“I’m sorry, what on Earth did you say your name was?”
James fiddled with his hat in his left hand as he wrangled his cell phone in the other. The fireplace snapped a jazzy rhythm behind him, underpinning the tiptoeing piano from the record player. Who does this woman think she is? he thought. “Madam? Your name, again, please?”
The voice on the other line wore a static mystique, as if she’d gone out of her way to find an old phone to whisper through. “Call me Artemis.”
Of course. He breathed in through his nose and nodded. “The Greek goddess of the moon, archery, and the hunt. Right.”
“I have to assume this is not she, of course. Just someone using the name.”
James laughed. Some of it was genuine. “All right. Well—I’ve got to give you credit for tracking me down at all.” He sighed. “But I can’t say I’ve got time for this. What do you want, sweetheart?”
Artemis didn’t answer right away. This had better be good. “Check your bank account.”
“Excuse me?” He leaned forward in his chair, dropping his hat. “I’m sorry, is that a threat?”
“No,” she said. Something smug came through in her voice. “It’s a sample.”
James lowered his phone and swiped to his banking app. When it opened, his stomach sank, and his jaw hung open. “No,” he said, bringing his phone back up, “no, this is absolutely a threat.”
“Elaborate.” Artemis enunciated everything carefully.
“First of all—” He rose from his chair and stepped over to the fireplace. His four swords pinged into his magical sense, resting above the hearth. “—you somehow have my banking information. Information, mind you, all linked to a completely fabricated identity.” He spun around, pinning his gaze on the panoramic window. The evening sky rested quietly, safely. “Furthermore, a transfer of that size will arouse attention that I do not need.”
“Don’t worry, McTavish. Do you honestly think that I don’t have ways of circumventing that?”
“That’s far too convenient.”
Artemis laughed slowly, softly. “I’ve worked very hard to create convenience,” she said. “Business, McTavish. What you’ve just found in your private bank account proves two things. One: I’m not lying to you. Two: I can find you if you turn me down.”
James’ heart sat on edge. His eyes twitched. “Didn’t you say you weren’t threatening me?”
“Again. Not a threat. A sample.”
He rolled his eyes. The gesture alleviated some of the tension. “You’re one of those people who makes promises, not threats, aren’t you?”
“I make both. You’ll find out which is which in due time.”
“Fine.” James forced out a breath and leaned on the mantle. “If you’re as financially and electronically omnipotent as you appear to be, I suppose I’ll hear you out. If a hundred thousand is a taste, I’m curious.”
“Good,” Artemis said. “Now. Most would agree you’re the best thief in the world.”
“Promises, warnings, and flattery. The triple-threat.”
“I need you to prove it.”
A challenge? “What do you need me to steal?”
“Not money, obviously.”
He chuckled. For real this time. “Right.”
Artemis joined him, seeming pleased. “How much do you know about MINERVA?”
James’ gaze found his swords again. They’d been made by MINERVA, using high-tech metals he didn’t understand. “World’s leading science and tech giant. Created and sponsored by UNGC. Very protective of their work.”
“Modern Innovations for Everyday Advances,” Artemis recited. She sighed. “Do you want to find out how badly they’re lying to you?”
His eyes narrowed. “Keep talking.”
“They’ve just invented something that they’re never going to tell anyone about.”
James stepped away from the fireplace, back into the cool and dark. “What is it?”
“You can find out for yourself. They’re building it in Scotland.”
/ / /
What an awful place, James thought. Scotland in general. England had a reputation for being grim and cloudy, but Scotland took first prize. Not only had Artemis sent him to Scotland, she’d sent him to the remotest of remote islands: Hirta, in the St Kilda archipelago, far off into the Atlantic Ocean, but just close enough to be considered Scottish.
Artemis directed him to a miserable islet near Hirta itself, with some kind of Gaelic name James didn’t even want to think about. Can’t blame MINERVA for choosing this ungodly rock. He hadn’t even known the place existed up until Artemis pointed it out to him. No expenses were spared in guarding the facility—getting to the stack had taken some clever use of metal-magic and climbing gear, considering it rose some sixty meters from the sea. At every cold, damp stone, James reminded himself of the payoff. A retirement’s worth of savings, all for one job.
