The sun, sinking past the silhouetted buildings, shimmered in the haze of Desolation. I felt a little better, out in the air, but something trembled inside me.
I'd seen three people die today. I'd only seen death in holos before, and that mostly fake. And I'd seen a man tortured and been beaten up myself…
Sol looked about as shaken as I felt, and even Sym's face was weary and solemn with a hint of desperation in her eyes.
One more task. And then we could go home.
With all my heart, I wished it were my real home in the Spire. But at least I'd be able to see Sabra at the Savannahs'. After we gave the secret to Dusk, we'd still have to use his secret to look for Dazzle. But we could do that tomorrow.
Sym called a taxi and in a few minutes, one landed on the road. When Lacy tried to get in, the taxi said, "Capacity full. Please take another vehicle." She inched her way into the cab before the doors slid shut, but the taxi wouldn't take off. "Capacity full. Warning. Please take another vehicle."
"Sometimes it does that," said Lacy. "Usually when there are two or more of us. Don't worry. I'll just fly."
Lacy followed us as we lifted off the ground. I ordered the taxi to take us to Dusk's headquarters and we flew over the city, glittering with a million fragments of sun.
I checked Essim's data. It had quite a few details about Hale's plans of attack. He intended to hit multiple targets. Even to me, it didn't seem all that sophisticated, and I doubted Hale would succeed in the face of Dusk's superior might. But it was good information, and I didn't think Dusk would reject it.
A sick feeling clutched my stomach. I should be happy. But I hated the thought of getting closer to Dazzle.
It's for Sym and Sol, I told myself. And my freedom, too.
"Something's wrong," said Sym.
"What is it?" I said.
"We're still in Hale's district."
"The taxi must be malfunctioning," said Sol. "We'd better get another one."
"I hate the idea of stopping in Hale's territory, especially with the information we have. Let's try rerouting it first."
"Taxi," I said. "Take us to Dusk's headquarters."
The taxi kept following the yellow point on the map on its dashboard.
"You don't think—he knows?" said Sym.
"We were in Hale's territory, after all. Taxis are owned by the syndicates."
"And he's taking us to his headquarters…." A chill spread through me.
"That's not where it's taking us," said Sol, pointing at the map.
"Where?" said Sym.
Sol paled. "It looks like…home."
"You mean—your home?"
"The Sojourner district. Where Hale's territory and ours overlaps."
"Why would it take us there?"
"I…don't know…." He looked out the window. "Where's Lacy?"
"What?" I said.
"I don't see her."
"Maybe she's invisible. Usually she notifies me first. She wouldn't abandon us. And nothing can stop an M." Although…something could. I had incapacitated Peri, after all… But that usually would make more Ms arrive, unless you disabled their warning system…. And only a March could do that.
"It might just be a malfunction," said Sym. "Taxis are usually pretty neutral, but Hale…has several reasons to want to catch us."
"He wants me," said Sol.
"He wants me too," I said. "After helping Merali escape…."
"We've got to get out of here," said Sym. "If we could slip out the windows…onto a skyrider…."
We called some skyriders, and they hovered alongside the car. But when we ordered the windows to open, they wouldn't obey.
"We're almost there," said Sol, looking at the map. "There has to be a way to get out."
"I could call Dad. Order a whole flock of Ms. Vy would be here in an instant. Blade would sweep through any resistance."
"It would blow your cover, wouldn't it?" said Sym. "To Hale anyway."
"We'd deal with him."
"Then—our secret would be worth nothing."
"If he catches us with it, it will be. Maybe I could…just send a distress call to some more Ms. So it doesn't tie me directly to the Marches…."
I called up a bunch of Ms.
Except the call didn't go through. The taxi had dampened my com.
The yellow dot blinked, notifying us we had arrived. The taxi swept downwards, skimmed along the street for a few seconds, then dove inside the dark sublevel of a building.
It settled down in complete darkness.
"Open the door," I commanded.
It didn't move.
Completely black outside the windows. The almost tangible oppressiveness bore down on me and panic seized my throat.
I kicked the door.
Of course, that didn't work.
The walls were closing in, soon I would suffocate—my breaths came in hard gasps, my chest tightening.
A hand on my arm. "Jet." Sol. "It's okay. You're not alone. Breathe." He took slow, deep breaths.
I closed my eyes, and somehow that helped—I was in a darkness I could control.
It's okay. We'll get out of this. I'm not alone. I'd never have escaped Dazzle without Sym and Sol….
