Liminal Bridge

Rumble in the jungle. Thunder in Thường Phước.

The student Protector closed her eyes, soaking in the gunfire crackling over the hills, shouts, acrid smells. The bravest birds in the world were still singing in the tumult.

Their mission was - and she'd picked this up young from passing Secforce troopers' rough banter - completely FUBAR. Everything that could go wrong, had gone wrong. Simple smash and grab, quick flight into the Indochina wastelands to arrest a local warlord with Free Chinese connections. Then the first helicopter was shot down, the student Protectors dropped two klicks out from the village…

Bad situation, for sure. But she lived for this.

Protectors existed for this. The anomalous heroes of the Righteous Central Protection Authority. When the odds were stacked against them and the chips were down, they won anyway! She was just a junior Protector, sure, but the expectation was still there.

Terrain did them no favors. They were in a thick forest, canopy choking the light into thin beams glimmering in hazy battle-smoke. Vegetation was uncomfortably thick, brush and bushes and sharp needles. Enemy could be hiding anywhere and one shot could end this. Well, two. And about the enemy trying to hide…

"Peony," a terse voice, low, called her name through the tangle. She turned to the speaker - a slight girl, smaller still under a low-drawn hood. "There's someone ahead. Not nice. Waiting for us."

Cool as a cucumber, of course. Her partner couldn't even pretend to get worked up, not even for her sake. And she knew how much Peony loved to get out into the field…

Sure, they were the sideshow flanking the village. Fight through the jungle tangle while their classmates fight through rebels on the main road. Class favorite Paxton Grail and his posse were punching through the rebel defenses a little ways north - she could hear the fighting - but sideshows are still important to their players, yeah? And the enemy had sent at least someone to defend this route. Best not embarrass themselves.


"Okay," she nodded. A pause: "Thank you." Her partner wanted this to be over, she knew. Back to her books, her bunk bed, warm rice. It was progress that she'd even bothered to warn Peony of close danger. Cause it wasn't really danger, yeah, they'd argued - but it wasn't easy for her no matter what. Poor girl. Every Protector had an anomalous ability, and some were really painful to use.

Not Peony's.

Hers was awesome.

Sixteen graphite spikes strapped to her arms, she could feel them. Twirling fingers, flick of the wrist, manipulating something she didn't quite understand: the spikes flew from her arms, levitating in a half-circle over her head.

A hand on her shoulder, lingering then lifting to point at a certain ridge in the terrain.

Go time.

In truth, Peony had started with twenty spikes. Four had trailed above and behind the whole time, holding the crashed helicopter's pilot-side door aloft. She brought it arcing down now, using the dented metal as a shield.

Something stirred in the jungle thickets - her partner jumped behind her, always a second ahead of events, sure sign things were gonna kick off.

And they did, gunfire thundering from the jungle - ping ping off her shield. Peony braced against the impact, a sharp gesture with her free arm sending spikes hurtling forwards. Fingers cycling, working the spikes left and right like graphite hornets, bouncing off trees and through leaves -

- and against a man! He stood up, fighting her spikes, swatting them aside like flies. Peony needed time, and space, enough to wind up and make it hurt.

The man broke cover, backpedaling, firing. He wasn't gonna make it easy. She held the shield close, muscles straining to hold the spikes in place. The enemy fired at the corners, worked his fire up and down, testing her - then he lunged to the right, she barely moved the shield in time to catch the new angle. Damn!

"This isn't working!" she hissed to her partner. "I'm gonna get close. Can't shield you anymore, so be careful!"

"It won't work." Oh, very reassuring.

The bullets stopped, the enemy had disappeared. Must be reloading! Peony sprinted forward holding the shield close, spikes trailing behind, her partner diving for cover.

She made it across the clearing, holding the shield very close now. Watch the angles, all it takes is one… barely peeking her eyes out from over the metal, heart pounding, scanning the green. There!

Her spikes arced in… she felt the impacts in her arm! But most just shattered on the tree, and the others off the enemy's armor. Armor wasn't fair, damn it - the arc had crimped her spikes' velocity, she needed a clear shot.

The enemy gave her that, turning and ducking into the bushes. She sent her last few spikes after him, as hard as she could, and a cry of pain rewarded her. Got him! Maybe. Her chase brought her down a slope and to a muddy riverbed, wildly overgrown. Bad terrain for her abilities.

The sudden silence was unnerving. Peony held the shield close, breathing hard, disoriented. He could've gone left, could've gone right, maybe kept running… she didn't end him, for sure.

Had to get back to her partner, figure out the next move. She couldn't hold all the angles like this. Peony started backtracking, up a little rise, and too late she saw a twinge of movement from a bad angle. He'd been waiting for this! Gunfire thundered again, echoing painfully loud in her ears.

It took her a moment - Peony looked down, found her legs were shot up. Another moment and she collapsed into the undergrowth, rolling through needles and out of sight. Ouch.

"Peony!" her partner cried. Stupid! Revealing herself like that! Boots squelching through the riverbed, the enemy advanced - they were helpless. She could imagine her friend, cringing behind a tree, waiting for the end…

No! She was done for - soon - but she still had her arms. And she could use her powers with just her arms. One hand over another Peony pulled herself up the roots, legs trailing uselessly behind. It seemed an eternity but she finally crested the little knoll - down in the vale, the enemy rebel standing over a prone form. Hair spilled out from under her hood. Too late.

With great effort, awkwardly stretched out on the ground, Peony raised a shaky hand. She reached out, felt the scattered graphite burning, dancing on her fingertips - they rose from the ground, battered the enemy. Shards pinged off his armor, then larger chunks and an intact spike, solid contact and a sharp noise. Yes! Finally got a hit in…!

It was hopeless, of course. The rebel spun and dropped to one knee, brought his rifle up. Time stood still as she stared down that blue-tipped barrel.

Peony squeezed her eyes shut. She felt a violent buzz on her chest, and then everything was still.

Birds were singing in the trees.

A trickle of water gurgled in the riverbed.

The wind on her skin.

"Not bad, kid. I mean - you're dead. But that last move." A man's voice, amused, called from the vale. "Not bad."

Peony opened her eyes.

Slowly, aching from the exertion, she twisted around to sit comfortable on the slope. The red you're dead light blinked on the fancy training thing strapped to her chest. Below that, spinning wheels lined up like a slot machine, read out her last injury: gunshot | left leg | right leg

The rebel - her PE teacher, Sergeant Ridge - pulled off his helmet to shake out his hair, wipe off the sweat. His armor blinked red, one light of three showing the training device register her hits. He wasn't dead yet, but he reached down to a dead girl offering a hand to help her up. Peony's partner was of course very much alive, pulling pine needles and little twigs out of her hair.

They weren't in a Vietnamese jungle at all. Not even close. Their academy's training programme borrowed space at a nearby urban arboretum. Lovely pine forest.

