“Focus on a physical object you know is real.”
That was what Alice had told Jericho to do if he ever became confused about the present versus the past. But that was what Jericho had been doing, and still he was uncertain.
He vaguely remembered awakening on top of a wave of glowing purple water with a foreign-looking man dressed in a woolen cape at his right. His very first thought was Conductor. His second thought was purge. And so, he flung himself at the man without hesitation. As he tumbled through the air with the man, what he thought was the present came back to him in full force: He was a peacekeeper, not part of ELPIS. An upholder of peace, not hope.
“Sorry,” Jericho said to the man, once they had landed on the ground on top of each other. He righted himself and tried to offer the man a hand but noticed that one of his arms was slung in a cast. He promptly removed it and tossed it aside. “I just woke up.”
There was a light drizzle coming down from the gray sky, and it made the gray street below them shiny and reflective. The street itself was empty.
After picking himself off the ground, the man brushed himself off, straightened his woolen cape, and studied him. “You’re not Maria then? Is it an overlap? Well, retrieve her at once! We must find this Conta and—”
Jericho tilted his head. “I know Maria, but not Conta. I do… not think I can get Maria for you. I don’t know where she is.”
Jericho turned to survey the area. He was unfamiliar with this place. The square buildings built tightly side-by-side, the spotted trees dotting the sidewalk islands, the v-tram tracks on the ground and the wires hanging above them—it wasn’t a place he remembered coming to before. He couldn’t remember if the others had come to this place either.
Jericho turned away from the man and began to wander down the street. A strange pop-popping echoing in the distance gave him a sense of nostalgia. Firecrackers or gunfire.
“Hey—wait. Where do you think you’re going?” The foreign man’s voice boomed so loudly that it bounced off the buildings lining the street. “You dare walk away from Veles—”
But Jericho continued walking until he could no longer hear the man. Eventually, as he continued down the street, he tucked into a small open patio in front of a building with bread displayed at its windows and seated himself at one of the iron tables at its front. The woman peering out the bakery shop window gave him a fearful look. He waved back at her since it was the polite thing to do, but she pulled away inside her store. He stared after her for a moment before he suddenly became aware of the absolute silence around him. The others—he couldn’t hear them.
Abruptly, his head began to spin and his stomach gurgled uncomfortably. The wave of nausea took him out of his seat and sent him tumbling to the floor where he landed haphazardly in a puddle of water.
When he picked himself out of the puddle and peered at his reflection, Werner stared back at him.
The last thing Jericho remembered was reading letters in Gabrielle’s office back in Ophiuchus. And then—
“You forgot your promise, didn’t you?”
The puddle was gone. The gray streets were gone. In their place were fine grains of sand shifting with the wind. The grains sparkled like diamonds beneath the sun which was now beating against the back of his neck. The air was thin but comfortable and familiar.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see colorful tents glowing beneath the morning sun. Silk carpets were laid out on the ground, while hanging tarps billowed in the wind. Camels dotted posts set up outside the makeshift village, while silhouettes drifted from out behind the tents.
Jericho’s gaze became drawn to a particular tent set up at the very center of all the others. A figure stood just behind the hanging tarp at its front. A woman with dark curls and a thin, boney frame. She pulled back the tarp and called out—
Jericho’s heart hammered wildly in his chest as he reached out in that direction.
Jericho stopped short and slowly turned his head as a shadow passed over his face.
Beside him stood a girl with a mole kissing her shoulder—a girl who visited him in his dreams with her last visit being the time she came to him during his train ride to the Twin Cities. She’d stopped visiting him after that, but Alice had said it was a good thing.
Jericho couldn’t tell if she was taller than him or if he was taller than her.
“Conductors aren’t natural,” she said. “Peacekeepers are bad. But look at what you’re doing now. Traitor.”
“A lie,” Jericho returned. “They told us that so we would kill for them. They made us use conductors too. Hypocrites. They told us it did not matter. That everything returned to the cycle. They convinced us conductors were bad. Never told us why. Did not have a reason. But I will get revenge. For you.”
No. That wasn’t right. Wait—
“But they do return to the cycle,” Ayda said. “Everything returns to the cycle.”
A wind started to pick up along the ground.
“But conductors stop things from returning to the cycle.”
