Supercell - III
This chapter contains depictions of explosives, firearms, electrocution, alcohol use, mass death, and alludes to human experimentation.
On the morning of the Twenty-Eighth of April, Lieutenant Colonel Clarke declared that the battalion had orders to move once again.
Inside Clarke’s office, everything was polished to perfection, a gleaming contrast to the dust of the grounds outside. And it was in the bizarre serenity between those walls, in the grey light not long before dawn and the lamplight that broke it, that Clarke delivered the news to Vesper and the rest of the officers, its weight hanging on every word.
“The Russians are preparing for a breakthrough in Hungary over the Danube, on the Fifth of May. They will cross the Gerjen Bridge near Kalocsa to complete the encirclement of Budapest. We will join them to aid their victory, which the Field Marshal assures me is of critical importance to the War.”
“I don’t understand,” said Major Harris at once. “We’re all the way here. On the other side of Europe.”
Clarke shook his head. “I don’t ask questions about orders. It’s what keeps this machine oiled. They might know something we don’t.”
The commanders exchanged glances.
“I want all men on the quadrangle by nine,” Clarke went on, fixing each one with a meaningful gaze in turn. “I hope your troops like vodka.”
“Orders from the Field Marshal,” declared the Lieutenant Colonel to the three companies lined up on the quadrangle beneath the roiling sky. “We are to be deployed in Kalocsa next. We move to the Saint-Inglevert Airfield this afternoon. Six Yorks have been commissioned to take us from there.”
There was quiet shuffling, and stolen glances of confusion: Kalocsa was a name most had never heard, and Six Avro Yorks was more in one place than most of them had ever seen.
“Kalocsa is in southern Hungary,” Clarke went on. “Our unit will coordinate with the shock division of General Ligachyov, the man who has the Minsk Offensive to his name.”
The emptying corridors of the camp were aflame with chatter and bickering all morning, about the Russians and Hungary and the Field Marshal. Vesper had no time to participate or to eavesdrop; she spent it all yelling and waving soldiers out of their bunks, shepherding them out into the corridors, and down to the quadrangle in the morning chill, where they marched into line among the rest of the battalion. There they stood with stiff backs and stiffer shirts, hands at their sides.
Major Harris nodded to her, and she began down the rank, meeting the eye of each soldier in the No. 60 as she passed. Elliot. Rajan. Dyer. Hart. Marlowe. Gordon. No, Private Gordon wasn’t with them any longer.
She returned to the front of the assembly when she was satisfied that all buttons were in place, all shirts tucked in, all helmets strapped tight.
A parade of armoured carriers rolled into the quadrangle. Troop by troop, the soldiers began to file into the rumbling beasts in snaking lines.
Saint-Inglevert was hardly an hour away, even lumbering there in carriers on uneven roads. When they leapt out, the Yorks were the first thing they saw, hulking over the workers on the barren airfield, their Union Jacks gleaming in the sun.
The troops disembarked from the carriers and were immediately shuttled to the planes under the barked orders of General Kirk, who had come to see them off to their destination. The general overseeing the Belgian frontline was as he had been the last few times they had met him: all grins, with his hair flying as he marched about seeing to the order of everything himself.
“Captain Lovelace!” he stopped Vesper by clapping a hand on her shoulder as she passed under the palisade at the back of the 3 Troop. “I hope you’ve prepared.”
The wind roared through her hair, her efforts at tidying it slowly but surely coming undone. “Yes, sir,” she answered, face freezing into neutrality. “To the very best of my ability.”
“Very good,” he said with a grin, shoving her by the shoulder in the direction of the rest of her troop at the boarding ladder.
For a week now, Honourless had lain in the pile of rough nets, salt rubbing into her hair so she smelled of it constantly. Through the cracks she could see the churning expanse of water that had first greeted them on arrival in this world, and smell its breeze, which mouldered to staleness between these walls.
As she recovered, in leaps and bounds, she began to memorise the routine of the house. Every morning and evening, the owner of the house came in through the creaking door, and offered her small bowls of fish soup with pleasant words that sounded like gibberish to her ears. She acted up her inability to move so he would bring her bread as well. She scarfed it down, as pungent as the soup could be, for this was better food than she had had since the day she had been put in chains: not the first meal she deserved, but warm, and edible.
She may have been covered in scabbing wounds and shaking off the last of the fever, but Honourless still had her wits about her. She did not try to speak; they would be mutually unintelligible and she would rouse more suspicions than she should. She acted out permanent drowsiness, nodding lightly and refusing to speak.
