, and Anton had taken the time to design an obstacle course of sorts throughout the public access sections of the enclave, so perhaps Anton was willing to give the girl a chance.

"Hey hey, Maxie. Why you hangin' out here of all places?" A hand clapped his back, and Harry Munro's broad face swung around to Max's front. The New Zealander was, like many here in Blarney's depths, an information whiz. He was the enclave's primary envoy into the world of Yeatsian spycraft, dealing with their oftentimes bedeviling handiwork. Whatever code those bloody poets used, Harry could figure it out.

He was a nice guy, which was refreshing. There weren't a lot of nice guys at Blarney. It seemed only the bastards made their way to the beating heart of rebeldom.

"Waiting on Mia."

"The Princess? Or the one down in maintenance?"

"Princess. I'm working as proxy for Anton, who's working on teaching her tracking and survival skills. Schedules don't work out for him to be here." Max showed Harry the mound of paperwork Anton had dumped into his lap the night before. "He wants to see what she can do. How observant she is naturally, and how insightful."

Harry nodded, leaning against the wall and crossing one foot over the other. "Well, I can't say if she's that observant. But she certainly seems...earnest. There's rumors going around she never sleeps these days. Always teaching those classes or taking lessons of her own. She gotten your lot to headlocks yet?"

Max nodded. "Last lesson. She's moving us on to disarming techniques. We keep trying to get her to show us how to flip people like she does, but she keeps saying that's too advanced. She did spar with Colt for a while, though. Kicked his bloody ass."

"Good. I don't much care for the Yank. Feels wrong sayin' it, what with his being the only survivor and all, but he's a right bastard."

Looking up from his papers just long enough to flick his eyebrows, Max sighed. "I do feel badly for him. He had a brother...friends...everything taken from him. But he is definitely a wanker. And I most assuredly enjoyed watching Mia play him like a fiddle."

"She is good, isn't she?" Harry laughed the words. "I never really believed she was as good as everyone claimed--as good as the Russian, even--until I saw the way she moved in class. Girl's an asset. Rough as all hell, but an asset. And she means well. I didn't think she did. I thought she just liked to hear herself talk all pretty, but I think she means it."

Max nodded. "She does love a speech. Must be the royal in her. His Kingliness loves to pontificate just as much, though he seems to have quieted down some of late. Someone found him some work, I gather. Akiko."

Harry opened his mouth to reply, but just then Mia, surrounded by a gaggle of her students, entered the atrium. "Behold the beauteous Princess in her natural habitat," he said instead, crossing his arms. "I daresay most of Blarney even approves of her now. Or at least...doesn't disapprove."

"Help me make sure it stays that way, Harry. Rough she is, and Blarney's the place that's got to shine her up. But it won't happen if everyone's determined to turn their back on her. She's given us a sign of good faith. Now we have to do the same."

"Aye aye, boss. Professor Godwin! How do y'do?"

Mia grimaced. The nickname had caught on after a few lessons, a sort of gentle ribbing that persisted mostly because it seemed to irk the woman so much. "Harry. Max. I'm here...for my lesson, I guess. With Anton?"

"Ah, that's me," Max replied. "Anton's work schedule doesn't allow, so I'm filling in for him. Does that suit?"

"'Course it does." Mia smiled. It was a charming thing, and Max was reminded of how the media had always eaten it right up when she was younger. "When do we begin?"

Harry pushed himself off the wall. "Soon as I and everyone else clears out, I guess. All right, class, let's go. Professor Godwin has lessons of her own. In case you don't remember, Omega blew up her school."

Max laughed quietly as the big Kiwi herded a group of sweaty spies toward the cafeteria. "So. Anton has devised a test...to see what you can and cannot do. I'm allowed to help, I think...but pretty soon he's going to want you to do these on your own. For now, you're going to work on tracking and reading trails et cetera. Later, he wants to move you to survival training."

"War paint and drinking my own urine! Woohoo!" Mia pumped the air a couple times. "This is exciting stuff, Max. I can shoot a bow pretty well. And a gun. Then again...I guess it's not the same when you're trying to hunt something, is it? Wait. I'm not going to have to kill anything, am I? I mean...animal wise. People is one thing. I don't know if I can kill an animal..."

"You can and will if you need to eat, Mia," Max reminded her. "This is about staying alive. But there will be classes in botany and poisons and stuff that like. So if you're OK with subsisting on nuts and berries, perhaps you won't have to kill anything."

"Laras can do the killing."

The statement was so casual that Max wondered if Mia even realized she'd said it. "You might not always have Laras to rely upon."

"Of course I will. He'd never want to miss an opportunity to remind me that life is war and compassion is weakness and other Larasisms. So he'd kill the deer to teach me the lesson and I'd storm off, returning with nuts and berries as a means of admitting he's right, and I'd get to eat without killing anything. Ta da!"

"You're hopeless. Here. This is a list of what you're supposed to find. Anton says that, eventually, you won't have lists. But that won't be until after you've done all your book learning. You'll have tests like these spaced randomly through your lessons, though mostly you'll be in the library learning plant and animal life, climate systems, and survivalist theory. Obviously, it'll take going above ground to practice some of this, but at least you'll get a decent start on knowledge."

Mia shrugged. "I'll get up there eventually. Just got to prove to Charon I'm good enough, is all. He's got a war to run; he can't afford to keep me down here forever."

Max schooled his face to neutrality. He'd kept the secret for a week already, despite spending much of his off time with Mia. When Laras had approached him about broaching the subject of Mia's involvement in the forthcoming missions, he'd been practically giddy with excitement on her behalf (both because she would be going above ground, but also because it was Laras who'd decided it was time). But he'd been forced to keep it secret. It hadn't been difficult, but there were times he wanted to tell Mia that her faith was justified.

She would be going on a mission. And soon.

"So...where do we begin?"

"Uh...here." Max pointed at the top of the page. "It's a quieter part of the public area, so there aren't too many conflicting 'signals', Anton says. Even the best tracker can't read when there's too many tracks."

The door to Max's left opened, and Charon stepped into the atrium, with Laras close behind. "Professors," Max greeted, nodding. Mia, for her part, stared at the packet, ocean eyes intent as she studied the instructions Anton had left for her.

"Maxwell." Charon returned the nod, and turned to Mia with what Max referred to as his 'librarian' face. "And Amelia. What are you two up to?"

Max was about to answer, when the Princess turned to both men, smiled brilliantly, and held up her packet. "I'm lengthening my list of achievements, Professor." Her voice was sweet, but there was vengeance glinting in her gaze. "Max here is helping me with Anton's first test in tracking. He's also instructing me in the basics of espionage and linguistics. Meanwhile, Hans has decided to remedy the woeful oversight of my triage and anatomy training, and Tony is teaching me what he calls 'field mechanics'. It's quite enjoyable. Busy, but enjoyable."

Charon blinked. "I...see." He turned to Max. "I trust this is not interrupting your work."

Max shook his head. "Not at all. A few of us decided to repay Amelia for her efforts in remedying our lack of pugilistic skill. It's all on our own time. And Amelia is a wonderful student. She picks up what I teach her at least as quickly as I did, and I hear from the others that she surpasses their expectations. Actually...Harry Munro was just telling me how much of an asset she will be to the Rebellion, once she's been trained up a bit."

Beside him, Mia beamed. A little praise went a very long way. After a moment, Charon clapped his hands. "Very well. Do continue. Just be sure that this does not affect the operation of this enclave. While she is training, there is a very real war going on."

Max nodded. "Of course, sir." Mia stood still, her gaze unwavering as she met Charon's eye. Her choice of words had been very deliberate. 'Lengthening my list of achievements', was it? Something had obviously passed between Mia and Charon that the Princess was determined to remind him of. Knowing Amelia, Professor Trusko would never be able to forget.

As the two Professors walked away, Mia returned to her packet and headed toward the far side of the atrium, toward one of the lesser populated dormitory wings. Max stood for a moment, watching the men walk away. He was rewarded when, after a few steps, Laras turned around and, almost imperceptibly, nodded to him.
*****

"Mia, not now...I'm tired."

