AN EMPTY PLACE, Chapter Nine - "Circle of Will"

happy new year

Chapter Nine - Circle of Will 

His left hand holds the cold blood covered knife. It pulls him with the weight of its deeds to the center of the earth. Her hand is in his right, a burning ember of life, consoling in its desperation. The warmth of her hand travels the length of his arm and through his chest to stave the desire to drop the blade. Dawn nears, and the blue film of city mist clings to their ankles as they sputter and spring from street to alley and back to street. A market is set out with vegetables and pungent smells make his stomach grumble in pain. Public vans speed through traffic indicators without pause. The slit of sky above the spires brightens to a silver haze. 

For Holm every moment is a brain breaking shock - each thing more real and immediate than the next - panic after dark panic. The road is lit with the white halo. The helicopter was on them as soon as they escaped the interrogation bus, the light roaming over the bodies of the guards he killed, over severed limbs and bloody sacks of armor, some of whom still moaned and gurgled with half-life. The crushing boom of the helicopter’s blades strikes his heart with the same awful fear. When the sliver of black metal raced at him he was as helpless as when he ran blindly through the forest. But Tad was not so affected and, taking his hand, they rush together through the waking city.

The map of sector AC-4 is gone but Holm holds the image of it in his head and they are able to proceed south-west at a feeble pace. The sigils recede in his mind like wallpaper in the dark. He knows he can force them forward in a moment - when the helicopter is out of earshot. But the flapping - like a bird with a billion wings - assaults his senses. It clutters his thoughts so that he cannot know left from right or light from darkness and again he relies on Tad to pull him. She squeezes her fingernails into his palm with what little energy she has. A noise like thunder cracks the sky and sparks flash blue: she fires her gun up at the helicopter. 

Holm shouts, "What are you doing?" but three more bangs rattle his ears before she acknowledges him. He loses his balance and kicks over a brand-box. The operator of the newsstand gapes at the pair as they careen away. The spotlight jerks away. The sound of the blades recedes.

"That did it!" Tad says, breathless. 

They turn another corner and a wall of people blocks their path. At first Holm thinks the Contractors have them cornered. Then he sees the colors of a dozen flags flowing from the street lamps, the lazy fashion of young men and women, familiar yet foreign, and he notices no one is armed - or chasing them. The athame responds by dissolving in his hand, returning to the sheath of the mind. Tad does not realize she is still holding her gun until the powder from the shots she fired begins to burn her skin. Tucking it away she presses into the crowd and nods at Holm to follow.

"It's a fair of some kind. The helicopter won't follow us here." She keeps her voice low so that only he can hear her, but he imagines no one else cares to listen, or would understand, if they overheard. The crowd buzzes with excitement. It is not so easy for Holm to thread his way through the people, they repel him, he is sure if he were to touch them or look them in the eye they would finger him as an alien and bring the Contractors down on him. He can't shake the feeling of foreignness, and he wonders if it is a result of his magick. He asks Tad if she feels that way.

"No, it's not your . . . power. I feel it too. I'm an Agrat remember." She pats her chest and smiles at him. 
"Haven't been in a crowd this big for years." Her smile is like a cold river running over his fear. With her encouragement he finds it easier to pick his way through the packed crowd, even excusing himself as he squeezes by. The throng shines with sweat under the lamps and he is grateful for it - masking, he hopes, his own heaving breath and the crystalline beads that drip from his brow. They near the center of the street. Tad jumps on her tip toes to see what all the commotion is about. 

"Can't be far . . . must be a dog fight or a dance or something," she says. "Nothing gets a party started faster than blood and skin." Tad is flush with the flight and wonderment at the spectacle.

A dance? Holm thinks. I'd like to see that.

Then he sees something them, just above the crowd on the opposite side of the street, prowling quietly and innocuous. Ten or twenty SS-Bots search the crowd. Each shines a light on anyone-at-all. The subject under its gaze dutifully raises his face to its cameras. Then the tell-tale buzz is over him and Holm has to force himself not to look up. Tad notices too and turns up the collar of her jacket. The blue and red lights are a blinking patchwork over her, like an infection he wishes he could brush off of her. He grabs her as much to shade her from them as to stay close in the teeming orchestra of limbs.

