“Alvar! Now!” I shouted, loud enough I heard the echoes even through my ringing ears. This was only the first step on a very rickety staircase. Nothing happened for several seconds. For all I knew Alvar was fled, dead, scared, had no idea what I wanted or just wasn’t willing to help the people who’d ruined his life.

“My name is Ilyes, you impertinent grub,” blared the heiress’s speakers. “Ilyes Pantogenia Eurysthma Kustna Remyn-Gaahl Cromwell- which, if you are able to repeat back and spell correctly, I shall consider-“

BANG! I still heard the sniper rifle’s mag-charged crack, anemic as it was compared to the railgun. Tight on its heels came a crunching clank of struck machinery. I almost couldn’t believe it, but Alvar had come through.

I met Arc’s eyes and we exchanged a final nod as the sarevna raged. “Sia’s bones, it’s positively infested down here!” Articulated, armored feet thunked over the concrete, heavy but unsettlingly nimble. Servos thrummed and Ilyes’s rotary cannon went off again, firing slower this time but still loud enough to feel the concussion in my chest. It seemed to shove me back, trying to keep me in cover- but Alvar’d done his part and I had to move.

I jumped out from behind the leaky reactor and ran at the hulking Praetor, adrenaline making my cuts and bruises easy to ignore. This might have been the stupidest thing I’d ever done, but my feet were already stumbling over the cracked, sabot-covered floor. Two-foot tongues of white-purple flame spat from the sarevna’s whirling cannon barrels as she peppered the upper wall around Alvar’s window. Pale gray smoke welled up from the beaky sensor dome where his bullet had punched a ragged hole. That was better than I could have hoped for.

She must have had backups, though. Even as she kept shooting at Alvar, her Praetor’s ruined antenna-head angled toward me. Her railgun seemed to be on cooldown, clouds of boiling refrigerant pouring from vents along its length. I had to hope that kept it out of commission for at least a few more moments. Maybe I was right, because she just turned to walk her gatling fire onto me. Uranium penetrators sparked and pinged as they blew craters out of the concrete walls. Even at the lower fire rate, the cluster of stubby barrels remained a blur behind its gouting torch of muzzle flash. I wouldn’t bet on my bones against uranium darts at five thousand feet per second- and I didn’t want “getting shot and hoping I survive” to become a staple tactic either. Instead I grit my teeth and focused on the PIN. With that familiar sickly feeling it lashed out from beneath my fingernail, threads of it shifting painless but queasy deep inside my arm.

C’mon, buddy, I thought as I flicked it out. The clear thread, a crimp in the world, drifted like spidersilk toward’s the sarevna’s rotary cannon. Despite being hard to see I could feel where it was, same as my fingers. Just as it touched I tensed that weird not-muscle that made the thing suddenly weigh- or mass?- more than a quarry bulk-hauler. It smashed into the whirling barrels with a crunch and clatter of stripped gears, stopping them dead and buckling the bores together. A last slug shrieked past my head close enough to whip up my hair, but as far as I could tell I was alive.


I lashed the PIN back in as it buzzed with satisfaction. I couldn’t tell if it was glad to have done what I asked, or if it just enjoyed breaking stuff. We’d probably get along either way. Ilyes Cromwell seemed much less pleased.

“…the- the nerve of you creatures! What was that?” she spat as my hearing somewhat returned. White coolant clouds hissed out of her railgun even faster as she turned on me and backed up. Even the gait of her mech seemed offended, its powerful, reverse-jointed legs prancing back across the floor like it was too filthy to touch for long. I jumped the corpse of a murdered scientist and sped up, bruises and aches forgotten or at least ignored. As I unfurled the PIN once more I had a split second to wonder at the decisions I’d made to get here- ‘here’ as in ‘sprinting towards an aristocratic warmech as it charged its railgun in my face.’

Stopping now wouldn’t exactly help me, though. I had to stay close as possible, wait for my moment. A second later it came, the Praetor’s graceful backpedal ending with a clack of purge valves and a thunk of recoil braces against concrete. The square muzzle of that railgun emerged from the chemical cloud of refrigerant, gyro-fixed right on my face. Ilyes had to have some kind of secondaries, but she didn’t seem interested in using them. Maybe after I broke her toy, she thought she’d rather turn me into an extra-large grease stain with her heavy ordance. Honestly I couldn’t blame her, at least from a morbid-curiousity standpoint. I had to look bugfuck insane charging her down like this.

