It takes Annabeth far too long to limp down the stairs. She makes it to the second deck, curses her ankle every step through the mess hall, and makes it to the hall lined with dorms. The Riptide was built for a small crew of twenty, with five officers' quarters and two larger rooms lined with bunks. The first four doors, she assumes, are occupied by the current crew, so she tries the last single room. The door slides open soundlessly.
Inside waits a bed and a desk and a footlocker enclosed by four gray walls. It's tiny compared to the space she once had on the Birmingham, but at least she doesn't have to bunk with anyone like she does at CAMP, and it's hers, for now.
It's more than she could have expected.
So she drops her bag on the desk and looks longingly at the bed. If she lies down now, she knows that she won't be getting up for a while, and the aching pull of her muscles demands her attention first. Carefully she tugs her jacket off, pulls her shirt up over her head, adjusts the straps of her tight black bra.
Her torso's a mess. A large gash cuts across her stomach and oozes blood every time she turns even slightly. Burns ghost across her hands. Tiny scrapes dash across her skin, up along her waist and skimming across her collarbones. The end of her ponytail is singed off. She smells like soot and smoke and still hears the screams of people in the marketplace, and she can't get it out of her head, any of it—the dizzying, confused chaos, the insistent push of Mist in her head. The explosion. The bodies. Nancy.
Her own suffocating fear.
But she tells herself to breathe. Prioritize. She's going to find Nancy, that Cyclops, that ship. And then she's going to follow them to Luke.
With a shaking hand, she balls up her shirt and presses it against her slowly clotting wound. Pain rips across her stomach. She bites down hard on the knuckles of her free hand.
There's a knock at the door.
She pulls her hand back. A crescent of teeth marks line her fingers. "Come in."
She doesn't know who she expects to be on the other side, but seeing Grover as the door opens, his hands restless at the edges of the bag he carries, eyes wide as he takes her in, is a surprise. It's been so long, and the reality of his presence, protectorguidefriend, is an unbelievable relief.
He looks exhausted, drained, but so much the same.
"Grover," she says on an exhale.
"Hey," he says. "You, uh. You mind if I come in?"
She shakes her head, doesn't trust her voice around the thick, burning knot in her throat.
"I brought some supplies for you," he says, walking carefully around her to place the bag on the desk. A med kit, she realizes belatedly as he pulls it open: small bottles and tubes, ointments and pills and serums, a small roll of antibiotic tape. He pulls out a tube, as well as the tape, and turns toward her.
Annabeth steps back.
She can only guess how much these supplies must have cost them. Judging by the state of the ship, and their dock at Port 49, they can't be all that prepared to restock med supplies any time soon. She doesn't want to waste them.
Grover, of course, seems to understand immediately. He sits on the edge of the bed and grabs for her arm, turns her gently towards him so that she stands before him. He winces as he looks at the dusty balled-up shirt she holds against herself. She peels it away to show him.
He hisses through his teeth. "Shrapnel?"
"Probably. This is the worst of it."
His grip on her arm tightens slightly. "What about your leg?"
"Right." Annabeth tosses the shirt on the bed with a little too much force. "You talked to Percy."
"Of course I talked to him," Grover says, the you idiot implicit in his voice, his following pause even louder. Why didn't you?
With patience for her silence, with steady hands, he dabs a bit of the ointment onto his finger and spreads it over the wound. First in the middle where it cuts the deepest, where the ointment burns cold and turns her blood to ice. They watch as it clots. Slowly the skin bubbles, knits through itself, pulls delicate over the cut.
That'll scar, she thinks, feeling herself sway. The room tips to the side. Her head is full of lights. Scars like Luke's, drawn down his face, and scars like the ones Percy keeps hidden inside himself, and now I have some to match.
Grover's face blurs. "Hey, you alright?"
Annabeth puts her hands on his shoulders to steady herself. Nausea bubbles in her stomach. She wonders exactly how many years it's been since she's seen him, if he's felt her absence as acutely as she's felt his.
She wants to ask. Doesn't know how.
The quiet is maddening.
Head ducked, his horns peeking through the curls of his hair, he focuses only on pushing more of the gradually-reddening glob of ointment on his finger, the angry red stretch of skin on her abdomen.
"You used to be my keeper, too," she says, pushing the words past the raw, aching parts of her throat, her heart. "I needed you."
Grover pauses, her blood on his hands. He wipes them off on the ruined t-shirt as best he can and tries to pick the edge of the antibiotic tape free with shaking fingers.
"Percy needed me." The words burst from him, as if he's been keeping them close only too long. "He needed me after you left us."
Annabeth takes her hands from his shoulders. They hover, along with his words, in the space between them.
