“You expect me to change my strategy over what a girlfriend-killing traitor of a Kevork wears under his shirt?”
Cassie tried to stay calm in the face of Julilla’s contempt. “It was a signal.”
“A fake one, meant to exploit your soft-headedness for him.”
“He means it. I know he does.”
“It’s a trick. Can’t you see that?” At the look of defiance on Cassie’s face, she added, “Even if it is a signal that he’s on our side, what’s he going to do for us? Or can he do anything at all?” Julilla shook her head. “The plans go forward as previously agreed. If he does something on our behalf during the fight, great. But this is no time to be taking chances.”
Cassie turned away, annoyed, and tried to distract herself by watching the final preparations for battle. Each group had its own attire, from the bailiff uniforms of the City Hall group and the neat fatigues of the St. Catherine’s and St. Xavier’s students, to the animal skins of the Zoo Tribe. The Thespians were in particularly fine form, with the main body of their unit dressed for the Napoleonic Wars and their elite troops under Jason clad in the gear of the ancient Roman army. A girl from the Operatics strolled among them in a breastplate and horned helmet from a Wagner production. Her role appeared to be related to morale because at one point she stopped to sing to a group of late arrivals in Black Watch kilts.
Julilla followed her gaze. “This is turning into a fucking circus.” She glanced at the scaffolding where final adjustments were being made to the Fresnels. “They’ve got fifteen minutes. After that, if the sun isn’t at an angle that suits them, screw it.” Danny was nearby, having delivered a message just a few minutes before, and she waved him over. “Go ask the spotlight people how much longer. Tell them we’re about out of time.”
Danny frowned at the rickety scaffold.
“Don’t say you’re scared of heights,” Julilla said. “I’ve seen your Spiderman breaking and entering tactics.”
“It’s not that,” Danny said, rubbing his chin. “It just looks like that thing is about to fall over. Very unstable.”
“And so are we. Yell up to them, if you’re scared to climb it.”
“Oh, I’m not afraid.” He flashed a smile. “I’m worried for the safety of your people and equipment. I always land on my feet.” He strolled over to the scaffold and circled it a few times, looking for the best angle of approach. He avoided the ladder, for reasons best known to himself, and began pulling himself up the network of bars.
“The twins make everything look easy,” Julilla observed to no one in particular. “Too bad they’re bat shit insane.” She turned away and went to meet Mundo, who was walking toward her with an air of urgency.
Meanwhile, a group of bored Pharms on the other side of the field were yelling and pointing at Danny. Someone grabbed a bullhorn and shouted epithets about the Human Fly, which Danny countered with a gesture that made it clear just what he thought of Pharms. The rowdy taunts grew louder and Sid stopped helping Griffin with a lens and leaned over the railing. Over the increasing insults from the Pharm front lines, Danny and Sid exchanged a few shouted words. Danny laughed at something Sid told him, then gripped a rail tightly between his knees so he would have both arms free to make appropriate gestures to his Pharm tormenters.
Danny didn’t notice the one who raised a sniper rifle to his shoulder, but Cassie saw and called to the allied front lines for a sharpshooter. She heard the shot before anyone could respond and wheeled about in time to see Danny fall.
While the Pharms cheered, Cassie shouted for a medic. She rushed toward him, with Julilla screaming at her to get back and stay out the line of fire. Cassie ignored her and dropped to the ground by Danny’s side. Now it was she the Pharms were taunting and someone fired a warning shot to tease her. She fumbled at Danny’s wrists, then his neck, searching for a pulse. By the time Danica appeared, wild-eyed and trembling, all she could do was shake her head and move a little distance away to give Danica space to grieve.
By this point Galahad, in his role as an Obit sergeant, had calmed the Pharms, no doubt telling them to save their fighting until they received orders. Now they watched in bemused silence as Danica keened over her twin’s body. But as her wails of anguish turned to screams of rage, they edged back from the front line, glancing at each other in guilty confusion.
Danica got to her feet and advanced on them. “Who did it? Come out here and fight me, you fucking coward!” She pointed at the nearest Pharm, a skinny boy with a crooked nose. “You! Did you do it?”
The boy’s eyes grew wide and he took several stumbling steps back.
Danica selected another target. “You. Admit it, chickenshit. Come out here and prove what you can do.”
Julilla appeared at Cassie’s side and gripped her elbow. “Get back to our lines. Now, while they’re distracted.”
“I know. Let her do what she needs to do.”
By now Danica had found her man—a brown, stocky teen with snapping black eyes and a mocking smirk. “Come out here and fight,” she snarled.
He drew a knife and made a show of examining the blade. “Go home and bake some cookies, honey. Before you get hurt out here.”
