Radiation – 18.8

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Crystal landed, startling others on the street.  Trying to startle me.  She had a small smile on her face, and a sheen of sweat on her skin.  Her top was sleeveless, hugging her body, and she wore tight-fit pants with gill-like slits in the sides, each slit framed with a slash of color.  It was an aesthetic that hadn’t aged all that well, starting in the early 2000s, when kids’ fashion designers worked costume-like features into clothing, and it carried on as a subculture from there, with its variety of flavors.  More in LA or New York than Brockton Bay, though.

Of course, Crystal could get away with it when she was a superhero.  More of course, was the fact we couldn’t exactly be picky.  The world had just ended, after all.

“Hug?” she offered.

“Sorry,” I said, feeling like I was too quiet.

“Sure,” she said.

Conversation died, just like that.  I regretted saying no and I knew I would have regretted saying yes.  There had been a day, once upon a time, when I hadn’t had maybes in my vocabulary.  It hadn’t been a question of this or that, or ‘should I do X or should I do Y’?

“Good flight?” I asked.

“Great flight,” she said.  “I flew over a restaurant, and wow, could I smell what they were cooking.  Any other day, I would have stopped there, but I thought maybe you hadn’t eaten.”

“I ate.”

“Shoot,” she said, snapping her fingers.

Again, the pause, the awkward feeling where we couldn’t get into stride.  Two people with ankles tied together for a three-legged race, trying to find their rhythm.  Except that didn’t usually take as long as it had taken us.  My fault.

I was very aware of people looking at us.  Crystal’s flight and landing had turned heads.  I knew objectively that they were looking at her, but even if I could logically put two and two together, my traitorous brain told me they were staring at me when their eyes pointed in my direction, and they were averting their eyes from me when they weren’t.

I saw a woman in a sundress walking her dog, and I thought of a quiet voice outlining some warnings.  No donating blood.  Avoid any sources of healing that aren’t her, because the wrong source of healing could awaken latent materials that were used to rebuild this body.  Stray dog.  Stray cat.  Rodents.

It made my stomach hurt.  A constant gnawing feeling, hollowing me out.  I was outside and active because I knew how easy it would be to do anything else.  I stayed standing because I was already standing.  I could keep from screaming because I hadn’t yet opened my mouth to scream.  I went through my day because I hadn’t stayed inside with a blanket pulled over my head.  I wore nice clothes because they were what I’d worn before, back when I’d either been Glory Girl or I’d been Victoria Dallon.  I met with Crystal because I hadn’t yet cut myself off from the world.

“It’s a wonderful day, isn’t it?” Crystal asked, looking skyward.

I looked up at the blue sky.  Summer heat beamed down on us, pulsing off of the concrete.  I could put together the individual pieces, and say it was warm without being sweltering, the sky was clear, the city smelled like fresh wood and car exhaust, and a strong wind blew clean through the city.  Clean like there were thick, rich forests just beyond the city boundaries, and the wind picked that up to refresh the city.

I could take all the individual pieces and I knew they were the sort of thing that added up to wonderful weather.  I felt aware of every set of eyes in the vicinity, pointed at me or otherwise, including Crystal’s one visible eye, which was looking skyward, her hair sweeping over the other side of her face.  Each one was a condemnation or penetrating stare.  Each one implied emotions I didn’t want to deal with.  I felt aware of the clothes against my skin, and how they hadn’t been washed enough times to lose the stiffness that came from being folded in a box or the trace chemicals after they were pumped out by a factory line.

I was aware of my body, and nothing felt exactly right.  Proportions, how my own body weight rested on different portions of my own body, head on neck, hip on thigh bone, leg pushing down against foot, foot inside a sandal that pushed into the earth.  I couldn’t escape the visceral notion of meat against bone, grinding, crushing, like stray animals had been ground and crushed together, turned into a scrambled egg slurry of proteins and fats that were then pulled together to make a monstrous body.  Reshaped again, hundreds of pounds of me pulled away and cast off, left behind to be devoured by scavengers.  Animal meat returning to the animals.

“You zone out a lot,” Crystal commented.

“I’m going to do that.  Can’t really help it.”

“Sorry.  Didn’t mean to make it a criticism.  I hope it’s because you’re enjoying the day.”

I looked around.  The city being built with a scary swiftness.  Double-wide trucks rolled in from various portals, commissioned materials and building segments stacked along each.  The city we were in was completed buildings to the east of us, and skeletons to the west of us, concrete and tinted glass finding their way onto the bones by the moment.

I could remember the day I had triggered, how I’d walked a line before a look at my parents and their avid disinterest had tipped me over the edge.  I felt like that with everything now.  A woman walking her dog, certain colors, hair types and clothing styles.  People that walked in certain ways.  Areas that were too sterile.  Areas that were too dirty.

“Trying to,” I said, to fill the silence.  Then, to explain why I was trying to fill the silence, I said, “I know I’m a bit of a wet blanket right now.  I know I’m hard to talk to.”

“You’re family,” Crystal said.  “I’m not doing very good at this either.”

I shook my head.

“We’ll figure it out,” she said.  “And we’ll talk so easily it’ll annoy people.”

I smiled.

“Did you send the University thing?”

“The application?  Yeah.  I took it in to the application center.  But I won’t get in.”

“You never know,” she said.  “You’re pretty fantastic.  Smart, good grades, special case…”

“I won’t get in this year.  I rushed it, my head wasn’t in the right place, and it might not be in the right place if I got in.  Mostly I used it as an excuse to figure out what to do for next summer.”

“What to do?”

“Prerequisites to meet.  Having work experience would help.  I used putting in the application as an excuse to visit and get a sense of the place, calibrate my expectations.  They’re a mess right now, and ninety percent of what they’re doing is making sure they’re prepared for a larger cohort next year.”

“I can’t believe you used the word cohort.”

“It’s a good word,” I said, smiling.

“It’s a good goal.  Getting in next year?”

I nodded.  I didn’t miss the faint pity that came with first half of what she’d said.  How good it is that you have a goal, Victoria, you need a goal.  It felt like I was being handled with kid gloves, and I hated it.

I knew I needed the kid gloves, but I hated it.

“I know this is shitty of me,” Crystal said.  “But even though you’ve eaten already, do you mind taking a detour?”

“A long detour?” I asked.  “To that restaurant you flew over?”

“Fast food place,” Crystal said, pressing her hands together.

“Absolutely,” I told her.  “My curiosity is piqued.”

“Fly?” she asked, floating up a bit.  One or two bystanders who hadn’t seen her arrival looked shocked.

Again, more attention, more feelings that all contradicted one another, and left me feeling like I was standing on the tracks as the train made its approach.

“Walk?” I asked.  “It’s a nice day.”

She landed.  “Okay.”

She didn’t ask why, and I wasn’t sure I could tell her if she did.  It was an extension of why I was going out, why I wore clothes like my old ones, and why I faced the day.  If I stayed inside I might not be able to go out again.  If I changed up my wardrobe I might lose my last traces of myself.

If I flew, I might keep flying, because it was hard being down in the guts of the city, surrounded by its people.

Crystal linked her arm with mine, and I rolled my eyes, but I went with it.  Compromises.

We walked through a sunny, brand-spanking-new city, half of it still seemingly in construction, with girders and beams and little connecting those things.  Cranes seemed to stand up everywhere.

It was a long walk, which was a mercy in a way.  The monotony made it easier to zone out, and to just take the day in without focusing in on the details, like people looking over, or the countless little things that made me think of Amy, meat, family, or hospital rooms.

When we arrived, there was a crowd in the place.  A crowd on the benches outside the place.

“I’ll go in, if you’ll wait.”

“I’ll wait,” I told Crystal.  “I don’t have anything to do.”

“Sorry again!” she raised her voice to say it as she went to find the tail of the line.

I hung back, leaning against a metal post that bounded the patio, providing some protection should a car go off the road.

There was a gang of people from the Patrol occupying three tables.  I couldn’t help but feel it was a little… dark.  Old PRT uniforms painted over, the friendlier white sections of the uniform and body armor made black, identifying numbers and labels gone, replaced by place names.

“…can and probably does overlap with others, then why have it as a label?” one of the people with less armor asked.

“Because the labels are for our use,” the boss said, a woman with gray in her hair.  “If I tell you there’s a Stranger present, what do you do?”

The guy with the armor shrugged, shaking his head.

“Anyone?” she asked.  “They have the firepower, they have a good sense of what we can do, and we’re in the dark about them.  We have numbers and we have the ability to gather information and train.  Protocols and communication are essential, so you need to know the language and you need to know what to do when you hear it.”

They were all high school kids.  Months after the end of the world, they were putting on painted armor and pretending they knew what to do to fill in a space left by the now-absent PRT.

“What’s the context?” I asked.

The woman twisted around, giving me a searching look.  “We’re sitting right here.  I say ‘Stranger’.”

“Nothing else?  Are you pointing?”

“Just that.”

“Watch out.  Strangers infiltrate, surprise, approach from oblique angles.  Stealth, trickery, subtlety.  It’s not my favorite classification, too broad and too niche at the same time.”

“It’s necessary.”

“It is,” I said.  “It still annoys me.”

“Strangers do that.  What’s your first thought if I say master-stranger?”

I thought of the black hole in my memories, extending from when I’d been injured by Crawler to when my mom and my aunt were attending to me, talking to a team of paramedics who were preparing to load me into an ambulance.

“Well?”

Composure, Victoria,  I thought.  Back straight, gaze level.  It’s especially important that someone who is supposed to be invincible doesn’t let the enemy see them hurting.

My mother’s voice, more than my own.

“Regret every choice in life that brought me to that point,” I said.

“Don’t editorialize.”

“I’m not one of your uniforms, I’ll editorialize if I want.”

“Okay,” she said, raising her hands.  Surrender.  “But really.  Do you know what to do?  Master-stranger.  What’s the protocol?”

“Means you watch yourself.  If you’re shouting it, you’re compromised, you don’t trust yourself, so the Patrol listens to the next person in charge.  Meanwhile, don’t trust your eyes or brain, don’t take any high-impact actions like using a gun or attacking someone.  Lean on untainted sources and extend trust to them, even if it’s hard.  Trust solid things- walls, doors, limit the Stranger’s movement, get somewhere safe and stay there.”

“Shaker-stranger?”

“Watch the walls.  Communicate, trust people.  You’re looking for traps, routes of entry, or changing environment.  Focus on details.  Cracks under the doors, images, text.  Look for oddities and discrepancies.  In an ideal world, you’re communicating a bit more than just those two words.”

“It’s not always ideal,” she said.  She gave me another look.  “You’re too young to be ex-PRT.”

“I’m into Parahuman Sciences.”

“That doesn’t include the protocols.  Science and response protocols are very different things.  Which was what started our discussion here, if you didn’t catch that.”

“I didn’t.  It includes the protocols if you’re so into it that you drop off an application at the University, and you buy two textbooks for a class you probably won’t get into, just to read them.  I dig into anything I can get about parahumans.”

“Why?” she asked.  “Capes are cool?”

As a somewhat gray-haired, body-armor wearing woman with a gruff, stern tone, those words sounded very strange coming out of her mouth.  Almost but not quite derisive.

“Capes are important,” I told her.

There’s a statement with a lot of meanings,” she said.

“I think all of them might apply,” I told her.  Then I gave her an alternate answer.  “Capes are terrifying.  You fight fear by figuring it out.”

“Where are you working?”

“I’m not.”

“Do you want to be?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Depending on how my application to school does.”

She turned to her two tables of rookies.  “Here’s one example of where a smart team leader might say ‘master-stranger, protocols in action.’  Here we have a young lady, dressed up nice, with very specific, useful knowledge that I wish any one of you had, because it’s going to be a royal pain to drill you in it, and she isn’t employed.  How Strangely convenient.”

“If it helps, I don’t think I want to work with the Patrol.”

“Still suspicious.  I think we’d have to have a long discussion, miss…”

“Victoria.  Yours?”

“Karen Vick.  We’d have to chat for a while before I changed my mind about how suspicious you are, Victoria.”

“If you wanted to talk about powers, I’d probably come across more suspicious by time I’m done talking your ear off.”

“Because you’re the type to buy expensive textbooks you don’t have to?”

“Yeah.  I have a box of old files and info in my apartment, too.”

“What if I wanted to talk about why you don’t like the Patrol?”

“That’s harder to put my finger on,” I said.

“Try.”

“It feels like a disaster waiting to happen.”

“The disaster already happened,” one of the boys at the table muttered.

“Speak up, Mahon,” Kelly Vick told him.

“It happened.  Gold Morning.”

“Doesn’t mean things can’t get worse,” I said.  “Why are you doing this, if it’s not to protect people and prevent things from happening in the future?”

“Powers are cool,” he said.

“Different reasons,” a girl told me.

“There’s always been more question marks than periods when talking about parahumans,” I said.  “We need to dig for answers, get the info, use it.  Now more than ever.  I don’t think the Patrol is doing that.”

“What do you think the Patrol is doing, then?” Kelly asked.

“…Not that.  Not studying.”

She leaned back in her seat, looking at her rookies.  “See?  You guys need to study.  You can start by reading up on protocols, and ways of dealing with different parahuman.”

“Not quite what I meant.”

“It is, but I think your confusion, Miss ‘powers are important’, is because you’re confused about something very basic about the Patrol.  And I find that really interesting.”

I shook my head.  All of a sudden, I felt very on the spot.  Being analyzed, studied with multiple sets of eyes.  The illusion was dispelled, and I was no longer getting to dive into classifications and protocols, paperwork and parts of my lifelong passion that were strictly and safely relegated to paper.

I looked for my escape, and I saw Crystal on the sidelines, her food in hand.  Watching from a distance.

She walked over.

“My cousin,” I said.

Crystal raised her hand, chewing on a peanut butter chicken kebab.

“She has powers,” I added.

Crystal raised an eyebrow.  Then she floated up a bit.

“Never wore a mask,” I said, to clarify why I was giving away Crystal’s nonexistent secret identity.

“That would explain it,” Kelly told me.

Crystal made a quizzical sound, but she didn’t seem to want to stop eating long enough to outright ask the question.

“She’s-” she indicated me, elaborating, “-Too close to it.”

“Oh yeah,” I agreed.  “No denying that.”

“Now I’m not so suspicious.  Master-stranger protocols lifted.  There’s an explanation.”

“I don’t suppose you’d give me your not-too-close-to-it opinion on what the Patrol is about?”

“Join and find out,” she told me.

“I don’t… no.  Sorry.”

“We have too many rookies and not enough people who can instruct.  You’ll need a job.  Take… let me dig out my card here.  I can’t take you onto my team, but I’ll point you to someone who handles training.  Think about it, at the very least.  It’s an option.”

I waited for her to fish in her utility-style belt, getting wallet, some brochure-like folded papers that, at a glance, seemed to be resources for people in need, and then a creased business card, as simple as business cards got.

I took it.

“Sorry to interrupt,” I told the group.  “Really didn’t intend to butt in like this when I first commented.”

“Email,” Kelly said, indicating the card.  “And take care.  Enjoy your chicken.  It’s great.”

Crystal nodded enthusiastically, as she and I left the conversation.

We walked while she ate.  I took an offered kebab.

“That is the most animated I’ve seen you since… years,” Crystal said.

I looked at her.

“Just saying.”

“Fuck,” I muttered.

“Bums me out a bit that you can have a conversation with them more easily than you can with me.”

“I love you, you know that?  I don’t want to be bad at having conversations.”

She gave me a one-armed hug, holding the kebabs.

“But I guess, kind of, I get it?  I mostly understand them, and I don’t think I could have said that two years ago.”

I don’t get it.

My old Patrol was quiet, as they unpacked stuff, pulling back tarp, and undoing cables.  Here and there, there were some comments, but there wasn’t any particular camaraderie or connection.  Certainly not more than what the hero teams had.

But they plugged along, they kept working, everyone with a job to do.  The internal crises were nonexistent.  There were even occasional lighter comments from Jester.

I’d been thinking back to years ago, remembering, trying to get a handle on what I was feeling and why I was reacting in the ways I was, from my freakout at the hair loss to my anger.

I held it together because I had to hold it together.  I steered my thoughts and it was hard, as hard as it had been those years ago.  I didn’t want to think about the hair loss and the implications, so I didn’t.  I stayed quiet, lost in memory and in the drawn out moments.

Checking my phone, I saw it had been nearly twenty minutes.

“I’ll be back,” I told them.  “Going to get my tinker.”

“Cool,” Jester said.  “How’s she doing, by the way?  With Swansong…”

He trailed off.

“Not great.  Lookout is hard to read, but… it’s pretty obvious it’s not great.  It’d be best if you didn’t raise the subject, I think.”

“Got it.  Swansong was obviously fond of her, I thought it might go the other way too.”

“It did.  Absolutely.”

“I thought she was really cool.”

“She liked you too, Jester, and she didn’t like a lot of people.  You were good to her around a time she wasn’t feeling so great about things, around the prison.”

He seemed to take that hard, in a way, like he hadn’t expected it, or the fact she was gone had just hit him, or hit him again.

I could have stayed to discuss it more, but my thoughts were on my team, supporting them where they needed support.  Even in the little things.

I took flight.

Over the trees, high enough I could see Titans in the distance, against a dark sky that was getting darker.  With most of the city without power, the buildings were blocky shadows.  Distant water with high waves was visible when the waves crashed against one another, or where lights from parts of distant harbor that still had power struck the water.  More alive than the city was.

I gingerly touched my scalp, testing with fingernails, and finding the skin sensitive.  There were some strands of hair from even that contact that stuck.  Losing some hair when running fingernails through my hair to comb it or sleeping without my hair braided was natural, but this…

It left me with a sick feeling in my gut.  I flipped my hood up, securing it in place, feeling self conscious.

I flew over toward the midpoint between the stables and the compound center.  I did some searching, and saw Kenzie making her way down the path, wearing a snow jacket over her costume, smiling helmet encasing her head.  The irises of the oversize eyes on her helmet glowed red in the gloom.

I landed next to her, one-footed, my sore foot kept out of the way.

“Victoria!  You spooked me!”

“Sorry.  Came to pick you up and ask a favor.  I got sidetracked, but I wanted to keep my promise.”

Her expression unreadable behind the smiling mask, “I’ll do whatever you want.”

“…Two favors.”

“Victoria,” Kenzie said, channeling ‘exasperated teenager’ into her tone, in a way I could one hundred percent believe Candy or Chastity had helped her refine.  “You could ask me infinity favors.”

“Just, um, without making a big deal of things, do you have the equipment to measure radiation?  For me and for others?”

“I absolutely do.  Light is a kind of radiation, obviously, and if I couldn’t measure, capture, or manipulate light then I’d be an awful camera tinker.  I gotta get to my workshop first though.”

“Which gets to the second thing,” I said.  “Any way you can postpone your workshop time?  Dragon sent me stuff and we need you to send her some data.”

“Aw, shucks,” Kenzie said.  “Collaborating with Dragon, postponing workshop time?  That sounds like a pain.”

“I… honestly don’t have any idea if you’re being sarcastic.  One of those things is a bother, but the other isn’t.”

“Of course I’m being sarcastic, dummy.  Postponing workshop time to hang out with people?  Collaborating with Dragon?  Yuh.”

“Yuh,” I echoed her.

She nodded.

“Want a ride?”

“Sure!”

With my forcefield, I picked her up.  I flew her over to the workshop area.  She seemed to take being carried by the forcefield better than anyone else to date, but, well, she was Kenzie.  Hard to read, especially with her helmet on.  Her tone was bright, but she wasn’t bouncy; she got restless and energetic when she was happy.

“How’s Tristan?” I asked, careful.

“He’s okay.  He was pulling away again, you know, like, he said before he wanted to go to the church, then he wanted to sit by the fire, and then he said he’d go back to the church.  It’s like… super obvious, um…”

“That he’s not okay?” I asked.

“That he’s pulling back.  He’s trying to deal with stuff on his own, but like, every therapy session we had, he was all, ‘I’m a people person, I need my maximum extroversion, I need connections and parties’.”

Kenzie had adopted a fake-macho voice as she said it.  It didn’t seem mocking so much as an attempt to mime Tristan.

“Doesn’t make sense,” I observed.

“We all have our bad days.  I think maybe he was hoping Byron was better than he ended up being?  Maybe?”

“Vista and Byron paired up earlier.”

“I saw!  That was cool.  Maybe that’s it.”

“But you don’t know.”

“No.  But Sveta and Tristan always got along because they were Weld fanboys, and that opened the door to them talking, and they were always more… hero, I guess, than everyone else?  Like, naturally wanting to do good, no ulterior motives?”

“You’re pretty hero.”

“I’d like to think I’m pretty and a hero,” she said, affecting a tone.  “That sounds so much better when others do it.  I’m okay.  Anyway, Rain and Sveta get along with Tristan best.  And they wanted a more serious talk with him.  Any more people and it might have been too much.”

We landed, and immediately, she made a beeline for the squat mech with the eel in the tank.  Kenzie speed-walked up to it, sans-bounce-in-step, and banged on the glass.  The eel opened its mouth, baring teeth.

“Fishtank!” she exclaimed.

Through the mech’s speakers, a voice came through.  “Yes?  Is that Lookout?  I don’t recognize the costume.”

“You want my workshop shift!?  I’ll take yours so long as it’s before ten.”

I didn’t hear the response, but Kenzie turned my way, thumbs up.

Easy enough.

We made our way into the workshop, which seemed like any mundane workshop on the surface, with a sliding barn door and a number of counters, with lots of tools in questionable condition mounted on the walls.  A tinker had taken over one end of the downstairs area, and stairs led upstairs.  Boxes and various packages were sitting in another corner.  Some had signs or papers stuck to them.

Kenzie’s was stuck under the workshop bench closest to the door.  She crouched by it, smiling mask looking up at me.

“What am I diagnosing?”

“Anything and everything you can give to Dragon, I think.  Unless it’s time consuming.”

“Okay.  Can you carry?”

I did, gathering up the stuff she indicated, and carrying it with my forcefield.

Kenzie’s tone was bright, “I said we have to go before ten because Rain conks out at ten thirty-six.”

She said it so casually, like it wasn’t life-threatening.  Like we didn’t have Titans to deal with on top of everything else.

Ten-thirty-six was about four hours from now.

I really hoped he’d be okay.

“We were talking about it briefly, while you stayed behind to fight.  I wanted to ask what you think we should do.”

“I think we shouldn’t tick Defiant off by repeating what we did last night.  I think he’d blow a vein in the side of his head.”

“I’m already all set up to make sure we’re just watching,” Kenzie said.  “We won’t get sucked in.  Promise.”

The tinker in the corner of their workshop gave us an annoyed look.  I covered my mouth.

Right.  His time.

I picked up the stuff Kenzie indicated, and lifted it outside.  People were looking, and the quiet calm I’d been enjoying since this morning felt very, very shaky, like a wobble in my stomach when I’d just had the flu and anything even slightly rich could make me hurl, but it was in my heart.

I refocused, putting more of my attention into the task at hand, thinking about the question Kenzie had asked.  I made sure I had everything secure before I picked Kenzie up and took flight.

“Other side of it,” I said.  “I’m thinking we keep tabs on him through the camera, and we stay ready to dive into the cracks and help out that way.”

“Ooh,” Kenzie said.  “That’s an idea.”

“What?”

“So yeah, we did talk about it between ourselves,” she said, “But the idea the others were talking about was trying to brute force our way in mid-dream instead of joining in at the start, just in case Rain got into trouble.  I’d have to tinker a lot to see if I could do it, and it might mean we run right up to the deadline before I can say if it’s doable, which is scary.”

“What if both options were possible?” I asked her.  “Compare and contrast.”

“Umm.  So breaking in, it puts us inside the crystal.  It’s like a giant mirror, and we’d be traveling to the other side of the mirror.  We can do more, but it’s scarier and messier.  We’re really in the guts of things.  No guarantees I can do it.”

“Right.”

Your idea, I don’t think we really discussed it because, like, doy, just fly in, obvious.  We’d be on the wrong side of the glass, I think we could either see what was on the other side or my tech could, or I could relay-”

We flew over the end of the compound where my old Patrol group was.

“There’s interference.  I fell in, the phone wouldn’t work.”

“Okay.  Good to know.  I might have to ask you to quickly fly over and take a dip.  But it should be doable!  It’d be like punching a mirror so the face on the other side doesn’t really exist anymore.”

“Two options.  Good.”

“Really good,” Kenzie said.

“Then,” I felt so nervous, because the wrong answer could be ‘you’re fucking dying Victoria‘, “do you mind doing that quick radiation scan?”

“Of…?”

“Me.  And everything.”

“Here, uh, we can do that here.  If you’ll hand me that box…”

I felt a little weird about floating in the air above the compound, holding a toolbox, knowing a bit of butterfingers could see tinkertech flying down to the ground below, possibly to explode or do weird tinkertech things on impact.

But I did oblige.  I was freaked, even though I had trained myself to some extent in steering my thoughts away from freakiness.

“Say something clever that isn’t cheese,” Kenzie said, holding up a device to her face.  “Because stupid me is getting that you’re a bit spooked all of a sudden, and we should lighten the mood.”

“Really putting me on the spot, Kenz.”

“C’mon!”

“Puppies!” I said, forcing a smile, while facing the false smile of her mask.

“Best answer!” she exclaimed, her device rapid-clicking for a few seconds, before she turned to look down at the settlement, repeating the process.

“Thought it might be.  Seemed to be just what you needed at the right moment.”

She didn’t make a noise, looking down at the data.

“Anything?” I asked, nervous.

“Radiation levels are high.”

“High in… very alarming sense, or…?”

“Twice the normal level.  More toward the epicenter.  But I’m looking some stuff up in some books I saved to my onboard computer systems, and that doesn’t seem like it’d be that big a deal.”

I nodded, not quite able to breathe a sigh of relief.  “I’ve lost a bit of hair, I was worried.”

“I could check other stuff, do full diagnostics.  Or we could ask Tattletale.”

I winced, but I nodded.

I took us down.

Into the area of the compound where my old Patrol team was gathered.  They were standing around a set of trucks, and one of those trucks had my new stuff.

The key thing was a laser cannon, as long as the rear container of the truck, with a tarp draped over top of it, partially folded back.  It was painted black, with two gold stripes along its housing.  The entire thing was about ten feet long from end to end, with the barrel being long and thin, and the gun itself pear shaped and heavily armored.

Kenzie immediately focused in on it.  “Woo!”

She snapped a picture with the little device before we even reached the ground, then hurried over.

Still without the bouncy step.

“Okay,” she exclaimed.  “Time to dig in.”

“Don’t fire it!” Gilpatrick called out.

“I won’t!”

Gilpatrick looked nervous as Kenzie carefully made her way up onto the truck bed, then motioned for Camisola to go watch her.

Jester walked over to me, and we watched from a bit more of a distance.

“What are the odds that you let me pull the trigger on that thing at some point?” he asked.  “After all of this, isolated area, point it at a mountain or something.”

“I’m not even sure if there’s going to be an ‘after’,” I said, without thinking.  I self-corrected.  “Not like I think we’ll lose, but…”

“Things are going to be messy, whatever happens.”

“Yeah,” I told him.

“I really want to try firing that thing sometime,” he told me.  “I’m a bit of a goofball, I know that, but I’m a determined goofball.”

“I know.”

“I set goals, I go for them.  Sometimes they’re things nobody else would get.  Like trying to get a poster on every square inch of wall in my room, after Gold Morning, when some stuff’s hard to get.  But it got me up at five thirty to help my dad at his work for some extra cash before school.”

“Didn’t know you did that,” I said.

“I do it with people, too.  Find that weird, dark girl who seems like she’s struggling to deal with the situation she’s in, and find an inoffensive way to be there for her.”

“Swansong appreciated it, I’m sure.”

“I’m talking about you,” the guy said.

I looked at him.

“Geez.”

I wasn’t sure what to say, except, “I appreciated it too.”

“We get through this,” he said, standing a little straighter, “And you’ll let me try firing that thing.  Make it up to me for standing out in the cold, guarding this thing until you could take custody of it.”

Jester was a goofball, with a priority system I didn’t and would never really grasp.  We didn’t have a lot of common interests, and we’d really only spent time together because we’d spent time together.  Not even convenience, but habit, and the fact we didn’t really argue or struggle to get along.  If I were uncharitable, I knew he’d sort of liked me and his goal had probably been to win me over, but he’d never pressed, so I could forgive that.  To tap that part of me that had once been a judgmental twelve year old girl, Jester had bad acne at the corners of his face and around his nose, his hair was a little greasy and too long at the top, his choices in fashion puzzled me more than anything, and he was just the furthest thing from my type overall.

But standing there, at the edge of the world ending, he could talk about tomorrow and wanting something and I could respect that.  The guy sounded like a man, juvenile as the ‘want’ was.

I gave him a punch in the arm.

“Is that a yes?”

“Depends,” I told him.  “Gilpatrick insinuated something earlier.  I had the impression you were in on it.”

“Uhhh… remind me?”

“You guys… you’re staying sane, you’re reasonably calm.  What am I missing?”

“Ugh,” Jester said.

“Ugh,” I repeated.  “That’s not an answer.”

“It’s… he clarified when you left.  I could say, but I don’t want to be rude.”

“Rude?”  I was a bit shocked at that.  Gilpatrick had been, all considered, pretty fucking fair to me in the past.  What the hell was it that he thought that would offend me?

“Vic!” Kenzie called out.

I floated over.  Jester followed.

“Hey!  So… super cool,” Kenzie said.

“It is,” I admitted.  “I’m not sure how big a difference it will make, but I’ll really love to have an option in a fight that isn’t me getting in the thick of things, running into stuff that penetrates my invincibility, and adding new injuries to my collection.”

“How much can you lift?”

“When I was Glory Girl, it was fourteen point six tons.  But it wasn’t easy, and it gets weird when you express it as strength that isn’t straight lifting.”

Thank you, PRT power testing.

“This is twelve tons,” Kenzie said, patting the side of the gun.

In the background, Gilpatrick looked a bit nervous with even that limited contact.

I asked for big.

“She might have read your files, because she shaved off weight, took out internals, and gave it reinforcement,” Kenzie said, pointing at the underside of the pear-shaped part of it.  “There are handholds.  Lots of them.”

“She was paying attention,” I said.

“But I think I see why she wanted scans.  Some of this is hard to calculate, especially if your lifting strength distributes weird across multiple hands, or if it’s uniform, or… any number of things.  Should we try seeing if you can move it?”

I nodded, floating up to the truck bed.  Kenzie climbed down, taking Jester’s hand.

I walked around the weapon, undoing straps, getting a better look at it.  Armor with a wavy texture that only appeared in specific, direct light.

With my forcefield, I seized the edge, and lifted it up, aiming the barrel skyward.  I found the handholds, framed with gold paint, and adjusted my grip.

Metal creaked as I lifted twelve tons of gun with only eight handholds.  To figure out where to put the handholds, Dragon would have had to scan and record my body shape.  I worried that one handhold would pull free of the housing and I wouldn’t be able to hold the gun up with what remained.

But I could lift it.  My flying was a bit sluggish.

“You’re not even touching it,” Jasper told me.  Kenzie was right between him and Camisola, device held up to her face, taking pictures or recording.

“Scans show some yellow-tier stresses,” Kenzie reported.  “I’ll let Dragon know as soon as the phones connect.”

“Translate?” I asked her.

“It’s… safe but it could be better.  If the wrong parts on the underside took battle damage, it might not be safe to hold.  Some of it can be tweaked, but I’ll let Dragon figure that out.”

“Perfect,” I told her.

A short, sharp whistle turned my head.  Gilpatrick.

Jester and Camisola went for their weapons.

“Hold up!” I called out.

At the edge of the clearing, looking a little more hostile than friendly, a snarling dog-mask flipped down to cover her face, Rachel stood with one wolf and one dog at high alert to either side of her.  Yips hung further back.

“Rachel,” I called out.

She indicated Kenzie.  “My business is with her.”

“What happened?”

“She knows what she did,” Rachel growled.

“Um!” Kenzie started.  “Uh, sorry?  I-”

“Hand him over.”

“Um…” Kenzie looked very on the spot, even with her face covered.  “I won’t make any sudden moves, so maybe don’t send the dogs after me?”

“Can you make them stand down?” I called out.

Rachel didn’t budge an inch.

Right.  Stubborn.

“I’m going to move verrry slowly,” Kenzie said.  She reached up to the side of her helmet and tapped it twice.

From my position above the truck bed, carrying fourteen tons of tinkertech, I couldn’t really see.  I noted that Jester did, though.

He put his gun away, moving with care, and then reached down to retrieve ‘him’.

Kenzie had had a puppy zipped up into her jacket, camouflaged with her projector tech.

Explaining the lack of bounce or exuberance.

Jester carried the pup over.  The wolf growled as he got closer, and he stopped.

“Sorry,” Kenzie called out.  “I was absolutely going to bring him back.  But he was sleeping and-”

Rachel walked the distance over to Jester, and took the pup.

“-He was warm and safe, and I was super, super careful, so-”

Rachel looked at each and every one of us, as if we’d perpetrated the crime in question, and didn’t so much as look at or respond to Kenzie.

“-so I didn’t even realize it was a problem, I’m sorry, I am, I was distracted-”

Rachel stormed away, snapping her fingers for her dogs to follow.

“…Oh,” Kenzie finished.

“Lookout,” I said, not even sure what to say.

“I was going to take him back!  It took me forever before I could even bring myself to touch him, and then I couldn’t just put him down because it would have woken him up.  I don’t know how to feed him anyway, so it’s not like I’d ever keep him, right?  I wouldn’t risk hurting him that way.”

“I think it’s going to take more than that to convince her,” I said.

“It might be worse than that,” Kenzie said, turning the smiling mask my way.  “It might be I can’t ever convince her now.  She isn’t exactly the kind to let grudges go.  I wasn’t really thinking.”

“Fuck, come on,” I said.  “Let’s get ahead of this before it gets worse.”

The truck groaned with the burden as I put the gun down.  I flew over to shift the tarp.

“I’ll keep an eye on it,” Gilpatrick told me.  “We won’t go too far, but I’ll need to get my squad fed.  It’s about that time.”

“Thanks.  Really.  I appreciate you guys going to the effort.”

He nodded.

I didn’t get to ask him for the answer that he and Jasper had both denied me.

“Lookout,” I said.  “Let’s go find Imp or Tattletale.”

She nodded.  “My stuff.”

“Can some of it go under the tarp?”

She began pointing, looking a little robotic in how she moved, stiff and methodical, like she was running on autopilot.  The peace of earlier in the stable spoiled, the exuberance about having a project to work on with Dragon.  Even just enjoying herself a bit because she was secretly cuddling a puppy.  Replaced with movements like she was a doll with limited range of motion.

Once we were carrying the bare essentials, I carried her into the air.

With no clear idea of where to go, and Kenzie not having her eye stuff in to help us track, I headed straight for the city center, hoping I could get updated directions.

I spotted Rain, Sveta, and Tristan, with Natalie in their company.  Natalie wore a jacket in a familiar style- Patrol issue, black and bulky enough to be worn over body armor, but with Natalie’s frame it was just worn.

I set Kenzie down.

“Freaky how you can do that now,” Tristan observed.

“Have you seen the Undersiders?” I asked.  “Mini-crisis.”

“No,” Sveta replied.  “What’s the crisis.”

“Kenzie borrowed a puppy from Rachel without asking.”

“Ohh,” Sveta said.  “She’s angry.”

“Real angry,” Kenzie answered.

Why?” Rain asked.

“I don’t know why I do things!” Kenzie answered, with enough energy and volume that it turned heads.  “I didn’t think of anything except he was warm and sleepy and fuzzy and I liked that and-”

“And you hid it with projector tech.”

“-I realized it probably wasn’t great after, but by then I was already gone and I had a time slot at the workshop, and I thought I’d take him back after.”

“Fan out?” I told the group.  “Younger kids and Kenzie’s team were with Rachel at the stable, so they’d still be there, but if Tattletale or Imp were with Rachel when she realized, they would have come with her.  We’re looking for Imp, Tattletale, maybe Foil… where are Roman or Juliette?”

“They got hurt, so they got medical care, but that was a while ago,” Kenzie said.

“Before I stopped in.”

“Yeah,” Kenzie said.

“They count too.”

“Damage control,” I said.  “We’ll apologize, see what Lookout can do to make amends or patch things up-”

“There might not be anything,” Kenzie said.

“We’ll try.”

The group started to split up.  I indicated Kenzie to Natalie, and Natalie walked over, putting a hand on Kenzie’s shoulder.

“Thank you,” I told Natalie, as the others all headed in different directions.  “You didn’t come bearing worse news?”

“I wanted to do something to help.”

“You’re awesome,” I said.

Having a mission helps, even if it’s the actions of an overly attached child running headlong into a savage ex-warlord who hasn’t had any reasons to be especially savage in recent years.

I still had worries about my hair loss.  I still felt that shakiness, emotionally, around my heart.  I still felt like I could jump at shadows.

Like nothing had changed in years.

But having a mission kept my focus elsewhere.  This was me, it was what I was made to do, trained by my parents.  Helping.  Fixing.

What the fuck could Kenzie do that would make things up to Rachel?  It couldn’t even be a promise of chores, because I had a gut feeling that Rachel would forbid Kenzie from going near dogs until things were okay again.  And depending on the severity of the situation, it could complicate Kenzie’s relationship with her team.

Such a small thing, that somehow mattered so insanely much to two people.

I flew to large groups, stopping in, asking.

So messy.

It went back to what I’d noticed with the Patrol.  That they were okay.  They weren’t crumbling internally, all the things they’d been holding in or dealing with being turned into actual crises, big and small, by the application of the insane pressure the Titans posed.

“Have you seen any Undersiders?” I asked a group from the Girls at Bat.  I saw only confused stares.

“Blonde, purple and black costume, eye on the chest, black mask?” I tried.  “Gray demon mask, black bodysuit, snarky?”

More confused head shakes, even as I went on to describe the nuances of Roman’s stylized, lopsided armor, Juliette’s elegant queen aesthetic, and Chastity’s ‘high boots, elbow-length leather gloves, whip, and captain’s jacket’ look.

Moving on.

Deathchester, a group of them sitting on a fence, smoking, while others stood at the edge of the road, arms folded, huddled.

“Damsel,” I called out, as I landed.

Power flickered around her claw as she turned my way.  She didn’t blast.  “Don’t surprise people with powers as dangerous as mine.”

“Mini-emergency.  Have you seen Imp, Tattletale, any of the older Heartbroken?”

“What’s it to you?”

“I’ll owe you a favor.”

She hesitated, then extended a claw, pointing at a house.  “We’re staying there too, so don’t bring trouble to our doorstep.”

“Thanks Damsel.”

I flew over, crossing a field, a large yard, and stopping at the door.  I knocked.

Tattletale opened it.   From the looks of it, she might have been napping or sleeping off a thinker headache.

“Rachel,” I said.  “Lookout.”

She was immediately alert, turning to pick up her coat.  “Take me.”

Imp’s follow-up comment was cut off, as I immediately took flight, carrying Tattletale into the dark settlement, illuminated by patches of orange and yellow from fires and lamps, all so small that I could block out my view of them with my hand stuck out.

“Could have waited until I had my jacket on.”

