I blinked. “Huh. Alright, that makes things easier. Arc, you want to grab the whatever-it-is out of that rig? If you can,” I added with a glance at her bandaged arm and heaving breaths.

She raised an elegant eyebrow and walked off. I followed her with my eyes, then glanced up at the catwalk. Alvar hadn’t shot me in the back or sounded more of an alarm yet, so maybe we were cool- though to call that an exaggeration would be the opposite.

“Irem’s eyes, that accent,” Hesypha said in her own uptown drawl. “You’re really from D, aren’t you? Certainly you appear mutated enough. I don’t know who ought to be more embarrassed: me, Macomb, or that twat of a Cromwell.”

I reloaded my pistol before sinking into a crouch. Hesypha rolled her eyes at the gesture but I hadn’t even meant to intimidate. Those were my last spare mags, too.

Still holding the coilgun, I rested my arms across my knees. A little groan snuck out of me as all my cuts and bruises shifted, but I held it together. “You said it yourself. We got you, so-“

“And what are you going to do with me?” Her eyes were a pale blue-gray, meeting mine without a hint of fear. She really thought she’d seen this all before. “Hell. I may as well be a calculator tossed into the ape enclosure.”

“Just shut the fuck up and tell me what you’re doing here.” I hadn’t fallen halfway down the world’s biggest open sewer to be insulted.


Now it was Hesypha’s turn to cock an eyebrow. She spoke loud and slow. “You know, it will be very difficult for me to do both of those at once-”

My eyes narrowed. “You’re a calculator, you said? Run it like code. One line then the other.”

“A programmer now, are we-“

Hesypha’s eyes shot wide open as I shot out a hand and pinched her nose. Not hard enough to hurt, even, just enough to keep her from jerking away.

“For a scientist, Hezzy, you’re pretty fucking stupid. Lemme explain.” She opened her mouth but snapped it shut when I squeezed her nose a bit harder.

“Is it a good idea to antagonize the giant murderer holding a gun to your head?” I said, talking like a character on some children’s holo show. “No. No…it’s not a good idea…”


I pulled her back and forth by her nose, making her shake her head. She flushed with anger but didn’t speak or jerk away.

“Is it a good idea to just answer her questions without any bullshit? Yes, yes it is…” I made her nod this time, unable to keep a smirk off my face. “Clear? Did I talk slow enough for you? You understand my accent?”

“Perfectly,” she hissed, and I let go.

“Good. Again. What are you doing with all this?”

Hesypha sighed and closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them it seemed like she’d switched into a new mental gear.

“Under the Cromwell’s aegis, my team and I were investigating a unique…field effect created by a certain artifact- one which you apparently know about already,” she added, glancing at Arc and the test derrick.

I nodded. “Yeah. Saw you pull it out of that temple down under the Park.”

“So that was you, there…?” The revelation made her blink. I watched the gears behind her eyes whir as she tried to figure out a connection.

“So what is it?” I asked, not wanting her distracted. “The artifact, first.”

Here Hesypha looked less sure, almost defensive. “It’s- as ridiculous as this might sound, we’re nearly sure. It’s an artifact of Ironstride. As in, the actual Martyred King.”

One of the other scientists didn’t like that, piping up from under a table. “Don’t tell them that, Hesypha, you mercenary-“

Hesypha snapped right back. “If you want to survive this, Alyssa, you’ll shut up. Or keep talking, you hack! Do me a favor! We all know you’re only here because of your last name. I know where you plagiarized that awful dissertation of yours from, too, you know? You can’t even pick something smart to copy, so quiet while the adults are talking!”

The doctor huffed out a breath as I stared. Not so unflappable after all. Alyssa didn’t respond, though I thought I heard Arc mutter “Well, then,” from over by the test rig.

Hesypha blinked long and slow once more. “Yes. As I was saying-“

“Something from Ironstride, yeah.” She looked nonplussed at my lack of surprise, but we’d suspected something like this. The confirmation wasn’t a good thing, maybe, but at least it wasn’t some surprise completely out of the black. “What kind of artifact? Something he made?”

“Maybe. Or, well…part of his body. It’s weathered, but the shape seems right for a phalange. A finger bone.” Maybe my stupid little display had made an impression, because she didn’t make me ask.

Something clanked, and both of us turned to see Arc hop down off the test rig with a small tray in her hand. Previously it held the puck of grayish metal, but Arc must have thrown it out. All it contained now was an inch-long lump, colored a deep blue-gray-black. At first it seemed to have a matte sheen to it, but closer inspection showed it was misted with condensation. Its roughly cylindrical shape could indeed have been a finger bone.

