Agora’s botched exposé on Sandda City’s raging coal-burning fissures packed an emphatic moral: don’t fuck with the mayor. His hack job ripped her from the pedestal she’d occupied as an Mlog darling. Discredited and desperate, she’d foolishly accepted a hooded city official’s offer of dirt on the corrupt leader. All Agora must do in return for the mud, the technician explained, was don a strange bubble-gum colored skin suit. Breaking this news, Tech promised, would buff the tarnish from Agora’s star.
Agora knew nothing was easy, especially not mud-slinging.
She’d awakened inside Outerzone Lab’s burning terrazzo lobby with a fire tornadoing from a hole the size of a zoomcar. Her brain squirted run-away juice into her muscles, but her ego doubled down.
“You promised me a story,” she shouted into her comms.
“I promised you a scoop, news sleuther.” Tech’s silky voice contrasted with the fire’s roar. “You can show the whole country the mayor never sealed the coal fissures beneath Sandda City. The suit will protect you because she’s a beast—saturated in refractories and rigged with impulse jets. Enough cool shit to melt my techy ticker. And she’s juiced with a psycho bond.”
“Psycho bond?” Agora fingered the suit’s stiff fabric.
“You want the proof, darling?” Tech said. “Go fetch.”
Agora’s helmet snapped shut. The suit marched her ten paces to the hole’s edge. Electricity stabbed her heart into staccato beats. She dived into the tornado’s swirling flames, and according to the suit’s helmet display, she accelerated to Mach one.
“What the fuck?”
“This mayor deals creatively with his opposition.” Tech’s dry laugh left little doubt of her…loyalties. “Your survival chances are one in two million.”
The betrayal reminded Agora, painfully, of the moral, but she was stuck.
As though a bear grumbled itself awake after a winter’s nap, an awareness scratched inside Agora’s skull, and the suit seemed to whisper, Are you good enough?
Chasing blue and red lights, investigating terror plots, and conspiracy theories didn’t exactly showcase her talent. She exposed double-dealings and governmental muck because she couldn’t afford picky. Picky didn’t build back credibility.
“Imagine the headlines,” Tech said. “Agora MaGuya extinguishes Sandda City’s biggest coal fissure fire in a decade. You’ll die a hero. The irony.”
“You’re crazy. I’m no firefighter! I’m after truth.”
Are you really? the suit whispered.
Icy tingles wiggled sperm-like into Agora’s pores and hardened the suit into popsicle status. The suit’s inertial dampeners kicked in, and she slammed onto fiery rocks. Flames splashed firehose-style inside a cavern where temperatures hovered at a thousand degrees.
Whispers scratched with locust’s wings against her ribs. Real sleuthers minimized harm. Images of the riot she’d supposedly sparked last year bloomed behind her gaze: cracked jaws, missing teeth, and sawed-off limbs accused. Her breath cut like razors. Regret tasted of acid washed down by shame. A pathway to her forgiveness didn’t exist in Sandda City because people had died. Except, the mayor’s hack had rewritten the explosive article to smear her—to shut her up about his defective fissure program.
In news sleuth exile, she met with nervous nellies in shadowed corners of all-nighter bars and gathered proof for her tabloid Mlog. Her following was on the rise, and the mayor’s harassment had been too.
Slaughterer of Sandda City, the suit whispered, you’re no good.
“Once you jump into the fissure,” Tech said, “hello, normalsville. Our little slow-drip press problem disappears.”
Agora’s boots lurched forward.
“People will notice I’m gone.”
Nobody will care.
If she were to become a campfire marshmallow, then she’d roast on her terms. Agora flipped her molecUcorder to open-airwaves.
“Don’t bother. We own the molecular comms inside every citizen,” Tech snapped. “They tap into our news. They’re sheep, darling. Baa. The mayor is their shepherd. You’re just a third-string burnout. Nobody hears you. Or believes your tripe.”
The suit controlled by Tech and intended as her silencer forced Agora closer to the open flames, but she Mlogged the truth. “The mayor lied. The fissures aren’t sealed, and you’re in danger, Sandda City!”
The suit bullied: You’re a no-good loser. Supporters counter-punched: Don’t listen…we believe you…save yourself!
Agora’s resistance strengthened against the suit’s psycho bond voice. The suit’s pink faded to rose gold.
Sleuthers learned bits and bobs of information, and one was that smothering coal flames worked in the absence of water. Using the suit’s strength, she stomped until she destabilized the rock bed—a mighty boom concussed in the Earth’s belly.
The suit rocketed her upward and rumbling chased her. Rocks tumbled, but she busted through as a drill through steel, and she hung suspended in the sky before plummeting. Energy burned from her middle and rippled outward. Exhilaration washed through her, and she landed in the city’s governmental mall with the shattering force of a meteor strike. Gray buildings with windows the size of notebooks crowded the mall.
The suit persisted: You’re not good enough, Slaughterer.
People, events, the mayor, and his wicked suit conspired to make her think she was less, bad, and wrong, but Agora’s pursuit of her trampled credibility exposed a flaw. The moral wasn’t the fucking mayor. She’d clawed her way back to prove she wasn’t a screwup, but she’d never screwed up. She’d lost faith in herself, and that was worse. Her followers showed her the way back.
“I’ll do better now,” she said. “Starting with management changes.”
The suit’s whispers evaporated. Her enhanced vision zeroed in on Tech’s incredulous face pressed against a City Hall window. Another window framed the mayor’s shadowed aspect. When he’d gone to war with her, it was unlikely he’d banked on his suit merging with its intended victim and turning traitor. Agora started up City Hall’s seventy stone steps. Her followers would surely agree she must punish those whose lies hurt Sandda City.
Agora’s followers could trust her. She was good, and her truth alone would change the world.
Ara Hone writes speculative fiction. Before that, she climbed silos at sunset, joined the military when it wasn’t cool, and survived a sales career. She loves books and a great TV series. When she’s not writing, she’s editing for Flash Fiction Magazine. Her best advice? Drink coffee daily. @ara_hone