Illustration by Zuzanna Piwonska
Mabel's skin was cold. When her head rolled down in the crook of his arm, her sweat leeched into Quincy's shirt. Her glassy eyes flashed between two worlds, material and ethereal.
"Mabel?" someone called her. It was a distorted mixture of an injured boy and her father.
"Let me see, Quinn," urged a harsher voice. She flopped her head over to see him. Corman? That snapped her back. Every scene, from the petition for her first little rat, Shandy, to the fluorescent labs of Almagreighn played on a screen behind her eyes while she rummaged for something in her pockets. "Shh, Mabel. Res yersef now."
"Is she..." Quincy choked. Mabel found her field notes and tore a page free with her teeth. With the accompanying pen, she scribbled several lines. Her degenerating fingers lost control of both and dropped them. "Hey, Mabel, it's okay." Quincy tried to still her, but she managed to find a pop-open aluminum stamp in her chest zipper. In lieu of an ink pad, she pressed the stamp in her blood-drenched shirt. On the note, she impressed the Chief Biologist's seal. Mabel's eyes found the sky. The softly glowing tapestry of service walks reminded her of the winter blanket her dad used to wrap her in. She thought she could see him, thought she could feel that warm blanket.
Mabel's skin became ice against Quincy's. Her chest stopped rising. He hung his head down to hers, teeth gritted to cage the screams. You ruined everything, he remembered Raines saying. Corman bent to close her eyes and take the note. He about tipped over when he read,
I vote for Regis Corman's admittance to the Netherworld Summit
"I know it feels wrong," said Maselyn. She leaned beside Quincy over the railing of the Lake Lady, "There's no right way to say goodbye to a friend."
"I hardly knew her," Quincy's fingers shook around Mabel's last written words, "But she seemed... good. She cared about things others didn't." Quiet fell over the waters of Sapphire Lake, from the fleet led by the Lake Lady to the canoe bobbing by the shore.
"There's a reason we go with fire in the Avalons," Maselyn said after a while. She took the bow from her shoulder and notched a linen-wrapped arrow. "It passes on to whatever it touches... her kindness- she passed it to you," Quincy's hand went, now as force of habit, to scratch the little owlet tucked in his coat. Maselyn dipped her cloth arrow in a roaring torch mounted on the Lake Lady's railing. "And me."
Maselyn's flaming bolt twanged straight to the mark. Fire danced out across the bed of straw in the canoe and roared up around Mabel's wrapped body. From where Quincy stood, she looked peaceful, at rest. She looked the same to Alma and her children, where they waited on the shores in solemn farewell. Quincy stayed by the rail as long as he could see her ember. The Avalons faded behind it while Quincy idly pet the little owl.
"How does May sound?" he whispered to her. It was enough to keep the fire with him, vague enough not to make him sad every time he said it. The owlet gave a curious chirp. "Yeah, that's you. May."
"Hey, Crichton, they're making another pass!" He started awake against the stone walls of Islaire's tallest ramparts.
"Steep learning curve, eh?" Crichton shook off the sleep on the way to his double-handled turret. He'd rain enough lead to force the crews below deck, then pelt their flanks until they had to turn away, same as yesterday. "Wait, is that..." Crichton squinted at a speck on the very fringe of his sight.
"Crichton," Levi's voice came through his earpiece, "Do you have eyes on the Lake Lady?"
"I hardly believe them, but yes. Along with a second Tribal fleet."
"Open them a path," said Levi, "I'll buy you some time." He was on top of the Summit Building, in his own personal eagle's nest. Bragg had taunted him long enough.
Levi popped two inches of pointed shell in the chamber and cocked his rifle. With its stock and long, slender barrel, engraved Charleston, it was nearly as long as Levi was tall. Its nose poked through the window. Its cold, steel neck rested in its custom tripod. Levi breathed under its scope. With that, on top of the lenses wired through the membrane of his eye, he could find an ant in the grass down the street, or a General on the prow of a ship three miles across the water. He could have taken the shot days ago, but there hadn't been reason to escalate the siege into all out battle. Levi stilled his lungs. Levi felt the ridges of the trigger against his skin. He read the very turn of the planet, the wind, the angle, and Levi shot Phinneas Bragg right between the eyes.
His men watched Bragg's back hit the floor. They saw his altered skull seize the bullet halfway to his brain. They'd been awaiting this signal for days.
"Gunners, light him up!" Every mounted weapon on Strand's ships shot up to the Summit Building, but Levi had already rushed down the stairs. He outran a shower of bullets four floors down before Maselyn's fleet slammed into the back of Bragg's armada. The warships that'd sailed with him turned on their Strand counterparts at a signal cry from their Chief. Between Tribal rams and hot iron hail from Crichton's kicking turret, the armada had no choice but to break formation. An alley opened just big enough for the Lake Lady's slender frame. Quincy, Maselyn, and Corman shot through to the Maelstrom Channel.
When that bullet slid out of Bragg's silvery skull hours later, his bellows rocked the open waters of the Sapphire Lake.
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Strand: the Silver RadioScience Fiction
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