But each day she removed more bandages and moved her joints with greater ease, and soon she would be well enough to walk out of this house unhindered.
In those long, vague hours, stretching into days, Honourless sat cross-legged and tried ghosting again. She traced her sister’s name on her arm with her eyes, and thought of that last memory of her, now a jumble of features: an eye, a smile, a voice. She pulled her legs onto the rope mat, and willed and willed in the way she always had as a child.
But she did not budge. The more she strained to move, the sicker she felt. Her efforts made no more than a faint ripple in space, and attempt after attempt saw even those weakening.
Her shoulders sank, and the trembling of the world around her stilled.
As it did, an ache pierced her throat, more painful for its strangeness. She clutched her head and bit back a sob. It had been twenty years, twenty years she hadn’t ghosted. Twenty years she hadn’t seen Alta.
She was forgetting her.
Honourless clenched her jaw and slammed a fist against the ground, the impact resounding with a hollow bang. Without giving herself room to breathe, she latched onto something else in her rage. The pain of her wounds. The blazing ache, the shivers, the night innumerable nights ago, when they had chased her off the beach.
The air trembled as she channelled thoughts to will, and will to heat. This time she felt the ripples start up and swallow her, so her own body felt paper thin, pulled over the surface of an expanse of fabric.
A minute into her efforts, everything snapped, and the waves dispersed, tossing her back onto the same spot on the mat.
Honourless slumped backward with a groan, cupping her forehead in her hand as the world spun around her. “I’m too old to do this,” she muttered, closing her eyes against the onslaught of nausea.
It was by nothing short of a biblical miracle that all four hundred soldiers jammed themselves into the humid bellies of six Avro Yorks, built to carry thirty fewer each. Vesper's cabin, full of coughing, spittle and unseemly odours, was an assault on all senses, taking them the long way around Germany, across Ally-controlled southern Italy, and into the Russian territories in the east. There were oddly few exchanges: everyone was busy contending with either the nausea of turbulent flight or the growing stench of sweat and bodies pressed too close.
Five hours later, the three commando companies of LTC Clarke’s battalion tumbled out of the plane to a swell of welcome, and a sharp chill. Their shirts were crumpled, whatever efforts they had made to tidy themselves that morning ruined by five hours in the sky.
The officers of both sides were marched straight into a meeting with General Ligachyov, crammed into a tent made for half as many people which had begun to bulge outward.
They were greeted with scepticism and applause both, in words they could not understand. Then from their olive-uniformed numbers burst General Ligachyov himself, broad and tall with a generous moustache.
He proclaimed his welcome in a torrent of incomprehensible syllables. “Angliyskiy? Kuznetsov!” he shouted to the men behind him, who jostled about until one among them reluctantly stepped forth.
Ligachyov began to dictate into his ear. “We are at end of supplies. Men are…tired,” said Kuznetsov with a nod. Beside him the General extended a hand that each officer shook in turn. “There are more armies, three days in south-east direction. But they are too slow. You come at best time. You bring how many men?”
Vesper let go of the huge palm as soon as she had shaken it.
“Chetyresta,” he repeated, for his superior’s benefit.
“And a hundred commandos among them,” added Clarke, to which Kuznetsov turned around and began relaying the Colonel’s words in fluent Russian. “This is the Number Sixty, the best of our best. And I have brought two other companies who trained on the same camp.” He pulled a crumpled wad of documents from his pocket. “Bletchley Park was able to reverse-engineer the German cipher. We received correspondence that you are planning to advance on the Fifth of May. Well, your plans have been leaked to the Germans. It must happen sooner.”
They raised their own tents on the edge of the camp, a collaborative effort in hammering pins and stringing ropes. Piling into the space within, they boiled their canned rations, and wolfed the contents in painful gulps as they massaged their legs.
“Will the Field Marshal just make up his mind about where he wants us?” grumbled Mark Weston.
“I like having something to do,” answered Rajan Menon, digging a fork into his rations.
Vesper had not needed space to herself in a while, but tonight this would change. There was barely any air to breathe between the five members of her squad inside that tent, a far cry from the comforts of their grotty Dunkirk camp.
An hour after midnight, though most should have been soundly asleep, she stole through the tent flaps and out into the night air. Outside was a veritable village of similar tents, canvas roofs serenely sloping.
Letting her heel drop before the rest of her foot with every step, the Captain crossed the corner of the camp where the No. 60 snored soundly. She strolled by the rustles of occasional whispers and pretended not to hear.