The wind dug its fingers into the sand, sketching outlines that formed into shapes that formed into people who formed into a scene:
A man holding a conducting rifle pointed it squarely at the head of a child. A vitae ray shot out from the man’s conductor and struck the child who collapsed to the ground. Her body began to bubble and then melted into a familiar item: a reservoir pool. The sandy faux pool expanded all around Jericho and began to bubble just as the girl had. Human faces emerged from the popped bubbles—all wearing expressions of agony, pain, anguish. There was no sound.
“Conductors are evil. See. That’s what they do.”
Jericho’s head spun.
This was not real. Ayda was in the past. Right?
He dug his fingers into the sand, and he could feel each and every grain sticking to the cracks in his skin. This was real?
“If we were right to begin with”—the girl’s voice cracked, and her entire body sprouted hairline fractures in the blink of an eye— “why did you do that to all of us?”
Before Jericho could think of a response, Ayda crumbled to dust, the wind sweeping what remained of her away. In the quiet heat, he still tried to search his mind for an answer. ‘Why?’ Why had he done that to them?
Because ELPIS was evil. Because he had felt—had intuition—deep down on that day that they were in the wrong. The villagers in that town surrounding the conductor generator had been on their knees, sobbing and begging for the lives of their families. He had felt like he had been looking into a mirror. But the others wouldn’t stop—Ayda and his friends. Everyone had been determined back then. And so he had to do it. In order to stop them. It was the only way. He returned them all to the cycle. And he had sworn to avenge them by destroying the false hope that pushed them to that extent. By destroying ELPIS—
“But ELPIS is made up of people like me.”
Jericho turned at the voice and found a familiar man dressed in a maroon-toned suit standing behind him. A white snake was blazed onto the right side of his face—
Jericho recalled meeting this man during his first visit to the Twin Cities. This was Francis Foxman, a calm and collected young ‘business’man.
Disjointed memories of him holding Francis hostage in a leaky warehouse in order to exchange the man for Alice flooded Jericho’s mind. At that time he had known Francis was ELPIS, but he had not immediately executed the man—why?
Jericho could not understand himself, and so he thought and thought. His memories and thoughts of that time were disjointed, but he managed to bring them together:
Why? Because the people who were ELPIS leaders were initiated unknowingly. Not their fault. And for Cadence. Francis was important to Cadence.
“Well, if you’ve given up on going after ELPIS,” came an airy voice, “Why in the world did you return me to nothingness?”
The new voice brought to Jericho memories of an abandoned warehouse, of cold fury snapping through his limbs and fingers, of a prayer, and of Werner guiding him on strategy and attack.
Stepping into his view, the woman chuckled and flipped her hair. The snake tattoo at the back of her neck became revealed, causing Jericho’s heart to throttle in his chest.
“Oh my… you didn’t return me to the cycle, did you? I can’t return. You sent me into nothingness. And all I wanted to do was to get justice for Ayda and the other poor children you killed.” Sinking to a crouch beside him, Omega sighed, then smiled thinly. “Oh, but nothingness is the perfect place to be. That’s where true peace is.”
Jericho tensed, confused as the fire in his chest was dampened by something heavy and suffocating—no. He tried to burn the feeling away. This person didn’t deserve the feeling. She—they—had taken everything. Lied. Tricked. But… Theta was Francis—
Omega’s smile fell, and she reached out to tap his nose. “If you pity me or feel guilty, then why did you kill me? Not even Iota is left to remember how I was now. So why?”
Just like Ayda before her, Omega crumbled into dust before he could answer.
Jericho’s head pounded. Something didn’t connect. He couldn’t understand it. There were too many contradictions. Alice said—
Another shadow flitted past him.
Tensing, sweating, Jericho looked up and found yet another familiar face staring down at him—Talib. Relief spread through Jericho’s chest at the sight of him.
“Hey, partner,” Talib greeted him with a two-fingered salute. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“Talib, something is wrong,” Jericho said. “This place is wrong. The information is wrong.”
“It’s true, Jericho. All of it is.” Talib sank to a crouch in front of him. “Alice, Gabrielle, and I just found out about it. Weaponized conductors can elevate vitae to a higher level equal to what’s in reservoirs to some degree. Thirty-or-so percent is the conversion rate. People can be harvested for reservoirs, and when that happens, they can’t return to the cycle.”
“There’s even people out there who’ve found a way to directly convert people into vitae for the reservoirs. One-hundred percent conversion. The chairs of Ophiuchus know about vitae conversion too.”
