It is easy, when you are young, to think that stone is permanent and that houses stand forever.
Walls are as features of the geographical landscape—inseparable from the country, and from the earth itself, so firmly rooted in the motherland that to move them you would have to move the earth itself. They have the chief purpose of keeping Inside and Outside apart, a crucial function by any measure. And that is the reason you keep your front door shut: because you cannot let Inside and Outside mingle till you no longer know where one ends and the other begins, because you cannot allow the storm to weep upon your carpets nor knock vases from your shelves.
Children tend not to heed that boundary. They play in storms even though their parents have warned a thousand times of the perils of getting caught in the rain. They stomp about in puddles and leap into drains, trailing mud across the floor and spilling leaves in their wake. They don’t understand how the kindly wind, strewing leaves and petals across the floor, should be evil in any way. They like to blur that boundary; it is in their nature.
Vesper was not one of those children.
It was during the Great Slump that the child Vesper Lovelace came to be, born inside a modest stone hospital with her damp eyes shut. The ward had a single large window, but that day it failed to shed much light on the scene, for the sky was overcast, and the child was to be born amidst long shadows.
She was so tiny that her mother began to weep as she cradled her in her arms. “Vesper,” she named the fragile little infant, the light just dim enough that one could almost believe it was evening. “I'll treasure you always. I'll let no harm come to you.” As poor, naive parents always do, they made promises they could not keep.
As it would come to be apparent, Vesper was not anything like her name would suggest. As a toddler she did not entertain fantasies, and as a child she was more abrasive than a child, especially a girl child, should be. She did not laugh nor caper, and when she was disappointed she scolded.
She was also very taken with the concepts of orderliness and organisation, devoting herself to them from as early as seven years of age. She did the chores when her father was at the hangar, and when her mother was in town, and even when they weren’t. Whenever the wind obliged to scatter dried anthers on the floorboards, she would take the broom from the closet and sweep them out the front door. She shut all the doors and windows when it rained.
So it annoyed Vesper immensely that leaves and paper shreds seemed to stick to her clothes and skin with annoying persistence. It perturbed her that when she rubbed wool sweaters on her hair, bright sparks would snap from hair to fabric. She hated that she would feel the mounting of charge on the surface of the knitting, for it made her feel all wrong, like a swarm of bees.
Soon, wool sweater sparks became small fires and dead insects on the dressing table, impossible to deny. And it was on the day a bulb lit up and blew out in her hand that she realised it was not freak weather, nor spirits, that were to blame.
One windy autumn evening in the ninth year of her life, Vesper stood bare-footed on the porch, next to her father’s ladder. Bending from the fourth rung, he put the glass porch bulb into her right hand and took the screwdriver in her left. While he returned with a squint to the panel above him, his daughter stared at the filament through the gleaming glass, heart thundering in her ears as if there were an engine in her head.
“Dad,” she said, waiting to have his full attention.
That was when she first showed him, with a trembling hand, how she could make it light up at will.
Her father did not fall off the ladder as she feared he might. He descended silently, rung by steady rung, and when he arrived at the bottom he warned her never to show him that awful trick again.
That very same year, the war began, and she did not take it as a sign that she was meant to join it.
It is a blustery morning in the middle of May, 1943, and World War Two has yet to end. You can tell that it hasn’t. The birds are cautious; they’ve been smelling so much fire on the air, and they will not leave the bushes. The people in Fairford have grown weary of sitting in dank corners, waiting every day for the past five years for the telltale wail of an air raid siren, turning off the radio when the news grows too much to bear, leaping at the sound of birds.
Vesper arrives outside RAF Fairford as she does almost daily, eyes sweeping the area for her escort. She knows the noises of the place well: the grumble of engines inside, the buzz of departing planes. Her father began work here as soon as it was constructed, then her mother, and she inevitably followed suit.
She grew up among engines and engineers and, there beneath the metal roofs, she latched onto this universe of parts that fit together. Many a hot summer afternoon has she spent slaving, oil-stained, at the internal piping of malfunctioning bombers, sobered by the knowledge that the service she renders cannot compare to that of the pilots whose machines she services.
Over the years she has watched the facility grow crowded, the changing of the planes beneath their roofs telling fragments of a story too big and too distant to be comprehended. The hangars are dominated these days by the Spitfires and Hurricanes that the factories began churning out two years prior, and she has seen them in all stages of wear: gleaming, dented, out of commission.
None of her co-volunteers—two-thirds of them women—knew who she was when she came. They do now. The head engineer’s daughter, less experienced than her father, but twice as industrious.
Today, Vesper is here for a different reason. A bulky green car awaits her at the entrance, as she was told it would. Amidst the humming of propellors and the whiz of departing planes, the driver stands to a side, leaning on his door. Gaining pace, she hails him with a greeting, hair pricking at her eyes.
His handshake is feebler than she anticipates, even though his hand is gloved. “Good morning,” he says with measured tone, opening the back door with a click, and she thanks him, to no response, before boarding the vehicle.
Today is the day she does what she was always meant to do.
The car chugs and bumps down along down historic highways through fields. Vesper sits in silence for the hours that pass, broken occasionally by the buzz of a plane, and the atmosphere grows impermeable about them. All of her attempts to begin conversation with the driver are turned down with polite monosyllabic answers, and she stops trying after fifteen minutes. At noon, she eats the sandwich that she made and packed for herself, keeping a listless watch on the passing green outside. She presses her ear against the rattling window, listening as other engines grumble past.
