Written by: Amanda

A string of nothing but panicked swearing filled Farrah’s head. The device the Qhurothi had given him days ago burned in his hand—working, he hoped. His captain had been about to sell them out. All of them. All of New Carthage. This had to get home.

He jerked upright. Not fast enough. Eyes wild, he struggled against an Aidlean’s hold, being tossed about more like a toy than a man. He scrabbled for purchase, an arm around a neck, then a hand jabbing at eyes. “Fnippith!” The yell kickstarted a chain reaction.

The Iron Spectre’s crew converged on the fallen Otakke, as if Farrah’s yell might have launched her to her feet for good, old-fashioned revenge. Instead, the double vanished. Empty ground met the grasping hands before a startled shout. 

“The Otakke!” a crew member yelled.

“Control your team, Silvalinus!” 

The captain showed no sign of discomfort even in the face of the fleet admiral breaking apart in flashes of strange light, reappearing two steps away, then five, only to be closer than before. What Farrah had done on stage his entire life had been an illusion. But this…this looked like witchcraft. 

The candlelight that filled the room flickered and died. They might as well have been back in the ghost ship.

In the black, all he could hear were heavy footfalls and gasps. Glimpses of sight came only from Janus. He flashed again, brightening the room. From behind the door, Fnippith appeared. Airborne. The room submerged back in darkness, a battle shriek from the Otakke and then the dull thud of skin against bone, barely cushioned.

Why did it have to be a fight? Farrah shifted forward, ready to bolt toward his teammate and join the chaos inside the room. Cowering by the fallen doors was useless. A hand latched onto Farrah’s ACS before he could move. Gods…he’d been afraid of that.

Stomach thrown to his throat, he careened through the air, slamming into a tower of boxes that lined the wall of the room. Faster than he wanted, but he was inside… Pain seared through his shoulder, and a low groan fell from his parted lips. He was going to die here.

“Don’t be so dramatic.” A small face appeared two inches from his own, and before he could scream, a hand covered his mouth. Fnippith winked. Cool relief followed the low glow of her suit activating.

Thank the gods. “You’re the worst…”

“I know!” She darted back off into the black—only this time, one became three, like she and Janus were in competition for how much they could make Farrah’s head spin. It took a hard drop to the ground, but she slid neatly between an approaching Aidlean’s legs, reaching up for the tech still clutched in Janus’s hand. A pulse of energy knocked her back. The double vanished. 

Farrah staggered back to his feet in time for the ground to quake. Two Aidleans approached, finally spotting him as another flash shot through the room. 

A low roar built outside, shaking the windows until it was the howl of relentless winds buffeting against the glass. Whatever was out there wanted to come in. He reached for the mines clipped to his ACS and pulled, forearms crossed before ricocheting the weapons off the combat suits of the nearest Aidleans. They exploded mid-air, while he yelled “Eyes!” His team knew how to protect themselves from the dizzying lights.

His team. The two words rattled bitterly in his tired mind. There was no team if there was no trust, and Janus had been right to call Silvalinus a traitor.

The two Aidleans collapsed, Heldar’s gravity and the disorientation too much to stay standing. 

Silvalinus and Janus faced each other in the center of the chaos. Hullbreaker kicked to life, and Farrah hit the ground, covering his ears. But nothing happened. Eyes narrowed to make out the shapes in the dark, he watched his captain struggle with the weapon as it sputtered and died under pulsating waves from the tech in Janus’s hand. His face contorted with the spread of whatever alchemical magic he’d been touched by. The Otakke had been right; whatever this was, it could take out a planet.

An iron grip wrenched at the back of Farrah’s suit, hauling him upright in time to watch Silvalinus sweep Hullbreaker like a sword into Janus’s side. The honorable captain…always doing the right thing. That was what Farrah had always believed.

Tearing loose a piece of his suit, the Aidlean lost hold. Farrah dropped back to the ground and bolted in the direction of his captain. Traitor or not, this was how they all lived. The board would handle the rest–or perhaps the Qhurothi would.

Long arm outstretched, Silvalinus locked eyes. His voice didn’t reach, but it didn’t have to. Gods, Farrah hated when they did this. Three small mines fell into his open palm. He latched his hand to the captain’s shoulder plating, and with a sharp pivot, the extra gravitational force slingshotted him past Janus.

The mines flew faster—straight through the admiral as he glitched and onto the wall behind him. Deaf from the roar, Farrah didn’t hear them detonate. The proof was hard to miss, though. Cracks spiderwebbed out along the wall. Silvalinus yanked Farrah down, and the world vanished beneath his captain’s massive suit.

If this was how it ended, there was only one consolation: New Carthage’s magistrate was going to get ousted for this public failure. And if the conversation stolen away in the coin never came to light…Silvalinus’s reputation would be spared. With the captain shielding him, it became hard to wish for anything else. But how could a traitor, even one keeping him alive, be worthy of mercy?

A small crouching figure joined them. Fnippith pointed, and gradually, red light filtered in from Heldar’s moon, streaming through a hole in the building’s side. The Aidleans moved soundlessly. From above, a black shadow sunk into view. It glinted in the red-light, close enough to touch: the Iron Spectre.

Fnippith wanted to know how it worked–maybe break it open and poke around on the inside. The way the admiral swayed mimicked the ship behind him. For every time the object in his hand pulsed, the ship gave an answering keen, a high-pitched tone that felt like metal being jammed directly into Fnippith’s ears. Could a ship bond with a piece of technology? Not to imply sentience, of course, but the possibility of there being some sort of magnetic compulsion between the two was fascinating. 

Scarf cinching tight across the lower half of her face, she glanced over to Farrah. He had a firm grip, eyes shadowed by an intensely furrowed brow. Fine, fine, she wouldn’t try to take the tech again. Maybe Kelsef would know how to deactivate it.

She hadn’t seen him since the gun had been wrested from his hands by one of the admiral’s crew. He wasn’t standing in the room, or far more likely, even lying unconscious in it. 

Ears twitching at the sudden silence, Fnippith crept from under Silvalinus, who slowly began to right himself to face the admiral. 

“We’ll take the azothite…” Janus’s voice cracked into a dry cough, while fissures began to form all over his body. A puzzle no one would want to put back together, Fnippith was sure. “We’ll take it ourselves.” He stiffened as waves of the alchemical compound washed over him. Pale knuckles refused to loosen their grip. He didn’t realize the object had begun to crack. “I just need…your signature.” He wheezed through the words, staggering closer. Every step spread the infection. Boxes duplicated and then vanished. The floor splintered beneath the weight of the incomplete alchemical reactions. 

The building groaned as the Iron Spectre dragged closer, drawn to the tech. Janus powered on. 

“Bring him,” Janus ordered. 

No one moved.

“BRING HIM!” The admiral and his ship jolted with lines of blue. 

Heart pounding and holding on to Farrah, Fnippith scrambled back from the encroaching corruption. It snaked its way across the floor, overtaking everything it touched. The admiral’s crew ran. Down the hall and out of sight, she could hardly blame them for fleeing in terror. Her head throbbed with the lights. It beat a rhythm while she struggled with Farrah to get to their feet as Silvalinus reached back with both giant arms.

“Don’t!” she yelled, just as he grabbed hold and slung her and Farrah back. He placed himself in Janus’s path. “Don’t touch it!” The words whipped away by a gust of wind as the Iron Spectre pulled back like an arrow being drawn only to shoot into the building. It gave, everything sliding to the left while her captain latched onto the hole in the wall as it suddenly became the ceiling. His hand reached for the tech. Fnippith’s heartbeat stuck in her throat. 

Cool metal pressed into her hand, and Farrah, crouched now on the opposite wall, nodded. His last mines. They took aim, while Fnippith could do little more than hope in the chaos that the explosives missed their captain. Farrah threw with abandon.

Janus swung one great arm, the blow knocking Silvalinus back in time for the careening mines to land. They attached. 

They attached. To Janus.

Fnippith stared in disbelief. Joy stuck in her throat. He wouldn’t kill them all…unless his ship did it for them. But as Janus shuddered, the Iron Spectre did too, and in the barest moment, Fnippith knew they had won.

She thought…they’d won.

Janus smiled. It looked like pain.

Along his suit, the corruption gravitated to the mines. Hounds to blood. They rent metal from metal, and what was left joined the dust collecting in the air. “All you had to do…was sign,” Janus growled. “Do you know the bribes I paid to sanction this inane treaty?” He trembled with rage, swinging his sword in long, hard arcs. Silvalinus lurchd back, and Fnippith watched in horror. Pure energy crackled around the admiral as he raged. “All for one board member to ruin it all by picking you!”

Silvalinus’s grip on the wall cracked as he swung like a punching bag for the admiral’s rage. 

“The azothite would’ve fixed this!” A blow from the sword beat against Silvalinus’s combat suit. More than anyone should be capable of. Metal bent like paper. 

The wind changed. Silvalinus dropped, landing with a heavy crack of stone walls now underfoot. Janus hovered above, suspended like the ship was locking him in place with its pull on the corruption in every cell of his body. His eyes smoldered with it, like the ire was fading to embers. 

He looked tired…empty.

“I didn’t want this.”

The Iron Spectre lifted with a gust of heat, dazzling until it choked and blinded. Fnippith turned away. At the corner of her eye, she saw her captain raise Hullbreaker. His lips formed two silent words and turned into a frown.

None of them had wanted this.

A tap against her foot pulled Fnippith’s gaze: a small box, clattering against the ground and flickering with faded light. As all eyes turned toward the Iron Spectre’s last flight, Fnippith crouched, silent. She shouldn’t, of course. There was a lot she shouldn’t do. Did it ever stop her?

Debris fell like rain.

The silence lasts until a knock at the door to the expansive hall. The board members start as if breaking from a trance after Fnippith’s tale of Janus and the Iron Spectre, and then the denial begins. 

“Board members do not accept bribes.”

“We would never approve the sanctioning of a mission that would lead our team into a trap. A fake mission! Ridiculous.”

Another stands, apparently so frustrated that he believes several extra centimeters of height will make his words more valid. He’s the first to pin it all to Janus: “You can’t possibly believe the ravings of a mad Aidlean—practically a war criminal!” 

It lasts longer than the story did, so wrapped up in themselves that they barely see her. A single mercenary team hardly matters to the board, but their reputation is everything, even if no one believes it. She lets her feet swing while they talk themselves in circles. 

Eventually, they swing back around to her with accusations. “You must be misremembering. Or perhaps making it up! Is this all to make New Carthage appear innocent?”

She doesn’t answer. She doesn’t have to with the next board member jumping to speak. “Enough! Enough. We all agree this was the Aidleans’ fault. None of us were culpable for this absolute disaster. The Cloak of Olaos is cleared from all charges, and New Carthage will not be held liable.” Taking a breath, she smoothes down the front of her tunic and then sinks down into her chair, hidden once more from Fnippith’s view. “Now, to bring us back to what matters most…what became of the technology you were tasked with finding?”

Fnippith tilts her head back and forth before steepling her fingers. “Like I said…” Eyes locked on the board, she flings her hands out. “Boom.”

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