We didn't see Roman for a number of day, during which I spent training with Bent, or supervising the training of the other two in navigating terrain. There was a large course on the lower levels they trained in, and I sat up on a walkway and watched, the sides of my vision streaming camera feeds that tracked both men as they ran the course. I made corrections, telling them where they should have gone, what they should have looked for. It felt very strange to be doing this, giving them directions in lieu of Roman. But the mist-blood was still in the infirmary, and when he did appear, he looked thin and worn, the shadows around his implants stark against his face. He moved slowly, clearly still in some pain, and favored his right side. We gathered in our common area once more, just us mist-bloods, and Roman looked wearily at each of us in turn. His clothing was far less formal now, loose on his frame, and he informed us in a flat voice that we would deploying the following morning. My heart went tight with fear and I barely heard the rest of his directions. We were to collect our gear from the armory and have everything staged before lights-out. Roman was not physically at full capacity yet, but we would be able to conduct some minor incursions into the mist with him supervising from the ship. Then, we were dismissed. Double seemed unnaturally still and Bent caught my eye and nodded that I should follow him. I hesitated, then when I realized that Roman was entirely focused on Double, a wary look in his face, I did as the sniper directed.
He edged into the doorway that led to my room and as I drew close, grabbed my arm and shoved me inside. He followed before I could protest, shutting the door behind him and leaning against it. I backed away, putting myself up against the far wall, and stared at the sniper in a combination of fear and anger.
"Just wait a moment," Bent said, "You don't know Double that well."
"What's going on?" I asked. There was a note of panic in my voice and I took a deep breath, trying to quell it. Bent's eyes narrowed, as if he noticed.
"Every mist-blood has a twist on how our... psychosis manifests," he said, and I heard bitterness in his voice, "They call it anger, but it's not so simple. Everyone suffers from it differently – except Double. It's just... anger... with him and that makes him incredibly volatile. It's like part of his brain shuts off and he no longer understands anything, not even his own actions. He just has to act, and act violently. At least with me or Roman there's something else going on, something that keeps us from losing all sense of reason when a fit occurs. Double doesn't handle change well and them springing this deployment crap on us – well, you saw how still he'd gone, right?"
I thought back. Yes, he had been standing there, his broad shoulders back and there was a certain set to his jaw. I thought it was just stress or maybe a fear similar to my own. If his muscles had been tight, I wouldn't have noticed, for his strength was already clearly defined on his frame.
"So – what about Roman?"
"He'll be fine," Bent replied, "Roman is good at talking Double out of it. If not, Tandy can drop him with the implant temporarily. Now be quiet, I want to go over the footage of your chase through the city."
Roman had said something about that. The file was unlocked, he said, along with everything they'd learned from studying the corpse. He had requested we be given access, hoping that it would assist us when we went into the barrier. I wasn't ready to let him slip away into the privacy of his eye implants, however. Not yet.
"You said everyone has their own twist on it," I said, taking a step forwards, "So what's yours?"
"A bit personal, don't you think?" The sniper glared at me in obvious irritation. I glared back.
"I'd like to know what I'm dealing with."
He looked away, crossing his arms over his chest. With the fabric of his tank-top pulled tight across his chest, I realized I could see some of his ribs. I was underweight because I had been on the streets for some time. I wondered what Bent's reason was.
"I can tell you Roman's, though," Bent finally said, "He's got a real quiet anger, real subtle, and he turns it all inward. It's turned into depression – real bad."
"How you figure that?"
"What kind of person just turns himself in to be executed by the state? C'mon, that ain't normal. Plus, I stole a look at the meds he takes. Anti-depressants. I haven't figured out your twist yet, but I've got some theories."
His eyes flickered up to regard me, brilliant green chips of ice. Like a field on a winter morning.
"Do you just hate other mist-bloods?" I asked, "Is that why you wanted to kill me? Is that your twist?"
Bent seemed about to reply and I saw the anger in his eyes now, an open malice, but he lost whatever he was going to say by a knock on the door. It was Roman, and he looked from Bent to myself for a moment, his gaze lingering suspiciously on Bent. The sniper avoided eye contact.
"Get to the armory," he finally said, "Double is taking a walk."
"He kept control, then?" Bent asked.
"Yeah. Just stay away from him for a bit. Especially you, Voice."
Roman just held the door for me as I passed by into the commons area. He seemed distracted, and so Bent took it upon himself to answer.
"Because you're a girl," he said and his words were clipped with a sort of vicious pleasure, "Double likes hurting those weaker than him. And in the outer rings, that means women."
"Has he murdered children?" I replied, quiet.
And Bent spun from me, stalking out of the room and into the hallway beyond. I was left alone with Roman and I heard the mist-blood sigh behind me, shoving himself off the doorframe and wearily making his way to one of the sofas. I saw him watching me after he settled himself and I kept my shoulder turned to him, not willing to make eye-contact. He ran his hand through his short-cropped hair and finally looked away, staring at a point on the wall.