Too late. The bot above them whines in on his down-turned face. He considers his options. Finding none, he tries to flee. This lasts only a few seconds before the density of people force him back and he bumps into some people all at once as if they stood on top of each other and they turn grimacing on him. 

"Hey, watch it!" One of them shoves him in the shoulder and Holm grabs his arm to keep from falling. 

"The dance is going on!" another says, flicking his thumb towards the center of the mob. Tad is by his side and pulls his face to hers to whisper.

"Holm, the rest are gathering," she says. He hears the ascending chorus of their motors and tries to turn, but Tad prevents him from betraying their position with her grip.

"What do we do?" He considers the knife: a spell of clearing, the sigils for which come to the front of his mind with the urgency of an oncoming train. They bulge behind his eyes and might blister if he can't shake the images from his brain.

Not with all these people, he thinks and wants to shrink into a ball of dirt to escape the bot's gaze. He clutches his heart as if he can stop it from pounding.

It's over.

With a flit of her eyes above she pulls him to her and kisses him.

Her lips are like mud pounded by heavy rain, but it is blood and he is not where he was. He is on cement platform, his teeth crushed against his mouth, a pulpy mash of flesh where his cheeks used to be. His eyes are swollen but he can see his antagonist standing above him like a tower of stone. His face is in shadow, racing in on him as if bending down but never getting closer, through a spinning tunnel with long streams of light. The cement is cold on his face and he coughs and thinks about Rachel at home, tearing her hair out over his absence, her loneliness, the empty room she cannot bear to enter. The man above him speaks like a snake hisses and hot air fills the tunnel.

"Forget about them. You've let them down."

"No-" he says but it is not his own voice, it's Rachel's asking him not to leave.

What happened to my mouth?

He drinks from a pool and soft pink bubbles dissolve into it from his lips', pores but his thirst is unquenchable. His throat remains dry as dirt. He looks up again expecting to see the man who destroyed his face. But there is only a tree, strong and straight growing up into a white sky. He tries to recall the face of the woman Rachel, who he knows he knows, but already the memory of her blanches from his brain, lost in the contours of the tree's blowing leaves. Then the canopy too loses definition and he is huddled in Tad's arms.

They crouch between the trampling feet of the revelers and the Bots unable to maneuver among the jumble of limbs. 

"Lost you there for a second," she says. She smiles as they dart forward haltingly with their hands on the ground. 

"Just flashes. I think I'm remembering something but it just drains away, like a bottle with a crack in the bottom. I can't remember the . . . the substance of it."

"Well," she pauses as she yanks her hand out from underneath someone's boot before it stomps down on her, "How does that feel?" He can't tell if she is joking with him or expressing genuine concern. He'd look at her face if he was not busy keeping his balance and bent low. 

"Feel? Empty!" He insists, sure he has made that point sufficiently. Someone kicks him in the side trying to get closer to the dance. 

"I know. But the memories themselves? Can you tell-"

"They make me feel all kinds of things."

The crowd had thinned, either from the end of the dance - and Holm does not even attempt to conceive of what "the dance" was, why it was done in the street, or what was so special about it - or because their distance grew from the center of the spectacle. He follows Tad around a corner but doesn't turn his head to look for the Bots, he doesn't want to know if they have caught sight of them again. They rest for a moment with their backs against a wall that slopes outwards over the street slightly, where they can catch their breath and see the open street on all sides of them. Tad rubs her burned hand and watches the faces of the people who scatter drunk with delight every-which-way. 

"How do I make you feel?" she asks Holm from out of nowhere. The question surprises him. He tries to ask himself the question again and finds it difficult to understand.

What does she mean?

He suddenly wants to move again, to get inside somewhere, and he searches the sky for the helicopter, and peeks around the corner as if he hears the hunters howling his name. At last, as she rubs her hands raw, he speaks slowly to make sure the words do not seem like lies on his tongue. 

"Like I have a friend."

She takes his arm in hers. She lifts his hand up, the left one, and pats it gently before grasping it. 

"I love you too, buddy." 

Holm feels the vibration in her jacket as her phone rings. She drops his hand quickly and digs in her pocket.

"It's L- Darling," she says.

