Word came at dawn of the newly outfitted military station in Westerfields, that vast uninhabited territory between Glaston and Edyll, both kingdoms cities. A quick reconnaissance by interested parties (read: operatives) identified standard and, to them, quite familiar signs of Thorn Republic activity. Once upon a time, those operatives had been the source of those signs, and they knew their own, besides any other departments Thorn might tap to do their dirty work.
The brief hit Teller over the transom. She opened a thin envelope and read the sheaf of paper inside it, well encoded in their favored script.
Vision sent it. Her leader. He was a different sort of operative than the kind they liked to talk about. He had believed in the work they did for the Thorn Republic, keeping their nation safe and working in the muck and grey areas left behind by the law. He was voluntary, willing to work on behalf of those who had never asked them. And as with all the team leaders, his team would do anything he asked.
So that left Teller , an operative who had once been entrusted with every state secret of the Thorn Republic necessary to her work of its protection, who had once had anything she asked for within the parameters of her employment, who had not been forced to do the things she did, only to become the person she had become. She had done that for Vision, had become a voluntary operative in their service, and then for Vision, she had left the ranks of the Department, joined the Thorn Rebellion, and freed the western cities from Thorn Republic rule.
Which brought her to now. Which brought her to that cream-colored slip of paper and mindwritten brief in the type-like script used by Artist.
Which brought her to the treaty made between the teams and the Thorn Republic, which extended further to the kingdoms cities, now ruled by county, burro, and district governments rather than a federal body.
Which brought her to Westerfields—kingdoms territory. Kingdoms, not the Republic.
Which brought her to folding tightly the thin slip of paper and tucking it into her skirt against the smooth flesh of belly, hefting her favorite hand firearm, packing the things she would need, calling and badly butchering her own language in a foreign accent and ordering a ticket for the night train to Glaston.
Teller needed no orders from her leader. He had sent her the brief. She knew what to do with it.
They ask me what gives us the right to wrest these choices from the people’s hands? Why do we have the right to destroy, to conquer, to shed blood in the removal of the Thorn Republic which has only treated its citizens well?
They ask me with their accusing eyes and the O formed by their mouth when they hear that I was an operative, that I wielded the knife on behalf of their former country, then tattered it into pieces with the same knife. They ask me with their voice stuttering into silence when they see my implacable gaze and realize that we will allow them any government at all but the one they used to have. They ask me with their paperwork and frantic scurryings into something like a nation cobbled out of the pieces left behind when the federal treaties take away the services they are used to, the protections.
What makes you any better than the people you used to serve, they ask me. Why should I care about your war?
Teller, Taker they call me. I tell them with implacable stare, with military stance; I take without reprisal and without fear. This is your war.
Teller did not take the job alone. Two other operatives met her at rendezvous. Neither did she recognize beyond sight and designation, but even that was enough for confidence in their work.
Ashen was the black-haired woman, a tad short, with a military demeanor Teller doubted she would ever shake. Ashen did not do undercover. She was a strike operative from a strike team. Her name had given an entire category of abilities a label: an ashen transferred life from one person to another.
Protector was the quiet brunette, a man no one would glance twice at. He had belonged to one of the highest ranked teams in the Department under two of the highest ranked leaders, first Watcher and then Shift. Teller knew his work was highly rated and clean.
The three of them did not discuss much beyond a few well-placed phrases, identifying and confirming their strategy. Teller took point and neither questioned it. Neither of them were second in command for their respective teams.
Which brought Teller to here, now, in the depths of a facility too like the ones she had been raised in. She knew her way around the sequences too easily, and she knew this was all a trap in its own way. Department administration only took the best—the best tracers, the best combatants, the best strategists, the best the military had to offer in any field. Department administration had held the nastiest job in the history of the Thorn Republic: to be strong enough and diplomatic enough to control living, human weapons raised to be nothing else from their childhood. Teller knew they were smart enough to know that those same living weapons had not grown lax or less skilled in the handful span of years following the Rebellion. They knew Teller knew her way around Department security and knew how to rig the generators, the sensors, and other core elements to bring the whole place down.