Because what else can she say to the truth?
Eyes wide, he gets to his feet. "I don't—I shouldn't have said that—"
The door opens.
"Operative Chase?" Piper, her arms full of stuff, hesitates a step into the room. "Oh, gods, sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt, I'll come back later—"
Grover does not respond, so Annabeth says, "No, it's fine. Come in."
Almost cautiously, the pilot walks in, passes a curious glance to Grover as he gathers up his med kit and makes a hasty exit. The silence he leaves behind is thick and draining, and Annabeth eases herself onto the bed, careful not to tear the new skin on her stomach.
"I, um, brought you some things," Piper says, unstacking and organizing and clearly trying to find a safe route of conversation. Soap and shampoo, a comb, a few hair ties and pins, a clean set of clothes. She unfolds a pair of worn cargo pants and holds them up to herself. "They might be a little small for you, but I thought you might want something clean to wear."
Annabeth watches as Piper folds the pants and sits them next to everything else. It's clear Piper has questions—about her and Percy, or Grover, or the bombing. Perhaps it is an order that keeps her silent, but Annabeth remembers coming across the girl's closed CAMP file, has it saved somewhere on her tablet: McLean is unfocused, insecure, erratic. Does not consistently obey command. Will protect those to whom she is loyal first, over CAMP's mission. Possible flight risk if taken into consideration.
"Well," Piper says eventually, walking backwards to the door. "Showers are down the hall. Mess just got restocked if you get hungry."
The last Annabeth sees of her before the door slides shut are her eyes, strangely multicolored, browns and blues and greens, shifting and sharp as they are gentle.
With a sigh, Annabeth eases herself back until she is lying down. Her eyelids droop shut. A weird series of clicks and whirs chime somewhere near the door panel before the lights dim and lull her into sleep.
The bright lights of the mess hall during free hour. Voices, overlapping, loud across the room. Her table crowded with friends, covered with food trays and tablets, elbows resting on the edges, hands reaching for drinks.
Annabeth, a queen at her court.
Grover and Percy at her left, playing some card game they'd rigged up on their tablets. Luke and Thalia to her right, cracking jokes about their tactical instructor, his skeletal face, twitchy moustache, grave voice.
It is the first stage of the before. Together yet divided, cracks in the veneer, distance growing fast between them despite the space. A vacuum. Annabeth hears, acutely, the empty spaces, the loud roar of voices surrounding them; Percy's and Luke's laughter, discordant.
"You want a turn, Annabeth?" Percy asks, passing over the tablet. The familiar shape of the MINOTAUR test slides onto the screen. Percy smiles. "Don't worry. I'll go with you."
"That test doesn't mean anything," Luke says. "You see what they're doing? Trying to figure out our aptitude, testing our resolve, throwing us at galactic crises so that they can remain a faceless oppressive force and use us as mindless footsoldiers."
Thalia frowns. "Luke. We save lives. We are meant for the stars."
And when Percy leans across the table, the sound in the hall cuts out quick, sudden. Annabeth doesn't want him to speak but she cannot move from her chair, cannot open her mouth or blink or breathe, is held suspended.
Her heart thunders loud in the silence.
"Then why are you here?" Percy asks.
Luke's eyes spark gold. The ridges of the scar that cuts across his mouth stretch wide as he smiles. "I have big plans for you, Jackson."
And then Malcolm, who appears between them, his eyes swirled with purple, pupils expanding and shrinking—Malcolm, whose face is not his, features blank and undefined. "You must make a choice, Annabeth."
You must make a choice, Annabeth.
Make a choice make a choice make a choice.
A shift. The slow blur of time.
A boy with blonde hair who pulls her from an alleyway on Earth. A girl with a black jacket who teaches her how to fight.
The gravity that tugs hard at her feet, the air that rests heavy in her lungs, the knowledge that she is alone, always alone. She does not remember what her father's gardens look like, cannot remember her mother's face, but this—sleeping on the cool pavement, begging shopkeepers for food, trying to stay out of the way just enough to survive—this is her life.
And there's another boy, dark-haired, round-cheeked, who cries for his home at night; a boy who beat the hardest test she's been given, who doesn't even know how.
You must make a choice, Annabeth.
Nancy's red hair, ducked shoulders, the surprising tension in her arm. Purple whirlwind eyes, shifting and ethereal, gaping wide as space, flecked with swirling stardust and madness and Mist.
A Cyclops guiding her inside a ship. The high, dark halls. The strange thrum of the engine. They walk to the bridge and stand before the central circular command unit.
A holographic interface appears. The words are a strange, unrecognizable language. Nancy types in a message. The grid of lights inches upwards, slowly, building feet and ankles and shins, knees, thighs. Standard black boots and pants, a familiar silver-snake belt buckle.