Hesypha kept looking at it, expression nervy. “How, ah…how did the contactor- I mean, the cylinder look?”

“Almost all gray dust,” said Arc.

“Is that the field effect you were after?” I asked, trying to keep things on track. Ideally we’d be moving already, but even if she’d never admit it Arc needed a minute. Hell, so did I. I’d be lucky if I could stand up without help.

Hesypha pressed her lips together. I got the sense she was annoyed- at us, sure, but more at the fact that she barely understood more than we did.

“One manifestation of it, yes. This experiment was intended to measure another: reduction in the activity of a cobalt-60 radioative source. Which was lined with lead, luckily.” That last part she shot waspishly at Arc.

“That explains the warning labels, at the very least.” Drier than rubbing alcohol. She might have actually been serious. “Here.”

She held out the tray and dropped the artifact into my palm. I didn’t know what to expect, but it just felt like an oddly heavy piece of metal, dense like lead or tungsten. Maybe there was a slight tingle in my palm, but that was it.

“For me, Arc?” I teased.

“I don’t want it. It puts chills down my spine.” She shook her head.

I turned back to the doctor. “Is it safe to touch?”

Hesypha smirked at my delayed question, but answered. “We’re mostly certain it is. None of us who’ve touched it have suffered any lingering ill effects. The unusual sensations upon contact vary from person to person, though all are some sort of tingling, chill, or numbness.”

I nodded, leaning back against a computer console. “Sure. Cold, tingling, radioactive…damping, I guess, turning things into iron dust- and speaking of, you ever test it on people?”

Hesypha’s mouth fell open at the sudden change of subject. “I- There were other tests with which I wasn’t directly involved-“

“Tests over D-block? From a flyer, maybe?”

She cut off, eyes narrowing. “How do you know about that?”

I met her eyes, gray and glowing purple drilling into blue. “Watched it happen. It worked, by the way. At least I think it did. Iron filings, cold, all the fixings.”

“…That’s what I was told, yes.” She nodded slowly, looking pensive. “Apparently it nearly dropped the VTOL out of the sky as well. Likely that’s why you lived to tell about it.”

“I’d wondered. Why didn’t you just try again?”

“I designed the excitation profile for that…test. It was much, much higher energy than we’re working with down here. Some of the sample’s mass was lost, and it was decided to continue with the more sustainable- and secretive- program.”

Arc watched her with an even flatter look than usual. “Because, I assume, the bones of ancient demigods are in short supply.”

“To put it lightly.”

“Alright. That’s cleared up.” I shoved a lock of hair out of my face and rubbed my forehead. I needed a drink, in both senses. “What actually is it, though? The effect, the cold waves, this field-“

“Some of us call it the ‘Ironstride Effect’”- Hesypha rolled her eyes in Alyssa’s direction- “But the best term we’ve come up with is ‘meta-entropic field.’ Even that’s not quite right, though. We’ve observed- in a volume, mind you, not as a projected ray or wave- a sort of tendency towards stagnance, stillness, what have you, but also, perhaps, towards rapid decay.”

“Quantum inertia,” Arc murmured.

“Yes!” Hesypha made to clap her hands, though she stopped at the instinctive twitch of my pistol. “That’s a good one, though still maybe not quite right-“

Boom. The noise was faint and distant, not an explosion but loud enough we all felt it through the floor. It reminded me of the time Ksana showed up to Dag’s shop still half-lit and dropped a triaxle truck off the lift. If she wasn’t the only one there who could crack the higher-end ident readers she’d have been gone on the spot.

“The fuck was that, Hezzy?” I snapped, standing up.

“It-“ Before she could finish a chorus of loud beeps sounded nearby. It came from the scientists, I realized, both dead and alive. The former did nothing, of course, but the latter collapsed in their hiding spots, let out choked screams, jumped up and sprinted at nothing- and faceplanted boneless as the corpses a moment later.

Arc went over to the one who’d run and checked her pulse. She looked back at us, surprised. “Dead.”

“Neurotoxin packets in their blood,” Hesypha said, obviously trying hard to keep her voice level. “Mixed with our inoculations, most likely. Cromwells didn’t want anyone talking if- well, if something like this happened.”

“Rik’s bones,” I muttered over another boom. “What about you, then?”

She snorted. “I disabled mine, of course. I’ve had corps fighting over me since I was an undergrad.” She sounded proud of it.