Which brought her to Protector and inhaling her scream before it could form when she discovered his ability to share minds including blinding pain. They know we’re coming. They want us to do something wrong. That misstep to send the people over the line and back into the arms of Thorn.
Teller set her charges and received Ashen’s confirmation that the small staffing complement had been trapped in the outbuilding. A last scan from Protector to confirm that no one would die in the resulting explosion. She stayed long enough to personally ensure the destruction was total, long enough to go down under hostile bullets, clamp her jaw tight, and get out of there anyway.
Artist had named her Teller. Vision had named her something else.
They believe in their choices before the rebellion. Thorn is a republic, not an empire; our country, our nation, our people, our land. What gives you the right, they ask with their accusing eyes when they hear what I once was, to rebel on our behalf? What gives you the right to rule our people? We never voted you in. You were the invisible hand of government. You are not the people.
They wait, and I know it, they know it, we all know that they wait to see if perhaps one day, they will be citizens of their own country once again, not of these kingdoms, these little jurisdictions and districts and counties and ethnic enclaves that now rule as tiny nations within the kingdoms cities. The Thorn Republic knows it. The Thorn Republic waits as they have always done, with invisible hands behind the ones their people voted in, with invisible hands seeking to move us as pawns and make us anger the people enough to rebel again. Against us.
Never mind, the operatives rule no one. We only wanted freedom. We only wanted normal lives we should have had. Never mind, we only wanted to be free of being bathed in blood over and over and over again. Never mind, we put no demands upon these kingdoms, except that we are human and they do not belong to Thorn. Never mind, we protect them with our blood and muscle and sinew and sweat. Never mind, we could answer their accusing eyes and mouths forming an O when they hear what we were, the operatives who sheared the Thorn Republic into two.
What gives you the right, they ask, to take away our government put in place by our people? You are not the people. We never voted you as ours.
Blooded, Breaker they call me. I bleed for you when I do this work of protection without fear and without care; I break the walls and the Westerfields installation and take Department bullets in my back and break for you—again. We are yours.
Teller logged the report briefly through an implant she had never had removed. Another thing they did not like to tell about the operatives. Not only were they genetically manipulated and engineered: they carried the marks and trackers of the Department in their bodies, beneath their skins, and buried in their flesh. No one liked to talk about that, that every team member had the ability to telepathically communicate with their own, unless they had risked their lives and dug out the implants. Teller hadn’t.
Teller was a different sort of operative than the one they liked to talk about. She had not been betrayed by the Thorn Republic. She had betrayed it with the same equanimity she used to dig the bullet out of her thigh with clenched teeth and wash the blood from her hands.
Protector stared at her, unmoved by the blood. He had seen enough of it over the years. Ashen peeled off her own bloody shirt and exchanged it for another. She removed her gun and walked over to Teller to examine her back.
“You are bleeding.”
Teller barked a laugh. She was a bleeding mess, covered in enough of the stuff to be turning red on the outside and faint on the inside. Three bullets had come far too close to her spine. She had a different sort of ability than the kind they liked to talk about: she had no power to make this any easier or less painful, only the ability to destabilize solid molecules and make them easier to break apart. Her rank came from her training, from hard work and relentless focus.
Ashen waited a moment, long enough for the two women to lock gazes and for Teller to realize that Ashen was asking her in silence, Do you have a way to take care of this? No one liked to waste their power.
“Vision named me Breaker.” The answer was sufficient and Teller’s way of telling the nature of her ability. She had no power to heal.
Ashen nodded shortly and put her hands to either side of Teller’s face. A startling wet sensation of life flooding into her body, into her skin, into her flesh. Like something cold and then powdery and dark and warm like ashes fluttering into…
Pictures. Flashes of sensation and memory. The faces of Ashen’s team. A song played on the piano…
Teller slapped Ashen’s hands away, who fell back, gasping. Ashen’s face was pale with the loss of life she had given. Teller’s skin was bloody but unbroken.
Protector came behind her and picked up the bullets from the floor. He tossed them in the incinerator of the safe house, and wordlessly, they finished cleaning themselves up to go out into the night.