Lips thinning, Mia blinked slowly and released the breath she'd been holding. She was surprisingly nervous about this visit. Why should she be so nervous? This was just Laras. But then, he'd always managed to fuck with her emotions before, so why not now? "Oh, for God's sake, Laras, I just came to say hi. Can't a girl say hi to her favorite Professor?"

"Fine. You've said 'hi', now go." Mia didn't move, and Laras turned a weary gaze her way. He really did look very tired. Her fingers twitched to ease the tension from his brow and it took a moment for Mia to realize she was forming a fist. God, they were a fucked up couple. "I can't tell you anything."

Wow. That was the first thing he went to when they saw each other? Maybe she should lay off the questions for a while. At least, the ones she asked him. Maybe Max would be more forthcoming. Or Tada, in exchange for her relative silence. "You still think so little of me. And here I thought all my work would have proven that perhaps I'm not so very disappointing, after all. Plus, God...I admit it. I miss you. Is that so bad?"

Laras' expression turned sardonic. "And you're doing all of this for me?"

"No." Mia raised her eyebrows and leaned against the doorjamb, arms crossed. "I'm not gonna be a second rate you. And right now, that's all I am. No one can say my name without saying I'm your lackey or your pet or your...slut." Laras' eyes hardened. Mia waved him away. "Yeah, glad you care. But it's fine. I'm a fighter, but I'll be damned if that's all I'm going to let myself be. I can't let myself just be second place you."

Pushing herself out of the doorway and into Laras' room, Mia headed toward his bed and sat down. "If what I'm doing here regains your respect for me, I'm glad. I miss you. And don't give me that look. I know I had your respect. You told me literally right before we came down here."

"You think very highly of yourself, Princess."

"God, Laras. Don't be a dick. I think highly of you. Myself..." Mia shrugged. "I thought highly of myself. Now I want to be better. I really do."

Laras smirked. "I see. And you came to me to announce your intention? Haven't your pretty speeches gotten you in enough trouble lately?"

For goodness' sake, why did Laras think being an asshole was going to win him any favors? "I came to see you. That's all. I don't want anything from you except you. These lessons I'm giving, they just evoke memories of a time when it was just you and me in the salle, beating the crap out of one another."

"Times change, Princess."

Mia rolled her eyes. "Shut up, Laras. You're being a prick, and I have done nothing to deserve it. I honestly just came in here to see you. Not to be on the receiving end of your temper. I did that enough at Oxford." Standing, Mia headed for the door, pulling her sweater closed and crossing her arms over her chest. When she spoke again, her voice was carefully neutral. "I'm sorry I'm not Phelps. He would have known what to say in this situation to make you feel better. I'll just...I'll see you later. I gotta sleep anyway. Lessons tomorrow."

Laras' hand gripped her shoulder and spun her around. His face was expressionless, eyes icy as they bored into her. Mia tensed, waiting for the hit. "You love the guilt trip and the self pity so much, Mia."

"It's not self pity. I don't pity anything." Mia reached up and removed his hand. "I care about you. I thought we had something. I thought you would be happy to see me. And I guess I was wrong about that. It's not self pity to come to any of those realizations. I'm working so hard...I just thought it might be enough to make you see me again. And maybe that would help us get back...whatever we had."

Mia received only a raised eyebrow by way of expression. "I thought you weren't doing it for me."

"I'm not. I don't care what you think about me as a soldier. But you are my lodestone, Laras. I don't want to be you, but I also don't want to be anything you wouldn't approve of." Sighing, Mia straightened and backed into the hallway. She was done with this conversation. And, at the moment, she was feeling pretty damn close to done with Laras. She had tried, hadn't she? "You know, it was stupid to come here. I had forgotten that you're a miserable wretch. I mean, it's not like being a certified ass is why everyone at Oxford thought you were a traitor."

Mia headed down the hallway, pleased that she had managed not to cry. "Charon wants me to take a team to the surface. There's some work he needs done. He wants me to take you with...to give you more experience. It seems your efforts have not gone unnoticed."

Spinning, Mia charged back to where Laras was standing. "Don't lie to me, Laras! Charon thinks less of me than anyone here." The library swam before her eyes, and Charon's words played again in her ears. No, Amelia. List your achievements. However short that list may be.

"The first mission is in a week. I suggest you have your brother do some rescheduling."

Mia shook her head. "Who managed to convince you two to give me a chance? There's no way either of you would let me go and jeopardize a mission with my inexperience, and a few classes isn't enough to overcome that."

"No one convinced anyone. Like it or not, I am still responsible for you." His voice was harsh, and Mia wondered, just for a moment, if this had been his attempt at an olive branch. If so, it was a pretty sorry one.

"Ah, so that would explain the weeks on end of leaving me to the mob. It was all an elaborate lesson. Or one of those tests you love so much. Let's see...you believed that if I were truly worthy of being here, I would find a way to survive without help, at which point I would have proven myself deserving of your intervention. But if I needed help, I just wasn't worthy. Because needing help is the number one sign of weakness in Laras Nikolao World."

Laras growled, and Mia knew she had finally pushed it too far. "You know me so well, Princess," he hissed, voiceless as he closed the space between them. "I do solove hearing my own thoughts spewed back at me."

"Fine. Maybe I'm wrong. Then why not just tell me? I understand the rebellion secrets, but this? Us? That's fucking different. There is a damn life outside of fighting. And I just wanted a moment of that with you. Because, God help me, Laras, I do love you. It's stupid and irresponsible, but I do. And fighting can't be the only fucking thing we have. I have to believe there's more to you--to us--than that."

"Well, there's this." Here Laras moved closer, his hands gripping her hips and yanking her to him. "I thought we were quite good at this."

"Don't try to manipulate me, Laras." Mia's voice was a little breathier than she intended, but otherwise firm.

"This is what I can offer you, Princess. This is who I am." Laras' breath was hot against her neck, his lips and teeth working in tandem to send Mia's every conviction into oblivion. "Everything else is the rebellion."

Mia raised her arms and pushed, gathering her rapidly dwindling self control and stepping away. "Really. So you did just bring me here to be your whore. Because this," Mia gestured between them, her other hand clenched tight to stave away the need roiling in her stomach, "this doesn't even smack of respect. And yet, here you are, offering me, what, a consolation prize? Sorry I brought you here...it was a mistake, at least let me fuck you to make up for it? Because..." Here she trailed off, her throat tightening as a shudder of self-recrimination ran over her. She should never have come here.

She thought he might hit her. She hoped he would hit her, because at least that meant he cared enough to be angry. That she was wrong, and she wasn't just his plaything. Instead, his face went studiously blank and he crossed his arms, almost hugging them to his chest. "OK, Amelia," no trace of a growl or sarcasm left, "see it your way."

In an instant, the door was closed between them, not quite slamming, but certainly dismissive. And his face. The last time she'd seen that was when Phelps accused him of... "Oh," Mia whispered to the empty hallway, feeling her heart thud in her chest, and a strange sense that she had done wrong plodding through her veins. "What have I done?"

Their transport to Dublin was a cattle truck. Below, cows shifted and huffed. But not half so much as his team of seven, who took up about a third of the top level of the truck. There was at least one green face among them.

“Focus on the horizon,” Laras growled as they jerked over a pothole and Olsen gave a little groan. She was a dissembler, someone who had taken this route along the coast many times, and she was annoying him no end.

Because uncomfortable and cramped as the truck was, it boasted views of their route along the Irish landscape that Laras knew he would admire on any other day. Seeing it roll by, he could feel a kind of stillness trying to seep into his body. It made him wary. No good could come from that kind of calm. Not when they carried with them a storm. He was grateful that the breeze through the slats kept him wakeful, salt wind bringing with it a chill from the east.