The sand in front of Jericho sifted upwards and took the shape of a human. The faceless figure turned towards Jericho as its skin blistered, the flesh from its head drooping onto its arms. Desperately, it reached out for him with a melting hand and touched his face before dissolving into a sickly puddle of dust.
No. Peacekeepers were good.
“Alice didn’t want me to tell you though. See, I’ve always had a hunch that she was working for the Organization. Had a hunch that Ophiuchus wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows too.”
Alice? Ophiuchus? Why? ELPIS was right.
“‘ELPIS is right’? Oh, come now, Jericho.” Talib chuckled. “They’re fools. Look at the damage that they’ve done in the pursuit of their passion. They say they’re the last hope, but they’re just like every other person out there. Self-righteous and pitiable. They made you use conductors too and use them themselves. Well, at least most of them have stayed true to who they are since the very beginning.”
A chorus of wails and cries erupted behind Jericho. When he turned, he saw flickering red flames consuming the place he had once called home. The fire ate away at the colorful tents and tarps, graying them away into ash. Silhouettes darted out from the tents and screeched as rays of white light struck them down. The parched sand soaked up all the red spilling out beneath the tarps, tents, and cloth.
“It doesn’t matter if they’re ‘not the same people.’”
Jericho tore his eyes away from the decimation and found Talib rising to a stand.
“They’re still ELPIS. It was still some version of them that did all of those things. And even if they weren’t the exact same people who did those things to you, your family, and those children, they still influenced the people who did. Without them, all of this would’ve never happened. Wouldn’t you say so, Jericho?”
Yes. Correct. ELPIS was wrong. But—
“Saying ‘it wasn’t them’ or ‘things are different now’ just because you learned something new about them… What does that make everything you’ve done until now? Senseless murder? That’s not very peacekeeper-like.”
Jericho stomach churned at Talib’s words. He didn’t understand why Talib was saying these things. Being around Talib usually was ‘pleasant.’ But not now. Intuition. Something was wrong with Talib—
“I’m not the one who’s wrong, partner,” Talib said gently. “But we can figure out who’s wrong together. And make sure they’re brought to justice.”
But—no. Jericho did not want to think about justice or ELPIS or the past. He wanted to find something new. He wanted to see Atienna or Alice. They always said things that made sense.
“Focus on something new?” Talib frowned. “Can you really leave behind things that easily? You wouldn’t be so different from ELPIS if you did that. Pushing everything into one idea and then abandoning it. Over and over again.”
No, Jericho thought. He wasn’t ELPIS. Not anymore—
Another shadow passed over him. But it was not a shadow from the past—not exactly. Standing only a meter away from him was a small child with tanned skin and jet-black hair. His charcoal-colored eyes contrasted the whip of white vitae spilling out from the conductor in his hand. “Once something is a part of you, it can never leave you.”
The boy disintegrated into the sand, revealing Talib standing behind him.
“Don’t you want to bring peace to Signum? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do as peacekeepers? Real peacekeepers, I mean. Everyone lies, Jericho. Ophiuchus, ELPIS. To themselves and other people. And because people believe in those lies—that’s why there can never be peace.”
Jericho looked up at Talib as he neared.
“‘Fortunately’ everything returns to the cycle—for the most part anyways.” Talib grimaced.
Yes. The cycle was real. The Anima-Vitae Hypothesis was real. ELPIS was right. Conductors were evil. Just like ELPIS was evil. And peacekeepers who knew about vitae conversion were evil. And Jericho knew he was both of those things. Therefore—
“You have the conducting ability to wipe out everything that’s wrong with the world just like that—without the eyes that make you see too much and hesitate.” Talib extended his hand, chuckling. “That’s why they say justice is blind, right? But the question is what are you going to do about it?”
Jericho hesitantly accepted the gesture and rose to his feet.
If everything was wrong, then the only way to make things right was by erasing all of that wrong. Yes. Erase everything. Reset to what was right. That was justice.
“If that’s what you think is right.” Talib nodded, smiling genially. “Whatever you do, partner, I’ll be on the ride with you.”
If Talib agreed to it, then it had to be the right path. Talib was ‘good’ when it came to these things. And they were partners. Yes. But how would they achieve their goals?
