Interlude 17.z (Sundown)

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

It looked like lightning striking in slow motion, but it was black with distortions here and there around the edges; blurring, fisheye, telescoping and hyperclarity.  When this lightning struck, it remained where it was.

Where enough different strikes intersected enough times, that which lay within broke away, falling back to reveal something else on the other side.  The Cheit portal was the biggest case of it.  The border between Gimel and Cheit broke away, and as it did, buildings from that other Earth were revealed, intersecting with facets and slices of Gimel.  Some small, some vast.

The merging saw buildings collapsing, or shedding one wall out of four.

The camera toppled backward, providing a partial view of the single parahuman at the epicenter of it, only partially in frame.  It was apparent she was taller than the buildings around her.  Some of those buildings were five stories tall, at least.  What was visible looked like sheets of black crystal and rolling carpets of fine grey-green smoke that looked soft from a distance, but revealed themselves for what they were near the base, near the camera, as they broke apart into clouds and curling wisps.

Head not in picture, but she did twist slowly, hips rotating, upper body rotating more, as she took in her environment.  Her silhouette was only barely human now.

Near the portal, at the worst of it, more was falling away.  Gimel revealed Cheit, Cheit revealed Gimel, and when both fell away, there was a landscape of black crystal that seemed to connect to this new titan.

She moved a limb, a heavy ‘hand’ that gave off smoke constantly.  Smoke that had been lazily curling around her moved suddenly, solidifying into a solid form like the face of a nearby building that was suffering some of that black-lightning cracking, green-gray in color.  Shoring it up?

The building came down violently.  The solid gas exploded out into a rolling wall of the stuff, which consumed the camera’s view.

Or had she been intentionally tearing it down?

Visual snow and static slowly overtook the camera’s field of view, glass cracked, and then the feed went black.

The screen shifted to footage from a distant camera, showing cracks spreading.  Those cracks produced more smoke, but this was only debris from roads collapsing, buildings toppling, as those black-lightning cracks extended for miles.  The silhouette of the smoke-titan was visible at the epicenter.  She was walking, head bent.

Eric, like many others, was all tension as he watched.  He leaned forward and gripped the table’s edge, having stood from his seat.

“How many people are still in the city?” he asked.

“Thousands.  Tens of thousands,” Citrine said, from the end of the table.

Which was a far cry from tens or hundreds of millions.

“Do we have word from the leadership?” he asked.

“Making calls, some incoming,” Pearce reported.  “The call center downstairs is handling it.”

The Wardens led from the front lines, because they had to.  The people who knew how heroes worked and how villains thought were the same types of people who wanted to be in the thick of things, helping.  Most of the time, it worked.  The appearance of Gimel and emergence of the city with all of its doorways to other worlds was a dozen diplomatic crises in one.  Add in the villains banding together, villains from other worlds who had been stranded here who needed to be broken up, and a massive population of vulnerable, displaced people, and the Wardens had their hands full.

They’d made it this far.  Two years.

The screens were switching constantly.  Searching as if to find one thing to lock onto that would turn this incident into a clear picture.

The main screens switched to each show half of an overhead view.  Satellite camera.  The epicenter of the attack, the clouds of smoke from the resulting destruction, and those cracks that spread out, like that from the tap of a hammer on a windowpane, except in three dimensions, not two.  A city in black and white, with a shadow of gold due to the prevalence of the solar windows reflecting tinted light down onto snow.

That shadow of gold was swiftly becoming ordinary shadow.  The smoke and dust was reaching high enough to cut off some of the light.

Abruptly, the damage began to spread at another point in the city.

“Overlay.  Bring up the overlay,” Eric said.  Belatedly, uselessly, he added, “Please.”

They brought up overlays.  First, the series of icons in bubbles that floated over the city, showing who was where.  Part of Larue’s team elsewhere in the facility was tracking capes by geolocation and affiliation.

At the center of that new manifestation of cracks and destruction, a purple bubble with a triangular point extended down.  The icon, a stylized woman in a fedora with tie, minimalist face, marked it as Contessa.  The purple served to label her as a special case.  The Red Queen and her group were other special cases.

“Do they have eyes on her?”

“No,” Larue said.  “Sending a flier in with a camera.”

The Wardens would need to know what was happening.

Cinereal’s icon in a white bubble with a point at one corner, a ‘6’ encased in the corner.  Six parahumans in her group.  There were other bubbles for Valkyrie and her flocks, Narwhal, for Stonewall, Miss Militia, Legend, and Topflight.  White for Wardens.

The PRTCJ were looped in with Wardens staff and Patrol.  Guarding the staff, setting up heroes, managing portals and setting up camps and waypoints that helped guide refugees out or served as points to defend in case of attack.  Their icons were surrounded by bubbles of light green.  The same numbers in the bottom right to indicate how many were in each group, but other icons at other corners to mark if they were adjacent to unpowered groups, and what groups those were.  Defense, situation management, comms, infrastructure.

Other hero teams got blue.  He noted each, wishing there was one that would provide an easy answer.  Foresight, the Shepherds, Breakthrough, Advance Guard, Solace, Rooftop Champs, Dream Parade, The Wayfarers, Auzure, Wizard Stars, Trueblue, Erring Right, Rowdyhawks, Sward, Virtuous Industries, Huntsmen, Girls at Bat, Shelter Skelter, Good Vandals, Twee, and then a half-dozen more who were too small for him to remember, or who were offscreen, trusted to handle things like helping out in Gimel’s Europe.

Six mercenary teams that the Wardens had elected to hire.  Yellow bubbles.  Three Librarians, Palanquin, Liquid Gold, Lickety Split, Trigger House, and Riina.

There were other mercenary groups the Wardens hadn’t hired, but they were marked down on the map as not bubbles, but icons within red ‘x’s.  There were a lot of red ‘x’s.  Villains.  Some of the ‘x’s had diamonds above, to the right, and even below.  The numbers of diamonds indicated priority and threat to the city.  When mercenaries were also notorious villains, they got treated like villains.

The villains matched the heroes in number, more or less.  Many were staying within or near the city.

The door opened, and Armstrong came in the door.  Eric straightened up.  Armstrong was part of the Warden’s parahuman science counsel.  This whole mess had to be more in his ballpark, didn’t it?

“Armstrong, sir.  Do you want to take charge?” Eric asked.  “This looks more like Parahuman Science than Command.  Cinereal left me as her proxy, but I don’t think she’d be upset if I passed the baton.”

“I will,” Armstrong said.  “Fill me in.”

“The Major Malfunctions and Towline, two minor teams, were at the main Cheit portal.  It looks like one of them second-triggered and had a broken trigger at the same time,” Eric reported.

“Fume Hood,” Antares said.  She leaned against the console nearest to the door, arms folded, head bent.  Her hair was bound into a loose braid, damp at the edges, and her face was framed with strands of hair that had gone wavy with the way they’d dried.  “She is- was a blaster, compressed gas spheres.”

He felt his pulse quicken, seeing and hearing her.  He kept it under control.  Wasn’t her fault, and getting into a mental mode or state where everything she said or did irritated him wouldn’t help any of them.  There were bigger things to focus on.

“We have another,” Larue said, arm extended to point at the screen.  “It seems to have cascaded, capturing Contessa, possibly altering her or using her as a vector.  Flier on the way with a camera.  It looks like the city is breaking down and caving in.”

“Civilians?” Armstrong asked.

“We’re guessing a few thousand, tens of thousands,” Eric said, turning to face the man.  “A lot of the stubborn types that wouldn’t leave.  Maybe some elderly without connections or people to ensure they evacuated.  Stragglers.”

“Let’s see about getting some heroes in there.  Start by contacting them.  See who’s up for it.  This is high-hazard.  In the meantime, let’s get all the information we can.  Cameras, and let’s talk to our thinkers.  This is thinker headache territory, so warn them.  Eric, would you reach out to them?”

“Yes sir,” Eric said.  He took a seat, opening up the laptop, and pressed his keycard to the corner to unlock it and log himself in.  He had an earbud and cord with a microphone attached in his pocket, and he plugged it in.

“What the hell is happening?” Armstrong asked, as he leaned over the end of the table, looking like the furthest thing from an interim leader of a hero organization.  A belly, a heavy brow, sharp chin, wrinkled forehead and receding hairline.  The lab coat was maybe the only thing about him that suited him.

“It’s Gimel’s apocalypse,” Antares said.  “Everything the agents were set up to do after Scion won or rounded up this cycle, they’re doing it now.  Cast aside the humans, accumulate raw power, then use that power to blow it all up and cast fragments of themselves in every direction.”

“We interrupted that,” Eric said.

“Technically we did,” Citrine said.

Fuck you, Eric thought.

Antares cut in, “Nobody interrupted anything.  We disrupted it.  They’re staggering forward instead of doing this in a clean way.  Processes conflict, they can’t organize, so they’ll just steal energy and materials from us, wiping us out, then destroy what’s left when they try and probably fail to make a coordinated exit.  We threw a wrench in the works, but the machine is still trudging forward, smoking and doing a lot of damage in the meantime.”

“Killed the conductor, but the train is still on its tracks?” Armstrong asked, sounding almost wry.  Wry tended to go alongside happy, though.  This felt more like gallows humor.

Tens of thousands dead, possibly.  Buildings falling.

“We have cameras on Contessa, I think,” Larue said.

She was growing, but not in a smooth way.  Rather, in staggered stages, parts of her lunged into being.  A black stone wolf’s head, three hands reaching up to grasp at one another’s wrists, winding and almost braiding together in their efforts.  Forking, another wolf’s head.  A curl of what could have been hair or horn writ in more black stone with traces of white.  More curlings and decorative growths.

Until there was a silhouette, a vaguely woman-shaped figure with head turned skyward, back arched and chest and stomach thrust up and out, ‘arms’ dangling.  She had no face, but instead a morass of that hair-like, horn-like curling of black stone, like a curtain of it was draped over her head.  Three large wolf heads framed her neck and helped form one of her shoulders.  Everything below was a jumble, images so layered and lost in one another that they were almost pure decoration.

The black-lightning cracks around her were intense, with more straight lines than the other disaster.

She didn’t move a muscle, if she even had muscles.  But she did open her eyes.  Amber eyes all up and down her body, some so small the chains of them looked like veins of gold, appearing in cracks and the centers of curls.  In tumbles of blacks tone hair and open mouths.  Everywhere but where a human silhouette should have eyes.  Each bright in the midst of smoke and snow, contrasted by the blackness of her.

“These might be the new conductors,” Antares said.  “Architects, maybe, because they’re building something.”

The screen showed a distant view of the others.  Kronos, turned to look to one side.  The fuming titan, now visible at her full height.  Maybe six or seven stories tall, small compared to the others, her head more like a cowl or hood of black crystal, no face visible beneath, with the gas leaking out resembling long hair left to drape out, tumbling down her front until it dissolved.

“We’ve got another appearing,” Larue said.

“Don’t say that,” Armstrong said.  Stress was clear on the man’s face.

“I’m sorry, sir.  One more in Gimel.”

“Cameras.  We need eyes on them.  Who are they?”

Who did we lose?  Eric thought.

He stole a glance back at Antares, but she was stone still, tense.

“Was it cool?” Vessel asked.

“It was… not uncool.  Guy in charge invited me over, told people to give me the royal treatment.  They had hired this punk band that night, teenage guys with dirt under their fingernails, shirtless with sixpacks, stubble on their chin.  Crazy hair.   Handed me a beer, y’know, me being a minor.  I said something lame like I couldn’t, and this guy who looked like he could rip someone’s head clear off their neck told me if I was willing to go to war, I could drink.  Then the band pulled me up on stage.”

“Fun,” Armiger said.

“It was.  When you’re a kid, you want nothing more than to be an adult.  I felt adult.  They took me to the head of the boss, he asked me what I wanted to do.  Later he introduced me to other people.  They respected me, and I got into that whole mess because my parents couldn’t.  They were all, like, school, extracurriculars, curfew.  Every time I tried to do my own thing or build social networks, which are kind of important, they’d ground me.  I was a child to them and they made it one hundred percent clear they were going to treat me like a child.”

“Were they…?” Armiger asked, “Uh, nazis?”

“My parents?  They had beliefs,” Scribe said, offering an apologetic shrug.  “At the time, I felt like they kept all the bad parts while ignoring the good parts.”

“And now?” Vessel asked.  She looked nervous.  She tucked blue hair behind the portion of her mask that covered her ear.  “Sorry, nevermind.”

“It’s okay.  I’m willing to talk about it, it’s just… it’s not like I want to go stand in front of cameras or write some public letter saying how dumb I was as a kid.  We got an amnesty and that should count for something.”

“Sorry,” Vessel said.  “Shouldn’t have brought it up.  Pre-amnesty.”

“It’s okay!  Really!  To answer your question, do I still think there were good parts,” Scribe said, hunching forward a bit.  “Not going to lie.  You wouldn’t see anyone joining if there was nothing good about it.  But now?  I think there were way less than I thought then.  Community, some desire to see things improve, even if they weren’t entirely right about how.  I look anywhere else, I don’t see the same kind of drive or push that I remember from when I was in the Clans.  Later in the Empire.  So I want to keep that part of it.  Loyalty, strong ties, d- um, drive.”

“Yeah,” Vessel said.  She frowned a bit at the stutter.

Scribe had already been over a lot of this with Vessel and Accolade.  Accolade was off to one side, smoking off his nerves from their earlier, brief encounter with the Red Queen, mostly staying quiet.

Armiger was the latest member of their group.  She hadn’t had any late night patrols or hangouts with just him, so she hadn’t gone into it much.

“And the… other stuff?” Armiger asked.

“Fuck that stuff,” Scribe said.  “Right now?  Our priority is saving the city. W-we need to, um.  Save people.  What I always believed was that we needed someone strong in charge, in a fucked up world with Endbringers and… giant p-p-… childbirth abominations.  Strong leadership, firm hand on the rudder, focus, some good soldiers, and these are the people who protect the meek and good people who can’t be soldiers.  Only difference is I used to believe in some r-racist shit.  Just… adapt that crap.  Protect everyone, um…”

“You okay?” Vessel asked.

“I’m okay now,” Scribe said.  “I think.  Working on what I, um…”

She trailed off, trying to find the thread of what she wanted to say.

Vessel touched her arm.

“I’m okay,” Scribe said, annoyed.  She didn’t like appearing weak.  “I’m w-working on what I don’t have exactly right.  They need soldiers more than, hm…”

She floundered.

She stopped.

“V-Victor,” she snarled the word.

Victor rounded the corner.  His chuckle was low, deep in his throat, and made broad shoulders shake.

“The f-fuck,” she asked.  Victor had the ability to steal abilities in a field while augmenting his own.  He’d been aiming it at her.  Taking her gift of gab.  “You dick.”

“Sorry,” he said.  “Wanted to make an entrance, and the best entrance is the sort that kicks in the door and puts down the scariest guy in the room right away.”

“I’m not your enemen- enemy, you phimo- phimotic cock jockey.”

Victor laughed.

“Turn it off.”

“Just did,” he said.  “Wanted to see if there was any sign of the old you in there.”

“You aren’t s-s-supposed to be talking to a recalcitrant ex-supremacist,” she told him.  “Remember?”

“Vessel, Armiger, and Accolade won’t tell, will they?  You guys are cool?”

Vessel was sitting up straighter, hand at her hair again.  “We’re cool.”

The boys nodded.

“Give us some privacy?” Victor asked.  “We’ll hang out later?”

All three looked to Scribe instead of giving an immediate answer, though Vessel looked like she’d be crestfallen if Scribe shot it down.  Scribe nodded.

“It’s your funeral if you get caught.  They’ll count it as a mark against you,” she said.

“You could eat crow and say sorry.”

“I don’t say sorry,” she told him.  She looked off in the direction of the station and the procession line of naked giants that were marching away from it.  “What do you want?”

“I wanted to see if you were okay.”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re always fine.  You were ‘fine’ when Coil outed us.  You were ‘fine’ when Kaiser died.  You were ‘fine’ when you were injured.  You were ‘fine’ when we went back to the Clans and the new leadership treated us like dirt and blamed us for what happened in Empire Eighty-Eight.”

“Morons,” she said.  “What if I was fine?”

He put a hand against the wall and leaned over her.  “What if you weren’t?  I see how restless you are.  I know who you are and where you come from.”

She resisted the attempt at intimidation.  “And?”

He relaxed, straightening.  “And you’re family.  Closest thing I have to family, anyway.”

“Only if I get to be the big sister, or the cool aunt.  Or kickass grandma who whips your ass if you so much as look at her funny.”

“Sorry.  Baby sister.”

“Fuck that.  No.  That creeps me out.”

“Creeps you out, huh?” he asked, his expression placid, his gaze penetrating.

“Can’t imagine it,” she said.  “It makes me think of Christmases by the tree, pulling stuff out of the stocking while some rosy-cheeked mom and dad look on proudly.  Music playing on the radio, something baking in the oven, gingerbread so thick in the air it congeals in your throat.”

“You’re mentally ill.  Nobody does that.”

“I’m fucking not doing it with you of all people, Victor.  You don’t need me for a sister.  You’ve got a girlfriend to terrorize and celebrate holidays with.”

“Mmm,” he made a sound.  There was zero emotion on his face as he said, “Gospel’s a good girl.  I still worry about you.”

“Don’t.  I’ll have Christmas with Vessel or someone else with no family left.  Drink and black out until New Year’s.”

“Yeahhhh,” Victor drawled.  “That screams that you’re doing perfectly fine.  Sometimes you need to ask for help, reach out and shit, y’know?  Reaffirm old ties?”

“I really don’t,” she said.

“You triggered in prison, Scribe.  Alone, abandoned by others, including the Clans you had just done jobs for.  The entire system working against you.  Whether you want to admit it or not, you’re in prison now.  Alone.  You’ve got these tenuous connections to those others, and the entire system is stacked against you.”

She wanted to reply, and the words weren’t there.  His power?

No, she knew the feel of it.

Yeah, sure.  He wasn’t wrong.  That was pretty much where she was at.  She didn’t like thinking about it.

She shrugged.

“Unless you apologize, you’ll always be an ex-Nazi to them.”

That’s what you were after?”

“No, what I was after was checking in.  Reaching out.  This is secondary.”

He was so good at sounding precise, confident.

“I’m fucking trying, Victor.  I’ll show them with actions, but I won’t apologize.  I won’t go to them crying ‘sorry’.  That’s not how I roll.”

“Showing them with actions means walking back everything, you know.”

“And?”

“And I heard you were picking on Capricorn earlier.”

“He’s actually a degenerate example of humanity, Victor.  On every count.  He tried to murder his brother.  Moonsong’s ex.  And she’s cool.  I think giving him some shit is fair.”

“No other motivations?  Nothing underlying?  You’re one hundred percent better?”

“Fuck off.  Like you’re any better, you fraud.  The religious crap you’re latched onto now is just excuses.  I’m-”

She fell silent.  Victor had turned his head sharply, hand raised.

She turned to look, and she saw Moonsong approaching.  Brown haired, wearing a costume with a dress built in, a slit down one side.  A moon motif, of course, played into everything, from mask to shoulder decoration, belt, and bracers.

“It’s a process,” Scribe finished her rant, bitter.  They’d been overheard.  This was going to fuck her so bad.  Fuck.

She could actually feel the walls of the metaphorical prison now.

“Hi, Moon,” Victor greeted the young woman.

Moonsong made no sound while she walked, and her hair had some float to it.  Reducing her own gravity or something.  She had her arms folded.

She didn’t return his greeting.  She seemed stuck in her thoughts.

Scribe touched the wall behind her as she slouched back.  She focused, and she concentrated her power in her fingertip.  Pressed it out into the wall.  A small telekinetic signature that slowly encapsulated the entire structure as the signature grew more elaborate.  Wrapping it in a kind of forcefield that would only hold it, not protecting it.

Her other hand found her staff.

Speak of the devil and she appears.

Not that Moonsong was a devil.  Not that Scribe felt like she would get attacked.  But she’d dealt with volatile types.  Especially after returning to the clan for the third time.  She didn’t face down an unhappy parahuman without being ready to fling a half-ton of concrete at them.

“I need you to leave my rookies alone,” Moonsong said, finally turning to look them in the eye.

“I can’t speak for Scribe, but I won’t go after them to find your mole or whatever,” Victor said.

“No mole,” Moonsong said.

“Come on.  Let’s get real,” he said.  “You sent one of them to watch us and feel us out, see if we were talking about stuff.”

“No mole.”

“You wouldn’t have come here this fast if there wasn’t one.”

“No mole,” Moonsong said, for the third time, giving him a hard look.  “Believe it or not, I’ve been keeping an eye out. If one of the two of you aren’t visible at any given time, I wonder, I double check.  I listen in.”

“Are we in trouble?” Scribe asked.

“Right now?  We’re in crisis management.  We focus on the city.  The citizens.  You guys leave the rookies alone.  That includes you, Victor.  I know Vessel thinks you light up the room.”

“Not doing anything to Vessel.”

“I know you’re not doing anything to Vessel.  Because I told you.  It’s an order.  One romance in the team was bad enough, but because it brought you on board, Whorl and I agreed to let it slide, especially when Gospel is as level headed as she is.  Vessel isn’t.  She’s great, but I’m drawing the line.”

“Alright,” Victor said.  His face gave away nothing.  When he took enough from people, they lost a bit of it forever, and he kept a bit of it forever.  He’d stolen stuff from people in the past and that included the ability to maintain a perfect poker face, among many, many other things.

“Scribe, I don’t want to hear you’ve been hanging out with the rookies.”

I’m a rookie.”

“You might be new to us but you’ve been a cape for years.  If you’re around them, I want chaperones.  People I’d trust as part of the conversation.  I don’t want them being part of your process.”

Yep.  Overheard.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

She’d be stuck like this.  A prison without walls, but still a prison with other people dictating her every move.  No hope of advancement, no hope of more.

“Victor, Can you go join Tribute at the front line?  Keep an eye on those giants?”

“Of course.  I really did want to reach out and see if Scribe was okay,” he said.  He smiled, and he was good at smiling in a way he was good at a lot of things.  It was the sort of thing that would be a bit chilling if Scribe didn’t know he was on her side.

“Scribe, walk with me,” Moonsong said.

Scribe fumed internally, but she walked.  This was Victor’s fault.

“What you were saying about wanting to show where you’re at with actions instead of words, Scribe?” Moonsong asked.

Oh, she’d really overheard.  “I don’t get any privacy, huh?”

“No.  No you don’t.  If you were on lists and if there were big red warning labels on your Parahumans Online page, then you get a ‘trust but verify’ treatment post-amnesty.”

“Doesn’t feel like the amnesty is helping me any.”

“It’s better than prison.”

“This is prison!” she snarled.  “God.

“Key point in that is trust.  I don’t love a lot of how you were talking and what you were saying, what you weren’t saying.  I’m still going to trust the intent is there.  I’m going to give you the benefit of a doubt.”

“And keep me from socializing, keep me away from Victor.”

“Didn’t think you liked him.”

Scribe brought her staff around so it rested against her shoulders and the back of her neck, her gloved hands gripping either end.  She shrugged, a little more dramatic with the staff where it was.

She wasn’t sure she did, but… he was one of the only people she still knew from the old days.  The only person, maybe, who actually knew her.

“I need you to leave Capricorn alone.  That’s an order.  We don’t pester other teams when we could be depending on them to save our lives later.”

“Okay.”

“You called it a process.  I’m working on my own process.  I won’t say I’m perfect.  Sometimes you just have to pretend it’s all hunky-dory, play nice, interact with enough people, and it surprises you by becoming normal.”

“I feel like that’s everything I was trying to get away from when I ran away from home.  I triggered so I could escape it in prison.  Thought control.”

Even now, it bothered her.

“Well, I can tell you I’ve been there.  Not as intense as what you got as far as… picking up on what others were saying around me.  But it doesn’t feel like thought control now.  I used to be homophobic.  I’m… better, I guess.  I think it’s a weird thing to do, but I can roll with it.  An old teammate resurfaced, came back from the dead, actually, and reminded me-”

There was a deep shudder that rattled the city, breaking some windows.  Broken glass cascaded down building faces.  Moonsong broke into a run.  Scribe adjusted her staff, sat on it, and took to the air, one hand on her wide-brimmed hat, the other gripping her staff.

Her eyes were on Shin Station.  The giants just beyond it.

It wasn’t them.  They looked as disoriented as she felt.

Opposite direction.  She flipped around in the air.

It came ripping through the air.  A crack in reality, black and surrounded by distortions of light, curls of vapor from temperature changes.

One curl of vapor came with a blast of pressurized air.  She tumbled back, slipping from her perch atop her staff.  Her glove didn’t find traction on the textured length of it.

She fell, dropping out of the air.

The next moment, she felt like she was in water.  As though she’d plunged into a river without breaking past any surface or getting wet.

Breaking her fall.  Partially breaking.

Moonsong’s power.

She hit the ground hard, her head striking the hard ground.  All around her, more cracks tore into the ground, which rumbled.  Some of the segments of ground were lifted up, and buildings on the street were toppling.

Surrounded by four walls of concrete.  A fitting combination with her new social prison.

The air was as dangerous as the ground.  Crouching down, she drew her sigil on the surface of the shattered road, listened to shouts and made sense of zero of it.

Fuck.

Any time she couldn’t go up kind of fucked with her head.  Not being able to go anywhere

Fucked with her everywhere.  Head to toe.  Gut, breathing, heart.

She gripped her hat and pulled the brim down.  She knew it was useless, that it flew in the face of her status as a veteran cape, but those black tears above her were terrifying, and with nothing else at hand that she could do… she used her hat like a little kid might pull the blanket over their head.

The giants were a few blocks away now, and they were screaming and hooting.  The only noise was the rumble of buildings falling.

A roaring knife-on-a-plate scream, as a section of road just… went.  Toppling into darkness.  What lay on the other side of it was only darkness.

Her vision wavered, a very similar kind of darkness taking over everything.  A vision crept over her, of people who weren’t people, all standing in profile.  Most were symmetrical from left to right, but not all were.  Writ in any number of shapes, any number of materials.

She heard a sound between a shout and a scream.

She let go of the brim of her witch hat.

Wavering, she turned, searching.

“I’m here!” she cried out.

There was an inarticulate cry.

She followed the sound.

Past broken road.  A leap over a gap.

Moonsong and Armiger were there.  Vessel was lying on the ground next to a face-down Tribute, her chest glowing.  She’d merged with another cape, capturing that person and holding them inside her as a power source and modifier to her own knowledge base and personality.  One of the other injured, no doubt.  Accolade, maybe.

All looked to be unconscious at first glance.  At second glance, they were moving, but without any coordination.  Something in them had broken.

Armiger, at least, had his powers.  the forcefield above him elaborate and getting more elaborate by the second.  A shield with wings, horns, a lion’s head, flags… It would reach a point where it was more fancy than effective, with the idea being it swung from forcefield to a mental effect that radiated out in front of it.

Except the mental effect had no use here.  It was protecting their group against falling and flying rubble.  Moonsong’s field was altering the gravity, making any falling stones less terminal in their velocity.  They hit the shield and tumbled off to a point below.

A crack was creeping closer to him.  Yawning wider.

Scribe opened her mouth to call out, and only produced a, “Yuhh!”

She knew what it was.  She knew the shakiness and the feeling like missing a stair, that came before she’d even taken the step.

She did take that step, however.  She could have and would have jumped the gap in front of her to reach their section of road, but she didn’t trust herself to make that one-foot jump.  So she headed left, toward the inches-wide gap.  Her foot didn’t land right, her sense of balance failed to give her anything, and she tumbled, hard, rolling across that gap.

Hand resting on the ground, she willed the symbol to appear.  The signature that locked her telekinesis to this particular chunk of road.

Then she lifted them up.

It wasn’t easy, with the cracks above and around them.  When turning her head and identifying things was hard.  It didn’t help that the cracks were deceptive in where they were, because her eyes couldn’t easily discern if they were large and far away or small and close, especially as some swelled and others narrowed, like pulsing veins.

Slowly, the others roused.  She’d scooped up what she could of the Shepherds, and she couldn’t see others below.

“T-thank you,” Moonsong said.

Scribe just kept them flying.

As they moved, she saw.

A massive figure, hunched over, black-bodied, with golden hair running down the spine, moving as if billowing in a wind that wasn’t actually there.  Hands extended down to the ground, arms overlong with more of that gold hair from elbow to wrist.  It bore a crown that took over part of its face, that looked like something between hair in the wind and gold, many-pronged.  Below that crown, there was only a mouth, corners downturned.

“Victor,” she said, naming it before she’d even fully comprehended what she was seeing.  She turned to Moonsong, angry, “Was this the Red Queen?”

“No.”  It was Tribute who had answered.  “No, it’s… I felt it.  The pull, the tug.  I almost…”

“Almost what!?” Scribe cried out, angry.  Their ‘ride’ wavered in the air.

“Almost gave up.  Let it in.  Almost didn’t find the strength or focus to pull away.”

“He gave up?” she asked.

“Victor has been struggling,” Moonsong was quiet.  She sounded despondent, surprisingly so given how she’d never seemed to like Victor. “Gospel broke it off.  I think he’s had a lot of self doubts.  Loneliness.”

Scribe watched, looking down.  He was bigger than any of the nearby buildings.  Anyone who got too close to him lost… everything, it seemed.  Almost instantly.  Knowing his power, a lot of it could be permanent.

This was her Victor?

The chill and deep, surprising sadness she felt was lanced through by horror.

When he’d swung by, talking to her against orders… he hadn’t been reaching out to help or give support.

He’d been reaching out for help.  To get support.

She’d missed it.

“Victor!”  She screamed his name.

He raised his head.  Looked at her with a face without eyes.

“Be strong!” she shrieked the words.  “We are family!”

His overlong arm swung out, a paw of a hand clawing through the air, straight toward them.

Armiger created his forcefield.  Rune dropped the chunk of street they were riding by several feet.  The hand was partially deflected, only missing them through the coordinated defensive maneuvers.

In the wake of the blow, again, she felt that wave of Victor’s power, writ large.  A loss of all faculties.  Balance, coordination, everything else.  Given enough of a hit, and they wouldn’t regain what they lost.

They broke away, backing off.

He started to pursue, but the giants had started to scatter, still screaming and hollering.  Others in the back were violently giving birth.  Their faculties were diminished, but

“It’s not him anymore,” she said.

“Tattletale says to try to avoid using powers,” Eric reported, ending the call and freeing Tattletale to do whatever it was a villainous information broker did.  “We should let the cracks settle.  It should stop.  At least until there’s another precipitating event.”

“I want to go,” Victoria said.  “Armstrong, give me permission?”

“No,” Armstrong said.  “It’s ultimately up to you, but you know what’s on the other side of those cracks better than anyone else in this room.  The leadership is on their way.  We’d appreciate your input.”

“To actually use?” she asked.  “Or is this like before?”

She looked at Eric as she said it.

“To use.  Really,” Armstrong said.  “I don’t want to lose you in fighting against threats if you can tell us something critical in a briefing later.”

“Okay,” she said.  She looked haunted, tense.  “I don’t want to sound pissy or uncooperative, but if I feel like I’m not helping, I’m going to leave and go help.  Please don’t count it against Breakthrough if I do, I’ll break ties with them if necessary to keep from hurting their standing.  But I can’t do nothing.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to,” Armstrong said.

Eric had almost come to respect her, initially.  She’d seemed like she played along.  But she was too deep in things.  She needed to be far away from this in the same way a doctor needed to avoid operating on his family, a judge couldn’t deliver a sentence to her spouse.

He’d cracked.  Lost his cool.  He couldn’t blame her, not exactly.  Being a hero took a kind of insane grit that did a number on anyone.  That kind of grit tended to make heroes really obnoxious to deal with.  The worst of them got childlike.  The best of them, like Chevalier, could present themselves well.

He was too tired, running at ten out of ten since last night.  Antares hadn’t ever been official PRT, though she’d come close on two fronts: she’d almost joined once, before her hospitalization, and she’d slept with a Ward.  That probably meant some knowledge by osmosis.

It didn’t mean she ‘got it’, though.  That parahumans were so close to the problem it made their judgment suspect sometimes.  That oversight was needed.  The ex-PRT capes got those things, accepted the objective calls.

“What’s the overall situation?” Eric asked Pearce.  “How are communications?”

“A few things on our board,” Pearce said, her attention not leaving the screen on the terminal in front of her.  Two lesser staff members were doing the typing and navigating on sub-screens.  “The anti-parahumans are disseminating a video.  It’s the inciting incident.  People are panicking, getting ugly.”

“Who can we divert?”

“Nobody.  There are other crises.  Shin.”

“What’s happening in Shin?” Antares asked.

The portal had shattered.  The damnable lab was gone.

Marquis considered versatility the most important thing in powers.  Survive, cover as many bases as possible, and victory was inevitable.  He found himself using everything he had just to survive.  Wings of bone became a shield, and that shield became a wall.  He felt the strain in his bones and the pain as holes were punched in that wall.

But he was buying time.  Buying opportunity for the refugees they’d brought to Shin to get away.  Not through the portal- that was now a briar-bush tangle of distorted cracks in reality, reaching up to the clouds and off to either side.  Just… away.

Other capes, ex-prisoners from Gimel, ex-Fallen, and ex-followers of Goddess were doing much the same.  Some had powers that helped, but only in maneuvering, only in defense.

The Goddess giant hurled chunks of the shattered landscape and buildings.  Her alignment wasn’t working.  Not against this.  The Gibborim Knight was holding firmest.  The armor it had built and wrapped around itself was seemingly the only thing that could endure the onslaught.

“You were such a good girl,” he said.  “You tried so hard.”

He grunted as his shield was struck and split in two.  He threw himself to one side as another strike speared through the gap, but something wrenched at the half-shield that was still attached to his arm.  It threw him to one side, twisting the arm in its socket.  If there was any unique sensation he was intimately familiar with, it was the feeling of one’s own bones breaking.

Grimacing, he knit the shattered bone of his arm together, then wrapped his arm in bone armor that would brace it and hold things steady until the damage to things other than bones could heal.

“It has been a pleasure knowing you,” he said.

So tall she was effectively out of earshot, Hunter didn’t respond.  She only laughed, incessantly laughed, as she brought razor lines spearing down from the sky and up from the ground with enough force to crack bones harder than steel.  Her body seemed to be made up of those lines and cracks in reality.

He disconnected himself from his shield and he went to his daughter.  He scooped her up in his arms.

“Almost gave up,” Amelia murmured.

“Best if you don’t,” he said.

“I failed her.  Hunter,” she said, hugging him, face buried in his shoulder.

“Focus on the good.  We need you with us.”

She used her power on him.  He could feel the pressure in his shoulder as the damage healed.

“Best if you don’t, whilst you’re not feeling your best,” he murmured.

She stopped, leaving the work undone.  He’d seen her like this before.  Broken.

He put a hand over her ear so he could raise his voice.  “Retreat!  Shin Defense Initiative, everyone to me and away!  Leave the giants to it!”

Lab Rat was there, barely recognizable as a hulking, fifteen-foot tall rat-like figure with a conical face formed of tumors like clusters of giant blood-gorged ticks.  He had four of the clones clinging to his fur and to the blankets that covered them, and what looked like half of a workshop besides, machines as large as cars hanging from chains.

The others… Marquis looked.  He counted heads, saw the trickle of evacuees.

He was so thirsty.  It was something that always got to him in battles, if they ran long enough that the adrenaline faded.  The thirst, the human needs.  Once he reached that point, he tended to make his exit.  It was the point that things started getting sloppy.

“I don’t think I can do this,” Amelia mewled.

“I think you must.  There is no question,” Marquis answered.

He knew from experience that she didn’t tend to respond to that kind of prodding or absolute, even though it was part of what drove him.  Rigid codes and obligations he set up around himself.

He had no idea what else to say.

Instead, he focused on helping.  He extended and expanded bone before hardening it, because this new Hunter hit hard enough to demand he use bones harder than steel.  He created blade-like growths and set them into the ground with extended roots of bone penetrating frozen soil.  Walls to shield those running for safety.

Flashbang, he saw was one of the last ones out.  Of course.  Flashbang turned to look at Hunter, created a large orb in his hand, and hurled it skyward.  He created another orb while it was airborne, tossed it up.

Ah.  The newer orb had a shorter fuse.  It detonated and launched the first orb almost straight at Hunter.  Detonating in her face.

Doing far too little damage.  Cracks, a gushing of blood like a bathtub of blood had been emptied from the opening, next to nothing in the way of blood after the initial burst, and then no bleeding at all.  It wasn’t that the wound had closed up, but that she bled differently.  Still laughing, she turned her face toward them.

Marquis threw up a shield just in time to protect them from the retaliation.

By the time he had backed away enough to see over the top of the shield, the wound at her face had disappeared.

She lunged forward, gripping her own razor wires and leaping between them as a monkey might leap from branch to branch.  Buildings groaned and tipped over as the wires that extended into them bore her full weight, but she didn’t touch ground.

Capes from the prison were attacking and protecting one another, but they weren’t coordinated.  A pair of them were from Lab Rat’s choices of powerful recruits for his personal team.  The wires appeared from inside of them, extending from shoulder to hand and out the palm, Out each foot, and out of the mouth.lifting one to a spread-eagled position fifty feet above the ground.  Thin wires looked thicker as the blood ran down them.  The cape struggled.

The other one was mangled, twisted up, his upper body doing three rotations to the right as the wires pulled on him, his lower body doing two rotations to the left.  His midsection simply split.  He didn’t die immediately, not exactly, but at least the screaming was  brief.

Hunter’s hand came to rest on the first, the one that was spread eagled.  He was dragged down along wires, and those wires cut him apart from the inside, exposing bone.

Too far away for Marquis to reach to that bone and attempt to spear for Hunter’s vitals.  Not that she had any he could see.  She had no eyes; only a blindfold of wires and cracks in reality.

She moved on to her next prey.  La Llorona.  She was choosing leaders, captains.  Powerful capes.  A small mercy Marquis and his daugher hadn’t been that close by when Hunter had attacked.

The Gibborim Knight attacked her.  It was sufficient distraction for everyone else.

They fled.  Running from the spreading disaster, shepherding the refugees.  Marquis turned the armor at his arm into a basket of sorts to hold Amelia close to him, extending legs and his other arm so he could prowl forward on skeletal limbs, traversing broken ground and fallen buildings.

“Is she hurt?” Flashbang asked, as he caught up with Marquis.  As always, there was that brief moment as the man who had raised his daughter looked at Marquis and wrestled momentarily with feelings and prejudices before setting them aside.  He wasn’t asking about the enemy.

Marquis took a second to consider and give Amelia the chance to speak before saying, “Only her heart and her pride.”

“It’s more than that,” Amelia murmured.  Like this, she reminded Marquis of the little girl he’d once held in his arms.  “What’s even the point?”

“The point is you have somewhere to be later,” Flashbang said.  “Amy, you made a promise.  You will not break that promise to her.  I- I know what you’re feeling.  Like the last few walls around your heart are down and all you have to do is reach through to where your powers are.  The reason I’m not is… I made promises.  To your mother.  To Victoria.  To you.”

“I’m supposed to go talk to somebody in the middle of all of this?”

“You are absolutely supposed to,” Flashbang said.  “Amy, you’ve hurt Victoria enough times-”

“I didn’t-”

“You hurt her.  You know you hurt her.  You won’t hurt her this time by not following through.”

“And after?  I promised to go to a therapy session, it’s just one session.”

“You’ll promise me you’ll go to the one after.  Right here, right now.  I think you need it as much as I do.”

“I don’t- what happens after that one?”

“The promise I need you to make is that you’ll attend the appointment after.  That doesn’t end at the next appointment.  When you’ve attended appointment number two, then the promise means you’ll go to number three.  When you’ve gone to that one, it means you’ll go to number four.”

“The way things are going,” Amelia said, “I don’t think we’ll have any therapists in a couple of days.”

“Then it’s an easier promise to make.  But you need something on the horizon to focus your eyes on.  Surrender in the here and now is not how I raised you.”

Flashbang met Marquis’s eyes.

“Promise,” Flashbang said, with a raw edge to his voice.

Amy didn’t respond, but she did nod her assent.

“We’ve got yet another one in Cheit,” Larue reported.  “Not one we know.  They were a cape who didn’t broadcast their powers.  A stranger, it seems.”

“Do we know the powers yet?” Armstrong asked.

“Not yet.”

There wasn’t much to do at this stage.  Only to record, identify, and prepare to brief those who made it back here.  Some were on the fringes, out of reach of this cracking.  Some were at the new refugee settlements.  Some where here.  Then there were the ones in the city proper.  They were the ones who had it roughest.  Right in the epicenter, as the city steadily caved into itself.

“Antares,” Larue said.

“It’s bad news,” she said.

“I don’t know what it is.  The capes in Breakthrough’s area have gone quiet.  Phone lines are down, satellites are struggling with all of the interference.  But we can’t reach them.”

Eric quietly studied her expression, watching her process.  Her eyes moved around like she was working her way through a logic program.

“They’re okay,” she said, quiet, before looking up.  “They have to be okay.  I’m not worried about them.  Tell me the cracks aren’t extending too close to New Brockton Bay.”

“They aren’t.  Not yet.”

“Then Lookout and her team should be fine.  Do we have word from the Major Malfunctions?  They were right near the center of it.”

“No word, no communications,” Larue said.  “I’m sorry.  Sorry, I’m getting some calls, I’ll let you know if-”

But she was already nodding, too quick, almost cutting him off.

Larue resumed what he was doing at the computer, hand moving his right headphone over his ear again.

Eric typed up information for the Thinker team, sorting it.

He kind of knew what Antares was feeling.  Cinereal was out there.  The inverse of Antares, with whom he’d lost his cool.  Antares batted her eyelashes, dressed up, smiled and pledged cooperation, only to do the opposite.  By contrast, Cinereal stuck to the stylish costume the PRT had given her once upon a time, but she didn’t manipulate, she said exactly what she meant and acted like a gruff hard-as-nails pain in the ass, while ultimately being cooperative.

She was out there in the thick of it.  His boss.  His partner in some ways.

“Another report coming in, garbled,” Larue said.  He typed furiously.

Eric felt a profound despair wash over him at those words.  They kept hearing about more, but they weren’t hearing about any wins.  Some capes were fending off various titans, trying to fight, and after half an hour of this, there still weren’t any reports of ‘Titan defeated’.

No cheers.

“Took a second to confirm location.  It’s in one of the pocket worlds,” Larue said.

“Which one?” Antares asked.

“Prance,” Moose said.  Begged.

Prancer had entered his breaker form, but it was a broken entering.  His figure was like a man who had leaped through what he’d thought was an open window and crashed into glass.  Except the glass had remained in the frame.  A thousand shards impaling him, opening him up.

The glass in this case was bands of black and gold that braided, wove together, and forked, wrapping around him, through him, taking him to pieces.

Only part of his head, mouth, neck and shoulder were really intact.

Moose backed up, hand out to usher Daisy and some of the others back.

The idea had been that this would be a safe place.  Almost a place to retire.  They’d had the cash, the resources, the connections.  Money for security, money for recreational drugs.  A place to low-key party and relax, when they were so very, very tired.

Recuperate from heartbreak, after losing Velvet.

“Halfway there,” Prancer said.  “Maybe I’ll get to see Velvet on the other side.”

More than halfway, Moose thought.  “I don’t think that’s the way it works.  Doesn’t seem like a good reason to go through with this.”

“I don’t think I can walk backward on this road,” Prancer said.

“Try moonwalking?” Moose asked, trying to crack a joke, failing.  He sounded as despondent as he felt.

“No.  Too much of a grip on me.”

“Don’t suppose you could concentrate real hard, then?” Moose asked.

“I am.”

“I want to see it.  The concentration,” Moose said, moving closer to Daisy and the others.  Prancer’s ‘girlfriend’ and the other people who had come to party and never left.  He shielded them with his body.

“I don’t know how I’m supposed to do that,” Prancer said.  “Are you trying to distract me by confusing me, slow down the transformation?”

“Jus’… give me the reassurance you tried.  Something to keep in my memories.”

“You’re so lame, Moose.”

“I’m a simple guy.  I like it straightforward.  Would you?”

Prancer frowned, then closed his eyes, expression contorting.

Moose, seeing that, reached back to Manuel, fumbling at the guy’s side.

Manuel handed him the weapon he was reaching for.  A gun.  Moose checked it, aimed it for the part of Prancer’s face that was still Prancer, and not this grossly mutated breaker body, and-

Prancer’s body acted.  All Moose could see was the part of its face that was already in its breaker form.  A glowing eye open, while Prancer’s was shut.

The gun went off.  It struck Prancer in the side of the head, blowing off a chunk.  Prancer’s body, in turn, struck Moose with a black claw bigger than Moose was.  Moose tried to fend it off, parrying with a blast of force, but it still struck him back and down into the ground.

Numb, Moose lay there, listening to the small gasps.

He looked down and around him, and saw that he had been thrust into the midst of three of their friends, Daisy included.  He had survived the hit because of his powers.

They… they were alive, but in a minute, they would be dead from the way he’d been shoved into and through them.  Bodies in tatters.  Daisy’s eyes were so impossibly wide.  Manuel’s stare was somehow vacant and accusatory.

The numbness got worse.

He’d been here before.  Experienced this before.  In a past life.  He turned, aiming with a hand that shook too much to aim well.  Shot Daisy twice – once as a near-miss, again to actually end her pain as he intended.  He turned to Manuel, and he didn’t get a chance to do the same for their buddy.

The thing that had been Prancer attacked.  Another crushing blow, another blow Moose only barely fended off.  The thing punched with the force of a train crashing into something, and leaped back with his hypernatural agility and speed.

Prancer charged in, leaped, using the momentum of falling from two hundred feet in the air to augment the force of his blow.

But by the time he reached Moose, Moose was already on his way to matching and exceeding his old friend’s stature.  On his own way down the same road Prancer had just traveled.

The thing that had been Prancer didn’t deliver the strike with any force.  Instead, with the lightness of a feather landing, came to perch atop the broad back of the thing that had once been his and Velvet’s mutual friend and lover.

And the world around them dissolved into black-lightning cracks, the small refuge they had built falling to pieces.

[Consolidate]

[Consolidate]

Two became one, damaged, broken, and haphazard, because many of the needed connections weren’t there.

Still more than the sum of their parts.

“That makes two in the pocket world, I think,” Larue said.  “With more confirmed reports coming in and the initial effect fading, I think we’re getting a final tally.”

“How bad is it?” Armstrong asked.

“Between ten and twelve.  Um, Armstrong, Sir.  Eric…”

Eric sat back, shocked.  There were only a few answers that would really merit that kind of awkward opening, aimed at both ex-Director Armstrong and himself.

“Cinereal,” Larue said.  “We’re getting cameras in for a better view, but…”

But there was a screen mounted on the wall that showed her from a distance.  Everything within a city block of the figure was dissolving into gray ash.

If Cinereal’s power held true, that ash could heat up to temperatures like thermite.

Gone, turned against them.

Eric’s mentor, patron, supporter.  His partner in a way.  She’d elevated him with the implication she’d drop him if he didn’t keep up with her, and he’d kept up.  The one person he’d been able to count on to back him up, and he was going to be feeling the lack of that backup if his heated spat with Antares came up.

Above all else, she’d been a friend.  Someone he’d respected and liked.

He glanced back at Antares, half expecting the girl to be gloating, lording it over him.

He caught her with moisture in her eyes, using her sleeve to dab at the corners.

Larue was busy bringing up images, picking out the best shots of each of the titans they knew about.  Armstrong had other preoccupations.  Other staff members were busy, reeling in their own ways, or pretending not to notice others’ grief.

“I lost a friend,” Antares told Eric.  “The rest of my teams seem to have made it out okay.  This time.  They’ll probably expand the damage on purpose or gather power for another breaking like this, until they’ve broken everything.

But she still had the bulk of her ‘teams’ intact.  He could see the marker for the Major Malfunctions with the three in the bottom right corner.  Her tears might have been ones of relief, after a hell of tension.

Eric nodded, his jaw too set to actually respond.

“Cracking seems to have slowed down,” Larue said.

“Call your people back, Director Armstrong…” Citrine said, still at her seat at the head of the table.

The Mayor motioned toward a screen, that same overhead view from before.  Now it showed the damage that spanned three-fifths of the city, which itself more or less spanned everything between New York and Boston and New York and New Brockton Bay.  Shadows from the dust that had reached the sky above the city cast it in a noticeably darker tint, as though it were night.

“…The only things that are salvageable here are your heroes’ lives.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Interlude 17.y (Sundown)

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Caryatid, Then

Mope licked at her face, tongue stroking her eyes, licking the eyeball directly, dragging her eyelid closed so it would slowly open again.  Mostly the eyes, she supposed, because she was crying.  He searched the inside of her mouth, collecting her drool for himself, before wagging his tail for a moment, then whining.

I can’t play with you, Mope, Carrie thought to herself.  Not todayMy mind is a balloon attached to my body with a long, long string.

She looked down at the room like she imagined God looked down on people, but she could only really see what her eyes saw, one open and the other partially closed.  Smell, though, she could smell the smoke and people and the more smoke and the booze, as if she was sampling the entire room.  Or just what reached her nose, half stopped-up with snot.  It made more sense for her current balloon-brain self to be bobbing around, tasting it and smelling it all over the place.

Mope nudged her body with a cold, wet nose.

She could hear too.  Voices.  Talking, conversation overlapping.  Most of them were distant, because only her mom and stepdad came up to the second floor.  Sometimes Cooler and Bottom Bunk did too, they were the guys that came over every weekend and some days after school.  They were ‘family’ enough that they could go upstairs.  When they came over, she stayed in her bedroom and maybe they would peek in on her and say hi.

She wondered, if God could see and hear and look down on everything like this, could she do that too?  She floated like a balloon and the string felt shorter than it had a moment ago.  Could her hearing sharpen until she could hear every word?  Or would she remain a balloon with a funny string, until one day she popped or the string came undone and she never floated back down?

The mortal, existential fear that seized her had a grip on her brain while leaving her body taking its slow, shallow breaths.

This kind of fear came and went, like black food coloring or ink dropped into water, it made scary shapes at first, dark and unfurling like a black octopus wrapped in a cloak, then expanded out, reaching for every part of her brain.  Unlike the ink, it was a threat, and she could imagine it was cold, cold enough to shut down her mind or make parts of it shiver like her body shivered uncontrollably sometimes.

When it ‘went’, it wasn’t really gone.  It stayed with her forever and made her thoughts a little bit more black overall.  The fear would keep drip-dropping in, shocking every time it appeared, tinting the water darker each time.

Stark fear drip-dropping in at random, until her floating, bobbing balloon mind couldn’t get any darker and was that inky, shroud-wrapped octopus.

What happened then?

The door opening and the blinding light shining in her eyes was a welcome distraction from the old fear and a new blot, blot, blot of fear.  Because everything was terrifying when all you had was a string tying you to your body.

The music was louder, pounding.  Someone sang along.

Two men, she observed.  They were hard to make out because she was looking down on the room from an impossible height, like the room had a ceiling a hundred feet high and her balloon mind had come to rest on it, looking down.

Mope whined.

“Hey Mope,” Cooler said.  “Hey, Carrie girl.  Eidolon jammies.”

Eidolon jammies?  When had she got those?  Was she losing her mind?

Was this how the balloon went away?  Deflating?  The important things leaking out?

Her thoughts knotted and twisted up with the sensations, the smell of Cooler’s incessant cigarette smoking, and of booze, and body odor, and of sex.  He sat on the corner of the bed and called Mope up.

“Who’s a good boy?” Cooler asked, words blurring into each other.  It wasn’t that her hearing wasn’t sharp.  It was that he was drunk.  Mope nudged at her body’s butt, whined, and then hopped down from the bed, going downstairs.  Without the dog to hold onto, Cooler sat there, swaying visibly even while sitting down.  He fiddled with something he had resting on his knee.

“Let’s leave,” came the voice from the door.  Cooler ignored the voice.

Bottom Bunk leaned against the doorway, arms folded.  He looked so unhappy.  The smell of him was worse.  He smelled like her mouth tasted when she threw up a bit but the barf never left her mouth.  Sour and bitter.

Him smelling like that made her hate him because it was awful, and because every time he got near, she had the exact same struggle to put her finger on what that smell was like.  She had the exact same conclusion: barf in the mouth.  Then she had the exact same thought after.

What if she threw up in her mouth?  Right now?  What if thinking that very thought made it happen?

Drops of black ink unfurling into horrifying shapes without meaning.  Black ugliness with nowhere to go because it couldn’t travel down that string to her body.

Then, always, she had the same general realization, like becoming aware of her tongue in her mouth.  That her tongue lay in drool that was accumulating in her mouth, and that wasn’t so different from puking and the puke filling her mouth, and her being unable to breathe.

That thought was like someone taking the cap off the bottle and dumping the blackness in.  Even with the string being as thin and long as it was, she thought her heart might stop from the pressure of it.

“See this, Carrie?” Cooler asked, leaning forward.  He waved something in front of her eyes.  It moved too fast to be seen, and it was dark except for the edges that caught the light from the doorway.  “Want a tattoo?”

She did not, but the distraction of this new situation was a relief from the heart-stopping blackness that flooded her head.

“Been giving them to people downstairs,” Cooler said, his voice airy.

“Leave her alone, Cool,” Bottom Bunk said.

“You’re not supposed to give tattoos to kids, but it could be our secret, yeah?” Cooler said.  “Yours, mine, and Bunk.”

“This don’t feel right at all, man,” Bottom Bunk said.