"You really shouldn't be provoking Bent," Roman said, "He won't hurt you, but he's part of our team."
"Maybe you should remind him of the that," I replied. Roman was silent a moment.
"Do I need to?" he asked quietly.
"I don't know. He's been trying to intimidate me but he's also letting things slip. What happened between him, Dav, and me?"
"I don't know Voice, it never came up in either his or your interrogation. We didn't even know that Bent knew who Dav was, much less you. What has he said?"
I told him about the incident in the hallway. My voice started shaking halfway through and I sat down, clasping my hands tightly in my lap. I stared at them in mute dismay. I didn't think it had been that bad, but now, saying it out-loud, I realized I was afraid. Of Bent, of the chase I'd led through the city, and of the prospect of being deployed and having to face that again. This, I did not tell Roman. I just sat there, hands pressed tight together, and trembled.
"I see," Roman sighed after a long moment of silence between us, "Go on to the armory now."
"Wait, that's it?" I demanded, a flash of anger in my voice, "I can't go out there with Bent-"
"You can and you will," he replied, tight anger in his own voice, "You're part of National Intelligence now, one of their agents, and you will do as ordered and not question me. Now go."
The words seemed to run through me like a jolt. As much as I wanted it to be otherwise, I was not the type to fight like this. I ran, I did as others told me to. I kept my head down and hoped I could just get by, that no one would take special notice of me, and that somehow if I made myself small enough nothing would hurt me. So I did as Roman ordered, standing, and went to the door. It seemed the prospect of deployment had pushed everyone over the edge. Double was having an episode just at the news, I'd triggered something in Bent by pushing him, and now I myself was struggling with my own emotions. Roman had shocked the anger out of me, leaving behind a cold sensation that seemed more dangerous for its calm. For the first time, I was grateful everyone avoided eye-contact with me inside the complex. It left me alone, and that was what I needed while the fear boiled inside me.
The airships of the inner rings were a normal enough sight for most of humanity. They were every present in the inner rings – wallowing cargo ships, like seeds floating lazily between the cities, and the smaller, unmarked gunships. There were no privately owned vessels. Everything in the sky above a certain altitude belonged to the government. The lines of transport were available for use by both citizens and private corporations, but everything that passed through would be recorded and pass through governmental inspection. It kept certain commodities from reaching certain rings, and supposedly, prevented dangerous elements like disease from entering the inner rings were the population was the most densely packed. It was little wonder Roman's superiors were eager to get us out into the field. This system – and the checkpoints at the city entrances – should have prevented the mist from venturing so far inwards. Yet it did. And no one had ever seen the likes of what had chased me through the city before.
I had never seen an airship up close, however. It was perched on top of the building's roof, like a squat raven hunched with wings drooping and head pulled in close to its sleek-bellied body. The size of it surprised me. The distance from which I always saw the airships distorted my sense of perspective and I was brought up short as the four of us exited the lift that led to the roof. There were a number of crewmen wandering about on the last tasks of loading up gear into the cargo hold that sat at the base of the airship, the back open into a shallow ramp between the rear engines. The wings were short, clipped at an angle towards the ground, and the entire surface of the airship was a matte black. There was no insignia. There never was. I touched the tablet hanging from a cord at my waist and pulled up one of the functions of my eye implants. My gaze darted across the front, end, and wingtips of the craft and after a moment a thin blue outline darted across the markers and then across the body of the ship. 143 meters long, 95 meters across, and 33 meters tall. Approximately. Then I touched my tablet again and the outline and numbers vanished. In a daze, I walked forwards, and was conscious of Bent doing the same, his bright eyes also fixed on the ship. Behind us, Double had stopped moving completely, and Roman remained behind with him.
I recognized Tandy up near the open door of the loading ramp. She broke off from watching the last of the cargo being loaded and made quick steps to catch up with Bent and myself. For a moment she was quiet, letting us stare, and I ventured closer and put one hand up to touch the underbelly of the turbines. The interior was a series of hollow pockets with machinery buried deeper inside that housed the anti-gravity units.
"Like it?" Tandy asked, "C'mon. The rest of the team is already on-board. Let's get you situated."
"Team?" I asked dully, hitching my pack higher up on my shoulder. Nothing in it actually belonged to me. It had all been put together for me by the agency.
"Support personnel" Tandy replied, "My tactical team is four more people, the flight crew is three, our captain, there's two doctors and two scientists, and seven soldiers, two of which are airmen. Two more from National Intelligence as well."
