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Juel Flores. Marday, Aries 19th, 2348 AA. 8:58 PM. City of Industry.

“Ashford… What did you do?” Juel asked.

All the anger left his body in a rush of cold. This is wrong. You murdered him. Ashford peered at Juel, smirked, and grunted:

“I just took a load off your mind.”

“He surrendered,” Juel said incredulously.

Ashford’s confusion gave way to irritation:

“Well, my mistake. From where I stood, it looked like he was resisting arrest pretty good.”

“I had him. We could have used him. He’s at the top of Arroyo’s Unbranded cell. He knows every last agent—”

Ashford’s eyes hardened further and he looked away in disgust:

“Not for free. He’d want a deal. And I’m not particularly keen to negotiate with a terrorist piece of shit.”

Juel was stunned. He had no idea what to say. He lowered his gaze from his commanding officer, back to Demirci Junior’s ruined head. The bullet entered his skull through the left side of his nose—a hollow point 0.454, if Juel was any judge—popping the opposite side of his head. His right eye hung loose on his cheek, dislodged from the destroyed socket. His mouth was almost curiously untouched; frozen halfway between his smirk at Juel, and his surprise at Ashford, ultimately looking like a curious smile. His chest was still. His wyrd was gone.

“Our partner is injured,” Ashford said, pointedly, then pulled a cigarette from his jacket. “He needs an ambulance. You want to mourn your enemy or help your friend?”

Juel stood, holstered his service weapon, and wordlessly fell into step behind Ashford. This isn’t right. Any forensic analysis worth a damn would tell you he was executed. But there was no doubt that the Amagium would cover its agents, and nobody would ask twice about the fate of a self-professed terrorist. All I have to do is keep my mouth shut, walk away, and carry this weight.

Juel stopped walking.

And that’s too much.

Ashford was saying something, but Juel didn’t register actual words. I am going to report you. It will be your word against mine. It will end both our careers. It will disgrace the keeping force. It will prove Junior right.

“Juel,” Ashford repeated, louder. “I saved your life. You gonna complain about the guy I popped before he could kill you? Or the two guys at the counter, so you could get to Demirci?”

“Did they surrender too?” Juel asked, before he could help himself.

Ashford stopped walking. He turned to Juel with a look that bordered on murderous. Juel raised his chin.Ashford was four inches taller and had a sixty-pound weight advantage over Juel. Are you threatening me, jefe? Because I call your fucking bluff.

At length, Ashford raised his hands and relented:

“Look. It’s on me. Okay? It was my call. Curse my name. Call me a monster. Request a transfer, if you feel the need. I’ll approve it without question. But what’s done is done. I am sorry to have offended your sensibilities, but don’t turn this into an excuse to ruin our fucking lives.”

“I had him, Ashford. I had him under control.”

Ashford took two strides towards Juel, bellowing and slashing the air with manic gesticulation.

“You had your Locke aimed at his fucking skull! How was I to know you weren’t going to shoot him yourself? He’s been inside your head from the beginning of this—”

“And if I shot him in cold blood, I would expect to face the consequences!”

“Oh, bullshit! Did you forget what happened at Domingo’s? Drake said it herself; we are at war with these people. They tried to bomb a stadium full of children, for chrissakes! They tried to blow up the goddamn lightways!”

“That’s why we have to be better,” Juel said.

“We are better!” Ashford blast emanated and shouted at Juel, veins bulging white against his head.

Juel said nothing.Ashford took a deep breath, and gestured for calm, even though it had been his outburst. He closed his eyes and took several deep breathes. Then he smiled icily at Juel.

“Just. Take a minute,” Ashford said. “Get your head right. Let’s go help Sev, and then think long and hard about our reports. Yeah?”

Juel stepped past Ashford without answering. Ashford made a belated attempt to grab him with his wounded shoulder, only to wince in pain and fall short. Juel didn’t look back.

My head is clear. And my story is straight.

— Sevardin| 8:56 PM —

Sevardin won the race by a much narrower margin than he hoped.

As soon as Juel and Ashford abandoned Bretta, she attempted to slip her cuffs, then wriggled her way onto her feet. Meanwhile, Sev crawled across the floor to retrieve Greth’s gun. Just as Bretta was about to bolt, Sevardin fired a warning shot into her path. The girl froze and stared at him. Her eyes glistened with tears and blazed with hate.

“Sit down,” Sev said sternly.

He could almost read her thoughts in sequence. Can I attack him? Can I get away? Will he shoot me if I try? Sev looked to Greth’s corpse—body destroyed from the shoulder up—then back to Bretta. He shook his head slowly. Don’t try me, girl.

