‘You can move nearly silently, hunter, but that means jack shit for me.’
The massive gates leading to the compound were closed. The area in front of them was suffused with sunlight, bleaching the sand. The heat was unbearable — but it didn’t seem to bother three figures standing in front of the gates, blue and brass on display. However, they, at least, were standing in the shade.
Another figure was walking right across the light to them, silver-gray as though carrying their own shadow. If one looked closely, carefully enough, they could notice a faint shimmer around that figure.
“Do you have a clear shot?”
“Not all of them sir, but…”
“If they threaten Temperance, shoot them.”
“You are not the only sniper here, boy.”
“Fuck off, Tenacity. Sorry, sir.”
“Focus, both of you.”
They did, as the silver-gray figure drew closer to the three. They reached out when the silver-gray opened their palms, and each technomancer held another’s two hands, the four of them linked: three-and-one. They went still for long moments that stretched endlessly in the heat. Then, the link was broken. The silver-gray turned to the cliff and raised their hand.
Evacuation of Aurora’s PF-23 had begun.
Towns could be rebuild, factories opened anew. Human life was irreplaceable.
Nobody was going to die, not that day.
‘You going out to them like that defeats the purpose of your hiding in the arse end of the world, don’t you think?’
He didn’t turn to the hunter, but the hunter nonetheless sat down beside him. Temperance wondered whether Tenacity appreciated the panorama, the blue turning into the dark of the might. Temperance had seen the sun off for today, and now was resting.
‘Why do you think that I’m hiding?’
‘You are alone.’
‘I’m not the only Auroran Technomancer who works alone.’
‘No, you are alone. You don’t wear the blue.’
‘I do have it. But it’s impractical on the road.’
Tenacity sighed. ‘I don’t think it takes a Technomancer to recognise that you are…’ He trailed off.
Temperance looked at him, meeting his piercing grey-blue gaze. ‘I am called the Conduit.’
The blue-grey looked over his face, then Tenacity huffed. ‘I’m pretty sure you are called Temperance.’
He could take it as a joke, but Tenacity’s eyes were sharp.
Temperance looked away, rubbed his fingertips together.
It was difficult to handle Tenacity. Sometimes Temperance was confused by the feeling of two of them in the camp (the hound and the man). Tenacity prowled after him—even when they were on different sides of the camp.
(Tenacity had his own sandhopper.)
‘Why do you care?’
‘If your actions bring the whole Electroswarm on our arses?’
‘And why,’ he repeated, ‘do you care?’
Tenacity studied his face, and lips drew away from his teeth—a snarl. ‘So full of yourself, aren’t you.’
He told himself to stay still. The worse things went, the more still he forced himself to stay.
(Or the whole world would burn, he wanted to burn it…)
(‘So sure you’re always right! So full of yourself over your abilities!’)
What was he supposed to be full of? Someone else?
‘You tell the boy he is many things, but you are just another hypocrite, like all your lot.’
‘I am only a Technomancer.’
His Fluid was rising. ‘If it is violence that you want, hunter…’
He caught Tenacity’s fist and yanked him close, and ran the fingers on his free hand into Tenacity’s hair.
Tenacity stopped struggling almost instantly, eye fluttering closed. Leaning into Temperance’s palm. ‘What are you doing?’ Tenacity rasped.
He pressed his fingertips to the skin and the skull underneath.
(As though Tenacity had the right to give him a name nobody else owned.)
‘Ran, what are you…’
He massaged Tenacity’s head in tight circles, guiding currents gently.
A shiver ran through the hunter’s body, and he went pliant, settling in Temperance’s lap. Temperance carded his fingers—bare—through Tenacity’s hair again, without a charge now. His hair was thick and soft, gliding against Temperance’s skin, a beautiful dark shade of red.
Tenacity pushed his head into Temperance’s hand, and Temperance scratched behind his ear.
‘What have you done?’ Tenacity asked, voice husky—but not a growl. His breathing was deep, and he looked ready to doze off.
‘Eased the tension. Eased your worries, your headache… You are alert all the time, it’s not good for you.’
‘I have to be.’
Temperance ran a thumb over the scar under Tenacity’s left eye, faint, but visible this close. Tenacity had many scars on his face. ‘I’ll make sure nobody jumps you.’
‘Right. Placing myself in your hands is the best idea,’ Tenacity grumbled—but shuffled and settled again, apparently not intending to get up and go away any time soon.
The hunter was heavy and very warm, and his jacket fell open. There were many scars on his chest, too. Temperance… didn’t want to stop touching him.
‘Not the worst, actually,’ he said, running a thumb over Tenacity’s dark brow.
‘Your hands smell of metal and thunder. Taste like metal also, I wager.’
He tensed up, then smoothed a finger down the grey streak in Tenacity’s beard. The beard was softer than he had thought it would be.