The buildings begin to peek from behind the grey horizon four hours later. The car slows into the first intersection, and the quiet is overcome by city noise: street chatter, hammering, taxis with their rickety sputtering engines. The green army car weaves through the jigsaw-puzzle of dark walls and squares, into the heart of London, where it pulls to a stop before a tall brown building jammed between two grey ones.
Vesper opens the door before the driver can exit to aid her, cool air gushing in as she stands. She doesn’t need her escort to point her towards the mustachioed man waiting at the steps: he is smiling an industrial smile in her direction, and clasped in his hands is a stack of documents that are no doubt the same ones she submitted.
"A pleasure to meet you, Miss Lovelace," he says with a shake of her hand.
He proves less reserved than the driver, but she cannot help but notice the gloves, and the perturbation on his brow. Perhaps he expected a woman more ordinary: paler, prettier, wearing a pressed skirt instead of a coat. Hair curled upon her brow, not tied at her nape and barely under control. Then she remembers that he knows who she is, and that alone answers all her questions.
Vesper is surprised to find that the MI6 office building is not unlike any other city institution she’s ever been inside, right down to the decor and the faint musk perfuming the interior. When she enters the lift, she leaps when the floor begins to groan upwards.
“Not here in the city much, are you?” he says, and she smiles politely in response.
“I have only been here once before,” she replies.
Alighting at the sixth floor, Colonel Donald presents documents to the receptionist and is given clearance; he endures these formalities with not so much as a trace of impatience, and she follows suit. Then he takes her down the carpeted corridor, into a gleaming room through whose single window she can see the grey street below. A table awaits the newcomer and his interviewee, numerous chairs arranged around it.
“Please take a seat,” Donald says, gesturing at the chair beside the one he takes. She finds him waiting to begin the interview with a smile that is at once jolly and conspiratorial. "Good afternoon, Miss Lovelace."
“Good afternoon, sir, and thank you for receiving me,” she replies.
“By now, I expect that you fully understand that your enlistment is a matter of top security." She nods quickly. "The Secret Intelligence Service was kind enough to loan us a conference room for the afternoon. Which means, of course, that you are legally bound to secrecy concerning all that you see and hear within this building, and forbidden from discussing the details of your enlistment with anyone—as stated in various contracts you previously signed. Do I have your understanding?"
“Yes, of course,” she replies. “Why, may I ask? Why the location, I mean. I’m not to become a secret agent, am I?"
"Even better," answers the colonel. "You remember our correspondence, don’t you?" She nods again. "Then you know exactly why we've brought you here, and why your enlistment must be kept under wraps. You're not a soldier. You're a weapon."
She has never felt words reverberate louder within her.
“In a manner of speaking, anyway. You will still serve as all soldiers do, but under special regulations.” Donald finally glances at the document he has been holding. "Now, as everyone privy to this secret has done, I have reviewed the footage of your preliminary trial fifty times at least. Suffice to say, it has blown me away." He shakes his head. “Good God. I struggle to believe you exist, even now, with you sitting before me.”
"My abilities are not the kind you see every day, no."
He chuckles. "Why was the medical guild never informed, if I may ask?"
"I was told to pretend my abilities didn’t exist."
Donald strokes his chin. "I can see why you might have thought that necessary. Your details are safe with us for the time being, but we must eventually submit them to the ministry, as a matter of national security."
"I am aware." She has passed the point of no return, now. This war will end, and then she will be relegated to laboratories—on which side of Europe, it hardly matters. "It does not bother me. I believe what I have to offer to Britain's war effort is far from trivial.”
Donald offers a smile. "Alright then,” he says with a little bob of his head, “we shall see."
He begins with the usual motions, asking after details of her personal history, all of which she furnishes promptly. She answers as plainly as she can, explaining in only as much detail as she must: that she has never been arrested, nor done anything to deserve arrest, that she was hospitalised once, when she rescued a neighbour's dog from his rooftop and slipped off the wet gutter, fracturing a femur and cutting her foot. He tells her that that was rather brave of her.
“And are you currently married, betrothed, or in a romantic relationship?” he asks.
“Have you ever been married, betrothed—“
She can tell he is trying not to smile.
She says she went to Barcelona every December before the war to visit her grandfather, and that he is still alive, and that his wife is dead. Mentions the granduncle who died in action in the American Civil War. Says she has never been employed, but volunteered at the RAF Fairford back in 1941, as soon as she could.
When asked about her reasons for enlisting, she has no trouble explaining her sense of duty towards the nation and the all-important structure. She talks about the country, nurtured and protected by the great men and women who have willingly lain their lives on the line for her.
"How about your abilities?" Colonel Donald finally broaches the topic, stroking his shaven chin. "How have they affected the way you live?"
"I've mostly lived in fear of them, and have done my best not to use them.”
"I admit it does come in handy sometimes—in place of lighters, for instance, or when my mother drops a pin and it rolls under the couch."
Colonel Donald's eyebrows rise. "Interesting...do explain."
"Oh, I learnt the trick from my father's textbooks—electromagnets," Vesper says, making a spiralling motion with one hand. "You coil a wire—the bare copper kind—around a nail and pass a current through it."
"Mm, excellent." He steeples his fingers and contemplates their tips, before raising the line of his gaze, once again, to his interviewee. "Have you attempted anything of greater scale?"
She is twelve, and although the sky is thick and grey, thunder rolling far away, she decides she will make an exception this once. Grabbing a small grey umbrella from the foot of the hat rack, she flies through the door, through the gap connecting Inside and Outside, across the bridge and to the hilltop some way west of River Coln. Racing like a horse, she scales the hill till she comes to rest beside the tallest tree beneath the swirling clouds.