They ask me, why should we trust you? What are you? What kind of a monster are you?
They have forgotten the patterns and the breaches. They have forgotten that their own children, no matter how rarely, have been born with abilities outside the norm. They have forgotten the weeks of blinding terror when Department military shut down whole swaths of cities due to hazardous chemical leaks. They have forgotten the teams methodically checking each house and ordering medical care for those who were exposed to those chemicals. They have forgotten that blood runs the same through special and regular humans.
What are you, they ask me with their startled expressions when they realize I am a special. What kind of monstrous difference do you hide beneath that normal skin, that normal hair, that normal way of walking and talking beside me like you are human?
Thief, Remaker they call me. I steal the ways of humanity because they are mine by birthright; I remake myself into the best of what regular humans can do. Being special is not special. You are us.
Teller boarded the night train to Glaston. The train was Glaston’s and all things Glaston ran smoothly, and so did her entry into the yellow-lit passenger car. Ten comfortably spacious seating areas accomodated the small crowd who would travel so late. By now, she fit in well among them. Her blonde hair was in an impeccable updo. Her blouse was moderately priced, well to do but not too well. She straightened her skirt with one hand and tucked her handbag beneath her arm with the other.
Three compartments were entirely unoccupied. Most held a passenger on both facing sides of the buttoned leather couches, but one family had crowded even the window side. Teller took a free compartment, paid her fare with a nod, and leaned back against the comfortable seat to look out through the nighttime glass of her window. Vague reflections shivered in the pane. As the train plowed into the darkness, she let those reflections begin to waver into focus and finally overwhelm the outside view of dark Westerfields and bright beams of light glimmering through distant trees.
She knew the nature of reflections, the falseness and the transparent honesty. Nothing lied or spoke the truth better than a mirror. It had fascinated her from childhood to let reflections take over the view, to let the image of what lay behind overwhelm the image of what lay ahead, to make mirrors of windows, and so she splayed her fingers against the cool nighttime glass and let herself breathe enough to do it once again.
Over the image of those searchlights, two facing profiles began to form. An older woman on the far side of the compartment, a woman dressed well for a citizen of Glaston—which was very well indeed. Ebony dangles, tan dress coat with ebony buttons, spotless white gloves. Her mouth was open to form a question, her eyes bright pinpricks of curiosity. The man whose seat backed Teller, tall with sandy hair and a square jaw, bent over a yellowed writing pad, scrawling something furiously in pencil.
Unwelcome familiarity made Teller recoil, take in those bright beams in the Westerfields again as they drew nearer to the train. Teller knew that man in the seat behind her and she did not know why. Yes, she did. She stared through her own reflection in the glass and into his, bile unpleasant at the back of her throat. His name was Pieter and he wrote for Thorn.
“What is it you’re writing?” the older woman asked suddenly, brightly into the comfortable, silently agreed upon silence of the car.
It made Teller’s eyes narrow slightly that she knew the answer to her question.
Why should we trust you, they ask me with their eyes full of fear and accusations. Humanity always hates what it does not control. What safety is their in your promises of protection? You could crush us with a thought.
The more they learn of what makes a person special type, the more they ask with fearful eyes, with hesitant gestures, how can we trust you? Why should we trust you? They ask it in that sharp recoil when they learn there are those who can not only read a mind but change it. They ask it in the way their hand falls to their side instead of reaching out to shake. They ask it in the withdrawal of companionship when they see their neighbor paint their walls or wash their dishes with power instead of hands. They ask it in the way they look over their shoulders at anyone too confident in dangerous places.
Why should we accept your promises of protection? Why should we trust you to keep your word to our kingdoms when you broke with Thorn? What makes you any better than they?
Blooded, Breaker they call me. When our handlers gave us blood for tears, we promised them blood one day in exchange for ours. When our handlers broke us in the torture chambers and bent us to their will, we promised them one day that we would shatter them into pieces. We broke that promise you ask about. The Thorn Republic lives.
“What is it you’re writing?” the older woman asked of her seatmate across the way. She had lived long enough to hide tired wrinkles beneath her gentle makeup, long enough to know what kind of man was worth the trouble of bothering.
