Hello…anyone there? I know that quite a few people are following this story, so maybe you're still listening. I know that it's been years since I've updated. But I believe that I made a promise to myself and you all…that I'd finish this story, that I wouldn't forget it. And I haven't. It's been lingering at the back of my mind all this time. I want to finish it. But I was 16 years old when I started this story, and I'm 21 now. (Feel free to tell me whether or not college has improved my writing, haha.) I just haven't had the time to write. I've been going through college, employment, living on my own most of the time…and sadly, I don't have any opportunities for creative writing. But once in a while, I'm overcome with the urge to write, to revisit the tragic, misguided "Min." I still haven't quite decided how I want to end things with her…suggestions welcome. So…here is the result of those little spurts I've had the past couple years.

INVASION

"I was talking to you!"

"Mhmm?" Minerva slowly turned towards Max, bringing herself back to the present.

"You've really got to stop thinking about that tracker all the time!" Max chided her, half-playfully, half-seriously.

"What's taking her so long, Max?" Min asked anxiously, not really listening.

Max placed her hands firmly on Minerva's shoulders and forced Min to face her. "Look," Max said sharply. "I know we've been waiting an eternity for this mission to finally happen. But that's no excuse, Min. You've been downright…subhuman these last couple weeks."

It was true. Min had always been a rather obsessive personality, but the advent of the tracker's signal had made her possibly worst she'd ever been. The tracker was linked through satellite to her own personal work tablet, which would sound an alarm once Tally sent the transmission. Minerva herself had to be the first to know when it happened.

Ever since Tally had left on her journey, the tablet had never left Minerva's hands.

She literally spent about half of her day staring at the tablet's screen, the same words blinking over and over in green: "Tracker #1225: Status: Not Found." Min often fell asleep at night still staring at it, and would wake up to find it on the floor next to her bed (or sometimes hugged to her chest; a little embarrassing).

It was more than two weeks since Tally had left. Tally had mentioned that two weeks was supposedly more than enough time for her to make it to the Smoke from Columbia. Minerva knew that she should probably accept the inevitable: that Tally hadn't made it, that she had perished in the wilderness somewhere, and that they'd have to find another ugly and start the process all over. But she had a strange feeling that this wasn't the case…

Minerva took a deep breath, preparing to come up with a response for Max, when Max herself continued: "I know it's hard for you to admit this Min, but…I think it was a failure." Minerva couldn't help but wince slightly at the word. "Tally probably had an accident. She's dead, Min, or lost in the middle of nowhere and running out of food. Call everyone in for a briefing, and let's start over."

"I just…" Min struggled to get the words out, overcome by a choking paralysis. She wasn't upset over Tally's very probable misfortune, of course; the little brat had hardly won Min's affections. It was that nagging sensation which she had no explanation for, that voice telling her that Max was wrong…

Suddenly, Min clasped Max's shoulders, hard, and stared into her eyes with burning intensity. Max tried to pull away, frightened by Min's abrupt change. "Just give it one day more, Max," she said in a low voice, barely audible. "One more day. Then I'll give up on it."

"Okay, okay," Max said nervously, trying to back away, hands poised for self-defense, just barely noticeably. "Let go of me; it hurts."

"Sorry," Minerva muttered, and did so, looking down at her own hands. After all these years, she still became unaware her own strength once in a while, annoyingly enough.

"Alright, we'll wait for twenty-four more hours," Max said, rubbing her bruised shoulders. "But when that time is up…you'd better call everyone in for a briefing and declare the mission aborted for now. I'm your subcommander, Min. It's my job, as your immediate inferior, to remind you of reality and hold you back once in a while," she said sternly, but not unkindly. "Do you promise me that?"

Min managed to smile slightly. "We haven't made each other promise since we were littlies," she said wistfully, her mind wandering.

"I'm serious though, Min," Max said firmly.

"Okay, I promise," she answered, not meeting Max's eyes. "One more day, then I'll give up."