"I hope she has some good news," he says as she answers the phone. He looks across the street at a wide empty space over an express market, painted blue and orange with garish brand boxes lining the windows. 
The Cord runs between two tall spires over the building, thick and drooping down, humming with unfathomable power. There is movement at the low arc of the Cord. He thinks it is a bird nestled in branches and garbage; he is sure when its wings flap once or twice. The black bird bends its neck down and hops before regurgitating a white film of fluid. Two baby birds with bulging black eyes crane their beaks upwards to feed from its beak before Tad nudges him.

"Hm? What?"

"You weren't listening."

"Sorry," he says, his eyes returning to the birds, but he can't find them anymore. She sighs and rolls her eyes.

She says, "Let's go."

The diner is not far and navigating the street grid under the waxy pall of sunlight is not difficult since they lost their pursuers. The tops of the tallest buildings are invisible in the low rolls of clouds and a nearby shuttle node fills the air with an electric squeal above the place that Darling had set for their meeting: a simple place of white brick tucked underneath one of the elevated platforms with windows reflecting the people coming down the station stairs like bleeding brush strokes on a watercolor. An old neon sign blinks "OPEN" erratically. Three tables with empty chairs are underneath the blue and white striped canopy. A young man lies sleeping in a rickshaw just off of the diner's patio, his muscled legs in tight denim hanging over the side of the cab and his bare feet scraping against the ground. 

"Must be the driver Darling told me about," Tad says, "His name is Keng."

"Should we wake him?"

"No. Darling should be right inside." As they pass Keng they see sweat gleaming on his bare chest under his crossed arms. "Just got here by the looks of him."

The place seems deserted so Holm jumps as Tad opens the door and they are greeted by a voice.

"Welcome to 'The Can-Do Café'. Sit and have a complimentary cup of fortified milk foam. When you are ready to order, please speak into the deciphone and our automated service station will have it ready for you in no time!" The voice is cool and androgynous, a modulated calm that matches the placid landscape photos lining the walls. Two men sit together at the counter huddled over bowls of brown soup, and a couple drinks milk foam and watches the branded table tops scrolling with the daily news.

Holm fixes on Darling at the back of the joint. On the seat next to her is a crumpled paper bag and in a crumpled stack on the table are the papers they had printed out from the Autoterm. She looks tired and anxious. She sighs in relief as they approach. 

"You're all over the news," she says in an urgent whisper, covering a long stalk-like microphone that juts from the wall with her hand, "We don't have much time."

"What's next? Why is Holm so important?" Tad says with a rasp in her voice. When was the last time they slept? He should be tired, but maybe he has been since he awoke in the forest, maybe he has been tired his whole life. 

"This fills in a lot of the gaps for me," she says nodding to the document, "I hesitate to say more before we step together." She looks at him as she says this.

Step together?

"We have to find out what you don't remember." Holm thinks he is just as interested in why as in what, but he doesn't say anything.

"What's in the bag?" says Tad. She coughs as she speaks but she dismisses their looks of concern. He puts his hand on her knee under the table. He is not sure why he does this since it cannot possibly be of any use. 

"It's a slice of the root. Yes, it's for you," Darling says before she can ask, "But I need it for a moment first. It will help me get into Holm's memory . . . I've stretched myself thin and I need it."

Tad's hand moves to his on her knee and holds it tight.

"It doesn't matter," she says, "I'm sticking with this to the end." They look at each other and he blushes when their eyes meet.

He is not sure he wants to remember - he has been telling himself this for as long as he can remember, why change his mind now? His face darkens as he realizes how afraid he is of what he has forgotten. The hunters tried to tell him something that night in the woods. He fears the truth. He knows that it is not going to be good. 

"Milk foam!" a robotic voice exclaims. A box shaped automaton hisses out from behind the counter with mechanized enthusiasm. It squeaks on its treads and slows before setting four white porcelain cups on the table in front of them with its claw-hands. The cups are bubbling over with a clinging steam. "Another one on the house for Mom!" the box screams. It pats the paper bag next to Darling with its claw before scuttling towards the counter again. 

"Take my hands, Holm," Darling says holding her's out to him. When he hesitates she bats them impatiently. 
"It's going to be fine."

"If you're sure . . ."

