The biggest problem wasn’t the headache squeezing my brain. It was picking targets.


Because when the shooting started, Ramos’ volley was the signal for a bunch of Syndax soldiers in forest camouflage to open fire from among the trees.


I sneered. At least I knew what to do about them.


Sean skidded on snow, arms flapping like he could decelerate with them. Dominic flashed into being between him and the nearest Syndax mercs and wrapped him in a bear hug. They vanished, leaving the Syndax guys rubbing their eyes.


Made it harder to see me when I landed the pulsar stave on the ground between them, a blast of its energy flipping them high over my head. They slapped off tree trunks en route back to Earth.


Frank had dragged Brandon to the shelter of the fallen Bruno, but that didn’t stop the symmachites from swirling toward him, eager to reclaim their pawn. Frank leveled his pistol.


“Don’t do it!” I shouted.


He just scowled and fired three rounds.


A Syndax soldier sneaking up behind me dropped, his goggles shattered.


“Oh.” I whipped the pulsar stave around in time to block Teget’s ax. “Hey, bro. Ready for a family chat?”


He wasn’t listening. Or watching. None of that impeded his fighting skill, because he hammered at me with a ferocity he never exhibited on the few occasions we’d sparred.

So, I didn’t feel bad about ducking a blow and whacking the back of his knee with the stave.


Ramos’ advanced on Bruno, firing in measured bursts, never exposing himself to Frank’s shots.


Light exploded behind Xia. Dominic’s Echo Watches blazed at her, but she deflected with the sword before closing in on our architect turned operative. She swung down with her sword so hard I thought she was gonna slice off Dominic’s arm, but the Echo Watch absorbed the impact. Sparks lit up their circle.


Brandon twitched. The symmachites were retaking him. I could see his limbs going rigid. If Frank had a plan, now was the time, because I was too busy spinning out of the reach of Teget’s ax. It shattered tree branches inches from my ribs.


Frank ripped open Brandon’s shirt. His fingers hovered over the medallion, a funny battered oblong piece of metal.

“Do it!” I broke the pulsar stave in half and battered Teget aside.


He grabbed the medallion.


A pulse of—well, nothing I could see kicked up pine needles, snow, and dirt throughout the entire clearing. Teget and I tumbled into each other, branches scratching our faces. Ramos rebounded off Bruno’s metal hide. Dominic spun toward a tree but blinked out, leaving Xia to smash face-first into a fir.


Frank hovered in the midst of the mess, arms outstretched, fists clenched.


For a guy who spent his time shooting and driving a mech, he looked way too comfortable with that medallion between his fingers.


Xia, blood flowing from her nose, pointed with her sword and shouted. Eight Syndax soldiers emerged from the woods, rifles trained on Frank.


He swooped into their midst so fast I swore he was in two places at once.


Gunfire erupted all around him, but he was quick with the same kind of shields Brandon used. Bullets made like summer sparklers, their remnants digging a trench around him.


Frank snapped his right hand aside, like he was swatting a fly. Eight guns crumpled like tinfoil. Then he clenched his fist.

Eight legs crunched. The soldiers collapsed in near unison, screaming. Blood seeped through pant legs.




“It’s always a kick, the way you guys see something that baffles your mind and immediately shoot at it.” Frank’s voice had a new, sharper edge to it, like he’d decided chewing on rocks would be tasty. “Even when phenomenal power explodes in your face, you think you have a chance.”


He flexed his fingers. The soldiers rose off the snow, arms pulled away from their sides. Pulled too far, I realized because they shouted at the pain being inflicted.


“Like plucking leaves,” Frank muttered.


“Hey, whoa, wait a second!” I whacked Teget across the face with the pulsar stave. Blood smeared the metal. Sorry, man, but I had to get out in front of this. I leapt away from him and underneath the ring of tortured soldiers. “Frank! Put them down. They’re out. I need your help with the rest.”


“Who? Ramos?” Frank flicked his fingers to the right.


Ramos tumbled like discarded paper on a windy street. He collided with Xia. Dominic teleported out of his way.


“I said, knock it off!” I blasted at his chest.

Frank dodged, but the pulsar stave’s energy made him stutter step out of the air, near enough I could grab his ankle. I tore him the rest of the way down, slapping him into the melting snow and muddy ground.


An invisible blow—kind of felt like getting drop-kicked by an elephant—threw me against Bruno. Pain lanced up my back and down my legs.


“I’ll kill every last one of them so they get it through their thick skulls they shouldn’t mess with the Garrison.” Frank raised his hands. Everyone in the clearing, including me and Dominic and even the disabled Brandon, floated. “That means you, too, if you’re against me.”


Something whistled past my head. I caught a flash of silver trailing yellow sparks right before a beach ball-sized supernova erupted against Frank’s chest. His face went slack with shock, leached of color, and he collapsed.