Cooler sprung to his feet with a force that he couldn’t keep up with, and had to put an arm out to stop himself.  It pushed at a poster Carrie had put up of Chorus Cross, and the bottom corner tore where it had been tacked to the wall.

You tore my poster!

“Bunk, bitch.  This is why nobody likes you,” Cooler said, putting his face near Bunk’s.

My poster.  The first band I ever actually liked.  I don’t like people and I don’t like bands with people.  Cross Chorus is entirely digital.  Digital voices and digital faces.  Absolutely nothing scary about them.

“It don’t feel right.”

“Who are you to talk about right, Bunk?” Cooler said, getting more heated.  “You stole money from little old ladies and shit.”

Bottom Bunk looked over at Carrie, like he cared what she thought.  She already knew, though.

More importantly, her poster.

“We saved your fuckin’ life, Bunk.  This is the kind of loyalty you show?”

“No, uh,” Bunk said, twisting his face around so he didn’t have to look at Cooler, who had his face an inch from Bunk’s.  “No.  It’s not about loyalty, Cool.”

“Nobody likes an asshole who steals from grannies, Bunk.  Everyone has a granny.  Everyone loves their fuckin’ granny.  But we protected you, because you were Gas’s cellmate.”

“I know, man.”

“Got you a job most ex-cons would love to have.  You don’t make six figures normally.”

“I know.  Shit.”

“Know your damn place, man,” Cooler said.  “I’m having a little fun, giving the girl a thing so she doesn’t have her weekend totally wasted.”

Weekend?

Oh.  She’d lost track of time.

She’d missed the Sunday morning movie on channel forty.

Cooler pushed Bunk into the doorframe, leaning in heavily.  “If I gave a single fucking word, you’re not with us anymore.  Not work, no parties, nothing.  Don’t fucking bitch at me about what’s right when I’m doing nothing wrong.  Sour-ass smelling bitch.”

Bunk remained frozen, his face all clenched up, his eyes looking everywhere but at Cooler.

Cooler backed off, leaning away, swaying, and putting his hand on her poster again to steady himself.  Crinkling it.  He sat on the bed, and her perception of the motion was like her body was on a boat and a wave had rocked it.  She didn’t really feel much.  It was why the drool-

-ink-black fear washed over her mind-

-didn’t register most of the time.

“What do you think, Carrie?” Cooler asked.  “Ladybug?  Little girls like ladybugs, right?  That’d be cute.  One on the ankle?  Or a unicorn?  I could put something on your hand so you can look down and see it all the time.”

Carrie floated, disconnected and anxious.

“And an Eidolon to match the Eidolon-jammies?  Hm?” Cooler leaned over, almost falling on top of her.

He fiddled with the device.  It whirred, and it made a sound like a dentist’s drill.

“You take after your mom.  She’s so pretty,” Cooler slurred.  “Beauty mark right here, doesn’t she?”

It took him three tries to touch the right spot on her body’s cheek.  She barely felt it, tracking it more by the way the shadows fell and what she could see at the edge of her vision.

“Give you a ladybug there?”

He drove his finger into that spot in her cheek with enough force that it should have hurt.  It didn’t.

Mostly she just felt confused.  She had never really thought about getting a tattoo.  Was it like a temporary tattoo, but stitched on like a sewing machine did?  She felt like she could remember or connect the dots if she wasn’t so… balloon headed.

But it was needles, and she hated needles, and it was dentist-like and she hated dentists.

But it wasn’t really her.  She didn’t feel attached to her own body.  It was a thing.

The string felt shorter, though.  She felt closer to her body.  Like the ceiling was only twenty feet above everything.

“Cooler,” Bottom Bunk said.

She hated Bottom Bunk.  He smelled and the smells always led down the same roads to the fear of throwing up and not being able to breathe after.

“Bitch!” Cooler’s response was belligerent.  “Didn’t I say to shut the fuck up?”

“You’ve been using that a lot tonight.  Shouldn’t you change the…” he struggled to find the word.  “The battery.  Refill the, uh, the ink?”

“Bitch,” Cooler said, like he was going to say it in response no matter what Bottom Bunk said.  Then he lurched to his feet.

He was gone a minute later.  He didn’t mush up her poster this time.

Bottom Bunk remained at the door, smelling up her room.  She hated him for that.

“I’ll fend him off, keep him distracted,” Bottom Bunk mumbled.  “You just, y’know.  Sleep.  Whatever.”

He loomed in her doorway.

Smelling.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, before closing her door.

She floated, lost in thought, fixated on the damage to her poster.  She thought of Cross Chorus and that did a lot to help distract her and fill the time.  She played the music in her head, best as she could with the regular thumping coming from downstairs.  Mostly she played her favorite verses over and over again, and the string that connected her to her body was short enough now she could kind of rock with it.

The bed jerked.

There was a moan, and it alarmed her.  Like lying in bed late at night and feeling convinced there was a monster in the corner behind her and it had been there all night.

She was close enough to her body to feel that alarm.  She felt her heart, dull and numb, and curled her fingers.

The moan got worse, and then became a cry.  A wail, loud.

More alarm, more concern, dread.  Dread like it was five o’clock after school.  Between three and four she looked after her brother and then at five her mom and stepdad came back and she dreaded that.  Because her stepdad didn’t like kids.

Those moments were what she held onto.  That freedom, those hours where she didn’t have school and she didn’t have parents.  Being a latchkey kid, as one of the books she’d read once said.

She remembered reading books.  It had been a while.  She had sat at school reading the little magazine that had new books in it that kids could order, and she’d realized she didn’t have the time to read anymore.  It had bothered her a lot.

Now what bothered her was the moaning, which gradually got more articulate.

“Mmmmommmm!”

The dread got worse and worse, and she tried desperately to find that control or series of whatevers inside of her that would let her stop that sound, because-

Because it made mom come.  The door opened.  Mom stood in the doorway, frazzled and upset.

“I told you to be quiet today,” her mother said.  “I ask you for one thing.”

Her mother entered the room, Mope following behind and hopping up.  Carrie could hear licking.

“Aw, fuck,” Carrie’s mom said.  “Can’t make this easy for me, huh?”

Carrie was awash in confusion.

The bed jerked a few more times, moving.

“Mmomm.  It hurts.”

“Hush!  Hush.  Let’s get these off you.”

It wasn’t Carrie.  Ari was lying next to her.  Her brother.  She’d forgotten, or she’d wanted to forget, or… she hadn’t been thinking about it.  Hadn’t been able to.

She was lost, bobbing, disconnected, and now feeling very worried for Ari.  What hurt?  Why?

Her mother walked back around the bed.  Holding a rumpled set of Eidolon jammies.  Ari’s.  He’d wet himself, and the white fabric was soaked from crotch to knee, dark with the fluids.

But as Carrie’s mom went to the bathroom, Carrie could see the stain- yellow only around the edges.  Most of it was pink or red.  Blood.

He’d peed blood?

Ari was hurt, he was wailing, moaning, and her mom was moving so slowly and casually.

That black-ink fear washed into and through her until there was nothing else.  In the midst of it all, frantic, she fumbled to move, struggling to sit up.

Her mother returned, pushing her down, before going to Ari, a fresh set of jammies and a towel in her arms.

After so long of being so still, staring at the same section of her room, Carrie’s attempts to move and see what was happening were incoherent, slow.  Images and familiar parts of her room that should have been instantly recognizable took seconds.

“Stay put, Carrie!” her mother barked.  “Please!”

She tried to speak and found her mouth moved too slowly, like it was full of gum.  She swallowed the excess saliva and snorted back snot, and her throat hurt.

“Fresh bottoms on, towel under you, and… here you go.”

Her mother jabbed Ari with a needle, depressing the plunger.

Carrie protested without words, reaching over.

“Stop moving or it’ll break off inside him.  You’ll hurt him, Carrie!  Stop moving!”

Carrie froze, though the hand she had extended wavered in the air.

Her mother’s voice was airy, lazy.  “If there’s still blood in the morning we’ll take him to the doctor.  Figure out what the fuck to say.  Fuck.”

“Mmm,” Carrie tried to say ‘mom’.  To get through to her mother.

There was another syringe.  Her mother walked around the bed to Carrie’s side, sitting where Cooler had sat.

“I don’t know what I’m doing, Carrie,” her mother said.  She reached for Carrie’s leg, hiking down her pyjamas to expose the side of her thigh.  Carrie tried her best to fend off her mother’s hands and the needle, but her own hands barely cooperated.

“Your stepdad doesn’t like kids, so we’re just going to keep you out of the way for a bit.”

A bit.  Carrie felt more dread.

She fought, pushing, raising her voice.  She knew she was supposed to lie still.  If she was still she was safe, because she could have a few hours and maybe sneak off to the bathroom very quietly, kind of like how she had a couple of latchkey kid hours after school.

“Stay still, Carrie.  Or you’re going to bump into it while I’m giving you your medicine and it’ll break off.”

The idea of a needle breaking off scared her more than anything, and she was all full of fear already.

Scared her more than the fact that her stepdad’s friends had come over for ‘brunch’ on Saturday, interrupting morning cartoons, and Carrie and her brother had been ‘kept out of the way’ like this ever since.  It was dark out outside and it was Sunday.  Pills and needles and whatever else.

There had been two other school days where she had gone to school, come home, had two hours with Ari, and then this.  Being kept out of the way.  Waking up the next morning to go to school.

And Ari was bleeding and she couldn’t do anything to help.

But the idea of a needle breaking off scared her more than anything, somehow, even more than being stuck with a needle in the first place.

The syringe came down and the feeling came after, slow at first, then a rush, sweeping in like a breeze.

And her body was gone, along with the fear and concern for her brother.  The world was abstract and airy, and her thoughts were the contents of a balloon, swirling around with nothing to contain them, tied to her body with a string so long she couldn’t see her body or the room any more.

“Stay put.  Be still,” a voice said, and she couldn’t even hope to place or figure out who or where it came from, or why it said what it did.

It didn’t last nearly long enough, or it lasted a while, but the crash back to her body was harder than ever before.

Pain.  A stabbing, sharp pain in her midsection, like someone had stabbed her, and kept stabbing her.  A spike through her middle that was constantly being twisted.

She remembered Ari and her fear for Ari, and she felt her fear that this pain would continue for even a minute longer, and she was afraid to move because if she did then her mother would come in and give her something else, with only a change of clothes and a towel to put between her legs and any blood.

The spike twisted again.  In the midst of fluid that was ink black in color, a droplet landed, unfurling like a great knotted octopus wrapped in cloth and smoke.  Red in black now.

Already disconnected once, she disconnected again.  Again, she pulled away.

Pulled back into a void of stars, cold, the only heat sources impossibly distant.  The only non-numb things she could touch were hostile.  Chunks of rock and ice traveling at bullet speeds to crash into her.  She drifted, lost in abstract sensation, and this was, at the very least, familiar.

She didn’t fight to come back from it.  She felt like she was committing a betrayal by lingering.

Because ‘back’ was a return to a hostile world of blood and paralysis and being so very, very afraid.

Caryatid, Now

“That woman is Contessa,” Withdrawal reported.  “The bogeyman of capes.  The man in cuffs behind her is Teacher.”

“The same Teacher that attacked us?” Caryatid asked.

“Yeah.  They finally got him,” Withdrawal said.  “But Antares is worried.  She says she doesn’t trust Contessa, and she knows more than she’s letting on about the disaster the brainy-type capes are all worried about.  Either that, or she’s going to make a big mistake.”

“She’s strong?” Caryatid asked.

“Apparently she’s one of the very strongest.  She can see the future and use that to do anything perfectly,” Withdrawal said, reading off whatever he was seeing in his goggles.  He seemed to take that in.  “Wow.”

Finale spoke up, sounding unsure, “If this is a mistake, does that mean she’s not being perfect, or does it mean she’s going to make a mistake perfectly?”

Caryatid reached out, putting a hand on the back of Finale’s head.  It elicited a head turn and smile from her friend.

Finale wasn’t dumb.  Not mentally disabled or autistic, not mentally ill.  Just developmentally delayed and stunted.  She would probably never grow up all the way, would always have issues with outgoing filters like when not to say inappropriate stuff, incoming filters like judging whether people were being honest, and impulse control.  Her own hangups and perceptions of her real and imagined limitations were as bad as anything.

But she could sometimes say or ask really smart things, and have no idea she was doing it.

“That, or she’s doing something that looks like it’s going to be a disastrous mistake on purpose,” Withdrawal said.  “Either way, Victoria thinks she might be missing the anti parahumans as a problem.  Here, possibly.  Something’s in her quote-unquote ‘blind spot’, that she isn’t seeing.”

“I’m not sure I really get it,” Finale said.  “But you can explain later.  For now, just tell me what to do.”

“I can’t speak for Fume Hood and Withdrawal,” Caryatid said, “But I don’t know what to do.”

Contessa made her way down the stairs, hands in her pockets.  A crew of capes followed her, with a hulking woman carrying Teacher over one shoulder.  The man was wrapped in what looked like a tube of plastic.

“Ma’am!” one of the Cheit staff called out.  An important looking official stood by the staff officer, speaking in something that almost sounded English.

Contessa didn’t slow down.  Her soldiers followed suit.

“Do we stop her?” Caryatid asked.

Can we stop her?” Fume Hood asked.  She created an orb.  “That’s a good few capes.  There’s bystanders.”

Of course Fume Hood was mindful of bystanders.

“We go,” Withdrawal said.  “This whole thing is too dangerous.  Antares thinks it blows up.”

Caryatid remained where she was, paralyzed.  Caught between stepping in to help and leaving with her friends.

“Cease!  That man is intended to be in our custody!” the Cheit staff member called out.

Contessa didn’t slow.

“We will open fire!”

Withdrawal was guiding Finale back.  Caryatid reached for Fume Hood, touched their mentor’s coat sleeve, and dug fingernails in.

“I can’t,” she whispered.

“You can’t retreat or you can’t step in?”

“Either.  Both.  Earlier, before all this happened, we talked about our trigger events.  Withdrawal, then Finale.  I told you about mine,” Caryatid whispered.

“You did.”

“I can’t deal with this.”

“Focus on tomorrow,” Fume Hood said.  “Tomorrow, what do you want to have done?”

There were too many people around.  Innocent bystanders.  Caryatid summed up her courage, then strode forward a few steps-

“Caryatid!” Withdrawal called out.  “You can’t!”

-jogging more steps, then running, before putting herself in the woman’s way, arms out to either side.  A car to her right helped bar the way.

She reached within herself, and then let her power settle.  Stillness.

Turning a page, finding something other than humanity, mortality, and physical sensation on the other side.  Her body was made of turning pages.

Taking a step, without stepping forward, backward, left or right.  Like there was a slight rise and fall, and she was something else on the other side.

Her consciousness unfolded, as though she were looking down on it all from above.  She wasn’t, but… that was kind of how it felt, when she viewed it all as a series of positions, colors, and textures with a focus that was predominantly on what was close to her, everything blurring out into paint-like splashes as they got further and further out.

Off to the side, catching up and getting to a good vantage point, Finale pointed her hands at Contessa, fingers meshed together, thumbs pressed together and sticking out, index fingers sticking forward.  Ready to shoot.

Don’t leave.  Don’t set off this situation and turn it into a disaster.

Caryatid couldn’t open her mouth to talk while in her statue form.

“Ari,” Contessa said, not breaking stride.

Still barring the way, as the woman got closer by the second, Caryatid took a second to process.  Ari?  Her brother?  Why his name?  What did this woman mean?  Was it a threat, or-

She dropped the breaker form.  “What do-”

The woman in the suit seized her by arm and shoulder, pushing her to the left.  She stumbled.

“Bang!”

Caryatid felt the impact at her back.  The effect landing.

She twisted her head around.  “Don’t!”

“I know!  My aim is usually so good, I’m sorry!  I can’t-”

The pull reversed direction, an arm bar keeping Caryatid from resisting as she was pushed to the right.  She tried to take a quick extra step to get her balance again, and found a leg in her way.

She toppled.  Her head glanced against a nearby car’s wheel well.  She sprawled onto the slushy pavement, momentarily stunned, unable to gather her thoughts or physical wherewithal.

“Cary!” Finale called out.

Others were calling out, but heroes and Patrol were stuck with the burgeoning, still hostile crowd of anti-parahumans and other angry refugees.

There was a gunshot, elsewhere.  From the direction of the station.  Cheit, now.

The boom that answered could only be a power.  Not Finale’s.  There were shouts, screams, and agonized noises.

Caryatid looked up, and her vision was obscured.  A rivulet of blood, running down her face.

More shouting, more screams.  Muffled, like noises from another room.

She saw Contessa walk by the driver’s side door, jamming a knife into the lock, jerking it, still without slowing or quickening her step.

Withdrawal skidded a bit as he landed next to her, crouching over her with his extended limbs, as if to shield her from danger.

He was always so intimidating, when he jumped up close to her like that.  Springy movements, metal squeaking if it wasn’t tuned up perfectly, which it almost never was, and he came across so tall like this.  He bent closer, touching her head wound.

At the back of the car, barely taking a second to do it, Contessa popped the boot.

The seven foot tall muscular woman dumped Teacher in his plastic sheet inside.

“I’ll drive,” Contessa said.

“Contessa!” Fume Hood called out.  “We need you to slow down!”

“Slowing down would get people hurt.  Cheit’s leadership agreed to let me take Teacher, the ones complaining are a subversive faction that’s dependent on him,” Contessa said, as she walked over to another car.  She used that small knife to pop the lock there too, jamming it in between the door and the frame this time.  She bent inside.

“That’s my car!” a man screamed.  One of the people being arrested.

“You’re going to incite a war!” Fume Hood shouted.

The car started, as fast as if the woman had the real keys.

“The war is happening regardless,” Contessa said, as she straightened.  She made a gesture toward the team of parahumans that had come with her.  “It will be mostly internal within Cheit.  It will be healthy in the long run, with few casualties, and better relations between worlds after the fact.  They will shoot at people here, I can’t see with perfect clarity, but I have good reason to think there won’t be more than two permanent injuries or deaths.  This is for the best.”

“For the best?  Fuck no, I can’t buy that!” Fume Hood snarled.

She always swore more when she was stressed.

“You don’t have to buy it,” Contessa said, as she returned to the first car.  She loomed over Caryatid and stood within Withdrawal’s reach.  The door was already open, thanks to the initial knife stab.  “You only have to accept it, wait, see, and then know it to be true.”

“Yeah, no.  I have problems with trust and serious common sense issues,” Fume Hood said.  “Stay put, let’s handle this.”

She chucked the orb of gas.

The woman in the suit bent low, her posture like someone bowling a strike, but her arm moved the opposite way.  The orb was redirected, flying straight up.

She straightened, raising her hand over her head.  That hand dropped with the orb as it fell.  When she stopped moving, she had it in between three fingers.

Fume Hood had said once that her orbs were as fragile as christmas ornaments or lightbulbs unless she wanted them intact, which was usually when she was handling them.  She could use her power to fling them at speeds like a pitcher threw a baseball.  Each contained enough compressed gas that they could fill a large room.

Contessa had caught a christmas ornament thrown at baseball pitcher speeds.

Hm.  Redirected and then caught.

So that was doing things perfectly.

Fume Hood created six more orbs, which formed a circle around her upper body.  Her cape and hood billowed.

Contessa flicked the orb she held onto Withdrawal and Caryatid.

Be still.

Caryatid went breaker.  Withdrawal couldn’t, though.

And he had a new mask.  Was it-

It wasn’t.

He coughed violently, one of his feet losing traction on the road.

Fume Hood had hesitated, giving Contessa time to get into the car.  She hurled her orbs at the windshield, then hurried to Withdrawal’s side, sucking up gas to form a new orb.

“Open your mouth.  Let me suck up what you’ve got in your lungs.”

“It is open,” Withdrawal said, voice hoarse.  “Fuck, this sucks.”

The car peeled out, swerving around some of the people on the battlefield, heading straight for the barricade.  The other car, loaded up with members of Contessa’s group, also left.

Her leaving was supposed to be a good thing, right?  They’d planned to run, but Caryatid had changed her mind and threw herself and her team into this mess.

Except no.  The people were riled up.  That one guy screaming about his car being stolen.  The people at the barricade.  People who had gotten out of their cars to watch or check what was going on, after hearing the gunshot.

And Cheit.  The men from Cheit were upset.  Straightening, Caryatid could see the people who were lying on the ground or being dragged.  People who, like her, had gotten in Contessa’s way.

But there were many others.

Putting her team between angry anti-parahumans and angry people from Cheit.

She touched her head wound, feeling blood and a piercing pain.

What could she do?  Where could she go?  If she moved she might get hurt.  If she did anything, she might make things worse.

She stood, using her breaker form to protect herself, shielding her team.

Blood and paralysis and being so very, very afraid.

Caryatid, a Critical Moment

Carrie gripped her cell phone with two hands.  The hold music was maddening.

She tensed as the person on the other end picked up.  “Ahem, Ms.-”

“I’m here.”

“Yes, good,” the man on the other end sounded like he was still getting organized.  Shuffling papers.  “Hmm…”

Paper shuffling was good, right?   It had to be good.

“I had a conversation with a- I must say they are a lovely husband and wife.  Educated, well-to-do, well-meaning.”

The man on the phone had to be old.  Carrie shifted her weight from foot to foot, impatient.

“They are, and I can testify, I’ve looked up the records to verify, they’ve arranged doctors, therapists.  Everything you could hope for.  They’ve expressed an intent to adopt him.  These things can change, especially when volatile personalities are involved, but for the time being your mother seems to be cooperating.”

Adopted.  She rocked back a bit.

“Can I see my brother?” she jumped in.  “Ari?”

“I, hmm.  Well, you see, this isn’t the easiest thing to discuss.  I assure you, I want to make it abundantly clear your brother is in good hands, but I must regrettably inform you that he is nonetheless in the hospital, you see.”

“What?”

“Perfectly routine.  Nothing to do with their treatment of them.  I see here in the file that you have previously expressed deep concerns about possible caregivers and your perception of foster care.”

“What happened!?”

“Please, miss.  Volume down.  I assure you, nothing to worry about.  I won’t say it’s routine, but you… let me see here…”

He audibly turned pages.

There were tears in her eyes.  She looked for a place to sit, and settled on the roof’s edge.  The neighborhood was shitty, with old detritus and trash in the streets.  One in every ten windows was broken, and a car on the road hadn’t been moved in what was probably years.

But it was their turf.  A place for her team to hang out.

“You’re aware of his health issues.”

“Yes.”

“It’s more of the same, miss… Carrie, was it?  Nothing more, nothing less.”

“Yes.  Carrie.  Can I see him?  Which hospital?  I can take the bus.”

“Carrie, dear.  You can be confident that the doctors and nurses are taking exceptional care of the boy.  There’s no need to visit.  He’s carrying on with his life just fine and he’ll be fine, certainly.”

“I do need to visit.  I want to visit.  I haven’t seen him in a year.”

“My dear girl… there is no easy way to say this.  I hoped to avoid it.  He doesn’t want to see you.”

She went very still.  Her eyes were filled with tears, but she didn’t blink to clear them.  The moisture crept over the surface until there was only blurriness.

Her voice was a croak.  “After the hospital?”

“From what the foster parents expressed to me, hm, let me see my handwritten notes-”

He paged through.

“Tell me,” she said.  “I’m free whenever.  Day or night.  I don’t care where they live, I’ll find a way, I’ll walk.”

More audible flapping of pages.

“He’s the only family I want to keep.”

Another page turn.  A thud, like something was dropped on a desk.

“This isn’t easy.  I’m so sorry, my dear.  His foster parents report that he wishes to make a fresh start, and avoid all reminders of his prior life.  He finds it quite traumatic.”

So do I.  But Ari… Ari was a good part of it.

“Could they be lying?  Is there a chance they’re just lying so they don’t have to worry about me?  Because I’m a good person, I’m no trouble.”

“I thought perhaps there was.  But, ahh.  This isn’t easy.”

“Tell me,” she said.

“He made it very clear.  If you contact him, he will tell the world your secret.  Does that mean anything to you?”

“No,” she lied.  My powers.

He had been so mad that she had gotten the powers and he got nothing.  That he had been rendered incontinent by the drugs their mother had used to pacify them.  That he had lost a kidney and had a partial ureterectomy.

Doctors had worried she would have similar problems.  But she had mended.  Her brother had been smaller.  The drugs had hit him harder.

“Rest assured, he is getting the best care.  He is in a loving home.  Sometimes you must give these things time.”

Caryatid stood on the rooftop, staring up at the sky, because turning her face in any other direction would let the tears spill free.

She let the phone drop to the flat roof, then dropped down to a crouch, wrapping her arms around her knees.  It hurt.  It hurt so much.  She buried her face in the fabric of her dress.  Then she used her power.

To not be human, to be numb, to be a statue that didn’t feel things in the same way.  So long as she was a breaker, she was an unfeeling thing.

The door to the rooftop creaked.  She heard it but she didn’t look up.  Looking up meant moving and moving meant feeling.

“There’s nobody on the other end.  I’m going to hang up, okay?  I’ve got your phone in my pocket,” Bella said.

Carrie didn’t move.

She was aware of Bella sitting next to her, leaning into her.  Bella hugged her immobile, unfeeling self.

“I guess you called your brother like you said you would?” Bella asked.  “It didn’t go well?”

He doesn’t ever want to see me again.

“That’s awful,” Bella said.  “I’m so sorry.  You deserve-”

There was a hitch of emotion.  The hiccup of tears.

“You deserve better.  You’re one of the nicest, best people I know.  Top two.”

Bella cried in her place, while she remained stock still.

Bella worried, Carrie realized.  Bella would be concerned.

Couldn’t let Bella be concerned.  Couldn’t let Bella shoulder the tears all by herself.  Not when they came from a place of such unfiltered caring.

She let herself be human again.  It took some reconfiguring, from sitting side by side to being able to properly hug, but she adjusted, wrapping her arms around her friend and letting her friend do the same for her.  She sobbed into Bella’s shoulder, while her friend rubbed her back.

At least… she had a new family, going forward.

Fume Hood, Now

She hesitated before every throw.  A lot of the people fighting were civilians, and there was a chance that any person she hit with her gas could be asthmatic, too young.  Pregnant.

It had been easier being an asshole.  When she’d been an asshole, it had been okay to gas a teammate.  Or it had been something they would roll with.  These guys, especially the Malfunctions… she would actually feel bad if she gassed them.  Even with a light dose, like tear gas.

She heard Withdrawal cough.

She felt bad.  Contessa had used her gas to hurt this team.

Each throw was calculated.  Placed far away from anyone who looked like they might be vulnerable.  Blocking off vision and blocking off access to areas.  The wind periodically picked up, necessitating that she take time to gather up the gas before it could wash over her ‘side’ in the battle.

Not that there were really sides at this point.  Not in the sense where there was stuff over there and stuff over here.  The anti-parahumans had broken through and were mixed in with everything.  They grabbed improvised weapons, or drew hidden ones.  The refugees who were angriest were shouting, gathering together, telling the anti-parahumans to stop, or telling people to calm down.  One very loud woman was shrieking about her husband’s vascular problem and how he couldn’t sit in the car for too long without issues.  At the same time there were guns.

Cheit’s people and a few scattered capes were in the mix, too.  Their security had armor on, had weapons, and were more organized.  The gas was helpful there.  They liked to stay together, so blocking off one part of the group blocked off the rest.

They were outnumbered and reinforcements were a few minutes out.  Sandwiched between two factions, and neither faction was especially friendly.

She did what she could to protect the Malfunctions.  She had been a free agent at the same time Victoria had been looking for someone more experienced to pair with them.  That had been weeks ago.

They’d kind of ended up in each other’s company since then.

Fume Hood jogged through her gas to flank a man in Cheit armor who had just shoved Finale to the ground and stood over the girl with a baton raised.  She coldcocked him.

She shook her hand, wincing at the pain, and put her other hand down for Finale to grab, helping the girl to her feet.

Helped that they couldn’t see through her gas, and she could.  That she could breathe it in and they couldn’t.

As awful as this was, as awful and ugly and stupid, it felt cleaner than what she was used to.  She’d once felt the opposite, after every stupid stunt, party-with-powers-involved, and what she would have once called ‘escapades’.

Back when she had been awful, ugly, and stupid.

There wasn’t really a balancing of the scales in this universe, but it felt good to be pushing back against that kind of thing.  She’d once ended every night out in costume feeling dread and a desperate need to go, to do stuff, to distract herself from what was initially a dread that the cops or heroes would kick her door in.

Then, after she’d gotten used to it, a kind of uneasy feeling about what would happen if she stopped and thought long enough to dwell on events and where she was at.  Toking, fucking, sucking, smoking, drinking, and everything under the sun kept her mind off things.

Now she faced reality without the armor of distractions, and reality was harsh, stark, with edges drawn in too precisely.  It wasn’t easy going, but at the very least, she could feel like she was making incremental progress toward being someone she could like.

“Bambambam!”

Fume hood judged where Finale was shooting, picked out one of her orbs, with a more yellow tint than a yellow-green or green tint, and used her orb-only telekinesis to curve-ball it forward.  It detonated into a cloud.

The ‘bambambam’ became a rattle of detonations that knocked the offending group of anti-parahumans back into the expanding gas cloud.  It would be very similar to tear gas in practice.

These kids…

Caryatid tackled a guy who was bearing a fire axe, knocking him to the ground.  She went breaker while atop him.  Fume Hood threw another orb.  A deeper green.  Nauseating, longer-acting, but subtler.

Caryatid in her form wasn’t affected.  The guy with the axe, though, the fight quickly went out of him.

Fume Hood waited until he was all out of steam, then sucked up the gas, choosing to guide it through the air so the cone of gas that was being gathered blocked the path of a group of really angry looking teenagers.

…She wanted to help them.  Malfunctions and the people in general.

Withdrawal fired his pill popper at a car that had just lit up, headlights bright.  The red juice, it looked like it softened things that weren’t flesh.  The red mist primarily expanded beneath the car.  The vehicle sagged, wheels fighting for traction on otherwise normal road, distorting in shape.  When the car did move, it fishtailed, then stopped again.  Had it continued, it might have run some people over.

He leaped on top of the hood.  The hood distorted too, as did, apparently, the engine block.  Smoke billowed out from around the cracks in the hood.  The wheels and undercarriage had given up their last gasp too, apparently.  The wheels stopped spinning.

“Window!” she called out.

Withdrawal glanced back at her, then hit the windshield with the end of the pill popper, punching a hole in it and breaking it elsewhere.

She created more orbs, having them circle around her.  A yellow green orb- she touched it and it stopped orbiting her.  She gestured, and it flew forward at ninety miles an hour.  She guided its course with some mental focus.

The orb flew into the hole in the windshield and hit the car interior at the same time Withdrawal leaped away.

Helping them felt good.  She was their ‘mentor’, in some senses, telling them how villains operated, what the rules of the cape scene were, how to do some stuff in a fight like throwing punches or thinking about a crisis.

But they were really the ones who rubbed off on her.

She felt so terribly guilty, being around them.

“Rotten Apple.”

She turned.

One of the anti-parahumans.  A big-bellied man with a gas mask on.

“You killed a woman’s baby,” he growled, voice muffled by the mask.

“I’ve done a lot of things.”

Fume Hood, Then

“You’re all bitches!  Cunts and bitches!”

The group of girls alternately laughed and gave her the finger as they walked away.

Huffing for breath, furious, Lauren swiped a food tray off of one of the outdoor tables, letting the food and drink crash to the ground.

“Hey!” the burger stand employee called out.  “Hey!  You clean that up!”

She gave him the finger, and she walked away.

Her ‘friends’ had turned on her.  Torn her down, hated on her clothes, made fun of her house and family.  For no reason.

Fuck them, it wasn’t like she had a choice.

Fuck all of this.  Fuck the burger place.  Fuck her family, who wouldn’t even understand if she explained it.  Fuck her mom, because she’d freaked out over finding one joint in Lauren’s room and cut off her allowance, curbstomping her social life in the process.

She jogged away so the burger guy wouldn’t be able to catch up to her, then walked with her hands in her pockets, pulling the front of her jacket closed, because the zipper always got stuck and if it got stuck now, when she was in this fucking mood?  She’d freak.

Fuck!

Her brown hair was tied back into a tight ponytail, because she didn’t have the stuff to give it volume, her jeans were one size too big, and her sneakers had holes in them she could stick a finger through.

Fuck her mom.  Fuck this.

I’d give shit to someone who looks like me, she thought.  Can’t even get as mad at those bitches as I want to.

What even was the point?  Living in this fucking flaming cum dumpster of a town.  She walked by the detritus and piled up clothing that looked like a homeless person’s camp, and she hated that she lived here.  Hated that this was the way the streets fucking looked.

She horked a loogie and spat, placing the spit close to the pile of shit.

The clothes moved.  Startling, she backed off, moving away at doubletime to avoid any incident.

There was a man at another collection of homeless stuff, half a block down, wearing army camo and a colorful shirt with Mouse Protector on it.  He had a thick beard and stood with his mouth open, making it apparent he was missing a couple of teeth.

“That ain’t right,” he drawled, as she walked down the other side of the road.  “Spitting on someone.”

“Spit near, not on.”

“Ain’t right.”

“Ain’t right to lecture someone about something you didn’t see right.”

“I think you should go back.  Apologize.  She’s up.”

Lauren looked back.  There was a girl, maybe two years older than her, who was sitting up, looking.

“Leave me alone, man.  I’m having a shitty night.”

“That makes it more important to make things right.  Most people who do shitty things are having shitty times of it.”

“Yeah.  Right, got it,” Lauren said, shrugging.  She started to walk past him, heading down the street.  “You sure have it all figured out.”

“You think you’re better than me?” he asked, behind her.

“Kinda do, no offense.”

“From where I stand, you’re a little shit-smear on society who spits on those she thinks are lower than her.”

From where he stood.

He was closer.  Approaching her.  And as he got closer, she could see that he was actually kind of buff.  His sleeves were tight around biceps and forearms.  Had he actually been in the army, wearing that camo?

“I spat near her, didn’t even see her.  Okay?  So back off.”

She could smell him.  Unwashed, gross.

Further down the street, someone hopped to his feet as he saw them.  A homeless girl, roughly her own age.

The girl got in Lauren’s way.  She hesitated, then turned.  A passing car kept her from crossing the street.

“Problem, Paul?”

“Wanted her to apologize to Yasmine.  Yas has been having a tough time of it.  She’d appreciate a human moment.”

“Look, just let me go.  You can’t legally do this shit,” Lauren protested.

“Paul looks after those of us who aren’t really good at defending ourselves,” Yasmine said, indicating what might have been a prosthetic leg.  “Think of him like a bouncer, the street’s his club.”

“Street’s for everyone.  Basic human right or something.”

“Your rights extend to the point they start trampling on someone else’s,” Paul said.

“Yeah, well, I’m not trampling on anything,” Lauren protested.

“You’re-”

Lauren bolted, pushing her way past the girl with the prosthetic leg.  She felt the girl grab her clothes, fall, and take her down with her.

She landed in the midst of the girl’s collected trash and general garbage.  A resealable lunch container, and what looked like a mess of pens, tied plastic bags of personal items or actual food-smelling trash, papers, a dirty blanket, dirty clothes.  She shrieked, fighting to get her way free, backing off.

“Jeez, you didn’t have to go that far,” Paul said.

“I thought maybe she stole something.  You weren’t clear about what she’s apologizing for.”

Lauren, eyes wide, scrambled back, past the girl with the prosthetic leg who now sat on the blanket.  Paul took a step forward, and she wheeled around, ready to run.

The wheeling made her aware of a sensation at her arm.   She heard Paul exclaim as he noticed the same thing.

They hadn’t been pens.  Syringes, lined up and packed together in a case.  Some had stuck into her arm near the elbow, and bounced as she moved.  She rushed to pull them loose, scattering them to the ground.  Then, struck by the thought she might need to know what was in those syringes, she dropped to her knees, grabbing at one.

Paul stepped closer, and she backed away on hands and knees, the syringe feeling fragile in her hand as she put weight on it.

Panicked, she turned to go- only to see the commotion had stirred up some of the other locals.  Someone had stepped out of a nearby doorway.  Someone across the street shouted.

Loathing and revulsion in all directions, inward included, choked her.  The scene around her distorted, and for a panicked moment, she thought it was drugs.

But what she saw was too big for drugs.

Fume Hood, Now

Surrounded on all sides by hatred, revilement, disgust.  Aimed at her.

Try all her life, never make headway.  If anything, trying only got her stuck deeper in the mud.  It was only in retrospect that she realized what she did wrong.

Being a stupid sixteen year old shit, refusing to back down or apologize out of some twisted pride, and crashing into some diabetic’s used syringe stash?

Slumming it with the guys who celebrated doing nothing, aside from the occasional so-big-it-has-to-fail attempt at something outlandish, be it some get-rich-quick business, starting a gang, siccing a giant vegetable on Boston, or attempting a prison breakout to get on the good side of some key villains in the scene.  Failure, failure, partial success, wish-it-had-been-a-failure.  Then, after all that slumming and fucking around, smoking up and fucking, she’d found herself wondering why she never made headway in life.  Which fed more self loathing, more of the activities that served to distract herself.

Throwing herself headlong into the scene with people she knew she shouldn’t hang out with, and hitting some stupid pregnant woman who she still wasn’t sure wasn’t trying to get hurt.  Costing that woman her baby.

Going willingly to jail.  Thinking that would fix anything.

This, thinking she could make a difference.

And even more specifically, this very scene.  Doing patrols to make sure traffic was moving and raiders weren’t closing in, and then accepting a gig dealing with anti-parahumans.  When she had a history with the type.

She could have said no.  Couldn’t she?

People didn’t forget.  The bad stuck with you forever.

The guy in the gas mask was kicking her ass.  Her gas wasn’t slowing him down.  She created orb after orb, sending it flying with the intent of knocking the mask ajar, overloading it, or just blinding him so she could get in a few quick hits.  But he had a baseball bat, and he’d clipped her once already.

“You’re going to pay for what you did,” he said, walking deeper into the gas, swinging where he thought she might be.

“Working on it, went to jail, doing a kind of community service,” she said, while walking to the left, before abruptly changing direction.

He seemed to guess what she was doing.  The bat came perilously close.  Long arms, long bat.

This was distracting her from helping the Malfunctions.  They were kids, ten years younger than her.  She didn’t want this in this kind of situation when they didn’t have other people at their backs.

Still pacing sideways, she could see him move to vaguely track her.  It wasn’t perfect, but he was good.  Good eyes.

She suspected she knew why.  The fan at her back.

Reaching up, she peeled her coat off, holding it out, and slowly made her way to a nearby railing.  She hung her coat there, the heated fan still going.  Distorting the gas that flooded the area around them.  It thinned out by the second as she ceased making new orbs, but she knew if she threw anything it would distract.  She wanted to predict his movements.

And he did start to inch closer to the railing.

If she got the mask off, she won.  There was a railing, she could use it as a jumping-off point.

It was a question of waiting, of timing the attack, staying low so that the thinning cloud wouldn’t reveal her.  Her costume was tinted to blend in with the green-yellow.

She sprung forward.  One foot on the railing-post that matched the one she had hung her jacket on.  Giving her the height to reach for his head.

He saw her, in that last moment.  The butt-end of the bat, hands close to it, came up to her stomach.  Not much of a hit, but it distracted her from getting her hands on his mask or even landing properly.

The bat came down in an overhead swing.  Hit her ribs at her back.

Her cry was strangled.  Spots flashed behind her eyes.

“Fume!”

Withdrawal.  She could hear his limbs rattle in places as he made the approach.

The other two were coming too.

The big guy backed off as the three Major Malfunctions drew close to Fume Hood.

“Pow- ow, fuck – powers?” she asked.

“No,” the masked man said.

“Pretty sharp,” she grunted.

“Outrage, disgust,” he said.  “Pushes you.”

She nodded.  That, at least, was her language.  Or it was her birth language.  The kind of thinking that she had always gone back to.  If the other guy hated you and you hated yourself… losing was a pretty sure bet, no matter how strong you were.

And for a long, long time, she hadn’t liked anything about herself.

Blame, from all directions, including her own blame turned inward.  Resentment, same thing.  Frustration.

Wearing her down.

“You win,” she said.  “Got your licks in.  This is going to hurt like hell for a long, long while.”

“I’m not done,” the man said.

“You’re done,” Withdrawal replied.

The man drew his gun, still holding his bat in the other hand.  He pointed it at Withdrawal.

“No!” Fume Hood grunted.  The shout elicited a blinding pain.  She tried to stand and instead landed on her elbows and knees.  She created an orb, holding it in her hand.  She couldn’t bring herself to throw it, or to focus enough to use her power to fling it.  “Shoot me.  Just me.  It’s fine.”

“It’s not fine, you idiot!” Finale said.  “I could-”

The gun went off.

Fume Hood twisted to try and look up and see what had happened.  The pain in her back made her see only darkness and stars for long seconds instead.

“Shhhh,” the man in the gas mask said.  “That was a warning shot.  I know how you work.  I know you could try to disarm me.  If you make another sound, Finale, I shoot before you can do anything.”

In her breaker form, Caryatid reached over for Finale’s hand, holding it.  Finale nodded, lips pursed shut.

“What’s the point?” Caryatid asked, as she turned human.

“Don’t- keep using your form,” Fume Hood grunted.

“The point?”

“What’s the point of this, what do you gain?  You get to gun down one of us?”

The man shrugged.  “She took a life, we take hers.”

“No!  There has to be more to it!”

“Reasserting some control?  You’ve been holding Endbringers over our heads for years and now there’s rumors they were manufactured.  Then you held the end of the world over our heads.  Now this… supposed reason for evacuation, conveniently after the mayor gets exposed?  You have powers but you keep clutching for more.”

“What happens?  You shoot her and you win?  This changes the outcome?”

He pointed backwards without looking to check.  There were some people there, mostly young ones, with cameras.  “Keep fighting us, it’s only going to encourage us, seeing how vicious you get with the unpowered.  That’s if you win.  If this next bullet lands, if I walk away with a win, it’s a bit of motivation.  We all know what you did to that pregnant woman, Rotten Apple.  Pretend to be a hero all you want, we all know what you are and what you did.”

“Kill a kid?” Fume Hood asked.  “Like you just threatened to do?”

He aimed, and he fired.

It felt like… getting shot.  She wanted to wrap her head around it so she could start to process the pain, but the most familiar sensation she could connect to was the last time she’d been shot.  Every muscle in her body but one clenched with the pain, which speared through her midsection.  The one muscle that didn’t seem to have any strength at all was low in her stomach, and in its absence she found herself flopping over, curling up into the fetal position.

“Fume!”

“You bastard!” Withdrawal called out.  “What’s wrong with you?”

“Point that thing at me and I’ll empty this into the group of you.”

“You need to go,” Fume Hood whispered, barely able to follow what was happening, but giving it her all anyway.  She could see people closing in nearby.  This guy’s friends.  Forming a defensive perimeter around this scene.  Others who might not be friends, who were just regular civilians who were watching.

“We’re not leaving you,” Finale said.

“You have to.  I’m sorry.”

“Nope.”

“Finale!” Fume Hood hissed out the word.  The hiss made her back and stomach cramp up.  “You go.  I’m… I’m not this great person.  I’m not worth it.”

“No.”

“You-” Fume Hood tried.  “You told me your stories.  Your trigger events.  You told me who you are.  Let me- let me tell you who I am.  I’m Withdrawal’s mom.  Selfish and lazy and dismissive and really fucking bad at taking care of others.  I’m the kids who egged Finale on, and the asshole who scared her after.  I’ve been such a jackass for so many years, I hurt and scared so many people.  I’ve dealt drugs to people who were like your mom, Caryatid, I’ve drugged people.  I’ve ruined lives and broken up families just by being there.  Sometimes on purpose, or for fun.”

Everything in her strained with the pain.  Talking so much made her feel like she might pass out.

“Maybe that’s who you were, but you’re other things too,” Caryatid said.  “You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t.”

Fume Hood shook her head, rocking on the spot as she tried to find a position where she was comfortable.  “You go.  Let them shoot me or humiliate me.  It’ll be humiliation, that’s their goal.  They don’t want blood they want power.”

Too late a pivot to convince anyone.  Even Finale, apparently.  If only she’d been thinking.

Caryatid moved, putting herself between Fume Hood and the man.  She went Breaker.  Withdrawal partially hid behind his pill popper.  A thin shield that wouldn’t do.

There were too many others.

They’d moved because the man with the gas mask and gun was moving.

Fume Hood sat up, hand reaching for Finale’s shoulder.

Her hand was occupied.  An orb.  She’d created it and forgotten about it.

All of that straining, all of that pain, tension, the muscle activations, whatever it was.  She’d been straining and flexing parts of herself that had nothing to do with her body.  Her power, by pure reflex.

One orb, with enough condensed, noxious gas in it that it was almost black.

She had made this kind of orb in the past.  Purely as an experimental thing.  But even in her lowest moment, she hadn’t even considered using it on people.

Because when she’d thrown it, it had swept over grass and trees.  It had killed what it touched.

If she got shot now, the Malfunctions, even bystanders-

Immediately, she began withdrawing gas from it, making it dissipate.  It wasn’t enough, considering.  One percent at best, two percent.

She found strength she hadn’t realized she had.  Struggling, hand out, warding the gunman off.  “Wait!”

He raised the gun, pointing.

She couldn’t drop this, or risk that it popped.  She let her power cast the orb out and forward.

She hit the Anti-parahumans.  The gunman.  Probably a few errant civilians who had been content to watch without outright participating.

Doing the unforgivable, to avoid doing the impossible.  She couldn’t hurt the only decent people she knew.  Even if it meant betraying everything she wanted out of herself.

She saw people keel over, skin blistering.  Eyes turned her way.  Horrified.  Hateful.  Disgusted.  In disbelief.

It hadn’t been so purposeful, not any more than spitting on a homeless girl or gassing a pregnant woman.

But that didn’t matter.

Something in her gave, her consciousness missed a stair in the staircase it was descending.

Fume Hood saw the cosmos, and she saw the world she lived on.  She saw lives that spread over those orbs like disease, and she saw them extinguished.

She saw herself in the midst of it.  The fundament on which her own power was built.

How deep that power went, how big it was.

Something else gave.

Cracks began to spread, starting with her.  The Malfunctions backed away as those cracks stretched across the area.

Like the breaking of a window, as a single point of pressure was applied.

And as those lines spiderwebbed out, there were areas that had cracks on all sides… and those areas fell out, fell free, falling into a kind of oblivion.

Fume Hood, A Critical Moment

“You play guitar?” Finale asked.  “Can you show me?”

“I’m not great.  Self-taught.  Mostly just to pull out at parties and campfires, if the mood’s right.”

“Please?”

Fume Hood picked up the guitar.  She experimentally strummed it, then began to play.

After listening for a minute, Finale grabbed two paintbrushes, and began using them as drumsticks on nearby tins, playing with some force to make up for the lack of actual drums.

The drumming was probably better than Fume Hood’s guitar playing.

“I want to do this to kill time at the next stakeout,” Finale said, speaking over the music.

“I think this would give us away.”

“But stakeouts are so boring.”

The kids.

Fume Hood felt the cracks reaching out, saw the destruction as bits of building fell, the road dropping away into nothing.  Civilians were running.

Off to the side, cracks spread in three dimensions, cutting through air, terrain, powers, until they reached the station.

One crack reached deep enough to hit the portal within.  It was like throwing water on a grease fire.  The cracks began spreading out dramatically from there.  She could see Cheit on the other side.

She could feel that well of power.

Withdrawal was running, trying to help Finale.  Caryatid was slowest, but she could move about as fast as the other pair because she was just the one person.

If what was happening to Fume Hood happened to them… if Withdrawal was trapped in one place, locked down, fed this influx of sensations and awareness, this negativity, it would devour everything good about him.

If Finale was disconnected from everyone and everything she cared about, and made an architect of calamity?

If Caryatid was paralyzed, disconnected from her humanity?

Forever, for each of them?

She made the decision.  She reached out and seized it.

To steer and even force the cracks.  All to guide them or encourage them to form away from innocents, where she could.  Away from the Malfunctions, so they could run and at least tell others what had happened.

Gas leaked out of her mouth, and her body contorted, distorted.  More like Caryatid’s other form than her own.

She was losing herself.

Fume Hood, a Critical Moment

“Put your hands here,” Tempera said.

Victoria did.  Pressing her hands down over the bullet wound.  Blood leaked out over the tops of her fingers.

Fume Hood looked up at the two women’s faces.  Watched as Tempera prepared some ‘paint’.  Saw Victoria’s concern and focus.

Why are you trying?  Why, for me?

“Not-” she managed to say.  The pressure on her stomach didn’t make it easy to speak.

“Not?” Victoria asked.

“Not a good day.”

“No.”

Tempera took an offered first aid kit, popping it open, grabbing things from within.  Victoria focused on applying pressure, her eyes going from the wound to the scene around them.

“Not a good day for any of us,” Tempera said, looking over her shoulder, before she got to work.

But you’re still trying.

We’re still trying?

The cracks spread, finding weak point after weak point, spreading out from there.  Places powers had cut too deep.  Portals.  Parahumans.

Where enough cracks spread, chunks simply… fell away.

Is this it, then?  We should have run away?

Should I have let myself be shot?

Or would it have been any one of these other things and people, pushed to the edge?  If I’d taken that bullet, would those people I can see now watch that video of my execution, push things further, find another breaking point?

She watched cracks spread further.

The cracks found their next launching off point.  A woman with awareness extending everywhere.  Each line of awareness was a weak point, like lines scored into rock before that rock was cracked.  The cracks stretched easily along those efficient lines.

The woman in the suit, now locked in place, caught by her own well of power.

Because she’s her own blind spot, like Withdrawal said, much as any of us are blind to our own selves.

She was too interconnected.  Her power tied to too many things too constantly, and that power formed bridges.  Connected everything, in a way.

There were others, here and there.  Others who were consumed by that power, twisted by it.  Writ large.  Some connected things further.

The city fell away and where it didn’t, it was because of people like herself, like the distant Kronos titan, the new titan borne of the woman in the suit.  Of distant others who were too weak at just the wrong time.

Fume Hood, a Critical Moment, Now

He communicated with her.

[Respond?]

Her reply was inarticulate.  Almost, she was ready to give up fighting, to consider her job done.  She’d limited some of the damage and spared some of the lives.

[Help] was the second attempt from the distant voice.

This was hell.  Her hell.  It had to be everyone’s hell.  For all her life, she had fought so hard and made so little progress, everything only evident in retrospect.

This was that, with too much on the line.  She wasn’t nearly as strong as some or even most of the others that were emerging to stand tall, and she was already so very tired, so very weary of the world and her place in it.

It had been minutes.

He was asking for her to hold onto focus over days, if not weeks, months.  He asked knowing how hard this was, because he had been enduring it.

She pushed out her own reply, trying to use power to articulate words, traveling along cracks and vast, broken emptiness.  Along the new networks the woman in the suit was helping to form.  [Yes]

The exchange was like a hand reaching out.  Her hand reaching back.  Something fundamental being conveyed.

To the Kronos titan.  Back to her.

She began asking, to see about forming a dominant network, or even something that would help the people of this sad, small rock in this vast, scary universe.

Not enough of the others were replying or reaching back.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Interlude 17.x (Sundown)

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Withdrawal, Now

It was a problem with his team, that they all moved at different speeds.

People were pressing in, getting aggressive.  And it was getting worse, not better.  There were ten people holding the line, only a couple of them capes, and they really needed twenty or thirty.

He set his foot down, and the boot-prong stabbed through snow, found ice, and got some traction there.  The frame ran up his spine, down his limbs, and extended out past his hands and feet, each extension something between a disabled runner’s prosthetic foot and a pogo stick.  He sank down as the full weight of his body and combined gear came down, metal straining, mechanism sinking into mechanism.

The fluid cell at his chest powered the suit’s movements so he could bring his limbs around in time, with a thrust that made him feel like he had little rockets attached to elbow, knee, ankle, and wrist, pushing his hands in the same directions he moved them, pushing the metal that he’d shaved down in weight by the gram.  That same fluid cell pulled him into the ground, driving titanium compression springs he’d lubricated with his ‘red juice’ folded into themselves in a way that defied conventional physics, storing up potential energy.  Every step was a tiny lurching feeling as everything gave more than his gut felt like it should, even as his tinker brain told him it was fine.  The finer adjustments were made by way of Nitinol-strand muscles; a shift in posture, position, and weight using memory metal as fine as spiderwebs, safely ensconced within metal shells.

The sensation of rising and falling with each bounding step was made more dreamlike by the unintentional illusion he’d crafted for himself.  The fluid cell generated heat through chemical reaction.  That heat ran through the frame, drawing in cold outside air and pushing it out through his suit.  Warmed air flowed between fabric and skin, a sensation of wind at all times, out of sync with his movements.

Catch up, he willed his team.  I don’t want to do this alone.

I can’t be alone again.

The foot that had come down a moment ago now unfolded with the force of a gunshot, nearly silent.  Nearly, because his goggles were unnecessarily registering the tremor at his R-0-1 connector at his shoulder, and his L-1 at his other arm.  Unnecessary because he could feel it.  He’d lost weight, or he’d worn this frame over his jacket enough to crush the sleeve down in size.  At those points where things weren’t fine tuned enough, metal rattled against his bicep and shoulder like someone was shaking a cage.

The people were doing their own shaking and rattling.  They pushed against the ‘line’, where Patrol and a scattered few capes stood behind waist-high wooden barricades.  The barricades scraped and shuffled, back ends digging into snow.  One picked up briefly, tipping back because there was enough forward pressure and enough snow at the base of the feet that there was nowhere else to go.  A cape put his foot on it and slammed it back down into position.