“I’ve got you there, partner.” Talib pulled out his knife pen conductor from his pocket and twirled it. “Gamma, Beta, and Tau actually abducted someone I was looking into. Dämon Fortschritt. They’re quite a smart bunch so they’ve been trying to hide from my view for the most part. But I actually gifted Dämon with a pair of earrings that I turned into my mediums much earlier. Bright woman swallowed them as soon as they caught her, so I found them and put another medium on them. We can track them that way.”
Yes. Talib was reliable. Talib made sense.
“If you lead,” Jericho said, turning to survey the sand, “I will follow—”
Jericho turned back to Talib.
The man’s head was bowed low, his lips pulled downwards, his eyes narrowed. “Well, maybe this is all a bit too much. You’re… confused. This doesn’t make sense, does it? You should probably find Alice—”
Jericho could hear the blood roaring in his ears. “No. I need to finish it.”
Talib stiffened before his lips curled upwards. “Well, if you say so, partner. You were always the passionate sort. Say, do you remember what I said to you about passion the very first time we met?”
Jericho shook his head.
“‘Passion is neither good nor bad,’” Talib recited. “‘Without it, there would be nothing driving a person to dream.’ So let’s complete your dream, partner.”
* * *
Jericho followed Talib through the orange-tone sandy dunes with the yellow sun beating over his head. Occasionally, he would see flashes of gray and black, the sound of static, a flash of men and women, and blue flags and picket signs. He wasn’t sure if they were real, but that didn’t matter. His end goal did.
Eventually, he and Talib stumbled across a Capricornian with one arm who seemed to have come out of nowhere. Although Jericho did not recognize the man, the man recognized him—recognized Werner. The man said his name was Gilbert and he went on to speak of things Jericho did not understand.
Before Jericho could question Gilbert further, strange men in Capricornian uniforms rose from the sand around him, their bodies solidifying from grain into man. In their hands, they gripped conductors—ready to use without remorse.
Sinful. Breaking the cycle.
Talib whispered into his ear saying, “Look at them, partner. They’re disrupting the cycle of vitae. There can’t be any peace when people like them are around.”
And so Jericho disposed of all of them, returning them to the cycle so that they wouldn’t disrupt the cycle. They would be at peace that way. Everyone would be at peace that way. Real peace.
Despite holding this thought in mind, however, doubt curled in Jericho’s stomach as he watched Conductors crumble away beneath his conductor. But then Ayda appeared out from the sand beside Talib and reminded him—“You need to keep your promise, Jericho. Let’s focus.”
Correct. If he didn’t focus, then he killed her back then for nothing. And so Jericho did just that, refocusing his attention on Gilbert who remained standing stiffly before him.
A Conductor? he wondered. But—
“Wait. Not him,” Talib interjected from behind him before Jericho could reach a decision. “He’ll be for later. Trust me, partner.”
Right. Gilbert knew Werner. Gilbert seemed to care for Werner. Conclusion: Gilbert was Werner’s friend. Not to be touched.
Leaving Gilbert alone, Jericho continued following Talib’s direction through the arid, sandy dunes until he eventually came face-to-face with them. He did not see those tattoos on their bodies, but his heart throttled with a familiar hatred. He knew it was them.
Izsak. No. Gamma. Beta. Tau. ELPIS Leaders. Wrong.
Their names pounded into his skull—and so he began pounding into them. Sliding along the weak sandy ground, rolling down the mounds, crashing into the occasional cactus and barren tree—he gave them chase. He felt no pain as he crashed left and right. And he knew they didn’t either. And yet still they ran, their footsteps leaving faint impressions in the sand.
As he cornered them on a slope, he thought to himself, How dare they run from what they’d done—
Abruptly, Alice appeared out from nowhere, calling his name from a sandy hill in the distance. Her frigid gaze pierced him through and caused him to become hyper-aware of his every action. He felt as if she could read his mind, and for some reason, he felt ashamed.
Then, he noticed a peculiarity: despite there being no rain, Alice was drenched from head to toe. The water droplets that fell from her hair and clothes were swallowed by the parched sand beneath her feet. Intuition. Something was wrong —
The next few moments came in a blur of beige and gray. Then suddenly, Jericho came across a man dragging himself away from him along the ground. The man was bandaged, the sun’s rays barely touching his pink skin that peeked out from beneath the wrapped cloth on his arms and legs.
“That’s P.D. Oran,” Talib informed him.
Oran was the one who broke the cycle. He discovered a way to turn people directly into vitae. Oran needed to be brought to justice.