Her route passed by the generals’ tent. Vesper did not think she would catch anything of interest as she passed, so she started when someone called out.
“Captain Lovelace!” It was Clarke, his head peeking out from under the flap. “Exactly who I wanted to see. Come in, please.”
Vesper stepped inside on cue, heart still racing from the surprise. She found the man, greying hair and moustache cropped neat again, bowed over a rotting collapsible desk laden with documents and tall bottles labelled in Cyrillic letters. “Spare furniture, from the Russians, sir?” she remarked.
“Yes, quite the hosts, even doing poorly as they are,” he replied, folding his arms atop it. “Let me be straightforward, Lovelace. If this battle goes well, I would give the war no more than three weeks. That means we must talk about what is to come…after.”
She looked him in the eye and wondered at the peculiar feeling of her heart sinking. “Of course, sir.”
“You’re a liability, and a resource,” he said. “They are nervous about you, the ones up top. But I assured them of your trustworthiness. We can trust you, yes?”
She did not like the look in his eye, eager but wary. “Yes, sir,” she said, and once the words had left her, some great grief struck her, like a note on a gong.
“Excellent. His Majesty's Secretary of State for the Home Department dropped me a line two days ago and asked after your status. I spoke highly of you, of course.” He smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling with shadows, but she did not answer it. “They have dropped hints that you will be well-decorated. Once you have been awarded your dues, they wish to make you a laboratory aide with His Majesty’s Security Service, under the entire government’s good graces. You will assist the Security Service in experiments, and in the event of another war, if we should be so unlucky, be called to the ranks of the Army again.”
“That sounds...like the best use of my skills,” she murmured. She thought to ask what would happen if she refused. But she had a feeling she wasn’t being asked to make a choice. Unusual waves of dread continued to wash over her. What had changed? Just two weeks ago she would have said yes without a thought.
“What say you, Captain Lovelace?” Clarke extended a hand. Their eyes met, and she saw that scientist’s gleam again. “I would be delighted to present you to them myself.”
Vesper took his offered hand and shook it, ignoring the lump in her throat. “Yes, sir. I would be happy to serve as His Majesty prefers.”
“Majors and Captains,” said Clark in the morning chill, standing beside a tripod bearing a veiled board. “I just left a meeting with General Ligachyov and General Guryev. They were very emphatic that the Battle of Kalocsa will be the keystone of a strategy they have spent six months building. Operation Supercell, they call it. A coordinated incursion across the front. Eight battalions converge here, from four different offensives—all depleted and fighting on borrowed time. We must win the Gergen Bridge by all the means necessary, and I do mean we in particular.”
He tugged on the cord in his hand, and the veil fell away, revealing his map. Upon it, marked in red, were their encampment site, the bridge, and a point on the riverbank one meander upstream.
“While the Axis troops and the Russian soldiers initiate combat over the bridge, we shall travel upstream northward for three kilometres.” Here he traced their route with his finger, ending at the red line. “We cross the Danube here. Then, using the forests for cover, we move back south, and take position along this ridge,” he gestured out its contour, “and from there advance rapidly down to Gerjen Bridge, and squash the Axis army between ourselves and the Russians. Three Troop—” he turned to look in their direction—“early intelligence indicates the unit will have three Grilles. Most likely, they’re there to destroy the bridge. I want you to take them out the moment they’re within our line of sight.”
“Yes, sir,” said Major Harris.
Clarke turned his eyes back to the gathering. “This is the Eastern Front,” he said. “The Russians are given to a rather…grisly strategy. But whatever their course of attack, it is your task to follow your orders and see them through.”
There was a shuffling of hands and feet. “Sir, you mean that they plan to throw bodies at them.” Major Heane from the 2 Troop breathed.
“Their…numerical advantage will keep the enemy busy, yes,” Clarke answered.
“Will they even have enough men left to take Budapest after that?”
“Another army will meet them there. This is part of a greater encirclement that they have been preparing for a long time. We outnumber the Axis army almost thrice; there will be no shortage of soldiers remaining for that battle.”
“Sir, why aren’t we leading the charge?” Vesper interjected. “There would be no need for their tactics with us in the ranks. That is why we’re here, no?”
“Let the Russians be Russians,” Captain James cut in. “Their generals are all twisted in the head.”
Clarke’s gaze swept across Vesper and the Captain beside her. “That isn’t my call, Lovelace,” he said. “Matters of strategy are best left to strategists. Worry yourself with the battle.”