At the top, he spotted a subtle frame, covered by rocks. Nothing registered in his magical senses. No metal. He took a knee and brushed aside a series of stone slabs. They hit some critical point on the islet’s curve and slid, falling and clattering into the sea. With held breath and squinted eyes, James brushed dirt away from the now-revealed panel. Plastic. All plastic. If MINERVA had gone to such expense to prevent tampering, James expected the walls to be quite thick. Too thick for earth-chosen to break through with rocks, or crush with the surrounding island. Luckily, he had Artemis instead. She hadn’t lied to him yet.
He looked for the indent Artemis told him about. The chill and stab of the wind made concentration difficult. Scotland, James thought. The word was a growl in his head. Fanning a palm along the surface, he found a dent in the panel. Artemis had told him to tap Morse code, spelling out the word ‘Mercury’. Another god from antiquity. Whoever these people were who operated at midnight with balaclavas and black helicopters, they certainly liked their mythological imagery.
What a nightmare. After the painstaking input, the depression glowed. The rest of the panel joined it before sliding open. Cool, dry air blasted out from the passage beneath. Blue lights broke up the shadows, revealing the rungs of a ladder. Finally. James sent two of his swords down first, floating beneath him, then got to climbing. The panel closed above him as he passed it.
What James had scaled above the water level, he scaled back down inside the passage. The darkness felt endless, broken up only by blue LEDs, shining a burning cyan in his eyes. The deeper he got, the more his gut clenched and dipped. Around him, plastic walls, barely wide enough to fit his shoulders. Past that? Ancient, filthy stone. And then the mercy of the ocean. Yet there he was, going deeper of his own will.
When one of his rapiers tapped solid ground, James sighed with relief. He dropped the few feet down and dusted himself off. The tunnel ahead was no brighter than the ladder. Still, it would at least be horizontal. James took one of his swords in hand and kept the others around him, ready to strike. He toed forward.
The tunnel bucked. Good lord. A lurch to the left. The ocean churned around him, moaning through the plastic walls. Tickles slithered up his chest. A primal, simple discomfort. The animal of him choked, desperate to claw through the walls and escape. Of course, the tunnel wouldn’t be beneath the ocean floor. It would stretch from the islet to Hirta itself, through open sea. James tensed his free fist and marched on.
What was that? Something behind him? Or another growl of the sea? A bead of sweat crossed James’s temple. His footsteps crashed against the walkway. He sprinted. Nothing could compel him otherwise. Lights illuminated a door at the extreme end of the tunnel. James slammed foot to floor and panted. His longcoat scraped the sides of the passage.
Finally. The door. James caught himself before he punched the thing, clamoring for escape. His heart and breath chugged along. No codes down here, Artemis had said. Thank God. Pushing composure to the front of his mind, he reached for the handle and fumbled until it clicked. Beyond the door, fluorescent daylight blinded him. White floors, walls, and ceilings, lined with flaring white lights. As soon as he crossed the threshold, James gasped for air and grabbed his knees. His held sword dropped.
He couldn’t have any of that. With a shake of his head, he stood up and reached into his coat. He felt better with his hat on.
Nothing in view pulled at his magic sense. Seems like the place was, indeed, entirely plastic. Empty, too. James had expected to have to explain himself, but there was no one there to question him. Tall shelves, perhaps ten meters tall, touched the ceiling, filled with boxes of parts, books, and vials. Ladders on wheels sat between rows. Counters, desks, and lab equipment lingered on the fringes, outside of the shelving maze. There, clipboards lay with pages half-torn out, manuals sat open, and tools splayed themselves out awkwardly.
This must be a trap, then. Had Artemis sent him here just to be rid of him? Perhaps she was the one with the world-changing valuables, and she didn’t want someone else to hire him against her. Then again, building an underground, island science fortress in the middle of God knew where seemed like a lot of effort just to get rid of a thief.
The only door in sight lay far at the end of the shelves. No sense having second thoughts now. So he continued, sword in hand. How many mysteries slept on those shelves? Artemis said they were building “it” in Scotland. Was all this part of “it”? Or was Artemis’s hit only one of many secret projects that MINERVA had hidden away? James had never wanted to be a part of the system, a part of UNGC, but this affirmed it. MINERVA was in the UN’s pocket. Everyone knew that. Whatever they were building down here, the UN knew about it.