Min was so violently jolted awake that she nearly fell out of bed. Her work tablet, which had clattered to the floor, was beeping and buzzing. Minerva leapt off of the bed and fell to her knees on the floor, clutching the tablet in both hands. She stared at the blinking, red screen: "Tracker #1225 – Status – Activated." Coordinates were flashing on a map. She knelt like that, paralyzed, for about ten seconds, heart pounding and hands shaking. Then, Minerva snapped out of it and entered action mode. She stabbed a button on the tablet, transmitting the blaring alarm all throughout Headquarters. Next, Min pressed the intercom button, broadcasting her voice on all the loudspeakers: "All forces ready at hand; prepare for invasion as rehearsed." (They had rehearsed countless times, of course, for this very occasion: the moment the tracker was activated.) In a few minutes, Min could hear the sound of stomping boots: Specials running in the hall outside, on the floor above her, clambering towards the hovercraft hangar. Min didn't even bother taking off what she had slept in; instead, she slipped into her gray raw silk Special Circumstances coverall, decorated with all the insignia of her rank as its head, right over her shorts and t-shirt; she pulled on her tall black boots over the pant legs, fastened her utility belt, yanked back and pinned up her hair in its usual style. She did all this with lightning speed; maybe she'd eat and drink something once she'd boarded the hovercar.

Minerva opened her door onto a frenzy of activity outside. She pushed past her soldiers, their shouts of excitement muted by her own pounding pulse. She proceeded in a robotic manner, seemingly on autopilot, having waited for this moment for so long. Minerva strode toward the bay of the most deluxe, comfortable hovercar; reserved only for herself and her subcommanders. She settled into the faux-leather seat and waited for the others, including Max, who plopped into the seat next to her, panting. As soon as everything was ready, the bay doors opened above them and the hovercar ascended, then began to speed towards the coordinates of the tracker's location. It was earliest morning now, the sun just peeking over the edge of the horizon, turning the night sky gray with dawn.

Min and her subcommanders sat around the table of the cabin in stony, tense silence. Each one was lost in his or her own thoughts, mentally preparing themselves. Minerva was sitting on her hands so that no one could see them shaking. Her stomach was reeling in a most sickening manner (definitely not from airsickness; she'd never suffered from that affliction), and she was resisting the urge to rock back and forth and moan in mental anguish. Min hadn't seen this much excitement in about three decades, and her nerves couldn't take it. One thing was for sure: unless they were dead, she would finally face Maddy and Az, finally catch them. They thought they could trick her, escape her? Not a chance. But although she had imagined this moment a thousand times in her head, Minerva suddenly couldn't bear the thought of it.

When she couldn't take it anymore, Min unclicked her seatbelt and escaped into the hovercar's lavatory. Once she was safely hidden, she sunk down onto her knees in the tiny space and vomited into the toilet. Min held her head in her hands, the tremors rolling over her body. This was unacceptable! Who knew how soon she would have to face them? Yet as much as she silently yelled at herself, Min couldn't settle and regain her cool.

After what must have been at least fifteen minutes, she heard a soft knock on the door and Max's voice. "Are you okay in there?" Max asked tentatively. Minerva could only manage a groan. Max, who had seen her friend in various sorry states many times before, opened the door onto the sad scene before her. She clicked it shut behind her, and kneeled down next to Min. "Shhhh…" Max whispered, gently rubbing her back and shoulders. "Take a deep breath…in…and out…just focus on that." Dear god, Minerva thought, what would she do without this woman? After a couple minutes of this, Max passed her a cup of water from the sink and said softly, "You know…I think that all of us are feeling at least a little bit of what you are, but…no one can really understand what you could possibly be going through right now. And I get that. But…as soon as you can, you need to pull yourself together. They need a leader for this operation, and that person would be you." Max squeezed her again and helped her up, then they both made their ways back out into the cabin. The rest of the subcommanders didn't look up from their laps, probably out of respect. Maybe Max was right, and they understood Min's feelings more than she realized.