"Yes. I'm sure." She is not sure, he can tell. He removes his left hand from Tad's and takes Darling's. He looks around the diner again wishing his back was not facing the door. There is a picture of a duck hiding under a log above Darling's head. He will not resist, he decides, and closes his eyes.
"I'm right here Holm, I'll stay right here the whole time." Tad's voice resounds in his head like a hammer blow. Darling's hands are so strong that he fears they will tear his arms from his body.

Darling says, "Follow the current."

He stretches out to the thinness of a horizon line, shoulders into the curve of a mountain, small of his back a dry lake bed, his head a black sun flattened on the edge of the ocean. The caress of a hurricane on the hairs of his leg is like the sweet breath of a lover. He feels the cold splat of rain on his ass and thighs. Way up top where the atmosphere meets the unknown is the sharp sting of lightning bolts between his hands and hers.

It can't go on. It goes on.

Darling's voice is a vibration that shakes the whole world:

Follow the current . . .

As the rumble dies he locates it between the sparks trailing after her voice steaming foot prints through the snow where he passed naked in torchlight. He remembers:

They were all in black and midnight blue, the dimmest moon gleaming off of their demon faces, eyes dragon fire on his shivering body. One, a woman, stood in the center of a snow cleared circle on a black patch of ice that banished all light from its circumference. Her hair whipped around her mask as if she were in a storm - though the night air around them was still. Holm was drawn to the chaos in the midst of that dead serenity. 

"Welcome," she said and the men around her joined in a chorus, "Welcome, Holm Aegis." He dropped to his knees, his flesh sizzling in the snow, water flowing around his calves as it melted. His skin burned so - why was he so cold? The masked ones lowered their torches and began to hum. A low, throaty hum that filled the copse like a gurgling baby or a growling wolf. He saw the iridescent dome of stars blur and blink out under this aural spell, all darkening to nothingness; the stars first, then the shadowy trees, the frigid air, and finally the snow. All that remained were the torch lights like beams holding up the universe, and the plane of ice on which the woman stood. 

She raised her arms. In one hand was a lantern with its glass door flapping open and shut like a moth wing. In the other was the athame, catching the light in a plane that mirrored the sharpness of the blade. Her head tilted to the void and Holm saw the muscles in her neck tense with exaltation. 

"Pierce the darkling shroud with your bow, Talus. We have brought you another arrow for your quiver. Always we remain arrayed around you, always outwards eight ways, traversing the infinite space between the points." She raised the lantern. "And the notch." She raised the knife.

"Reveal the spark to our new brother!"


"You will never see your family again," said one, "You will disappear from your old life like grass under snow."


"I am already dead," he spoke, but it was with the sound of another voice, "My body is a knife at night. My mind is the point of an arrow in air. I hold my arms open to Hundun, who walks beside the Talus. Hundun is the Shield, Hundun is the Gardener, the Talus is the Tree . . . I am the cat who sleeps in its branches."


All the torch lights went down, lower, lower, extinguished in the snow. The stars relight in a blue brilliance and he was filled with a warm love of everything.

"Stand up, adept," said the woman. She shed her mask, "Embrace your new mother." 

He stood and ran like a child to sob in her arms.

Follow the current . . .

Darling's voice obliterates the memory, it crumbles around him, skin and muscle and bone like fibers pulled from cloth.


No! He wants to shout but his will and his voice are at odds. The one whole and gripped totally by the experience of the vision, the other but a thread singed and burning that won’t give up its insistence on the pain's reality. Engulfed, he can taste his popped eyes and flesh-oil on his blistering tongue, lungs shriveling, his stomach cooking in the body's oven.

No flesh.

Remember where you are.

Follow the current . . .

Later. Much later the house was dark save for a light from the picture window. He had come secretly through the old tunnels, finding his way to the outflow from the foundry where waste redirected to the river. He tried not to look at the river. He remembered Harry's feet splashing in water by the smooth rocks. His gut turned. The enclosure was all but empty, evacuated, others fled from plague panic, homes foreclosed as values plummeted. Bank Two owned nearly all of them save the few where favors and bribes had been fed to the Paternach.