Just as Jericho was about to bring the man to justice, however, a voice called out to him once more. It was Alice again, standing on that far-off sandy hill. Staring into him. She proceeded to tell him things that didn’t make sense. She said it wasn’t real, that he was being fed everything by a Manipulator, that the cycle didn’t matter.
But Alice was a peacekeeper, Jericho thought. And peacekeepers were wrong. Alice didn’t know. No, she knew, but she kept it from him. A liar.
And so he continued, wrapping his hands around Oran’s throat for the sake of peace. But just as the man’s bones were about to crack beneath his hand, Oran disappeared into the sand. Jericho clawed at the ground desperately, but it was no use. Gone.
Jericho stood, turned, and then saw her. Saw Theta. She stood in front of him, basking beneath the desert sun just as she’d done all those years ago. Her head was hidden by that same white cloak, and the tattoo on the side of her face glowed a familiar white in the heat. The one who had brought him in. Right before him.
“If anyone needs to be brought to justice, it’s Theta,” Talib said from behind him.
Jericho agreed. As he went for Theta, however, Alice tried to stop him by putting her conductor around his wrist. Still he continued after the ELPIS leader without relent. He pinned Theta down, stabbed through her conductor-gloved hand with a stray piece of glass he’d found in the sand, and lifted his whip conductor in the air.
The heat from the sun intensified, matching the heat surging from his chest to his head. Pounding, pounding. Just one touch. If it was in long enough. Gone—the beginning of everything. The end would come if the beginning didn’t exist.
Jericho brought the whip down with all of his might—
But then a hand around his wrist stopped him short.
Jericho turned, half-expecting to see Alice there again. Instead, he found another:
The Capricornian stood beside him, eyes distant, lips drawn firmly into a frown. The sun’s rays beating down from above did not touch the man’s skin, so he looked trapped in shadow and unnatural.
He wasn’t real, Jericho concluded.
“I am real, Jericho,” Werner assured him. “You need to stop. Now.”
Werner was real. He was here. Relief flooded Jericho’s chest at this. But—
Jericho turned back to stare at Theta, only to find that her skin had abruptly softened into wet sand. The sludgy material slid from her face and revealed Francis Foxman’s face beneath it. The man stared up at Jericho with furrowed brows and tight lips. Something was not right. Jericho’s confusion, however, dissipated as soon as he laid eyes on the snake tattoo again. The one thing that did not change.
“You did not stop me before,” Jericho said. “You helped me. With Omega. But not with Theta. Why? You said it was better to complete what you start. No problem later. I need to finish.”
“That was a different circumstance,” Werner replied, tightening his grip. “Omega was an adversary. Francis is a potential ally. You need to calm down and stop using your vitae. From what I understand, the Manipulator’s presence in my body is stretching us thin. If you continue to expel your vitae, my condition will deteriorate and so will yours.”
No—‘deteriorate’? Werner deteriorate? Jericho did not want that. But—
“Francis is with ELPIS—”
Werner grabbed Jericho’s left shoulder, jerked him back, and squeezed. “You do not have time to be engaging with ELPIS, Jericho. The highest priority enemy is Scorpio, the Manipulator that’s infected all of us through me. He’s fueling animosity in my country and is using it to harvest vitae for the reservoirs. Your duty as a peacekeeper is to protect and preserve the peace in Signum. Participating in and fueling the unrest in Capricorn is going against that. Regardless of what Ophiuchus as a peacekeeping agency may be, you must uphold your personal standards. Is that clear?”
“I became a peacekeeper to destroy ELPIS….”
“You won’t be able to destroy ELPIS by going after them like this,” Werner replied. “It needs to be torn out at the root and its supply cut off. If not, it will only regrow.” His eyes narrowed. “Like a spore.”
Jericho didn’t understand the analogy.
“We need to adapt, Jericho. All of us.” Werner tightened his grip on Jericho’s slightly and moved Jericho’s fingers to the switch on the conductor. “Jericho, enough.”
Head buzzing, Jericho allowed the man to switch his conductor off. The hilt of it still burned hot in his hand.
“What do you think you’re doing, Werner?”
Jericho stared over the man’s shoulder and found a thin, pale woman standing beside Talib and Ayda there. The woman’s gaze was piercing just as Alice’s was. But instead of feeling as if she was reading his mind like Alice, Jericho felt more like she was putting thoughts into his mind. He looked back at Werner. It was the first time he had seen the man so tense and uneasy.