At the far door, James sidled up against the wall and pressed an ear. Silence beyond. What was the second code? Artemis told him there would be an inner chamber with another Morse password. Another indented panel, same as the first, sat to the left. The second code. What was it? Something else in the line of Greco-Roman gods. Yet another in a series of awful trials. He tapped his foot. Series. Right. He entered it: ‘Ceres’.
The doors yielded with a cybernetic whine. His sense for metal, moments ago latching only onto himself, swamped his brain. The sound came next. The roar of gunfire. In adrenaline-slowed time, James urged his magic forward, with his swords, and wove an energetic maelstrom into the air. The bullets caught in the magic and swirled into a tight ball. God, that sound.
James had fired a gun once. It took him a minute to get his hearing back. Here, after the initial burst, he heard nothing but ringing. His teeth rattled. Two muzzle flares lit up the darkness, so James shot two retributive streams, aimed low. He didn’t think of himself as a killer. A thief, yes. Always. But never a killer.
The two soldiers fell to the ground. They must have made sounds. With his magic, he tore the guns away from the men and crunched them into useless nuggets. Then he moved his swords to threaten their necks. “Where are the lights?” he asked. “Point to them!” His chest and throat vibrated, and his tongue moved. But he had no sense of whether his words made sense or not. The men both shot their hands in a direction, and James sent his swords over to fumble for lights. After a moment, one of them hit a switch, and the room lit up.
It was small. A couple desks, here and there. Lots of filing cabinets. But where were the bubbling vats and horror-machines? There was none of that. There was a man, though, balding, and in a lab coat. He was old and afraid. James approached him, holding a rapier at arm’s length. He kept two others by the pinned guards, and his last one floating at his back.
The old man flapped his lips and made hard lines with his eyebrows. James adjusted his hat and smiled, taking slow steps toward the desk. A hint of metal rang from underneath. James made a show of rolling his eyes as he stole it from the man. A pistol floated up from the desk. James smashed it like the others. How am I supposed to interrogate him without hearing? James narrowed his eyes. The codes? He flexed two fingers and brought his final sword up. Like a calligrapher, he carved into the desk with the blade.
He raised an eyebrow at the man, then brought the rapier up to his throat. “Show me,” he said, carefully. Would that even work? The elder man pressed his mouth shut. His chin quivered. He said something and shook his head. James continued his bluff and pressed the sword forward. A bubble of red popped up. “Show me,” he repeated.
The man stared, tears forming in the corners of his eyes. After an eternity of ear-ringing, the old man finally stood. James tilted his head and watched, keeping the sword in his skin as he moved. He followed him to an empty section of wall. There, the man pressed another Morse code into an indent in the wall. I can’t believe that worked. Lines appeared in the plastic, and the wall slid open. James grinned at the old man. Then, with a wink, he backhanded him so hard he collapsed.
With nobody watching, James shook out his hand. Frail or not, smacking someone hurt. The wall revealed a cozy shelf, holding a clipboard. Dozens of sheets, fettered at the edges, lay under the clasp. ‘Project CERES’. James read it, thumbing through science and engineering jargon until he found an early memo, written in plain English.
Dated 1991. James read it again. That’s not possible. They’d been working on it for two and a half decades? What they wanted to do—it had to be impossible. James knew it was impossible. The last mention of anything like that was in the 70s, after MKUltra died off. Science had agreed that the powers of chosen was simply beyond the natural. Impossible to quantify. What the hell are they thinking?
Artemis wanted these plans for a reason. What did she want with them? James tapped his thumb against the page. Nobody should be allowed to have this.
/ / /
The helicopter cut through the rain, and James watched. Steady chops fuzzed into his senses. His hearing returned, slowly. The chopper bore white stencil lettering over its black hull: UNGC. So they knew. When the lab had been empty, it must have been thanks to an alarm and a ready-at-hand escape route. That same alarm must have alerted the UN. For God’s sake.
Seven ropes dropped from the copter, and rangers slid down. Seven soldiers, clad in black, armed and armoured with Walthers and Kevlars. This is just what I need. He pat his coat, feeling around the inside pocket. He’d stuffed the CERES plans in there, beneath his hat. The stone hut sheltered him some from the weather, but the chill still ate into him. Was any of this even worth it?
