Sleep. Quiet, relaxing, kings-blessed sleep. Damn but it felt nice, even on this cold, hard bed. I’d needed this. I hummed, made to roll over- and snapped fully awake.

Hot, viscous pain welled through my jaw, pulsing in time with my pounding head. I hadn’t been punched this hard since fighting Rossignol, that Blue Div heavy. As I had the thought a sickly twist of nausea curled through my gut. Two concussions in as many minutes couldn’t be healthy, even for me. I had to concentrate just to stop seeing double.

Speaking of, I shoved myself up on my elbows and saw Arc trade a flurry of blows with Ilyes. Seemed like I’d been out just long enough that my skull hitting the concrete woke me. My not-really-sister had a dagger in her good hand, and despite her injuries she kept it flickering around almost too fast to see. Between the knife and her height she had the reach advantage over Ilyes and she used it as best she could.

As I’d found out, though, the blindie could hold her own. Ilyes stayed poised and balanced, her footwork neat as a fencer’s as she darted out of line of Arc’s thrusts. Her hands and forearms positioned themselves like well-programmed manufacturing ‘bots, always ready to fend Arc’s knife to the side or block her wrists. I couldn’t tell if her skills were chipped in or truly learned, but either way they must have cost a high-end arm and leg. As I tried to blink my concussion away she stepped in at an angle, caught Arc’s wrist in one hand and snatched her elbow with the other. Arc translated just enough to slide out of the lock an instant before all that Vitroix-bought chrome snapped her arm like a chemlight.

Ilyes scoffed but didn’t speak, still too pissed to talk. She wore no sidearm, but something I thought was a hotwire rode in a fitted pouch near her waist. Arc darted back in fast, though, keeping up too much pressure for her to grab it. However augged up Ilyes was, evidently seven inches of sharp steel still posed a threat. Arc kept the knife in constant motion, now held forehand, now hammer-gripped, always threatening the sarevna’s uncovered face and hands. I wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep it up, though.

She tried to stay close but not too close. I could see the sweat beading on her forehead, and her expression was strained compared to Ilyes’s focused glare. As I staggered to my feet Arc leaned back almost impossibly far, then snapped forward into Ilyes’s advance and laid a long slash across her abdomen. She only got through the first layer or two of that coverall, though, and instead of a spray of blood her reward was a snatched wrist and an elbow to the ribs. She grunted in pain as she hit a flickering translate and staggered back. That more than anything snapped me out of my stupor. I didn’t bother speaking. As Arc barely escaped the heiress’s hold I charged, ready to tackle Ilyes to the ground.

I hadn’t bothered with a war cry- couldn’t have thought of one, at the moment- but she turned to meet me anyway. I came in with arms low, ready to scoop her up and spike her into the concrete. Instead smooth hands locked around my wrists like a couple of Enforcement shackles. Her boot slammed savagely into my bruised calf as she dropped and twisted. I suddenly found myself in the air, thrown effortlessly over her shoulder despite my weight. My own momentum sent me crashing into the concrete, though my shoulder and ribs were kind enough to spare my head another impact. I rolled and found my feet fast. I hated getting tossed around like that, and the anger cleared more fog from my head. Willy was dead, but I wasn’t going to shame his memory like this. I jumped straight back in with my fists up.


If my size scared her she didn’t show it. Her eyes were narrow, glittering like a lizard’s, giving no hint to her intentions- even as she sent a palm strike driving up at my throat. I just caught it on the inside, sending it scraping along my jaw instead. It was like a near miss from a sledgehammer; just that graze could have put a handprint in concrete after it dried.

I spat blood at her face and missed, meeting her eyes. My squishy-side vision remained darkened and speckly.

“You got an arm on you, blindie,” I heaved.

“And you’ve got a fucking mouth- agh!” Ilyes cried out, crossing her forearms just in time to catch Arc’s wrist. The dagger’s point stopped bare inches from her face. I was proud of Arc, jumping the sarevna like that. She was fighting like a real D-blocker now. No one-versus-ones here. And now Ilyes’s hands were occupied. I wound up low, pushed off my leg and drove my fist straight into her gut.