I forced power from the pulsar stave through the suit and propelled myself toward him in a blink—so fast, in fact, I caught him in mid-stagger. I pulled the medallion from his fingers.


“What—?” Tears brimmed around dark brown eyes. He took in his surroundings. “I—it took over, didn’t it.”


“Won’t lie, you went kind of crazy.” I helped him stand.


He broke free. “There’s a reason I couldn’t do that anymore. Why they took my medallion away. The body gets old, worn, and the mind …”


Dominic reappeared. “That went bad quickly. What happened?”


“Forget that.” I glanced behind me. Edie stood atop Bruno, another arrow nocked. Her eyes gleamed with a subtle violet, not unlike the Syndax soldiers when they were hopped up on Arkwright’s tachyon infusion. “Nice shot.”


“We’re not through this yet.” She gestured with the bow.


Okay, so all the soldiers were down, but Teget was upright again, and Xia had retrieved the sword. Ramos knelt in the snow, immobile. Maybe Xia had put him on standby. Brandon was stiff as a board, though by the way his chest rose and fell, he was still alive.


Through the branches, though, I could see more camouflaged forms advancing.


“Nope, definitely not a trap,” I muttered. “Here comes Round Two.”


“I’ll get Brandon to safety,” Dominic said. “And get him to his son. I dropped Sean with Liz back at Procyon.”


Xia advanced on us with the sword, Teget joining her with his ax. “Do it,” I said, but as soon as Dominic reached Brandon, I realized my mistake. “Wait, Dominic! The bots!”


He was already leaning over Brandon and recoiled when I shouted. Too late. A stream of the symmachites poured from Brandon’s face, surrounding Dominic’s head. He swiped wildly and even blasted with the Echo Watches with inches of his nose.

I couldn’t help him, though, because Frank was a shuddering mess and I had two crazed people with sharp weapons ready to take my head off.


They came at me simultaneously, Teget high, Xia low. Had to admit—for a lady who’d just picked up the dark sword, she was

handling it like a pro.


I flung myself through the gap between them, using the pulsar stave’s halves to deflect their strikes. I spun around, lashing through the air, not worried much about collateral damage to Xia but still pulling my punches with Teget.


Give me a break. I had him lined up to be my best man.


Right. Wedding. Funny the things that race through your brain when your busy fighting for your life. Reservations for Saito-on-sky were set. They’d better be set. My salary couldn’t take it.


The Syndax soldiers stormed into the clearing. Super. Eight more. Didn’t these guys have a supply problem when it came to recruits? How’d they find more people, anyway? Serena struck me as one of those LinkedIn types.


Arrows streaked by. With each dazzling explosion, soldiers fell, but the counterattack didn’t prevent them from shooting.

Edie was on one knee, drawing, nocking, aiming, shooting with a grace and precision that made me think she was programmed to do what she was doing. She never missed. I mean, never, not even when gunfire tracked toward her.


Gunfire that sparked into the ground before the bullets could reach her, less than a foot from her face.


Brandon. His ski mask was gone, red hair a blazing beacon against the dreary mountainside, and there was blood trickling from a cut on his forehead. He stood over Frank, invisible shield protecting the still hunker-over man and Edie at the same time.

Dominic was gone.

Which I figured was bad.

Xia slashed at me, but she got too manic for a couple seconds, which gave me an opening to pop her on the chin with the pulsar stave. A tooth flew loose. Talk about satisfying. “You’re kinda messed up. Ready to call it quits?”

She glared at me. “I won’t let you take these gifts away from me. I’m not losing anything else.”

“Yeah, I bet you’re gonna lose a lot, fair warning.”

More bad news? Teget roared a new challenge and threw himself on me. Next thing I knew, we rolled through the snow as the ax jabbed way too close to my face over and over again. Didn’t help that the Syndax soldiers must have realized I was a prime target, because some of their shots kicked up snow near my legs.


I fired a blast or two their direction, tricky to manage while wrestling with a brainwashed Medan warrior but, hey, I managed. Probably winged one of them, judging by the shouts.


Brandon swooped overhead. He landed behind the soldiers, bullets flinging off him the whole way. His arms lifted, like he was catching an invisible load. A ramp of earth and snow tore loose and curled like a giant roll of carpet atop the Syndax crew. It smothered them up to their waists and chests, depending on how they’d been standing.


Teget’s ax sliced along my shoulder, the bladed edge tearing the suit. I yelled in surprise at the pain burning there, smelled the blood. My blood.


Teget hollered again, but his war cry came upgraded with a stream of symmachites. They bypassed my mask, which sealed in my face, and dove right for the wound.


Talk about agony. Waves of fire rippled out from the wound, clear to my fingertips, and coursed throughout every cell. I could feel it seizing control. Muscles wouldn’t obey. Couldn’t keep my grip on the pulsar staves. Couldn’t—


It wasn’t so bad.