The air surges with static like a tidal swell around her, just the way she likes it. Beneath a sky like this, she almost feels ordinary.
Grinning up at the great tree’s canopy and panting, Vesper places her hands against the bark. Her heart is aflutter as the lightning lights the sky, a thousand times slower in her head. She knows she will forever remember the roar she roars, deep and fierce, as she plants her heels in the soil and stops the flow of electricity at the interface between her fingers and the bark.
She can taste the ache of her clenched teeth, feel the tears of terror racing down her cheeks as she gathers the thrashing electric current in a halo about her fingers, voltage mounting well beyond what she knows she’s supposed to be able to hold.
She throws herself back, fingers abuzz.
Bursting the bounds of her capacity, the lightning erupts from her hands in a blinding fountain of crackling electric arcs, seeking different paths to the ground, singeing grass and leaves everywhere.
She falls to the ground and laughs softly, while the cold raindrops turn the earth beneath her soft—
“Yes, occasionally," Vesper says, casting her gaze at the ceiling beyond Captain Donald's head. "I used to experiment with lightning, but rarely. I could never keep it under control longer than five seconds."
The man perks up at the mention of lightning. "Splendid," he replies. "That's a excellent starting point. We will be determining the formal limits of your power after your medical examination. The folks over in the tech department have set something up for that purpose."
The recruiting officer rises from his chair. He nods and beckons her to the doorway, and together they depart, the officer shutting the door behind them.
"Electromagnets are well and good, Miss Lovelace, but not nearly enough. Hopefully, once we’re done with you, electromagnetism will be the least of your capabilities.”
The bulk of her physical examination is uneventful. Held in a dustier room along the same corridor, Vesper completes it with comparative ease. It is what is to follow that pounds on her thoughts.
After all, as Colonel Donald has made plenty clear, she is a special case. Her examination is to have a special segment that no other soldier endures. A test-fire, to be more accurate.
Doctor Blythe, who is to preside over the test, waltzes in by the machines and over wires, miraculously failing to knock a single thing over on her way to the desk at the corner of the room. “Now, sweet, if you will just sit yourself down right there and put on the cuffs?” she points at the dentist's chair standing at the centre of the room like a headstone, leather restraints dangling over its sides.
Vesper approaches it like she would a coffin. She discovers, in its seat, a pair of cuffs, connected along rubber-clad wires to large clattering computational machines on either side. An assistant doctor stands twisting dials on the machine. She spends a couple of seconds staring at the twin loops of canvas before finally picking them up to inspect them more closely.
In a couple of minutes Blythe returns to strap her into the chair, testing the tightness of the cuffs around her wrists and humming all too cheerfully while she does. "Alright, sweetie, let’s begin,” she says. “I give instructions, you follow.” Vesper nods. “I'd like you to generate some potential in your left palm—do it like you did in the preliminary trial. Your left palm." She points at her own left palm for good measure.
Inhaling deeply, Vesper extends her left hand as far as the straps will allow her. Staring at the centre of her palm, she lets the burning potential mount in that very spot. The wiring in the cuff seems to tug on the current, so she lets it flee straight into it. The adjoining machine begins puffing and whirring like a beast, then from a slit in its side peeks a slip of paper. The doctor reads a figure out loud: thirty-one volts.
She is transfixed for a moment, but as she raises her gaze from the tiny slip, her bewilderment is overcome by blinding purpose. "I’m proud to say that I now have documented evidence that you are not a fraud.” A grin slowly comes to her face. “That is, unless you're concealing a battery?" She giggles at her own joke. "Now, the cuff on your right hand is wired to a different kind of machine. My contemporaries would use such a machine to administer shocks, but those would hardly have an effect on you—wouldn’t they?”
“You could do it.” Vesper shrugs. “Just in case I’m concealing a battery.”
“Oh, no, no, you silly,” laughs the doctor, hopping over to the machine concerned. She twists some dials with a look of diabolical glee, the way Vesper imagines the scientists in the storybooks doing. "Don't you worry yourself, sweet. I won’t be doing that."
“Is there something I should be worried about?”
Doctor Blythe shakes her head. “I’m sure you will have no trouble handling the next test,” she says, to which Vesper can only raise an eyebrow. The leather straps are not reassuring. “I will administer a series of currents of increasing voltage. I want you to channel the current from your right hand to your left, then through the wire and to the machine, as before. Our first trial will be a current of ten volts, and we’ll move upward from there. Ready?”
As soon as she nods, there is a brief buzz of mounting potential and a snap of electricity. Stiffening, she stops the current just in time, then lets it sift up through her right shoulder and across the back of her neck to her left, into the machine. It's a curious feeling. Blythe seems pleased.
The second trial is easier, now Vesper is prepared. She takes the trivial voltage and passes it into the wire on her left wrist. The third trial is the same. She holds fifty amperes easily, and Blythe lets out a laugh as she raises the voltage by another step.
“A hundred volts,” she announces, before the coils begin charging up with a loud hum, and Vesper narrows her eyes, readying herself for the jolt.
Five hundred, a thousand, two thousand volts are passed through her skin in timed bursts. She handles them with little effort, and Blythe’s laughter becomes wilder. “Unbelievable!” she exclaims, turning the dial once again.