It made an audible thump even with the padding of her coverall in the way, but it felt like punching a heavy bag rather than a person. From experience, that kind of hit would have most people folded in half and puking on the ground. Instead the heiress whuffed out a taut breath but otherwise just fucking took it, ignoring me in favor of hooking out a foot to sweep Arc’s legs. At the same time she wrenched Arc’s wrist outward, trying to snap her arm yet again. Arc translated her arm free slick as a used chrome salesman but her knife got levered out of her hand. Ilyes moved in, ready to finally get a solid grip and take Arc apart- but I got in the way, coming in quick and low so her arm ended up over my right shoulder. I hooked my own arm over it, barely missed her face with my own left elbow, then grabbed my right wrist in my left hand to fully lock her elbow. She put a short jab into my ribs with her free hand, but it was too late. I dropped my weight, twisting back and left as hard as I could- with Ilyes’s arm still locked.

That ought to have turned her elbow into very expensive powder, but all I got was a reedy, faint crackle of strained composite. Didn’t matter. I followed through to turn the break into a throw. She came off her feet, but instead of getting hurled to the concrete like she ought to she somehow got her leg up enough to wrap it around my waist. With her free hand she wrenched at the back of my knee and took me down with her.


I twisted just enough to land on her, but it hardly seemed to knock the wind out of her and her legs kept me trapped. I still had her arm but lacked the leverage to snap it, and despite being under three-hundred-odd pounds of dumbass she just snarled and hooked more bruising blows into my ribs. As much as I hated to admit it, the spoiled slaver jo-san could scrap. I half-released the futile armlock and twisted, trying to drive my elbow back at her head, but the angle was bad and I couldn’t see anything. I missed a blow, sent one sliding past her forehead, missed again. Her fist hammered into my false ribs, and while they didn’t break I felt them poke my lung. I hissed in pain, bucked, twisted farther and snapped my elbow back right into her nose.

It broke with a crunch and another of those enraged noises. Cartilage- if that’s what was in there- crumpled and smeared under my metal bones as Ilyes’s skull bounced off the concrete. Her legs loosened with with shock and pain so I took the chance to scramble up. She already tried to pull me back, growling low in her throat, her hand scrabbling for a grip around my neck- but Arc, beautifully timed Arc, cracked a fancy boot right into the side of her head. That bought me enough time to gain my feet and whirl on the heiress.

Arc and I had her between us, ready to start beating her back and forth like a roach off an electric fence. But instead of getting to her feet Ilyes flexed her hips off the ground and snapped up onto her hands. Arc and I moved in but she shoved off so hard she flew over our heads, a ten-foot handspring that had us staring stupidly up at her bloody, crooked-nosed face. Rage filled those green eyes, but she smiled as she drew her hotwire from her waist.

She slashed it across her body while still in the air. Arc and I backpedaled, getting off the X just in time. It flickered between us: a crackling, lashing line, glowing red-orange like old filament bulbs, like cracks in a steel-mill crucible. It licked across the floor with a hiss and spatter of steam-popped concrete, then retracted.

Ilyes’s boots landed with a thump. Not heavy, but solid. I knew by now how tough she was built. The real worry was her weapon. I’d never seen a hotwire in person before. In a way it was a counterpart to my glittersaw. It worked a bit like the chainsaws that concrete scrappers in D-block liked, but rather than a chain running around a bar, it had a thin, red-hot wire running around…nothing. Could have been a magnetic field, but I had no idea how that would work with the shape and the heat so maybe it was something more…exotic.

However it worked, the hotwire looked like a vector drawing in the shape of a gently curved sword, an eerie glowing outline with nothing to support it except the handgrip. Its faint movement made it even more disconcerting to look at. The pulleys in the grip must have kept it running at hundreds of feet per second. Was this how people felt when I came at them with the glittersaw blurring in my hand?

I took stock. My saw was on the ground somewhere, lost when I got punched out. The coilgun I might have even dropped behind the reactor. Couldn’t remember, but it wasn’t on me. The Slukh was in my pocket, but I was too close to draw and unless I could stick it in her mouth or something I didn’t want to rely on it to take her down. My knife was gone too- not that I’d even considered it until now. Maybe all the concussions were adding up.

Arc was empty-handed too, though as I watched she dropped that hooked cramp-it knife out of her sleeve and into her grip. One of her pistols was in its holster, but the slide was locked open. Empty. The other, though…there. It lay on the filthy concrete, seemingly loaded. The sarevna must have disarmed her while I napped.

It wasn’t looking good- but, despite the deep ache in my arm, I could feel that the PIN was ready. It would have to do.

This tale has been pilfered from Royal Road. If found on Amazon, kindly file a report.