I relaxed. I mean, come on. I was getting married in a few days. Why worry about these guys? The nagging pressure on my mind crashed like a tidal wave across every anxiety. See? Even Teget was helping me up. And Dominic reappeared, standing beside us. Okay, so the Xia lady was waving her sword around too, and Brandon wouldn’t stop shouting, but was it really that bad?


Xia didn’t think so. Neither did Serena.


Or whoever was whispering to me.


Good. Join Dominic and the others. You’re ready to reduce Procyon to rubble. Don’t let anyone else’s words sway you …


Procyon. The new headquarters, underground. Dominic had taken Brandon’s son Sean there, to hang out with Liz—to be safe. From what?


From us?


The pulsar staves vibrated with a tense, jarring sensation that rattled my hands and shook my arms. Awful as I was, I couldn’t let go, even though I really wanted to. I tried to. Even smashed them against a tree. That just broke the tree.


The buzzing reached my head and I screamed.


The soothing wave evaporated.


Freaking symmachites!


I stopped fighting the vibrations and let them travel through the rest of me. My vision cleared. Things started moving again—things like Edie’s arrows, which arced straight for my chest.


I crossed the pulsar stave and blocked them.


The nova burst blinded me worse than emerging from a darkened theater into the sunniest day imaginable. Teget, Dominic, and Xia screamed. So did Ramos.


Heck, even I joined in, at the same time I rejoiced in being freed.


When the light faded, and the buzzing in my ears subsided, I was left on my hands and knees. Still had the staves. Which, thankfully, had stopped buzzing.


I stared. Wondered if they were gonna start talking to me—because, after the Hedron of Orbits had gone sentient and tried to destroy San Camilo, nothing would have surprised me.


Except maybe Dominic looping his arm around Xia’s waist and then doing the same to Teget.


They flashed away, leaving me reaching for their afterimage amidst a swirl of swirl of pine needles.


Someone yelped. That would be the Syndax soldiers. Brandon finished wrapping them up in the roll of dirt. Very Tom and Jerry, again.

“I take it you’re okay.” I brushed grime off the suit. It was gonna need a serious laundering.


“I’d be better if none of these guys had seen my face.” He stayed behind the roll of dirt, out of the soldiers’ line of sight, until he could fashion a bandit’s mask for the lower half of his face from a jagged scrap torn off his jacket sleeve. “Where did they go?”


“Procyon.” Edie leapt down from Bruno.


“And you know this because …?” I motioned for her elaborate.


“Because I know it. I see it.” The purple tinge remained in her eyes. “We just have to get there.”


“Then you two had better get Frank back on his feet.” I pointed.


Frank was, technically, already on his feet, but by the way he braced himself against Bruno, you’d think he’d gotten home from a terrible bender. Dark circles had formed under his eyes and he was still too pale to be healthy.


“Frank?” Brandon whipped over to him. He held Frank’s shoulders. “Where have you been? Did you—the medallion—?”


“Not now. We have to get to Procyon.” Frank’s voice shook, but he cleared his throat, and when he spoke again, the tremor was gone. “Sean’s there.”


Brandon swore. “Let’s go, then.”


“I’m sorry, but Ramos doesn’t look fit to travel.” I pulled Ramos along. He trudged through the snow, his eyes unfocused, his mouth spilling indecipherable Spanish phrases. “Hang on a sec.”


I pressed the pulsar stave into his hands.


The same keening pitch rose, my body vibrating in sympathy. Ramos’ back arched as symmachites spilled from his mouth, eyes, and nose—but a golden glow obliterated them as they attempted to escape.


“I hope they’re all screaming.” Brandon’s tone was as cold as the weather.


“Me too.”


Ramos finally fell into my arms. He was drenched with sweat. “Dios,” he murmured. “I thought—I prayed for them to depart. You don’t know how I fought them …”


“I’ve got a pretty good idea.” I couldn’t resist a bear hug. My eyes stung. Probably pollen. “Welcome back.”


He nodded, seeming embarrassed. Of course, if I’d taken potshots at my partners after losing control to tiny evil robots, I’d be chagrined in a big way.


“Good. Load up.” Frank climbed into Bruno.


Edie followed him. “We’ll take the landing pad first.”


“How do you—?” I shook my head. “Never mind. Get Ramos inside, too.”


It was a tight squeeze, with me and Edie helping Ramos clamber up on shaky legs. Those two crammed in with Frank made the Apollo capsule seem roomy.


“Guess that means I’m hanging on for dear life.” I scratched the back of my neck.


“Don’t worry.” Brandon lifted Bruno into the air, with as much apparent effort as me picking up a suitcase. “I won’t drop you. Promise.”