Illumination 7.4: Round and Round

“We may have to get you plastic surgery before we let you out again,” said Elian. “A ski mask would be less suspicious than your face.”

Ajax, staring blindly at the book he was supposed to be reading, jerked out of his reverie. He sat at a table in the Tower Core. “What are you talking about?”

“I just finished processing the net dump an agent sent me. I don’t know if they did it on purpose, but there’s been a media leak containing some of the information the military forces picked up during the Detroit action. Your face is all over the place.” Elian stopped abruptly.

Ajax guessed. “Where did my father sell his story?”

“Nowhere respectable. It doesn’t matter. It’s not just you, either; they’ve got other faces.”

“But not stories to go with them.” Ajax frowned down at his book. “Was Natalie’s face leaked, too?”

Elian paused. “Yes.”

Ajax smiled. “That’s good. Just like a face on a milk carton.”

“If you say so.”

“Look, does it really matter that they know more than they used to? They don’t know enough. They can crack down on all the travel methods they want to but they don’t know about the portals.”

“I don’t have portals in every city, Ajax. A lot of assigned Nightlights rely on normal transit. But that’s not the real problem. People here spend their whole lives acting as secret protectors of humanity. Being considered terrorists is… demotivating.”

Ajax stared at the wall. “It must be horrible to have your movements restricted. Just awful to have everybody distrust you. I can’t imagine.” He paused, then looked down at his book again. It was a history of the Guardians of the Precipice during the sixteenth century. The historical accounts were as dull as history could be, but some of the actual documents reproduced were interesting, and the songs and folklore that referenced the Guardians were fascinating. None of it was relevant today. In the sixteenth century, the Guardians may not have had tablets and TVs, but they still had the portals and the latchkeys. Both provided an enormous advantage both logistically and in communication. Now, Earth had the advantage in communications in many regions. Studying the volume was nothing but busywork now.

“Seth is looking for you,” said Elian, his voice subdued.

Ajax snapped the book closed. “Of course he is.”

“Are you two going to break something again? If so, I’d rather you were back in the gymnasium.”

“No. That was an accident.” Ajax muttered, giving the column of light in the center of the room a sidelong glance.

“You could hide.” Elian didn’t bother trying to disguise his anxiety.

“That makes sense. Seth is hiding from his entire family, and I’m the only person he’ll talk to now. So I should hide from him.” He shook his head. “No. If nothing else, I owe it to Natalie.” All the progress Ajax thought he’d made with Seth had been destroyed by Jehane’s news that the echthros machine had been repaired. The consequences had been… messy.

“He’s not really talking to you,” pointed out Elian.

“I know.” Ajax stretched out his legs and leaned back to wait.

A few moments later, Seth appeared at the door. “How goes the book reports, big guy? I bet they just fill up the time like anything.” He peered at the book on the table. “Ancient history. Good choice. Very head-in-the-sand.” He clapped Ajax on the shoulder. “Man, I wish I had your ability to just ignore reality.”

“You just can’t let it go, can you?”

Seth’s glittering grin flickered in astonishment. “Let it go? We lost Natalie trying to destroy that fucking machine. Now, they’ve got her and their machine is working again. Well, I say ‘we’ but I don’t know why. You didn’t lose a damn thing. You never had anything to lose. She was pretty clear about that, wasn’t she?”

Ajax looked down at his fists on the table. It was like blood in the water for a shark, but he couldn’t help himself.

“What are you calling the machine now, Elian? Didn’t you come up with some snazzy name for it?” asked Seth.

“Absolute Focus Field Generator,” said Elian.

Seth snickered, then leaned over to look into Ajax’s face. “It’s so cute that they named it. Almost as cute as the good little boy you’re trying so hard to be. No wonder Natalie wasn’t interested in you.”

“No wonder,” said Ajax. “You’re lucky there’s people in this rock that care about you. I think it would be hilarious to toss you through a portal and watch your collapse.”

“Lucky? You call it lucky? You’re the lucky one. An only child, dead mom, dad who doesn’t care. I would love to be in your situation. Man, now I understand how you can just sit there—” Seth paused, waggling his eyebrows, as Ajax’s breath hissed between clenched teeth.

Maybe I owe it to Natalie to knock the shit out of him. But Seth wouldn’t let it stop at a brawl. As far as Ajax could tell, Seth wanted to commit suicide by Ajax.

“I’m so jealous of you,” Seth whispered. “Please, tell me how to get my own parents to leave me alone like yours have. You did it so well.”

Blood pounded in Ajax’s head. Elian said something, but the words didn’t make sense. He wanted to smear Seth’s face against the wall. Again.

He stood up. “Your mother cries enough because of you. I’m not going to make that worse by breaking every bone in your body, no matter how prettily you beg.” He found a smile. “I’ll let Natalie do that instead.”

As he walked out, Seth called, “You’re insane, you know that?” then muttered, “I wish I was.”

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