“Can take your mind off it with one of these, if you want?” Grit offered her one of his guns. He’d been organising their arsenal for the past hour – the third time he’d done so since they left. Recounting ammunition rounds, running his hands over the pistol, the long-range rifle, the case of handguns he’d prepped for the rest of them. He’d palmed off two to Laras. They sat in his lap, familiar and cold, weighted about thirteen shots to the proton. The look of shock on Mia’s face as he’d accepted each piece without qualm had nearly made him smirk.

Olsen groaned again but Laras noted that she tipped her forehead against the slats and her eyes found the line where Irish Sea met dawn-grey sky.

Andy Munro, Olsen’s usual partner, gave her knee a little pat. “You’re all good, Sal. Road straightens out in a bit.”

“Liar,” Akiko said.

Olsen glowered. Munro rolled his eyes at the Japanese coder, who rolled hers right back before putting her head down again to concentrate on her own toolset. Arranging, rearranging, running over her part of the mission over and over under her breath. He could see she was someone who succeeded through hard work. Her skill was hard won and he respected that.

“Oh no you don’t,” Akiko raised her thin arms protectively around the collection of boxes and wires as Munro leant over her gadgets. “These are not toys, Andy.”

“Just tryin’a help. That one looks a little out of place.”

Looking down before she could help herself, Munro lurched forward. Akiko’s hand snatched at him but it was too late. A thin, square disk that Laras understood to be a sequencer skittered an inch, knocking her perfect sequence apart. She made a sound between a gasp and squeak. Her dark eyes rose in a narrow, deadly glare.

It was like watching a cat defend its most recent prey from a neighbourhood dog. She would be hissing at the New Zealander if she could, he would still be wagging his tail, nudging forward, teasing for attention.

Laras didn’t mind Munro. He was older and gentle in his mannerisms. But there was a sharpness to him as well that must have been a family trait given the similarity it bore to the looks Laras had been receiving from Harry Munro in the spycraft cells.

A snort of amusement brought him out of the drama.

Mia sat beside him. She hadn’t had much choice if she didn’t want to look at him, which seemingly she couldn’t these days. And with Max seeming to doze in the corner, she’d been silent after the initial greetings as they all clambered into the truck.

Now she was smiling. Just a little, a tilt of her lips as she watched Akiko and Munro with something that might have been affection. They were two of her new students, he knew that and further suspected that the Japanese woman’s relationship with Mia’s brother may have had something to do with how those classes came about in the first place.

One of his hands lay on the guns in his lap, the other rested by his side next to her. He could feel her warmth radiating towards him. She’d need only move the slightest amount and they would be touching. She was that close. She was that far from reach.

Forcing his concentration elsewhere, Laras’ mind centred on the mission, sank back into the days before, when this electricity in his body had been based on nothing but the promise of sunlight and adrenaline.

There had been eight of them in the room.

Max, the codebreaker, and his fellow tech-head Akiko; Grit, a sharp shooter; the two dissemblers, Munro and Olsen; Mia; and himself. Charon stood to his left. Laras was faintly puzzled by his attendance – he wouldn’t be coming on the mission – but he didn’t need to look to know that the former spy was focused on Mia.

Having barely spoken to the princess in the few days it had taken to pull these people together, he’d noted the way she shared small acknowledgements with the team as she entered and the way they nodded back. So different from them and their passing shadows in the training room, their aborted greetings and glances ringing with recriminations. Still he felt a soft swell of warmth in his diaphragm as she chose a spot by Max.

Laras shifted stance. All attention snapped forward, even Trusko.

“Earlier this week, we received intel on several planned attacks on rebel enclaves. Toulouse. Bucharest. Hamburg. They’re all due to be struck in the next seven days.” Quiet but controlled, as he spoke he lifted one hand and drew up a hologlobe. “The week after, targets are on Abu Dhabi and Colombo, Singapore and Rome. These are not outposts for soldiers, however. They are our medical centres, our aid workers. Omega is destroying our healers and civilian support efforts.”

Olsen muttered something under her breath that sounded like a prayer and Laras noted how Grit’s glower deepened, how Munro’s hands clenched together, how Mia’s eyes flashed and burned as they caught Akiko’s. Max gave him a quick, determined nod before standing and stepping forward.

“Our aim is to stop these attacks. To pass word to the enclaves by sending a mass communication out to all the rebel factions.” Max tapped on the where Ireland hovered in the hologram, zooming in on Dublin. “Between us, the Caer’s have been working on creating an encrypted service that could cover the globe. However, to make it work, we first have to hijack an OSPA signal.”

“What? Why?” Olsen lent forward, fringe falling in front of intelligent grey eyes.

Max gave a self deprecating little shrug. “What we have here is good. What they have is better. OSPA can track all comms on Earth given the right information. But it’s a prism. It relies on input data to predict or ‘reflect’ models back to the Omega information centres by splitting that data up into statistically relevant component parts. Anything we encrypt, it can decrypt given time and resource. Go inside however, and anything sent is essentially distributed as part of the split data. It’s assumed to be decrypted already.”

“In English?” Grit didn’t look half as impressed as Max might have expected.

“It means anything sent from inside that core data room is essentially being sent from inside a black box,” Laras said. “And what does that give us and our message?”

“Invisibility.”

“Exactly.” He let himself smirk at the younger Munro. Like his brother, Andy Munro was one of those agents whose mind travelled to the places and answers that others simply didn’t.

Tilting her head, Olsen frowned. “But if that’s the case… why haven’t we gone in there before? Surely it’s a natural target so close to HQ.”

“We’ve never had reason–”

“That’s bull, Max. OSPA is a weapon we could do without being pointed at us. We’ve always had to work around it. Take it out and how much of Ireland would have been unseen? How many people could we have helped?” Frustration bubbled in Akiko’s voice as she interrupted. Knowing Dublin as she did, she was a natural suggestion from Max when Laras requested someone who could make use of a distraction.

“We never had reason and ability.” Max finished his sentence and nodded at the map. “To approach incorrectly could sever OSPA entirely and that could mean cutting almost all electric power across Ireland. It’s rigged. This is the first time we’ve been able to figure out how the system works, how to access it.”

Akiko crossed her arms over her chest.

Max fixed her a hard stare. “You know our work, Akiko. If there had been anyway to infiltrate OSPA before, don’t you think we would have taken it already?”

It was time to interject. Filing away the Japanese woman’s attitude and the curious glances she was receiving from Mia, Laras moved the holograph onwards.

In order to hijack OSPA they needed to infiltrate a tall, narrow tower in the industrial sector of Dublin.

“The upside: it’s not somewhere they expect to be targeted. The downside: the reason they don’t expect to be targeted is because the building is designed to be impenetrable.”

No one worked there. Guarding the perimeter were twelve mostly non-Gaian soldiers. The single entrance opened once a year officially – in May – for an annual hardware inspection. The central staircase spiralled up, rigged with motion and heat sensors the whole way to the top where the OSPA mainframe sat.

“But there is a way to do this. There are two exceptions to the closed door rule.”

As the truck to Dublin rumbled round a corner, causing Olsen to groan yet again, Laras almost smiled thinking of the way he and Max had laid out their plan. The team had grown rapt, their focus undivided. The rush he felt then was the same he felt now. A clarity settled over him that he’d hardly felt in the weeks since he and Mia arrived at Blarney. This wasn’t petty politics. This wasn’t pointless arguments and endless frustrations and dead ends. This was his brain working at a rate both exhausting and exhilarating, the promise of action thrumming through his every nerve, every muscle, every moment. He was born for this. Bred for this.

“Of course, we wouldn’t be here if it was really impenetrable,” Max said.

Akiko pursed her lips. “So what we going to do? Hack the entrance?

“Fake a hardware failure?” asked Munro.

“Bribe the guards?” asked Olsen.

“Shoot our way in?” suggested Grit.

“Are we going to find out there are secret tunnels we can use?” said Mia.

Laras caught the way her mouth quirked. Tunnels. Because there were always tunnels.

“Munro’s closest,” he said. “But there are tunnels.”

All war was deception. And this kind of mission would usually work like a magic trick or picking a pocket. The best way to take a man’s wallet was to make him think you were after his watch. Entrance the audience so they peer right whilst the real action happened on the left. However, in this instance they had to do a little more than divert and conquer.