And as she always did, Vesper nodded, though the frustration clouded her eyes.
“An entire front’s fate,” Vesper heard Neville Harris mumble to himself as he bowed under the tent flaps to leave, “will be decided by a single British battalion in a single bridge scuffle.”
She lingered till the rest had left. Then, when Clarke lifted an eyebrow at her, she nodded. “Sir,” she said. “Is there a generator on the grounds, by any chance?”
Clarke pursed his lips and cast his eyes to the tent roof. “I haven’t seen one, sorry,” he replied. “But a thunderstorm is forecast tomorrow evening. Oh, and, Lovelace?”
The word was intoned harshly. About to leave, she looked up. “Yes, sir?”
The Lieutenant Colonel’s brow furrowed. “Follow your orders.”
“I always do, sir.”
“Yes, but follow them.”
She left that exchange with a shudder.
Under the trees, in the glittering of the moon on the river, Vesper paused and breathed in. Only then did her head stop spinning. The air was crisp and smelled of the river and the leaves it stirred.
From behind the tall grass nearby, there came a strain of song. Hoarse, a little off-key if she could tell at all, but earnest. She closed her eyes and listened to its tones, and as the cold crept into her fingers, so did the melancholy of the song, palpable though she couldn’t understand a word of it.
“Hello?” she called, walking closer to the bank. Twigs crackled. A silhouette shifted, and a pair of eyes glittered.
A boy stared back from the bushes, crawling from their depths and hiding a bottle behind his back. “From other army?” he said as he approached.
“Yes,” she replied. “Odd place for a meeting, but hello.”
He continued to watch her, face shiny with drying tears, as he composed his reply. He gestured at himself. “Moriz. We fight...same side.”
She nodded. “We’ll be allies for a while.”
“Are you afraid?”
“Afraid, of the battle?”
Moriz nodded, swaying on his feet.
Vesper cast her glance once more to the river. Past it. “Of course,” she said quietly. “Of course I am. I always am.”
He nodded. “I am not afraid. I know I will die,” he said. “And never see Mother again. What can I do? Only drink.”
As he said this, he dropped to the bank with a thud, swinging his feet into the shallows. He resumed his singing. She stood frozen to the spot for a verse and a half.
He stopped. “You know this song?”
She shook her head. “It’s a good one.”
“My Mother taught me. English, it is called ‘The Bird Is Gone.’”
Moriz sang the verse again, casting the words to the breeze, and Vesper stood and listened to him repeat it, until she could hum along. The sound of this song echoing in the silence was so very strange, this calm before the storm, filled by only the sound of their voices, being pulled along by the wind.
This was a story that had been told a thousand times before, in snow and sun, about to be told once again.
On either side of the river, of the bottleneck of the bridge, there gathered the ranks of two armies. Whoever held the bridge held Budapest. Whoever held it won the front. When the soldiers looked at the specks across that river above the churning of the banks, as the commanders bade their marching feet forward, they saw none of these stakes. They only felt their own mortality pounding in their ears, growing louder, and ever louder still.
They knew they hadn’t a day longer. They knew they would kill each other, and that was how it was meant to go.
Vesper and the rest of the battalion were not there to witness its beginning. She sat hidden in the back of a Russian vehicle with half her troop, the rumble of engines warming them against the spring chill, the scent of gasoline mingled with the stench of dried sweat.
No one sat near her, despite the carrier being packed like a train at noon, and she sat resolutely facing the other way, full of last night’s lightning.
The carrier juddered to a halt, and the muffled gunshots and cannon blasts were no longer hidden from their ears. Out they jumped, into the gentle scent of untouched grass and the stench of gunpowder, the rustles of leaves under boots. “Let’s go,” called LTC Clarke as he hit the ground.
Three kilometres upstream from the bridge, no enemy soldiers saw them string a rope across the roaring Danube, the one of Straussian fame. She watched Sergeant Sean tie one free end of the rope to a tree on the far bank, and Harris loop his pack onto its other end. When the rope had been tied taut by Harris, the chain of supply packs was launched across the river, one after another.
Into the river they leapt, swimming across with the ease of otters, commanders first, shouldering along their packs, held safe from the current.
Though it had been a focus of her training, Vesper had to devote most of her mind to holding onto the electric current coursing across her while she cut through the eddies and waves. She was accustomed to this, making the struggle invisible; the lightning always wanted to break away, always wanted to be free and be reunited with the earth. It wasn’t meant to be held as she held it.
