The Electric Heir – Victoria Lee

The trees grew dense and close together in the quarantined zone, magic humming through their branches and stretching in their roots beneath soil and snow. At dusk everything was shadow, shifting shapes merging and diverging on the forest floor—near impossible to tell which were human and which were tricks of the light. Magic shivered through the ambient air. Noam felt it like a physical thing all around him, connected to his own power somehow, the virus infecting everything it touched. It crystallized on his breath and prickled his skin like static. The target hid behind that copse of trees at Noam’s four o’clock; electromagnetism eddied and tugged around him the same way it did everything else, betraying his location. Noam sensed the iron in the target’s veins, his magic a silvery glimmer that nearly bled into the snow. It would be tempting to think this was an easy kill, but Noam knew better. This target was strong. He’d drawn Noam’s blood twice already—still sticky on Noam’s face, although the cuts were healed. But he couldn’t wait forever. Noam counted his heartbeats and closed his eyes, feeling along the wires of that electromagnetic tension and looping it like fabric around the target’s body. He heard the whump of weight hitting the ground, air displaced from lungs. That didn’t last. A burst of energy, plasma-like, exploded through the trees, cutting through branches and trunks.

Noam pulled up a defensive shield just in time, twisting gravity and magnetism as he deflected the magic away to crackle like fire through the deadwood overhead. Which, fuck, exposed his position. Noam stepped out from behind his tree and sent lightning across the space between him and the target, who huddled in wet snow with sweat turning to frost on his hair. The bolt made contact. Finally. Noam wasn’t tired, but he certainly was cold. Better to end this quickly. He pushed harder, another burst of force behind the lightning, drawing as much as he could from static and electromagnetism. The target was deflecting some of Noam’s magic, but not all. He dropped to his knees with a grunt, body shaking with the effort of holding Noam off.

The man was almost out of energy. Noam could tell. A little longer and Noam would exhaust the last of his resources, have him seizing on the ground as chaotic electrical impulses swarmed his brain. Then he’d die. Just not yet. Noam moved closer, ice crunching beneath his boots and magic swarming round his ankles like white water. The vessels had burst in the target’s eyes, whites shot through with red, mouth slack and drool smearing his chin. His muscles twitched uncontrollably as their nerves misfired, thousands of volts searing through his brain. When he lost balance, crumpling onto his side—when Noam felt his magic falter—that was when Noam let go. In the absence of power, the forest was too silent.

The animals had fled; all that was left were the sound of tree branches cracking in the ice and fire—and the heavy, arrhythmic gasps of the target struggling to breathe. No—not breathe. Speak. Noam moved closer, but he kept one hand on the butt of his gun and his power near. Just in case. The target fumbled over his own tongue, gargling on spit. With veins bulging out of his neck, he looked like a caricature of himself. Noam crouched in the snow at his side. “I know this isn’t the only lab left. Where are the rest?” The target made a convulsive movement; it took Noam a second to realize he was shaking his head.

“No. You . listen.” He could barely move, but he managed to grab the leg of Noam’s pants anyway. Noam drew his gun quicker than humanly possible, his magic doing half the work, pointing the barrel at the man’s head as he clicked off the safety. “Take your hand off me.” The man let go, but Noam kept the gun where it was. “Answer the question.” “You can’t . trust him.

” A garbled noise, and the man spat out a mouthful of blood. Then: “Lehrer. Don’t. Trust him.” Noam tapped the gun against the man’s temple. “Thanks for the advice. Now tell me about the labs.” The man pressed his lips together hard enough the skin blanched around his mouth. He glared at Noam with all the heat he could muster—which wasn’t much, at this juncture. Fuck it, Noam thought.

He was going to have to start yanking out fingernails, which was fucking disgusting— Suddenly the color drained from the target’s face. Noam didn’t need telepathy to feel the man’s terror—it bled out of him like a sickness—and he didn’t need to turn around to know why. But he did anyway, twisting to track the target’s red gaze as Lehrer stepped out from between the trees. He was tall, nearly blending in with their shadows. A specter dressed in black. Their gazes met. Lehrer gestured with one gloved hand. “Let me finish this, Noam.” Noam got to his feet and made room. Lehrer knelt at the man’s side.