I adjusted my grip on her.  Looking a little nervous, phantom hands gripping her by the waist and hips, she pulled on the jacket.

“Kenzie took a puppy,” I explained.

“Fuck.  Okay.  Should be fixable.”

“Given the state of things?  Stress?  That Rachel’s hurt.”

“Might be fixable,” Tattletale amended her statement.

“Where would she go?” I asked.

“To her dogs.”

“The stable?”

Tattletale nodded, her face not so visible in the gloom, but her blonde hair was.

She reached over and her hand bumped into my forcefield.  I saw her tilt her head, looking at me.

“What is it?”

“Chemical burn.”

I felt a weird kind of relief, dramatic considering my history with acid, and the suggestion that what I had suffered might be a scar that would permanently affect my hairline.

But it wasn’t radiation, at least.

Funny, that Tattletale’s less certain word made me feel more secure than Kenzie’s expertise.

“I was freaking out about it,” I said.

“Mm.  You’re going to have to see a healer at some point, you know.”

“Tattletale,” I said, through grit teeth.  “My control over my forcefield is good now, but… maybe don’t say stuff like that while I’m carrying you.”

She didn’t respond.

It was weird, how I felt relieved, but I didn’t feel better.  I couldn’t let go of the bad, and my feelings still felt tremulous.  I’d run up against a wall just like Switch Hitter had, the thing that had brought me to that wall was gone, but… the wall was still there.

And I had no idea what to do.

We flew to the stable, removed from the rest of the settlement, set at the base of the hill.  I set Tattletale down on the ground, then dismissed the forcefield.

I could hear Rachel barking out orders, and I could see the kids leaving the stable.  Aiden and the younger boys looked spooked, Candy looked more distressed.

“Out.  Go,” Rachel said.

“We didn’t do anything wrong.”

“You’re on her team, you’re all responsible.  You told me she was fine to have around the dogs, I believed you.  Now I don’t believe you.”

“Shit,” I heard Tattletale whisper.  “Factor in that we’re in a strange place, one she associates with fighting and her dogs getting hurt…”

“Yeah,” I whispered back.

“Rachel!” Tattletale raised her voice.  “Hey, listen.”

“No.”

Rachel called in the two dogs who were in the way, then hauled hard on the sliding door at the front of the stable, leaning into the motion with her whole body.  She was more muscular a build than ninety-five percent of people I knew, more than Tristan or my dad, even, and the effect of her using every major muscle in her body to slam a massive wooden door was pretty dramatic.  It rattled after closing.

Tattletale stared at the closed door, then looked over at me.  “Maybe take the kids into town?  Get them some food?”

“You sure?”

“I really don’t know,” she said.  “But get them fed and taken care of, keep them from getting too mad at Lookout, and maybe we’ll just have the one person who’s having a crisis, instead of a whole gaggle of them.”

“Two people having a crisis, at least.  Lookout’s going to have a tough time with this.”

“All the more reason.  Let me handle my teammate, you handle the kids.”

“Thanks, Tattletale.”

She nodded.

I led the kids away, though they were periodically protesting, questioning me, or turning to try to go back or look at what was happening.  Not that there was anything except Tattletale talking to a door.

Down the path, along the road.

I could have offered to carry them, but I needed a moment to calm down before we got there, and I couldn’t help but feel like picking them up, then immediately dropping them off in Kenzie’s vicinity would be disastrous.

Such a smart kid, but she could do such paradoxically dumb things when feelings got in the way.  Stealing a dog from Rachel Lindt.

“Hold off on any actions or accusations,” I told the kids.  “We’re going to go get food, and we’re going to stay out of Lookout’s way, she’s going to stay out of your way, and when we’ve figured out what happened-”

“She stole a dog,” Amias chimed in.

“-Yes.  But the why, and the consequences… we need to figure it all out.  Let’s let Tattletale handle it, and everything else.”

Candy gave me a long, searching look, while her teammates kept their heads down.  Darlene looked disgruntled, but it had been just last night that she’d brought the full wrath of the Heartbroken down on the girl.  She had to be thinking of that now.  Chicken was just plain quiet.

I led them into the city center.  I spotted Sveta, waving to her, and she waved back, before going to get Tristan’s attention- he was barely identifiable by his armor at the edge of a clearing.  Vista was with him.

I identified where food was being served, and led the kids into the dining area.  Kenzie wasn’t there, so I was safe to stand by the door and watch them get into line.  I kept an eye and an ear on them, making sure they weren’t plotting.  Not that Chicken Little was a plotter, but the Heartbroken as a whole…

Stopping the Titans is hard enough without us falling apart all the time, I thought.

Mostly they were just trying to figure out what was going on, by the sound of it.  This had to be the most exhausting day for them.

“Lookout is in her workshop.”

I turned and looked at Natalie.  Then I decided to step outside to chat with her instead of the two of us standing in the open doorway while people filed in.

“Good,” I said.  “Good distraction.”

“She’s upset, I think.  Hard to tell.”

I nodded.

“I saw you come in through the window.  I figured I’d get updates before going back.”

“Tattletale is talking to Rachel.  Other kids are banned from the stable, at least for now.  They’re upset but still digesting.”

Natalie nodded.  The orange light from the building interior reflected on her lenses.

“I don’t know how we’re going to handle everything,” I said, quiet.

“No idea,” Natalie said.  “Let me know what I can do.”

“Question’s been bugging me,” I said, not taking my eyes off the kids, searching them for any sign of rising anger, frustration, or anything that might indicate I needed to step in.  For now they seemed content to be getting an early dinner and talk amongst themselves.

“I could try answering if it’s a legal question,” Natalie said.

“Not legal.  Human question.”

“You are human, Victoria.”

“But I’m too close to powers,” I told her.  “At least, I might be.  I asked my old boss from the Patrol how they were able to stay so calm and together when everything went to shit like this.”

“Oh?” Natalie asked.  “I don’t… no idea, sorry.”

“And I asked a friend, and he told me that the answer would have offended me or something?  Which doesn’t sound like him or my old boss.”

We watched as the kids filled up their plates with stuff from the buffet-style serving area, then made their way to a bench.  Candy said something and the group of them looked up at me.

Natalie didn’t seem to have my answer, so I motioned for the door, “Want to get a bite to eat?”

“I think I know what it might be,” she said.  “But I don’t want to sound like a bitch.”

Really?” I asked, exasperated.

“Outclassed, outgunned, feeling underequipped- I heard about your gun.”

“Sure.”

“Beaten down, with no end in sight for a war where you have no idea at all what the dangerous ones might be capable of, if they go all out?  Worried that if something goes wrong, then some members of your team, anyone, could end up one of them?”

I nodded slowly.  “Got it.  Thank you.  I- really appreciate you spelling it out.”

A reality they’d been living with all their lives.  They’d learned to deal.  The Patrol existed to deal.

“It’s why you brought me on board,” she told me.  “So I can say the inconvenient things you don’t want me to, and then you figure out if you want to listen to it or ignore it.”

“Now you’re being a little…” I made a hand motion.

“A little,” she said.  “I’m going to get a plate of food for Kenzie and grab something for myself while I’m at it.”

I held the door for her, glancing at the clock on the wall as I followed her in.

T-minus three hours until Rain sleeps.

Tonight only gets harder.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Radiation – 18.7

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

The five pound phone I carried blared.  I had to ignore it.

Through the clouds, I could see thick bolts of lighting the color of deep forest, with finer traceries of gold lightning dancing along and around them.  A moment later, those clouds were pushed out of the way by a darker mass.

Traced by Oberon’s power, Skadi plummeted from the clouds, axe-hands swinging down.  Legend unloaded everything he had on her as he flew straight down.  Chunks of her armor came away, revealing what was beneath- more armor with sucking muscle holding each segment in place.

I flew to intercept, diving down at an angle, dropping my forcefield so I could lose that extra bit of air resistance.  With the angle of my flight, I couldn’t see above as much, and only caught the splash.  I flipped over, belly to the sky, maintaining my course.

Skadi’s blade had clipped Legend.  Flesh became lasers, radiating out, curling back into one another in loops.  A defensive measure.

She hit the ground.  I flew past her, and forcefield hands became a wedge as I speared through damaged armor plating, cleaving it away from her body.  My forcefield gave way before I was all the way through, and I was forced to squeeze out as Skadi moved, the armor plate to my left pressed close to her side.

I got ninety-five percent of the way out before it closed around my foot.  I shifted direction immediately, pulling, but twisted my foot in the process.

Fucking stupid, Victoria.  She’s barely even aware of your existence, and she just got you.

Fucking hurt.  Ow.  I was already brimming past full with the kind of emotion that… I couldn’t even put my finger on a word that would encapsulate it.  The same feeling that would drive a child to destroy their own toys, in their desire to make an inarticulate fucking point.  If I hadn’t been past capacity and on a battlefield, I was emotionally exhausted enough that I might have just curled up, cradled my foot, and cried.  I was so damn cold.

Fucking hurt.  I bit my lip, blinking away moisture.

Titan Oberon was there, not far from me, dealing with four flying capes.  One used a laser beam that seemed to pull, hauling the Titan off-balance, while another stabbed strategically at Oberon with needle arms that had to be thirty feet long.

They repeated the process, and this time Oberon flicked a foot, kicking at the ground to throw himself forward.

My phone buzzed.  I would have picked it up, but… more immediate concerns.

Titan Oberon hit three capes in two swings, and would have hit a fourth if a cape hadn’t created a forcefield in the air.  Not Aunt Sarah- this field acted like a net, coating Oberon’s fist.

My immediate concern was Skadi, attacking other capes who were playing defense for Legend.  She did much like Oberon did, still crackling with traces of Oberon’s energy, that made her faster, quicker to shift position, and more slippery.

One of the swings was aimed at someone else, but came right at me by what might have been accident.  I floated to one side, then went after her arm, forcefield out, tearing at the damage to armor there.

A shout from behind got my attention.

I was transfixed between two alarmingly large things that were demanding my immediate attention.  Just beside me, Titan Skadi was teleporting, the parts of her in the light seeming to disappear before the parts of her in deep shadow.  A short distance away, Oberon was on the attack, attacking another cluster of capes who were close enough to one another that the swing of one titanic arm could catch them.  Us.  Me included.

My forcefield protected me from the impact.  That wasn’t the problem.  The problem was that it sent me flying toward the ground, at a speed my actual flight couldn’t touch, a massive shockwave promising to pulverize me if the impact with the rubble below didn’t.

I flew hard left, while trying to slow my descent, on the half-formed thought that moving at a diagonal might buy me an instant more time before impact than moving almost straight down.

I turned over, belly toward the sky, looking for any help that others might be able to provide.  A forcefield, a reaching hand.  I just saw the green-tinted air that carried that pressurized air.  Oberon’s ‘shockwave’.

I turned over again, facing the ground, and it filled my vision.

Cracked ground.

Aiming myself, contorting my body, I plunged into the crack.  The side of my body skimmed the edge of the crack, and my costume tore.

I plunged into the oblivion where the damage to reality was heavy enough there was only this, a dark red landscape I’d seen in someone else’s dream.

Here, where my flight was weaker, my aura not even a spark in my chest, and where my forcefield struggled to get back up.

Like my power was underwater, floundering, but I wasn’t.

I stopped falling and came to hover in the air.  I let out a breath I’d been holding, in a single, “bluh,” followed by panting breaths.

It was quieter down here.  Calmer.  Just… cold air washing in from above, the whistles and hisses of wind, and the dull impacts of distant fighting.

My phone buzzed.

I picked it up, pressing it to my ear, and I heard only static.

I flew up, and the flying was a struggle.

Static became words.  “-evac.”

“Say again?” I talked into the phone.  I flew back and up, away from the Titans.

“Get out, Antares.  You’re done.  People are evacuated, Titan Eve has moved on, and the reinforcing group is there.  We don’t expect or want you fighting through the initial encounter and the second shift.”

Fuck, my foot hurt.  I hoped I hadn’t broken bones.

I floated up further.  Legend wasn’t that far away.  I could see him in the air, drifting slightly, the wound with loose, curving lasers unspooling out from his upper body and bleeding out in white and blue that contrasted with the dark sky.  He was slowly knitting itself together.  As more of his face formed into human features, I saw him grimace in pain.

In the course of one fight, the Titans had leveled a section of the city.  Had this area of city been a neighborhood, one team like the Rooftop Champs could have made it a long-term goal to protect it.  On Earth Bet, it would have been a town.  Twenty, thirty thousand people might have lived here.  Decayed with gases, trampled, damaged, or lost in the cracks in reality.

“Got it,” I said into the phone.

“Thank you for your hard work.”

I let the phone drop back to my hip.  I floated up and back, getting a wider view of the battle and the battlefield.  Two Titans fighting in concert.  Twenty heroes, with only a dozen actively engaged in this moment.  Parian’s creation was deflated.  The bodies had been carried away.

The Titans were healing, now.  The damage being done didn’t quite make up for the speed at which they were recovering.  Most of the damage had been done by Eve.  By retreating, we’d given up on that incremental damage.

And I could see it.  I got it.  Yes, we could have won, with Parian’s power fully unleashed, and one Titan pinned down.  We could have wiped out Oberon and there was even a chance that we would have disrupted every other Titan he was connected to.  What happened to Titans Skadi and Auger if the Titan central to their network died?  Maybe we could have discovered that.

But… then what?  Would we have been in any shape to fight what came next?

I flew, and I could barely recognize the city I flew over.  Too much damage, and the path I took showed me buildings that had rotted, places with no snow because every surface was tainted, to the point that water was transmuted to something else, or the concrete of buildings interacted with trace chemicals and moisture to generate heat, steaming even ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes after the Titans had passed.  Too hot for snow to settle on.

Dauntless was standing between other Titans and Titan Fortuna.  Those who ventured too close to her suffered a blistering attack.  Long-ranged strikes that did more damage in one hit than Legend managed in five minutes of fighting.  All the while, Fortuna did nothing, her face turned skyward.

Fume Hood was trudging in Dauntless’s direction.  She was still healing some of the damage that had been done, though she’d been relatively unmolested toward the end of the fight and in the course of her journey.  Was it that Oberon’s group had more clout and power?  Three or four Titan’s worth of energy or infrastructure to draw on?  That Dauntless was spending his coupling’s power for each of those heavy attacks, that drove Auger and Arachne away?

I couldn’t be sure.  But I floated in closer to Fume Hood, the gas-cloaked Titan.

Tried, flying past her face, to get her attention.

Nothing.

I settled on her shoulder, standing in waist-deep gas.  My forcefield kept it from touching me.

Her head turned, the hood and the darkness beyond it.  The ‘hair’ that was a constant, heavy downpour of gas  out of each lower corner of the hood washed over me, and I made sure my forcefield had its mouth shut, everything sealed.

She didn’t slow down or stop.

I put chilly hands in my pockets.  My entire body felt clammy, with sweat on every inch of me, forming a wet layer between me and my costume.  That costume had holes in it.  I’d torn it when Oberon had smacked me down into the side of the tear in reality.  My skin was intermittently visible and abraded from armpit to hip, with a few cuts and tears that had already clotted.

“Sorry we hurt you,” I told her.

No response.

“Sorry we didn’t get the message, when you told us to go, that you had it handled.  We’re still kind of concerned that if you build a network, it’ll catalyze something dangerous.”

Her body creaked incessantly, like the suspension of a bridge in strong winds.  Always like something was on the cusp of tipping over or snapping, though it never happened.

The hair-gas flowed over and around me, obscuring my vision.  A mustard-yellow and green haze that consumed everything that my forcefield counterpart didn’t protect.

“You aren’t trying to kill me, and you aren’t overtly trying to hurt the rest of us or the city.  That’s… I didn’t want it to pass without mention.  I can’t imagine it was easy, or more of the others would be holding back.

“You won over the Malfunctions.  You did good and you’re doing good, and I… I know this is gibberish to you.  Whatever I try to say or write won’t get through, just like you can’t communicate directly with us.  But maybe tone of voice matters?  Or just the fact I’m here?”

Her head turned forward.  She kept trudging forward, body groaning and creaking like a massive structure.  The gas around me cleared, though I still stood waist-deep in it.

“I spent too long trapped in a monstrous form.  I didn’t feel like I got the backup I needed, not from the people I needed it from.  Maybe I’m not in your top five favorite people, you never called me to hang out and the only times I really called was for information or to ask you to help out.  I don’t remember having any intense or hours-long conversations.  Almost a ten year age gap between us.  But we were kind of friends?  There was mutual respect, right?  And I want you to know, just, um-”

My voice gave a bit, emotion coming through.  Fatigue played a part in it, but a bigger part of it was that I wanted to convey with tone and emotion what might not come across in words.

“If you need any backup, if you want a tiny human riding on your shoulder to keep you quiet company, like I needed a certain girl with tentacles for those few weeks I had a best friend… give me any signal at all.  Even when I’m not here, I’ll be in your corner, arguing for you, fighting, I presume, for the same thing.  These people, those kids.  A future.”

I remained where I was, watching, as gas continued to dissipate.  I looked out over the city, which was battered, blistered, dark, and empty.  The only lights were at the very edges of the horizon, as cities and settlements prepared for evening, starting up generators and using whatever means necessary to ensure they could see and continue seeing as they got camps set up.

“We don’t have much going for us right now,” I said.  “But I have little doubt we’d be absolutely screwed if you and Dauntless were fighting us too.  All my respect, Fume Hood.  Lauren.  You’re a hero.”

She kept trudging forward, slowly recuperating from her wounds.

I took off.

I landed, touching ground with one foot, the leg with the sore foot bent at the knee.

The Fallen camp was busier than it had been earlier.  A share of the people who had helped with Oberon and Skadi were here now, milling around.  Our fire was occupied by Advance Guard and two groups I couldn’t place, with a few members of the Patrol standing around because there wasn’t enough sitting room.  The people around the fire provided the block against the wind that Imp had asked for when she’d wanted Gibbet to make snowmen.

My phone, and not one of the clunky brick-phones, vibrated in my pocket.  I pulled it out, but it showed an endlessly looping ‘loading’ message.  A half-bar of signal.  It would take a bit.

I still had to get back to Dragon.  I’d tried reaching out earlier and she’d put me off, telling me to get in touch later.  My worry was that it had to do with Lookout.

On that note, my team had taken out their eye-cameras.  Only Lookout had hers in, and she was -I closed one eye for a few seconds, then let the heads-up-display come up.  The map we’d had in Teacher’s base didn’t have an equivalent for this camp.

I could see out of her eye, and saw her at a desk, a puppy in her lap.

“ReSound,” I addressed Advance Guard’s leader.  She had a costume in yellow and orange gradient, with dark concentric circles and the jagged, dark lines of a typical Advance Guard costume.  “Have you seen Breakthrough?”

“They went that way,” she gestured vaguely toward one end of the settlement.  “Didn’t pay much attention, sorry.”

“No problem.  What about the Undersiders?”

“Which ones?”

“Uh, Tattletale, but I could do with knowing Rachel Lindt’s location too.”

“Council hall, that way, and uh, Stables, that way.”

“Thanks.”

“Slumming it?” Shortcut asked.

My old friend Shortcut.  He’d been an incidental run-in prior to the Community Center attack.  Stupid fucking costume that looked similar to ReSound’s, except the circle bits were bladed and were crafted to look like they were stuck in his body.  His weapon was stuck into the dirt behind him.

“Get bent, Shortcut.  I’m too tired and hurt, and in a situation like this, anyone who’s willing to help is okay in my books.”

“You realize we wouldn’t be where we are right now if it weren’t for the Undersiders, right?” Shortcut asked.  “That attack on the community center?  That was Tattletale.  Do you think Fume Hood getting shot today would have mattered if Tattletale hadn’t pulled what she did at the end of the Summer?”

“I’m more inclined to blame the people who shot her rather than take the convoluted path necessary to blame one of the villains,” I told him.  “Frankly, I’m all out of blame.”

“It’s not that convoluted,” Shortcut answered me.  “You just need to think about it for more than three seconds.  Or do you not have the ability to do that?”

“Stop, Shortcut,” ReSound said.

“I’m pretty tired, so maybe I am lacking the ability,” I told him.

“Maybe it’s not that you’re tired,” Shortcut told me.  “I’m not going to outright say you might be embarrassingly dumb, so-“

“Shortcut,” ReSound said.

“-taking another stab at it,” Shortcut continued, ignoring his boss.  “Maybe being on a team with two creepy kids, an ex-villain, and a bunch of ex-murderers has compromised you?”

“Get up,” ReSound said.

“The ex-villain died,” I pointed out.  “Saving Warden lives.  Every member of the team has bled for the side of the heroes.”

“Please don’t engage him,” ReSound said.  “Up, Shortcut.”

Shortcut didn’t budge.  “Someone needed to say it.”

“Up.”

“Are you going to fight me if I don’t?” he asked, looking up at her.  “Here?  In a time of crisis?”

“That doesn’t make you immune to basic rules of decency and inter-team cooperation.”

“People like her thrive on us being civil and decent and letting things slide,” Shortcut said.

She didn’t budge or relent, looming over him.

“If you want me to move, you’re going to have to make me.”

I could feel the tension radiating from the capes around the campfire.

“I’m going to head off.  People to check on,” I told ReSound.  “Thanks for pointing me in the right direction.”

“Off you go,” Shortcut said.

One of the other guys in the group said something under his breath.  It might have been, “Fuck off, man.”

I bristled, but bit back the emotion.

“I’m going to head off too,” ReSound said.  “I invite any members of Advance Guard who want to be respectable heroes to come with me.  We need to check on our accommodations.”

The bulk of Advance Guard got up.  Shortcut started to do so as well, and one of his teammates put a hand out on his shoulder, keeping him from getting to his feet.

He settled back into his seat, trying very hard to look like he intended to sit there and make himself comfortable.

“Your costume needs fixing,” he pointed at my side.  My coat had pulled far enough back that the damage to the base layer was visible.  I resisted the urge to cover up the damage.

“So does yours.”

“Fuck you, no it doesn’t.  You’re not going to pull a ‘made you look’.  They didn’t touch me.  Not even the gas.”

“I don’t think that’s what she meant,” one of the other capes at the fire said.

“Being untouched isn’t the badge of honor you seem to think it is,” I told him.  The others around the fire looked roughed up enough that I figured I could get away with it.

“You don’t want to know what I think,” he said, glaring at me.

“I don’t really care either,” I told him.

Then I flew off.

Childish of me to engage, more childish to leave the conversation that way.  But I’d held back enough today.  Playing nice with Defiant, holding back with Eric.  I was fucking done.

Fuck me, let this be easy.

I needed to check on my people.

Stables were closest.  I remembered the location from our little geography discussion, when we’d been distracting ourselves with a discussion on vantage points for viewing the Titans.  Stable Hill had been one of the hills, and it thus followed the stables were close.

Dogs, dogs, and more dogs.

I saw Cassie outside, throwing the ball for a crowd of dogs.  Chastity sat on a stool next to her, while four older dogs competed for the two hands that could pet them.  An exceptionally skinny teen in grunge fashion and a seventeen year old who looked twenty-two, who wouldn’t have looked out of place amid celebrities at a high-class event, provided I looked past the bandages, and the bright red patch of skin at her neck.

I landed.  Dogs immediately swarmed me, some barking, but most were friendly.

“Hey,” Cassie said.

“Heya.  Kenzie around?”

Cassie jerked her thumb toward the stable interior.

“She brought all the dogs, huh?”

Chastity laughed.  “This isn’t even close to all of the dogs.”

“Ahh.”

“Pretty miserable back there, huh?”

I wasn’t sure if she meant the camp or the fight.

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“Any word from Rain?” Chastity asked.

“I, uh, haven’t checked.  Do I need to?”

“I wouldn’t,” Chastity said.  “But you know your team better than I do.  Right now Sveta, Tristan, and Rain are at one of the houses.  Big white one near the end of the road, with the white stable, fenced in yard.  They said, um…”

She glanced toward the stable door, then leaned forward, conspiratorially.  I stepped closer.

“…Sveta and Rain are closest to Tristan, so they wanted to talk to him without the munchkin.  Asked us to keep her busy.”

Betting five bucks she heard that, I thought.  “If that’s it, I’ll hang back.”

“That’s good,” Chastity said.  “They didn’t think it would be long.  Byron gets a bit of a turn after they’re done, he’s going to spend time with Vista, Rain’s going to come here to hang out-”

I didn’t miss Cassie’s attention momentarily flicking my way.

“-and I don’t know what Sveta is doing.”

“Perfect,” I said, putting my hand on a dog’s head.  Another dog nosed my hand out of the way, tried to get his head under my palm, and failed when a bigger dog wormed his way in.  Tails were wagging all over the place.  “Did Kenzie set up her workshop here?”

Cassie shook her head.  “Limited power, so tinkers are taking turns at the machine shop.”

“Oh,” I said.  I approached the door, peeking around the corner.

Chicken Little, Darlene, Amias and Nicholas ran by, chased by a herd of puppies.  They hopped up onto hay bales, Chicken helping Amias up, and the puppies were too small to follow.  The kids hopped down and ran over to the next spot they could find high ground.

In the center of the horseless stables, there were plastic and metal containers that I was guessing the Patrol had brought over.  The containers formed a walled in area with a layering of newspapers that had been soiled.  Within the area were two chairs, a foot from one another.  Candy and Kenzie sat facing one another, Candy’s legs were propped up on either side of Kenzie, heels resting on Kenzie’s seat.  Candy’s legs formed walls while Kenzie’s lap and knees formed a floor.  Three or four puppies, no more than two months old, were inside the de-facto basket of legs, fast asleep.

Rachel sat on the stacked containers, high above them.  Her wolf, Yips, and two other dogs were on various levels of the stack.

I thought for a moment Kenzie might have nodded off too, but her hands moved, like she was going to touch a puppy, then stopped.

“Touch it,” Rachel said.  “Touch heals, it comforts.”

“What if I break it?” Kenzie asked.

“I’d send my dogs after you, take you to pieces,” Rachel said.  Then, softer, “You’d have to try to hurt them.”

Kenzie didn’t touch them.

“It was a part of my unofficial therapy,” Candy said, quiet.  She stroked one pup.  “I don’t like… liking things.  It makes me nervous, like if I for-sure decide I like something it’s just going to be taken away, or used against me.  Aunt Rachel made me take care of the puppies every day.  Holding them and reading books to them.”

“While some of us picked up poo and carried around huge bags of dog food,” Darlene chimed in.

“But it worked,” Candy said, her tone bright.  “And now I’m cured, I can say with an open and unguarded heart, Chicken Little, you are the love of my life!”

Chicken Little bumped into an annoyed-looking Darlene, while looking over at Candy.  “You’re such a goof.  Ow, frick, my ankles!”

The puppies were nipping.

“Don’t teach them bad habits,” Rachel ordered.  “Make them stop and sit.  Sitting is how they say please, and they have to say please to keep playing.”

Which distracted Darlene and Aiden with the task of getting eight or so puppies to cooperate.

“I ruin everything I like,” Kenzie said, quiet.  “Because I like them too much.”

“You can’t like a dog too much,” Rachel said.

“I bet I could,” Kenzie muttered.  “I’d scare away a dog, and even if I didn’t, I’d fall in love with him, and then he’d go back to your farm and I’d have to say goodbye, and I’d get my heart broken again.”

“Maybe a puppy shouldn’t go back with Aunt Rachel,” Candy ventured.  Her head turned Rachel’s way.

Rachel didn’t look impressed.

“I couldn’t,” Kenzie said.  “I don’t know how.”

“You can build cameras that see the past,” Chicken Little called out.

“They’re so young, though.”

“It would take a lot of work,” Rachel said, with a tone that was more than a warning, or it was a warning compounded on several levels.

“Aw, shoot,” Candy said.  “Work ethic and Kenzie?  I don’t know how you can put those things in the same sentence.”

“Ha ha,” Kenzie muttered, keeping her voice quiet so as not to disturb the sleeping puppies.  It didn’t seem to matter that the pups with Chicken Little and Darlene were yipping, and the two youngest Heartbroken were stampeding around the place, banging into wooden stable doors.  “Oh, crap, actually-”

She stopped hissing the words when she noticed my presence at the entrance.  More plainly, she said, “-the time.  I haven’t been checking my computer.  I have a shift at the workshop.  Data to collate.  Hi Antares.”

I checked my phone.  “Five twenty.”

“Not for another half hour then,” Kenzie said, relaxing back into the chair.  “Sorry I haven’t been in touch.”

“It’s fine.  So long as you’re okay.”

“Forgot to check your tech,” Candy said.  “You might be in love.  Or the world’s ending.”

Kenzie looked down at the puppies.

“Everything good?” I asked.

Kenzie nodded, not raising her eyes.

“You said Dragon had a message for me.”

“She’s having tech delivered.  She asked me to get some measurements on stress, distribution.  Stuff.  Call her later?”

“Okay,” I said.

“Can you leave your eye thing?  I’m doing updates when I get to the lab.”

“Okay,” I said.  “I have no idea how to remove it.”

She waved me over.  I floated up to her.

She pulled the tech free, and I could feel the meta tines running along the insides of my eyelids, and the bone of my eye sockets.  It took a second for my vision to adjust afterward.

“I wish I had workshop time right now,” Kenzie said.

“Enjoy the moment,” I said.  “Friends, puppies.”

Candy wiggled her foot, the heel resting on the seat by Kenzie’s hip.  The toe of Candy’s boot rubbed against Kenzie’s side.

“It’s because I’m enjoying the moment that I should run,” Kenzie said, not lifting her eyes from the animals.  “Get out while I’m ahead.  Let things… settle down.”

I couldn’t think of a scene in recent memory that was less in need of a ‘settle down’ than this contained world with two chairs, newspaper with wet spots, and containers arranged in a loose rectangle around them.

“Workshop’s safe, huh?”

“It’s hard to mess up when I’m in my workshop,” Kenzie said.

Candy reached down past a sleeping puppy with the softest looking fur, to put a hand on Kenzie’s knee.

“I’ve got to check on others,” I said.  “I can’t relax just yet.”

“Don’t bother Rain, Sveta and Tristan,” Candy said.

“Wait, what?” Kenzie asked.

I guess I lose those five bucks.

“I heard from Cass and Chas,” I said, a little weirded out that Kenzie wasn’t fully in the loop.  “Don’t worry.”

“Okay.  They’re having a serious talk,” Candy said, to Kenzie.  “Don’t worry.  It’s not you being left out, because Victoria’s being left out too.”

Kenzie nodded slowly, but I saw the line at the dead center of her forehead, a small crease of worry.

“Do you want me to come back in thirty?” I asked.  “Walk you to the workshop?”

Kenzie nodded.  Crease gone.

To Rachel, I said, “Going to go hunt down Tattletale and see what information we’ve all gathered.  Then I’ll fill you in, and maybe that gives you direction when you’re back at the Workshop, Kenz?”

Kenzie nodded.

Yeah.

“Thank you for looking after them,” I told Rachel.

She shrugged, expression unreadable.

I headed back out, pausing at the entrance to the stable, where Cassie and Chastity were standing and sitting by the door, respectively.

“How’s Foil and Parian?” I asked.

“Parian’s napping.  Foil’s gone,” Chastity said, without flinching.

“Gone as in-”

“Another settlement.  With old New York Ward teammates.”

I nodded, not sure what to make of that.  “I hope they don’t separate.  The end of the world is bad enough as is.  We don’t need to face it alone.”

“Yeah,” Chastity said.  “I hope they make up too.  I kind of have zero adults to look to as role models for my own relationship goals.”

“Charlotte and Forrest?” Cassie asked.

“I barely ever see them.”

“Then you need to see them more.”

They were getting into a discussion that made me feel like it’d be hard to unstick myself from.  I glanced back at Rachel, and I saw her with her bandaged hand in her lap.  Yips licked at the fabric.  Gas-touched, if I remembered right.

Maybe the puppy thing with Kenzie was as much for Rachel as anyone.

Chastity wasn’t moving very quickly, though the dogs had largely settled down, leaning hard against her leg.

Everyone who had been in the field was hurting, tired, and the places we were retreating to weren’t necessarily warm.

“I’ll be back for Lookout,” I told the pair.

I took off.  My forcefield absorbed the brunt of the cold wind.

Community center.  I had to assume it was the nicest looking building.  I itched to go check in on Sveta, Tristan, and Rain, but the others seemed protective of the trio.  I had an ugly feeling that it was serious- that Tristan was worn out or at a breaking point, and that it was the most trusted, Tristan-familiar people only.

If there was anything else, and if I really needed to know, it was possible Tattletale would fill me in.

The stable hadn’t quite been warm, and I was feeling a chill, like the furnace that burned at the center of me wasn’t enough to keep my extremities comfortably warm.  It was nice to step indoors, and feel actual warmth, from a stove in the corner.

The problem was that it was the wrong building.  This would be the Church.

A woman in a winter jacket put a finger to her lips as I entered.  There were people at the front who were praying, it seemed.  Before I could turn around, she put a hand out to touch my shoulder.  She indicated the back pews of the church.

Commandeered by a group of people from the Patrol.  They’d unpacked what looked like five first aid kits, to get necessary components.  Things had been redistributed, so that a given box had one, two, or three specific types of thing in it.

Fuck, I supposed I had to.

I limped a few steps before floating the rest of the way with a cramping foot.  I took my seat, and a young lady who was probably three years younger than me began assessing the situation at my side.

I was partway through the process of getting patched up when a tall, late-thirties guy with a red-blond mustache and swept-back hair approached, carrying two first aid kits that looked like a different make and model than the ones the Patrol here was currently using.  He gave me a long, searching look.

It took me a second to connect the face to the mask.

“Want company?  I could take over, even,” he told me, his voice soft.

Weird.  Weird weird weird.

“Sure, I guess.”

Even if it felt vaguely… incestuous to have someone I was related to and yet barely knew touching sensitive wounds and bare skin.

The girl from the Patrol vacated the pew.  The man, my Uncle Mike, took a seat in her spot.

“I hoped to run into you and I dreaded the idea of running into you,” he said, quiet.  “I don’t mean any offense when I say that.”

“Nope,” I told him.  “I get it.”

“You were so young when I last saw you.  And now you’re… eighteen?  Nineteen?”

“Twenty-one.”

“That was my next guess,” he said, smiling.  “This looks like it smarts.”

“I could tell you stories of my war wounds,” I said.

“I’ve had a few of my own.”

“I think I win,” I said, with a bit too much confidence.  He met my eyes, and it wasn’t challenge or confidence or anything of my dad or my mom in that gaze.  Sadness, and not because he’d lost a game he wasn’t really playing.  The last word of my statement came out late “…though.”

He focused on patching me up.

“I didn’t want this for you kids,” he said, quiet.  “I’m terrified of it happening to mine.”

I followed his gaze.  At the very front of the room, a slender woman with a mane of black hair tied back with a scarf held a child that might have been six or so years old.  Another one shifted restlessly at her feet, blocked from my view by the pews.

“Sorry,” he said.

“About?” I asked.

“It feels like every time I say something about this family, it’s critical.”

“I think that’s the way it goes, isn’t it?” I asked him.  “We have our good points, but we have a lot that’s worth criticizing.”

“Who’s in your corner and who isn’t?” he asked, very carefully.

Was he asking to be careful?  To gauge where my allegiances lay?

“Can I master-stranger you?” I asked him.

He raised his eyebrows.

“Penetrating questions from someone I don’t know all that well.”

“You really are your mother’s daughter, hm?” he asked.

“Can I verify you?  Can you tell me things only you would know?”

“You had a stuffed lion, once.”

I gave him one nod.

“I remember…” his voice was almost wistful.  “Maybe it was Crystal, but I think it was you.  You were small, no older than my kids are now.  You were lying on the floor of the living room, and your parents had a horrible carpet, like a scrub brush you’d keep by the sink.  You stared up at the ceiling and you said, over and over again, ‘I wish I was a superhero’.  With conviction and emphasis and constant repetition, sometimes yelling it, as if you could make it happen with sheer force of will and determination.  Sometimes you’d pound your fist on the floor.”

I smiled.  “I almost forgot that.”

He wore no smile.  Just a bit of a sad expression.

“Well, you’re verified, I think,” I told him.  “You’re my uncle or you’re a very good mind reader, and if you’re that good a mind reader, there’s nothing I can do anyway.”

He nodded.

“Crystal’s in my corner,” I said.  I glanced back.  A few people had vacated the church, and there was nobody really in earshot, so long as we spoke quietly.  “Everyone else has kind of let me down.”

There was a bit of an awkward silence.

“Sutures,” he warned me, holding up the curved needle.  “I’m a little out of practice.”

I could have taken over, doing the task, but I kind of didn’t want to leave him with nothing to do.  I felt like he might walk away.  I shifted position to give him better access to my side.  The skin at my ribs hurt the most.

“Are you happy?” I asked him.

“The world is ending.”

“But… before that.  Or past that.”

“Reasonably happy,” he told me.  “I tried retiring.  Turns out that if you neglect your powers-”

“You lose control,” I finished.

“Yeah.  My power became hair-trigger.  Almost like it was ready to go off if I sneezed.  I made a deal with the local PRT.  Helping the police, someone to watch the back door when the police kick in the front.  I see in the dark, so I sometimes catch things.  Couple of of times a month.”

“And after Gold Morning?”

“Tent cities, protecting the area.  We only got a place to stay last month.  Now everything’s in five boxes in another tent.”

“I’m sorry.”

He shrugged, and he did it with a languid ease, the movement of his shoulders not affecting the dexterity of his fingers.  “You’ve had a rough time, I hear.”

“What have you heard?” I asked him.  It was me who tensed a bit.

“Brockton Bay had its trials.  New Wave stuck it out in one of the most talked about areas, then disbanded.  I was- I was horribly sorry to hear about Eric and Neil.”

“Ah.”

“I- even before that.  The attack on the mall.  I heard you were hurt.  I sent a card.”

“I got it.  Kept it right up until Gold Morning.  You didn’t leave a return address.”

He smiled.  “Carol would have hounded me.  I needed away.”

“Because of Aunt Jess?” I asked.  “Fleur?”

“It was a good excuse.”  He tied off the sutures and put everything down, before reaching for sticky bandages.  “How much do you know about the old days?”

“War stories, victories, lessons from defeat.”

“That sounds like your mother.”

“Yep.  War stories are more my dad’s thing, I think.”

“I remember… being a kid,” he said.  “My sisters- your mother, your aunt, they disappeared.  I don’t remember specifics.  They were young but I was still very small.  Kidnapped.  Did she tell you?”

“A little bit.”

“The kidnappers wanted ransom and our parents weren’t equipped to pay.  We looked better off than we were.  They kept Carol and Sarah for weeks.  The cops called one sunny afternoon to say that the pair of them had escaped.  They came back to us with powers.”

“Yeah.  More or less what I heard.”

“They came back haunted, and our parents weren’t equipped to deal with it.  So they sent us all off to a kind of boarding school with an attached summer camp.  Nature, airy classrooms, small class sizes, horses- your aunt Sarah loved-”

He paused.

“Probably still loves horses,” I said, thinking of the Valkyrie-created Aunt Sarah.

“I resented them for it, you know,” he said.  “Because two of our parents’ three children had an issue, all three of us were sent away.  Our family does that a lot, I think.”