She swam hard despite the burning of the current. She retrieved her pack, no different from anyone else’s. Shiver with the cold as they did, they resumed their relentless march through the forests as they had planned, towards destiny, which saw the hours collapse into minutes, the minutes torn to shreds.
And it wasn’t destiny that they found at the head of the bridge, but a version of hell worse than any writer could conceive.
It was impossible to make sense of the milling, mauling mass of bodies at first, bloodied limbs raising guns, raising severed limbs, choking the bridge in a tide, gunfire answered by red mouths opening across chests and arms.
“Jesus Christ,” Private Marlowe’s voice broke on his oath as they peered from the cover of the forests.
Russian soldiers were piling up on the bridge. They had managed to push their line more than halfway across it, and an orgy of bodies lay in their wake, silhouettes of legs without torsos hanging off the edge of the bridge. And yet more Russian men charged to fill the spaces where the corpses slid off, a teeming mass of uniformed bodies, the dead impossible to tell from the living.
“I’m going to be sick,” breathed Marlowe again as the scent of fresh blood hit them on the breeze. Vesper had to choke back her own curse.
To her right, in a head of forest at the top of the knoll, together with the 2 Troop, stood the Lieutenant Colonel. He lifted his hand to signal stop. “Number Sixty, on my command, get out there and start pushing. B Company, C Company, behind me—”
Right then, the boom of a shell colliding with the Allied end of the bridge bent them all double. Like falling jigsaw pieces, the bridge fragments began to collapse into the water from the impact point, and tumbled into the reddening water. White splashes surged like tidal waves that tossed the floating corpses about. Nowhere left to go, the soldiers trapped on the half-bridge redoubled their forward charge.
With the bridge gone, the companies on both sides finally began to spill over the banks of the river on both sides of the road, and the gunshots surged, reigning over the afternoon.
“Go!” Clarke shouted.
“Go!” the order was relayed across the troop.
Out of the forests they thundered, forming their ranks on the knoll—a battalion of four hundred, their rifles loaded and aimed across the fifty metres of slope separating them from their foes. Vesper and Rajan assembled the EMPG in blinding speed, Weston spotting as he always did. The LTC turned to her and gave the thumbs-up.
The Axis soldiers had barely taken notice when the first of their three Grilles began to vomit smoke out the back, before exploding into a fireball. Like ants, soldiers began to scatter into disarray in the wake of the flames. The No. 60 pushed through the rainy mud, stopped halfway down the hill, and sent down a barrage of bullets. The B and C Companies had begun to follow, thinning out on either side and sandwiching the Axis forces between them.
Around her, the first retaliatory spatter of bullets was landing, the first bodies thudding in the mud, and in the noise she gritted her teeth. Again they set the EMPG down, and again Vesper narrowed her eyes on the crosshair.
“Fire!” Weston swung his open palm up. She fired and the electrode dove straight in their next mobile cannon's chassis with a satisfying crunch. A shock travelled down the wire, and that was enough to see that hulking beast, too, go up in flames.
“Go!” Clarke’s third bellow of the same order. They answered with a concerted shout, and tided forward. Nearby, Marlowe sank with a cry, curled up on the ground with his hand clamped on his shoulder, blood oozing between his fingers. There was no time to pick him up. They pushed down towards the river, as Clarke had said.
Foot by agonising foot, they closed around the Axis ranks, their boot heels and knees sinking in the muddy riverbanks, just feet from the roll of the river. Now they were close enough to begin lobbing grenades into the snarls of the enemy ranks, to supplement their gunfire. Pins flew. All was lost in thunder, like the heart of a storm.
At their feet a young corpse, wearing the Russian colours, rolled up onto the bank, tongue lolling out. Vesper looked away from those glazed eyes, choking back nausea. Everything was death, nothing but death, a mockery of life, borne by these tens of thousands of hapless boys who had boarded this train with no destination.
He was just the first of many. Russian soldiers were struggling across the river in messy chains, breaking up every now and then when the current or a volley of gunfire tore them from each other’s grip. Thousands spewed from both banks, Russian and Hungarian, clawing through the river mud. In this storm of faces, Vesper saw that they were all the same: farm boys, hunters, brought out in numbers by the nation’s promise, its burning eyes.
Just as she had been. Swirling on the river like leaves. Choking on the current.
“Lovelace!” LTC Clarke’s voice shattered the thought, resounding ugly in her mind. She whirled, dizzy, to find Clarke on her left. “Lovelace. Get in the water and take them out.”
