Athellus sat under the girders in his undershirt, cross-legged, leaning on his fist. The rain outside was a constant hiss, and sitting here the spray was cold on his arms, but his jacket felt too clammy to wear.

Even under here he felt damp and out of sorts. He hated sitting around doing nothing, but he had already done a full weapons check, and if he sharpened his throwing knife any more it was going to wear the edge paper-thin. He had nothing to read, and he’d long since tired of running over old ballads in his head word-for-word. There was nothing to do but wait.

Strange to be doing nothing during the day, though he had spent many nights like this, first in training with Adree, and later when he left the Evinthei, with Kaire - listening, waiting, watching. Normally, he would have been up high, able to see what was going on, unfazed by the dark; he was a night person, and quite used to climbing over roofs for recon or his own curiosity, hearing to the night murmurs of a far-off city, or sitting in a tree listening to the eerie, haunting animal cries from the depths of a forest in a distant world.

When he had first become banru, he had spent many hours up high by himself, to think, and to heal. His ban-reth had been heavily traumatic, and he had needed time alone, away from others. The People Upstairs had allowed him to recover both physically and mentally before giving him his initial training, sending him on his first assignments, and eventually suggesting that he was a prime candidate for an unusual and difficult partner. The new questions that she had brought forth had helped him forget.

Just now, Kaire was lying opposite him, her back and shoulder blades on the ground but her legs and bare feet extending up the rubble, her arms crossed over her stomach and her eyes shut. Her hair, still brilliantly white despite the rain and the dirt, spread over the concrete like some exotic flower.

“It’s grown,” he said without thinking.

“What has?” Kaire asked, not opening her eyes.

“Your hair’s grown again. Maybe a couple of inches.”

“Must have been after the Librais. It always grows when my injuries heal.”

“Time to hack it off soon, then.”

Kaire smiled, her eyes still closed. Athellus was relieved to see that smile, free of sarcasm or calculation, unlike what he had seen over the past few days. Kaire had little female vanity - she wasn’t human, so there was no reason for her to have any at all - but she paid particular and close attention to her hair. Athellus had got in the habit of cutting it for her, because she couldn’t use implements, and her one attempt to cut her hair on her own, using her forespines, had almost taken her head off. After seeing that, Athellus had been very quick to suggest that scissors were the way forward, and besides, this way he could get the bits at the back and keep them neat, so there was no need to try that ever again. After how quiet and sullen she had been since the Librais Tower, it was good to see her smiling over something ordinary again.

It prompted him to venture: “Are you feeling better?”

“Much. The worst of it’s gone now. The less I think about it, the less it hurts.”

Athellus nodded to himself. He had been on edge for days, watchful, since that conversation out in the ruins, the last real conversation they had had before now. He had been watching for the danger signs, and had seen plenty, but not enough to bring himself to act. It was the closest they'd had to a crisis in years.

* * *

“So what happened in there?”

Kaire had looked down at her hands, as if mulling the question over. Athellus had put his head on one side, waiting. The tension was back. He'd forgotten how bad that fear could be, that fear of making a mistake. One job, he had reminded himself. You’ve got one big job, so you’d better not screw it up. Screw it up and a lot of people are going to be sorry. Don’t forget about Marchion.

He felt exposed here too, out on the street, but it was the best he could do. At least here he could be certain Dax couldn’t hear them. He was sitting at a distance now, at a crossroads a hundred yards away. Athellus wanted him in sight for safety’s sake but also out of earshot. He had a feeling this could get nasty.

“Well?” he prompted, that tension roughening the edges of his concern, folding his arms. “I asked the People Upstairs but they won’t spill. They said it’s up to you.”

Kaire kept her head turned. “Something happened while I was under. At the Tower.”

“What ‘something’? Tell me!”

She had explained what had happened, deep in the ‘unconscious’ of the Librais, while she had tried to link to the Evinthei Archives. “I got hit with another program by accident, something the Librais was working on. Nothing special, for a machine. It was used for predicting shifts in the Evinthei’s computer network, compensating for all conditions. But when it downloaded into me, it translated into something else, into -”

Athellus held very still. Of all the news he had expected, this was an unpleasant surprise. “You got hit with a predictive algorithm? But, applied to a person, that would mean you -”

She shook her head slightly. “I got a few flashes before I could start to shut it out.”