Withdrawal didn’t even know how to handle this.  His whole thing was movement, and this demanded the opposite of that.

To look at him from a distance, he bounded more forward than up, but he still bounded, moving through the air in loose, acrobatic leaps.

It looked easy, or lazy.  It wasn’t.  In his head, he kept track of a hundred little things.  Driving a car was hands on the wheel, foot ready to hit the clutch, gas, or brake.  Sometimes a shift of gears, but always four wheels on the road.  Fat, rubber tires that struck the necessary balance in making enough contact with the road.  Treads.

His frame touched the ground with one limb at a time.  The point of contact as wide across as three fingers pressed together, and the total weight of him, his frame, and his current fluid dispenser, the pill popper, amounted to two hundred and sixty six point one-three-four pounds.  Even the weight of the snow that had settled on his helmet and in the seams of his frame mattered.

In a car, one had to check the mirrors every couple of seconds, be aware of the environment.  In the frame, moving like this, he had to be aware of everything in that one second at a time where a limb-extension prong was in contact with the ground.

And one didn’t tend to drive a car one hundred miles an hour through a residential area.  One didn’t tend to have to look up, out of concern for wires strung between buildings, or overhanging construction cranes, or, well, anything.

Two feet together, a two-footed leap this time.  He was aware of how far behind his team was, as he jumped to the edge of the fray.

He kicked up a plume of snow as he skidded to a stop, a pink and red bodysuit with gleaming silver apparatus extending from the limbs.  He’d chosen a friendly pink for the round lenses that covered his eyes, the face plates that settled over parts of his face assembled so the seam offered something in the way of a disarming smile.  The pill popper was a one-hundred pound column topped with a construction that resembled his helmet, a reading on the sleek black bar-display running along the side told him he had 8/9 shots remaining.  Not that he was likely to lose track.  He was dumb, he thought, but he could count to eight.

He really hoped he didn’t need those eight shots.

These were civilians.

There were another four or so heroes around, helping to form a defensive guard around the processing area.  The area was a mess, as far as he could tell, and even though he hadn’t been around for long, he couldn’t help but feel responsible for that.  He knew, rationally, that he wasn’t, but he was supposed to be here to fix things, they weren’t fixed, and he couldn’t come away from that simple equation without feeling like he’d dropped the ball.

He put himself in the way of a group of people who had been pushing past Patrol uniforms, butt-end of his popper crunching into snow and ice, arm out.  It gave people cause to stop in their tracks, and the teenagers and twenty-somethings in black winter wear with body armor and helmets used the opportunity to regain some control over that group.  Others elsewhere on the line started to push through, climbing over the simple wooden barricade.

“Can we talk it out?” he asked.

It was a man with a midday five-o’clock shadow who replied, spit and frozen breath flying from his mouth as he shouted, “Fuck you!  We’ve been trying to talk to you all for weeks, months, and nobody listens!”

“I haven’t been active that long.  Can we try starting now?” he asked.

Someone threw something.  Before he saw what it was, he brought his popper out, hand sliding along the length of it as he held it out to bar the projectile’s path.

A metal lunchbox, sailing toward a cape’s head.  It cracked open on impact with the side of his popper and the contents fell onto the heads of the protesters below.

The cries and anger seemed more like he’d been the one to instigate it, to throw the lunchbox, dumping the contents on the heads below.

No room for talking.

Refugees were going to Cheit.  Or that was the idea.  Just about everything had been turned on its head.  Some citizens were deciding that this was where they wanted to take a stand, other citizens weren’t moving smoothly or following instructions when it came to the evacuation into Cheit, the government seemed to have conflicting ideas on how to handle everything that came up, and on top of it all, there was cape stuff.  Some incident in Cheit, Kronos starting to move, and some attack from Shin had all caused alarm and delays, which had made every single existing problem worse.  Apparently not just here.  They’d had more capes in the area twenty minutes ago.

His team had been patrolling, looking out for traffic problems or bandits preying on the convoy.  The heroes had decided to call them in for this.  They needed more, and he worried they needed better.  He’d jumped into this life with both feet first, after so many years doing nothing, and he’d come out the other side with some injuries and way too many scares.  He didn’t feel ready.

His team was only just now arriving at the scene.  Fume Hood, Finale about ten paces behind.  Caryatid twenty paces behind Finale.

Traffic had stopped, the influx of new refugees stalled, and Cheit’s people stood at the entryway to the station, keeping their distance.

“You can’t control us!” a middle-aged woman shouted.  Someone was trying to get her to stay still and stay put, holding her wrists, but she was fighting.  “You put powers in charge of the city, you override our police force, you shut down and attack civil protests and assemblies!”

“You shove us into tents in the wintertime while powers get houses, you make us wait a year before we get four walls to call our own, and then you make us move!”

“We just want you to be safe, we want to help,” Withdrawal said.

He was drowned out.

“I was in the tent cities with you!” he called out.  “I was there, helping, keeping people safe!”

He wasn’t sure anyone could even hear him.  He wasn’t sure anyone was listening enough to even try hearing him.

Someone else threw something.  He couldn’t move in time to stop them.  Fume Hood and Finale arrived, but Finale looked too spooked to know what to do.  She made a finger-gun, visibly biting her lip, which was exposed in the gap between scarf and mask.  Her eyes roved over the crowd.

“Fin!” he called out to her to get her attention.  He shook his head.

Finale backed off, doing nothing more than raising her voice to call out, “Calm down!  Please!”

Fume Hood had her orbs.  Each the size of a fist, they spun in an orbit around her outstretched hand, which she held out, palm facing the crowd.  A shield of sorts, to ward off the crowd.  It worked.  It made a good scene, her hood and little cape fluttering with the heated fan hidden at her back.

And Caryatid finally arrived.  Stoic, unflinching, invulnerable, immovable.  Far better for holding the line than he was.

Keeping a crowd of people from running past checkpoints and border security.  Things were at a standstill already, but if this went tits-up and the line was breached, it would bog things down for at least an hour.  Everyone would need to be cleared out and backed up, everyone mid-processing would have to start over.  Otherwise there was a risk of stowaways.

He’d already seen something similar, when patrolling the tent cities and observing people making their late arrivals from Earth B to Earth G.

Someone hit Caryatid with a weapon.  She was in her breaker form, so it did nothing.

“Don’t do that!” Finale called out.  “Why would you do that!?”

“Can you capes back off?  Make room?” one of the Patrol called out.

Withdrawal checked.  There were more people in Patrol uniforms arriving.  Some with shields.

“You’re agitating the situation by being here,” a Patrol uniform said.  “The intent is appreciated.”

“We were asked to help,” Withdrawal replied.

“What help!?” someone nearby shouted, almost in the uniform’s face.  “Where were they while we were in the tent cities!?”

“We were!” Withdrawal protested.  “We’re the exact wrong capes to be complaining about that to!  We were there every day and every night!”

“You’re poison!” a boy Withdrawal’s age shouted.

The officer wasn’t wrong.  This wasn’t helping.  He looked over at Fume Hood and saw her nod.

He made room for people to step in.  Fume Hood made more orbs, spreading them out to create a perimeter of whirling spheres to ward people off from passing through, then pulled them back as the Patrol uniforms stepped in.

Gotta take care of Carrie.  He picked his footing carefully, so he wouldn’t stumble or get in the way of anyone, moving through the growing crowd of people in black winterwear and armor.  He stuck the pillar-like pill popper into the ground just next to Caryatid.

“We’re backing off,” he said, reaching down to lay the end of the ‘J’ shaped length of metal at the back of his hand across Caryatid’s shoulder.

He wasn’t imposing like someone in heavy armor was.  He was tall, his reach was long, and he carried a heavy ‘weapon’, and he used this to try to draw attention.  Carrie was vulnerable while out of her breaker form, and she couldn’t really move easily while in it.  It was very all-or-nothing.

This way, he could shield her a bit from anything thrown, draw attention, and give her cover to return to human form and make her retreat.

“Stay close?” someone in uniform asked.

“Okay,” Fume Hood said.

The other heroes were backing off too.

Withdrawal’s pill popper crunched as he set it down on ice and snow, leaning it against the concrete ledge.  It started to slide in Finale’s direction, and he put his arm out to stop it.  The tool was bigger than she was.

She looked so scared.

She didn’t have the constitution for this.  She didn’t have the constitution for not-this, when the long, quiet stretch without anything to do had seen her power start to act up and trigger from even unintended sounds and triggers.  He hadn’t connected the dots on that until Antares had brought it up.

“You okay?” he asked Caryatid.

She nodded.  “I’m fine, but-”

She subtly indicated Finale.  Withdrawal nodded.

Calming her down was their priority right now.

“Brr,” Caryatid said, rubbing her arms.  “You need me for anything?”

He shook his head.  “I’ll manage things.”

She used her power again, adopting her statue-like state, her face perpetually unfolding.  She’d have no concerns about the cold like that.

“Fin,” he said.

Finale turned wide eyes his way.

“Get settled.  Like we did at the stakeouts.  They’ve got this,” he said, with more assurance than he actually felt.  I don’t think anyone has this.  Nobody’s been on top of things for a while now.

Finale leaned against the wall beside him.  He looked away from the crowd for the first time, noting that the ‘wall’ was a concrete pad that the building had been placed on.  Some work still remained to be done to incorporate the pad into the surroundings.  He climbed up on top of it, keeping his popper in reach of his frame-extended arm.

He settled into a crouch, perched on the ledge, and thumbs flipped at knobs and catches, adjusting the frame around his body.  It ran up his spine and down each limb, with limb extensions past the hands and feet.  The effect of the adjustment was to freeze parts of the frame, relax other parts, and set it up so…

He tested.

No, not quite.  A supporting strut at his back remained rigid.

…Like this, then?…

He leaned back, stretched out his legs a bit, finding footholds further down, the back of the frame gave a bit, like a recliner might.

Catches T3, T7, L2, R2, W4-6, E4-6.  Lock W7+ all the way down, same for E, he told himself.  If trouble started, he’d have to flick them before leaping into a fight.  It’d take three seconds, but relaxing the constraints and turning his frame into a recliner meant he could sit here like this forever.

Not that it would be forever.  He could see the ongoing situation they’d been kicked out of.  Twenty people in black uniforms, no capes, and it still looked like they were one mistake away from letting a portion of the crowd through.  People cutting in line, people wanting to complain.  People who saw the violence and numbers and wanted to voice their own concerns.

People, above all, who hated capes.  Who resented them or resented their failures.

Cheit had their own processing, with papers to hand out, literature, a volunteer to be assigned to each family.  They were more organized, but even they were in disarray.

He had to put his hand out to catch the pill popper- Finale had bumped into it as she climbed up onto the concrete pad that this tall building had been mounted on.  He leaned as far back as he could, frame creaking, to look up at his friend, viewing her upside-down.

Finale smiled, looking a bit mischievous and a bit guilty.  She dropped to a crouch with enough speed that he thought she might crash into him, put a hand on him to steady herself, and then used a gloved finger to wipe snow off of his goggles.

“Thank you,” he said.  “What are you doing?”

“Nothing!”

She was so bad at lying.

“Don’t flip any of my switches, okay?”

“I won’t.”

Really don’t.  I know like… remember that time I said don’t turn the tap water on, because the water was bad in the house, and I was going to be taking a shower in the next room.  Then you turned the tap water on to be funny?”

“I’m really sorry.  I thought it would get cold if I turned the cold water tap on.  I didn’t think it would get hot.”

“This is more important than that.  I need to be ready, in case that-” He pointed at the refugees who had left cars, or who hadn’t even come from cars.  People who were hostile and kicking up a fuss.  Fume Hood was over there with one of the Patrol captains who weren’t holding the lines.  “-becomes an incident.  If you flip my switches or mess with anything, it might mean something doesn’t move like it should and then I might get hurt.  Not even as a joke.”

“Okay.”

Caryatid looked his way.  He couldn’t see her face.

“You warm enough?” he asked, softer.

“Mostly,” Finale said.

Caryatid stood off to the side in her breaker form.  Her face unfolded like an open book, with pages appearing and constantly turning to wrap around the sides of her head, blending in with her tumble of black hair, which was doing something similar, if subtler.  Her hands were the same, surrounded in orange-yellow floofs that unfolded in a similar way.

It was a relief when Fume Hood rejoined them.

“Do me a favor?” Fume Hood asked.  “Look at my fan?  I keep smelling burning, and I’m worried I’m going to go up in flames.”

Withdrawal had to unhitch a few things so he was free to lean a bit out of the frame and work.  Fume Hood had a heated fan at her back, in a much smaller version of the heating system he had.  She’d already had the fan as part of her costume and attaching the heater had been a pretty minor thing to do.  When she’d grabbed a jacket to wear with her costume in the colder weather, they’d had to do minor alterations so the fan fit.  The hooded mantle of green cloth that hung from shoulders down to mid-torso hid most of it.

Her hand went to her stomach as she bent over to give him more access to her back.

“To pay me back, give me one of your orbs when I’m done,” he said.  “I want to compare some stuff to my pill popper.”

“Sure,” she said.  “We’re still in a yellow-rated zone?”

“Should be,” he said.  He checked on his phone while unscrewing the housing that held the fan in place.  A bit of lint, it seemed.  Toasty lint.  Nothing that would ignite to the point of setting her costume on fire.

“In the meantime, can you share some stories from the old days?” Finale asked, from her position on the ledge behind him.  She leaned on his frame, which he’d partially detached from, causing the metal to squeak.

“War stories,” Withdrawal said.  “Gotta call them war stories, to sound cool.”

War stories,” Finale said.

“I might be running out of war stories,” Fume Hood said.

“Awwww.”

“I’ve told the one about my stint with Smokey?  I would’ve been Bad Apple then.”

“Noo,” Finale said.

“Yes,” Withdrawal said.  Then he frowned.  His goggles had indicators at the edges – symbols more than words, because he was a bit slower with words than he would’ve liked.  The light that appeared was the equivalent of a ‘check engine’ light.  Fluid core?  Heating?  It appeared and additional displays appeared at a rate that made him think he was the one on fire, not Fume Hood.

Was something wrong?  He could feel the heat prickling his skin inside his costume.

He didn’t have time to delve into it.  Across the street, the line of people from the Patrol was losing out to the small crowd of fifty or so people.  Some people who were waiting in the line of evacuees had gotten out of their car, pushing their way forward to yell- apparently about the delays and how the officers were more focused on this than getting things moving again.

When ‘this’ was what was keeping things tied up.  Here and in just about every other place.

The added bodies meant the officers weren’t ready enough.  Capes who had been hanging back sprung to action.  People had broken through, and now they scattered, some going for things to throw.  Others just trying to run, like they could get past twenty staff and everyone at the Cheit side of things, escape through, and have an apartment waiting for them.

If that was even their goal.

Withdrawal sheathed the tool he’d been using on Fume Hood’s fan, as Fume Hood ran forward, creating her orbs without throwing them.  He started to lean back into his suit, and then decided he didn’t trust it.  He put his right arm through the sleeve, strapped it in, flicked R-2 to lock, tightened R-0-1 for good measure-

A nervous looking guy -the same guy his own age who had been shouting at him from the crowd- pulled a gun.  He spun around, pointing it at capes, citizens from Cheit who were here to help.

“You don’t even regret your place in all of this!” the boy shouted.  “You’ll do the same things tomorrow you’ve been doing for years!  You’re actual poison!”

Withdrawal hefted his pill popper, holding onto his frame with his hand and foot positioning as much as the straps of it did their end of the work.

Too heavy.  Alarm indicators appeared at his goggle’s edge.

“Cary!” he grunted.

Caryatid, who had been starting to move forward, looked at him, then jumped forward.

She went statue-still and immovable, her arm out, to hold up the end of the popper.  He leveraged it, aiming-

The head at the top of the pill popper opened its mouth, and it had a punch of an impact as it spat out its shot.  A ‘pill’ the size of a football.  Modeled after Fume Hood’s power.

He pulled the second trigger.  The pill detonated with enough force to knock the kid over, so he landed on his hands, gun below him.  A wet crimson mist filled the air.

Crimson was the wrong choice, in retrospect.  It looked uglier than it was, like he’d detonated the kid and turned him into a gory mist.  A casualty of his categorization system.  Red was for compression lube, tech fluid for getting tight things into containers smaller than they were.  It was the only fluid he’d trusted to play nice with the cracks in reality he’d recorded.

The kid didn’t get to his feet.  He flipped over onto his back, and aimed between his knees.  At the closest target- now a member of the Patrol who was running up.

Squinting past the paint-thick red chemical that covered him, he wasted no time in pulling the trigger.

The gun jammed.  The Patrol uniform jumped on top of him.

“Pop.  Phsseww.”

The tiny detonation flicked the gun out of the teenager’s hand, knocking it into the air.  A diagonal shimmer of blue air swatted the gun into a snowbank.

Withdrawal breathed a sigh of relief.  He kept the popper trained on the kid until he saw the gun had been taken away, the handcuffs put on.  From the looks of it, the fall had shoved the gun into the ground, which would have warped its shape a bit with the compression lube all over things, contributing to the jam.

He set the Pill Popper down.  Seven out of nine shots remaining.  “Thank you, Cary.”

“That was cool,” Caryatid said, as she dropped her breaker form.

“Yeah,” he said.  He watched the ongoing skirmish, but it seemed to have stopped just as much as it started.  Some people had gotten out of cars, though, joining the crowd that stood behind the line of barricades, watching.  One or two had phones out.

Twisting around, he looked up at Finale, who looked guilty.  He checked his indicators.  Things were settling down.

“Finale,” he said, trying to be gentle.  “Did you do something?”

“I didn’t flip any switches,” she said.

“What did you do?”

“Nothing,” she said.  Still terrible at lying.

“I-” he started, then decided knowing was more important than anything else.  “I promise I won’t get mad.  Just show me what you did?”

The kid was screaming.  Still spewing invective.

Moving cautiously, like she thought he would get mad, Finale brought her gloves to the back of his suit, resting them on top of the two main exhaust ports.  Warming them with the rush of heated air and blocking ninety-five percent of the air flow.  She bit her lip.

Moving just as cautiously,using the one arm he still had sleeved into the frame, he poked at her hands, moving them an inch away from the vent.

“That close is fine.  But don’t cover them.”

“Oh.  Okay.”

“Is it still warm, like that?”

She nodded, biting her lip.

“I’m stupid fond of you, you know that, right?”

She nodded.  No more lip bite.  “I’m sorry I’m a fuckup.”

“You’re not-”

“Fuck you!” the kid screamed.  “What are you even doing!?  What have you even been doing all this time!?  You’re making things worse!”

It was the wrong words, in the wrong moment, when flashes of light danced around his vision, which was tinted a rose shade with the goggles he wore.  His skin was slick with sweat from the heating issue, prickling still, his heartbeat hammering from the scare.  The screaming and shouts in the distance.

It was the stars aligning in a way that delivered the words home.  From an angry kid’s mouth to Withdrawal’s heart.

It took a nudge from Caryatid to get him moving again, make him realize he’d gone silent.  A glance from her toward Finale reminded him what he’d been saying.

“You’re not a fuckup.  Don’t worry.”

Caryatid laid a hand on his knee.

“What’s wrong?” Fume Hood asked, as she rejoined them.  “Spooked?  Guns do that.  Especially for me”

So hard to put into words.

“Not spooked.  Meh,” he said, while feeling far from ‘meh’.  He looked at the continuing ruckus.  “War stories, I guess.”

“I didn’t think we had any,” Finale said.

“This is one of the ones all of us have,” he said.  He looked back at Finale, but expecting her to connect the dots on something that vague was a bit unfair.

He’d told his team bits and pieces before, but… He told them now.

Withdrawal, Then

“Fuck you, you fucking fuck.”

The words, like sound and even things as inoffensive as the feeling of the hospital sheets against his skin, were pain.  Distilled fucking pain.  He was slick with sweat, hospital gown sticking to him.  His hair, half-shaved, half long enough to stick to his nose, dyed, was in his eyes, and he couldn’t even muster the effort to fix it.

When he looked up, he saw his mother, dressed in the kind of clothes she would normally have worn to bed, her face flushed, her hair a mess.

“What are you even doing?” she harangued him, her voice shrill and drilling into his skull.  “What have you even been up to, these past few months?”

Whenever he moved his eyes, the shadows in the dimly lit hospital wing danced, looking more like dark things scampering this way and that.  Look left, and it was wolves and biting squirrel things darting to his right, causing panic to leap in his chest.  Look right, and a vague humanoid shadow lunged left.  He searched, squinting when even the dim lights viewed through a curtain of eyelashes were searing lasers drilling past his eyeballs to his brain, and found that humanoid shadow- a doorway.

But if he looked at it too long, it distorted, ballooning like a funhouse image.  Movements at the corner of his eye took on that insidious, darting-around kind of edge, and he found himself unable to distinguish between the spots in his vision, already tortured by the glare of the lights, and images his brain told him he was seeing.  Faces that could have been ghosts or monsters.

He whimpered.

“You disappear for months at a time?  I get a call from the police about you, and you have drugsAlcoholCigarettes?  I have you for a few days, and then you’re gone again.  How many times has that happened?  More months I don’t hear a thing about you?  What have you even been up to?”

His mother’s face, which he wasn’t fond of by any measure to begin with, looked unfairly monstrous in that fleeting moment his eye movements moved her from left to right and back again.

She clapped her hands in his face, hard.  He pulled back, wincing from the pain of the noise and the feeling of blood pounding in his ears.

“You almost died, you stupid shit,” she hissed.

The fear wouldn’t go away, his own heartbeat wouldn’t slow down.

“It’s D.T., in case you didn’t know.  They’ve done what they could, but I hear it’s still going to be a few days of hell,” his mother told him.  She leaned close and he could smell the stink of her.  His face contorted as he twisted to get away from her.  She grabbed his face and made him look at her, her face inches from his.  That edge of hallucinations or whatever it was made her features twist.  “Good.

She let go of him.  He looked away, staring at a wall.  Part of it because a blank wall was safest to look at when every shadow was something threatening.  Part of it was that he hated her.

“A fucking twelve year old alcoholic.  One for the fucking record books.”

He heard her leave, and it was only then that he allowed himself to moan, to shed tears.

He hated her.  He hated the stink of her and her filthy house.  He hated the clothes he was forced to wear because she only got him hand-me-downs, sometimes with t-shirts cut for girls, or shirts with holes in them he could put his finger through.  Because she didn’t want to try at anything.  She was happy for them to live with next to nothing because anything else required work, and he was expected to accept that.  A house that shook when she banged her boyfriends.  Noisy at night when she had friends over.  But she neglected him and she neglected herself.

He fumbled with the I.V., panic surging in his chest when he realized he couldn’t get it out of his arm.  Blood welled around the metal bit as he pulled.  He wanted out.  He needed out.

It was a matter of survival.

She’d called it a pattern.  It was.  Not the pattern she’d thought it was.

He drank because of her.  Because being around her was unbearable, because he needed to numb the feelings of hate and resentment or he went crazy.  To lubricate the days and get to that point where the past and the memory of her was a background haze.  He’d hang with other kids on the street, there was a boy he liked that he’d kissed.  He’d dull everything and find his footing, stop drinking so much, stop smoking as much.  Just enough to fit in.

And the first time, he’d started to straighten out, look for a way to go back to school without going back to his school, and the cops had picked him up and taken him home.

So he’d gone back to drinking.  Stolen drinks, then running away, then scrounging up money and using the rooftop garden by the old pool to try fermenting drinks with the teenagers.  Back to numbing and lubricating and gliding through days until weeks had passed and he got bored.  Tried to put a life together again…

And the second time, a year ago, he’d experienced this.  Hell.  He’d been so fucked up by the end of it he’d had to go home.

Once he was home, back in the hate, he’d turned to drink again.

An endless spiral.

He was now certain he’d die before he got old enough to get away.

Panic and fear at his own certain demise ran through him, sweat running down him in little streams.  He pulled against the cords that bound his arm, the sheets that pinned his legs, and he screamed, a noise loud enough it made his head explode with pain.  The pain numbed, in its own way, disrupted the thoughts, so he screamed again, to bring it back.  He thrashed madly as the nurses came.

Months and years of this already.  Months and years awaiting him, if he lived that long.

Dark shadows danced across his vision.  Glimpses of shadow-people, built like snails, or clams, but with limbs so long there were clouds around their legs.  They turned and they looked at him.  They communicated in whispers that should have been incomprehensible.  They spoke to him in those same whispers.

Something bigger, constantly shifting, loomed over them.  It descended for him like a swooping bird, bigger than a city.

He screamed.

Withdrawal, A Critical Moment

“Ground rules,” he said.  “Don’t ever call my mom.  No matter what happens to me, I don’t want to see her.  Other relatives… I have a card in my wallet.  But not my mom.  You can’t let them call her either.”

He felt so shitty, saying that.

“Did she do something?” Bell asked.

He shook his head.  “No.  She didn’t do anything.  Ever.”

“Oh,” ‘Finale’ said.  She frowned, eyebrows knitting together.  She had a very expressive face.

“Ground rules are a good idea,” Carrie said.  She had an oval face and olive skin, with straight black hair and a knee-length black dress she wore for her costume.  She fidgeted.  “Can I give you mine?”

“Sure.”

“I don’t like drunk people.  Or high people.  I don’t want that to be a thing we do.”

“What if I go and-”

“No,” Carrie said, staring down at her hands.  “If you… want to do that stuff, I can’t be around you.  Or anyone else we bring onto the team.  One strike, I’m gone, and I don’t ever come back.  Ever, ever, ever.  I’m sorry.”

“Okay,” He said, looking down at his hands.  They shook a bit.  “I think I can try doing that.  I like you guys enough I’m willing to try.”

Carrie’s smile was a nervous one.  A relieved one.

But he was pretty sure he was more relieved than she was, to have that ultimatum.

Finale, A Critical Moment

Everything shattered.  The noise was deafening, metal, glass, plastic, and tools mixing in with colored liquids, powders, and everything.  The table, even though it had all four legs on the floor, tipped over abruptly.  As liquids mixed, they made stuff buck, kick, or drown themselves.  She backed away before any of it touched her.

Oh no.

Oh no oh no oh no.

Withdrawal yelled from the far side of their ‘headquarters’.  She could hear him running.

Oh no.

All of his hard work.

And he’d told her to stay put.

Oh no.

Balling her hands up into fists, she sucked in a breath, panicky.  It was like she couldn’t tell if she was breathing in enough air, so she sucked in another, then another.  The stuff kept sloshing around and moving.  Way more mess than she could fix before he got back.  More mess than she could fix in a day or two days.

He was going to be so mad.  He was going to leave, or he was going to stay and hit her, or-

She didn’t know.  But it couldn’t be good.

She hadn’t known it would be this messy.  Why hadn’t she listened?

She sucked in one breath after another, until her head felt light and her chest hurt.

Stupid stupid stupid worthless!  No no no.

The one thing he’d specifically told her to steer clear of, if she was going to be in his workshop at any point over the weekend.  But him telling her that had made her curious so she’d decided to take a closer look.

Then she’d been busy getting a closer look and she’d forgotten the ‘steer clear’ part of it.  She’d touched it, and it had jumped across the room like she’d kicked it with all of her might.  Crashing into a table covered in stuff and-

Oh no.

“Bella!”

She spun in place, freezing up.

Oh no.

He rushed up to her, and she jumped back.  He reached for her, grabbing her by the wrist, and pulling, dragging her.

Oh no.

The door slammed, and she jumped, eyes squeezing shut.

She felt his hands at her arms, running down them.  His hand touched her neck, patting at it.  Checking. “Are you hurt?”

She sucked in a breath, held it, shook her head.

He pulled her into a hug.  She exhaled for the first time, and the sobs came naturally with the exhalation.

He didn’t know.

She had to tell him now or she wouldn’t ever.

“It was me,” she squeaked.  “I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.”

“I know it was you.  It had to be you or freak accident like a squirrel getting into the building.   Are you okay, though?  Nothing hit you?  You weren’t splashed?”

Not sure what to do, she nodded, nodded, then shook her head.

He hugged her tighter.  She hugged him just as tight back, her head all confused by his reaction.

“You’re going to listen from now on when I tell you not to go near my stuff?” he asked.

“Yes.  Of course, yes.  All the way yes,” she sobbed.

“I’m just so glad I didn’t come in to find you dead on the floor,” he said.  “I was terrified.”

She nodded, face rubbing into his shoulder.

“And I’m going to lock my workshop up if there’s anything sensitive.  My fault too,” he murmured, still hugging her tight.  “If we learned a lesson that important without any blood shed, I think today’s a good day.  Best day, okay?”

“I thought you’d hate me.”

“Can’t.  No room for hating anyone,” he said.  “Not good for me.  And you’re the person I’m least able to hate.”

Never, not once ever, had she fucked up and felt… loved after.  Not by mom or dad, not by friends or teachers.  For all her life, it had felt like bad things happened, and more bad came after.  Over and over and over.

For bad things to happen and for good to come after… it made the world seem brighter and better.

Finale, Then

Her mother stroked her hair, trying to get hair to stay flat.  It never did.  Fixed the collar.  The collar stayed put.  It was a nice, new shirt, white with buttons.  A ribbon tied around with a bow at the front for the girls.  A tie for the boys.  She had a new skirt and fancy socks and hard shoes.

“Do your best,” her mom said.

“Okay.”

The parents left the room one by one.  Only a few lingered, resisting the orders to leave while they snapped a few more pictures, camera flashes going off.  Leaving her and the rest of the kids behind.  Mrs. Wall stayed, but she was focused on talking to other adults.

All the other boys and girls were dressed nice.  It was kind of cool, like in the fancy schools in books.  She gripped her drumsticks in both hands, fidgeting, then began tapping them together, reminding herself of how the music went.

“Don’t do that,” Mrs. Wall said, pointing at her.

Bella stopped.

Everyone else had turned to look.  Bella ducked her head down.  I was just practicing.

Time seemed to pass impossibly slow.  Distant music could be heard, but it was muffled, so she only heard the deepest, loudest notes.

Nobody to talk to.  She had no friends in this class.  Or anywhere, really.

Her fingers tapped against her leg.  A silent rendition of the musical piece.

“Do you know what would be funny?” Jeremy said.  He was talking to Paul, his buddy, but he glanced at Bella.

“What’s funny?” Bella asked.

“It would be so funny if we were all up there, in front of everyone, and one person just busted out the best solo you ever heard.  Out of nowhere.”

“Free bird!” Paul exclaimed, doing the air guitar.  Jeremy laughed.

“How would they react?” Jeremy asked.  “What would they even do?”

“I’d do it,” Paul boasted, puffing out his chest.  “But you can’t do a good solo if you’re in choir.”

“Beatbox!”

“Naw.  You’d get drowned out.  It’s the shittiest position.  Nobody pays attention to the choir.”

“It would be so funny, though.  You’d have to be so brave,” Jeremy said.  He looked over at Bella again.

Then the topic changed, and the boys were talking about a show she’d never heard of.  She tried to follow for a bit, but gave up after a while.

Leaving her alone with her thoughts and drumsticks she wasn’t supposed to practice with.  Her fingers drummed a beat against her leg, more to pass the time than anything.

She went through the entire musical piece twice before Mrs. Wall clapped her hands together.

“Class!  Everyone!  Quiet!  On your best behavior!”

Everyone fell silent, except for Bella, who was already silent.  Her hand went still at her legs.  They were lined up and filed out into the hallway, where every floor shone and the walls had picture after portrait of old men, a gold tag beneath each picture.

Up a little set of stairs, to the side of a stage, where huge curtains were currently closed.

“Hurry, hurry.  Look for your number.”

Bella already knew her number.  She jogged up to the drums, spun the stool around to adjust the height, and seated herself, before quickly stepping down and scooting it forward.  She was shorter than most of the kids.

Back straight, knees together and to the left, feet together and to the right.  Drumsticks in hand.

She did a little flippy-flip, spinning the drumstick around her finger.

Bella,” Mrs. Wall hissed.  She was standing at the conductor’s spot.  “Do not.

A couple of the other kids snickered.  A few of the popular girls looked at her like she smelled.

After everyone was seated and ready, Mrs. Wall looked to the side and nodded.

That nod made someone open the curtains.  The lights were momentarily blinding.

Still blinding, when the curtains were done opening.  Spotlights shone on the stage and illuminated the thirty of them.  She could barely see the people on the other side- men and women in nice dresses and dress shirts with jackets.

Yeah.  It would take someone brave to do anything extra-cool or hilarious in a place like this.

Mrs. Wall gestured at the choir.

High voices rose.  Latin.

A wave of the conductor’s stick at her.  She was waiting for it.

Drumsticks down.  Boom.

The voices rose and fell.  Slow and drawn out.  As much as Jeremy hated the choir, he was good at it.  They were all good at it.

Drumstick down.  Boom.

Violins in, slow and quiet at first.

Drumstick down.  Boom.

Then violins with voices, she liked this part.  The swell.  Her own chest expanded as she drank it in.

Then the pause, holding everything in suspense.  Her own drumsticks rose, poised.

Everything in its order.  It was so reassuring, when nothing else was.  Everything in harmony.

Mrs. Wall’s hand came down, and the drumsticks came down too.

Boom-ba-dada-da TOOM.

And the orchestra exploded into noise, choir roaring.  The drumsticks didn’t stop moving.

Mrs. Wall gave her another glare, and it took her a second to realize why.  In all of the practicing, she had picked up the habit of doing the drumstick twirl in one of the furious bits.  She looked at Jeremy in the corner of her eye, and saw him grinning.

The hair her mom had tried so hard to stick down into place bounced as she drummed, her whole upper body coming down with the force she delivered the booms and thooms.  Her drum teacher hated that she’d referred to them as that, but she had taught herself, listening and reading the matching sheet music, and it was hard to unlearn.   She wasn’t a genius… just the opposite, she felt.  But she really liked music.  Her parents had encouraged it because they could put her in the garage they’d soundproofed and she would keep herself occupied all afternoon.

The music lifted her up, and she felt like she wasn’t as lonely as she usually was, a part of this.

And it would last for four minutes and then everything would go back to the lonely regular everyday.  Practices and lunch where nobody would talk to her or sit with her.  Every day spent waiting for the day to be over so she could play in her garage, eyes closed, and pretend she was with the others.

She swiped the length of the drumstick along her forehead because there was sweat there.  If this was it, she would give her all.  This was the only thing in the world she was good at.

A bit more.  She soaked it in.  Her classmates, her teacher, and a bunch of people in the dark with faces she couldn’t make out.

A bit more.  More!

Toom.

The last strike of the drum.

Her part over.

The close was a mirror of the opening, but with violin and voice switched around, the violins going high and low, the voices ethereal.

More, she thought.

She wanted it enough that she felt like she could find that bravery, that courage.

Drumsticks down, eyes closed, punching into that silence with the best she had.  Improvised, not Free Bird or anything like that.

Hands gripped her drumsticks and hands, bringing a sudden stop to the moment.  She looked up to see a man she didn’t know holding her.

Over there, Mrs. Wall was staring at her, aghast.  The students looked horrified, stricken.

“Come,” he whispered.

Without letting go of her so she could let go of the drumsticks, the man pulled her down from the stool and marched her away.  Leaving everyone on the stage.

The applause came late, after she was in the hallway beyond backstage, dulled and muted.  Late like they’d had to wait for her to leave so it would be clear they weren’t clapping for her.

Her head was noise without any sense as she leaned against the wall.

“Um,” she said.

“Best be quiet.”

He let go of her hand, but when she tried to step away, he put his hand on her shoulder, pushing her back against the wall.

“What’s going to happen?” she asked.

“I don’t have an earthly idea.  What even possessed you to do that?”

What possessed her to do anything?  Ideas filled her up from head to toe and then she was doing the idea.  She had no idea what possessed other people to not do things when they had ideas like that.

“If I was your bandmate,” he said.  “I’d want to kill you, heh.”

She felt a stab of fear.

“If I was your teacher, at an event this important?  I’d want to beat your ass until the crack stuck out and the cheeks pointed in.”

The fear transformed into something else.  She had a hard time picturing what he described, but even trying to imagine that scene left her filled with a restless kind of uncomfortableness, one that wormed its way into the center of her head and belly, and made that stab of fear something less stabby and more constant.

She was afraid to ask, but-

“What about my mom?”

“I bet she’s regretting paying for the drum set and lessons, child.”

She wasn’t going to pay anymore.  The drumset?  Would she send it back?  This was the opposite of what she wanted.

What would she even do?

Choked with fear, to the point it was hard to breathe, she fidgeted with her sticks.

They would take away her drumsticks when they took the drums.

She heaved in another breath before she’d even fully exhaled the other.  Feeling a panicked edge, she looked around, searching for something.  She had no idea what.  It wasn’t like there was a magic switch she could throw that would make everything better or undo what had just happened.

“Hey, you okay?”

She wasn’t okay.  If she didn’t have drums she’d have nothing and nobody.  She’d have nothing she was great at anymore.  She’d- she’d have day after day of waiting for the day to be over so she could drum all the stress away, but without the drumming the stress away.  Just waiting and hating every moment.

If they didn’t kill her.  Or cave in her butt, or whatever.

But the drums most of all.

“Kid, I wasn’t being serious.  Can you look at me?”

She struggled, pulling away.  If she ran-

And in the process, she saw the students from her music school filing into the hallway.  Mrs. Wall was there.

“Oh my god, you loser!”

“What were you thinking?”

“Children, please, quiet!”

“She’s not listening,” the man said.

“She has issues, delays.  If you’ll just-” Mrs. Wall struggled to wade through the group of kids.  “Let me through!”

“Idiot!” Jeremy jeered.  Even he didn’t think it was hilarious.

And behind the group, at the very end of the hallway, moving forward like a dark storm, was her mom.

Bella looked away, squeezing her eyes shut.

The thump in her chest became a THOOM like none other, and she could see out of that thoom like she could see out of her mind’s eye.

Thoom after thoom.

Big enough to detonate whole worlds.

“Bella!” Mrs. Wall raised her voice.  “Look at me!”

“No,” Bella protested, pulling her wrist free of the man’s hand.

Movement and the sound from her lips.  She felt vibrations and thrumming and potential, like drumsticks raised high.

She hummed to herself for a second, moving her hand like she would when she stuck it out the car window.

“Bella!”

“No!” she cried out, with more force, swinging her hand down.  She felt the impact as the power settled.  Saw it like a ‘No!’ shaped shimmer that went down from her hand, like she’d thrown a snowball straight into the floor.  Muted and blunt, like the head of a hammer.  It didn’t feel like enough.

Something bigger.

“Cracka-Thoom!”

Finale, Now

She faced a crowd of people who wanted to kill her.  A crowd of people who wanted to hurt her.  Who wanted to take away one of the only things she was good at.

She had three, and being a cape was another one, according to the others.  Drumming was another, except she wasn’t allowed when Caryatid had a migraine.  Then there was dancing, which she had just started, and liked only because Withdrawal liked it and it was something she could do without bothering Caryatid.

Focus, she thought.

A lot of this stuff scared her.  But these were people without powers.

People without powers who had gathered up to seventy or eighty in number, pushing past the barricades and defense.  Some where trying to get by to the portal or demand things ‘get moving along’.  But some were meaner and uglier.  They wanted to hurt her and her friends.

“Blip, boop, bosh, blip, bosh,” she said each word with emphasis.  Fingers flicked out, index and middle fingers extended.  She visualized throwing ice cream cones with each ‘blip’ and a snowball with each ‘bosh’.

Lining them up, keeping track of order.  Visualizing…

It was very easy to visualize.

“Stand down!” Fume Hood called out.

“Fuck you!”

There had been three with weapons so far.  Two knives, one gun.  It was scary, because there were so many of them who had slipped past the men in uniform that it was hard to make them all stop.  It was the kind of mess where she could deal with two and a third would get close enough she had to physically push him away.  So far, none of the ones who had gotten close had been armed, but they had tried to grab her.

“Called for backup!” the captain called out.  “They said no.”

“No!?” Fume Hood asked, incredulous.

“Things are tied up elsewhere.  Riots, refugees refusing to cooperate.”

“Is it a power?” Withdrawal asked.

“It’s just people, man!  It’s just fucking people!  The only people still in the city are the ones with responsibilities, stubborn folk, assholes, and stubborn assholes.  Lo and fucking behold, they’re acting to type!  Yeah I’m talking to you!” the captain barked, turning to one of the protesters with that last line.

“Bonk, bonk, bonk,” Finale said, hands indicating the target people and places with each statement.  She drew in a deep breath.  “Ready!”

“Hold off!” Withdrawal called.

Fume Hood was using her gas, but the wind wasn’t favorable.  When it blew the gas toward the good guys, she put her hand out, created a new ball, and sucked in the gas.

Because of that, it almost felt like the wind was pushing and pulling the crowd.  Wind blew toward them, that yellow-green gas went away, and the people could charge forward.  Wind stopped or blew the other way, and the orbs came out.

“I’m ready!” she reminded Withdrawal.

Hold off!

“Okay!”

Her phone buzzed in her pocket.

“My phone is ringing!  Can I go answer?”

She kind of knew the answer already.  No, she wasn’t even sure where she would go if she did.

Other people had slipped by.

“Mine too!” Withdrawal called out.  “If they’re calling us both at the same time, I think we’re okay if just I answer.  I can use my helmet.”

“‘Kay!” Finale drew out her voice and moved her hand at the same time.  The ‘kay’ became a general wedge shape, like a triangular see-saw hanging in the air, ready to slam forward.  Not too hard a slam.

Finale saw someone trying to circle around, climbing up onto the concrete pad by the building, running along it.  She ran back to intercept, get in the girl’s way.

“Let me by,” the girl said.  “I don’t like you guys but I don’t want to hurt you or anything.”

“That’s great,” Finale said.  “I can’t let you by, but if you sit over there, we can try to get things moving again.”

“I’ve been in a car for half a day.  I barely had dinner last night, I’ve barely slept, and I haven’t had breakfast or lunch because we had to pack up our food.  Just let us through.  Let us have food and beds.  Work through the kinks later.”

“I don’t think those guys would like it very much if people came in willy-nilly,” Finale told the girl.

The girl reached behind her- knife?  Gun?

Gun.

“Finale!” Caryatid called out, warning her.

She activated her power.  Let all of the potential become actual.

The triangular bashy ‘kay’ wave of sound slammed into the gun-wielding girl, who probably wasn’t much older than Finale.  Hard enough to break ribs and maybe hurt her hand.  It made her drop the gun.

The triple-bonks.  She turned, making sure she timed them.  Delaying, accelerating.  Watching where each person was, judging how they’d move.  Knocking two into each other, the third over the heap of the two fallen people.

She worked her way backward, getting about twelve good shots in before everything desynchronized.  People who had been knocked out already who wouldn’t move the way she needed them to.  People blasted this way and that.

“Sorry, had to!” she called out.

“Don’t apologize if it’s a gun on you!” Caryatid said, before turning around and resuming her breaker form, her face peeling back, hands shimmering in their puffy yellow floofs.  “Geez!”

“Geez,” Finale said.  She bent down, and she picked up the gun.  She tossed the thing of bullets away.

“Peeeew,” she said, before hurling the gun itself skyward.

The impact wasn’t as great.  It was best if she gave her power time to breathe.  But it was a hole in the center of the gun’s outside.

“That was Antares,” Withdrawal said.  “She says she has a bad feeling about the anti-parahuman stuff.  Thinks it’s going to get out of control or set up something bad.”

“Y’think!?” Fume Hood asked.  “Fuck me, fuck this!”

“Said she had a bad feeling in general, and I can’t say I disagree.  Feels like something bigger’s going to happen.  Gave us the example of the portal thing, but she doesn’t think it’s that.”

“Hear you,” Fume Hood said.

Bad feeling in general.

Yeah.  Finale couldn’t help but agree.  Her entire life had been a long slew of accidents and fuckups that she hadn’t been able to see coming.  Her entire life, it felt like everyone else had the ability to put on the brakes or see the bad stuff coming and steer clear, while she stumbled into it.  She was getting better.  She had to be better, doing stuff like this.  But ‘better’ for her was still pretty fucky-upy.

This, right now, felt bad.  Bad like she finally realized what other people tended to feel in their guts before they decided not to do stuff.

“I have a bad feeling too,” Finale said.  “I don’t even know how to put it into words.”

“Okay!” Fume Hood said.  “Okay, let’s listen to that feeling.  Fall back, let’s regroup before anyone gets shot!”

“Falling back!” Withdrawal called out, extra loud so others would hear.  “Cheit!  Bar your doors, we’ll handle this soon!  Everyone else, back off, calm down!”

Not everyone could disengage as easily.  Withdrawal shot his gun thing again, aiming for an area where people were especially intense, grabbing onto a cape and pulling on his costume, dragging him to the ground.  The disruption of the blast let the guy in costume tear his way free.

“Antares said we should watch out for-” Withdrawal said.  He stopped.

Cheit wasn’t closing its doors.  It was opening them wider.

Letting a group out.  A woman in a suit and black wool coat, a bunch of capes, and their prisoner.

“Her in particular,” Withdrawal finished.

That bad feeling had just gotten a whole lot worse.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Sundown – 17.10

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

I walked, both because I was restless, and because I knew I was being watched.  Kenzie’s filter made it appear like I wasn’t talking or holding my phone to my ear, and it got weird if I was standing in a dim, damaged hallway for an extended period, staring at a wall and doing nothing else.  It would raise concerns.

So, for that matter, would talking to Tattletale.

“How does she think?” I asked.

“Contessa?  She’s lava,” Tattletale replied.

“The only volcano references in my recent memory are an analogy to the well of the agent’s power with broken triggers and… someone I hucked into a hillside.  Why lava?”

“Because I was going to say Molasses but there’s nothing sweet about her, she’s dangerous, and saying she thinks like molasses implies she’s slow.  Which she is, but not like I want you to imagine.”

“Okay,” I said.  I could get on board with this kind of thinking, at least.

“Lava can spurt, it can reach surprisingly far, when we’re talking about molten rock that breaches the surface.  If you get too close to it, you can get burned.  It can do a shocking amount of damage, start fires that rage for days, whatever.  But mostly if you leave it alone, you get a steady stream that lands close to home and then pools out from there.”

“I’m on board with the line of thinking, but explain that last bit for me.”

“She starts every day with questions.  Anticipating, countermeasures, how to secure herself, how to secure her immediate goals.  Drop her into a new situation with just her power and no context, and before she’s formed a complete thought, she’ll guarantee she’s safe from the most immediate threats.  You can’t touch her.”

“Like you can’t touch lava.”

“Then the lines of thought expand out from there.  The pooling out.  Finding the cracks and exerting herself along them.”

“How do blind spots factor in?”

“For my metaphor?  Bodies of water?  I don’t know.  I’m ass-pulling, as Imp would put it.  But the idea applies.  The lava pools up and around, it builds… walls, peaks, accumulations.  She sets up stuff in the periphery or vicinity that impact or constrain the blind spot in question.  For Scion, it was case fifty-threes, it was specific teams of specific power levels in various Earths, stuff hidden out of sight and stuff in plain sight.  The PRT.  It was distractions, it was delays and it was encouragement for him.  To get him where they needed him and when.”

I kept silent, digesting that, trying to imagine it in this context.  There were people walking toward me in the hallway, and so I was forced to play nice and not say anything that would turn heads or get talked about in earshot of the others.

“Why do you ask?” Tattletale asked.

The coast was clear.  “Sorry, there were people, had to wait before I replied.”

“I knew that, it’s why I waited to reply.”

Ah.  Her power.

“I can see you on camera,” she clarified.

Oh.  “My line of thinking is… if she is a problem, knowing the angle helps.  If she isn’t, knowing the angle helps.  If there’s a threat that slipped her notice, it’s possibly something that escapes her blind spots and it’s helpful to know how she sets things up and how something could slip by.  If she set something up-”

“It helps to know how she sets things up.  Right.”

“Right,” I said.

I didn’t know the exact way to where I was going, but I had some ideas.  I’d come this way once before.  This place was massive, and a lot of the time navigating it was like traveling across a city and marking the transition from suburb to commercial to high-end residences and then to industry.  Once one knew the general feel of an area, it was a question of knowing whether to head north, south, east, west, up, or down.

Up.  Out toward the exterior wall.

“What do we look for?” I asked.  “Groups?”

“She pools out, remember?  Finds the channels and cracks.  Teacher catching her reset everything, put months of distance between her and her… pawns, for lack of a better way of putting it.  So she deployed-”

“-And she started with herself, then reached out for tools closest to her.  Worked out from there.”

“If it helps, I can’t imagine it was personal.”

I reached the top of the staircase, walked past some people who looked like refugees that were getting the low-down on the work being done, and through a gate.  The area was an interior roadway primarily meant for moving cargo and materials.

Off to the right, there was a long corridor that led to the outside, with an extension that combined balcony, road, and helicopter landing pad, all running along the outside of the building.

To my left was a drop, blocked off by a short railing.  Cargo containers were scattered around, some recognizable from Gimel, others a little odd, adhering to different standards.

There were scuffs of battle damage.  Abrasions, claw marks.  Stains.

“She said that if we took the route that would see Teacher captured, two members of my group would be dead or gone.  Paraphrasing there, but…”

“Yes,” Tattletale said.  “And you lost one.”

“Option A was that one member would suffer for so long it might as well be forever.  I got the answer about that.  Precipice, stuck in the doorway or something.  The idea was that the city would lose its heroes in a hard fought battle.”

“Makes a kind of sense.  Something like what we did last night, but more… obstructive than penetrative.”

I didn’t miss the ‘we did’, as opposed to the ‘you did’.

“Mm,” I made a sound.  “Option B was that we let him win.  Back off, let him finish his plan.  Subvert control over his people, close the portals… I can sort of see how that might have played out, now.”

“I can too,” Tattletale said.  “It would have been last night, except we wouldn’t have been in a rush.  You at that same crystal near Teacher.  No.”

“No?”

“No, not you.  Rain.  One of the members of our group with a natural facility toward the crystals, instead of your brute mindset of ‘break it’!”

I rolled my eyes.

“Saw that.”

“You can not see that on surveillance camera,” I spoke into the phone.

“I can see enough for my power to fill in the blanks.”

“It would have cost hundreds of thousands of lives if we took option B,” I said, quiet.  “Or so she said.  She described it as being helpful in the long run, good somehow.  Kind of like how she thought Teacher was close to being on the right track.  She said so, when we confronted him at the very end.”

“A clue about how she thinks and what she prioritizes.  She’s taking a tack very close to that.  I don’t think she was lying when she said she was trying to find an outcome that would make our side happier overall.  I do think she’s liable to expand out beyond that after a week of mulling things over and expanding her reach and considerations.”

I leaned heavily into the railing, the hard, narrow bar biting into my arm.  I looked down at the loading deck below.  At the gouges.  Repaired parts where Swansong’s power had kissed the metal floor.

“So we’re useful and we get consideration after freeing her, we get to be the pawns but she appeals to our interests in a general sense… and then she moves on?”

“It’s all about the shortest path, Antares.  Her power doesn’t say, walk for two days to get to this location, talk to that person, if it can say that she should talk to the person next to her.  Her goal was self preservation, your group, Imp, and the Heartbroken were next to her, and making you happy ensured you didn’t hurt her or stop her.  You just happened to be close enough to the lava to get burned, too.”

“So the goal was survival.  Even reaching out to us, the A, B, C, thing, it was survival, or partially survival.”

“Partially revenge against Teacher, yeah.”

“What is it now?”

“Equilibrium.  A manageable, balanced state where things don’t break down further.  A foundation things can be built on.  Probably, the reason she liked the ‘hundreds of thousands die’ eventuality is that a smaller population is easier to manage.  Probably it has to do with reminding humanity why we’re needed.  That there are scary monsters out there that only the capes can stop.  And, you know, I don’t think she’s given up on her dream.”

“Her dream?” I asked.  I imagined Cauldron’s control, influence, and power.

“Standing on a beach, her power turned off.  Being free.  It’s an uncharitable view, but with my power supplying next to nothing, I’ll build on what it’s told me in the past and say that she’s someone who let millions die, often in horrible ways, for the greater plan.  I think it’s possible she tells herself it’s okay to let more than half of the population die so long as things are stable thereafter, things can be built up right, no overcrowding, no hunger, no resource dependencies on Cheit or Shin, a better balance of cape and non-cape… and she gets to stand on a beach with her powers turned off without being ambushed.”

Swansong died, and for what?  We won that day, but…

I missed my friend.

There had been something fun about wine and crackers and old movies, about being challenged.  I wouldn’t have been talking to Tattletale now if I held the views I had even two months ago, about heroes and villains.  White hats and black hats.  I wouldn’t have changed my views if it hadn’t been for Swansong.  The kernel of caring for Kenzie at the background, and the willingness to reinvent herself in the foreground.  Seeing that look in her eyes after she had killed Beast of Burden.  The willingness to go to jail.

“I don’t think that’s Contessa,” I said.  “I’m not basing this on anything I can really define over a phone conversation.  Gut feeling.  But… we talked to her and I saw the look in her eyes as she outlined it all.  How far away she wanted to be from the decision, which Sveta eventually foisted on her.”

“Hmmmm,” I heard Tattletale.

Gut feeling, I thought.

“Wish I could tell you more, hon,” Tattletale said.  “I don’t have enough data.”

“Hey, Kenzie?” I asked.

No response.

“Do me a favor, don’t listen in?  Don’t look back at this past recording and dig this up to relisten?  I want this bit to be me and Tattletale.”