“There are three stages to this operation. Three stages and three teams, each dependent on the others. Timing is critical. And whilst parts of it may seem routine to some of you who’ve been involved in food drops, this is no reason for complacency.”

Flashing a grin full of teeth, Laras pushed the holograph on one more time. A new map, broken up by three coloured lines.

“There is a reason why three specialist fighters are with you today. Fuck up and you might not just compromise those in this room, but every enclave globally. All of you will have to memorise your routes, your lines, your roles. Everyone must work in sync. We have fifty-two hours until wheels up. This is what we’re going to do.”

Max’s hand on his shoulder jolted Laras back to the truck.

The rolling hills had turned to houses, if you could call these fractured frames houses. In the distance, the rooves of factories could be made out, chimneys and aerials cutting a fringe into the horizon.

“Thirty minutes.” Max said.

They rumbled through the neutral ground upon the outskirts of Dublin, which was neither town nor country, yet ran the closest to civilian normalcy. There was the clashing and banging of town life. Flags, fraying from windowsills, showed allegiance to one of the Derry football teams. People, themselves narrow and ruddy faced, moved with the coarseness and ease only present in those whose lives were caught between agriculture and industry. Two youngsters stared as the cattle truck went by – an air of jaded sullenness in them both, and particularly in the girl. Here began the shift from rebel country to the mix of ambivalence and anger. Like the road’s last turns before making its mind up to head direct for the city, opinion also struggled for any of the countryfolk’s straightforward insurgent hearts.

Soon the city loomed around them. The houses were of pale stone, or would have been if the sea wind and ash from the factories hadn’t washed it all to mottled black like old gravestones. Far from the ancient ditties and songs, there was nothing fair about Dublin. Industry was now its aim, creating a city ringing with machinery. Tall chimneys, from which smoke uncoiled and snaked among the cranes, turned the blue sky grey. The map of Dublin that had spun on the holograph was one where the old town was merely a tourist ground for intergalactic visitors, whilst the working city sprawled out with a few fat six-lane roads that were all very much like one another, and many more small streets and grader lanes between factories all very much more or less like every other small street or grader lane between factories. Faces, none very distinguishable from the next, grew less and less sturdy and more and more colourless.

Expression caught between sadness and hardness as they passed the small shops with their windows full of signs – some for trade, others for the missing – Mia muttered something under her breath. A prayer. A curse. Laras didn’t catch the words but he understood it all the same. Ireland was not a place that had been treated well after the first rebellion. Its economy was all but gone. Its people mostly indentured after the bailout a century ago.

“Supplies are scarce here,” he said, quiet enough to be only for her. “The west city pays off old debts through the warehouses, the east through the quays. Food, toiletries, basic tools – it’s all rationed out.”

Her hands clenched but she lent closer. “Does no one leave?”

“Not many. Individuals. The odd family. Most make their living like Scotland’s crofters.”

“So their loyalties…”

“Nominally to the manufacturers who supply their living. Truly to whoever and whatever presents the best opportunity.”

Laras could imagine her frown without looking. “That’s not a very generous summation.”

“Some join the rebellion – Caoilfhionn, Wheck.”

“You hate Wheck.”

“Fifteen minutes.”

The truck was slowing. It was time to prepare.

Grit shouldered his rifles, spinning the handgun case to the group. “Take yours.”

Olsen, still looking pale, tucked hers into her boot. Akiko, Munro and Mia attached holsters to their legs. Where Max squirreled his Laras wasn’t sure he wanted to know, whilst his two he strapped against both shoulders before shrugging on the grey overalls and dark coat from a munitions manufacture in Ballymount. They all looked similar except Mia and Akiko, whose thinner navy tunics and cream hoods set them apart from the rest.

Faith fed the people of Dublin with the kind of spiritualism that emphasised everything they lacked. Eight temples and the rebuilt cathedral sustained the different districts, ministering to the people a diet of workful piety and privation. Yet, fortunate to their plan, one lay almost on top of the mainline power lines, albeit one that specifically catered to women. The House of Vestals. It would be up to them to infiltrate the vestals’ living quarters, interrupt the power supply across the Ballymount and Broomhill estates, and create the distraction the plan needed. Mia was the means; Akiko was the method.

As they disembarked, disappearing down into the lower levels of the truck and out, no one noticed the glance between Akiko and Olsen. Max’s attention was on Munro, who Grit was helping to better conceal his handgun. Laras’ was studiously not on Mia as she slid down into the dark with her brother’s little girlfriend. No one saw the grin shared between hacker and dissembler, or the metal spoke poking out between teeth then vanishing again.

Moments passed. Two vestals walked across the street behind the truck, steady in grace and diligent virtue.

Laras jumped down into the space where the cows huffed, warm and sweet in the gloom. Crawling to the left, he edged towards the back wheel where a hatch would let him drop to the road below. All he had to do was wait for the truck to slow. On his heels, came Max. Taking up the space behind him.

“Ready?”

Laras waited a beat but not for an answer. As the truck breaked on the next turn, he slid to the axel, tucked, dropped and rolled. And then he was away. Out of the road, out of the dark and into the Dublin street. Crowds of eyes looked through him as he dusted himself off, blinking away the spots of light in his vision.

“Ready?” Max’s voice teased, coming up beside him.

They watched the truck round the bend, fell into step with the swarm of grey suited, grey faced Dubliners. A little while spread before them, eventually they’d cut towards the industrial heartland,

Somewhere ahead, Laras knew the remaining three would be exiting the vehicle much as they had. One by one, causing barely a ripple in a sea of sameness. Where no one expected anything, no one saw anything.

Olsen would initially travel with Grit and Munro, the three of them setting pace towards the warehouses north of the OSPA tower. Munro had the paperwork and know-how for the entry to Unit C13. He and Grit would head for the rooftops where the sharpshooter would fire a cable across to the OSPA unit, whilst it would be up to Olsen to set up their exit route through the subway tunnels. With no power, the seven of them would be able to run the three-mile stretch of subway to the quayside where a boat waited to take them back round to Glandore.

As for Laras and Max, they were the primary infiltrators of the tower.

Taking out two of the senior guards to dissemble, they would assume the tedious task of sweeping the building whilst the power was down. This was the second exception to the closed door rule – the first being a case of fire. But as they didn’t want any alarms to sound, and power outages were not infrequent (although disruptive), Laras’ plan kept it minimal whilst playing to the strengths of those involved.

Lanky as Max was, he tended to lope as he walked around Blarney. There was none of that now. It was something Laras appreciated. There was a different cast to the spy now, a fatigue to his gait and expression. Both of them had slipped their skins, becoming as indistinct from each other as they were from the milling strangers around them. Laras had forgotten what a rush it could be to play someone else.

And yet something cold and cautious coiled in the based of his spine. Something was off.

Ahead the the main road ran busy with people in their Ballymount greys, the name of the place branded across their backs and pockets. Women, men, most young and thin with poverty, trudging shift to shift. Laras knew this kind of place well, knew how mindless such creatures could become in the face of opportunity. Torn between hatred for their masters and greed for more of whatever small tokens those masters would bestow, they could be friend or foe to the rebels. But none of them were paying the two of them any mind. They were faceless in this crowd.

He scoured the street, the blackening walls, the graffiti stained pillboxes, the exits to grader lanes. Dublin’s panopticon mocked him. They were being watched but he couldn’t tell by whom.

In his head, the little black box stirred, shuddering against the side of his conscious thoughts. He couldn’t open that here, not now. But what could he be missing.

The tags on corners, the peeling doorways.

What was he seeing but not seeing?

Max fell in step to his left. “That’s the turning.”

Peeling themselves away from the crowds, which thinned the deeper they went into industrial territory, they headed down between factory and steel yard. Never dropping their stride, they began the winding route from main road to target.

