"Vy…" I said weakly.
She looked down at me and smiled, her eyes benevolent. "It's okay, I'm here." Her hair streaked behind her like dark lightning. "Don't worry, I'm going to make us invisible, okay? Just till we get somewhere safe."
I nodded. Beneath the numbness the lightning had burned into me, my heart still thumped hard, as if I couldn't quite accept I'd been rescued. Part of me felt immense relief. Part of me, a bit unfairly, felt betrayed, as Vy had actually hit me with lightning! But the crush of the crowd had probably been more than expected and they had to go to drastic measures to get to me… not like I hadn't taken a hit or two of lightning in my time….
Invisibility spread over her and it was as if I were floating with wings of my own, then I vanished and my heart dropped at that horrible disembodied feeling. If not for the pain, a network of throbbing nerves holding me together, I'd dissolve into a wisp of cloud and dissipate into nothing….
I fought against the irrationality of struggling and let myself be carried along—focus on the impossibly deep blue of the sky, its beauty piercing my heart….
A shadow passed over my vision and a moment later a blank white ceiling appeared above me, a crack zigzagging through it. Gentle arms settled me down on a white couch. Stuffing fluffed out of one arm.
"Where—" I began.
"Safe—for now," said Vy's disembodied voice. "But any moment, they'll discover the ruse and follow your com signal to our location."
"What do you mean? The people don't have DNA trackers…." I struggled to sit up, but pain writhed through my limbs and my arm wouldn't even move at all.
"We don't have time." A figure materialized out of thin air, her ghostly outline swiftly filling in to something solid.
A spear of ice struck my heart.
Dazzle. Her bangs sliced straight across her forehead, her hair pulled back. Her golden eyes sharp, a little nervous.
She sat on the glass coffee table, the left corner of it broken. Held out a com to me.
"Take it," she said.
"No. I'm not doing anything you say."
She laid it on my stomach. Took out two other coms from pockets in her long robe and held them in her hands. "You will if you want what's best for your friends."
A sick feeling turned my stomach over. I propped myself up against the corner of the couch, letting the com slide into my lap. "What do you mean?"
"You will turn on the sensor block of that com. You will come with me."
"I—can't. Even if I wanted to. It's forbidden."
She stood, looking impatient. "If you don't—I'll give these coms to Zane and Hale."
"You—know about them?"
"I know what they did you your friends. What they would do to them—to their families."
"Zane is in the Restricted Zones."
"You think I can't get in there with a sensor block? I can go anywhere Q. Except not with you. Not unless you turn your block on."
"Ms will be here any minute."
"And I'll be gone. Perhaps if you see a demonstration…." She turned toward me; her eyes flashed. "Do you care about your friends as much as you pretend?"
"We'll protect them from you."
"You can't really be so naïve. Your family doesn't care about the fate of some Q inmates. Look what happened to Sol. He lay there for hours before other inmates found him."
I shuddered at her mention of it. "How…did you know?"
"I've done some digging. Since I found out you were hanging around with them…well, let's just say I found some perfect leverage. Unless you're not the softhearted boy I think you are."
"Don't hurt them!"
"It's your choice. I can't push my luck too far. I'm either leaving with you—or leaving to give these advantages to Zane and Hale." She leaned over, her golden eyes blazing with longing and desperation. "I'll give Hale the location of the Savannahs. And his wrath will be great. Do you think he'll spare those cute little girls? Or that he'll worry about collateral damage when he goes after the ones who were harboring the one who betrayed him?"
"H-how do you know all this…." I was shaking.
"I'm invisible." She glanced furtively out the window, and then vanished as if to demonstrate her point. Her disembodied voice continued, "I've got the coms, ready to do their maximum damage. Or… if you agree in the next few seconds, I won't have to make a demonstration."
Her footsteps padded to the window. "Going once—going twice—"
"Wait!" I said. My heart throbbed hard against my chest. I felt like I was dropping a million miles an hour out of the sky.
But—I didn't have any illusions Dazzle wouldn't follow through on her threats. She had no qualms about hurting people who got in her way.
"Then turn it on!" she said in a frantic whisper. "I can see Ms flying here as we speak."
I made my limbs move, although it felt like the air was made of marshmallow. How could I possibly agree to go with Dazzle? But how could I not?
The sensor block program popped up as soon as I touched the com. I activated it and a holo simultaneously spread over me.
An invisible hand grasped mine and pulled me to my feet. "Now let's get out of here." She dragged me through the hallway and into an elevator, where she turned into a darkside Eclipse, with faintly glowing silver skin and long silvery hair. She pressed a medpatch to my neck, and some of the pain melted away, although it did nothing to dull my despair.