Sym's hand on my shoulder. "We'll figure a way out." She crept into the front with us and her lightning crackled. She held a blue ball of fire in her palms and it illuminated our faces in the dark. Hope crept back into me.
Sym's ball of lightning dissipated but she created another and it grew slowly, crackling against her palm….
Lights snapped to life outside the car, growing from dimness to an almost sunlike brilliance. I shielded my face from the glow.
Beyond my arm, I could make out silhouettes of four figures advancing toward us. They neared, and I recognized two of them.
Zane. And Meer. The ones who had attacked Sol. Another looked vaguely familiar—a man with short black hair. One of the Noble guards who had been with Hale. What in the world was he doing with Patrollers? The other was a woman, also a Noble, with braided blue hair and sharp golden eyes.
The car doors lifted.
Sym leaped out, the ball of lightning swirling in her hands. "Stay away from them!"
The male guard slashed lightning at her. She blocked with a quickly formed lightning shield, but the others slammed lightning into her and she collapsed to the cement floor. They continued the barrage and she writhed, screaming.
I climbed out of the car. "Stop! You'll kill her."
"That's kind of the point," said Zane, smirking.
I walked unsteadily toward Sym, and Sol joined me.
"Don't hurt her," said Sol. "I'll do anything."
"Anything?" said Zane.
Sol darted into the path of the lightning and it hit him in the chest. He slammed into the ground, lightning seizing his body.
Zane raised a hand. The Nobles withdrew their attacks. "The point isn't to kill him."
"S-so…you don't want to kill us?" I said. I knelt beside Sym and Sol. They were twitching from residual shocks. I laid a hand on their arms but a shock bit into me from Sol's shoulder and I cried out.
Zane laughed. "Not yet anyway. Except maybe that Noble, she's too much trouble for her own good. To get to you, we had to get that M she commanded out of commission, and make sure we had enough Nobles to take her down. Looks like she's not going anywhere any time soon." He chuckled. "Hale wants you. I want Sol. We made a deal." He tilted his head, looking down at Sym. "Wouldn't hurt to have some leverage, though. We could threaten to kill her unless… you do what we want." He grinned.
"W-what do you want?" I said. I felt horribly vulnerable, kneeling on the floor, its cold creeping into my knees. But I didn't want to leave Sym and Sol, wanted to be close enough to shield them. Perhaps…I could use my lightning… if I could shed this crushing fear…
Zane's grin crept wider. "T'was a brilliant idea, if I do say so myself. For one thing, we want to know who you are. What you know. For another thing, Hale wants his mother." He jerked his thumb toward Sol. "And I, of course, want to possess the beautiful thing I crushed, but…suspect I don't quite yet own all the pieces of." He gave a swift motion and the Nobles picked Sol and Sym up.
I could hardly move. I tried to reel away but Meer grabbed me and slung me unceremoniously over his shoulder. I could've tried to struggle, tried to summon lightning, but I felt incredibly weak. Besides, I had to go where Sym and Sol did. Had to find an opportune moment. Summon lightning, escape, get to my com, send a distress call… it popped into my mind I could also let myself get shocked, seriously injured, or beaten into unconsciousness, which would trigger a mass rescue response by Ms and alert my family. But I'd rather take the first option if I could….
They brought us to a room in the back of the sublevel. Bare metal walls, cement floor, three metal chairs. The female guard dropped Sym on the floor. The male guard set Sol in one of the chairs, and Meer slid me into the chair beside him. They took our coms and set them on a table in the back. I hoped they wouldn't ask us to open them, that we could resist whatever they had in store….
The table had other objects on it. Objects that looked suspiciously like torture instruments, sharp, cruelly twisted, serrated…things I didn't want to imagine the use of.
Sol leaned over, holding his head in his hands, his body shaking. I knew the horrible effects of a lightning blast like that. At least he seemed like he would be okay. Sym I wasn't too sure about. She was deathly pale and looked barely conscious. She'd taken more of the lightning. Although she was Nobility, so she could withstand more than a normal human….
The two Noble guards hung in the back, arms crossed, eyeing us vigilantly. Meer leaned against the wall, absently spinning a metal rod with a ball at the end.
Zane walked over to Sol, leaned over, ran his hand down his cheek and grabbed his chin, lifting it. Sol tried to pull away, but Zane held his chin firmly, pressing hard as he looked into his eyes.
Anger shot through me, burning a path through the fear.
I stood shakily. "Let him go."