His induction into Hundun had ensured Rachel some security at least. The anonymous deposits into her account, landing a job at a land development firm outside the city, and Harry's silent, secret protection, lifted a portion of the weight from Holm's heart. But not all. No, he knew he had abandoned them, and there wasn't much that could relieve that burden. 

Standing as he did outside the house was violation enough for Hundun to strip him of his clearance, sever access to the root, and drain him of the Talus energy until he was robbed of all his gifts. The life of an adept was invisible but it held its risks for the company. If no one knew him, no one could point the finger. It didn't matter, he wouldn't endanger the company.

He just missed his boy. 

My boy! Darling and he speak together, all-at-once in the diner.

"My boy," he said just outside the yard, as he looked through the yellow lamp-lit window. But he saw Rachel through the curtains, a quick movement that threw a shadow over his face as she passed in front of the light, harried and nervous. She came to the door. She had seen him.

"What the hell are you doing in my yard?" she said, leaning out the door with a grimace. But she was not just angry. Her face looked battered by tears and her hair was fluffed from anxious fingers. He had forgotten he had his mask on. He looked like a sixty year old, white-haired man with long, flat jowls. 

"Ah, it's alright," he said holding his hand out in an attempt to reassure her.

"From the Bank, huh? Well this house is paid for." She was about to shut the door on him when he bounded on the stoop and held it. The mahogany door always smelled like the solstice wreath Rachel hung in the winter and that day was no different. 

"No. Actually I'm from . . . the benefactor." His throat felt like a corked bottleneck under too much pressure and he swallowed to prevent himself from choking on tears. 

"Who? Holm? Have you seen Holm? Oh Jesus," she said. She put her hands up to her face and wrapped her pale fingers in her curly brown hair until they were red, and sobbed, "Tell him . . . tell him our boy . . ."

"Can I see the boy?" 

"He's got it," she said . . . 

Holm turns his back on the vision and he is with Darling standing on a version of the icy circle. Carved in white light on the inner dome are sigils, traveling ones, ones for opening things. They can see each other's true faces here. 

"I didn't know," he says.

Darling's mouth opens but only brown and black dirt falls from her tongue. As it tumbles and splotches the ice circle, he hears her in his head.

This is not the end. Follow the current . . .

A bundle was heavy in his arms. The blanket breathed and bounced. He saw the stitching of a bird when he looked down at Harry's face - ashen gray, and under his eyelids a bruisy black. His eyes were turning black too. He was already blind. They were at the tree by the warehouse that kept the root. 

"Hold on Harry," he said, holding him so tight he felt the boy's ribs and hips dig into his torso, "Daddy's got you."

This is not the end. Follow the current.

The tower was a man with dark sunglasses. His scarf covered his face up to his nose. His hands were unmoving, like waiting spiders, and the adept couldn't sense a spark of life in him. 

"I have a solution to your problem."

This is not the end. Follow the current.

Rachel was dead at the door of the bedroom. The quilt with the bird soaked up her blood. 

This is not the end. Follow the current.

No. No more.

This is not-

Turning away from the vision again Holm opens his mouth to scream. But only the mud, the mud that piles around him, streaming like a waterfall from his mouth, the grit palpable on his tongue, the shit streaming from his eyes as he remembers, bent over on his hands and knees retching into the big black ice circle, cold and hot all at once without caring which was which or knowing how to tell. All is stripped away. All fed to fuel his engine of sorrow. He has had to start from scratch, after all, to remember, and then to build the monument of love, and then to fill its brick cruelly removed in an instant. Here it collapses, right on him, all over again. He is covered in the shit and the mud. It fills the sphere of the ice circle to were he can't know if he is expurgating the filth or consuming it again, and again.

This goes on for some time.


He opens his eyes and he is in the diner.

At first Holm believes the vision is over, that hell is through with him, until he realizes nothing is moving. He can't move. Darling and Tad are there just as he left them, the first across, the other beside. He feels nothing, not even his hands held in Darling's, nor Tad's head set on his shoulder.

But he hears something.

A slurping and splashing sound from behind him like someone is swallowing a gallon of milk foam at once.

Now if I could just . . . turn.

His cheeks twitch as if coming out of a dream, which he supposes he has. There is the festering scratch of his whiskers around his mouth and on his neck.

Here we go. He turns.