Her partner reached up to take the hand, then recoiled and paused. "We're not allowed to move after, uh, we're marked dead," she said. Pah. Always a stickler for the rules.

"Yeah, okay, and you'll be here for, like, another hour," Ridge snorted, rolling his eyes. "What, you're gonna sit twenty meters from your friend and yell to each other? Come on. In your dying throes, you crawled over to your friend… whatever. Use your imagination!"

Ridge twisted in place, jerked a thumb in Peony's direction. "She doesn't have a problem with that, huh?" He turned the rest of the way to face her. "Christ, kid. You know, when your legs get shot up, I think you're supposed to lay down and wait for the death timer to tick out. Not drag that expensive equipment o'er the hills and o'er the plains. Even if - technically - you can."

Peony glanced down at the training device strapped to her chest, which looked slightly worse for wear. "Now you come on." she said, crossing her arms. "I'm an Oh-ay. I grew up in the system. This isn't thaaat expensive."

Ridge flinched, squashed a smile to frown good-naturedly. "Now listen here, junior Protector…"

Oh no. He just loved those impromptu lectures on equipment, tactics. He was the only recent Secforce veteran in the academy faculty, after all. Non-anomalous, conventional, and proud of it. And she loved listening! But not here. Not that smug-half smile.

"O'er the hills, o'er the plains…" she cut him off, recalling his earlier words. "Through Flanders, Portu-u-gal and Spain," she sang, badly, but he recognized her words. "That's how it goes, right? Old soldier's song."

"Yeah," he nodded, down to a quarter smile now - but more genuine for it. He loved it when one of his student Protectors had some insight into the culture of conventional Secforces. Which, in practice, was only Peony. "Queen Anne commands and we'll obey -" he continued, his gaze drifting past Peony (to somewhere in his memory, no doubt).

She joined in, quietly. "- o'er the hills and far away."

The moment lingered, then broke. Ridge straightened up, his wistful smile fading. "We're wasting time, yeah? Supposed to be critiquing your form. And believe me, there's a lot to critique. So come on."

Peony's partner finally took the offered hand, rising to her feet and trooping over to sit beside. Ridge followed, distracted - head cocked, listening to faculty chatter over his earpiece. "Class hotshot Paxton Grail is raising hell. I need to wrap this up quick, get up north," he said.

North wasn't two kilometers - it was, like a hundred meters at most.

It was weird. Ridge was kinda neglectful at best, back at school. And sometimes just mean, especially to the hotshots or the other teachers, or anyone really. Poor guy had problems. But here in a training exercise, back out in the field, he was like a different person! Treated Peony like a - like an equal, like another soldier. Like he never left the Service. Even playing at war must bring him back.

"So. Fast version," he said, leaning against a tree, "You two knew I was there, so that's good. Peony, your little graphite cloud at the end there - have you practiced that? Didn't know you control all those little pieces."

She shrugged. "I kind of just, go, by feel. I just do."

"Right," he said. "Well. Training and practice is what makes a Protector. Not feel. So you're going to work on that. Tactics, too. The floating shield is good. It's good, sure, but I can work around that pretty easy. Right idea - frankly, against a trained guy with a gun you should always be playing defense- but your offense ain't anything. Remember, guy with a gun only has to get you once. And no offense from you gives him all the time in the world. Just throwing those spikes out? You saw how well that worked."

Peony glanced down at the you're dead blinker, still annoyingly blinking, then said, "Yeah, but it woulda hurt with no armor."

"Uh-huh," Ridge rolled his eyes. "So that's why I'm wearing armor. It isn't just training safety. Bad guys can wear armor - or they're so hopped up on drugs they won't care."

"Yeah, but - that's your old Secforce armor!" Peony whined. "That's better than anything a rebel-"

"Hardly!" he said, sharper now. "And what if you fight an anomaly, yeah? Which is mostly what Protectors do? This is guidance, junior Protector. Not saying your power's useless. But you need another angle. You've got, such a wide choice of weapons, prototypes, stuff I woulda loved to have as a backup in the ranks…"

"Okay," she said, a little smaller. She was too prideful sometimes. Which was stupid. No room for pride in the Oh-ay life. But when she discovered she could levitate graphite pencils, becoming a junior Protector… it got to her. Sometimes. She had to be careful. "Any suggestions?"

Ridge held up his hands, shaking his head. "That's your job. But, ah, maybe some contraption to shoot the spikes out? A shunter staff? Cork bottles, spinsters, pop rocks, you know the rings… you get it. Look into it. Hell, see me during free rotations, I can introduce you to the weapons workshop guys."

Peony nodded. Pop rocks? Maybe.

"Whole scenario's kinda dumb, anyway," Ridge said. "In my Service days if a chopper went down at the start, grabbing some pissant local warlord, that's prolly a mission kill right there. Or half the flight diverts to the wreckage. And we're talking normal troopers, not a class of, student Protectors. Localcom would kill heaven and move earth to extract you, not send you into the village anyway."

"They'd just, end the mission?" Peony asked. She liked hearing about how the Secforces actually worked. What all those soldiers she met as a child actually, like, went out and did.

"Honestly, yes," Ridge said. "We're - pretty casualty averse. I think that surprises a lot of people. Especially in the wastelands, that this is all supposedly set in. Nobody wants to explain to the Chilean government or whatever that we got their loan battalion chewed up in Vietnam for no goddamn reason. And I wasn't even in a national unit - but death is death, you gotta explain, justify it, it's waste."

Something clicked in her memory. "Oh. So, like, this is why you complained about the armor that one time. At the clothier."

"What?" he asked, the reference - to his own life, no less - briefly lost. "Oh - what, the clothier visit, 'bout your costumes? How'd you - yeah - yeah, pretty much. They kept bulking out our armor. Nobody asked for it. Shoulder pauldrons, these bulky goddamn helmets - side plates! Like, under the elbow. Useless weight. God, and - it was those meet 'n greets that got us shot, made us loiter round, made us targets. You change that. You change the tactics! Not give everybody fifteen extra pounds weight cause two guys got shot in the side, that's not the issue and you're not solving shi- God, you got me going."

"Mhm, I did," she said, flashed an impish smile. She'd always been good at that. Soldiers loved to complain.

"I tell you," Ridge continued, "First thing my boys and I did on Saragossa? Deadliest campaign of the century - so far - first thing we do is strip half our armor into the Caribbean. Cause it doesn't actually help against most anomalies. Being quick on your feet - and not getting exhausted just, haulin' ass around. That's more important."

Peony hung on to every word, though she tried very hard not to show it. There it was. Ridge mentioned Saragossa again. He'd been there! He'd fought there. One day she'd get the whole story. Not this day.

When a soldier complained you listened and you learned.

Another squawk in his earpiece snapped Ridge back to the present. "Okay. I have to get going. This wraps up in an hour, yeah? Get comfy. And try to be better next we meet, y'know?"