There was something gentle about the way Lehrer rested his fingers along the curve of the man’s neck, thumb skirting the windpipe. He could’ve been human, almost, if it weren’t for the strange colorlessness of his eyes—and the fact there was nothing behind them. “What is your name?” Lehrer said. The man stared at him and didn’t speak, trembling visibly under Lehrer’s touch. Of course the target was afraid. How could he have predicted that Lehrer would come into the quarantined zone and do his own dirty work? Noam holstered his weapon and clasped his hands behind his back, watching and feeling nothing—not even when Lehrer smiled, the expression thin and sickly insincere on his face. “Your name,” Lehrer said again. “M-Michael.” “Michael, why don’t you tell us where the other labs are?” The sounds Michael made were pathetic. Wet, snuffling noises, like a wounded animal.

Lehrer’s thumb rubbed against his skin, a soothing motion. Noam wondered if Michael felt Lehrer’s presence in his mind the same way Noam had: like a shadow version of himself tangling its fingers up in the threads of his thoughts, twisting and braiding them into new patterns. Or maybe that was the wrong metaphor. Stain, Noam thought. Lehrer’s persuasion left a stain. At least Michael wouldn’t be unclean for much longer. Noam saw it in Michael’s eyes the moment his will snapped, the humiliation and self-loathing Michael felt when he opened his mouth and the information spilled out like sea bursting past stone. When it was finished, when Michael was finally left wordless and sobbing in the snow, Lehrer unfolded back to his full height and looked at Noam. He didn’t have to say anything. Still, Noam waited until Lehrer had stepped out of spatter range to draw his gun again and pull the trigger.

He hit the target right in the skull: a clean kill shot that sent blood and brain matter bursting out across the white ground like a brilliant red star. For a moment Noam was reminded of Brennan, the scarlet mess on the wall behind his desk. That first kill was half a year ago now—long enough that Noam had started to forget the details. Had Brennan’s tie been gray or blue? Had Noam been able to smell the gunpowder? The memory was like water in cupped hands. Lehrer waited ten feet away, already impatient by the time Noam holstered his gun. “Get the samples,” Lehrer reminded him. The samples were in the satchel the target had looped over his head and shoulder, a black leather construction pinned beneath dead weight. Noam had to push the corpse out of the way, rolling him over to lie facedown in the snow while Noam tugged the bag’s strap over the ruined skull and slung it over his own shoulder instead. He checked its contents, just to be safe. There they were: Six vials of blood swarming with the virus.

Two of its milky vaccine. Noam pulled a vial free and turned it over in his palm, the thick fluid contents slipping along the glass walls. Was that really all it would take? Just a few centiliters of this strange substance would protect someone from the same death that had killed Noam’s father. One injection could take down even the strongest witching. “Noam.” He startled, badly enough he almost dropped the satchel—and its precious contents. Telekinesis caught the vaccine vial before it could hit the ground. “Shit—sorry.” Lehrer’s gaze was sharp when Noam looked up again. “Be more careful.

Let’s go.” Noam tucked the vaccine back into its case and zipped up the satchel, clutching a protective hand around the strap. He fell into step beside Lehrer, who was checking his watch with a frown on his face, probably already late for some meeting or another. Ever since his election as chancellor, Lehrer had been busier than ever. Noam was surprised he found the time to sleep. After a few steps, Lehrer held out one hand, palm up. Of course. He didn’t trust Noam, not even now. Not even with every horrific thing Noam had done to prove his loyalty. Noam passed Lehrer the bag.

His frozen fingers ached when he let go. “We’ll deal with the next lab this weekend,” Lehrer said once they reached the ancient car they’d requisitioned, parked in an abandoned lot a mile from where they’d killed Michael. Not driverless—Lehrer didn’t want anything with GPS, anything that might raise questions when the car went for maintenance and they realized Noam had falsified location records. They were supposed to be just five miles outside the Carolinian border, where the worst magic one might encounter was a two-headed rabbit or a nomadic tree—not fifty miles. Lehrer opened the passenger-side door and held it there for Noam to duck under his arm and slide onto the leather seat, then pushed it shut. I’m okay, Noam told himself. I’m in control. I’m in control. Noam sat in the silent interior of the car, shivering in the cold and watching Lehrer walk round the front to the driver’s side. Only when Lehrer had opened the door and sat down did Noam use magic to start the engine.