Pieter looked up abruptly at the question and his reflection blinked at the woman’s. He did not see Teller staring.
Teller studied their faces through the glass, through her outstretched fingers, feeling ashen fingertips within her own. She struggled to keep herself impassive, keep her feelings out of it, even as anger seethed and bubbled beneath her skin. She hated losing control. When she had stepped onto the train, she had held the situation well in hand.
This man looked up and brightness flitted across his face in her false mirror. The beams were coming closer, were here, and they cut off his stuttering start of an answer with a sharp jerk as the train screeched slowly to a halt.
Passengers half asleep woke up, certain that something was wrong. A baby started fussing and had to be hushed. Eyes came alert and people looked about. The overhead lights on the car brightened, and Teller readied herself for their coming.
She looked into the glass again, looked as the wait gave her another brief reason to keep her cool, and wondered what drove the man to mark the histories passing around them: the Thorn Republic giving way to the kingdoms and the cities, the regular humans mixing with the specials. She wondered how he could bring himself to mark down histories so at odds with the histories he sought to make. For Ashen. For himself.
Teller had no intention of ever making history.
Who are you, they ask of me, when I walk in like I own their kingdoms. How do you know the things you know, half of everything we would rather keep as secrets?
They ask me when they snatch back papers that tell me all I already understood. They ask me with their incredulous stares when I override their own security codes and walk in the back doors of their databases. They demand of me when they wrestle to keep the fear out of their faces and tension from hunching into their work-stressed muscles. They ask me with their disgusted recoil if I know their languages and cultures as well or better than they do.
Who are you who can be so invisible when you walk among us, who can act like you belong? What gives you the right to make our treaties and know the things you should not know? They ask me with their accusing glares and flinches and turned backs, who are you?
Taker, Teller they call me. When we were taken from your fathers and your mothers, from among your children, we promised them to one day take a life back from their hands. When our handlers told us how to be their hands and feet and eyes and knives, we promised them to one day tell them terms that they would have to take. We kept that promise you ask about. The kingdoms cities live.
Glaston ran the night train and all things Glaston ran smoothly, so when the passengers felt the car jerk to a halt, they came alive with nervous tension, but all the car fell silent.
They could hear the gentle ticking of the onboard clock inset above the door into the car. Voices fluttered through the darkness outside and slipped under the cracks to reach them: the soft and angry tenor of the conductor, the dark and loud bass of an enforcer.
Teller smoothed her skirt with one hand and glanced in the glass at Pieter. The man held so still and tense, she did not doubt he would be questioned. He did not see her studying him in glass. He did not see the signs that marked him as suspicious. A man who saw so much, who could make the taste of a different place in such different times available to those in the Thorn Republic who would never be brave enough to travel to the kingdoms cities themselves—yet, he had no idea what made an operative look twice or three times and again after that.
The voices hardened and then the clatter of boots on the stair, through the door, muffled when they hit the carpet. Teller looked up with the rest of them, noting the dark blue coats and Republic insignia proudly displayed upon their breasts. And here they began barking out their questions. “What is this?” they demanded of Pieter sitting in the compartment behind Teller’s, making her fingers press hard enough against the pane to hurt. “What are you writing?”
Protective instincts she should not have bubbled up within her throat and she ruthlessly swallowed them down as she listened, eyes half closed to the men in the compartment behind her.
Pieter had a jocular voice, an easygoing tone to his answers. He was a writer, a Republic man, easily engaged in conversation about patriotic newspaper reporting—and it made Teller want to hurl back up the smoothness of his words.
“So there’s some sort of trouble out there, is there?” he asked, as a man like they were, as a member of their own Thorn Republic, and did not flinch when they answered with too many lies she hated to swallow and so could not do so easily.
We must check the passage of everyone aboard the train. For security. There’s been an incident. As if they had the right.
Which brought her to now, blood boiling, struggling with another woman inside her skin. Teller knew the taste of another power, this ashen feeling inside violating her insides and outsides. No one ever told her that healers and ashens could transfer more than life. No one ever told her they poured themselves into another’s broken, bloody skin and let their words bubble up in other people’s throats so they could not choke them down.