But there is nothing but the frozen still life of the diner's patrons, the unmoving automaton server, and the flood of noon sun through the window. 

He turns again, and Darling has disappeared. He blinks and in that interval Tad goes too. An instant and they are erased. He would panic if he weren't so sure that he remains in the shales, that somehow he lost his way back to the world, lost Darling's guiding voice in the labyrinth of the mind. The diner does seem real. He examines it more carefully, only moving his neck and shoulders because the other parts of his body, if it was his body, are still paralyzed. The walls are thin and insubstantial. The frozen people fade like a line in the sand devoured by the tide.

Again Holm blinks and a demon sits across the table, a giant orb of flesh with a hundred hands encircling its central grinning eye. The eye can grin because it's a mouth too. It greets Holm in a soft, unassuming voice.
"We meet again, Telebast." The demon lifts a cup of milk foam from the table and pours the stuff into his pupil with a sound like gurgling blood from a slit throat, "I did not expect you to return to the shalescape . . . but we are always ready for these types of contingencies."

"Ah, what?" Holm can't detect a hint of threat from this creature. But why address him by the name of the spirit cat, a cat he was more certain than ever was only a waking dream.

"Old friend," says the demon, a hundred hands clasp and crack their knuckles with the sound of vertebrae in a spine breaking all at once, "You seem to have rid yourself of your . . . companion. It's sad, really, he loved you so."

"Companion?" Holm touches his side where the parasite had festered. 

"Yes, we are responsible." The demon chuckles. A foamy regurgitation forms around the lips and the rim of the eye. Holm can't look away.

"But who are you? What do you want with me?" he asks, knowing he could never trust the thing's answer.

"We would've liked for you to have fulfilled your contract with us. Clearly that is no longer possible. In lieu of that . . ." Ten or so hands put their pointer fingers to the lips of the eye as the gigantic orb tilts, as if rummaging in the sack that was its body for a memory, "Possibly, you could die violently? What else would you expect from us?" 

"No. That's not gonna happen."

"Well! We'll see who is left standing when this puppet show is over. As for who we are, I am surprised you don't remember, having remembered so much else. I am THE LID and I am MANY." Indeed as it spoke its name a ghostly choir joined it and the thrum rang in Holm's head. The hands of The Lid clapped politely at the mouth's proclamation.

"My son. What have you done with my son?" Holm demands. The words burn in his breast, shoot like fire from his mouth, and sting his teeth. His hand, the left one, burns too. He feels the athame handle materialize and harden in his shaking fist. 

"Oh, dear dear dear dear dear me. It's no use Telebast, the boy is ours now. We had to take payment in lieu of your cooperation." The Lid pauses in mock consideration. He has no doubt this is why the demon had come to him, to cinch a deal he did not remember making, "But maybe, maybe now, you will bargain with us?" 

"Why would I do that? Where is my son?"

"Because if you don't, not only will we keep your son, but we will use him for the very purpose you were contracted for; as the bridge to the Talus. He will be trampled and devoured to transfer our kind into the world. It is what we've waited for, old friend." The flesh around the eye, pink at first, now darkens into a deep red as if flushed from an internal exertion. The eye pulsates and glimmers and drools a snotty filth laced with fecal excretions. A smell Holm had not noticed before assaults him. He gags.

"What do I have to do?" He says and as the words tumble from his mouth he wonders if he really might do what the demon asks. If just to know the son he has forgotten. To ask him about his mother.

"What you were supposed to do in the first place. Deliver us the root. It will serve as the bridge instead of your son."

"And Harry?"

"Back into your loving arms." The hands clap again, their fingernail-less knobs clacking like insect shells, 
"Give me your hands," it says. A command, a promise, a seething hatred.

Holm raises his hands from under the table, the athame dissipating with his resignation, and lays them flat before The Lid.

"Goooooooooood!" The Lid leans forward and the little child hands arrayed around its hideous eye pinch into his palms, his forearms, his biceps. It says, "The path will be cleared. The choice is yours." The demon's voice trails off as darkness falls around them. The echo of that voice is a slithering wheeze that coils itself around his brain like the voice of doubt. What has he done? Perhaps he intends to lie, but is it possible that no matter what he intends, whatever his hope to accomplish by this lie, he will inevitably serve the will of these monsters? Maybe he has already betrayed his friends. This is his last thought before the damp black overwhelms him, thick and terrible like heavy soil pouring down.