Lehrer gave him a sidelong, approving glance, then pulled the shifter into gear and started them off down the decaying road back to Carolinia. “I’m working Saturday,” Noam told him. “Then we’ll go on Sunday.” Noam tilted his head away, brow pressed against the cold window. The gray landscape rolled past, bare trees and bombed-out shells of old buildings. Lehrer seemed to hit every single pothole, the chassis of the car jolting each time and jarring Noam against his seat. “You seem to have taken a liking to that Beretta.” Noam glanced back at Lehrer, who flicked his gaze down toward the gun holstered at Noam’s hip. Noam’s fingers skipped down to graze the textured grip. “I’m glad,” Lehrer went on, smiling slightly before he looked back toward the road.

“There’s a reason I chose this model for you last year. It’s the perfect size and weight for your hand.” Noam curled that hand into a fist. “What did you do with the original one?” “Disposed of it. Don’t worry—I told you they’d never trace that gun back to you. The Brennan case is closed.” Right. No one cared about the assassination of a refugee liaison when there was a coup to contend with. Four hours later—on the other side of decontamination showers, after a thousand tests to be sure they weren’t bringing virus particles over the border and another long drive back to Durham— Lehrer walked side by side with Noam across the government complex courtyard. “You did very well today,” Lehrer said at last, as they passed a manufactured waterfall on the stream, the crash of water loud enough to drown out their words for passersby.

“It won’t take long, now. That’s good. We can’t afford for Texas to get their hands on the vaccine.” “I know.” Noam tugged at the hem of his sweater, self-conscious of the Beretta—now tucked into the back of his jeans, the holster safely sequestered in the QZ car. “Carolinia would be left defenseless.” “I know.” Lehrer was still looking at him when Noam glanced up; Lehrer’s expression was unreadable. “I hope that you do,” he said as they approached the atrium, the noise of the stream fading. “I’m relying on you.

” When Noam returned to the barracks, heading past the empty common room and the generic framed wall art—which still struck him as bizarre, even though Noam had lived here over a year— Ames was waiting for him. She sat in the boys’ bedroom on an empty bunk, a dark figure silhouetted against the window. “Where were you?” She kept her voice low, but Taye—who occupied the bed across from Noam—didn’t stir. He always slept like the dead. “Work.” Ames had a bottle of vodka clutched between her knees. She held his gaze as she took a long swallow. “No, you weren’t. I went by the store, and you weren’t there.” “Not the store.

The computer repair place.” “I thought you quit that job.” Noam shrugged one shoulder. He pointed at the vodka. “Give me that.” Ames rose to her feet. He couldn’t make out the expression on her face, not in this light—not until she’d already stepped closer, and closer again, near enough he felt her breath on his skin. Her face was all tight lines, eyes narrowed and lips thin. She pressed the bottle into his hand. “You don’t need to adopt all of Dara’s old habits.

” “Dara didn’t even like vodka.” “You know what I mean.” He did, but he was never going to admit it. She left the bottle, although there wasn’t much left. He stared down at the vodka, clear liquid sloshing around like the contents of Noam’s stomach—sickly, intoxicating. Noam poured the vodka down the sink. Better wasted than back in Ames’s hands—she’d been drinking as much as Dara these days. Noam could count on one hand, probably, the number of times he’d seen her sober since her father had been murdered. Murdered by Dara, although that seemed like the kind of detail Ames didn’t need to know. What good would it do her now? Even though Noam hadn’t drunk any of the vodka himself, when he lay down—curled up in Dara’s old bed under Dara’s old blanket—the room tilted and swayed before stabilizing.

Noam pressed his face into the pillow and breathed in his own humid air, eyes clenched tight shut. It had been six months. Dara was dead by now. Noam knew that. Still. The room rocked again, dizziness rippling in waves through Noam’s mind. Or maybe that was the effect of the sleeping pills. When he closed his eyes, lately, too often it was to see Dara’s face. The way he’d looked when Noam put him in that car and sent him over the border into the QZ. The way he’d grasped at Noam during the coup before Lehrer’s soldiers dragged him away.

The way his body would have decayed out there in the forest, rotting into the magic-infested soil until only his bones remained. One of these days Noam would be out there on a mission with Lehrer, and they’d find Dara’s skull halfburied in a tangled root system. No. Don’t think about that. Noam turned away from the bones. He imagined instead that he was on a small boat with Dara out in the middle of a vast and empty sea, dark and lifeless below them as above. It was snowing. The white flakes glittered in Dara’s hair and melted before they could touch the surface of the ocean. Dara’s fingertips, where they brushed Noam’s hand, were cold. Noam watched him, the silence of his mouth and unreadable eyes, until Dara went blurry, the whole scene tilting sideways and smearing out of sight.