“We all have our fucking problems, don’t we-“

“Yes, like the insufferable heiress who’s now driving a Praetor our way,” Hesypha interrupted.

“What sort of ‘praetor’ do you mean, exactly?” asked Arc. I was too busy freaking out to answer. There was no kingsdamn way, but what else could it be?

“Oh, motherfuck this…Alvar!” I yelled up at the catwalk. I didn’t even know if he was still there. “Anything else you forget, man?”

He poked his head over the railing, looking more pissed off than scared- which was impressive considering he seemed fucking terrified. “I didn’t know she had a Praetor! Why are you bitching at me, even? This is your fault! What the hell do we do now?”

Unlike Arc and I, he didn’t have any fancy menschenjaeger abilities- and to be honest I wouldn’t bet on us surviving a Praetor anyway. Those booms got closer and closer. “Just hide up there! Use that rifle if you get a chance. And Alvar?”


“She killed the chalkheads without even checking on them. What do you think she’ll do to you?”

“I’m not stupid, Sharkie!” He retreated back into the control room. I’d be surprised if he was any help at all, but I was reasonably confident he wouldn’t betray us.

“We need cover,” said Hesypha, looking all around the huge empty space with half-frantic eyes. “The halls-“

“She’s coming from there! And they’re full of mercs who I’m guessing have a kill order for you. Right?”

“Right. Shit. Shit! Um-“

“There’s that,” said Arc, voice shaking along with the floor. She pointed to the reactor, its huge armored pressure vessel looking even stouter than the concrete walls.

“Yes, why not? The Cherenkov glow will make the bodies easier to find,” spat Hesypha, but she’d already started running. I followed, gritting my teeth past the aches.

Arc stayed beside me as we went for the reactor. It was a good piece of cover, taller than even my head. “One more time, Sharkie. When you say ‘Praetor,’ what exactly do you-“

A car-wreck crunch of metal and concrete interrupted her as something burst through the far wall. I caught a glimpse of it over my shoulder, unable to resist a look. It stood far taller than a human: nearly twelve feet of carbon-ceramic nanocomposite, electrohydraulics, and polyfiber muscle, all mottled in black-gray urban camo but for a shoulder rondel in Cromwell colors. It stood on two legs and had two long weapon ‘arms’, but the legs were digitigrade, deeply reverse-jointed down to the broad, articulated feet. Its shoulders, too, were broad and hunched, but the head was a scaled-down afterthought. It was angular, sharp and somewhat conical like a stylized bird’s beak, complete with a fringe of antenna ‘feathers’ at the back. It contained nothing but sensors, if the stuff on the Net was right.

The left arm carried a boxy but long and slender weapon that could only be a railgun. On the right rode a five-barreled rotary cannon, stubby and small compared to its huge underslung ammo drum. Secondary weapon hardpoints crowded its upper arms and shoulders. Most unsettling, though, was the way it stood. Not stiff or rigid like a machine, but flexible, natural, poised as a martial artist. Human, more than human. This wasn’t an overgrown set of power armor, no. It was oldtech, exclusively owned and piloted by the noble families of Vitroix. A Praetor, here specifically to kill us.

I had to admit it was fucking cool, even with all its guns pointed at me.

Just as I got to the reactor, I looked back again. A pair of recoil braces unfolded from the Praetor’s ‘calves’ and bit into the concrete with twin flashes of plasma. It hunched back into them and leveled the rotary cannon, five bores I could fit a thumb down. Maybe two thumbs. Careening around the corner, I shouted at the other two to “Brace!”

Then the world tore in half.

Or that’s what it sounded like, at least. A ripping, shredding, deafening noise like a million bolts of cordura torn right in my ears shook my whole body. Hundreds of rounds poured from the rotary cannon, its roar competing with the air-chisel hammering of slugs hitting the other side of the reactor. Just the concussion of the thing going off in an enclosed space pressed on my chest and tried to knock me to my knees. I covered my ears and opened my mouth to keep my eardrums from popping. The other two did the same, all of us looking like extras in a shitty disaster holo. Shards of concrete peppered us as the stream of fire walked back and forth, making me turn my head away. Hesypha’s eyes clenched shut, while Arc’s stayed wide. This ought to answer her question, I supposed.

The burst cut off after what had to be, somehow, only a few seconds. Something clinked at my feet and I glanced down to find a finned, dartlike projectile, slender but maybe four inches long. The nose was dented and still smoking from hitting the reactor vessel. My SKH eye helpfully identified it as an Amsidyne-made 27x150mm fin-stabilized penetrator projectile. Depleted uranium, of course. I was sure that breathing as much of it as I did was very healthy.