At eighty thousand, Vesper finally begins to feel the strain. She grits her teeth before each subsequent shock, beginning to tremble with the effort of diverting the current away from her heart, away from the channel through her feet. That can’t be all, she thinks. A hundred and ten thousand isn’t so bad. “Shall we stop here? There's no shame in stopping, you know,” says Doctor Blythe. She shakes her head and gestures for her to go on.
The machine takes half a minute to generate a hundred and twenty thousand volts. Every little clatter makes her shoulders tense.
When the current comes, it wrings an agonised yell out of her, a current escaping into her arm and down the chair’s frame. Vesper grips at the arms of her chair. This feels nothing like lightning. Everything is cold and sinister and spinning with sparks.
Again Blythe asks if she feels comfortable going on.
“Yes, yes, let’s stop,” she pants, swaying.
“Alright, alright, easy, sweetie.” The reassurance of a hand to the shoulder does not stop the lights from flashing.
Vesper hears the machines print more figures, Blythe and the officers entering a murmur of discussion. She hears numbers rolling off tongues, and the names of weapons, also riddled with numbers, all of which make little sense.
The news arrives with a rain-battered postman, one afternoon, while she's staring into the bleak October gloom over the blurry River Coln where it runs past her house. The ducks have gone to take shelter, and everything else is a muddied blur of dull colours.
It is amid this downpour, behind a closed door, that Vesper tears the flap off a stiff, sealed envelope and discovers she is expected to report to the Aldershot Garrison in Southeast England less than two weeks from now.
And the rain continues to mute the sound of ducks as they waddle through the reeds, and the chatter of swallows taking shelter on eaves, as she returns inside, and breathes all her sadness out in a sigh.
Her parents hug her to sleep that night: two lonely, ordinary farm people whose daughter and love incarnate is about to disappear forever. They vowed not to offer her to any cause so bloody, never dreaming she would someday choose it for herself.
Wearing the combat uniform for the first time feels like a rite of passage: with it, Vesper feels as if she is casting off the memory of hiding in her bedroom waiting for sirens to sound, of being beholden to no one.
Her basic military training is effectively identical to that of every other person enlisted in the British Army. Because of the terms of her enlistment, no one knows there is anything different about her.
They only know that she is a woman destined to graduate as an officer, and the men make every effort to remind her of it, as they are wont to do. Training there has become synonymous with being the subject of derision, and she can do nothing to defend herself but to work twice as hard.
Sometimes, before it is lights-out in the garrison, the other women in the barracks gather on their sheets and talk about home. She lies curled on her own, listening to them talk of their mothers' cooking, and old summer fairs where they met the men they love. They are vicious about their broken hearts and solemn about family lost. They are patently homesick.
She cannot join them, because she does not feel as strongly as they do. When questioned, she nods in sympathy and offers advice.
“How about you, Lovelace? Surely there’s someone?” They turn to her bunk bed in synchrony. She lies prone, eyes darting to them, and shakes her head.
“Do you love no one?” asks Hadley Farnsworth, the one with the short brown hair.
“I love my parents.”
“It certainly doesn’t seem like you do.”
When Vesper isn’t training, she finds herself demonstrating for the scientists in charge of developing her weapons. She isn't much of an entertainer, and makes no effort to embellish her performances, sometimes firing a spark between her fingers, but that alone is often enough to rouse applause. On other occasions she is asked to create an arc between her fingertip and an object. The madder of the lot bring ammeters and voltmeters, and politely beg her to stop when the dials swing off the edge of the scale.
“But we do not know the last thing about how your abilities function,” says a squinty old man in a hat. “Can they be stretched—extended—as with a runner’s ability to complete a marathon? Are you able to improve?”
Vesper thinks back to when she was killing insects with little sparks. “I am quite certain I will,” she replies.
“You are all here, privates,” says Lieutenant Colonel Vaughan at the rostrum on Vesper’s first day at Achnacarry, “because you have volunteered your services to the British Commandos, or have been assigned a place here as your skills befit. I commend your courage, which the nation is in sore need of these days—but courage will not be enough. The life of a commando is like nothing you could ever anticipate. One thing I can tell you to anticipate, however, is to never see your homes again.”
A rustle of uneasy movement ripples through the assembly. Vesper blinks once to acknowledge her sadness.
“Now, do not shoulder that fact as a burden—God knows you will carry enough of those. Let the distant dream of home keep you from faltering. Let home become, for you, everything that makes Great Britain worth fighting for.”
The Commando Training Depot in Achnacarry is different from the Aldershot Barracks. Occupying an old stone castle among the mountains, the air is rare and there is not a field for miles, only forests in valleys—and not one member of the cohort thinks she does not deserve to be there.
They are all participants in the Programme, Vesper is informed before she arrives. They know who she is. They have agreed to serve beside her, and have signed forms, just as she has. Although unit postings officially take place at the end of graduation, membership in her own unit has already been decided. She is, after all, not a soldier.
“I expect thrice as much of you,” Lieutenant Colonel Vaughan growls at her at the end of their first assembly. “You are not special. You are not more capable. You are a soldier, just like the rest of them. Understood, private?”
“Understood, Sir,” she answers promptly.
Nothing makes the difference more stark than the way Vesper’s unit receives her. Half refuse to shake her hand or come within a metre; the rest are already begging her to demonstrate her purported powers before the day is over. Deciding that it might be better that they observe her abilities sooner than later, she obliges, holding her hands up, palms towards each other, and sending a small spark across the gap from right to left.
“My God, it’s like in the books,” mutters one of the younger men, McFadden, the one with freckles and a gap between his front teeth.
A blond man whose name she has yet to learn immediately pipes up, “make the lights turn on!” He is met with rousing assent. “Come on, let us see you do it!”