Zane thrust his fingers into Sol's curls, yanking his head back painfully. "And what will you do about it?"
I summoned lightning.
Weak sparks flitted across my arms to tingle halfheartedly across my fingers.
Zane laughed. "That's all you've got? Not that it would do you any good with all the Nobles with me, but…" He let go of Sol and he collapsed into the chair. Zane strode over to me and slammed his fist into my face.
White light burst across my vision.
Then blinding pain. Red hot, raking across the bridge of my nose. A warm, wet liquid. I tasted the salty tang of blood.
When I could see again, I was lying on the floor. Zane above me, smirking, the light haloing his head. He chuckled. "I owed you that. Remember? Last time we saw each other, you threatened me and told me I'd never touch him again. You really thought you could win against a Patroller? Well, it's time you learned the reality of the streets. I always get what I want. I will have him, in good time. But now…."
He gestured to Meer, who lifted me by one arm and flopped me into the chair again. Pain throbbed across my nose with sharp jabs; I wondered if I'd broken it. Blood dripped down my chin onto Merali's shirt.
I wondered at what distress level I'd have to be in for Ms to come to the rescue…. Maybe they wouldn't come at all. Why had Lacy disappeared? Had someone else found a way to circumvent Ms? What if no one would find us here?
Maybe I had to get us out of this myself. Make my lightning work. Get to my com.
Problem was, anger only worked sometimes. And pain tended to diminish the potential of lightning.
"So," said Zane, "last time you said I'd pay for what I'd done. Of course, it's you who will pay. But what did you mean by that? Did you think you'd come after me—or was it just an empty threat?"
"You—" I wiped the blood from my nose and mouth. "You can't just—do whatever you want. It…catches up to you. What you've done. You can't get away with it."
"You must not have been in Q long, or you're somehow deluded. We're the law here."
"You're not law—you're just— using it as an excuse!"
"It is a rather nice cover. Whatever we say goes. If I say I feel like taking a delectable little morsel, tasting it—interferers get what they deserve. Isn't that right, Sol."
Sol straightened. Looked at Zane, his eyes brimming with fear but also with a fierce determination. "I couldn't let you take her."
Zane waved an arm. "I might not have gotten the girl—she ran home to her mommy—but I did get something better. Something I'm going to savor this time around. You've got a lot to look forward to.
"In the meantime, I'm interested in what this interferer knows. Now, Hale told me that you appeared in his office and took someone away from him. So there's more to you than meets the eye. Hale thinks you work for his rival. But…you could be working for the Marches. You did have an M with you. Now, if you're just some proxies who live in Q, we're fine. But if you've come from the Spire…. I shouldn't be able to touch you. So far…no fire from above. So I'm leaning toward the former. Still, I like to be on the safe side."
He stopped in front of me. "Now. The main thing Hale wants to know, for some reason, is where Sol's mother is. I'm thinking Sol won't tell no matter what I do to him. But you might be off limits for the more…severe interrogation. He sacrificed himself for her—" He gestured toward Sym— "so that's an option. But she looks half-dead already. With your spy background, you probably know where his mother is. Perhaps she's even with Hale's rival." Zane leaned down, his green eyes like dull jade. He lifted his index finger and caressed my cheek. His touch was cold, insistent. A shudder ran through me.
"Though I am tempted to take it to the limit with you—just for punishment's sake. Put you in your place. You aren't exactly my type, but you'll do. And then of course, there's Meer. He's shown a spark of interest in you, rare for someone who's not totally crushed—yet."
Meer sidled up to us casually. "He's pretty. I do like Nobles. All kinds. Equals, but not. You know."
"Meer has his own…unique predilections, can't say I understand it. Where's the fun without conflict, friction? Pain?"
"I do like some pain," said Meer. "Causing it. Tasting it sometimes."
Zane pursed his lips. "Meer's a bit more… flickered out than usual. Still might have his uses."
"Where you want me, boss?"
Zane held up a hand. "I'll start, you follow."
"Whatever you say."
"Now. I want you to tell me where Sol's mother is. What's her name-Tansy. Tell me, or… I might make it more painful than it has to be."
He grabbed a knife from his belt and brought it to Sol's cheek. Just pressing, not breaking the skin.
My heart bolted out of my chest. "Please—don't hurt him!"
"Then tell me where she is."
How could I? Hale would not just hurt Sol's mother, he'd hurt the Savannahs.
The knife flashed across Sol's cheek.