I was all patched up, at least at my side, but I didn’t want to exit the conversation.  “Does what?”

“Overreaches when it comes to closing doors or making judgments.  Your mother closed off her heart, you know.  As if she was so guarded against the idea of showing mercy to the evildoers that she couldn’t afford any for family.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s mercy, exactly.”

“Maybe not.  But I always worried about you girls.  I hoped Mark had  a handle on it.”

He hadn’t.  Not really.

“Our parents did the exaggerated defensive maneuver when they sent us away.  They never really took us back.  Because that’s something else we’re bad at.”

I nodded.

“A few years of them sending us messages saying we could come for Christmas if we wanted.  So I would come and Sarah would as well, but your mother wanted to study.  Or Sarah and your mother would go and I’d be busy.  Then… they kind of ceased to be family.”

“Because they had me and Crystal as young as they were.”

“I never got the impression that was a big thing,” my Uncle said.  “They were… perfunctory in their grandparent duties.  There were grudges and frustrations that felt like they weighed heavier on the family.  Speaking for myself, I did resent being sent away for my teenage years, made to spend time with problem children.  My parents never did apologize.”

“I can see that.  It’s such a shame though.  Mom says they’re dead?”

“They probably are.  My stupid defensive move was to move away.  Jess was a part of it.  But the team didn’t feel healthy.  You all were growing up and then we heard the kids of people with powers could get powers.  Your mom seemed to accept it as a given that you’d be brought onboard.  Your aunt surprised me by agreeing, and I think that was her move… establishing an unsafe bubble, not pursuing civilian life.  Powers as a part of everything.  Even the damn home recipes.  We argued like hell.”

“You sound like my old therapist,” I said.

“Was he a smart guy?” my Uncle asked.

“She was a smart lady, yes,” I answered.  “I still disagreed with her pretty seriously about what the division between cape and civilian should look like.”

“How’s that working out for you?” my Uncle Mike asked, his eye dropping to the tears in my costume and the bandages that covered just about all of the skin there.

Now you’re sounding like a true member of this family.  That was… very much like my mother,” I said, smiling.

He grimaced, looked toward the front of the room, and the grimace softened.  “I don’t think I am.”

I followed his gaze, then glanced back at him.

He clarified, “A member of this family.  Related, yes.  I definitely share traits with my sisters and parents.  But…”

He paused.  Struggling to find the words.

I let him.

“…Your mother closed her heart off.  She had room in her heart for her sister alone, back when we attended the school.  Then for Mark.  Then for you and I presume Amelia.  I never quite figured in.  Your Aunt Sarah, my heart jumps every time I try to think if I should speak of her in the past tense or be horrified that I can’t… she threw herself into her role as Lady Photon.  She found someone who could keep up with her.”

“And you didn’t figure in.”

“I wanted two ordinary sisters and one of them didn’t want a brother, and the other didn’t want a civilian life where she might be vulnerable.  I wasn’t a saint, either.  I was angry and emotional, I acted out.  Part of it’s on me.  But I don’t think we’ve been family since they were kidnapped.”

“You could take another tack.  Say we’re all just one massive, fucked up family, and it’s that twisted nature that defines us as a unit.”

“Or I could keep a safe distance.  My life for the past few years has been warm and calm, and I’ve stopped being the angry teenage boy I was after I got sent away to school.  I go to your mother’s house for a barbecue, and I lose my cool.”

I nodded, frowning.  “What did she tell you?”

“That you and your sister were estranged.  That your sister put you in the hospital, she went to prison, she was out after two years, and she was looking to make amends.  I reacted badly to the way the situation was being manipulated, like she used to try to direct the Brigade.  Telling my kids what to do, dancing around something that sounded serious.  It made it abundantly clear that my worst fears came true.  No divides where we needed them.”

“No details?”

“Should I have details?” he asked.

I hesitated.

I shook my head.  “Just don’t go to her for healing.  Don’t take your kids to her for healing.  Take that from one of the people who knows her best.”

“Okay,” my Uncle Mike said.

“Okay,” I echoed him.

“But,” he said.  “Unless you’re about to tell me I should keep my distance from you too-”

I shook my head.

“Any walls?  Any defense mechanisms I need to watch out for?” he asked.

He sounded like he was teasing.

I could one hundred percent believe he was still holding on to his own.  That it was a genuine belief and a genuine worry on his part.

“No,” I said.  “I don’t think I have any.”

“Or you haven’t figured out what they are yet,” he told me.

“Or that.”

He sighed.  “I wanted to say… I know it’s not a good comparison, but I was sent away for four years, only seeing my family for holidays.  I don’t know if the hospital stay was anything like that, but I could offer a listening ear.  I think I understand my sister, and even my old friend.  I could answer questions or help you figure things out, if Crystal’s not up to it.”

I sighed.

“Or not.  When we get through this mess with the Titans, if you wanted a bit of normal and you don’t mind going out to fast food with your two kid cousins, I could try giving you a taste of what’s ninety-eight percent ordinary civilian life.”

I don’t think we’re getting through this.  I think this might be the new normal.

I can’t imagine a reality where I can draw a clear line between cape and civilian anymore.  If I ever could.

Isn’t that right, my fragile, many-handed friend?  It would be risky, like we might pull apart.  I could lose my control and you could lose your connection to me.

“Thank you,” I said, with a small smile and zero sincerity.

“Ah, you’re your father’s child too, aren’t you?” he asked, looking into my eyes.

“I have no idea what you mean,” I said, keeping my expression blank as I thought of the uncomfortable memory of my mom with Uncle Neil.  My mom crying after I confronted her.

He reached out, and I was bewildered enough in the moment that I didn’t react before he pulled me into a hug.

He might have sensed how tense I was, because he did pull away.

No damage, no disaster, just-

He touched his cheek, and he pulled something away.

Two long strands of blonde hair.  My hair.

I reached up to the side of my head that had touched his cheek, stroking it.  It prickled like I had a sunburn.

At least ten strands of hair clung to my palm.

I used flight to facilitate standing from the pew, and backed away a bit.

Horrifying.  Horrifying, horrifying, horrifying.

Fuck me, what was this?  I could look to one side and see injured people, bleeding people, and people with ulcers.  In another direction there were two scared little kids I was related to.  People praying with zero hope in their expressions.  More injuries, more hurt, more despair.

In a warm church I’d let my guard down and let myself pretend things were normal and I could relax.  Now it felt claustrophobic.  Four walls and a steepled ceiling that couldn’t contain the hurt and fear the people inside were feeling.

I flew a bit over to get to the door, and to get out.  Hair dug into the folds where finger met hand as I adjusted my grip on the door handle.

Refugees, and families carrying tents.  More injured capes.  Scared capes.  People on edge.

And I had hair falling out, and I had no idea why, but the reasons weren’t good, and the air was so cold it was hard to breathe.

“Victoria,” My uncle called out.

I was losing hair and I’d scraped my side and my foot wasn’t functioning.  My nice costume was in shreds and so many people had died, or been broken, or broken up.

To score a fucking draw, if it could even be called that.  The Titans were healing and we weren’t.

What the hell was I supposed to do in this world where we couldn’t win, where there were horrible titanic monsters that, at best were incommunicado and still strong enough to hurt us by accident?  In this world where I could throw cars and I couldn’t affect outcomes any more than a housefly could impact a human.

Things were only going to get worse, and more and more out of control.  We were one bad disaster from an impossible tipping point.

“Victoria.”

I clenched my fist and I could feel strands of hair rubbing against strands of hair.

What the fuck?

“Did I get you to review my tattoo?”

Not my uncle.

I refocused, frowning.

“Do you remember?  I’m a dumbass, so I definitely don’t.”

It was Jester.  From the patrol group.

Fuck, how much had I been freaking out?

I looked around, and in the process, I felt the pressure at the small of my throat, against my windpipe, and around my heart.  Everything still felt delirious.

Only Jester and my Uncle were paying attention to me.  One standing on either side of me.

“Do you remember what it was?” Jester asked.

“Who could forget?” I asked.  “It’s all you would talk about for months.  Playing card.”

“Did you give me a review of it?”

“I… yeah.  You said you were happy with it.”

“Gilpatrick’s around.  You free?  We came bearing gifts.”

I swallowed hard.  The lump wasn’t quite as bad.  I nodded.

“Cool,” he said.  “I’m glad I ran into you.  Went to the community center, because the people at the stable said you’d be there.  Those people… their names?”

“Cassie and Chastity.”

“There we go.  Lots of kids, lots of puppies.  One scary woman with a scowl that could make you shit your pants.”

I smiled.

“Come on,” he said.  “Walk with me?”

“Sure,” I said.

“And your…?”

“Uncle.  I’ve got to look after my kids, unless you need me, Victoria?” My Uncle asked.

I shook my head.

“Okay.”

I went with Jasper, walking through a doomsday cult’s town.  They’d preached an end of the world and they’d been right.  Two for the price of one.

“Cool,” Jasper said.  “Gilpatrick’s this way.  We’ve got a bunch of the old squad around, though a lot of them went on to be captains of their own groups.  I even have my own.  You remember everyone’s names.”

“Jasper.  Jester.  You don’t need to ask me questions to, um, ground me.  Anymore.  It’s good, I think.”

“Cool,” he said.

“Thank you.”

Gilpatrick was sitting, a thermos of coffee next to him.  I recognized Camisola.  He stood, and extended a hand for me to shake.

A firm, warm hand did a lot to make all of this feel a little less nightmarish.

“Hi,” I said, glad my voice sounded normal.  “Good to see you, Gil.”

“You all managing okay?” he asked, quiet.

I hadn’t once been able to answer that question in all the time I’d spent with him.

I looked at him, and then at others.  The Patrol wasn’t breaking down.  They weren’t freaking.  They looked a bit miserable, but… it didn’t feel like it felt elsewhere.  With my team, and the kids distracting themselves.  I knew the Patrol wasn’t on the front lines, but…

“How the hell are you guys managing?” I asked.

Gil glanced at Jester, then at Camisola.

“Guess that’s answer enough,” he said.

Which was fucking unfair of him, when he didn’t end up answering my question.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Radiation – 18.6

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

There were capes with the sort of power where it didn’t matter what the fuck they were shooting, they’d put a hole in that something.  Damsel’s power was like that.  So was Foil’s.  Over the course of the last fifty minutes, four more had joined my squad.  All trying to do something- to find a weak point, slow a Titan down enough, get at a joint or incapacitate a limb.

There were capes where it didn’t matter what the fuck was coming at ’em, they’d take the hit and stay in the fight, or do something equivalent.  I was one of those capes.  Kind of.  Our job was to protect the first group.

Titan Skadi’s blade came down from overhead, slamming into the woman who was protecting our artillery line.  Skadi’s massive axe-hand cleaved into her from forehead to pelvis, but didn’t make it further, as the woman’s hands pressed in on the flat sides of the blade, her whole body trembling with the exertion.  Skadi pulled the weapon away with a jerk, and the woman’s two halves fell to either side, a fresh version of her partially naked, blood-streaked upper body lunging out of the massive wound like a person coming out of the water.  Bigger, stronger, with a wreath of molted, wounded versions of herself draping one side of her chest, hips, and forming a skirt down to the ground.

Skadi hadn’t stopped though.  The woman was already lunging, covering a quick thirty feet in her efforts to get in the way of the next axe swung.  She caught the blade itself with what might have been only the longest two fingers of one hand, slowing it down just enough she could kick the part of the hand that wasn’t blade, the curve of the axe that led down to the lowest point of the blade, and send it up and away.

Her wounded fingers peeled back to become a sleeve of sorts, skin thinning, a fresh hand revealed.  She was already preparing for the next attack, panting for breath, clotted blood making its way through her hair.

She straightened, and I could see the pride in her eyes.  Every damn move we made that kept people alive and kept us going was worthy of that, I knew that.  I knew that the Flower of the Hecatomb was a cape who had been brought to our world by Khepri and never put back where she belonged, and her journey had been a long and hard one.

She turned to say something, because she’d bumped into someone in her haste, and she came face to face with a person who was trapped in a dissolving state, thirty percent of a person frozen in time, their bodies cut off at a point, the edges constantly shedding a ‘smoke’ of geometric shapes- triangles, squares, circles.  A tinker in a business suit with a floating platform the size of a trash can lid, little desk terminal rising up to his chest, and a gleaming tinker mask that made it look like there was a hole in his face you could put an arm through… he was so close to her they could have touched each other.  Another cape from another world that hadn’t found his way back, he’d acclimatized more, spoke our language.

I saw her head turn more as she realized the reality of the situation.  First, looking past the one person she’d tried to apologize to, she saw the people she’d just tried to save were already safe, phased out of existence, every body or body part that was in the way of harm gone, everyone who had been cut in half frozen in stasis.  I saw the pride disappear as the tinker gave her the briefest of looks before hitting buttons on his desk, ending the stasis.  The capes he’d affected resumed moving.  The person Hecatomb had tried to talk to became whole again, looking very surprised to have a ten foot tall, gore-streaked woman with bronze skin looming over him.

I could imagine the horror Hecatomb  felt as she looked the other way.

The artillery line was a number of our stronger attackers who couldn’t really navigate the battlefield itself.  At one side, the side she’d just tried to save from being axed, there was an amorphous cloud that people were delivering their attacks to.  A matching cloud was very close to Titan Eve, and produced some kind of nanotech replication of every strike and power effect, calculated and adapted to in the fly.

At the other end of the line, capes with short ranged abilities were getting help from Gunnery Anne, one of Advance Guard’s backline capes, who handled the training of their rookies.  She added range to all abilities, turning strikers into blasters.  Some Master minions even translated, rust spiders with fifty twitching, spindly limbs getting a brief touch from her before leaping hundreds of feet to where Titan Skadi was embroiled with the long glowing tendrils of a shaker effect.  They offered a constant barrage of fire, point blank attacks extending for hundreds of feet to scour and carve into Oberon’s back and sides.

Had been getting help from Gunnery Anne.  Had added range to all abilities.  Had translated.  Had offered a constant barrage.

Oberon hadn’t even had to turn his head to look.  A leap with a backflip, and hooved feet struck road.  The ones who weren’t beneath the hooves were still torn up into froth, bodies torn up as hooves dug deep into the road’s surface, churning up a violent mess of snow, ice, cracked asphalt and gravel-filled subgrade.

Out of position, Hecatomb reached the spot two seconds too late.  Struck at the hoof and ankle, and was left to stand there amid ruined bodies as Oberon leaped back.

It took seconds.  One bad call, by a cape who had been fighting for forty minutes with zero room for error.  Hecatomb was too frontline, the tinker Ex Nihilo was too much of a backline cape.  They didn’t know each other, didn’t speak the same languages, probably, and hadn’t been positioned to know where each other were.

I wanted to tell her it was okay.  That she shouldn’t take it to heart.  I could have given her a hug, when she had been working to be a hero in a strange world where she knew nobody and nothing, and that heroism had come down to this.  One mistake she would carry with her for the rest of her life.

I wanted to condemn her, to yell at her, to say that if she couldn’t keep people safe, she needed to let us know, because Oberon had just torn through twenty capes and we couldn’t afford to lose those capes.  They were humans, most of them people fighting for humanity’s sake, with families, friends, teammates.  They were people who could do some damage to Titans, and we had too few of those.  And every person that died increased the chances that if and when the next breakdown came, cracks spreading, Titans rising, each and every death we’d suffered here could be the one that made the critical difference between someone turning into a Titan or not.

I didn’t make a call on exactly what to feel, because I had shit to do.  With no resolution made, the feeling sat heavy on my chest, like all I had was the common element between the two contradictory impulses.  Feeling disheartened.  Profoundly sad.

All I could do was carry that feeling, like when hiking, tired as shit, and then being made to carry another ten pounds worth of stuff for the remainder of the way.

Our capes who weren’t annihilators or ‘survive most things’ were on the ground, some using powers, some providing others a chance to get around.

No end to this slog in sight.

That thought came with a panicky feeling, one I wasn’t willing to carry.  I flew harder, focused more.

Damsel had leaped off of a building, blasting with her power to extend the leap, black dress and hair flapping behind her.  Oberon brought up one hand, almost a ‘stop’ motion, except backhanded, and produced a delayed shockwave, if it could even be called that.  A wall of force.

She had already stopped blasting, brought her hands forward, and blasted her way past that wall of force, one handed, knees pressed to her chest, head ducked down.  As close to a cannonball one might hope to manage while putting out maximum-recoil, reality-shattering force at full blast.

A second later, she blasted behind herself again, to regain forward momentum.

Titan Oberon took a step backward.  I flew after Damsel, anticipating that Oberon might attack, and when he chose to attack Foil, I instead shouted, “Hold!”

She stopped using her power.

My boots found the spot on her back between her shoulderblades and at her tailbone, steadying her rotation through the air.  I flew, driving Damsel forward and toward Oberon.

I stopped, let her carry on forward.  “Sveta!  Damsel!”

Damsel swatted at his ‘face’ with a two-handed blast as she hurtled one direction and he lunged the opposite way, toward me.  Sveta was airborne, tendrils out and ready to catch her.

I dodged Oberon and dodged the spray of blood that gushed from his new head wound.

Foil.  I shifted direction.  Foil had leaped off a building as Oberon  sent a shockwave rippling toward it.  Gundeck had fired a salvo of ten missiles at her with some weird, fucky targeting.  She stepped on each missile in turn, buying herself seconds.  Buying me seconds to get to her.

Oberon punched out another shockwave, heavy with his breaker energy.  I put myself between Foil and the blast, and felt it saturate the forcefield, making it pull apart.

I felt something tug on my forcefield with immense strength.  The shockwave.  I canceled the forcefield, dismissing it and letting that clingy energy fall away.

Behind me, on either side of Foil, dust, snow, gas, and other airborne material was glowing gold-green, before that same tug threw it into the face of the nearest building.  The shockwave, delayed, and extra effective against a material that had been made even more weightless, even more vulnerable to outside forces.  The force with which it struck the building made the building creak.  People on the ground used shaker powers and changer forms to survive the impact.

Re-enabling my forcefield, I caught Foil, bracing her head and back with multiple hands.  Off to the side, the missile barrage turned in the air and chased Titan Oberon.

I followed her gaze.  She was less concerned for her own welfare than on the damage that had just been done to our artillery line.

On the ground, the gap in the line was being reinforced by Parian’s dolls.  A giant doll with a smiling daisy for a head was the only one of the original batch.  Three more just looked like giant, naked babies, no eyes, no hair, no clothes, no features.  Conserving cloth now.

Another kind of frontline combatant.  The expendable sort.

The Titan leaped back, dodging.  Solarstare was standing on another rooftop, and directed a blast from her eyes to the Titan’s leg.  It looked like molten gold or magma, moving too fast for how solid it appeared to be, a column that was a good five feet around.  Chunks of Titan Oberon flew free with the blast.

The intention was clearly to slow the Titan down so the missiles could catch up.  Instead, the Titan rolled with the blast, ducking and almost twirling as it was driven back.  Two of the ten missiles were caught up in Solarstare’s blast.  The Titan’s sweep of an arm produced a shockwave that disrupted the remainder, and broke up the flow of Solarstare’s power enough he could hop a good distance away.

Other capes were there to meet him.

Solarstare stopped her output.  What had been near-solid material became white flame, hot enough to do more damage to Oberon just from the residual stuff that clung to where she’d hit him, and to turn the road and the rubble of fallen buildings to a glassy texture.

Flame became sparks, heavy in the air, and those white sparks glowed bright, brighter, too bright

I was already shielding my eyes.

Her power produced a three-stage effect.  The third one was more of a problem for us than for the Titans.  Anyone who didn’t shield their eyes would be blind for twenty seconds to two minutes.

I would have told her to fuck off, personally, but the people in charge seemed to think she was having enough of an impact that the hazard was worth it.  If Gundeck weren’t here, someone who worked with her and managed her, then I might have questioned if they realized it.

Gundeck hefted two guns very much like what I’d envisioned getting when I’d asked for weapons.  Each looked like it could be mounted on a tank or boat, barrels telescoping out to a full ten feet in length, with gaps for venting along the sides.

Each fired one shot, a single armor-piercing shell.  The kind, I imagined, that would put a hole through an aircraft carrier.  It put a hole in Skadi.

Tinkertech reloaded his weapons as he let mechanical arms pull them back, and he let one beefy, armored mechanical arm hand him a shorter firearm.  He had enhanced strength, but not enhanced durability, so he leveraged most of that strength carrying his military inspired tinker weapons.  The mover that was helping him get around the battlefield perched nearby, looking nervous.

“If I’d left earlier…”

I looked down at Foil.

She was fixated on the line Oberon had trampled.

“I had no crossbow, no darts.  If you hadn’t kept me in the fight, I would have been down there.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that.  I settled for, “No way of telling.”

It didn’t make sense as a response, but my focus was elsewhere.  I couldn’t afford to make mistakes like the Flower of the Hecatomb had.  I had people to keep track of.

Damsel might have been down there too.  Her blast was short ranged, and it was only her unwillingness to be beholden to another person that kept her here and active.

Sveta was sticking by Damsel and Solarstare now.  Solarstare used her power again, aiming for where Gundeck’s bullets had punched into Skadi, while Skadi was fighting her way through Titan Eve’s clouds.

I’d have to protect my eyes in a few seconds.

Others-

“Victoria!” Foil called out.  “Opposite direction!  Fly!”

I reversed course, then checked why I was reversing course.

A vague black-brown headless bird shape was soaring our way.

“Let me off!  Onto its back!” Foil shouted.

A Parian creation.

I didn’t ‘let her off’, but I did lower her to where her feet were on the thing, then made sure she was secure on its back.

“I’m good to let go?” I asked, over the rush of the wind.

Foil nodded.  “Don’t go too far!”

It wasn’t really flying so much as it was gliding.  It seemed heavier than might have been necessary, and only the gliding aspect of it really kept it aloft.

I stayed flying with Foil, making sure this was okay.  Skadi teleported, appearing on Fume Hood’s opposite side, and was blocked by a wall that formed while she was mid-swing.

“She’s out of supplies!” Foil called out.

I thought she meant a Titan at first.  “Parian?”

“Yeah!  If she’s using leather- leather’s her best material, but it’s hard to get!  We’ve done this before, trick is that she needs to keep an eye on me!  She can’t see out of her creation’s eyes!”

“I can keep doing what I’m doing if that’s easier!”

“Others need your help!  I trust her!  She probably has a reason!”

The others. I pulled away a bit, still close enough I could fly in to catch Foil if she fell or if a shockwave rippled past us.

Gundeck had a mover to mobilize him, but sometimes needed proper, outright protection.  Solarstare was in Sveta’s company.  A cape I didn’t know was flying close to them, playing defense.

Teem was the fifth of our six ‘annihilators’, though I was more of the opinion that Solarstare and Teem weren’t quite in that bracket.  He was more independent, circling around looking for opportunities.  Teem had flirted with joining heroes and villains at different points, with the closest call to actual commitment being when he’d stuck with the Crowley Fallen for a bit.  That he gravitated toward the ‘jackass’ type cape and seemed so reluctant to actually commit to anything, including a serious attack against a Titan left me with a less than stellar view of the guy.  When he did act, he produced a tide of what looked like all the master minions that had gone from the drawing board to the trash bin.  Too small, too weak, missing essential parts…  Most were so dumb they fell or wandered into the cracks in reality.

Still, I’d keep him alive.

Number six was the leader of the Girls at Bat.  The gas from Titan Eve’s attacks against Skadi was getting uncomfortably close to her.  Sveta was closer to her, one of three capes fielding the far side of this particular clearing, where a half-dozen stomps had leveled buildings and gas had leveled more.  There were capes handling the defense and mobility there, but I had a bad feeling.

“Don’t do anything for a minute!” I told Foil.  “Heading over there!”

Foil used a hand gesture, the Syndicate connection letting Parian know what she meant.  The headless bird lifted her further up and away.

It took me a minute to get to our sixth ‘annihilator’.  I had a second to hold my eye closed, bringing up camera feeds.

Capricorn was bridging gaps and making the shattered landscape easier to traverse.  I could see evidence he’d shored up a building nearby.  I would have been nervous if I’d been on the ground beneath that kind of structure.

Rain was helping with the wounded.

I already knew what Sveta was doing.  Right now she was getting Solarstare out of the area, as the artillery line gave their all to try and take down Oberon.  Much of that was in the nanotech blob that hovered over him.  Hurting him was slowing him down.  It was the Prancer effect, that his power made him more and more agile as he avoided harm.  The sustained onslaught kept him from picking up speed.

Lookout was on the computer.  She gave me a wave as I checked in.

Text appeared outside of my field of vision, above where my eyebrow was.  DRAGON WANTS HELP WHEN YOU ARE FREE.

I nodded my confirmation.

Dragon had been in the fight earlier, leading one wing of the artillery line.  Skadi had gone after her enough times that she had backed off, so the Titan wouldn’t hurt bystanders in the course of attacking Dragon.  Now and then, she fired off shots with her laser cannon, but most energy went into forcefield protection for the non-artillery backline.  Relief capes, care for the wounded, and, from my Syndicate awareness of Tattletale, I could tell it was the thinkers.  Everyone who wasn’t actively fighting.

More stuffed animals were marching out of that encampment.  These ones were bloody, dusty.  The fabrics that they were made of were… recognizable.  I saw some that had the hard, angular designs of Advance Guard.  Panels of body armor dangling if they weren’t worked into the materials.  Straps aplenty.  Reflective material.

Tiger and unicorn.

How did that conversation go?  Can I strip the dead to use their costumes for my stuffed animals?

The cape I’d come to help was Switch Hitter, leader of the Girls at Bat and not a cape that had sought out the big time by any means.  She wore a wool baseball cap with a brown ponytail sticking out the back, a winter baseball coat, scarf, and domino mask, and her legs were skinny in black leggings beneath the heavier top layers.  She held a baseball bat in each hand, but each one was power-touched.  One was elaborate, ornate, with the appearance of…

I was distracted by Teem, who was airborne, his silhouette barely visible behind the output of what had to be thousands of minions ranging from the size of a quarter to the size of a bear.  Titan Eve stumbled, and her wall began to break up.  Skadi gouged her.  The tide of creatures turned on Skadi, and made her buckle.  Some, it seemed, were clinging and doing a bit of damage.

The bat looked like it had been encased in craggy glass or ice, the interior replaced with a localized galaxy or black hole.  Glittery motes of light swirled around a dark central nexus.  It rested against her shoulder.  The other bat was wreathed in gold horns, trim, and other decoration that didn’t seem to touch the bat it lazily rotated around.  The wood at the core glowed.  The bats didn’t match her costume at all.

“You’re a sight for sore eyes,” Switch told me.  She swung the gold bat, the other one still resting against her shoulder.  A slash of gold flew out and hit the wall of hard gas, parting it.

“Trapped?”

“Nah,” she said.  I thought for a moment she might be a Rachel type, not prone to explanation or sharing, but then she added, “Lonely.  Freaked out.  And my eyes are actually sore.  These goggles, they do nothing.”

She attacked again, a trio of one-armed swings made with enough force and intensity that I had to imagine the bat was made lighter by her power, or she had some good muscle on that arm.  The slashes cut through the wall and hit Titan Eve.

“If you need an escort out, protection while you do anything particular…”

“If I go, who’s replacing me?” she asked, her back to me.

“I don’t know.  Nobody, probably.  We’ll manage.”

“Will we?” she asked.  She threw the galaxy bat to one side, and it was wood as it clunked against the rooftop.  She took a two handed grip on the golden bat, and it grew to double size.  She began swinging again.

Not that Titan Eve or Skadi even seemed to take particular notice of the efforts.  Skadi was her overwhelming, ongoing concern, still focusing on Eve as a primary target.

“You were using the galaxy bat earlier.  It seemed to do more.”

“I was.  But it’s messy and things are messy, and I can’t-”

She froze, gripping the bat.

“Switch?”

“Hitter,” she said.  “I prefer that if you want a short form.”

“Sorry.”

She shook her head.  “What happens?”

“When?” I asked.

“When… we lose.  We retreat.  Or they win because we can’t hurt and distract them enough?”

Bad things.

But the tone of her voice- she didn’t need to hear that.

“We retreat, we consolidate information.  Some thinkers have new details, my team’s tinker said she had scans.  Something will probably come up.”

She held the bat out in front of her, and I had to imagine it partially or wholly blocked her view of the Titans.  It moved with every breath she took, and it moved a lot.  “So many people are dying.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m tired.”

“Come on,” I told her.  “I can take you partway.  Rest, drink, decide if you’re coming back into the fight.”

“But-”

“You’re no good like this.  You’ve been at this a while.”

She shook her head, swallowing hard, still holding the bat out.  “My team’s- they’re out there.  With the…”

She shook her head, hard.  She made a small noise as she swung the bat, hard.  The golden lash that seemed to peel off of the bat smacked Skadi in the shoulder, carving out a furrow.  She didn’t straighten up right away, breathing hard.

“In the, um, the ranged fire group.  The bullpen.  They’d lose heart- if I called out.  I can’t-  can’t.  They said… Wardens said.   I’m one of the people who can really hurt these bastards.”

The ranged fire group.  The artillery line.

The shape of Skadi and Oberon in the clearing obscured Switch Hitter’s view of the artillery line.

I felt more than a little impatient, as much as I understood where she was at.  I spoke calmly, insistently, “You are.  Which is why it’s important to stay in fighting shape.  You’re tired.  You need to go back, you rest, maybe you come back in when these guys are too tired to keep going.”

She didn’t move, gripping the bat with what I imagined was a white-knuckle intensity.  I reached out tentatively, and placed a hand on her shoulder.  She jumped.  When she looked over her shoulder at me, there were tears on her cheeks.

A dark, shitty part of me was angry at her.  It hit me in a surprising way, like finding out a strange and angry dog was in the same room as me when it suddenly snarled.

Fuck.  We needed everything we could get.  We…

The lighting changed slightly as the fog of gas roiled and already muted sunlight peeked through.  I wasn’t sure if it was the illumination on those tracks of tears, but I found my sense of sympathy again.

“Can I give you a hug?” I asked her.  She didn’t respond, her expression hardening, then losing that hardness, like she couldn’t hold onto it.  I, meanwhile, wrestled with my own feelings, wondering what the hell had just hit me.  I was pretty sure I hadn’t ingested gas.

I had to calm myself down enough that I could give her shoulder a gentle shake instead of a more violent one.  The part of the shake where I pulled her toward me a bit seemed to break the spell, or be the second invitation for a hug that she’d wanted.  She wasted no time in hugging me, less like any hug than I’d had, more like I imagined a drowning person might cling to a rescuer.  The bat she still held in one hand thumped against my hip.

Text appeared across my right eye: POOR GIRL.

I didn’t break the hug as I bent down, using flight to stay balanced.  I picked up the second wooden bat from the rooftop.

Then I flew, carrying her away and back toward the back line.  I could feel her shaking.  I could hear her breathing while I was barely aware of my own, like I was holding my breath and I had been for a while.

Hit a wall.  Fighting too long, too hard, with too little to show for it.  Maybe she’d seen the thing at the artillery line after all.

What could I say?  She was seized with panic, but that was only part of it.

The standard method of handling a panic attack was to ground the person.  But there was no fucking ground, so to speak.  There were holes in reality.  There was no air, nothing in the environment I could point to that wasn’t ulcerous with gas, even when it wasn’t organic enough to rightly have ulcers, or riddled with holes, or decayed, or slimy, or chewed up from the fighting.

I couldn’t ask about her teammates or any people I could reunite her with, because I wasn’t sure her team was okay, and that could be the last reality she wanted to come to terms with.

“What got you into hero work?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “What?”

“How long ago did you become a hero?”

“Four years- five years.  I took a year off.”

“That’s a good record,” I told her.  “Same team all the way through?”

Foil motioned.  I raised an arm, flying in closer.

She made another motion, and then she dove, serrated railing-spear out.  She slashed Oberon along the back while he was using his shockwaves to tear through the tide of Teem’s minions that poured down from high above.  I followed her, ready to catch her if something happened.

Oberon did another one of those punches that seemed to infuse the very air with breaker energy.  It clung to a forcefield one of our defensive capes was holding up.

The forcefield came apart violently.  Oberon bolted forward.

A single shot from Gundeck stopped him mid-stride.  He resumed moving, charging into the building Gundeck was on.

Gundeck used a back-mounted rocket to get back and away.  Oberon pushed over the building, and in the process, collided with Damsel.  She’d been within the upper floor of the building, using her power to hold and contain a large sphere of the annihilation energy.

Sveta evacuated her as the building came to pieces, and Oberon fell over, a large hole in his upper chest.

It didn’t stop him, but one of his arms hung at his side.

“I was with Sacred Heart at first,” Hitter said.  “I used to be a warrior angel.  It was cool and then it wasn’t.  Legend might have opened doors, but people can still be shitty in private.  The team management said I could do whatever I liked, but the guys who were being shitty could do whatever they liked too.”

I could see the warrior angel theme working a lot better with the galaxy bat and the golden bat.

“I’m sorry,” I told her.  “That’s why you had the gap year?”

I felt her flinch at a loud impact in the fighting below.

“…Quit for a year.  Perfect timing, no teammates when the end of the world came.”

She was breathing more normally now, which wasn’t to say she wasn’t still audible with it, still faster than I would’ve liked.

Foil was waving me down.  I really wanted to go drop Hitter off, then come back to support the teams, but…

Shit.

“Detour,” I said.  “Sorry.”

“No.  Do what you have to.”

Foil was steering the gliding bird.  I flew over and provided some support, so it wouldn’t require so much effort to keep the bird aloft, and so the movement would be smoother.

“Antares, I’m retreating,” Foil said.

“Oberon’s hurting, Skadi and Eve have a stalemate, and that’s a balance we can maintain.”

“How much longer?” Foil asked.  “If you tell me it’s ten minutes, I’ll push through.  But I don’t think it’s going to be ten minutes.”

I looked from her to the Titans.  Oberon was focused on recuperating, and Teem was making that difficult, flying up and pouring more minions on the Titan.  Skadi kept trying to find weaknesses in Titan Eve’s defenses, and when she succeeded, she delivered heavy, gouging blows.  Eve’s gas didn’t seem to affect Skadi much.

“Damsel is at her limit and I think she’ll start making mistakes soon,” Foil said.  “She needs to retreat too but she won’t because she’s proud.”

I looked at Damsel, who was with two of the capes who weren’t Sveta.  Sveta was helping Gundeck pick up tech that had been damaged.

Foil continued, “The expendable troops like Parian’s stuffed animals are running out.  One of the flying defenders we were leaning on got taken out of the fight by the green mess on his forcefield.  This-”

“This is working,” I said.  “Slowly, but it’s working.”

“It’s not working,” Foil said, back straight, voice firm.  “I think if we go back, they’re going to tell us that.  It cost us… so much to get even this far.  You fly, you don’t use your muscles to lift.  Some of us have been running, climbing, fighting, scrambling for cover for close to an hour.  If I had to quick-step over fucking random missile stepping stones one more time, I don’t think my legs would move fast enough, even with enhanced timing and coordination.”

“I’m glad it’s not just me,” Switch Hitter said, quiet.  “The tiredness, not the missiles.”

“It’s everyone,” Foil said.  She turned my way, visor-covered face aimed right at me, my own reflection dark in the tinted surface.  “Even you, Antares, it might be wearing you down more slowly, but I can see it in how you stand.”

No magic at work, no gas affecting emotions and making Switch Hitter break down while it made me angry.

Just… too much hopeless fighting.

It was a repeat of my sentiment from earlier, my anger mixing with my sympathy for the Flower of the Hecatomb.  The feeling that existed in the intersection between the two emotions.

I looked away.  “I’m going to go get the others.  Can you give Switch a ride?”

Foil nodded, “Might be a rough fight, but…”

I transferred my passenger over.  Foil made an arm motion, using the Syndicate connection to pass it on.

I flew to Damsel, Solarstare, and Sveta.

“Retreating?” Sveta asked me.

“No,” Damsel said, before I could answer.

“Yes,” I said.  I knew Ashley Stillons well enough to know how to handle this.  Damsel wasn’t Swansong but both were Ashley.  “We need your help to slow them down if they attack us while we retreat.”

“No.  If you want me to follow your instructions so you can get me close enough to them?  Fine.  But I’m here to kill Titans.”

Ok.  Maybe not quite.

“Morale is breaking.  People are worn out, they’re spooked, we need to regroup.  Trust me, there’s two dozen people on the ground there that you’ve impressed by getting in the thick of things and staying there.  If you’re not the first one to walk away, they’re not going to care about you retreating.”

Solarstare, right next to us, used her power.  I could feel the air rush past us as the massive, twisting column of molten gold sprayed out.  Skadi stumbled into a cloud of gas, which solidifed around her.  Blisters appeared on her armor.

“I said not to do that so close to me!” Damsel raised her voice.

“Easy,” Sveta said.

Solarstare looked over and smiled.  “Sorry.  Saw a chance.”

“A chance to blind me?” Damsel asked.  “Set us on fire?”

The gold ignited.  We all backed away, Damsel blasting with her power, long claw fingers extended to provide the widest distribution possible to provide a kind of shield against the heat.

We were momentarily cast in shadow as Titan Skadi appeared in the air, landing atop Titan Eve.

I tensed, watching.  Was this a connection?

The cloak of gas around Titan Eve solidified, and she shrugged free of it, backing away, bumping into a building in the same row of commercial buildings we were perched atop.  One of the buildings rumbled without toppling, like the internals were collapsing in on themselves.

The flash of light came next.  Damsel snarled.

Snarled more as Titan Eve crashed into the building she’d bumped into, while we had our eyes covered.

Sveta spoke up, “Antares and I have you.  We’ll adapt if there’s any side effects from powers.”

I had the immediate impression that Sveta was here not so much because she was keeping them out of danger, but because she was keeping them from being at each other’s throats.

“Damsel of Distress, listen to me,” I said.

“Don’t talk to me like you’re my father, using my full name.  You saw the dream.  You should know what I did to him.”

“I know and right this second I don’t care!  Fuck off!  Listen, they aren’t going to care if you back off!” I told her.  “You kicked ass, you hurt Oberon, you got your moments.  But if you stay and you die, they’re going to pity you!”

I saw emotions cross her face.

I saw new emotions take over.

“If you die after getting a few feet of bladed fingers shoved in your ears and end up deaf and lobotomized, I think they’ll pity you more,” she said, snarling the last few words.  “Not that I think a lobotomy would do much.”

Solarstare laughed.  Damsel’s expression changed.  Almost feral.

My forcefield caught her wrist before her clawed hand reached Solarstare.  I saw the power dance from palm to the tip of the long claws.  Sveta pulled Solarstare clear out of the way.

Damsel used her power, a slow-burning rumble of blackness in her clawed hands, just to my left.  If I’d lowered my arm to my side, I would have touched it.

I caught her other claw.  The power burned there too.

If one spark or flicker danced back toward her wrist, it’d hit my forcefield, and I’d lose that protection.

Damsel smiled.  Her power intensified.

“Come with us and win later or stay here to lose now,” I told her.  “And we are going to win later.  I fucking hate that we’re backing off now-”

I gave hate every bit of emotion I was feeling, almost barking the word.

“-I just had an argument with Foil over it.  The only way I’m making my peace with this is that I’m thinking we need to do it to win later.  Need to.”