He was egging her on, but she didn't care. Secforce banter! He wouldn't be half as casual back at class. "Oh come on. You said that was better-"

"And 'better' is still 'both of you bleeding out on the ground'," he pointed out. "You didn't have a chance. Give it a couple years."

That was crazy, of course. Just encouraging her in his own way. They'd be on field missions in a year, the guns would be real… "More like a couple months if you're lucky, Ridge."

"Hah! I'm a veteran of the Sixth Skaggerak, kid: Saragossa, Kunming, Alaska, places you've never heard of," he'd actually stopped and turned to say this. "My boys could do things you Protectors wouldn't - couldn't touch with a gilded bloody pole, let alone junior Protectors." A pointed look. "Now you remember that. And remember today when you train. The day I beat you."

Ridge turned and made it ten steps before stepping on a training mine.

BEEP BEEP BEEP it screeched. Unspoken: You're dead, dumbass!

Peony looked right - her partner looked left - and they traded the biggest, dumbest grins for a few seconds. Then the moment snapped and they laughed, and laughed, and they leaned into each other and laughed some more.

Poor Ridge just stood there taking it, shoulders slumped till the delight died down.

He trudged towards them, arms raised and doing jazz hands - in an infinitely tired voice: "Oh no. His shredded corpse is fluuuung by the explosion all the way, over, here." And he sat right down against a tree opposite the pair, greeted by fresh laughter.

"S-so," Peony finally said, speaking through a lingering smile, "now we have an hour. More, uh, critique?"

"No," Ridge said, "I gave you the fast version - and you know, when you could say a lot but you have to rush something, so it's not a lot, but that's - all you really needed to say. Don't really have, uh…"

He trailed off into silence, birds chirping, wind rustling. Training battle echoing through the trees a little ways north.

"I'm gonna make this awkward," Ridge observed. Friendly terms or not, he was still faculty. They were anomalous Protectors. There was a divide between them.

A pause. "So - if you don't mind - pass the time. How'd you two meet? Only been, what, two months since you became Protectors? Impossible, to know each other before. Peony, you're an Oh-ay, and-"

Was her partner asleep? Peony elbowed her, startling her back to Earth. "Remember when we met?" she asked. "Feels like fate."

Speaking under a hood and behind tussled hair: "Yes, you were an ass."

Peony giggled at that. "Okay, but I got better," she insisted.

Could still see her friend's mouth, twisted into a small smile.

So they told the story.

It had been a grey day in some coastal city. Harsh concrete woven through sandstone and glass, red neon lights and bright multicolored carpets, laundry rustling and snatches of conversation wafting in the breeze…

That was Peony's memory of the short walk from train station to the command pyramid, a great grim thing leering out of the city's central park. The Protector Academy they were destined for was thousands of kilometers away, but here they would be sworn in as Protectors.

Her class marched up the grand steps, chipped and discolored with time. Flags of Central and a hundred countries overhead, sights she'd seen a thousand times-

-but every Pyramid was new. They were larger on the inside - the navigation was nuts. Someone had called it "Escher architecture", then she'd seen the paintings to know it was true.

Just mad to look at. She could understand her classmates gawking at it, she'd be too if she hadn't grown up in and around the Pyramids. Arches in the walls, and walls in the ceilings - you could see people walking "up" a distant wall, or the top of their heads from below as they stood on the ceiling, two hundred meters up… crazy. They paused in the entrance lobby, waiting for whatever.

She idly watched the screens, but casually. Not like those new young Oh-ays, all they knew was starin' up dumb at the moving pictures! The screens were new - back in Peony's childhood you'd crowd around the radio and be happy about it. It was better that way, using your imagination instead of reality just being there.

There was a dolled-up Protector on the screen, speaking from some mining town and green hills: "I'm here from the Vespucci Devastated Territories Reconstruction Trust! In VDTrt Appalachia, the Trust is rebuilding another quaint old town, destroyed by the reckless anomalous policy of the past government. They stored weapons in the mine tunnels, can you believe it? A local here, he remembers…

I'm so thankful to Central, thank you so much, I'll try to keep my gaze up on international television, yadda yadda yadda.

She brought her legs up on the seat, hooking her arms round and holding herself close. The other students were fidgeting, agitated at the delay - suited her just fine.

These moments… in between. In a kind of limbo. She forgot where she heard that; she wasn't nearly clever enough to use those words. But she knew the feeling. Her old life was ending. She was, right on the edge, and nothing would be the same…

Breathe, Peony. Enjoy the moment.

Her new life was just out of reach. For a little while longer.

Sometimes, corner of her eye, she caught people glancing. Why are THEY allowed to be a Protector? She'd heard it all.

Slant eyes.

Peony was Chinese, sure. Didn't matter.


As if she hadn't been called that to her face! All the other Oh-ays mercilessly insulted each other, that's just what they do. She slung it right back! And she didn't care then. And adults would stare a little too long at checkpoints. She lived with it. She didn't care. Free China was halfway across the continent but their agents, the fear… could see it their eyes.

Maybe that's why she was feeling… limbo. Right on the edge of finally being something. Her - her identity. Whatever mess she was before - some dead-end technician job she was angled for - didn't matter. She was going to be a Protector of the Righteous Central Protection Authority.

That's right. Repeat that. Protector of the Righteous Central Protection Authority. CPA-gold. It was, it was so solid now. Peony knew what she would grow up to be, what she would spend her life doing, what everyone would think of her. Not her ethnicity, not her childhood, nothing. It didn't matter. Protector Peony.

Sitting on this seat in this huge Pyramid, watching the crowds. Felt good. She didn't mind waiting a little.

Actually becoming a Protector wouldn't be easy. Takes years. Better enjoy the dream while it's easy.

They waited for a little longer. The teachers wrapped up their argument. Her group's travel ward - an unsmiling woman wrapped in a half-cloak - Cadenza. She was a Protector. A couple other Protectors, couldn't catch their names. The bearded man, cocky half-smile, sounded like a Secforce vet (Peony could tell. She grew up around them) - Ridge, she thought she heard? Ridge. He didn't have any insignia, not a Protector.

The swearing-in ceremony was delayed - or maybe it'd always been that time, and somebody had the wrong schedule. Didn't matter. They were going to the Pyramid canteen for lunch.

"Stay together!" the teachers said. Yeah right. If this was anything like the transit canteen trips she knew, this would pretty quickly be every man for himself. Protectors or not. Some things don't change, right?

Down the hallways. Walking on the walls. Circle round the ceiling, up an impossible flight of steps - actually down - single file, thank you very much…

Looked like nobody had prepared the Pyramid canteen for a hundred more mouths to feed. Every food bar, every food line corkscrewing round full of site staff, personnel on layover, and of course a hundred soon-to-be Protectors. The teachers exchanged helpless shrugs. Meet up by the big statue of Sebastián del Bosque at the hour. Good luck.