Max lit up, passing the pre-rolled cigarette over to Laras whilst rolling another. The lanes were narrow but unlike the wider streets, were empty and unwatched. These were roads made for single vehicles carrying fodder out of the city. People generally only used them for clandestine breaks and shortcuts. And since tobacco was far from easily available in Dublin, this was their excuse if they came across any curious glances. Laras hadn’t even thought of it until the suggestion had been made by the spy back at Blarney. Another reason why the spymaster was fast becoming someone he respected.

The first inhalation filled his lungs in like an ode to a past life. Whispered admonitions that sounded like suspiciously like Phelps niggled at him alongside the continued sense that something was wrong. A splash of red in the corner of his eye made him. Graffiti, old. Scratches running through it.

Further down. Again. Slips of memory escaped from the black box in his mind. As the two of them picked through the potholes, more and more fell into place.

The cold in his spine curled into a tight ball. The signs were all there. This was something he needed to follow up. If he was right…

“We have company.”

Max’s eyebrow quirked. “What?”

“Someone has scoped this route. Those scratches are recent tags. I’ve seen several since we arrived.”

Scanning the markings that Laras indicated, Max’s brow furrowed. “Those aren’t our markings. It’s not us.”

“Not us,” agreed Laras. “But I have a hunch.”

Immediately, the spy’s gaze was sharp. “You’re suggesting someone is leaving us a message?”

“Yes.”

“Could this be a trap?”

“Yes.”

“What’s your hunch?”

“I suspect you’ve already guessed.”

Max frowned. Their footsteps walked in time, two shadows in sync.

“We have to split up.”

“You have a plan, Nikolao?”

“Yes.” There were maps in his mind, details and outlines for each of the routes they’d plotted before organising this mission. He could see two, three routes available. None easy. None simple. “Once Akiko takes out the power, I’ll ensure you can continue as planned. I will divert to the deliveries block on west.”

It was a risk to go that way but given where Akiko and Mia would be, he didn’t want to end up luring any attention to the subways.

Ahead the grader lane narrowed and the square around the OSPA tower lay bright and quiet. This was it then. Blood thrumming, Laras dropped his half smoked cigarette, stubbed it, and grinned a grin that widened when he saw the same feral smile creep across Max’s face.

Now to take out their prey before the lights went out.

*

Laras staggered out into the street, stumbling as if drunk towards their target. His name was August Libran. New to the Twelve Guard but considered reliable.

The guard didn’t rush him, seeing only an unruly local. And Laras used that against him. Before he could raise any alarm, the drunkard vanished.

A muay thai teep-kick interception of the soldier’s reaching hand led into a wing chun bil jee finger jab to the eye that sent him reeling. Before equilibrium could reassert, a pen-cak silat open-hand slap to the ear, then an upward elbow into the nose, knocking the soldier flat, motionless. Four motions, junk fight moves. Efficient all the same.

Laras’ nerves fizzed. This was why he was the best. Fast. Silent. Deadly. Purist he may seem as a teacher, but far from it in a real fight. Take a little from every art, hone the moves, wield the most destruction.

Sinking a syringe of amelos into the man’s shoulder muscle, it was over. Libran wouldn’t stir for at least an hour and his memory would be gone when he did.

“Clear.” Laras called.

Max melted out of the shadows. “Nice work.”

“Your turn now.”

Pushing Libran onto his back, Max set to work with a skill Laras knew he could learn from. First a sheet placed over the guard’s face, tapped into place so that each wrinkle and blemish was caught in the thin film. Waiting, seconds ticking by. Then lifting the mask, slow and deliberate,

Libran had been the logical choice to be picked off, there was no way he wouldn’t be selected to make the sixteen storey trek to the top when he had never been called on to do it before.

Max applied heat using two pads attached to his hands. Ten seconds. Twenty.

This was a far more laborious and expensive way to dissemble compared to the digital variants, but safer, less easily unproven. Libran was similar enough to Max in height and build, that was another reason for choosing him.

The pads flashed blue, and the mask took on a peculiar pinkish hue in the light.

Max turned to the shadows, fixing the mask in place.

Next the clothes, the uniform, the spray to make his hair lighter.

Three minutes before the power cut, they were doing well for time given they’d accounted for two rather than just Libran. And yet…

“I should go.”

The technology closed around Max, the grimness in his expression matching Laras’ own, and then he was gone. Instead there stood a guard who was also very naked and very much unconscious at Laras’ feet.

“Do what you must.”

It was strange, hearing the man’s voice out of a stranger’s face. But there was no time to dwell on the uncanny because that was when the lights went out.

Both men moved. Max darting out to the square to take up his role as the junior guardsman. Laras dragging the original into an alcove for Max to retrieve later. He’d return once his role was done, wake the man up and use the after effects of the amelos to plant some memories back into the man’s consciousness before he resumed his mundane Omegan existence.

As Laras stepped back rom the body, he flinched. There, just above bare toes, were three cut lines in the brickwork. The shape: an L sliced through to make a triangle. He set his jaw. Unclenched his shoulders. Being boxed into a corner never sat with him. He needed to regain an advantage.
*

He’d chosen the west wing of a tin factory, closed and gutted, ready for refurbishment. It wouldn’t stay empty for long given how precious space was in Ballymount. But it did the job for now – far enough from the others not to jeopardise any of their work, close enough he could still make the meeting point later. And open. No hiding spots made themselves available. No corners remained shadowed more than the others.

In his initial plans for the mission, he’d thought this place could have stored a vehicle for their getaway but the grader lanes here were too narrow and a small, unknown car would cause too much of a stir.

So instead, it became the space for a reunion he’d much rather never happened. And which, he suspected he would rue even upon his deathbed.

The scent of perfume assaulted him first. A crisp, apple smell – lightly spiced – worn in the hollow of a long, pale throat and just above the pulse of thin wrists.

“I heard you played the piano again at Oxford. You were always such an emotional player.”

It was years since he heard his native Russian spoken so easily. Laras held himself perfectly still, impassive. Zoya Gangart was not someone to indulge with the small insights that came from body language. A hitch in your breath could be a death knell to her ears. A blink at the wrong time become a sign of betrayal. Every reaction was clue in whatever little game she chose to play. And Laras had played far too many games with her to give in that easily.

Zoya floated into his vision; a petite, elfin creature, almost childlike if not for the dark, almost black, eyes. Paler than him, porcelain skinned, blond hair braided into a knot, she seemed unchanged since he’d last seen her. But then she had always been unnatural. A devil hidden behind the sweetest face.

She smiled a beautiful, bladed smile. “I always wondered if your fingers healed alright after I broke them that time. One by one. Crickety crack.”

A flash of red tongue licked along her teeth, savouring, perhaps, the memory of his once shattered hands.

“Oxford had plenty of specialist doctors that were at my disposal for many years.”

“Oh Lareska, how I missed you.”

“I would say the same but I would be lying.”

“Tch. Such rudeness. Aren’t you wondering how I’m here?”

“You followed me.”

“Oh no. You know it’s not always about you, my little crow. I followed your princess. She is adorable, trying so hard but giving everything away with her walk. It’s simply too distinctive to miss.”

Ice poured down Laras’ spine, pooled in his gut where it burned and boiled. This was anger, he told himself. This was not fear.

“If you followed her, how did you find me?”

“Deduction of course.”

“Now who’s the liar?”

She pouted. “Alas, you’ve always had a knack for ruining my games.”

“Because they’re not fun.”

“You used to enjoy them.”

“What do you want, Gangart?”

“You.”

Her voice was almost a purr and he fought the urge to roll his eyes. She’d take one out before he could blink. “And I thought this was a business trip.”

She stepped closer. He didn’t flinch.

“Aw you’ve grown up so well. But yes. I do mean business.”

Suddenly she was close, too close, arms going around his waist, eyes gazing up into his. Her mouth curled into a smile but her dark, dark, eyes remained ice. Standing on tip-toe, she leant in, pressing flush against his body, the spice of her perfume stinging his nose. Every muscle in his body wanted to push her away, to lash out, attack. His hand raised. His thumb caressed her cheek.

“It’s time to come home. The war has begun,” she whispered, face turning, lips grazing below his ear. “Daddy wants you.”