A pause.  I wondered if she was listening after all.  Surely Tattletale would-

“Okay.”

“There she goes,” Tattletale said.  “Straight to the puppies.”

“There’s puppies?” I asked.  “Damn.  Almost wish I was there.”

“It’d be awkward.  Like how awkward your kid is feeling right now.  You and this current… project you have her handling, connecting you to your team, it’s her only connection to Breakthrough right now.”

“I know.  Just… gotta get through today,” I said.  I gripped the railing with my hand that had the bandage around the missing fingernail.  Gripped the phone.  “My power changed.”

“Yep,” Tattletale said.  “Floating phone earlier kind of gave it away.”

“I’m worried I changed.”

“Wouldn’t rule it out.  Is that a bad thing?”

“It’s a thing.  Could be bad.  It’s hard to separate it out.  How much is me, how much is her?”

“And how much is the fact that you almost died last night?  You were burned all over, you got a very concrete reminder of how mortal you are.  You got a massive wake up call about just what exactly it is we’re dealing with.  Powers, greater forces.  It takes a while to wrap your brain around that, once you’re faced with the reality of it.”

“That feels like a cop out,” I said.

“Or is saying it’s your power doing the talking the cop out?  Didn’t it work for Amy because it was a cop-out?”

I gripped the railing harder.  “I’m really hoping that’s not what she takes away from it.”

“Or you’ll ask your dad to off her?”

“Okay,” I said.  I closed my eyes.  “This isn’t exactly what I was hoping to get out of this conversation.”

“You wanted mollycoddling.  Sorry hon, Mollycoddle is a whole ‘nother cape out there somewhere.  You get the Tattletelling.  Annoying, hard to confront truths and possibilities.  Last night you dove literally headfirst into powers and everything there was out there.  You had a near death experience.  You found out things you weren’t ready to learn.”

“So none of it’s the power?” I asked.

“Antares, honey, you’ve been in this business longer than I have.  You lived it even before you triggered.  You should know the answer to that question.”

“Last night, when Dragon questioned me, I didn’t even know my own name.”

“Isn’t that telling?” Tattletale asked.

There was something in her tone there that reminded me of who I was talking to.  The villain who used information against people.  I was baring my every vulnerability to her in this moment.

I almost, almost ended the conversation there.  My thumb moved to the button to cancel the call and a twitch or accident could have seen it make contact.

“Just tell me,” I said.

“If you’re blaming the power to that extent, you’re probably wrong.  Just like the people who don’t take it into consideration at all.  It’s a worm, wriggling through our heads, too slippery to nail down with a neat, pat explanation.  The only correct answers are ‘I’m not sure’, or the mathematician’s ‘yes’.”

“That doesn’t help narrow things down or figure out a way forward,” I said.  “For me, for my fucking sister, for Contessa.”

“I think it does.  Just so long as you don’t reduce.  Focus on the totality.”

I stared down at the loading dock, as a bunch of teenagers in winter jackets clambered onto a big metal cargo thing and attached hooks to bars that were inset into the metal.

There were gouges on that, too, spray painted a bold yellow to warn people to look out.

Swansong had been as influenced as anyone I knew.  The agent close to the surface because she was a clone, not so different from Valkyrie’s flock.  From Dennis, from Christopher, from my aunt Sarah.

I thought of every single member of Breakthrough.  Each of us had unique relationships to our passengers.  Fighting it daily for control over her body, having to meditate to even find a semblance of functionality.  Caged by it, portioning out life in turns.  Caught up in manufactured dreams and chained to fanatical enemies.  Pulled in deep, with tragic qualities and habits turned into tools that fed those same qualities, in maybe the deepest spiral I’d known a parahuman to have.

Wearing it, like a fragile piece of armor.

Could it be dismissed or swept up or brushed aside so easily?  Each person considered a totality, rather than a person and a problem to either be embraced or defeated by?

“I don’t know,” I whispered.

“Now you’ve got it,” Tattletale said.

I thought of the situation room, which I was overdue to return to.  Of the situation, of Contessa, of Teacher, and how Teacher had ended up.

“I don’t know what to do.  I’m afraid to step back from this.  I’m being aggressive and acting on instinct, but if I stop, I might lose what I gained last night.”

“I guess you have to weigh whether the cost of being aggressive instinct girl is heavier than the cost of losing what you got.”

I clenched my fist.  My skin pulled tight, and the missing fingernail throbbed.

I shook my head.  “I can’t tell what instincts might actually be my agent telling me things.  I know what you said, totality, not assuming anything, but…”

“Welcome to my life, hon.  Every hour of every day for the last few years.  For what it’s worth, I like your instincts.”

“That doesn’t make my decision easier,” I said.  It was only as she’d said it that I realized I was imagining myself tilting more toward the ‘ignore the instincts’ option.

“That’s not my job.  Hard, annoying truths.”

I’d come here hoping for a revelation, at the same time I’d wanted to touch base with Swansong, remember my friend by visiting the place she’d died.

But of course it wasn’t that simple.

None of this was.

“How long has she had her power?” I asked.  “Con-”

“Contessa?  Since she was Kenzie’s age.”

“In totality, what does that make her?  As person and power together?  You said she was defensive.  Because she has the weight of the world on her shoulders?  She can’t afford to show weakness.”

“Or disaster strikes.  Any number of forces like Teacher would co-opt her.”

“Does she want to destroy those forces?  To ensure she can walk on that beach without her power active?”

“She might now.  I think she probably wouldn’t mind if the especially problematic forces were destroyed in the process of her doing what she thinks she needs to, here.  It would even play into her goals with laying a solid foundation.”

“Do you qualify?” I asked.

“I might,” Tattletale said.  “Why do you think I have the Undersiders and Heartbroken here?”

I tensed.

“No, I’m bullshitting,” Tattletale said, but it was a humorless statement, almost dark.  “I wasn’t really dwelling on that.  I kind of assumed I’ve kept enough of a distance from her to be a factor.  It is possible.”

“Is Breakthrough?” I asked.  “Two of us were supposed to leave the picture for the long term.  Only one has.”

Tattletale didn’t immediately respond.  I could hear Rachel raising her voice in the background.

Kids laughed.  A girl was shrieking, ‘she peed on me!’

That would be one of the puppies.  I really hoped.  It was hard to tell with the Heartbroken.

“If you’re combat ready and your blue Capricorn guy is on his way back to fighting shape… I’d keep expecting that shoe to drop.”

I pulled my hand away from the railing.  I’d left a faint hand-shaped imprint in it without meaning to.

“I feel like we don’t lose anything by clarifying the blind spots, clarifying how Contessa operates, or clarifying what her motivations might be,” I said.

“Two ways we could go about that,” Tattletale told me.  “I’ve got stuff to handle, and I’m putting it off while I’m on the phone.  I can handle the Contessa talk later, or you can handle it now.”

“I could use the cred.  If it’s even that,” I said.  “And I could use an excuse to go.”

“Go then.  I’ll wrangle kids and puppies, deal with a crampy, cranky kid who’s feeling very worried and out of place right now, and get my team prepared.”

Meanwhile, my own team is scattered and on the front lines.

“Thanks for looking after her.”

But Tattletale was already gone.

I looked down at the loading dock and the signs of battle.  Repaired, subtle, or glaring in how they’d been highlighted, so workers wouldn’t cut themselves on sharp edges.

“I feel like you’d know exactly what to do for that kid at a time like this,” I said, to the empty air.

I gave the part of the railing with the handprint a pat, then stepped away.

It took everything I had not to fly.  Technically, the damage here wasn’t nearly as bad as it was in the heart of the city, but again, technicalities were a really bad argument when faced with a contingent of angry capes and staff.

I took the stairs back down two at a time, not touching the railing as I navigated by the people who descended more slowly.  In the worst case scenario, flight or invincibility would break my fall.  I didn’t end up needing either.  I hit the landing at the base of the interminably long staircase and jogged from there.

What are you missing, Contessa?  What lurks near your blind spots or what serves your purposes?  Which is it?

What does Dinah fail to ask?

I couldn’t do anything about Dinah, not in this moment.  But I could get details on Contessa.

This wouldn’t be easy.  On so many levels.

I almost got lost, trying to find my way to the situation room.  Only the fact it was as central to this particular floor as it was saved me.

Then the familiar hallway, where I’d talked to Jessica.  Where heroes seemed to be perpetually stationed, waiting for orders or standing guard.

None were familiar.

If this isn’t the last time I enter this damn room

A few heads turned at my entrance.

Eric saw me and rose to his feet.  Before he reached me, however, I reached the end of the table.  Holding up one finger, telling him to wait, I pulled up a chair.

I could see the irritation on his face.  Good.

But I didn’t want enemies.  I just… needed to focus on priorities.  I made a hand gesture to him, hands pressed together as I mouthed a ‘sorry’.

A part of me anticipated him stopping me.  I prepared a response, a debate, something to buy some time.  But he simply stepped down.  Waited.

Amy was back on the giants, I saw.  The Machine Army had lost a bit of ground, but constructions riddled with hooks were capturing giants, teaming up with three machines to every one giant.  Tearing the giants to pieces, harvesting the chunks and carrying them away in assembly lines.

The giants were appearing at a new rate that roughly replaced the lost ones.

I looked away.  Refocused on the matter at hand.

Citrine still sat to my left, dressed in black with a yellow gemstone at her breast.  She still wore her wedding ring, which looked like damascus, with layers of something golden in there, without having any gold to it at all.

I was sure there was a story as to why.

“Can we talk?” I asked her.

“I’m here to answer questions, offer help and resources,” she said.  “I’m undecided if this qualifies as the captain at the helm when her ship sinks, or if I’d have to be in the city for that.”

“My questions may not be easy ones,” I said.

“That’s good,” she said, her tone and expression dispassionate.  “You should have all of the easy answers already.”

I decided to fall back on my knowledge and training in dealing with loss.  Just as doctors had to sometimes deliver bad news, I’d been taught to do the same.

“What’s your understanding of Contessa right now?”

I could see her expression change.  A slight narrowing of the eyes, lips pressed together a bit, like she would refuse to talk to me.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I can’t shake the notion that this isn’t about Amy Dallon, it isn’t about Dauntless, it isn’t about the Machine Army, Pastor, Nilbog and the goblins, Sleeper, the Blasphemies, Teacher, or any of the other major threats we’ve been keeping an eye on.”

“Teacher’s been captured,” Eric volunteered.  “They’re bringing him in.”

“Really good to know,” I replied.  “I’m relieved.”

“Your suspicions turn to Contessa, then?” Citrine asked.

“No, not suspicion, exactly,” I hedged.

“You wouldn’t be the first.  Another precog brought it up.”

“I’m curious what you know or think,” I told her.

She sat back in her seat.  I wasn’t sure if it was the black outfit or weariness, but she looked older.  More like a queen weary of her throne than the princess at a festivity.

“You know that she sent one of the boys to us.  We were preparing.  We are not- we were not frontline fighters.  Kurt could manage quite well, but in a warzone?  We preferred to wait, strike surgically and with great precision, to optimal effect.”

“I imagine if he had a thinker power, it would be too many inputs.  Thinker headache?”

Citrine pressed her lips together again.  Displeased.  She almost seemed more bothered by the fact I’d mentioned any kind of weakness than the fact I’d brought up her husband’s de-facto killer.

Was he alive?  A factor?

It was hard to imagine.  She wore heartbreak in a way that I was familiar with.  Maybe even more heavily than I was familiar with.  I’d lost Dean and maybe Dean had been my soulmate, but… I could believe that the Number Man had been Citrine’s soulmate.  Conveying that loss took more acting skill than I was willing to believe she had.

It was hard to imagine any confluence of circumstance where pretending her husband was dead would benefit her or her agenda, or even benefit the city.

Easier to believe she wanted to protect the Harbinger boys who had the same power and weakness.

“Sorry,” I said.

“Because of her message, we rushed where we normally wouldn’t, we trusted her, Kurt went to open the door for me and his body shielded me from the worst of the blast.  The boys came and administered medical care.  She killed him.  Is that what you want to hear?”

“I want to hear the context, or… anything that fills in the gaps.  Sheds light on how she thinks.”

“You could have just asked.  We were acquainted.”

“I’ll ask in a moment, if that’s okay.  I just… do you know why?”

“It’s impossible to know anything for certain when it comes to that woman.  If she wants you to reach another conclusion, she’ll ensure it.”

“I’d like to take a shot at it,” I said.

“She apologized.  She said she was hurrying to act against Teacher, and she didn’t double-check the outcome.”

“Her waking up from Teacher’s influence meant she had to reset, rebuild her infrastructure of checks and balances.  Starting with herself.  She extended out from there by using the tools in reach.  My team.  Heartbroken.  Wardens.”

“Makes sense.”

“But you weren’t in reach.”

“It’s not about reach, like you picture.”

“Ease?”

Everything’s easy for her.  If she wanted you to die in this room at a specific time with a… I don’t know, a specific antique pen jabbed into your eye socket, she could do that easily.  A few statements and actions taken at the right times and places.”

I was aware that I was broaching a delicate subject with Citrine, and that seemed to coincide with the sudden emergence of a violent hypothetical situation.

“What then?  Time?”

“Time.  The number of steps required.  All easy, but why do in twelve steps what you could do in three?  Sending someone we know with a specific message we’re inclined to trust may be easier than any number of distractions she had at her disposal, to corner Teacher.  She didn’t have the time and she took the most expedient route.  We accepted her apology.  The children and I.”

“Just like that?” I asked.

“No, Antares,” Citrine said.  Her demeanor remained queenly, but I could imagine she was the type, now, who would order beheadings.  “Not ‘just’ like that.  But we know what we keep company with.”

“And as a person?  I said I’d ask.”

“As a person… stunted.  Limited.  Childlike.  Composed, certainly.  Graceful.  Proud.  Educated, even.  But not fully formed.  She may never be.  Maybe that’s just.”

So much for forgiving her.

“A baby learns to trust.  All she’s ever trusted is her power and the woman who ran Cauldron.  That woman died.  At your teammate’s hands, as a matter of fact.”

I kept my expression still.

“A child learns autonomy.   She’s had her hand held every step of the way.  Industry and work ethic, or how to pursue something?  As we just discussed, everything is easy for her.  How can you have work ethic without work?”

“Identity?” I asked.

“I imagine the style she wears provided the shortest number of steps to ensuring Doctor Mother was listened to in meetings, or to ensure she was given due consideration as a bodyguard.”

“Intimacy?” I asked.  “Does she like anyone?”

“Doctor Mother, maybe?  But then you have to wonder.  If you take in a dog, virtually any dog, of any breed, any personality.  If you feed it and treat it with kindness, won’t it love you?”

“She’s a dog?” I asked, my tone twisting despite my intent.  I didn’t like dehumanizing.

“You have to ask similar questions.  She depended on and was cared for by one person.  Wouldn’t loving that person be inevitable?”

“Does she think she made a difference?  Was it worth it, to do the kinds of things she did, for Doctor Mother?”

“I couldn’t tell you.  I don’t think we would have won without Cauldron.  But I’m biased.”

“Does she regret it?”

“To answer that question, I think you have to start by asking how much was really by her design, when Doctor Mother made the choices and her power dictated the how.”

Fuck me.

I pressed, “Does that impact the decisions she makes?  Call them into question?”

“She remains forward thinking.  I think she’s been at it for so long her brain has adapted to it.  She thinks of the future more than the present.  Her decisions are sound.  No, I don’t think it impacts anything of note.”

“Agendas?  Motivations?  Drives?  You make her out to be a robot, like this.”

“None that I’m aware of.  And I think she’s grown since she finished her mission, but I can’t know in what direction she grew.  I could guess, but it would be just that: a guess. What I can tell you is that if you think she’s going to betray us all… she’s too young.  Too stunted.  She’ll be too busy finding her own way to decide ours.”

“She could make you think that,” I said.

“She could.  She would do so perfectly.”

I fell mute.  It was my turn to press my lips together.

If not an attack or scheme, was it a blind spot?

“Tell me what you’re after?  Why this line of inquiry?”

She asked, and I could have answered.  But even though Citrine’s Mortari group had set us up with funding, provided research, and cooperated… I hesitated.

I didn’t understand her.  I didn’t like her.  I felt like it was weird, having her at the table, saying so little, watching it all.

“I’m worried about some stuff that’s going to come to pass later, I think.  I’m worried,” I said, telling her the truth.  Then the lie, “I’m wondering if there’re ways to circumvent her, work around blindspots, or if blindspots are a consideration for what comes later.”

A story I imagined anyone aware and mentioned by Contessa’s power might have echoed.  Contessa had been Cauldron and I had to imagine each member of that loathsome organization had faced that reality and asked a similar question before.

The only reason I didn’t was because I knew it was futile.  I’d read literature on precogs.  Determinism.  Frankly terrifying.

I wanted to believe that the blind spots would accrue or change the result, but wanting to believe wasn’t actually believing.

It still made for a story to tell that was apparently believable and pitiable.  Citrine’s expression softened for the first time.

“No, Antares.  I don’t think there’s a way to change the course of events.  If she said it, then you can hope she lied because the lie required less steps than the truth.”

I nodded, giving that nod extra emphasis, to sell the act.

“I don’t want to give you false hope,” she said.  “Lies are very rarely less convoluted than truth.  It’s not how she operates.”

I nodded, again with emphasis intended to betray an anxiety I didn’t feel.  That was my excuse to backed out of my conversation with Citrine.  My pretense for the conversation that didn’t betray too much

Which wasn’t right.  I did feel anxiety, but it was about other things.  About my team, about the imminent disaster.  About god-damned Amy, and doing what it took to ensure she got help, as harrowing as the doing was.

Amy.  Fuck.

I walked over to a new seat, not next to or especially near anybody.  I got my phone out, laying it on the table.  I leaned over the table without sitting, thinking about framing.

First steps first.  I looked Eric’s way.

“I want to have a discussion,” he told me, before I could open my mouth.

“Disciplinary?” I asked.

“Yes.  More or less.”

“I’ll listen to what I have to, do what you require.  But can I please call my therapist first?  If you haven’t arranged one?”

“We haven’t.  And no you can’t.”

“Is this because you have a missile flying toward Amelia Dallon-Lavere?  I wouldn’t agree with taking that approach before giving her a chance, but-”

“No missile,” he said.  “For now, sit in this chair next to me.  We’ll review things.”

“Just tell me the Wardens are doing something to follow up on the action earlier.  My teammate almost died putting herself on the line, working with Tattletale to get across to someone very powerful and very ill.  I have a trace of hope here.  I need to know it’s justified.”

“I don’t have to tell you anything,” Eric said.  “You’ve been uncooperative every step of the way.  Why should I extend you any favors?”

I stared him down, taking mental note of the situation.  Armstrong wasn’t present.  Citrine wasn’t on my side.  The only other people I could name were Megan and Ysmine, Goddess’s cluster, and Pearce, who I only knew as the person who tended to stick near the computers.  She was there now, and she and her underlings were agitated.  The only scene that matched that agitation was the ongoing fight against the Machine Army.  Soldiers running this way and that, to move rubble and adjust the forward defense.  Here and there, they used explosives to deal with larger robots.   The flash on the screen drew Eric’s eye, as he broke eye contact first, and I looked too.

There was a machine that was as tall as a house, with spindle legs, and a kind of open coffin for a head.  A person was in the coffin, machinery threaded into their eyes and mouth.  They groped blindly at the air as the machine spider-walked its way forward.  When the giant smashed the machine, it bled from the resulting cracks, lurched back to a standing position, and then began firing lasers from turrets at the side.

While Eric wasn’t looking, I slid my phone across the table.  I took the seat next to him.

The machine was hit with a rocket.  The person at the head was given a merciful end, but the general shape of him and the giblets were held more or less in place by the machinery that threaded into the mouth, out the other end, all along bones and around organs.

Eric looked away.  He seemed surprised when he saw me sitting next to him.

I turned my palms upward, keeping my expression unimpressed.

“I sat.  May I please call?” I asked.  “This is in the Warden’s favor, the city’s favor, your favor, Shin’s, mine, and Amy’s.  The only logical alternative to this is dealing with her for good.”

“We know,” Eric said.  “Your stance on the matter.  Your father called us after he talked to you.  You asked your father to kill a foreign dignitary?”

Was that it, then?  When the going gets tough, the tough get going?  Or at least deflect responsibility, deflect everything, set up an escape route from responsibility and commitment?

I just wanted you to go to mom if you couldn’t hack it in Shin, or get Amy to therapy, or… ensure we didn’t have to worry about Amy ever again.

Damn it, dad.

I just felt a profound sadness.

“I told him to go see my mom, because she’s not at her best.”

“Earlier you said she was capable.”

“Earlier I was respecting her pride and dignity.  She knows her limits.  But she’s far from her best.  I told my dad to go to her.  If he couldn’t do that, he was supposed to focus on ensuring Amy gets to therapy.  Again, win for everybody if that happens.  She’s the scariest damn person in the world.  It makes sense.  Murder was a last resort, if it even comes to that.  I wanted to drive home how important this was.  How serious.  I kind of want to do the same for you.”

“Are you threatening me?”

No.  I’m saying the world is about to end, and it’s going to be a very complicated end if we don’t have the Red Queen handled in some fashion.  Let me make a phone call and give her someone to talk to.  That’s all I want.  I’ll do whatever else you require.”

“Your job, this entire time, Antares, Glory Girl, Victoria, whatever you want to call yourself, has been to sit down, be quiet, answer any questions if explicitly asked.  Get the hint.  Accept that you’re benched.

He was a bit pissed now.  A few heads around the room were looking.

“Will you make the phone call then?” I asked.  I held out my phone in his direction.  “Please.  Doc-”

He took my phone out of my hand and slapped it down against the table, face down.

Incensed.  Breathing hard.  Glaring.

“Last night you told Defiant and Dragon that you wanted to submit to the authority of the Wardens.  That you’d accept any decisions and punishments from our group in exchange for our continued resources.”

“Eric,” I said, meeting his eyes.  “With all due respect, I’ve seen nothing to indicate you have any authority at all over me.  I’m going to go make my phone call.  I’ll stick around, I’ll offer advice, and if and when Chevalier or another member of Warden leadership shows up, I’ll accept their decision.  If they decide my actions here warrant kicking Breakthrough out?  Fine.  This?  This phone call you’re ignoring?  It’s important.  This imminent disaster?  Important.”

I was so tempted to add something along the lines of ‘You?  Not so much.’

I was pretty sure I conveyed it with the look I gave him.

I was so done with this.

I collected my phone, noting the crack on a screen that had remained intact through more than a dozen cape fights, and slipped it into my pocket, turning to head out to the hallway.

He grabbed me by the upper arm.  The same arm that had the bullet wound that still hurt sometimes.

Down girl, I thought, before my power could do anything.  We exist as a totality of me.  I get a say.

I twisted, using my hand to disengage his hand and push it back toward him before stepping back.

It was something I’d learned very early on into having my powers.  Everyone had known.  I’d been able to show it off in class.  Enhanced strength.    Lifting the teacher’s desk with ease.

That it made people uneasy.  That it scared them.  Awed them at the same time.

I hadn’t used my aura, my flight, my forcefield.  I hadn’t relied on any intuition.  Only hand to hand training and assuredness that came with knowing I had the bigger stick when it came down to it.

And that was enough.

Galled, spooked, wounded, Eric glared at me.  Others looked alarmed, like they thought a fight might break out.  Pearce wasn’t even following the Machine Army fight in this moment.

“You’re supposed to listen to the unpowered,” Eric said.  I was hard pressed to think of anything more impotent he could say.

“You’re supposed to earn it,” Citrine said, from the head of the table.  “It used to be default, because you built society and we came to it.  The rules changed when it was a city we had a big part in building, defending, and feeding.”

I didn’t want you on my side here, I thought.

“Not what I was going for, Citrine- Mayor Wynn,” I said. “I’m okay with following the rules, but it can’t be arbitrary.  I’ll follow the law if it comes from a lawyer or judge.  Not a random citizen.  It’s their city.”

“It’s ours too.  We keep bleeding and dying for it but we’re not supposed to claim any part of it.”

“Maybe, but it’s not the time or the place, madam Mayor,” I said.

“Probably not,” she said, to me.  To the rest of the room, she said, “Ignore me.  I’m grieving and saying silly things.”

I remained where I was, facing this claustrophobic room of tired people who had shucked off suit jackets and hung them on the backs of chairs.  Who looked like every last one of them had no idea of where to stand.  It had emptied by half and by the design of it, I felt like it could empty by half again and it would still feel like there was nowhere to stand that wasn’t uncomfortably proximate to someone else.

But the emotion was heavy in the air.  Tension.

They were trapped in a cage with a lion and a panther, and both animals focused on them, rather than on one another.

And I was the dreaded lioness.

“I’m sorry for the disruption,” I said.

I was going to say more.  But I was taking in the faces.  I was aware Jeanne was leaving.  That she’d played a part.

Was this that spurt of lava, reaching this far?

“Are we keeping tabs on the anti-parahumans?” I asked.

The words froze Jeanne at the door, as she was making her exit.  Not a single person replied to me.

I reached for a laptop someone had left open and logged in, pulling it over to me.  The motion saw Eric back away a step.

I brought up the screen.  The list of objectives.

A possible concern that would fly under Dinah’s radar.

Something useful to Contessa?  I wasn’t following that thread anymore.  I could dismiss it.  I trusted Citrine in that, at least.

But was something Contessa had made use of.  Citrine had lost her husband when they’d rigged a bomb to her car.

The list showed them.  Anti-parahuman groups and cells.  All toward the bottom.  The ones that were active threats and the ones that had already been suppressed.  There were two dozen listed, but only fourteen remained ongoing problems.

Fourteen with fourteen minor teams or groupings of independent capes assigned to them.  The most minor capes, sent to deal with the ordinary humans upset at losing their city, or the shit-stirrers from foreign worlds, or both.

I could discount the ones obviously outside of blind spots.  Narrow it down.

Contessa had gone to Cheit to get Teacher.  She’d had to bring a team with her because she couldn’t see clearly around his tech.  The portal tech, anything close to that.

Cheit, who had sent the people who had blown up the portals.

The name of the team ‘Major Malfunctions’ caught my eye.  They were on the list.  Part of a group of eight keeping the peace at the Cheit-Gimel border.  I checked, and sure enough, they were close to an area that was likely rigged with some of Teacher’s countermeasures.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Sundown – 17.9

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

I’d crossed the ‘everything is fucked’ threshold, by my personal measure, which was by no means official, considering it came from a fourteen year old.

Back when I’d been in high school, Amy had drawn a lot of initial attention when she’d triggered and got her power.  A friend, excited, had shared an anecdote from her dad about health issues: you knew that health problem that had been nagging at you for a while was serious when you woke up simultaneously shivering uncontrollably and drenched in sweat.

That was the general metric, when your body ceased making fundamental sense.  When I’d technically slept a full night but felt exhausted.

When I’d had a hot shower an hour ago and felt scummy and cold now.

When I’d had someone in my arms an hour and ten minutes ago, and felt cold and empty now.

When I was ravenously hungry, with maybe the best chicken dish I’d had in my life in front of me, lightly fried chicken strips with none of the moisture loss I tended to associate with frying, with spices I’d never had before, salsa utilizing new, better vegetables I’d never had before, and a dollop of sour cream to dip in.

And I felt too nauseous to eat.

I’d walked away from the situation room and the Amy situation wanting to climb into bed and pull heavy covers up around me.  Not an option.  I needed to do what I could here, or I’d regret it forever.

I wanted another shower, but it would have felt weird, and my skin always prickled and itched if I showered too much in close succession.  If my skin did that now then there was a good chance I’d drag nine fingernails through it until it stopped or I didn’t have skin anymore.

I’d needed to get out, and my instinct was to meet my basic needs.  Late morning, roughly time for lunch.  There were cafeterias in the Wardens Headquarters.

It was supposed to be me coming up for air.  That was what the situation room was becoming, for me.  Being pushed beneath the surface, a brief, furious struggle, victory, a gasp of air.  Pushed beneath again.

I wanted out and away.  Actual freedom, extending as far as my fist, stopping at the enemy’s face.  The Wardens were suppressing me.

But… stretching out that metaphor, I was aware that the drowning could latch onto rescuers, even fight them in their desperation.  Another case of our bodies and biology being counterintuitive, uncomfortable or dangerous.  I was acutely aware of the contradictions and hints that surrounded me and myself now.  Extending myself to offer Amy that benefit of a doubt meant I had to extend the doubt to myself at the same time, sans benefit.

I ate the chicken, despite my body sending me five different signals saying I shouldn’t.  Too full.  No you’re not, stupid body, you ate a light dinner last night and had a meal barely bigger than your fist this morning.  Nauseous.  You’re being stupid.  Overwhelming.  It’s mild, actually taste it.  Unfamiliar poison!  The Wardens wouldn’t poison everyone on site by serving something dangerous in the cafeteria.  Probably.  Slimy.  No, shut up internal voice, it’s a motherfucking delight of texture.

It was a policy of mine to never throw away food that an animal had contributed its life to, even if it was two strips of bacon on an egg sandwich.

I kept my mind busy, mulling over what I needed to go over with, with Tattletale.  There were two key areas that were high-risk, if I was discounting Amy as the principal threat.  Those areas had overlap.  Contessa had blind spots.  Dinah did too, but they seemed to operate differently, and Dinah had seen more clearly through the end of the world than Contessa had.  According to Dinah.

For Contessa, it was blind spots.  The biggest threats, giants, portals, and areas powers had maximal sway.  There were a few capes who she couldn’t get past, and some were explicit, ones that were officially on the record, like how Teacher’s doorway to the source of powers had blocked her vision.  Mama Mathers was explicit too.  A whole area that even Contessa couldn’t turn her attention toward.

Other blind spots were implicit, threats that I had to assume were still threats because they were major and she hadn’t eliminated them yet.  But that got hinky.  It wasn’t as cut and dry as that, and my mind ticked over the various files and major cases, class-S threats… and there was a lot to unpack.  A lot to consider, and dimensions to consider when weighing why Contessa hadn’t tackled them.

Then there was Dinah.  The other circle in my little venn diagram.  She was better at seeing past blind spots, as far as I could tell.  But she had to ask.  No solutions were neatly handed to her.

Which raised the question: what was insignificant enough to avoid being asked about or get attention, but capable of lurking close to a blind spot?   Were we underestimating someone?  Missing a signal or sign?

Eating was mechanical, bringing myself to put meal to mouth, chewing, acknowledging that the texture was top notch, the taste better.  That it was good, that I was hungry.

How much of this was my body rebelling because this whole mess was taking so much out of me, and how much of it was that I’d ceded more ground to my partner in this partnership?  If I had to analyze I had to wonder about its tastes, its feelings about sleep.  Surely my fragile, violent partner wanted me to be well rested, thoroughly and warmly fucked, assured, and nourished.  Surely these things were qualifiers for me being a capable and efficient host for the power it laid across my brain like a queen might lay a sword on a knight’s shoulder.

Meaning it was me.

My phone ringing was a relief.  A distraction from that thought process.

Unfamiliar number.  Tattletale?

“Hello?” I asked.

“You up and disappeared,” Eric said, on the other end.

“Am I needed?” I asked.

“You’re not not needed,” he said.  “Where are you?  We were going to debrief on that situation.  Discuss your part in it.”

It made sense that they’d catch on.

“I thought my part in it was to advise, fill you in on my team, my family, answer any questions.  You decided you didn’t need me.  That’s fine.”

“It would be appreciated if you came in.  We accessed your login, looked at your computer activity.”

Up to you, Kenz.  Trusting you.

I picked up a chicken fillet, layered with salsa, a daub of sour cream at the end.  I took a small bite, waiting, swallowed.  He hadn’t followed up.  “Sorry, I thought you were going to add something more.”

“You were doing a lot of typing, we saw your notes and they don’t add up lengthwise.”

“Deleted everything that wasn’t relevant.  You wanted full writeups if I was going to contribute anything,” I said.  You didn’t really.  You wanted to shut me down and pretend to let me help while not actually allowing any contribution.  Which is fucking stupid when the stakes are what they are.   I took a drink of iced tea.  “Whenever the scene moved beyond what I’d typed, I deleted it down to notes I could provide if something came up.  What was it, notes on Fallen, the prisoners who moved to Shin, my team, my sister?”

“Yes,” he said.

He didn’t elaborate.  I didn’t fill the silence.

Who broke first?  If Eric wanted to play that kind of little dominance game, he was in for a fight.  I had four give-a-fucks left and Eric didn’t deserve one.

I was convinced he’d hang up on me when he ventured, “Good notes.”

Were they in front of him now?

“Thank you.”

“Your dad is on the line.”

“Oh, good.  Kind of expected that.  Can you patch him through?”

“We’d rather you come in for a chat.”

“Soon.  Dealing with my sister is hard for me.  You’ve read all the files, right?  You know what happened?”

“Yes.”

“I’m taking ten minutes.  If you could connect me to my dad it would be appreciated.”

He didn’t immediately answer.  It was quiet enough on his end that I could imagine he’d muted his end of the call.  Asking question?

What else are you going to do?  Not allow thorough communication about someone who just attacked one of our hero teams?

Hero teams around me were huddled at their tables, talking.  A few isolated capes sat alone.  Heroes that had never attached to a team, but who wanted to help.  The mood was one of a forest fire, all hands on deck, people waiting to be deployed to the latest area that was getting out of control, hoping to get things back down.  Keep it under control for long enough, we pretended, and maybe the fires would burn down.  Things would be okay.  The healing would start.

I ate another chicken strip.  The peppers were small and heavy enough that they’d piled up toward the bottom of the salsa.  They weren’t ones I’d ever had before, but they nicely captured a bit of earthiness, like a root vegetable, with a bit of smoky heat, like barbecue over charcoal.  The tomato in the salsa balanced it out.  The sour cream cut straight through the worst of the capsaicin heat.

With no fanfare, response, or further communication, the phone clicked, buzzed for a moment, and then rang once.

“Victoria?” was the familiar voice.

“Hi, dad.”

“I just talked to Amy.”

“Can you get her to that therapy appointment?” I asked, closing my eyes.  “I’ll work something out.”

“I’ll try.  I wanted to tell you that I’m proud of you.”

I felt numb.  I didn’t trust my instincts, not when I couldn’t be sure if I trusted my appetite, desire to sleep, or my desire for human contact.  I had no idea if I could trust my dad’s words, or trust myself to accept them.  What was he proud of?  That I’d reached out?  Found a way?  Faced down the monster?

I felt angry at the words and I shouldn’t have.  Proud of me?

“What are you doing, dad?”

I felt like he’d expected the question.  His response came faster than it would have for ninety percent of people who got a response like that.  “I don’t know.  Wishing it was ten years ago, so I could do everything differently.”

“Ten years from now, assuming we’re all still around-”

“Don’t even joke about that.”

“-Are you going to be wishing that you could go back to now and do this differently?”

“Possibly.  Probably.  I’ve felt like I was at least one step behind things my whole life.  Like a conversation with friends and family, but every time you’re ready to speak, people have already moved on to the next topic.  Except… events.”

“Can you do anything about it?  Take a minute, figure out a game plan?  Refocus your priorities, figure out what the biggest priority is, target the problem and tackle just that one thing?”

“I can.  Absolutely,” he said.  He even sounded energized as he said it.  “I’m an expert at that.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that.

“That’s the cycle.  Being one hundred percent convinced I can do better this time, putting in the effort, falling back into old ruts and routines.  Falling behind.  Coming away from it with regrets both sharp and dull.”

“Like an alcoholic, but it’s not booze.”

“It’s people, I think.”

“Is it the enemy or the ally that’s the problem?” I asked.

“Enemies absolutely.  This is the time I can get the Empire out of the south end of the towers.  This is the time we make enough of an impact that the heroes rise in prominence and the villains suffer.  Maybe then that kid who is on the fence about joining her neo nazi family might instead decide to reject hate and be a contributing member of society.  I don’t know.  Ally?  Hm.”

“Hm,” I echoed him.

“Not ally.  Family.  Family absolutely a part of the problem.  I have a complicated relationship with your mom.  She has her own struggles.  If I stay close to her I’m validating decisions and behaviors I don’t like or respect.  Her treatment of Amy.  Of you.”

I sighed.

“But, holy hell, Victoria.  I love her.  She brings out the best in me, and I think my being close to her helps her good side shine.  When I’m not with her I don’t feel like a whole person.  So I tell myself that this time, I’ll push her harder, draw a firmer line, call her out.  But it takes resources I don’t always have.”

“Yeah.”

“Same with Amy.  But I won’t get into that.”

“Yeah,” I said, quiet.  In a way, I wanted him to get into that.  I wanted explanations.  Those explanations could wait.  “Thanks.”

I hadn’t really heard my dad go into stuff like this before.

“The only time life makes sense, the only time it feels right, is when your mom and I are on a battlefield together.  Lights in the darkness.  I almost never have regrets or dread when it comes to that.”

“Almost?”

“I tell myself every day that we fought as hard as we could, because we had to.  But Neil and Eric still died.”

“I’ve had the same thoughts.  Dean too.”

“I’m getting distracted from what I wanted to say.  Which is that I’m proud of you.  You’re the only family member that I don’t harbor that kind of regret about.”

I wanted him to have regrets, because I had my resentments.  My dad had been the one to escort me to the asylum.  Riding with me all the way.  Talking to me.  He’d visited with regularity, paying for a motel room, coming in daily.

But when he’d found out I was aware, that I could communicate, the visits had tapered off.  He’d moved back home.  I had no idea how conscious that was.  If it came down to having someone he could take care of and support with no real obligations, and that had been spoiled… or if it was because communicating was hard and involved a deeper look at the problems I was dealing with.  More personal stuff.  Or if it was just coincidence.

But as he’d tapered off his visits, went home, only came every once in a while, my mom had stepped it up.  As I became more able to communicate, she had visited more regularly.  Never enough, but she’d come.  Never looking me in the eye enough, or talking directly to me enough.  The doctors had been a safe proxy.  She’d studied the paperwork and documentation, the treatment options and she’d listened to the doctors.

But if my dad had stuck it out, tried a bit harder, faced the hard stuff… maybe she and he would have met.  Maybe it would have been possible to drag them into therapy.  Maybe we could have established boundaries, found a framework, and been able to deal with Amy when she re-entered the picture.

But he hadn’t, so that hadn’t happened.  Was it a slim chance?  Yeah.  But it was a chance.  All of us had shit to deal with.  But so often it felt like I was the one going the extra mile to wade through the shit to the far end, stick my hand out.  To fucking try.

I wanted him to regret that.  That he hadn’t.

“You have so much of your mother in you, and so little of me,” he said, in response to my silence.

The image that jumped into my head was of my mom and Uncle Neil kissing, hands finding the zippers or buckles in their old Brockton Bay Brigade outfits.

Holding the bottom end of the phone away from my face, I bit into the chicken strip, past the fried crust into the meat.  It had gone lukewarm, the salsa soaking into the fried part, and made it soggy.  Which was easier.  It made it easier to reconcile my body’s reaction with the meal, which made it easier to eat.

“What are you doing, dad?” I asked, again.  “Right now.  What’s the goal?”

“I’m trying to keep her from going off the deep end.”

“She came close.  She attacked Sveta.”

“I know.  Well, I didn’t hear about Sveta, specifically.”

“Dad, if you’re over there, we need more.  Forewarning or steering the car she’s in away from the cliff’s edge.  Or put on the brakes.  Something.”

“I’m one voice out of ten that are talking to her.  Three different factions in Shin, Marquis, Hunter, Dot, Lab Rat, and then me.  I’m one voice.  I’d like to think she wouldn’t have stopped when she did today if it weren’t for me.  I know that sounds feeble-”

Dad,” I said, stern.  A few heads nearby turned.  “…Give me a minute.  I need to step away.  There are a few people in earshot.”

“Okay.”

I took part of that minute to finish the chicken, standing from my seat as I ate the last of it.  I disposed of it, then left the cafeteria.

Fuck.

It took me another minute to find a spot where I was comfortably out of earshot of any bystanders.  A hallway that had been damaged in the raid.  Lights in the ceiling were ninety percent gone.  There were a couple here and there that flickered but spent more time on than off.

At the far end of the hall, I could see two capes taking a moment.  Two guy capes, one with two left wings, both of which were folded around his… boyfriend?  Husband?  Said partner had his head on the winged guy’s shoulder.  Just holding each other.

It was so sweet to see that my chest physically hurt.

I missed Dean.

To give them privacy, and to ensure nobody approached while I talked, I leaned against the wall with one shoulder, my back to them.

“Dad?”

“I’m here.  Waiting for you to verbally tear me down.”

I could have.  Letting Amy build those giants without stopping her?

But if my dad’s issue was dwelling on the past and always being a step behind… maybe we could take a tack where he thought more about what was to come.

“Dad, academic question.”

“That’s not the direction I thought you were going with this.”

“No.  Academic question.  You’ve been there for various steps in the process, overheard stuff, I imagine.”

“The giants?”

“The giants, yeah.  What happens to them if Amy dies?”

There was a telling pause.

“I think they die, eventually.  They’ll need upkeep.  They can’t eat.  They burn through power.  But eventually is a long time.  Maybe a year.  They can do a lot of damage in the meantime, and I don’t know if they can be controlled.”

“How are they controlled?”

“What’s your line of thought, Victoria?”

“How?” I pressed.

Four give-a-fucks  left, my dad didn’t get one either.  Even if he cared enough to call to say he was proud.

“I don’t know.  I think that lies with Lab Rat.  Remote piloting.  Implants.  From what Amy said, some would have to be biological imperatives.  Like instincts, but more focused.  Salmon knowing they have to swim upstream, even if they haven’t done it before.  Can I ask what you’re thinking, or are you going to do what your mom does when she’s agitated and bulldoze right past me?”

“Working out our emergency measures, in case things take a downturn.”

“I’m hoping they don’t.”

“If they do… if Amy won’t go to therapy like she agreed?  If she prepares to make more giants?  Could you bring yourself to kill her?” I asked.

Constantly holding the phone up was hard, especially with the fierceness I’d been gripping it.  I adjusted my hold, then brought my hand down, rubbing at the soft part between thumb and index finger, cracking my knuckles individually, then doing the same with my other hand, fidgeting.

Because the horrified silence was almost as bad as the words that would inevitably follow.

Jesus, Victoria.”

“You were saying something like your role there is aimless.  You regret what you didn’t do in the past and find yourself feeling lost in the present-”

“That isn’t even close to being the most important thing here.”

“If you have a job to do, if you pretend there’s a job to do, even, with a chance of following through.  Doesn’t that make it okay to be where you are, feeling behind, feeling like you don’t have a voice?  You’re being vigilant.  Watching her like heroes at a quarantine site keeping an eye out for any leaks or cracks in the wall.  At those sites, they have big red buttons they can hit if things turn ugly.  Burn the area with fire, call in the big guns.  Because that’s the danger.”

“Don’t depersonalize her, Victoria.  I know you have your trauma.  I know she has her problems.  But you said she was a person.”

“If a person has the potential to drop a biological weapon on humanity that wipes out the population, I’d hope someone out there is capable of putting a gun to their head and pulling the trigger.”

“I took her to her first day at school.  I brushed her teeth, I read her stories at bedtime.  I took her to her first day at school, holding her hand.  I went to the sports days, attended her grade school and middle school graduations, chaperoned her middle school dance.”

Your, our, I mentally corrected.  It was always her and me at the same time.  Me going to the middle school dance, dragging Amy with.  Me who was invested in the sports days.

“She’s not that little girl anymore,” I said.  “You can’t go back to ten years ago, dad.”

“I can’t- do that.  I can’t take a gun and hold it to the head of a girl I helped raise.  A girl I carried.  When she was small enough I could comfortably hold her in my arms.  Does that make sense?  I can’t pull that trigger.”

“I was thinking more like a light-bomb at her feet.  Maximum power.  You can put holes in concrete walls.  You can make it quick.  You’d pick your moment, drop a bomb where she can’t see or kick it over.  She’d be gone in one moment.  Dealt with.”

No.  Jesus.”

“You’d have to run, after.  Because Shin, and her team.  Or surrender.  Their criminal justice system is pretty forgiving.  Some corporal punishment, but forgiving.”

“You’re- you’re running away with this idea, Victoria.  I can understand the desire for an out.  I need you to understand that this isn’t a good or fair way of going about things.  For one thing, Shin, who you brought up, they could get in the way.  They may stop her from leaving.  I expect them to.”

“I expect you to do whatever’s necessary to get her to therapy.  Flashbang the guards.  Force Amy.  Manipulate her.  Because the alternative to making her is dropping that grenade at her feet and extinguishing her.  That’s how important this is.  I fought like hell to even get that admission out of her, dad.”

“I know you did.  I’m proud of you.”

“Then act on it, fuck it.  Follow through.  Grab the baton I’m extending your way, run with it.  Help to carry this the rest of the way.  To her sitting in an armchair talking her way through that stubborn maze of self-deceptions in her head, or to bits of that little girl you carried and took to school being cleaned up with a rag.”

“That’s enough!”

His shout was loud enough to almost hurt my ear, coming through the phone.  Rather than risk damaging my phone by reflex, I dropped my forcefield, let it fall, and caught it with my hand.

That couple at the end of the hallway- I glanced to see if they’d seen.  They had their eyes closed.

I didn’t bring it back up to my ear right away.  When I did start to raise the phone, I saw the notification.  A call from another number, a minute ago.  I hadn’t noticed the buzz.

“-side of you I don’t like,” my dad was saying.  “I know this is hard, believe me.  I respect you so much for enduring it as much as you have.  And I know exactly what it’s like to think about escape routes, options to get away from it all or magical solutions.  Sometimes that’s all you have.  But we’re not there yet.  We made progress today, and I’m so proud of you for making that progress.  Don’t fixate on that ugly kind of outcome.”

He wouldn’t do it.  He couldn’t.

“I’d do it.  I reached out to her again.  I had no obligation to do it, and I would have been entirely, one hundred percent within my rights to fly out there and wipe her from the face of the earth.  I’d accept any jail time. I’d accept the fight it brought with Shin’s parahumans and monsters.  Because it’s still a better outcome than what she wants to do.”

He didn’t immediately reply.  “…I know you would.”

“Dad.  These are the stakes.  This is where we’re at.  Fight to get her to that therapy appointment, come home and look after momm-”

I’d almost said mommy, like I was a little kid.  I dropped my eyes to the floor.

“-because she needs you.  Or out of respect for the other little girl you took skating, gave baths to, took to school, helped with her homework, read stories to at bedtime… stop Amy, so I don’t have to.  Any one of those three things, and I’ll forgive you.”

“Forgive?” he asked, like the word was as startling as my murder request.

“I’ve got to go.”

“Am- Victoria.  We need to talk about this.”

“I’ve got another call.  I’ve said what I need to say.  I love you, dad.”

“I love you too, but-”

I hung up.

Not wasting any more energy on this, I thought.

I checked my phone, and tapped on the notification for the missed call.  The phone auto-dialed.

“Hey, kiddo,” Tattletale said.

“Yeah, maybe don’t call me that.  It’s better than Glory Hole but not right now.”

“Whoa ho,” Tattletale said.  “What were you doing before my call came in?”

“I was asking politely.”

“Yeah but there’s a lot of emotion beneath the surface there, hon.  Is ‘hon’ okay?”

There was noise in the background.  A voice I was pretty sure was Imp crowing ‘Tattletale has a hon!’.

“Sure.  If you have to.”

“I get it, you’re just barely tolerating me.  I won’t take it personally.”

“I’m just barely tolerating everything right now,” I said.

“Which is why I won’t take it personally.  I get it.  I know if my dad called, I’d be pretty pissed during and after,” Tattletale said.  “Also, hi, I’m looking at you through a camera.”

I looked and spotted it.

“Yep, that’s the one.  Lookout has a thing running, making it appear to the camera like your lips aren’t moving and your arm is at your side, not holding up your phone.  Which is good, because she says you’re being watched by… thirteen people, right this second, myself not included.”

I sighed.  “Tell her thanks.”

“She hears.  As for us, we can talk.”

“Good.  Typing was inconvenient.  Thank you for your help back there.  The warnings about the dangers, so my friends didn’t walk into traps.  The little word changes that probably made a big difference… sainthood and intensities and alienation.  You got the ‘second generation’ trigger wrong, though.”

“In my defense, I was typing fast.  Keeping up with speech while processing what my power gives me can be hard.”

“It was good.  I’m grateful.”

“Wow,” Tattletale said.  I heard a chair creak.  I also heard commotion that might have been kids running around.  Or dogs.  “You’re trying real hard to be nice, aren’t you?”

“Try really hard to let me be nice without making a big deal of it or using it to be a festering pain in my ass.”

“Will try.  No promises.”

“Kenzie’s safe?  The kids are good?” I asked.

“Safe, fed, and given a mood-altering quantity of double-chocolate cookies, with Candy going the extra mile to look after your kid.  Most of the five-feet-tall-and-shorter gang is watching the feeds and listening in on conversations.  It’s like putting a normal ten year old in front of the television with streaming t.v., complete with them accidentally catching the PG-13 and R-rated stuff.”

I winced.  “What stuff?”

“Byron and Tristan regaling Golem and Ava with the story of Tristan’s almost first kiss.  The gay chicken story, if you’ve heard it.”

“Is this a ‘cock’ joke?”

“Truth or dare thing, where mean middle schoolers single out-”

“Redundant.”

“Hm?  Oh, mean middle schoolers.  Yeah.  Well, the idea is they single out the homophobic or closeted members of their friend group and dare them to one-up each other in pretending to be lovers, until one gets too embarrassed to continue and gets the punishment game instead.”

“Ahh.  That sounds like it could get uncomfortable.”

“It was a good almost-memory for him, I think, which is nice.  But it got a bunch of mischievous Heartbroken brains into a particular mode and mindset.  I recommend no sleepovers at Aunt Rachel’s for a while.  If they do happen, it’s at your place instead, and you deal with the aftermath.  I recommend extra hands on deck.”

I missed my team.

“No sleepovers, then, I don’t think I’m jumping on top of that particular grenade,” I said.  “Good warning, that.  Though I have to wonder how Rachel would even handle that kind of mess.”

“Stable duty,” Tattletale said.  “You should see the way Amias and Nicholas stopped dead in their tracks when I said those two words.”

Small voices piped up in the background, unintelligible.

“What the hell are we doing, Tattletale?” I asked.

“Right now?  I know it’s not what you’re really asking, but for now we’re talking civilly.  What’s important is getting you calmed down enough that you can go back to that situation room you’re avoiding right now without… I don’t know.  Dropping something on that Eric fellow from a great height?  That seems to be a recurring theme with you.”

“Ah fuck.”

“You gotta go back.  After that, we’ll be mulling over options and where we need to allocate our resources.  First things first, bureaucracy was the issue?”

“Yeah.  Twat named Eric is shutting me down at every turn.  I don’t suppose you could dig up some dirt on him or get him off my back?” I asked.  I stopped for a second to consider.  “How dangerous a question is that to be asking?  Like, in terms of what could happen to him?”

“Not too.  In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that Lookout over there is looking into him.  Ooh, look at that.  Kid shoots me a guilty look.”

Kenzie’s voice cutting into the call was startling, not too loud, but still an input I wasn’t expecting.  “Do you want the dirt?  I’ve got dirt on him, Larue, Pearce, a couple of other names around the table.  Mauk, Hicks, Cabezas.  I found surveillance camera footage, home PC stuff…”

I leaned against the wall, looking up at a flickering light.  Fuck.

“Not unless he’s a Cheit plant or anti-parahuman agent or something equally nefarious.”

“Nope.  He is really opinionated about the old PRT, though, instead of the current Wardens-”

“Lookout,” I said.  “Reiterating: you shouldn’t give it to me.  You shouldn’t go get that stuff of your own initiative.  It makes enemies, it’s invasive, it’s not right.  Not unless we have more of a clue there’s something nefarious at play.”

“Okay,” Kenzie said, sounding crestfallen.

Crestfallen was okay, when she was getting a lecturing for breaking the rules.

“Remember what I said.  Follow the law, do what’s right, reach out, minimize regrets.”

“Yeah,” she said.  “Gonna go do stuff now.  Sorry.”

“Thanks for the help with Amy.  Let’s work on the other stuff.”

“Uh huh.”

As far as I could tell, that was the point she was off the call.  Probably still listening in.

“Threats,” I said.  “What are we chasing?”

“That question?  That’s you procrastinating, hon.  You and I are focusing on getting you back into that situation room.  Because networking with the Wardens and having full access to them is important.  We can’t rely on our backdoor.”

“Entertain me,” I said.  “Threats.  I’m thinking they’re… blind spots for Contessa, and-or they’re threats so minor Dinah hasn’t thought to ask questions about them.”

“Okay, walk me through it.  I’ll fact check.  Blind spots.”

“Simurgh.”

“Yes.”

“Mama Mathers.  Soft blind spot.  She can look but doesn’t want to.”

“Yes.”

“Portals.”

“They are a factor.  So is the epicenter of the cracking, city’s heart, near the old Wardens HQ, but we’re lucky because that’s where the Simurgh is, too.  We can ignore it.”

“Powerful capes.  Valkyrie.”

“We have eyes on Valkyrie, and she’s self-aware that she’s a possible crisis point.  So are her flock members.  Only, like, five percent higher chance of being our breaking point, but, y’know.”

“Sleeper.”

“Restless but still around.  Earth Zayin in the palm of his hand.  He started to emerge, Legend faced him down.”

How?

“Leveled about thirty square kilometers of city.”

I nodded.  “He’s dormant now?”