The next hour or so was more bearable, after Max's reassurance and continual silent support from the neighboring seat. Min jumped when a voice from the cockpit cracked over the intercom: "Doctor…we're seeing something up here that may be of interest to you. We're still a couple miles off from the coordinates, but on the infrared, we're picking up a large pocket of heat in the side of a rock face…at first we thought it must be an animal's cave, but it's much too large and powerful for that…" Min climbed out of her seat and entered the cockpit. "We'd better land and check it out," she ordered. "We're still too far away from the coordinates for them to see and hear hovercars, correct?"

"Yes, Doctor," the navigator answered.

"Then order everyone to land," Minerva commanded. "I want to check out whatever this is, and I don't want the rest of the fleet continuing without me. It's still dawn; we have time."

The navigator relayed the message on the radio, and soon Min recognized the sinking feeling of descent. The hovercar settled onto the grass, blowing the loose leaves, twigs, and grass into a maelstrom around it, the rest of the fleet following.

Minerva immediately kicked open the side doors and jumped down onto the ground. Other Specials poured out of the hovercars, brandishing weapons. In no time at all, they had the area of suspicion surrounded, waiting for further orders from their leader.

What they had discovered was a very curious scene indeed. The area where the hovercars had landed was an open field, and before them, a sheer cliff face. Yet embedded in the rock appeared to be the front side of a cabin, with a distinctly man-made door and window - a little house built right into the mountainside. Minerva heard banging inside, and frantic shouts, a man and a woman…she would never mistake those voices. And the smell emanating from the cracks around the door…

Like a woman possessed, Minerva slowly made her way across the five-meter distance to that door, one foot moving in front of the other as if her legs had a mind of their own. Her Specials followed behind, ready to leap to her defense in a nanosecond. Her pulse was pounding in her head again as she raised her fist to knock. After a few raps on the door, Minerva wondered why she had even done that, and with a well-placed powerful kick, she slammed her boot into the door and knocked it down. She barged in, her cohort following.

Once the dust was settled, Minerva gazed at the display before her. An old couple stood clutching each other, faces frozen in absolute fear. It had to be Maddy and Az…but they were nearly unrecognizable. God, they looked awful! Faces covered in wrinkles, hair almost white…and the two of them had put on more than a few pounds, especially Az. Min spent a few seconds inwardly gloating over her own slimness and unnaturally youthful appearance. And they were so…ugly. Min didn't give much thought to it; the two were cosmetic surgeons and obviously had figured out how to undo their facial surgery, for some perverse reason. Why, oh why had they chosen this lifestyle? "How…did you…?" Maddy eventually managed to rasp.

"Ah, Maddy," Minerva sighed, unable to keep the sharp-toothed grin off her face. "I asked you once when you would ever stop underestimating me." Min circled around the entwined couple, coming closer and closer with every revolution, the heels of her boots making the most delightfully threatening thuds on the wooden floorboards that the two had used to cover the bare earth. She glanced around the interior of the unusual dwelling. Minerva had to admit…it was beautiful. The cave was filled with various objets d'art and antiques, the walls covered by hangings. The contrast with Min's own sterile quarters back in Special Circumstances HQ was startling.

"What are you going to do to us? Why are you here?" Az choked.

"We're on our way to destroy the Smoke, and return all the runaways to their proper cities. I know that it was you two who started that. I mean, who else could it have been?" Minerva noticedthe pure delight in her own cruelty creeping into her voice. "It was so fortunate that we managed to bump into you two, though. What a lovely coincidence. Search the house," she ordered her comrades, then enjoyed the looks of horror on Az and Maddy's faces as they listened to the banging and crashing: Specials rifling through their personal belongings, making sweeps of their most intimate spaces. Being completely surrounded by Specials, there was nothing that the two of them could do. They were too smart to make any rash moves, and their bodies were weakened from age. "Anything interesting?" Minerva called into the back corridor. "Nope, afraid not. Just a bunch of useless junk and hoarded city crap that we can easily get our hands on back home," came the reply. "Alright then. Arrest them," Minerva ordered, then turned back to Maddy and Az."We don't want to hurt you, but we will if we have to." The agents yanked the two apart and bound their wrists behind their backs.