Laras scoffed, “He can want real coffee and peace on earth but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.”

“It’s an order.”

“He is not my general.”

“This is not real war.” All the warmth was gone from her voice. “Hiding in your little holes. Skirmishing like amateurs. And you, giving orders from a cage. It is pathetic.”

“Because assassinating low-level thugs is the real battle,” Laras drawled.

A prick just above his kidney notified him to the dagger at his back. The click of the safety telling her there was a gun to her head. She tipped her head back against the muzzle.

“Oh naughty, naughty. I thought we were becoming friends.”

“And I thought you were less fucking predictable than this, Gangart. I’m disappointed.”

She scowled. It was an expression they shared, both having learnt it from their master, his father. Neither of them dropped their weapons.

“Russia commands you. And we would have you fight.”

“I fight here.”

“Really? Little missions are enough for you? One a month, maybe two? Never leaving this ruined island?” She snorted. “You are weak now.”

He knew the muscle twitching in his jaw would give away how her words struck home. But she’d also revealed how little she knew of Blarney, their role, their plans. She needed to think she was winning. He loathed it but she had to win this.

“Because you love the feeling, Lareska. It’s the only thing that makes you feel alive. You are war, my pet. And you cannot live without it.”

Twisting out of reach, Zoya Gangart laughed. Laras kept his gun trained as the knife danced over her fingers.

“You’ll change your mind. You’ll come to find me.” The knife disappeared between the folds of her coat, a fitted black uniform that stank of a wealth Ballymount didn’t own.

“I doubt it.”

He had to throw himself to the floor to avoid the blade; it whistled over his head. And he knew she was gone before he could right himself. Faster than the river, ruthless as the current. He cursed.

At least, he could think again.

Calculating the time that had passed, how much he had left – it couldn’t have been more than ten minutes. Their words had been calculated but fast, the whole exchange a matter of foreplay. She couldn’t be right. He couldn’t wait to escape this place.

Gangart’s polished veneer could never fool him. He knew her. Knew her mind. A cruel dark thing from a land that bred monsters. Of all of them, perhaps, she was the worst.

Laras shook his head and tried to shrug on the mindset needed for this mission.

Keeping his gait slow and body relaxed, he exited the factory, made quick work to the hight street and stepped into the swell of the crowd. It was time to return to Blarney.

It was her mention of Mia.

Laras knew he was a cold man. He was a collection of harsh lines and cruel edges. But as he walked, Zoya’s words replayed and all he could think about was Mia’s expression when she had all but begged for his understanding in the tunnels of Blarney. Her eyes. The parting of her lips. The strands of loose hair that tickled beneath her ear. He wondered if he’d had another choice back then. It had felt like an attack - her manner, her words, her hurled accusations about love and lack of respect. And he had done what he did best: defend and counter and retaliate. Having manipulated the stage so she could become operational, having traded favour for the chance to let her in on this mission and prove herself – he’d despised the charges she laid against him. The rebellion was everything. He knew no other way to be. He had nothing more to offer her. Yet it pricked him as much as Zoya Gangart’s departing laugh.

Mia was learning. Trying to learn. He could recognise that. He could try as well – give her something that she wanted, needed – deserved – to hear from him. When they returned he would speak to her. Perhaps she could explain and he could listen.

Perhaps many things.

Then the world went white.

The sound was somewhere between thunder and lightning. It lifted Laras off his feet, sent him flying, falling, hitting the ground and sprawling as heat roared through him in a whoosh that stole his breath. Smoke, dust, whiteness choked the street, clogged his lungs. He coughed and his chest burned, throat latching like it was catching on glass. His eyes stung. He knew if he rubbed them they’d be full of grit. For moments – seconds or minutes he couldn’t tell – he lay with his face against the cool cobbles, fingers clenching, unclenching, trying to figure out which way was up.

He was back at Oxford, the world collapsing around him. The heat. The tang in his nostrils. Only no one was there whispering to him, cradling him in the pitch dark as he died in the dust.

Pushing himself up to hands and knees, his head rang and spun. No breaks though. Nothing shattered. It took a further second to realise the throb in his skull was the wailing of yellow sirens and screaming strangers. Or maybe that was his soldiers. He touched his ear, his hand came away sticky red.

A huge black plume of smoke gushed into the otherwise grey sky. A gaping hole in the side of one of the factories, bits of roof hung precariously over shocked faces fleeing below.

He had to go back to the Subway entrance.

If this was one of Zoya’s surprises… but why would she have done this? What goal would it achieve drawing attention to any of them? Even in her twisted little world there were rules and games were always fought away from the battlefield.

“What the hell is going on? What the hell is going on?” There shook a man, rocking on his heels, face tilted up.

“Duncan?” A woman ran at him, grabbed his face, howled, moved on, screaming, “Duncan!”

All around the legion fell apart. The march of the Dubliners turned into heaving, broiling stew of panic. People on the floor whimpered, some crouching down, others lying still. Men tripped and stumbled over each other, trying to flee the open street. Women whiffled, dazed, propping each other up.

Legs wobbling as he stood, Laras felt grateful for the uproar surrounding him. But even as he thought it, he saw three Omegan guards break the chaos, their pristine black uniforms turning them to shadows in the smoke. Their glinting helmets scanned the crowds, looking, searching for the odd one out. They waded into the fray, seizing terrified citizens and scanning identification tags as they went.

Laras had no intention of being caught out now. He didn’t know when but more soldiers would arrive soon. Black bags readied. And he was not going to go down in one of those.

Pushing all thoughts of rebellion to the back of his mind, he focused on the panic stricken, started a limping jog that took him with the current, ever growing as more and more noted the presence of soldiers.

Stumbling once, twice, he feinted out of the crowd, into an alley where three young boys huddled. Vacant eyes looked through him as he straightened, ditched the limp and sprinted towards the dead end. A ten-foot wall.

Just before impact he leapt. Left foot hit the bricks about three foot up, propelling him upwards. Driving hard, hands grabbed for the top of the wall – finding wire – he hissed but didn’t let go. Feet scrambling beneath him, he pushed through, firing his lats, pulling his chest up and then his whole body onto the top of the wall. Barbed wire tore through his factory workers gear but didn’t penetrate the body armour beneath. Without glancing back to see the dull watching eyes, he swung over, dropped, tucked and rolled on the other side.

Laras grinned.

Ahead the street looked clearer. A second flash and rumble alerted him to a second explosion. Further away this time.

Whatever was going on, he didn’t have time to figure it out now. Following the streets in his head, it was time to find the others and get the hell out. He ran, heart steady, the rush singing in his veins, the most delicious thing he’d tasted in months. And for once he hated himself for it.

*

Two shadows lurked in the station room. Grit had his face pressed against the window pane, scanning the panicking crowds below. The other, Munro, sat, head hanging, oblivious to his arrival. Both were white, wearing the dust stained coat of war victims.

“What are you waiting for?” He couldn’t understand why these two hovered whilst sirens screamed at them to flee. It wouldn’t be long before some enterprising civil guard or soldier thought to check the

“You lot,” the standing one – Grit – retorted. “Munro and I are the only ones yet.”

Shock sucked into his lungs. “No sign of Olsen?”

Or Mia. Hers had been almost routine. A simple in and out with Akiko. Where was she?

“She wasn’t here.”

“So we move.” He slipped towards the back, body coiled now. “Get to the tunnels.”

“We can’t.”

He halted mid stride. Pivoted.

The man on the floor struggled to focus on Laras. With his face now visible it was possible to see the compression of his left cheek, the blood that turned ash to a copper crust around one swollen eye.

“We can’ get through. Tha’larm. Sthubway locks down.” The man wheezed each word, struggling not to slur.

“It’s a yellow tocsin, sir,” explained Grit. “Dublin’s rigged from the port to the Dodder on the south side.”

Laras knew that but his head rang and knowing didn’t help. Of course, if Olsen never made it here then the entryways would have locked down before they arrived. Maps laid out across maps filled his head. “What about Max?”