After that, the night was dreamless. CHAPTER TWO DARA Midwinter hung over the city like a blade waiting to fall, the streets silent as a held breath, the night Dara returned to Carolinia. He didn’t know what he’d been expecting. Asphalt slick with blood, perhaps, the virus like a viper snapping at passing heels. But Durham was perfect as a postcard, glittering with fresh snowfall and holiday lights that still hadn’t been taken down. The air smelled like pine and cold. And no matter how far Dara reached, all his mind met was void. “Your name is Daniel Holland,” Claire said. She passed him a federal ID card. The photo had been taken when he was still fevermad, too much magic burning him from the inside out.

Dara’s gaze stared up at him from the laminated plastic, sharp with mania. “You’re twenty-two. You just moved here from Beaufort, and you’re looking for work.” “Not looking very hard,” Dara said. “Well, yeah. Can’t have anyone recognizing that pretty face of yours.” Claire smiled and thumped him on the shoulder with her fist. “Come on. This is the place.” They’d rented out an apartment on the second floor of a run-down old tenement just north of downtown.

The building was sandwiched between two bars and across the street from a suspiciouslooking burger joint. A man in an apron loitered in front of that door, puffing on a cigarette and giving the pair of them dirty looks from twenty feet away as they fumbled with the rusty lock. The air inside was musty and worse when they got to Dara’s new apartment. A thin layer of ice crusted the windowsill. Claire kicked the radiator, which emitted a weak stream of hot water against the wall, then shuddered and died. “We’ll get you a space heater,” she reassured him. Dara sat on the narrow bed next to his duffel, tucking his hands under his thighs. His breath clouded in front of his face every time he exhaled. “It’s fine. I can put up with anything for six days.

” Claire hitched herself up onto the dresser on the other side of the room, legs swinging through empty space. “Sure. Of course you can. Focus on that—in less than a week, this’ll all be over. We’ll be sleeping pretty in the government complex, and Lehrer’s head will be up on a spike.” Dara tried to match her optimism, but his smile felt weak. Claire noticed, of course—she didn’t miss much. But she didn’t mention it. Just tapped long painted green nails against the dresser and said, “You got the plan down?” He nodded. “Want to repeat it to me? Sorry.

I don’t think you’re an idiot. But I gotta be sure.” “I’ll sneak into the Sunday gala at six thirty. You and Priya will be there, disguised as serving staff. I’ll wait until you’ve confirmed Lehrer’s been given the suppressant. Then.” He tipped two fingers against his temple and mimed pulling a trigger. Claire gave him two thumbs up. “Great. Good.

Now, is there anything else you need from me before I go back to Priya’s? Food? There’s that burger place across the street.” “I’m not very hungry. Thanks, though.” “You sure?” “Positive.” Anything he ate would come right back up. His stomach was a sickly mess of bile and adrenaline. Claire pursed her lips. “Listen . ” “Please don’t,” he said before she could start in on him again. He’d heard it all before—from her, from Priya, from the doctor back at base who monitored him as he struggled to make it through alcohol withdrawal.

“I’m fine. Really. I can keep it together for six days.” “It’s different out here,” Claire said. “You didn’t have any other option in the QZ; we ran out of booze back in 2043. Are you sure you—” “I said I’m fine. Stop asking.” She raised both eyebrows at him, then held up her hands in a gesture of surrender. “Okay, whatever. Just let me say one last thing.

I’m here. Yeah? If you need to chat. It’s not every day you’re plotting to assassinate a head of state.” “I’ve killed people before.” “Not your own guardian, you haven’t.” She slid off the dresser and tugged at the hem of her shirt, straightening out the wrinkles. He reached for her mind before remembering, Oh. He couldn’t anymore. The Claire who looked back at him from across the room might as well have been a corpse, thoughts quenched out. “It’s not gonna be the same,” she said.