He tried to collect himself. “But, Kaire… this is not good. You - you’re not supposed to see the future, even for a second, it’s supposed to -”

“Drive me insane?” she asked, sarcastically. “Because good grief, that’s never happened before.”

“This isn’t the same at all and you know it! Ember’s blood… But - you said you can ignore it?”

“It’s fading. It’ll be gone after a while.” She was looking past him, and the dark speculation he glimpsed sidelong in her eyes was deeply disturbing. “But there were a few flashes I can’t -”

“I don’t want to hear it. The future’s not -” And there was that old rift again - his steadfast refusal to accept that things were set in stone by some mystical higher power, and her absolute faith that the opposite was true.

“It’s for predicting trends. That’s what I got. When I saved -”

Stop it!

Her voice was soft but inexorable. “When I saved Dax, when he helped us back, it set us on a road, ‘Thel. That’s what I saw, the way things are leading us. The trend.” She breathed out. “For me the road led through - it felt like concrete, glass all shot through with steel. Heavy steel everywhere. And water. Endless water, deep and dark. And you - I smelled blood. Blood as thick as oil.”

Athellus found he was clutching at the black bandage on his arm, tight, as if he was about to wrench it off, and let out a shaky laugh. “You know as well as I do that’s the past, not the future. And as for yours, that could mean anything. We’re in a city almost surrounded by water, after all.”

“I knew you wouldn’t believe it -”

“Believe what?” His frustration got the better of him. “You were hooked to a Zodiac Engine, Kaire, those things love doing as much damage as they can, in any way they can. So you saw something, felt something? It doesn’t mean you saw the future! It could just mean you got a data stream that your brain had to interpret. But now you’ve decided you had a vision and you’re going to follow it. And make it a prediction!” He struck out at the air, angrily. It took a moment for him to calm down at the insanity of this. “Go on, then, let’s hear it all at once. What about Dax?”

Kaire shrugged, mock-casual, with anger of her own. “It was just a random data stream, right? So what does it matter?”

“You’re my partner, Kaire. We’re a team. You know what’s in my mind, I need to know what’s in yours.” Without him noticing, his voice dropped an octave to a register that was caring, almost loving. “Please.”

She was silent for a moment, then said: “I don’t know. It was blinding. Bright light. Not a metaphysical thing. Just a really bright glaring light that hurt to look at, like looking into a spotlight. It could have been anything.”

Athellus didn’t look over at Dax, knowing he was watching even at this distance. “Okay. Okay. You said the predictive algorithm is fading?”

“Yes. And don’t worry. If I have any more images I’ll keep them to myself. I don’t want to jeopardise your precious worldview.”

He swallowed, knowing the razor’s edge he would be walking for the next few days. “All right. I guess I deserved that. Just promise me you’ll be careful. And -” He decided any sacrifice was worth it for her benefit right now. “And if you want to talk, I’ll keep an open mind.”

She turned and walked away back towards Dax. As she walked she turned her head, showing the deep purplish marking across her cheek. Inhuman. “Having an open mind is what got me into this in the first place, isn’t it?”

* * *

Athellus came to sit beside her, leaning against the wall next to where her feet rested, glad to feel the wound between them was healing. Quite apart from everything else, including his personal safety, he was genuinely fond of Kaire. They might disagree occasionally, but the rest of the time they were perfectly matched as partners, and as banru, and the nature of their work meant the partnership could easily be lifelong, something that he had accepted long ago. Seeing his partner in distress - and distress, like a wounded animal, drove her towards pain and rage rather than sadness - troubled him deeply.

“He’s been gone a long time,” said Kaire, opening her eyes now and looking up at the rubble overhead.

“I know.”

“Did it occur to you that he might talk to the officers and give them our position?”

“Yes. It occurred to me. But I don’t think he will.”

“Why not?”

Athellus looked out into the rain. “Partly because of how we warned him from the beginning. But mostly because he doesn’t seem the type to turn. I know the type.”

Kaire reached over and laid a slender hand on his arm. The touch was light, but perfectly eloquent. Athellus grinned at her, and she closed her eyes as if weary.

A moment later they snapped open again. Her head turned. Then she swung her legs off the wall, rolling over into a crouch.

“What?” asked Athellus.

Kaire went to the girders and peered out, sitting on her haunches. The rain outside was a dense wet mist, covering a grey and silent world. She sat staring out at it, unblinking.

Athellus sat beside her. “Kaire. What is it?”

She was scenting the air like an animal. “Something. Something old. And close.”

 

 

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