“What?” She forgot the script.
“I said, get in the water and take them out!”
“But there’s Russians in there, there’s—”
“At all costs,” he snapped, stone-edged gaze cutting the air. “You’re fully charged, there’s plenty of water, do it!”
He bristled, face like a hurricane rising. “The entire bloody front rests its hopes on us, Lovelace! Don’t you love performing the heroics? I said, go!”
And as she always did, because the King, because England compelled her, Vesper said, “Yes, sir—”
She let her pack and pouches and rifle fall onto the mud. With a running start, she dove into the red-brown water in a trail of bubbles, eyes clouded for moments beneath the surface. She broke through a torrent of soldiers and drew in a breath, reining in the electrons, reining in their frenzied dance.
Bobbing in the water, which stank of all the dead as it buffeted her gently, the heat of the electric current began to burn in her arms, so she lifted them, palms up, right below the surface.
The lightning was already crackling and snapping in her ears, telling her what to do before she could think about it.
But fight to think she still did, through the strain and the shivering, eyes narrowed on the far-off bank. If she could just relax and direct the current, aim it, dictate its course…
Electric current moves mostly invisibly in water. There is no light nor sound; the current never has to cross the air as an arc.
There was never any chance Vesper could rein the lightning in, nor ever would. The instant she uncurled her hands, it greedily unfurled across the water, death in slow motion.
Across the bend of the Danube, every soldier cried out as a sudden pain seized them, their every muscle clenched so sharply they screamed in tears. They twitched like half-drowned puppets fighting their strings, limbs thrashing willy-nilly, eyes bulging out of their sockets.
The shock lasted just five seconds. In those seconds, five trillion coulombs ran into the ground, burning every inch of grass and sinew it could find.
The chorus of deathly cries faltered as each one was burned from the inside, and pitched face-forward into the river.
For moments in the chaos, a silence spread, holding the entire battlefield captive.
Vesper would later learn, in the sinking light of evening, that she had killed two thousand soldiers in that moment. When others spoke of it, they would pointedly omit the fact that the dead included British and Russian soldiers, people she would never have dreamt of harming.
Here in the thick of battle, she only closed her eyes, and dove into the bloody water to muffle the thunder of war above the surface. She swam and swam through the jostling limbs and loose, bobbing helmets, rolling like husks. The scent of blood and burning, closing in from everywhere, made her insides clench.
She swam under the shadow of the Gerjen Bridge, on and on until the bridge was behind her. No bullets stopped her. She did not stop swimming until she could no longer hear the dwindling cries of battle, the rumble of distant engines.
The water ran clearer here. Vesper finally launched herself onto the shore and crawled out on her elbows, coughing. She dragged herself to the grass. There she sat up, arms wrapped around her legs, drenched hair drooping about her shoulders. She lifted her eyes to the greying sky, and shivered, and breathed in so deeply she swayed with dizziness.
Her entire body ached, and she hadn’t begun to process its cause. She was here on the field, doing what she was meant to, what she had always dreamt she would.
All those years ago, when she had come into an understanding about her bizarre abilities, she had seen a future much like this. She had known, there and then, that more could be made of her skills than she could possibly envision for herself, and that it had to be put in the hands of those with the knowledge and authority to use them—to use her—for the greatest good possible.
And they had! She pressed her face in her lap and snarled. Putting a stop to the Nazi advance, putting an end to their crimes—that was good, so plainly it was hard to think of good even clearer.
But when she had lifted her hands below the river, when she had watched her allies die at her hand—
—that had felt like the worst thing she had ever done.
Vesper spat river water onto the soil. She breathed deeply again. She could finally smell the grass untouched. Her eyes stung, but not enough for tears.
She had let them make her their weapon. She was the one no one in this world could match in a fight—no one should own her this way, and if they did, it was because she had let them.
So why had she? Had she simply been afraid to own herself, to be solely responsible for what her powers did?
What if she fled now with Orobelle and her protector Dorian?
Would she own herself then?
It had been eleven days since Honourless’ arrival in this room of nets and crates and old rowboats. In all her countless attempts since, she had not managed to cross back to the Third World, or come close to it.
In the dimness of dawn, she sighed and sagged against the wall, thinking that perhaps the most plausible explanation was that she had lost her ability to move between worlds. Clearly, she could still ghost in some form: she still felt space distort when she tried. But ghosting successfully was another matter entirely.