“I don’t need you losing your shit on me day of.” “I won’t.” She left, eventually, but only after giving him one last look, like she thought she might read some reluctance from the set of his mouth or the way he had his arms crossed over his chest. He thought about saying, I want him dead more than all the rest of you combined, but didn’t. He wasn’t even sure that was true. The room seemed even smaller with Claire gone. Dara could pace from one end to the other in four strides, touching fingertips against the frigid window glass and those same fingers, a beat later, against the grimy wall opposite. He unpacked his duffel, folding his clothes into the dresser. They were the same clothes he’d left Durham with, now ill fitting and weak at the seams. He toed off his shoes and pushed them into the corner.

There was a vanity mirror over the dresser; Dara avoided his own gaze as he slid the drawers shut. He was darkly, dreadfully certain that if he looked, he wouldn’t be the only one reflected there. This room was full of shadows and distant noises: cars on the street, the burble of laughter from the apartment down the hall, a door slamming shut. It was all so much louder than he remembered, like the absence of telepathic voices in his head was a void that sucked in more sound than usual. This dead city reverberated inside his skull. Not just the city. This whole country felt like a graveyard. Like every single body populating it was a corpse—an empty shell, reanimated and going through the motions but not real. Not really. Dara sucked in a breath, made himself exhale slowly.

Then he looked at the mirror. There was no one reflected in the room behind him. Just his own face, cheekbones more pronounced than they used to be—he’d lost weight in the QZ. His eyes were wide, whites showing around the irises. He made himself keep looking: another second, one more. He took off his wristwatch last. It was an expensive piece: mechanical, with a leather strap and a white face. Lehrer had given it to him for his fifteenth birthday. Back then Dara had been able to sense the cogs turning inside it, the hand ticking away the seconds of his life. Now it was as dead as everything else—but it was the only nice thing Dara had.

He set it atop the dresser at a perfect right angle to the outer ledge. Six months since Dara left. Five since Lehrer had been elected chancellor. The news they got out in the quarantined zone had been sporadic and vague, enough to make Dara wonder if Lehrer had tightened restrictions on the press. He’d let himself start imagining some horrific dystopia, soldiers in the streets and the bodies of traitors hung from the walls of the government complex. But if anything, things in Carolinia seemed better. They’d repaved Mangum Street, which had been full of potholes for as long as Dara could remember; the drive through downtown had been smooth. There was new construction, the tenements replaced with safe, affordable housing and schools. No more beggars, at least that Dara had seen. No breadlines or Atlantian refugees rioting for equal rights.

Lehrer, damn him, had his utopia after all. And this time he hadn’t even needed to declare himself king. Dara had to remind himself of the truth: no matter how many social programs Lehrer implemented, no matter how efficiently he used taxes or how much the people seemed to adore him, Lehrer was a killer. A mass murderer. Every one of Lehrer’s adoring citizens had lost loved ones to the virus. Every Carolinian feared the infection Lehrer had released on his own people. It was Dara’s job to make sure they knew the truth. It was Dara’s job—the Black Magnolia’s job—to free them. Dara turned off the lights and lay down on the thin mattress, staring up at the cracks that spindled across the ceiling like spiderwebs. His chest felt tight when he inhaled.

His fingers curled into fists atop the sheets. This apartment was one mile from the government complex. It was ten minutes past midnight. Noam might still be awake, sitting cross-legged in his barracks bed with a magic-cast light floating overhead illuminating the pages of the book in his lap. His hair a little messy, as if he’d tried to sleep but given up early. The cap end of his pen stuck in his mouth. His mind a glowing ember in the sleepy darkness. When this was done . when Lehrer was dead . Dara might see him again.

He almost didn’t dare imagine it. The Black Magnolia wasn’t interested in suicide missions, generally speaking. This was an exception—and only because Dara had insisted he be the one to pull the trigger. Even if Dara managed to kill Lehrer, he wouldn’t make it out of that gala alive. Not without magic—and he’d given up magic four months ago, when he finally gave in and accepted the vaccine. He’d waited as long as he possibly could, until he was barely coherent with fever. He kept thinking, maybe, maybe he’d be the exception. Maybe he’d hold on to his sanity. His life. Dara hadn’t even planned on coming back to Carolinia at first.

That was all Claire. You have to face him and we need what you know. At last he shut his eyes and rolled over onto his stomach, pressing his face against the pillow and breathing in the smell of mildew. He already knew he wouldn’t be falling asleep tonight. He’d lie awake and flinch when the radiator finally rattled to life, certain every shifting shadow was a tall figure slipping out from the dark. After all, Noam wasn’t the only person who was just a mile away.

.

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