Peony didn't need luck. She considered tailing a local staff member, they knew the cycles, where to go at this hour… but in a Pyramid this big there might be smaller staff canteens squirreled into the maint tunnels, it might just be hopeless. She'd seen glass cleaners up on their perches coming in, eating sandwiches they'd brought. You had to watch and watch and figure out who to trail - she only had, what, forty minutes? She'd be gone, never looking back, by night. No point learning the staff or the cycles.

Fine. No problem. Time for her backup plan, was all. Peony slipped through the crowd, ducking capes and squeezing between adults, finding her way to - there it was.

Refugee island, she knew it well. Giant pot of rice in the corner was completely deserted. The last-ditch backup. Canteen chicken and canteen "greens" were not worth the wait. She could make do. They fed student Protectors well, right? Might be the last time she ever has to jury-rig a meal. Heh, yeah. One more time, for old time's sake. Peony broke off from the dwindling group (they didn't know they were in the dessert line. Poor guys.) and made her way over.

She scooped herself a bowl of sticky, processed, lukewarm white rice. Kind of sad-looking. Absolutely nothing to add flavor in sight - herbs or sauces or anything - which was why the rice pots had no line. Soy sauce cup was empty, of course. Had to be night shift, 5AM-type guy to have any chance at catching that fresh. But Peony had grown up scraping by with dour site cooking, and there were ways…

Fingers reached down and under, fumbling with the clasps and pulling the empty sauce cup clean out of its recess. Under that was a tray to catch spills from the none-too-precise morning restocks - and in the tray, pooled soy sauce. Catch trays could go weeks without getting cleaned long as the stuff didn't smell, and soy sauce keeps for months. That's a start.

Peony glanced left and right to make sure no canteen staff were nearby. Left, clear. Right, someone staring wide-eyed at her. Okay, back to the - wait.

A girl, shorter than her, staring. Hair sticking out of a hood, drawn low. Staring at her.

Wait - she was another student, a junior Protector. jP logo.

No problem meeting someone new, someone you'd never meet again. Just like the Oh-ay days, huh?

Cheeky wink, sly smile, "What're you lookin' at?"

Other girl didn't answer. Just raised her hands slightly, I'm cool man, just gonna back off…

No skin off her back. Peony shrugged, turned back to the task at hand. Damn this clasp, maybe a different design in this Site, just jimmy it a little…

"What are you, uh, doing?" a small voice asked. Peony's head swiveled to the source: the girl. Still staring, now down at the work. She cradled a bowl of rice in slight hands, looked just as unappetizing as Peony's own.

Well, if you asked… so she explained. She wouldn't normally. Sharing little tricks with other Oh-ays is how you ruin them - but they're both Protectors, right? She's a comrade.

The other girl nodded along, listening closely. When Peony finished: "That's really neat. You, figured that out."

What do you say to that? It's not "neat", it's survival. You try living on icky plain rice.

No reason to be rude. "Thanks," Peony said, and turned back to the work. There! Got it - carefully, lift the tray clear. I'm just mai-ay-ntenance girl, oh honey now giiiive me whirl, down through the vo - voli… how'd that song go?

Shape in the left corner of her vision hadn't budged. Other girl was still standing there. Hell did she want?

Peony sized her up. Low-drawn hood. Hair sticking out, left and right, kinda weird. Timid. She wouldn't make it six cim as an Oh-ay, act like a pushover and the kids would just…

Oh, she wanted the soy sauce, but didn't want to ask, so she just stood there. That's kinda weird. And weak. This girl wanted to be a Protector?

No reason to be rude. This Command Pyramid would probably be pretty freaky if you weren't used to them. And the other students, they had - lives, right? Something they'd miss. Peony wouldn't miss being an Oh-ay, but put yourself in somebody else's shoes… and she was - about to be, she corrected herself - a Protector. First thing she does should be nice. They might be watching her now, to make sure she's good to be a Protector! Central watches everything they care about. And Central might not care about a refugee girl, but surely they'd care about new Protectors…

She was staring. Making this weird. Wear that smile, smooth, make it not weird: "You can have some, if you want," she said, gesturing with the catch tray.

And the other girl's face lit up. Bingo, that's what she wanted. Plenty for two. Soy sauce'd rice was, harshly speaking, better than dumb plain rice.

Catch tray back in position, no adult wiser.

It was only polite to sit with the stranger you broke bread with, a half-remembered childhood morality class told her that. So she followed the girl, trying to tell her finding a seat in the tables was hopeless and to just sit in a corner-

-until they stumbled over a table placed under a dirty stairway disappearing into mist. Finding an open table in a full pyramid canteen? Amazing! Maybe that was the girl's Protector power.

As they sat down and got their bags and things comfortable, the girl asked, "What's your name? If you don't mind."

"I'm not telling you." Peony said bluntly, letting the moment linger (maybe cruelly, the poor girl looked pale!) till she broke a smile. "Until you tell me what your power is. We're gonna be Protectors. That's more important."

"Really?" she didn't sound happy about it. Maybe she was scared to say.

"Yeah. Look, whatever it is, it's fine. You should be proud of it. Me-" Peony twisted her wrist, strained a bit, and a graphite rod flew from her pack and danced in the air. "-I can do that. Levitate graphite, and maybe some other stuff."

"That's cool," the girl said, sounding genuine about it. Deep breath: "Okay. Mine is like this."

She reached up and drew her hood back, revealing a third eye set into her forehead. Bloodshot and a little bigger than the normal two it focused on Peony, sending a shudder down her spine.

"Cool. Whatsit do?"

"It's a national mutation. I can see things, feel things… it can be useful," her voice dropped to a whisper, "but also really awful."

"Protector Program will help you," Peony said, regurgitating what the billboards told her.

"I hope they do."

"Well. Name's Peony. Pee-yuh-nee."

She extended a hand over the table.

"Nice to meet you. I'm, uh, Magnolia," the girl said, taking the hand.

They shook on it, and that was that.

Peony took an experimental bite of her soy sauce'd rice. "This could use somethin' extra." She had her ways.

She stood up, slinging the pack over her shoulder. "I'll be back. Keep an eye on me, okay?" she said, getting a small nod in return. Careful with the crush of people. And Central sites were weird. Sometimes you turn your back on someone newly-met and then they're gone.

She squeezed through the crowd to a group of Security troopers she'd spotted earlier. Soldier types, tired eyes, still kind of dirty from whatever posting they'd left. Obviously just transferring through the Pyramid on a longer journey. She could tell 'cause they'd avoided the terrible food lines by breaking out field ration packs - probably burning through the last couple they had left.

One trooper looked up from the sad granola bok he was flicking from finger to finger. "Whatever it is, kid, no."

Thought she was a wide-eyed local kid, some kind of refugee stuck in transfer maybe.

The trooper opposite him, auburn hair and medical beret, she chimed in: "Don't you have a Protector field trip to go back to?"