The sarevna got playful again, now that she felt like the biggest roach in the vat, but that anger still sparked in her eyes. That emotion, the crooked nose and the blood dripping off her chin… it all made her look less like a robot. The flaws made her beauty more real- and that was as far as I’d let my thoughts go down that particular dark alley. She paced slowly around the wreck of the Praetor, the hotwire chewing at the floor with a high metallic scrape. Arc and I matched the motion. Beaten, exhausted, disarmed- but still wary.

“Come on then, citizen,” she mocked, looking at me. “Let’s see yours, then. I always wanted to put that arrogant Winnower in her place- a B-blocker, for Aurambard’s sake, deigning to negotiate with us! The nerve. I suppose losing to a corpse-eater is worse than anything I could have done.”

Well, that was one more piece of evidence for the ‘arpaste is people’ club.

Ilyes glanced at Arc. “And you…I don’t know what to make of you at all. I’ve not heard of any ‘jaegers that can do what you do- but then, there are always strange things crawling out of the sewers, aren’t there?”

“Is that how your parents met?” asked Arc, tone mild as ever.

The sarevna shot her a patronizing smile. Then she lunged at Arc, hotwire-first as if dragged in by its point. She’d expected it, making a quick step back. But Ilyes thumbed something on the hilt of her sword and the outline-shape of the blade extended, the red-hot wire coursing around a longer path. It grazed Arc’s collarbone, charring her white suit instantly, and she made a sharp hiss of pain.

I’d moved the moment Ilyes did, lashing out with the PIN. It wrapped around the blade of her hotwire, cinching down with a shriek of metal and a weird buzz back into my arm. I tried to put just enough weight into it to pull the hotwire away from Arc without doing Ilyes’s job for her and dragging the blade through my friend’s shoulder.

Either I was getting better at controlling it, or it was too tired to do more. The world-warping thread squeezed the hotwire, distorting its sword-shaped outline, but I managed to yank it away from Arc rather than through her. Ilyes retracted its length to dagger-size and freed it before I could do more, the orange outline flickering. Her boot snapped into Arc’s gut before I could even ask if she was okay, the kick sending her tumbling away. Now I just had to keep the heiress’s attention on me. She was happy to oblige.

“Ah, there it is. I meant it when I said I’d peel it out of you. You’re a disgrace to such an artifact, whatever you are.” She kept smiling, green eyes flicking as they tried to trace the PIN’s ripple through the air. Her hotwire remained in a low guard, deceptively relaxed. “Some coincidence of effluent and nucleides in a degenerate mother’s womb. Some cosmic fucking by-blow with delusions of being anything more than-“

“Oh, you a Jet Colter fan?” I coughed slightly, tasting blood. Just a little.

She blinked. “What?”

Yeah, that’s right. Eyes on me.

“You talk like one of his villains. It’s weird.” I kept pacing, giving her a grin made crooked by the way I kept my good bionic eye cocked towards her. “Amisdyne couldn’t add a personality when they jacked in that fight chip?”

Of all things, that got her pissed.That smile turned into a snarl as she whirled the hotwire in her hand and slashed downward. I easily stepped back to dodge- until she cut back up the other way, the hotwire’s blade changing shape and flicking out like a searing-hot chainsaw whip. I swiped wildly with my hand, trying to get her ankles or sword hand with the PIN. She must have been getting used to it, because I only managed to snag her hotwire. It had less support this time, so it got well and truly tangled with my own invisible thread. Once more I got that crazy buzz rolling back up my arm, and I could feel the PIN’s distaste at having to hold on. It almost felt offended, like it thought the hotwire was a cheap imitation.

Or maybe that was the concussions talking.

Ilyes grit her teeth, thumb pressing at her controls- but then four quick gunshots banged out, the bullets sending up puffs of synthetic lining as they punched through her coverall. She staggered slightly but kept upright, still holding the hotwire.

Both of us looked to Arc, standing there with her pistol emptied and smoking in her hand.

“You shot me!” went Ilyes, sounding more offended than hurt.

Arc gave her gun a mocking, wide-eyed stare, like she’d never seen it before, then looked back to the heiress. “I must not have hit your eyes, at least.”

Instead of responding, Ilyes hissed out a long breath through her teeth. I saw it actually steam. Something was up. Then she yanked on the hotwire so hard it nearly pulled me off my feet, despite my greater weight. The PIN tugged on my arm, but it stayed wrapped up in the hotwire. I heaved back, keeping us both in place.