But she bolted. Sev swore as he trained his weapon on her legs—harder without his wyrd to focus his sight and steady his nerves—then emptied the Plato’s remaining bullets. He missed the first two shots, but the last shot caught her in the meat of her left calf. She fell roughly on her chest, unable to catch herself with her arms cuffed behind her back. Her body automatically coiled into fetal position as she screamed.

“For the record, I did not want to do that,” Sev grunted.

Deeper in the building, Sev heard more gunfire, followed by faint flashes of Ashford and Juel’s wyrd. Keeping the empty gun aimed loosely at Bretta, he awkwardly dug through Greth’s pockets, searching for a symphone. He eventually found it in the kid’s inner jacket pocket. The phone was locked, predictably, so he had to settle for 999 instead of calling dispatch directly.

“Nine-nine-nine. Please state your emergency.”

“This is Second Detective Sevardin Harker. We have an officer down and at least one fatality at a mechanic’s shop in the City of Industry, Southern California. Send an ambulance and hail all local officers, ASAP, then connect me to Arroyo’s dispatch.”

“Are you in immediate danger?” the receptionist asked.

Another Locke gunshot sounded. But it was isolated on either side. It had been quiet for several seconds before the report, and no further noise followed it. In Sev’s experience, single shots were anomalies in combat. Something about it chilled Sev.

“Possibly,” Sev said. “We’ve yet to clear the situation. Both my legs are broken and I have one suspect who is also in need in medical attention.”

The line abruptly went dead for a moment, then the phone started ringing again. It took nearly a full minute before a weary voice answered. Sev spoke over it, leading with the codes for ‘officer down,’ and ‘casualty.’

As he spoke to dispatch, he heard Ashford emanating at max strength, pissed to high hell. No spell casts though. Hopefully that means we’re in the clear? The door to the office swung open, and Juel emerged, face a mask of wrath. Ashford also looked pissed, but he was holding his wounded shoulder. Did Junior get away?

“Detective? Are you alright?” dispatch prodded.

“Hold tight, dispatch. My partners just returned. Getting a sit-rep.” He held the phone away from his face and looked to Juel. “We clear?”

Juel nodded, too frustrated to speak.

“Demirci escape?”

“Dead,” Juel said.

Sev regarded him carefully. Judging from how upset he was, Juel blamed himself. Did you kill him? He could easily see Junior forcing Juel’s hand. Sev dropped the topic, running through the long list of protocols that needed to be addressed immediately. Plenty of time to catch up later.

“Girl tried to run. Had to hamstring her,” Sev said, gesturing to Bretta and the empty Plato in his hand. “How’s Ash’s shoulder?”

At mention of Ashford, Juel’s face briefly twisted into a snarl. Revulsion filled his wyrd. He swallowed the emotions and shook his head, saying:

“He’ll live.”

What the hell happened?

Again, Sev let the matter drop. Within three minutes, they could hear the wail of an approaching ambulance, quickly followed by both asfalis and amagiate sirens.

— Sevardin| Westridge, Remington Memorial Hospital and Mediclave. 10:48 PM —

The pain meds started to dull the pain in Sev’s legs at the expense of fogging his head. He tried to lean into it, to will himself to fall asleep, but something serious had happened between Ashford and Juel. They both seemed personable enough to him, but they apparently couldn’t stand to be within twenty feet of each other, and despite his best efforts, he couldn’t think of anything else.

Which is a completely fucked state of affairs. I have plenty of my own shit to deal with.

The orthopedic surgeon had shown him X-rays of his legs. It looked like a firecracker had detonated in his left femur, while his right tibia and fibula were so messed up it was impossible for him to tell which fragments had belonged to which bone. The doc also walked him through possible complications of the surgery, which included skin graphs and varying degrees of potentially permanent impairment.

The room had a small symvision, which Sev had tuned to news coverage of the ‘Developing Situation,’ in Downtown Los Angeles. The media had yet to make sense of what happened, but a few bullet points had already fallen into place. Somebody had sabotaged a transformer which knocked out power to the transit building, followed by a gunfight in the control room that resulted in three casualties. All vehicles had been successfully evacuated from the lightways. The talking heads were speculating causes ranging from gang violence to terrorism. And technically, both theories are correct.

There was a sharp knock at the door, just before Sev managed to doze. Sev emanated for his visitor to enter, and Juel emerged. He didn’t look like he was possessed by the wrath of God anymore, but his brows were cinched tight with stress.

“How you doing, brother?” Juel asked, trying to muster concern amidst whatever was eating him.

“Getting better. Soph gave me some feel-good juice and they’re getting ready for me to go under.” Sev glanced behind Juel, wearing the ghost of a smile. “You supposed to be here?”

“Definitely not,” Juel smirked.

“Then tell me what’s eating you before they kick your ass out,” Sev chuckled.

Juel took a deep breath as he eased into the room and closed the door behind him.