Awareness slams through Annabeth's body. The second she realizes she's dreaming, she seems to shimmer into existence, almost corporeal, somehow still transient yet solid at once. When she gasps, Nancy and the Cyclops whirl to face her. Behind them, the hologram builds a chest, broad shoulders.
Something in the back of her head tugs at her.
She has to see—needs to know—
Annabeth jerks awake. Back in her body. Her room on the Riptide. Piper's clean clothes on the desk. A click-whir that brings the lights on.
She rests her hand against her sprinting heart. She'd been there. Somehow she'd been right there, on the bridge of Nancy's ship, waiting as they'd hailed some hologram. She'd recognized Luke's belt buckle, a caduceus, the ancient symbol for health and medicine, the CAMP division to which he'd been assigned.
He'd been right there. Except she has no proof, nothing but a desperate Mist dream conjured by the magic of space dust, and no useful information.
For a while, she tries to go back to sleep, to chase her vision back to that ship, but her mind's running too fast for her to relax. There's a small clock near the door panel that shows the time. She must've gotten about five hours of sleep. It's not enough—her muscles and joints protest every movement, but she can't stay still, has to move.
So she gets out of bed and collects the soap and clean clothes off the desk.
The ship is quiet as she steps into the hall. Dulled voices filter in from upstairs and some muffled music to her left, where the hall opens into the cargo bay, and, within the belly of the ship, the engine room. The large bathroom lies between the officers' quarters and the two crew dormitories. It's pretty spacious: separate stalls for toilets and showers, a little shelf just inside each stall to keep things dry.
Annabeth eases herself out of her tight bra, leans against the wall to kick off her boots and pants. She presses a few buttons on the control panel for hot water, but all that comes out is cold. She takes a deep breath, grits her teeth, and ducks under the spray.
Washing away the dirt and blood and dust takes time. The water reveals the many scratches and bruises decorating her body, the still sensitive skin at her stomach, the twisted, swollen mess around her ankle. Five-minute showers have been her normal, but she relaxes, despite the cold, and stays under until the water runs clear at her feet and she feels ready to towel dry.
Piper's pants are a little tight, but she squeezes in and manages to button them, pulls on the gray shirt, slips her dogtags underneath. She takes care to braid her hair back and stuffs her dirty clothes into the laundry chute. Her jacket goes last. It's an old thing, not even hers, but she takes a quick moment to mourn the tears in the rare leather.
Now that she feels better, she doesn't know what to do with herself.
She'd like to steer clear of both Percy and Grover, trusts that they will stick to their word and keep course; trusts that they have just enough motive to track down Luke.
So she follows the music. Through the empty cargo bay, down the stairs. There's a door propped open between two storage closets, through which the wide engine room opens up, echoing with some low, fast-paced dance song.
The spherical drive core rests tall in the middle of the room, glowing a soft blue, pulsing with a fine layer of Mist.
The Bolt prototype.
Wonder if it was worth it, Annabeth thinks, stepping closer, unable to take her eyes from it. She feels—she feels amazing, wants to reach into it and—
"Hey! What are you doing in here?"
The kid she punched when she boarded wiggles out from underneath a panel, a bruise already blossoming against his cheekbone. He pushes his goggles up into his hair and crosses his legs as he sits and looks up at Annabeth. His pants are cut off at the knees, his socks uneven, his boots worn and unlaced. The pockets of his vest are overflowing with small tools and springs and circuit boards. Half of his hair seems to stand on end while the other is pressed to his head. His fingers tap a quick beat against his leg in time to his music even as he glares.
Leo Valdez: engineering prodigy.
Annabeth nods towards the drive core. "Did you get this running?"
"Yeah." He looks torn between suspicion and pride, but he's no longer yelling at her. "A lot of it from scrap. It was a bitch to get that much contained Mist for startup, but look at her now."
An engine pieced together from junk and sophisticated technology, only half-finished when it was taken from the CAMP garage, technicians and blueprints and all. She's amazed that they even made it out of orbit, amazed that they were able to finish such a complicated, untested design without any equipment, without any funds to speak of.
But maybe that's why CAMP wanted Leo to begin with.
"Doesn't it affect you?"
"Well, yeah. We haven't found a way to dampen the exhaust. The blueprints weren't complete."
"You still have them?"
He twists the wrench between his fingers, looks up at the shimmering core, the beautiful, dangerous incompleteness of it. Madness comes in many forms, she thinks, remembering Nancy's eyes; looking now at Leo, sitting on the floor; feeling it in herself, right at the edges of her mind.