“Make me. Or are you scared?”
“I ain’t scared of you, darling.” He glanced at his buddies, then took a step toward her. “But I’m going to hate cutting up your pretty face.”
In a move so quick Cassie almost didn’t see it, Danica whipped a throwing blade from her belt. Her aim was off, but the wound to the Pharm’s shoulder stopped his sneer.
“Now I’m going to kill you, bitch.”
Danica drew her fighting knife. “Try it.”
Julilla dragged Cassie back to their lines. “This isn’t a TV show, girlfriend.”
Cassie stumbled over clumps of weeds, remembering too late that she was a captain and was supposed to act like she was in control of things. “Let me go. I’m not a child.”
“Then quit acting like one. Because as soon as this fight is over—”
A gasp went up from the Pharms as their man fell. Cassie and Julilla, safely back among their soldiers, looked up to see Danica bend over the dead Pharm and stab him over and over. She laid his belly open and dug in with her hands, spilling out intestines and other organs in a gory, glistening mass.
“What the hell is she doing?” Cassie said to no one in particular.
“Trying to get a reaction from the enemy, it looks like,” Julilla said.
While the Pharms stared in shocked silence, Danica reached into the dead man again, punching upwards in the body cavity with her knife and fumbling with both hands. Her body now drenched in blood, she jerked back and got to her feet, holding something wet and bleeding aloft.
“Holy fuck,” Julilla breathed. “I thought she hated blood. Does she think she’s an Aztec now?”
Danica threw the heart at the stunned Pharms, and an angry buzz arose from among them, like a disturbed hive. “Who’s next?” Danica demanded, advancing on them. “Come on fuckers. Show me what brave men you are!”
The buzzing grew louder and there was movement among the ranks.
Cassie turned to Julilla in alarm. “They’re going to kill her.”
“Aren’t we going to save her?”
Julilla shook her head. “Do you think she wants to live without him?” She signaled to her bugler to stand by. “Go to your unit, Captain. As soon as she’s down, we move.”
“It’s an order.”
Cassie backed away, trying to keep Danica in her sight as she taunted the Pharm front lines. Then someone called Cassie’s name. Cursing, she turned her back on the battlefield. She had taken only two steps when the shot rang out. She spun around and saw Danica lying on the field, and this time the blood spreading slowly around her was her own.
Julilla gave the signal to her bugler, and Cassie ran toward the back lines and her command.
* * *
The battle began with an agonizing wait while the front lines moved toward the enemy and the north and south flanks awaited their signal. Finally Cassie heard the call to move her line forward. Shouting encouragement, she led her troops into the fray, where she lost her sense of direction amid the guns, knives and flailing clubs. She halted an attack on her left with a shot from her semiautomatic, then shoved her way to the aid of Zoo girl under fire as she beat an Obit bloody with her club. There was no time to reload, catch her breath, or even think as she threw herself into the full force of battle, kicking, shooting and stabbing wherever she could get a move on the enemy.
The sun rose higher and the boys working the Fresnels got their beams focused. They trained the concentrated heat on the Pharms’ back lines where their fuel was stored, and the explosions halted the Pharms’ progress long enough for the alliance to push them back a few yards. Then one of the Obit leaders gave a signal and a group of motorcyclists roared onto the battlefield, scattering allied troops ahead of them.
Julilla rallied the troops under this fresh attack, screaming at them to shoot the tires, shoot the riders, and fight. Alone near the front, Cassie urged her group forward and was cutting a hole into the Pharms’ front line when someone shouted that Mundo was down. Her troops hesitated in confusion.
The Pharms pressed their advantage, pushing back hard on Cassie’s unit. But now Julilla’s troops moved forward again while Jason and his Romans finished off the motorcyclists. Blocked from moving forward and pushed from behind, Cassie tried to wipe the sweat from her eyes while bodies fell around her and a red-haired girl with evil in her eyes lunged toward her with a knife.
Inexplicably, the girl collapsed at Cassie’s feet. The Pharm attack faltered and Cassie glanced around in confusion to find Galahad, the sleeves of his shirt torn off to reveal his Regents gauntlet, leading his subcommand of Obit turncoats as they cut down the Pharms from within their own lines.
In the mayhem that followed, Julilla roared her approval as the Pharm attack faded and her troops surged forward. The allied flanks closed in and Cassie let herself be swept along, slipping on slimy battlefield gore as they moved faster and faster, until they were running, chasing the Pharms through the burning remains of their ordinance, to the bunker.
Pharms and Obits alike pounded on the bunker doors, but no one let them in. Surrounded and betrayed, they turned as one, backs to the wall, and waited to be cut down.