Minerva was a tad disappointed that Az and Maddy weren't even putting up a good fight. They were too paralyzed by extreme shock and horror to manage more than a few words. "I suppose…we should have known this day would come eventually," Maddy said sadly, her voice shaking. Then she set her mouth into a thin line and stared directly at Minerva, eyes suddenly glinting with the familiar attitude. "Do what you want with us. There's nothing you can do that will surprise us anymore. Just please…" Her voice and tough façade suddenly faltered, and she spoke in barely a whisper, tears filling her eyes. "Please…don't hurt David…"

Minerva's head snapped up at the mention of that name. She raised her eyebrows. "David? Why, that's the only actual name we managed to extract from the suspects during our preliminary investigations. David? You mean the one who snuck around in the ruins just outside of our city, luring our children into unspeakable danger, using them as pawns to build your backwards little…project?" Min raised the pitch of her voice, in mock exaggerated surprise. "Why, I would think that you should realize we'd only plan the most…appropriate punishment for him." Maddy's head immediately drooped and she let out a sob. Min must have betrayed some confusion at the reaction, because Az stared her down fiercely, then said in a low voice, nearly a growl, "David…is our son."

Minerva inhaled sharply through her nose, balled her hands into fists at her sides. She couldn't believe it; the coincidence was just too much. David, the instigator, the one who had been recruiting runaways on a never-before-seen scale…was Maddy and Az's own son. Why were they wasting time here when the real prize was so tantalizingly close now? What would she do with him? Should she force his parents to watch the inevitable torture and interrogation? The possibilities were endless…

"Let's move out of here!" Minerva barked to her team. "We have a Smoke and a…David to find." She grinned maniacally at Maddy and Az, then swiftly turned on her heel and marched out the door. The squad of Specials came right after, dragging the captives with them. Min surveyed the group arrayed before her on Maddy and Az's "front lawn." "Waiting for orders, Doctor," one of the officers said.

Min pretended to think for a moment, looking up, fist under her chin. "Well…we're destroying the house, of course," she said, trying to sound nonchalant about it, as if she didn't care, while forcing herself to not look at Maddy and Az's faces. "Hold them here," she ordered to the ones restraining her enemies. "Follow me, and bring fire supplies," she directed the rest. Min crossed the threshold back into Az and Maddy's living room. She scanned the sorry scene. The once-picturesque space was now disturbed, littered with broken china and other evidence of the Specials' barbaric rummaging. Min took a few steps over to the back wall, admiring a marble statuette in the corner and an intricately patterned rug hanging up. She just couldn't burn all of it…it was too beautiful. Min ran her hand over the rug. "Spray this with flame repellant," she commanded. "Wait out here for a minute." Min walked deeper into the house, into Maddy and Az's hallway, past their kitchen, their toilet…the bedroom was last.

It reeked of straw, which was undoubtedly what the lumpy mattress was made out of. The rustic quilts were in complete disarray, confirming Min's hypothesis: they had surprised them completely, probably in their sleep. The human scent in the room was too much, and Min's eyes started to burn with repressed tears, partly of anger, mostly of jealousy and hurt. But weren't those last two really just the same thing?

Min pulled a firestarter from her utility belt. She squeezed it so tightly in her hand that it wore dents, but she didn't even notice any pain. It was nothing, compared to what was tearing her chest apart right now. Min turned on the firestarter, the little flame flickering to life. She imagined all the agony she had experienced throughout her adult life, so much worse than the physical kind, being transferred into that flame. She held it up to the bed, and the material ignited. The fire grew and grew into a beautiful red blaze, since quilts and straw were so wonderfully flammable.

Specials didn't sweat easily, but soon the heat had become so blistering that Min could feel it trickling down her body in a most irritating way. She had to leave the room. But the fire couldn't last forever; the walls were made of stone. She strode back out into the living room, stony-faced. "Everybody, clear out!" she ordered. "And hand me a fire grenade once we get outside."