“What are you doing, honey?” The woman sighed. “Jericho is a peacekeeper. You’re interfering. It’s none of your business. It’s embarrassing! Look at him, Werner. What do you think he’ll think of you if you—”
“Ignore it,” Werner urged.
“What? You’re really deciding to become what she thinks you should be? It’s not even really you. You don’t even realize it.” The woman grimaced, half in disgust. “If you keep this up, there won’t be anything of you left.”
Both the woman and Ayda both melted into sand as Talib looked on expressionlessly.
Jericho tightened his grip on his conductor again. “But, Werner—conductors. ELPIS was right. Talib showed me. Told me.”
“That is not Talib, but an illusion that Scorpio is trying to use against you.”
An illusion? Like Cadence? But that didn’t change the fact that conductors—
Werner continued slowly, “The existence of ELPIS and conductors may not be acceptable to you from your standpoint, but both are still assets. If you want to achieve something, you need to do it methodically and pragmatically.”
“I understand you’re confused, Jericho, but acting out when you’re confused is not the correct course of action.”
That… made sense, Jericho thought: he should stop because he was confused. But his chest still burned with rage, and his limbs were on fire. He felt like he was going to explode if he pushed any of this down anymore. ELPIS. Conductors. Peacekeepers. And—
Jericho looked into Werner’s eyes, searching, “You are… not lying to me?”
Werner met his gaze evenly. “I’m not. I’m here to assist you, Jericho. You can trust me.”
Assist. Help—but why? Answer: Werner wanted to prevent his body from dying. To prevent a political disaster from the others dying from his death. To save his country.
“Yes, those are some of the primary reasons,” Werner agreed. There was a long stretch of silence. But I also don’t want you to be hurt.
Jericho couldn’t comprehend the thought—the feeling. Werner had been the one out of them who wanted to cut the connection off the most. ‘Inefficient, risky, unacceptable in the long term, dangerous’ was what he’d called it. But Werner had also helped him with Omega. Werner was…? Confusing.
Werner opened his mouth, hesitated, and then pressed his lips into a thin line.
I care about your well-being, Jericho. I want to protect you.
Thunder rumbled in the distance, and rain drizzled down as the sky began to gray.
Although Jericho could not comprehend how Werner had suddenly come to that conclusion, he could feel it. The words not said out loud. They seeped faintly through an unseen crack into him.
“If you continue acting recklessly, you will regret it,” Werner continued. “You need to control your emotions. There is no benefit in continuing this.” He glanced down at Theta. “Responsibility should be taken by the person who committed the action, but this is not the Theta who took you in. Pursuing the past when it’s no longer there is a poor investment of time.”
Jericho nodded slowly, feeling the pounding in his heart sizzle away as the drizzle thickened into dolloping droplets of water.
Right. Werner was reliable. Werner made sense. And Werner stated it himself: Werner… cared for him.
Reality slowly began to dawn on Jericho, and he suddenly became aware of the heat and weight of his conductor. He grabbed Werner’s phantom hand and squeezed. The man did not pull away.
“But then if you are… not lying. If you are real, then I—”
“Jericho. You’ve made a mistake,” Werner agreed calmly, “but it… isn’t your fault. This Manipulator is strategic. It can dissect and target weaknesses with ease. Regardless, you can’t change what you’ve done. Acknowledge what happened, then—”
Werner abruptly winced, pulled his hands away, and gripped his chest. Beneath his fingers, blue cracks appeared and began to expand across his body. Before Jericho could understand the development, Werner sank to his knees and began to hack and cough as he held the side of his head. He heaved and gagged and then—out from his mouth splattered a handful of shiny, iridescent, blue bodies. Scorpions.
The rain was coming down hard now, rinsing the grains of sand down the sloping hills.
“You’re hurt. I can’t feel you. I don’t understand.” Jericho reached out for him in confusion. “I can take some of the pain.”
Werner snapped his head up and met his gaze. “No. You need to be able to provide your vitae to the others to handle Scorpio’s towers and spores. It’s the only solution. And—”
A blurry image passed through Jericho’s mind. No, a single word. A message.
Before Jericho could fully digest the meaning of the word, the blue cracks enveloped Werner’s body completely. A terrible, crystalline sound like glass cracking echoed through Jericho’s mind before Werner’s image shattered to pieces before his very eyes—just like the way the people he used his conductor on shattered.
Then there was silence. Dead silence.