“I’ll need a bare—”
The light goes out before Vesper can finish her sentence and the common room goes dark. The gang of five or so pushes her towards the corner where the switch is, though she continues to insist she can’t do anything without access to the wiring.
“Go on, do it!” says short brunet Keith Dyer, whom she’s noticed trips over his own words all the time—barely the disposition of a commando. “Use the screws—that works, dunnit?”
“Well—let’s see.” Vesper lifts a hand so it hovers beside the switch. “Prepare to be amazed,” she says.
With a flourish, she flips the switch back down. The lights blink on, and she gestures for applause; they laugh and give it.
“You’re quite something,” says Dyer as he passes; he reaches out, seeming to consider clapping her on the shoulder, before retracting his hand and hustling away. Beside him, another of the boys—Gordon, if memory serves—nods, but does not speak. He only stares intently at the light switch as if it might suddenly erupt with sparks.
She wouldn’t call it alienation exactly.
Over their weeks of hefting sixty-pound kits, muscles burning, through muddy undergrowth, and traversing the assault courses that overlook foggy, densely-forested valleys, the rest of the cadets have not made no sign of disliking her in the least.
Even then—as they learn formations on the quadrangle, and commit to memory the names and uses of various firearms, Vesper begins to recognise the rift that has always stood between herself and the rest of her unit.
It isn’t just about gender, although she won’t discount that as a factor. As if she were a plague patient, they refuse to touch her belongings. She has a bunk all to herself, being the only woman in the depot, and not even the commanding officers—not LTC Vaughan himself—will touch her doorknob. It begins, she finds, to feel like a quarantine chamber.
Her schedule is busier than her companions’ by twice at least: while they take breaks, she gets familiar with an arsenal of electromagnetic weapons built specifically for her use, most of which are fresh from weapon-testing. She is in collaboration with the scientists, teaching them how to build weapons for humans while they teach her she isn’t nearly powerful enough to use them.
There are days when she feels like she is sinking in a pit of quicksand, yelling for help that will not come.
A power generator has been installed in a shed under the castle fortifications for her voltage-endurance training, and it is here that she faces her most humiliating failures. Two sessions end in medical bay visits, one in unconsciousness. Her fellow cadets have the good heart to visit her in the ward that one time; she’s learnt to appreciate the presence of each one—the only ones who know the unspeakable burden of having willingly sequestered themselves from everything they have ever loved, which she can see in their gazes even as they look on at her, hapless and limp from the exhaustion of trying to be too much at once.
One of the novel weapons Vesper is taught to use is the solenoid coilgun—they coined the term electromagnetic powered weapons—EMPWs—for them—fresh out of the prototype stage. The handiest is shaped much like a small automatic rifle, and can fire 300 Win Mags at velocities exceeding those of comparable rifles—as long as she can correctly apply current to the three coils with hair-breadth precision.
The coilgun, the scientists say, was a useless weapon before Vesper came along. She has changed the constraints. Battery weight no longer matters, and efficiency comes to the forefront—the problems of which she also negates by serving as a double capacitor.
Once she has perfected her timing, it quickly becomes her favourite weapon.
The mounted coilguns are arguably more exciting, but also far trickier to operate. With the right angle and sufficient voltage, she can fire electrodes into tank armour to embed conducting wires, allowing her to deliver a shock of as great an intensity as she can muster. Many a time during the simulations, she fires poorly only to have projectiles glance off the hull. Her overseer, Sergeant Bradley, yells her ear off each time: embedders are expensive. Failure is expensive. She burns out several wires every day.
Nevertheless, Vesper sees the power of her shots increase as her voltage generation improves. This is the reward, she supposes, to overexerting herself so many times to the point of unconsciousness. It is like learning to run a marathon while carrying weights.
In the same time it takes for them to ready themselves for the final thirty-mile route march, fifty thousand volts becomes nothing to Vesper.
In fact, it is so trivial now that she is able to generate it simply by rubbing her hands together, no thinking required.
She stands before her instructor at her final firing test on the shooting range, fingers curling around the interface plates of the coilgun gripped tight in her right hand. She stares stone-cold at the target at the other end of the range, nothing between her and the dark circle at the centre.
“Whenever you’re ready.”
Vesper nods and lifts her gun with both hands, eyes narrowing on the target. This is the thousandth time she has taken this shot. She knows there is no way she will get it wrong.
Closing one eye to adjust her aim, she lets the electrons gather and flow down her arms, a buzzing shimmer around each hand. As soon as she feels herself enter the range of fifty thousand volts, she pulls the trigger.
There is no boom. The bullet slams straight through the bull’s eye with a loud snap.
The company graduates into the No. 60 Commando without much ceremony; there is applause and hugging when they pull the green berets onto their heads. No one approaches Vesper, naturally, but they go through the motions of congratulating her.
Their first posting is barely three days later, to the Axis-controlled town of Mortsel which straddles the Western Front on the northern coast of Belgium. The unfamiliar bellow of Captain Thorne, spurring them as they clamber out of the armoured personnel vehicle and race to their positions, gear slung over shoulders, reminds her that she is no longer at the training centre.
She takes her position on the rooftop of an evacuated shop-house with two other privates, Elliot and Johnson, tightening the knobs on the tripod so the electrode cannon stands sturdy atop it.
She peers over the edge of the roof while the sounds fall away, eyes narrowed on the tip of her electrode cannon where it obscures a section of the facing house. In the rumbling of faraway tanks, she lets her finger wind around the trigger, one eye closing as she squints through the scope.