One of the officers obliged her wish, and Min activated the grenade, then tossed it behind her through the open door, smirking at Maddy and Az. Immediately, a loud boom sounded, and the capsule of fuel exploded. More red flames licked across the floor and up the walls, visible through the window and open door. "I think we'll stay here a few minutes more…I decided that we do have time," Min announced casually. "And oh," she added, turning towards Maddy and Az's captors, shock-sticks in hand and activated. "Give those two a zap if they try to close their eyes or look away."

They watched the blaze consume the house for a couple minutes more. The heat inside grew so great that the glass of the windowpanes shattered with a pop, exploding outward and littering the grass with shards. Min eventually got bored, because Maddy and Az were demonstrating a most infuriating display of dignity. They were silent, their faces noncommittal, but silent tears rolled down their cheeks. Not exactly the show she'd been expecting.

Minerva gestured towards the hovercars. "Let's move out of here, and continue on to our coordinates," she announced. Maddy and Az were tossed into the cargo hold of one of the hovercars, and Min and her cohort climbed back into the cabins and took off.


They didn't get very far when they decided to stop. The hovercars would remain stationary in the air, while a camouflaged scouting drone would be sent out to scope the scene, to help them figure out how to best attack and find what method would surprise people the most.

Min squeezed into the cockpit to watch the camera feed from the drone, barely able to contain her excitement. The Smoke was…larger than expected. It appeared to be much more planned and organized than Min had given them credit for. There were so many buildings that "streets" could even be determined. The twenty-or-so buildings themselves were rustic but solid and well-constructed, some of them almost as big as an ugly-dorm, although they could only manage one story. This is what she could gather from the methodical sweeps over the area that the drone was completing.

At first, there had been many raggedy-looking people wandering around, but the streets were becoming quieter. The drone pilot turned it off automatic mode, and instead made the hovercam-drone follow a lone Smokey until he reached his destination: one of the large buildings that indeed many of them seemed to be pouring into; whether for breakfast or a town meeting, who knew…or cared. This was absolutely perfect, just what they needed, all of them gathered in once space like this.

Min pressed a button to broadcast herself over the radio system: "Prepare for landing and attack; await further instructions." And the invasion began.


"Still no word on our accomplice?"

"I'm afraid not, Doctor," replied the subcommander next to her.

"Hmmm…most surprising. I wonder what she could possibly be up to." Minerva was fully prepared to give Tally a real hero's welcome home, whatever she wanted…a comfortable seat on the best hovercar, perhaps, even though she had taken so damn long.

"Did you find anybody named David yet? He won't have any city of origin listed, when you look it up," she reminded.

"No, Doctor," he replied. "And we've cleared out most everyone." She drummed her fingers on the rough wooden table in frustration.

Minerva was sitting in what was apparently some sort of library, since it contained several worktables, and rows and rows of bookshelves full of Rusty filth. It was the perfect place for their invasion headquarters, though, being the largest building in the settlement, and filled with plenty of chairs and places to put the workscreens of Special Circumstances' higher-ups.

The invasion hadn't been too difficult. Having most of them gathered in one building certainly helped, and Min's strategy had been perfect, everything going to plan. Most of the Smokeys were already subdued, cuffed, and contained by now, besides for a few tricky stragglers. But they shouldn't be too difficult to catch. Min could smell a couple of the buildings burning, but besides for that, no real damage had been done: only a couple killed or seriously wounded. Special Circumstances was identifying all the runaways, and organizing them into proper groups, in order to send them back to their cities of origin (which turned out to be Columbia for most of them, unsurprisingly). Shay had been recaptured, after putting up a nasty fight, apparently. Things were wrapping up. Except for the small problem of finding Tally and getting the locket back. And nabbing David, which Min was getting less and less optimistic about.