Suddenly, Jericho became aware that there was no sand. There was no sun. There was only rain—cold and pouring down in sheets. Beneath him was Theta, swimming in the puddle of water. Behind him was Alice. Glass was scattered on the ground. Cold, square buildings stood rigid at his left and right. Several steps away, he spotted Gilbert and another man rising to twin stands. Across from them stood two of the ELPIS leaders. Gamma, Wtorek Izsak. Tau. Another one pulled out from an alley to his right and stood behind Gamma. Beta, familiar.
There was no heat outside or inside. There was no hollowness. There was numbness. And there was heaviness, like an anchor pulling down his chest. Familiar.
Jericho pulled himself off of Theta and stared at him. At the tattoo on his face. Before Jericho could speak to the man, however, the man suddenly launched himself at him as a metallic bang rang out above the sound of the rain. Theta landed on top of Jericho as they fell, but the man quickly picked himself up and turned to face Gamma whose drawn pistol was still billowing with smoke.
“I will not let you harm this True Conductor. There is no point in targeting them,” Theta said, before gesturing loosely to Jericho. “Look at him, Gamma. He is a byproduct of what we’ve done in this era.”
“I am not the one who took children in, Theta,” Gamma responded, cocking his pistol. “I’ve always known why we’re here.”
Across from Gamma, Gilbert reached for his own pistol. Theta seemed to notice him, and he held out a halting hand and shook his head. Gilbert scowled, brow arched, but stopped short and remained stiff.
“Returning them to the cycle is more generous than ‘saving’ them and having them suffer through enduring the aftermath,” Gamma said. “You should have known what was going to happen to them if you took them in.”
Jericho’s head swam at the phrase. Returning to the cycle—
Theta’s eyes narrowed, but then he smiled calmly and spread his arms. “Let’s make a deal.”
Gamma frowned. “What.”
Theta reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a knife-shaped pendant with a glass handle that emitted white light. He dangled it from its chain on his index finger.
“That belongs to Iota.” Gamma frowned. “You—”
“No. Scorpio did it,” Theta responded calmly. “Zu was initiated—incorrectly. He goes by Alwin now. Anyway, he encountered Iota on the train ride here. She gave her resistor to him since she was incapacitated by the Capricornians. I’ll give you it in exchange for a temporary… laydown of arms.”
“And I’ll hand Oran over to you too.” Theta held up his crumbling conductor glove, the blood from his hand trickling down his sleeve. “After this is fixed, of course. You intend to keep him alive, which is a wise choice given his research and development work in this era—”
“Francis,” Alice drew warningly. “We can’t just hand over—”
Theta glanced back at her and frowned. “I apologize, Agent Kingsley, but this is how business is done—”
Gamma interjected, “Do you think this is enough to—”
“I know about the daughter,” Theta replied, turning back to face him.
Gamma froze, tense as he reached for his chest pocket and pressed his palm flat against it. He tensed after. Beta stared at him, eyes narrowing.
“The suitcase peacekeeper can conduct like Libra,” Theta continued casually. “He doesn’t have her eyes, but we’re in contact with someone who does. They’ve got more of a chance handling Scorpio than the rest of you do. No point in trying to educate the masses and prove a point in a situation like this either. No one will listen. Besides stopping Scorpio wasn’t why you came around here, right? We should divvy up the work to be productive.”
Gamma’s brows furrowed, and he did not lower his pistol. “That suitcase peacekeeper is infected.”
“And he can remove the infection.”
Gamma’s eyes narrowed.
“I understand your determination, Gamma, but I know you’re not unreasonable. Oran, Iota’s resistor, and my proto-conductors in exchange for allowing me to handle this problem we have here—for a time period of your choice, of course. What do you say?”
After a moment, Gamma held up three index fingers with his pistol-wielding hand.
“Gamma,” Beta pressed but then fell silent and shook her head.
Theta tossed Gamma the resistor which the other man caught with ease. Gamma pocketed it, then they held each other’s gazes. In the distance, Jericho could hear the faint pop-popping sounds again in the rain-peppered tension. It sounded far off, like a dream. Finally, Gamma turned and began to stalk off down the street with Tau and Beta in tow.
Don’t let them go!
Jericho clutched his chest as his heart began to hammer wildly. No. Werner said not to act if he was confused.