Titan Skadi drove Titan Eve into the row of buildings.  The building that had lost all of its internals collapsed.

“Swansong would have gone with you.”

“Probably.”

“So I won’t,” Damsel said, staring me down.  She didn’t flinch as the building fell.

Off to our right, Titan Oberon was rising to his feet.  Gundeck opened fire on him.

“That makes you more of a slave to her legacy than if you were your own person,” Sveta said.

“Do you want to die when I’m done with her?”

“No, I don’t want to die,” Sveta told Damsel.  “Neither do you.”

“What if I don’t give a shit about dying?” Damsel challenged her.

“You sound like my nephew,” Solarstare chimed in.

“Not helping, Solar!” I hissed the words.

“You could say ‘you want ice cream’ and he’d be all ‘no I don’t!'”

“Sveta,” I said.  “Take Solar?”

“I think I should take Solar and you.  If she wants to stay, let her.”

I relaxed my grip on Damsel’s wrists, then pushed them away, so they went back toward her sides.  In the corner of my eye, I saw the claw move back in my direction, power flaring-

My instincts were divided between tearing her to pieces and buying into a bluff.  I decided on the bluff, then remembered my judgment of what was an ‘Ashley’ behavior wasn’t quite right.

But it was a bluff.  She had no idea that my forcefield was reaching for her, and that I turned it off a moment before it touched her.  Her claw folded up, fingers all together with a clack, power dissipating into wisps and arcs of darkness.

She didn’t budge, and still held a confident smile.

“You’ve got a team to look after,” I told her.

“If the idiots are still alive,” she said, pushing past me, but she did push past me, her shoulder brushing roughly against mine, heading toward the defensive lines.

I took flight, “Going to check on Gundeck.”

There were more capes in the artillery group right this moment, all of the benched ones and the ones who weren’t part of the present rotation joining in.  Dragon had repaired a cannon enough to use it, opening fire as well.

Skadi kept fighting Titan Eve.

I flew up to Teem, reaching his side.

“Ready to retreat?”

“I’ll catch up,” he said.  He’d been touched by gas at one point, and had holes in his arm.  His own minions were wriggling through the spaces, maggots in their jaws.

Gundeck, then.

He was doing the bulk of the work with Oberon, attacking from a different angle with well placed shots, utilizing impossibly high-velocity rounds with multiple guns in tandem.  I could see parts of his armor glowing red hot around the vents, as he overheated.

“Ready to go!?”

“Guess I have to be, don’t I!?”

“Want a lift?”

He nodded.

He was, all guns and gear included, about as heavy as anything I could lift.  I carried him off, tracking Teem, Sveta, Solarstare and Damsel out of the corner of my eye.

The other capes on the battlefield, ones on the ground, utility capes, movers, even Imp, who had delivered the occasional bomb to a titan that stayed still enough, were making their gradual retreats.  I didn’t fly at my fastest speed, just so I could keep tabs on them.

Gundeck fired one shot, and my forcefield failed.  He dropped out of the air.

I dove after him, catching the man.

“We hit a wall,” I told him.  “They couldn’t keep it up with the pressure and all the running around.”

“We were bound to.  If not now, would have been later.”

Because this is ongoing.  There are more titans.  They don’t get tired.  They’re powerful.

I still couldn’t bring myself to make total peace with it.  I dropped Gundeck off at the edge of the camp, then circled back.  I saw a cape carrying Torso over one shoulder, Torso’s limbs dangling.

“He okay?” I asked.

Torso stuck out a hand, clad in its elbow-to-shoulder black glove, thumb up.

“Wore himself out,” the cape said.

Right.

I saw other faces.  Capricorn had been at one of the flanks.  He stopped at a point below me, and I flew down to his level.

The stragglers headed our way.  The artillery line was backing off too.

Oberon stood straight again.  The damage of the holes to his face, upper chest, and hooves had healed.  Other damage had become shallower, mending.

We would walk away from this and he would be back at full strength in half an hour, maybe an hour.

“Vic!” Sveta called out.  “Capricorn!”

I floated up.  Capricorn jogged over.

Precipice was there with Sveta.  The Undersiders were gathered, some a bit worse for wear.  One of the dogs was melting, but it looked like that was because the dog form was wearing off.  I’d seen it when we’d grouped up before.

Some of those were off on the other side of the crowd.  Members of Deathchester now.

“We can’t retreat,” Tattletale said.  She had her hand on Foil’s shoulder.  Foil craned her head around.

I shook my head.  “I know we can’t, it’s disastrous, but-”

“We can at least call this a draw,” Tattletale said.  “But it’s not going to be easy.  One last push.”

“Five minutes,” Rain said.

“Remember when I was chopped to pieces?” Tattletale asked.

“I remember,” I said.  There were other things I could add, but it wasn’t the time.

“Remember when you sent me a message in gibberish?  And I spelled out a message for you, and-”

“I got gibberish.”

“Yeah.  Guess who’s speaking gibberish right now?”

She wasn’t really expecting me to play twenty questions.  Her eyes pointed the way to the target.  That battlefield had only three Titans on it, with a few scattered people distracting and holding the line.

I could have asked which Titan, but Skadi abandoned her fight with Titan Eve to appear at our defensive line, blades crashing into forcefields and a hastily erected wall of mucus, and Tattletale’s gaze didn’t waver.

“Not Oberon, Lookout said there’s nothing in there.”

“Eve,” Tristan said.

“I’d show you a gallery of pictures, do my detective ‘how I figured it out’ monologue,” Tattletale said.  She kept her hand on Foil’s shoulder, as Foil tried to leave.  “But-”

“But you cheat, so it’s kind of like a golfer hand-dropping a ball in the eighteenth hole and bragging about technique,” Imp said.

“But there’s no time,” Tattletale said.  “It’s in the smoke.  And the stuff she’s been doing, slime, maggots, everything except rolling clouds of death aimed at us, she’s trying to tell us to go away.  It’s… not words, it’s her body language.  Filtered like our communication was filtered, because she’s far away from having a body right now.”

“Why?  She thinks she can win?” Sveta asked.

“She had chances, before Skadi.  Right now, though, she just wants to retreat.  She’ll go to Dauntless.  Titan Kronos.  All we have to do is keep those two Titans occupied while another group goes after Titan Auger.  They’ll defend their network.  Then Titan Eve ceases to be a threat.  It’s a draw.  Now that we know Eve wants to retreat-”

Think she wants to retreat,” Imp butted in.

“-we have a way out.  And it’s temporary and it’s shitty, and we’ll have people running off to fight other titans, but it’s the best we can do for now,” Tattletale said.

“Sometimes you talk, and you keep talking…” Rachel said.

Sometimes she keeps talking?” Imp cut in.

Rachel elbowed Imp harder than necessary.  “…You could stop talking halfway through and it’d be just as effective.”

You’re going to get on my case about speaking style and nuance?” Tattletale asked.

“If you’re being dumb about it, yeah,” Rachel retorted.

“Ooh,” Imp said.  “Come on, Heartbroken, gotta back Aunt Rachel up.  Give me a good ‘oooh’.”

There was a very unenthusiastic set of ‘oohs’ from three very tired, slimy, and banged up Heartbroken.

Text appeared at the corner of my vision: C&D: Oooh.

I looked over at the crowd while the Undersiders were being dumb.

“Already told the Wardens.  They’re recruiting people for the big push,” Tattletale said, as I looked in that direction.

“How big a push?” I asked.

“Five to ten minutes of hard fighting, and we have to hit them hard enough we’re in Skadi’s sights from start to finish.”

I looked at my team, and they nodded.

Precipice wasn’t at his best, since our stunt with the dream room had left him with minimal power.  No range, no accuracy, no good way to use his power to perform weird maneuvers, no tinkering, no emotion power.

Sveta was tired but she’d been helping, doing good work.  Tristan was heartsick, if nothing else, his face sweaty behind the cover of his mask.

Foil was still staring in that direction.  Parian was over there.  Even the Undersiders looked tired.

Everyone, really.  Foil hadn’t been wrong.  Lots were coughing, because they’d inhaled trace gas.  Some were rising out their eyes with squeeze bottles that had tapered nozzles.  Others were grieving.  Teams that had gaps in their ranks, maybe people who looked like they were trying to take charge when they had no idea how.

“She’s crying behind her mask,” Foil said, with alarm.

“I know,” Tattletale said.

“What the hell?  You were telling me not to go to her?  What the hell happened?”

“I told you and I’m still telling you.  Don’t,” Tattletale said.

“Why the fuck not?” Foil raised her voice.  Heads turned.

“Because if you go, she’ll lose her nerve,” Tattletale said.

“If you’re sending her into a suicide rush, I swear-

“You have to finish your threats,” Juliette chimed in from the back.  “Tell her you’ll kill her.”

“Not the time, Juliette,” Imp said.

“It’s not a suicide rush,” Tattletale said, quiet, soothing, confident.  “But it’s not easy.”

“If you think I can’t support my girlfriend-”

“I think you can support her.  You’re good for her.  Too good,” Tattletale said.

“That’s the most ominous shit I’ve ever heard,” Foil said, sounding more agitated than when she’d been trying to convince me to retreat.

“Yeah, well,” Tattletale said.  “Be there for her after.”

Parian left the conversation, went to another group.  The Rooftop Champs.

One question.  A short discussion after.

In the distance, Titan Eve was losing.

We didn’t really have long.

I floated closer.

“The Wardens gave permission for some.  For most,” Parian said.  “They’re marking some.  I asked other groups.  I can’t really stay, they keep telling me to hurry things along, but-”

“No?” the woman with the feathered dragon boa as her costume feature said, sounding unsure.  “I-”

“He’d want to help,” another member of the group said.

“Thah-” the third member started.  “Fugh… maggot.  Preshing my brain.  Paral-”

“Paralyzed part of your face,” Feather Dragon said.  “Yes or no?  You’re the tiebreaker.”

“Yeh,” he said, bowing his head.  “He want- wants to help.  There.   It moved.”

“Thank you,” Parian said.

She turned to leave, saw Foil, and stopped in her tracks.

Tattletale pulled Foil in the opposite direction, away.

I floated up a bit, watching Parian.  Because the Wardens seemed to be waiting for her.  People were running out, telling groups to get ready.  Making last minute recruitments.

And I saw her approach the rows of bodies.  People covered in sheets.  Some with people standing by them.  She took the sheets, drawing out threads and weaving them together.

Then, with telekinetic control over fine blades, she began cutting into bodies.  Some had been crushed, some had been cut, others afflicted with gas, their skin ulcerous.

“Oh my god,” I heard Foil.  She pressed her hands over her mouth.

Flayed skin sewn to skin, like Parian had used cloth before.  Orifices sealed shut.  People became parts of a wider canvas.  That canvas, with many dead, began to take form.

The sheets became one doll.  Like Parian’s bigger creations, it reached a height of about twenty feet.  I’d seen smaller at the fight against Leviathan.  This one remained featureless.  Nothing spared for decoration.  Bloody, because the sheets had covered people that had been torn apart.

When thread ran out, she began using tendons from the body, or hair.

Skin stretched like most cloth didn’t.  But that wasn’t why it was so much bigger, or why it seemed more flexible than the cloth creations, less clumsy.

“How long have you fucking known?” Foil asked, below me.  Her voice raw.

“Since last year,” Tattletale said.  “We were figuring out Rachel’s power.  Why it was different with Bastard than with the dogs.  Why it was better with some others.  Best with Rollo, her first.  Turns out, the dog that she had when she triggered wasn’t a full dog.  Half coyote, we’re guessing.  It always worked better with halfbreeds.  Always will.  She still prefers dogs.”

Rachel grunted.

“Par always said it wasn’t intuitive, like most people find their powers,” Foil whispered.

“That… was essentially what she said, before she asked me for help.  Just in case.”

The thing took form.  It wasn’t Titan sized, but it was a bit bigger than the Gibborim Knight had been.  Skin stretched translucent thin.  It was mostly human shaped, streaked with the blood that had leaked out in the flaying.

It looked like she’d only had permission for a third of the dead.

Foil wasn’t the only one who looked horrified.

Wardens were calling out their orders when a shadow fell over the camp.

Skadi plunged her blade straight down at Parian.

The skin-thing struck out, protecting its controller, wrestling Skadi to the ground.

She cut, and the telekinesis that saturated the skin seemed to protect it from the cut.

From there, a share of the capes joined that fight, focusing on Skadi.

And we had our orders, to tackle Oberon.  To keep him busy.

“Go,” Tattletale told Foil.  “She doesn’t want to see you.”

“I don’t want to see her.  Not like this,” Foil replied, her voice choked with emotion.  “Holy fuck.”

“Go,” Tattletale said, insistent.

“Fuck you for telling her.”

“She always knew, deep down inside, I think,” Tattletale said.

“Oh fuck off.”

“You know her background, how she triggered.  It was always about skin.”

Foil shook her head.

It was Imp who steered Foil away, Heartbroken right behind her.

Parian’s creation was putting up a good fight.  Only a few places were cut, but the telekinesis was holding, and the cuts were being stitched.

Fume Hood- Titan Eve- No.

Fume Hood was already fighting as she made her retreat.  The fastest capes were engaging Oberon.  Teem had never left the battlefield.

I took flight.

No question now that we’d get our ‘draw’ for this encounter.  Skadi pinned down, Oberon still a bit damaged.  If it could be called a draw.  Fume Hood was still in there if that thing was trying to communicate, trying to pull its punches and scare us off instead of annihilating us.

Horrifying and noble in equal measure.

And we fought by similar measures, drawing out the last of what we had available to spare.  Some of us paying our own prices.

I reached the Titan, and I drew on my partner’s power to deliver the first blows of the second round, screaming while I did it, because she couldn’t.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Radiation – 18.5

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

The energy rippled out as liquid lightning in a startling green-gold.  A shockwave from one massive stomp that came with a roar of visible energy that rushed out, multiplied on impacts, then immediately suctioned itself back into crevices and cracks like water settling to the lowest point in a crevice.

The initial shockwave made buildings rock back, surfaces cracking or crumbling, and it nearly tossed us off of the roof.

I wrapped my arms around Tattletale, one arm at her back, the other hand at her belt, and flew as the energy cascaded out to envelop the building.  Twisting in mid-air, I watched to see if I could make out our teams, even as I felt them scrabbling for holds, jumping, or rising precariously up.

The energy lanced through the deepest, darkest spaces of the buildings, while warping the edges that stood out the most, causing them to fork and flicker like flame.  What had gone up hadn’t come down, with chunks of building now floating in the air, like everything had detonated and now moved in low gravity or slow motion.

Rachel rode a dog to an edge, leaping.  The building beneath her apparently gave too much as the dog pushed out and down with its claws, making the effect more like jumping of a cardboard box than a proper roof’s edge.  Sveta reached out to catch the dog around the neck and shoulder as it got only one paw around the top edge of the building.  Straining, pulling to help the dog scrabble and find its grip.

I flew toward them, but the dog managed to heave itself over the edge before I was halfway there.

Titan Oberon didn’t raise its head as it put a hand up and out to grab a floating chunk of building.  It flung the chunk at another building.

Through my Syndicate connection to Foil, I could feel the vibration as the target building shook.  Parian seemed to have things well in hand, though.  Cloth reached out to give the Heartbroken, Imp and Foil something to grab onto.

The injured heroes on the ground were fleeing some of the damage, as the road peeled up and floated into the air, edges flickering with the green-gold breaker energy.

I flew closer to them, putting a hand over Tattletale’s ear that was closer to my mouth before calling out, “Do you guys need help!?”

Negation.

There were only four of them now.  Two were supporting a fourth teammate as they heaved up one end of a section of floaty road, then braced it with forcefield before using that as a ramp.

“Rooftop Champs finally getting to their namesake territory,” Tattletale muttered.

“Ah, that’s who they are?  Only talked to them online, offered to bring them into Hollow Point.  Looked up their leader’s portrait, recognized him in the crowd during the big briefing.”

“Alpine is probably dead,” she said.  “They have that look about them, like they’re missing that connection.”

“Fuck,” I said.  I felt a pang of sympathy, looking down at them.  They weren’t moving all that fast.

“All they wanted was to play up the ‘sports team’ angle of heroes, get people excited about their neighborhood heroes again.  Hollow Point didn’t fit that.”

Kind of like the Norfair Neighborhood Heroes.

“You better put me down with them,” Tattletale told me.  “You’re giving me a wedgie.”

“There might be some justice in the world after all,” I told her.

Still, I floated down, letting go of her.  The Rooftop Champs were looking ragged, two with injuries from the gas that made holes.  One with a missing arm, shocks of an inflamed red through the skin that was visible past the haphazard bandaging and tattered costume.

Tattletale paused to adjust her belt and straighten her coat, probably fixing the wedgie in the process.

A guy with holes across his face, a mask that had once been a complex arrangement of ribbons now hung on only by strands and the hardening effect of the gas.  He was hunched over, fingers prying inside holes near his temple and hairline.  A translucent green-pink maggot the size of a hotdog with bun included writhed beneath the surface, burrowing in deeper, escaping his fingers.  A woman with a  feathered dragon motif had holes across her arm and front.  She stood by him, hand on his shoulder, her bad hand trembling.  The other two Champs were digging inside a kit.

“Let me,” Tattletale said.  “I think I can get it, able bodied as I am.  We’ll re-wrap that stump.”

“Thank you,” the able-bodied Champ said, quiet.  He looked like the rookie of the team.  Teenager.  “Didn’t expect a villain to help.”

“When shit’s this bad, those labels stop meaning anything,” Tattletale said.  She pulled out some needles.  “Those are the rules.  Let’s see if we can pin that bastard down.”

“Don’th- sthab…”

“Don’t stab his brain,” the feathered dragon woman said.

“Can’t.  This gas gets extradimensional.  Which is the only reason you’re not dead.  Upside is it might mean it goes away and you go back to normal after,” Tattletale said.  “Can’t make guarantees, but if it helps, I’ll tell you I’m the person chiefly responsible for figuring out how to make the portal to Gimel in the first place.  My intuition is pretty good.”

“Thank you,” the woman with the holes in her arm said.  The trembling in the arm didn’t seem so bad.  Her hand went to her collarbone, where gloved fingers hooked on the open holes there, some large enough to drop a golf ball into.

I saw a maggot writhe within.  I almost pointed it out, but I saw Tattletale glancing that way, and she locked eyes with me a second later.

“For a team as huggy as yours is,” Tattletale said, “That breastplate of yours is really uncomfortable when you get mashed into it.  You bruised me.”

“You mean when I was saving your life?”

“Don’t go raising your voice,” Tattletale said.  “You’ll agitate this thing.  Almost got it.  Let me know if I’m poking anything you can feel.”

“I can’t feel much,” the guy with the head-maggot answered.  “Pressure as it squeezes up against the sides.”

I looked over toward the battlefield.  Titan Oberon was using the shattered, breaker-modified buildings to deflect and ‘catch’ the projectiles that Titan Eve produced.

I blinked and flicked through a few images on the heads up display, looking for context on what I was feeling elsewhere.  Two camps, it seemed.  Parian was gathering all the cloth she could from ruined buildings, fashioning large-size dolls that were doing the real legwork in getting people to safety and deflecting incoming attacks.  On the other side of the street, some of my team had joined Rachel and her dogs in huddling behind Tristan.  The context I was missing was that he was creating motes in the air.

I saw from a distance as Titan Oberon flung another chunk of building at that group.  Motes of orange light coalesced into stone, melding into the flying chunk of building.  The shift in weight and the weird aerodynamics of the breakered building chunks made the chunk veer off course.

Lookout was only just now getting to the room Syndicate was in.  The Malfunctions were with her.

“I’m going,” I told Tattletale.  “See what I can do for our teams.”

“You have to see what you can do about Eve,” Tattletale said.  “She’s winning now.”

In the distance, Titan Oberon leaped skyward, disappearing into the cloud cover.

Titan Eve turned smoke into spikes, taller than her.

He landed amid the spikes, twisting his hulking form to avoid being skewered, even sliding hooves along the length of the largest spike.

Tattletale hissed as she pulled the suturing needle away from the maggot, letting the ground and the building we were on shake.  “Come back here you little bastard.”

Spikes had dissolved into gas, but he was already bounding forward before that gas could touch him.  A flip forward, hooves passing over his head, while he held a chunk of building like a bludgeon, crushing it into Titan Eve’s head.  When she was off balance, he struck her, producing a shockwave.

Gas hardened to solid as the shockwave met it, and shattered rather than be blown away.  Shattered gas became ambient gas, creeping in on him from every direction.

Even from a distance, I could see the blood weep from his arm as chunks fell free, cracks spreading up the limb.

He leaped back and away, while Titan Eve slowly rose to a standing posture.

“I’m not sure I trust this gas mask against everything she can do,” I said.

“We need to do something about her,” Tattletale put emphasis on the ‘need’.

I nodded, floating higher.

I would have to figure something out.

I heard the buzz of her communications device, the five pound cell phone.  I hesitated.

“Can you get that?” she asked Ms. Dragon Feathers.

I hesitated, listening.  Ms. Dragon Feathers held the device to her ear, though.

“The group fighting Auger lost,” the heroine reported.

“He was fighting the Machine Army?”

“He still is.  The giants that the Red Queen made are holding him back, but he’s taking the machines apart and using them.”

“Using how?” Tattletale asked, fishing the maggot out.  It looked like she was struggling to keep from cutting it in half, using suturing needles to hook it, while grabbing at its ichor-slick body with a gloved hand.

“Tinkertech,” Dragon Feathers said.

“Auger was a tinker?” I said.

“He’s one now,” Tattletale glanced up at me.

“It’s the full package,” I remarked.  “When people become titans, every possible power that agent could have handed out goes to the Titan.”

I gestured in the direction of Titan Oberon.  Surrounded by breaker-ized chunks of building.

“Mm,” Tattletale grunted, focusing on her task as the only really able bodied, able person in this little group.  “What’s the bad news?”

“The heroes on the scene were blindsided by Titan Skadi.”

“Anyone we know?” I asked, tense.

“No,” Tattletale said, before the heroine could answer.  “That’s not why it’s bad news.  The Auger Titan beat Titan Skadi.”

“Yeah,” the heroine said.

“Stay on guard,” Tattletale told me.  “This just got about five times harder.”

I nodded, then wasted no time in flying away.  If there were updates to be had, I’d get them from others.

Skadi was one of the titans who didn’t have any connection to any of the others.  Now she’s networked to Oberon and Auger?

How much of his decision to do this floating shockwave stomp had been because that battle had turned?  Was energy shared between them?  Had he been contributing something to Auger?  What did a connection mean?

“You guys managing!?” I called out to Capricorn, as I got close enough.

“Is anyone!?” Rain called back.

I could see Deathchester now.  Ashley was using blasts to ascend a series of Gibbet-made bits of rubble that stuck out the side of a building.  Getting closer and closer to Oberon.

Oberon leaped, getting out of the way of a plume of gas, while simultaneously putting about three hundred feet of distance between Damsel and himself.  Damsel blasted a wall, was nearly knocked off her perch by the recoil, then blasted with two hands to fling herself into the hole before the gas swept over her.

Parian’s group was using the stuffed animals, but they were gas damaged, and she was having to amputate limbs and sew them shut before discarding the excess cloth.  Interesting that the gas didn’t really affect the stuffed animals as much as everything else.

But that group didn’t have a lot of mobility, and they were in the thick of the maggot-ridden area.  The maggots crept up through the building and over the edges of the roof.  Chastity, Foil, Roman, Juliette and Imp were killing the things, but for every two they killed, there was one more just appearing.  That might have sounded doable, but they were constantly having to relocate and move, which made it a losing battle.

“I’m asking if you can manage, or if you need help!” I called down.  “Others are struggling, but if you’re stuck here-”

“We’re managing,” Tristan said.  He had a sheen of sweat to his face, and a bead of it had landed on his chestplate.  This was at the same time his breath was fogging.  “But if you could intercept anything and spare me having to-”

“Got it.”

I flew across the street, but I didn’t fly in a straight line path.  The sections of building were floating, and they had different physics than they would have normally had in reality.  I flew into the largest chunks, catching them with a half-dozen hands, and then shoved them hard before flying in another direction.  By the time I reached the third chunk, the rooftop of a Chili Cricket’s fast food place was crashing into the side of a crack in reality.

There was a good chance he’d use another stomp to give himself more ammunition, but for the time being, I denied him his ammunition.

An arm motion and sudden movement from just about everyone who wasn’t in the computer room with Lookout grabbed at my attention.

A wall of gas, tearing my way.

Spinning to produce some external force that might repel the gas, I flew up and away.

A new gas.  This gas was a lime green, but thinner, with a wet shimmer to it.

And every surface it touched was left slick with slime.  Fires here and there were quenched, and the weight of the slime pulled at already damaged structures.  The rumble of buildings falling joined the whistle of wind and the low rumble of the Titan’s movements.

I could feel Parian, Chastity, and Foil struggling.  I flew straight to them.

Slime made the already sloping roof’s surface slick.  The dolls, too, were fighting to stay upright.

I had to take evasive action as a plume of black smoke washed down the middle of the street.  In my peripheral vision, I saw Oberon leap, gathering up energy around himself.

Another shockwave imminent?

We’re just running damage control.  I know I have to go after Fume- after Titan Eve, but there’s no damn opportunities!

I flew to the group.  They were fighting to stay upright.  Roman was crouched, feet slowly losing traction on the rooftop.  With the lip at the edge of the roof it didn’t look like anyone was about to fall off, but they were sitting ducks.

I reached out with my forcefield.  Many hands for many people.  But strength wasn’t traction, and the forcefield hands slid off, leaving brief, streaky handprints.

“Cloth,” I said, looking at Parian.  She turned empty doll eyes my way.

She unspooled cloth, but the vast majority of it was slimy.  The stuff permeated everything, seeping through cloth.

As her power reached cloth, it formed bubbles, the power forcing slime out and finding the miniscule gaps in the fabric.

Above us, Oberon reached the apex of his leap.  Clouds parted in his wake, forming a ripple in the sky.

Which wasn’t enough.  There were too many people on this rooftop, and not nearly enough clean cloth for those people to grab onto.

More of the slimy mist continued to settle around us.  Parian wiped at her mask, trying to get slime out of the eye sockets.

At the same time, my forcefield was collecting it.  Most of it wicked off, but it was viscous enough that the ‘wicking’ took a few moments.

I couldn’t drop my forcefield and use my coat, because then I’d be in the same boat as the rest of the group.  I could just take the mostly dry end of the long bit of cloth and try to hug my forcefield around it to try and keep it dry.

“Here!” Parian called out, knotting the end of the long roll of cloth she carried on her back, now completely undone, every bit of cloth spent.  “Come!”

As Roman and Juliette approached, Parian lasso’ed them, tightening it around their armpits.

The slime was slippery enough that they were squeezed out and sent sprawling like bars of soap in wet hands.

“No, no, no,” Parian said.

Above us, Oberon crashed into solid smoke, clearly intended at interrupting his descent.  The smoke had some slime on it, and he tumbled head over heels as he fell.

“Impale someone!” I told Foil.  “skewer them to the cloth!”

“Won’t work!” Foil answered.  She was being tied together with Parian, and there wasn’t enough slime there to make it slip.  Enough telekinetic power in the cloth itself, apparently.

“Chastity!” Roman called out.  “Berserk strength!  I know it’s weak but-”

“I have my whip!” she raised her weapon.  She’d managed to keep ahold of it.

“I have to hit someone!”

“Then hit Juliette!” Chastity said, voice pitched.

“Ugh!”

The Heartbroken were running for it instead of taking my suggestion.  ‘Running’ being a polite way of phrasing the way they waded through slime.  It was maybe the first time I’d seen them working together.

I saw the shift in their bodies as Roman used his power.  A burst of raw emotion, rage and hostility flowing through them and making veins momentarily bulge.  It came, apparently, with strength.  Enough for them to leap toward the nearest building face.

‘Leap’.  They had no traction on the slimy roof.  They tumbled forward with some velocity, enough to briefly meet the building face.  Roman slammed his hand against a window frame to adjust his fall, crashing through a window.  Juliette grabbed on with sheer strength, fingertips hooking around holes in the windowsill, and displacing any slime on the rim or on her fingers by sheer strength.

Oberon produced a shockwave before hitting the ground.  Slime everywhere rippled out and away from the point below him.

Moving it aside so he had more room to land.  He crashed down, and even that crash was dampened.

But the shockwave was as immense as the one that had leveled a city block.

I hauled on the cloth that had Parian and Foil, lifting them up and away.  Off to the side, Chastity was whipping at a bit of storm drain, taking two tries before she had a hold she felt secure enough about.

I saw falling bodies, and realized a moment later they were stuffed animals.  Juliette held on with one hand, her body still but her legs swaying in the wind.

Chastity yelled something that was lost in the rush of wind.  The blast of wind from Oberon’s impact washed past her, and she yelled something again, swinging in the wind, feet trying and failing to find something but slime.

Then Chastity dropped a good foot toward the ground.

The whip didn’t have enough of a grip on the drain pipe, and the drain pipe itself was flimsy.  She slipped down, and the force of her body weight coming down made the pipe bend, to the point it almost came free of the wall.

I could feel the lurch in her stomach through the Syndicate connection.

“Can’t-” Foil muttered.  She reached down to her boot, scraping through slime.  “Cleats.  Swing me, Vic!”

I felt her legs move, and I swung the dangling pair to work with that movement.

The crossbow fell, abandoned.  She threw two darts at Chastity, impaling her clothes to the wall, then very intentionally slipped free of the cloth, falling.

A dart in each hands, she staked herself to the wall of a building that was already starting to crumble.

She leaped from there, to another building that was in the midst of falling down.

I knew her intention.

I flew, swinging Parian out.  Chastity’s whip had fallen from the drain pipe and now dangled limp from one hand.  Her other hand gripped in a futile way at her coat.  It was now only tearing cloth that pinned her in place, and her hold on the cloth wasn’t enough to stem the tearing.

Threads and needles flew out from Parian, catching at Chastity’s clothes, flowing through, then lancing back.

Stitching her to the cloth that Parian hung from.

It took time, and we didn’t have a lot.  Small mercies that this building face they’d jumped to been out of the path of the gas; the only gas that painted this wall was gas that had blown back to touch the wall.

And that, really, was enough, especially when combined with snow and ice.  What might have been the best handhold became slippery in three different ways.

Off to the side, the window opened.  Roman, bleeding from a dozen places, reached down for Juliette.

“Massive blood loss is a good look on you, idiot brother,” Juliette said, looking up at him without reaching back.  I could see her fingers moving by small fractions.  Her own blood trailed down from where fingers dug into slimy, hole-riddled wood, like her skin was splitting at the beds of the fingers.

“This building is falling down.  There’s no time to fuck around,” he snarled.

“Saying you’d die too is the most convincing case I’ve heard for suicide yet,” Juliette said.

Her feet scrabbled, trying to get traction and finding none.  She kicked at the window with one boot-toe, trying to stand on the shattered glass edge, but it only crumbled.  She slipped further.

“Bite me,” he told her.  He reached down to her face, and shoved slimy, bloody fingers in her mouth.  I could see the muscles and veins standing out on his wrist as he clutched her lower jaw with every bit of strength he had.

She, for her part, bit down with matching fury.

With that as their hold on one another, Roman hauled Juliette up enough she could get through the window.

Threads Parian was using were snapping as I tried to test the weight of Chastity.  Others pulled free because of the slime, or made her coat tear more.

“Whip me!” I called out.  The Wretch was too slimy.

I held out my bandaged hand.  “Hit my hand!”

Chastity twisted until her back was to the wall.  Cloth tore more.

Only the fact she was at the corner of the building let her get her arm back far enough.  The full-body motion of even getting the whip up and moving in a loose circle before she could send it where she wanted cost her more.  Threads pulled on her and limited her arm movement, but many of those threads came loose.

Come on, I thought.

She struck out, whip lashing toward my hand.

It struck my palm, but the impact was only a graze.

The forcefield’s teeth bit into the whip itself.  A cue taken from Roman and Juliette.

I pulled back, gripping her that way.  Lowering her toward the ground.

Buildings weren’t crumbling as much here.  The same stuff that put the maggot-ridden holes in walls was making those walls more rigid, if… thin.  As the weight of the building pulled down and was jostled again and again by shockwaves, the buildings slumped down, like they were made of cardboard and more and more water was being poured onto them.

Imp, Roman and Juliette escaped the building from a lower floor.  Imp seemed to be in good shape, and was supporting Roman as he staggered a bit, the both of them skidding on the slime that had settled on the ground.  The crash through the window had done a number on him, and he had bites from maggots that I was pretty sure hadn’t been there when he’d made the leap.

Juliette looked only a bit better off than Roman, though she was slimy, straight black hair pushed back and away from her face, much in line with the backswept crown of spikes at her head.  Her dark eye makeup ran behind her mask’s eye holes.  The second set of eyes on her mask was perfect, in a stark contrast.  She wore her gas mask under her real mask, setting it slightly ajar.

Foil joined us, also with her gas mask on.

Text appeared across my field of vision.

HELP COMING.

“Help’s on its way.  Which is a good fucking thing,” I said, panting a bit.  “Takes us five minutes to handle what takes them seconds to fuck up.”

I glanced at Foil, and caught her staring at the slime-marred exterior of my forcefield.  It wasn’t much, but it did give the forcefield a texture.  When I moved the forcefield, she looked away, aware she’d been staring.

“I bet there’s someone out there with a thing for spooge and maggots who is having the best day right now,” Imp said, looking around.  The city in this particular stretch of the battlefield was barely recognizable as city anymore.  The vague outlines were the same, but it was spongy and organic, streaked with translucent lime green and neon green mingled with hot pink.  It made me think of coral, or some alien civilization.  “For all the rest of us, it’s pretty fucking miserable.  Wow.”

“We need to get off the ground,” I said.  “If any gas comes rushing through-”

Parian moved the slimy cloth, forming a barrier that closed up the alley.  The cloth was stitched to stretches of curtains, upholstery, and clothing, all taken from inside nearby buildings.

“That’ll help, but it won’t stop it.”

“I know,” Parian said, her voice muffled by the gas mask.

“Just get to safety.  Do what you can.  Foil?” I asked.  “You want to come help?”

She pulled her mask away from her mouth to answer, “Okay.  You look after the kids, Par?  Imp?”

Parian nodded.  “I’ll be making stuff and sending it.  I can look after these three while I do it.”

“Can’t do much,” Imp said, under her breath.  “But I think I can do more than babysit.  I’ll be out there.”

“You’re sure?” Foil asked.

Foil turned back to me.  “Ready when you are.”

Into the fray.  I had to work with Foil for a moment to find a place I could grab her where she wasn’t slick with the chilly ooze that came off everything in rivulets.

I lifted her up.

“Thank you for saving them,” she said.

“I didn’t do enough.  Roman and Juliette handled themselves.”

“They always do,” Foil said.

We were high enough up to see the Titans battling.  Oberon was on the back foot, and there were enough areas around the city that were cloaked in gas that he was reluctant to explore or roam.  He was leaping more, to skip over them, attack, or, most often, retreat.  Even when areas didn’t have gas, they often had slime.  Oberon slipped once or twice as I carried Foil high enough that we were above any potential hazards.

Titan Eve was finding her stride.  More gases.  More sustained attack.  Was that because she was stronger, or was it because she had conserved strength of some sort?

I wished we had some answers.

“I wish we talked more,” Foil said.  “You and I.  I miss talking with heroes.  I miss not having to justify everything.  Even saving people.”

“Is it easier with Parian, at least?” I asked.

“No.  I don’t struggle with Parian because she’s a villain.  I struggle with her because she’s different from me.  Braver in some ways, more scared in others.  There are things she doesn’t let go of.”

“We all have those things, don’t we?” I asked.  “Things we don’t accept?”

“Not all of us,” Foil said.

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that.  Was she referring to herself?

“I killed March, with Vista and Imp,” she said.  “Parian hated March, but…”

“But she can’t let it go?”

Foil shook her head.  “She says she can’t get the mental image out of her head.  That it makes some kind of sense with what she’s come to accept from Imp, even Vista.  But… it shook her image of me.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

How long had she been wanting to get this off her chest, to be venting it now?

“Give it time?” I suggested.  “Let her adjust.  You’re together, and so long as you communicate, as long as you show each other support, love, kindness, trust… all of that.  I think you’ll be okay.”

“I hope so,” Foil said.

I gave her my best reassuring squeeze before disabling my forcefield and letting her fall the one foot to the rooftop below.  No holes here, no slime.  It was the nearest, tallest, most upright building, which was about ten buildings down from where we’d left Parian, Imp, and the Heartbroken.  A clean rooftop and vantage point.

Foil wiped off handfuls of the slime from her bodysuit.

“I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you more, or maintain any contact,” she said.

I looked at her and saw her simultaneously look away from my forcefield, which was shedding its last traces of slime now.

Almost like she had been talking to my fragile agent, rather than to me.

“I can look past it,” I murmured, more to myself than anything.  “A whole human lifetime could be spent saying ‘sorry’ and it wouldn’t be enough to cover everyone’s regret from that period in time.  When things get that horrible, this horrible…”

I indicated the fight between Titans below us.

“…You have to conserve your anger for select targets.”

“That’s a whole lot of concentrated anger,” Foil commented.

I decided not to respond to that.

I could already see some of the reinforcements, appearing through portals.  One of the Rooftop Champs were creating a forcefield to mitigate the flow of gas, and that let the advancing group of heroes continue to advance.

“Have we found any weak points?” Foil asked.

“No.”

Damsel was atop Oberon, claws containing a mass of her power, which swirled in a vaguely spheroid form.

“Lost my crossbow,” Foil said.  “Had to drop it to get my hands free enough.  I’m low on darts.  Fuck.  I feel weak like this.”

“Would it have done anything?” I asked.  “The crossbow?”

She shook her head.  “Pelted both of them a few times.  Nothing.  I’d need to find something like a power center or brain to do anything.”

More text appeared in the black space outside of my field of vision.

GET A PHONE?

“Getting a message from Lookout,” I said.  I could see the sheer number of heroes.  If everyone had already been occupied dealing with other Titans, then two fights had been abandoned or lost if there were this many showing up.  “Be right back.”

Foil nodded.

I flew over the battlefield, seeing the more mobile heroes already getting to the perimeter of the battlefield.  They were finding our guys.  Capricorn’s group, with Sveta and Rachel.  Deathchester.  Parian’s group.

I could see the costumes of Girls at Bat, of Magic Dream Parade, Foresight, Wardens…

Portals appeared in the air, and Dragon mechs flowed through.  Six.  Two looked rough already, not in the sense that they were battle damaged, but they lacked the touch of polish I was used to seeing from Dragon.

Just have to survive, I thought.

Reinforcements will come.  We’ll find a way forward.

I landed near Capricorn.  Some of Advance Guard and Foresight had joined his group.  Relay, Shorcut.

“Phone?”

“We’ve got an extra,” Relay said.  He tossed me one.

“Going to assist the annihilators,” I said.  “I can get in close enough to help.”

“Annihilators,” Shortcut said, almost derisive.

“The people who can put actual, lasting holes in those Titans.”

I left without saying anything else, only a nod to Capricorn.