Out of boredom, Min got up and walked over to one of the library shelves and pulled one of the articles off of it. It wasn't quite a book, as it didn't have any real covers; it was just a stack of strange shiny paper, all bound together. Min took it back to her seat and began to flip through it. The Rusty people pictured inside were predictably fat and grotesque. It was like the Smokies had hoarded all of these to make themselves feel better about their miserable lives. Disgusting. She continued turning the pages, while listening to her officers exchange intelligence and tap away at their workscreens.

Minerva looked up when she heard footsteps nearing: one of her officers, and a disheveled girl with wild hair and rumpled clothes, who looked like she had just rolled out of bed. "Ah, Tally." Minerva smiled. "Nice to see you. Sit down." Tally obliged her, and pulled out the neighboring chair. Min quickly searched for Tally on her workscreen among the list of captured runaways, and was very shocked at where Tally was listed, indeed.

Strangely, the heart pendant was not hanging around Tally's neck, either, and she had two halves of a cut set of handcuffs on each wrist. But rather than jump to conclusions and interrogate Tally about it directly, Min decided that she should find out what had happened in a more subtle way. "Goodness. Look at you," Minerva said. "For someone who wants to be a pretty, you're always such a sight."

"I've had a rough morning."

"You seem to have been in a scrape."

Tally shrugged. "I was just trying to get out of the way."

"Indeed." Min closed the paper booklet and slapped it back down on the table; she was done with it and focused on Tally, now. "That's something you don't seem to be very good at."

Tally coughed twice, quite harshly. "I guess not," she said in a raspy voice.

Minerva looked again at Tally's entry on her workscreen. "I see we had you among the resistors?"

"Some of the Smokies already suspected me. So when I heard you guys coming, I tried to get out of town. I didn't want to be around when everyone realized what was happening. In case they got mad at me."

Plausible enough, Min thought, and strangely intelligent, if that were really the case. "Self-preservation. Well, at least you're good at something."

"I didn't ask to come here."

"No, and you took your time, too." Minerva leaned back in her chair and folded her hands. "How long have you been here exactly?"

Tally coughed nastily again, hesitating. "Not that long."

"You didn't get here as quickly as I'd hoped."

"I almost didn't make it all. And when I did, it was ages after my birthday. That's why they suspected me."

Minerva could tell that this wasn't the whole story. It was time to put Tally on the spot, with something she'd really struggle with. Min shook her head. "I suppose I should have been worried about you, out in the wild all alone. Poor Tally."

"Thanks for your concern," Tally said, voice flat with sarcasm.

Minerva quit playing around. "I'm sure you would have used the pendant if you'd gotten into any real trouble. Self-preservation being your one skill."

Tally sneered. "Unless I'd fallen off a cliff. Which almost happened."

"We still would have come for you. If the pendant had been damaged, it would have sent a signal automatically."

Perfect. Tally was obviously disturbed by these words; she gripped the edge of the table tightly, and Min could tell she was forcing her facial muscles to stay in an emotionless mask, although she wasn't nearly as skilled at that as Min was. She narrowed her eyes at Tally. "Speaking of which, where is it?"

Tally reached up to her neck, touching the spot where the heart should have been, eyes darting, clearly spinning her next lie; an art at which she was well-accomplished. "I hid it," she said. "I was scared."

"Scared of what?"

"Last night, after I was sure this really was the Smoke, I activated the pendant. But they have this thing that detects bugs. The found the one on my board – the one you put there without telling me."

Min smiled smugly, and spread her hands in a "what are you going to do about it?" gesture. Tally had no right to be angry about this. Why was she even surprised, considering the nature of the mission for which she had signed up?

"That almost blew the whole thing," Tally continued. "So after I activated the pendant, I got scared they'd know a transmission had been sent. I hid it, in case they came looking."

Tally was either really a fast thinker and creative liar, or it was a believable truth. Either way, the girl was smarter than Min had originally given her credit for. "I see. A certain amount of intelligence sometimes accompanies a strong sense of self-preservation. I'm glad you decided to help us."

"Like I had a choice?"

"You always had a choice, Tally. But you made the right choice. You decided to come here and find your friend, to save her from a life of being ugly. You should be happy about that."