I was overwhelmed at the thought of so many people. This was truly outside of my realm of experience. I wondered if Dav would have been able to handle this better than I and I wished, suddenly, achingly, that he was were with me. Telling me what to do. Tandy led us up inside, through the narrow corridors of supplies, and up a narrow metal stairway to the catwalk. From there, through a metal corridor with close walls and grating for the floor, until we reached another ladder that led up another floor. She explained the layout of the ship as we walked – the mechanicals were in the belly up against the cargo and those would be inaccessible to everyone outside the flight team. Living quarters were in the middle of the ship, the infirmary, common area, and mess were on the topmost level. Tactical and research was near the rear of the ship, just above the cargo bay, and the front was the helm, also inaccessible to everyone except flight crew, Tandy's team, and Roman. I was somewhat mollified by the fact the soldiers were being treated the same as the rest of us. Tandy showed us our rooms – I had my own and it was far smaller than the one in the complex. There was only about five feet of space between the wall and the narrow bunk. I tossed my bag onto the bed and regarded the locker at the end and the even smaller bath at the rear dubiously for a moment, then returned to the hallway. Tandy was dropping off Bent and I could see Roman and Double approaching from the end of the hallway. Double seemed to be hunched, as if he were flinching away from the walls themselves.
"So the Captain wants everyone in their room while she takes us out," Tandy said, "She'll call us all up to the common area once we're at altitude. I'm going up to the helm to let her know we're ready."
The four of us watched her go. Then Roman tersely ordered us to do as Tandy said, and I ducked into my room and after a moment of thought, shut the door behind me. I unzipped my bag and started putting my things away – my armor was there, as well as a handful of outfits in my size that would suffice for the outer rings. I was relieved to see there weren't any skirts. While that was sometimes the tradition for the outer rings, it wasn't unusual for in-ringers to eschew the tradition and generally the locals didn't take offense. I had my weapons – some knives I had chosen for myself, a pistol, and an assault rifle. These went into the locker, the clothing went on a pole in a recess on the opposite wall. I had just finished this when a hum went through the ship, then the floor swayed beneath me. I sat down hastily on the bunk and was somewhat relieved to find it wasn't as uncomfortable as I'd feared. There was a lurch, then the swaying evening out, and soon the ship felt as stable as it had while grounded. I heard voices in the hallway and I slid open my door and found both Bent and Roman in the hallway, Double at his own door, leaning on the doorframe. He was quite pale and for a brief moment he looked at me, and then he quickly looked away. I wondered at that. He had been shy to make eye contact since I first met him.
"We're just getting altitude," Bent was saying, "I got the blueprint of the ship super-imposed on my implants, I can find the common area just fine without escort. I'm just going to look around a bit first."
"Orders are orders," Roman said stubbornly, "Captain Lend outranks everyone on her own airship."
"So what's she going to do?" the sniper sniffed in derision.
"The airship is assigned to National Intelligence, but its officially under the military's airforce. They permit corporeal punishment, Bent, and Lend wouldn't hesitate to make an example of you. Just be patient, it won't take long to get above the city."
The sniper fell back into the doorway, sobered by this, and then he slunk back into his room and I saw him settle on his bunk fitfully. I did the same and as Roman had promised, it didn't take long before a woman's voice came over the ship intercom ordering us all up to the common area. Roman led us there. Bent brought up the rear – apparently, Roman's warning had subdued the sniper quite a bit. The common area wasn't too dissimilar from our own, just larger, and with more places to sit and more tables. There were consoles as well, on two desks along one wall, for advanced computer usage the tablets couldn't accommodate. I wondered if I would even have access. The mist-bloods kept to ourselves, clustering at one part of the room and Roman pulled a chair from a table around and sat there, while Bent just stood leaning back on the couch and Double remained close to the wall, still clearly uneasy. I sat in a corner of the couch and watched the others. It was fairly easy to identify who had what role on the airship. The soldiers were all in khaki fatigues, and only one of them was a woman. The two airmen were identifiable only by the stripes on their sleeves, two black lines. Each of them carried their pistol on the hip. The scientists were dressed in plainclothes, as were the doctors, and I could only tell the two groups apart by how the doctors caught sight of us and looked longer, and how I saw their eyes rest on the implants by our eyes. The two scientists were men, and one of the doctors was a woman. Tandy's crew were also plainclothes, but they each seemed familiar with Roman, but while they called out a greeting they didn't attempt to interact with us. Tandy was the last to arrive, along with the three flight crew, Captain, and the two intelligence agents. These all spread out in the room, Tandy coming to sit near me, and the two intelligence agents just settled for the background. They were men, both, and I noticed that everyone seemed to take them in and then carefully look away, as if they didn't want to acknowledge their existence. Captain Lend herself wasn't a terribly imposing woman – hefty with a long black braid that reached down to her waist. She didn't wear a uniform and neither did her three crewmen. She gazed around the room at everyone for a moment, arms crossed.