"They won't expect us on the ground," she said, as she pulled me out onto the street.
I could just break away from her. Turn the com off—or throw it away—or break it.
But if I do that—she'll just give the sensor blocks to Zane and Hale… I hated even thinking their names; they were everything vile and horrible about Q.
We stopped at a café and she sat down at an outdoor table on the edge. She planted her elbows on the table and a waiter came by with a pitcher of lemonade. Dazzle nodded and the waiter poured lemonade into both our glasses. "That'll be it for now," said Dazzle in her modified voice.
The world wavered as if I was immersed in a mirage. This was too surreal. I had to escape. Get out of this somehow.
"Can't you just…let me go?" I said.
Her eyes narrowed. "Keep it down."
"Why do you need me this much?" I whispered. "Is it worth—hurting someone innocent?"
"I do whatever I have to," she whispered harshly. She tucked a strand of near-white hair behind her ear. "We're going to nonchalantly make our way to the edge of the force field. I'd rather fly, but I don't want to risk being…someone high profile again, and it would be too conspicuous for someone invisible to fly with someone visible." She sipped some lemonade. "And I don't want to risk you being invisible."
"Where did you get your wings?" I'd hardly realized it, with everything else going on.
"I told you, being completely invisible has its advantages."
"What do you want with me?"
"I want you. To be with me willingly." She reached across toward my hand. I pulled it back, avoiding her touch.
"Careful," she said. "We need to look the part. Two people in love…."
"I'll never love you!" I whispered.
"Not now, perhaps. I just meant…we're whispering, what else could we be whispering about? We don't want to look like we're plotting something. Come on, get into the role."
"Your friends' lives are at stake. You know… it was especially hard to leave Sym and go after you. I do so want revenge for what she did to me. Perhaps I'll do that yet… I'll make you watch…."
"Please—please don't hurt her."
"Then cooperate. Come on, give me something. Doesn't have to be much. We just need to get to the barrier, and then…."
"You can't escape."
She smiled. Slid her hand closer, tilting her head along with a warning in her dark silver eyes.
I felt paralyzed. But I couldn't let her hurt Sym. I lifted my hand, laid it on the table. She caressed it. I froze, my fingers tingling with the unwanted touch. I wanted to scream, run away. At the very least, slide my hand away. But I couldn't. Just let her fingers delicately play over mine.
"Come on, my dear. You could at least not look so stiff."
"I…" I'm not your dear! I wanted to yell at her. Instead I said, "I can't. I can't pretend… do what you want with me. I can't make myself feel what I don't."
"Oh, well, that will come later. I suppose we could be playing a more…uneven power dynamic. Not like there's not a lot of that that goes on around here…."
"Why do we have to play a role at all."
"Because. We have to make it look like there's a reason for our closeness. You're staying as close to me as possible, my ambrosia."
I shivered at the word. It was our most delicious food, but the way she said it… as if I was literally that food to her…. the last thing I wanted to be.
"Not thirsty, dear?" she said.
I shook my head.
"Oh, well." She stood, linked her arm in mine, dragged me to my feet. She kissed my cheek—just a quick touch—but it burned where her lips had pressed, as if it had branded my skin.
I dreaded the moment when her lips would touch mine. Or…the horrific thought… go even further. I dared not think of such a thing. I had to think of a way out of this. Perhaps someone else would be able to, a designed, not a random. But my mind was paralyzed in fear—the worse fear was knowing what Dazzle would do to Sym and Sol. Horrible visions of their tortures flashed across my mind as we made our way through the streets.
We stopped at a hexagon, its market in full swing. She snatched up a cherry from a stand and popped it into her mouth. I gasped. "Sorry. Old habits." She grinned. Her apprehension seemed to melt away into a buoyant mood. I hated that my capture was the reason. Made possible because of the threat to my friends and their families.
She paid for some food at a booth. "Don't want to risk getting caught for stealing," she said softly, leaning in close. "Don't want to draw any attention. When I was invisible, of course, I could steal whatever I wanted."
We sat down at a table beneath a tree dripping with orange flowers. She reached up and picked one, sniffed it, her eyes closed. She handed it to me. I held it, cupped numbly in one hand. Its sickly sweet smell drifted upwards.
"So serious, my dear! It's a beautiful day!"
The beautiful day seemed a mockery. These flowers seemed to hold hidden poison. The sun's rays were filtered through shadow.