Like the grave.


Shaken, rattled around like a doll forgotten in an old hope chest, he claws back, pulling down the dirt from around his gasping mouth, tongue writhing and wild, spitting out the taste of death. Hands still on him, tearing at his clothes, his death shroud, pushing him down or pulling him up, it doesn't matter. A web of veins from the world form vague outlines of reality, of the café coming back into focus. Have they come for him already? Will he be recruited so soon? The fragrance of wildflowers overpowers him, sweet, pink, and soft in his sinuses. Soon he calms, able to breathe again, comforted by the flowers. He takes a hungry breath before the flower scent fades.

The hands are on him. His eyes open and he sees that it is only his friends forcing him out of his trance. He can't set his eyes on them at first, and not because of the invasive brightness of the diner; it is dark outside. He is ashamed, that is all. His face grows hot and, he can't believe it, tears well and fall. He covers his face quickly before they can see them. His palms are wet with a filmy goo. It dribbles out of his ears and down his neck.

"Damn it Holm!" Tad says, "We thought you would never wake up," She is still pounding on his arm, reserving half of her attention for the window at the front of the diner. Darling excretes the waxy liquid too, but it evaporates as quickly as it rolls over her earlobes. Darling forces Holm's head up and peers into his eye, roughly peeling back his eyelid with her thumb, a dark shadow falling over her high cheeks and sparkling green eyes. Holm shakes her away and looks around him at the now empty diner. He must have been out for hours.

"Why are you crying?" Darling says.

She knows . . . she must know something.

"I'm sorry you guys. You need to get away from me."

"No, we're not leaving you." Tad pleads with him but he won't allow himself to hear it. His head throbs and her voice is tinny and unmoving.

"You can't trust me!" He tries to push Tad away, but her grip on him is too strong.

"That's enough, Mister," she says sternly, chin set, pulling him up and out of the booth. Darling just shakes her head and stifles a snort.

"I never trusted you Holm. Never would think of it. But you could do worse than to trust yourself," she says, standing with them and smoothing out the front part of her coat. She takes the paper bag from the bench and holds it out to Tad. The young Agrat, face haggard with yellowing bags under her eyes and greasy hair clinging to her forehead just glances at it for a moment. She takes maybe two breaths, short and sweet, before shaking her head and picking up the loose-leafed brief from the table. She pauses and looks at Holm. He sees it on her face, she doesn't have to say it. He wants to promise himself he will not let her down, but his headache surges.

But he is not in pain: the throb comes from outside. The automaton server rattles slightly. The others become aware of the throb. Then the diner begins to shake and porcelain cups jingle in their saucers. They look to the door as the boy Keng opens it.

"Hey, I hear sirens out here. Think we better get a move on." Keng is yawning into his fist as he speaks, groggy from sleep. "Hey, what's that-"

"Keng, get in here!" Darling says and motions with an urgent scoop of her hands to get out of the doorway. She takes four panicked steps towards him before the helicopter is on him. She dares not go any further.

Keng is caught in a cone of light. He looks behind him, eyes widening, shading them with his hand so he can see the source of the light. His face shows the slow creep of fear as he understands his danger. Holm knows this feeling, he wants to run to Keng and tear him from that frozen spot, relieve him of his paralysis. Already it is too late: the noise is like glass chimes in a gentle breeze, dust of the impact in the street, blood as the bullets scour his body. The door is shattered too, right along with the bone and sinew of the man, falling together in alternating clatters and thumps. 

They hear the sirens. Holm acts with the swiftness of a sprung trap; the athame is in his hand and over his head before he even notices that Darling is right beside him, her own athame blazing blue like an ocean wave.

Tad stuffs the paper into her coat, replacing it with the pistol. She's just a few steps behind them when she spots something and whistles.

"Hey, there's a back way out of here. Let's not end up like him," she says nodding at Keng's messy corpse. She points her gun behind the counter. Next to the stove, where the automaton had tipped over on its side and its treads spun uselessly in the air, a blue painted door swings half open into the alleyway. When the guards pour in through the shattered front of the diner, they are gone.


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