Damsel and Foil were key players here.

And so, apparently, was Dragon.

I put the phone to my ear, waiting.

No ring, no beep, no buzz.  Just Kenzie’s voice.

“Got it, think this is you,” she said.

“It is.”

“Great, cool.  Funny story.  I ran an algorithm to look through video and see what phones changed hands, working my way forward from when they were first handed out…”

“Lookout,” I said.  “Focus.”

“I got some scans of the cracks.”

“And?”

“And there’s a lot.  Way more than we saw last night.”

Holy shit, that really had been last night.  It didn’t feel that way.

“Something we can use?” I asked.

“Probably, but… that’s the wrong way of putting it.”

“Lookout, we can’t talk around the topic when I could be helping fight right this second.  Tell me, is there anything we can use?”

I felt Withdrawal step closer, leaning into the microphone.  “She explained it to us, quick and simple.  Can we use it?  Yes and no.  There are petabytes of data from a few shots she managed to get, and she didn’t get enough to encompass everything in even one area of the space down there.”

“Standard problem for any surveillance tech in the modern age,” Kenzie said.  “Gathering the data is easy.  Finding the right, usable data might take too long.  But it’s not going to be like you think it is.  It’s archives, history.  It’s Moose and Prancer’s entire history from the time they met their agent, from before, information about people they knew, codified and referenced and there’s whole forks of data that get cut off because old connections broke.  Both of them, because they merged.”

Merging.  Was that what Oberon and Eve were trying to do now?

I shook my head.  “That’s not that useful, unless it’s a sign they’re in there?  If we could reach them…”

“They aren’t.  Not as far as I could see.”

“They aren’t?” I asked.

“Traces of them, but they’re wiped out.  It’s only old tactics and strategies, memories of battles, informed by the past.  But what’s cool is that there’s other data, going further back.  Past worlds.”

“Worlds that won?” I asked.

“No,” Foil answered me, leaning closer to the phone.  “We talked about this with Tattletale a few months ago.  If they hadn’t won, they wouldn’t be here.”

“There’s other stuff, but it’s secondary,” Kenzie said, a little breathless.  “Really wish I could have stayed, but these guys dragged me off.”

“Sorry, but I’m not sorry,” Withdrawal spoke into the phone.

“You’ll be sorry if it turns out I could have gotten data from Titan Eve that verifies what I saw in Oberon, or more photos, or more anything that might have made a difference.”

I stood at the rooftop’s edge, looking down.  Oberon was taking fire.

“Other reason for my call: Dragon’s bringing out the big guns,” Lookout said.  “You’ll want to clear the battlefield when the phone alarm goes off.”

“Noted,” I told her.  I looked down, and I saw Damsel in the thick of things.  Trophy Wife was with her.  I’d have to evacuate a few people if the call came in.

“They said it worked okay against the Ophion Titan, before he escaped.  It overheated while they were using it to deal with his monsters.”

“Good,” I said.  “Alright.  Look, I gotta go.”

“Um!  And last thing?  Your sister’s out there helping with your family backing her up some.  I know I’m not supposed to mention her, but if they show up, and they might, I thought you wouldn’t want it to be a surprise.”

“I… really don’t want to know.  I should go now.”

“Oh, and another last thing-”

Lookout,” I said, stern.

“Just hang up on her,” Chicken Little said.  “Sometimes you have to.”

“Um, no you don’t.  I’m trying to be helpful!”

“That’s cruel,” Caryatid added, in the background.

“It’s mercy,” Darlene said, sounding worn out.  “Sorry Lookout.”

I hung up before getting more.

Then, walking over to the rooftop’s edge, I put my gloved hand on the metal railing.  My bandaged hand smarted where the whip had caught me at the heel of my palm.

With my power, I began to tear up the railing, molding it by squeezing it.

“My weapon?” Foil asked.

“Any objections?” I asked, forcing the torn end of it into a point.

“No.  A little rough.”

“Have you gotten picky, Foil, since you started living with a villain fashion artist?”

“No,” she said, but she smiled a bit.  “Let’s see how much damage we can do.”

“Any chance you could arm me with your spear?”

“Specially made bolts, yes, if I had any left.  This?  No.  The power would conduct to the part you held, and you’d hurt yourself.”

“Even with my forcefield?” I asked.

“Hold it out?”

I did.  A bit of falling snow or ash settled on an outstretched hand.

The spear shimmered, taking on a faint but complex hue like it had been dipped in a puddle with a rainbow sheen of oil on the surface.  She laid it gently across my forcefield hand.

The forcefield went down.

I quickly put my mask on, just as a safeguard.  I waited.

The forcefield took a little while to get back up to full strength.  I flexed my limbs, making sure nothing had been ruined.

“No luck,” I murmured.

“Deliver me,” she said, looking down over the edge of the roof, no longer with a railing.

With my forcefield, I grabbed her.

“Eerie,” she said.

“Mask,” I told her.

She raised her visor, giving me a flash of her expression, so very tired, and put the gas mask on, fixed her goggles, then flipped her visor back down.  She gave me a curt nod.

I used my own body to block the worst of the wind as I pulled her down after me.

A plunging descent, toward Eve.

“I will catch you if something happens,” I pledged.

I felt her nod through the Syndicate connection.  Felt her heartbeat, the hand clenching the spear shaft.

I controlled the descent, bringing us close, as we landed on Titan Eve’s shoulder, amid rolling clouds of gas.  I let go of Foil and slammed down hard, to create enough of an impact that the worst of the gas would be shoved away.

For her part, Foil plunged the twelve foot spear in deep, then slashed.  What had been supporting railings were now like teeth, sawing on the way out.

It was almost effortless in how it cut, even with its weight, screwed up balance, and crude makeup.

The spear shifted from its rainbow shimmer and effortless cutting to being normal, stuck where it was, while Foil adjusted her balance and used it for leverage to change position.

She was doing a fair amount of damage.  Blood washed out of the wounds, always in short spurts that ceased within seconds of starting, always unobstructed flows, like water from an opened dam, but thicker.

My skin prickled beneath my clothes, and I backed away from Foil, before using my forcefield and spinning to try and displace the smoke.

Titan Eve shrugged, then raised a ‘hand’ our way.

But we’d distracted her.  Titan Oberon pounced, leaping to close the distance in a flash, driving hooves into her upper chest.

The impact and the shockwave that rippled out around her jarred Foil from her perch.  She toppled through the air, and I caught her, swinging her around and throwing her back toward Titan Eve.

It really fucking helped, having Syndicate to give me a clear view of where Foil was in this foggy mess.

The wounds Foil had delivered had been something like a person might have managed with a scalpel and a few seconds to work on someone’s upper shoulder and collarbone, but the hit from Oberon was far more severe.  Stone cracked, blood flowed.  Had she been human, her upper body might have caved in.

As it was, it slowed her down, made her bend over, and put her into a defensive mode.

I heard the roar of Damsel’s power, located her, and watched as she used the recoil of her blast to direct her descent.  She’d been atop Oberon, apparently, and in the wake of his attack, she was crossing over to a new target.

She fell past Titan Eve’s head, raking the side of her ‘face’ with a singular blast.

Gas reached up, forming spikes, dissolving, forming more spikes, dissolving further.  Filling the air like she was building a forest around herself, only the appendages couldn’t decide if they were bare branches stabbing toward the sky or if they were loose clouds of greenery.

I pulled Foil back, and I flew toward the plummeting Damsel, who was trying to both stay back from the gas and to slow down her fall.

“Stop blasting, let me in close!” I shouted, as I pulled Foil behind me.

She kept blasting, claws whipping around herself, using her annihilation blasts intermittently, when it wasn’t clear she had a good sense of when she was facing down.

“Trust me!” I shouted.

The blasting stopped.

We continued to fall, and I was forced to find a speed where I wouldn’t pull Foil’s arm out of the socket, but would still catch up to Damsel and have room to control her fall.

Gas was expanding all around us.

I placed a hand around her bladed fingers, pulled her closer, then did it two more times.  Phantasmal hands gripping blades, still trying to find that gentle balance where I wouldn’t squeeze so hard the blades cut through my forcefield, but where I wouldn’t lose my grip on her either.

I focused more on keeping Foil from getting whiplash than I did in saving Damsel’s arm from being ripped out of the socket.  I knew her shoulders were strong, she’d been augmented, and her Manton protections no doubt covered some of the damage that constant recoil might have done to her.

I pulled both of the women into the air, up and away from the wounded Fume Hood.

My borrowed phone blared, its warning given.

We’d hampered them enough, we’d slowed them down.  Now Dragon’s ship, mounted on a rooftop, was preparing its shot.

Everyone out of the blast zone.

Down there on the road, wobbling, a frantic Torso was trying to get the hell away, wobbling precariously.  I flew after him, thinking I could pick him up, but another cape was already on the scene, doing a sweep.  They picked him up, lifting him into the air.

Come on, I thought.  I turned my attention to the Dragon craft, and the line of heroes at the edge of the damage.

Come on.

A blue light flared at the top of the Dragon craft.

A shadow fell over the battlefield.

Almost hidden because a building stood nearly as tall as she did, covering up most of her body, Titan Skadi stood behind the heroes’ lines, clad in red and black armor.

With a swipe, she destroyed the Dragon craft.  Whatever had been charging detonated, bright, white toward the center and blue at the edges of the explosion, in stark contrast with Titan Skadi’s armor, which ranged from red to black.  Too bright to look at.

No.

With a second swipe, she took out three more Dragon craft.

Come on, get out of there!  Everyone-

Raising two bladed limbs above her head, she plunged those limbs down into the heroes’ lines.

Hitting no less than ten people in the process.

She straightened, moved like she was taking a step forward, and everything that wasn’t in deepest shadow disappeared.  Those deep shadows disappeared a moment late.

She had reappeared next to Oberon.  She didn’t attack him.

Auger beat her, and Titan Oberon had been connected to Auger.

We got our backup, and Titan Oberon just got his.

The connected ones are coordinating.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Radiation – 18.4

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

The portals that we’d jumped into took us to the Warden’s headquarters.  It was an area like the lobby that I wasn’t familiar with, that was largely undamaged.  Another hero team was partway through the process.

“Masks for the gas,” a staff member told us, eyes mostly on a checklist while her colleagues handed out the equipment themselves.  “Goggles.”

The mask barely covered the nose and mouth, by the looks of it.  I saw the other teams getting their stuff.  Damsel held her kit in claw hands, using the blunted backs of each blade-finger to manage the elastic cords and pull it over, coming perilously close to scalping herself.  The elastic still snapped against her temple, making her jump a little.

She saw me looking and glared.  She might have planned to say something, but the guy with the clipboard that was handing out stuff to her group was holding out a chunky phone.

“I don’t like phones,” she said, dismissive.  It was Trophy Wife who took the thing.

“No thanks, I’ve got a mask,” Kenzie said, bringing my attention back to this.

“You’re not coming,” I told her.

“Uh, haha, what?  No.”

“You’re on comms.  There’s absolutely nothing you can do on the battlefield itself.  I’m not sure there’s anything we can do on the battlefield itself.”

“The deal when I joined the team was you wouldn’t leave me behind,” she said, staring up at me with her new mask, overlarge eyes staring up at me.

“We’ve brought you in, we’ve involved you.  You’re a valued contributor on multiple fronts, you’ve had your time to shine, but in this?”

“I’m coming,” she said, stubborn.

“Decadent and Chicken and I are going to stay behind,” Darlene said.

“I have more field experience than Precipice or Sveta,” Kenzie told me, ignoring Darlene.  “If you want me to stay, you’re going to have to hold me down, and that means you can’t go.”

“It doesn’t make sense,” I told her.  “We can experiment, test the waters, give you field experience on any occasion except when we have an actual Class-S threat.”

“No.  I have to come.”

“We’re going,” Tattletale said, gas mask around her face but not at her mouth.  It looked like we couldn’t wear the things and talk at the same time.

I just nodded, letting her go.  The Undersiders with the three older Heartbroken and Deathchester all passed through the portal.  Cassie remained behind.

I looked back to Kenzie, who had her arms folded.  Chicken, Decadent and Syndicate were a step behind her.  The Malfunctions lingered off to one side.

“Why?” It was Tristan who asked, this time.  “You have to?  Because of personal reasons?”

“No,” Kenzie said, unconvincingly.

“Why?” he asked, again.  His voice was gentle.

“Because… scans.  I want to scan stuff.  And take pictures.”

And take pictures.  If it were anyone else, the statement would have been ludicrous.

Tristan looked at me though, shrugging one shoulder.

“You promised you would take me seriously and bring me along,” Kenzie said.  “I want to be there.”

“How do you even plan to get close enough to the titans?” I asked her.

“I don’t.  I can get some data from a distance.  I’ll take some pictures of where they’ve been.  Stuff related to them, like Eve’s gas, or whatever Oberon does.”

I frowned.

“If you want-” Withdrawal cut in, stopped.

I looked at him.

“I could look after her,” he said.

“You didn’t want to come.”

“I want to help,” he said.  “If she’s that gung-ho… I’d feel really fucking lame if I chickened out.”

“I resent that,” Chicken Little muttered.

Shush,” Candy whispered, shoving a gloved hand under his mask.  “This is serious.”

“I didn’t mean that in a bad way,” Withdrawal said.  “Those kids are going?”

“Not kids,” Roman said, in nearly the same beat as Juliet.

“Younger than me,” Withdrawal said.  He was seventeen or eighteen, and Roman and Juliet were thirteen or fourteen.  Hard to estimate when they were lanky and tall by nature.

“We’re Heartbroken,” Roman told Withdrawal.  “We’ve seen worse.”

“I… have to admit, I’ve heard that a few times, but I don’t know what that is.  Sorry,” Withdrawal answered.

“Heartbreaker’s kids?” Juliette asked.

“I’ve heard the name, I think,” Withdrawal said.  “I don’t remember any details.”

“We didn’t have internet,” Caryatid said.

“And you thought we had it bad,” Candy whispered.

“We did,” Darlene hissed back.

Chastity clapped her hands together once.  “Focus, please.  We can share stories of misery from our childhood after we’ve come out of this alive.  Shatter their innocence then.”

“Or, um, don’t shatter anything?” Finale asked.  “We could talk about it if it makes you feel better, I guess?”

“Not the kind of thing you feel-”

Chastity put her hand over Roman’s mouth, shutting him up.

“I’ll go too,” Caryatid said, hand on Finale’s shoulder.  “I’ll stick by W.D. and Lookout, keep an eye out.”

“Me too,” Finale said, very clearly on impulse.

“If you want to help, you can look after the Tenders back here at the base, run any messages or bring anything they have,” I told them.  “This?  Going? Not an obligation.”

“We’re heroes, we gotta,” Finale said.  She looked terrified.

Fuck.  Why the fuck were they being helpful?  If they weren’t, I could have told Lookout it put the rest of us in more danger to watch her.

“We need everything we can get,” Tristan told me.

“I know,” I said, frustrated.  I pulled goggles and the small gas filter down and let them dangle around my neck.  “Yeah.  We can’t waste time debating this.  Should have done it earlier.  Withdrawal, Caryatid, Finale, if you guys can look after Lookout, escort her to where she needs to be, keep her out of direct danger.  Let’s keep to a strict time limit.  Five minutes.”

“Fifteen,” Kenzie said.

“Five.  These things go by quicker and get hairier than you tend to imagine at first.  If we’re playing defense trying to keep these titans from connecting, whatever that means, we can’t be distracted also keeping them away from where you’re at.”

“But-”

“Five,” Tristan told her.  “Or you’re not coming.  Antares is right.”

“Yep,” Sveta said.

Kenzie looked like she was going to argue, turning her mask from one of us to the other.  Then she relented.

“Do you want a network?” Darlene asked.

“Yes,” I said.

I could feel Darlene’s power seize me.  I became acutely aware of where she was, and every physical sensation she experienced, including the thrum of her heartbeat pounding in her chest.  I felt Lookout, and Chicken little, then Tristan, Sveta, and the Undersiders and Heartbroken.  The Undersiders were riding the dogs.

Eerie, to mentally parse that I knew exactly how far away they were and I was not on the same Earth as them.  It was the kind of thing I understood in a logistics, general awareness sense, but now I could sense it with an awareness that I hadn’t been born with.

This is how they experience the world.

This must be how you experience the world, fragile one.  Seeing around the corner, so to speak, into Earths that I don’t occupy.

“We ready?” Tristan asked.

The woman with the clipboard held out the device that looked like a cell phone had had a baby with an iron ingot, same as the guy further down the hall had given to Damsel.  Heavy, with an antenna sticking out the top.  There was a loop so it could be worn around the neck or hooked into the costume.

I was, through Syndicate, aware of Tristan reaching for it in the same moment I did.

I took hold of the thing, then passed it to him.

If nothing else, because Tristan needed this, and because I planned to have my hands full.

“Leader of each group gets one,” the woman said.  “Try not to lose it.  They’re our only reliable communication with the infrastructure as damaged as it is.”

“Got it,” Tristan said.

The Malfunctions phased into my syndicate-awareness.

“Five minutes, then you evacuate Lookout into a portal.  Take her to her team, get her to comms, then protect her,” I told the Malfunctions.  “I don’t know if a critical piece of information would call Titan Skadi to the location or what, but… please.”

“Guarding the kids.  Okay,” Withdrawal said.  Dead serious.

It wasn’t a glamorous task, but I had the impression they wanted to be useful, and if I was being one hundred percent honest, it would be a bit of a load off my mind if Lookout and the Malfunctions were all safe.

“Lookout, you go.  no joke, no wiggle room,” I said.

She nodded.  She had her flash gun at her belt and her belt shifted, slithering around her.  The belt buckle unfolded, revealing itself to be the eyehook.  She had said she was digging up and repairing old stuff.  She reached to her belt and pulled out one of the antenna-eye things.

“Kneel?” she asked.

I knelt, putting my hands on her shoulders not to steady myself, but to ensure I had her full attention.

“Seriously,” I told her, locking my eyes to hers, staring into the eyes of her mask.  “Five minutes.  You stay safe.”

“I got it.  Yes,” Kenzie said, before pushing the device into my eye.  I could feel the faint traces of metal against the internals of my eye, eye socket, and the meaty space behind the eye socket.

Tristan took another mask.

“Okay,” I said, straightening.  I blinked, and the device came online, giving me information, text, and the ability to view things through the eyes of my team. “Any chance someone made a note of the guns I asked for?”

“Guns?” Sveta asked.  I just shrugged.

“No notes, nothing like that was left here, sorry,” the woman with the clipboard told me.

“Alright, thanks,” I told her.

“Uncomfortable under my helmet,” Tristan said, adjusting his mask.  He tried talking with it on, and it came out muffled.  Nobody who wasn’t within arm’s reach of him would be able to hear.  He fixed his goggles, and the eye sockets of his helmet rested against the domed eyecovers.

That would be a problem.

I glanced at the woman with the checklist.  Nothing else?

Nothing else.

I could feel the others fall into step with me, Lookout with a bit of a bounce, and a wave back toward her friends.  Toward the tear in reality.

The air that blasted against my face was cold.  I closed my eyes, and it felt very much like I blinked and found myself elsewhere.

We emerged from the portal with breathing devices and goggles in hand or already around our faces.  Into a shattered section of city near the water.  There was no ‘south’ here, only freezing water, some of which was frothing violently as it disappeared into a crack on the beach.  The froth was kind of startling in how white it was, when everything else seemed painted with a dark palette.  The sky was dark gray, overcast and heavy with dust that didn’t seem to ever quite settle.  The ground was snow made dirty with the damage from the cracking, once white, now a pale, stained brown-gray with the dust of fallen buildings.

White froth and the costume features of our assembled groups, a vein of silver across Rain’s tech, red decorative elements on Capricorn’s armor, Sveta’s sky blues and forest greens contrasted with her colorful patchwork coat, the reds, blues, and yellows standing out against a background that was largely gray.  Kenzie was the most monochrome of us, but even she had glimmers of silver or gold where tech at her belt or mask lit up.  The eyes of her mask had glowing gold irises, set above a frozen smile.

To our west was Titan Eve.  The kind of tall that meant I had to raise my chin slowly to take in her full height.  The sky was dark but she was darker, as black as crude oil with a cloak of grey-green fog pouring off of her, more fog for her ‘hair’.  Many of the buildings weren’t even waist high for her, and most of those buildings were lost in a pea-soup sea of fog.

To our east was Titan Oberon.  Hulking, hunched over, with complex antlers seeming to take up a third of his body mass, arcing over his back.  Where Eve moved slowly and steadily along the beach, he looked like he was amped up for a fight.  He didn’t move smoothly or directly in our direction, but instead lurched a few feet forward, stopped moving, occasionally putting a hand out to touch a nearby building and rock it to its foundations.  Like he had no foot speed that wasn’t either ‘full steam ahead’ or ‘hard stop’.

I hadn’t expected the noise.  Wind taking odd courses across the cracks, producing whistling sounds here and there, like an eerie, inconsistent song that ranged from whooshes to hissy squeals.

The dull and constant grind, complete with a vibration that ran across the city and shook small bits of snow from rooftops and windowsills, as Titan Eve marched continuously forward.  She had no feet to leave the ground, and moved instead like a sword too heavy for the wielder to carry, the tip in soil, dragging through as it was pulled behind the owner.  She was that sword, her lower body churning through ground, though I could only tell by looking well past her to the places she had been.  Titan Oberon creaked and groaned with every movement, and his footfalls were loud enough with three-quarters of a mile of distance that I could imagine they might deafen us up close.

A constant, horrible noise that never found any resolution or climax.

“Masks ready.  Put them on before you think you need it,” I said.  “That gas might move faster than you think.”

The Undersiders were on dogs, navigating the shattered landscape.  Deathchester was just a bit ahead of us, having stepped forward before stopping.  Damsel stood on top of a car.  Hookline and Gibbet were paired together.

Deathchester wore black coats, black slacks, black dress with patterned, torn hose, black boots.  Here and there, there were scarves, gloves, and armbands in checkerboard white and black.  A few gorier bits, like Sidepiece, or old bloodstains on clothing.  The checkerboard pattern was what stood out to my eye, when everything else was so muted.

“Two objectives,” I said.  “This is a fact-finding mission, and we keep them from connecting.”

“Fact,” Damsel spoke without looking back at me.  Her attention was on Titan Eve.  “I’m going to find out if I can connect an annihilation blast to that thing’s face.”

“Be careful,” I told her.  “The masks might work, but the original Fume Hood could still melt flesh with her gas.  We don’t know what this one can do.”

“Don’t tell me what to do,” she said.  She moved her claw-hands, indicating for her team to follow.

“High ground is going to be important,” Tristan said.

“Get up, then,” I said.  “Anyone need a lift?”

“I’m staying,” Kenzie said.  “I want to get photos of the cracks.”

“We’ve got her,” Withdrawal said.

“Thank you.  It means a lot to know she’s in good hands,” Tristan said.  He sounded like a leader, a younger Chevalier, with that tone of voice and confidence that inspired others to be better.  Withdrawal seemed to take courage from just that statement, from the way he stood a little straighter in his agility contraption.  Hadn’t done that for me.

But as easily as Tristan had done that, I could see him glance over at the Titan Oberon, than down at the road, lost in thought, a little defeated before this battle had even started.

“Keep an eye out for any rolling tides of gas, get her out of trouble if something comes up,” I told the Malfunctions.

Withdrawal nodded.

“Now that we don’t have such a big audience, I’ll give you a chance to give any input, if you’re aware at all,” Tristan said.  I glanced at him to see who he was talking to.  Tristan tossed his spare mask skyward, then changed out for Byron.

Byron put a hand out, and Rain steadied him.  Sveta caught the falling mask, then pressed it to Byron’s chest.  He clapped a gauntleted hand over it.

“Bit disorienting,” he said, looking around.  “I knew when I put my armor on that I might be plunged into this, but this is… hoo.”

He wasn’t usually one for the emotional exclamations.  That little awed ‘hoo’ coming from him made me huff out a breath, feeling my own emotions spike a bit.

Yeah.  Dropped off between two titans, each proceeding steadily toward one another to… clash?  Mate?  Create a crack that would glow?

I wish I knew more about what a ‘connection’ entailed.

He took a second to pull the mask on.

“I won’t be useful for much,” Byron said.  “Bring me out if you need water, I’ll swap back to you.  Sorry.”

He swapped out.

Awake, but not well.

Tristan nodded to himself for a moment.

“Up?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

I grabbed his armor, looked over at Sveta, who was picking up Rain, and nodded.

“Sorry.  I know I’m heavy,” Tristan said.

“I don’t think that’s a problem anymore,” I said.  I asserted my grip, and the metal creaked.

“Why?” he asked, in the same moment I took flight.

I saw a flash of his face, he peered through the goggles and past the metal of his helmet to see me with my arms at my sides.  I could feel his gut lurch through Syndicate’s power.

Sveta followed, and I felt her reaching out, finding the handholds.

I deposited him on the tallest rooftop with a view of the area.  I paused, taking in the view.  A third of the buildings around us had broken or were leaning, the rest seemed stable.

The Undersiders were across the street, perched on a building that had fallen over and now leaned heavily into another structure.  They rode dogs in pairs and trios.

Deathchester took the street, and for a moment, it seemed like their plan was to seize the low ground.  Then Gibbet used her power.  She had her trademark hangman’s noose and the post that was shaped like an upside-down ‘L’, and those posts were growing larger, stabbing out of the ground and nearby buildings.

I wasn’t sure why she had the fixation with that specific motif, but I had to admit I could see the value in the combination of sturdy wood and rope.  Her team climbed, gray Jester Mockument was like a monkey as he scaled his way up.  Hookline had his own tool.   Damsel kept one foot inside a noose and let the rope rise up as the post grew.  Trophy Wife hopped up from one bit of wood to another, making those leaps with ten or twelve stories of fall below her.

Only Torso remained on the ground.  He started running toward Titan Eve.  After about five seconds, he tripped and fell, cracking pavement as his head struck it.

I watched him as he struggled to get to his feet, swayed like he might fall backward, then started sprinting forward once again, oversized torso and head in graffiti-painted white stone or something, his pelvis, arms and legs all skinny and clad in black cloth.  A crack in the road barred his way, so he began making his way to what looked like a light pole that had fallen across the gap.  His sense of balance on flat ground was bad enough, he wanted to tightrope walk ten feet of snow and ice crusted wood over an otherworldly abyss?

He tripped and fell again a few feet before the foot of the pole, skidding and sliding forward a few feet on landing.  From my angle, I couldn’t tell if there was a slope, but if there was, he could have slid right off, disappearing into the darkness.

“Your power,” Tristan said.  He was already drawing with motes.  It looked like a wall separating buildings.

“Since the dream room,” I told him.

“Huh.”

I could feel Foil messing with her crossbow, loading shots.  Tattletale crouched at the corner of the roof closest to Titan Eve.

“Titan Oberon feels more doable as a fight,” Sveta said.  “If we attack one, he has to be easier to take down, doesn’t he?”

“We don’t know what he does,” Rain told her.

“If he was Prancer, that means he’s fast.”

Fuck me.  They were just so huge.  They were separated by at least one and a half miles, but they were entirely focused on one another.  It was like being between two steamrollers, no tools, no weapons, just naked hands and desperation.

Couldn’t let them meet.

There were other teams on the task.  A few blocks down, heroes were erecting forcefields.  A tinker was teleporting in something that looked like a candlestick with a pointed bottom, segment by segment.

“This power change,” Tristan said.

“Hm?”

“Did it come with any resolutions?  Realizations?  Changes in… anything?” he asked.  “For Byron and me, it was our relationship.”

“Did the power change the relationship, or did the change in relationship precipitate the power change?”

“The second,” he said, his gaze still fixed on Oberon.  The wall below us coalesced into being.   Thick, three stories tall, and curved, so it blocked off one side street and one main street.  Already, he was making more motes.

“A bit of a change in perspective,” I told him, watching him work while avoiding eye contact with the group.  “Near death experience.  Seeing some of those scenes in the crystals.”

“Same as us, then,” he murmured.

The titans drew closer.

“What do we even do?” Rain asked.  “Holy shit.”

“We gather intel.  Look for any signs of connections forming.  Experiment, see if you can affect them emotionally, see if you can use your blades.  Try to interfere with their powers, if any.  Any constructions she makes, anything he does.”

Through the Syndicate connection, I felt Tattletale move her arm.  A wave, a point.

I turned to look at her, then followed her arm.

She was pointing at Titan Eve.

Crap.

My heart was in my chest as I floated up.

Below, Tristan’s clunky phone beeped.  He unclipped it and raised it up, pressing a button.

“Hello?”

“Tattletale here.”

As if to punctuate the statement, Tristan made his other wall solidify on the street below.  Blocking another road.  I could kind of see his intention.  It wasn’t to stop the titans.  That was a bit too hard of a call.

But anticipating the flow of gas and controlling it.  Steering it away from the Malfunctions and Kenzie, who was leaning over one of the smaller cracks, taking pictures of what lay below.  I could tell through my connection with Syndicate.

“Giving you a warning.  She’s about to attack,” Tattletale said.

Attack?” I asked.  “Us?”

“The other Titan.”

“They’re not connecting?”

“She’s weaker.  She has her own connection, she wants to beat him down enough or disrupt his power enough to subjugate him.  He just wants to get his hands on her and subjugate her.  He’s strong enough to do that without having to break her down first.”

“He’s that much stronger?” Rain asked.

“She’s attacking.”

Titan Eve held a hand out, and the smoke below her moved up toward the waiting hand, solidifying into a spike.  With a motion of her arm that did not seem like it should have been as effective as it was, she sent the spike forward.

Titan Oberon moved with surprising quickness, leaning to one side, turning its body sideways to let the bolt pass it by.  It struck a building behind him, detonating into a gas cloud that seemed to consume the entire building, at least eight stories tall.

Yeah.  If one of those landed near us, there wasn’t going to be much chance to get the hell out of the way.

“We let her weaken him!” Tristan called out.  “Try to strike a balance so neither side is strong enough to be confident!”

His voice was loud enough that Deathchester heard.

Behind Oberon, the gas cloud abruptly condensed, shrinking in size like there was a black hole in its midst.  It reformed with a speed that I couldn’t follow with my eyes.

A spike of solidified black-green gas punched through Oberon’s back.

The speed with which the gas had reformed and punched in our direction produced a blast of wind that we felt as a cold breeze, even three quarter miles of distance between us and him.

He pulled free, and the spike broke, becoming gas again.  He swatted at it before it could become anything, and the force of the swing produced a wind that dissipated the gas.

I started flying.  To put myself in the air between the two of them, in case Titan Eve was too strong for him and I needed to intercept something, or… whatever he might do.

Heroes at the other location were hitting Oberon with powers, and I felt Foil kneel, crossbow raised, and shoot several bolts in quick succession.  I knew her power let her bolts pass through anything, and if she timed it right, which she could, with her timing ability, then she could make them stick.

But they were so small, and he was so big.  Were there vitals she could aim for?

Titan Eve produced more spikes like the first one, gathering them into a collection in front of her.  A triple-threat attack, to all appearances.  Get hit, you had a spike as large as a city bus in you.

For Titan Oberon, it would be a fairly superficial wound.  For any of us, it would be an ugly ending.

He started to move away, but one of the heroes at the location near him hit him with a power, a beam of light that lanced around one arm and locked it into position, like a massive white shackle or set of laser-tongs.  The Titan couldn’t move out of the way.

Titan Eve attacked, hurling every last spike his way.

With his free arm, the male Titan swatted at the air.  It produced a shockwave that put the prior impacts to shame.  The spikes weren’t bullet fast, but they were moving fast.  In the next moment, they weren’t moving at all.

They spun tip over end, scattered into the air, and struck home at different points within the city around us.

I flew higher to track it.  I could see the gas expanding.  Green, but with a bubblegum pink hue to the very edges and the deepest recesses.

I hoped Kenzie’s camera was gathering this data and relaying it to everyone.

The gas was quick to dissipate.  Kind of.  I could see the aftermath, where buildings had disappeared into the gas were revealed again now.

All of them with more holes than Swiss cheese.  More holes than any sponge.  The largest of the holes yawned open, moist, draining out the liquefied contents within.  The holes with nothing liquid to drain out smoked slightly, with more gas like the initial blast.

Fuck me.  That was a lot of damage in a very short span of time.

I watched as liquid spurted out, and then things emerged.  The colors were pastel green and pink, with a bit of black where they had pincers or legs, and they looked like translucent maggots, larger than people.  They began tearing at the surroundings and spilling over one another in their efforts to worm free of the cavities that had appeared, and most of the affected areas were more cavity than anything.

Fuuuuuck me.

The implications of that.

Alarm surged through me as I flew around the site, staying well above it.  I saw Titan Eve attack again, flinging more spikes, three aimed at Titan Oberon’s feet, middle, and head.

He stepped back, fighting against the efforts of nearby heroes and crashing through a forcefield that was trying to hem him in.  He swung one fist and the shockwave seemed to disrupt whatever was hampering him.  The backswing of that same fist knocked away two of the three projectiles.

One of them landed close to the heroes who had been hemming him in.  I didn’t see the aftermath.

The third landed on the ground near his feet, and promptly billowed out into gas.  Same color, same kind.  Green with a trace of hot pink in the recesses and very edges.

That gas touched one of his hooved feet, and he stumbled.

I could see the damage.  Holes riddling his hoof and lower leg, which promptly gushed blood and other fluids.  The ‘maggots’ came soon after, worming out of his own flesh to devour whatever they could get their mouths on.  The rims of the holes seemed to be hardened- it explained why the affected buildings hadn’t collapsed, but the flesh was soft enough for them to burrow in and bite.

He reared back, then stomped with his injured hoof.  The impact of that stomp reached me a half-mile away.

More blood gushed out, but so did a tide of what looked like a hundred dead maggots.

A clap of his hands dissipated the gas and another spike that was soaring through the air.  It went off course, landing in the water.

Those shockwaves.  That wasn’t Prancer.

“Moose?” I asked the cold, empty air around me.

He dropped to all fours, back hunched over, and I could see the flashes of green-gold light dancing between each individual muscle.

He leaped, as far up as forward.

No, that was definitely Prancer.

It took me a full second to fathom the sheer scale of the leap.  A mile and a half might have separated him and Titan Eve, and he was now on a collision course with her.

I flew to intercept.  I couldn’t even fly up in time to reach him before he started his descent, but I could meet him near the landing point.

I went straight for the part of him that I knew I could get a grip on.  That damaged hoof, where the rims of the holes seemed to be structurally reinforced.

Breath hissing through the mask, I flew with all of my strength.  Same ideas as in the past, but with cleaner execution.  In the air, there was no leverage from the ground to grant that added power when you needed.  There was rotational power.

I moved the forcefield, with movements of my hand and with my own control over it.  To give it spin, so it hurtled around me.  The force of limbs and irregular shapes cutting through the air actually made flying forward harder, slowing me down.  Titan Eve was creating a wall of hard gas in anticipation of the impact.  I was going to have to deal with that too.

I reached it when he halfway back to the ground, and the spinning forcefield raked the surface of the hoof’s underside.  I grunted with exertion and sudden panic.  Not what I wanted.

I could feel the sheer force and weight of him, in the moment after.  I was about to have his full weight come down on top of me.

One of the hands got a grip on the rim of a hole in the hoof’s underside.  Well, less of a grip, more that the hand found the inside edge, palm flat against it.  It bucked a little with the the impact of my hand, bucking a bit more when I flared out with my aura.  Then the forcefield found more holds.

I tried to pull the hoof back, and he reacted almost instantaneously, going the other direction, forward.

So I obliged, instead, reversing direction and hauling the hoof forward, putting myself directly beneath the hoof and the ground, pulling it a little further than he intended to go.

It was only through my Syndicate connection to Kenzie that I had any sense of where the ground was.  I slipped free in the last moment, canceling out the forcefield so I had the space, re-enabling it so I had something when the hoof crashed and skidded across broken road.

The shockwave rippled out, and I felt it hit the forcefield, hit me.  I was thrown through the wall of hard gas, within a short distance of Titan Eve, and into the side of a window, where the wooden infrastructure of the building splintered.

Residual momentum carried me skidding  across the floor.

All to mess up his footing a little.  He’d landed on one foot, the other slipping.  Now he climbed to his feet again, and I could see only a narrow slice of him through the windows on the floor of some business headquarters I was in

He didn’t move like a giant, with the added mass, the added air resistance, or any of that.  Even without the power boosting the occasional movement or creating a shockwave, he was faster than an ordinary person.

Shrouded in gas, that was creeping into the space I was in, because I’d punched through the wall Eve had created, returning some of it to its ordinary state, I’d punched through the wall of the building.

And the fight between Titans was now something like a hand to hand brawl.  If one of them got the advantage, it would ‘connect’ to the other.

Couldn’t let that happen.

Scholar the fuck up, Victoria, I thought, as I flew out through the window to the side, avoiding the gas.

The wall of gas was still mostly upright, but every punch he struck tore down more of it.  Spikes erupted from the far side, and he avoided most.

Pull on what we know, I thought.  If you want to chime in, fragile one, you’d better give me some nudges.

Prancer had some Moose in him.  Had he stolen the power?  Or were they related?

Related powers factored into what Titan Eve was doing.  That pink gas, it wasn’t in her normal set of talents.  Was that a power the agent had but hadn’t handed out?  Something for a future host, or a possible evolution of the power?

Like how my family had lasers and forcefields as redundant things, but some of us kids, like myself, had something pulled from the same agent.  My damn sister had her dad’s master of biology, but a completely different angle.  He controlled one aspect of his, she controlled a thousand different aspects of anyone but herself.

Tristan and Byron had the same root power but other stuff came and went, like he’d remarked, and it changed with mental state.

Did the Titans have full access to the full portfolios they’d managed as agents?

Capricorn and Backwoods were creating barriers to wall off the worst of the gas.  Backwoods threw splinters of wood that exploded into barricade form, some of those barricades exploding out two or three times, extending the reach and density of the branches each time.

And down on the ground between the two titans, I could see Torso running toward Titan Eve for several seconds before stopping, changing his mind, and running toward Titan Oberon.

A shockwave rolled past, and Torso fell over.

I flew low to the ground, trusting the forcefield to keep me safe from the gas.

Car.  I flew under it, pulling everything tight to me, then expanded out to flip it over, and grabbed the undercarriage by four different places.

With the soupy gas around me, I could barely see what I was grabbing.  I pulled off the muffler, but grabbed the axle and the metal of the car body.

I passed a second car, and swiped at the rear bumper, causing it to tip over nosewise.  I grabbed it by the underside too.

A car to the left of me, a car to the right of me.  Metal creaked as the weight of the car pulled against the different points I was holding.

It wasn’t the kind of gun they mounted on tanks or armored cars, but it would have to do.

I wasn’t aggressive as I flew up and around.

Have to maintain a balance, I thought.

Sveta was rappelling up the antlers.  Rachel and the Undersiders were huddled.  Capricorn was running damage control.  Precipice threw blades.

And Kenzie?  Kenzie was retreating.  Withdrawal was dragging her by the arm.

Good.

I hoped she had something.

I waited, watching, looking for any cue.  He was big enough and powerful enough that he didn’t need to draw his arm back for most move, or raise his knee too high for a massive action.