“It’s a long conversation.”

“For both our sakes, give me the short version. The hell happened between you and Ashford?”

Juel slid the visitor’s chair in front of the door and crouched near Sevardin’s bed.

“I had Demirci. He had surrendered. And then Ashford executed him.”



Juel opened his mouth to answer and then shook his head.

“I don’t know. Because he felt like it, I guess. Said he was taking a load off my mind. He clearly thought I would be cool with it.”

Sevardin had no doubt that Juel was telling the truth. What reason would he have to lie? Why else would he be so disturbed? It left him to reflect on Ashford. His boss could be an asshole, there was no question. He had a temper. He comfortably defaulted to lethal violence in combat situations. And most crucially, he had bent the rules for personal gain before, to such a degree that the arroyo chapter couldn’t feign innocence.

Taking a cut from the evidence locker to line your pockets is a far cry from summary execution. But Sev could see the thread. He suddenly remembered an evening where he suggested they beat a suspect into a confession. The guy’s story was all over the place; he was clearly, desperately lying, and everybody just wanted to go home. What did he say? “Give me a phone book and some alone time with mumbles and I’ll have his story straightened out in two minutes.” And I laughed with him. Juel laughed too. But we both thought it was a joke. Or maybe we laughed out of wishful thinking.

“If we call it self-defense, or I say that he was continuing to resist arrest that will be the end of it,” Juel continued. “Forensic techs will look the other way on the ballistics and any investigatory committee will call it justified given the circumstances. But if I dispute it—”

“Your career will be over,” Sev concluded. “Whether anything sticks to Ashford or not.”

Juel nodded. All law-enforcement officers followed an unspoken but ironclad code. Cover for your teammates. Tell the public whatever they need to hear for the good of the force. Whatever happens, form a united front. Cops referred to that unspoken code as ‘the wall,’ and even told people to ‘wall up,’ when the situation called for it; usually with regards to the press, but also in the case of interdivisional disputes. The wall wasn’t just protocol. Most cops viewed that comradery as the backbone of their thin blue line—or in Amagia’s case, their black line—against crime.

Ajola had warned Sev and Juel about it. He said that navigating it was the hardest thing he had to do as a cop. Keep your nose clean. Don’t associate with people who give you a certain feeling. I know you are both good enough judges of character that you will know what I’m talking about. Ajola himself had written up junior officers for infractions before, but he had been blessed with superiors who never ran afoul of his moral compass. Sev realized that Ajola owed his sterling record to luck and privilege as much as strength of character.

“I can’t excuse it though, Sev. Not when it happened right in front of me. If we look the other way on this, everything Junior said…”

Sev shook his head.

“Whatever that maniac said doesn’t matter. Do what you know is right and I will support you.”

Sev’s words came automatically, but they weren’t careless. Because there is a right answer here, and you know what it is. If somebody crosses a line like that, you hold them accountable. We are not executioners.

“It’s my word against his. My guess is, he gets exonerated due to extenuating circumstances, and a conspicuous honorable discharge a couple months after. Meanwhile, I will be assigned to evidence or records until the Force finds a way to fire me.”

“Us,” Sevardin corrected. “I’m not letting you face this alone. I’ll serve as a character witness, and testify to what I can. I heard the last gunshot later than the others.”

Juel shook his head.

“Sev, there’s no point in ruining your career as well—”

In many respects, it would be pointless. He could wash his hands of the situation in any number of ways. I could say I was in too much pain to know what was going on. I can say I didn’t see what happened, and that I don’t feel comfortable testifying against my venture-mates. But I won’t be able to sleep a night for the rest of my life if I leave Juel out to dry.

“Do you hold yourself to a higher standard than me?” Sev asked seriously. Juel didn’t answer. “You told me your truth, and I believe it. If you expect me to be impartial in a he-said-she-said hearing because it’s the safe, pragmatic, or convenient option, we have seriously misjudged each other.”

Juel grinned.

“I have your back, man,” Sev insisted. “Now ‘til judgement day.”

“I appreciate it,” Juel said.

“Doc said I might never walk right again anyway,” Sev said. “And Frisk says that I developed a limp as well. My ‘career’ may be over anyway.”

It was a miracle that Sev was getting off that light. Frisk confirmed that his wyrd had developed a quirk; a knot of energy that would manifest in some kind of strange, involuntary phenomena, though there was no telling what it would be. Surprises are fun.

“No, don’t do that.” Juel cautioned him. “Don’t make any excuses. If you testify, it has to be because you believe it’s the right thing to do, same as me. I don’t want you resenting me for this. Not now, and not years down the line.”

He’s right. Sev extended his hand to Juel, quoting the first part of one of Ajola’s most-used maxims:

“We do the right thing.”

Juel took it firmly.

“The right way.”

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