James stared down. Could he trust Artemis with Project CERES? He had the plans there. In his pocket. He could destroy them. But Artemis knew how to find him. Perhaps I shouldn’t cross her. She could find him. He swore at himself and leaned his head against the stone wall. What a mess.
He would choose later. First, he would get off this God-forsaken island. And no matter what, UNGC could not get their hands on Project CERES. Maybe Artemis could explain. James couldn’t afford to destroy the plans and incur that woman’s wrath. For now, he had to escape. At any cost.
And so he ran into the rain.
/ / /
He needed a shave. Good lord, he needed a shave. His fingernail clinked his glass. The wine rippled. The bar was nice, he gave it that. And their wine passable. Clientele, though? Questionable.
James raised the glass to his lips. The scent weighed into him, pulling his eyelids down in rare contentment. Blackberry, pepper. A dash of chocolate. Maybe I’m full of shit, he thought, sipping. He smiled, not caring if he’d only imagined the aroma. More than anything, the drink was a memory. It took him to England again. What was left of it, at least. It took him back to his own little piece of Queensdawn. Back to Drummer’s Square, in the fog, beneath the bridges and clock tower.
Across the bar, James saw the only regular he paid attention to. A young man, cast in shades of winter. Skin fair, eyes blue, hair nearly white. James admired his style. The two of them were perhaps the only patrons dressed presentably. Usually, the snow-haired boy would be focused on the other barflies—especially young women, though James had caught him eying men, too. Tonight, though, he barely raised his head. The boy had finished his drink ages ago. Instead of ordering another, he idled, twiddling and rapping his fingers.
When the bartender next passed by, James asked his attention. “I’ll be having another,” he said. The accent came easy now. “And the same for the lad. On me.” He nodded. “Never seen him so down. Can’t help but think he needs someone to buy him a drink.”
James turned back to the newspaper. They’d run a story about him. “Harrier East: The New Gentleman’s Club”. No doubt capitalizing on the St Kilda program that aired the day before. Americans love their public outrage. But he was glad they saw him. Seeing his name on the news again gave him goosebumps. The picture was blurry—him, in his Gentleman Sword longcoat, dress pants and argyle beneath, with his four swords attached to the coat. I look good, he thought. He couldn’t see his face, of course, beneath the wide-brimmed hat. Still, he cut a good profile.
“Thanks,” someone said. James looked over to see the snow-haired boy raising his glass and making an effort to smile.
James gestured to the stool next to the boy. “May I?” When the young man nodded, he took his glass and strode over. “I see you here often.”
The boy turned and ruffled his hair. “Yeah. It’s a bad habit, for sure. But it helps.”
That it does. “Call me Jay,” James said, extending a hand.
“Brand,” he said, taking it. Good handshake, James said. Solid, but not tight. His soft hands exuded warmth. “I see you here a lot, too.”
“Like you said. Bad habit, but it helps.” He sipped. “Quiet here tonight. Nobody to take home with you?”
The boy bit his lip and put on a youthful smile. “Not necessarily. Night’s not over yet.”
“Aren’t I a little old for you?” James answered. Their eyes reflected each other.
Brand shrugged and leaned against the bar, relaxed. “Experience is never a bad thing.”
James rubbed his thumb against his glass. “Something tells me you’re not here for that tonight.”
The boy’s gaze faltered. “Yeah. Not quite.” He raised his own drink. “Can I ask what brings you here?”
With a chuckle, James tapped a finger on the bar. “Because what the hell else is there to do in this city?”
Brand raised an eyebrow. “The allure of the Crush, I think, is the people.” He rotated his glass. “You can meet the most interesting people here.”
“Maybe too interesting,” James said. “Tell me—how do you know the staff here?”
James tilted his head. “You’re obviously too young to drink. I’d put you at twenty, at the oldest.”
Brand lifted his glass, as if to toast. “Nineteen.” After a sip, he sighed. “My family owns most of the businesses on this side of Port Noble.”
Now that’s interesting. “You’re a Gidley, then.”
“As if the hair didn’t give it away.”
James nodded with a smile. “Your family is extraordinarily blond.” He finished his drink. “And extraordinarily influential. Surely you don’t need to come to Green Fields just to have a drink.”