He heart is booming inside her helmet, but she does not let it show on her face, only licks her lips, and lets her thoughts drown the sound of tank treads away.
As soon as the leading tank is beneath them, Johnson nods, and she squeezes, watching the electrode spin into a gap between the tread and a wheel.
At first, the Nazis do not understand the electrical surges that seem to be putting their vehicles and equipment permanently out of commission, and causing diesel explosions at random. Nothing on the battlefield ought to be able to generate a current that strong, not without being terribly conspicuous to the eye.
They blame it first on their engineers, then the factories, but after several months of tests turning up no results, they begin to watch closely.
It takes them almost half a year to wise up to their game and by then, now-Sergeant Vesper Lovelace has already disrupted a major operation or two. While she makes her fair share of mistakes, she learns to contain their effects, and soon she is a genuine leader whom her men are pleased to look up to. She has never been one to let things get to her head, but it has an effect nevertheless. Grim purpose fills her up, and all the work she is doing ceases to be enough.
One evening between battles, Vesper seeks the audience of the 3 Troop's commanding officer. “I need to be out there,” she says, pacing back and forth between tents while the evening light drains from the sky. “Every minute I spend back here is a minute I’m wasting.”
Major Harris chews on a blade of grass while he listens. “Cool your engines, Lovelace; we’re saving you for the big clashes,” he replies, barking a laugh. “I’ve never seen a kid as driven as you—and a lady, at that. Where did you say you’re from, again?”
“You have seen the planes at the RAF?”
“I volunteered when I was sixteen, sir. I’ve seen their engines.”
“An early start, then,” Harris replies. “Well, Lovelace, Number 60 will be intercepting an important escort in three days’ time, on the border of Liege. They are carrying a shipment of novel weapons that could turn the tide on the German border. Heaven knows what that is. I take it Three—with the likes of you leading a section—is ready to heft that responsibility.”
Vesper straightens. “Yes, sir. I will reward your trust,” she replies, to which he grins.
It is as such that the 3 Troop finds itself moving in through the streets of Liege beneath a darkening sky, kicking stones and abandoned baskets aside, ramming doors down.
Vesper spits the taste of grit out of her mouth as the eight soldiers thunder up the stairs of their building of choice—an old hospital that stands tall over the main intersection where they expect the escort. It is almost eerie to watch the dials whir about them as they race through quiet corridors, guns raised, their muddied boots marring the cleanliness.
They locate a room that provides a good vantage over the junction, and begin setting their weapons up. It is a bare industrial space, an escape ladder ascending to a closed hatch above, and it leaves them just enough room to move about and to duck for cover. Close by, members of a fellow section—she knows them, Gordon who trained with her at Achnacarry, Rajan who lived in London—load their PIATs, ready to back her up at neighbouring windows. They are expecting four tanks: a few quick, quiet shots will do the trick. Without gunpowder she can fire at the armoured escort from the mounted coilgun without giving their position away.
Thunder rolls, shadows shift. By the time they are done, they hear the tanks rumbling from beyond the buildings, right on cue. A cloud of dust alerts them first to the escort of hulking grey Panzer III's, kicking up clods of dirt as they advance towards the intersection, crushing stones beneath their treads.
Private Rajan lowers his binoculars, and his expression makes her stomach clench. “Eight Panzers,” he says. "And they're accompanied by Hanomags. They know something's up."
She purses her lips. This isn’t the first time intelligence has been wrong, and Marlowe has no shortage of ammunition on him. But this is also the first time she has demanded responsibility. She cannot let things go awry.
“Ready to fire?” crackles Harris on the radio set, through interference.
“Standing by, over.”
Four sections wait on the ground, waiting to take the convoy, and everything is teetering upon her. “Marlowe,” she says, and he loads the electrode embedder. She aims it, waiting until her spotter, Weston, signals the OK.
Bracing herself against the recoil, Vesper fires the electrode. The projectile pummels into the treads of the leading Panzer, and there is a brief caesura of sound as she musters up a potential, before sending it through the wire.
It all happens in a split second. The first tank is seized by a cloud of sparks, and begins to smoke. The entire convoy stalls. She releases the conducting wire, and it whips out of the window like a snake.
Around her there is muttering, snatches of the first pessimistic whisperings. The Germans, too, have tried to rein the storm, and the Panzers IIIs are thunder harnessed for death. From here, they can see all eight tanks in their horrible glory, guns gaping like the maws of monsters.
“Maybe retreat was a good idea,” says Finley from behind her.
“Maybe nothing!” Sergeant Vesper Lovelace will hear none of their defeatist talk. Odds do not scare her. She has to press on. She asked to be in charge. “Marlowe!”
He shakily extends another embedder; she snatches it from him and loads it herself, stringing the conducting wire in.
She can hear nothing but her pulse. Not even the thunder penetrates it. She loads another electrode, aims, and fires before Weston has signalled. Another tank is seized by an electric surge, a blaze of flames exploding through the gaps in its armoured hull.
“Ma’am, wait—” says Weston, but she is already loading the next projectile.
This is her first, and crucial, mistake.
Against the spotter’s warning, Vesper fires yet again.
It just so happens that, as she lets loose her shot, the tank commander’s eyes rest upon their building. He sees the electrode fly, and fly wide.
The projectile glances off the hull.
Seconds later, the turret is groaning turning towards them, and the fear crystallises through her, cold sweat breaking out. “Bugger it!” she snaps. But the sight of a cannon pointed at her, pulling the entire world into the shadow of its barrel, snatches her next words from her lips, holding her fast.