“For now.  If he had motivations for making one attempt, he’s going to budge again soon.  But I don’t have the instinct he’s our threat.  He’s background.  Someone else’s problem.”

I nodded.  This was good.  Well, not good, but this was progress.  “What am I missing?”

“For other blind spots?  Teacher’s tech.  His portals, a lot of the cracking, and a few traps he set using tinkered replications of Mama Mathers-”

“Using what?”

“Nothing like you’re picturing.  He had tinkers scan her, copy her power, and work out stuff like… quantum tripwires, tripping when you look at them.”

There was a commotion, with a rustling of the phone microphone.  I heard Tattletale’s protest.

“Hi!” a more unfamiliar voice said.  I heard more indistinct grumbling from Tattletale in the background.

“Hi?”

“Imp here.  I thought it was important to notify you that whenever Tattletale says ‘quantum’, she is talking out of her ass.  Every last syllable is enunciation by way of butt.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Duly noted.  I’d really like to get back to the conversation, though.  It’s kind of really important.”

“Aww, that’s sweet,” she said, before handing the phone to Tattletale.

Not sweet.  Necessity, I told myself.

“Sorry about that.  There’s a reason I hole myself up in an office for days on end.  It’s because this lot plus a thinker headache add up to a quantum headache,” Tattletale said, sounding like she was speaking in a direction that wasn’t to the phone.

“Not a thing!” I heard Imp.

For all her complaints, Tattletale sounded more like the cocky, confident villainess I tended to imagine  than she had since our… reunion in New Brockton Bay, for lack of a better word.

“Quantum tripwires,” I reminded her of the conversation.

“Yes.  Devices that trip in response to being observed.  With big flashes that stick in your vision or mind’s eye.  But mostly it’s the portals.  Contessa is on her way back from Cheit.  She’s got a captive Teacher with her.  She led a group in there and leaned on them pretty heavily to get around the special countermeasures he put in place.”

“She’s got Teacher, so he’s out of the picture?”

“You dealt the knockout blow.  Reset his thrall network, took away the addictive impulses of being under his sway.  His thralls took him hostage and kept him while fending off inquiries from Cheit government.  Custodian and Ingenue are still in the wind, one of them literally”

One off the mental checklist.

“Any other blind spots?”

“Only that Contessa is still malnourished, with slight atrophy of the limbs, it’s slowing her down.  She’s also slowed down because she’s having to reset her layers of defenses.  Stuff she’d ask herself regularly, to guard herself against every eventuality in the days and weeks.  After her trauma of being captured during her one taste of freedom and independence, I think she’s being extra slow and extra careful.  Not blind spots, but factors.

“Okay,” I said.

“Moving on to Dinah?”

“Before that… still on the subject of Contessa.”

“Shoot.”

“Big threats.  There’s a lot of shit that a precog of her caliber could have gone after, right?”

“A few things.  Machine Army?”

“Stuff like the Machine Army.  It’s hard to ignore the evolving, endlessly reproducing machine hellscape that’s encroaching on our front door, so I think the Wardens have that base covered.”

“Fair,” Tattletale said.  “You want to make sure we’re leaving as few stones unturned as possible.”

“Yeah,” I said.  For what it was worth, I was happy to be focusing on the task.  I felt more me than I had when trying to sleep, showering, eating, or playing the secret commander and shot caller in the situation room.  “Okay so… my mind goes straight to the files.”

“Imp told me about your little library.”

“Yeah, uh, don’t remind me of that.  I’m still pissed about the kerosene she poured on my stuff.  And the fact she tried to burn down Swansong’s apartment.  So- okay.  Quarantine sites are a starting point when you want big and problematic, while still being easy to forget about.”

“Not something I ever dwelt on.”

“Most of the quarantine sites around America became places to send the PRT capes who weren’t palatable for public consumption, or the ones who couldn’t play nice with others.  Tall walls, patrols, specific duties.  Right?”

“Sure.  Armsmaster could have ended up there, if they hadn’t found busywork for him.  Maybe.  They might have thought he’d rebel.”

“Pastor.  I was just thinking recently, when Sveta was getting care, it would have been great to take the guy out of commission or bring in for study, because he would have given us a ton of hints about broken triggers and case fifty-threes.  Which makes me think-”

“We’re in the right department.  Dead.”

“We’re sure?”

“Yep.”

“There was Ellisburg of course; Nilbog.”

“In custody.  Cooperating.  Effectively retired.  Turns out that living off of cupcakes made of goblin puke and having next to no mental or social stimulation kind of grinds you down.”

“Flint.”

“We don’t know about Flint.  Nobody knows about Flint.”

“Between Dragon and Jeanne Wynn, I got access to almost everything and there were details in there.  A cape popped up who made a lot of people in their vicinity develop coronas and trigger.  They’d organized a villain group put together from as many of their triggers as they could, and that villain group had mutinied, deciding to slay the goose that laid the golden eggs, cut it open, and see if they could find what ticked.”

“Oh.  I see where this is going.”

“Not even that metaphorically a carving up of the golden goose.  They cut the cape up, each member of the villain organization took a literal pound of flesh.  With a lot of members, it was a lot of pounds of flesh.  Teeth, eyes, ears, limbs.  Everything taken with care, to keep the cape alive just in case it was important.  And they’d scattered, and they’d gone after victims to force-induct into their fucked up villain group.”

“I remember them. Didn’t know about the, er, what, pound of flesh placed near the victim?  Induced triggering?”

“Or fed to them along with the forced trigger situations.  I don’t know.  But it worked for at least a few years.”

“But that’s before our time.  The dark decade after the Siberian murdered Hero,” she said.

Uncomfortable to think about.

“That’s about it, for North American quarantines.  A lot of the unquarantined Class-S threats died in the fight against Scion.  Uh.”

I could have elaborated on motivations, but I felt like that might have spoiled our little hero-villain truce here.

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.  “Intentional, I think.  As much as anything was, then.”

I had so many frigging questions on that subject, but… no.  Again, it would have spoiled things.

Khepri had let them die while fighting Scion.  Tattletale agreed with the hypothesis.

So many questions.

“The Blasphemies, if you want to go international,” Tattletale supplied.

“My files don’t go that international.  It’s mostly PRT stuff and what I was able to dredge up online.”

“A group of tinkers get a spark of inspiration, dig up the resources and start building.  Each one of them builds something almost perfectly identical.”

“Huh.”

“But,” Tattletale said, with dramatic flair and what I imagined was a smug grin at knowing something I only had situation and battle notes on.  “Here’s the thing.  They’re each in a different country.  A few thousand miles apart, in one case.”

“Talking online?” I asked.

“Nope.”

“Phone.”

“Nope.  No contact.  They weren’t even very similar tinkers.”

“Three coincidental builds.  That to me says something about the agent’s network, the landscape we saw, interplay…”

I trailed off, expecting Tattletale to pick up the slack.

She didn’t.

“What?” I asked.

“More than three.  We think it was eight, but it could have been ten.  They required specific materials to make.  Once the first two showed up, the heroes started getting ahead of the tinkers.  Two tinkers weren’t very experienced, one died around then, one got arrested.  One made it past heroes to build the third.  Five were foiled in their robbery attempts.”

I nodded to myself.  Good fucking job on the heroes part.  The notion of there being five or seven more spooked me.

“Are they active?” I asked.

“They were active but aimless, in our general Gimel-Europe area.  Operating separately.  Now they’re together again.  As of the last week.  Make of that what you will.”

Make of that what I will?

Big ask.

“To me, that sounds like a symptom of overall weird agent behavior.”

“I don’t disagree.  Thing is, none of those are really considerations, Vic,” Tattletale told me.  “Except the Machine Army.  Except the Blasphemies.  Where does that get us, except you procrastinating on going back into that room to not blackmail the lacrosse player in the purple shirt who may or may not have a powerful relative who got them into the same University you applied to.”

I pulled the phone away from my ear, halfway hoping I could see a video image of Tattletale’s face.

“You read the dirt?”

“The point is that you’re procrastinating.”

“I’m stopping to think,” I said.

“Emphasis on the stop.  Don’t get me wrong, hon.  Not faulting you.  Sometimes I need to shut off the lights, send the kids away to muck stables or be horrible to each other, and retreat from the world.  Just don’t pretend that’s not what you’re doing.”

“Emphasis on the think part,” I stressed.  “Collaborating with you.  If we think about those guys and how they existed in the first place… there’re questions.”

“You’re doubting her.  I heard about the Kid Cassandra’s accusation.  Now you’re back to that?”

“It’s hard to ignore, isn’t it?  You have to ask a few different questions when you consider that those people and things existed.  One, the obvious answer, is that they’re blind spots.  Too powerful, too messy, whatever.”

“Certainly applies.  They give me headaches, and I’m seeing this stuff in sudoku-vision.”

“What?”

“Nevermind.”

“The second answer is… she’s Cauldron.  She was.  Might still be, in some way.”

“I don’t think you make Cauldron-level decisions for three-quarters of your life and then move on without carrying some of that with you,” Tattletale said.

“How many of those threats were allowed to go on being threats not because they were blind spots, but because they were useful to Cauldron or their goals?” I asked.  “They made case fifty-threes, for fuck’s sake, and speaking on behalf of my best friend, it was an evil thing to do to people.  To children, sometimes.”

“Our focus is on the present, not on the past.  Do you think she’s still keeping some useful pawns on hand?”

“I think we start by asking if she’s even on the same page as the rest of us.  If she even wants to stop this calamity.  Then we start asking what she’s using in the way of pawns.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Sundown – 17.8

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

This is going to be a juggling act.

At Shin Station, Capricorn, Sveta, and Rain were part of a greater assembly of heroes, forming the group at the station entrance and the loose perimeter around the Mother Giant.

The Shepherds who’d been stationed at the entrance had backed off, as a crowd of capes emerged.  Half-and-half.  Half had clothing in the Shin style, with masks and draping cloth.  Capes, like more old fashioned capes had worn on Bet, but with more emphasis.  Layered with one cape atop another with a slightly different cut, so the edge of the one beneath framed the one above.  Stylized drapings of cloth made to evoke images, or made so overwhelming that the cape was ninety percent of the costume.  There were patterns recurring across the costumes that looked like Shin’s equivalent of tartan, argyle, or houndstooth, but more complex.

The other half were ours.  Our most problematic.  Coalbelcher, Gambol, Crock o’ Shit, La Llorona.  More.

Coronzon, Seir, Ahrima, Bamet.  Fallen, arrested during the raid of their compound.  Taken to the prison.  Broken out by Lab Rat and the Red Queen.  A couple of the capes in their periphery looked like they might have been at the Fallen raid.  Allies of the Crowleys, bikers and drug dealers, roped in, arrested.

Amy joined the group from Shin.  Giants walked with her, kneeling on either side of the group.  She stood with one hand on a giant, doing her work, as others gathered off to the side.

In a way it was good that I’d tied her hands.  Good that we’d pit her against a threat that essentially never stopped coming, and forced her into supplying a constant stream of soldiers to wage war against it.  It limited what else she could do.

Coronzon approached Amy, bending down to say something in her ear.

“It looks like she cured his cancer.” Rain murmured.

Coronzon would be the senior member of the Fallen group when Mathers was captured.  From what little I’d seen of him earlier, he’d been someone who was very like Mama Mathers in how he’d moved.  She had been so thin and malnourished that she’d looked like she would creak when she moved, a wisp of a person who came across as old when she definitely wasn’t.  Coronzon, as Rain had suggested, had had cancer, and had been ill enough he’d hobbled.

He didn’t hobble now.  He moved like a young man.  He wore a shawl of animal hides that had been bleached as white as hides could get, over white robes that had stains around the ankles.  A hood covered his head, and a thin black mass bubbled and twisted in the expanse beneath that hood, casting his face in permanent but inconsistent shadow that made it look like his skin was boiling.  It didn’t follow his face perfectly, and at times he moved his head or glanced over at the heroes, I saw someone with sharp features and a sharper glare.

CAN’T LISTEN IN. SORRY

“It’s okay, Kenz,” Sveta murmured.

“Do we have a problem?” Moonsong called out to the Shin capes.

Coronzon kept talking, his voice low and impossible to make out.  Amy listened, not responding.

“What are you even doing, Amy?” Sveta called out.  “What is Shin doing?  They’re playing games with you, and you’re playing games with everything.”

“Can you give a message to Sveta for me?” I asked.

“Depends on the message,” Eric said, without looking up from his screen.

“Tell her to tone it down?  If Amy listens, she’s going to be on the defensive.”

“Is this a continuation of your plan to manipulate your sister?”

“It’s a continuation of my plan to not have the Red Queen flip out and hurt people.”

Amy!” Sveta’s voice had that digital edge to it, filtered through long distance and a microphone, with no benefit from Kenzie’s attention because Kenzie wasn’t good at sound.  “Victoria’s going to be disappointed.”

“Victoria’s always disappointed!” Amy snapped back, turning.  “I’m a deluded little monster, according to her.  According to half of you, apparently.”

“More than half,” Sveta said.  “Speaking as someone who spent far too long being an actual monster-?”

I could see Egg shift position, where he stood a little distance away from Sveta.

“-It doesn’t have to be the single thing that defines you.”

“It apparently does, but I’m not doing the defining!” Amy replied.  “She is.  They are.”

“Let me talk to Sveta,” I said, again.  “Or take my message, pass it on to her.  Just tell Sveta ‘Victoria says to relax’.  That’s all.”

Eric didn’t.

I typed: Tell Sveta to relax?

“Amy-” Sveta started.  She stopped.

A pause.  Sveta took in a deep breath.

“I could tell you to call me the Red Queen.  I don’t think it would be unfair to ask, either,” Amy said.  “Especially when people can’t stop saying my name with such negative emotion tied to it.”

“Amy,” Sveta said, less negative.  “Why would Shin trust you and Cryptid with something this big?  Objectively, would you trust yourself?”

I saw the momentary hesitation on Amy’s part.  She answered, “If I had to.  If you have no other options, sometimes you have to force yourself to trust.  I don’t think Shin thinks they have many options.”

Chilling fucking words from someone who had one primary goal -me-, and who felt backed into a corner by her own actions.

“It doesn’t feel like they explored a lot of the alternative options,” Moonsong said.  “Cooperation, treaties, deals.  We were doing well before, and we jumped straight to this.”

“We could debate that forever,” Amy said.  She brought a hand with a fingerless glove on to her hair, pushing it out of her face.  “They think all parahumans are fucked up, rotten, dangerous.  I don’t think they’re completely wrong to think it.  If you have a few thousand rotten eggs scattered around, I think the adage about putting all of your eggs into one basket deserves to change.  At least then you can hope to manage it, instead about worrying about every step you take.”

That’s a great fucking metaphor, Amy, I thought.  If you have a few thousand rotten eggs, the only basket anyone rational is going to put them in is the waste basket.  You’re calling yourself a trash can.  Not to mention the ‘basket case’ interpretation.

Coronzon leaned in close to say something in Amy’s ear again.  Amy turned to Coalbelcher, said something, and the heavyset man with sandpaper stubble on his chin, black smears on his face serving to create a skull mask, and greasy black hair turned to go back.

“I’ve got to go.”

“Red Queen,” Moonsong called out.  She had a good, projected voice.  “We have more to discuss.”

“I’ll be back,” Amy said, letting go of the giant she’d been working on and walking away.  “Be good.  If they do anything, my soldiers have permission to defend Shin.”

Moonsong was silent, but I could see her fuming.  She’d been ignored, and she was an experienced enough heroine to know that posturing and position were critical for capes.  It was something my mom had hammered in many times.  Posturing, position, and power.  None of those things could exist in isolation of the others.

Continuing to speak into a void or shout after Amy would hurt her reputation because it would have meant begging for a response.  Fucking stupid, when it was Amy being the bitch, here.

Call yourself Queen enough and you’ll start to act like one.  Keeping in mind that enough queens in history had been sufficiently monstrous or problematic to get the guillotine.

Amy’s absence had cut off the procession line.  Leaving a small army of capes she was supposed to be keeping under control behind.

The heroes frozen by the implied threat of a fight, because Amy had left orders to protect Shin, and any action could be taken as aggression.

Fucking fuck, Amy.  What are you doing?

“Every time you get in touch with me, my life gets a hundred times more complicated.”

The voice in my ear was Tattletale’s.

Tense, not happy with how the situation had been left, with the Shin capes and the heroes in a standoff that was complicated by the continued production of giants.  I rotated through the individual video feeds on the laptop.  No Tattletale feed, but the kids were in the same building.

I went to my notes, typing up details on the Fallen, and in the midst of it, typed and deleted a message for Tattletale, hoping Kenzie or her system would catch it.

Coronzon, retreats into a portal, stews, emerges as a monster.  White hides and cowl, boiling black blur for mask.

Ahrima, grants danger sense and hyperawareness to others.  If she’s protecting Amy, can’t drop something on Amy from a great height.  Single eyeball mask, wing motif.

Seir, blasts out shadowy duplicates.  Can exchange location with any of them.  Horse head, hides, robes.

Bamet, gives humans animal features and vice versa.  Permanent.  Not touch based as originally assumed.  Three-faced mask, animal, human, and hybrid.

Hey Tattletale.  Considering what the Undersiders pulled in Brockton Bay Original, that sounds just.  Karma coming around.

“If it weren’t for us, the city would have been condemned.”

And controlling businesses, influencing the local heroes, and managing all organized crime in the city are your reward for that hard work.

“Yep,” Tattletale said.

Apparently a cosmic power that gave her incredible insights didn’t help her grasp my sarcasm.  Or she was just acting like it didn’t to annoy me.  Probably the second.

She said, “Your tinker is about to start making her thing to jab in my eye.  Until then I’m at my computer in the kichen, watching the same feeds you are, making coffee.”

Shin capes at the Station?

“Yeah.”

I don’t know how far this goes.  How far until she breaks or something goes tits up.

“Wish I could tell you.  I’m working with limited information here.  Going to pull my team together, situate your kid to get all the information possible, and I’ll use that information to put together a better picture.  Good?”

I don’t know if it’s good.  I’m worried this isn’t it.  That this latest Panacea fuckup is going to distract us from whatever the real problem isKenzie said you felt the same way.

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.  I could hear her sigh.  She fell silent.  I could see from Candy’s point of view that Darlene had passed through the kitchen, where Tattletale stood by the counter, laptop perched there, her attention on the coffee machine.

Not wanting to talk if she could get caught talking to me.  I could appreciate that she had a good sense about that stuff.

“Let me get the eye thing, and we’ll see what we can do as a collaborative thing,” Tattletale said.

Okay.

Armstrong had risen from his seat.  Another guy had joined Larue and Eric, leaning over the table.

The tone of the room had changed.  I’d been so sucked into that video feed in front of me and the space around and behind me where people might be looking over my shoulders that I hadn’t noticed.

Citrine.  Mayor Jeanne Wynn, with two people in her company, presumably Wardens.

I watched through Kenzie’s feed as she passed through the kitchen again, carting stuff this way and that.  Checking a box.

Tattletale spoke, “Your kid says Citrine just showed.”

Yeah.

Kenzie was altering the video and sound feeds.  What I was seeing of her milling around was what others were seeing.  But she was telling Tattletale stuff and getting her up to speed, presumably.

I’d have been a bit spooked if it wasn’t so useful.

Citrine took the seat at the end of the table that faced the screens.

“Do you need anything?” Armstrong asked.

“No,” Jeanne told him.  She was pale enough to look really washed out, all dressed in black.  Her hair was styled and perfect, her makeup done up nicely.  It made me think of my mom’s efforts, in a way.  But where my mom kept her hair short for strictly utilitarian reasons, Jeanne had hers long.  My mom was a blade that she kept sharpened.  Jeanne was… elegant.  Regal, even in mourning.  “I want to make sure my city’s okay, Kamil.”

I wondered if she actually cared.  It was hard to picture, when she was as emotionally reserved as she was.

“Hey, your kid has a tummyache, F.Y.I.  You know why, right?”

The sudden comment from Tattletale made my head spin for a second.  Too much of a change from where we were.

I know.  She and I talked about it this morning.

“Just making sure.  You have to warn people.  Case in point, check your feed.  Look at what your kid is doing.”

I’d been keeping an eye on the situation.  Rain was giving a rundown on the Fallen to the local capes, talking quiet while the standoff persisted between the two groups.  Three groups, almost.  The Shin capes didn’t mingle with the prison capes and Amy.

I switched, getting an uncomfortably close view of Chicken Little’s face.  He leaned back and she leaned in.  She was talking, “-and get your bird cameras going, for more targeted strikes.  And there’s the topological stuff, in case the topology topples, and this city thing happens-”

I typed out a message to her as she went on.  She didn’t seem to get it.

I looked up and over at Eric.  “Can I call Kenzie?  Strictly non-cape stuff.”

“You’d need to outline what you want from us.”

“Stopping a fight from breaking out between kids.  Possibly a serious one.”

“Again, tell us what you want to communicate, and we’ll review it quickly.”

I clenched my fist.  “I-”

“Red light, Lookout,” Tattletale barked, on the microphone.  It was something that would be picked up by anyone watching any of the kids.  I was safe to stop and listen.

“Huh?” Kenzie twisted around.

“Means freeze.  Stop.  Freeze.”

“Oh.”  Kenzie stopped.  Chicken Little backed off, and from the view of the other kids, I could see Kenzie deflate a bit.  “Why?”

“Proxemics,” Tattletale said.  “Personal space.”

“Tattletale’s got it,” I muttered.

“Good,” Eric said, sounding happy.

“I know what proxemics are.  Is,” Kenzie replied, sounding as annoyed as I’d heard her.

“You’re bad at it.  For right now, don’t get in so close to your buddies.  Don’t get any closer than you’d need to to reach out and put your hand on their shoulder.”

“Was I making you uncomfortable?” Kenzie asked, looking at Chicken.

“A little.”

“Oh.  I’m sorry,” Kenzie said.

The scene put her in the middle of the room, Chicken having retreated about three paces toward his room with all the now-empty birdcages.  Darlene was near her room, and Candy sat on the back of a chair, feet on the seat, back to the wall, leaning forward.  It was almost like Kenzie was surrounded.

I wouldn’t have wanted to handle it that way.  Making such a point of it.

Especially not after the whole thing last night, when the Heartbroken had turned on her.  She looked visibly anxious.

“You do that sometimes,” Chicken Little said.

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m not mad or upset,” Chicken Little said, insistent, like he was already expecting or seeing resistance that didn’t come across on the camera.  Maybe it was how fast the apology had come after his statement.  I could almost relate, thinking to my dealings with Amy.

I really didn’t want to connect Kenzie and Amy in my head.

“Sorry,” Kenzie said, still a bit defensive.

Difference is that Amy doesn’t say sorry.  I’m not even convinced she feels sorry.

They’re both really bad at listening or noticing cues when it’s stuff they don’t want to hear, though.

“I’m just trying to explain so we can be better friends in the future,” Chicken Little went on.  “You get into whatever you’re talking about and the conversation becomes one-sided, and it gets really hard to get a word in, especially if I’m trying to say step back a bit or stuff.”

I typed out more words.  Take five.  Or ask for a short break.

Kenzie didn’t react.

“Can I call in?” I asked.  “Talk to her?”

“If you tell us in advance what you’re going to-”

I interrupted, “I want to reassure her, distract her, refocus her.  She’s a kid who had a surprise bad night after a bad evening and I want to ensure today goes more smoothly.  I want her to take a break.”

“Can you fill us in on what happened yesterday?  I don’t think that’s in the notes.”

“Do I need to submit a damn form?  What, in triplicate?” I asked.  “I want to help a kid by calling for a short conversation.  Nothing to do with Warden concerns.”

“Everything’s to do with Warden concerns.”

Armstrong looked concerned as he walked back over to where his chair and laptop were.  Citrine was unmoving at the head of the table, elbows on the white surface, hands clasped together and pressed to her mouth.  Or around it.  I wouldn’t be mushing up my hands to my mouth if I’d paid as much attention to lipstick as Citrine had.

No fucking allies.  Fucking idiots, all of them.

That stab of loneliness.  The frustration.

“Eric, seriously, is this a power trip?  Because I think you’re assuming responsibilities and guardianship that, as far as I can tell, weren’t officially passed on or handed down.”

“I am assuming those responsibilities.  But I have to,” Eric said.  “It’s either that or you leave this room.”

“That’s crazy.”

“Believe it or not, Victoria, the world doesn’t revolve around you.  The Wardens are busy.  They took the time to review your situation, they made their call.  I got what you got, and that’s all we get until they have a spare few minutes to give us more.  The difference between us is I have Cinereal’s trust.  I’ve worked with her for a little while now, she likes me because when I make assumptions I make the right ones.  I know how she thinks.  I’m making a judgment call that these continued restrictions are what she would want, and that she’d want to vet any statements you make, with all necessary context, before letting you unduly influence your team.”

I looked over at Armstrong.  “This doesn’t feel right.”

“Maybe not,” the man replied.  “Chevalier will report in by phone in about fifteen minutes.  Some of the others will be calling in too, including Miss Militia, who you know.  Can you hold on until then?  If you want to appeal, you can do it then.  I’ll pull strings to ensure you get the chance.”

“I’m worried this ends up an actual bloodbath before then.”

“It’s kids,” Eric said.

I pressed my fist against my forehead, face turning up toward the ceiling, taking in a deep breath.  “Lookout is powerful, yes?  It’s in the records, she’s proven herself to be capable.  But you don’t get kid capes without trigger events and trauma.  She’s been through a lot, and so have those other kids.  They’re parahuman kids.  Some are Heartbreaker’s.”

“The older ones or the young ones?” Citrine asked.

I turned, feeling a glimmer of hope.  “Young, but not the youngest.”

“They’re little nightmares.”

“They’re great, except when situations like this come in, and someone needs to step in and steer them.”

“Yes,” Eric said.  “You trusted her to Tattletale’s company, so… trust Tattletale to be that someone.  Stay put, no call.  Those are my instructions.”

“And I’m following these instructions on your say so?” I asked, bristling.

“Pretty much!” Eric retorted.  “You aren’t winning me over here with this attitude.”

“Is that possible?” I sat up straight, hands on the desk.  “To win you over?”

“I mean, it helps to try.”

“Helps what?” I asked him.

“If I have to make situational calls, and you’re being unreasonable or emotional, I might make different calls.  Listen, if you happen to be right, you can make your case to Cinereal and the other Wardens, and I’ll get hell for it.”

“I don’t care about your hell, or your status in the Wardens, or anything like that.  I want the world to end up okay, I want my team to end up okay.  Last night, the Heartbroken- two of those kids there are Heartbreaker’s, as you probably know-”

“I know.”

“-They mobbed Lookout and she only barely got out okay.  Now there’s another mob, and Lookout is tired, off-balance, and spooked.  They’re-”

“-on camera,” Kenzie’s voice had an edge to it.  Enough of an edge that it interrupted me.

Chicken Little had been doing most of the talking in the background, and now he fell silent.  The conversation had been heated, with underlying emotion, and probably a few things left unsaid.

Which seemed to be an ongoing problem, because this wasn’t the first time Chicken Little had tried to air his grievances or curb Kenzie’s problematic tendencies.  But each time this stuff did come up, the context of the situation meant it couldn’t be a debate.

That wasn’t even the biggest concern.  Bloodbath.  Darlene was conspicuously still and quiet through all of this, and it was her defense of Chicken Little and her very obvious attachment to him that spurred on her worst behavior.  No jabs, no comments, no tear-downs, no ‘don’t hurt the chicken’ lines.  She did nothing and that made me worry.

“I think you’ve said what you need to say, Chicken,” Tattletale said.  “She’s right.  This isn’t the time or place.”

“Cameras?”

“We’re on candid camera,” Kenzie said.  She smiled.  “Eye thing, remember?  I told you it’d be on and stay on.”

Chicken Little touched his chicken mask.

“It’s easy to forget,” Candy said, from the sidelines.

“Sorry.  Didn’t mean to gripe with people watching,” Chicken Little said.

He was a calm little guy.  I could imagine myself being a lot more frustrated at the circumstance.

“No,” Kenzie smiled back.  “We’re ok, right?”

“We’re okay.  We’re teammates.  Nothing changes that,” Chicken Little said.

“Good, let’s refocus for now,” Tattletale said.  “Lookout, go to your workshop, get what you need, build what you need.  Everyone else, pack.  I’m going to make something to eat, depending on what’s in the fridge.”

“I’ve got ten different kinds of egg, probably,” Chicken Little said.

“Throw those out so they don’t go bad, in case we come back here.  Or store them to bring them with us if you really think you can eat them,” Tattletale told him.  “But pack.  No procrastinating.”

Chicken Little groaned.

“Speaking of procrastinating, there’s a blanket in the medical room,” Candy said.  “Cold hands are awful to tinker with.  Let’s bundle you up.”

“The heat should kick in soon,” Tattletale said.  “I’ll remind you lot, the operative part of the word refocus is focus.”

“‘Soon’ isn’t now.  I’ll get the blanket anyway.”

“Thank you,” Kenzie said.  “I’m going to go get some water, then I’ll get to work.”

“It’s like herding cats,” Tattletale said, as the two kids ran off.

I had to switch to Darlene’s point of view to keep my eye on Tattletale, with a brief cycle through points of view to make sure Rain and the others were okay.

Standoff was in progress.  A bit of adjustment, because the size of the mob of giants had increased, forcing the heroes to move off to the side.  Some other stuff, some ongoing conversations, but it looked quiet, tense.  I was more concerned on ensuring Kenzie was handled.

Tattletale was talking, as I cycled back to her.  “-very hard?”

“I’m trying to be good,” Darlene said, quiet.  “Sitting on my hands, keeping my mouth shut.”

“It’s working.  In another circumstance, I could see you getting heated.”

Darlene fidgeted.  “She’s in a weird mood.  Lookout.”

“You’re not wrong, kiddo.  Do me a favor, you know where the medical boxes are.  Spare me having to use my power to find them and dig up some ibuprofen, then help me make… grilled cheese and tomato soup?  Hot chocolate and cookies a bit after?”

Darlene nodded, smiling.  She got up out of her chair.  “You used your power to work out what’s in our pantry.”

“Mm hmm.  Come on.  Extra cookie for you, for not stabbing Lookout with a pen.  And you’re not grounded anymore.”

“Knife,” Darlene said.  “I try to always keep a knife now.”

“I would have shot you if it came to that.”

“You would have tried.”

Tattletale put her hand on the back of Darlene’s head or her shoulder, guiding her.

I looked across the table at Eric.  He hadn’t reacted in the slightest, which made me think he wasn’t watching the video feed of Darlene’s perspective.

Tattletale guided the kid into the tiny kitchen that was in one corner of the hideout.

Darlene’s point of view was the best view I had of Tattletale.  Snuff re-entered the building, leaning into the doorway.  Candy stopped in her tracks.

“Tats!  It’s Snuff!” Candy said.

“Undersiders are coming,” Snuff said.  “Tell her.  I’ll leave you alone.”

“I heard!” Tattletale called out.  “Thanks Snuff.”

Snuff went back outside.  I watched through Darlene’s viewpoint as Candy, hugging a folded blanket to her chest, found her equilibrium, taking a few seconds before resuming movement, throwing the blanket over top of Kenzie, who was in her computer chair.

“Who’s coming?  Imp?” Darlene asked.

“Yep.  Aunt Rachel.  Foil, Parian.  Remember to use their cape names, since the cameras are on.”

Darlene nodded, the ‘camera’ bobbing.

Tattletale pressed her phone to her ear.  “Ibuprofen.  You know where it is?”

“I know where to look.”

Darlene went to the same room Candy was collecting blankets from.

Tattletale’s voice came through the mic, presumably for me alone.  “Hot chocolate, extra cookies, and whatever treats Imp brings for your kid?  It won’t make her unbearable or messy?”

She’d be holding the phone to her ear while talking to me, so it wouldn’t be too suspicious.

I typed: The messiness comes from social stuff, not really sugar.  She’d appreciate the extra care.

“Alright.  Anything to watch for?  I’m conserving some strength for what’s to come.”

I typed my reply: She hit a life milestone and she’s probably missing the fact she doesn’t have a mom or dad to give her that extra bit of care.  When Undersiders arrive, she’ll be the odd one out.

“Yeah.”

SO EMBARRASING

Fuck, this was hard.  Juggling, remembering who was aware of what.  Of Course Kenzie was seeing my interactions with Tattletale.

I typed: We’re all coming at this from a place of caringTats wants to help.

I MEAN C.LITTLE TELLING ME I DO ALL THESE THINGS
I DIDN’T KNOW!!!
I STAND TOO CLOSE AND I LOSE MY BREATH AND I THOUGHT EVERYTHING WAS GOING SUPER WELL AND IT ISN’T!
IT NEVER IS HAHA
AND EVERYONE WATCHING.  I SEE THE FACES ON WEBCAMS AND SECURITY CAMS AND AUDIENCE FEEDBACK SYSTEMS TELL ME HOW MANY ARE VIEWING AND ITS A LOTTTTT
UGGGGGGGGG
UGGGG
UG!  HAHA XD

I replied: I’m sorry.  Your team wants to take care of you so let them, ok?  Candy’s bringing a blanket and Tats is getting treats for after lunch.  I’ll be here as much as I can.

🙂

Take twenty seconds, take stock.  What do you need?  Breath of fresh air?  To sink into your work?  A friend?  If you don’t want to type to me, you can talk to Candy, I think.

MAKING SURE THE OTHERS ARE SAFE

With that, with renewed focus and motivation, Kenzie got to work.

I typed: The fucking bureaucracy of this place.  I want to chase leads and look into other possibilities, but it’s a mess.

“Prioritize my eye thing, Kenz?” Tattletale called out.

“On it!”

Tattletale added, in a quieter voice, “Because what I really need for this headache is information overload.”

She took the pills from Darlene, cracking open the bottle.

A good minute or two passed, as people got settled.  I switched back to the heroes and Shin parahumans.  Amy was back, her hand on a giant, and so was a monster.

My first take was that it was another empowered giant like the Chevalier or Nursery, but I could see the collar it wore.  The same as what Chris had worn when pursuing us in our little prison escape.  It was Lab Rat fresh from his lab, and he now loomed in the gate’s entrance.  He wasn’t as tall as the giants, but there was more mass to him.  He was rotund, belly expanded to the point his legs weren’t visible above the knee, his arms past the elbow.  Smaller arms lined his sides, stumpy like a maggot’s limbs.  Hairless, with dulled features.  A porcine lump of a nose that seemed to extend from the brow rather than any bridge of the nose.  Wide eye sockets rimmed with ridges of red and black, like the orbs had been set into wounds carved in loops and circles until there was enough of an indent for the eyes to rest in.  A hole for a mouth that seemed unable to completely close.

All of him was covered in what looked like papercuts or other lacerations.  Some were fine, pink against the ghoulish white flesh.  Others were crimson, jagged, like someone had hacked at him with a chainsaw.  Black masses that could have been branches or wire stuck out of the wounds.  In places, the branching wires were stuffed into the wounds and pried those wounds wide in their efforts to straighten back out.  When he shifted his weight, his mass shifted, wobbling like a waterbed, and the sheer mass of black wires poking and prying at his insides and around the gashes became evident.  Of all of them, only one at his side poked through, causing skin to break, then split from the pull of the flesh around it.  Wires were visible in the fresh and bloodless wound, thicker than elsewhere.

One of his hands held a syringe gun.  A smaller one held a clipboard.  He was naked in the cold, not that anything was visible, and didn’t seem to mind.

Eerie, to see something like that speaking with a misshapen mouth, with the cadence and apparent ability of any ordinary person.

Heads around the room turned as Larue put the image of Chris up on one of the main screens.

“Mr. Armstrong?  Should we send notice of his appearance to the Wardens?”

“I don’t think so, this is normal for him,” Armstrong replied.  “Have you seen this one, Antares?”

“No,” I said.  “No idea who he could have gotten it from, either.  He scans parahumans to get data he can utilize in his forms.”

My eye roved over the crowd of Shin parahumans.  Two stood out to me.

A man with what looked like a blue moth mask, wearing multiple layers of blue and white capes that wrapped around him, almost encasing his body.  He didn’t seem to have access to his arms or even the full range of motion of his legs.  His hair was nearly white, he was tall, and his lower face, visible beneath the mask, had a constant, slight smile to it.

Another was a woman, who slouched badly with her arms hanging at her sides as if there was an anchor tied to each hand.  She was missing one eye, the socket surrounded by a burn, and one of her breasts was gone.  She was beautiful in a scary sort of way, and the scars didn’t take away from that.  Her posture did.

She was paying more attention to Chris than anyone else, and Chris tended to get a lot of attention already.  Obsessive level of attention, then.

I’d heard that Goddess had access to a parahuman who could alter people’s appearances.  That she’d used this parahuman to make her parahumans beautiful and healthy.  It was in the Warden’s records, because there had been notices to watch out for Shin agents, after the issue at the prison a week ago.  To warn teams about taking on new and attractive members.

Those two felt like the ones to watch.  It was another intuitive thing, another thing for me to keep track of.  Another thing for me to juggle.

Another train of thought to go down, as I mulled over my newfound connection to my agent, to my Wretch.  I could remember papers, remember areas being explored.  This time, I was thinking less about what contributed to those connections, and more about what happened when the connection manifested.

Added control over powers.  Added nuance in power, sometimes in the form of new techniques and moves.  More power, obviously.  More range.  Those were the basics.  Powers that had drawbacks could find those drawbacks relaxed if the user regularly practiced with their power, meditated, put their powers to use in the field, which might be conflated with being in the midst of more conflict.

God, what had it been?  I wracked my brain to remember one file.  A passing remark by a cape with control over sound, who had pumped sound into a Tinker’s engine.  They’d evidenced a good sense of what sounds would be most effective- it had been a city-wide whining sound that was supposed to target people with criminal intentions only, and the sound-manipulator had known what sound was best.  They had noted in their paperwork that they didn’t think they’d have been able to do that the year prior.

Blessed paperwork, the little details that emerged.

That was awareness.  It might suggest a grasp of the subject matters adjacent to the powers.  A fire manipulator getting a sense of flames and how they burned, because that was the sort of thing their agent paid a lot of attention to.

And… of course, courtesy of a bit of paperwork from Golem, who stood next to Rain, while Cuff talked to Rain about Girls… there was another dimension of parahuman-agent growth related to that.  Because another thing adjacent to all powers was… powers.

Was my intuition augmented by my closer connection to the Wretch, that radiant, fragile, multi-limbed spectre I’d glimpsed last night?  Did it give me a greater sense of parahumans, threats, and where threats lay?

If it did, how was I supposed to distinguish between my actual gut and my power-provided gut?

I typed: Tattletale?

“Bad time to start talking.  I’m going to have to put the phone down soon so a little kid can jab something metal into my eyeball.”

I typed more: Blue bug person and the hunched-over woman with the scars that she hasn’t had Amy heal yet.  Why are they grabbing my attention like they are?

“Hold on, kid.”

I heard Kenzie make a complainy-sound.  Surprisingly whiny for Kenzie.  “I have stuff to do!”

Through Kenzie’s perspective, I watched Tatteltale look over to her laptop, switching the feed, and making the video fullscreen again.

“Did your power tell you something?” Kenzie asked.

“Yeah.  My power,” Tattletale’s tone was almost sardonic.  “The one in blue is the cocoon trump.  Makes people beautiful, stronger, healthy.  Gives them protections, keeps them a certain age.”

I typed: The one with the slouch is paying attention to Lab Rat.

“We want you gone,” Amy announced.

How ironic, I mused, with no humor.

“Not an option,” Moonsong replied.

Capes behind Moonsong had shifted position in the last ten or so minutes.  The standoff hadn’t broken, and it was apparently a question of power and position.  Amy could move, because the procession of giants she was treating and giving innate instructions to hadn’t ceased, but the Shin group was doing a better job of keeping still and staring down our side than the inverse.

Moonsong, I noted, hadn’t budged.  Breakthrough was doing pretty well.  Rain had only moved to square off against the Fallen, facing them.  The Shepherds and the Shepherd’s sub-teams.  They had a core team of about sixteen members, and another thirty lesser members who handled the ground game, focusing on neighborhoods and sub-communities within the city.  The Huntsmen were there, I noted.

Breakthrough was there too, but only half of the group.

Opposed by a stubborn Amy who had found her next cause to be stupid over.   She was backed by Chris, Fallen, Shin capes that had apparently been tortured, and prisoners.

The sides looked to be about even.  Not counting the ‘Mother Giant’, nor the army she had gathered in rings around her.  Shuddering fonts of fertility, flesh, and afterbirth.

The offal-eating, squirrel-sized goblin was the most normal person in her immediate circle right now.

“You have forces massing on our border.  Shin insists,” Amy said.

“I thought you wanted cooperation with Antares.”

“I want cooperation with Shin, too.  I gave you what you want, I need you to listen to them too.  This is non-negotiable.”

“They can’t attack,” I said, out loud.  “Ahrima will protect the key players, like the Red Queen and Lab Rat.”

“If they leave, we don’t regain the ground we’ve ceded,” Armstrong told me.

“I don’t think they win.  I think you have some exceptionally talented capes there, but I think the bad guys- Shin, they come out ahead.”

“They’d say we’re the bad guys,” Eric said.  “Can we get ahold of Chevalier?  You said he’d be available.  We need a judgment call.”

Armstrong motioned at a nearby terminal where the Wardens’ staff were gathered at one of the bigger computers.

“No, sir.  He’s still walking to the portal.  Weather’s slowing him down.”

“Can we send a helicopter?  Is one free?”

“No.  The three closest helicopters are transporting Foresight, clearing a jam on one of the main roads so the people can keep evacuating, and coming back from the Cheit border situation.  That last one won’t reach Chevalier before he reaches us.”

“Can’t use powers,” Armstrong said.

“I’m in,” Tattletale murmured, her voice a buzz in my ear.  “I can see.”

How to even handle this?

“Ahem.  Listening?”  Tattletale asked.

People around the table reacted.

“Listening,” Eric said.  “Senior Wardens are tied up elsewhere.  You have two ex-directors here.  Armstrong and Pearce.  Have you been following?”

“One of the capes there is a problem.  Woman with the slouch and the burned eye.  She’s aggressive  If anyone makes the first move, it’s going to be her.  She’s the source of the black shit Lab Rat has inside his body.  She inspired the power he’s built his body around, like a trial run of the giants.”

“Thank you, Tattletale,” Armstrong said, leaning forward.  He looked back at a woman who was at the terminal.  “We’ll pass it on.”

“Passing it on,” the woman said.  Pearce, I assumed.  “Informing team leaders.”

The escalating hostilities continued.  No longer a standoff.  The Shin capes were finding positions that were less standing in their individual groups and more finding the spots they wanted to fight from.  Spacing out.  Some capes advanced, so they wouldn’t have as far to travel to start hitting shit.  The slouching woman with the missing eye was among them.

Others moved closer to cover, like the pillars by either end of the station, or even using the kneeling giants that Amy had yet to tend to shield themselves from possible fire.

The ones to watch were the ones who didn’t move at all.  Bamet.  Seir.  The cocoon cape.

A quick check of the kids showed Chicken Little with Darlene at his desk.  Kenzie was in her computer chair in her workshop, bundled up in a blanket with a steaming mug of what might have been soup off to one side.  Candy leaned in behind her, hugging her around the shoulders while looking at the screen.  Candy’s mug sat off to the side.

No murder happening there.

Juggling, juggling, I thought.  I felt so out of place, out of my element.

Especially when the prick sitting across the table from me wasn’t letting me have any input.

“You realize,” Seir called out.  “If a fight breaks out, I break you in half, Rain boy?”

Rain didn’t respond.

“No extreme violence,” Amy said.  “I gave you rules and biological imperatives.  Follow them.”

“I am,” Seir said.  “Shin set their own rules and imperatives, remember?  You struck your deal with them, you gave us the rules they dictated.  We can do whatever’s necessary to protect Shin.  Including if we think a mass murdering little shit like him might pull something.”

“Dangerous, horrible little shit like him,” Ahrima said, her voice young.

Rain was stone still.

Amy was silent.

She didn’t have nearly as much control over her rotten eggs as she liked to pretend.

Chris turned his back to the scene, lumbering back inside.

“Bamet’s got a trick up his sleeve,” Tattletale said.  “People near him need to back up.”

Armstrong signaled.  Pearce accepted the signal, passing on the message.

Moonsong gestured to teammates.  They backed up, and Moonsong took a few steps back as well.  Bamet moved to get closer to some capes at the front line, and Moonsong had them back up as well.

Bamet could give people the features of animals, and vice-versa.  It took surgery to fix, unless he cooperated.  He hadn’t cooperated, apparently, for the entire time he’d been in the prison.  He’d said it was a matter of principle, belief, and making unbelievers appear on the outside as they no doubt appeared on the inside.

I hadn’t heard anything about Amy doing anything to make him come to Gimel and fix people, either.

“Good.  You’re going to need to pass on my tips far faster than that in about twenty seconds,” Tattletale said.

“Yeah,” Armstrong said.  “Giving you a direct line to Pearce.”

“Was that a literal twenty seconds?” Pearce asked.

“Yes. Two-”

“Brace!” Pearce ordered, leaning into the microphone.

The slouching woman moved, falling to her knees, her hands hitting the ground like dropped weights.

A line of black wire-branches ripped up out of the earth, tearing up road, each one larger than the last.  With Moonsong in front, Moonsong was the first in the line of fire.  Between the touch of the ground and the imminent impact, there was only about a second.

But the heroine didn’t run or try to get out of the way.  Instead, she raised a hand.

The branches were uprooted, flung skyward.  So was the offending cape.  With the break in her contact with the ground, the branches ceased appearing.

“No!” Moonsong called out.  “Years of good relationship, and you’re throwing it all away!”

The suddenness of the counterattack seemed to give the villains pause.

Amy perhaps most of all.  She’d never been a fighter.  She’d hated the idea of appearing on the battlefield.

I opened my mouth to tell Eric, and immediately gave up.

I typed: bait Amy.  She’s scared.  She wants a way out.

“I need you to pass on a message from me to the Red Queen,” Tattletale said. “Do not tell her it’s from me.”

I typed: My outburst earlier.  It’s eating at her.  Tell her…

I kept on typing.

Tattletale recited.  Passing it on.  Building on it, with her power.

“Amy!” Sveta called out.

“I don’t want to talk to you.”  Amy was so good at the position thing, so good at placing herself in areas we couldn’t touch her, where she had rank or respect.  She had power.

But posture.  She had a way of looking weak even when she was on top of a world, so to speak.

They were going to eat her alive.  It was inevitable.  I could see it in the Fallen.

“Earlier, Amy, you said when there are no other options, you end up extending trust to the wrong people and places.”

“That’s not what I said.  ”

“What options are you leaving Victoria?” Sveta asked.  She raised her voice.  My words.  Typed, translated, built on and passed on.

Seir lashed out.  A bolt of darkness, and a bunch of duplicates.  Rain slashed out with a silver blade, maybe anticipating that one would become real.  It didn’t.

Which, in turn, saw Scribe attack.  A chunk of building tore away from the wall, flying toward the Shin group.  Already marked with her sign, gripped with her telekinesis, probably well in advance.  One of Scribe’s companions leaped up with a jet of flame, touching the rubble.  It started crackling with electricity.

Someone in Shin’s faction blasted it, tearing it to small chunks.  But small chunks of wall were enough to gash, to concuss, to hurt others.  One caught Amy in the head.  And for a long three or four seconds, she was out of view.

I could entertain the idea of her dying and feel nothing except suspension.  Not even hope.

“Remember her outburst?  When she snapped at you?  Called you a deluded little monster?  Threatened you?”

Sveta’s voice sounded so minor, in the midst of other sounds, but I had zero doubt Amy heard it.

Amy straightened.  The hurt on her face wasn’t, I was pretty sure, from the head injury.

“Last chance,” Amy called out.  Her voice had taken on a different tone.  “You guys don’t get to dictate borders or rules.  If Shin says to back off, back off.”

“Listen!” Sveta called out.  “She said that because she was backed into a corner.  If you keep on this course of action, you’re only making that worse!”

Capes were backing away from the Mother Giant now.  Sveta was one of the ones who didn’t back off as much, because backing off would mean she was out of Amy’s earshot.

The imperatives might have been in evidence, here.  So long as our side was retreating, their side wasn’t attacking.

But retreat meant giving ground to Shin we might never retake.  Not like this.

“Your dad had his head injury.  So did your mom.  Your sister had her stay in the hospital.  Shitty as it sounds, your entire family has its issues with control and labels and identity.  Believe me, the time I spent with Victoria, I know!” Sveta called out.  “You are a member of that family, for better or for worse.  The only thing keeping you from being a part of that family is the decision you’re making right now!  You will lose Carol, you will lose Mark!  You’ll lose the chance to meet Victoria over iced tea twenty years from now, to talk and catch up!”

Amy shook her head.

My heart sank.

Seir stalked forward, Bamet at his side, his eyes glowing yellow.

Amy reached out, holding out her hand.  Her other hand went to her heart, pressing down over her crimson coat.

“People have been telling me to get real and to get a clue for a while now.  It’s about time I listen, right?”

“No,” Sveta said.  “Listen to what I’m saying right now.  Relax, get your guys to back down.  You have a way forward.”

“I don’t want a way forward,” Amy said.  Barely audible.  “I don’t even like me.  At all.  Why would I inflict myself on my family?”

“There’s a thread,” Tattletale’s voice came through.  “Trailing into the ground.  She took meat from the giants and put it beneath you guys.  The chest thing- that’s symbolic.  Run!

Breakthrough started running and telling others to run before Pearce had even finished communicating it.  Courtesy of the Kenzietech.

Seir hopped backward, pulling Bamet out of the way, as Amy exerted her connection through what was apparently an imperceptible vein of flesh that reached down her body and into a pool of biomass underground.  She must have been setting it up from early on, anticipating attack or already thinking about defense.

It erupted.  A triangular jutting of flesh, stabbing up from the ground, barring Seir’s path.

Amy turned her head, reaching to her belt.  She held what looked like a vial of chemicals.

“Lab Rat’s,” Tattletale reported.

“Going to lift her up, break the thread!” Moonsong called.

“Don’t!” Tattletale called.

Sveta lunged forward.  At the same time, another growth of flesh speared up out of the earth.  I couldn’t see the side that faced her, but I saw it yawn open, like it had a mouth.

To take in the vial.

Sveta grabbed the outgrowth, and her arm unspooled to form tendrils.

She snatched it out of the closing mouth, a few tendrils getting caught in the process, severed.  Black blood flowed.  Sveta tumbled to the ground.

Amy backed up, and more growths stabbed skyward.  Building sized.  Skyscraper growths.

She’d tapped into the Nursery.  I could only imagine what she would have been able to do if this growth of a thing had drank Lab Rat’s chemical and mutated.

It took the entire hero team to defend themselves.  Rain’s silver blades.  Moonsong pressed growths flat.   Golem created giant hands that reached up and gripped them.

But they were like fingers, claws, tentacles.  Reaching skyward, preparing to come down.

“Moon!” Tristan called out.  “Rising star!”

He was already creating his orange motes.  Moonsong had only a second to decide.  She decided to cooperate.

She used her power, reversed gravity on the motes, sending them skyward, dropping a few.  Tristan created a few more motes at more distant locations.

A finger came down toward their group.  The orange motes solidified into rock, a spike.  The finger was impaled.

The spike turned to a piercing stream of water.  The water gushed into the internals of the finger and toward the base of the mass.  It ripped at the metaphorical seams.  Exploded.

Others came for Sveta, separating her from Amy.  Defensive.  A building blocked her exit on one side.  Limbs came down on two more sides.  Leaving her only forward- and soon that was blocked off.

She wasn’t as agile with her new body, all considered.  Not that she’d been adroit in her prosthetic one.  I felt so fucking helpless, watching as the fingers closed in, shrank the space available to her.   Amy, at the same time,  backed up.  My sister cornering my best friend, leaving her nowhere to go, while a spike-tipped claw loomed above, ready to drop like a scorpion’s tail.

It plunged.  Broke right past an outcropping of Capricorn’s rock.  I had Sveta’s view as she was trying to get to her feet, still trying and still looking skyward as the spike came down.

A blur of black.  Darkness.

I paged through to other views, to confirm what I didn’t want to see.

I saw Sveta, lying on the ground.  Her face buried against Slician’s shoulder.  The mover in the tight black costume who could slide through tight spaces.

“Go!” Amy called out.  “Leave!  Shin wants you gone!”

“I want to pass on the message!” Sveta called back.  “Get it through that thick skull of yours!”

“Why!?”

“Because Victoria said she sees something in you!  Her words!  Not that you’re a good person, not that you’re a saint or a healer or a possible tool!  You’re a person, to her.  Flaws and good sides included.  Those are her words!  She kind of hates you and I think you know that’s for good reason!  But she’s willing to extend you a chance.  I have no fucking idea why!”

I said that before you tried to stab Sveta, I thought.

One by one, the limbs receded, pulling into the ground, leaving ruined road and buildings in their wake.  The front of the station had broken away due to one power use.

She hadn’t even used her army.  She’d made them back off.

This wasn’t the Amy I’d known.  This was the Amy who had spent years with Marquis.

“I can’t even talk to her without her getting upset,” Amy said.

“Obviously not,” Sveta said.

The first thing she’d said that wasn’t in the script.

“What’s the point, then?” Amy asked.

I typed.  Kenzie gave Sveta the words.

“The point is you realize nothing you’re doing is making things better or happier.  You realize you’ve been hearing people say you need to talk to a therapist or reach out and you have a gut reaction not to.  Maybe you stop listening to that gut reaction.  Victoria’s willing to concede the idea it might be your power.  Your agent, nudging you.  Let’s take that concession, let’s fight past it.”