On this eleventh day of her stay at the increasingly-frustrated fisherman’s house, Honourless watched her hunch-backed host place a bowl of fish soup on the mat beside her, disappear at the door, and close it behind him with a vociferous grumble.
It was only then, as she downed the fish soup, that she felt the prickle of a long-buried conscience for the first time in while. In its wake, she struggled onto her feet, their cracked soles bearing her weight.
“Orobelle,” she said, and then barked a laugh, as she stumbled over to a nearby crate and sat atop it. “Where are you? How will I even find you?”
Her eyes narrowed. No, if she could ghost, then she could find the child. The brat was the One Around Whom the Light Spun, and she had the attitude to match. Locking her intent on her would be simple.
All she had to do was ghost.
She pressed her fist into her chin. But if the Third World was out of reach…then what if Orobelle had been right, and there lay yet another world in the other direction? A half-formed one, perhaps. These worlds seemed to diminish in power and voice as they moved outwards; she wouldn’t be surprised if the next were a scrap heap. But a world was a world, and if she could get to it, she could get to her.
“How about it, a fifth world?” Honourless said, closing her eyes, thoughts locked upon the assault from eleven days ago, the scorch of pain in her legs as they had torn through the barbs—and on the outward world, the upward world, in the opposite direction from which they had come.
A chorus of blaring horns interrupted her. Her eyes flew wide open. She felt herself stumble to one knee.
A dark monument towered over her, and a black road lay at her feet. Carriages and buildings flashed unsightly rainbow lights in her eyes, making them ache. She blinked at them, shielding her eyes.
From the paved edge of the street, someone with their hair in a wrap called out something she didn’t understand, but knew was a warning. She sprang off the road as the horns were joined by the screech of carriages skidding to a halt behind an ever-growing herd of stalled vehicles with glowing light-eyes. Only when she had flown out of the way did the pileup begin moving again.
The shouter of the warning shrilled something as she approached, but everything they said went unheeded. She gave herself a second to take this new world in, and then to throw her head back and laugh.
And still laughing, her thoughts narrowed in on Orobelle, Duchess of Diamonds, the centre of everything. She leapt, and mid-leap, she found herself lying sprawled out on a red carpeted floor, her ribs aching.
“For all the barbarism of this world, it certainly has its pockets of civilisation,” said Orobelle, sitting with one leg crossed over the other in a blue-satin couch.
The room they were renting cost them fifty pounds a night, but these exorbitant prices had ceased to be a problem. After obtaining a Report of Authenticity from the appraiser she had hired on the last of their fish-and-potato-slice earnings, selling the gemstones had been effortless, and left them two thousand pounds richer.
They had been here just three days, but the Duchess already felt more at home here than she had anywhere else on this damned world.
Upon a low, cube-shaped wooden table sat Dorian with his back perfectly rigid. In his left hand was a crumpled bag marked with Brown’s Hotel; in his right was some form of baked item, half-eaten, from which he took a small bite every minute or so.
This baked item was not in his hand for very much longer, for in the very next moment there came a flash of rough hair and bandages, and then a lanky body crashed into the floor at his feet, causing him to drop his snack.
The unexpected newcomer let out a groan, and Orobelle leapt up on her feet.
“Honourless!” she gasped. “You have some nerve reappearing this late. How dare you abandon my luggage!”
She lifted her head, revealing that the newcomer was, indeed, Honourless. “Your—how dare you leave me to the mercy of their soldiers! I was busy running for my damned life. If I had bothered with your precious luggage, I would be dead, and where would you be now?” With the last snarl, she flipped over to find Dorian offering a hand. She stared at him for a moment, before rising on her feet herself. “So, what now, Your Grace?”
“Did you finally learn to ghost?” the Duchess asked, face taut.
“It turns out I never forgot how to,” she answered. “But we are lucky the Fifth World is much closer than the Third.”
“The—“ Orobelle gaped. If Honourless were to be insolent, she would call her excited. She cleared her throat. “We shall deal with the Fifth World later. For now, we need you to help us find her.”
“The next Core. Vesper Lovelace. She’ll be happier to join us now, now that the war is close to its end.”
Marching through the grass as she and Major Harris led the 3 Troop to camp south of Budapest, Vesper wondered how she would ever find Orobelle.
It was amid the spreading news that the British and French troops on the other side were advancing the Western Front again, that she realised it had to be soon. The war would end soon. She had nowhere to go but back to her homeland.
“Everything alright there, Lovelace?” asked Harris, as they marched. “You look inconsolable, and with good reason.”