Oh. Peony remembered the uniform she was wearing now. ID, jP logo, everything. Must look like some dumb junior Protector slack-jawed at seeing real Central soldiers. Peony had seen plenty of Central soldiers growing up. They weren't a mystery to her. No, this was a business visit.

She was in luck. Years of exposure had half-educated her on the different combos of rations a Secforce trooper could get, and it looked like these guys rolled badly. Was that three veggie omelet packs? Mercy!

"I'll make it quick, okay?" she said, fishing in her pack for - jelly bar, tossed onto the table like a gambling chip. "Trade for veggie packs. Not the omelet, that's child abuse."

Granola bar trooper elbowed the last guy at the table, chortling, stopping him from desperately offering his omelet pack. Barely-suppressed grins. Good, they could play.

"That's 'bout the only edible thing we got left for the train, sister," the medic said, leaning back - not interested, but not annoyed anymore.

"Gonna have to do better than that," granola trooper said, leaning forward, all business.

Peony paused, considering her options. More jelly bars? She kind of liked those though. Actually - she might as well use her big ticket for this. Good chance she'd have to dump her whole bartering collection once she reached the Protector Academy anyway. She was used to that, you never knew what checkpoint or Sec sweep would make an Oh-ay dump out all their life's possessions (not much) and start over. So there was this weird mix of collecting stuff (almost obsessively) but never getting very much attached to it.

Growing up in the Central refugee programme, only thing you owned was you. Even the clothes on your back could get stripped, burned, and replaced if they thought some part of the facility had been leaking, if you'd inadvertently maybe (big maybe) been exposed to some anomaly (or the anomaly's sweat clouds a week later downwind) they weren't taking chances with, whatever.

Yeah. No point saving this for a later that wouldn't come. She reached down, rifling through her pack briefly - before drawing out her ace in the hole -

A cigarette pack, half-full, not too crumpled. "Pricy stuff," she said, flashing a rascal's smile, "these are M-type cigs. Sentry issue, they don't make 'em anymore. You know."

Oh, they knew. A little dash of something spicier than tabacco at the tip, probably meant to keep the users awake - Peony knew Central still issued go-pills to keep soldiers awake on night shifts. Like a little version of that, in your ration cig. This was pricy stuff in the bartering world.

The troopers glanced at each other. Done deal, but Peony was window shopping now: maybe a rol trimmer? She loved those. Spicy cheese tube? No, they'd never, not even for this… kris bar? Something she really liked. Her tastes might be totally different after becoming a Protector.

She remembered the other girl - Magnolia, right? Never mind vanity, she needed more - double more. "Two veggie packs," she said, crossed her arms, "and a spice tube. I don't care what."

Done deal, goods were exchanged.

Peony returned to the table triumphantly, holding her prizes aloft. The other girl - Magnolia, remember that, mercy - looked on wide-eyed as Peony mixed in the veggies with a coffee stirrer, adding puffs of spice tapped out from its tube like some delicate thing. All that for two passable bowls of rice.

"Best thing you can get in canteen today," Peony declared. Always oversell a bit. "And the best Oh-ay cooking you'll ever taste." Half as loud, twice as serious: "Probably the, uh, only, you ever will."

Magnolia softly clapped, nodding along with the show. "Very nice, thank you." She took a bite - more nodding. "This is - this is, kind of good. But what's an Oh-ay?"

Peony blinked. "It's, uh, an acronym," she explained, "OAA. Orphaned by Anomalous Action. Oh-ay-ay. Oh-ay. It's what we call ourselves, it's what everyone else calls us." Truth was she didn't know which came first. Hopefully the former.

"Oh. I'm sorry," Magnolia cringed, speaking whisper-quiet. Oh come on. Did she think that hurt…?

"Pff, I don't mind," Peony waved it off. "Really. Just eat. Who knows how long the ceremony's gonna be. And getting back to the train."

"True." Boy, Magnolia didn't talk much. Or maybe she was just hungry.

They ate Oh-ay cuisine and honestly, it wasn't bad.

Eventually the bowls ran low and the conversation picked back up.

'Whuzzat?' Peony asked, slurring the words through a spoonful of rice. Swallow, squeeze an eye shut till her mouth twists out, lift a finger to pick at her teeth. Same finger, rice still stuck to the nail, points at the other girl's chest. 'What's that? Vox zit?'

The girl blinks at the impropriety, then realized the finger was pointed at her nametag, freshly printed. 'Von Zittau,' she said, the foreign name rolling easily off her tongue. 'My family. Zittau. It's German.'

"German? Heh, weirdo. Remind me to sleep faaar away," Peony said, swiveling her head back to her meal. Again, not bad.

Poke poke, watch the rice on the rim tumble. Funny, where's the - swivel back, Magnolia looked a little stunned and a little hurt.

Whoops. "Crap. Sorry." she managed - stupid!

"Why'd you say that?" Magnolia asked. Hurt, but earnest. She really didn't get it.

God, that made it worse! Stupid Peony! "I was joking."

Magnolia had the most disbelieving look etched on her face. Joking? "Oh, that sounds worse!" Peony reached up, hands-on-head frustrated. "Yeah, some joke. Oh-ay - words. Like, we make fun of each other, a-all the time. It's just, what we do. Banter. Germans are weird and mutated and whatever right? And then you make fun of me, being Chinese."

It really didn't sound better when she explained it. And how do you explain Oh-ay culture to, not an Oh-ay? It was always harmless! "Sounds mean," Magnolia said.

"Yeahhh," Peony groaned, sliding forward and covering her face with her hands now. "Oh, mercy. What's - what's the word? Instinct? It's harmless. We just make fun of each other all the time."

"Oh, okay," Magnolia said. She went back to poking at her rice.

Another I'm sorry died in her throat. Mercy - oh, and Protectors have to be nice, she'd thought! Be careful with all the new people you meet, she'd thought! Stupid!

"Okay!" Peony said, abruptly springing from her seat. "I'm gonna leave, then come back, and we start over! Pretend I never said that. Actually - pretend we never met. Bye!"

And she was off, into the crowd, cheeks burning red. What a mess. Couldn't even be nice. She was so out of her element.

It was a small thing, but the stress of the day got to her. You've got a new identity, act like it! But she was being so silly. But - maybe she wasn't. Gah!

Peony intended to go in a full circle back around, but the crowd pushed her this way and that and suddenly she didn't quite know where the table was. Always navigate by obstacles in a Pyramid, never by instinct: in a flash of angst, she'd broken her own rule. Great. Another newly-met person lost to the hazy reality of a Pyramid.

Damn! At least she'd finished her rice. And maybe she'd see Magnolia again at the swearing-in ceremony or at their academy…

Fat chance. It would be like the timid German girl had never existed. There was a strange, lingering hurt accompanying that thought - a person she would never know. A story remained unwritten.