I risked a glance around the corner of the reactor. Thousands of white plastic sabot petals fell through the air like confetti at a Warsend parade. Behind them I saw the Praetor retract its recoil braces. Smoke leaked in a cyclone from the spinning-down rotary cannon and welled up from the heap of beer bottle-size composite casings piled under it. The mech spoke just as I jerked my head back. Ilyes Cromwell’s beautiful voice came through speakers so sophisticated they sounded better than real life, so loud she seemed to be right in my ears despite their ringing.

“Clever, clever, insects. Father will never take my rocket pods again when he sees this recording.” She sounded so very bored and over it all. There came a heavy, metallic stomp, then another, wetter one. “Oh, how distasteful, Kamiu. Worse than useless even dead. We ought to stop investing in these worthless simulacra anyway. A real cat would be more useful.”

I grit my teeth as metal scraped on concrete, the heiress wiping her varangian slave’s remains off her Praetor’s foot like animal shit.

“Hmm. I suppose I should test-fire everything.” She enjoyed toying with us like this, the glee obvious behind her bored aristocratic drawl. “The instructors are always handing me demerits for my pre-sync inspections, but this way is much simpler.”

And as the recoil braces bit the floor again, a deep, buzzing hum built from across the room. That had to be the railgun. My chest tightened as I looked all over for a solution that wasn’t there. We were roaches on a glue trap and here came the uranium boot. I turned to Arc, tired, beat-up, panting Arc. Her translation was the only sure way to get out of this unscathed, Hesypha included. She just grit her teeth and shrugged. The doctor herself took that for us being out of ideas. Though she looked close to tears- I guessed none of that corporate fighting she bragged about had been like this- she just hunched down, covered her ears, and clenched her eyes shut. It beat panicking, even if the result was the same.

The hum deepened, roughening until it growled in my chest. I covered my ears just like Hesypha as Ilyes spoke again. “I suppose I’m sorry about this, Hesypha. I would have liked you if you’d been even a little competent. Owrevwa, insects…”

Arc gripped my wrist and took Hesypha’s with the other hand. She shut her eyes and pushed out a long breath. I felt the tingle of translation in my wrist, but it seemed weak and tentative. A snarl pushed out from between her gritted teeth, more blood soaking the bandage on her arm as she squeezed my hand tighter and pushed her translation more. Hesypha turned, confused, feeling something-

And the world broke again, not with a tear but a single skullcracking BANG. Even as searing white flashed in front of me, concussion crushed my ribs so hard their weird metal creaked. Even through the translation, the air tore right out of my lungs like I’d landed on my hard on my chest. Something searing-hot passed through me with that wierd half-sensation being intangible brought. Then I dropped back into physicality hard, phantom vertigo making my stomach lurch.

I tried to blink the floaters out of my eyes, staring at a fist-size hole right through the concrete wall in front of me. Alarms squalled, sounding wooly through my abused ears. I looked sideways at Arc, who panted like she’d just run a marathon. Her ink-blue eyes were desperate, sad.

“I tried,” she rasped in my ear. “Had to choose.”

I looked past her to find a hole punched through the thick shell of the reactor vessel, self-sealing safety foam trying and failing to stop it up. In front of it slumped Hesypha, or what was left of her. The railgun slug had passed right through her abdomen, and it made my saw look like a sleeping heart attack. Its Mach-10 slipstream had bent her ribs inside-out, burst her eyes into jelied smears, and sucked her organs right out of her. Unwound instestines and pulped lungs splayed across a cone of pink and red, painting the floor in front of her all the way to the wall. The butcher-shop stink made even me retch.

“Motherfucker.” We weren’t getting anything else out of Hesypha, that was for sure. I’d almost started to like her. “And thank you, Arc.”

“Oh, dear. Is that blood I see? How many of you did that hit? I can come over there whenever I want, you know.”

Ilyes wasn’t wrong. “We gotta move,” I told Arc.

Still catching her breath, she nodded. “Any ideas?”

“Actually, yes. That thing runs on transuranic fuel.” I explained the rest of my plan fast as I could. There wasn’t much to it.

“Unfortunately, I don’t have any better ideas,” she huffed. “I’ll do my best.”

I grabbed her good shoulder and stood. “If we live, I’m taking you to the nicest fucking restaurant in town, Arc. Ready?”

She lurched upright and nodded.

“Good. Alvar!”