Get them. Get them! I said get them! How can you let them go? Going after ELPIS is your only reason for livin—
“We should probably find somewhere to get out of the rain,” Theta said, turning to Jericho once the trio were out of sight. “I assure you that Gamma will not harm Oran if he’s kept Oran alive for this long—” He paused. “Are you alright?”
Jericho stared at the tattoo on Theta’s face again. The man held his gaze for a moment before staring over his shoulder. Jericho turned and found Alice approaching him slowly from behind.
“Who stopped you?” Alice asked once she was only a step away. She scanned his face. “Was it one of the ones you’re connected to?”
Alice knew? Alice knew. Knew about the truth about conductors too but did not tell him. A liar. Wait. No. Incorrect. Werner said not to act out if he was confused.
Jericho nodded stiffly. “He helped. Then he disappeared. Synchronization. He was in pain.”
Gilbert and the other Capricornian approached them slowly, cautiously, keeping a countable distance.
“Who’s ‘he’?” Gilbert asked. “Werner?”
They were afraid, Jericho realized. He dipped his head. “Unsure. I tried to take the pain, but he didn’t let me.”
“Sounds like Werner,” Gilbert grumbled before he searched his face and snapped, “Well? How is he?”
“I am alive, so he is alive. Unsure. I am…” Jericho searched for the word. “…worried.”
“Well if you’re worried, then I’m fucking screwed,” Gilbert muttered.
“I am sorry.” Jericho looked to the ground. “I… was… not me. I was me, but—” He gestured around himself “—this wasn’t here. I was somewhere else—”
“You turn a bunch of people into vitae particles and all you say is ‘sorry’?” Gilbert arched a brow. He paused, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Wait— what?”
Jericho opened his mouth, then closed it. “I… am not sure what else to say. Those people. I thought I was…. Returning them. But it won’t be the same. Alice said that. I remember now. I was confused. I am still confused. But I know where I am. Not back there. Here. I—”
—took people away from the people that cared about them. Just like before. Gone. All gone.
You haven’t changed.
“I am sorry”—this time Jericho’s words were not to those who currently stood before him but those who had once stood before him and his conductor. “I am sorry.”
Thunder rumbled across the darkening sky.
“‘Confused’…?” Gilbert looked less angry now.
“But I… I will not act,” Jericho pressed. “I promise. Not when I am confused. I… am sorry. Again.”
Gilbert remained frowning, looking him over carefully before sighing. “Saints. Forget it…”
Jericho glanced down at Alice as he felt her gaze prick his skin. She was staring into him again, reading his thoughts.
“I knew I should have pushed harder against them when they approved you to take on cases.” Alice shook her head as she pulled the suppression cuffs from her waist. “I knew you weren’t ready, but I let it slip because you were so… enthusiastic about it. I gave in. You—”
Jericho felt his chest pound again but not with anger or a pumping drive. The pounding felt tight and constricting, making it hard to breathe in the cold, damp air. It was unpleasant. He did his best to not meet Alice’s mind-reading eyes.
Abruptly, Alice reached forward, not with her conducting glove or her suppression cuffs, but with her hands. She reached not for his wrists but for his waist. Before he realized what was happening, she’d wrapped her arms around him. He lifted his arms in surprise, stiff and uncertain.
“I’m sorry, Jericho,” she said through gritted teeth. “I let you go when I shouldn’t have. I didn’t notice the things that I should’ve noticed. You were too close. No, I was. I failed you as your doctor.”
Jericho hesitated, unsure of how to respond. He looked to those around him, but they avoided his gaze. After a moment of thinking and wishing he could consult Cadence, he slowly lowered his arms and returned the gesture. In turn, Alice tightened her embrace, and he rested his chin on her shoulder. Her warmth in the cold caused the pounding in his chest to slow to a steady beat.
“This is… good,” Jericho said after a moment.
Something out of the corner of his eye drew away his attention. Talib was still standing on a pile of sand a couple steps away, his trenchcoat and hat soaked completely with the rain.
When Jericho met his eyes, Talib bowed his head, pulling the lip of his fedora down. “I’m sorry, partner.”
Jericho stared at the man in confusion.
Alice pulled out of Jericho’s arms slowly and showed him the suppression cuffs in her hand. Meeting his eyes, slowly, she said, “Jericho, I’m sorry, but we need to take precautionary measures.”
Recalling his first arrest by the peacekeeping agents many years ago, Jericho stared at the cuffs, then nodded slowly as he offered his wrists.