“Well,” Ilyes growled, something strange about her voice. “I’d thought it beneath my dignity, but apparently I’ve got to-“

BANG. Alvar’s rifle interrupted her, a huge mag-boosted bullet slamming directly into Ilyes’s sword hand. I’d hoped he’d intervene but hadn’t been sure. A couple of the sarevna’s fingers flew away, carbon-filament internals trailing fat reddish sparks. She dropped the hotwire hilt too, its casing cracked. The wire itself went dead, cold and no longer trying to rotate.

We all froze for a split second. Ilyes looked at me, with the PIN. Arc, with abilities she didn’t understand. Alvar, who might have had more rounds in his rifle. She lunged at me so fast I barely got my hands up-

-and jumped, stomping on my shoulder. While I was busy hitting the concrete, Ilyes launched herself all the way up to the catwalk. She caught the railing, vaulted it, cannoned through the door and disappeared.

I scraped myself off the floor, rubbing my aching arm where Ilyes had used it as a springboard, then squinted up at where she’d gone. “Did she actually just…”

“What an absolute rat,” muttered Arc, watching the same spot.

“And after all that talk.” I felt weirdly fatalistic about it, almost upbeat. Brain was rattled for sure. “Alvar! Took you long enough!”

“I didn’t have a shot!” he protested from up top. “Would you rather I hit you, you- oh, you’re fucking with me, aren’t you? Really? Now?”

“Of course I am. Sorry.” Had to remember this was still a nightmare for him. “Just get down here. And Alvar?”

He poked his head up. “What?”

“Kept me out of the vats a few times, there. Thanks.”

He blinked, looking surprised, then ducked back down and started grumbling. “You talk like a holodrama ganger. And you’re just lucky I mained snipers. Not like I had a choice…”

A moment later he got himself out of the control room and down the stairs, joining us on the ground floor with rifle in hand.

“Un-effing-crowned. I can’t believe we’re alive,” he muttered, looking at the downed Praetor. “How did you take it out? It looked like you just touched it and then, boom.”

“I, uh-“

Arc jumped in to save me. “She used the artifact.”

“How?” Alvar squinted at the iron handprint on the mech’s backplate.

“Not sure. And everyone who could explain is dead.” I waved at the corpses of the betrayed scientists. Only Hesypha’d truly understood their status as tools, not employees, and her luck had run out only a couple minutes after theirs.

He opened his mouth, closed it- then huffed out a sigh, sitting on the dead Praetor’s knee with the rifle- his rifle now, really- against his side. “I shot a Praetor,” he said. “I shot Admin, a fucking samurai! I am fucked! Ha!”

He kept laughing, but it wasn’t a happy sound. I thought about patting him on the shoulder or something, but then again he had to be pissed at me. There was one thing that could probably bridge the gap, though, and luckily Arc had some left.

“Alvar. Chill. Have some of this.” I offered him Arc’s flask of skotch, still at least half full.

Still making jagged little snickers, he accepted and took a big slug. Immediately his eyes bugged out and he started coughing instead of laughing.

“What- kah!- what the hell is that?” He took another belt before I could answer, then gasped and handed it back. “‘Bard. Thanks.”

“Careful, there.” He seemed to have calmed down a little, at least. I took a sip of the fiery, smoky liquor myself and passed the flask back to Arc, who finished it off. “What is that shit, a hundred proof?”

“One-oh-five,” she said with a slight cough.

“Damn. Maybe we should have left it for when we were done.”

Arc smiled at Alvar and I. “Sharkie, if anyone’s ever deserved a drink, it’s the three of us.”

“We’ve still gotta get out of here, though,” said Alvar. “And it sounds like that’s gotten even tougher.”

I listened for a moment, and he was right. It wasn’t just roaring fires and industrial tools going anymore. A hell of a firefight had popped off outside while we were busy with Ilyes.

“More aircraft, too,” said Arc, glancing up.

“Yeah.” I heard a VTOL shriek past somewhere nearby. Could have been more of the same attackers from earlier, could be Ilyes cleaning up after herself. It didn’t really matter; we were stuck in between either way. “We still need an elevator key. It’ll just be harder now.”

“Maybe not.” Arc hushed me, and we all heard several pairs of boots sprinting towards the door.

I looked at the three of us, beat to shit in the middle of the room. “Aw, hell.”

“I might be able to take them all out, if I do it fast.” Arc’s voice stayed smooth but I knew she was hurting.

Alvar’s heel bounced on the floor until he suddenly stood. “I have an idea!”

“All ears here, Al.”

He crouched by one of his dead comrades, grimacing in distaste, then pulled something off their web gear and held it up: A brick of plastic explosive. “How do you feel about nuclear accidents?”