“A little to the left, mutant! I might be able to line up a two-for-one.” Beneath the heiress’s projected voice I heard the thrum of capacitors filling with charge, that deep angry buzz you only get around truly dangerous amounts of electricity. I grit my teeth, stumbling, the muscles of my arm spasming as I tried to send the not-limb of the PIN questing through the chilly chemical mist. It had to be now. I swept it across, right at the oblong barrel of the railgun. With a hiss of breath I surged its mass- and caught nothing but air.

The clouds of refrigerant, inexperience, simply exhaustion- whatever the reason, I’d fucked up and sent the strand cracking into the floor. The PIN thrummed with discontent, feeling almost like a pet who knew it had done something wrong. Its misplaced weight yanked me down before I released it, making me stumble to one knee a scant few yards from Ilyes’s mech.

“Closer to your proper place, mutant, but I think I’d prefer you over there. And there. And wayyy over there, too.” The smile in the heiress’s voice was obvious. My opinion of the her aligned with Hesypha’s: fucking insufferable. As I staggered to my feet the growl of the railgun’s capacitors skirled up into a final whine.


And then a quicksilver flicker passed close by my head, followed nigh-instantly by a blur of active-protection gunfire from the pods high on the Praetor’s shoulders. Shards of metal peppered me as bullets swatted the throwing knife out of the air. Thank fuck, Arc. Her distraction had likely saved my life.

No, it definitely did. A snarl ground out between my teeth as I flung the PIN out once more. I activated it early, hitting that proprioceptive trigger that made the thing surge with impossible weight. The black dot of the railgun muzzle met my eyes, barely two inches across but containing enough energy to spread me across half a block. Just before the PIN pulled me off my feet, it smashed into the railgun’s housing with a crunch and a gout of boiling refrigerant. I clenched my eyes shut as it got knocked aside- an instant before the sarevna fired.

This close, I didn’t even hear the railgun’s world-cracking BOOM. Instead my hearing just cut off like someone had yanked out the wiring. My vision grayed even behind my eyelids. Pressure punched my ribs and squeezed my eyeballs, jamming the Thayer painfully against my orbital bone, and I felt a deep, low ringing all through my body- the metal of my bones resonating, I realized. The breath tore out of my lungs so hard I felt a deep wrenching in my chest as the slipstream tore at my hair, but I seemed to be alive.

I pried my eyes open, happy to find that I could see, if not hear. There was a weird shadow across the vision of my organic eye, as well as several floaters like dead pixels on a gomi-stand comslab. The chrome, on the other hand, seemed none the worse for wear and did its best to compensate. Irritating and worrying, but I could worry later. Had to get up first- and when had I fallen? I didn’t remember hitting the ground. I lurched to my feet and nearly fell again before catching myself. My balance was out of whack, and I might have been concussed by the blast or something. Couldn’t explosions do that to you? Thought I’d read that in some net-scanned police manual, but-

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I nearly shook my head before thinking better of it, instead biting my cheek to try and focus. Deafened and punch-drunk or not, this bout wasn’t over yet. The heiress’s railgun remained far more intact than her rotary cannon, but a rough rent still marred its housing near the muzzle. I could see glowing-hot ceramic behind a skein of boiling refrigerant within. A wordless, enraged noise that I might have been proud of myself came shredding out of the Ilyes’s speakers, though I more felt it than heard it. I smelled concrete dust through the ozone and gunsmoke as her recoil braces tore out of the floor. Then she fucking charged me.

I barely got my hands up before the mech’s armored knee pistoned into my chest. Even so it made my ribs flex, painfully smashing the meat of my palms between unyielding titanium composite and my own metallic bones. The breath whooshed out of me and it felt like it dragged a cloud of bead-blaster silica with it, a burning ache welling through my lungs. A few drops of blood landed on my tongue, hot and metallic. That fucking railgun had missed and still beat the shit out of me. Bad as this was, though, this wild lunge was just what we’d needed.