“He was here, sir.” Grit had been a soldier; he knew what Laras was asking. “He said there’s a chance we can open one of the old man holes down into the subway that way.”

He nodded. That was good. Max would report back. And if the tunnels didn’t work…

“That’s a scheming face.”

“Definitely plotting.”

“Stop fucking wittering.” Laras snapped, glowering at the two Irishmen before closing his eyes, pretending not to see the tremble of hope on their dust-white faces.

I need to think this through. I need to know where this went wrong.

The dim clang of alarm bells filled his head. Their whole plan was based on the idea that they’d never hear an alarm. There hadn’t been enough variables in place for things to go awry unless the plan was compromised by either intelligence or operative. The intelligence, however, was tried and tested. This was a journey that had been done several times. Everything had been going to plan -

And where was Mia now? Where are you, princess?

Based on their part in the operation they should have been no where near the explosion. Their route could have been slowed down by panicked crowds but not this much.

Clinking footsteps alerted them to the Omegan soldier first.

Laras was across the room and attacking before he recognise the man as August Libran. Pivoting, he pulled back just as Libran’s expression turned from focus to alarm.

As Laras righted himself, Max smirked, “Nikolao, glad you made it.”

Laras offered a rueful shrug. “Hope I’m not the last.”

In the half light, the alien effect of Max’s mannerisms playing through August Libran’s body were doubled. He realised Grit was studying the two of them with all the subtlety of a donkey. Perhaps he could join Mia in her dissembling classes back at Blarney.

“No sign of our vestals?”

“Not yet.” Grit said.

“Manholes are viable.” Max’s tone was cautious and Laras wondered what he was keeping back. “Munro can you stand?”

The New Zealander lurched to his feet, swayed, nodded.

“Alright, you two go get that manhole opened up. We’ll give it ten more here then follow.”

Laras let Max give the orders, watched the men go. His mind turned over Dublin like a rubix cube.

“You’re taking us through the sewers to get to the subway…” It wasn’t a question but Laras didn’t like what he was thinking. “There aren’t any Rats around here though.”

“You know the routes as well as I do.”

He grunted. Scowled. Paced.

“I don’t like it any more than you do.”

“Still our best bet. I know.”

The two men looked at each other. Dublin’s sewers weren’t safe for anyone around here. The Rats moved on years ago. Ballymount’s system long written off by visiting rebels.

A thump broke the moment before Laras could – he swallowed his question and it raked down his throat.

“Laras. Max.” Mia’s voice was a plea. She stood in the doorway, Olsen slumped against her. Unnaturally pale, red seeped through Olsen’s uniform. One arm hung at a strange angle with what looked like Mia’s vestal cowl torn and tied around it. “Her arm. It won’t stop bleeding. I tourniquet it just like they showed me but…”

“Let her down.” Laras reacted first, having already been three steps towards Mia before he realise none of the blood on her white uniform was hers.

Mia did as told. Her face was sprayed with blood. Crouching next to the injured woman, he scraped his eyes over Mia.

He didn’t look away when he asked, “Are you hurt?”

Mia slumped back against the wall, shaking her head no. No obvious injuries gave him cause to leave the moaning Olsen’s side. Her gaze was wary too – no doubt wondering whether this was concern for her or part of some game he continued to play. Laras dismantled her slowly. He had taken something, a slither of confidence, faith in some myth they had woven together and now her trust wavered.

He focused back on Olsen. Unwinding the bundle of sticky cloth, he winced at what he saw. Her arm was ravaged, ripped almost in two just above the elbow. The muscle gaped. Mia’s tourniquet couldn’t stem all of this. He pressed his hands down on the wound and Olsen gave a little moan that should have been a scream if she hadn’t been so close to unconsciousness.

Something more than a bandage was needed here. He wracked his brains.

Dimly, he heard Max’s conversation with Mia.

“Akiko?”

“Dead.”

“Why was Olsen with you?”

“She and Akiko. They wanted to bring back supplies, said they had it covered. I didn’t know until we’d turned the power out what was going on and then everything happened so fast and we weren’t in the right place and Olsen was there and –”



“Slow down, Amelia. So they went off book?”

“Yes. Yes. They wanted to get medical supplies. Everyone needs more, they said. There are villages with nothing.”

Laras heard the moment Max swore because a cold, white flame rose up in his gut with every word Mia explained.

“So you set off the explosion. It was you.” He didn’t look up but drew his gun.

“Laras…” Max sounded wary.

Looking at the arm, then the gun, Laras pulled the trigger. The blast struck against the metal floor and then he was twisting Olsen’s wounded arm, pressing it down upon white hot metal. A wail went up from the woman. The stink of flesh hit him. He heard Mia gag. Then he was pulling Olsen back. Burnt skin met his cold eyes, blistered and blackened but no longer bleeding. Cauterised by the proton struck metal.

Olsen was no longer awake but her breathing ragged on.

“We need to get the fuck out of here.” He stood. “Wake her up and let’s move.”

Mia stared at the floor as he glanced at her. Covered in another’s blood, quivering in her ruined white robes, his body surged with feelings from rage to disappointment to an ice cold horror.

It Max moments to wake Olsen, to lift her and get her dragging her feet towards their escape. It took them all minutes they couldn’t afford to find where Munro and Grit had opened the way into the sewers. It took them seconds to drop into the gloom, seal the manhole behind them and the New Zealander to go to his former partners’ side.

“Oh Sal.”

Real affection lay behind his words. Laras didn’t growl but he cracked his light and a small green glow puddled around him.

“We need to head east. We can meet the subway about half a mile from here,” he said, indicating to his left.

“We’re going down there…” Grit said slowly, nerves showing but gun steadily trained on the darkness ahead.

“Akiko and Olsen had a bright idea to do a gig of their own,” Laras sneered their names. “So this is our only fucking choice.”

“What dish’ou say?” Munro slurred.

“We just wanted to help.” Olsen said weakly.

Laras opened his mouth.

“Nikolao –” Max warned, “Enough.”

“Who has the rest of the lights?” He said. As if he’d never been going to ask anything else.

“Me,” Mia said. “I took them from Olsen.”

She cracked the lights as she spoke and filled the space with a dim green glow.

Munro started at the battered Olsen with pupils of different sizes. Laras winced. Two critically injured. One dead. This wasn’t good odds. They were too slow. Munro held onto Olsen but he was losing coordination. Any minute his swaying would turn into a fall.

They hadn’t even gone five minutes into the darkness before that proved true. First there was a whine, then a spark of red.

“Don’t move,” Grit hissed before Laras could fathom what he was looking at.

The small spider-like device blinked at them once, twice.

The munitions expert continued. “That’s a GMS45. Motion sensitive. Move and this whole tunnel blows.”

“So what do we do?” Mia said, voice a little more than a whisper or pitched.

A glance passed between Max and Laras.

Six rebels, frozen to the spot because of a bomb – either perfect sitting ducks or rather chargrilled ones. Either way their chances were poor. He and Mia stood so close, he could hear the moment she forced her breathing to slow, catching the hitch her breath and controlling it. Beyond her, Max’s expression had returned to calm.

The bomb blinked on.

“Tell us more about this thing.”

“Small, focused blast. Type that incinerates. Shouldn’t bring the tunnel down. More like a grenade. Exceptionally sensitive. Once triggered, we’ve seven seconds to get away.”

Seven seconds. No time at all.

Munro’s eyes flickered to the device, to the woman he supported and back. Part of the reason they stood there, forced down the wrong routes, was her bloody mindedness. It was her fault.

He shoved Olsen. She sailed towards the bomb then passed it, falling into Grit. Following, Munro jumped, the flash of a smile cracking through blood and dust then his lips were saying: “Go.” He landed on the explosive, body curling round it in time for them all to be running, sprinting, when the heat hit their backs and the roar their ears. Max staggered. Laras gripped his arm and kept him on his feet. Hunching against the blast, Mia took the lead. A thin pink mist tinged the light, hung warm and damp as they ran.

Munro had absorbed the worst of it. Now they breathed him in.