“Did she ever think that maybe, just maybe, my being around someone who has an aura that makes you think she’s the best thing ever or the scariest thing ever might mess with someone like me?  Like maybe it’s like an abusive relationship, yanking me this way and that, and that’s why I’m so screwed up?” Amy asked.

I froze.

The statement felt heavy.  Like it took something for her to voice it.

How long?  How long had Amy been holding onto that?

I typed.

Sveta said my words.  “You never went out into the field, Amy.  You hated caping.  She used her power around her mom and her dad, around Crystal, around Shielder, and even her boyfriend more than she used it around you.  At higher and lower intensities.  If it had that effect, it wouldn’t have been you.”

It was Amy’s time to freeze, to consider.

“I’m vulnerable.  Weak.  Pliable.  I was alone.  They were actual family, and Gallant was emotion resistant.”

I typed.

“Family doesn’t mean anything to the agents, Amy.  Second triggers don’t follow family lines.  They go by association.  Who’s closest and who’s most convenient.  Do you think Crystal and Eric weren’t vulnerable in the years around their triggers?  They triggered too.  They were second triggers like you.  They had their bad moments.  They felt alienated, capes among regular citizens.  They had trouble making real friendships.  Mark- you know Mark had his own struggles, weaknesses.”

I watched Amy’s expression through Sveta’s eye.

I watched her turn.

Had she been blaming me?  For how long?

I typed.

“Talk to someone,” Sveta called out.  “Victoria knows someone.  She can set you up with an appointment.  Tonight.  Ignore that little voice that says no or wants to resist.  Because it might not be your voice.”

Amy didn’t respond, instead pointing at Seir, at other capes.  Directing them back to the station.  They obeyed.

Sveta took a few steps to get closer.

“Amy!” Sveta called out.

You almost killed Sveta, I thought.  My heart was pounding.  I could have spit bile.  I swear, if you walk away now, I will kill you.

“Okay,” Amy conceded.  Barely audible.

The anger and hatred subsided, and it left me feeling utterly empty.  Drained.  It had taken everything I had, and if I had to look at Eric’s face, if he gave me that look like ‘we didn’t need you after all’,or if he suspected I had acted, I was going to flip that fucking eighteen foot long table, damn the consequences.

I held my finger to the power button on the computer, like I was crushing out its life.  I watched the screen go black, video feed frozen by the shutdown process, and closed the laptop.

I didnt know what to do with myself, and I didn’t trust that what I ended up doing wouldn’t be flipping that table, or punching down a wall until I’d burned out the last of my energy.

But I was aware I was part of a partnership.  And I’d be damned if I entertained even the notion that Amy was overcoming her own partner’s pressures, while succumbing to my own.

Nudges, intuitions, feelings.

Influences.  I was aware I was acting different, since the connection had come back up.  That I had hints, I had benefits.  A kind of security.  A new kind of vulnerability.

For now, I just had to ensure I remained better than her.  That meant saving the world, staying on course, maintaining my own balance.

Thank you, fragile one, I thought to myself.  For the hints and the nudges.  I’ll pretend they’re from you, because I can’t keep fighting and hating you.  I’m spent. 

Short break, and then we have more to do.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Sundown – 17.7

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

I didn’t need the shower, in the sense of getting clean, but I needed it for the static drum of water against my head, the way it was easier to think-not-think in that contained, warm space.

Except I probably needed the shower to get clean.  Not in a grossed-out, crawling-out-of-my-skin way, not at all, but in a gonna-be-talking-to-capes-I-respect, don’t-want-to-smell way.  I needed to play field goalie in my own head, fending off intrusive thoughts without turning so much attention to those thoughts I left my flanks undefended.  Thinking-not-thinking was bad for that.

Maybe I was trying too hard to pull it all together into a neat package that answered why I was presently the way I was.  Put in simpler terms, I could sum up my thoughts as: I might probably have been happier if I’d skipped the shower, I couldn’t skip the shower without being crazy with self consciousness, and I felt fucking weird taking my second shower in a matter of hours.

Whatever.

My hands pressed against the wall, my posture like I was pushing against that wall and preparing to push it down, water running down my head and back, face aimed at the swirl of water disappearing down a black void, no doubt to be recycled, because you didn’t have a complex this big, take the trouble to pump water into it, and use that water once.

I’d taken the bandaging off, and my fingernail bed was a glaring red with raw, torn skin at the edges.  My left hand.

My right hand had a swirl texture to it, where it had been burned to different degrees.  The skin was thicker.

Parts of my body ached in a bruised sort of way, but it wasn’t a bad ache.  Credit for that.  My heart and body core and my lower belly didn’t feel so cold as they might have, earlier.  Human contact did nourish.  We needed it as a species, and I was a member of the species.  I would have been lying if I said I didn’t feel nourished.

Which wasn’t to say I was hunky dory.  Ha ha.  Fuck.

The thoughts that danced at the edges of my awareness without being fully realized were pressing in to the point that I could imagine I was sharing this shower stall with two other people.  Trying to ignore both of them despite the stall’s confines.

Pay too much attention to the Dean that stood in the corner behind me and to my right, and I’d have to confront real thoughts about why I felt like he’d be disappointed, why I felt more than a bit disappointed in myself.  I’d have to confront that self-disappointment, at least, process my expectations, think about whether there was a possibility I could have had any relationship or intimacy at all that wouldn’t have come to this conclusion.

Pay too much attention to her, behind me and to my left, and my skin crawled, everything took on a darker, uglier shade, and I was reminded of how I’d made concessions to her, for the sake of everyone and everything.  The longer I dwelt on that, the worse it felt.

I focused on the hands that were planted on the wall.  The missing fingernail, the burn, the gouge in my forearm, the gouge in my right arm.  The still-healing bruise at my ribs.

My injuries.  Mine.  Untouched by her.

I knew it wasn’t good to go down that road, to dwell on that, but it was something.  Every last one of those injuries had been incurred because I’d acted for the sake of others.  That too was mine.  What ended up being forty-five minutes with Anelace was mine too.

I hated her, I hated her so fucking much.  I hated that she inserted herself into my life and I had to carve out this territory in my own brain, my family, my relationships, team, and a fling.

I wanted her to get it, and I wasn’t sure she could.  Going down that line of thought was… deeply unpleasant, but thinking about ways that were strictly counter to what she wanted, they at least kept thoughts from encroaching.

How would she act if I spat in her face?  Would that stay with her?  Would it play any part in her seemingly unending ability to twist her thoughts around and think there was chance of reconciliation?

What if I just picked up a telephone pole and demolished her legs?  Arms too?  Spine?  Let her spend years in a hospital room, thinking back over all the decisions she’d made to date?

Would she get it then?

What if I used Tattletale?  Leaned on a power for some biting, penetrating comments, found the thread of Amy’s argument and pulled on it until it unraveled?

Or Mockument?  What would Amy do if I had Damsel’s teammate pull out a monstrous caricature of her?  If I forced her to face it?

It would be easier than doing it myself, and I was pretty sure I could do it myself, if it came down to it.  Break her psychologically, as much as taking a telephone pole to her spine would break her physiologically.

Given how dependent it would be on finding the right opportunity, and how difficult it would be to get Tattletale to Amy or enlist Mockument’s help, it probably came down to the telephone pole or breaking her down with words.

It would be unkind, it would be barbaric, it would be ugly.  There would be ramifications, both in terms of the oversight from other capes, and in terms of what Amy was likely to do.  Because someone brought to zero would expend everything they had in a final, desperate attempt to save themselves or restore equilibrium.

I knew because she had brought me to zero.  I had experienced moments like that in the hospital.

Fuck me, this whole endeavor had opened doors.  Best to stay away from Amy for a bit, because I didn’t want to actually do those things.  It wouldn’t help, not in the long run.

Or was it the short term, with a collective gain in the long run?  This thing with the giants was so monumentally stupid.

Whatever.

I turned off the water, then took my hands away from the wall.

Toweling off, I squeezed the water out of my hair, dried it, and began to get dressed, simultaneously braiding my hair.

Still there?  I asked the void, my arms flat at my side, my hair still in the process of being braided.  Good.

Might need you.

Sorry it’s been such a long road to get here.

You’re just a fragment of a fucked up, omnicidal alien who happens to have a symbiotic or parasitic relationship to me.  You probably expected a different existence.  So did I.  We’re in this mess together.

I smiled.

I so didn’t want to go out there, face Amy even through a screen, or deal with the Wardens.

But there was a chance I could help people.  A chance I could help my team.

A chance we could help my team.

I pulled on the plush black sweater with the hood, wet a paper towel to wash off a bit of dust from when it had hit the floor, and looked at myself in the mirror.

The braid’s a little messy, I thought.  A few strands of hair escaped here and there.  I fixed what I could, but I was resigned to looking imperfect, a bit below par.  Fuck, it wasn’t like every other hero around here wasn’t already stretched thin and feeling worn out.

I ran into Anelace outside the showers.  He’d rinsed off too, and he had a towel around his shoulders, a Gold Morning armband around his bicep, a knife in his hand, chin raised as he used the knife’s edge to shave.  I was worried the surprise of seeing me would make him jump and slit his throat.

“Say what you will about Teacher,” he said, chin askew, still whisking away stubble without the benefit of more than touch, “Shitty guy, but he installs good showers.”

“He really does,” I said.  I looked down the hall.  The only other people nearby were well out of earshot.  “You okay?  We good?”

“I’m good,” he said, smiling, “I was going to take the ‘no strings’ to an extreme and interpret it as I shouldn’t bring it up until you do.  Nice memory, nothing more.”

“That’s fair,” I said.

“Felt like not saying anything at all might be interpreted as rude, though.  Thanks for bringing it up.  Gives me a chance to say I’d do it again, on the same terms.”

“Dangerous game, that,” I said.

“Won’t deny that.”

“I’d say the same, but…”

He pressed both hands over his heart.  “If the follow up to that isn’t ‘no strings attached’, my ego is going to take a beating.”

“No strings attached,” I said.  “I’m just not ready for anything.  Your ego is fine for the time being.”

He smiled, wiping his knife with a paper towel that had been jutting out of his pocket, capturing the tiny hairs.  “Is this the point we make small talk, talk business and cape stuff, or-”

“-Or I bail.  Check on my team.  My lunatic sister.”

“Good luck,” he said.  “We’re trial-running Ratcatcher again.  Because, y’know, everything with the city isn’t stressful enough, we gotta give second chances to depraved, hilarious ex-villains with a thing for rodents.  Have to pile on enough stuff that we’re all on the brink of second triggering, y’know?  That’s the big secret plan.”

“Right, right.  I’ll leave you to it.  Good luck with your rat girl.  Seemed like she had a good heart.”

“She does.  I still don’t think it’s going to work out, but Teacher scuttled her first chance, and it won’t feel right until we give her another.”

“Why now?” I asked.

“Because there might not be a chance later, and I don’t want to leave things with regrets.”

I nodded.

He gave me a salute, knife up to his forehead, then away.  I raised a hand in farewell.  We went our separate ways.

Yeah, it felt like the shadows and dark thoughts that dogged me were nipping at my heels now, clinging to my back, rather than lurking around the next corner.  A weight.  A constant set of thoughts.  Some had to do with Amy, some had to do with me.

Dropping something heavy on her from above.  Telephone pole to the spine.  Tearing her a new one.

All of that felt fresh, new, and constant, like an oven ring with the flame on the lowest temperature.  Saying the intensity was ‘low’ didn’t mean I wanted to hold my hand to the ring.

Anelace had been the right choice.  Was he more than a little weird, asking me out on a gore-streaked battlefield?  Yeah.  But I could kind of get that, though, when we’d seen enough ugliness that we distanced ourselves from it or became inured to it.  He was also someone who cared to help out at a physio center, he respected boundaries when a pervier asshole could have taken advantage of the interest of the six or seven interested physiotherapists at the center who’d been keeping their eyes on him.  Become the center of a tangle of drama.  He hadn’t.

As bad as it sounded, I wasn’t interested in more.  Not with him.  No dating, no relationship.  That was a plus.  He was accessible and available.  Another plus.

I was going to regret the shit out of this, a week from now, when the dark thoughts were still nipping at my heels because they were way harder to put in the box, and the memories of being close to someone had faded and gone cold again.

Already, as he walked away, I felt a bit lonely again.

I headed back toward the situation room, shoulders hunched forwards, hands in my pockets.

Keep me company, I thought.  We need to work on you braiding my hair.  What impacts that?  Is it you drawing on stored memories of me?  Reaching for a crystal where you’ve got some motor memory garbage?  Is it drawn from my time in the asylum, or is it my current manual dexterity, with something interfering?

Shit.  Half my files I could look stuff up in were packed up.  Agent-parahuman relationships, the things that impacted it.  Off the top of my head… there was stuff like Vista had talked about.  Meditation.  Practice.  Testing limits.  Getting closer to the mindset of the trigger.  Facing more high-conflict situations.  A few incidental reports about dreams, but those were so ambiguous that it could have been capes pulling ideas out of their ass, or extrapolating from nothing.

Not that I didn’t believe there was something to dreams.

A lot of fucky, not-quite-right power stuff surrounded dreams.  Like powers didn’t quite know how to handle them, making the rules a little less firm.

Anelace wanted to handle Ratcatcher before everything goes even more to shit than it currently is, and here I am, with a spark of inspiration and motivation to dig into something, with no opportunity to do so.

The fucking world is going to end again, and I’ll die wishing for the chance to read my notes.

Hands, no powers, I reminded myself, as I got to the situation room door.

Too many unfamiliar faces.  I did see Larue and Eric, sitting at the same table as Armstrong, who was back.

I took a seat at the table, two chairs down from Armstrong, so I wouldn’t be bothering him.

One half-screen for the Nursery giantess, wreathed by a pile of her creations, the men giving birth to the flesh trees from anus and urethra, the women mostly doing so with the more conventional route.  Fluids pooled and drooled around the mass, with the flesh trees bowing as their ‘fruits’ grew by the second, getting heavier.  From baby to adult in a matter of minutes.

The other half of the split screen showed further down the procession line.  Naked, slender figures shambling across the cold landscape, almost in single file, except for the ones who seemed to get along well enough to move in groups.

One screen showed the Machine Army.  The Nursery-borne giants used raw strength, digging with fingers and stolen material, including the wreckage of robots, to till the earth and overturn its contents, to stomp at rocks and fallen trees and pulverize them.  Complete and utter ruin in a widening half-circle around the camp.

One screen for Dauntless, who once again had the Simurgh perched on him, resting on the top edge of the shield he carried.

“Cleared your head?” Eric asked, looking over the top of his laptop.

“Yeah.  Kind of.”

“Next time you disappear, do us both a favor and let me know where you are?”

“Does it matter?  I’m benched.  Your job was to report on me.  You’ve done your job.”

“My job was to watch over you.”

Fuck, I shouldn’t have come back.

Where the hell was I supposed to go if I didn’t come back?

I didn’t want to dignify his statement with an answer, and Armstrong was watching us instead of working, so I asked Armstrong, “Any word on Sveta?”

“We have her on camera.  I wouldn’t have paired her with Weld, but she wanted to help.  They’re trying to get access to Lab Rat’s lab so they can assess what’s going on.”

“Access covertly, or access-”

He turned his own laptop to an angle where I could see it.  He hit the key to rotate through the windows, and the one he came to a rest at was a video feed.

“Bureaucratically,” I concluded, seeing the scene.  I recognized it as Kenzie’s eye cam.

She was near the Nursery creation.  So was Weld.  So was Slician.

But the heroes were doing their own thing, holding the line, standing guard at a perimeter that had formed around the… mess of Nursery and her breeders.

Sveta was, I could see as she looked around, in the company of Engel and Egg.  Her fleeting glance in Engel’s direction made the computer buzz and the screen flare with colors that extended beyond the frame of the live video footage.  I felt the emotional punch of it, and I was not ready for it.

I scooted back from the table with enough force that I almost fell backward, and I would have flown a bit rather than fall.

“You okay?” Eric asked.  I wanted to throw something at him.

“She does that,” Armstrong said.  “You get used to it.”

“Here,” Larue told me.  He spun his laptop around one hundred and eighty degrees and scooted it over my way.  “Take it.”

“The laptop?”

“It’s only a video feed, so I don’t think I’m getting in trouble for giving you acccess.  You can control who and what you watch.  Lookout gave us the visuals for your team and her kid teammates.”

“What about you?”

“I’ll grab another.  It’s fine,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said.  “What if I want to communicate with them?”

“Do it through us,” Eric said.

“Really?” I asked.

“It makes some sense,” Armstrong said.  “I wasn’t part of the review, but giving you the ability to exchange messages with them isn’t much different from putting you in command of the team again.”

I made a so-so gesture.  “Kind of in command.”

“I know Tristan fancies himself a leader, so I know what you mean.  Even so.  If they’re concerned, don’t feed those concerns.  This will blow over.”

I frowned.

“Okay,” I said.

“Headphones?” Eric asked.

“I have earbuds,” I told him, fishing in my pocket.  “Thanks though.”

I plugged in the one bud.  Navigating to the right window.

First, I wanted to check everyone was okay.

Kenzie was with her friends, sitting in the center of the back seat, her attention at least partially on a laptop that was placed across her lap.  Her legs were crossed, feet up on the seat, hands stabilizing the machine.  Her eye darted around, and the camera showed part of her interface, as she highlighted seemingly random words that floated against a backdrop, refocused her vision to look through that assembly of words to the words behind, picked a few characters, then unfocused to pull back two or three more word-clouds to pick out more stuff.  The words she chose appeared on the laptop.

“We should finish packing up your headquarters while we’re there,” Tattletale said.

“Can we hold off?” Kenzie asked.

“Are you willing to lose everything you haven’t packed?”

“No,” Darlene said, to Kenzie’s right.

She hit enter with the thumb of the hand that held the laptop’s edge.  A box appeared on the screen.  Distorted video and audio, loud.

Snuff, driving, cussed.  “Turn it down!”

“Sorry!  We were listening to music and dancing before we left.”  Kenzie held down the volume button for a few seconds, until it was quiet enough that Snuff and Tattletale didn’t look upset anymore.

“Such a carefree existence,” Tattletale said.

“Not carefree at all,” Darlene said.  “Right?”

“Right.  We’re doing important work,” Kenzie added.

“You are,” Chicken Little added.  “Not that I’m complaining.”

“It’s your job to protect us when trouble comes calling,” Kenzie said.  She looked to the side, where Candy was slumped down, headphones on, sleeping or trying to sleep.  Darlene just past her, by the car door.

“It is absolutely not his job to do that,” Tattletale cut in.  “His job, all of your jobs are to run.  Get out of trouble, if you find yourselves in any.  Understand?”

“Yes,” three of the kids said in chorus.

Kenzie looked to the other side, where Chicken Little sat with his head resting against the window, a small bird in his hands, his eyes on the world beyond.  He was smiling.

“I liked the music,” he said.

“It’s one of my favorites,” Darlene said.

Kenzie typed on the keyboard now, putting down lines of code while periodically using a keyboard shortcut to switch between windows.  Views of the people I’d intended to check in on.  The rest of Breakthrough.

Me.

I looked up and left, to a camera in the back corner of the situation room.  I resisted the urge to wave.

When I looked across the table, Eric was frowning.

I looked back to the feed.  Kenzie was looking down, where a huge-as-shit bird was taking up the entire floor space between the two front seats and the bench seat at the back.  Thus the way that Kenzie was sitting.

But she wasn’t looking at that.  She was looking at her knee, which was pressed against Chicken Little’s leg.

Kenzie began humming.

“No.  No humming,” Tattletale said, her voice overlapping momentarily with Snuff’s grunt of protest.

“But I’m happy,” Kenzie said.

“And I’m thinker headache-y.  No humming.  Please.”

“Yes ma’am,” Kenzie said, before falling silent.

I switched.  I’d seen a picture-in-a-picture glimpse of what was on her laptop, enough to know they weren’t embroiled in fights, but I looked for actual video feeds of my team now.

The next three video feeds were Chicken Little, a view of the inside of what I presumed were Candy’s eyelids, and Darlene’s view.

Rain was with Golem and Cuff, chatting.  They were near where Amy was, but the view was so distant Engel didn’t register, which was a relief.

“-trying to set me up with her,” Golem explained

“Ugh,” Cuff made a sound.

“How did it go?” Rain asked.

“Terrible?  I mean… what did I have going for me?  Fat kid, bad grades, hated everything.  No interests.  Certainly not sports, like my dad wanted.  And she’s… what?  Athletic, uh, I’m not going to lie and say she was attractive, because… god, it sounds shitty to say it, but-”

“You don’t have to qualify,” Cuff said.  “The racist girl is kind of rat-faced.”

“Reminder: I’m using a camera.  I’m micced.  We’re probably being watched and listened to by an intern or someone.”

“She was still out of my league,” Golem said.  At the same time, words appeared across the camera.

“She was not,” Cuff said.  “No.  Even discounting the racist stuff…”

“Sure.  But as far as I was concerned, then?  Zero self esteem?”

VICTORIA IS WATCHING

“Victoria’s watching,” Rain added.  “Hi.  Hope things are going okay over there.  Sorry to interrupt, Golem.”

“It’s fine,” Golem said.  He was Byron-like in how soft spoken he was, which was amusing considering he had the kind of height, frame, and physique that would let anyone dominate a room, and the armor only augmented that.  “She wasn’t interested, either.  I didn’t blame her.”

“Where I grew up, interest didn’t factor in unless you were a good soldier, and then you got some choice,” Rain said.

“She was a good soldier for the Empire.”

“Sure,” Rain said.  “Wouldn’t have guaranteed she was safe, though.  It’d make sense to pair up a promising soldier with the son of the group’s leader.  Scribe would-”

“Rune.  She was Rune then.”

“Rune would have been convinced to go along, got a lot of perks.  Keeps her close, and gets you involved.”

“Sounds like you’re an expert.  You could run a cult yourself if you had a mind to,” Cuff said.

“Ha.  As if.  People have to like you for that to happen.  You learn stuff if you live it.”

I changed the channel, so to speak.  Over to Capricorn.

To Tristan.

He wasn’t far away either, suggesting most of the team was on the task of Amy.  No doubt because we’d dealt with her and Shin before.  Nothing seemed to be going beyond the gates, but there were enough other heroes around that I imagined they’d be forming the investigative body.  If it came to that.  Or they’d attack the morass of Nursery stuff, if it turned hostile.

I could see how Golem’s thing about his dad trying to pair him up with Rune had started.  Tristan was with some of the Shepherds.  Moonsong was close by but she was busy with another conversation.  Rune, Scribe, was closer.

“Hey, Capricorn,” Scribe called out.

“You’re still on video, Scribe.  Do you want to say something else that’s going to make you look bad in front of your superiors?”

Tristan sounded so tired.

“Heard you didn’t reconcile with Reconciliation.”

Tristan looked over at her.

Scribe touched her heart, before stating a slightly overdramatic, shaking-her-head-while-speaking, “I’m really sorry.  That’s a shame.  I know you were close, once.”

“He’s a good guy,” Tristan said.  “Deserves everything good.”

“He is,” another Shepherd said.  Not one of Scribe’s flock.  “I hear good things.  I wish he’d stuck with us.”

One of Scribe’s retinue leaned over to his female friend, hand cupped over mouth, whispering something.  The friend laughed, and started to pass it on to Scribe.

Tristan got to his feet, and in that same second, the guy cape who’d just whispered the ‘joke’ to his friend took an abrupt step away from the wall, toward Tristan.  There was a swagger to his body language, like he expected a fight.

“What are you doing?” Tristan asked.

“What are you doing?” the guy responded, emphasizing the ‘you’.

Tristan stared at him.  The guy stared back.

The other Shepherd that had said something kind about Reconciliation stood off to the side, actively not looking at the potential altercation.

“Hey, Pictor?” Tristan asked.  “Do me a favor?”

The friendlier Shepherd looked over.  “I don’t want to get in the middle of anything.”

I felt such a profound disappointment in the guy.  I could almost hear it in Tristan’s voice, too.  “Wave me over when the guys inside the station come back with the response from Cryptid?  Can you do that?”

“Okay.”

The aggressive guy-Shepherd stared at Tristan, silent, as Tristan turned to go.

Tristan shook his head, walking away.

The group laughed behind him.

Tristan put the station entrance behind him, making some movement that saw his arm pass in front of his face, before his armor squeaked, straining.

Sorry about Reconciliation, I thought.  He’d been so hopeful.  Byron had planned to chime in.

Shitty luck.

I could relate to the loneliness that seemed to surround him now.  No teammates in immediate reach, possibly because the group had been told to keep their distance from one another until further evaluation or checks.  No Reconciliation.  I had no idea how he got on with his parents, but I remembered it being bad, last I’d heard.

I wanted to talk to him, to encourage him.  Even if Vista had been there… I knew she was Byron’s, but she was friendly with Tristan, and he needed a friend.

He stood outside the station, gaze out on the cityscape and horizon.

Turning, he sighted Rain, and began trudging off in Rain’s direction.

Guess you’re not being separated that forcefully, I thought.

Good that you have each other.

I clicked, to change the channel, Tristan still in the back of my mind.

Which took me back to Sveta.

To Engel, still.  Even filtered through a screen, the image left me with a feeling running up and down my arms that made me feel like I was smelling a hothouse’s worth of exotic flowers.  A caress at the face, a taste at the back of the mouth, like Anelace’s sweat had tasted.

I shivered.

“That’s really distracting.”  It took me a second to recognize the voice coming over the earbud.  Amy.

“Sorry,” Engel said.  The sound didn’t quite match her lip movements.  Kenzie cameras, but not Kenzie sound.

“Is it a problem?” Sveta asked.  “You said you were in control.”

“It’s not a question of control,” Amy retorted, sounding exceptionally annoyed.

Go, SvetaKeep her off balance.

“Why did you tell me to be quiet when you were working before, then?” a small voice, high.  Dot.  “You said it would slow you down.”

“It’s fine,” Amy said, terse.  Sveta looked at her, and I winced.  Amy was touching a kneeling giant, a tall and slender woman slick with the juices of its recent birth from the ‘tree’.  A flap of what looked like loose skin was draped over her shoulder, but it wasn’t skin.  Something from the amniotic sac that had encased her.

The woman stood.  Amy stepped back while the woman joined the procession line and a male giant knelt beside her.

“If it’s fine, can I talk then?”

“I- sure.  I guess.”  Amy had trapped herself in a corner.

“Great!  Oh gosh!  You!  You’re so pretty and amazing!  I can taste offal and candy by looking at you!”

“Thank you, I think!” Engel exclaimed.  “I love your colors!”

Dot leaped over to Engel’s arms, clutching onto cloth, and then practically melted into Engel’s arms.  Her leg kicked and her ears twitched as Engel scratched her belly through her clothes.

“Yoo!” Dot cried out.  She got enough control over her leg to point it at Sveta.  Her tone became accusatory, “You!”

“Me,” Sveta said.  She sounded so unimpressed.  A lot of these people weren’t her favorites.

“I have to say-!”  Dot was adrift in a sea of what had to be wonderful sensations, and sounded almost drunk with it.  She came out with a reluctant, “Nice coat.”

Almost an aside.  Like she’d been planning to say something, but she’d had to make the concession to the very cool coat I’d shopped for with Sveta.

“Thank you,” Sveta said.

“But!” Dot exclaimed again, “Your arms!  When I saw your arms before they were boring!”

“They’re still a bit boring.”

“But you were so pretty before!  You were so unique, and then you had colorful arms!  I’ve seen pictures!  On her computer!”  Dot indicated Amy.

“Did you now?” Sveta asked, dry.  “Researching the opposition?”

“Making sure I knew who Shin was dealing with, in case they asked,” Amy said, not looking over at Sveta.

“Which isn’t important!” Dot exclaimed.  “What’s important is you were colorful and now you’re boring!”

“I’m extra exciting, but it’s only for the people who deserve it,” Sveta said.  She altered her hand, but she wasn’t looking at it, so the camera didn’t catch more than a bit of it.”

“But what about the colors?”

“I’m going to add colors.  Right from the beginning, I’ve been deciding.  See?  I have sample pictures on my phone of things I like.”

Dot was reluctant to leave Engel’s arms, but she did eventually rouse.  Engel made it a difficult process, nuzzling Dot with her face, which Dot seemed to love.  But then she lifted Dot up to her shoulder.

The little goblin leaped over to Sveta’s shoulder, then peered over, her leaf-shaped ear blocking a significant portion of the camera and Sveta’s view.  Sveta pulled it down and away, hand resting on Dot’s head.  She flipped through a gallery of really cool images.  It wasn’t her usual art style, which surprised me.  A little darker, a little less nature-themed.

“Everyone should do it,” Dot was whispering, but her mouth was closer to the microphone, so it was distorted in volume.  “Fill in the canvas.”

“I kind of agree,” Sveta whispered back.

“My Queen did it.”

“Hm… that’s for her sake.  I’d be doing this for mine.  But I want colors and art good enough to to keep forever.  One day, after everything settles down.”

“Uh huh,” Dot mumbled.  Her head flicked left-right-left-right as Sveta dialed through the gallery of pictures, her whole head moving to track the images as they flew by.

“Speaking of,” Sveta said, her voice louder.  “How’s your Queen doing?  Victoria asked you to keep an eye on her, right?”

I tensed at the mention of my name, at seeing Amy’s head turn ninety degrees.

“Uh huh.  She’s okay.  I like the giants.  They’re something special.”

“She’s taken about ten times longer to work on this giant than she took on the last one, and she took twice as long as normal for that one,” Sveta remarked.

“You’re distracting me,” Amy said.

“I thought you said your control and concentration were good now,” Sveta said.

“They are.”

“But you’re slower?”

“What does it take to get you out of my hair?” Amy asked.

“Again, we want to see the Lab.  We want to vet the giants in progress.”

“Lab Rat doesn’t trust you.”

“We don’t trust you!” Sveta exclaimed.

“We don’t even know what your powers do.  Would you submit to me touching you to-”

Fuck you, Amy.

“Ha!” Sveta barked.  “No.  Hell no.”

Good.

“Then what?” Amy asked.  “Because no, we’re not going to bring a bunch of unknown powers into a sensitive area, especially considering Shin’s perspective on foreign powers.”

“We could demonstrate the powers,” Engel offered.  “You’ve seen most of mine.  You know Sveta’s.”

Sveta was holding up her phone to her shoulder.  A tiny hand pawed through images, caressing the occasional one.

“And his?” Amy asked.  “Theirs?”

“I really hope you know Weld’s, because he was around when you were still in Brockton Bay.”

“I wasn’t exactly hanging out with the Wards.”

“Slician slides.  More effective movement in tighter spaces.  Egg… hatches.”

“Don’t hatch right now,” Engel said, abruptly.

Sveta’s head turned, the phone moving in Dot’s direction, apparently to hold Dot down.

Egg had cracked, head, most of his torso, and one arm demolished into fragments shell, leaking thick yellow yolk.  The thing that bulged out of the encasement looked like something between a combination of a morass of worms with hook-legs and a featherless bird, soaked in yolk.  The actual configuration was impossible to make up, as it was all curled up into itself.

The giants stirred, restless.  Dripping with afterbirth, turning their gaze toward Egg.

Slowly, with lurches and throbs, the pink-black, yolk-slick mass receded.  The eggshell exterior closed around it.

Amy didn’t relax until Egg’s head had fully reformed.  He did up some clasps that kept the plastic wrapping around his body, and touched the brushing of canary-yellow hair at the top of his head, fixing it.

“Is that you?” Amy asked.

“Nah.  She’s herself.  So are her sisters.”

“We brought him because we thought Chris would be interested,” Sveta said.  “He was nice enough to cooperate.”

“For cloning?”  Amy indicated the giants.

“Hell no,” Sveta said.  “He’d like it.  It’s the kind of thing that always piqued his interest.  It’s incentive to talk, and we really want to talk to him.”

HI

I blinked.  The black word had appeared on the video feed.

“He doesn’t want to talk to you,” Amy said.

Around the table, Larue, Eric, Armstrong, and others who were looking in hadn’t remarked or reacted.

Nobody else seemed to have spotted it.

DON’T LOOK ALARMED.  ONLY YOU CAN SEE THIS TEXT

I flicked through the images, trying to look nonchalant.

I rotated through once, then stopped on the carful of kids.

YEP.  IT’S ME.  K.
MISS YOU

I changed from the view of Kenzie, over to Rain and Tristan.

I nodded at the screen.

YOU TOO, HUH?

Again, I nodded a bit.

“What’s up?” Eric asked.

“Golem and Precipice make a nice pairing.”

“Huh.”

He didn’t ask more questions, didn’t elaborate.

WANT TO HELP COORDINATE ON THE D/L?
YOU’LL HAVE TO BE DISCRETE

Discreet, I mentally corrected her.

A bunch of Shin capes, capes from the prison and ones I presumed were originally Shin, had emerged from the building.  Rain and Tristan backed off.  Amy stopped working.  Sveta, Engel, Egg, Weld, and Slician walked off to one side, to get a better view.

My hand had found a natural resting place over the keyboard well before this point.  Pressing the keys down as softly as I could wasn’t difficult.

Yes

I didn’t hit enter, because it would have taken another movement of my hand.

It didn’t matter.

ON IT

Immediately, she began sending messages to the others.  New patch, anti-Mathers measure.  Don’t freak out.  The text appeared in their field of view, with the eye cameras they wore.  They barely seemed to notice, their attention on the capes.  I typed as quietly and unobtrusively as I could, got frustrated, and opened a notepad document.  I began taking notes.  Rune, other stuff, and in the midst of it typed:

This Amy stuff is taking up too much focus
This might not be the biggest danger

And deleted it.

Kenzie’s reply appeared a few seconds later.

TATTLETALE THINKS SO TOO

I watched the screen, tense, trying to think.  I paged through to Kenzie’s video footage, overshot, and ended up on Chicken Little’s.  Good enough.

“Tattletale?” Kenzie asked.  I wondered if she’d waited for me to get to the right footage, so I could follow along.

“Your voice isn’t exactly dulcet, Lookout.  Thinker headache, remember?  Before you make it worse, consider that Tattletale-with-headache is going to be crabby.  Tattletale-with-no-headache buys you treats.”

“Can I give you an eye camera when we’re at the workshop?”

“I think jamming something that looks like a bunch of forks welded together into my eye is the sort of thing that makes headaches worse.”

“It’s painless,” Kenzie said.  “And it’s important.”

There was a pause.

I could imagine that great titanic agent working with crystals, drawing connections, pulling up data.

“Sure.”

“Cool.”

It’d be a direct, private line between me and Tattletale, then.

Good start.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Sundown – 17.6

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Dauntless continued his assault, striking out repeatedly, with a spear of lightning that curved and arced around clusters of buildings.  There were a lot of buildings, so each attack had to be timed.  The Knight kept its heavy shield up, retreating, enduring strikes that sometimes sent him skidding back a hundred feet.  Sometimes he fell with the impacts, tearing up road and toppling heel over head.  Always getting his shield up and in the way before the next strike, always keeping the shield at an angle so he would be driven down and back and not purely back and away.  When intervening buildings provided cover, it ran, shield over its back.  Glass fell from nearby windows with every heavy footfall.  Like the world wept with its passing.

Fucking Amy.

Dauntless only advanced.  He didn’t walk, his body more a pillar between sky and ground than a body.  He flowed forward, scraped past the city, navigating a path that favored lakes and water, parks and open spaces.  Some buildings fell, but the damage to the city proper was minimal, all considering.  Had he been moving in a straight line, he would have caught the Knight already.

His weapon remained extended, a spear of light and lightning, with fat, bloblike sparks larger than cars dripping off of it as its energy reached capacity, then exceeded it, waiting for the next clear shot.

And the Simurgh stood on the back of his hand, now.  Back straight, wings spread, hair blowing in the wind, the golden light of the weapon itself suffusing her reflective silver skin.  Like she was an extension of the weapon.  The cameras they were using zoomed in on her, and the image began to distort.

Someone made the call to exclusively use the camera behind Dauntless, which viewed the scene from an angle where his body mostly blocked ninety percent of the Simurgh.  Only a few wing-tip feathers were visible past his arm.

Sensible call.

There were more people in the situation room that I didn’t know, now, and far less in the way of familiar faces.  Less capes, more civilians.  My family had departed, and so had Vista and Narwhal.  Only Cinereal remained.

I stood to the left of the door, my back to the wall, my hip resting against a protruding vent at the wall, where someone had left a coffee and a small pad of papers.  My new vantage point for watching things crumble.  Monitors showed the monsters and their respective journeys, with numbers in the corners going up as Teacher’s tech continued to track the threat and chance of things breaking.

My ‘new’ vantage point because I’d just moved a minute ago.  I’d been standing with my right elbow touching the doorframe before.  I’d moved because the monitor showing Nursery had included a new set of guests.  My sister.

And I really didn’t want to look at her.  Moving meant a jutting bit of ductwork blocked off most of that image.

That was reason one.

Reason two was that Darnall and Jessica stood to the right of the door.  A part of me had hoped that by moving, leaving a void to my right for someone else to stand in, Jessica might approach.

Instead, they talked in low voices, unintelligible, not that I tried to listen in.

I paid more attention to the flow of the room, the degree of agitation, and the tenor of conversations that I couldn’t make out.  I told myself I was being aware without being aware, existing in that state that was supposed to work with the shard space.  Just in case I had to go back.

My empty fingernail bed pressed against my upper arm.  It burned like it was on fire, if fire was sharp.

Pay attention to the beats that land, the moments of impact, the key elements in the flow of it all.

Tension, agitation, people writing things down, Cinereal leaning forward, taking over the comms.  What little I could make out of her voice was more familiar, casual.  It made me think more of me talking to a member of Breakthrough than me talking to Natalie.

My eyes went to the screens, just before they changed over.  All screens now displaying different angles of the same event.

Chevalier in his new armor, black, white and gold, bearing a sword that looked similar, grown large, the blade carving a furrow in the street behind him as he ran.

As he reached an intersection, where he had more room to navigate, he hefted the sword, treating it as feather-light despite its massive scale.  It batted through two traffic lights and grazed a memorial stone that lined the main street as it came forward, came down-

He vaulted, striking the ground, lifting himself up, until the cannon blade was directly below him.  Both hands on the handle, one foot on the trigger-guard, he scaled up the weapon, extending its length, carrying himself up.

It couldn’t quite grow long enough to get him to where he wanted to be, but the camera showed him reaching into the handle, with a shadow-flicker surrounding him up to the shoulders, just like the kind that surrounded the distant Knight.  He fell for a moment as he swung his blade overhead, cutting into a building.

That cut was his point of leverage to use the blade to carry himself to the roof of a ten-story building that hadn’t yet finished construction, blade extending, carrying him back and out, lurching slightly as he adjusted before landing on a partially finished rooftop, surrounded by yellow-painted girders and beams.  Two of the three screens I could see showed him.  The screen in the middle showed the Dauntless titan and its uninterrupted approach.

A shift of the image showed the speck that was Chevalier standing on the building, easier to identify by the framing of girders and beams around him than by his silhouette.  And the distant ‘titan’, Dauntless.

Chevalier adjusted his grip on the blade, raising it up and away from the building it had cut, bringing it overhead to where snow swirled around it, then letting it swing down, sweeping within a foot or two of the building’s face like a pendulum blade.

Getting a grip or deciding on a course of action before he moved the blade and extended it across the street and down.

Into a parking garage.  A diagonal bar across the titan’s path.

One screen to capture the two of them, with some distortion from the Simurgh’s presence in the picture, a slash of silver-white against a brassy gold and the hard, dark angles that formed the titan’s lower body.  Chevalier closer to the image, yet so much smaller.  His sword was large and comparatively ornate, a barrier across the four-lane road.

The entire situation room was holding its breath, as the Titan continued its advance.  The distortion got worse, with heavy artifacting across the middle of the image.

Come on.  Come on. 

The titan continued forward until it was so large in scale that it couldn’t fully be contained within the image without zooming out so far that Chevalier wouldn’t be visible.  The image remained zoomed in on Chevalier and the cannonblade.

He moved the cannonblade, lifting it, swinging it out to point at the titan.  At the Simurgh.

The Endbringer took off, flying skyward.

The Titan ceased moving.  After a long pause, it lowered its spear.

Chevalier reported in, saying something over the comms.  His voice was almost entirely static, and only the cadence of that static suggested it was speech.

Almost understandable, in the same way an abstract painting could be understandable if one fuzzed their vision enough.

Cinereal straightened.  Adjusting a few key pieces of her costume, hand touching her hair, she made her way to the door.

Which would make the people who were present and who I knew in any capacity just Jessica and Darnall.

Cinereal stopped as she saw me.

“What can I do?” I asked.

“Stay put.  Don’t contact your team for now,” she said.  “Be patient.  If what you did yesterday was dangerous, we don’t want to chase that danger.  If it was useful, it’s going to be more useful after things break down than before.”

I wanted to respond to that, to counter that those weren’t mutually exclusive.

But where Narwhal was the kind of militant, no-nonsense, all-business leader who I was pretty sure would bow to better arguments, I wasn’t positive Cinereal was anything like that.  Cinereal was allegedly unfair, unreasonable, in training, expectations, her lack of patience, and her propensity to hold grudges.

I kept my mouth shut, nodding instead.

She wasn’t necessarily wrong, even if I could help with both this current situation and the one that we might be dealing with later tonight.

“Pulling together a meeting with everyone in one place seems difficult,” Cinereal said.  “Eric!”

Death and rebirth were on my mind so much that I felt a sudden emotional twinge at the notion that it might be my kid cousin.  A bit of pain at the realization it wasn’t.

‘Eric’ was a suit, roughly my age, jacket already removed and sitting on one of the nearby chairs.  Good looking, in the way that the features that weren’t classically good looking added rather than distracted.  In his case, it was a pronounced roman nose that was maybe one half-size too big, with a flat bit across the bridge suggesting it had been broken once and never set right.  Tan skin, brown hair with blond highlights, a light purple dress shirt, black tie with a pin, black slacks, and nice black wingtips with a bit of scuffing at the toe, like he’d kicked something or nudged a dirty door open with his foot at one point.

She didn’t take her eyes off me as she said, “Eric, look after Ms. Dallon.  I have a brief set of pending questions I was going over that I’ll send to you.  Run them by her.  Get any final statements from her, if she has anything to add outside of the notes she gave Defiant.  Transcribe them.  Stay close enough that she can ask you if she wants something.  Send us your notes in the next ten or fifteen.”

I glanced at him.  In the process, I caught him sizing me up.  Bandaged hand, scarred hand with a wavy burn along the back, traveling across my chest for a half-second too long, back up to face.

No trace of embarrassment or shame.  It was so hard to put my finger on just why I held it against him when Byron had done something similar on our first meeting, but he’d glanced away.  I wasn’t sure there was a strict set of rules for judging that kind of thing, only gut feeling and instinct.

And my instincts were bad.  I frowned a bit.  He smiled to match the frown in intensity.

“I wanted to talk to Mark Dallon, if that’s okay,” I said.  And to Jessica, but…  “Semi-officially.  There are only two others I trust to give me a fair assessment of what’s going on over there.”

“Chris Elman is the other?”  Cinereal asked, eyebrows raising.

I could have laughed, but I was pretty sure that laughing in Cinereal’s face would earn me that grudge, and I wanted to be in her good graces if it meant working with the Wardens.  There were too many resources and too many people I respected tied into their group.  It was too important that we share information.

“Dot,” I told her.  “Amy’s goblin or imp.  If the conversation earlier had gone a bit differently, I would have brought her into it.”

“I have to go, or I’d ask, so Eric will have to be the one to ask you why.  We won’t be more than an hour, Antares.  We’ll exchange emails and messages while traveling.”

I looked.  Chevalier had retreated from his perch.  Dauntless remained where he was, surrounded by tall buildings, each and every one of them smaller than him.

“Good luck,” I told her.

“I don’t believe in luck,” Cinereal told me.  “We work hard to let opportunities happen.”

“Can’t argue that,” I answered, clenching my burned hand for a second, feeling how tight the skin was.

And she was gone.  Back into the fray.

Leaving me with Eric.

I looked back, and saw Jessica following Cinereal out.

“Jessica.”

She paused.

“I’m sorry to spring that on you, and I know it might not be my business… but it’s kind of my business?”

Didn’t make sense.  Cinereal was out in the hallway, Eric was here.  I was being studied, analyzed.  My career, such as it was, was in the balance.

But other things mattered more.

Jessica’s expression softened, in a way that didn’t really equate to being happy nor calm.  “You’re right.”

“Can we talk?”

“I’ve been asked to give access to some files, I need to find the right ones, to preserve confidentiality for the rest.  I’ll be no more than ten minutes.”

“Okay.”

And that was that.

Armstrong was gone, Jessica and Darnall were gone, Cinereal was gone, and I literally knew nobody here in the situation room.

Except for Eric, who I’d been introduced to a minute ago.

“That sounded important,” Eric said.

It sounded like none of your business.  “It was, I think.”

“It’s going to be a minute before she sends me the questions I’m supposed to ask,” Eric said.  He smiled.  “I’m supposed to ask about Dot, your sister’s goblin.  Maybe that’s a starting point.”

Not reallyTalking about Amy is a really shitty start to any dialogue.

“She’s unfiltered,” I said.  Keep it business.  “Her views aren’t human views, neither is her perspective.”

“Really low-to-the-ground perspective, I have to imagine,” Eric said.  “She’s tiny.”

Was he cracking a joke?  It was hard to tell his regular smile from his joking smile.

He hadn’t won any benefits of a doubt from me.  I didn’t return the smile.

“Huh?  No.  Alien perspective,” I said.  “Where she’s coming from, where she’s going.  Amy does something wrong, Dot thinks that something is interesting.  Amy tries to defend that something, Dot admits it happened.  You get to see behind the curtain.”

“You spend a lot of time thinking about this, huh?” Eric asked.  He looked away, in the direction of the screen with the Nursery-thing and the monsters.

“I’ve had to.”

“The way you talked to your sister.  A lot of history?”

“The Wardens know that part,” I said.  Out of curiosity, I looked for and spotted the sticker I’d been looking at during harder conversation earlier.  “If they could talk to Dot alone and keep the conversation friendly, I think she’d admit to a lot of Amy’s crimes and wrongdoing, if only because she doesn’t think of them as crimes.  That’s basically it.”

“You immediately think of crimes and wrongdoing?”

I gave him a look.  Meeting his eyes again, I saw him studying me.  Looking at my neck, up to my face- but not in the sense that he was making eye contact.  Not for a half-second there.  He saw my eyes and locked eye contact again.  Unflinching, unblinking, unabashed.

Like a dominance thing.  Like he was trying to convey with gaze and eye contact that he wasn’t ashamed and he was proud to be looking at me or some shit.

Definitely no fucking benefit of a doubt, now.  This wasn’t the fucking venue or time.

“You just seem to be looking for the worst in her.”

“Weren’t you watching?” I asked.

“I was.  I listened.  I heard you.”

“And you’re okay with her approach?”

“I think she could be coming from a good place, and taking a bad route to get there.  She helped a lot of people with the handling of refugees, she honestly saved us by taking in the villains, because we had no place to put them.  She wouldn’t be the first parahuman I’ve seen who’s… got a different perspective, as you put it.”

Was he, like, testing me?  Was this a thing that Cinereal had signaled or told him before she talked to me, that it was his job to see how fragile or aggressive I was?

Or, worse, was he doing this because he believed that?

How was I supposed to even respond to that?  He’d heard it all and was giving her the benefit of a doubt?

“I have to admit,” I said, measuring out my words.  “I’ve thought to myself that I hope she can find some good, healthy people to be in her corner.  I want us all to get through this with a minimal loss of life, and I want her to find someone who sees her perspective and can walk her through things until she’s closer to… a healthy perspective.”

An amused look crossed his face.  “I’ve always prided myself on seeing things from other’s points of view.”

Okay, fuck this, fuck him.

“What’s your background, Eric?” I asked.  “You’re working under Cinereal?”

“Kind of.  Yeah.  I have been for a month.”

“Corporate before that?”

Again, that amused look.  “I’m curious why you think that.”

“Because a lot of the other options tend to take a firmer stance on things.”

“Not corporate.”  More amused.

“Not PRT,” I suggested.

“No.  Just a student.  I work here days, spend nights studying at Nilles.  I have to confess I only get a couple of hours a week where I’m not tied up, to go on dates, or do shopping that isn’t stopping in at the corner store.”

So you’re one of the people who took my spot at the University, I mused.

“If this evacuation is for keeps, you might not have a University to go back to.”

“Well,” he said.  “More time for going out, doing shopping, meeting friends for a match.”

He was clearly joking, but I couldn’t find the humor in it.

How many people here thought like him?  How many could brush off disaster or act like the giants, Simurgh, and Dauntless were happening to someone else?  Purely things on a screen?

Was that an artifact of them not having powers?  Were there other Erics in the room that never saw a battlefield as anything but something on paper or screens?

Safe in a bunker that might survive a second Gold Morning, he’d been faced with some of the worst of the worst, and he didn’t get it.  He thought about my boobs.  He boasted about considering Amy’s perspective in a show of self indulgence that was, given context, more vulgar than if he’d whipped out his dick and slow-wanked in front of me, while talking about his technique.

The world was going to end and he didn’t get it.  He seemed to assume things would be okay, there would be lacrosse or squash or some other preppy asshole sport, and I was thinking that as someone who liked preppy, clean-cut guys.

This was humanity?  I’d reached out to Jessica, I’d poured out emotions even knowing she wasn’t my therapist anymore, hoping she was a friend at the very least.  And nothing.

It couldn’t be all of humanity.  Gilpatrick, Natalie, Jester, Presley.

I’d told Ashley, once upon a time, that we built those relationships for our advantage, that they needed it, and through it we built something in the way of ongoing goodwill.  We, if nothing else, got a strategic advantage.

Except, floundering, I wanted to reach out for them, because I needed them.  I found them wanting.  I found them lacking.

And I felt so fucking lonely, in that moment.  I’d thought before about how isolated a cape was in the grand scheme of it all, each of us with our individual powers, but… this was more than that.

My family gone and outright alien to me.  My teammates and friends, past and present, gone or dead.

Like I could reach out and… there was nobody there.

“I hope you get your match with friends after all of this is said and done,” I told him.

“So do I,” he said, chuckling, like he wasn’t vaguely offputting enough to give me an existential crisis.

“Anyway,” I said, feeling very out of place.  “That’s Dot in a nutshell.  But we can’t talk to her without going through the Red Queen first.  Mark Dallon is a better bet for getting the down-low.  I think.”

“Sure.  Let’s see about arranging the call,” he said.  He looked around.  “Station three looks less busy.”

In the back corner of the room near where Jessica and Darnall had been standing.  The same terminal that had the sticker on it that I’d been fixating on.

A guy who looked to be in his thirties was at the computer, working his way through camera feeds, selecting tracts of data and deleting them.  He had a very square face and red cheeks, with black hair in a pronounced widows peak that could have been a receding hairline.  His suit jacket didn’t fit him.

“Any chance we could get the console, Larue?” Eric asked.

“Is it official?” Larue asked.  “I’m trying filtering algorithms with the digital noise we got.  I can’t use anything that has Ziz on it.  I’d really rather use this terminal than my laptop.”

“Semi-official.  We won’t be too long.”

“Sure,” Larue said, smiling.  “I’ll take the chance to take a break, go by the vending and coffee machines on the way back.”

“Thanks.  We might take longer than that trip does.”

“I’ll manage.  Want anything?”

Eric shook his head, taking the one chair as soon as Larue had vacated it.

“Antares?” Larue asked.

“No.  No thanks.”

“It’d be my treat.”

I shook my head, my arms folded as I watched what Eric did.  “Thanks though.”

“Thank you for what you do,” the guy said.  “That conversation earlier didn’t look easy.”

“Thanks,” I said, meaning it despite my discomfort.  Everyone had seen me snap, there.  “Thanks for what you do, too, you know.”

“Fifteen minutes of work on a thirty second video clip that they might not even glance at or revisit,” Larue said.  “Feels like busywork for the civilians, to make us feel like we’re helping, while you’re the ones in the thick of it.”

I shook my head.  “You’d have to be on the same team that got the cameras out there.”

“Yup.  I didn’t actually do the camera part, though.  Post-process.”

“It helps,” I said.  From this vantage point at the back right of the room, I could see the screen with Nursery, all the way up at the front, far left.  I could see the shape that was Amy, surrounded by shuddering giants who were in the process of sprouting tree-like masses of slick flesh from their groins, greater branches showing how soft they were on impact with the ground, each limb ending in an individual ‘fruit’, curled up into fetal positions, uncurling, standing, and swelling in size by the second.  Amy went to each, touching them.  A spot of orange at her shoulder- that’d be Dot.   I spotted Marquis.  “All the individual things.  Glimpses of the monsters before we have to face it for real.”

“That’s encouraging.”

I could fly out there right now.  Same portal I used to get to the fight with Damsel and Deathchester would put me close.  I could go to her and I could erase her from consideration.

And I’d get in trouble.  Possibly a long stay in an alternate reality.  I’d get some consideration for mental stresses, probably.  Darnall would testify on my behalf.

“All of us got into this business because it fascinated us,” Eric said, his attention on the text conversation with, I had to assume, Shin.  “Hearing the source of that inspiration encouraging us is pretty cool.”

I wasn’t encouraging or thanking you, Eric, I thought, my expression unchanging.  You haven’t earned it yet.