He backed away from another cloud of gas, and I flew back as well.  He brought his arms back, like he was spreading his wings, and the motion produced a shockwave that parted gas and made Undersider, Breakthrough, and Deathchester alike have to hunker down or get a grip on their surroundings.  I flew in to intercept.

I hurled the first car, aiming for the wrist.

I might as well have been dropping a truck onto a highway for all the damage I did.  An indent, a small crater, and a gushing of blood that tapered off before the car had finished tumbling off of his arm and off to the side.

But the motion of hurling the first car was something of a half-circle spin, and I grabbed the underside of the other car with more hands, tightening the spin while pulling it in close.  It was akin to a shotput throw, and I spiked the second car down for a similar impact site.

I followed right after.

Two cars striking within seconds of one another, followed by my dive.

He was intending to clap, but as I struck my target, raking at the edge of the shallow crater the cars had made, using some of the imbalance formed by the initial impacts, I managed to pull the one hand down.

The clap still happened, but it wasn’t square.  The air rippled, and everything was cast away from him.  Gas, fragments of the wall Titan Eve had made, and various members of our group.  Precipice and Sveta could stop themselves.  The Undersiders had a rougher go of it.  Deathchester too.  They were bowled over, sent sliding along the rooftop, and knocked from their Gibbet-made perches, left to find their footing or cover elsewhere.

Dance with me, I thought.  I made my forcefield spin once again.  I could see the impact of the rotation and hands slicing against air on the gas around me, and maneuvered to use it, hands turning to be flat against the wind and fan it more, driving gas toward Titan Oberon, our most immediate threat.

Let’s hurt him.

I looked for an injury, any injury, and settled on the one on the arm.

Multiple hands together, forming a point of sorts, as I dove for it.  Ignoring me for the most part, he even raised his hand up to bring it into my strike.

The force was enough to break the forcefield.  I held my breath, just in case, and did what I could to use flight and a furious, scrabbling effort to dig my hands into crevices and keep from being thrown away from my target.

I was in the midst of a small crater I’d made.

Come on.  Come onCome on, girlYou didn’t nearly lose your mind sitting in that situation room so you could do nothing now.

I felt the forcefield settle back into place.  I even saw hints of her in the air, which still had traces of gas in it.  A face here, a reaching hand there.

Put that hand herePut all of the hands here.

With enhanced strength, I drove multiple hands into the deepest, thickest crack I could find in his wrist.

With enhanced strength, I pulled those hands apart, scrabbled in deeper with others.  Digging my way into a wound while trying to part it wider.

Chunks of flesh came flying loose with a massive tide of blood.  He reacted, bending over.  I flew back and I caught the largest chunk, only for it to come apart in my hand.  I’d hoped for a shard of bone or something hard.

Gas-crafted spikes sank into him, and I could feel Rachel riding.  Her dog leaping from the building.  Other people capitalizing on the weakness.

It was a bad combination, one that left me no time to stop, rest, or figure out if I could capitalize on this.

Rachel carried a three-pronged hook on a chain.  It wasn’t hookline’s, but it was a similar idea.  She rode and she dragged that hook dragged behind her as she rode across the hunched-over titan’s shoulders.

I flew around.  “Sveta!  Be ready to catch them!”

“Ah!” was her reply.

The fresh new spikes exploded into more gas.  I knew I had to keep the gas away from Rachel and the dog, especially when it could put that many holes in anything.  Same principle as before, fanning it away.

The hook was touched with Foil’s power, and it carved a furrow a foot deep and thirty feet long before Oberon reacted.  He straightened, and she lost her footing, the dog finding a momentary foothold on one of the antler prongs.

Sveta was there a moment later, grabbing them and securing them.  Holding on with one hand, Rachel swung the grappling hook head around, then let it drag against more of his back, before it no longer had anything to grip and fell within a foot of her.

“Don’t hit yourself with it!” Foil cried out.

The gas was putting a million holes in the flesh of Titan Oberon, some large enough to fit a basketball in, some only big enough to dig a finger into.  And despite my efforts to spin and fan the gas away, it was creeping closer to my best friend and Rachel.

I saw it graze the dog’s foot, and I saw flesh turn red and raw, boils appearing and popping to reveal perfect cavities and deep channels where there had been flesh before.

“Fall!” I ordered.

Sveta fell for a moment, then stopped herself, her arms dividing up into ribbons to catch onto prongs.  Rachel was staying put, stubborn.

“Fall!” I ordered.

Rachel began working with the grappling hook again.

“Rachel, damn it!”

Sveta decided to instead yank Rachel off of her handhold.  Another tendril caught the rope of the grappling hook and hauled it off-course so it wouldn’t fall on or tear through the pair of them.

Diving, I had to avoid the hook.  I caught them, and ensured my grip was secure without being bone-crushingly strong before pulling them away and toward a safe rooftop.  I could feel Sveta under one arm, Rachel under another, the dog held uncomfortably by four more.

I deposited them on the surface, huffing for breath.  Both women had a sheen of sweat from their exertion on their faces, breath fogging around their mouths.  Rachel had a grip around one hand, which had a hole in it, the skin around the hole scarred.  A trace of the gas.

A flash of light nearly blinded me, and the moment came with a spike of fear, that Kenzie hadn’t left, that she was using her gun.

She wasn’t.  The heroes who had been closest to Oberon were here.  Some of them.

Injured by gas.  One had a bandage wrapped around a stump of her arm, and the bandage was soaked through black.

Another had the holes riddling his face and neck, raw and red, with flesh pulsing deep within.  I could see through to where his skull was, but whatever that gas was doing, it wasn’t letting him die.  It was him that produced the beam of light that turned into a shackle where it hit.

Backup.

Oberon was taking something of a beating, but he wasn’t going down.  Gas-induced rot had taken much of his face, hoof, and upper chest, but he still stood as tall as he ever had, not even breathing hard.

Which wasn’t to say we hadn’t made our small impact.

Titan Eve advanced toward him, moving through her barrier, and his movement was defensive, producing a shockwave, then a second.  Hammering at her, to slow her approach.

When he took his own step, it was backwards, away.

We have to maintain a balance until we can find a chink in the armor we can exploit to maybe end this forever.

And that balance means we now have to deal with Titan Eve.  My friend.

I saw Titan Oberon’s head turn.  The wound at his wrist was slowly healing, as was the wound at his back.

He surveyed our group, studying us.

Titan Eve rose out of the smoke, standing tall, gas gathering and swirling around her.

“Stop her!” Tristan called out.  “We fight the strongest one until they back off!”

Until they back off or we don’t have the strength to keep these steamrollers from steadily advancing on one another.

I was ready to start figuring out if I could do anything against Titan Eve when Tattletale held one hand out and back, as if to tell us to stop, to hold.

There was a pause, and I saw precious ground being lost as she moved forward, soaring toward the Titan Oberon, who backed up.

Titan Eve tipped backward all at once, with her full height collapsing back onto several city blocks worth of road, across cracks in reality, and onto the occasional small building.  The impact was deafening, and the ensuing ruin and destruction created enough dust, smoke, and plumes of gas that it became impossible to see anything.

Titan Oberon punched the side of the building the other Undersiders were on, then sliced the flat of his hand through the corner of the building.  They were already running, leaping to the next rooftop.  I only realized it had happened by the sound, and by Syndicate’s power keeping us coordinated and aware of each other.

“Get back!” I told Rachel and Sveta.  “I’ve got to check in!”

Sveta nodded.  Even though she was a matter of feet away, her face was barely a silhouette.  She coughed, then grabbed onto Rachel with tendrils, pulling her behind.  Rachel pulled at her dog’s collar.

I flew up and across the street, trying to find a vantage point where I could make out the situation.

Tattletale was regrouping with Deathchester, Parian, Foil, and the three Heartbroken.  Roman and Juliette were at the edge of the building with Chastity, Roman holding an axe that he was using to kill human-sized maggots that had crawled up the side of the building.

“What was that?” I asked.  “Eve took a hit.”

“Torso headbutt,” Tattletale had to pull her mask away from her mouth to say it.  She put it back and glanced at Damsel, who nodded confirmation.

“Okay,” I said, frowning, trying to make out the situation.  The forcefield, at least, kept me from inhaling concrete dust and residual gas.

“He can’t do that many more times,” a cultured voice said, beside me.  I looked, and saw a man in a gray jester’s outfit.  He stood beside the gawky, disproportioned Mockument, who wore a very similar outfit.

“Okay,” I said.  I looked at Tattletale.  “What do we do?”

“I don’t know,” she said, pulling her mask aside again.  “Same plan.  Keep them from connecting.”

“What we’re doing is barely budging them.”

Tattletale nodded.  She looked out of breath, coughed.

When we can stop to breathe, there’s no clean air.

“Any insights?  Any ideas?”

“No,” Tattletale said.  “Not with this, specifically.”

Oberon attacked the building Rachel and Sveta were on.  I floated up and about fifteen feet in their direction before I saw that they were okay, Rachel riding, Sveta behind her.

“What if we can’t?” Parian asked.  “Where do we draw the line and say we retreat and regroup?”

“If we retreat and regroup, those two are going to connect up, we’ll die if we aren’t far enough away, and the people who pick up where we left off will have to fight stronger titans with a more cogent network.  When enough of them network, that’s it,” Tattletale told Parian.  She didn’t pull off her mask this time, and the words were muffled, quieter, but they still had a weight to them.  I saw people react.

She coughed twice.  “Go.  Do what you can now.”

Doing what we could meant dealing with Titan Eve while Oberon now wanted to hurt us.

I floated up, ready to take off, but Tattletale’s hand gripped my wrist.

The Heartbroken were hanging close, but they weren’t in earshot.  Everyone else mobilized.

“What?” I asked.

I saw about fifteen different emotions cross Tattletale’s face, eyes behind goggles, lower face behind the clear gas mask.  None of them were good.

“That bad?” I asked.

She let go of my wrist.

“What?” I asked.

I saw her expression change, the eye contact slide away.  She turned, and it seemed like she was going to go, not answering my question, nor stating what she’d intended to say.

I grabbed her by the upper arm, hard enough to bring her attention back to me.  I met her eyes, me looking through my goggles, her looking through hers, the air ranging from milky white to grey.

“This isn’t like Scion was,” she told me.

“There’s more of them.  Each one has the full capabilities of the agent that originally worked with the host.  All of the powers it could have handed out.”

She shook her head.

“No?”

“Not that,” she told me, voice still muffled by her mask.  “Scion was one and done.”

“One and-”

“Beat him, we kind of return to a semblance of normal.  Couldn’t do anything about the cycle that preceded him or the stuff that was supposed to follow after.  That wheel’s still turning, and it doesn’t turn backward.”

I shook my head.  “I don’t…”

“I saw into the cracks.  I saw the connections, the glows, I put it together with what I remembered from last night.  There will be more titans, as sure as water flows downhill.  If we win every fight from here on out, all we’ll do is hold the line, and every week or month for the next three hundred years, there will be more cracks, more titans.”

I turned to look at the pair of titans, and at the pitch black ruin that crawled across the city.  Cracks in reality.

“And if we lose, you weren’t lying.  We die, they get stronger, they move closer to their endgame?”

“Welcome to the new status quo,” she said, beside me.

I shook my head.  “No.”

“Don’t tell my team.  Don’t tell your team.  It won’t help matters in the short term.  I’m only telling you because a part of me likes you and a part of me thinks you’re a pain in the asshole.  Means you occupy a narrow space where I can share this burden with you and not feel completely awful about it.”

I saw the corners of her lips turn upward behind the material of her gas mask.

“Well fuck you too,” I said, still reeling with the idea.

Titan Oberon chose that moment to stomp his hoof, producing a shockwave larger than any we’d dealt with so far.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Radiation – 18.3

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

“Here, think I got it,” Kenzie said.  She pulled a clip off her belt, which I realized was a repurposed hairpin.  She stuck it in the snow, and let the three-dimensional map expand around it.  The corner of the image flickered where it was closer to the fire.

A zoomed-out, three-dimensional view of the Fallen compound.  Two feet across.

“You’re missing some craters down here,” I pointed down near the southeastern entrance to the compound.

“Geez,” Rain said.  “I lived here, and I’m struggling to make heads or tails of it.”

“You’re looking at it upside-down,” Kenzie said.  She moved her hand and rotated it.  “It’s not a very good map, either.”

I could see a glove or a hat balanced on the end of a shovel by a fence.  “Seems pretty good to me.”

“No.  I could have gotten more, but I thought my cameras being a couple pounds lighter would be better, since I was carrying them around.  If I’d added a bit more tech, I could have the data we need.  As it is, different soil types or conditions could impact tree growth, and this image doesn’t see through the trees, so it’s a bit of a guess.”

“We’ve got a Precipice,” Chicken Little said.  “Right, Precipice?  You have any ideas?  If you don’t, Tattletale might.”

“I’m coming in second to him,” Tattletale noted.

“Only for this!  He lived here, like he said,” Darlene protested.

“I buy you cool clothes, get you self defense and martial arts lessons…”

“You know martial arts?” Kenzie asked.  “That’s so cool, Chicken!”

“I’m only a yellow belt.”

“…I get you rides, get you equipment, support your new team, even acquire prehistoric birds for you.  And you rank him higher than me.”

“For this!” Chicken Little exclaimed.

“Little guy is leaving the nest,” Imp said, wiping away a fake tear from her mask.

“He is not leaving the nest.  The nest keeps him safe,” Tattletale said.

“Can we get back on topic?” Foil asked.  “Mission.”

“Pointless mission,” Tattletale said.

“You’re more prickly than Rachel today,” Parian commented.

“I’m not prickly,” Rachel said.  She’d taken a seat vacated by Hookline, who’d gone off for a smoke.  “Prickly means… little things.  That’s not right.”

“Gruff,” Cassie supplied.

“Gruff is good.  Why are we dwelling on this?  Pick the highest mountain.”

“Because they want to feel like they’re doing something, but we’re in ‘hurry up and wait’ mode,” Tattletale commented.  “And the ‘something’ they decided to do is try to work out something I can just tell them.”

“You’re wrong sometimes,” Candy said.

“How often?  Five percent of the time?  Less?”

“But it’s kind of a huge disaster whenever it happens,” Candy pointed out.

“This is not that sort of moment.  You want a vantage point.  Lookout, can you label the hills and mountains?  I don’t want to get up from my bench for something this dumb.”

“One sec.”

Gibbet was building a small foot-high snowman out of the snow around her log.  Part of her team had vacated the area, including her boyfriend.  Some of them had wanted to smoke, others to get the lay of the land.  Only Sidepiece, Disjoint, Gibbet and Damsel remained from Deathchester.

“Do the hills have names?” Kenzie asked.

“Nah,” Rain said.

“Okay, then.  What’s closest to this hill?  Important buildings?  Anything?”

“This is so dumb,” Tattletale muttered.  “Hill A, Hill B.  You’re complicating this so much.”

“Let them,” Foil said.  “This doesn’t hurt anything, and it could be useful.  If we have names for places we’re going, directions, reference points could be really useful.  Not everyone’s good at holding As, Bs, Cs, and 1-2-3s in their heads.”

The labels appeared as Rain gave Kenzie suggestions.  Entry Hill, Stable Hill.  The Workshop Cliff.  Logger Hill.  Mount Cross.  Mount Misery.

“Mount Cross?” I asked.

“Fallen were going to set something up there,” Rain said, indicating a mountain in the distance.  “Blew over, they got bored, didn’t want to restart it.”

“Mount Misery?” Imp asked.

“There’s a little house, out that way.  Sometimes people who weren’t doing so well would get stowed there.  I… got an offer to live out there.  Away from the thick of the Fallen nonsense.  But it would’ve meant I had to betray my team.  I think a lot about what would have happened if I said yes, and I inevitably decide I would have been pretty miserable.  So… the mountain near there that they cut a chunk out of for the stone?  Mount Misery.”

“Doesn’t seem like a very good offer,” Imp said.  “Hermit hut, but you gotta lose your friends.”

“Wasn’t the only part of the deal,” Tattletale said, leaning forward to warm her hands by the fire.

“Thank you for deciding the way you did,” Sveta said, just over my shoulder.

Rain nodded.

Gibbet balanced the head of her mini-snowman atop the body, which seemed late to have taken her a while to do.  It wasn’t until I saw her carefully put a scarf around its head and cinch it tighter that I saw she’d tied the scarf into a general noose shape.   She placed her hand on top of her little snowman, and pushed it into the ground.  All around her and us, life-size snowmen rose up from the snow, all with oversized scarves.

She flicked the little snowman’s head off.  The others remained as they were.  I couldn’t see her expression, because her entire face and head was covered by black cloth, with her looking out the eye-holes, a short noose hanging from her neck.  I felt like she was maybe dissatisfied or nervous.

“I’m going to go find my boyfriend and bum a smoke,” Gibbet said.

“Don’t suppose you could rearrange those snowmen?  Block off the wind?” Imp asked.  “Moi derriere is tres froide.

The Heartbroken groaned.  Damsel seemed pleased though, smiling.

“Culture, y’know,” Imp said, as an aside to Damsel.  “Can’t wear a slinky black bodysuit and not speak some sultry French.”

The Heartbroken spoke up, talking over in their efforts to jump in with their retorts and criticisms.  I caught ‘as a bulldog in fishnets’ from Roman, mostly because he was the loudest.

Imp ignored them, calling out to Gibbet, who was walking away.  “Yo!  You didn’t answer me.  Barrier?  For the kids, even?”

“It’ll shrink when I leave,” Gibbet said.  “Doesn’t matter.  Let me know when you decide on a location.”

“We’re close, really,” Imp said.  “Could be a minute.”

“Then find me in a minute.”

“Pick the tallest mountain.  Simple,” Rachel said.  “You’re overthinking it.”

“What if the trees are tall because of soil or whatever?” Kenzie asked.

“Then you’re a few feet lower.  Does it really matter?”

“Okay, but… there are other considerations,” Kenzie said.

“Like?” Rachel asked.

“Distance.”

“Vegetation,” Rain answered.  “This is pre-human.  There aren’t as many trails, lots of woodland where fallen branches and trees are overgrown with their own shrubs and bushes.  You can’t walk through that.  Which is why Logger Hill might be best.  The way is already clear.”

“I can,” Damsel said.  “I’ll blaze a path.”

“Then, hm.  Stable Hill.  It’s rocky, I remember it’s overgrown from discussion about runoff from the hills flooding some houses.  It’s close.”

The Malfunctions were very quietly having soup, because they’d apparently skipped lunch with all the patrolling and commotion.  The Heartbroken were having hot chocolate scavenged from military rations along with biscuits and salty crackers.  Darlene using the fabric of her dress stretched between her legs to hold whole handfuls of the things, and handing them out on request.

There was a game plan, at least for ensuring our side had enough eyes on what was going on.  But we weren’t eager to budge.  I imagined it as something like standing in a doorway.  To go inside, literally in our case, was too much fo a retreat.  Going out meant leaving the small sanctuary, warmth, and limited shelter provided by the nearby buildings.

And honestly, everyone had experienced mortal fear this morning.

A bunch of small conversations bubbled up.  The tactics question had been more of a ‘what if’, it seemed.  I wasn’t about to press, not when I wasn’t sure of where I was at.

I was itching to do something but they were just recovering from doing something.  It made me think, not for the first time, about how tricky group dynamics could be.  Keeping a balance, keeping everyone on the same page.

There was more to it, though.  The cliques and groups.  Going around the circle of people who had gathered at the fire, everyone had found their groove, and the ones who hadn’t had left.

Rachel had Yips zipped up into her coat, so his head stuck out of the ‘v’ of the zipper’s opening.  It was a heavy coat that looked like it could flatten a small child if it were dropped on them, with fur around the collar and hood that was more wooly or shaggy than it was ‘hair’ like I normally associated with parkas.  She shrugged at something Cassie said, pulling the ‘v’ of the zipper up against Yips’ throat.  He hacked out a cough, which disturbed the other dogs that were lying between her feet and the fire.

Rachel had Cassie, her henchwoman, an older teen with tousled hair and grungy clothes very similar to Rachel’s, with patches sewn into a jacket showing bulldog faces from biker gangs alongside cartoon dogs.  She had overdone black eyeshadow that served to bring out how pale her dichromatic eyes were in contrast to her skin, and a spiked collar around her neck.

Cassie had Chastity, her Heartbroken friend, who had invited Rain to sit down next to her.  Chastity was splitting her attention between Cassie and Candy, with less attention to Juliette and Imp.  Every time she turned toward Juliette and Imp, I could see Rain trying to look as nonchalant as possible with her leaning past him or brushing up against him.  Roman and the Tenders helped distract him with questions.

“You’re ignoring me,” Imp said, to the Heartbroken.

“Sorry, Imp,” Cassie said.  “I was curious about the clothes.”

“Getting out of those rags?” Juliette asked.

“I’m not much of a clothes person,” Parian said.

“How does that work?” Chicken asked.  “Aren’t you the most clothes person that ever personed?”

“I… it’s different.  I know things about outfits and fashion, but mostly I like doing what I do for the art of it.  It’s like wanting to do makeup for professional photography or special effects instead of doing your own makeup for everyday.”

“I wasn’t aware those two things were different.”

“Cass, please, you’re killing me,” Chastity groaned.

Parian ignored Chastity, leaning forward.  The eyes of her doll mask were dark, her voice slightly muffled by the mask being between her mouth and the rest of the world.  It didn’t help that she was soft-spoken.  “If you do professional makeup, you need to understand skin tones, face shapes, match to the situation and wardrobe.  If you’re doing your own, you only have to understand your own, and you need a few basics.”

“Interesting,” Cass said.

“What’s the motivation?” Parian asked.

“Curiosity.  I went shopping for Chastity’s birthday present this summer, and I thought about getting her clothing, before realizing how much I didn’t know.”

“What you got me was tres cool,” Chastity said.

“You can always email me.”

“Or ask me,” Imp commented.

“I’ve seen you wear electric blue, neon green, yellow, and hot purple all at the same time,” Tattletale murmured.

“I don’t think that’s even possible,” Chastity sounded appropriately horrified.

“For contrast.  I wear a monochrome costume, I need a colorful civilian identity, so nobody ever suspects who I am.”

“This was before your powers.”

“When the heck did we ever meet before powers?”

“No comment,” Tattletale said.

“You spied on me?”

“That’s rich coming from you, Imp.”

“I get no respect.  I’m one of the most dangerous parahumans here.  Right, Antares?”

I blinked.

“The almost-fire in your study?  Remember that?  No hard feelings, of course.”

Some hard feelings,” I said, staring at her.

“Ugh.  You people!  No respect.”

“Weren’t you the one telling us to second guess anyone demanding our respect and obedience?” Roman asked.

“If you’re going to remember every last thing I say…”

“You mean listen to you?” Chastity asked, leaning over, while Rain leaned back in surprise.  “The thing you were complaining about seconds ago?”

“Do you see what I deal with?” Imp asked Damsel.  “Give me a good word for it.”

“Impertinence,” Damsel said.

Perfect word.”

“Please,” Tattletale said.  “Don’t encourage each other.”

“I recommend corporal punishment,” Damsel told Imp.

There’s an idea,” Imp said.  “Next person to ignore me or sass me gets an Imp ambush.  Snow down the back of your top.”

“I was thinking of something more impactful.”

Imp shook her head.  “Can’t blow your wad that fast.”

“Blow-” Damsel cut herself off.  She shook her head.  “You were doing so well.”

“You’re criticizing me for word choice, and you’re sitting next to a girl who, fifteen minutes ago, was dangling her literal ovaries in front of her boyfriend’s face.”

“Don’t remind me,” Foil muttered.  I saw Finale nod.

“She’s consistent.”

“I’m consistent in keeping people wondering what I’m going to do.”

Sidepiece had Disjoint and Damsel.

Rachel had Cassie and her dogs.

Cassie had Rachel and Chastity.  Chastity had Rain and her family.  Of that family, Roman was enjoying a quiet exchange of words with Rain, while Juliette paid more attention to the Imp-Damsel interaction.

I could have said that Tattletale was an odd one out, only chiming in periodically, part of her attention consumed by her phone.  But she was between Imp’s group of older Heartbroken and the Tenders.  The Malfunctions had each other, and were staying quiet, mostly watching and eating their soup.

“You three okay?” I asked.

“Been better,” Withdrawal said.  “I had family in Scotland when Gold Morning happened, but that was so far away, and I only ever saw them once every five years.  Didn’t really impact me.  Today was the first time someone I know has died.”

“Maybe not dead.  Do you think they could undo it?” Finale asked.

“I wouldn’t count on it,” I said, keeping my voice soft.  “If you want or need to hold onto something you can imagine that anything might be possible when powers are involved, but… small chance of that.”

Finale nodded.

“I didn’t really talk to her, but she seemed cool,” Sveta said.

“If you guys want, I have pictures,” Kenzie offered.

“Oh, um,” Caryatid seemed at a loss.  “I don’t think I could look at a picture right now.”

“Okay.”

“I could,” Withdrawal said.  “I don’t want to say no now, then not run into you again and never get a chance.”

“Our teams are allied, you know,” Kenzie said.  “You could call, say hi, ask for whatever.”

“I wouldn’t want to bother you,” Withdrawal told her.

“No bother.  Really.  Um.  Shoot.  Victoria or Sveta may I please have permission to grab Withdrawal’s phone info and put the photos there?”

She rolled her eyes a bit as she said it.

“I could give you my permission or number myself,” Withdrawal said.

“Or that.  Flick it to my phone.  For the record, Victoria, this is really awkward and lame.  It’s like the house I grew up on was on a road nobody went down.  And I’m having to walk five blocks thataway to go to the traffic lights to cross, then five blocks thisaway, when I could see there are no cars in sight and just cross the street.

“You broke the rules, you thought there were no cars in sight and you nearly got hit.  People in charge noticed.  This is me doing one half of the punishment while still trying to be evenhanded,” I said.

“I know, still!”

“Still,” I said.

“Ughhh!”

“Ugh,” I said, monotone.

“It’ll be better in the long run,” Sveta said.  “You said you wanted warnings before certain situations came up?  This is us helping with something like that.”

“Hey,” Withdrawal said.  “Lookout.  This is kind of my first time doing this, but I’ve been told that when tinkers hang out, they share ideas?  How does that work?”

It was a good distraction, and an intentional one, I suspected.

He was a natural caretaker, I suspected.  It would be why he fit into his specific team.  Why losing Fume Hood had hit him pretty hard.

Okay.  They weren’t totally isolated.  Caryatid and Finale joined the conversation.  Everyone with people to talk to, connections within this group.

Leaving Sveta and I.  Sveta had draped herself over me as I took a seat on the bench, which was simultaneously comfortable and uncomfortably reminsicent of my time in the hospital.  The best of the bad days.

There was space to sit down where Trophy Wife had been seated before she’d gone off to tour the area, but Sveta had already been settled; she hadn’t volunteered to move elsewhere, and I hadn’t asked.

Both of us feeling pensive, content to watch the rest.

I touched her tendril.  “Can we talk?”

I felt the little organs that were resting against my back expand as she drew in a breath.  She didn’t make a sound, but she nodded.

“I’ll be back in a minute,” I said, standing.  Sveta unwrapped herself from me.  “We should probably mobilize soon.”

“Alright,” Rain answered.

Sveta pulled herself together, then fixed her hair before sticking her tendrils into her gloves, and forming the hands within.

We walked.  I stretched.  My front was toasty but my back wasn’t.  The core of me was a comfortable temperature, though, and that was what made the difference.

“Will that whole debate over the vantage point matter?” Sveta asked, as we walked.  We’d passed through this area at some point during the raid on the Fallen camp, but I didn’t really have a sense of it.  My focus had been on very different things back then.

“Might not,” I said.  “But talking about it gets people thinking in the right directions, and it’s a good stress test for how we’ll communicate inter-team when things get hairy.”

“When, not if, hm?” Sveta asked, her hands in her pockets.

I nodded.  “I’m worried.”

“You’re always worried.”

“I’m especially worried.  Tristan isn’t doing so hot.  Malfunctions aren’t doing so great.  This fight is hard enough, but if they get an edge, form their networks, whatever else, then the cracking expands.  We might not even have the settlements we put an hour outside the city.  And people like Tristan or the Malfunctions…”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  “Giving us more things that are awfully close to being Endbringers, making it harder to gain ground.  But how are you?  Are you counting yourself in your risk assessment?”

“I’m… managing.  I want to fight,” I told her.  “I feel more in control than I have in a long time.”

“Armstrong sent me a message, asking me to keep an eye out.”

I blew air out my nose, and it became a puff of fog.

“Should he have?” she prodded.

“Jessica asked me to look after Breakthrough.  If there’s any room to resist that happening, there’s no way I’m letting it happen while I have a member of Breakthrough to protect.”

“For Jessica?” Sveta asked.

“For me.  I made it a commitment, I have to follow through.”

“You certainly sound better than Tristan, you seem better than the Malfunctions.  But you also seem…”

She trailed off.

“Like I had to fight tooth and nail to be listened to, while being unable to do anything to keep my best friend alive?”

“I feel like it goes back to the dreams last night.  Not that we talked after waking up but… I saw you.  I heard your voice.”

“I’m me.”

“I believe you.”

We passed a group of patrol officers who were sitting on a porch.

I thought of the dream.  Sveta’s portion.

How to gracefully bring it up?

“A lot of us, I think, had to face parts of ourselves last night.  I think that’s part of what that space is.  Lays everything bare.”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  “Well put.  Tattletale dialed up the assholishness to one hundred after the dreams.”

“She calmed down.  Helped me help you with Amy.”

“Mm.”

“Want to, uh, fly?” I asked.  “Visit the hill the others wanted to set up at?”

Sveta pulled her arm apart, wrapping tendrils around my shoulder and stomach.  I put my arm around her upper body.

Flew.

Away from the site of old battles, from snow and onlookers.

Over to the stables.  I could recognize their general shape and the fenced in areas meant for the horses.  The hill wasn’t far from there.  Large enough to straddle the definition of hill and mountain.

I found a tree to settle on, setting down on the sturdiest branches at the top.  It bent a little under our combined weight, so I floated a bit to reduce that burden.

Titan Eve was in the distance, gas billowing off and around her with an intensity that didn’t match the wind.  Head bowed, streams of gas instead of hair.  Gas speared up, solidifying, and became a spike.  She broke it off, then stabbed it into the earth, where it joined another two.

What was the range on that?  What happened if she threw it this far, to us?  Did it become suffocating clouds?

Sveta said, “after we were all sent our separate ways, I went back home.  Dug open my boxes of things I’d packed for evacuation.  I made a mess of my packing system, but I found my dream journals.  I spent a while going over it.  Seeing what I could piece together.  There were some pictures of my artwork.  Stuff I’d draw after dreaming.”

“Any glimmers?  Insights?” I asked, carefully.

“I thought… I was stolen away from a life where I was happy.  I realize now I wasn’t happy.  But…”

She floundered.

“It was still a loss,” I said.

“It was.  But I can’t reconicle it in my head, like this.  If I’d never fallen and been hurt, if I hadn’t been sliced to ribbons, if they hadn’t taken me away… taken Nadia… I don’t think I would have been able to bear living there.  Not with, um… sorry.”

“Don’t apologize.”

“…A body I hated even before I was Case Fifty-Three.  I haven’t even fully formed a lot of these sentences as thoughts in my head, it’s hard to get it out in a way that makes sense.”

I gave her a squeeze with one arm.  “You don’t have to make sense.  If you want to vent incoherently, I’ll still do my best to listen.”

“Goo gobol goo hur ga guk,” Sveta said, dead serious, maintaining eye contact with me.

I smiled.

“I thought for sure that would get a laugh out of you,” she said.  “Now I feel dumb.”

“Don’t.  It would take a lot to get me to really laugh right now, while…”

I used my free arm to indicate Titan Eve.

“That’s fair.  That poor woman.”

“I wish I’d known she was struggling,” I said.

We watched Titan Eve for a minute.  She gathered more of the spikes, creating them with a strange kind of methodology.  Briefly, she raised a wall of gas about six stories tall around her, solidifying it.  From our distant vantage point, we could still see most of her.

“You were talking about struggling to live there, in your hometown,” I said.  We’d sidetracked a bit, and the conversation didn’t feel like an easy one to restart.

“How do I reconcile the fact that Cauldron might have saved me?  That I lived through a kind of hell for so many important years of my life, but I came out the other side with a body I’m actually happy with?”

“Do you have to?” I asked.  “Reconcile?”

“I spent a whole summer touring worlds to try to find my original home, based on scribblings and paintings after I dreamed.  I thought if I found home then something would make sense, I’d replace a missing piece of myself.  Now I find I don’t want it.  If we did get through this thing with the Titans and if I did go back, I think I’d have to lie… that’s the impression I get from dreams, feelings I thought were parts of me being Case Fifty-Three that I can’t let go of.  I’d have to call myself Nadia.  That’s a huge part of what I thought was my identity that isn’t anymore.  That’s just the first thing I’m wrestling with.”

“What else?”

“I hated Cauldron and I still do, but I’m grateful at the same time, and whichever emotion I feel I feel like I’m betraying the other.”

“I had to confront a feeling like that earlier.  Thinking of what to say to Amy.  Digging deep into what I knew about powers to extend an olive branch and an excuse.  I think, um, it’s okay to hate.”

“That’s not exactly something for the Saturday morning cartoons, Victoria.”

“Nah.  Maybe.  Maybe we need to tell kids that when we feel afraid, we feel afraid for reasons.  When we feel angry or hateful, we feel those things for their own reasons.  We could do with a little witch with pink hair telling kids it’s okay to hate, if you recognize it and manage it.”

“I can’t imagine that,” Sveta said.

“They hurt you, they hurt a lot of people, and they did it for reasons that I’m not even sure mattered.  Fuck them.”

“Fuck them.”

“Say it like you mean it,” I said.

Fuck them,” Sveta said, with invective.  “Fuck Cauldron, fuck all the hurt they caused and fuck their moral and smug technical superiority.  Fuck all those people they let me kill because they thought Case Fifty-Threes would be a good smoke screen and the testing they did would let them create more ‘good’ superheroes.  Fuck them for killing my sister.  Fuck them for doing what they did to Gentle Giant and Hunch and Egg and Engel, to Whippersnap and Chantilly and to Witness and Gully.  To so many others.  To Weld.”

“Damn straight,” I said, and my words came out a bit rough around the edges.  “They don’t get any thanks.  Save the thanks for Weld, and Armstrong, for Bough, even.  For Jessica.”

“Jessica didn’t want me to do it.  But…” she trailed off.  “So much of my life revolved around him.  Sometimes literally, I’d be tied to him.  Fuck Weld.  Fuck him for hanging around Slician so soon after breaking up with me.  Fuck Slician for being willing to do that.  Fuck Armstrong for not telling Weld off for choosing this moment and me to be a jerkass for the first time in his life.”

She had tears in the corners of her eyes.  She turned back to look over at Titan Oberon.

Fume Hood was distracted from the creation of her spikes.  Javelins, maybe.  I saw the line of a beam cut across the space in front of her, cutting the beams in half.  They billowed out to blanket the area around her in gas.

I watched the gas crawl across a whole tract of the city, getting partway to us, wary that I might have to sound the alarm.

It dissipated before it reached us.

No message on my phone.  The team out there was doing something in the way of a testing of the waters.

“Sorry,” I said, seeing Sveta watching me put the phone away.

“No.  I’d be offended if you didn’t check.”

“I’m so sorry about Weld,” I told her.  “I’m sorry if there’s a fuck you in there meant for me, because I’ve been too busy, or distracted, or…”

She shook her head, leaning it against my shoulder.

“I don’t have a full childhood’s worth of memories to draw from,” Sveta told me.  “I don’t have much in the way of an adolescence, that doesn’t still give me nightmares if my brain wanders into the wrong places when I’m asleep.  So I hold onto ideas.  Dreams and what ifs, and obsessing over cool boys with metal skin, or about the injustices Case Fifty-Threes face.  Dreams about who I was and the anger, and feeling like this tattoo-”

She touched her cheekbone.  With her at my left, I couldn’t really see it.

“-gave me membership in a club.  Even if that club decided to turn on me or use me as a scapegoat.  I don’t know if I even qualify now.  Egg is kind of freaked out.  I spent so long wrestling with this demon that was my body… I kind of didn’t realize that all I was inside my body, inside my head, my identity, it was more demons.”

“Can you befriend your demons?” I asked.  “Tame it- them?”

“I think I’ve vanquished too many of them.  Or left them behind.  I don’t know who I am anymore.”

“Mind letting go of me?  I won’t let you fall.  Just…”  I pulled back a bit as she unwrapped herself from me, making sure she had her feet on the sturdiest branches, while I held her arms.  “Balance.”

“What’s up?” she asked.  “Going to leave me up a tree?”

“No.  I wanted to face you properly,” I told her.  “Sveta Karelia.  That’s you.  It’s a name you can go by because it’s a name you chose yourself.”

“I wasn’t really gunning for a pep talk,” she said.

“This isn’t.  This is a friend-to-friend talk,” I said, looking her in the eyes.  they were a bit red.  “Sveta Karelia, you are, above all else, colorful, inside and out.”

I fixed her coat with its large sections done up in different colored patches, some triangular, some in other geometric shapes, tugging at the front to pull it tighter around her body.

“You’re an artist to the point it overflows.  Your whiteboard in the headquarters, your skin, your clothes and your costume.  Every notebook that sits within your reach, including my notebooks I was using for my University lectures in the hospital.”

“I was bored.  I liked the company but I was bored,” she said.  But she smiled fondly as she said it.

“You have a sense of injustice, Sveta.  You feel a genuine outrage when the weak are bullied and when wrongs are done.  I think it’s what makes you a good hero.  And you are a good hero.  You saved Armstrong.  You gave your all against Mr. Hugs or whatever asinine name it was Chicken Little gave him.  You stopped Saint.”

“Saying it’s a sense of injustice feels kinda off.”

“It’s not a bad thing,” I told her.  “You have a softer side.  A gentleness around animals and kids, genuine caring.  I well and truly believe that if the world had more Svetas in it, it would be a better place.”

She averted her eyes.

“Identify them.  Name them.  Those parts of yourself,” I told her.  “Mosaic, Painter, Justicar-”

Sveta snorted.

“Caretaker.  You can even name the side that has to carry the anger you feel toward Cauldron if it gives you more power over it.”

“And what do I do with all of these pieces of myself, after I’ve broken apart the mirror and divided my personality out among the shards, so each one shows a different me?”

“Get to know them.  Recognize them.  Make peace with them.  Love them.  But above all else, care for and love Sveta Karelia.  The you that comes together when all of the pieces are in place.  That mirror isn’t broken, and it shows someone I care a hell of a lot about.  Someone I respect.”

There were distant noises, the chalkboard screams of reality tearing, dogs barking, and the creaking of wood.  A tree further down the hill toppled.

Sveta immediately started dabbing at her eyes with the corner of a sleeve, getting fixed up.

“Sorry,” she said.  “This is so dumb, isn’t it?  I’m okay now, I got luckier than I thought was possible, I got a body, and I feel like I know myself less than I did a year ago.”

“Don’t apologize.”

“It’s a part of me,” she said.  “Even before I was a case fifty-three.  Did you know that?  I think I dreamed it.  So if I’m going to be mosaic, painter…”

“Justicar,” I supplied the answer.