“Down! Down!” Vesper only has a second to register Weston knocking her to the ground, away from the window.
A shell booms, shattering the wall into an infinity of rubble, filling the air with pressing heat and smoke and a cry of agony, and all at once she knows it's slipped out of her grasp, everything that she was supposed to have kept under control. The room is full of coughing and wailing, and as it clears she sees Gordon squirming in the smoke, trapped beneath rubble, limbs twisted, tears glistening, and she almost cannot bring herself to look, because she knows he is good as dead. She only barely hears the turret begin turning again, and the other section scrambling back into position, the sound of a PIAT being fired in a gush of heat. The retaliatory explosion of the shaped charge outside is drowned out by the strained cry of a private curled on the floor, uniform charred down to the waist, limbs and face scalded to grotesque disfigurement by the backblast.
This is what it means to be at war, it suddenly hits her. Not the ranks and glories and drills. Not pledging yourself to the king and the kingdom. It's watching your friends die screaming.
Vesper has no time for guilt or regret; she knows those will come later. Amid the pressing sound of her panicked gasping, her mind races for a tactical solution—anything—but the situation keeps overtaking her ideas. Out on the street, infantry soldiers are already dismounting from the carriers, and she knows it is too late to attempt to disarm more tanks before they storm the building and take them out. And once they do, they'd have lost every last inch of the tactical advantage they once held, and the rest of the 3 Troop will be at the mercy of the Nazis, and it would all be her bloody fault and perhaps if God is merciful she will not live to nurse the regret—
She casts a glance at the ladder leading to the hatch and, recognising the only option left to them, gestures for the rest to dismantle the coilgun and follow.
Seven pairs of boots scramble up the metal rungs, their sergeant flinging the hatch open to reveal the bare rooftop, a single water tank presiding over the emptiness, over which the entire sky glowers and roars. The street is a torrent of foot soldiers, guns clinking.
Racing to the railings, head racing even then as she takes her bright new surroundings in, Vesper gestures towards a raised area beneath the struts of the container. “Everyone but Marlowe and Weston, move there and ready your guns. All of you, plug up. Rajan—“ she nods at the man with Gordon’s PIAT, already reaching for his earplugs—“as soon as you hear the men approaching, I want you to fire at that—“ she gestures up at the tank. “Marlowe, Weston, set it up here.”
It is in moments of tilt like these that Vesper can truly appreciate the intensity of the training they underwent. It serves Marlowe and Weston well, as they ready the gun in almost twenty seconds. At least someone here remembers protocol. She on the other hand—
No. Guilt can wait. With the tanks still pointed at the window below them, none of them seem to notice that the gun has moved up. She narrows her eyes as she aims it, finding the armoured lorry—with the precious cargo—in the crosshairs.
She hears the footsteps on the access staircase, booming behind the closed door. A bolt of lighting streaks across the sky.
Plugging her ears, she feels her own lightning gather in her hands, remembering the day she stood beneath the tree on the hill by River Coln, doing what no person should be able to do.
Vesper fires the electrode straight into the convoy lorry, parked a street down, and lets a million volts gush into the ground.
Her intuition proves right: it is full of explosives. She knows, because the instant the current hits the lorry, fire blows it apart, and the shockwave levels two buildings and flings the flaming tanks across the street. The boom is muted by the plugs so that her ears only ring slightly.
But she is not done. Whirling back, she raises a hand to the sky.
Thunder booms. Static mounts in the air.
The next lightning strike leaps right into her hand, lighting up her fingertips briefly with pain. She stands over everyone else, aglow. She grits her teeth. The electrons make her shake; this is more than she’s ever held, so much she thinks it might kill her.
The next sequence of events is inevitable: the Nazi soldiers burst onto the rooftop; Rajan blows a hole in the water tank; a roar of water gushes out in a curtain to flood the space, sweeping soldiers back. Vesper leaps into the torrent, body crackling, throat blazing.
Already the soldiers are backing away, their commander barking panicked orders with flighty gestures, like a bird cornered in its cage.
Vesper Lovelace lets the swell of water knock her forward.
She plunges her hand into the current, and a billion volts of potential become a blinding surge of electricity.
It doesn’t take long for the horror to catch up, once they are back at the tents with towels wrapped around them.
As Vesper sits there drying, they ask her if she would like to report medical trauma. She tells them no, she might need a week-long break but she will be back in action as soon as she is able, because—
Because of the structure, because of Inside and Outside. Because she is a soldier of this nation and it’s her duty to be everything she’s supposed to be.
But what is the structure, and what are Inside and Outside? Go her internal thoughts. Why does patriotism mean so much death?
Everyone is delighted, but stunned, that she wishes to return to work. No one lives through nearly dying and still wants to fight. What a formidable will, they think, and what a heart that loves its country so. There is already talk that she will be awarded a medal for her deeds in the town of Liege.
That night she wakes up and sheds tears for the first time in years, because the vision of two privates’ bodies, mauled by the war, won’t stop haunting her in her sleep.
“It was never about making a difference. They tried to tell me. Everyone who wasn’t involved in this bloody business. It isn’t about making a difference. It’s about numbers. It’s all numbers.” Midway through the sentence, her fingers clench into a ball.
You’re not a soldier, you’re a weapon. She feels like a machine.
“But you’ve made such a difference,” he replies with a meaningful glance at the medal she wears. All of a sudden, it weighs a thousand tonnes of solid guilt.
“I did what anyone in my position would have. And it was not enough.”