One more try. Expecting absolutely nothing, Peony scrambled up a stack of unused chairs and surveyed the canteen. Useless of course. Way too many people, couldn't even see half the tables, no landmarks…

And then a strange twinge, a glance, and there Magnolia stood - on her chair, waving. Peony blinked in surprise, pointed to herself, then to the German: you go to me, or the other way round?

Magnolia held up a single finger, then disappeared into the crowd. Peony wasn't really surprised (though she should have been) when she reappeared a minute later, finding her way with seemingly perfect accuracy.

Magnolia grabbed her hand and led her on: slipping between cracks in the food lines, dodging work carts and surges in the crowd alike. Like water through cupped fingers. Peony marveled at how easy Magnolia made it look - and she thought she was good at threading a packed hallway! Must be the third eye at work.

They returned to the table to find it occupied by - mercy, what was that?

A monster, a "cyborg" she corrected herself charitably. All metal and woven basket-shoulders and discs-within-discs hovering or linked by chains. Half melted head, Central logo tattooed on bare skin (there wasn't much), a great pneumatic trident clutched in crystal weave hand replacements.

And a bridge, a shield, and a hammer… mercy, was he a Protector?

He looked up and Peony shuddered at those bloodshot eyes. A hand on her shoulder, Magnolia was hiding behind her: seemed that third eye hadn't warned her of this poor guy.

"We'll - we'll be on her way, sir," Peony said, sounding cooler than she suddenly felt. "Come on-" ohmercy what was her name notnow "-Mag. We're done, right?"

A tiny noise over her shoulder passed for yes. Peony started forward to gather their things (she doubted Magnolia - that was her name! - would move an inch closer, unless it was clinging to her back the whole way) when the mutilated metal Protector raised his hand and she stopped. Felt very weirded out in a vast room filled to the gills with people, all mostly normal people. Mercy, could the Protector read her mind? I'm sorry! Didn't mean it!

Wordlessly, not even looking at them, the discs-within-discs danced over the table to snag straps and lift bowls with stunning tenderness. A couple seconds of breathtaking anomalous ability and all their bags and bowls were dropped into their arms.

"Thank you, sir," Peony said, and elbowed Magnolia.

"T-thanks. Sir." she said, mouse-quiet and already edging away.

"Of course," the Protector rumbled in reply. "Good luck. Protector Program made me the man I am today."

Oh, mercy. He must have recognized the jP uniforms. Try not to think about that. Peony turned to leave, noticed Magnolia made no move to follow - the girl was stock still, eyes unfocused, third eye wide under a tussle of hair. Great. Peony grabbed her by the shoulders and led her off into the crowd, leaving the mutilated metal Protector behind.

"What was that?" she hissed in Magnolia's ear. The girl shuddered and tried to stop, her face out of view, and Peony had to push her along with the flow of the crowd.

"You spoke to him," Magnolia said. "Like it was nothing."

"It's not that cool," Peony rolled her eyes, also out of view. "Come on."

With Peony's navigation they were totally lost, and her pack was poorly slung and slipping off her shoulder. She brought them to a grand support pillar, all gilt and marble, and they sat small against it to rest. An enormous clock was set in the distant ceiling (though in truth was hard to say what was a wall, the ceiling, or a staircase with little heads moving to and fro). At knee height in no one's sight, a tiny island in the crowd.

"You know, that's the closest I've ever got to… a kind of messed up, Protector. Like that." Peony tried to explain. "I'm spooked too. You just gotta, you just gotta talk to them. Just talk. Don't worry 'bout any else. Guess it's easy for me."

"My name isn't 'Mag'." Magnolia said. Boy could she change her thinking quick. "It's Magnolia. Oh."

"Yeah," Peony said, resisting the mighty urge to tease her on how oblivious she was. Instead: "Nice name. Doesn't sound like any German I know."

"How many Germans do you know?"

"Hans and Lukas," she replied confidently, paused, then shrugged. "I dunno. They were kinda weird. But isn't a magnolia, like, a plant or something?"

"Flower. It was…" she trailed off, not finding the words.

Funny coincidence. "Weird," Peony said, "I'm named after a flower too. Peony is, the uh, like a Chinese flower. It's not the name I was born with, probably, but-" a pause for her troubled expression to relax, "-but it's mine, so yeah. Peony. I like it."

"I like it too." Quiet, but Magnolia was a quiet girl and didn't seem to just say things she didn't mean. Not like Peony, she got nervous and then she could talk her way outta anything…

And she was just talking now, just saying anything. "Two flowers, huh. Feels like fate…"

"I know how you feel," Magnolia said loudly, abruptly. Was this another weird different thing…? "Chinese flower. You're Chinese. People stare at me, too." A finger pointed to her forehead. "Germans are messed up, I'm proof. I have a third eye. You have-"

"Slant eyes, I know," Peony said through a wry smile, "hear that a lot."

"Well I wouldn't put it like that," Magnolia said softly, "-but yes. I don't know why I said that. Just, like, baggage. I guess."

"Yeah, baggage," Peony said, an arm over her knee and a little dour - before perking up. "It won't matter though. We're gonna be Protectors. Not Chinese, not German. Protectors."

"That's pretty neat."

They were quiet for a minute, and Peony had that uncomfortable space to think.

That feeling of limbo was really strong now. They were gonna be Protectors. Her old life wasn't gonna mean anything.

Such a strong sensation of unease packaged with that thought. Mercy - hairs on the back of her neck were standing. She'd been here plenty times before, just under the crowd watching people go past: but in her jP uniform, it felt different. Everything felt off.

Like she was standing at a door. What's the word? Thes, Thres…?

"Like we're at a threshold, right?" Magnolia suddenly said, staring off at the ceiling. "This feels so weird, you were right."

"Wha- can you read my mind?" Peony demanded, waving a hand in front of the third eye. Magnolia flinched pretty bad - whoops. Better be more careful with that.

"Don't think so. Words, pictures, they just, pop-" Magnolia snapped her fingers "-just like that, into my head. I feel weird, and you feel weird. And we're both going to the same place."

"Wearing the same uniform," Peony said.

"Yeah. But threshold was close, wasn't it?"

She considered her words, briefly, before replying, "I think so. Someone who was a lot smarter than me, he called it 'limbo'. Like, like floating - feelin' kinda uneasy, you know. Knowing what's going to happen but not really knowing. If that makes sense." It didn't.

But Magnolia was nodding along. "Limbo is close. Tell me, ever hear of something called 'liminal space'?"

"Nope. Sounds like something the safety agent says when he tells everybody at a checkpoint why they gotta burn all our things."

"Oh, okay," she frowned.

"Wha- Oh come on," Peony said, "you gotta tell me now. What's lim- limin- liminal space, huh?"

"Ah, okay. So like - okay, I never had to explain it before."

"Sure." There'd been Oh-ays like that. Bury their faces in books and talk smarter than the rest. But they were angled for better lives than maint work, so, she couldn't get too snide.