I’d never pulled the PIN back in after whacking the railgun with it, though I had let up on the mass. I felt it trailing past Ilyes’s Praetor like a streamer and focused on it, making it curl around behind her. The concussion made it both harder and easier. While my head ached like King Garik had hammered on it, the slight kookiness let me forget I was currently doing my best impression of a ‘roach splattered across a truck’s windshield.’

The mech’s articulated feet ground to a halt, but I kept going. Just as I separated, I completed the loop around the Praetor’s knees activated the PIN. It sent the thread’s mass surging, and both of us crashing to the floor at once.

The mech staggered to it knees, chips of concrete flying as its tangled legs pounded divots into the floor. For the first time it looked uncoordinated, braced half-upright by its railgun arm. I didn’t look much better, having landed hard enough on my back to lose my breath a second time. For maybe a half a second I lay there still, comfortable enough with the pain by now that just relaxing there and not getting hurt any worse sounded pretty great. Ilyes wasn’t going to let me, though, and I couldn’t let Arc and Alvar down.

I shoved myself up and sent another surge of mass through the PIN while I still had a hand braced on the ground, earning another crash of armor and snarl of overloaded servos. And another strangled wail of rage from Ilyes herself- either my hearing had already come back a little or she was just really loud.

“Whatever this thing is,” she hissed, “I will peel it out of you before you die.”

“Been peeled before,” I huffed, thinking of how I got the ‘thing’ in the first place. I had no idea if she heard me and didn’t really care. All I needed now was to get close enough to touch. Yanking the saw from its scabbard, I staggered forward.

The railgun scraped against the floor as she tried to right herself, but the angle was wrong and the PIN still wrapped her legs. A burnt-starter shriek rattled out of the other arm as the sarevna tried to fire her ruined rotor cannon, either forgetful or just frustrated. I sent another pulse of mass through the cord to keep her down, crying out in pain as both of us staggered. I was only a few steps away from her mech now, its electromechanical drivers and fiber muscles whining like a wounded beast.

“You fucking-“ Ilyes’s voice dissolved into a snarl, composure fully broken. Those countermeasure pods on her shoulders popped open again, a pair of caseless-loading machine guns ready to dump a few thousand rounds per minute at me. They were meant for shooting missiles out of the air, but they’d happily mulch me just the same. I lunged forward, planting a boot on the Praetor’s trapped knee so I could flail the saw at the closer gun. A shudder reverberated back up the blade as its teeth blurred through the gun mount. Caseless rounds like blocks of green wax sprayed from the severed feed chute like chits from a slot machine. That left one gun, one I couldn’t reach past the Praetor’s sensor head. It twitched on its overdriven gimbal to target me. I tried to duck, even knowing it was too late. All I could do was hope.

Several bullets whacked into the gun mount, hitting far harder than the pistol-size reports that followed them would suggest. One severed the feed chute and another nailed the reciever hard enough to knock it off target.

“Do it now, Sharkie!”

Arc! As I scrambled higher up the Praetor, I looked over to see her leaned out past the reactor. She’d covered me. Of course she had. The stubby machine gun twitched at her- did it still have anything in the chamber? I had no idea how it worked. I lashed out from my higher position, all speed and no finesse. The blade squealed halfway through the gun before snapping a foot or so above the hilt.

“F-fuck.” I dropped to the floor, heaving, staggering round behind the mech.

“Fuck!” snapped Ilyes. I heard a hum, and several white arcs of electricity crackled off her Praetor’s skin, earthing themselves on nearby bits of metal detritus before winking out. Apparently it had a get-the-fuck-off-me setting. Too late now. I sent one last surge of weight through the PIN, weaker than any before. The poor thing was tired and so was I. Still, it gave me a chance to get to her Praetor’s back, where I assumed the fuel would be stored. This was what the whole plan led to. Now I just had to hope it would work.