“Oh, no, I’m fine, thank you, sir. I’m just…thinking.” She frowned. “What happens when soldiers vanish outside of combat?”
“Never have dealt with that, but I would presume them deserters.”
Vesper nodded. Deserter was better than dead, she supposed.
The evening cooled upon the forest. The Gerjen Bridge was being repaired, but almost four-fifths of the Russian infantry had already crossed by then. While the rest of her squad hammered tent pins into the ground, Vesper left, coat pulled tight around her, and wove through an endless field of tents till she was at the edge where the camp met the river. Some wide-eyed boys called out in Russian as she passed, and she raised her hand in half-hearted acknowledgement.
The water was clear, bearing no memory of the afternoon. Its burble was almost musical, and it was easier to appreciate its music now. Then the thought of the future crossed her, like a chill. Maybe it was better that she gave herself to them. Maybe the world truly needed to be kept safe from someone like her.
She sighed. Her soul felt threadbare, and she wasn't sure she remembered the feeling of comfort.
Ten minutes into her staring at the glittering current, she heard a crunch in the grass, and a whisper of her name from behind her. “Lovelace,” she said.
She whirled back with a start, and saw the man from the beach two weeks ago. Dorian.
She started, stumbled backward. He offered a paper bag, bearing the logo of the Browns Hotel. “A gift of welcome,” he said.
From behind him emerged the young Duchess. “Are you ready to come?” asked Orobelle, eyes glittering brighter than the river. “The war is over—”
“It is not over yet,” the soldier replied, closing her eyes briefly, heart booming. “But I no longer want any part of it. I’ll come with you, if you still want me.”
The Duchess puffed up. “I knew you would come to your senses!” she piped.
A third voice interrupted, a wordless grumble. Crouched to Orobelle’s left was the bony silhouette of someone she did not know. The Duchess’ gaze followed Vesper’s. “Don’t mind her,” she muttered. You won’t understand a word she says.”
Dorian turned to the crouched woman. “This is Vesper,” he said to her, and she seemed to understand him perfectly, flicking her hand upward.
“Wait,” Vesper said, pointing at Dorian and then at the stranger, “how does she understand Dorian, and not I? He just spoke English—”
“He did not. You simply understood him in your own language. And Honourless understood it in hers.” Orobelle said curtly. “That is the Queendom’s power, entangling us with the will of the Light, and the wills of all that was born of the Light.”
“Is her name really Honourless?”
“Until she pays her penance for her crime, yes.”
“That seems rude, to call her ‘Honourless’.”
“You can try giving her a name if you like. It won’t stick. You won’t remember it.”
Vesper frowned. “I don’t understand any of this.”
“You don’t have to.” Without turning, Orobelle waved for Honourless to come, waiting until she reluctantly rose out of shadow. She was tall, second tallest after Dorian, and her face was pulled into a perpetual grimace. The moonlight fell across her thin, jagged face, outlining the claw scars that crossed it.
That look might have scared any other child, but Orobelle snatched her wrist unflinchingly, and Dorian’s with her other hand. The knight extended his hand towards Vesper and nodded. She took it with a furrow of her brow.
“Honourless!” Orobelle shouted. Honourless growled something back that Vesper wished she could have understood, if only because of the face the Duchess made. “Don’t you dare!” the child snarled, but she was cut short as she staggered.
That same moment, Vesper felt gravity disappear.
It was as if she had been torn from the ground and flung up by a tide, though she still felt the ground at her soles. Dorian’s grip slipped. Shouting, she snatched for his wrist before it could fly out of reach.
They were being thrown about upon invisible waves. Everything was a whirling reflection, rippling like the surface of a lake disturbed by a boulder: a forest of trees, a river, the glimmer of the moon, silhouettes.
“We’re leaving?” Vesper exclaimed. “But I haven't even—”
“No! No delays. We go now.”
“Can’t I—” The soldier's eyes searched the roiling visions frantically for Orobelle—“can’t I even see my parents first?”
“We’ve wasted four days here!”
Coinciding with the “here”, Honourless lifted her head to cry out. The sky was invisible through the ripples, pulling everything thin in circles around them. The moon stretched into a ring, a tunnel-mouth through which it seemed everything else was passing.
“When will I be back?” Vesper called out through the opening void.
“I don’t know! Maybe never!”
She thought she might choke with grief.
Then everything was sundered from its place, even the last echo of Orobelle’s voice, and they descended into a world of strange new lights.