"What, you here to take it away? Haul us back, throw us in a brig, impound the ship?" Annabeth opens her mouth, but Leo barrels right through, waving the wrench around. "Listen up, Operative Chase: you can march your ass right into an airlock. I build this baby with my own two hands, and hell if I'm letting you take it away."
"I'm not planning on taking it," she says, crossing her arms, stepping as close to the core as she dares. If she focuses, she can see the fragile metal underneath, stretched thin. "I was in the top of my class, you know. Worked alongside Director Chiron, attended some of his meetings, saw his notes. I studied the earliest prototype of this engine while it was still theoretical. I could help you get it running."
"You top of your class in punching innocent civilians in the face, too?"
Annabeth can't help but snort. "Innocent."
Leo glares. "We were in the clear before you showed up. Out here minding our own business, staying off the radar. A reminder, in case that bomb knocked something loose in your head: Captain's supposed to be dead, Riptide lost somewhere in the black. And now you've got us on some whack Fed-sponsored field trip!"
"I haven't called it in. I wasn't even cleared to leave CAMP."
"Like they can't track you," he holds up his wrist and then points to her own, to the Athena tattoo just visible underneath her sleeve. She runs her thumb across the iridescent ink, dark at one angle and near invisible at the next, and the smallest bump in the middle where her information chip rests underneath the skin.
She shakes her head. "I tied it to my tablet, turned off anything transmitting a signal. They can't find me, not out here."
"Except," Leo says, drawing out the word. "The cameras that caught your face on the sector, and you using your Op status to force a landlock on the entire port, and the scar on the back of Percy's neck."
Annabeth stills. Wounds and blood and the marks left behind, and Percy, whose voice sounded different than she remembered, who didn't look quite the same. Percy, chose to help her anyway.
Leo sighs. He spins his wrench on his palm and leans back against his panel. "They don't just chip you once, that'd be inefficient. All their operatives would find a way to deactivate it whenever they wanted to go dark. Like you. And what happens when someone kidnaps you, digs the chip out themselves? They have to find you somehow. When they decided to kick Percy out, they told him they'd deactivate the chip, but I found an active one in his neck and another in his ankle. We cut them out, made sure he was really dead to them, untraceable."
Annabeth touches the tips of her fingers to her neck. CAMP everywhere, following her every step. She should've known. "And now they've got eyes on the ship."
"And now they've got eyes on the ship."
And on Percy. His name floats between them, unspoken. The drive core hums with the beat of the music. Leo gets back to work tinkering underneath a panel, but by the way his foot taps unsteady and frantic against the floor, she guesses he's not getting any work done.
They have to do something about the chips. She snuck off CAMP to track Luke down her own way. Having them follow her is not part of the plan.
"Stay here," she tells the bottom half of Leo's legs. "I'll be right back."
She leaves the engine room behind, pretends not to hear his grumbled "Great" as she limps back up the stairs.
The med bay is empty when she enters, in search of a scalpel and some of that quick-heal tape she'd turned down earlier. She swings by her room to grab her bag off the desk and follows the music back downstairs.
Leo is in the same position when Annabeth returns. She kicks his foot—gently, for her own sake—and eases herself into a sitting position in front of him. He pulls himself free and watches, wary, as she sets her supplies down and then pulls out her tablet.
Her broken tablet.
Cracks spiderweb across its surface, the edge of its plastic casing coming loose. The worrisome part is on the back, where the plastic has been warped and melted to the circuitry. It doesn't look like the memory's been touched—and she has backups, including the drive that rests at the bottom of her bag—but she won't be able to easily replace her tablet out here.
"I can fix that," Leo says, taking the tablet and tossing it towards his tool box. It bounces off a hammer and clatters to the floor. Another piece of its casing chips off. He waves it off. "So what are you doing with the sharp tools?"
"You're going to get the chip out of my neck." Annabeth passes him the scalpel. She turns, pulls her hair to the side so that he can easily find it. "If you're right, and I do have one, Luke could just as easily pick up the signal as CAMP could. We can't afford either to find us."
"You want me to cut into your neck. You realize if I even sneeze wrong I could slice into one of your veins."
Annabeth doubts it. He's a mechanic. He built a functioning Bolt out of scrap metal. A drive core like that requires the steadiest hands.
She says, instead, "I trust you."
Leo mumbles to himself, shuffles around, sighs heavily twice. Annabeth waits. Eventually his stubbornness dwindles and she feels the shift in the air, feels him kneel at her back, his fingers brushing back the short hairs at the nape of her neck. His fingers are hot and still against her skin.
"You ready?" he asks.
Breathe, she reminds herself. Breathe. This is safest. This is your choice.
The scalpel kisses her neck, presses down.