Brand shook his head. “No. But drinking anywhere else is too—well, if I’m alone, I’ll just remember everything I’m trying to forget.”
“I had a feeling I’d get along with you.” Good looking boy, James thought. Smooth features, but still sharp. Like ice. High cheekbones, and a strong nose. His ears, poking through his hair, were almost pointed at the tips. “While we’re here,” he began, flagging down the bartender, “why don’t we tell a few stories?”
“What kind of stories?”
After ordering his next drink, James folded his hands and touched his fingertips to his lips. “The kind of story that leads men like us to a place like this.” He shook his head. “You’re too young to have stories like that. I can’t help but be curious.”
Brand narrowed his eyes. “A little forward.”
James smiled. “Darling, if I’m being forward, you’ll know.” He leaned back. “That’s all right if you’re not feeling up to it.”
The boy was quiet for a while. “It’s okay,” he finally said. “I guess I must look pretty down on myself, huh?” He glanced all around, as if looking for a script. “I—uh. I lost my sister a while ago. It’s hitting hard, now. For whatever reason.”
James put a hand on his shoulder and caressed the side of his arm. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
Brand pushed a smile to his lips. “It happens.” He sighed and looked up. “What about you?”
His eyes widened a moment. “Me? I lost myself, I think.” He laughed at that. “I did things I’m not very proud of.” The smile faded. “Things I still dream about. Things that keep me up at night.”
The boy furrowed his brows. “Were you in the military?”
James smirked. “Something like that.” He took a long drink from his new glass. “You hear all about soldiers who can’t forget what they’ve done. When you hurt someone else, it sticks with you.” He shook his head. “That lesson was more hands-on than I would’ve liked. When you hurt someone else, it’s rather short for them. But whatever pain you dealt to them, it builds up slowly again in you.” He swallowed. “The world has a way of paying you back like that.”
Brand stared at the bar. “Yeah.” His voice shivered. “Yeah. I believe that.” His hair flopped over his face. “That’s a good way of putting it.”
James grabbed the boy’s arm again. “I’d like to say it gets better, but I’m not so sure myself.”
“It wouldn’t be so bad if it was an accident,” Brand said. “But it was on purpose. A conscious decision.”
He nodded. “You made a choice. It seemed right in the moment. Maybe it was your only option.” His eye twitched. “Maybe there was context nobody else has. Maybe you were scared.” He sighed. “Regardless. You make a choice, you have to live with it.”
/ / /
Brand walked in, more ragged than ever. When he opened the door to Green Fields, the rain clawed at him, as if it wanted to follow him in. That can’t be good, James thought. He turned to the boy and gestured to the seat next to him. The wintry boy took it and let out a deep breath. “Hey, Jay,” he said.
“Brand,” James answered. “You look like you’ve had a rough day.”
“Rough week.” He shook his head. “I sort of lost my job.”
So you did. Brand must have known he was on the news. James didn’t believe it at first. This boy, working with Rose and Dragon Saffron? They must have picked him up following St Kilda. James had avoided the bar after seeing that the Dragons had gone rogue. As tempting as the dim lights and soft chatter of Green Fields was, James didn’t know how to face the boy. After all, he couldn’t let on that he knew his friends more closely than he wished. “You’ll find some hope sooner or later,” he said, patting his arm.
“This is probably going to sound awful.” He punctuated with a chuckle. “But this bar is one of the only places I feel safe right now.”
Nobody here is going to turn you in. “Nothing wrong with that. It’s one of the reasons I come here so often,” he said. “Something about this city puts me on edge.”
“That’s the thing about the Crush. Hell, maybe that’s why they call it that. If you’re not ready for it, it’ll grind you up and spit you out.”
James nodded. “Certainly is an eventful city, at the least.” They must be in hiding. In hiding because they’re after me. Funny how that works out. “In the few days that I’ve known you, it seems like things have gone downhill.” He tapped his glass. “I radiate bad luck, it seems.”
Brand shook his head. “Don’t say that. I’m glad you started talking to me, honestly.” He ran a hand through his damp hair. “It’s nice to have someone who isn’t a part of this crazy situation I’m in.”
James hid a smile. If you only knew. “Outside perspective is helpful,” he said. “What’s on your mind?”
He groaned. “Basically—my friends want to get back at this guy. But we all got into pretty big trouble trying to do that. So now everything’s screwed up.”
“Friendship can be difficult that way. You stick up for your friends at the risk of crossing others. Or the law, or common decency. Or any number of things.” He drank. “Choosing who you fight for is a very permanent decision. You switch sides, nobody will ever trust you again.”
Brand nodded. “Reputation,” he said. “My family taught me how important that is.”
“I imagine so. Your family has a long history of being in second place.”
The boy cringed. “Yeah, no kidding. My father thinks it’s so important to be better than the Wilders.”
“Second place hurts,” James said. “Even third place is better. In third, you can at least be thankful you’re in the top three.” He looked at his nails. “But second? You’re left craving that final stretch. All you can think of is being in first.”
“Yeah. It’s even worse when half of everything in Port Noble is named after them.”
James shrugged. “They did found the city, didn’t they? You can’t blame them for leaving their mark.”
Brand laughed. “It’s not really a big problem for me. Well, not directly.”
“My father’s very keen on that climb for power.” He tucked a lock of hair behind his ear. “I have a lot of expectations on my shoulders. Expectations I haven’t really been able to meet.”
“That’s a shame.”
“Honestly, it’s impressive that he’s still rooting for me,” he said, giving a shrug. “Maybe it’s his way of showing affection.”
“Some people are strange like that.” James put a hand to his chin. “My mother was a rigid perfectionist. Everything needed to be done exactly her way. If she was quiet, that meant she loved you.”
“I think my dad is the opposite. The more he yells, the more he cares.” He wobbled his head. “Well, he doesn’t really yell. He gives you that tone of voice that means he’s disappointed. The one that’s somehow worse than anger.”
“Someone can be angry at you and it’s not your fault,” James said. “But if they’re disappointed, you know you’ve done something wrong. Disappointment is a way of saying you’re not good enough.”
Brand looked down. “We got that a lot.”
His sister, I imagine. “We?”
The boy flicked his gaze over, eyes big. “Huh? Oh. My sister and I. Brenna.”
James resisted a grin. “Your parents named you Brand and Brenna?”
Brand smiled instead. “Brandon, actually.” He allowed himself a laugh. “And yeah. We were twins.”
As if that makes it better. “I see. You go by something other than your birth name, then.”
“I never liked Brandon. It felt so—I don’t know. Average.” He lifted his shoulders. “Brand felt stronger. Sleeker. More elegant.”
“I can understand that.” James nodded. “I place a great deal of value on standing out from the norm.” Unless I’m in hiding, of course.
“You are.” The boy bit his lip. Just for a moment. Cocky. “I’ve spoken to you—what, twice?” He took a breath. “You seem extraordinary.”
James turned away. Maybe he could play that as coyness, a blush, rather than stifled laughter. “I appreciate it,” he said. “I try.”
/ / /
The cab stopped across the street from the subway station on Elwood Road. Brand said he could walk the rest of the way. James worried he was too drunk—he worried they both were—but he trusted the boy to walk a few blocks on his own, at least. “Brand,” he said, grabbing his wrist, “you—you’ve got my number. Don’t be afraid to get in touch.” Was that his accent? Or the wine?
The snow-haired boy winked. “You’ll be hearing from me, abso—absolutely.” He smiled, then stepped outside.
James turned to the cabbie. “Just drop me off at Jacobs and Heart, please.”
The engine rumble sank into James’ chest. Between the drink and the sway of the car, he began to drift off. Whenever he nodded too far forward, he shook his head and snapped himself awake. If it had still been raining, he surely would’ve slept. They turned right, heading onto Heart Bridge, over the Charles River. Metal planks bumped the car up along the bridge. The skyscrapers of Eagle Heights twinkled northeast, between the grunge of Crossroads and Harrier. This city’s not terrible, I suppose. Moonlight glinted on glass and shined off the river.. It could be much worse.
As James’ eyes fell shut again, a shake from his phone roused him. A text message from an unknown number.
What did that mean? James stared at the screen, rubbing his eyes.
>The blond boy. Elwood Road.
His thumbs leapt to answer, but he stopped himself. What on Earth?
>He’s cute, don’t you think?
James’s heart jumped up in place. No. He took in a ragged breath before typing something back.
>Who is this?
Almost a minute later, the answer finally came.