A wave breaks unevenly on the shore, throwing Vesper out of her daze.
"We would like," says Orobelle, "to invite you into service of the House of Diamonds, specifically as a bodyguard—"
"I have no time for your magician’s patter," Vesper interrupts, pointing the chain’s hook at the girl. "Drop your weapons and put your hands behind your heads."
"Do not speak to me in that tone!"
"You're on our camp, you follow our rules. Drop your weapons!"
The little duchess draws back, digging a heel into sand. "No!"
The hook shoots through the air in a blur of links, swinging and tightening around Dorian's arm before he has blinked. He is seized by a brief convulsion, then his knees fold, and his torso swings into the ground with a thud.
"He's alright," Vesper says, tugging once on the chain so his arm lifts and it unwinds. When Orobelle turns to the soldier, the hook is pointed straight between her eyes. "Put your hands behind your head. Don't test my patience."
Her eyes widen and for the first time she senses despair. "You don't understand the weight of this—"
"We can talk when you're in chains. I promise I will listen."
Orobelle glances at Dorian, and her face crumples into a grimace. "Be quick."
Vesper picks the sword up off the ground and slides it into Dorian's scabbard. Going down on one knee beside the swordsman, she slips her hands under his body and heaves his towering form over her shoulder, lifting him like a sack. "March," she shouts, knight-over-shoulder.
The duchess' expression sours. "No," she says. In a swirl of light, she collapses into the rectangular form of the Ace of Diamonds, skidding a few finger's-lengths across the sand. "Carry me."
“I’ll tear you in two if you don’t come out of there,” Vesper growls down at her.
“No, you won’t. It’s against your rules.”
She purses her lips, sighs, and picks Orobelle up.
Once they are back inside the barracks, Orobelle grows a little more agreeable, turning into her human form for her benefit. They put both her and her knight away in a cell, and the captain signs them in without another word.
When Vesper returns later in the afternoon to check on her feisty little prisoner, the girl growls through the echoing black dampness to welcome her, a cheek against the bar.
She peers down at the young blonde duchess. "How are you?"
"I don't deserve this," Orobelle mutters, glaring with an intensity far exceeding her stature, but her shoulders are heavy.
Vesper descends on a knee so their eyes are level. "You've only been here for two hours," she says. "Shall we discuss?"
"Lovelace." Orobelle reads off her badge, then affixes her gaze on Vesper’s. "I would not have sullied my pride and come seeking you out if I didn’t need your protection, direly."
Vesper raises an eyebrow. "Dorian is a trained protector, is he not?"
"And don't you question that!" the duchess snaps. "He is not enough. I need all eight of you, the servants of the Bearer of the Knot of Worlds. Come to me as you were born to. The ancient texts say that it is so!"
"Ancient texts of your invention, I wager."
"No, no! I am the Bearer of the Knot of Worlds. I hold the universes together. I ensure their continual existence. I am she, and if I die, so does the universe!"
She snorts. "You expect me to believe any of this drivel?"
"I assure you, I do not lie about things concerning myself," snaps Orobelle. "Listen to me now. You will terminate your service with this organization within a week, and when you are ready, we will take you to Wonderland—"
"Stop." Vesper holds up a hand. "I am a commanding officer. You will not make me leave my post. That is final.”
“I am a duchess and heir to the throne of the Cards!” Orobelle screams, both hands clutching the bars. "They do not need you. I need you!” Her tone changes to one of bargaining. “I could make you vanish. Punishment would not be a concern."
"It's not punishment I fear. I don't expect you to understand." Vesper rises on her knees.
"Do it! I order you to!"
"I am under no obligation to take your orders."
"You are obligated by twelve universes!"
Vesper presses her knuckles to her forehead. "No. Do not tell me that, because I will not believe it, and cannot believe it, unless you can prove it to me."
She is surprised when Orobelle pauses, glare wavering.
“Will you truly risk the existence of the world on the slim possibility I might be lying?”
It isn’t that she doesn't believe Orobelle at all. It is that no one else in the army will. “I can’t do this for you. I’m sorry.”
"What will happen to me?" the young duchess finally asks.
"They'll transfer you to—" she shakes her head— "I'll think of something. I'll make sure that you go free. But you will go without me."
Vesper later manages to convince LTC Clarke that she has, on some questioning, found the girl and her guardian to be innocent of Nazi allegiance. She takes the two to the entrance of the camp, and then detours towards the beach once she is out of view.
“Tell me how you came to love this army so,” Orobelle mutters as they come to a crunching stop on the sand. “It cannot be easy to be the only person in the world with powers like yours. I imagine they have treated you with scepticism and fright."
"Their scepticism does not bother me," says Vesper. "My occasional inability to live up to the responsibility accord to me by my powers, does." She turns. "I am nothing, if I am not of use."
Orobelle chuckles grimly. "I understand now," she say, "why you cannot leave here, why you’ve ceded your free will completely. You're not a soldier. You're a weapon."
"If you knew a thing about my life, Orobelle," she says, "you'd know why you're better off giving up. Not because I refuse to believe you, but because I cannot account for the possibility that you are lying."
She shakes her head. “I cannot.”
“Come back when the war is over,” Vesper says, turning to depart. “Then I might consider joining you.”
It is easy, when you are young, to think that stone is permanent and that houses stand forever. And then you watch them burst open in a livid furor of flame, curling up before the blaze as if it were ripping your skin away. And you think about policemen and lawyers and the good of humankind. And suddenly you know that Inside and Outside don’t exist.