She laughed, “No, I am not calling myself justicar.  I have an iota of self respect.  Defender instead.  Then Caregiver.  If I’m all those things, I’m Apologizer.”

The group below us was making their way up the hill.  Periodically they did enough damage that a tree fell.  Or… if I squinted and looked through foliage, they might have been walking on the fallen trees as a path across denser foliage.

“For the tie to your past?” I asked.

“Yes, but not just because I think I said something like it before Cauldron took me.  Because I killed a lot of people, once.”

Gibbet was using her power.  I could hear the creaking and the wood snapping.

“Whatever happens, I have your back,” I told her.

“Telling me to embrace my hate and call myself Justicar?” Sveta asked.

“Whatever I can do.  Shoulder to lean on, anything.”

“I’m really glad they introduced us way back then,” Sveta told me.  “We kind of danced around the subject, but… I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am now if we hadn’t met.  Not with Weld, I know he left the first time and came back because you urged him to.  I never would have met Breakthrough… I’d be over in Europe in the new Asylum there.”

“You kept me sane,” I told her.  “You’re still doing it.”

“Seriously, Victoria.  ‘Justicar’?”

All around us, the others were emerging.  Gibbet’s power replicated materials in large scale.  Her trademark was the actual gibbet with the hangman’s noose, but here she reproduced fallen trees.  They rose up taller than the actual trees, and on each broken-off end was a parahuman or a pair of parahumans.  Some stood, some sat, one clung to the top of the wood for dear life.

On pillars of wood that stood taller than any of the treetops, on a forest-covered hill that had yet to really be touched by mankind, each essentially a platform three or four feet across.  It was a lot of pillars, because even with the occasional two people to one pillar, there were a good number of us.  Undersider, Breakthrough, Tender, Deathchester, Malfunction.

“If anyone falls, I can catch them,” I addressed everyone.

“Already volunteered my services as a just-in-case,” Withdrawal said.  “But I appreciate the backup.”

“Still good to hear,” Chicken Little said.  He had Darlene kneeling next to him, while he was on all fours.  He looked up and out, then immediately returned his gaze to the wood immediately beneath him.

“Just, you know, scream,” I said.

Withdrawal nodded, metal at his shoulder squeaking with the motion.  “Yeah, that.”

“I’ll try,” Chicken Little said, with a nervous laugh starting early and making the ‘try’ wobbly.

“Come on,” Darlene urged him.  “She’ll save you if anything happens.  Just stand up.  You’ll be glad you did.”

Wobbly, Chicken Little did just that.  I floated a little closer, just in case his nerves inadvertently pitched him over the side.

“I think it’s really cool you did this even though you’re scared of heights,” Darlene said, her voice soft.  “That takes a special kind of courage.”

“I have a lot to live up to,” he said, just as quiet.  “And Roman said people would think I was lame if I didn’t go.”

Off in the distance, Titan Eve was still being harassed by capes too distant to clearly make out.  Periodically a power would be visible as a line of light or a small explosion.  Her solidified gas provided protection.

“Fume Hood,” Finale said, quiet.

“She looks badass,” Cassie said.  She shared a tree pillar with Chastity, sitting casually whle her friend stood.

“She looked badass before,” Finale said.

“What do you call an elephant that’s painted pink and blue?” Caryatid asked.  After a pause, she said, “An elephant.  She was badass before.  Doesn’t matter what happened to her, that won’t ever change.”

Finale nodded with vigor.

For some here, this was their first look at a titan.  Not so for the Major Malfunctions.  They’d been at ground zero for the first appearance.

“Eye to the ground,” Capricorn said.  Still Tristan.  He’d come back from the church.  “Look at the landscape.  Look at the cracks.  Look where the city’s still standing.  That’s going to be our battlefield.  Try to keep a mental map in your head.  Know where you’re going.  Don’t run somewhere and find a chasm waiting for you.”

Titan Eve was starting to move.  First one way, then the other.

We stood, we sat, we floated in the air.  We watched.  We did it together, though some of us were near-strangers.

I felt okay about Sveta.  Mostly okay about Rain.  Someone who carried all of their anxieties and stresses in private made for a hard read.

I didn’t feel okay about Tristan.  I didn’t feel okay about Kenzie.

We’d needed this, everyone in a position to safely see, to take it in, and to come to terms with what we had to deal with.  Titan Eve, seemingly getting more restless, minute by minute, as minutes passed.

Titan Oberon, out by the water, head craning around.  Taller than any of the buildings around him.

More minutes passed, and I saw how some people were getting cold.  I was counting the seconds until I interrupted our viewing to suggest we head back down when Titan Eve’s restlessness ceased.

She looked over at Titan Oberon.

“Shit,” Tattletale said.

When our phones rang, I felt only annoyance.  We already know.

I checked anyway.  Sure enough, we had orders.  Almost immediate, following that look.

Titan Eve attempt to form a connection with Titan Oberon.

Priority one: Intervene.

Portals imminent.

It was Kenzie’s tech.  Doorways, that would lead us to where we needed to go.  I remained where I was, watching people, searching for signs.  They ripped their way into existence around us and below us, while we stood above the treeline.

“Jumping,” Sveta called out, so nobody else would jump and bounce off of her.

One by one, people took the leap.  I went to Chicken Little, giving him my hand, and carried Darlene too, for good measure.  Carrying them to where I could drop them through.

Gibbet was one of the last to go through.  I stayed because I wanted to look after everyone, ensuring nobody fell.

The hooded Deathchester cape leaped through.  With her leaving this world to make her way elsewhere, her power ceased to hold up the pillars.  They began to sink, one toppling.

I flew through, after my teams, really hoping someone had the guns I’d asked for.

Hoping above all else that I could do this, when I was far from the best person to the task.  I didn’t feel equipped at all for the job, but priorities that high didn’t give a shit what I felt.

Something this big, this messy, we didn’t come out unscathed.  People would die.  If I fucked up my promise to Jessica again, it could mean worse, that people would become Titans.

I wasn’t sure our chances were that great as it stood, with only this many.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Radiation – 18.2

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Some of the capes in the midst of this briefing were as scared as they’d ever been.  Considering that a majority of capes had been through Gold Morning, that said a lot.  But they stood tall, they stuck near friends, they wore their costumes and those costumes, in many cases, afforded a kind of courage.

Legend was the best person to start the briefing.  He was known to everyone, and he was known to everyone in a clear cut way.  It was a small image problem the Wardens had, that capes like Chevalier and Valkyrie were in two of the top three spots in the organization, yet if the average person was asked what they did, powerwise or in daily responsibilities, there would be some headscratching and debate.  It made them feel out of reach.

Legend was a strange, inverse case.  The kind of people who understood Chevalier’s ability to combine multiple items and keep the best of each, or Valkyrie’s ability to tap the powers of those who had died near her… also understood that Legend had done some sketchy stuff in his tenure with the PRT.  He’d left, and he’d left for good reasons.

Regardless of whether a person in the crowd was in that camp or not, Legend was reassuring.  He knew his shit and nobody who could count without using their fingers would deny that.  He’d been through more city and nation-shattering events than some capes had been in regular fights.  If any of them knew about the clandestine conspiracies he had played his parts in, they had to accept that he knew deeper, more secret shit too, and that only meant he had more information when he laid out the facts.

Just the facts.  No room for manipulation, no room for the skeptical to wonder if he was being deceptive.  Filling everyone in.  Even the scared and distracted were being pulled in, because this was all information we needed.

“Today’s situation started with a cape named Fume Hood, who some of you may remember from the community center attack, where hired mercenaries disrupted the inauguration of a new team, and Fume Hood was shot in the chaos.  Today, she was one of a handful of capes asked to help keep the peace at the Earth-Cheit portal when a riot broke out.  She put her life on the line to help a group of teenage heroes she was mentoring, second-triggered, and became a titan.”

He paused for effect.  Because every cape present had to be wondering if they were at any risk.  It gave the moment weight.

It already felt pretty fucking weighty.  She’d been a friend, and I felt guilty for what she’d become.  If I hadn’t said anything and let her retire, yeah, she might have ended up returning to minor villainy.  But she’d be alive, probably, not… this.

“For the remainder of the titans who appeared, we think it was capes who were struggling or losing touch with themselves and who were proximate to the collapse of reality who became titans.”

I digested that.

“Fume Hood was a blaster who created compressed gas orbs that broke on impact.  Her ability has increased several times over, with vast quantities of noxious gas filling the area around her.  From our initial observations she can solidify it into objects, and those objects can move.  Her original power allowed her to create flavors of gas ranging from irritants to choking gases, and even a concentrated, flesh-melting gas she declined to use until her final moments.  Above all else, her durability and reach are what have increased, and these are common trends across all titans.  Reach, durability.”

Another pause for effect.

“Some hero groups made initial attacks against her as they crossed her path, to little initial effect.  She seems to be focusing on defense, and we’re marking her lower priority as a result.  For now, at the suggestion of the team she was mentoring, we’re terming her Titan Eve.”

There were televisions mounted behind Legend, and though he had no prompter, he trusted staff to bring up the right images.

It was a still image of the titan that had once been Contessa.  Head bowed.  Luminous golden eyes lined a body that looked like it was made of overlapping arms and stretches of fur, all in black.  There was a vaguely wolf-like head at either shoulder and one at her right breast, none with eyes in the appropriate place.

“I won’t delve into the history of every titan.  The files we have will be available to anyone who requests them.  That said, I want to provide context for this one.  Contessa was known to some as the cape ‘bogeyman’, a figure behind the scenes for many decades, serving as a key figure in Cauldron, who originally built this structure we’re in now.  She was the most powerful precognitive we know of, and as one of the rare few who can claim he knew her, though I would never call it a friendship-”

His eyes dropped for a moment.  Acknowledging his complicity in the conspiracy.

“-I think she gave everything in an attempt to avert Gold Morning, doing a lot of harm in the process, and she had little left to give when this catastrophe claimed her.  She was escorting Teacher to this base for questioning, and he escaped when she started to break down.  A Warden strike team was able to recapture him and bring him here, where he is in secure custody, being questioned as we speak.  For now, she appears to be dormant.”

Behind Legend, the screens showed a live video feed of the Titan.  Only shreds of city remained around her, buildings barely standing with the damage they were on, or the stretches of city they were perched on reduced to ribbons and roadways that tilted slightly this way or that, or precarious cliffs.

The Simurgh was perched on her shoulder.  The video feed fritzed momentarily, and I could see faces in the crowd flinch.

“She is presently, according to our best Thinkers, attempting to establish a network of connections and expand the damage further.  She has formed a network that includes three other titans, and is hardest to reach as she stands in the midst of the worst of the damage.  The Simurgh’s role in this is unknown, but it may be in alignment with the titan’s precognitive abilities.  I’ll stress this: this network she is creating is explicitly our biggest concern and the biggest threat to humanity right now.  Dr. Armstrong will get into the threat after I’ve finished outlining who and what we’re facing.  It was my suggestion that we name this particular titan Titan Fortuna.”

Next image.  A titanic figure, rippling with muscle, head bowed, antlers grown overlong, tall, and arching behind his back, which was itself arched, like he was poised to sprint or leap.  Blurry, green-gold ripples lanced through the gaps between the individual sections of musculature.

“Titan Oberon.  The villain Prancer was a drug and gun runner turned kingpin, retired after a failed venture and the death of his partner.  We’re still looking for his close associate Moose Knuckle, in hopes he can shed light on his partner and the situation that led to this.  We’re coming to believe he’s deceased.  Prancer was a Breaker who augmented his agility and speed, losing his enhancements if he was hurt.  The titan maintains that agility and speed.”

Next image.  A woman in light gray, with hair like fire.  Like the rest of the titans, she had no face, and the rest of her was given more character and detail.  The buildings around her were dissolving.

“The Ashen Titan.  Formerly Warden Cinereal.  Her reach was already extensive, especially when she was in an area for any length of time.  It has increased manifold.  She converts inorganic matter within a certain radius to ash she can telekinetically control and shape.  We sent an expedition out to reach out and try to open communication, she superheated her ash, and the heated air that resulted killed the capes at the cloudline.  We can safely assume she is no longer on our side.”

No mention of what had driven her to this.  She’d seemed confident and focused when I had talked to her, but then the Wardens seemed to have a hypothesis about Titans losing track of their own humanity or something?  How did that connect?  What didn’t I know?

Maybe not so straightforward and upfront after all, Legend?

Maybe that was unfair.

Another Titan appeared on the screens.  Engaged in a fight as the picture was taken.  It had a face like a blade with hinges for two separate jaws below, the metal folding back to encompass the head, with no eyeholes.  The ‘flesh’ went from black to red to a kind of white-hot pink, like it had been heated, as it reached the flared edges, like she was made of living armor.  Her hair was golden, long enough to drape on the ground.  No legs, just a column.  Her hands were weapons.

“Titan Skadi.  Formerly Axehead, a member of Advance Guard’s lower-tier roster.  She was not considered a strong cape by herself or others, and she is our most immediate concern.  Axehead had the power to teleport, but only into danger.  Titan Skadi has the same ability, but with no apparent limit on ranges, not even dimensional boundaries.  She assesses the biggest threat to her with a danger sense, and teleports to it to immediately begin wreaking havoc.  She’s the most aggressive titan, and it’s taking the concerted effort of twenty capes to occupy her so she won’t read us as her most immediate threat and appear in this venue.”

Another image.  More feral than the other titans, bent over, with a crown of golden hair, a mane running down his back, and hairy arms, which were lengthened to rest on the ground, ending in claws.    Its skin was like onyx, muscular and lanky.

“The Nemean Titan.  Formerly Victor, a member of the Shepherds.  A thinker-stranger with theft of competency, both ambient and focused.  Anyone who passes within a certain range of the titan loses all faculties except their power use.  This includes ability to walk or speak.  We have reason to believe it becomes permanent if they aren’t able to evacuate in time.  When his movements cause the air to ripple, the air carries the effect, and we can assume other things may spread it too.”

Victor.  I’d run into him a few times as Glory Girl, but never in a direct confrontation.  Twice when he’d been with a group of Empire Eighty-Eight’s people, too many to tackle, gone by the time I’d had a chance to get reinforcements.  Once when he’d been alone, after a call had come in for police to check on the head of a digital startup who wasn’t returning calls or showing up to work.  The police had called for some backup and I’d been on patrol, so I’d accepted.  It had been Victor, breaking into a man’s home to steal his computer know-how, spending more than twenty four hours doing it, so as to leave the man with nothing.  Victor had escaped out the back as the cops banged on the door, and on foot he’d been adroit enough to evade my chase from the air, with only a few stumbles when I’d used my fear.

The court case had been something I wasn’t involved in, outside of a short few questions and the usual defense’s suggestions of unreasonable force… which hadn’t really applied when I hadn’t even been able to catch Victor in the first place.  After that, it had been something I heard about every couple of months, until it came out that the whole thing was an attempt by the startup guy to bail on his own project and claim the compensation and disability insurance, with Victor as his paid hire.

Victor had done other things.  Taking all talent from a black violinist and leaving her with nothing.  She’d never got it back.  Taking away all restraint and subtlety from a gay twenty-something, in an effort to humiliate them, or get them to do something criminal.  The victim’s friends had managed to restrain him and alert authorities, but they’d only noticed because he’d already self destructed whole parts of his life, outing himself and losing the funding from his parents that let him attend the University.  I remembered the fundraiser from after.  According to the gathered info that had been released about the Empire Eighty-Eight villains, he’d once tortured ABB gang members, taking away all pain tolerance and willpower, because those were skills we all learned over the course of our lives.  He’d broken them, then taunted Lung with videos of him lording over the once-proud gang members that now acted like animals.

So much ugliness and degradation, and a chilling, quiet pride in how he’d done it.

And he’d gone hero… briefly, I supposed.  He’d said the right words, did the right things, and we’d accepted it, because like Miss Militia had said, we gave heroes that benefit of a doubt if they were willing to take it.

It hadn’t stuck.  I fully believed that what he was now was a consequence of his old monstrousness.  Of doors he’d closed, weaknesses in his own character he’d ignored in the course of imagining and even forcing weakness onto perceived ‘others’.

Fuck him, and fuck, if the Nemean Titan had even a quarter of his old cruelty, it was going to be a malicious bastard of a thing.

The list kept on going.  More titans.  One that looked like it was made with thick black cords all tangled together, with silver needles glinting throughout, like thorns on a rose stem.  Its face was like a cluster of flowers that overlapped and intermingled, forming a shape that was vaguely face-like.

“The Ophion Titan.  Formerly a villain who went by ‘Mr. Bough’, one half of the human trafficking partnership Orchard, which mutated people in body and mind to customize them for their clients.  He was incarcerated in a prison world, and was closest to the breach that created an overlap between our world and the prison dimension.  Several who attempted to escape past him and into our world were struck with his needles, and have mutated dramatically.  He attacks quickly and with great reach and accuracy, and even brief contact with the needles seems to induce physical changes.  With one of his creations arrested and one dead, we haven’t seen them revert yet.  We’re holding out hope.”

I looked over at Sveta.  Mr. Bough had given her her new body, as part of a deal.  For his help, he’d gotten parts of a prefab house delivered and connected, a wood stove, a pedal-operated generator, and a computer with a library of media.  Wardens were to check in every few months to see what else he needed, contingent on him not setting up any ambushes or anything of the sort.

He’d gone from that to this.  Was it that he was closest, and all prisoners in that world were on the brink of losing themselves?  Or had the house somehow backfired?  When others were digging deep into their inner reserves to better their immediate situations and survive, he’d had a place to rest and kick back… and to realize the reality of his new circumstance.

“The Titan Arachne.  Formerly a teenager with uncontrolled powers, held in the Sussex powers facility.  She went to the Red Queen for assistance and was still there when the damage to the city breached the portal and reached her vicinity.”

That’s an awfully convenient, condemnation free take on how my fucking sister handled that, I thought.  I held my tongue.

“She produces razor wire within a quarter-mile of herself, scaling up over time, and seems to ignore the Manton limit.  The second most aggressive titan we’re dealing with, but easily distracted.”

I could feel the mood of the room changing slightly as Legend went down the list.  Each one posed its own set of problems.  How did we get through a quarter-mile or more of razor wire to even begin fighting the Titan Arachne?  Or through Titan Eve’s gas?  Or face off against a foe who needed only one glancing blow to turn us into… whatever the Ophion Titan was making?

“The Strange Titan.  No image, because we can’t turn cameras or any sets of eyes toward it, and any attempts to turn powers in its general direction fail.  Our initial speculation about who it might have been were foiled when it evidenced other abilities.  A team of three made a fighting retreat from the area, using powers to try to use the environment against the titan, and the titan disabled them one by one, with only the third escaping.  Her teammates were inflicted with horrific hallucinations and don’t appear to have any awareness of external stimuli.  We have thinkers and one cape with experience in delving into minds analyzing the victims now.  We have no indication whether it’s one Titan or two within that area.”

He glanced to one side, before tapping a phone he had on the podium.

“A final titan, yet unnamed, as it just came to our attention.  Auger, mercenary.  He was on the front line against the Machine Army, and was caught out when the Red Queen’s line of assistance was interrupted.  The Titan is apparently engaged with the Machine Army now.  We’ll have more details soon.  If anyone knows Auger, please reach out to us or talk to me over there.”

Legend managed to sound so quietly confident and unruffled as he laid it all out there.  One thing after another and he conveyed the idea we could tackle this, without saying those explicit words.

Chevalier took a step forward, going from the line of Wardens to the center stage.  Legend took a step back.

Chevalier had his own quality.

“As long as the Titan Skadi is a consideration, we’ll be splitting up our forces, with the group that can fend her off as her primary antagonist.  Other groups will be addressing other titans.  We start out with a fact-finding approach.  If you engage, make sure you can disengage first.  Test their limits and the limits of their abilities, see if you can harm them, and withdraw, making sure to pass on any knowledge…”

He went on, going into some details about the specific bases for each refugee camp, resources available, that the Patrol was there to provide anything we needed, and to liaison between us and the public.

Probably good to have a buffer.

“On that note,” he said, “The video of Fume Hood using her power on a crowd of anti-parahumans is being disseminated in certain circles.  It’s available to watch on your accounts with the after-situation reports from the teams she was with.  As I noted, power may be intermittent, phone lines and cell phones are far from robust or consistent, and most of the internet infrastructure was lost in the damage.  Download what you want and need while you’re here.”

Armstrong leaned forward, tilting his head to get my attention, rather than touching me as many others would have done.  I nodded.

He didn’t need to say it.  We were about ready to go up.

“Survive, defend, keep your eyes open.  Your instincts and your understandings of powers will be paramount here.  Those of you who have been capes for some time have reached this point because you have those instincts and that understanding.  Those of you without experience who have the courage to be here and the wisdom to be one of the good guys are in the right ballpark too.”

I looked to the only group of villains I knew for an idea of how they might’ve taken that line.  I saw Imp with her mask pulled a bit out and away from her face, putting her finger down her throat.

Chevalier was wrapping up, it looked like.  I’d seen videos of him at New Delhi and in other events.  He had a stature and regal nature that always made me think he was going to say a lot more than he ever actually did.

Chevalier went on, “To better inform your understanding, Dr. Armstrong will outline more of what we know.  If you’re not familiar with any terminology, take note.  You can ask later.  We’ll be sending messages to your phones as we finish up here, with notes on where you’re going, and we’ll open portals shortly after.  Those going to Shin will need additional details about the giants, Lab Rat, and the Red Queen.  Rest assured, our algorithm will put you together with people we know you’ve worked with in the past, balancing out power across deployments so more critical situations get more firepower.”

Dr. Armstrong walked across the stage, and I flew for a second or two to skip the short set of steps that led up to the ‘stage’, which was more of a platform for loading or lifting up the trucks that were going straight to the heart of the facility.

“That algorithm?” I murmured, as we walked to the podium.  “Is that the same one that put Capricorn and Precipice with the Shepherds and Sveta with the Irregulars?”

“Likely,” he said.

“Tell me that’s not Dragon’s tech,” I answered him.

“Epeios.”

I frowned a bit, but I didn’t want to say anything now that we were close enough to the podium that the microphone might pick up my voice.  Maybe I’d just been really lucky in dealing with more reliable tinkers.  Kenzie, Kid Win, Armsmaster, Dragon…

Armstrong flipped the laptop open and swiped his card over the reader to log in.  His notes came up automatically, along with mine, in a separate scroll.  There were so many highlights it was kind of hard to read; I imagined it was second nature to Armstrong, with highlights for clarity, comments, and verification by thinkers, in yellow, orange, and blue, respectively.  I had to work to look past it and find the flow of it.

Back straight, shoulders square, hands held behind my back.  Convey the kind of image Legend and Chevalier do.

Armstrong addressed the gathered capes, “Ahem.  What we know of the invader’s life cycle is that they attempt to access worlds, disseminate themselves and spread powers as a form of learning and cognition.  Each segment of the invader is a consciousness unto itself, and when those segments connect to us, we refer to them as agents.  Scion’s role in the process was to guide and shepherd the segments through the process and to coordinate them at the end.  That process is ongoing and we are dealing with them as an independent series of individual segments with no coordination.  The damage we are dealing with across multiple realities would normally be their final stage, when our civilization was exhausted of everything it had to offer in the way of knowledge and conflict.”

Everyone was watching.  My mom.  My teams.  Teams I’d tried to join.  Capes I’d fought.

He went on, “It is to our advantage, if it can be called that, that the Titans are not well coordinated.  As of right now they are still finding their feet, coordination, and working out how to exert their full powers.  When we view the dark areas where it seems all realities have been stripped away and only their realities are evident, our best cameras are able to see their attentions at intercommunication.  This appears like brief flickers of lightning, often faint, and most often frustrated.  When they succeed in communicating, they often tend to repeat the attempt and frequency.”

The screen on the laptop showed what was on the screens behind us.  An overhead map, titans spaced out across that map, with two question marks in the Strange Titan’s vicinity, not all that far from Fume Hood-

From Titan Eve.

Lines connected titans.  One between Dauntless and Eve.  Then Titan Fortuna with lines of varying strength to the Ophion, Nemean, and Ashen Titans; to Bough, Victor, and Cinereal, respectively.  Another line seemed to connect Titan Oberon to the unnamed new Titan, Auger.

“Our worst case scenario is that they form anything resembling a complete network,” Armstrong said.  “At even partial completion, they may extend the damage and cause more titans, which allows for more of a network, and gives them something you could describe as a firm grip around our planet.  From there, they attempt to reproduce and they scatter.  They leave little behind.  This is how they function.”

Spooky.  I hoped it was clear to the crowd, even though Armstrong was trying to avoid outright saying the words.

If the cycle completes, we’re goners.

“If the damage starts spreading again, or if you get alerts, capes, especially capes who don’t feel confident or capable, should immediately retreat.  Seek support in allies, but do everything you can to avoid succumbing.  Reports from the scenes suggest it is doable.  Be strong.”

That was improvised, nothing in the file he was reading off of.

He went on, “Everything Chevalier said about protecting and assisting the settlements of refugees is absolutely true.  Deflect and distract the titans, gather that information.  That is our reality as a primarily defensive fixture, at least until we know how to attack.  I say this, but I know some of you will want to take the advantage or be the aggressors.  Some of you will venture into the damaged areas, or into the darkness beneath the cracks.”

I took in a deep breath.

My notes were there, printed out in plain text, highlighted.  Marked in shades of green for their analysis by thinkers.  Tattletale might have been one, I imagined.

“This is Victoria Dallon.  She and her team have some experience in that space.”

Don’t swallow, don’t clear your throat, don’t hesitate.

I spoke, addressing the microphone and the room, “I would not recommend doing what my team and I did.  Last night we attempted to use technology to breach a weak point in that space and access it.  What we’re dealing with up here exists down there, to varying degrees and strengths.  Past those cracks in reality is their reality, or the source of our powers.  I’d describe it as a bio-computer, written out as landscapes of crystal.  Every jutting piece of crystal is its own subsystem with its own focus.  More importantly, it’s defended by what are essentially more titans and you would be fighting them with-”

-There was an amendment to my notes, thanks to one of the thinkers.  Not no, but-

“-reduced powers, should you enter through the cracks.  Should you manage to defeat anything in there, you’ll be hurting the parahuman or parahumans it connects to.  I do think there are answers and tools to be found in there, but take caution.  We thought we were taking a look and we were drawn in en masse instead.  Be careful.”

I paused, letting that land, hoping people remembered it.  “If you do find yourself in that territory, by purpose or by a fall or the Titan’s purpose, recognize that it’s a multi-layered space.  Trust the instincts derived from your connection to your agent, the source of your powers, if you can.  Go with the flow.  You can try to think of friends and follow the connections that appear, or pause to reinterpret the landscape.  I can’t make you any guarantees about any of this, as we were technically within the system rather than on it, but the Wardens’ thinkers seem to think this is more or less right.  This may be the final battlefield in our efforts to interrupt this whole mess from happening.”

I saw some heads nodding.  I didn’t see as much confusion as I’d feared.  I still saw a lot.

Okay.

I stepped back.

Armstrong had more to say.  Mostly my head was buzzing from the adrenaline of public speaking and the dull embarrassment that I was admitting to Breakthrough’s mistake.  I kept still and composed, letting Armstrong take the spotlight.

My phone buzzed in my pocket.  I ignored it.  Composure was more important.

I saw my family in the crowd.  My mom smiled.

Felt like a fucking kid in the school choir, looking for mom in the crowd.  Fuck.

The moment passed quickly, at least.  I saw my team.  My heroes.  Sveta with her patchwork coat over her costume, Precipice in white and silver with veins of gold and his additional arms.  Capricorn in red armor, helmet off, but the cloth mask and head-covering that kept the cold metal from contacting flesh still hiding his identity.  Lookout, wearing her updated costume with the vaguely creepy mask I hadn’t had the time to steer her away from, her clothing matched more to the Heartbroken, with a lot of black cloth decorated with blue silver, all looking more like high fashion than anything utilitarian.  Layered cloth, ruffles, lace, traps, and beaded fabric- not too much, but enough to draw the eye.  Candy, Chastity, Darlene, Roman, Juliette.

“…are symptoms of increased instability and loss of self as the agent gains more ground.  Monitor yourselves and your teammates, and when in doubt, report your concerns.”

Portals were beginning to open up.  Kenzie’s portal-box tech, which was somewhere in the facility now, apparently.

“Thank you, Dr. Armstrong,” Chevalier said.  “Those of you with questions, concerns, those of you wishing to back out, and those of you we’ve already talked to about managing the situation around Shin or the Machine Army, please remain behind.  Everyone else, we will be in touch with powers or the communication lines that still work.  Please proceed through to your destinations and do what you do so well.”

The screens set up behind the stage showed the portals and their labeling.  People were already getting sorted, talking as they found other teams they knew.

“Thank you,” Armstrong said.  “We’ll stay in touch.”

“Thank you,” I told him.  I meant it.  He’d been decent to me overall.  “Good luck.”

“You too.  Look after Sveta for me?”

I nodded.

I flew down to the floor.

It didn’t feel like enough, with no discussion of weak points, or even any clear answers of what their weak points might be.  In reality, I didn’t think we had any idea.

It felt like an Endbringer fight, except we were being asked to split up, to gather in smaller numbers.

With people getting sorted and the crowd pulling away, it wasn’t too obstructed a path to my teams.

My family, I saw, had already left.  My mom was waving, probably to get me to come over.  I just didn’t really have it in me.  It looked like Uncle Mike had already gone somewhere, as had Aunt Sarah.  My dad had gone with Amy.

I was kind of glad to not have to dwell on them.

I approached the Major Malfunctions first.

“Are you guys okay?” I asked.

They nodded.  They looked pretty devastated.  Even Withdrawal, with his creepy-ish mask covering his expression, managed to convey something in his body language.  Caryatid’s eyes were downcast.

I kind of wanted to hug them but I had no idea what their policy would be.  They were kind of a huddle, too, Caryatid with her arm around Finale and a hand on Withdrawal’s leg.  I couldn’t hug all three of them at once without smashing my breastplate into Caryatid’s mouth.

“I’m so sorry about Fume Hood,” I told them.

“She was one of the coolest adults I know,” Finale said.  It was hard to meet her eyes, with the hurt clear in them.  I was reminded of Kenzie, even though Finale was closer to Tristan’s age.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.  “I’m glad you all made it out intact.”

“It got so ugly so fast,” Withdrawal said.

Caryatid looked over her shoulder at the portal, her mask covering her lower face, her eyes heavily decorate with gray and orange makeup and eyeliner, striking against her light brown skin.  She briefly entered her breaker form, and the pages of her perpetually unfolding butterfly-wing face had streaks of orange along with hints of what the fresh makeup might have been hiding- puffy redness.

Then she was normal again.

“What do you guys think you’re going to be doing?” I asked.

“Going in,” Withdrawal said.  “Our place got destroyed, our stuff’s in a van and we don’t know where the van is.  We’ll go to the camp, set up there, and keep participation minimal, if that’s okay?”

I checked my phone.  “H?”

“H.  Yeah.”

“Okay,” I said.  “I’ve got to catch up with my team.  We’ll talk later?  When it’s quieter?”

“Please,” he said.

“Sorry again.”

He just shook his head.

My team was gravitating toward one of the portals, hanging back only to let me catch up.  I went to them, and rejoining the group felt like I could finally breathe after being underwater too long, except it wasn’t breath.

I hugged Sveta, first and foremost.  Then I put my hand out in Kenzie’s direction, and she reached out and squeezed it.

“I was scared for you,” I told Sveta.

“I made it.  Got through it okay.”

I squeezed her, finding myself surprised that it wasn’t a prosthetic I was holding.  Then I broke the hug.

“How did you manage over here?” Rain asked.

“Not great.  Went a little stir crazy, got in trouble a few times.”

He nodded, just taking it as that.  “You see where we’re going?”

“H,” I said.

He pointed at the portal.

“Should we go?” I asked.

“Might as well,” he said.

We had company, I saw.  The full assortment of the Undersiders.  Deathchester.  The Major Malfunctions followed behind.

My family was lingering close by.

This was either going to be really easy, where they put us as far out of the way as possible while still trying to make use of us, or it was going to be a situation where they were putting the hero team and the villains on the more troublesome task.

“How safe is it to talk?” Sveta asked.

“Safe,” Kenzie said.

“Doesn’t even matter,” I told them, stretching to relieve myself of some of the tension that had built up while on that stage.  “We kind of got caught.  I got lectured.  They’re cracking down on Lookout, too.”

“Ugh,” Kenzie groaned.

“I’ve gotta lay down some rules and direction, Lookout,” I told her.  “No spying, for one, you’ve gotta be clearer about what you’re building techwise, and what the scope of it is.”

“I don’t have a lot,” she said.  “For tech, I mean.”

“It might be best if we have you get team members to sign off.    Asking before you spy on someone, submitting a page of paperwork before you build something.”

“Uggggh,” she groaned.  She paused.  “That’s doable, I think.”

“My guidelines for the paperwork,” I said.  “Project completion goals, intent, risks.  I’ll draft something tonight in the way of a page with headings and questions you can fill out.  Until then, talk to at least two of us before you do something.”

She nodded.

“Sorry,” I said.  “Had to get that out of the way.”

“It’s okay,” she said.  She didn’t smile, instead bobbing her head.  I would have taken it for a nod, but it kept going.  She looked over at the other kids, and a bunch of kids and teenagers in white masks looked over her way.  Chicken, Syndicate, Decadent, Roman, Juliette, Chastity.  Tattletale was doing the herding.  Imp was talking to Deathchester.  “I’m going to go to my other team, is that okay?”

“Okay,” I said.

“Lookout,” Tristan cut in.  “Hold up.”

She was already moving, but she stopped in her tracks, the elaborate slim-fit dress she’d built into her costume swishing a bit at her thighs, which were covered in a pattern of interlocked gray eyes against a black background, black sequins at each pupil.

“Victoria’s guidelines, I’m making an amendment.”

Lookout fidgeted.

“The ‘team’ you ask for permission, it can’t be Decadent, Chicken Little, or Syndicate.”

Fuck, that was a loophole, all right.

“Aww, what?  But what if you guys aren’t around?”

“Call.  You’re inventive,” he said.  “You can try Tattletale.  She’s a villain but her judgement should be sound on if you’ll bring trouble down on your own head.”

“That’s such a pain though!”

“It’s a good pain.  Victoria’s going to have to explain the trouble you got in, but I think I get it, and we should avoid it.”

“Ugggggggh,” she groaned, hand clasped to her heart.  “You’re killing me.”

“The Heartbroken are rubbing off on you,” Sveta observed.

Yuh!  They’re bad influences.  That’s their thing.”

Then she was gone, running off, throwing her arms around Darlene and Candy’s shoulders, almost bowling them over.  She’d still been moving forward with enough force her legs swung forward and then back before hitting the ground.

“I mean…” I said.  “Is that where we go, okay, you can’t see them anymore?”

“They’re good for her in a lot of ways,” Tristan said.  “She’s good for them.  We’ll keep an eye on her.”

I clapped a hand on his armored shoulder.

The others were on the other side of the portal already.  I didn’t realize where we were going until I was at the threshold.

Wooden cabins, placed haphazardly, with the road seeming to weave between them rather than them being placed by the road.  There were short walls of stone for corralling animals, but the animals were gone.  Only the repainted school buses that were being used by the Patrol were visible as a kind of anachronistic, anatopistic break in the place’s ‘feel’.

It felt creepy.  Cars were jumbled up in how they were parked at one end, and off in the distance, there were fields that had the bright yellow of tents set up, with more going up as I watched, like distant flowers blooming before my eyes.  It looked like a two-by-two organization, with heaters shared between tents in case one crapped out.  There was the opportunity to rearrange the insulated walls to double layer or lay them against the ground for extra padding and comfort against the cold ground.  Probably extended families or families who knew each other, to be that organized.

People who knew how to do it because they’d probably been in tents last Winter or Spring, and they’d only briefly had a home before having to evacuate again, if they’d gotten that far.

I could see evidence of battles in the not-too-distant past.  Craters.  Bullet holes in walls.

I met Rain’s eyes.  He shrugged.

His home, from not too long ago.  The Mathers compound.  It might be that we were out in the boonies after all.

It might be that any place that wasn’t ‘in the boonies’ was caught up in the damage.

I stopped a few steps into the threshold, putting my hand out to stop Capricorn.  “Cap.”

The others kept walking, surveying the area, looking around.  Some stopped to look over in the horizon.

I looked too.  I could see it.  A plume of green smoke.

In the other direction, a crack had traveled directly skyward, like a lightning bolt had just… deleted what lay beneath it.  A black scratch against the sky.

The others were being met by the patrol.  I saw a couple of familiar faces, but not the most familiar.  People I’d sparred with, talked to, eaten with.  Many were bringing boxes out of the buses.

“What’s up?” Capricorn asked.

We were more or less alone.

“How are you?” I asked.  “I heard about Reconciliation.  Are you okay?”

He sighed, then shook his head.

Heartbreak.  The hope of a meeting with someone important from the past.  Then hope being shattered.

“Anything I can do?”

“Do what you’re doing.  Pick up the slack, look after the others.  I’m not at my best, and neither is Byron, for very different reasons.  I’m fit, I’m fine physically.  He’s… well, I’ll let him tell you but I think he’s feeling pretty good about life, I think.  Even with Titans and everything else.”

A bit of a trick answer there.  We’re not doing great, here’s how we’re doing great.  Fill in the blanks.

“It was a good catch, Lookout’s loophole,” I told him.  To find something more encouraging.

“Thanks”

“You’re doing a good job, Tristan.”

“I know.”  There was no brag in his voice.  “But that’s not all there is, is there?  You ever read the horror stories?  Stuff on Parahumans Online, about what happens when you lose your secret identity?  Or that line of threads titled Porch Light?”

“I read some of the secret identity stuff,” I said.  “Wasn’t really relevant to me, though.”

He smiled behind the head-cover.

“Why?” I asked.  “Do you need to sit this one out?”

“I think that’d be worse,” he said.  “I’m… feeling like all the bridges are burned right now.  I know they take time to rebuild, really.  It’s only been a couple of years.”

“For what it’s worth, you relationship with Byron is so much better than it was when I met you.”

“He’s not here right now,” Tristan said.  “He’s better, but he’s not well.  When I’m out, he’s napping.  When he’s out, I’m aware.”

“One-sided.”

“I burned every bridge I had, in one stupid, split second decision I couldn’t take back.  Byron did a lot of the rebuilding, to make his way back to me.  Rebuild that tie.  But he’s not there now.”

“No, I guess not,” I said.  “But it’s better.  I do think he loves you.  Hold onto that.”

“I guess what I’m saying about the bridges is uh… it sucks.  I really liked that guy.  Reconciliation.  Felt lucky whenever I was with him.  The way he put up with my situation and me.  The way he probably feels-”

Ah.

I gave him a hug, squeezing him in his armor.

“-He probably feels like shit every time he remembers what I did, how I lied by omission over and over for months.  I hate that.”

“As you said, it’s been two years.  Give it a bit of time.  Let the team help where they can.  Because we care about you too.  There are bridges there.”