"Okay, like this," Magnolia said, finding her words, "so it's like between. Between where you started and where you'll end. It's like…"

Peony let the (relative) silence go, the girl was thinking hard.

"Alright. Imagine this. It's like a, an island you're on, a boat took you there. And you can't see where you came from over the horizon - but you know what it looked like, you were there this morning. You woke up there. But now you're here. And soon a boat's gonna take you to another place. Does this, uh, make sense…?"

"I'm following," Peony nodded. "Keep it up."

"Okay, good!" Magnolia beamed. "So. You might know where you're going, but - you can't really know till you get there. And you're just on this island. That's liminal space. Limbo, threshold, call it a lot of things. Like a different reality. Your reality is changing. That's why you feel weird. And that's why I feel weird."

"Liminal, huh. Lotta words in those two." Peony marveled.

"So you understand it?"

"Yeah, I think so." Might help her to hear this. "And - hey, if I ever hear a word I don't know, or like, have a feeling I can't describe. I'll find you, okay?"

Magnolia's surprised smile was the reward. Bingo.

They talked about useless things for a little while longer, then left for the swearing-in ceremony. Normally Peony would leave early and respect the architecture, but with a three-eyed German?

Up an impossible staircase, duck through a maintenance tunnel, walk on a wall, jump a black-ringed gap. And don't mind the crowds.

They found the statue of Continental Director del Bosque, a great man with a stern marble gaze. They found their teachers, formed ranks with fellow jPs, and marched for the innermost sanctum of AUBRACHT command pyramid.

Past four security checkpoints.

Through a cloud of boiling red that stained your skin for six seconds then faded forever.

Parallel a full company of an Argentinian Secforce loan battalion in travel order, for sixty meters till the soldiers turned sharp and disappeared down a service tunnel to some distant island.

There was a weeping mother clutching her son, a sympathetic Central agent standing near, the bearer of bad news.

A camera and its crew, tracking them through the final pitch-black-and-gilding threshold into the sanctum. Saturday night news: the newest generation of Protectors, sworn in this very city.

And into the dizzying sanctum that Peony could never remember clearly from this day forward.

And there were four humming pillars wrapped in chains in the corners: AUBRACHT-Pyl.

And before stood an obelisk under bas-relief sculpted into every wall (all sixteen of them you could easily see).

And in front of that, almost ridiculously mundane amidst the sanctum's sights, a skeletal temporary stage erected in the middle of the floor they entered on.

Another news camera tracked their entry, drawn up in ranks before the stage. Most of the students looked normal, but there was a blue-skinned girl, a tall spindly fellow with ochre horns, and everything felt weird. They all had anomalous powers, right? So all those powers packed together, all overlapping, Peony could feel it.

The AUBRACHT bell was rung thrice, bringing the restless students to attention.

The hairs on the back of her neck stood up again. This was really happening!

Three men walked to the stage. The first and most important wore a dark suit and rich Central cloaks, metal clasps and medals glimmering in the half-light. Graying hair, older fellow but powerfully built. Not a Protector, Peony realized to a flash of disappointment.

Two other men flanked him on either side. Mercy, she recognized both! One was a Protector, ah, Camille Polyneaux! The Dervish Dagger! He'd been in countless radio reports, radio shows, even some screen time. A big shot Protector! And the other… was the bok-flicking Secforce trooper from the canteen. What were the odds? What was he doing up there? He looked kind of bored just standing next to the famous Protector. What did it mean?

Peony had grown up in the Central system, and she'd seen a lot of symbols like that. Things arranged in a certain way to make a statement. A famous Protector and a single normal soldier side-by-side? Didn't take a genius.

She didn't have any more time to think: the suited man was speaking.

"I am Regional Director Estrada," he introduced himself, making no mention of the men behind him. Mercy! He was a Director!

"You have gathered today to swear your solemn oath to righteous peace, justice, to humanity, and to the Central Protection Authority. If any one of you have second thoughts, you may step away now. You will not be punished nor pursued, that is my word."

Deathly silence. Peony didn't dare twist her head or even move her eyes off their fixation with the Director. She would never know if one of the students slipped away in this moment - then it ended.

"Good. Do not take this promise lightly. It is a lifelong pact. Do you understand?"

They had been told how to respond. A hundred voices as one: "I do." Loud but the echo was lost in the incoherent architecture upon every wall.

"You intend, one and all, to become Protectors: to develop and then use your anomalous abilities for the good of mankind."

"I do."

"You swear to the Righteous Central Protection Authority: faithful service, a keen mind, and a stout heart."

"I do."

"You swear to humanity: to be the bridge - the shield - and the hammer."

"I do."

"You make this pact freely. You shall join the Protector Program, and embark upon the long road. This is your final oath. Central only wants the willing. Do you swear to this?"

"I do."

"Good. Let doubt not cloud your mind, take care for arrogance to not make you weak. You are junior Protectors of the Authority. Congratulations. I'll be fast now, you've a schedule to keep - but a few words before you go on the long road."

"…I needn't remind you of how little you know of being a Protector. And perhaps, how little you know of yourselves. This is also part of the pact you just made. Central will help you understand your abilities, and to make peace with them - and to integrate your anomaly and your person. Some of you have joined the Protector Program for that alone."

"My final words for you. You have sworn to be the bridge, the shield, and the hammer. You may not know how to be a shield, or how to be a hammer. And if you think you do - you're probably wrong. That will change, you'll learn - and thank God I have nothing to do with that."

And the Director actually smiled. Small and thin and fleeting, but he smiled. Then it disappeared.

"But I can tell you, there is one thing that makes you a Protector that you can start right now. You may not ever be the shield, nor the hammer - or both. But you will always be the bridge. That is what makes you a Protector. More than any violence or any heroism you can ever do."

He paused to let his words linger.

"You are the bridge between anomaly and humanity. You are the living personification of Central's promise to man! That anomalies need not be our enemy. They are not all inhuman. We use anomalies in technology and in industry but you - you are proof that an anomaly can be a man, can be a woman, and be safe and kind and useful."

Another pause. Peony had never thought of it that way.

Slower now: "You are the future. You are the future that Central promises all mankind. And you wear that promise on your sleeve and in your heart from this day till your last. Always remember that. If humanity cannot coexist with an anomalous future then its future is dark indeed! You must remember that."

It's easy for me and your teachers to say: Be kind! Be brave! Be helpful! But I say this: be true to yourselves. Take the time to understand yourself, your anomaly, and your place in the world. Do not shirk your responsibility, don't let it make you arrogant, and don't let the burden crush you. Then the rest will follow. Good luck."

The teachers told them, the cheering is for when you graduate. Not now. The long road is ahead. Silence as the Director turned and walked away.

Her head was spinning. What did Magnolia call it? Liminal space. Everything felt so off. She was mid-step through the threshold.

Three doors before them: AUBRACHT-Plateau - AUBRACHT-Peninsula - AUBRACHT-Archipelago.