I put my free hand on the mech’s armored back and reached for that tingling coldness within me, the same I’d used while fighting Arc before. Thinking of the waves that I’d felt while Hesypha’s team did their tests made it easier to find. It welled up and I tried to send it towards my hand. It felt impossibly cold, somehow heavy, but didn’t hurt at all. Praetors ran on transuranic fuel- a blend of fuck-off radioactive chemicals whose decay, accelerated by a catalyst that may as well have been spacetech for all I understood it, provided the mech’s power. But if Hesypha was right about what the artifact did- what I could do- I could pour some metaphorical sugar into the tank.

Not that was it doing anything now. Ilyes still struggled, polymer muscles growling as she began to lurch upright. A couple more seconds and she’d turn, beat me to death with that railgun barrel even if she couldn’t shoot it. I felt woozy but the cold was soothing. I breathed out, pushed more, liquid nitrogen pins and needles rippling down my arm. And on a whim I dropped the saw, reached into my jacket pocket, and wrapped my free hand around the artifact, the metallic fingerbone responsible for me being sent here in the first place. It chilled along with me, then welled up with a surge of cold so deep and still and dark I just wanted to lie down in its comfort and never move again. It flowed up through my arm and outward, and then I could feel, almost see the sullen, feverish warmth of the transuranic fuel inside the Praetor’s armored tanks. I felt all that bound-up energy, that instability, that constant change, and drove it down, down, down to nothing where it belonged-

And I saw a field of smoking corpses, men and metal so melted and churned together they made a uniform carpet of ruin. I saw great vessels, plunging down in pieces against a burning sky. I felt the warmth of a sunset, a real sunset on my face. A figure on a hill watched me back, the orange light glinting on their glasses, and I knew they were waiting for me. I saw another figure, pale-faced and cackling, a sliver of sharp red light in its hands and a swamp of gore beneath its feet. I saw a terrible storm, felt its tearing winds around me, watched sheets of rain so cold it boiled when it hit the ground. I saw a long, tall thing, taller than me, even, reaching out as if waiting for me to shake a narrow hand that dripped with shining tar-

And I stumbled back from the Praetor, steam panting out with every breath. I was cold, so fucking cold, down to my core like I’d never feel warm again. It wasn’t comforting anymore. It felt like my earliest memories, shivering out in the rain. It felt like death. But fuck how I felt. Did it work?

I watched the Mech and it didn’t move. Didn’t make a sound, even, though my ears weren’t the best at the moment. Its whole back was covered in frost except for a gray handprint in the very middle. I had no doubt it would be full of iron dust if I looked, and indeed some of it was stuck to my hand.

“Did you- is she dead?” It was Alvar, poking his pointy little head over the sill of his window. I realized I was happy he was alive.

“I believe her toy is, at least.” Here came Arc, too, creeping warily out from behind the reactor. It was probably a good idea to stay away from it anyway, considering how thoroughly perforated it was. She still cradled her injured arm, and though she stood up straight her breath was ragged and tired. Wasn’t like I looked any better, honestly.

“I t-t-think it worked,” I managed, hugging myself to try and to get warm again. “Though I had s-some help.”

Grabbing the fingerbone, if that’s what it was, had been the right choice. I’d definitely drawn something out of it. Something I wasn’t getting back, based on how it felt. I took it out my my pocket, only to find most of it was just gone- no dust or broken pieces or anything. Hesypha’d said that killing the Winnower with it had used up some of its mass. This was a bit more than some, but we weren’t talking settled science here.

“What do we do now? Find an elevator key and leave?” asked Alvar hopefully.

I hadn’t actually thought past taking out the Praetor itself. The sarevna was probably alive in there, and certainly dangerous to us. We ought to kill her, I supposed-

A metallic thunk came from the fallen Praetor, just before the chest armor fell away with a crackle of explosive bolts. Arc and I dashed round front in time to see Ilyes Cromwell emerge, now dressed in a sort of quilted coverall of glimmering black material rather than her evening gown. Her perfect hair was pulled back in a perfect bun, and despite just having bailed out of a war machine not a drop of sweat marked her smooth face. For a moment she stood there regarding us, beautiful like an artificial diamond, a look of rage on her face. I cracked my knuckles with a faintly metallic sound, thinking that this fight would go a hell of a lot different without a mech in the way-

And then her perfect, manicured fist hammered into my jaw hard enough I blacked out.