“Off to get coffee and a Gnarly Bar,” Larue said.

“Catch you after,” I said, smiling a bit.

Eric reached up and toward me.

I brushed his hand aside before it could make contact.  My arm and hand hadn’t moved in the course of the brushing aside.  I’d meant to do it and I hadn’t.

It had been a brief, natural expansion of my forcefield, a brief, natural movement of an arm that had no meat beneath the skin, no bone beneath the meat, and no and no rejiggered rat or feline DNA in blood, bone, meat, or skin.  Above all, it had been a gentle touch.

I wasn’t supposed to use my powers, and I’d just used my powers.

“Uh,” Eric said, his eyes going wide, the smile falling away, the good humor gone.

“Don’t do that,” I told him.  “What were you doing?”

“Trying to get your attention.”

None of that dominance now.  None of the steady eye contact.

“You had it.  Sudden movement in the corner of my vision?  You said you were good at seeing perspectives.  Please be aware of mine.”

“I- sorry,” he said.

Too defensive, I thought.  Calm down.

I gripped my arms.  My missing fingernail really fucking hurt.

“Was going to say, he’s with Amelia.  You could try calling, but…”

I looked at the screen again.

No sign of Flashbang.  Dad.  Probably dad.

I felt that pang of loneliness again.

Dead silent, unmoving, I watched the screens.

I wanted to be out there, helping.

But we were being penalized for going off on our own.  We’d ducked one set of arbitrary, rushed rulings for another set.

I tried to tell myself that it was the deal I’d struck with myself.  That I’d cooperate, listen.

Anything else got messy, and hurt the rest of the team.

“I could ask you some of Cinereal’s questions.”

I’m not sure I could take it, I thought.  I’m a bit on edge.

A little bit mega proud that I had that much control over my forcefield.  It helped with the feeling of loneliness.

“Sure,” I told him.

“It’s a brief list.  Question says she wanted to talk to every member of your team separately.  I take it to mean I’m supposed to ask you and just you.”

“Okay.  Shoot.”

“Tell me about Capricorn,” Eric said, leaning back.

“Vague question.”

“How was he, how is he?”

“This is confidential?”

“Good as,” Eric answered.

I hesitated.

But I felt like not answering at all would be damning.

“When I first met him, he was good.  Harder headed, stricter with himself and in a way, with his brother.  Unavoidable.  Natural hero, just thrust into a situation where someone was going to do something disagreeable.  They found a middle ground and given where they started, I think that’s incredible.  He’s a good leader, capable, powerful, pretty darn sensible, if aggressive, but even that aggressiveness has become something more… tempered, mature.  He bypassed Goddess in a way the rest of us couldn’t.  It’d be nice to have him out there.  I think you guys need him out there.”

“Concerns?  Critical weaknesses?”

In this moment, I could imagine Tristan feeling much like I was feeling right now.

“No.”

“Sveta, then?”

I thought of Sveta, of the images, and the broken-up dream where she’d fallen from the decorative rock in front of the mall to the empty parking space below.

“Smart, caring, sensitive, with a nurturing side and a sense of justice you wouldn’t expect someone with the rest of her personality to have.  She knew valuable stuff about this base and the raid, she knows practical stuff about Cauldron and power interactions I haven’t run into.  If you need an expert on weird power-physiology interactions like…”

I gestured vaguely toward the Nursery screen with my bandaged fingers.

“…she’s the one you want.  She’s lived it.  She studied it, to better care for the other Case Fifty-Threes.”

“Concerns?  Weaknesses?”

“Some of those Case Fifty-Threes still hold a grudge.  She’s new to her body, but you guys know that.  She’s done pretty darn well, considering.”

“Precipice.  Rain Frazier.”

“Tough.  I’ve known capes who can take a hit.  Ones with powers.  Ones without.  I’ve known capes who have drive to an extent that they won’t let themselves go down.  With Precipice, no powers but he can take that hit, and he won’t topple, won’t fall.  He fucked up, coming from a bad situation, doing something bad.  He wants to make up for it enough he won’t stop or stop fighting for our side.  He’s had experience dealing with and circumventing Mathers.  If you’ve got a giant Mathers out there, talk to him.  He doesn’t believe in himself enough.”

“Weaknesses?”

“He doesn’t believe in himself enough,” I repeated. Are you even listening?

“Lookout.  Ms. K. Martin.”

“We don’t know enough.  She gets us information.  She cares.  She wants to do right by society, she wants to be a heroine.  She’s capable.  I have the instinct you guys want to bench her, because she’s a kid and she’s been a bit off-rails.  Don’t.  Or if you do, bench all of us.  If you bench just her then it’s going to destroy her a little.  She needs the group, and that includes needing her new team.  They’re good kids.”

“She stayed with you?”

“For a few nights.”

“Has she reached out in any way since you were told to avoid contact with one another?”

“Not that I’m aware.”

“What’s the worst case scenario when it comes to her?”

“That an eleven year old girl has her heart broken yet again.”

“I think they meant powerwise.”

“I don’t know.  Mental breakdown, leading to her forcing people to be close to her through blackmail and coercion.  Violations of privacy.”

“How likely do you see that eventuality?”

“Not very.  She’d have to feel like she has nobody.  I don’t think she’s anywhere near that.”

Eric nodded.  He didn’t type or record that I could see.  Didn’t take notes on paper.

I didn’t miss the fact Kenzie had way more questions than any of the others.  Suspicion about them wanting to bench her reaffirmed.

“Tattletale?”

I thought of Tattletale in the trigger dream.  Scrambling to save her brother.

I knew that all of us tended to have hangups about our trigger visions.  It had been part of the reason I’d asked Dean about his.  I knew I would maybe forever have a pet peeve about being ignored, trampled.  Movers would feel restless, tinkers would deal with anxiety.  It was the way things went.

So I could extrapolate, think of that scene, and think of Tattletale and her every interaction with anyone she seemed to care about being an extension, in some small way, of that desperate and helpless struggle to save her already-deceased brother.  Too late, wrestling with the blanks and question marks in the aftermath.

“I wish she was a hero,” I said.

“Can you elaborate?” Eric asked.

Still no smile on his face.  Still no feigned friendliness.  The forcefield had batted his hand aside, and dashed those overly friendly pretenses and leers away.

“She’s exactly what we need, in terms of information, the ability to tie disparate things together, and penetrate to the heart of things.  She came last night because of her association with Kenzie’s group.  She came because she wanted to know what was going on.  And I’m on the same page as her there.  Just about everything else, I think we disagree.  I respect her, but I don’t like her or respect a lot of her actions.”

“Uh huh,” he said.  “And yourself?”

“Hm?”

“Self-evaluation.”

I wasn’t in a good place to do a self-evaluation.  I’d just sort of done one in front of Jessica, a little ways down the hall, and it had been a rambling mess, an outpouring of feelings.

And she hadn’t been receptive, so I’d said and done something stupid, hurting her and putting her on the spot.

“I want to help.  When we’re this desperate, I feel like that’s all that should matter.  Outside of that… I don’t think I can give you an objective self evaluation.”

“What about an un-objective one?” Eric asked.  He smiled for the first time since I’d brushed his hand away.

“I feel like there’s too few people who are looking at the big picture, and it’s an actually terrible thing that my sister is one of them, and she and I are on a similar page in this.  I’d like to think that everything I said about the rest of my team is true about me too.  The good parts.  To lesser degrees, obviously, but… even that sounds like I’m full of myself.”

Eric nodded.  He turned back to the computer, and I had hopes it would be my dad.  Because it’d be awfully nice to talk to my dad in this moment.

But he switched to another window, and began doing some typing.  Summarizing my notes.

Looking over his shoulder seemed to be making him self conscious, and I thought about enjoying that as some eye-for-an-eye bullshit, but I didn’t want to make a bad impression.  I stepped back and away, so the desk was to my right and I could only see the side edge of the monitor.

Three minutes passed, with a clack of keys, before the claustrophobic nature of the room began to get to me.  The procession line of naked people had already begun.  The Dauntless titan didn’t attack them.

“I’ll be outside,” I said.  “Unless there’s more questions.”

“No more questions,” he said.

“Okay.”

I wanted fresh air.  I wanted to fly, to burn off energy, to breathe city air in my Earth.  Bet, ideally, in a universe where it hadn’t all been ruined by Endbringers and aliens.

I settled for the catwalk at the end of the hallway, the railing near where I’d talked to Darnall and Jessica.  A drop below.

I heard distant shouts and orders.  A team getting organized.

In the wake of those conversations and that back and forth, I felt like I’d come close to an epiphany, a realization or an answer.

I just wasn’t sure what the question was.

In a way, I felt more secure than ever.

In another way, I felt isolated.  The absence of others like a gaping wound, the stump of a missing limb.

In a way, I felt like doing something and making a concrete difference in the outcome of all of this was in arm’s reach.

In another… helpless.

If I could take the question and hold it firmly in my mind, then I felt like I could take the sum total of my feelings earlier and put them at the end, and algebra my way to a conclusion.  We know this, that takes priority.  Solve for X.

I wished I’d been able to talk to my dad.

A small, scared part of me worried I’d lost him forever.  Because just like Byron and Tristan, Amy and I seemed to be trapped in a world where it felt like only one of us got what we wanted.  Only one of us got a given parent.  Only one of us got the Victoria Dallon closest to their heart.

Fucking barf.

Time passed, maybe ten minutes, my thoughts in a whirl.  Moment to moment, I found myself regretting things I’d said, wishing I’d said other things, and being so frustrated I almost used my power to tear that railing out and crumple it into a ball.  I could imagine punting that ball of metal railing into the wall with enough force it would embed into the hard white surface.

I have newfound power and control and they’re not letting me use it.

I want to get out there.

The railing squeaked with added weight.  Battle damage from the raid on the base hadn’t been completely fixed.

“I talked to Amy Dallon, after I talked to you, the day following the attack on the community center.”

I didn’t respond, and I didn’t look.

“There are so many things I could say about that conversation.  But I don’t want to get distracted.  Suffice to say I told the Wardens I was worried.  I felt like you were possibly right, saying she was dangerous, and I communicated that.  They said they would keep a closer eye on her.  The disaster with the portals and the loss of the headquarters no doubt made that difficult to impossible.”

I nodded.

“More pertinent to this… conversation?  Confession?  Is that she told me she saw herself in me.  The exhaustion.  The weariness, the imminent breakdown.  She used her power on me-”

I whipped my head around, my eyes wide.

Jessica looked so weary, simultaneously alarmed at my alarm.

“Passively,” she said.  “There’s no sign she did anything.”

I looked down, away, my heart hammering.

“Thank you for caring, though,” she said.

I swallowed hard.

“It was… a penetrating comment at a time I was undeniably overworked, overstressed, and trying to shoulder too much of a workload.  It can happen, that the wrong comment at the worst time can devastate you.  I’m sure you know, having dealt with Tattletale, who apparently has that as her power.”

I bit my lip, staring down at the space below the railing, the team rushing down a hallway.

“After that conversation, I cut down on my work.  Delegated.  I reached out, I found colleagues who were willing to help.  I revisited an idea I’d had about having a guest speaker of sorts come in to talk to my therapy group.  I’d brought it up with Weld before.”

“That was because of Amy?” I asked, tensing.

“In small part.  I’m sorry.”

“What happened with Riley, Jessica?”

“How did you even hear about it?” she asked.

“When I visited the source of powers.  I saw the… construction of Tattletale’s power.  It let me see things if I asked.  I asked about Amy a few times.  Asked about you once.”

“Why me?”

“Because you’re not you?” I asked, turning to face her, wounded.  “Because something clearly happened, and you’re retiring?”

Jessica sighed.  “What did you see?”

“Your hands around her throat.  She hurt you in response.  What happened with Riley?”

“After the portal incident, we were isolated.  We were trapped in an alternate universe.  I’d cut back on my workload prior, started to find my way back to who I used to be, old hobbies, old interests.  I tried to hunt down people I knew, through the internet.  The portal took me out of that frame of mind, and put me into a hostile place with exceptionally dangerous people who were, as long as everything was well, being good.”

“And it was your job to ensure it all went well?” I asked.

Jessica nodded.  “I was second in command of our little group.  Leader when Van- when the self-elected leader wasn’t around or when he was sleeping. There were other, more distant camps, and he’d visit them.  The parahumans who had previously been prisoners or test subjects were in an isolated camp as well, about twenty minutes away from the main camp.  I was in charge of that one.  Making sure they were happy, keeping an eye out for danger.”

“Something happened?”

“We endured.  We kept a balance.  It wasn’t easy.  A lot of the foods we experimented with made us violently ill.  Fresh water was in short supply, we were cold, we got sick.  Riley seemed to have saved us, if anything, by analyzing the food and curing the sickest of us- people I deemed so at-risk that it was unlikely she could do too much.  Riley and Jamie Rinke were, to all appearances, angelic, all considered.  Some reining in needed, naturally, and it took everything I had to stay on top of it all, especially with my own bouts with illness, but it worked.  We’d made it out the other side.”

How does that get us from there to you strangling Bonesaw?

I didn’t butt in.

“The ‘other side’ was Valkyrie’s arrival.  We talked.  Everyone began to pack up, and she plotted the way back with Van.  As liaison, it was my job to collect Riley and Jamie.  Jamie was happy to go.  Riley wanted to pack up her lab… and was resistant to my offers to help.”

“Tinkers are touchy.  Little things like fingerprints can cause problems with specific tech.  I have to imagine it’s the same for her work.  Or was she up to something?”

“She was protective of her work in a curtained-off section of her lab.  She wouldn’t let me approach, and my first thought was that we had people in more distant camps who had struck out on their own.  Some parahumans, one couple, a jolly fellow who fancied himself a survivalist and who was taking an optimistic view of the situation.  He would stop in every day or two, and he hadn’t stopped in for two days.  We sent out people to get in touch with him after Valkyrie’s arrival, and they couldn’t find his camp.”

“Worrying,” I echoed the sentiment in her words.

“Terrifying.  Crushing.  Riley adopted her ‘Bonesaw’ persona, acting younger than she appeared- and with the surgeries she subjected herself to, she’ll never appear older than twelve.  Laughing off my questions, being furtive.”

Another superhero team was running down the hall, far below us.

Jessica didn’t elaborate, didn’t explain the whole business.

For a moment, I was terrified that was it.  I was left to draw the worst conclusion.

“She was my responsibility.  I can say what I might say about workload, stress, the inherent difficulties of that situation, but I could have and should have kept more of an eye on her.  The burden of guilt was on me more than it was on one very ill and traumatized young woman in a new and difficult situation.”

“That’s not being fair to yourself.”

“Maybe not,” Jessica said.  “But that was what I felt in that moment.  In working with people with criminal inclinations, part of my job is to protect society, and working with five people with powers, only two a real and present concern, I’d failed to protect a tiny, primitive microcosm of society.  I got angry.  Desperate.  I tried to make her show me.  And somewhere in the midst of it, she lashed out, I grabbed her, or the other way around.”

“Are you okay?”

“She dug her fingers into my arm,” Jessica touched her sleeve.  “And used contacts on her nails to manipulate my nerves, trying to make my arm turn against me.  Tensed muscles until they tore from bone.  I still don’t have the strength I did, I still have constant pain, and that may be a reminder of my lowest moment, furthest from the person I wanted to be.”

I had a half-dozen questions I wanted to ask, but there was no perfect order.

“Was it?  Had she done something?” I asked.

Jessica shook her head.  “Everyone accounted for.  Everyone checked over.  Nothing questionable.  If I had to guess, she was protective of her work because it was all she had to show for the prior timeframe and as you say, it was fragile.  I’ve gone over that conversation a thousand times in my head, since, and I think she might have misread my tone, or misread my impatience as my wanting her to leave it behind.”

“And Bonesaw?” I asked, quiet.  “Is she okay?”

“Riley is Riley, Victoria.  Physically?  Even with nearly every bit of her technology removed from her body, I don’t think there’s much someone could do to her with physical wounds that would last.”

I nodded.  I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

“Mentally?  Emotionally?” Jessica asked.  “She asked to stay.  Valkyrie tried to convince her.  They struck a deal that Valkyrie would visit now and then.  She was ashamed she hurt me like she did.”

“Oh.”

“I think she’s more experienced than most when it comes to enduring betrayals and being hurt by people close to her.  But that makes it more of a betrayal that I perpetrated, Victoria.  Not less.  More of a wrong.”

And in the doing, I thought, because there was no way in hell I’d say it out loud, you proved my sister right?  Tired, sick, desperate and scared, you perpetrated what you see as an unforgivable betrayal?

“I can’t support or help anyone until I relearn how to support and help myself,” she told me.  “I know you want and need me to be my old self, but I need to rediscover her, first.  For myself first, then for others.  If that’s even possible.”

Something about her tone at the end there made me look at her, study her.

“Did you trigger?” I asked.

She didn’t move a hair.

“Because I know your policies, and I can imagine you’d be the type to suppress it, do what retired capes are doing, pretending you don’t have powers, that a purely civilian life is possible, but-”

“Victoria,” she interrupted me.

I stopped.

She shook her head at me, before dropping her gaze to the crowds below us.

And hopes were dashed.  Jessica was out of reach.

“I’m sorry that happened, Jessica.”

“So am I.”

My screen glowed with the text message from the Wardens, in the second before I drew a circle, radiating out to another application, which showed a map of the Headquarters.  Once Cauldron’s, then Teacher’s, now the Wardens’.

I found the coordinates and the room.

I knocked.

Fidgeted.

Had a small crisis of confidence.

The door opened.

Black hair, thick and long, tied back.  One eye half-lidded, due to injury or birth defect.  He wore a gray marled long-sleeve t-shirt and sleep pants.  I liked the way he wore both of those things.

“Anelace,” I said.

He studied me, glancing past me to see if my team or anyone else was there.

“Problem?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“What’s going on?”

I looked off to the side, thumbs hooked in belt loops.  “You’ve… given me hints before.  That you’re interested.”

“Blatant ones.  Yeah.  Why?”

“I’m interested.  You and me, no strings attached, you let me lead.  We go our separate ways after, stay friendly.”

I told myself I wasn’t going to fidget, but my thumb plucked at my belt loop.

He stared into my eyes, brows creasing.  “For real?”

“Yeah.  And if you say no, I’d appreciate we just forgot I made this offer.”

I’d told myself I wasn’t going to say that either.  My thumb plucked at my belt loop again.

“If you’d rather sleep, I know you finished patrol a bit ago.”

And that.  Damn it.

“No,” he said, negating.  He looked at me.  “Yeah.  Yes.”

I started forward.  He put a hand out, flat to my stomach.

“Hold up.”

I remained where I was, frozen, tense, nervous.

“Boundaries?” he asked.  “Or better yet, why?”

I could have lied, or come up with reasons.

“I don’t want to be alone right now.  I want to be the opposite of alone.”

“Okay, then.  That’s why,” he said, and his voice was breathy.  My hair stood on end.  His hand was still flat against my stomach.  “Boundaries?  Rules?  How do we go about this?”

“No talking?” I ventured.  “That’s easier.  Talking leads to thinking and I don’t want to think for the next… thirty minutes.”

“That’s harder.  There’s stuff to figure out partway, there’s questions, do you want… vigorous?  Rough?  Gentle?  Also, holy shit, thirty minutes.”

“Gentle,” I said, barely a whisper.  “It’s okay if thirty minutes is a big ask.  Skin to skin contact.  Tender.  Anything that’s…”

“Not alone?” he asked.

I nodded.

My heart was hammering.  I was terrified.  A whole morass of dark thoughts lurked near the back of my brain, but that other drive won over.  At least in this context.

“I don’t have protection,” he said.

“I do.  Grabbed some on the way over.  For what it’s worth, it’s been… years. I’ve had checkups since then.”

“I’ve been checked up since,” he echoed me.

He stepped out of the doorway.  Inviting me into the dim room.  There wasn’t wall art, but he did have a plant, something like a bonsai, and rocks.  There were some books on the bookshelf, but almost none were sitting up the right way, and most were lying on their side like bricks or stacked up into towers, to make more use of the space.

He couldn’t have even been here that long.  Curious, that he’d bring a plant and rocks to a barracks-style dormitory room.

“My boundary,” He whispered.

“What?”

“I have neighbors.”

“I figured,” I whispered.  “No noise above a whisper.”

He nodded.

My phone was warm in my pocket, the text one gesture away.  Message from the Wardens, verdict reached.  Capricorn, good to go.  Sveta, good to go.  Precipice, a-ok.  Lookout, cleared provided there was supervision.  She would have access to her tech.  No word on Tattletale, but that hardly mattered.

Antares: benched.  Stay nearby, await further instructions.

Anelace began to remove his long-sleeved shirt.  I stopped him.

Silent, his forearms still crossed, hands still at the bottom of his shirt, his abdomen partially exposed.

I pushed his hands away, stepping close enough our chests touched.  No doubt he could feel my heartbeat.

“I want to undress you,” I told him.

“No complaints.”

“Let me lead?  Every step of the way?” I asked again.  “Please?”

“Even for stuff like this?”

I nodded.

“Got it.”

I’d compared the situation room to a shoebox in the midst of a tomb of concrete.  This dorm room was a tenth the size, so small I could reach across it and touch two separate walls.  A bed, shelves, a cabinet.

Two of us, a bit of light, and what felt like a whole world of dark thoughts in the space beyond, like the situation room had had its concrete.

But he was warm.  I kissed him, and it felt both warm and sad.

It helped with that lonely feeling without really solving it.

I pulled off his shirt and I pulled off my sweater.  He stood there, breathing in deep, looking at me, and I breathed that in.  Being wanted.

I thought without thinking about anything, my brain a febrile buzz.

I couldn’t reach out.  Every resource or ally I had was tied up or gone.  I wasn’t supposed to contact my team, my parents weren’t supports, the Warden leadership had its concerns and even Jessica wasn’t available.  I had an appointment with Darnall for later but that did nothing at all for now.

It made me feel isolated, lost, and cold.

So I held onto another warm, willing body, kissing it, pressing it down onto a cot barely big enough for one person.

The approach we were taking as a collective felt wrong.  I’d tried to articulate what I wanted, what I thought we should do.  I’d tried to pursue that, going to where the powers came from.

I had suspicions, but no energy or wherewithal to pursue them.  I wanted to be out there, chasing that gut feeling that had been nettling me.  But I couldn’t.  To do so would be a betrayal on several levels.

It didn’t feel right, but I’d concede to the greater authority.

Base, animal instinct, much neglected, at least, felt kind of right.  It was hard to call it wrong, at least, when it was so far from morality or black and white thinking.

I tasted his skin, his sweat, and I smelled him.  He smelled like herbal tea.  I touched the expanse of him and I looked at him in the dim.  Between tasting him and smelling him, nuzzling him, my face wasn’t more than a half inch from him at any point.  His hair tickled me and mine no doubt tickled him.

I felt the chase of other thoughts, familiar and wrong, and sank deeper into mindless sensation to escape them.  Drank in the small male sounds.

We hadn’t even taken off our pants yet.  Not that the flannel he wore was a real barrier to me feeling him.

I was benched.  We’d submitted to higher authority because we’d told ourselves it got us more than it cost us.  And in the now, the rule was that Victoria Dallon didn’t leave until there were further discussions.

That was the law, so to speak.  Closest we had to one.

Follow the law, when that fails, do what feels right.  When that fails, reach out.

Above all else, avoid doing what I might regret tomorrow.

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this tomorrow, but I felt like I might regret it.  Opening doors, opening the way to being chased by thoughts I didn’t even dare come close to.  The awkwardness.  Feeling like I was betraying Dean.  Feeling like it might hurt my reputation.  A hundred other small reasons, and prime among them was the concern that I felt like if I wasn’t careful, I could shed tears.  I had no idea if they were happy ones or sad ones.

But that regret was for tomorrow.

He made a noise, just loud enough it might disturb the neighbors.  I silenced him by kissing him, taking his hands and putting them where I wanted them, before raising my pelvis so I’d have access to my belt.

This was what I needed now.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Sundown – 17.5

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

“To recap again,” Amy’s voice came through the screen.  “On our side of the call, we have myself, Flashbang, Marquis, and two gentlemen from the local government, who I’m told you’ve met, Victoria.  Luis and Gabin.”

Fuck you, I thought.

My mother answered, “On our end, to name people familiar to you, we have the family, Vista, Narwhal, and two more people from the Wardens.”

“Oh, I didn’t know Vista was there.  I hope you’re doing well, Vista.”

Fuck you, I thought.  This isn’t a social function.

“I’ll be happier when we’ve ensured everyone’s safe,” Vista said, a little more terse than she had been earlier.

“We can work on that,” Amy sounded encouraged, when I wouldn’t have told her to be, given Vista’s tone and pure focus on the business at hand.  “The situation is that you’ve got the Machine Army on your doorstep and it’s been there for a while.  Shin has serious concerns about Gimel’s problems becoming their problems, because you guys don’t have the best track record of keeping your messes contained.”

You don’t have the best track record of keeping your own shit contained, Amy.  Who the fuck do you think you are, saying that?

“Having a giant with interdimensional powers stomping through the city and our quarantine hurts the containment of our mess,” Narwhal said, from ten feet away.

Narwhal’s response had been loud enough that the microphone apparently caught it, because Amy responded.  “Essential traces of the person he was are still intact.  Chevalier wanted to take care of people, protect, hold the line.  So does the Gibborim Knight.  That’s all he wants.”

“Is that because you brainwashed him?”

Multiple heads turned my way.  I didn’t look at them, instead staring at the screen.

“I don’t brainwash people, Victoria.  That implies there was a brain to wash.  He was a blank slate.  We brought out the traits and aspects that make him want to work with us.”

“My mistake,” I said.  “You’re right.”

Fuck you.  I had to resist mouthing the words.

The screen showed four giants of Amy’s creation.  One giant from the past, Dauntless.

A marker showed Chevalier’s team on the map, making his own approach.  I had no idea what even an elite team of Wardens could do, but they were apparently planning to get involved on some level.  Or planning on being there to mitigate the damage.

“Borders are sovereign,” Narwhal said.  “We’re in a state of emergency, and I know for a fact you know that, because you helped us arrange accommodations for more than a million refugees.  You can’t move a massive power that you have untested control over through our city-”

“Evacuated city,” Amy said.

“Partially evacuated.  And still sovereign, sensitive territory,” Narwhal retorted.

“The diplomats are talking,” my father said.  “One moment?”

“Of course,” Narwhal told him.

Amy started to say something, but someone put them on mute, or took them off ‘talk’.

Nobody asked or signaled to put us on mute.  We stood where we stood, all of us gathered around the one desk, sitting or standing by chairs, leaning against a wall in Narwhal’s case.  My mom sat off to the left of the desk, partially in the aisle.

I looked up at the screen.  The ‘Gibborim Knight’ was there, still fashioning its armor, still trudging forward.  It had built boots to cover its feet, which had been sandals before, and was building cross-straps for its chest.  The expression it wore was a focused, determined one, even as its face broke apart into three transparent versions.

“The snark isn’t helpful,” Narwhal told me, her voice low, too quiet for even the people at the desk to hear.

“Snark?” I asked, matching her in volume.  I thought back.  “No.  Not at all.  I wouldn’t play games.”

“I certainly hope not,” she said.  “This is diplomacy.”

I kept my voice quiet, “Amy wants to hear that she’s right more than she cares about the accusation.”

“This isn’t about her.  This is about the very real, present, and unknown danger to the city.  Please.”

“It’s the same thing in my view.”

She stood straighter, which was imposing given her height, build, and the way she was covered in a ‘winter coat’ of forcefield crystals.  Not in the sense of a jacket-type coat, but of an animal’s thicker fur.  “And I would prefer to keep them as separate focuses.  We compartmentalize, isolate the problem and fix it.”

“I understand wanting to do that, but I’m… pretty sure you won’t be able to.  I was acting preemptively, I’ll avoid doing that.  I’ll be quieter.  But if my instincts are right, we’ll reach a point where things get messy.  Signal me if you want me to try to curb the messy.”

“Can you?” she asked.

“She’s a damaged individual with a lot of power and one thing she wants that isn’t in line with what Shin-”

“We’re back,” Mark said.

“We’re here,” Narwhal said, turning away from her conversation with me, folding her arms.

“I would summarize their stance as a very pointed ‘Gimel established a precedent’, with our cape concerns and business trampling their sovereignty and security.  I just got two signals of confirmation from them.”

“This is willful and dangerous.  We’ve been on good terms in recent days, some minor incidents aside.”

“We’re interested in continuing the trend of recent days,” Amy said.  “Shin’s desire has been to make things more fair from a power standpoint.  You guys were happy to throw your weight around with powers and theoretical military might.  You had the ability to send special forces out to handle crises elsewhere, in places that weren’t the city.  Now we can do the same.”

“The diplomats are nodding their heads,” my dad said.  “They’re in agreement.”

Narwhal asked, “For right now, can you stop it?  All power use, all movement?  The Dauntless Titan is mobilized, and we have no idea how threatening it is.  It might be picking a fight, tapping your giant knight for power, or creating a confluence of power that disrupts everything.”

“Stopping it could be more dangerous.  Let’s get him to his destination, and he can begin his work.  We think he can cut back the Machine Army in a way you guys haven’t been able to.  If the Dauntless Titan fights him, isn’t it better if it happens in the old Earth than in your city?”

“At the edges of a quarantine zone?” Narwhal asked.  “No.  Not at all.”

“If this fails, we have other options.  I can use my power.  A disease to infect the machines and sweep over our old Earth and the Machine Army.”

Narwhal approached the desk, leaning over it, and looked over at Carol.  “That makes no sense.”

“A day ago, you probably would have said the Shin Defense Initiative made no sense,” Amy rebutted.

“If you recall, Red Queen, I’ve named at least three good reasons why your giants make no sense and are exceptionally dangerous in the current predicament.”

“The government on our side feels differently,” Amy said.

“You seem… very intent on charging forward with this.  Is it to provide a proof of concept?  A demonstration of strength?  Assuming the giants were safe and totally out of control, pretending for the moment that the Dauntless Titan wasn’t on the approach, and assuming a hypothetical where the Machine Army was an immediate and present threat, an equal power relationship would involve discussion and compromise.”

“Not equal,” Amy said.  “Fair.

On her side of the call, no doubt harder to make out than Narwhal had been for them to make out, I could hear a male voice.  I imagined Luis, the smartly-dressed black man with the umbrella who had been in Goddess’s company, who had kind of fucked us over with the Shin prison thing.  Him or the other guy.

“Luis says ‘Just’,” Amy translated.

Fuck you.

“Can you elaborate on your stance?” Narwhal asked.

“If you’ll give me a second, I’ll translate,” my father said.

“Thank you.”

I had a bad feeling.  It was hard to put my finger on.

If I had to, if I was challenged to, I kind of felt like the way Amy had said ‘just‘ was the kind of way the old me would have said it.  The old me who had faced down a human trafficker that had coerced and sold teenage girls into prostitution and knocked his literal teeth out.

‘Just’ was only a good word if the person leaning on them felt like they were making the concession.  I want to see her die burning, but I have to grudgingly admit that would be wrong and barbaric.  Ten years in prison and a course toward rehabilitation is ‘just’.  Justice.

But if it came from the top, from a place of paramount power, from a place of satisfaction, then ‘just’ changed from ‘justice’ to ‘justification’.  Justification for revenge.  Justification for wrongs.

My dad explained, “Luis says he speaks for the rest of this world with this.  The Wardens, Megalopolis, and Megalopolis government have had years now to demonstrate how to act when holding the reins of power.  Now they intend to use this as a model.  This is their justice.  We have four giants, and any one of those giants could be a match for one of your teams.  We have six more on the way right now, they’ll be done in a matter of four hours.  By this time tomorrow we can have ten.  By the end of the week, it will be fifteen.”

He sounded a little awed by what he was relaying.  No doubt he had Amy beside him, looking confident.

Was it only now sinking in?

What are you doing, dad?

What are you thinking?

Narwhal strode over to another desk, leaning over to talk to a tech.

“Are you there?” Amy asked.

“Yes,” Narwhal’s voice came over our speakers, as she spoke through a microphone at the other desk.

On the screen above, the map of Shin changed, indicating more icons like the ones we’d used for the giants.  Each had a timer above them.

“Give us a moment,” my mom told them.

“Of course,” my dad said.

I saw the ‘mute’ button appear on the monitor on the desk.

“Brandish,” Narwhal called out.

“Yes?”

“Miss Militia’s notes say Shin places a high emphasis on family.”

“They do.  I saw it when I was there.”

“If you can have a pleasant conversation with your husband, and if you’re comfortable being open in front of this many people-”

“I can.”

“It wouldn’t be out of place for a businessman to break from business to tend to a child, or to call a wife about an errand.  It would even make them appear stronger.  It’s part of the reason Flashbang is on the call.”

“I’ll do that.”

“Only do it if you can keep it pleasant and positive.”

“Understood.”

The mute button disappeared.

“I’ve missed you, Mark.  You’ve missed things.”

Was my mom thinking about last night’s conversation?  Sins of decades past?

“I can imagine,” my dad said.  “Packed up and moved for the evacuation?”

“Our things are packed.  I’m staying at our niece’s apartment, we’re packing.  We saw my sister this morning.”

A pause.

“…Through valkyrie?”

“Valkyrie.  We had a very emotional conversation, reuniting.  Crystal was there.  Victoria too, but she had other reunions too.”

“I-I have missed things.  What do I even say to that?”

“Wow,” I heard Amy say.  “I didn’t think she’d finish that project.”

Was it just me, that felt like that line was so alien, intrusive, and out of place?

Vista turned in her chair, giving me a brief weirded-out look.

Thank you, Vista.  You’re a gem.  I appreciate you being freaked out by that more than I can tell you.

“Well, she did,” Carol said.  “I’m sorry you both missed the reunion.”

“Was Mike there?”

“No, they weren’t able to get in touch.  I would love to have you and him there for a future meeting.  You’re doing good work there, Mark.”

Amy’s voice cut through, “How was she?  Aunt Sarah.”

“As well as could be expected,” my mom said.  “Considering her death and rebirth.”

“I wish I could check on her.  On all of you.”

Fuck you, I thought.

“There’s no need,” my mother said.

“There’s some need, mom.  You’re still not better.  You left abruptly to look after Victoria.  Victoria?”

I wanted to jump in, deliver a biting line about Hunter, asking if she’d healed her yet.  I wanted to attack Amy, to tear her down, get past all of those layers of defenses, with the benefit of the fact that she couldn’t reach me here, and that I didn’t have to look at her.  Shout at her, scream at her, point out her flaws in logic, put her on the defensive, and put my metaphorical boot through that defense.

“I’m here.  What is it?” I asked.

“Is mom walking without difficulty?  Is the head injury healed?”

“That’s a bit personal,” I said.

“Please?  We’re being personal already, talking about reunions and rebirth.”

“She’s strong.  You wouldn’t know something’s wrong unless you knew what to look for.”

I saw my mom smile slightly.

No, Victoria.  You said you’d help me.  That means being honest,” Amy said, her voice touched by the stress.

Narwhal was working on stuff at the other desk, phone at her ear.  I could look up from the screen that was tracking the ongoing call, and I could see the map below the image of the Gibborim Knight.  More teams were being deployed, in addition to Chevalier’s.

“There’s a ways to go,” I conceded.

“Exactly, see?  I know you have your war wounds, Victoria.  I could have healed them on your last visit, if the circumstances had been different.  Dad has his head injury.  Uncle Mark, Eric, and Sarah all died-”

“I’d rather not talk about them,” Crystal spoke up.

“But listen.  What if we don’t have to do that anymore?  What if Lab Rat and I brew up the means to tackle the real emergencies and disasters?  Villain warlords?  Machine Armies?  Out of control powers?  Rifts in reality?  We create something like this.  Incredibly strong, durable, and ultimately victimless.”

And we weren’t talking about family anymore.  Amy had twisted the conversation back to her agenda.

An aggrieved looking Narwhal patched back into the conversation, “We have zero guarantee that this would be victimless.  This has complicated our situation with Dauntless and lives may be lost from that alone.  You’re assuming a degree of control over these things that hasn’t been tested or proven, and if you lost control it would clearly be catastrophic.  Both for Shin and for the Megalopolis.”

“I’m in control.”

“Even if we assumed one hundred percent-”

“I’ve been working on it with Marquis, and I did pick up some things from associating with Glaistig Uaine and growing up with superheroes.”

“Even if we assumed one hundred percent control, there are other risks.  That someone could control you and control them through you.”

“Don’t those risks apply to Dragon?  She has her A.I.”

“Dragon has oversight.  Her partner, other Wardens.  We know her well enough that we could handle such a situation.”

“Do you?  I was told it was a bit of a revelation that she was an A.I.”

“Not to the higher-ups,” Narwhal said.

“I have oversight too, don’t worry.  Family, a colleague, protectors, a small army of loyal parahumans who’ve defected to our parahuman-only state, and the rest of Shin.  I’m protected.  I know I’m protected, because I know I’m inconvenient enough to your power base that you’d want to remove me.”

She sounded high.  I felt agitated, deeply uncomfortable, with that dark and paralyzing cloud of panic creeping in.   I didn’t think drugs were involved, but…

I approached Narwhal, but she was talking.

“That’s not how we operate.”

“They know what they’re working with when they’re working with me.  Someone who doesn’t buy into the superhero stuff, who knows from personal, visceral experience what kind of things can happen.”

I indicated I wanted to speak to Narwhal, and she used a forcefield to lift a pad of paper my way.  An employee handed me a pen.

“We’re running out of time to act,” Narwhal said.  “Something visceral will happen if you keep stalling.  Is that what you want?”

“I’m not stalling, even in the slightest.  I’m laying out my points and you haven’t really answered any of them.”

Fuck you, I thought.

My hand was shaking too much to clearly put pen to paper.  I hadn’t realized I was that affected.

Fuck you too, pen.

With a jagged letter ‘S’ to start, I wrote:

She’s high.  Not drugs
Riding a rush of optimism, feeling powerful, feeling needed
hopeful, & above all she is at the center of family

You can knock down any argument & any individual feeling but she will fall back on the rest. You won’t stop it without knocking down all at once, but this will lead to poss breakdown.

Manipulate her.

I hesitated before handing it to Narwhal.  I turned, then handed it to Darnall, because he was a step closer to me than Jessica.

He and Jessica read it, and he whispered something into her ear.  She nodded.

I felt somehow more nervous about that than I would about handing the pad as it was to Narwhal.

He held out his hand for the pen, wrote something down, and then handed me pad and pen both.

He’d added a line to the bottom.

This isn’t working – WyD

I handed it to Narwhal, who was talking.  “…question of control is something you have to prove to us, not something we have to prove you lack.  Especially with something this grave.”

“What proof were the Wardens supplying to Shin?”

“On the core Wardens team alone, our chief members alone, we have more than two hundred years between us, of reliable public service, years of showing respect to law and order, restraint, courage, and virtue.”

“And you trusted me.”

“With supervision,” Narwhal said, finally reading the note.

“You trusted me to supervise.”

“With supervision of your own, Red Queen,” Narwhal said.  “You don’t have those same decades of public service, and you do have some glaring marks on your record.”

“You guys let the world end!  How can you get more glaring than that!?” Amy raised her voice.

“You were there as well, and you played a complicating role there too, and I’m sorry, I need to step away.  Something’s happening with the greater situation.  Do you want to stay on the line or should I call?”

“I’ll stay.”

Narwhal motioned.  A tech put the call on mute.

“Greater situation?” Cinereal asked, from the sidelines.

“I’m not technically lying.  It is happening-”  Narwhal indicated the map.  “-but we’re getting bogged down.”

“We’re no closer to resolving this,” Cinereal said.  “Chevalier is close enough to observe, his squads are in position, but we’re holding off until other squads arrive.”

“Antares provided me a note, suggesting another track.  I know we’re definitely on the wrong one.  Who or what is WyD?”

“Me,” Darnall said.  “I can’t confirm because I don’t know Amy, but I can say this reminds me of a video I watched of a Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy patient.  What Antares described to me seems apt.”

“Is this Munchausen’s?” Crystal asked.

“No.  But there are parts of it I recognize.  Victoria describes this as a ‘high’, if I can explain?”

“Go ahead,” I said.

“A rush of optimism, validation, hope, delusion, and a need to feel needed.  MSBP patients will lie about someone being sick so they can be the savior.  Here, we have a situation misrepresented, and she’s put herself forward as a savior.  It validates her feelings.  Victoria says that you can’t knock down one side of her argument, because the remainder will hold her up.”

“And if you do knock down one wall, by the time you get to the second or third, that first wall is back up, arguments conveniently forgotten,” I said.  “I welcome Vista, Crystal, my mother, and the therapists arguing me down, here.”

“She didn’t use to be like this,” Crystal said.

“She totally did, but the stakes weren’t as high,” I told her.  “The thought processes were like that.  She was… stubborn’s the wrong word.  Fluid.  No backbone.”

“Let’s stay focused on the matter at hand,” Narwhal said.

“Two ways forward,” I said.  “Break her, or manipulate her.  I know that sounds awful, but… we’ve kind of tried being nice.  If we could get her into custody and get her treatment, that would be best.  Or… prison world and remote therapy.  That’s not doable when she’s secured herself as the source of Shin’s power base.”

“To say you’ll break someone sounds horrifying,” Crystal admitted.  “Especially someone we once saw as family.”

“Can you?” Cinereal asked.

“I think I could, if I had to,” I replied.  “I think I got close, in the Shin prison, when she cornered me, but there was a very real risk she would use her power on me, then.”

God, it felt so fucking weak, saying that when I didn’t have the context, with all of these people listening and watching.  I could smash through walls, I was invincible, I had my aura, but there had been context there.  My teammates’ lives on the line, the hostages.

I desperately wanted someone to chime in, to point those things out, like my mom had chimed in for Vista.

But no, it just hung out there.

“‘Breaking’ someone like Amy could be disastrous,” Narwhal said.

“It might not mean breaking her down one hundred percent,” I replied.  “It could mean shaking Shin’s faith in her.”

“I can see the merits,” Cinereal said.

“I can’t,” Narwhal retorted.  “The risks are higher, especially when you’re having to make them concerned enough that it outweighs their concern about us, and the cultural fears and concerns that stem from Goddess.”

“But the long-term benefit is Shin realizes this is a stupid idea.”

“What about manipulation?” Narwhal asked.

“She has so much of what she wants, but she wants me, her sister, maybe more than all the rest of it.”

I caught Jessica’s expression changing as I said it.  I looked away, and looked at my mom, and… that didn’t make things better.

What the hell was I doing here?  Was it possible to feel like I was the only person who could handle this, and simultaneously I was the last person who should be here?

I swallowed.  “Just by being a part of this conversation with her, I’m sticking my neck out a bit.  But if it takes her mind off her current goals… I can distract her.”

Saying those words gave me a feeling like a sinking feeling, but in every direction, a quiet, crawling horror, and then I didn’t feel connected to the body or the voice that was positing that idea.  I could imagine it being like what Darlene did, remotely in a body, managing thoughts, but not owning those actions, thoughts, or that body.

Every second I experienced it, it was worse, colder, more quietly horrifying.

“I would prefer distraction,” Narwhal told me.

“Okay,” I said, still feeling like I was a very here kind of far away.  “I can do that.”

“Our goal is to divert the titan.”

“Delay?” I asked.

“We would accept delay.”

“Okay.  Feel free to start us up again.  I’ll jump in.  If I’m unsure about something, I’ll give you a note.”

“You stop if I signal.  You listen to any instructions I give you.”

“Got it,” I said.

“I’ll be in contact with Chevalier,” Cinereal said.

The screen colors changed as the ‘mute’ indicators disappeared.

“We’re back,” Narwhal said.  “Any issues on your end?”

“None,” Amy said.  “What happened?”

“We have less than ten minutes before Dauntless meets your Gibborim Knight.  This is a fight that seems bound to happen, unless you pull back-”

“We can’t do that in good conscience,” Amy said.  “And I’ll remind you, you were the ones saying I was trying to delay or buy time, but you took a good few minutes just now to handle your issue.  Don’t say there’s a time limit like it bothers us.  We’re confident in what we’re doing.  You’re the ones fretting.”

“Shin is concerned about the threat the Machine Army poses.  We have a decision to make about what the venue will be for that intersection of two powers.  A critically sensitive quarantine zone or a city where any power use could be what sets off a multi-world disaster.  We should consider the city.”

“No.  The quarantine zone.  I know the knight’s capabilities.”

“Do you know Dauntless’s?”

“More than you would think,” Amy said.

“Then reassure me.”

“I’ve used my power to study people representing key pieces of infrastructure among powers.  I can understand powers fundamentally, by touching people close enough to powers.  That’s how I can do this.  With Lab Rat’s help to precipitate things, I can create vessels that take the person out of the power, and leave us with incredibly powerful tools.”

“I believe you,” I said.

Narwhal stepped back, giving me a look of barely restrained patience.  I could tell she just wanted to convince Amy, and she’d keep trying if given the chance.

“I hope you believe me,” Amy said, with a huff of a sound that might have been a short laugh.

“You’ve touched it, I’ve walked it,” I said.

“What?”

“I went there.  Last night.  To the place the powers come from.  One of them, apparently.  Breakthrough, Damsel of Distress, Tattletale.”

“What the hell are you doing, associating with Tattletale?”

“That doesn’t matter,” I said.  “Focus, Amy.”

“I’ve wondered where you get some weird ideas in your head about me, and now I find out you’ve been associating with the queen of head-screws?  It kind of really does matter.”

“Amy,” I said.  “Believe it or not, I’m giving you the one damn thing you’ve been asking for.  I’m kind of on your side.  As of last night, I’ve been there, I’ve seen what you’ve seen, I’m pretty sure.  Stop fighting me for five seconds and accept that fact.”

There was a silence on the other end.

“Assuming you’re telling the truth,” Amy said, more subdued now.  “You guys are desperate.  Is Tattletale there?”

“No,” I said.

“We’re getting sidetracked,” Narwhal said.

I leaned forward, hand on the desk.  “Point is, Amy, she gave us some insights.  You knew Swansong.  You sort of know Damsel by proxy.  You know Swansong was being paid for her insights into the powers and the place they come from.  Damsel was there.”

“And now you’re going to tell me that I’m wrong, I don’t get it, you think you know more than me after… what, a day there?  Half a day? Hours?”

“Amy.  Stop.  You asked for my help, I’m giving it.  I can’t believe I’m doing it, but here we fucking are, so stop.”

The silence was tense.  Had I pushed it with the ‘fucking’?  I could see it being too informal, when this was technically a diplomatic meeting.

“Listen to your sister.”

My mom’s voice.  I looked over at her.

“…What do you want from me?” Amy finally spoke, more subdued.

“Let’s talk about this one workable bit of common ground.  Remember how I was super into studying powers?”

“Of course I do.”

“Still am.  I’ve got a bookshelf filled with my collection of power texts, case files, notes…”

Narwhal motioned for me to hurry up.

“…and I studied a lot while I was in the hospital.  After…”  I trailed off.

“I know, yeah,” Amy said.

“So you know your thing.  I know my thing.  Explain.  Let’s talk about your Chevalier.”

“Okay.  Cryptid stole a scan of his DNA during one of the back-and-forths with the Wardens.  I used that scan to make something close enough the power could reach back, leaving the floodgates to power open, Chris forced the connection and gave it a body that could handle the power, like a lot of the broken triggers can’t.”

“But why him?  Why is he the one you’re sending?”

“Because he exists in multiple states at once, and the Machine Army, I’m told, does the same thing.  They compress seeds of their material into dense matter and when they have something big and dense enough, even a boulder, they use them to house interdimensional pockets.  The biggest machines and installments have those same pockets.  If you nuke the area, that pocket leaks out, and before you know it, you’ve got an infestation again.  He can get past that and do enough damage.”

“They have other tech.  Other countermeasures.  Is your knowledge of the Machine Army limited to what Dot told you?  Your goblin?”

“No,” Amy said.

“‘Lo.”

“Hello, Dot,” I said, my voice tense.  “Are you looking after Amy like I asked you to?”

“Uh huh.  Kinda.”

“I was briefed on the Machine Army in some depth,” Amy said.  “They wanted to see if I could do something that would clear them away.  I had to make pathogens that would stay long enough to capture the leak, or be able to get through it.”

Narwhal wrote something on a note.

“They said no to that,” I read.

“Yes, but that was then.”

“Good to know.  Is he going to punch his way through it?  Overturn every stone?  This is a replicating robot threat that infects, recycles, and adapts.”

“He can.  At least in a swathe around the portal.  He can cut them back.”

“And if they infect him?  We know they can operate interdimensionally.  They can plant those seeds.”

“He can chew them up.  It’s his domain and focus.  It’s like saying they have blowtorches, so they’re a threat to a burning continent.”

“They have blowtorches, and they got those blowtorches scarily fast.  It’s like saying those people who learned to make blowtorches with amazing speed might learn and adapt to that burning continent, given enough time.”

“I don’t intend to give them time.”

“You said a swathe around the portal.  A secure area?”

“Yes, but that’s for now.  I wanted to reassure you this was going to be quick and painless.  In a matter of hours we’ll have other strong powers.  Other clones.  We have tools.”

“Amy, you’re fighting me again.  Are we collaborating on this or not?”

“I’m not fighting you.”

“Are we collaborating?  Come on, time’s getting shorter.  Is there a world where you’re with Shin, I’m here in the city, and we work together to find a solution that makes both sides happy?”

I kept my voice level, but the look in my eyes was a steady glare, the feeling in my stomach a stew-pot of indignation and disgust, and my body still didn’t feel like it was my own, in the eerieness of the moment.  Like a tiny, healthy part of me had fled or pulled back so it wouldn’t have to hear her voice, or hear mine putting words together like ‘collaborating’.

“We already ruled out compromise,” Luis said.

“We didn’t exactly,” Amy said.  “If it comes down to compromise or Shin backing down, we won’t-”

The call cut off.  Muting.

I drew in a deep breath.  My fingernail-less finger dug into the soft part of my thumb, like I could stab it.

I didn’t look at the others present, the entirety of my focus on this.

“Mark?” My mom asked.  “Is this doable?”

There was only silence.  Their side was still muted.

I looked up at the map.  Four minutes until interception.  Until Dauntless met Chevalier.

The Chevalier had paused at a stockpile of construction materials, gathering more things.  A weapon, a shield, armor for the chest, armor for the face.  The interception time didn’t change much as a consequence of his stalling.  He was wholly focused on his mission.

I was wholly focused on mine.

“Mark,” my mom said.  “Can our girls do this?”

Ah.  That was why she’d spoken up.  She’d wanted to get in that ‘our girls’ bit.

My skin felt uncomfortable against the meat of me beneath.  I felt betrayed, even though I knew exactly why she was doing what she was doing.

“We can,” Amy’s voice came through.  “Shin won’t back down on this.  We won’t trust you to handle everyone’s crises, and the Machine Army is a big enough threat that it counts as everyone’s problem.  We want our Chevalier out there.”

“Where is the collaboration in that?” I asked.

“Our forces standing next to your forces.  I manage the Shin Defense Initiative, you handle your side.  Ongoing relationship.”

“I don’t see the relationship there.  That sounds like you doing what you want and expecting me to go along,” I said.

“You’d be free to do whatever you wanted.  I’m not trying to control you.”

I saw Darnall move in the corner of my vision.  He was staring at me.

I wracked my brain, thinking about options.  The pieces in play.

“I preferred talking about powers,” I said.

“You would,” Amy said, like she was familiar with me, and we were having a casual conversation.

“Nah,” I said, and it was really hard not to inject a terminal amount of venom into the negation.    “This is about you.  You were never that into the boots-on-the-ground cape stuff.  You never imagined yourself as team leader of a cape team.”

“No, I never did.  But I kind of stumbled into something way bigger,” she said.

“But you don’t enjoy it, you don’t go straight to the capes and how you can use them.  You’re more introspective.”

“Sure,” she answered.  “Yeah.  So?  It’s not possible, we can’t possibly lead our individual sides?”

Her voice got more bitter toward the tail end.

“I don’t think it’s possible, for a lot of reasons,” I told her.  “But I think there are other possibilities.”

Knock down a wall… erect another.

Narwhal was looking impatient.

“What possibility?” Amy asked.

“Problem solving.  Inventing solutions.  Putting our heads together.”

Gag.

The silence was always telling.  Like Amy was digesting, processing, and testing a possibility against every damn possible contradiction she could come up with.  Did it challenge anything essential?  Did it threaten a fragile worldview she was holding up?  Was it a trap?

“…Sure.  What are you thinking?”

I looked up at the screens.

The ‘Gibborim Knight’.  The Nursery-Agent.  The Dauntless.  Two more.  Many more pending.

Two of those were immediate concerns.

And the timer was ticking down.  Interception imminent.

“Don’t send the Gibborim Knight.”

“Victoria, that’s not-”

Fucking listen to me, you miserable, deluded little monster!” I snarled, with the venom I’d been suppressing.  A hostility that seemed to surprise more than a few people present.  “Fucking listen for five seconds before you reject an idea, or I swear-”

Narwhal put a hand to my shoulder, holding me back.

My volume dropped, the venom scaling back.  “The stakes are too high.  You either stop, slow down, and listen, or that’s it.  Last effort you’ll ever get from me.  I’m offering you a solution.”

“Ultimatums are manipulative,” Marquis’s voice came through.

I could have killed him, if he were actually present.

“Fucking right they are.  If anyone but you speaks, Amy, or if you give me a refusal instead of a hearing out, that’s it.  I’m walking out of this room, and I’ll drop something massive on you from a place so high up you can’t even see me before I even run allow myself the chance of reaching out to you again.  Decide.”