I stirred the pastry pockets around on my plate, soaking them in their frosting, drawing lines with my fork. I didn't feel hungry in the least, although the full morning should've given me an appetite—and I normally loved pastry pockets. They were filled with fruit or cream—though Dazzle had probably picked the ones I liked the least, like pistachio or mango. She cared nothing about the real me, just wanted me for a prize. Like those fans—except she was cleverer than all of them.
She gestured to my plate. "Come on, eat up. We have a long journey ahead of us. You've got to keep up your strength."
"What do you mean—long journey?"
She just grinned, the corners of her mouth lifting wryly. She stabbed one of my pastry pockets with her fork. "Go ahead, try it." A pale orange filling oozed from the stab wounds. She licked it off. "Mm, mango." She moved it toward my mouth, as if she were feeding a baby.
I shook my head. "I'm not hungry."
"Come on, gorgeous. Just a bite."
I backed my chair away.
"We don't want to make too much of a scene, love," she said in a warning tone.
"Then don't force me."
"Ah, well." She popped the pocket into her mouth. Some of the filling oozed onto the corner of her mouth; she licked it. Then she eyed me with a predatory look—familiar even on this unfamiliar face. "If you act out, I'll just vanish. It'll make it harder for me—and I do so want out of here. But I also want my revenge, and I will get it if you push me. So it's in your best interests to cooperate."
She stabbed another pocket and stood, slinking around the table toward me. She grasped the back of my neck, her fingertips cold against my skin. "Come on, beautiful. Open up."
"I don't want it."
"And I want you to have it. You are going to do as I say from now on. Got it?"
I shook my head, turning away from her. Her fingers slid up into my hair, grasping it lightly. I felt echoes of the pain from earlier, from where people had torn hair from my scalp. I froze.
She pressed the pastry up against my lips. I had no desire for it—in fact, my stomach was turning over at the thought of food now. But almost mechanically, I opened my mouth. The pastry slid in. I fought the rising nausea—the only thing that would make this worse was if I threw up. I chewed it, trying not to think about it, trying not to think about whose hand grasped the back of my neck, fingers caressing gentle circles into my hair. I almost gagged a few times but managed to choke it down. It tasted vaguely of strawberry but in general all it tasted of was dust.
She released her hand. "There. That wasn't so bad, was it?" To my relief, she sat back down. Kept her eyes trained on me, as if she didn't want to lose sight of me for one second.
She stabbed another pastry and lifted it. "Sure you don't want another?"
I shook my head. Licked the vestiges of frosting from my lips. The sugary sweetness made me almost gag again. I fought it down. That was all I could manage at the moment. That and just sit there.
"It's not so bad, is it?" she continued. "I'm pretty pleasant company. I must admit, it was terribly lonely for all those days, bouncing from one place to another. It did get hot a few times… a bit too close for comfort…. I have a feeling those algorithms in those anomaly tracers are improving by the day. Still, I could beat them by being as random as possible, never staying in one place longer than an hour or two. Fun playing with the Marches. But it gets old eventually, not having anyone to share it with. And it's no way to live long term. I do so miss Daddy. I'm lucky I found you when I did, or I might've gone crazy." She smiled.
"How…did you find me?"
"Sheer coincidence. I didn't even know you were in Q! I thought that charade was just that—the Jet was a holo and I didn't pay much attention to it. Then, I happened to be at the Mirrormist club. I needed some time as a real person, not an invisible. Almost forgot myself a bit…. Almost ate too much Flicker… I was about to leave. But then I heard a commotion. Saw that altercation between you and that lightsider. Of course, I didn't know it was you. But I saw Sym and Sol there—hadn't been able to find Sym yet. I figured I'd just follow her, see if I could get my revenge. On the both of them—I mean, Sol helped rescue you, though he wasn't the one to give me this." She pulled down her shirt to show her shoulder, webbed with a mass of lightning scars. "Wasn't able to get a medpatch in time. Now I've got something else in common with Daddy." Her eyes took on a wistful sadness. "But anyway. I was about to go get revenge, when I recognized something familiar about you. Just a feeling, at first. But enough curiosity to follow them… to the underground room."
"You saw that?"
"I couldn't get at you, not yet. For one thing, the other Marches were there, too many Ms." She looked furtively around, her voice lowering to a whisper. "You can't be too careful. We should really get going." She stood, grasped my arm. Pulled me to my feet. I was stiff, half-numb, my mind sluggish. "So—I waited until the opportune moment. Stroke of genius, the person I pretended to be, wouldn't you say?"
I lagged a little behind her, her arm linked in mine. "You pretended to be her before…."
"I have to admit, I have a bit of affinity with her. She's not conventional like the others. A little more like you."
"You're nothing like Vy." A thread of anger stirred within me.