Which brought her to this anger with a man she had no reason to be angry with. Which brought her to love she did not feel, betrayal that he would be a Republic man that had never betrayed her. Which brought her to memories of rich black coffee she had never tasted and that vaguely hurt curiosity, what is this writing that you do? What will you write of us in the kingdoms cities? What will you write of us who broke them off from Thorn?
But Teller was not Teller for no reason. She told herself what to say—nothing, what to feel. She smoothed her skirt again and smoothed down the Ashen inside of her, the memories that were not hers. She was ready when they moved on from Pieter and came to her.
How can you claim a higher ground? They ask me with their indignant logic, what makes you any different from the Thorn Republic men? Who are you to force your will upon us? How are the unseen hands of the government any different from those we see?
And what makes you better, they ask me with their indifferent shrugs when they learn that we have been killed, for they know that we have killed. And what gives you the right, they ask with their cold shoulders when they learn that we enforce our treaty on the Thorn Republic, for they know that they have enforced their rules upon us. And what makes you any different, they ask me with their skeptical hooded gazes when they learn that our choices were made for us, for they know we made this one for them.
Why should you have the right to make treaties on our behalf? Why should you have the right to forbid the Thorn Republic of Westerfields? Why should you have the right to influence the kingdoms cities and their governments? You are operatives just like them.
Remaker, Thief they call me. When they took the child and made the weapon, I promised them a butterfly from blood one day. When they stole the child and stole her freedom, I promised them to steal her back again. Never forget there is a we which includes the child but is not the child. I keep my promises. I am blood, just like you.
Training as an operative was brutal. Teller had survived the process of gene destruction and reconstruction into a special type human. She had survived the first time she found herself breaking molecular bonds on accident. She had survived and found a friend, then a leader, and a team.
The only thing every operative had in common was survival.
When the Thorn Republic men in their dark blue coats came over to her and demanded her passage papers for inspection, Teller had options. She could use their laws against them, for they were breaking treaty to be here doing this, but that would make it obvious she was a sympathizer with the specials. She could finish what she started out there in that shattered ruin of an installation she had left in Westerfields. She knew how to kill as well as any member of the military did. She could act a part and interrogate them for more information. There were other scenarios clicking through the back of her brain, the things they had taught her to do, trained her to do, hammered it into her six-year-old mind with the understanding that if she failed, she would die.
Teller did none of those things. She reached into her little handbag and pulled out her perfectly truthful passage papers in the name of Alya Shamayes, a birthname she had never known was hers until she read it in a hacked file to learn her parents were dead. She showed them her punched ticket which ran from as far back as Bellyn, too many cities down the line for her to have been anywhere but on the train when their facility had exploded. The ticket was a hand-me-down from Artist, who had ridden the train in her place.
They nodded, returned her papers, and moved on to the next person. After all, Teller was a young, impeccably groomed businessperson who could hardly have been covered in her own blood less than an hour before with three bullets buried near her spine. She had Ashen to thank and yet, as she looked back in the nighttime glass of her window and saw Pieter’s reflection and the unconcerned expression on his face, Teller could find no room in her heart for gratitude.
What are you? Who are you? What makes you—? What gives you the right?
I am blood, I tell them unapologetically with my car keys and my apartment key and my dog rushing up to lick me when I finally get home. The blood of humanity flows in my veins. The blood of honest, patriotic Thorn Republic citizens passed down to me. I have spilled blood to save yours from being spilled, but look again, and I will tell you why they call me Teller, Taker, Blooded, Breaker, Thief, Remaker.
These are histories. Mark them.
It was your blood they spilt when they killed parents to take their children. It was your blood they spilt when they killed a hundred thousand children to make ten thousand specials. It was your blood they spilt when they killed nine thousand specials to make one thousand operatives. It was your blood they spilt when they denied you due process of law and sent us in its stead. My blood is your blood, and your blood is my blood.
This is my claim, what gives me the right, what makes me one of you.
Teller stepped off the night train in Glaston and breathed in cool air under a starry night sky. Mission success. She had spilled no blood.0