‘What a hound you are after all; everything into your mouth.’
‘Not everything. But you, I wouldn’t mind…’
Fluid surged in him, and it was… unusual. He admitted he could be blind to certain kinds of attention, and it was worse when he did notice—worse, because it was strange and unwanted.
Tenacity’s teasing, however…
‘Did I make you uncomfortable?’ Tenacity asked.
Temperance tilted his head. ‘Wasn’t that your aim?’
‘Not with this.’
‘You tease Zachariah.’
‘And his reaction is cute, as his mentor’s also. But they are not made uncomfortable by it. If you are, I will stop.’ Tenacity’s brows knit.
‘It is… strange,’ Temperance replied after mulling it over.
‘Just strange. I’m sorry.’
‘No. I am. My own shit is no excuse to…’ Tenacity made to get up, but Temperance pressed a hand on his shoulder. Tenacity wasn’t an unwelcome weight across his lap. After a moment, the hunter settled again.
‘You did goad me with calling me a hypocrite. But it is true, Tenacity. I am merely a Technomancer, no matter the scale of my powers.’
‘I think you are not only that. I think you were told you are mostly that, or only that—but you are different from others and that causes your own private Turmoil. You are a Technomancer—but you don’t fit with others, so—are you a Technomancer at all? You try to behave—but you can’t. You are not as bad as our noble Ophirian friend—but if this continues, you might become like him, a broken shadow of yourself. Or you will snap.’
He stared at Tenacity, his Fluid turning into a whirlpool as the hunter spoke.
‘Whom are they hiding you from?’ Tenacity asked before Temperance could settle on any response.
‘Only a handful in the Water Council know what I am.’
The blue-grey peered into him.
‘They are hiding you from the Dowser.’
He didn’t reply.
‘And from the whole world. If anyone finds out… Devil’s teeth…’ Tenacity breathed out.
The hunter cultivated carefully the looks of a brawler and a skull-cracker, and nothing but that—but he had a quick mind.
Tenacity sat up, and Temperance put his hands on his thighs, chasing the warmth and the weight.
‘And you can help people. You want to.’
‘My duty,’ he said quietly, his gaze on the panorama, ‘is to the people. Not to the Guilds, not to the Dowser, not even to my kindred. But to them,’ he nodded at the camp to the left, ‘to Zachariah, to Malevolence, to the people living in the Sands of Shadowlair. To you.’
‘And you can’t perform that duty. You have to stay here, away, because otherwise everyone and their grandma would hunt you down to turn you into a weapon of mass destruction. Fuck.’ Tenacity got up, and Temperance looked at him.
The hunter’s face was stormy.
‘Come with me. Run from all this.’
‘And do what?’
‘What are you doing now? You can’t help everyone, especially not when you’re roaming the desert.’
He got up, too. The wiring of the bodyglove flexed—a second skin, thick, protecting him from the world. He could cover himself with it completely, head to toe, and cover his face, and don the blue and the gold, and wrap himself in storms.
He didn’t owe the world anything. It was overwhelming, and the human society was not made for the likes of him, or by the likes of him. He could participate in it only as long as he tried to blend in—but it was hard and took its toll and the disguise broke once in a while. People were in awe with him—but awe had the undercurrent of fear, of the instinct that told them he was not like them. And at the first sign of open deviancy, of defiance would be met with a threat. People were rigid, they feared what was different.
He didn’t owe them anything.
Except that, he had his vows.
They could be mean and small-minded—but he had to help them anyway. Not because he loved them—sometimes he couldn’t—but because it was right. “Just one life.”
He turned away.
‘Where are you going, Emps?’
He glanced at Tenacity over his shoulder. ‘Emps?’
Tenacity rolled his eyes. ‘Yes. Your Imperial Majesty. Come on.’
He smiled. Tenacity’s nicknames were… something to cherish. Given not out of maliciousness, but, Temperance hoped, of fondness.
‘I need to stay, Hound, for now. They are mine.’
Tenacity tilted his head to the shoulder. ‘And what am I?’
Tenacity lowered his gaze, and it was difficult to tell with his darker complexion and with the beard… But Temperance was difficult to hide from: he felt Tenacity’s heart rate rush, and felt his temperature rise.
Inexplicably, Tenacity was pleased by his words.
‘If you stay, I stay. Me and,’ Tenacity glanced up, ‘Temperance.’
‘Don’t you hate Technomancers?’ He asked it without fire, he only wanted to puzzle it out.
‘Can’t stand them!’ Tenacity answered with cheer. ‘But you… You are different, Emperor.’
‘Careful. By calling me like that you invite a conquest.’
‘I’d like to see you try,’ Tenacity drawled.
It was such a blatant challenge that Temperance could only accept it.