"We'll be at the outer ring in five hours," Lend said, "We'll halt on the border and survey the situation when we arrive. If conditions are good, we'll head in at 0900 hours the following morning. I see a few new faces here -" She looked directly at Roman's team when she said this. "-so let me make this clear. This is my ship. My rules. I don't care who you report to, so long as you're on-board, you answer to me. The mess is open all hours, but we have regular meal times posted on the board and everyone takes turns cooking. If you can't cook, then find someone to teach you, fast. You've all been issued weapons – my rules are that only the pistols are allowed to be carried unless otherwise directed. Keep the rifles in your lockers and everything else in lockup in the cargo bay. It's not like they'll do a damn bit of good if the mist gets on-board."
She took a breath and I felt cold at that acknowledgment, and colder that no one around me even blinked at it. This was just something they accepted.
"Otherwise, this is home for the duration of the operation. Treat it nice and we won't have problems. Gentlemen," she continued, this time addressing the soldiers, "I've left an open area in the back of the cargo bay again for your recreational use. Try not to break the lights this time."
There were some nervous laughs at that and one of the soldiers managed an embarrassed grin.
"Anyway, you're all dismissed. Kettle, Tass, with me. I want to verify the ship has your implant signatures for the armaments."
The two airmen broke off and followed the Captain back through the rear hallway. The rest of us were left behind in the room and then Tandy stepped into the open spot with a sigh, watching Lend's back for a moment.
"So," she said, "Introductions. I know all of you from last time, but we've got a new crew of mist-bloods. Roman you all know, some of you have met our sniper, Bent, already. He's the red-head there, that one is Double, and the lady is Voice."
She then turned and named off the members of the crew. I realized with a sense of dismay that I wouldn't remember any of the names, then a second blue dot appeared in the corner of my vision and I saw one of Tandy's crew tapping on her own tablet. She'd taken control of my implants. I felt cold inside, but after a moment the only thing that happened was a small profile of each person I focused on appeared in the corner of my vision. I looked directly at her. Her name was Fast. The profile told me she was part of National Intelligence, tactical agent, reporting to Tandy. She gave me a thin smile and looked away, and the second blue dot vanished. I wondered if she'd done the same to Bent and Double.
Tandy relinquished the floor after she was done naming off everyone, and the meeting quickly dissolved. I saw one of the soldiers making his way over towards us, but he continued on straight towards where Double stood, and I heard a quick snatch of conversation as the soldier introduced himself. From the outer rings as well, he said. Double's reply was wary, but I heard a note there that I recognized. Relief. There was something in common between the two and I wondered if this was the first Double hadn't been completely alone among the rest of us. I stood and quickly made for Roman's side before anyone could do likewise for me.
"Roman," I whispered, "What are the two intelligence agents here for?"
The mist-blood's face grew closed and wary and he gazed at the two men for a moment. Neither were interacting, one was on his tablet, the other was just observing the room.
"They're just here to ensure the mission is successful," Roman replied, "It's just – have you heard of outsiders?"
"No – wait. Dav mentioned something about them." I licked my lips uneasily before continuing. "He said they were the ones that made people disappear. Anyone – politician, criminal, just anyone the government wanted gone."
"They're both outsiders. You can tell because they don't have an official rank within the agency. They're on our side, but they still make people real uneasy. If something happens to me, one of them will assume command. If something goes wrong and we need to be pulled out, they'll make the call on whether to launch an extraction and will lead the team to do so. And if we have trouble with the local authorities... they'll handle that too."
"Should I, like, not talk to them, then?"
"Who fucking cares if you do?" Bent interrupted, "They've already made all of us disappear once, what else can happen? Who do you think arranged for Roman to be transferred to National Intelligence, and who do you think brought me in?"
"You were caught by outsiders?" I whispered. He hadn't said a word about his capture yet and I was suddenly intrigued.
"I was. Not sure how they found me. Must have been tracking me for days. I was just up on a perch, way out on a ledge, then there's this wire around my neck and I'm being hauled back towards the wall. Dropped my gun and I couldn't break the guy's hold, and he held me there until I lost consciousness. Woke up with no shirt, no shoes, and my hands handcuffed to a beam above my head. That's around when I realized I really didn't want to die and when they came for me some time later, I was ready to make a bargain."
He shrugged, as if this all meant nothing to him, then he abruptly shoved away from the back of the sofa and stalked off. I had not thought of my situation like this. Taken, vanished. Like they did to anyone who was deemed dangerous to the state. I risked a glance back over to where the two outsiders stood and found that only one remained now, the other having vanished at some point in the conversation with Roman and Bent. I couldn't shake a sense of unease, of being watched, and Bent's words tugged at my mind. We'd already been disappeared once. I had nothing in common with anyone else here outside my own team. They were all volunteers. And what was I? Conscript? Prisoner? I muttered something to Roman about being in my room, and I turned and left, almost as quickly as Bent had.