"It's true, there is no one quite like me." Her eyes twinkled. She looked insufferably pleased with herself.
We headed down the road, which was deserted at the moment. I had no idea where we were. I longed to see an M—perhaps I could lure her to one somehow…. No, that wouldn't work—Ms couldn't see her. There had to be a way out of this. So I could escape, and Sol and Sym would be safe. But my mind wouldn't cooperate. How long could this last, anyway? What could Dazzle actually do to me?
I didn't want to ponder that question. It brought up too many unpleasant images along with a creeping feeling of dread. How much could she force me to do… how much could I endure… was there a point I would betray Sym and Sol…. I wished I could just fly away from this nightmare….
Sym and Sol would escape Q, and I could go back to the Spire with Sabra… go back to helping Mom…. A desperate ache throbbed in my chest. I stopped.
"Come on, ambrosia. Just a little ways further."
To what? I thought but had no energy to ask.
We came around the corner, and the answer loomed up in front of me.
The vast wasteland of Desolation. And before it, the invisible force field.
She stood in front of it, looking satisfied, triumphant, her hands on her hips. Looked back at me and said almost absently, "You know, it really is sweet. I overheard you. How you couldn't get over what happened that day. How you couldn't get me out of your mind."
I hated how she'd twisted it into sounding like something I liked. "If I had the choice, I'd never let you cross my mind again."
She laughed softly. "I like that I imprinted on your mind so you can't get rid of me."
"There was nothing good about it. I wanted to escape that day, everything you did to me."
"But you couldn't. Ohhh, it's delicious. I'm inside your heart. No matter if it's positive or negative, I'm a part of you now." She sidled up to me. "You can never get away from me. There's nothing you can do about it." She slid her finger along my cheek. I turned away, my skin burning.
"It's not even like I did much to you! Shocked you a couple times, maybe. Imprisoned you. But I can think of a lot more things I can do." She slid her finger to my collarbone and rubbed it. "Such a soft, naïve boy! Oh, I'll delight in impressing a lot more of myself into you. Branding myself on every part of you, entwining on every part of your DNA." She caressed lower, a little beneath my shirt. I gasped, pulled away. But she grabbed me, pressed me to her, her arm wrapped around my shoulder. She whispered in my ear, "But that'll come later. Ah, I'll have a lot to look forward to."
She released me. I stood there, shaking, barely able to stand, as if she'd wrung me dry and I was just a shred of my former self.
"You think that kiss was traumatic! Ha! Though I want to be part of you in any way, even if it's negative, I really do want you to associate me with good things. You will, in time. You'll realize what I have to offer, and willingly come to me."
Horror blazed across my mind, burned through my body. "I will never come to you willingly."
She shrugged. "You will, one way or another. Wouldn't you rather it be pleasant? I would too, but I'll take you any way I can get." She laughed. "But we can deal with fun later. Now, let's get down to business." She grasped my shoulder, guided me closer to the force field, so I could almost feel the energy thrumming from it. "Open it."
"I don't know how."
"Don't give me that! You're a March. You can at least give it a try. I bet it'll open for you."
I wasn't so sure—Dad had probably locked me out of it. But I wasn't about to help her knowingly, after all the damage I'd caused by doing it unknowingly before!
Although… if they knew someone opened the force field, they'd assume it was me. They'd know, at least in general, where we were. And if I turned off my sensor block, they'd find us. The problem was, Dazzle would know, and she'd disappear. I'd have to…incapacitate her somehow first. Put her off guard by helping her—not let her think it was too easy, either—and then attack, with my lightning. Knock her out, or at least injure her enough I could get to her sensor block.
Somehow, I'd have to summon enough lightning, even through the layers of fear built up over the last week since she'd…assaulted me. And if I couldn't do that—knock her out with my bare fists. I'd still have to overcome my fear enough to act.
But it was worth the risk. I had to try. Couldn't let her—take me. Couldn't let her take the others. I was alone here; no one would come to my rescue this time. I had to find the strength myself. Or…let the worst possible happen. I couldn't do that without a fight.
"Enough stalling," she said. She grabbed my com, shoved it in my hand. "Open it."
"I…don't think Dad would trust me with it. I probably need a code."
"You can try. I haven't come all this way for nothing."
"I'm not helping you."
"Haven't I made myself clear? You don't know what I could do to you." She grasped my hair, twisted it, forced me to my knees. Lightning prickled into my temple, trickled into my eye socket. I hissed through my teeth at the icy pinpricks.
"Please…just let me go. I…I can open the force field, you can go anywhere. You can have anything. Just leave me and my friends alone."