No one stopped running until they reached the fifth hatch, had rounded the corner and were in the old subway that Olsen had been meant to secure earlier.

It was a clear route down the tunnels, as predicted. Even with Olsen wavering on the edge of consciousness they made good time. Between Max and Laras, checks for further incendiaries proved unnecessary.

Reaching the quay, they paused. Waiting for the whizz of bullets, the sharp whistle of a proton beam. None came.

Max darted up the docks, checking for their ship to safe harbour.

They crouched in the shadows for what could have been hours before his return.

The rag-tag group hobbled on board the boat. Silence spreading through them like a stain. Grit kept Olsen from staggering but his eyes burned, if he had the chance he’d no doubt have left her behind. Hell, he’d probably have sacrificed her in the tunnels instead of doing what Munro had done.

“They knew we were coming.”

“They rigged everything.”

Grit and Mia spoke at once. Stopped. Mia backed off at Grit’s glower.

“We shouldn’t suppose any of this is for us.” Max said. “This was meant to stop supplies we’ve been getting from the city.”

“No,” Laras said. “This was planned. Not like Edinburgh and Lyon but thanks to this royal fuck up, we’re now villains in Dublin.”

“We didn’t know,” Olsen clutched at her mangled arm, eyes watering, lips quivering. Pathetic.

“And you never wondered why Laras and I never suggested such a move? Ballymount is a black zone. Always has been. There are spies and booby-traps cropping up all the time. Akiko knew this.”

“You knew?” Mia said, frowning. “Did the stolen docs show the mission would be this dangerous?”

Laras rolled his eyes. “No. Do try to keep up.”

“Dublin has always been a tough city, Mia. Loyalties are easily bought and sold. The locals set traps – but often under orders. We buy off key persons before we attempt supply missions,” Max said.

“So why didn’t we just do that tonight?”

“Because our mission was too fucking sensitive to jeapordise,” Laras slumped back against the wall. In his head, he could still hear Zoya Gangart’s laugh, see the expression of despair on Mia’s face as she pulled Olsen into the subway, recall Munro’s small smile before he wrapped himself around a bomb and was pulverised to pink mist.

Silence descended again.

Laras wished Mia’s gaze would quieten with it.


***

“Good morning, Max, Laras.” Charon entered the antechamber off the Cell.

“Sarah Olsen and Amelia Godwin will be issued with a court martial come morning.” Charon said. The words fell like a bolt into a lock, a clipped tightness ringing it of any compassion.

“I’m reluctant to make an example of this,” Max said. “And when we meet with the Roundtable tomorrow, whilst I understand a court martial, I would not support a full sentence.”

“I agree,” said Laras.

The surprise on Charon’s face would have amused him on any other day but this. “What?”

Laras shrugged. “Harsh recriminations will do nothing here.”

Realising he wasn’t going to say more, the pleased twist in Max’s expression faded.

“Look at those involved,” Max said. “One dead, another seriously injured. But these are soldiers who thought they were doing what was best. They were thinking of the people that are victims of this war. We should recognise that.”

“They were fucking idiots. So-called noble idealism doesn’t stop their plan from being frankly pathetic.” Laras snapped. There was nothing redeemable about the intentions behind the duplicity that had taken place. “They were fucking glory hounds. If they’d been successful, Olsen and Akiko would both have been lauded as heroes.”

“Don’t forget the princess. She played a pivotal role in enabling this misadventure.”

Laras inhaled through his teeth. “But punishing Mia for trying to protect her team is akin to punishing a flame for being hot. Olsen and Akiko plotted this together.”

“Is this seriously your professional opinion?” The sneer was clear.

“If you’re suggesting my judgement is compromised, spit it out.”

“Two of our number are dead.”

“And Olsen might lose her arm. I know. I cauterised the fucking wound.” Laras paced, fisted his hand in his hair, rolled his neck, turned back to Charon. “Discipline them but be fair. Don’t make an example of Amelia simply because she came back uninjured.”

Charon let out a long, growling breath. The two men stood almost at opposite sides of the room, their disagreement more than just palpable. Max shifted at the side, caught in the struggle, clever enough to know his interruption would do more harm than good. And Laras could hardly believe his own stance. Leniency. It was not a lesson he would have learnt from anyone other than Edward Phelps. But for the first time he could hold his anxiety in check. Everything had been so fraught, so fast, but he knew headspace was the answer now. Finding that clear white space that would let him see Mia without strings, let him see Olsen without fury.

“We are their generals. The failure is our judgement.”

“And it was Max’s idea to go through the sewers, was it?”

“Don’t you fucking dare.”

The spymaster jolted. He was figuring out as the argument continued – Laras on one side and Charon on the other – that there was a very line with Laras Nikolao. Each person he knew fell onto one side or the other. They were either people who he wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire, or people he’d kill for in a heartbeat. Max was pretty sure he was quickly moving into the second category, though he wasn’t entirely sure why.

Laras was snarling. “Olsen was the one who didn’t do her job. We had one option left and we took it.”

“I was only going to commend him for the move. I’m surprised you didn’t think of it.”

“I arrived late.”

“Ah yes, The Cambridge was in Dublin you said.”

“Yes.”

“And she said?”

“I’ve already told you.”

“Tell me again.”

“Russia would like me to return. They want me back.”

“We’ve discussed this before. Perhaps now is the time to consider this option fully. After all, what advantage might your return to Russia give us now we have the global connection set up?”

“No.” Laras shook his head. “You think you can control Russia, bring them into the fold by sending me there as a leader. You are wrong.”

“They have the army.”

“They have unskilled and undertrained civilians who are willing to die for a cause. They do not have an army.”

“You are a skilled teacher. Could you not rectify this situation?”

Laras stared at Charon. For the first time in weeks, he really looked. Far from the man he’d known at Oxford, Charon’s dark eyes were now devoid of any brightness or warmth. There was only focus and a shadow that Laras couldn’t believe he hadn’t noticed earlier.

The two of them were at an impass.

“The court martial is tomorrow. Don’t miss it.”

*

Hissing, the door to the Cell and its artificial sun closed. The tunnels of Blarney had never seemed so small. A bleakness seeped through the corridors. Everyone knew what had happened in various iterations. Blame mixed with rumour, speculation with disbelief. Each whisper became a trumpet.

As he walked his rooms, he realised someone was following him. Those footsteps could be no one else. He stopped but didn’t turn.

“Laras,” she said. “Please?”

What did she want to say, now, at this time? What could he say? There was no way for him to condone her actions. No sympathies or understandings.

“I made a mistake.” She enunciated each word, every syllable containing an agony. “My trust helped compromise the mission, just as you always feared. So tell me – how long are you going to make me pay before you look at me again?”

Laras couldn’t turn to her. He felt like he was going to crawl out of his skin.

“How many times have I had your back when you’ve been hung out to dry? How many times have I tried to support you? Doesn’t that count for anything?”

No, it didn’t count for anything. Not in this situation. Not as her commander. And yet, yes, it counted. For all those same reasons.

He slowly turned, raised his eyes to meet hers.

And he knew, looking at her flushed face, that he couldn’t walk the line between the decency she deserved and the violence this war demanded. If he tried, it might kill them both. He could only be who he was – a creature who carried the dark in his chest, a monster wrought of iron and forged with revenge. She wanted camaraderie, a relationship – but that game could help neither of them now. There was no comfort to be had only a lesson for them both.

Desperation threaded her tone as she added, “I tried. This wasn’t just my fault.”

“No. This is my fault,” he kept his voice cold even as she jolted at his words. “Mine and perhaps Charon’s. Not only should we have chosen our soldiers better, we were your teachers. We should have remembered that you have barely a year’s experience.”

He watched as her face crumpled. There should have been a retort. There should have been some defence.

There were not many who could make people feel like they’d launched themselves down a set of rapids just by starting a conversation but he knew he was one of them. He had never had that effect on Mia until now.

And he couldn’t help but feel his blood burning as he looked at her. They should not have trusted her so soon. Her skills as a fighter were unquestionable but barely tes