He heaved out a sigh, looking up at the sky above us.  Overcast and dark as shit.  Even this far away from the city, the dust cover was reaching us.

“Want company for the next bit?” I asked.  “I can’t promise I won’t talk shop or ask to catch up, but we can talk about other stuff too.”

“Talking about the team and the plan sounds good, actually,” Tristan said.  “But before that… was thinking it’d be nice to find a church or something.  Never really took it all that serious, before, don’t ever tell my parents that.  But it’d be nice.”

“I can’t imagine you’ll find any shortage in an old Fallen camp,” I told him.

He smiled.  “I’m going to take a few minutes.  Or an hour.  Just sit.”

“You sure?”

He shrugged, smiling.  “I’ll be back.  Look after our team, yeah?”

“So long as you’ll be back.”

“Lookout’s got an eye on me, I’m sure, new rules be damned.  Trust me, not going anywhere.  No way I want the world to end while I… like this.”

As low as I’d seen him.  Heartbroken, I supposed.  I just nodded.

“Thanks for asking how I’m doing,” he said.

I nodded, then gave him another abrupt hug, my breastplate clacking against his armor.

With that, he walked off.

I shot a concerned look at his back, watching him go.  He didn’t carry the emotion in his posture- he was too strong for that, armor too heavy.  Lifted up with enough force, set down with enough force.  It made it hard to trudge, I had to imagine, and his current emotional state seemed like one for trudging.

Watching until he was out of sight, I finally resumed moving toward the group.  I found them near the center of town.  They’d pulled together some wooden debris that looked like it was from a fence, and Rain was lighting a fire.

Outdoor meeting, I supposed.  Sitting on logs that had been dusted free of snow.

Deathchester had one corner, with Trophy Wife sitting next to Damsel, who sat next to Sidepiece.  Disjoint sat on the ground between Sidepiece’s legs, a bottle in hand.  Backwoods, Gibbet, Torso, Mockument and Hookline were there too.

Though her two ‘friends’ were with her, Damsel was talking with Imp.

“Aut viam inveniam aut faciam,” Imp said.

“Sounds like an incantation.”

“It’s Latin, you’ve got to know some Latin if you’re going to be a proper villain.”

“What she’s neglecting to mention,” Juliette feigned a cultured accent, “Is that us children had to point that out to her.”

“Hush, or you’re grounded.  I’ll take away your… you don’t have video games.  You don’t watch TV…”

“Can’t here anyway,” Roman muttered.

“You don’t read books… what do I take away from you?  What do you even do in your spare time?”

“Nothing,” Roman said.  “She acts cranky, gets bored, then makes fun of others.  Being a pain in my ass.”

“Tormenting others,” Juliette said.  “The idiot isn’t wrong.  I pull the wings off of flies, see if the mercenaries have any captives that need torturing and pull out their teeth…”

“What.” Finale said.  She looked around.  “What?

“She’s joking,” I said.  “It’s fine.”

“Why would you even say that?”

The fire roared up a bit, finally taking hold.  Kenzie, Chicken Little, Candy and Darlene cheered for Rain.  Chastity gave him a little golf-clap, polite and small.

“What does it mean?” Damsel asked.  “Repeat it?”

“Aut viam inveniam aut faciam,” Imp said, with no fluidity, each syllable punctuated with a nod.

“Aut viam, inveniam aut faciam,” Damsel said.

“Hey, that was actually good!”

“Of course it was,” Damsel said, looking too pleased with herself.  Maybe it was only because I knew how Ashleys worked that I saw it.

“Holy fuck, it took me forever to learn these things.”

“This is the point you’ll tell me it’s something obscene.  You’re the prankster type, I can tell.”

I saw Caryatid move to cover Finale’s ears.

“No, no, nothing obscene, um…”

“Need a hint?” Chastity asked.

“No!”

“You don’t get villain cred for Latin if you forget the meaning,” Tattletale cut in.

“Stop talking!  I’m trying to remember and you’re distracting me.  I get some villain cred.  Right, Damsel?  You’re a villain and you said it sounded like an incantation.”

“It did.  It counts for cred.”

“So there.  It means something like ‘We’re gonna find a way or we’re going to force one.”

“Make one,” Chastity said.

“I like it,” Damsel said.

“Of course you like it,” Trophy Wife said, leaning forward.  She’d set her rack down on the ground behind her.  A little macabre.  “It’s very you.”

I walked around the group, watching, being careful.  I saw Cassie with Yips and Rachel with three more dogs walking without leashes.  Yips raised his right leg to pee, then picked up his other right paw off the ground because it was in snow or something.  He fell over, still peeing, making Rachel jump back and making one of the other dogs bounce around playfully.

Cassie just laughed.

Foil put her hand up as I passed by.  I gave her a small high-five.

“You good?” she asked.

“Good enough,” I said.  “You?”

She hugged Parian, huddling in with her for warmth, nodding.

“Just taking five,” Tattletale said, craning her head back to look at me upside-down.  “We’ve been driving all over the place for the last while, in cars that stink of birds and dogs.”

“My birds don’t stink!”

“The dogs are fine!” Cassie protested, as she took her seat beside Chastity.  Rachel, in the background, was silent, the dogs milling around her.

“Of course, the thing you want to do after driving all around the place is sit, right?  Makes sense?” Tattletale asked.

“I wouldn’t know,” I said.  “Most of the time I fly.”

“Boooo,” Candy jeered.  “Privilege.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Two in our vicinity.  We’re positioned to go help with one or the other, depending on what happens.  They’re a few miles out and they aren’t coming our way,” Tattletale said.  “Like I told the Wardens.  They’re figuring their own shit out as much as we’re trying to figure them out.”

I nodded.

“Three other teams in our general area.  One in the shattered little town to the south.  One east, one west.  We’ll have backup.”

“Alright, good to know, thanks.”

“S’what I do.”

I moved on.  Past Chicken Little, who sat by Tattletale, then the girls.  Kenzie at the end.  I knelt down by her.

“Hi,” she said, hesitant.  “Sorry about the sass earlier, the bad influence stuff.  I don’t want you to think I was serious.”

I shook my head.  “Nah, it’s fine.  Just checking on everyone.  You’re good?”

She nodded, then leaned hard into Candy, who leaned into her in turn, like each was trying to tip the other over or knock their friend off the log.

“Do me a favor?” I asked.  “You have eyes on Tristan?”

I saw the hesitation on Kenzie’s face.

“You won’t get in trouble.  So long as you’re following the new rules.”

“I am.”

One of the girls to her right coughed and whispered, “Entrapment.”

Candy, I guessed.

“Can you keep an eye on him?  Permission granted to surveil.  I’m worried.”

“He’s bummed,” she said, nodding.

Crestfallen was maybe a better word.  Or despondent.

I just nodded.

“Eye on,” she said, winking.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Sit?” Sveta offered.  “There’s not much room on this bench, but I could go all ribbon-y and drape myself over you.”

“Nah, maybe after.  Gonna go check on stuff.  Feeling restless,” I said.  “I was sitting around while you were dealing with Shin.”

“Sure.”

Rain, too, was feeling the lack of bench-space.  There was some, but it was beside Mockument and Torso, who were just sitting there, being kinda weird, Torso rocking a bit in place, Mockument dressed up as a creepy jester, staring at the fire.

“Rain!”  Chastity called out.  “Sit!  Squeeze in.”

He looked momentarily intimidated, until Chastity got up and grabbed his hand, pulling him down to the end of the bench.  It honestly looked uncomfortable, like his butt was half on the log, but he seemed willing to endure it.

Okay.

Okay, I could let my guard down a bit.  Nobody killing anyone.  Amy was mostly handled, with my dad finally doing something.

I walked away from it, my thoughts going over the Titans.

I looked at the patrol members, who seemed to be the dominant population here.  Given the sheer quantity of people I saw who were talking to those people, especially with some possible family resemblance, I was willing to bet a share of the civilians who had also come here were relations.  There just wasn’t a lot of space.

This was a waypoint, safe ground, kind of.  Given the sheer number of supplies, it was possibly where the other Patrols were electing to have stuff stored.  I could imagine the Fallen had had plenty of places to stow extra guns, ammo, and food.

I looked for someone who looked like they were in charge, walking around with a clipboard.

“The girl from the community center,” she said.

I thought at first about Fume Hood.  Then I remembered my part in it.

I nodded.  “Is Gilpatrick around?”

“Busy driving, but he’ll be back in an hour.  Why?”

I was glad my guess was right.  Epeios was a bit of a fuckhead from what I’d observed, but his algorithm had put me close to my old friend and boss from the Patrol.

“Just had questions.  Wanted to ask about possible supplies, but it’s a bit of a reach.  See how he was doing while I was at it.”

“Can’t tell you how he’s doing, but I could try reaching.  What do you need?”

I told her.  She asked for clarification.  I clarified.

Then we parted ways.  She went back toward what I took to be storehouses.  I went up.  Skyward.

No violence to my flight, no feather-light gentleness.  Only simple up.

Until I could see over trees.  Until I could see past the taller log buildings.

Off to our west, Fume Hood.  Like a woman clad in a dark cloak, smoke billowing out the from and peeling off of the sides.  The plumes of gas that surrounded her were taller than buildings in some places.

Titan Eve, I reminded myself.  I was usually better with names.

She faced us, and for a few moments, I could imagine she was staring at me.

What was in that stare?  Accusation?  Sorrow?  Fear?  Anger?

I couldn’t imagine anything good from it.

I looked around to spot the other, and it wasn’t hard.  Bigger than Titan Eve, Titan Oberon was a hulk of a figure, bent, muscular, and always poised.  Off to our east or southeast, staring off over the water.  He clenched the fist I could see, relaxed it.  Moved his arm.  Restless, he paced a bit.

We were caught between the two.

Others were fighting for their lives.  Titan Skadi was in the midst of an attack this very moment, because that was what she did.  Titan Fortuna was plotting, with the Simurgh gravitating toward her.  Hunter, a girl I’d tried to help, was now Titan Arachne.

I wondered if my sister even felt bad about it, or if she’d convinced herself she wasn’t in the wrong.

It made me feel sad even to think about it, and that sadness reminded me of the fire, and how it hadn’t been sad.  Uncomfortable in places, yes, but… not sad.

I’m going to have to kill you, I thought, looking between the Titans  Pull out any and all stops.

I’d asked for guns.  That was my requisition from the Patrol, my long-shot ask, that I wasn’t positive they’d be able to fulfill.  Guns.  Not handguns, not rifles, not assault rifles.  The kind of guns that got mounted on trucks.  That needed powers to be carried.

You hate guns, Victoria, I found myself thinking.  You hate what they represent.  Symbols of the breach in the compact between capes and civilians.

My breath fogged in the air.

Why did it feel like every step forward cost me something or forced me to compromise in some respect?  Had my starting point been so awful, that I had to wade through this mire to get to better?

Or was it a sign we were on the wrong track?  Because this wasn’t our way to victory, or because we weren’t supposed to win this time?

The ideas sat heavy with me as I dropped out of the sky, landing on frozen dirt, then made my way back to the fire, where I tried to make my peace with them.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Radiation – 18.1

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

We’re coming back.  I read the message on the phone screen.  Kenzie’s.  Tattletale’s trying to convince them it’s safe to open a portal.  Powers are safe to use again.

I nodded, trying to keep my focus on the screen.  Tensions in the situation room had transformed.  For people like Eric, something they had maybe thought wasn’t going to happen had happened, and they were dealing with loss and horror.  For me, who had known and already felt some of that loss and horror, it was frustration and loss.  That was a bad combination that would lead to me yelling at him, in the same unproductive, obstructive way.

By the cameras, everyone was on their way back.  Pulling away from the city, gathering the troops.  There weren’t many wounded, but that was because the problems we were dealing with now were threats who tended to simply kill the ones they were in a position to hurt.  The map with the teams marked out with bubbles took center stage on the situation room monitors, now with added labeling.  Many had been made transparent, flashing, with timers slowly counting up above them.

Not responding to any attempts at contact for ten minutes now.

From the way they were seeming to confirm those various teams or cross them off, there seemed to be a thinker or long-range communicator attached to the problem, reaching out into that devastated section of the city and either getting a response or finding out the capes hadn’t managed to escape the collapse or the Titan in that area.

Eric stood from the table, closing his laptop.  Warily, I watched as he got his things, pulling on his suit jacket.  He said something to Armstrong I couldn’t hear, then took his leave, walking past me with an extended look that went head-to-toe and back again.  Like he was searching for something.

“Victoria, can I borrow you for a minute?” Armstrong asked.

I nodded, approaching him.  He indicated an unused laptop, and I grabbed it.

“To go over your notes.  I highlighted parts.”

Getting into the parahuman science stuff.  My self-report from the dream excursion, and the situation notes that I’d put in the share folder.

A welcome distraction.  Notes and files.  Clarification of intended meanings, answering short questions, verifying if I was being sarcastic or literal.  It let me refocus my brain to a task without feeling like I was tuning the world out.

Question one: I’d used ‘gut feeling’ twice.  What did I mean by that?

Answer: …

I’d convinced Fume Hood to get back into the game.  She’d planned to retire and I’d played a big role in convincing her to stick it out and keep trying to help, after she got shot.  Now… what?  Did she think?  Did a titan maintain any trace of its old psychology?  Was she trapped in there, or was she gone, good as dead?

Something told me this wasn’t in any way reversible.  Gut feeling.

I refocused on the screen.  The line of thought didn’t really connect, and it was only by chance that I’d circled back.

Like doing something I’ve practiced to death.  Holding a gun and knowing I could pick it up and hit the target, there’s a certainty and underlying confidence.  Take away the practicing from the equation, and that’s how I felt about things like smashing Teacher’s crystal.

I was calling on my time with the Patrol for that one.  I’d already done the gun safety and practice at my parent’s behest, once upon a time.  All of us kids had.  But I’d elected to do it again.  Back then, it had been about getting through the days.

Question two: You frame this ‘gut feeling’ as agent-derived.  On a scale of one to ten, to what degree could you separate your own biases, hopes, instincts, preconceptions, or own mentality from this impression the agent provides?

What do you think, Fragile one?

Hard to draw a firm line.

Seven.  Seventy percent.

There were more highlighted sections with just short instructions.  Clarify:Earth.  Clarify:Date.  Did I mean Gimel or Bet?  Did I mean today or yesterday?

Clarify:Event.  Did I mean the Fallen Raid or the Prison?  My note on Seir.

Clarify:Team Composition.  Who was with me?  Which members of Breakthrough?

When someone had a panic attack, it was important to touch base, ground them.  Where are you, what do you see, what can you touch?  What do you hear?

I wasn’t in the midst of a panic attack, but I appreciated the chance to ground myself.  Place was a heck of a question when worlds had already been tangled with the layering of what was more or less another dimension over the third.  Depending on whether portals were in the way, walking in a straight line in one part of the city could carry you to a point in Gimel or a place in Earth N.

Time was even more of a mind-screw.  It hadn’t actually been that long between the time Jessica had introduced me to the group that would become Breakthrough and today.

Team composition…

It was a horrible, horrible feeling to wrestle with the fact Breakthrough had lost two members.  Chris might have been inevitable, but Ashley hadn’t been.

Well, no.  Ashley had been inevitable, but losing her hadn’t been right or okay.

There was another in the possible line of fire, and I hoped it was me.  Not because I wanted to die, not when I had so fucking much left to do, to see, experience, and live… but because I felt a kind of responsibility.

A spiral of thinking for a short answer: Victoria, Swansong, Lookout.

I edited my documents with my clarifications, and added my notes to his document with my answers.

I could remember my cousin Eric joking he’d join the Wards in the lamest rebellion against his parents ever, if it weren’t for the paperwork.  I could remember a younger me feeling something weirdly and positively defiant, like the paperwork wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, because it created something that was codified, more sure.  So much of what a hero did was unsure, struggling against evil, cruelty, and ruin and then going home, wondering if that brutal struggle had really made a difference.

I’d ruminated a lot on who I’d once been, the brutality of Glory Girl’s actions against the villains.  How much of that had been motivated by a desire to make an impact, or to go home and feel like I’d made an appreciable difference?  Find the unequivocal bad guys, and hurt them badly enough they wouldn’t be doing bad things again anytime soon.  Like when I’d heard from some classmates that there were gangsters strongarming them into joining the ABB.  Break the gangsters.

Having just thought of my cousins, I looked for and found Crystal’s regiment on the map.  She was okay.

While I was at it, I checked for the others.  Breakthrough.  Kenzie and the Tenders.  Everyone still on their way.

Other hero teams were hanging back, because one area of the city was on fire after some collapses, and there was another area that was being managed because some industrial buildings had collapsed, with a chemical gas spreading from the site.  I could hear Pearce at the comms, trying to get specific heroes to the site.

“Victoria.”

I looked over.  Miss Militia stood in the doorway.

“A word?”

“Do you mind, Armstrong, sir?”

He glanced over his own version of my notes with my additions.  “This is good.  Thank you, Victoria.”

“I’ll be back for the briefing part of it, if you need me.”

“It won’t be here.  Too many people.  Go to the downstairs hall when you’re done.  I won’t be the one in charge then, but we’ll coordinate if you’re needed for the briefing.”

I nodded, grabbing my coat, standing and crossing the room.  A shame.  Armstrong hadn’t ever been the kind of director who rallied the troops, went to war, or used his teams to surgically take out the most problematic villains.  Another person in his role might have been harsher with me, but he’d been largely passive, sitting back and ensuring he had all of the facts.

I appreciated that.

The hallway outside was emptier than it had been in a while.  Most people had places to go, and with the next big situation-room type meeting being downstairs, people who would be going back and forth were mostly just going forth.

Which meant it wasn’t all that hard to find a place to chat.  In the end, I stopped at the railing near where I’d talked to Jessica and Darnall.

“It’s good to see you,” I said.  “I hope your team wasn’t hit by this catastrophe.”

“It wasn’t,” she said, pulling her scarf down. “But we did lose a good portion of the city.  It might be years before we’re back where we were, especially with the relationships to Shin and Cheit being as strained as they are.  No advance preparation, some of the thinkers that helped put us on the right track are gone now.  We have far too many people out in the cold right now.”

“Is this doable?” I asked.

“If the titans were dealt with immediately, and we got to work, everyone coordinating to work together?  I think so.”

She’d become a bit more of a politician in the time since I’d known her.  That was a very positive message to convey a negative sentiment, with several points left vague.  How immediate was immediate?  Today?  In the next hour?  Who was ‘everyone’, heroes or heroes and villains?  How coordinated did she mean?

All for a ‘I think so’.  Not even a confident ‘yes’.

“There’ll be time for that at the briefing,” Miss Militia said.  She pulled out a handkerchief and rubbed at the corners of her eyes.  “Sorry.  There was a lot of smoke.  The other Wardens and I exchanged a few messages and decided it was best if I was the one to talk to you.  I’ve talked to you more than anyone else.”

I thought about that, then nodded.  It felt like a lifetime ago.

“If it weren’t for that, it would have been Defiant, but we were all pretty sure he would have spent the bulk of the time yelling at you.”

“Oh,” I said.  I thought for a second.  “This is that kind of conversation.”

“I’m afraid so.  If it helps, I don’t have long,” Miss Militia said.  “I’ve seen some the notes on the situation, thanks to Dragon and Director Armstrong.”

“Is he a director now?” I asked.  “Or is he-”

“He isn’t.  Not officially,” she said, cutting me off.

“Sorry.  He had me going over notes, clarifying terms and wording.  I might be a bit in that mode.”

“It could be that it’s a more comfortable mode than the one that has to face what’s happening on Gimel and its neighboring worlds,” she said, a bit more sympathetic.

“Are you doing okay?” I asked.  “It’s a lot.”

“I’ll manage.  I’ve always managed.  We’re worried you’re the one who isn’t managing, Victoria.  There are patterns of problem behavior.”

She didn’t specify what the behavior was, even with the time constraint.  I knew, but that she wasn’t outlining it changed this from the kind of conversation a teacher might have with a student to the kind of conversation a cop had with a potential suspect.  A teacher wanted to outline the right path.  A police officer wanted to see if the suspect talked their way into trouble.

“First thing this morning, Defiant interviewed us.  I told him I was under the impression that this would happen, potentially with Teacher at the helm.  Things got out of control then, but my intention was to be as equipped as possible to handle this… titan thing.”

“You knew it would be titans?”

“No.  No… but I knew it had to be something.  My team lost Swansong, and having precogs tell you your friend is going to die, then seeing them die?  Seeing a little girl lose her favorite person?  Kind of forces you to confront that hey, this is all for fucking real.”

She didn’t respond, just staring at me with bottle-glass green eyes.

I continued, “And I wasn’t exactly wearing kid gloves or operating under any happy-go-lucky delusions about how serious things were when I went to Shin as a favor to the Wardens, or brought my team into the fight to take this compound and stop Teacher.  And we lost Swansong because of it.”

“I am sorry for your loss.”

“Fume Hood was a friend and she’s one of the titans now, apparently.  I keep seeing people fall by the wayside.”

“I can sympathize,” Miss Militia said.  “Cinereal is also a titan, now.  Whatever that means in the long run.  She was hard to work with but she and I found common ground.  Losing her is hard.”

“We put everything on the line for what we do, Miss Militia.  This has been my life, from the start to now.  I was serious before this kicked off, I’m more serious now.”

Miss Militia nodded, leaning over the railing that looked down over lower floors.  “I don’t get the impression you’re drunk with power.  I’ve seen parahumans who lost the kernel of their self after a shift in their power, learning a new technique, or after an injury to mind or body.  For what it’s worth, I don’t think you’re there…”

I nodded, a bit concerned at this line of discussion.  “But?”

“But you’ve flouted rules.  Dragon knows about Lookout’s activities earlier.”

I glanced at her, raising an eyebrow, saying nothing.

Miss Militia smiled a bit.  “How do I say this?  Lookout is very good at what she does.  In nearly any situation, she might have gotten away with helping you and communicating with you.  To all appearances, you and she both were being good and focusing on your own work.  You had a few periods of quiet introspection, but that’s pretty understandable, everything considered.  Except Lookout ‘being good’ and focusing on her own work and socializing with her friends is outside her norm.”

“Is it really?  She works hard, she’s very fond of them.”

“And in the past week, there hasn’t been a waking hour where she wasn’t idly penetrating systems, gathering data, watching someone through a camera she’d gained access to, or figuring out how to sort the data she did collect.  This morning there was a two hour span where she did none of that… as far as cameras and general surveillance of her activity could tell.”

“She’s in trouble because she didn’t spy and gather data?”

“She did, but she did too good a job of covering it up, Victoria.  Dragon noticed the discrepancy and did a more intensive investigation.  She found out what you two were really doing.”

I frowned, eyes dropping to the ground.  “Every hour?  Really?  I would have thought it was a few times a day.  Half a dozen at most.”

“Dragon’s notes say it was what you say, a week ago.  This week…”

I nodded.  “Why tell me that?  You could have kept it in the back pocket and kept more of an eye on her and us.”

“Because we don’t intend to make the same mistake again, nor to extend the same benefit of a doubt.”

I set my jaw.

She went on, “First thing this morning, Defiant made you an offer.  You could work with the Wardens and accept our rules, or you could go your own way and we wouldn’t be supporting you in the same ways.  Should we revisit the question?  You don’t seem willing to accept our requests.”

I sighed.  “Felt and feels like the rules were explicitly to deny us the support the Wardens are supposedly offering.”

“Your teammate’s life was saved earlier by a Warden.  Slician saved Sveta.”

“Would Sveta have been there, in that specific circumstance, dealing with Fallen who hate her on principle in front of her, and ex-Irregular Case Fifty-threes behind her, if she wasn’t helping you?

“You mean would she be keeping an eye on the Red Queen, Victoria?  If you’d taken the other path first thing this morning, parting ways with the Wardens, and word got around that Amy Dallon was making giant clones with the limiters taken off their powers, I think Sveta would be joining you in investigating or taking some other related action.  She would be there because you would almost certainly have been involved.”

“Maybe I could have saved her in Slician’s place, then.”

“Maybe.  But we’re so far down the road of maybes I don’t think it’s productive.  We are providing you with support.  Medical care and support for Byron, assistance for your team, communication with other teams, shelter, and networks.  I know you visited Anelace, Clockblocker, Kid Win, and Vista, earlier.”

Anelace.  Damn.  I felt the skin of my face and ears heat up a fraction.

“Okay,” I said.  “Point conceded.  I still think a lot of what the Wardens were doing in the situation room with Eric in charge  was counter-productive and outright dangerous.  Benching me, okay, I can see it.  Denying me the ability to call my team, throwing road blocks in the way?  Cinereal’s point man in the situation room didn’t say it right out, but it was pretty clear he wasn’t going to pass on even critical messages.  They gave me the excuse of paperwork, qualifiers, all things that would tie me up until the situation was over.”

“He made choices I wouldn’t have, but I don’t think it matters.”

“Doesn’t it?  When those choices are that against what we’re trying to do?”

“For organizations like ours to work, sometimes we have to accept that we’ll get orders we don’t agree with, and then we follow those orders.  God knows I did that enough times when I worked for the P.R.T..”

“I’m okay with following orders, provided there’s some indication the person knows what they’re doing.”

Miss Militia raised her eyebrows.  I saw her take in a deep breath, like she was figuring out how to even begin with her massive rebuttal.

“The mishap with the dream camera excepted.  Defiant himself said that tapping on the glass or investigating was safe.  We took a look into pretty unexplored territory one of our team members had spent a lot of time in, that unexplored territory ended being bigger and more dangerous than we anticipated.  That was a fuck-up.”

“He said no and you went and did it anyway.  I think his feelings were hurt.”

“I-” I started, stopped.  Defiant was a massive cyborg, dressed up in green and gold dragon aesthetic.  Before that, he’d been as much a grizzled and live-for-the-job a cape as any I knew.  I really had no idea how to process the idea that I might have hurt him in any way, feelings included.

“Victoria, as I said, time is short.  I’ll be blunt here.  Eric did more harm than good.  Sometimes that’s the way it is in times of crisis.  He just lost his mentor, he’ll be starting from square one working under me.  It’s possible he’ll rise in the ranks quickly, if Cinereal’s assessment of him is correct.  She always had a great eye for nascent talent.”

I don’t envy you, Miss Militia.

“As for you, you’ve broken many of the rules we set.  You’ve been using your power in small ways, reportedly in one blatant, dangerous manner-”

“Touching Eric?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Flinch reflex.  Automatic.”

“The same kind that gave your mother massive cerebral hemmorhaging?”

I winced.  “No.  I have control, now.  He reached out to touch me all of a sudden, I was jumpy, it was a soft touch.  He did it again later and I used my hand to push his away.”

“Alright.  I’ll look into that.  Let me continue, I do want to wrap this up.  You reached out to command your team in an egregious breach of our rules, we did look at the contents of those messages, and they were more or less in line with what we would have found acceptable.  Telling Sveta Karelia to stand down, de-escalating situations, and providing some guidance when the Red Queen went berserk.  That was a massive de-escalation, when we had reason to believe Shin wanted a fight.”

“I still need to ensure she has a therapist to talk to.”

“After.  We’ll work something out.  The Wardens will help you.”

“Because when I tried, a member of the Wardens broke my phone and got aggressive.”

“I’m aware.  We will handle that separately.  Trust me, Victoria.  Please.”

I’m finding trust hard to come by, I thought.  My mom with Uncle Neil.  My sister.  Swansong going and getting herself killed.  My dad sticking by Amy without doing anything concrete.  Jessica letting me down.

“I’m running out,” I said.  “Of trust.”

She gave me a sad smile.  Her tone changed, less authoritarian as she wistfully said, “What I wouldn’t give to have had you on my Wards team for that one year, and to see you graduate to the Protectorate alongside Gallant.  The past few years have been so unjust.”

I shrugged, swallowing hard.  I didn’t want to get into how I’d fantasized about such while in the hospital.  “I needed to get knocked down a peg, to course correct.  I just… got knocked down all the way, I guess.”

She nodded, then checked her phone for the time.  “I’d like to catch up sometime, talk about that sort of thing if you’re open to it.  For now… to put it succinctly, I’m worried, the Wardens are worried, but our need for heroes is outweighed by the immediate concerns.  There will be repercussions, the Wardens may say no when it comes to access to certain resources or features in coming days.  Until you regain our trust.  Some of it will sting, but for the time being, we need to deal with the Titans and the city and we’re willing to postpone that sting.”

I nodded.

“We will be looking in more.  To keep track, and to ensure you don’t carry on down a worrying road.  Not just you, either.  Lookout will be sanctioned in other ways.  There’s too much concerning activity there.”

I frowned, but I nodded.  “As food for thought, though, if you have a thinker that’s clairvoyant and capable of seeing everything within a hundred miles around them, no off switch, you adapt, don’t you?  PRT or Warden?  You just accept them?”

“Yes.  But Lookout makes the decisions to do what she does.  There is an off switch.”

“She’s a kid with some struggles who just lost her favorite person less than a week ago.  The off switch is really hard for her to flip.  You’ve probably seen her file, so you know the history there.  Can you let me try to address this?”

“You do that, try to address it, but we’ll have to do something too.  We’ll go easy on her, especially if you’re taking a better course of action, but…”

“But you have to do something.”

“We can’t let that kind of invasive, dangerous behavior go entirely unanswered.  In the same way we can’t look past your team’s activities last night and your ignoring rules earlier today, whatever the circumstance.”

I nodded.  I didn’t have it in me for a fight, and a fight would have put things at risk, with Wardens deciding not to let me go out.  And that wasn’t an option.

“Before I go… I came to talk to you armed with an argument I was ready to use if you weren’t cooperating.  I didn’t find I had to use it… but I think I’d like to bring it up, just as food for thought.”

“Okay,” I said, wary.

“The Fallen were convinced they were in the right.  They operated based on beliefs they said to be truths, and through some combination of luck or efforts behind the scenes, they had a lot of successes.  They did reckless things in contravention to the unwritten rules.  When disaster struck, they believed they were in the right because they’d seen it coming, when you could pick three random citizens off the street, ask them if they thought the world might end, and get four agreements.  This encouraged them, and they ultimately pushed things too far and collapsed.  In their wake, they inspired others to go down the same course, the new Thomais branch, and those others also pushed things too far, made the wrong alliances, and died.”

“I’m not the Fallen.  That’s not fair.”

“I’ve been called a lot of things, with my handling of Brockton Bay and its treatment of the villain population, but unfair is not one of them,” Miss Militia said.

“If I’d been more laid back, planning, laying a groundwork, you’d be comparing me to Teacher instead.”

“Maybe,” she said.  “It’s not meant as an indictment.”

“It sure fucking feels like one.”

“A warning.  You and I know you’re not Fallen.  You’re a hero, and being a hero counts for something.  It gets you benefits of a doubt no other cape enjoys.  Defiant knows and has lived it.  Shadow Stalker in our old Wards program knew it and benefited from it.  Skitter got it when she joined the Wards.  Lookout, Capricorn, Rain, and Swansong all got some benefit out of it.  We’re desperate enough for more people on the side of good that we let things go…”

“That’s not encouraging, if you say I’m not Fallen and then imply the line between me and them is I picked the right side.”

“You picked the side of right.  There’s a distinction, and what you’re saying is not what I’m trying to suggest.  You work hard and I think however you ended up, you would always have been working hard for the benefit of the world.  That’s undeniably good, but it does provide camouflage of a sort, and it does require you hold yourself to a higher standard as a result of that.  Be aware of where you are, what it looks like, why you’re getting the flexibility we’re offering, and how this same kind of thing can end up.”

I wanted to argue the point, but again, I didn’t want to burn bridges for the sake of defending myself.

I settled for a nod.

“Thirty minutes until the briefing begins.”

“Can I fly home and change?  I think it’s at the edge of the damage.  I’d come in five minutes late at most.  My teammate can keep me in the loop.”

“I think that’s doable,” she said.  “I’ll see you there.”

She walked away.  I took a second, stopping to think.

My head turned, and I looked at the nearest security camera.  “We talk later, Lookout.  Catch up with you guys in a minute.”

The perpetual little blue light in the corner went off for a second, then back on.

I took flight, feet leaving the ground, and I flew down the hallway, back grazing the ceiling so I wouldn’t bump into any bystanders.  I flew with all of the pent-up fervor and frustration I’d been holding in as I’d sat back and watched Gimel suffer its mortal blow.

It didn’t take long to reach the entrance hall.  I landed with impact, letting my feet and legs absorb the force of some of my momentum, instead of coming to a stop first.

And then I was outside.  Coat on, black sweater, hands in my pockets.  It looked more like night than day, with the smoke heavy in the air, and the city keened.  Wind shrieking along the devastated sections I had only seen on video so far.

When I flew out into this cold, now-broken world, I took to the air with a violence I hadn’t been willing to use indoors, tearing through the sky in the same way a fighter might punch at a wall to vent his fears or sorrows.  No slowing before turns, I just took the brunt of it against my side, and felt the cold and the wind punch through the softer outer layers I wore.  No gentleness to the plunges or the skyward soars, no consideration for the g-forces.  It was a strain and I needed that strain to leech certain feelings out of me before they overflowed and I said or did something regrettable.

But the air, in a way, fed those negative emotions by the same measures with which they absorbed them.  Because as I rose higher to go over clusters of buildings it was too annoying to fly around or through, I could see the city, and I could see the damage.  A gaping black yawning through the heart of the city, where it wasn’t stretched thin along the coast in the direction of Boston, and where the buildings weren’t all temporary, one story tall structures, sprawling out and waiting to be replaced when the resources were there.  In the heart of the city, the buildings had been tall.  Now there was a hole extending far deeper than the buildings had extended up.

No succor in pummeling the sky with my body, here.  Not when it answered me with sights like these.

The forcefield protected me from the whipping cold.  There was, at least, succor in its companionship.

Soon.

Soon we see what we can do together.

Dive hard.  Extend my arms out, and experience the wind through those fingers, feel the air resistance… my actual hands still in my pockets.  I folded them in close, hugging them in tight and close to my body, and felt the resistance decrease.  An umbrella open in rushing wind versus one that was shut, spearing forward.

Fly harder, between buildings this time, because air flow tended to go over buildings, curling before continuing forward, and with the forcefield out I was vulnerable to the vagaries of wind, even with everything tucked in closer.

“No,” I breathed.

The apartment building was at the edges of the cracking, but the blurred, broken separations in reality had speared it.  Some fundamental support had given, and it had slumped over to one side.  The apartment I’d shared with Ashley.  Technically the first place I’d lived ‘on my own’, with no parents supervising or managing me, even though Ashley or Kenzie had been there at various points.

Toppled.  My things, my files, my clothes, my stuffed lion that I’d salvaged past the end of the world.  Ashley’s things.

I landed with enough force it made my knees and hips hurt.  I navigated around the slices in reality, putting out one of my forcefield hands that I could afford to lose.

The distinction between one place and another was clear.  The air lensed, like I was looking through prisms, magnifying glasses, or water droplets.  But when it was air meeting air, there was little distinction.  Perhaps temperature.

I walked across a landscape that looked like a stained glass window, with some ‘panels’ filled with snowy urban area and others with soil.  Drawn in every hard-edged shape that wasn’t a square, some extending up or down.

The forcefield died.  I had to experiment to see why.  Certain pockets of air close to the cracks were dangerous, slicing any passing limb by sending different portions to different realities.  Like thickets of nigh-invisible, ultra-sharp brambles.

I’d spent so motherfucking long trying to build a life for myself.  Collecting my files, rebuilding a wardrobe.  Gone.

I seized the roof and lifted it with more ease than I’d ever lifted anything as Glory Girl.  It wasn’t that I was stronger- I wasn’t.  But having eight extremities to balance out the distribution of weight meant it didn’t crumble to anywhere near the same degree when I held it up.

I threw it aside with more violence than was necessary.

Fuck.

Digging my way to the living room, using pieces of art and a general sense of what should be where to find my way to where it should be.

Fuck!

Some of the furniture had been shattered by the fall.  Ashley had tended to buy nice things when she bought stuff, so it was sturdy… but that made the ones that were unsalvageable that much worse.

Fuck!

I dug and destroyed until I found my way to what I needed.  My bed, my costume laid out on the foot of it.  I made sure I had everything.

Once I did, I bundled it up securely, and I raised my head, staring across the expanse of black.  There wasn’t much light, but when there was, it revealed hints of red crystal in the depths of that abyss, edges and points.

But mostly, looking out with nothing stabbing up or out of that chasm, the view was unobstructed.   A lake of black, so far across I couldn’t see the other side.   The only buildings on the other side were so obscured with snowfall they looked like mirages.  White snowfall pouring into a void, making no appreciable difference in the texture beneath.

I lifted up sections of wall, forming a rough pyramid around myself.  Cover while I changed into my costume.  Even while I did it, I was aware of every little detail and item, recognizing where it had come from.  Trinkets, decorations, drawer handles.

We’re all cast out into the cold.  It’s only fair.

When I was dressed, I thrust the walls away, sending some sliding out into the void, others flipping across the street.

I flew.

BriefingThen we get to work.

No violence to my flying now, except where I experimentally opened the mouths in my forcefield and felt the air rush in through the apertures, pulling at my hood.

No, best to conserve my strength.

‘Work’ would be a war against creatures that, reportedly, no team had been able to deal with yet.

Some of whom had been our friends and allies.

My landing was feather-light as I reached the outside of the entrance to the Cauldron facility.  I made my way to the entrance hall, with stairs reaching to upper floors on either side of a hallway so wide four buses could have driven along it.

The crowd was so thick I had to fly to get past it.  There were fliers in my way too.

I landed next to Armstrong, at the far left edge of the line of people who were facing the crowd, a kind of middle ground between that line and the crowd.  Legend was talking about the timeline and events.

Armstrong leaned in, murmuring, “We’ll have a laptop in front of us.  We can trade off as necessary.  You’ll address them with a summary of what the crystal landscape is like.”

I nodded, feeling a bit intimidated.  “Sounds good.”

Tattletale, I noticed, was at the far other end of the line.  In a similar, almost mirror position to my own.

Not quite part of the lineup, but adjunct.  The Undersiders weren’t far from her.  Rachel’s dogs were dog-sized.  I could see the Heartbroken peering out past people.

Tattletale tilted her head to one side, her eyes moving.  I followed her gaze.

My team.  Everyone together, healthy.  The Malfunctions were clustered near Rain.

My family wasn’t far from them,

My family

My mom.  Crystal.  My dad was there, but he was working his way around the edges of the crowd, toward a side hallway.  Marquis was with him, and where Marquis was…

Sure enough.  Amy.  Being escorted out and away.  I saw my dad look back at me, then back toward my mom.

I did too.  I saw Aunt Sarah there.  Beside her, a face I’d seen in photographs for the bulk of my life.  Uncle Mike.  Lightstar.  Looking less than happy for what I could guess were about ten different reasons.

That was where we were at, then.

Villains joined the crowd, capes were out of retirement.  The major teams of Advance Guard, Foresight, and the Shepherds were here, plus or minus a handful of core members, but plus the reserve troops, their B-teams and reserve lines, the capes they’d been using to manage whole tracts of territory with one underlying ethos.

We’d had all of this, we’d had more, really, and we couldn’t stop this from happening.

Now we were in a worse place.  Out in the cold, driven by desperation.

And we had to do better.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

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