"But I want it all, my dear," she hissed. "I will get it." She wrenched my head back, her fingernails digging into my scalp. "Or do I need to make a demonstration after all. I'll get Sym, bring her here. You will watch as I tear her apart. Oh, and I'll bring Zane here too. I'm sure he'd like an audience of the one who thwarted him—helpless to do anything as he takes Sol apart in his own twisted way."
Shivers writhed through me. I nearly collapsed from the weight of it all.
But deep inside me there was also the heat of anger. That she dared threaten Sym and Sol. No one would hurt them ever again, if I could do anything about it.
I nodded. She released her grip on my hair and gestured to the com.
I held it in shaking hands. I spoke to it, and it found the forcefield program.
Perhaps I shouldn't open it—if she was out of Q, it would be a lot harder to find her. But I had to buy time. Had to distract her, if only for a few moments. Couldn't fight on my knees.
"Open the force field," I said. I half expected it not to obey. But a brilliant pulse spread across it, burning down from the sky. Flickering bright hexagons until it faded completely. Hot wind blew dust into my face and I coughed.
Dazzle laughed. She stepped out onto the desiccated soil of Desolation, and flung her arms out, spinning with sheer joy, her white hair flashing like mist in the wind.
Now. Now's your chance.
But I was frozen. Locked in place, my knees stuck to the ground.
Sym. Sol. Save them. Crush Dazzle before she can crush them.
Anger surged through me and I stood. Closed my eyes, imagining—not the calm sky—but burning. I thought of the horrors they'd gone through. Never again.
Lightning pricked my fingertips.
More, I demanded. Let the anger burn through my heart, let it pulse there, throbbing, burgeoning into a bright sun that burst through me, transforming me into a world-swallowing supernova.
I opened my eyes. Lightning crackled over my arms, brighter than I'd ever seen it. Almost as if I were someone else. My shock almost dampened it, but I dove back into the bright warm anger and the lightning surged again, flickering over my arms, cascading down my chest.
Dazzle stopped mid-spin, her hair whipping back from her startled face. Then she crouched. Lightning raged over her body, and she glowed like a second sun. She leaped toward me, spinning, as she gave a feral scream.
I dodged out of the way, flung my own lightning at her. It stabbed into her stomach and she fell, doubled over.
I raced over to her. Fumbled in her cloak for her com. One pocket—empty. I reached for the other—she rolled and grabbed for me. I lurched out of the way—without concentration, my lightning was already dissipating. I used what I had and grabbed her arm, letting lightning blaze into her wrist. She arched back and cried out. Delight gripped me—along with guilt for feeling it, even for such an enemy. But I couldn't let doubt douse my advantage. I tried to keep my lightning alight with anger, but it began to melt back into my skin—emotions could only do so much when you hadn't learned control.
Part of me recoiled from the idea of using physical force instead of energy, but I couldn't let her win. I punched her in the face, again and again, until blood spilled from her nose and mouth. A sickening crack—I'd probably broken her nose. She writhed away, fighting unconsciousness.
I sat back, breathing hard. Now—I had to call someone. Perhaps someone invisible was close. I swiped back the sensor block program and its bright sparkle died out. I sighed with relief. They'd find me soon. I stood and walked back to the edge of Quarantine, where the dust had swirled onto the sidewalks.
"Vy," I said.
Her miniature form popped up over the com. "Is that you, Jet? We were worried—after I told the others it hadn't been me to rescue you—the press of the crowd—too confusing and the Ms couldn't even get to you in time. What happened?"
"It was Dazzle, but I was able to get away."
"Where is she?"
"I've got her. She's right over—" I looked to where she'd fallen. She wasn't there.
"What is it?"
"She disappeared. I—I should've grabbed her sensor block—couldn't find it. I fought her."
"You fought and won? You are certainly a March."
"I—I think she's gone to get my friends. We've got to protect them."
"Sym, right? And—what was his name?"
"Sol. I think she might give sensor blocks to Hale and Zane…. They'll hurt them—"
"Don't worry. We'll protect them. Now—where are you?"
"What do you mean? I've turned off my sensor block."
"We're…we're having trouble finding you—"
An inhuman scream behind me.
White-hot pain exploded my shoulder apart
I fell toward the bricks—managed to catch myself though the pain ripped through me—throbbing up my neck from my shoulder…. I couldn't see anyone. But an invisible hand grabbed the knife embedded in my shoulder, wrenching it deeper.
"You can't get away from me," said Dazzle.
Shocks coursed into the knife. Enhanced by the metal, electric current screamed into me, and pain shredded me apart, then agonizingly brilliant remnants dying into ash
Oblivion devoured me whole.
[Sequel appearing soon!]