"I'm thrilled," Tally said, with that infuriating sarcasm again.

"So pugnacious, you uglies. Well, you'll be growing up soon." Minerva could not wait to turn this troublemaker pretty and docile. But she needed to give her one last test, to determine whether or not her story really was the truth.

"There's just one more thing you have to do for me, Tally. Do you mind getting the pendant from where you've hidden it? I don't like to leave loose ends lying around."

Tally smiled. "I'd be happy to."

"This officer will accompany you." Minerva beckoned at one of the Specials standing round, who immediately stepped up to duty. "And just to keep you safe from your Smokey friends, we'll make it look like you've been a brave resistor."

The officer yanked Tally's arms back, and put a second set of handcuffs on her. Tally took a deep breath and rolled her eyes. "Whatever," she said flatly, and was promptly led out of the library. Minerva took a deep breath and picked up the Rusty booklet again, glad to be rid of that nuisance for a bit.


"Doctor, Doctor!" An officer came barreling towards her, knocking over empty chairs and bumping into people. "Tally Youngblood got away!" he panted.

"What the fuck?" Min snarled, more confused and annoyed than angry, at the moment. "What happened?"

"She led Agent Shanks onto the roof of some building, to get what you wanted. She said it was hidden there. Then she surprised him completely by knocking him off with a hoverboard that had been sitting up there, after tricking him into releasing her cuffs. We initiated pursuit immediately!"

Well, this certainly put a damper on things. Min knew that Tally was a clever one, but the girl was just full of more and more surprises, it turned out. Minerva thought that she had played her perfectly, but Tally had been only pretending that she was an ally during that short meeting, as Min had suspected as soon as she saw her listed among the resistors. Minerva growled and began scratching a dent in the table with her thumbnail. It would only be all the more sweeter once Tally was back in the city, all safe and prettified. Or maybe that would be a waste of her potential…

"What's that?" asked a subcommander suddenly about fifteen minutes later, after listening to a crackling from his handphone. "Oh," he sighed.

"We completely lost sighting on her, doctor," he said solemnly. "Turns out, Tally was pretty maneuverable on that hoverboard, down there in the trees. Our pilots couldn't chase her properly. Then, her heat signature just…disappeared. We found the board, though. Probably fell off, since she wasn't wearing proper equipment. But there was no human in the vicinity." He looked down. "I don't think…we should waste any more of anyone's time here," he said softly. "Everyone's ready to clear out. She'll probably just…die all alone in the wilderness, if she hasn't already."

"Alright," Min answered, in a deceivingly calm tone. "You know the drill. Carry out the mission as planned: burn the whole place down. I'm…. going for a walk, by myself. I'll call with my coordinates when I'm ready to be picked up." Min stood up from her chair and stormed out of the library.

She speed-walked to the edge of the Smoke, right into the thicket of woods on the edge of the valley it was in. There was already a bunch of stumps next to the clearing.

God, had she done the right thing.

Min tramped through the forest, twigs popping under her boots, her silk uniform even getting caught on branches and torn a couple times. She marched further and further uphill, fueled by her fury. Minerva took deep, slow breaths, but she was still shaking with a blinding rage. And then…there was no more uphill. She had reached top of the ridge. Min clambered to a still-higher point, and surveyed Maddy and Az's kingdom below her.

The first building had already been lit, then another went up in flames, and another… The Specials were weaving around whole scene, looking like little gray ants.

Minerva stood as still and stiff as a stone statue, boots planted firmly on the ground. The whole Smoke was ablaze now. The smell had finally wafted up to Min's vantage point, smoke burning her nose and throat. But her eyes…that's where the burning was the worst.

She had done it. She had finally done it.

So did it feel like there was a hideous spear planted in her gut?

Maddy and Az were bound and imprisoned in the cargo hold, awaiting the cruel fate that Min had been planning for them. Tally had escaped, apparently having defected to Team Smoke for whatever reason, and David was still at-large.

There was still work to be done. This mission wasn't over yet.