They passed through to the archipelago.

"So what did they mean, anyway?" Magnolia asked, back in the arboretum and two months present. "You mentioned that once, but I didn't get it."

"Huh?" They had traded off the storytelling (not nearly as long or detailed as above) till Director Estrada's speech: that was all Peony. She couldn't remember what the sanctum looked like, but damned if she hadn't taken the words to heart.

"Mr. Polyneaux and that soldier," Magnolia clarified.

"Oh, that," Peony said, "it's like, they don't want us to get all uppity and stuff. Cause there's a big-shot Protector, and there's one normal soldier, and they're standing there. They're equals. Get that?"

"A lesson some Protectors could still stand to learn," Ridge said, the very spitting image of a normal soldier. Huh, sounded like a bad run-in. Or a few.

"Maybe the Director wanted to teach Protector Polyneaux too." Magnolia suggested, quite seriously. Sounded ridiculous, but…

"Hah! Maybe," Ridge said, then winced at the squawk of static and words through his earpiece. "What? Yeah. Got it. They're fine. Yeah. Kal-koh."

The YOU'RE DEAD lights on his armor winked off. "And I'm back from the dead. Miracle." he said, standing up to leave. "You got about half an hour. I gotta knock Paxton and his boys down a peg."

He waved off a cheeky salute and headed down the vale and out of sight.

"Whole half-hour, huh?" Peony said, half to herself, rising to her knees and fiddling with the clasps on her training device. The first two months had been just nonstop work, tests, classes. Nice to have a half hour.

"What are you doing." Magnolia stared, exasperation creeping into her voice. "Are you messing with the thing-they-told-us-not-to-mess-with?"

"I'm taking it off," Peony said, undoing the finicky bit and gently slinging the whole device to the ground. "Now lemme do yours."


"Lay off! These things are a pain in the back to lie down with," she said, crawling over. "I guess you wouldn't know, you went and hid last time a field exercise went bad."

"Like our orders told us to! You and all the others, you're so… suicidal just because this isn't real. " Magnolia protested, and - Peony was okay with that. She'd never raise her voice like that to anyone else. It was a start.

"Besides, we're dead. Not cheating," Peony said, and Magnolia only harrumphed at the device coming off. "Now come on! Unless you think five hours is enough sleep for the schedule we're on."

She pitched backwards into the grass, stretching out, closing her eyes. God, she was tired. Five hours wasn't enough, but that damned runoff pipe in the barracks wall never shut off till midnight…

Here, she could hear birdsongs. And the world was lovely fading-

An elbow prodded her awake and three eyes greeted her.

"Wha- are you still mad about the device?" Peony said, blinking at the light. "Come on. You're - you're lying down too! H- hyp- hypocrite!" Yeesh, took her a second.

"They already beat our classmates," Magnolia said, third-eye wide. "And lookit that. It's beautiful. You ever see anything like it?"

Peony followed the pointing finger to the vale. And it was beautiful.

Sunshine filtered through the pine, brilliant rays stark standing against fog and smoke rolling in from the training exercise a little ways north. The world smelled like damp and green things poking through the dirt - bushes and reeds springing to life, bright shoots, swishing and swaying in the whisper-soft breeze that danced through the vale and over Peony's skin.

She shivered at the touch. Or maybe at the sight. Her life had been grey walls, mass transit, orphanage stalls. "No, never have," she admitted.

"Reminds me of home - the forest, der Töpfer," Magnolia said, smiling at the memory.

"Tell me about it over dinner," Peony said, hands-behind-head relaxing, taking in the sights and smells. Silence, touched with birdsong and staccato fake-gunfire from the ongoing exercise.

She felt it again. Limbo, liminal space, whatever. This arboretum felt unreal. Playing pretend at battle, vividly imagining the fight, her death. Just playing pretend- but everything felt fuzzy here. Everything in your mind was a little real, to you, in the moment.

Peony shuddered. The line between reality and pretend felt so damn thin. And when would she be doing this for real? Real missions, real-life training, frightening stakes… frightening. She hated to admit her fear, but, there it was. The device said her legs were all mangled, she watched a rebel put a bullet through Magnolia's skull.

Just playing pretend.

She didn't feel like a Protector yet. And being a Protector, really being a Protector, meant no more games. When that ended-

A hand gently on her shoulder, not her own. Magnolia had the spookiest way of just, popping in. But she needed it. Peony leaned in to the touch, stared out and let nature soothe her fears. All in good time.

Mercy bless that girl and her eye for beauty. Peony would be snoozing through that beauty without her!

Peony's mind wandered, drawn to a similar memory after their swearing-in two months ago…

Peony had been sleeping on the train out of AUBRACHT, dreams of being a Protector fulfilled, exhausted. She'd been on a thousand trains leaving a command pyramid growing up, this wasn't anything special…

Timid elbow prodded her awake, not quickly. "Hey." Magnolia whispered, the packed train cab growing quiet and dark in the twilight. As promised, they had found each other after the ceremony and sat together.

"Mercy, what?" Peony was annoyed. "Don't - what is it?"

"Sorry! Forget it." Magnolia flinched, hand covered her mouth.

Peony wanted to just roll over, go back to sleep and forget about it. But they'd hardly talked, and - she didn't know why, just impulse, but she blinked the tired from eyes and sat up. "Come on. Just tell me."

"Thought you might want to look. Out the window. It's so pretty."

"I've seen a pyramid, and a city from a train window so many times…" Peony groused, but followed the pointing finger anyway. And- "Wow."

It was pretty.

It was - it was sunset over a coastal city, vivid reds and oranges framing the buildings, windows and antenna and cars glittering in half-light. And the color stained the sky and it soaked into the harbor, flecks of brightness on the waves. Sailboats glimmering white and long shadows over the sea…

Wow. Most train views sucked, just smog and whatever. And she knew the city was dirty and grey from the street. But she would remember this view her whole life, the perfect ending to the day she became a Protector- and she would've slept through it!

"Sorry," Magnolia repeated, fidgeting in her seat.

"Oh, mercy, no. This is beautiful. Thank you," Peony reassured her, "What a nice way to end the day. We're Protectors now! And this is how the world greets us."

Okay, a bit much. "That was kinda sappy," Peony groused. "But still."

"Sounds right to me. You know, I was sleeping. Had a weird dream," Magnolia said.

Peony glanced at Magnolia's third eye. "I bet."

"I was on an island, there was this… animal with me. Like a big cat. Felt like part of me, like my hand or leg or… oh, forget it," she shrugged, kept looking out the window till their faces glowed in the reflection.

"I think we're going to remember this moment. When things get tough." Magnolia said, softer, sinking into her seat.

When the going gets tough. Peony lingered on that thought.

They fell silent in the growing dark, and felt the train rumble and buckle beneath.

Over a great concrete span the Central line took them out and away from shore, out and away to sea.

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