I had probably alienated so many people with the outburst.  Hurt my standing with good capes.

I had tears in my eyes and I hated it.  I gave so much of myself to reach out, for the sake of others, and even for her, to extend her small graces and benefits of doubt, and she didn’t even give me a spare thought.  It wasn’t that she didn’t reach back.  It was that she didn’t even think to.

“Okay,” she said.

“The Nursery creation.  It produces lifeforms?”

“…Yes.”

“Out of imperfect meat?  Like most power-created life?”

“…It does.  Yes.”

“It spawns things that produce the aura, area-altering effect?”

“…Yes.”

She hesitated before each statement.  Being careful, holding herself back.

“Can it produce life that doesn’t have that interdimensional effect?”

“The spawn it makes can.”

“Then can you have it send a stream of its minions to the quarantine site?  Have them file in, dig things up, push things around, and fight the machines.  It should be single file, past the danger area where an ongoing fight would disrupt quarantine.”

“I can’t.”

I tensed.

“But that’s not me being unwilling.  It’s the control over the lesser minions I’m worried about.  I-”

Amy hesitated.

I glared at the screen.

“-I could go.  I’ll give individual instructions to each spawned giant we’re sending to the quarantine zone, until we have enough there or we find another option.”

“Does that postpone the creation of the other SDI soldiers?” I could hear a Shin-accented voice.  Luis’s colleague.

“Probably, but we’re ahead of schedule,” Amy said.

I looked at Narwhal.  She didn’t look happy, but she was nodding a bit.

Delays, at least, were a bit of sugar, making an imperfect compromise a bit easier to swallow.

“…The other problem is that they’re strong, but they’ll lose eventually,” Amy said.  “How is this any better?”

“Power produced materials don’t make good building materials or supplies.  It was part of what slowed down the city rebuild.  Why we couldn’t feed the masses with power-generated flesh.  If the Machine Army tries to make or fuel anything with the meat, then that will degrade or suffer for it.  It poisons their well.  Keep your Gibborim Knight and Nursery away.  If Dauntless is pursuing them, pull them back, bait him out of the city.  You get your presence at the quarantine zone, Shin gets to be needed, we get both of the immediate threats resolved.”

“No,” Luis cut in.

I turned away from the screen.  Ready to leave.  The only reason I didn’t was that I met Jessica’s eyes.

“Yes!” Amy called out.  “Yes.  Pulling back the Gibborim Knight now.  I’ll send the Mother of Mothers’ minions in shortly.”

I could hear the exchange of words.  Luis was pissed.

“We’ll work it out,” Mark said.  The call cut off.  I could believe he was the one to do it, seizing the moment.

Maybe he’d pay for it.  For shutting off the call, making things harder, not playing along like a little kind-of prisoner of Shin.

Nobody really commented, except for an exchange of words murmured between Cinereal and Narwhal.  People focused on their work.  Only Crystal, Vista, and my mom glanced at me.  My mom was the only one who held that eye contact for more than a second or two.

The timer sat at two minutes, twelve seconds, and it began to increase.  Not increasing as fast as it ticked down, but the time stretched out.  Someone input something, and the clock updated.  Seven more minutes remaining.

The Chevalier cloned agent was retreating.

“We have to direct it,” Narwhal said.  “Send it out of the city and away from any refugee settlements.  Get in touch with Shin ASAP.”

“Was that okay?” I asked, quiet, not taking my eyes off the screen.  “I know it’s not how you would’ve wanted to do it, but-”

“It was,” Narwhal said.  “We weren’t getting through.  You did.  We’ll take that for what it is.”

“You could really use my team on this,” I said, still quiet, subdued, like I was a lesser person in the aftermath of it all, despite my best efforts.  “Holding them back doesn’t make sense.  Lookout can keep an eye on Shin, and we really need one.  Precipice has gotten past Mathers twice and he was the one who got her.  Mathers is, I’m guessing, why the precogs aren’t on this.”

“Her and the Goddess clone.  We can talk about that shortly.  It may be best to stick to the schedule for the review by Warden Leadership.  It’s slow but less complicated, and we could do with less complicated,” Narwhal said.

I nodded.

She turned back to the screen, but the hand she’d laid on my shoulder earlier was still there, shifting to a resting one as she turned in a quarter-circle, more reassuring.

It remained there for a few seconds, before someone needed her to take a tablet with some team information on it.

“Excuse me,” I said, feeling hollowed out. “I need a breath of fresh air.”

My mom wasn’t fast enough out of her seat, and I motioned for her to stay down.  Crystal didn’t follow.  Vista had her duties.

Darnall and Jessica intercepted me, like the Dauntless Titan and accompanying Simurgh seemed intent on intercepting the Chevalier.

A matter of seconds, for them to intercept me.  A matter of seven minutes, for the titan to meet the giant.

They met me out in the hall.  All of us were dead silent, as we walked past Golem and Cuff.  Past two members of the flock.

“I probably just validated every fear you’ve had about the Victoria from Teacher’s doctored diary,” I said.

Jessica didn’t answer.

“Do you need anything?” Darnall asked.

I shook my head.

“Can I call someone?”

“Half the people you could call are in that room and saw that.  The other half I’m not allowed to talk to,” I said, bitter.  And I could understand why I wasn’t allowed to talk to them, but fuck.

And I didn’t like Darnall.  I respected him, but I didn’t like him.

And I couldn’t look at Jessica without imagining her strangling her patient.

“How are you?” Darnall asked.  “Would you rather Jessica step away, we can have a chat?”

I shook my head.

I wanted the opposite, despite those intrusive thoughts about the strangling.

“I don’t know what else I could have or should have done,” I said.  “I’m legitimately scared, because I gave her implicit permission to approach, to get closer to me.  I feel gross and hollow and shitty, and I can’t- can’t take the feelings and tie strings to them and connect them to the origins.  Except I know I hate her.  So much.  I hate that she makes me feel like this.  I hate that she won’t go away.  I hate that I want to get far away from being the Victoria who took satisfaction and relief from beating up Nazis and at the same time all I want right now is to fly away, ignore the restrictions on power use, and do what I said earlier about dropping something on Amy, while she’s processing those giants for the quarantine zone.  I hate it.  I hate that I’m walking away feeling like this might not have been worth it, because I can’t shake the feeling that this isn’t the thing that breaks the city and sets everything off.”

“I should step away,” Jessica said.  “This is more for Darnall than for me.”

“I’m okay with sharing it with you.”

“I know, but I’m not your therapist, and I can’t be a support in this moment.”

“Because of Riley Davis?” I asked, angry.  “Bonesaw?”

She stopped.

I saw the emotions, like so many of the ones I’d just tried to explain in a ramble.  No hate, no anger, but sadness and shame.  Feelings so weighty and consuming that she could have ego-crushing feelings about those feelings.

It was a horrible moment, my own stomach wrenching with a regret that I’d said it like that, for those reasons.  Time seemed to crawl.

And in the midst of that slow, horrible moment, people started moving.  Like a starter pistol had gone off, but no pistol.  Voices getting louder, people running.  Doors opening fast enough they banged against the wall.

I pulled away, heading back to the others.  To a point in the hallway that I could see through the situation room door, as people rushed out and squeezed in.

The timer was still ticking down.  Four minutes on the clock.

But Dauntless was attacking, striking out with his lance from miles away, to carve out chunks of the Chevalier, sending him crashing into a building.  The Chevalier got to his feet and continued to retreat.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Sundown – 17.4

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Vista’s dorm room was on the way.  Every person we walked by looked stressed, busy, or were trying to get out of the way of people who were.  We were the busy ones.

Reaching her room, Vista stepped inside, handing me her coat and bidding me to come in.  I remained in the doorway, my back to her, my hands going out and back to hold stuff or hand stuff to her as she got changed into her costume.

I took note of the Gallant poster again.  No ‘Vista’-specific stuff on the walls, but there was an image of the Brockton Bay wards, and an image of the old Protectorate and the Wards, each image no bigger than a sheet of paper from a printer.  A postcard of the Brockton Bay’s namesake bay, including the floating base.  A postcard of an artist’s rendition of Glory Girl in a minimalist style.  Stuff like that.

By the bed, she had a music player with headphones perched on it, and a grid of art slips from CDs and Vinyls, stuck to the surface with tack.  I recognized a few as ones Weld had recommended, which were amusingly ones I’d gotten because Weld had recommended them to Sveta, back in the day, and she’d recommended them to me.  Artists so minor that I doubted they had much traction.  Or if they did have traction, Weld might have been one of the driving forces.

Vista gave me her visor, having me hold it, while she rearranged stuff.  I kept my back turned.

“Gonna be just one second.”

“Not a problem.”

Spare folded laundry on the top of the shelf by the door included a visible ‘Vista’ logo.  Dean had had the exact same thing.  Was that a thing the Wards did, ironically or unironically wearing the themed merch for local teams, normally reserved for kids and superfans?

She came up to my left and leaned over her desk as she fished for stuff.  A comb ran through her hair, drawing some relaxer or counter-agent for the stuff she’d put into it before, to make it wavier, fuller, and shaggier in body.  She plucked the visor from my hand, plugged in an earbud that dangled from it, before pulling on ear protection over it, with an attached visor and headband for hair that was now straight and parted.

“My go-bag is under the desk,” Vista told me.  “Can you grab that?”

I did, moving the chair aside.  It was a heavy gym bag with a strap.

“Wish I could use my power,” she complained, as she took the bag from me and unzipped it.  “I hate being in a room, feeling like I’m holed up while the problems are mounting outside.  It always leaves me feeling like the walls are closing in.”

“Understandable.  I could exit, giving you some more space.”

“I’d rather have your hands, if that’s okay.  And we should talk.  Not to strategize, that sounds weird, but I’d really rather not get on Narwhal’s bad side.”

“My hands are available,” I said, as she draped her ‘cape’ coat over my hand.  Meant for Vista, not Missy, matched to her costume’s colors and style.  It had armor and bulk that would get condensed down to something more manageable, but for now it was expanded.  “This gets tricky if Capricorn did lie, and I’m supposed to figure out what he said.”

“We should check,” Vista said, absently.  She put the helmet and then her ‘cape’ winter coat into the go-bag.   As she worked, she glanced back.  “Laptop: let me in.”

The laptop illuminated at the voice command.  Text appeared.

“Oh god,” I said.  “You’ve got the PRT-style login.  I hated those.”

“What does it say?” Vista asked, as she fought to get her coat in the bag.  I motioned like I was going to help, but she brushed me off.  I wouldn’t have been contributing much.

“Quote.”

“Six shots.”

The screen “Correct.  Mom or dad?”

“P.R.T.”

“Correct.  Childhood, classroom on the left?”

“Dumped water on her head.”

“You’re in.”

“Open the browser for me?  Dial into messages?”

The browser had one of those customized, multi-panel homepages, with different panels having different information, the kind that adapted to the user.  In my search for the search box, I saw the ‘recent’ pictures as a panel so predominant I couldn’t help but browse past it.  Topless boy, upper body viewed from the side, light brown skin beaded in moisture and textured in goosebumps, muscular but not cut with muscle.  There were some specks of blood and small scratches here and there, and the head was cut off by the framing of the shot.  Scale mail laid across a lap or surface at the bottom half of the screen, similarly beaded in moisture, with the red of specks of blood contrasting with the dark blue tint of the image.  The Reach logo was visible in the top left corner, the faint silver ‘Capricorn’ design worked into the armor at the bottom right.  The ‘click to view in full’ box at the right of the panel blocked off the accompanying text or ad.

A ‘selfless’ shot.  Someone had been looking someone up.  That was- it was healthy, right?  People looked up pictures of the boys they liked?  The blood and battle damage was weird but I could almost, sort-of, kind-of understand that working in a way that made the image more visceral?

I didn’t pry, I didn’t go looking for more images, and I didn’t comment.  I found the search box, dialing into messages.  “Messages, yep.”

“Yeah.  Dial into Vista, recent?”

I did.  Each ‘dial’ reduced and sorted the messages.  “Some catch-up, briefing style stuff on the Amy situation.  Nothing else”

“No messages from Capricorn?”

“No.”

“Shit.  Hoped he gave us some pointers.”

“We could call.”

“Better not, if they catch us asking it looks bad,” Vista said.  “Okay.  Grab this and let’s go?”

I took the go-bag for her.  She set to adjusting straps and settings on her armor as we left her dorm room behind.

“I don’t want to hurt your career,” I told Vista, adjusting the heavy bag’s strap, where I’d slung it over my shoulder.  “I know Narwhal’s tough-”

“Narwhal is tough in the same way Rachel Lindt is gruff.  You’re understating things.”

“And Breakthrough’s… very much not Narwhal’s style, I think.”

“Agreed,” Vista said.

“If I had to guess Tristan’s intentions, he wanted to protect you, figuring it’d be better to hurt Breakthrough’s standing than to hurt yours.”

“Yeah, well, that’s just him.”

“…And I think if I quizzed the rest of Breakthrough and asked them about the situation, they’d agree.  Sveta and Kenzie would agree we need our friends happy and healthy and successful more than we need Breakthrough to sail smoothly.  If Tristan lied, I could see why.”

“Which doesn’t help us,” Vista said.

“No,” I agreed.

“I’ll-” Vista started.

We’d rounded a corner, stepping into a new hallway.  My mom and Crystal were there, in earshot.  No Aunt Sarah.

Vista didn’t finish her thought.

“I don’t know where the situation room is,” Crystal told us.  “We were called.”

“Me too,” I said.

I saw my mother press her lips together.  Inhaling, bracing.

Yeahhhhhh.

I’m with you there, mom.

“This way, I’ll show you,” Vista said.  “And I’ll take my bag.  Thanks for carrying it.”

I handed it off to her, my injuries twinging with the extension of my arm, the weird angle, and the weight.

The stairway up to the command center stabbed upwards at a diagonal through the complex, set up so it could be locked off, forcing a circuitous navigation.

For sieges.  And to keep prisoners like Cauldron’s old victims trapped within for longer, should an escape attempt happen.

Solid, fortified, all built to last through the end of the world, to sustain itself against an alien stronger than many gods we’d conceived of.  There were entire sections, Sveta had said, which were secured by columns of solid matter, poised to drop down like giant mallets, or by water, which would pour down in seemingly endless quantities.

My mom had always felt similar.  Prepared, fortified, unassailable, endlessly stubborn and dangerous.  If she broke, the impression I’d always had was that she would be right as rain soon after, because she didn’t brook weakness.

My mom needed a hand from me to get started on the stairs, and once she had it, she kept relying on it, leaning heavily on my arm.

“How did your visit go?” I asked.

“It was nice,” Crystal said.  “Not perfect.  There are some parts of it that felt really alien or weird.  It was hard to meet her eyes.”

“Yeah,” I commiserated.

“Did you ever have a conversation with someone who works too much, or leads a really one dimensional life?” Crystal asked.  “I’m thinking specifically of a professor who tutored me in the year I took off from school, and Donatella’s mom-”

“Donatella?” Vista asked.

“My childhood best friend.  Homemaker.  No hobbies, no work, nothing except her daily routine and having a lot of kids.  You know when you meet someone like that, and you try to have a conversation and they drag every conversation back to this really small, comfortable territory for them?  My tutor did that with history, my best friend’s mom did it with her kids.  There was a boy in my high school who might have been autistic, who did it with Earth Aleph nerdery and video games.  But my best friend’s mom was the one that always stuck with me.  Whenever I thought about quitting a club or extra class I was taking, I’d think about her and keep going.”

“I’ve had conversations with people like that,” my mother said.  “It’s not uncommon.”

“I might be that type,” Vista muttered.

“No, hon,” Crystal said, “Really, you’re fine.  I’ve never had a conversation with you that felt that way.”

“Nor I,” I added.

“Because you’re both easy to talk to,” Vista said.

“I don’t think that’s precisely it,” my mom said.  “The kind of behavior Crystal describes stems from a place of insecurity, or deep anxiety.  While I’m sure you have your worries and anxieties, Vista I think you’re stronger than that.  Every time I’ve talked to someone who knew you and your name came up, whether it was Dean talking about paired patrols while having dinner at our house, running into Miss Militia on patrol and catching up with her, or even the staff at the Heroes for Healing charity drive, they came away with a strong impression of you, not a timid or defensive one.”

“Uh, thanks,” Vista said.  “I’m a bit surprised by that.”

“By all accounts, and I’ll stress that I’ve seen people champing at the bit for chances to give their accounting, you’re a capable young woman, Vista.  Don’t devalue yourself or reduce yourself down.”

“That kind of means a lot.  Thank you.  I kind of wish my parents picked up on that sort of thing.”

“Your parents are asshats,” Carol Dallon said.

“Wha?” Vista made a sound, like she wasn’t sure how to respond.

“They’re your family.  Love them unconditionally, stay by them through thick and thin.  But I think you should listen to the people who sing your praises, not the people with their heads halfway up their asses, when it comes to valuing yourself.  Any parent with a lick of sense would be proud.”

I looked over at Crystal, who had gone quiet, a little introspective or caught up in her thoughts.

My mother was maybe a little less filtered, with the head injury.  It was hard to say.  Not in the sense she was drunk or impulsive, though that image of her crying last night might stay in my mind’s eye until the day I died… but that the things that made her her were less obstructed by things like deeper considerations or context.  We’d launched into this from a conversation about Crystal feeling abandoned by her mom and my mom had found her way to coaching Vista and being a bit of the mom Vista had maybe needed but never had.

“You were saying?  About one dimensional personalities?” I asked Crystal.

Crystal came back to the present reality and time, stirred from those deep thoughts.  She met my eyes.  “My mom- that woman.  I have no idea what to call her.  She felt that way.  I didn’t want to spend most of the time talking about war stories, but we ended up talking about war stories.  She didn’t used to be like that.”

“I’m sorry.  For what it’s worth, it seems like they can get back to who they were.  It’s just going to take time.”

Crystal nodded, smiling a sad smile at me.  Her fingers adjusted her hair over her bad eye.

“We missed you being there, Victoria,” my mother said.

“Orders are orders,” Crystal said, more tense and defensive about my departure than I’d expected.  “Can we ask, Victoria?”

“Valkyrie brought Clockblocker and Kid Win back too.  She wanted me to get Vista and take her to see them.”

“How are they?  Was it a good reunion?”

“It was nice,” Vista said.  “Weird, a bit one-dimensional, and that dimension wasn’t the one I would have said seemed ‘Clockblocker’.  But I got to say some stuff I’d been holding onto.  So it felt cathartic.”

Crystal smiled.  “I agree.  I feel like a hole inside of me is a little less big.  Cathartic is a good word.  Even though I didn’t really vent.”

My mom was leaning on me more heavily as we ascended the stairs.  It didn’t help that there were so many.

“Kid Win and I talked,” I said.  “I remember hearing he died and wishing I’d talked to him more.  I got to talk to him today, and it was interesting.  If he wanted to hang out and chat in quieter times, I think I’d welcome it.”

“What do you two even have in common?” my mom asked.

“We connected on some of the childhood stuff, pre-cape.  Kids being sent to visit the PRT.  I asked some stuff, about what they remember, what they don’t.  What might be recoverable.  Intuitive understandings of powers, how things connect.  What’s hazy for him and what isn’t.”

Crystal looked intrigued.  “That sounds an awful lot like all the questions I wanted to ask my mom.  I could have shaken her, begged her for answers to those same questions.  But it felt like I shouldn’t.  It would have disturbed the good parts of the moment, and I thought of Donatella’s mom.  If you took her kids away, or put her in a situation where she couldn’t talk about her kids, would there even be a person there?  If I pressured this version of my mom, would she collapse like a Christmas tree ornament?”

My mom answered, “Angelou Marus, Donatella’s mother, was in our book club.”

“Really?” Crystal asked.

“She approached the books with a hunger.  I personally loved it.  People surprise you, Crystal, especially when it comes to matters of enduring.”

“Alright.  I guess that gives me some hope.  Can I ask what Kid Win told you?”

“You can.  He described it as a haze-”

“Sorry to interrupt,” Vista said.  “But we’re here.”

‘Here’ was a branch off the side of the staircase.  The Warden’s choice of location for situation room wasn’t Teacher’s old one.

‘Then I’ll tell you after,” I promised Crystal.  “And I’ll get more answers, and we’ll compare notes.”

“Thank you.  That sounds good.”

We took the detour, and without the need to climb the stairs and more carefully place her feet, my mom didn’t have to lean on me.  As we drew closer, I could see more capes that were second or third string Wardens.  Capes like Naphtha and Golem.

Vista opened the door, and we stepped into the situation room.

I couldn’t help but feel like movies and television shows failed to capture the situation room atmosphere. Even at the PRT Headquarters, when the Wards and I had been getting briefed on the likelihood that the Slaughterhouse Nine were in the city, there had been something missing, and that something was distilled a hundred times over here.

The situation room was often the hardest room to get to in the building, if it wasn’t in a seemingly unintuitive spot, like the Wards’ meeting spot being in the PRT basement.  It was the room in the center of the building, with no windows, thick walls, and a resulting claustrophobia.  Take that claustrophobia, add people, in a quantity where there aren’t enough chairs and some have to stand, but where it’s not crowded, exactly.  Just awkward in that sense where that too-small space couldn’t ever be comfortable, no movement could be made without some consideration for who might be in your space.

Those people would include people you’ve never seen before, because things are intense enough that there need to be intern level clerks and secretaries to run to grab something from a printer, filing cabinet or office, and people to take notes, and others with specialized knowledge.  Making the awkward the awkwardness of the unfamiliar, of class and power.

Take those people, then, and account for the fact that some don’t know where to stand in this space that doesn’t feel like it gets enough air for the number of people within.  Police officers or scientists who have never been here, but aren’t high enough status or enough a part of the meeting to get a chair.  Interns who’ve never been in a situation like this.  For the people who do have chairs, who do have places to be, take them out of their seats, because they’ve been here long enough they can’t sit anymore, they’re stressed, they’re pacing or standing behind their chairs.  People in suits have pulled off their suit jackets.  People in masks who’ve decided they’re in trusted company have removed those things.

All gathered in a space that feels like it’s smaller than the concrete and steel insulating and protecting said space from the threats outside.  Like dolls in a shoebox diorama, surrounded by a foot of concrete on every side.

That was the atmosphere here, that the televisions and movies hadn’t ever captured for me.

One long table, like a conference table, with chairs all around, except at the end, because they needed to be able to see the screens at the front of the room.  There were four desks split between the two sides of the table’s length, each with that Teacher-base, Cauldron aesthetic of being set in concrete, each with too many people crowded around.

Narwhal was there, standing with arms folded.  I saw Armstrong, sitting at the long table, papers in front of him.  Off by one desk, there were two of Goddess’s clustermates.  Golem’s girlfriend, her name escaped me in the moment.  Dinah Alcott stood by one of the other desks, a man in black beside her that could have been Wardens security or her security.

I saw Jessica Yamada and Darnall, off in the one corner, talking to other Warden employees.

I saw, on the big screens at the far end of the room, a giant of a man with gray skin and brutish features, holding the torn-off top of a car in one hand.  It looked less like a distinct image, and more like the faces one might see reflected in a window at night.  Shadows and glimpses, overlapping.

He’d already armored himself in part.  He walked, holding car roof and construction materials, and the two overlapped, pressing in together, steel girders becoming fiberglass, then car roof becoming an arrangement of girders.  He stopped, bent down, and twisted the girders so they fit to the curvature of his leg.

Then, touching more armor, he blended existing armor to new armor, translating and combining aesthetics, making it uniform.  Pelvis, butt and crotch, three-quarters of his legs had already been covered, and arrangements sat under his feet and between his toes like sandals.  With the new addition, he was armored from the waist down, pretty much.  Boots to be filled out, the rest encased.

He turned, head roving as he checked his direction.  Heads, plural, as he refracted, each head looking in a different direction.  The refracting carried down to the armor he wore, showing off different aesthetics.

Everything distilled to a different form as he began marching in a direction, bending down to pick up a dumpster, holding it in one hand.

On the next screen, a giant of a woman was wreathed in a draping of flesh so thin it looked almost translucent, with veins webbing through that flesh, the webbing of veins more than any flesh itself protecting her modesty.  In a radius around her, naked figures crouched and stood, all human and human-proportioned, but only half way between her height and an ordinary human, which put them at about ten or twelve feet in height.  I saw a man crouching, fists pressed into the ground like forelegs.  A man stood, askew, head resting against the side of the building, like standing up straight was too much effort.

There were enough of them that I couldn’t see much around the woman.  But the camera moved slightly, and I could see the front of the crowd, where an obese, naked, ten-foot tall woman sat on an obese, naked man.  The ground around them was flesh, and hands were tearing that flesh bloody from the far side, groping, pressing their way up and out.  As the flesh tore enough, I could see below, see the glistening face, and the muscular contractions of an extradimensional space thrusting the woman up and out.

One of the men helped her crawl free.  The aperture squeezed shut, like a sphincter closing, the closing pressing juices up and out, until they washed over and obscured the view.  As fluids found holes to drain back into, another space opened, a sphincter covered by glistening skin thinner than paper, a foot sticking up and out against it.

The giant woman who had just emerged, I saw, was pregnant.  Most or all of the women were.  All of them, it was hard to tell at first because many were moist from having emerged in the recent past, or they were crusted in frost because the moisture had frozen, were glistening from inner thigh to heel.  The men were violently erect.  Like, stab one of those things with a pin, and I imagined the resulting blood spray could cut you in half.

They were still, unmoving, except for the occasional figure shifting its weight or getting comfortable.

A third screen showed Dauntless.  Kronos.  The titan.  The Simurgh wasn’t on his shoulder, but flapped lazy circles, flying in a way that didn’t feel intuitive with the flaps.

Dauntless was moving.  A screen below that image showed the plotted paths and positions.

Four marks on the screen, black circles with red crowns, were placed on maps.  Two in Shin.  Two in our city, one of those two with a dotted line marking its course.

One mark, Dauntless’s old symbol, a helmet framed by a ring of lightning bolts, and its own dotted line.  Moving to intercept.

We took it in, watching, seeing what was on the screens, how the people there reacted.

Swears felt out of place in this formal setting.  Conversation was hard to initiate.  The more I paid attention to the little details, the people who were standing alone or sitting alone, like Armstrong, the more I felt like this wasn’t so comparable to the situation room meeting about the Slaughterhouse Nine back in Brockton Bay.

At least there, there had been a sense that things would be horrible, but we could get through it.

Narwhal spotted us.

She talked to my mom and Crystal first, “It’s unfortunate that you arrived with Victoria.”

“Why?” my mom asked.

“Because Victoria is a security concern on three fronts at the moment, and by associating with her you’re a concern too.  We’re in communication with Flashbang, who is acting as mediator, and we’d be happy to have you step in to talk to him.  Now we can’t.”

Three security concerns?” my mom asked.

“Her activities last night, for one, against Warden counsel.  We can’t enforce hard laws and the warning was brief and not elaborated on, but discussion on the subject of Breakthrough and their actions is pending.”

“With distractions, it seems,” my mom said.

“In addition to the concern about reckless action, we can’t know for sure how that experience affected her.  Defiant debriefed them and Dragon reviewed limited video footage of the event.  Post-traumatic stress is the least of our concerns on that front.”

“Is that the second issue?” my mother asked.

“It’s still the first.  Issue two, overlapping with the other issues, is that Victoria came into contact with Amelia Lavere and cannot account for some of that time spent.  She suggested master stranger protocols on herself.  Those protocols were never resolved.  Now we’re dealing with Ms. Lavere in a confrontational respect.”

“These are her?” Crystal asked, aghast.

“Individuals curated by Amelia Lavere to pattern match to specific individuals, injected with drugs by the villain Cryptid also known as Lab Rat, bringing out the full capacity of those powers.  They are now under the joint control of Amelia Lavere and the Shin government.”

“Her name is Amy Dallon,” my mother said.

I wanted to snap at her, to say something.  Then I saw her expression.  Stricken, shocked.

Was I the only one who wasn’t?  I didn’t feel shocked so much as I felt impending doom, despair, disappointment.

Under master-stranger protocols, yet the only person in the room who got it?

“If I call her Panacea, will that work?  It’s-”

My mother shook her head.

“The Red Queen.  It’s the name she’s using most, now.”

My mom looked like she wanted to argue, to debate or lawyer her way to getting what she wanted, for the woman who had made those things to be Amy Dallon again.

But she couldn’t argue against the name Amy had taken for herself.

“Vista said the danger was this evening,” I said, to refocus the discussion.

“It was.  It may be sooner.  One of the creations is moving.  It has our full attention, and the attention of the Dauntless Titan.  We’re moving to intercept.  For now, please sate my curiosity.  Victoria Dallon, you were remanded to the custody of Crystal Pelham, pending Warden investigation.”

“I was.”

“Valkyrie told you to fetch Vista and take her to a meeting with two former teammates.  Vista would take over custody of you.  You were expected to go straight to Vista, with no detours or distractions.”

“I did,” I said.

“Capricorn, when quizzed about his whereabouts, indicated he had gone outside for an extended breath of fresh air.  We checked cameras.  He had not.  Instead, a passerby says you and he talked, despite being told not to associate until we had finished investigating Breakthrough.”

My mom was giving me a curious look.

“We talked only briefly,” I said.  “It wasn’t about anything too serious.  Nothing about current goings-on, I think we only briefly touched on what happened last night, and even then, only to say we were a bit shaken and reeling, not to strategize or associate.  Mostly it was about acquaintances and seeing if his brother was okay.  The fact he is somewhat mobile and alert is… great.”

“It is,” Narwhal said, without a hint of a smile or trace of good humor.

“It was a chance meeting.”

“Then Capricorn did lie to me.”

“I don’t know.  Defiant threw me a curve ball last night by lying to me and saying our activities killed people, to double check something or test me.  I don’t know.  I don’t know if you’re doing the same, or if this is part of your extended master-stranger procedure, but I’m telling you the truth.”

“I don’t play games, Victoria.

“Understood,” I said.

“What was the context of this accidental meeting?”  Narwhal asked.

“Narhwal,” Vista said.  It looked like it took her some active work to summon the courage to speak up.  She hesitated as she noticed Jessica and Darnall making their approach, and then pushed forward, “I was the context of the meeting.”

Narwhal’s crystal-studded eyebrows went up.  “That makes me more concerned, not less.  He still lied, which leaves me suspicious about him, while casting your behavior into a questionable light.”

Jessica’s own reaction was one of mild surprise as she caught that last part of the conversation.

Vista clenched her fists.  “I was, um, with Capricorn Blue.  If his brother lied, it was to keep confidence.”

If there was any doubt she was telling the truth, then the doubter would have to explain the pink ear-tips and flush.  Vista wasn’t that good an actor.

“That neatly explains a lot about this,” Narwhal said, but her tone didn’t soft.  “I remember you were distracted by your association with Capricorn at the raid on the Mathers Fallen compound.”

“Yes,” Vista said.

I spoke up, “Distracted is the wrong word.  It didn’t interfere with her performance.”

“Hold on,” Narwhal said.

I held on, tense.

“One thing at a time.  We’ll unravel the individual issues, which releases those involved to join the handling of the greater crisis.  Vista’s actions and distraction at the time concerned me, and I filed it as such.  Let’s leave it at that.  For now, Vista can leave with just a parting comment from me, I believe Cinereal is on the line at terminal two.  Have you briefed yourself on all the materials we sent out twenty minutes ago?”

“Not yet,” Vista said.

“I see,” Narwhal said.  She gave Vista a sad look.  “You have so much promise, Vista.  You’re almost eighteen.  The Wardens have been talking about elevating you to a higher position, with a team to lead of your own.  This is something you want?”

“Yes, ma’am.  Absolutely.”

“We don’t do that for most capes your age because we can’t trust most capes your age to be level headed, or to handle the responsibility of three to ten other lives.  Teenagers act like teenagers, and I had really hoped you would be the exception to that.”

“Yes ma’am.  I’m sorry, ma’am.”

“You knew the Red Queen?”

“Only in passing,” Vista said.

“See what Cinereal needs, and if she doesn’t require anything else, you can join us for the ongoing conversation with the Red Queen and Shin, or you can wait outside with the others on standby.  Your decision.  We’ll revisit this when we discuss team leadership after you turn eighteen.”

“Yes ma’am.”

I wanted to say something, but with Breakthrough’s current standing, I wasn’t sure I could get away with it, I felt like I’d hesitate to say anything with both of my therapists looking on, and the only things that came to mind were actively hostile.  Because how fucking dare Narwhal dress down Vista in a public setting-

“Vista,” my mom said, as Vista escaped.

“Hm?” Vista turned.  “Yes?”

“You just came back from patrol?”

“Not ‘just’, but recently.”

“These are the hours you’d be recuperating, showering, sleeping?”

“I don’t think anyone is sleeping or recuperating at a time like this,” Vista said, glancing at the screens.  “Um.  I was sleeping.  Just… with him.  Actually asleep.  Nothing happened.”

“He’s recuperating?  Better but not at his best?”

“I’m not interested in debate, Mrs. Dallon,” Narwhal said.

“I’m not interested in debate either,” my mother said.  “Just asking and commenting.”

“And delaying us from getting to the matter at hand,” Narwhal said.

“I’ll be brief.  You were with him, you were woken up, went to see Clockblocker and Kid Win at Valkyrie’s request, and then came straight here?”

“Yes,” Vista said.

“Did Byron go with you?”

“No.  He’s still healing,” Vista said.  She looked nervous, if only because it looked increasingly like she was stuck between Narwhal and my mom.

“An injured cape and a young woman fresh off her patrol taking the opportunity to sleep seems very sensible and healthy, and if you can look after each other in the process, then that’s even better,” my mom said.  “I like Capricorn as a match for you.  He’s an excellent cape with a great record as a hero, he had a fanbase, and Team Reach was very good about taking the money he earned them and reinvesting that money into his training as a cape.  If you gave me the opportunity, I don’t think there are many I could suggest as a better match for you.”

“Yes ma’am,” Vista said, looking dangerously pleased with what my mom was saying, considering Narwhal was standing right there.

Vista ducked out, escaping the conversation.  Narwhal gave my mom a look.

“I said I’d be brief,” my mom said, to effectively shut down the conversation.

Narwhal studied us, before pulling out her phone.  She checked something.  “Jessica, Mr…”

“Darnall.”

“The Wardens will feel most comfortable working with Victoria Dallon if we can address the standing issues, the master-stranger effect and the pending review.  We’d be comfortable letting her be involved in the current crisis if we can strike one of those things off the record.  Do you think you could have a conversation with her?”

“We could,” Jessica said.

“Yes,” Wayne Darnall said.

The lingering memory of Jessica strangling Bonesaw made me feel like a whole other set of master-stranger protocols were needed.

Narwhal continued checking something on her phone, but her demeanor suggested she was still here with us, just doing something complimentary.  She didn’t look up as she asked, “Victoria Dallon hasn’t discussed the Red Queen with you in any meaningful capacity?”

“No.  We… don’t talk about her, when we can help it,” my mom said.

“You received healing from the Red Queen.”

“Partial.  Yes.”

“Crystal Dallon?  Have you been healed in recent memory?”

“Not by Amy.”

“Any concerns of memory manipulation, emotional manipulation, self-reports of unusual behavior?”

“No.”

“Good.  Then are you comfortable corroborating and challenging your mother’s- sorry, your aunt’s accounts and advice on the topic?”

“Of Amy?  Yes.  I can work with her.”

“Then would you go to console two?  Talk to the team, let us know how Mark Dallon is, verify if we can trust him, tell us what you can about the Red Queen?”

“Gladly, if it helps,” my mother said.

“Thank you,” Narwhal told her.

“Will Victoria be joining us?”

“As soon as she’s cleared,” Narwhal said.

“You good?” Crystal asked, touching my arm.

“I think so,” I said, even though I felt adrift in all of this.

Crystal gave my arm a squeeze.  She and my mom left.

“We had three concerns about you,” Narwhal told me.  Her eyes were piercing, unflinching.  “Now we have two.  If your therapists, past and present, can testify to your well-being, we’ll have no objection to your supervised involvement in this conflict.”

“Yes ma’am,” I said.

“I’m sorry about this,” Narwhal said, not really relaxing as she said it.  “I’d rather do things strictly by the book in situations like this, than do otherwise and regret it.”

“Totally understandable,” I said.  I wasn’t sure I’d have been able to say it like I did if my mom hadn’t spoken up on Vista’s behalf.

“As soon as she’s done, she can join the current situation,” Narwhal told my therapists.  “Do you need anything?”

“No,” Jessica said.

“Alright.  Thank you for coming.  I appreciate it.”

Narwhal stepped away, because two people had drawn close in the last minute, hovering and waiting for her to be free.  She had barely finished talking when she was turning away, addressing the next thing.

And I could kind of breathe.

This fucking shoebox in concrete space.  Fuck.  I was just glad Vista had come out of it okay.  By all reports, Narwhal was pretty cool in downtime, but in crisis mode, she was as unyielding as her forcefields.  That didn’t mean she was unfair.  She’d dress down Vista in public, and she’d remember something like this for weeks or months, like she’d remembered casual chatter with Capricorn back at the Fallen raid, but I didn’t think she was the type to hear something like what my mom had said and not take it into account, out of spite or anything.

I looked over at the monsters.

The minions of the Nursery-like monster were spreading out a bit.  Not aggressively, but finding spots to sit or stand.  Around each, in a loose circular radius, there was a faint haze with a dusky rose tint, and the surrounding environment transformed.  Where multiple gathered, the transformation was sufficient that things moved beneath that ground.  Large masses, like a tongue licking at the inside of a cheek.

“What are the other key monsters?” I asked.  “The monitors show two, plus Dauntless.  But there’s four markers on the map.  Two in Shin.”

Only Jessica and Darnall were close enough to me to answer.  People had backed off, and people from the nearest desk were at the table.

We had something approximating privacy, if not four walls surrounding me so onlookers couldn’t glance my way.

Jessica answered me, “One of them is derivative of Bianca.  The woman in blue.  Her power works through media and enthralls capes.  There’s a separate room of strictly non-capes who are monitoring her.”

“And the fourth?”

“We think it’s Christine Mathers.  When the creatures appeared, tens of thousands in Cheit reported seeing a tall, thin woman with silver hair and pale skin.  These images of the woman aren’t doing anything except standing on the horizon, unmoving.”

“How the hell did she get to Cheit?”

“Teacher.  Apparently Christine Mathers visited Earth Cheit as a guest of Teacher for massive festivals and parades.  His co-conspirators in government had no idea what they were dealing with.  The Wardens are considering discontinuing the sedation of the real Christine Mathers, but as you can imagine, that’s not an easy decision to make.”

“So that’s… Chevalier.  Nursery.  Goddess.  Mathers.”

“All of them people Cryptid was able to sample.”

“Makes sense,” I said, quiet.  “He’d pick powers and capes that insulate him against surveillance.”

“He would,” Jessica agreed.

“How… do you feel about that?” I asked.

“I wish I’d done better, not that I’d done nothing at all,” Jessica said.

And what about Bonesaw?  What did you do to her?

I looked over at the screens, folding my arms.

“I’d like to let Dr. Darnall take point in our review, Victoria.  Had I not already been here, I wouldn’t have agreed to come test you.  I don’t think I’m in a position to, and I’ve given Dr. Darnall the outline to follow in reviewing master-stranger influence.”

“Unfortunately, it works best when there’s a longstanding relationship between therapist and the supposed target of the influence,” Dr. Darnall said.

“My irregular attendance at appointments comes back to bite me in the ass, huh?”

“I wouldn’t phrase it that way.  You prioritized other things, and that’s fine,” he told me.  “How are you?”

“I’m about as good as can be expected, honestly.  In some ways I’m better.  Hard to explain.”

“Hopefully I can help you with that explanation,” he said.

“How are you?” I asked.  “Your first time here?”

“It is.  It’s… daunting.  Interesting.  Can you tell me about the ‘better’?”

I drew in a deep breath, and I glanced at Jessica.

“Before I do-” I started.

I was aware of the noise from elsewhere, and broke off to look.  Babble and back and forth, but I couldn’t pick out the how or what of it, and nothing seemed to have really changed on the screens.

I looked back at the pair.  At Jessica.

I thought of what I’d seen last night.

“Before you do?” he prompted.

“Full disclosure,” I said, not taking my eyes off Jessica.  I swallowed.  I second guessed myself, changing my mind about what I was going to say.  “I’ve reviewed the protocols and questionnaires.  I read about how this goes, the kinds of questions you ask.  I don’t want my answers to seem fake or crafted, because I know what’s coming and I am unconsciously crafting them.”

“I can adapt,” Darnall said.  “Thank you for letting me know.

That was the part about making the patient comfortable.

“I visited the agents last night,” I told them.  “Went to one of the places powers stem from.  I think I figured some stuff out.  I’m… tired.  A little shaken from a near death experience in the middle of it.  Flutters of panic.  But, uh, my power’s been broken for a little while now.  As part of what happened to put me in the hospital.  And now it’s not.  Or it’s a lot better.  People mention my sister, and I don’t feel like my heart is going to stop beating, or like my brain has slammed on the brakes and pulled the steering wheel hard left into dangerous roads.”

“That’s a pretty extreme change,” Darnall said.

“It absolutely is.  Don’t get me wrong, I still hate her.  I still feel like… if she died in the next five seconds, I would feel relieved first and bad second.  She said once that hate is the emotion closest to love… but I don’t feel any love at all.”

“These changes started when she used her power on you?” Darnall asked.

“Can you elaborate on the scenario and timeline?” Jessica added.

“I went to Shin.  To negotiate, to help.  We were imprisoned as a political play.  I was hurt.  The doctor then drugged me, knocking me out.  I came to, and I was-”

There it was.  That feeling like my heart could stop, the feelings crowding in my chest, until it felt like there wasn’t room to expand in my lungs.  I’d spent the last week trying not to think about that scene, that room, and how very helpless I’d been in there.

My arms were already folded, so I squeezed them against my body, hard.  “-Captive.”

“That must have been terrifying,” Darnall said.

“We had a conversation,” I said, controlling the tone of my voice.  I shrugged, and I couldn’t relax my shoulders enough to unshrug, so I leaned against the wall instead, like I was finding a different posture.  “They say, um, the unknown is the root of all fear.  Maybe the conversation helped, because it made a lot of things known.  What she’s willing and able to do.  She used her power on me.”

“To do what?” Jessica asked.

“I don’t know.”

“But you know she used her power.”

I thought of my conversation with Defiant.  The lie detector.  “I don’t know anything.  But I’m ninety percent sure.  I was missing a fingernail after the attack that put me in the doctor’s control, just before… captivity,” I said.  I looked away, devoting a lot of my secondary attention and processing to the study of a manufacturer’s sticker on the side of one of the chairs.  “I had a fingernail after.  Shin’s medicine isn’t that good.”

“Is it possible that was the extent of it?”  Darnall asked.

“No,” I said, studying that sticker.  Where had it come from?  what language was that?

“You sound sure.”

“Ninety percent sure.  I know her.  Or… I knew her.  I have a sense of her.  I have a sense of what she does, like, I wasn’t surprised at all that… this.  The monsters.  The violation of the people who those monsters came from.  Even fucking Mama Mathers didn’t deserve to be made into something like that.  Even a tyrant like Goddess.”

“You think she did something more?”

“I’m ninety percent sure she did something more.  I was entirely at her mercy, and she wouldn’t hold back.  I think she would touch me.  I think she would alter me according to whatever twisted fantasies she has in the moment, then put me back to normal.  I think she’d, um…”

I couldn’t bring myself to inhale, but I’d run out of breath to talk with, so my words kind of faded out into a breathy strain of a whisper.

They didn’t interrupt.

I found my breath again, a intake of air with a shudder to it, my skin crawling.  I blinked rapidly a few times, looking back to that sticker.

“I don’t know,” I summed it up.  “Worst case scenario, she cloned me.  It’s apparently something that was on her mind, if she was making another Goddess and a Mathers.”

“Okay,” Darnall said.

He wasn’t following the script at all.  Barely touching the questions.

“I think it was bad,” I elaborated.  “It’s an awful lot of unknown.”

“But you feel better?” he asked, gently.

“In ways,” I said, feeling at risk of letting my voice fade out into a strained whisper again.  “It’s easier to hate her, and that makes it easier.  I think I understand her motives and mind more than I did.  I can see how the person I knew became the Red Queen, now.  Before, it was a big, scary question mark, and that kind of question mark just appears and the questions appear in front of it… is she going to appear around the corner here?  Surprise me?  Is she targeting me?  Is she sorry?  Is she going to do something to make amends?  When-”

And I lost the words again.

Elsewhere in the room, people bustled this way and that.

It would have been nice to have a private space, but at the same time, I could understand if there wasn’t anything conveniently close, and I didn’t want to move away, in case I could just have this fucking conversation over with and jump straight back into stuff I wanted and needed to be doing.

“She’s an exclamation point now, not a question mark.  And it’s kind of really fucking viscerally satisfying that those exclamation points are appearing over people’s heads now, when I was fucking trying to warn them.”

I couldn’t help but glance at Jessica, glance away.

“Do you think she affected your mind, emotions, or memories?” Darnall asked.

“I don’t know.  I wouldn’t rule it out, but I haven’t noticed anything.”

“Did feeling ‘better’, as you put it, start with that captivity?”

“No.  I got a taste of control during the Teacher raid, but it was… a teammate died.  Swansong.”

I looked at Jessica.  Guilt seized me, but she was impenetrable, too hard to understand.  She didn’t give me accusation any more than she’d given me any signs of guilt earlier.

I went on, “I was closer to Teacher’s gate.  I found the wavelength with my agent.  Later, I’d chase that wavelength and find it to hold onto it.”

“I welcome Jessica stepping in to clarify matters of powers, but is it possible it started you on the road?”

“Days passed.  No.  I know my power, I know my control and… no.  I’ve experienced the transition, or the way one switch flips when she uses her power, and the dominoes start following, thought patterns and the familiar changing to the different, the unfamiliar.  This doesn’t feel like that.  It feels subtler, different focus, different playing fields.”

“You don’t think she could have learned subtlety?  Based on what I know of Cryptid, he’s a great believer in secrecy and secrets.”

“It’s too long term, too… soft.  Amelia Lavere dwells in the moment.  She’ll dwell in the past if you give her cause or if she gives herself cause, but she doesn’t look to the future.  Hell, she won’t look to the future enough to keep her arguments straight over a single conversation.  She used to be annoying about it but she’s gotten worse.”

“You don’t think she has that capacity.”

“She has every capacity.  But she doesn’t have that intent, that planning.  The danger Cryptid poses is that he’ll give her the slippery slope with long term ramifications and she’ll take the moment to leap off that slippery slope.  People will get hurt in the end.”

“You sound sure.”

“Ninety five percent.  She didn’t alter my power to have some creeping effect or long term change.  She didn’t affect my emotions that way either.  Not that subtly, when she’s a sledgehammer.”

“But you’re still concerned,” he said.  “You said it’s possible.”

“Trigger phrases, in case I cross her and she decides she has no other way to have me?  She’d put something like that in.  A tweak to memories?  I’ve gone over stuff, nothing jars, and I remember the PRT worksheets and guides on resisting Master influence.  Nothing stands out there.  But it’s possible.  By the timeline, I don’t think she had me long enough to do something comprehensive or take her time with me and then erase memories after.  But… possible.”

I felt like I was ranting, rambling, trying to keep my forebrain fixated on stickers and environmental details, and away from mental pictures or imagining the full ramifications of a given statement, while the rear half of my brain was the driving force, pushing the cart from behind.

My fingernails dug through plush sweater into my arms.  Five on the one side, four on the other.  The empty nailbed was a source of raw, pointed pain, throbbing with my every heartbeat, which was racing like it would if I was engaged in a hard run to my very limits.

I looked up at Darnall, and the man seemed to be at a bit of a loss.

I was describing a monster who could do anything and I had my proof on the far side of the screen.  The poor guy might have felt like he was in over his head.  Unfamiliar space, unfamiliar dynamics.

“Do you want to take fifteen minutes, return to this?” he asked.

“No.  I want to get this over with so I can go over there and fucking help.  So just, you know, ask the questions from the list, or rule me out, or whatever.”

“I have been asking the questions, in a roundabout way,” he said.

Had he?  Maybe, if each question was a bullet point on a list, if he was going from the grounding, degrees of conviction, coherency of timeline and memory, giving cause to make contradicting statements…

I shook my head, feeling tense.  I hadn’t ever relaxed my shoulders from that shrug.  My arms were still folded, my fucking missing fingernail still fucking hurt like fuck.

“Victoria,” Jessica said, her voice soft.  “If the Victoria of three months ago met the Victoria of now, would she be concerned?”

Straight from the list of questions.

I drew in a deep breath.  “Probably.  But I’d be concerned about her.”

“Why?”

Follow up question, right from the list.

“Because I would barely be recognizable to her.  Because she’s, to the me of right now, paralyzed, trapped, secretly terrified of every dark corner and going back to that terrifies me.”

“Would the Victoria of five years ago be concerned?”

I relaxed my shoulders.  “I think we’d both be a bit disappointed in each other.”

“Why?”

“Because I see her as a brute.  A barbarian.  Someone who hurt others because she thought of it as justice.”

“Why would she be concerned about you?” Jessica asked.

I thought of Vista’s room.  Of Vista underwear and Gallant posters, of her having a boyfriend.  Her music album art on the dorm room wall.  The lines were super blurry, and I related to those blurry lines.  The old me would have related.  The me of now didn’t, really.

“Maybe because I’m only living half a life, and she fought too long and hard to maintain that half I’m ignoring despite everything about how we were raised making it so much harder to maintain,” I said.

“Is that getting better or worse, since that meeting last week?”

Still close to the script.  Black text on white paper, from years ago.  Reassuring.

Out of order, though.  It was supposed to be a follow-up to another question, but I could see it working as a prompt here.

“Worse.  Way worse.  Vista commented on it, in the midst of a conversation.  It spooked her, maybe.  I think Valkyrie even noticed it, the way she was talking.”

“Do you think you’re ignoring something vital?”

“You’d hate it,” I said, my face twisting.  I met her eyes, and I remembered seeing her strangle Bonesaw.  I couldn’t push that image from my mind.  I looked away. “Ignoring the civilian side.  I tried going the other way before Breakthrough.  Now I’m embracing the power.  Getting deep, really deep into the powers, trying to understand the world.  Getting glimpses of secrets, details about people I really didn’t want to know, but… things make more sense.  At least I have control now.”

“Is there a way back to Victoria?” Jessica asked.  “A way back to being Victoria, no costume, no powers, for the occasional day.  A day you don’t plan where you just happen to not use powers or not get in fights?  Where you’re you, and you pursue your own interests, romance, friendships, family?”

“I was never, ever that Victoria,” I said.  “Even before I had powers, they were a part of my life.  If that’s your line where things are okay, then you’re going to be so horribly disappointed in me.”

Jessica nodded.

“I’m not disappointed,” she said.

“Does that have anything to do with this… this?” I asked.  “Do you think I’m showing signs of being compromised?”

Jessica parted her lips, but didn’t speak.

“I’ll rephrase,” I said.  “Do you think Amy compromised me in a way that interferes with my ability to jump in here and give advice and direction?”

She glanced at Darnall.

“I don’t get that impression,” Darnall said.  “But I’m worried for other reasons.”

“So am I,” I said.

“There’s a thinker we can ask, who looks at biology,” Jessica said.  “It’s possible he can vet you.”

My head shook a little with the nod I gave her.  “That’d be… pretty huge.  A relief.  Big.”

“Okay,” she said.  “I agree.  I don’t think Amy is that kind of planner or subversive element.”

“Supervise me?” I asked.  Then I remembered the strangling, imagined how she didn’t want to be a part of any of this, but she probably thought she had to.  “Or Darnall, or…?”

“Of course,” Darnall said.  “But I want to see you more regularly.  Tonight, to start with.  And I think you want to see me.”

“Yeah.”

I started toward the front of the room, my foot not quite touching the ground as I hesitated, waiting for the go-ahead.  Darnall followed, and that served as the all-clear.

Approaching the front of the room.  Terminal two.

Vista was already there.  So were my mom and Crystal.

Narwhal off to the side, hands resting on the back of a chair, peering past white hair with faint crystalline hues.

My dad on the speaker phone.

Amy’s voice in the background.

I couldn’t approach my family or friend because there were too many people.

So I approached Narwhal.

“What’s the situation?”

“The Machine Army,” Narwhal said.

No questions about my mental well being or the vetting.  I was here so she assumed all was well.

Purely professional.

I looked up at the map.

The dotted line put the giant Chevalier on a course to the portal to Earth Bet.  Home.

“He’s going there?”

“And the Kronos titan is moving to intercept,” Narwhal said.  “Shin is concerned that if the Machine Army attacks the city, there’s nothing to stop it from rapidly disseminating itself across the city and reaching Shin.”

“Is there anything?” I asked.

“Not enough,” Narwhal said.  “But they want to address the crisis now.    Which means we now have that same crisis in our lap, because it involves our territory, our border, our safeguard that they’re about to trample through.”

“-Victoria’s voice?”

The question came over the speaker phone.

Amy.

“Yes,” I said, loud enough that she should hear me.

“You’re there,” my dad said, through the same phone.

“Yes,” I said, again.

There was a pause.  I looked at my mom, at Crystal, and at Vista.  People who got this.

“Will you help?” Amy asked.  “Negotiating?  Handling this?  I feel like you might listen to me when others don’t.”

I stared at the screen, nine fingernails digging into my sweater.

“Alright.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter