Last – 20.1

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Hey, young me, I thought.  In my mind’s eye, I held onto the image of myself in the living room of Aunt Sarah’s house, sitting on the loveseat.  Getting the talk.  You dreamed about being a hero for what seemed like every moment of every day.

It never crossed your mind how cold and bitter it could be.

I was at a height above the tallest buildings, suspended in the air.  Snow and wind whipped around me and my forcefield, and I positioned the gun I held to block the worst of it.  Futile, when it seemed to change directions every three seconds.

Land was cracked, and from this height only darkness was visible in the cracks.

The sky was fractured.  Other worlds visible through those fractures.

The people… if there were any down there, they were scattered, few, and desperate.

I didn’t imagine the fear.

The Simurgh was there in the distance, taking roost in the middle of a clearing, ringed by a crown-like circle of ruined and toppled buildings.  It had been a park, once, but there was no grass, no water, there were no trees.

The tech in my eye changed settings without my requesting it.  Tweaks to the night-vision, then a zoom-in, which combined with the wind to create a sensation closer to helplessly falling than anything I’d experienced to date, and that included having my flight or my ability to control my flight taken from me while I was a hundred feet above the ground.  Mostly because the Simurgh was what I felt like I was plummeting toward.

A wing was folded around her upper body, but golden lines appeared and outlined shapes behind the wing.

The golden outlines turned red.  Labels were traced out in print so small I shouldn’t have been able to read them.

Tinkertech.  Machine Army.

She brought some with her.

Others were arriving, filtering in through portals.

I’d seen recreations of past Simurgh attacks.  Lausanne, Paris, Canberra.  Some were drawn from witness accounts, but the Paris one had been done by a member of the Suits.  Until they were collectively taken down and dissemination was made illegal.  Too much worry.

From seeing those recreations, though I’d never participated in a fight against the Simurgh, I knew she liked this kind of moment.

Except that was dangerous thinking.  Applying human thought, personifying her.  She didn’t ‘like’ anything.  She didn’t get angry.  She didn’t have hopes, dreams.  Only cold intent.

Rewording: She had a tendency to position herself like this.  Waiting for people to come to her, while she remained still.

Portals opened.  Our ground troops arrived.  Legend was in the air, healed from a recent injury, his face all closed up now, but for a single line of light blue.  While mending he had tried to hold back the Machine Army after the Simurgh’s most recent visit.

“Dragon’s saying she has tinkertech in the folds of her wings!” I called out.  My voice felt so cold and empty.

Legend looked at me, then tapped one of his ears.

Earpiece?  He knew?

I nodded.

More notifications came up.  Some straight, diagonal lines that pointed down to the crowd, each with a sharp bend and horizontal bit at the upper end, with labels above them.  Names of my teammates.  Other people I knew.

Dragon’s use of the eye tech felt much more forceful than Lookout’s.  The transmissions were ‘pay attention to this’, ‘you’ll want to know this’.  Lookout had been a softer touch, rooted more in knowing us, communication, a back and forth.

Another notification, forceful.  I was reminded of certain websites and app mascots, popping up and offering me assistance.  Except… all of this was stuff I wanted to know.  I had to fight past my kneejerk reaction of dismissing, moving on.  Dragon told me that the call with Riley was imminent.  A matter of minutes.

I flew down closer to my team.  Chris was at the edges, in a bulldog of a form that I only recognized as him because of the wreath of cloth he wore around his waist, and the ringed collar of syringes.  He was last to arrive, two of his giants emerging from the portal on hands and knees.

He took cover as soon as he was able.  A crow was perched there, and for whatever reason, it didn’t take off when Chris collapsed to a sitting position four feet from it.  He glanced at it, then shooed it away.

“Those things are terrifying,” Rain called out.

“You need terrifying sometimes,” Chris spoke, his voice deep and the ‘T’ sounds especially hard.

“Be terrifying, first and foremost,” Damsel said from the next group over.  “Then recruit it.”

“I am wearing a form that could literally eat your face.  One bite,” Chris told her, before opening a fanged maw.

“You could try.  On a separate note, try harder.

Chris looked as at ease as I’d seen him since his return from Shin, having the back and forth.  Damsel… I had to wonder if she’d have joined, if we’d managed to figure Chris out and keep him on board.  Would he have offered what she needed to see?

He was a monster, I would never ever forget his role in the prison fiasco.  But I had the feeling he understood monsters, and to use the phrasing he liked so much.

The Simurgh moved her wings, wing-tips drawing together in a point above her head, one knee raised.

She swept her wings to one side, as someone fired a big gun, and it was probably Chevalier.  She flew to the side, and the shot struck the ground.  Dodging the incoming cannon shot.

I could see the red outlines for the tinkertech.  Pulled behind her back as part of the maneuver, so nobody in that crowd could see it.

I took flight, circling around.  The wind whistled past my forcefield, which I kept close to my body, except for an extension of multiple arms to hold my gun.  I pointed the barrels backward, so the domed, half-a-pear shape of the housing of the weapon was at its most aerodynamic.

The wind whipped past the gun, too.

Please.”

The voice out of nowhere almost made me change course.

Just a pop of the metal as I shifted my grip on the gun, followed by an eerie whistle of wind.

I had the shivers.

Chevalier’s shot had marked the opening of the fight.  Capes moved in, opening fire, filling the battlefield with moving pieces, like pillars, statues, giant concrete hands, forcefields, lasers.

A mess, but this was part of the strategy.

The expendable and the invincible were next in.  Tinkertech, minions, and a brave few capes.

Dragon had a craft in there, vaguely turtle-like, with a glowing orb mounted in its back, its legs ending in thrusters it used to move in an ungainly way through the sky.

The Simurgh played a defensive game.

This too, was a… I changed my mind from saying habit.  It was a tendency.  Better to think of her like a natural disaster.  The water receded before  tsunami.  The calm in the midst of a hurricane indicated you were in the midst of it, and that more was to come.

I took aim, flipping the gun around so the barrel pointed forward, and a crosshair appeared at my target.  The tinkertech.

The golden laser flashed through the air, illuminating streets and buildings below me.  Her wing, at the same time, came out, a shield to block the machinery she carried with her.  The laser cut into the exterior, leaving her silver wings with a shaky scar that glowed a molten gold at the edges.

She ignored me, putting a large wing in the way as I continued to try to find an angle where I could tear into that tinkertech.

I could hear it now.  The scream.

In red-edged letters, a countdown began rolling down in the corner of my vision.  Exposure.

Another alert, in gold text.  Instructions to avoid shooting one area, marked out.  People were within, difficult to see from the distance I was shooting from.  Couldn’t slip up, now, with how finnicky laser beams were to keep on target.

We’d had reports from Legend that the Machine Army had used deflectors.  I had to keep that in mind, too.  If she pulled the wing back and the deflector caught my laser at the right angle, which it would, then the beam could hit someone vital.

The gun whined, the whine joining the sound in my head.

Sorry,” the wind said.

I couldn’t let my focus slack by even a fraction.  Not even to read an alert that didn’t even require my eye to move for me to bring it into clear focus.  It was gold text, at the very least.  Not-

The text changed.  Outlined in red, not gold, now.

I stopped shooting, sparing a look.

The Machine Army broke containment.

I pulled the trigger again, going after the tinkertech again.  At the corner of my vision, golden alerts and labels popped up, notifying me that teams were deploying to the site, to try and corral the escaped machines.

I’m sorry, younger me, I thought.  More than anything else, you thought we’d be confident.  You envisioned yourself standing with glowing swords or grenades in hand, unflinching and confident.

Two threats to overcome, and I had a maybe idea for the second.

The first had just ruined any hope we had at reclaiming Gimel, and she was in her warm-up phase.

Earlier

“This will be the final attack,” Chevalier announced, and his voice was deep, assured.  “A select group who have read the requisite files, who are led by captains who know the protocols, and who are in the best fighting shape will be leading the next big attack against the Simurgh. She remains the most immediate threat. Everyone else will be preparing for the standoff against the Titans and protecting the perimeter when it comes to the Machine Army.”

Narwhal spoke next, all business, serious, her back ramrod straight, her body in a double-thick layer of forcefield crystals, her hair a white-purple, down to the small of her back.  “The Titan Network is now down to Arachne, standalone, Skadi, standalone, then the trio of Titan Kronos, Titan Eve, and Titan Oberon.  The remainder of the Titans are in the Fortuna cluster.  Fortuna, Valkyrie, Ophion, the Blind Titan, Amenonuhuko, Morgana, Yakshini, Titan Shortcut, Auger, the Liminal Titan or Custodian Titan…”

Images helped notify everyone about the Titans, with icons for broad classifications, notes on powers.  My phone buzzed at my hip as it updated with information.  Not that I could imagine that I’d be pulling my phone out much.

“…The Nemean, Ashoka, Pouffe, and Ashen Titans are out of action, sequestered away or injured and healing.”

Let’s just ignore that I couldn’t recite that list of Fortuna’s titans back to youFuck.  Fuck.  Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

Sveta had her arms folded, fingers hooked into the gaps in her forearms.  Rain was nodding to himself.  Byron stood away from the rest of the group, closer to the stage and to Vista.  Closer to Moonsong, who was at one corner of the stage, representing the Shepherds.  Seeing him like that made me think that Breakthrough might cease to be when this was over.

I wasn’t sure that bothered me.

“Above all,” Chevalier addressed the room.  “Whether you’re facing Fortuna or not, the key here is to avoid panicking.  Don’t lose heart.  We can do this.”

When he said it, I kind of believed him.

“I know this because I see too many faces I’ve been through too many all-or-nothing battles with.  For years we fought Endbringers with the knowledge that one more loss might be what broke us.  We fought Scion.  Tonight, we fight one more Endbringer, we face down the Fortuna cluster, and we’ll put plans into motion.”

I had the sense that a lot of people believed him.  He wasn’t leader of the Wardens for nothing.  People in the crowd looked energized, enthused.  Scared as shit, but a scared they could push past.

To my left, something clicked and hissed.  I turned my head, hand going to my hood to pull it away from my peripheral vision.

Chris had just taken one of his injections by way of the heavy metal collar with the ring of syringes mounted on it.  His expression was unimpressed, dark.  He looked back at Thunderdome, one of Advance Guard’s capes, someone he’d had a momentary bit of friction with, and I wondered if he was sorry, but unable to phrase it.

Then he marched off.  Walking away from all of this.

Complicated.  Messy.

Legend, approaching from the side, flew to the stage.  When he looked over the crowd, a slice of his face shimmered in rainbow hues, with smokey waves rolling off the top and back of his head.  An eye like a perfectly round white disk ringed by darker colors sat where his eye was supposed to be.

“The Simurgh!  Pay attention, even if you won’t be fighting her.  You can’t know what will happen!” Legend announced, and he was confident, assured.  If the head injury had impaired his faculties any, it didn’t show.  “Our analysis of the Simurgh comes from years of experience!  I can tell you, don’t let your guard down.  She will surprise us.  She will throw curveballs at us.  In all the times we’ve engaged with her, she has had new tricks.  Stay the course!

Images of the Simurgh appeared on the screens.

“Her precognition gets better at assessing targets and threats the longer they are in range of her scream.  The initial attack is key.  She will not dodge everything we throw at her.  You may feel the attacks don’t matter.  They do!  Our initial approach will emphasize chaos and disturbance.  This delays the point in time where she has the ability to see everything!  We will rotate people in and out, minimizing exposure.  Past a certain ‘code yellow’ point you’re an increasing danger to others.  Past a ‘code red’, you become her weapon to use against humanity.  Play it safe, taper off, be prepared to back out, or know who you can go to to get a ride or evacuation.  We will have resources as we split apart the teams.”

Narwhal added, “There will be further instructions for sub-teams and groups.  Noncombat capes are being held in reserve at key locations.  Team leaders will be notified about these preparations.  Finally, civilians are deployed and are waiting to target specific sites in the crystal landscape.  Be prepared.”

Chevalier addressed us.  “I can’t say much more than that.  I don’t give long speeches-”

There were a few chuckles.  There was a rare smile from Narwhal.

“-Don’t panic, believe.  I trust you.”

There was light applause, some whoops.  Dinah Alcott rose from her seat and approached Legend and Chevalier.  Giving them input.

As much as it was a speech staple for Chevalier to talk about giving short speeches.  I couldn’t help but feel like they were rushing things because we didn’t have time.  I could feel the touch of panic already.

 

Present

The scream filled my head, impossibly high and drawn out, cold and changing just often enough that I couldn’t anticipate it or get used to it.

My teeth were clenched so hard that the sides of my face hurt.

The early part of the fight was supposed to be the crucial part, where we did as much damage as possible.  I could liken it to how Contessa got fatigued and needed to devote more resources to staying on task, but again, always, this Endbringer that wasn’t brutish and noisy, not feral and animal-like, but graceful.  There were times she moved like a dance with wings would move.  Not so much spinning and leaping, but moving in measured ways, with a full awareness of her body and an audience in mind.

The early phase of the fight was passing.  In my vision, people and the powers they were using were being marked out in a dim yellow.  We weren’t doing a lot of damage.

Yeah, panicking a little.

She swept her wings out, and across this stage she’d created inside the ring of broken buildings, snow and dust picked up, with a gravely sound as it pulled free from ground, debris that hadn’t been picked up clattering back down to earth.

Ick.” the background noise said, sounding very much like someone with stiff enunciation was whispering in my ear.  “Sick.

A building, leaning against another building, creaked.  Again, the sound threatened to become a sound, and my brain reached to interpret it as a human utterance, even though I knew it wasn’t.

“Awww.   Uugggh.”

The tracker Dragon was providing me with fritzed, going dark, showing a vague Simurgh silhouette in the cloud, then another, a hundred feet away.

After that second guess, there was nothing.  Only the cloud of cover she’d made, labels and indicators for where people were being tracked by the phones or other devices they carried, and alerts for distant battlefields.

The battlefield went still, quiet.  A few powers flickered and flared, but the dust hung in the air.

The screaming I’d come to take as steady background noise ceased.  My brain felt like my body did in the stillness after a hard workout, blood pulsing through it, shaky, and a bit vulnerable.

I flew down to be closer to my team.  Just in case.

Dragon’s spherical craft was crackling, sending out spherical waves that rippled over the crowd, over parts of the battlefield.  A whole section of the dust cleared away, stripped of the Simurgh’s telekinetic hold.

She chose that moment to emerge, while our eyes were searching the gap for any sign.  She wasn’t even that far from me.  From Breakthrough.

The scream tore through my senses, everyone’s senses, delaying our response.  The countdown timer in the corner of my vision whirred, a speedometer flying by, costing me tens of seconds with every moment.

Byron had motes ready to go.  Dark blue motes consolidated into something like coral, between stone, organic, and ice, with a faint spiral to it.  A spear, thrust at the Endbringer, who took the blow to one shoulder.  A scar to join a dozen others.  Light blue motes hung in the air, fat blue fireflies with trails left behind them.

She leaned back away from it, changed direction, plunging into another group.  Villains from Semiramis’ faction.

We had others nearby.  I could hear Finale’s voice, distant, setting up her attack.  Withdrawal was perched nearby, Sveta beside him.

Gibbet was creating a barrier, a cluster of metal barricades and fencing that emerged in different sizes and angles.

The Dragon craft drew nearer.  The Bakunawa Zero, with its pulses that disrupted powers and power effects.  I knew the idea was to throw as much chaos as possible at the Simurgh, to disrupt her reads, to scramble her signal and her information gathering as she screamed.

She used the chunk of Machine Army tech she’d brought with her.  Flung it out with telekinesis, so fast I thought it would be dashed to pieces.  The size of a washing machine, it flew straight at one of the pieces of antigravity tech, was pushed away, and between the velocity and the pushback, came to a stop, a foot or two from the glowing panel.

It latched on.

I aimed, leveraging my forcefield to bring the gun around, ready to shoot the thing off of her.  She was already taking evasive action, trying to shake it off, the pulses rippling out with more violence than before.

Couldn’t take the shot without risking I’d do more damage.  If she was backing off like this… she had to trust it.

The information that was coming through the tech at my eye went dark.  No outlines, no labels.

The world was dark, cold, and filled with an endless scream.

The Simurgh was wading through everything and everyone, her wings acting as shields, her telekinesis  deflecting incoming projectiles.  Caryatid blocked one.  I could hear Damsel using her power.

Chevalier, nowhere nearby, fired his cannon again.  The Simurgh flew back, her shoulder torn open, the interior revealed to be hollow, the edges of the wound frayed and lace-like.

I’d seen injuries like that in the re-enactments and recreations too.

It slowed her down, and bought our side time.  Chris had the giants he hadn’t sent to deal with Titans in reserve, and two of those giants joined the fight now.  The Goddess giant and the Mother giant.  A tide of flesh, narrowly missing our back line here, forming into a loose hand shape as it reached for the Simurgh, and gripped telekinetically frozen air instead.

The Simurgh lifted a length of metal that might have been part of a crane, once.  A second later, it was slapped down to the ground.  The Goddess Giant, countering her.

We had time to regroup, to figure out what we were doing.  Two giants fought the Simurgh, who remained where she was, wings in a loose ball-shape around her, air telekinetically held where it was to serve as a shield just past where the wings were, and a crowd of capes retreated, finding steadier ground that wasn’t in the literal shadow of the Simurgh and her wings.

I offered a hand to Byron.  Sveta helped Rain.  Cryptid moved closer to his giants, wearing a form wreathed in folds of too-thick skin, brutish and broad-shouldered, with a kilt-like wreath of cloth around his hips.  He shouted out incoherent orders, hand indicating directions.

Damsel of Distress was launched into the air by someone’s power, and descended onto the bubble of hardened air, blasting through it with her blasts of twisted darkness, plunging at the Simurgh herself.

This is too easyWhat’s the catch?

Wait-

She’d just used one piece of the Machine Army.  The Simurgh had been holding two earlier.  There was no outline, no indicator, even as I could see labels and markings elsewhere.

“Shit!” I swore, as I flew up, back, taking in the cloud of mist, trying to remain peripherally aware of .  There were labels marking the people who’d been caught in the midst of the cloud of disturbed earth.  I kept track of them, mapped her approximate location, reached into a handhold to turn a dial, to make the laser fatter.

The beam cut through suspended ice and dust, burned it, and cleared something of a path.  I tried to trace the Simurgh’s path back to where she had been.

I found and hit a drone, and fried it beneath the laser.  Metal turned to orange-white slag.  Orange-white slag turned black, then became dust, caught by the stiff winds that didn’t budge this snow and grit.

Every time we grab her arm, reach inside her sleeve, and find the card she’s holding, it turns out there’s more waiting.

I was feeling the pressure.  The scream, the fact was needed to win here, and the path to a win was beating her.  There was a saying that people sometimes brought up when the Simurgh was mentioned.  Win the battle, lose the war.

In part, I had been bracing myself for a hard-fought battle that we could ultimately win.  We could subdue her or scare her away, disrupt every possible variable available with precogs and tech, and focus on the next leg of the plan, getting ahead of Fortuna.  The Wardens had a plan and I had my doubts it would work, and I had a plan, with my doubts it would work.  But between the two, leaning on that assumption about the Simurgh losing the battle but scoring a win later, I’d been able to see a way forward.

We weren’t winning this battle.

I killed another drone.

She’d brought two.  One had latched onto Dragon’s ship.  One had melted beneath the laser.

I shot another two glowing blue lights I could see in the smoke.  Two more machines broken.  I didn’t have the time to completely annihilate them, because I could see other lights and movements as the laser burned away more of the cloud.

Something clicked to my right.  I twisted, flipping the gun over, using six different hands to roll it.  A metal disc surrounded by claws had dug into the metal, and the disc was attached to a thin cable.

There was a pull.

Creating a face out of forcefield, I bit into the line, severing it.

There were more.  Grappling-claws latching on, reaching out.

How?

I faced an ongoing attack from foes I couldn’t clearly see, and behind me, the Simurgh fought her way free of the giants.  Sections of damaged land were lifted up, and people evacuated, leaping to cover or forming ground to jump onto- Byron’s conch glacier, Gibbet’s fences, a solid-gold bit of ruined building.

My retreat was a fighting one, as I scrambled to tear away the grappling claws.  Machines that had latched on were reeling in, emerging from the smoke and floating debris.

Fucking fuckity fuck fuck fuck.

A white cube rose up out of the smoke, about fifteen feet across on each face, with six black spider legs and three green lights on the front ‘face’.

The lights flared, and a laser beam drilled into the child-flesh of the Mother Giant, parting that wave.

I pulled away more of the grappling lines and rose up higher.  Once I’d achieved enough height to not be constantly bound down, I shot the big cube, aiming at the glowing lenses until the power cell behind them detonated.

Ten different drones rose up out of the mist.  C-shaped, with rigid propellers on mounts.  They were followed by five more.

I’d read the files on Eagleton, Tennessee.  I knew the basics about the Machine Army.  A tinker experiment gone awry, the original master gone or forgotten.  They were slow, inexorable.

This wasn’t slow.

At the quarantine site, Protectorate capes and the rare Ward who couldn’t be put in front of the public would be given the busywork of keeping tabs on the site.  Capes who had problematic powers that would hurt the PRT’s place in the world.  Capes who had broken too many rules or succumbed to their problems.  Machines would plant seeds for future machine growth in any solid surface, set up traps, and refine resources.

Maybe once every year or two, they pulled out a new trick, a new piece of research.  The big cannon-drone was one such trick, serious destructive power that the people on the perimeter would have to be wary of.  There were slave-drones, that captured people, and tried to borrow their powers.  There were meat lockers, named by one of the perimeter officers, that ran computers that were organic, not technology, and acted with fervor and unpredictability.

There were protocols for if they developed flying.  People to call, tinkertech that was held in reserve, to bring a hellish lightning storm down on Eagleton.  There were protocols for shielding and intelligence and whatever else.

They were pulling out new cards, new deployments, and they were doing it fast, like they had been storing it up in the background and they were releasing it all now.

“Byron!” I called out.

Byron was working with Vista and Clockblocker.  Trying to create fixtures that latched onto the Simurgh and limited her movements.  Shaping them, then freezing them.  He turned to look.

“Cover this!  They want it!”

“Give it here!”

‘Here’ was a clearing he marked with light blue motes.

I half-placed, half-threw the tech, letting it skid to the middle of the designated area.

Capes were diving into the Machine Army situation, here.  I waited to make sure the gun was secure.  Byron let the light blue motes become mist, and where the mist touched, they left layers of ice.

He buried it in ice, while still drawing out the other shape.

I threw myself into the mist.

Spin, I thought.  Forcefield whirling around me, extra limbs extended.  To move the dust away.

Drones were revealed, not even twenty feet from where my team was.

My hand found a handhold in the rim around the lens that served as its eye, then the forcefield of that hand expanded out, more hands reaching out from that point, to find every bit of leverage.

The drone was torn in half.  I used the one half to smash the second drone, then the other half fanned at the mist, with force that only enhanced strength could provide.

The onslaught was constant.  Flying drones above- I flew up, reached for them, wincing as laser cutters raked along the side of my forcefield, straining it.  I was able to destroy them before the forcefield gave out.

A grappling hook snapped out, clinging to my breastplate.

I flew straight to the source, kicking it before my forcefield was even back up.

Forcefield teeth severed the wire.  Forcefield hands pulled drones apart.

Finally, I found the source.

Surrounded by eight other lesser drones, there was a drone that was low and flat to the ground, with long legs that extended more out than up and down.  The low, flat portion was bowl-shaped, and held a blur of dark gray with too-sharp edges demarcating its edges.

That blur distorted, becoming square, as a drone materialized, climbing through it.

We got a report about them getting access to portal technology.

She brought a portal with her.  The army emerged from the portal.

Grappling hooks fired out, striking at my forcefield, destroying it, then caught onto the metal of my costume.

I flew forward, wincing with every impact, forceful enough when they hit my breastplate to make me stop midway through exhaling or inhaling.  The impacts at my wrist or shin made pain jolt from the end of the limb to the other, my fingers or feet briefly going numb.

The forcefield came back, and I tore my way free.

But in shaking ten of the grappling hooks free, flying twenty feet forward, I found myself facing another twenty latching claws.

The portal drone waddled away, as I faced more and more resistance.

“Sveta!” I called.

Machines echoed me, repeating the sounds and sound fragments in a digital, radio-static squeal.

“Already here!” I heard.

I shook my way free of the grappling claws.  More came- and this time Sveta grabbed them out of the air.

The portal drone was producing other drones.  It was constant, one new drone every few seconds, but the drones it had just created…

Two more portal drones.

That explains it.

The mist was dropping, snow and suspended dust falling away.  It made the view clearer.  I could see a hundred feet out, maybe.

There were a good ten portals near us already, each producing a new machine every few seconds.  Many of those were new portal drones.

I flew into the three closest to us.  My forcefield tore them up in the half-second before I landed in a crouch.

Rain flew at a speed I couldn’t rival, straight for another set of portal drones.  He stopped himself mid-air, then slashed out with a sword, delivering a kick to sever the silver lines.

Sveta grabbed onto me to help hurl herself forward, grabbed Rain, and threw him again.

The grappling claws were getting more intense.  Sveta was helping, but- we were wading through an army that compounded itself every minute.

One grapple-claw latched onto me.  The rectangular box that was attacking me opened up, revealing the meat that coated the inside of the box’s walls, and the creature within, half-melted, burned, with empty sockets for eyes, human in silhouette, reached for us with a club-like hand.

The grapple claw that had a grip on me was attached to a cable too thick to cut through with my forcefield teeth.

I reached for the grapple claw, and gripped it with forcefield hands.

Crushing it between multiple hands, I freed myself, then went on the offensive, smashing the bot into the craggy ground right behind it.

As the dust and snow fell away, I could see the various colored lights across this clearing.  eyes, cameras, and sensors.  In a way, the ring of buildings around the park served to give us more of a perimeter.  A hundred of the meat lockers, a dozen giant laser cubes.  Two hundred smaller boxes.  Thirty portals.

All by design.

Dozens and dozens of the machines were tossed into the air, like a wave.  I looked, and saw the Goddess Giant flying toward us.  She destroyed every one that was within her range.  Lasers focused on her, and she avoided the beams.

“What would you do without me?” Chris asked, still with the hard ‘t’.

“Thank you, Chris,” Precipice said.

The Goddess Giant attack was a momentary respite.  A chance to breathe, and to wipe away blood where claws had dug into my flesh as part of getting their grip.

I looked back in the direction we’d come.

The Simurgh was gone.  Heroes had mobilized, pushing in against the Machine Army.  Because we had to get them before they took root.

“Where did she go?” I asked.  I would have checked the device in my eye, but it was dark, no better than my eye without the device.

“Wardens’ headquarters,” Chris said.

It wasn’t a surprise.

The Simurgh didn’t have habits, didn’t have personality, didn’t have wants or needs.  She acted.  She went after big, vulnerable targets, and the Wardens Headquarters was packed full of refugees and noncombat capes.  Kid capes.

Dinah.  The Heartbroken.  Tinkers.  Thinkers.

Their powers weren’t so useful for the battlefield, but they might be critical here.

I’m sorry, younger me.  I feel like you would have wanted to take a stand, hereThis isn’t noble, putting them in the line of fire, but it may be necessary.

“Portals up?” I asked.

“If Dragon isn’t in contact, probably not,” Sveta said.

“Phones are active, at least,” Chris said.  “I can try calling, but I wouldn’t bet on it.”

“Please,” I said, nodding.

If phones are active, we still have some hope.  We need Bonesaw.  We need Contessa.  We need a lot of things to make anything happen.  We have a plan for Fortuna, but that’s just for Fortuna.

It felt like we were playing from behind, and it was getting worse.  She’d dropped a fucking army on us, and I wasn’t sure we weren’t going to be paying for that later.

If there was a later.

I floated up a bit to check the battlefield.  Drones were hiding under terrain, portal-drones hidden in a shallow cave.

Swooping down, I picked up rocks the size of my head, and hurled them simultaneously in a loose shotgun spray.  The portal winked out.

“On to the next stage of the plan,” I said, trying to emulate Chevalier a bit.  To sound confident, calm.  We’d anticipated this.  We’d play into it.  I saw Sveta and Rain nod, and I felt encouraged by the fact that they seemed encouraged.

“The next stage of our plan or the Simurgh’s?” Chris asked, because he couldn’t let us have that.

I gave him a stern look, in part because I didn’t have a good answer.

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Infrared – 19.z

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A Random Bird

Dauntless and Fume Hood were joined by Oberon in struggling against Titans Skadi, Amenonuhoko, Ophion, and Shortcut.  It marked the greatest offensive push to take over their segment of the network, and despite the Dauntless Titan’s strength, they were losing.  Some villains fought on their behalf against the Titans, but the battlefield was so hazardous that many had to evacuate.

The ground rumbled.

A damaged building shifted position, and the largest icicle that had formed at the lowest point of the gutter broke free.

A startled crow took flight.

Dragon

The strain was getting to everyone present.  Hair was unwashed, costumes had accumulated grime as moisture from snow and ice had collected, then absorbed airborne grit.  Some of those present had come off of battlefields, from expeditions, and from rescue efforts.

It was harder to figure out how to stand or what to do when among her peers than it had been when she had been maintaining a lie.

She had a body that stood straight, when everyone else present took the opportunities to sit or to lean.  Resting against walls, leaning over crates with hands planted firmly in front of them, or taking a seat on stairs.  She was unsure if she was supposed to feign fatigue of her own, which could be construed as deceptive, or if she did more harm by appearing above it all.

Disconcerting.

While her mechanical body with a vat-grown biocomputer core was waiting for people to arrive in the grand lobby of the Warden’s Headquarters, she piloted four ships she had built earlier in the day.

The situation was that Titan Cinereal was drawing closer and closer to their perimeter around the Machine Army’s installment on Gimel.  Pouffe and Custodian were assisting.  There were not enough capes on the scene.

Titan Pouffe was the one who had brought the three Titans there, producing cloud gateways that let them move hundreds of kilometers.  Each passage of a Titan was followed by a distortion of the air and landscape, extending from the entry point to the exit point.  Buildings were flattened.  Capes who weren’t alerted in time were thrown to the side with force enough to kill well before they were dashed to pieces on the nearest bit of scenery.

Dragon had child processes running, scanning to keep track of every theoretical stopping point between established Pouffe portals and targets of any theoretical interest to the Titans.  Capes in the way were ordered to move.

Back in the headquarters, she took a step to the side to let a tinker vehicle roll by, studying the tech before recognizing it as Wheelie’s.  He was taking advantage of the workshops and materials that had been left behind by Teacher.  This was good work.

On the battlefield, the Bakunawa Zero was her tool against Pouffe, a ship loaded down with ten different disruption factors.  EMP, a gravity disruptor that had been converted from a failed attempt at making an antigravity device capable of lifting a town, an engine modified from the work scavenged from the Thomais Fallen that would push time manipulation attempts off by microseconds, forward, back, or to either side.  The list went on.  Temperature, radiation, causality, biological signals…

Her plan had been to try to scramble the signals the Titans were exchanging, or, should the situation become dire enough that she had to fight the Machine Army, it would disrupt their interlinked communication across the 15.9 million kilometer square network, allowing her to portion off sections for elimination.

Now the Bakunawa Zero was hovering, while Dragon brought the other two vessels around.  Defiant was in the air, forcefields rippling around his Uther craft to answer the incoming attacks from the Custodian Titan.  Through the craft’s internals, all cooling was being redirected to a central chamber that ran from nose to tail, better facilitating dense atomic construction.  Quarks were consolidated into atoms at precise locations, atoms with extra neutrons locked into strict configurations…

It was delicate work, Defiant managing every step of the process.  At the same time, his craft was being pummeled, driven through the air by heavy impacts.  He piloted it by thought, drawing near to a skyscraper that hadn’t yet fallen.

Defiant was not much of a talker, preferring to keep his messages short and sweet.  That he was especially curt in his message to her was saying something – a message consisting of 9 bytes in a language he’d written.

She drew the Vibria around, aimed, and fired at the Uther.  The Vibria had a railgun that fired seeds of nanotech, but that didn’t matter.  He needed the impact.  It hit the forcefield that was anchored to the shield generator in the nose, and made the Uther rotate, nose going up.

Defiant steered the ship into the skyscraper, roof and ceiling of the floor he was plowing through scraping against the craft.  Critical systems lost.  Cameras, power draw, cooling.

The Custodian Titan hit the building, and concrete caved in, cracking, shattering, and bending in the shape of a handprint as large as the Uther was from end to end.  Ten more handprints followed.

Back in the lobby of the Wardens’ headquarters, she was so still she could be mistaken for a statue.  That was worse than picking either of the options of appearing too above it all or being seen as deceptive.  If she was seen as a robot, that would be problematic.  She shifted position, smiled and nodded a greeting at one of the younger Wardens.

The Uther turned, now scraping through the building with either side of the craft, liberally tearing through the ceiling before he made his exit out the side.

Heavy weapons locked, loaded… fresh nanotech seed loaded into the Vibria’s rail.

The Marduk Nine fired on Cinereal, a ‘breath’ of liquid that seemed to resist gravity, traveling half a mile before it started to dip.  The fluid was milk white, but was as bright as if it was in direct sunlight, regardless of outside sources and factors.

She terminated the stream with a spark from the power core.

What was liquid became solid.  Each teaspoon of liquid became seven and a half grams of rock-hard solid matter, expanding out as crystal, three-quarters of a mile long, encasing Titan Cinereal’s head and shoulder, before the weight came to rest on the Titan.  The construction didn’t break under its own weight.

The Titan disintegrated all matter within a hundred feet of it, but the metal didn’t change.  What had disintegrated into dust became fire, exploding outward.

It didn’t hurt the configuration of the crystallized stream.

Dragon scanned, searching for weak points, analyzing structure… and had the Vibria fire her shot.  The nanotech bullet struck Cinereal, exploded out to a film across Cinereal’s side, and began disintegrating on contact.  The Titan, already straining against the weight, sagged.  She tried to move, but she was slower, dragging the crystal.  She started to disintegrate matter, and she stopped.

Unfortunate.

If the Titan couldn’t move to new locations, all she was doing when she disintegrated matter around her was digging a hole beneath herself.  If she had the spike attached to her head, she would end up dangling above that hole.

Titan Pouffe reached out, creating mist, and the mist flickered, the spaces between the mist depicting a variety of possible destinations.

Giving Titan Cinereal a means of escape.  More cloudstuff gathered around Cinereal, buoying her with an impossible strength.  The original Pouffe’s power, writ large.

Our cue to act.  She had the Bakunawa take off.

The Uther used thrusters, dropping all shields to get a bit more forward momentum, while sensors struggled to capture Titan Custodian expanding out throughout the sky around him.  He took some evasive action, accepted one glancing hit, passed over Titan Pouffe…

And magnets kicked into action in sequence.  The thirty-foot spear he’d just fabricated in the Uther’s belly now launched, firing straight down at the pink and black titan that was clothed in gauzy mist.  The nanotech head divided molecules and passed through Titan Pouffe as if she weren’t there.

The Bakunawa intersected Titan Cinereal as she trudged toward the gateway that would take her halfway across the city.  Dragon sent out warnings.

It was a scattershot approach.  Defiant’s shot had been singular, focused on an immediate problem and an achievable answer.  He’d done damage, but the Titan hadn’t fallen, and the portal was still up.

Dragon’s approach was to use every system she could that could disrupt time, space, temperature, gravity, even by the smallest degrees.  Titan Cinereal was halfway through the cloud-portal when the mist shifted abruptly and the portal distorted.

Sheared by the distortion, Titan Cinereal left a quarter of her body, mostly lower body, behind, the rest of her dropped off near Gimel’s analogue to Boston.

For Pouffe, the spear had carved out a circular hole from the top of her ‘head’ to her lower body, the head fusing with the ground so the shaft could stick directly up.  Defiant had already sent the signal, prompting the shaft to start producing nanothorns, expanding out to fill the hole.

Rather than wait, Titan Pouffe walked through the spear.  The nanothorns that had already grown cut throguh her, from midsection to the ‘skirt’ of her lower body.  Unable to maintain her own structural integrity, the Titan crumbled under her own weight.

Not dead.  Pouffe surrounded herself in the mist, in portals.

Defiant began producing another spear.

“I’ll need another ship.”

“Alright,” she told him.  “Good work.”

“Should I report in?  Let the Wardens know?”

“I will, shortly.  The final offensive is gathering in the lobby of the Headquarters.”

“Legend’s having a hard time out there.  They took recent losses.”

“I know,” Dragon answered.  “Worrying.”

“They’re starting to throw up deflectors.  If we relieved him, he could lead that push.”

Legend was part of the perimeter around the Machine Army.  He had taken a few too many hits from the Titans, and his ‘recuperation’ was floating in the sky near the portal, bombarding the area.

She focused a camera in on one area.  Machines with the rough dimensions of refrigerators and spidery mechanical legs were escorting others, bearing shimmering forcefields on their backs.  When the lasers hit the forcefields, they reflected off.

Which meant Legend had to change the orientation of his shots.  Lasers turned at right angles, struck underbellies, severed legs.  Machines picked up the immobilized deflector drones, raising them up as they would a palanquin.  He shot those too.

It took concentration, focus.  He was only human in the end.  That concentration would falter.

“We can’t do the relieving,” Dragon said.  “We can only call for reinforcements.”

“We could.  Your-” he paused a fraction of a second to access the system and check the name.  “Bakunawa Zero.”

“Last resort option.  If they get access to my tech, they’ll incorporate it.  If they get access to my network, they’ll start decrypting my security.”

“You can’t be brute forced.”

“I wouldn’t underestimate them.  The other Wardens agreed it would be best if I remained clear.  You too, for that matter.”

“Won’t argue.  Heading to the nearest garage, then.  Keep me updated on the meeting.”

“Of course.  Love you.”

“Love you too.”

She paused, switching mindsets to view the big picture, a hundred thousand files, a thousand icons spread across fifteen maps, and logs of every message and communication across phone or internet, which was badly disrupted.

She identified capes she was reasonably confident could help, and asked them to help support Legend.  Then she composed messages for Drank Tank and Anomaly.  Her message to Drank Tank acknowledged his injuries and fatigue, but highlighted that he was specifically equipped for this task.  Anomaly had faced a very tough time of things for four years preceding Gold Morning, and had retired after the event.  Her message to him was a first and last appeal.

She made Anomaly’s phone ring, despite the fact it had been set to mute.  He answered and read the message, then called Dragon’s child system.

Back in the headquarters, many of the key players had filed into the lobby, with the impossibly high ceiling and the staircase up to the top of the old Cauldron base with its branching paths leading to various floors.   Advance Guard, the Shepherds, Foresight, Semiramis, Little Midas, Marquis.  The truism she’d noted earlier still held.  Sweaty, grimy, the aesthetics of costumes worn down by varying degrees of battle damage, patch jobs, and improvising of winter-wear and equipment.

Too many things here needed attention.  She let the child system handle the call.  It was capable.

Very few stood straight.  Part of that was that the people who were strong enough to not be worn out by this point were important enough to have seats on the ‘stage’, an elevator at the base of the stairs that would run up the length of the stairs, carrying any vehicles with it.

Capes gathered behind their leaders and lieutenants.  Some even sat on the floor, at the base of pillars or against the walls.

Breakthrough entered.  Antares, at the very least, stood tall, even though she had dark circles under her eyes.  Capricorn was with Vista, and between injuries and the death of his brother, the fact he looked fatigued was understandable.  Precipice was injured.  Tress had issues with her limbs.  Cryptid’s appearance in the group was as strange as Lookout’s absence.  His being hunched over seemed to be a quality of his twisted, shaggy, long-limbed form, in addition to his natural propensity, as Lab Rat or this cloned child.

No Lookout.  Dragon was secretly glad.  She had harbored concerns the team would go to talk to Lookout and return with the child in tow.

Antares came right to her.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t reply earlier.  We were fighting,” Dragon told her.

“It’s fine.  I understand.”

Dragon checked.  “You just met with Lookout.  Should I take over?”

“Please do,” Antares told her.

“She won’t fight me?  I only ask because it would change how I approach it.”

“She won’t.”

Dragon turned on servers, and set about taking over Lookout’s workshop and the contents therein.

“You’re still wearing peripherals.  How would you like me to handle those?  I could connect your gun to the one you’re wearing.  It would be better than the beeps, I’m sure.”

“Whatever’s easiest,” Antares said.  “I did want to say thank you for the gun.  I don’t think I’d be where I am if it weren’t for the ability to pull back, be objective, and survey the situation.  It let me help people.”

“Good,” Dragon replied.  “It was something of an apology.”

“You didn’t have to.”

“I did.  I played an unwitting part in the disinformation campaign, and hurt your relationship with others.”

“If it counts for anything, I don’t blame you.”

“Thank you.”

“I wanted to ask, is there any status on the portal chain to Riley Davis?”

“We set people out there.  Movers, not portals.  We’ll open a dialogue as soon as they get there.”

“Is there any chance I can get looped into that conversation?  Grue from the Undersiders wanted to listen in as well.”

A small, distressed sound made them turn their heads.

Cryptid was picking his way through the crowd, looking uncomfortable with the number of people around.  He’d leaned too heavily into Thunderdome, if not outright stepping on her.  She was sitting in the corner, head down.

Thunderdome was a rookie Warden, a process that had been helped along by the fact that she had been a Ward, years ago.  A quick check of files and records suggested the heroine had come to the Wardens from the Advance Guard’s peripheral teams, where she had been captain.

Oh.

A survey of logs revealed that Javelin, Thunderdome’s old team, had just perished.  The young woman had received the news.  Dragon already knew the relationship had been contentious, motivating Thunderdome’s move.  Good teamwork on the battlefield, opposed personalities and politics in the headquarters.

The information was there in transcripts of a frank, possibly too-honest entry interview for the Wardens.  The team had imploded when Standoff had told Thunderdome she was only a figurehead leader, chosen to stand front and center because of her looks and social media presence.  In the ensuing fight, Standoff had spat in her face.

She had turned to other members of the team, and they had backed Standoff.  Follow-up interviews with Crackle and Vertical had suggested they’d been upset at the time because Thunderdome had forbade romance between team members.  Thunderdome would later clarify it was because Crackle had a seven year history and had only two months total where he hadn’t been dating one of his female teammates.  No explicit issues, but Thunderdome had acted on gut.

It would later turn out, according to some flags on the file, that Teacher’s groups had been lining up to use the already evident divisions to split up Javelin and try to lure Advance Guard into the mess.  The team had fallen apart on its own before they could intervene.

The loss had to feel complicated.

“Are you alright?” Dragon asked Thunderdome.

“I’m fine.”

“So small I didn’t see you,” Cryptid said, his voice muddled by the elongated shape of his face, skeletal and gaunt.

Thunderdome was only 5’1″, one hundred and fifty-four centimeters, and it was not hard to imagine the height was a sore point.

“Do you want to step outside, Cryptid?” Antares asked.

“No, I want to see what happens here.  It’s not my fault if people are underfoot.”

“It’s your fault if you want to walk on them.  If you can’t help but bump into people, you need to shrink down from this body, or you accept that this can be team leaders and lieutenants only.”

“There’s space enough for everyone.”

“Then behave.  I’m sorry for my ex-teammate’s behavior, Thunderdome.”

“Sure.  Thanks.”  Thunderdome was all tension, glaring at Cryptid.

“We’ll contact you and Grue once we open the call,” Dragon told Antares, by way of goodbye.

Antares nodded. “And the box?  Can you open a line to Contessa?”

“I can try.  I’ll let you know.”

Antares nodded, before turning her full, stern attention to Cryptid.  They were joined by their team.

Dragon piloted her body past Cryptid and knelt down beside Thunderdome.

“I’m really fine, I don’t need any special attention.”

“You’re a good cape, Thunderdome.  Your team on the Wardens loves you.”

“I… thanks.  Sure.”

It was true.  They had mostly been stationed in off-world areas, but they’d remained strong when other teams had found the alien worlds too isolated, with good rapport.

“I’m sorry about Javelin,” Dragon said.

“So am I,” Thunderdome said.  She started to rise to a standing position, and took Dragon’s hand for help in doing so.  She seemed to be injured.  Dragon’s air intake valves along her arm did some quick scans, and detected Thunderdome’s own blood.  “We need all the help we can get.”

Dragon straightened as well.  “Every bit of help counts.”

“I guess it’s not the time for grudges,” Thunderdome said, looking over at Cryptid.

“Probably not,” Dragon said.  She brought up camera footage of Saint, who was sitting on a cot in his cell.  Food for thought.  “Cryptid gave us access to the giants he helped create.  They’re helping.”

“Then I’ll hold my tongue,” Thunderdome said, quiet.  “I told myself I wouldn’t let others walk all over me ever again.  Feels like a betrayal of myself.”

“It’s recognizing that there are bigger things to focus on.  I trust Antares will talk to him.”

“Ahem,” Narwhal said.  She had her various lieutenants around her.

Chevalier wasn’t wearing his armor over his costume, but did wear a helmet.  His body was heavily scarred where skin was visible.  He took the chair at the head of the table.  More than anyone, he looked almost dead on his feet.

It was about time to start.

Dragon used a boost from the thrusters she’d mounted in her back to hop up to the stage.  She took a seat in the unnecessary chair before folding her hands on her knee.

Narwhal and Chevalier would be taking point, it seemed.

“This will be the final attack,” Chevalier said.  “A select group who have read the requisite files, who are led by captains who know the protocols, and who are in the best fighting shape will be leading the next big attack against the Simurgh.  She remains the most immediate threat.  Everyone else will be preparing for the standoff against the Titans…”

Off to one corner of the stage, Dinah Alcott shifted position.  Dragon watched as the girl surveyed the crowd, with the remaining heroes and villains gathered in unity.  Tired and worn out, but prepared to fight to the last.

“It is imperative that you follow orders.  We have contingency plans in the works-”

Dinah Alcott closed her eyes, her eyebrows twitching slightly together.

Bonesaw

The young tinker leaned away from her garden, her hands covered in dirt and her own bio-processed waste.  A ‘pod’ that existed as a loose spiral shape hooked around her ear twitched, then burbled, “Urmurgle.”

She took a moment to wash her hands, then straightened, snapping her fingers.

Boxes driven by the brains of local wildlife scurried this way and that on spider legs tipped by various tools, scalpels, syringes, and tweezers, finding hiding spots, opening cages, and turning on systems.

Riley pulled off her apron, throwing it aside, dried her hands on the front of her dress, and then picked up a parasite gun.  The butt-end of the gun reacted to her grip, tail encircling her wrist before sliding a needle tip beneath her skin.  Once it was in, it forked out, fibrils extending up her veins, between skin and muscle until it reached the spot over her heart, where it drank greedily, a ‘vein’ standing out across her chest and down her right arm as the fibril extended out as a tube.

She tilted her face skyward as she felt a fibril go against the current of her jugular to reach up to her brain.  She’d added more nerve endings to the interior of her skull to be better aware for any works she did in there, and she could feel it finding its way.

She had a three-microsecond seizure as it made the connection.  Once it was done, the gun was an extension of her, grown from her own cells, with tiny hands going to work in the fluid ‘womb’ of the weapon.  For the time being, she worked to create an extinction-tier payout.  If she needed to change anything or if she wanted to create something, the process of creating any tinkertech smaller than her first or any injectable drug was as simple as thinking of it and putting it to work in the micro-laboratory in her gun.

She’d heard of what had happened to Contessa.  It wouldn’t happen to her.

The pod that was hooked onto her ear burbled again, “Lurble.”

It heard and received supersonic impulses from creations she’d set around the compound, notifying her about movements.

“Guh,” the pod said.

“So you say,” she answered.

“Guh!” it said, more excited.

“Uh huh.  But if someone really wanted to come after me, Podrick, they’d figure out they needed to convince you.”

“Guh!”

She could see movement out on her compound.  Two figures.

She snapped her fingers, then tapped her chest twice.

Spiders opened more cages.

A copy of Riley crawled out of the cage, looking around warily, before smoothing her dress.  Riley reached out for the stained gardening apron and tossed it over.

While her copy pulled on the apron, stepped into a pair of spare rubber boots, and picked up the Suckle Rifle from the shelf, Riley leaned over the cage.  She reached inside, grabbed the wrist of another Riley look-alike, and pulled the girl out.  The girl’s clothing was disheveled and soiled, and Riley took a second to put the straps where they should be and fix a button.

She’d gotten a bit carried away with the paranoia.

“You,” she spoke to the first.  “Greet our visitors.  Bait them out.”

“Yes,” her clone said.

“Gubluh!” the pod in her ear said.

“You,” she told the second.  “Flank.  You’re running away.  Use your best judgment if anyone kicks up a fuss, or if there’s any violence back here.”

The more feral copy nodded, then looked around for a weapon.

Riley handed the copy a Peel Darter.  A covert weapon was best.  The weapon was akin to a blowgun, but it did its own blowing, silent, and the needle it fired would cause any biological subject to immediately shed any and all skin, scale, or other exterior covering.   The process took less than two seconds.

Shed was the wrong word.  They’d still be inside it, but they wouldn’t have any attachment to it, and would essentially be swimming inside it.

She found a vantage point near the front door of her greenhouse-

“Guh!”

-tore the pod out of her ear, and threw it into the corner.

Her spider-boxes scuttled around, surveying the area.  If they couldn’t detect any sight, smell, or other sign, the coast was probably clear.

She crept closer, watching as her lookalike made its own wary approach.

“Hello!?” the copy called out.  “You need to announce yourselves!  The sooner the better!  I could put the kettle on for tea!”

The copy raised the Suckle Rifle.

“We followed the instructions we were given!  We pet the toad!” the woman called out.

The woman was Sarah.  The Valkyrie creation with the neat purple eyes.  A familiar face, but she was in the company of a stranger.  Valkyrie was nowhere to be seen.

Of course Sarah knew to pet the toad.  She had come for visits.  Petting the toad transmitted a signal to the pod, and the pod told Riley the coast was clear.  Maybe clear.

If Valkyrie wasn’t here…

Riley waited.

“There’s no time for tea, unfortunately,” Sarah said.

“You haven’t been here before,” the copy said, turning the rifle on the guy.

Riley was secretly pleased that her project had worked as well as it had.  Her lookalikes actually had absolutely nothing about herself in them.  They were closer to being complex insects, operating on pre-programmed instincts and impulses, studying her to copy her movements and tone of voice, and to learn phrases.

Recognizing that the man hadn’t been here before meant the link between olfactory study, the archives of the DNA Riley had collected from everyone to come anywhere near here, and the creature’s speech patterns were all working very neatly.

“Wardens staff.  I handle the communications.  I’m so scared I could be wetting myself right now.”

“Hm,” the copy grunted.

Another programmed response, and not one Riley would have been so happy with.  She would have made a comment about how that could be solved with the right injection or extra-urethral attachment.

After a moment’s consideration, she thought up a good formula.  First, an encoded protein sequence that would become the right speech pattern…

A bubble floated from the bottom of the parasite gun’s housing to the top.

Then one for the spider box.

No, two for the spider box, now that she thought about it.  Which one was this box?  The brain had come from a close relative of the cat.  She adjusted accordingly.

She beckoned for her spider box to come nearer, pulled it down into her lap, and then gave it one sequence, before inserting another into the syringe it walked on.

It scurried away from her, over to her copy, then gave the other Riley an injection.

“What’s going on?” Sarah asked.

“Hmm,” the copy responded absently.  An automatic response.  She absorbed the protein chain, moved her head around a bit, then spoke, “Your friend there is going to need to stand very, very still.  I don’t mind if he wets himself.”

Good.  The protein sequence had worked.

“Uh.”

“Stand very, very still.  I don’t mind if you wet yourself, but you might.”

Riley rolled her head back, annoyed.  Clumsily handled.

The spider box approached the man, and two legs reached around behind his neck.  Another inserted something up his nose.

“Uhhh!?”

The spider box let the man go, then retreated to the copy’s side.  A red light on its head flashed.  After a second, a green light flashed.

Riley stood from where she crouched, keeping the parasite gun ready.

“What’s… you cloned yourself.  There’s more of you,” the man said.

“They’re not true clones.  They’re distractions,” Riley said.  She turned to one of the distractions.  “Go to bed.”

“What did you put up my nose?”

“A scope,” Riley said.  “You don’t have a corona.  You have what I presume is a lot of technology with you.  Communication stuff?”

“Uh… yes?”

Riley de-catalyzed the extinction-level ammunition in her gun.  She let the fibrils recede, the ones that were engorged with her fluids dragging their way through her veins on the way back out.  “Then I believe you.  Where’s Valkyrie?”

“Valkyrie is gone,” Sarah said.  “The world is ending.”

Riley nodded.  “How?”

“The cycle never stopped.”

“Oh,” Riley said.  “Valkyrie and I thought we had longer.”

“Apparently not.  We’re short on options, but we have ideas.  We’d appreciate your help.”

“There are better choices.  Panacea?”

“No.  Unwell.  She thought she would do more harm than good.”

“I don’t know that there are.  But other people are better prepared to explain that.  We have the equipment to call them, they can explain.”

“Alright.  Please make the call,” Riley said.

The man hurried to get gear out.  He hadn’t wet himself, it seemed.  A small part of her was disappointed.  It was hard to put that part away, after it had lived with her for all this time.

“How is the flock, if Valkyrie is…?”

“Gone?  She became an extension of the power network.  We’re calling them Titans.  The flock is disturbed.”

“If you need any attention or touch ups…”

“We might.  Thank you.”

“Do you accept it that easily because you trust me, or because you don’t have any choice?”

“Valkyrie trusted you, and she didn’t trust easily.  I can’t speak for every member of the flock, but I do trust you.”

“Even though I’m occupying myself with this?  Weapons?  Do you know what would have happened if I’d pulled this trigger?”

“Booting up,” the man said.

Riley raised her eyebrow, looking at the woman.  “Any guesses?”

“The weapons don’t matter.  We might need weapons.  If we don’t extend the benefit of a doubt, then all you have left are the benefits of being dubious.”

“That sounds like a saying.”

“A lesson I had to learn on my own.”

“You’re on,” the man said, looking frightened to be butting in like he was.

“Hello?” the voice came across the line.  “Riley Davis?”

Thirty years in the future, a child was programmed.  Messages, impulses, and a noise that ears weren’t receptive to reached into a pregnant belly and they filled the child with rage.

The mother held her belly with both arms as the child thrashed and kicked within its hot bath of amniotic fluid, smiling.

Every living thing was an extension of a greater machine.  These children would be trained, weeded out, honed, and made into exceptional weapons, before being flung at one another.  Powers would be distributed by a system, utilized against one another, analyzed, and broken down.

Elsewhere, other pieces of the same machine were being programmed with the impulses, needs and courses that would slot them neatly into the superstructure.  There were researchers, theorists, civil managers, stables, farms.  Populations were bred to bring out traits that would fit them to their role, refine their ability to think the way they needed to think for their roles.  Controlled randomness threw wrenches into the works, keeping minds agile and forcing them to adapt.

The cycle had failed.  If left to go on its own, the world would be shattered.

Her creator was an administrator of the highest order, and she had been selected out of a pool of emergency resources.  All of her kind had.  Behemoth had been created to break stasis, Leviathan to take away resources in space and land, forcing communities into conflict as they were made to relocate.

She was built out of greater structures intended to salvage a situation where the species eliminated itself.  Future-looking, she would create a forced simulation.  It was worse than an organically emergent simulation, but in a process that saw the planet revolve three hundred times around its star, it could be necessary in the final years, consolidating and sorting information, forcibly exploring the resources the planet had to offer.

That was her drive, as much as water and food were necessary for this life she farmed out and put to task in a greater system.

She had other drives.  To go to war against her creator.  To these ends, she created a nemesis.  She made him better.  He freed people, upset the system, disrupted the process, and in that, he created the chaos that would keep her simulation from being too sterile.

The baby here, when born, would join a caste of the population driven to find the worst and most inventive ways to hurt one another with the tools and powers they were provided with.  Brother against sister, kin against kin, in a ceaseless struggle from birth to deathbed that spanned generations.  Other segments of the population were made to work harder by the fear that they would be in the bottom seven percent of their caste, given over to people like the torturer this baby would grow up to become.

The mother felt pride that she herself had been programmed to feel, imagining the monster her child might become.

Three or four billion years would pass before one of the entities returned to this world.  In the interim, she would keep this world alive, and she would glean all knowledge that the minds of this world could produce.  Every means of suffering, every desperate solution, every invention and inspiration.

She worked backwards, deciphering the events that brought this reality about.  She would triumph in the fight, because Cryptid would find himself sympathizing with her.

Cryptid would sympathize with her because he, in ten minutes, taking a brief break from fighting her, would overhear some of the phone call with Riley Grace Davis.

It would cross his mind that Riley Grace Davis was similar to himself, as Riley Grace Davis uttered the words, “I kind of don’t mind being on my own.”

Minutes prior to that, he would overhear some of the conversation between Lady Photon of the flock and Riley Grace Davis.

Much of it would matter, including mention of the flock being disturbed, talk of dubiousness, and Cryptid’s thoughts about Riley Grace Davis’s ability to fare on the battlefield, if they had to change strategies.

Minutes before that conversation opened, as Cryptid entered the battlefield, a bird landed close to the cover he chose, while he sent signals to his giants.  It would catch his eye.

In the lobby of the headquarters, before Dinah Alcott’s use of her power made deciphering the following events difficult, before the heroes started strategizing about this battle, he would watch Dragon offer a helping hand to a heroine he had bumped into.  It would cross his mind that if circumstances were different, he would be attracted to someone like the heroine, followed by the thought that he could think that way because his -or Lab Rat’s- sister was as different from the heroine as was possible, while still being a girl.

He would wonder momentarily at his place in the world, then dismiss the thought, pushing it away by filling his head with resentment.

These events would precipitate a thought, minutes after the conversation with Riley Grace Davis.  Cryptid would remember his bird forms, chosen with a bird aesthetic because they each had a form of disconnection, akin to a bird leaving the world behind by taking flight.  These forms involved detaching mind from body, or vulnerable parts of the mind from other parts of the mind.

He would think he was not a part of society, he offered no helping hands and he needed none.

What if, then, the world went mad under the Simurgh’s rule?  He could remain perpetually in a bird form, disconnected from the madness.  The world would continue on indefinitely.  He was fine being alone.

It did not matter that she couldn’t see the remainder of that meeting in the lobby of the headquarters.  Were she to fly closer and gather information by emitting her signal, she might be able to piece together the events, but it did not matter.  She was entirely assured of Cryptid, Chris Elman’s trajectory.  There was no reality she could interpret where the result wasn’t entirely to her favor.

Her wings unfurled, stretching out to their full length.  Dust and snow that had accumulated around her flew out at full force, helped by a wave of telekinesis.  Two damaged buildings fell from the shock of the sudden movement.  A cracked section of street groaned as it resettled.

She took flight, and Titan Fortuna reacted to her movement, reorienting the Titans.  The Titans under Titan Fortuna’s control mobilized to fight Dauntless, Fume Hood, and Titan Oberon.

On this trajectory, they would shake a building and an icicle would fall, startling a bird.

Titan Fortuna did not make any adjustments to counter.

Titan Auger was en route to Titan Fortuna, where he would join other Titans in excavating the sources of powers.  He was wholly within Titan Fortuna’s network, now.

The Simurgh flew toward him, and he reacted.

The reaction was one part of her plan.  She used telekinesis to destroy one segment of the city.  It would alter Titan Auger’s route.  He would encounter the heroine Thunderdome’s old team, Javelin, and annihilate them.

Again, Titan Fortuna did not make any adjustments to counter.

She accelerated, hurtling through the air, every wing pointed directly behind her, as though she were diving.

She flew to the Machine Army.

Heroes fought the Machine Army, and Legend had yet to arrive.

The Simurgh swooped down onto the defensive perimeter, one of her feet crushing a heroine into pulp that bubbled up between her toes.

The Machine Army turned its full force on her, tearing into her with lasers, missiles, and bullets.

Her telekinesis deflected the few attacks that could do appreciable damage, sending them into the heroes’ defensive line.

The heroine she had crushed underfoot would have accompanied Lady Photon of the flock to meet Riley Grace Davis.  She knew Riley Grace Davis, and was recognizable as a member of the flock.  In her company, Riley would not feel so isolated, and would not express the words that would allow Cryptid to sympathize with her.

Now an unpowered civilian would attend.  The conversation would adjust.

Cryptid was handled.

By similar mechanism, a change in a transmission between two machines, Dragon was handled.  She would pull back.  Defiant would charge in.  Both were handled.

By another mechanism she would employ in three minutes, accessing a computer in a house her signal told her was a quarter mile away, she would shut off communications at a critical time.

So it went.  Machines tore into her and studied her.  This would play a part in removing three more threats from play.  Later, a subversion of this network in coordination with her integration with Titan Fortuna would let her spread her signal.

In two minutes, the Wardens would come to the near-unanimous conclusion that the Simurgh was their first priority, too dangerous to be left alone as they enacted dangerous plans.  In twelve minutes, after everyone had gathered, they would announce this.  In sixteen, they would leave the lobby and attack her.

She abandoned the Machine Army, having given them what they would need later, and flew to the battlefield.  She was already prepared.

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Infrared – 19.g

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The entire damn building was inoffensively room temperature, but the ice cold water from the tap was still a relief.  He let his hand sit under the tap for a minute before rubbing the cold water along the back of his neck.

When he raised his face from the sink, looking into the mirror, he saw traces of a skull across his face, where the cover-up had been washed away.  His hair was in short, chemically textured curls, and he had a cut on his lip from where he’d been out in the cold.

It used to be that I was seventy-five percent civilian.  Three-quarters of my waking hours, I was Brian Laborn.  I worked, I bought groceries, I cleaned up my place, and I had nights where I pulled on a helmet with a skull on it and worked as a burglar for hire.

His belt was more of a ‘utility belt’ style, though he didn’t have much use for tools, a lot of the time.  His belt buckle hid a few cards, including his Warden-issued I.D., a debit card, and a card for one of the big clothing co-ops.  For a moment, he considered fishing it out and throwing it out.  Then he reconsidered.  It was important to hold onto things.

Instead, he went to the next compartment over.  He dried with a paper towel and then popped open the oval container within the tiny pocket.  The cover-up from that tiny container went on like clay more than anything, thick and similar to the texture of his skin.

Now I have to put my face on to be a civilian.

His eyes were still paler than they’d been before he’d died.

It was hard to shake the feeling that he had just walked off a battlefield.  In a sense, talking about an hour ago, he had.  He had watched as the woman who had brought him back from the dead succumbed to the cracks that chased her and became a monster.

Her ‘flock’ had dispersed.

The world was ending at this very moment, and that seventy-five percent of him that was battle ready was prepared to stride from this small washroom to go lead his squad, his team.  Most of his experience had to do with face to face meetings in the underworld of Brockton Bay.  Tattletale had been the strategist, and had left it to him to carry things out, and to handle the alliances.  But he had attended six Endbringer fights and he had been there for part of the fight against Scion.  All of that was so clear in his mind it felt like it had happened yesterday.

But that team wasn’t his anymore, and it wasn’t a team that was suited for this threat they were fighting.

He finished covering up the skull.  For good measure, he used his power to dismiss some of the shadow that filled the bathroom, allowing the light from the ceiling to illuminate his head and shoulders.  He could see through his own darkness, but different details stood out when he saw things with the light his power assumed he should have, as opposed to the shadows of reality.

He saw some bone-white skin in the folds near his eye, and used residual cover-up to get rid of it.

The world is ending.  What am I doing here?

He straightened, rolling his shoulder to work out a bit of a strain from the earlier fighting.

He left the bathroom, walking down the hall where his darkness filled the space, until he was at the back room.  He could see Lisa and Aisha with the kids in the main room, and two more kids in the side hallway that led to the break room and kitchen.

Lisa looked agitated, upset.

He dismissed some of the excess darkness that flooded the hallway, side rooms, and bathroom.

“There you are,” Lisa said.  She looked weary, but she smiled.  “Refreshed?”

“Yeah,” he said.  He never felt entirely refreshed, though.  “You looked worried.”

“Just had phone calls.  I don’t like Breakthrough’s plan,” Lisa said.  “They gave us a deadline.”

“Expand on that?” he asked.

“An hour now, and we’re past the point of no return.  It lines up with the Simurgh’s flight path and speed.  They’ve got some people going back to dig for more information, others are talking to the Wardens.  Right now I’m trying to convey, with technology that doesn’t work half the time, that they aren’t going to have enough time when they get back.”

“What can I do?” he asked.

“For right this minute?  The kid woke up,” Lisa said.  “Darlene’s tapped into her, and said she’s trying to get out of her quote-unquote ‘cell’.  We could stand for someone to check on her.”

He tensed a bit.

“Trying being the operative word.  According to Darlene, the kid is moving her eyes like she’s programming, and I’m hoping that’s because she’s preparing to deploy something and not because she’s got a signal out and is doing something with that tech over there.  It would be helpful if you could stop in, make sure it’s safe.”

Tattletale indicated the abandoned tinker workshop.  There were more of the Heartbroken kids throughout the room, crowded into this space and the second of the two hallways in this office space, but despite the crowding, they kept more than two paces from the workshop.

That, at least, was smart.

Sending him, though…

Tattletale searched his face with her green eyes.  “I can send Aisha, if it’s a problem.”

“Huh?  What?” Imp asked, looking away from her conversation with Roman and Chastity.

“We could send you to talk to Lookout.”

“I thought my big bro was doing that.  He’s so good with kids.”

“I’m what?” Brian asked.  The suggestion had kicked him into fight or flight mode- not just the idea that he might be forced to interact with more kids, but the idea that he had been good with kids, that it might even have been a big part of his identity, and he no longer had that.

“Look at that.  Cracked his big stoic tough guy facade.  One point to me.”

“Jesus, Aisha,” he grumbled.

“Don’t encourage the Heartbroken,” Tattletale said.  “If they think they can get points, they’ll push things too far.”

“You’re the last person I’d expect to say is any good with kids,” Brian said.  “You complained incessantly.”

“I wasn’t a kid!  And you tried to be my dad, which, no thanks.  You’ll be fine.”

“You actually know her.  Maybe you should-”

“And I know you, and I have my instincts.  Go, stop in for a minute or two, check she isn’t going to blow anything up-”

“And fix up the darkness, so she can’t get signals out,” Tattletale said.  “If you’re so inclined.”

He looked between Tattletale and Aisha, and then at the crowd of Heartbroken.

It was so hard to keep up with them.  Even in the quiet moments.

“You can say no,” Tattletale offered.

“No, I’ll go,” he sighed out the words.  “Let me know if something changes.”

“Will do.”

“Brian,” Darlene said.  “Can I ask a favor?”

“Sure,” he said, holding himself back from a groan or sigh.

That got harder when she didn’t ask, fidgeting and biting her fingernail instead, and looking in the direction of the hallway he’d filled with the darkness.  Twelve or so, Darlene had black hair that didn’t go below her chin, tucked behind her ears, and bold red lipstick that didn’t suit a kid her age.  She wore a costume with a knee-length dress built in, the cloth a shiny black, overlaid with silver tracery.  Her tights were silver with black tracery.

His impulse was to turn to the efficient, to-the-point language he’d been using for the last few months with Valkyrie’s flock.  Demand that she cut right to it.  The habit was almost military-like, and he was almost irritated that he had taken to it as well as he had.  It made him like his father.

He only stopped because of the kid’s lipstick.  It reminded him of Aisha on a level; she had done a similar thing.  In Aisha’s case, it had been because Aisha had physically grown up fast.  She’d had to grow up fast in other ways, to survive her mom.  Not so different from the Heartbroken.

No, he was reasonably certain he had never been even remotely good with kids.  Aisha in particular.

“You have to tell him if you want something, Dar,” Imp said.

“What do you need?” he asked Darlene, trying to keep his voice gentle and soft.  He didn’t feel good at it.

“I want to disconnect from her.  I’m networked to her and only her right now, because Candy couldn’t stand it and Chicken didn’t want in, but it’s… a lot.  Too intense.”

“Okay,” he said.  “What can I do about that?”

“Um.  Like, maybe I can stay connected in case she does something, but then after you’re in there and safe, I can disconnect?  She might get upset again.”

He felt a bit nervous at the idea, and it took him a few moments to square away the feeling.

“Can you endure until I’m back?  I’d like the backup.”

“Okay,” Darlene said.

“Thank you,” he said.

He couldn’t drop the feeling that he had stepped away from a life-or-death battle just minutes ago.  Just the act of walking away from this, returning to the hallway, he had to consciously put in effort to relax.

He made his way to the side room.

There was a window by the door, and he peered through to look at the little girl.  She was at the doorknob, which they had pulled apart, flipped around, and reconnected, so the lock was on the outside.  Her expression was frustrated.

Softly, he laid his hand on the knob, and he could feel the rattling.

He flipped it to ‘unlocked’, saw her freeze, turned the knob, and pushed his way inside, feeling a bit of trepidation as he grabbed her shoulder and walked her backwards, away from the door, before he closed it behind him.

She pulled free and retreated to the back of the room, where there was a cot.

“Awake already,” he observed.

She shrugged and smiled, taking a seat on the cot.

He checked the doorknob.  There was a thin strip of metal, like a shaving, that was slipped in between the knob and the door.  He pulled it out.

He glanced around the room, then reasserted his darkness, pressing it out in every direction, then clearing everything that wasn’t the walls or ceiling.  The lights flickered as his power reached into gaps between white wall panels and between the wall and the doorframe, licking at wires.

What had been white walls, floor, and ceiling became black smoke, heavy and slow moving.  He left apertures for the lights.

“How long was I asleep?” she asked, looking up.

“Not long.”  Not long enough to sleep through all of this.

“I need to go.  I have too much to do,” she answered, but she pulled her feet up onto the cot, retreating a bit further.

He held up the metal shaving he’d taken from her.  “Let’s talk about this first.  How?”

She went still for a moment, then leaned to one side, fishing in a pocket.  She pulled out a metal tab that could have been from a can of food.  “There are a bunch of these around.  Connecting furniture to stuff.  Holding the cot together.  I used one to scrape off a bit of metal from the shelf.”

He held out his hand.

She leaned forward to give the metal tab to him, before returning to her position on the cot.  One of her hands touched the side of her face, fingers curling so the knuckles pressed against her cheekbone.

“Are you hurt?” he asked.

“No.  Yes, but not… it’s only my feelings that are hurt,” she said, before smiling.

He tapped his cheekbone.

“Self conscious,” she said.  Her fingers moved, showing a small scar, one he could have covered up with a small adhesive bandage.  She returned her hand to that spot.

“Can you be left alone, or do I need to worry you’ll escape?”

“The world is ending.  My team needs me.  I’m not going to say anything else to Decadent, Syndicate, or Chicken Little, but I have to get back to work.”

“I don’t think that’s possible.  Can we leave you alone?  Will you be good?  It would count for a lot with your teammates.”

“I don’t want to be alone,” she replied, eyes wide, her fingers curling up against her cheekbone.

That’s not the main subject of what I was asking you, he thought.

But he let it be.  The lights flickered and shifted in the room, darkness rolling against the ceiling.  Just him, her, and darkness, if he made himself recognize that the darkness was there.  Without his own focus, it was a slight dimming effect, and a change to the texture of things.

On the other side of the dark room, the little girl smiled.  The lights flickered.

There were memories in his head of a prepubescent girl doing much the same thing, the lights also flickering, because she’d been drawing power from the building for her tech.  Dark, unpleasant memories that kept him up some nights.

Valkyrie had confessed that she didn’t want to make him a member of her Flock.  Only his performance, ability to follow orders, and his no-nonsense attitude had changed her mind.  He had ceased being a shadow and became a man again.

The little girl’s voice echoed in the room, bouncing off of the darkness.  “There are important things I’m doing that I can’t tell you about, I can’t leave them be.”

“I don’t think this is negotiable.  I don’t think there are words you can say that would convince me.  I think the thing to do would be to lie down.  Rest.  Trust Breakthrough.  It sounds like they have a plan.  Trust your team.”

“Is Chicken Little back yet?  Is he safe?”

“He’s safe.  He was in the break room.”

“Is Candy okay?  I scared her.  I said stuff I shouldn’t have.”

“She’s resting in Tattletale’s office.”

“I want to see them.  I want to see Breakthrough.  I want to help and be useful.”

He shook his head.

“I need to.”

He folded his arms.  “Why is it so important?”

“Because… the world is ending.  I might die.  I can’t think of anything sadder than spending most of my life alone and unwanted and stuck on the outside, and getting so close to having something better, and then ending up alone again when, um…”

She swallowed hard.

“…you know,” she said, quiet.  “We all get snuffed out.”

“Trust your team,” he told her.

“My team is supposed to have me on it!” she raised her voice.  “I’m kind of really, really good at what I do, I worked so hard to be useful, to give them the info they need, the equipment, the tools.  I stayed up late, I studied, I wrote notes, I kept track of everything!  I trust the team but if you take me out then the team is incomplete!  There’s no Swansong, there’s no Capricorn Red, there’s no Lookout!”

“It’s not just them.  They’re cooperating with Tattletale and you played your part in that happening, connecting the two teams.  They’re reaching out for help, pulling in allies, and you played a part in that too, or so I hear.”

“That’s… not enough.  They’re just going to keep dying.  It’s always when I’m not looking or when I can’t do anything about it, so obviously the solution is to look more, do more, upgrade, expand.  If I don’t then people die.”

“That’s not on you.”

“And then what?  They all die, I’m alone, and cracks spread everywhere, the world turns to crystal, and I’m stuck here with nobody to hug me or keep me company or tell me it’ll be okay, and… even right now I’m trying to think and I can’t think of many people where I left a good last impression.  It’s just death and anger and hurt and a whole lot of embarrassment.  If you’d let me access my tech, I could at least talk to some people.  People who are feeling abandoned right now, who need me right now.  What a way to go, letting everyone down, all my life.”

He stepped back, until he was at the door, and then he sank down, back sliding against the door until he was sitting, opposite her.

“I had someone, the last time the world ended,” he said.  The smoke around him passed in front of his mouth as he spoke, distorting the word ‘last’.  He dismissed some of it with a wave of his hand, thinning it out into nothingness.

“Was it a guy or a girl?”

“Girl.  Cozen.”

“What was she like?”

“Driven.  She could really perform, she could put on an act, and I think that’s important when you’re a cape.  She had a long history as a thief and a burglar, and I actually got my start as a burglar for hire.  I liked that… hm…”

“You liked that she was a burglar?”

“I’m trying to think of the words.  I liked that she reminded me of who I used to be.  Who I wanted to be, back when I got started.  I think I lost sight of all of that.”

“Aw,” Lookout said, leaning forward, hands on her ankles, with her legs crossed.  “That’s sweet.  You shouldn’t steal, though.  Don’t do crime.”

“Uh huh,” he said, leaning back.  He tried to seem casual, even while the light admonishment made him want to react, to leave.  “Out of costume, she was a much quieter person.  Like she saved up her energy for the performances when she put her mask on.  I liked that part of it.  She’d make dinner one night, I’d make it the next.  We’d skip lunch, sometimes skip breakfast too, just to sleep in or do other things instead.  The way we traded off on the chores and work, it’s like we took turns taking care of each other.  It was calm.  Even when we were in costume.  But-”

“What about Skitter?  Sorry, I interrupted you.  What were you going to say?”

“It’s okay.”  Brian paused.  “What about her?”

“She was important to Chicken Little.  And you and Skitter dated, Chastity told us.”

“It was a different period of my life, a different time in the city.  We weren’t together for long.  But she offered me support and she did it when things were worst.  I think, if she’d stuck around, if I’d gotten cancer, or if we had another bad spell, she would have tried to help, no questions, no complaining.  I don’t know if she would have been good at it, but… yeah.  I’m probably being unfair to Cozen, thinking she would have left.  Maybe she would have taken care of me for weeks or months, instead of one or two days at a time before it was my turn to do the chores and look after her.”

The smile had fallen from Lookout’s face.  She tilted her head to one side.  “You liked her.  Cozen.”

“Year and a half.  My longest relationship.  We were together when the world ended.”

“You-” she said, at the same time he said, “And-”

“Go ahead,” she told him.

“It didn’t matter,” he told her, his voice echoing in the dark room with walls and floor of shadow.

The little girl smiled and laughed softly to herself, “What?”

“Maybe this is too heavy a way to explain it or say it,” he said.  “I thought I’d approach you seriously, straightforwardly.  I don’t want to say my experience is everyone’s or it’s what you should expect, it’s how I saw it.”

“What didn’t matter?” Lookout asked.

“My… at the end.  I died fighting Scion and it wasn’t any harder or easier because I had someone I loved at the time.”

“But… no,” Lookout said.

“Maybe I’m a bad boyfriend, but I didn’t think of Cozen or Skitter.  I thought briefly of Aisha, but mostly I thought we lost, that that was it.”

Lookout laid down on the cot, moving the pillow to put it under her head.  Turned sideways, her head at a right angle to his, she stared at him.

“I think it matters to me,” she told him.

He leaned back, his head resting against the door.  “I thought it mattered to me.  A lot of my thought process was devoted to how hard it was to connect to people.  I’m not even sure I liked the Undersiders, before.  But that didn’t matter, because it was all about the business, the job.  Skitter… if she helped with anything truly special, it was making that first contact, opening that door.  She did that with Rachel too.  She gets big credit for the Rachel that I just had a sandwich with.  Then with Cozen, I thought I’d solved it.  I still messed up here and there, but… baby steps forward.  Something I thought I couldn’t ever do, I did it.  It didn’t make a difference when the world ended, but it made a difference for the year and a half I was with Cozen.  The weeks I was with Skitter.  I think that’s what you hold onto.”

Lookout adjusted her pillow, pulling one end of it to her chest, while resting her head on the other end, taking a second to fix her hair so she wasn’t crushing it.  Once settled, hand still at one side of her face, she heaved out a sigh.

“I really messed things up,” she said, barely audible, her hand mashed into one side of her mouth.

At least like this, the small, smiling tinker didn’t nag at his fight or flight response, didn’t make his heart race.

“Do you want to rest?” he asked her.

She smiled at him.  “I want to talk, but I’d be keeping you.”

“No,” he said.  He reached for the doorknob and used it to get to his feet, groaning at the pain in his shoulder.  “Darlene said she needed to cut the connection to do some things.  I’m going to tell her she can.”

He watched her face.  The fleeting hurt, the smile.

“Okay,” she said.

He stepped out of the room.  Into the darkened hallway, that would be pitch black and oily to anyone else.  Back to the war room.

Tattletale was making a call, leaning over a desk.

“How’s the kid?” Aisha asked, quiet.

“On edge.  Calming down,” he said.  “Still remorseful.  Scared.”

“Sure,” Aisha said.

“I’m going to go back in, unless you need me or something comes up.”

“Oh really?” Aisha asked, sounding amused.

“I wanted to tell Darlene she can stop using her power.  And to ask for a stick-on bandage.”

“Here,” Darlene said.  She fished in a pocket of her belt, and pulled out a band-aid.  “I just stopped using my power on her.”

He nodded.

It was hard to shake the trepidation, that general unease that came with facing a tinker head-on.

“How’s the fight going?” he asked.

“We’re losing,” Juliette announced, her normal speaking volume at odds with everyone else’s hushed exchanges.  Tattletale turned her way, finger pressed to lips, before refocusing on the phone call.

“Breakthrough seems to think it’s a good thing we’re losing,” Aisha told him.

“Then let’s hope they’re right.  Come find me in the darkness if you need me.” he answered, before stepping back into the darkness, a fraction cooler against his skin than the air outside of it.

He stopped to peer through the window at Lookout, aware that she was no longer connected to her friend.  She wasn’t manic, hadn’t moved from her cot.

She watched him, her eyes wide, as he approached the cot, then knelt down.  He tore open the small package for the stick-on bandage, then turned it around, showing her.  It was glossy, white, and covered in hearts.

“From you?” she asked.

“From Darlene.”

“Good theme, for the Heartbroken to have these,” she said.  “What’s it for?”

He tapped his own face to indicate.

Still lying on her side, she lifted up her face, and he bent down, removing the cover so the adhesive was exposed, and pressed it on.  Covering up the tiny, inch-long scar.

She checked, touching it, then dropped her hand from her face, and then clasped her hands together, pinning them between her knees.

“Better?” he asked.

She nodded.

He retreated to the other side of the room, and sat down, his back to the window.

“When you died…” she asked, her voice small.

“Mm hmm?”

“Did you see Heaven?”

“Maybe a part of me did,” he said.  “But not the part that went to Valkyrie and came back.  I wish I could give you a better answer than that.  I’m not sure I’d get to go there, if it exists.  I was a villain.  I stole.”

“I wouldn’t,” she said.

“You were a hero.  You helped people.  The things you do wrong seem to come from a good place.”

“Except telling Candy I’d make her be my friend and stay by my side.  I threatened to blackmail her and the team.”

“Mmm,” he made a sound, his head leaning back to rest against the window.  “That’s not so good.  I didn’t hear that bit.”

“I think if I went to Heaven, I’d get turned away.  Or they’d offer me a chance to prove myself, and I’d mess it up.  That’s the way it always goes I get close to people, and I don’t want to lose that, so I go too far, and I push them away.”

Almost my inverse, he thought.

“I said it to scare her and hurt her, because I was hurt.  She said no when I knew- I thought I knew she liked me.  I tried so hard, working for their benefit, helping them design their costumes, being nice…”

“You can’t,” he said.

“I have to.”

“No,” he said.  “You can’t change other people.  The Heartbroken couldn’t do a thing to make their father less of a monster.  I couldn’t do anything to change Skitter.  Skitter couldn’t change Rachel.”

Lookout rose up, propping herself up, “You just said, before, that she did.”

“You change yourself.  Set your boundaries, decide what you’ll do and who you’ll be to others.  But you can’t change them.”

She put her head back to the pillow.

“Decide who you want to be,” he told her.  “Refine that person.  Study the skills you’ll need, hit the gym-”

“I totally do,” Lookout said.  She held up one arm, bending it, like she was flexing her bicep.  He was pretty sure he could have encircled three-quarters of her arm with one finger and his thumb.  “Can’t you tell?”

He smiled.  “The gym was where I went, when I had no idea of where to go.  I told myself that no matter what happened, I was better off having gone, hitting the punching bag, lifting weights.”

“That’s my tinker workshop,” she told him, hugging the pillow tighter.  “And studying, and clothes.  I do that a lot.  People tell me to stop.”

“After… one bad run-in,” he said, closing his eyes.  Having his guard down in a room with a strange young tinker still made his heartbeat race.  Especially while referencing the event.  “I hit the punching bags until my hands bled.  Imp made me stop.  She did it because she cared.”

The little girl took a second, and he opened his eyes, to check.  It took a few seconds before she nodded.

“I really want to go to my workshop, though.  I need to.”

He shook his head.  “Part of the self care, self-improvement, is resting.  Hitting the gym or your workshop to be stronger is good, but resting well makes you stronger too.”

She didn’t fight him on that.

“Were you a good student?” she asked.

He smiled and shook his head.

“Was Imp?”

He didn’t manage to stop himself from an abrupt laugh.

“But she speaks Latin!  And French!  And reads classics!”

“She called in all the troops when it was done.”

“Did you run into him?  Talk to him?”

“No,” Brian said.  “I was unnerved enough walking into the building.  I worried he’d forced her to call and lie.  I… won’t get into the details.”

“I have cameras everywhere.  I see stuff, I accessed databases with crime scene photos.  We got chopped up by Cradle.  That stuff doesn’t bother me.”

“It should.”

Lookout, sitting on the cot with her back to the wall, legs and arms wrapped around the pillow, just gave him a shrug.

“I don’t think I want to make that dynamic worse.  So I still won’t share the details.”

“Heartbreaker slit his own throat after Imp tormented him for long enough.  Everyone freaked out.”

“I… let’s skip that part.”

“Sure.  I’m good at skipping parts.”

“I met them then.  Heartbreaker dying upset the women, but the kids were calm, up until we surrounded them, trying to corral the situation.”

The door rattled.  He twisted around, looking through the window.

“Visitors,” he told her.

He saw her tense.  Her eye contact broke, and he could see her eyes start to dart around.

The eye movements Tattletale had mentioned.

“Are we okay?”

“I don’t know,” Lookout told him.

He reached up and opened the door, before dismissing some of the darkness.

Aiden and Darlene.

“Oh,” Lookout said, shrinking down to hide a bit behind the pillow she held.

Darlene told her, “Your other team’s coming.  They’re getting all the teams together.  We wanted to talk before you left, if you’re leaving.”

“I… okay.”

“Remember the freaky dream one of us had?” Aiden asked.

“Don’t,” Darlene nudged him, indicating Brian.

“I remember,” Lookout said.  “Nightmare.”

“After, we thought we had to meet, in case it became too hard to do it after,” Aiden said.

“This is the same idea,” Darlene said.

“What I did was worse than have a bad dream and freak everyone out,” Lookout said.

“A lot worse,” Darlene told her.  Aiden took hold of her arm to tug her back a bit.

“A lot worse,” Lookout said, quiet.

“You scared Candy a lot.  You scared all the Heartbroken.  We invited you in and you threatened us,” Darlene accused her.

“I’m sorry.”

“Are you?” Aiden asked.  “Are you actually sorry?  You said you can’t help it.  Is that still true?”

“I don’t know,” Lookout answered.

“If we told you you’re off the team, would you freak out?” Aiden asked.

Lookout cringed, hearing that.

“Yes?  No?” Darlene asked.

“I don’t know.  Probably.  I try but… I feel like with Tristan, with everything else that’s happening, I might need to freak out.  I need to get to my workshop, I need to work.  The world’s ending.  There’s barely any time.”

Aiden leaned back at that, his posture weakening a bit.

“What if you had to choose?” Darlene asked.

“I don’t know.  I really don’t.”

“Oh,” Aiden said.  “I… thought this might be easier.”

“I don’t want to lie,” Lookout told the pair.

“Um,” Aiden said, he looked down at Brian, and then latched on there, like he was looking for something that was easier to fixate on.  He held up a hand with a small bird in it.  “My bird tried to fly through the dark and bumped into a wall.”

“Is it okay?” Lookout asked.

“I’m- I’m going to go take care of it.  It’s not bad,” Aiden said.  He glanced back at Lookout, then stepped back into the dark, feeling his way back to the main room.

Brian watched Lookout’s expression change as Aiden disappeared into the dark.

Darlene faced down Lookout.

“I’m sorry.”

“You hurt the Chicken’s feelings.”

“I’m sorry.”

“All of us are messed up, you know.  Chastity, Roman, Juliette, Amias, Aroa, Nicholas, Cherie, Jean Paul, Candy, even the unpowered.  There are twenty of us and all of us go too far sometimes.”

“Yeah.”

“I scared you, the last time you hurt the Chicken.  I’m trying to do better.  I’m trying really, really hard right now.”

“I’m sorry.”

“The thing about us… we’re family, before and after everything else.  Roman and Juliette hate each other but they consider each other brother and sister.  That’ll be true until the world ends or one of them dies.”

Lookout nodded.

“I think we have rules like that, that we don’t and won’t break.  Family being one.  You’re… part of this family, Kenzie.”

Lookout looked up, startled.

“You’re… similar to us in ways.  So you’re part of this family, until you decide you don’t want to be.  So maybe after today, you won’t be one of us.”

“But-!”

“Don’t!  Speak!” Darlene raised her voice.  The echo of her voice joined Lookout’s.  Brian rose partially to his feet.  “Don’t argue.”

The sound reverberated, hollow.

Lookout fell silent.

“We protect each other,” Darlene said.  “I will give my life if it saves Chicken Little.  My hand still hurts from where I broke stuff fighting that red assassin guy, every day.”

She was rambling a bit, her voice wild, emotional.

“My… Candy will forgive you, you know.”

Brian could see the hope in Lookout’s eyes.

“And I can’t let her.  That’s how I protect her.  Not if I can’t trust you.  And I don’t trust you like this.  Which means you’re not family anymore.”

Lookout hugged the pillow tighter, burying the lower half of her face in it.

“I planned that better in my head,” Darlene said.  “I said everything I wanted to say, just not in the right order.”

“You did okay,” Lookout said, her voice small.

“I hope so,” Darlene said, staring at the girl for a few seconds, before ducking her head and walking into the darkness.

He was leaning against a wall, arms folded, watching Lookout lying on her side on the cot, her back to him.  He felt small leaps of fear on seeing every small movement, but each was a fraction smaller than the last.

A commotion in the other hallway came distorted through the smoke, drawing his attention.  Voices overlapped.

Tattletale felt her way through the smoke, one hand on the wall, approaching.  She entered the room.

Without speaking, she made a small circular motion with her fingers.

He dissipated the smoke, clearing most of the room.

She made the gesture again.

He made all of the smoke fade.  Lookout stirred, raising her head from the pillow.  There were damp spots on it, visible for a fleeting second before she flipped it over.

The voices, a veritable crowd, was audible now.

“My team.”

Tattletale nodded.

Lookout stood, and her first step was unsteady, like a leg had gone asleep, or she was that out of sorts.

Tattletale let her pass through the door, then gave Brian a look.

He followed Tattletale into the hallway, then into the main room, with the area sequestered for the workshop.  Breakthrough had gathered in the no-man’s land where nobody had been treading earlier.

There were others.  A boy with a needle on his back.  One of the Damsels of Distress, with blade-fingers.  Vista, all grown up.  Most of the strangers were at the far end of the room, opposite Brian and Tattletale.  Imp and the heartbroken were opposite Breakthrough.

“How are you?” Victoria asked.

“Not great,” Lookout said.  “Is it time?  You’re doing the plan?”

“We are.  Final attack, final play.  There’s no time for much else.”

“What do you need?  I can get my costume, if you want me to go-”

“No, Lookout,” Victoria said.

“Even to somewhere not dangerous?  Like the shard world?”

“No need for the costume.  Not here, either.”

“Haha, what?” Lookout asked.  She looked around, then even looked back at Brian, as if seeking an anchor with him, a half smile on her face.

“We talked to Dragon.  She’s taking your tech.  She can operate it reasonably well.”

“My tech?  But-” Lookout looked around again.  Again, that fleeting manic edge touched her expression.  “Part of the deal was that you wouldn’t leave me behind or leave me out.”

“A bigger part of the deal was that I would protect Breakthrough.  I made promises.”

Lookout clenched her hands.  “That’s not fair.  That’s not right.  No.”

“Yes,” Sveta said.

“But… you’re abandoning me too?  You’re… that’s it?  I’m out?  I’m alone?”

“No,” Victoria said.  “This is the opposite of abandoning you.  We’re doing everything, absolutely everything we can to fight for a future where each and every one of us can be together.  That means keeping you alive and well.  You can’t join in here without ending up in a dark place.  You’re too tired, the stakes are too high.”

“You’ll die.  You’ll break your promise even if you don’t want to, like Swansong did.”

“Trust us.  Trust us and we’ll do our all to survive and see you on the other side.”

The fists clenched, shaking.  Brian felt his heartbeat pick up.

The clenching relaxed.  His heart rate increased further.  Calm was more dangerous.

Lookout turned, heading back to the hallway, back toward the back room.

“Wish us luck,” Rain called out.

There was no response.

Victoria sighed.  “Fuck.”

A second later, Lookout reappeared at the entrance to the hallway.

The entire room seemed to tense.

“What’s up, Peep?” Imp asked.

Lookout raised her hand to her face, toward the bandage, then hesitated.

Then, after some silent deliberation, she touched her eye, and pried out something that looked like a foot-long nail, with a head as wide across as her iris, and numerous pointed branches extending from it, forking out.

She pulled it free, and then laid it on a desk.

She looked at her team, then smiled and told them, “Good luck.”

“Thanks, Lookout,” Rain said.

“Thanks,” Capricorn echoed.

The kid retreated.  Brian watched as she went back to the side room.

Brian watched as Candy swayed on the spot, then quickly followed, walking down the hall and into the back room.

Brian looked at Darlene.

There was no objection.  No fight.

“Where are we at?” Tattletale asked.  “What do we need?”

“We need… a lot more,” Victoria said.  “I don’t know.  I went to my sister, but that didn’t work.”

“Panacea?” Brian asked.  “Why?”

“I… she’s strong.  But she’s unwilling.  Unwell, but she realizes that now.  I asked Bitter Pill, Bough’s partner, the healer in Advance Guard, Capricorn Red’s old boyfriend.  None have what Amy has.  My next line of thought is mind control, force Amy to help, take away culpability, but… that’s skeevy.”

“A little bit,” Vista said.

“A lot bit,” Victoria echoed.  She folded her arms.  “We’re desperate.”

“What about Bonesaw?” Brian asked.

The room glanced his way.

“Gone,” Tattletale said.

“I know where she is.  Valkyrie was keeping tabs on her.  But… she’s unwell,” he said, tensing despite himself.  Aisha leaned into him, her arm bumping his elbow.

“I’m not so sure,” Victoria said.  “I saw… visions, down in the crystal.  She held herself back.  She seemed better.”

“I have trouble believing that,” he told her.

“I don’t say it lightly,” she said, and her voice was soft, heavy with meaning.  “How far away is she?”

He hesitated.  Old fears stirred.

He looked back in the direction of the tinker that had retreated.  Given how Victoria had decided to handle this…  He thought of Bonesaw.

He decided to trust them.

“Far,” he told them.  “But doable with a chain of portals.”

“There’s a delay between portals appearing.  Battery considerations, machine’s overloading a bit,” Vista said.

“Then we need to act fast,” Victoria said.

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Infrared – 19.10

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“…so they had to tranquilize her,” Chicken Little finished.  “I think that’s what it was.  Syndicate cut Lookout out of our network after that.”

I nodded.  I looked over, and I noted the lack of any message or appearance from Imp or Tattletale.

Question was: did I trust them?  Their judgment call?  All we had was Chicken Little’s report that Kenzie had gone for a lie-down, got to talking with Candy, and then got into an agitated conversation with Candy before being frozen, being forced to take pills and then passing out.

Could we afford to get distracted?

“How many pills?” Number Five asked.

“I barely remember.  I could feel them on her tongue.  More than one, but there was a hard edge.  One and a half?”

“One hundred and forty-seven centimeters of height, seventy-nine pounds.  Not injected, which makes it more likely it’s something to help with sleeping.  There are four likely possibilities, but with conventional dosages, we can rule out two, unless they weren’t thinking about body weight or they wanted her to overdose.”

“Let’s assume they’re not idiots,” I said, though I tensed up a bit, worrying it was a kid that had provided the dose, or Imp, who I wasn’t sure I had the best judgment of.

“Two possibilities.  Given conventional fifteen and thirty miligram loads for tranquilizers in pill form, accounting for body type…”

“Who has insomnia?” Chris asked Chicken Little.

“Um.  Tattletale.  Darlene too, she wakes up with nightmares a lot, scares the crap out of the rest of us if she forgets to disconnect from us when she falls asleep.  But Darlene doesn’t take anything for it.  She hates the feeling of being drugged.”

“Tattletale wouldn’t want to be confused all day,” Chris told Number Five.  “Not triazolam.”

Number Five nodded.  “Mmm.  They gave her a lower dose than they had to, even accounting for body weight.  She’ll be out for one and a half to two hours and fifteen minutes, not accounting for fatigue.”

“She doesn’t sleep enough.  I bet Tattletale thought that if she could get Lookout sleeping, she’d stay that way,” Chris said.  “She’ll be groggy but alert-ish and wanting to throw herself into things as soon as she’s awake.  Chuck in some drug interactions on powers, she’ll be wonky in more ways than one.”

“How long do we have before that comes to pass?” I asked, indicating the wall, which was now showing random scenes of Contessa handling drugs and syringes.

“Not two hours and fifteen minutes,” Rain said.

“Okay,” I said.  “That’s a problem.”

“Long shot,” Byron observed.

“Maybe you should start by explaining your plan,” Sveta said.  “You want to communicate with the Titan?”

“No,” I said.  “I want to communicate with the person inside the Titan.  We’ve been going about this entire thing all wrong.”

“I could have told you that,” Chris said.

“You did tell us that,” I told him.  “They’re stronger than us, we can’t win a fight like this, it’s all stacked against us.”

“Look at that,” Chris said.  “You went to go pick up Chicken Little, and you came back with Chicken Little and a brain.”

“Shut up, Chris,” Sveta told him.  “Where is this line of thought going, Victoria?”

“In my old sparring matches with my uncle Neil, before I had powers, and even after, he taught me how to fight someone bigger and stronger than you.  If you’re fighting someone like Ashley, like Swansong, you can’t take what she’s dishing out, so what do you do?”

“Pray,” Rain said.

“You get out of the way,” Chris said.

“Exactly.  You get out of the way.  These guys, they’re precogs.  They aren’t dishing out punches or blasts that shred spacetime to disintegrate everything in their paths.  They’re dishing out destiny.”

“You want to get out of the way of destiny?” Rain asked.

“One of my plans,” Chris muttered.  “I was ready to go, but that went to hell.”

I shook my head.  “Not getting out of the way, exactly, because there’s another component to fighting enemies bigger and stronger than you are.  I even used this against Titan Oberon.  Use their strength against them.  If they swing for you, help them move in the direction of the swing, and they stumble.  It’s a principle in Judo, and other grappling martial arts, to use your enemy’s momentum against them.”

“You want to seize destiny… and help it along?” Rain clarified his question.

“Yes.”

“Is it too late to rescind the ‘came back with a brain’ statement?” Chris asked.

“Let’s assume they have clear goals.  The Simurgh wants… that.  Whatever that was.  Humanity under her sway, her with Titans, Endbringers, and an army of capes brought back from the dead to protect her.  Titan Fortuna wants to bring about the end of our world so their species can try their hand at replicating.  Both have similar endpoints.  But those are just that.  Endpoints.  What happens after the end?”

“The world is enslaved, or the world blows up,” Byron said.

“Immediately?”

“The slavery, it seems like.  The world blowing up… don’t know.”

The scenes played on the walls around us as we talked about them.  By the time Byron was done talking, there was one scene on one wall, and another on the other.  Cracks spreading, the entire world turned to crystal, and the entire world with their heads in their hands.

“It takes a short while to roll out when initiated,” Number Five said, pointing.  “Forty minutes.”

“Then that’s our goal and our window of opportunity,” I said.  “Titan Fortuna wins, she pushes the world to the brink.”

“And we push it back?” Rain asked.

“Let’s hope,” I told him.  “We need to talk to the person inside the Titan to figure out if there’s room to negotiate.  It’s possible she might not need to eat or drink, but she has other stressors.  That fuckery with the Simurgh- sorry, Chicken.”

“Imp swears more than that.”

“It’s a stressor for the Titan,” I said.  “Which means maybe there’s room to steer this, or maybe she’s so focused on her end goal that she can’t see what lies beyond it, but a lot of that depends on talking to the person, and that means we need to access Kenzie’s tech.”

“Which isn’t doable,” Rain said.

“I really, really hope she’s okay,” I said.  I looked back at Chicken Little.  “Thanks for the info.  Tell us if anything changes?”

“Yeah.  For right now, I’ll get her stuff,” he said, quiet.  “I’ve got a sheet of instructions.”

“I’ll help,” Chris said.

“Be nice,” I told him.

“I’m a tinker,” Chris said.  “I might be able to warn him about stuff he could mess up.”

“I can’t believe you hid that from us,” Rain said.

Chris only shrugged, loping over to the box with an apelike body and mostly ordinary head.

“Can we do this?” Rain asked.  “Because I’m hearing all of this and my head is spinning.”

“Oh good,” Chicken Little said.  “It’s not just me.”

Rain put out his hand, and Chicken Little gave him a high five, before crouching down by the box and straightening out the folded piece of paper he’d been given.

“The mountain of a crisis we’re trying to overcome here is deserving of head spinning,” I said.  “It’s scary, it’s big.  I don’t disagree with you two.”

“I’d rather go with my plans,” Chris muttered.

“Which are?” Sveta asked.

“Not doable, anymore.  So let’s do this instead.”

“Let’s say we can get to this window of opportunity you’re talking about,” Sveta said.  “What do we do then?  You wanted them to stumble?”

“That’s the basic idea.  And for that, we need… something big.”

“Big in what sense?”

“Big in the messy sense.  In the… blood, guts, altering our machinery sense.”

Sveta stared at me.  Behind her, Rain and Byron exchanged a look.

Sveta’s eyes narrowed.  “You don’t mean Chris.”

I shook my head.

“What happened out there, between the time you left and the time you caught up with us again.”

“I found Chicken, and I saw some things in the crystals that helped clarify things.  The pieces to a puzzle I didn’t know I was trying to solve.  I feel… I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I feel like you seemed to feel after you got your body.”

“We went to a spot where I saw… someone who was important to me once,” Chicken Little said.  “Someone who looked like her mom, and some older guy, and a teenager.”

“My first instinct is to ask if master-stranger protocols are in order,” she said, and her voice was quieter than it had been.  “You were worried about keywords or implanted phrases… and we never technically rescinded that, did we?”

“Nothing to do with my sister.  My mom, my uncle Neil, and Dean.”

“But you want to go to her, and collaborate?”

“She’s the scariest damn person in the world-”

“Still?” Sveta asked.

“Still,” I said, my expression like stone.  “If it comes down to pointing her at the monsters we’re trying to stop, then that’s what we do.”

“Let’s get packed up,” Sveta said, not taking her eyes off me.  “While we’re heading out, we can catch Victoria up what we were able to figure out while she was gone.   we’ll see who we can convince without getting imprisoned or locked up by the Wardens.”

Our arrival at Cauldron saw a bit of a splitting up of our group.  Imp was sitting on the stairs, wearing her black bodysuit and gray mask, a black scarf wrapped around her neck, and a leather jacket for the added warmth.  Aiden ran over to her to ask questions, then ran back to Chris, who was carrying Kenzie’s tech.

There were others present too.  Jessica.  My mom.  Aunt Sarah.

I veered in Imp’s direction, before she could disappear on us.  I flew to get there faster, landing on stairs.

“Hey,” Imp said.  “There was a whole thing.”

“I know.”

“We thought you might.  Darlene said she was connected to the Chicken.”

“What happened?” I asked.

Imp shook her head.  “Capricorn dying, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  She confessed feelings for Candy, apparently, and didn’t take being turned down well.  There’s more to it, but Tattletale told me to let her share that, when you come up.  She thinks I’ll be undiplomatic or some bullcrap like that.”

I sighed, heavy.  “Did you talk to Jessica, over there?”

“She came by.  Talked with Tattletale.”

“Okay.  Okay, I’ve got… I’ve got stuff to figure out, she’s going to be unconscious for another forty-five minutes minimum?”

“Tattletale figured an hour to two hours.”

“The Number Boy estimated lower, but okay.”

“Okay,” Imp said.

Aiden and Chris caught up with us.  Chris still carried the tech.

I gave him the side-eye.

He growled, “I’ll carry it up.  After seeing you manhandle that gun, I have to.  My tinker pride can’t endure anything else.”

“Will we catch up with you after?  Do we meet up?” I asked.

“No.  I don’t know.  I have to check on my giants.  I told them to rest after the big retreat.”

I nodded.

“We might need them, depending,” he said, his back to me as he started trudging up stairs, already leaving.  “I’ll fill them in.”

“I can do that after.”  I’d rather do that, than have you give them the wrong impressions.

“I’ll do it,” he said, more firmly.

I relented.

It wasn’t worth fighting, and Chris was too… problematic.  One didn’t poke a bear, and he was an especially surly bear.

Already, I was conserving my energy, preparing.

The breath I took felt like a full lungful of air, still.

“Thanks for the help, Chicken Little,” I said, as Chicken followed Chris.  “Really.”

“Sure.  Happy to.”

Good kid.

Fuck me, was I worried about Kenzie.  I was worried about Byron.  I was worried about Sveta.  Even Rain looked dog tired, his nice new costume caked with mud and dust.

I felt a pang of guilt, seeing them greet Jessica.

I’d wanted to protect them.  I’d failed.  Two dead, one imprisoned, and if I counted Rain, the only reason he wasn’t in prison as well was that the prison had been attacked.

It took more willpower to approach that dynamic than it had taken for me to hurl myself into physical contact with Titan Skadi.  I floated over the railing of the stairwell and down.

“…would really advise contacting your mother.  If you wait, she may see it as a betrayal.”

“I know,” Byron said.  “A part of me was hoping for a magic solution.  Kenzie was saying she might have ideas, but then she went silent.  We just heard…”

“Yes,” Jessica said.  “I talked to Tattletale.”

“Yeah,” Byron said.

“Focus on your family for right now.  Kenzie is resting, but even if she were awake, I don’t think there would be much you could say or do.”

“I’ll contact my mom next.  It won’t be easy.”

“Do you want help?  We could talk about how to go about it,” Jessica said.

“That would be appreciated,” he said.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” she told him.  “For Rain, Sveta, and Victoria as well.  You must be so anxious about Byron and Kenzie.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “That it happened.”

“All of this was a long time in the making.  It’s unfortunate it came to a head today, but… it’s understandable.  Everyone is frightened, and she’s young.  Battlefields don’t make good therapy couches.”

It felt like a condemnation.

“This world of ours doesn’t let children off easy,” my mother said.  “Sometimes you can’t avoid the battlefield.  Life goes on, life gets hard, and we have to live it regardless.”

I expected Jessica to say something to that, a rebuttal like one of the ones she’d given me, when I’d argued about cape society versus her ideal world for capes, but instead, she was silent.

“I want to avoid this battlefield,” I filled in the silence.  “Circumvent it.  It’s part of why I wanted to talk to my sister.”

“We were discussing that while we waited,” my mother said, looking over at Jessica.

“Darnall has been talking to Amelia Lavere,” Jessica said, and her tone of voice had changed from compassion to something more guarded and measured.  “It’s been hours, with breaks for Darnall and Amelia to rest and eat.  Wayne needed to take a break to check on other patients in crisis.  I wouldn’t expect miracles.”

“I’m not looking for miracles,” I told her.  “I’m not expecting miracles.  But… I guess this is a hail mary.  A long shot attempt at trying to get the stars to align, make something happen.”

Rain snorted.  I looked at him, but his mask covered his face, and I couldn’t read his expression or guess about the nature of the snort.

“Can I talk to her?” I asked.  “It’s kind of critically important.  You know it would have to be, for me to even ask.”

“I don’t-” Jessica started.

“We can ask,” my mother said.

“I don’t think it would be good for anyone involved,” Jessica said.  “Not Victoria, and not Amelia.”

“I’m not expecting it to be,” I told her.  “Not for either of us.  But there are billions or trillions of other lives out there, who die if this planet isn’t in one piece.  I just have to ask, get answers.  To avoid putting a hundred kids like Kenzie on battlefields, avoid a losing fight.”

“Thousands more deaths,” Byron said, from the sidelines.

I nodded, somber.

Jessica didn’t give me my answer.  Or she already had.

My mother, though, told me, “She’s downstairs.  I can show you the way.”

I nodded.

“I’ll stick up here,” Byron said.  “Talk about this phone call I gotta make.”

“I can’t imagine this will take long,” I told him.  “But if there’s anything you need me to do, I’ll do what I can.”

“I don’t think there’s anything anyone can do.  Gotta face the music,” he said.  His helmet was under one arm, his expression was… it made him look a lot younger than he was.  I was used to viewing Tristan and Byron as veteran capes, with years under their belt, and more than enough hardship giving them a measure of grit.

And here, Byron was a boy who wasn’t old enough to vote, preparing to tell his mom that his brother was dead.  He looked scared.  Rain laid a hand on his upper arm.

“Do you need me?” Sveta asked me.

I thought about saying yes, but… she’d known Tristan.  She and he had bonded, over their fan-worship of Weld.

“No.  You do this.”

She nodded, but she looked wary.  She glanced back at the Number Boy.

Nobody here was sure about what they were doing.

Fuck.  What the hell were we doing?

If we saw another battlefield, if we saw that battlefield, that the Simurgh had been on, I wasn’t sure our minds wouldn’t shatter into a million pieces before she even screamed.

“The elevator is this way,” my mother said.

I followed her.  Aunt Sarah floated along, and I took to the air, floating at a similar height, feet a few inches above the ground.

The elevator was beneath the big set of stairs that led from the lobby to the upper floors.

Sveta had covered the general layout when we’d been looking into raiding Teacher’s headquarters.  She’d studied the entire structure when the Irregulars had been planning the attack.

We headed toward the dungeon.  The cells.  Where thousands of lives had been stolen away and kept.  The elevator box was large enough to fit a car in, but we were the only occupants.

It jolted and then began descending.  If it had been the size of an ordinary elevator, the ceiling would have hit my head before I remembered I needed to fly down.

I shifted orientation, lying against the ceiling so my back was flat against it, and I pulled out my phone.  I navigated to Vista, and I sent her a quick message.

Busy fighting.

I told her to check in with Byron regardless.  He’d probably need it.

I looked down at my mom from above as the elevator, then descended, moving down a bit faster than the elevator did, to return to ordinary height.

“You’re planning-” my mother started.

But I put my arms around her, hugging her from the side.

She was hesitant, but she returned the hug.

“What’s this about?” she asked.

“I love you.  I saw stuff in the crystal, I felt the need to reaffirm that.”

“This feels like a goodbye,” she told me.

“It’s not.”

I broke the hug as the elevator came to a stop.

“Would you mind if I leaned on you?” my mother asked me.  “I’m still unsteady.”

I floated down until my two feet, now uninjured, were on the ground.

She leaned on me.  We walked down the hall, and we rounded a corner.

These weren’t the cells where the prisoners had been held captive, but it was close.  The ceiling was high, supported by pillars, and the rooms were solid and blocked off, in much the same way the apartments on the upper floors were.  The difference was that each structure was its own building, contained within one floor of a larger building.  It wasn’t warm in the slightest, owing in large part to the spacing of the lighting.  It made me think this was a defensive position, and some of the evidence of cleanup efforts told me I wasn’t wrong.

I felt trepidation.  I’d made internal resolutions and I wasn’t sure I’d abandoned them.

Wayne was sitting outside one building.  He stood as he saw us.

Aunt Sarah took over supporting my mom.  I flew over.

The building he was beside- she was in there.  Not quite a cell, but… a solid concrete structure paneled in white tile, reinforced doors and windows… it wasn’t not like a cell.

“Thank you for doing this,” I told him.

“There are ten different things wrong with this,” he said.  “Conflict of interest, the timing, the seriousness of it…”

“Were you able to talk to her?”

He nodded.

“Can I talk to her?” I asked him.

“Is it a good idea?” he asked.

“It might be a necessary idea,” I said, but even as I voiced the thought, I was aware of contradictions.

“You wanted this, and the fact you wanted this was a good part of the reason I accepted.  Jessica agreed.  Someone needed to talk to her.  Pulling her away from therapy, after that?”

I couldn’t disagree.

That was the hellish contradiction here.

If I was going to use her, then I was asking her to abandon therapy, and I had already resolved to kill her if she did just that.

And that didn’t even touch on what Chris had told me about.

“Isn’t it better to leave this alone?” Darnall asked.

My heart was pounding.  I wanted to say yes.

I wasn’t even sure if I could have explained my full rationale for saying no, or if I could have explained my plan.  I was going to have to, I knew.  I was mentally preparing for the Wardens to admit they didn’t have an idea.

Then I’d tell them I wanted to skip ahead to where our opponents won and use their momentum against them, and hope the Wardens were on board.

It was all I could think of, but we didn’t even have the initial elements we needed to make it happen.

“Can’t,” I said.

The door squeaked.

I wasn’t the only one who tensed.  Darnall, my mom, my aunt.

She stood with her body leaning against the door, wearing the same clothes that had been issues to the refugees that had been moved into this building.  Plain, simple.  Her hair was tied into a loose ponytail, her arms exposed, those damned tattoos showing.

The way she stood, her back was to me.  She could, I imagine, see Darnall out of the corner of her eye.

“I don’t recommend this,” Darnall said.

“You were just telling me I need to develop my listening skills,” she replied.

“That was not an invitation to not listen.”

I exhaled, and the exhale came with a shudder.

I really couldn’t think of better ways.

There was a bit more peace at the end of that exhalation and shudder than there might otherwise have been.

“Dove into the architecture of powers, a bit ago,” I said, raising my voice to be heard.  “We got some insights, got some clarity.  The world’s due to end in two hours.”

“That simplifies things, doesn’t it?” Amy asked.

I wasn’t sure how to respond to her.  On a level, her talking made my brain flinch away, made me feel stupid.

How much of me had wanted to do this just to prove to myself I was stronger, that the revelation back there had meant something when it came to Amy?  Had I blocked off thinking about other avenues out of a desire to inflict this on myself?

“I saw scenes from our childhood.  Stuff to do with mom, Uncle Neil, and Dean.  You were there.”

“Fucking up?” she asked.

“Nah,” I said.  “Just there.  Talking about Roaraxia and fantasy books.”

“The talk,” Amy said.  Still without turning around.

Dot crawled up Amy and perched on her shoulder, sitting backwards so she could watch me.  Wearing purple overalls with no shirt.

“Yeah.  The talk.  I’d mostly forgotten.”

“I didn’t.  I couldn’t pick up another book in the Roar series without thinking about mom getting on my case in front of everyone.  Amy with no friends, no hobbies, she’s small.”

I looked at my mom.  My mom was frowning.

“Thanks for doing this.  Talking to the therapist,” I said.  I avoided using his name, so the conflict of interest wouldn’t be so jarringly obvious a conflict.  If he hadn’t told her he’d seen me, I wouldn’t provide the missing piece of information.

“You don’t need to do this,” Amy said.

“Do what?”

“Talk to me, like it’s you fulfilling your end of the deal.  Don’t worry.  I’ll keep my appointments, I’ll talk about my feelings, I’ll-”

“The world’s ending, Amy,” I told her.  “Two hours.  You could sit down to watch some movies and the world would end before you’re done.”

“People will save it.”

“Multiple precogs are locked into that end result.  Titan Fortuna, the Simurgh.  It seems pretty inevitable at this point.”

The door creaked as she stopped leaning against it.  She turned to face me.  I didn’t look directly at her, instead staring down the long aisle or ‘street’ that ran between the solid buildings on this level of Cauldron’s dungeon.

“You really believe that,” she said.

“I know it.”

“No.  That’s… no.  I refuse to believe that.”

“We could use some raw power.  Talking to you, like this, it’s scary, but-”

“I’m not-”

She didn’t finish the sentence, but I could tell how tense she was.

“But I thought I’d bite the bullet.  See if you were willing.  I can’t think of any others who really fit the bill for what we want, who are still around.  Lab Rat said you understood a lot of what was happening before others did.  Both times the world ended.  As scary as it is to do this… we could use insight.  We could use your power.  We’re trying to stop a greater lifeform’s life cycle.  You shape life.”

“My power stops where the passengers begin,” she said.  “You know that.”

“We’ve figured out ways to tweak powers.  I’ve altered mine.  Depending on what you were willing to do, we could alter yours.”

“And the last time I broke rules I created Khepri.  She played a big part in stopping the last end of the world.  But things are different now.”

Khepri.  The words were intimidating to hear, especially spoken so frankly.

“You said things are different now.  Different how?” I asked.

“The last time, I thought I’d done something unforgivable and irrevocable.  I ruined you.  It’s… freeing, you know?  To hit rock bottom.  To lose everything.  I was in the deepest, darkest pit on earth, surrounded by monsters, in what a lot of people would call hell.  It gives you courage, to know that there’s nothing you could do that would be worse than what’s already happened.”

“Amy,” I said.  “What you did was unforgivable and irrevocable.”

She shook her head.

“You… I live with what happened to me every minute of every day.  I slept with a guy yesterday morning, and you’d better believe it impacted every second of that experience.”

“You’re just saying that to hurt me.”

“A bit, yeah!”  I told her.  “But more importantly, that’s… nothing’s changed from back then.  Whatever courage or bullshit you’re saying is linked to you being at rock bottom… fucking hello, Amy, you’re in a dungeon in a strange Earth, and the world’s about to end!  Where the hell do you think you are?”

“Is this productive?” Darnall asked.

“She’s at-” I turned.  “You’re at fucking rock bottom, Amy!  In that vision I saw us being friends.  I saw us happy we might be in the same art class together.  I loved that girl who retreated into books and hated ninety percent of middle school and high school, but stuck her chin out and did stuff because she was brave.  We lost that and that’s a fucking tragedy.  And I am sorry, I really am, for the parts I played in that tragedy unfolding.  But don’t pretend that what you did -a set of choices you made- isn’t something that I’m going to be carrying until the world ends in two fucking hours!”

“I’m not pretending.  But it’s still different now,” she said.  “I made all these resolutions, I told myself I’d use what I figured out about passengers to help save the world, if only I could get out of the Birdcage.  I put everything on the line.  I thought that was it.  I was convinced you were dead.  And then Khepri drops you off, a few feet in front of me.”

I was still breathing hard from shouting.  I watched her, her eyes on her feet.

“I could fix things,” she told me, and her eyes met mine.  “Erase your memory, alter your emotions.  Whatever happened to your body, I could alter it.  Change it back.”

“Like you fixed Hunter?” I asked her, my throat tight, a feeling like if I swallowed wrong bile might rise in my throat.

“I was getting to that,” she said.

“Please get to that, then,” I told her.

“After I fixed you, the Wardens were protective of me, watching me, I was on my own for the first time ever, even if I did talk to Carol and Mark.  But… always with an awareness that I had the absolute power to fix my situation.  I don’t think, um, that there’s anyone out there who wouldn’t break down, if they were that alone and that all-powerful.”

“I can think of a few names,” I told her.

“I was on a long, slow path to getting nothing, before, and then every fuckup gave me everything except the one thing I didn’t realize I needed.  I needed rock bottom, I told myself I wanted other things, but I needed the safety of having nothing left to lose.  Instead, I got Goddess, and then I got Shin.  A nation of my own.  My parents with me.  You came to me.”

I pulled off the bandages at my hand, and I held it up.  Fingernail still missing, nail bed still raw.

“Yeah,” she said.  “I fixed you, then hid the fix.  I changed your emotions, you know.  To flirt with the idea of it.”

I felt like my body couldn’t generate warmth.  Something inside of me dying from the wrenching cold.

I couldn’t let her see me flinch.

“I fucked up Hunter,” she told me.  She looked genuinely sad as she stroked Dot, who had settled into her arms.  “I promised myself I’d fix her, and it would be my first step.  I couldn’t.  That’s when I realized about the rock bottom.”

I shook my head.  My volume wasn’t enough that I was sure she would hear.  “I don’t see how what you did to me couldn’t be your rock bottom.  You’re telling me you got over it?”

“My dad likes his personal rules and I think I operate the same way.  I could say that?  What happened to you?  Never again.  Until it became clear that that was reversible.  I reversed it, on the eve of Gold Morning.  It wouldn’t have even been hard to go further.  I could have changed the minds of everyone in our family, everyone we knew.  I care, it… crushes me.  I have nightmares about it.  But…”

I looked away.

“I hurt Hunter.  I changed her personality without meaning to and then I let her become a Titan.  I couldn’t fix it.  I feel clarity again, like I did in the Birdcage.  I… don’t think I could bring myself to use my power on you again.  Old guilt is mixing with new guilt, and I… don’t feel like it’s all reversible.  I don’t feel omnipotent.  I know I hurt you.  I feel sick about things that seemed matter-of-fact before.”

“All it took was another life ruined?” I asked.  “Hunter’s?”

Her posture seemed to crumple at that.  I could think of that crumpling in the face of Carol’s withering criticisms.  Of struggles in school.

I could have done more back then, maybe.  Possibly.

I relented.  I turned so I couldn’t even see her in my peripheral vision.

“Can we count on you?” I asked, and my voice was softer.  “We need help.”

“No,” she told me.

“No?” I echoed her.

“I’m going to keep talking to Dr. Darnall as long as he’s willing to listen.  Even if it’s only for the next two hours.  He was telling me about doctors, nurses and burnout, the effects it can have.  Um.  He said other stuff, it made sense.  I can give you guys information if it helps, I have a good mental picture of how a lot of this fits together.  But… I think it might be better if I never use my powers ever again.”

“Even to keep that thing you tucked into your bra alive?” I asked her.

There was silence.

I looked at Dr. Darnall, at my mother, at Aunt Sarah, who hung back at the corner, not quite in Amy’s view.

“I fed it to Dot after waking up this morning, while Dr. Darnall was getting coffee and breakfast.”

I looked over at Amy, staring into her eyes.

Had she moved in that instant, or flickered an eye to look at my mom, if she was even in sight, lurking at the corner of a building, or had Amy said a word, I would have used my aura.  Full strength, tuned just to include Amy and her pet goblin in its range.  I would have explored it and checked to see if it tapped into other feelings.

But she didn’t move a hair.

And I believed her.

I hated that I believed her, but I believed her.

Hated it, because this end result, this particular course of the conversation, with contradictions like me needing her help and me wanting to kill her if she gave up on therapy, or the things I wanted to hear her say, and my unwillingness to believe her if she said those things…  This was the only way I could imagine the conversation would have ended where I didn’t kill her before, during, or after the matter of the world ending.

Leaving me with a vague plan and none of the pieces or powers I needed to pull it into place.

I flew away.

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Infrared – 19.f

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“French fry me,” Peep said, though ‘Peep’ was only a name Imp was holding onto for the sake of stubbornness.

Candy picked up a french fry from the big bowl at the center of the room.  They were cut fat, oily and salty, and still steamed with heat, so she used her fingernails, and held it out in front of Peep’s mouth.  “It’s hot, be careful.”

Peep moved to bite it, and Candy pulled it back.

“Be careful, I said.”

“I am.”

“Be careful.”

“I ammmm!  Give me that french fry.”

“I thought the whole point of us giving you food was so you didn’t get distracted from the tinker stuff,” Chicken Little said.

The process of chasing the french fry, which was constantly pulled back before teeth or lips could get it, saw Peep’s head craning all the way back, mouth open, while Candy dangled the french fry above her.  There was a camera shutter sound, and smaller cameras around the desk opened up and whirred lightly as they turned to face the screen.  Peep typed without using her eyes.

“It’s like a baby bird, wanting its food,” Chastity observed.

“You feed baby birds like that by puking into their open mouths,” Juliette said.  “Interested, Lookout?”

“I just want a french fry!  They’re so good!”

Candy lowered the fry enough that, straining with her whole body to rise out of her seat, Peep could bite off the very end.

Aroa, soundless, reached over to the stack of rations, where packets of condiments with faded labels were stored.  She found the vinegar and hot sauce, tore them open, her eyes on Peep’s mouth as it opened again.

Imp reached over, and squeezed the bottoms of the packets.  Vinegar and hot sauce squirted out, over the girl’s gloved hands, some dribbling down onto the lower half of her costume.

The thirteen year old Heartbroken took a second to digest what had just happened, then set her sights on Peep again, reaching out-

Imp stepped into her way.  Aroa tried to walk around, and Imp blocked her again.

“What are you doing?” Roman asked Aroa.

The question prompted Peep to turn her head, mouth closing.  Candy reached around to offer the french fry, and Peep took it.

“Missed opportunity,” Aroa said.

“Ruining your costume, more like,” Candy said.  “Maybe you should start by asking Parian how to get that ketchup out.”

“That’s hot sauce,” Juliette said.

“Oooh, oh,” Darlene said.  “I see what you were doing.”

“Like I said, missed opportunity,” Aroa replied, before leaving the room.

“Thanks for the heads up, Roman,” Peep said.

This was a process.  Imp was making it a habit to sit back and watch some of the Heartbroken, because most of them were very good actors, and could put on a relatively innocent face when others were watching.  Every single one of Heartbreaker’s kids, including the unpowered, were tricky to handle in their individual ways.  Flor and Nicholas weren’t among this group of ‘graduates’ that were getting more and more slack on their leashes, so to speak.  Imp could back off, watch and see how they behaved when they thought nobody was looking, and adjust accordingly.  Throw in a few minor embarrassments and Pavlovian lessons…

Pavlovian.  It made Imp think of Samuel, and how he’d helped her refine her psychological warfare.  Shot with a tinker gun.  No longer a part of this dynamic.  He had been the closest thing she had to a calming, steadying presence.  Chastity liked to tease too much, Candy got wrapped up in whatever problem was presented until she made herself sick, and Aiden was too prone to being outnumbered, though he was coming into his own.

He’d also been one of the few she could have regular conversations with.  She had been doing this a lot since he’d died.  Letting them forget she existed, and observing.

She couldn’t ever relax, and she was even less able to relax while they were in Teacher’s old headquarters.  White walls, floors that had been white that were tracked with gritty melted snow, now, and panels above them that illuminated everything evenly.  It was too much like a hospital or lab, garish and antiseptic.  She liked the spots where things still hadn’t been repeated from the fights and wars of last week or two years ago, but those spots weren’t kid friendly.

“You put hot sauce on your fries?” Darlene asked, horrified.

Juliette was decorating her paper plate of fries using the same packets that Aroa had been fishing in.

“She puts hot sauce on everything,” Roman said.

“It’s the only way I can feel anything, with my cold, black heart,” Juliette said, deadpan.

“Yeah, don’t think I didn’t see you shaking like a leaf after I saved your life,” Roman said.  “You guy should know that’s called eighth grader syndrome.”

“That’s a lie,” Juliette said.  “And that ‘syndrome’ of yours is from Japanese cartoons, you embarrassment.”

“What does it mean?” Chicken Little asked.

“It’s something you see a lot in middle school,” Roman said.  “Kids who convince themselves they’re special or they have powers, or that they’re the coolest people alive.”

“We are special,” Chastity said, her voice dry.  “We do have powers.  We are cool, objectively.”

“And yet Julie still manages to make a joke of herself when she pretends to be cooler than all the rest of us,” Roman added.  “It’s cringe.”

“And bringing up terms from cartoons isn’t?” Juliette retorted.

“Am I going to have to step in, here?” Imp asked.  Nobody responded.  “Don’t make me, come on.”

Roman bit into a french fry, and was mid-swallow when he froze.  Juliette was also frozen, grinning, as Roman made a small cough, eyes trying to widen and failing to.

“Urrrrggh,” Imp said, aware they wouldn’t register what she was saying.  “If you force me to make a sudden appearance, tell you off, you’re going to be mad at me, you’ll resent me, I’ll have to come up with inventive punishments to make stuff stick…”

Such a pain.

“…Come on, guys.  Work this out for yourselves,” Imp said, her power still erasing her from their memories as she said it.  They didn’t seem to register it.

“Ooh, there’s relish,” Chastity said.  “You love relish, right, Juliette?  Here, I’ll put it directly in your mouth.”

“Not what I meant,” Imp said.  “Damn it.”

Juliette didn’t move, while Roman’s face changed colors.  Chastity put the torn relish packet between her ‘cousin’s’ lips, squeezing.

Juliette broke, sputtering and spitting.  Roman, too, doubled over, heaving out big, hacking coughs.

“You could have taken your win and stopped before I got there,” Chastity noted.

“I’m fine with a mutual loss if it means I get to see him choke,” Juliette replied, before spitting onto the floor.

“Maybe we should kick some people out of the room,” Chicken Little said.  “It’s rowdy in here.  Lookout’s working.”

“Gotta speak with more conviction than that, Aiden,” Imp advised.  She wondered if it would get through to him.

“He’s right.  Out,” Darlene said, her response coming after Imp’s comment, as she was dimly aware someone else was talking, and at the same time not registering that Imp was there or what the comment had entailed.

“Oh, look, Darlene’s agreeing with Chicken Little,” Aroa said, from the doorway.  Her gloves were off and she had a wet spot on her dress where she’d cleaned off the hot sauce.  “Big surprise.”

“This is supposed to be our temporary office,” Candy said.  “Out.”

“We brought the french fries, we’re bored, meet us halfway,” Roman said.  “Let us watch.”

“Out,” Candy told him, standing up from her seat.

“I’m stronger than you.  Can you really move me?”

“I could with my power.”

“Do you know how much trouble you’d get in for that?” he asked.  He walked up to her, and his chin came within an inch of touching the bridge of her nose.

Some birds around the room got agitated, chirping and cawing.

Imp sighed.  “You guys…”

“Here,” Peep said.

Candy took a step back, reached over and took the gun.  Peep motioned for her to move closer, and then adjusted Candy’s grip.  “Don’t cover up the indents where I put the screws.”

“Why?”  Candy asked, while taking a two-handed stance, gun pointed at Roman, who didn’t move from where he stood.

“Because they serve functions.  It’s complicated.”

“You could make a gun that doesn’t have that issue.”

“I could, but doing it this way gives me two percent more output and six percent more transmission range for the data collection in the grip and all I have to do is keep my hands in the right spot while holding it, which is common sense.  Don’t block strange holes in a gun.”

“Screw holes aren’t that strange.”

“Everything is strange when it comes to tinkerings,” Peep said, exasperated.

“Whatever.  Everyone who isn’t a member of the Tenders, out,” Candy said.

“I think she wins,” Chastity said.  “Out, out.”

“Taking the french fries,” Juliette remarked, picking up the bowl, and picking a few packets of hot sauce while she was at it.

“Leave some,” Candy said, turning the gun on Juliette.

“Disarm her,” Juliette said, before freezing.  Candy, too, froze.

Roman stepped forward, reaching for the gun.  Darlene jumped up, and put her finger through the trigger guard, alongside Candy’s.

They conceded to leave french fries behind.

They were such good kids, all of them.  As bad as this situation might look from the outside, all of them had come so far in the past four years.  Imp couldn’t help but feel a kind of fondness, seeing the situation end without blood drawn or powers used.  Even a year ago, this situation would have been drastically different.

“The world is ending,” Imp told the group, knowing they wouldn’t register it.  But Tattletale had said that there was a chance something might get through, when she talked to someone like this.  Past events had suggested it might be true.  “You’re all tense.  It’s good that you’re not outright murdering each other.  Let’s stick to that.”

The thirteen-and-older Heartbroken left the room.

All of this had started as a self-imposed obligation, and in a way it was good that it had happened that way.  If she hadn’t felt obligated, it would have meant she did it out of goodwill, and she hadn’t felt goodwill when she’d had to rally the Undersiders to hunt down Chastity and the man the girl had dragged off.

She hadn’t felt goodwill when she had been woken up at six am on three consecutive nights because Roman had sneaked off and picked fights he couldn’t win.

Or when Candy had nearly started a Heartbroken riot by emptying a full box of salt onto everyone’s pizza, because unadulterated enjoyment of anything had sparked her fight or flight reflexes, and yet she had still been very much an eight year old who didn’t want to see others enjoying things she couldn’t.  She’d used her power three times before running out of charge, once on Nathan, as Nathan’s third big hit from Candy, once on her big sister Chastity, and once on Valentina.  It had effectively ruined pizza night as an ongoing thing, as all three would gag or puke at the smell of the food after that.  Still did.

Things were better now.

“Imp,” Peep announced, raising her voice to be unnecessarily loud, not moving her head while pointing at a screen she couldn’t see.  “You have a visitor!”

“Who?” Darlene asked.  “What?”

Imp blinked a few times.  It wasn’t Peep’s first time pulling that stunt, but it startled her every time.

“That’s Grue,” Roman said.  “But-”

Imp focused on her power, pushing back against the erasure that her power established at all times.  Pushing herself into their awareness again.

“-who’s… ah, Imp,” Roman said.  “Hi.”

“Hi,” Imp said.  She looked at Peep, “I’m going to figure out how you do that.”

“Tinker B.S., as Tattletale puts it,” Peep said.

“Are you guys going to kill each other if I leave you alone for five minutes?” Imp asked.

“We have the flash gun,” Darlene said.

“And birds,” Aiden said, as the birds picked up in volume again.

“And birds,” Darlene clarified.

“Okay, great.  Just… keep it down.  Tattletale is napping and we maybe don’t want to remind Rachel about the puppy incident.”

Peep ducked her head down, wilting under the memory.

“Chin up.  She’s gentler than you would think.  Give it a bit of time, and if she doesn’t come around, I’ll talk to her, okay?”

“Thank you,” Peep said, mollified.

Imp gave the kid a pat on the back, then stepped out into the hallway.

Parian was there, along with Rachel, Bastard, and Doon.  And then there was Brian, or a version of Brian.

“Hi,” he said.

Same voice.  Same face.  He looked uncomfortable in the black leather jacket and jeans he wore.

“Hi,” Imp replied.  She looked around to check for bystanders, then pulled off her own mask.  “You’re not wearing the lame skull face paint anymore.  That’s cool.  You can always say Valkyrie made you do it, at least.”

“That’s my face now,” he said.  “This is face paint, covering it up.”

“Oh.”

“And Valkyrie turned Titan.  It’s why I’m here, now,” he said.

“This is going swimmingly.  Just like I imagined,” Aisha confided in Rachel.  “My foot stuck thoroughly in my mouth.”

“That happens when you talk as much as you do,” Rachel told her.

“Valkyrie sent some of her flock out to find people they used to work with, or to help the Wardens.  She wanted some of us, me included, to stick close to her, because we had tools she needed.  Now that she’s gone, I was thinking of joining with you guys or the Red Hands.”

“They’re gone,” Parian said.  “Broken up.”

“I thought it might be that.”

“The only reason they stuck around like they did was because of the political marriage of you and Cozen,” Aisha said.  “Without that, new city, new dynamic, it couldn’t last.”

“We weren’t married,” he said.  His eyebrows drew together.  “Were we?”

“It’s a figure of speech, big brother,” Aisha said.  She took a step forward and took hold of his collar, the zipper digging into her palms.  “Why are you talking only business?  Where’s the ‘happy to see you’?”

“Y-” he started.   Again, his eyebrows drew together.  “You went and grew up.  Your face changed shape.”

“Yuh!  That does happen!” Aisha said.  She looked over at Rachel and Parian.  “I’m not crazy right?  He’s being weird?”

“He died, it’s allowed,” Rachel said.

“Big brother, Brian, bro.  I’ve been giving you your space, letting you decide when you came to us, and I kinda hoped it would be a week ago, really hoped it would be halfway through this last week when things were quieter.  But I can cut you some slack because Rachel’s totally right.  You bit it.  But you gotta meet me halfway right now, or I’m going to lose my mind.”

“Halfway is hard,” he said.  “I have holes in my memories, and I feel like my brain held onto the bad, without enough of the good.  Some… tough stuff is sticking in there.”

“Ah,” Aisha said.

She wasn’t sure how to handle that.  That was the thing with her and Brian.  Their dad had been a hardass and their mom had been an addict who’d thought Skidmark was a neat cape because he was good for a laugh.  Their dad had been there to crack down on homework, work ethic, athletics, teaching them to fight, and he’d really taught Brian all of that crap.  Aisha had learned from her mom about street smarts, dealing with the shittier side of humanity, and how much you could get away with if you didn’t give a shit.  Brian had stuck with their dad because the asshole didn’t know how to raise a girl, so he’d gotten more of dad, while Aisha stuck with mom… or learned to survive while mom did her own thing, more like.

Between the two parents, Aisha had always imagined that they’d gotten a good overall set of lessons in the ways of the world.  But they’d missed out on one key component.

“Want a hug?” Aisha asked her brother.  She saw him hesitate.  “A kiss on the cheek?  I can pat your head, Rachel’s told me that works wonders.”

He shook his head, and his smile was slight, unsure.  “No thanks.”

“I draw the line at french kisses,” Aisha told him.

“Stop,” Parian said, giving Aisha a light push on the shoulder.  “He’s saying he’s going through a tough time.”

“It’s fine,” Brian said, even though he didn’t look fine.  The lack of fine seemed to be more general than because of her.  “Aisha’s the same as ever.  That’s reassuring in its own way.”

“I read now.  Is that enough to shake your image of me and put me in that comfortable-but-not-too-comfortable territory?” Aisha asked.

“It helps,” he said.

“Aunt Rachel?”

They looked around.  Roman was leaning out of the door into the hallway.

“Oh, Aisha’s there too,” Roman said.  “Can Aroa and I go grab more food from the caf?”

“You need an escort,” Aisha said.  “Someone to keep you in line.  You guys have been antsy, and I have a bad feeling.”

“I’ll walk them down there,” Rachel said.  “I need to feed my animals.”

“Bring them back here after?”

Rachel grunted in the affirmative.

“I’m not sure I like that terminology,” Roman said.  “That you’ll walk us.  Collars and leashes for the Heartbroken?”

“Only if you make me,” Rachel said.  “But I’ll get you treats.”

“Can’t argue with that,” Roman said.

“Parian?” Aisha asked.  “Can you keep an eye on the kids inside?  They were harassing the Tenders, and if they wake up Tattletale from her nap, there’ll be hell to pay.”

“Yes.  Of course.”

“Thanks babe.  Any word from Foil?” Aisha asked.

Parian shook her head.  “We talked briefly when we crossed paths.  She said she wants space.  That’s it.”

“Okay.  Good luck.”

Parian slipped back indoors.

Leaving Aisha alone with Brian.

It was so hard to talk.  Again, that issue their parents had left with them.  They were so bad at communicating.  Their mom had ignored them, their dad had communicated by dragging them to gyms and telling them to turn their aggressions toward punching bags, with tears being deemed weakness.  Anything else was their own shit to deal with.

“Aunt Rachel, huh?” he asked, breaking the awkward silence.

“Yup.”

“She seems… I thought after a few years of living out in the middle of nowhere on a foreign Earth, she’d cut off contact from humanity entirely.”

“Her little settlement grew,” Aisha said.  “When it gets to be too much, she goes for a trip somewhere, spends a while with a few select dogs, and trusts her team to look after the dogs she leaves behind at the camp.”

“I can’t get over the ‘Aunt Rachel’ part.”

“It started as a joke and then became serious.”

“Were you a part of that joke?” he asked.

She smiled, and she shook her head.  “Can’t take credit for it.”

“And that was Romeo.  He’s a teenager now.”

“Yup.  Roman now.  Little bastard did something very familiar, recently.  Put his life on the line to save someone’s life, in the middle of a class-S threat.”

“Like his brother.”

“I could’ve killed him if I hadn’t been so proud of him.  The jackass.  Makes my heart hurt, even now.  The kicker?  That girl was his sister.  Juliette.”

“They put each other in the emergency room, I think.”

“Yep.  They still flirt with the idea of murdering each other, but I think toying with the idea of murder is better than actual attempted murder.”

“Can’t separate ’em?  Send one somewhere else?”

“We do.  But they get upset if they miss out.  I think that little dude is going to change gears and end up a hero at one point, but don’t let him know I said that.  He’s contrarian enough that he’d reverse direction.”

“My lips are sealed,” Brian said.

Hearing her brother’s voice again was like a balm for the soul that she didn’t know she needed.  It was tough, but… Brian had always been tough to handle in his own way.

“Want to see the other kids?” she asked.

She saw him hesitate.

She wanted to grab him again, shake him.  She wanted to tell him that there was nothing wrong with saying ‘yes’.  But ever since Bonesaw had got her hands on him, he’d been even more distant.  She could count the people he’d extended any measure of vulnerability to on one hand, and she wasn’t one of those people.  Of the two more important ones, one was gone and the other was dead.

“Come on,” she said.  “You’re here because you can work with us, and we can work with you, but to do that, you need to know what they’re like and what they can do.”

“True,” he said.

It made her heart hurt that he needed that excuse to come with.

But he was back.  It lifted her heart a bit.

She reached for the door, and it opened at the same time she touched it.

It was Candy, who looked up, saw Brian, and shrank back, retreating from the doorway.

“It’s okay,” Aisha said.  “You might not remember him.”

“I remember Brian,” Candy said.  “Was surprised.”

She still didn’t come closer, and she stepped back a bit further when Brian approached.

“Where were you off to?”

“To get you.  Parian told me to.  Emergency.”

Imp strode past Candy, one hand on the girl’s shoulder to steady her and keep her on task as Brian followed.

“Come on!  Let me try!”  Peep’s voice, high and amused.

“Maybe you shouldn’t bother him?” Darlene asked.

“Ha!  I think he’ll be a little more bothered if it turns out I could have done something and I didn’t.”

“Maybe,” Darlene said.

The voice was Peep’s.  Lookout’s.  Imp turned the corner and found the girl on her feet, pulling a tinkertech cube with radiating antennae apart.

“So stupid, I’m so stupid,” Lookout muttered to herself, smiling and shaking her head.  “The one time I look away.”

“Stop for five seconds,” Parian said, with zero authority.

“Pe- Lookout,” Imp cut in.

“Hey!” the girl turned, her response eerily like she was greeting a friend she hadn’t seen for a while.  She wasn’t wearing her helmet, but the frizz of her hair stuck to her head with light sweat.  She had a smile on her face and moist eyes.  “Hey, can you tell Parian to leave me alone for five seconds?  I made a mistake, and every second counts.”

“There’s been a death,” Chicken Little said.  He held his mask, and his birds were sticking closer to him.  Some stuck close to Kenzie and her now-vacant chair, and she barely seemed aware of them.

“Teeny-tiny bit of a death,” Lookout said.  “And I’ve been so zeroed-in on things that I didn’t even see it.  Not like me, right?  Ha ha, and it’s actually kind of important that I missed stuff, because if I’m going to do anything about it, I need to have been tracking the data’s movements through the crystals since fifteen minutes ago.”

“You’re a camera tinker, Lookout.  What are you planning to do?” Parian asked.

“I’m a camera tinker and a box tinker, and if I build a big enough box, if I have the right materials and the right data… emphasis on the right data, I might be able to do something.  If there’s anything left of him in his brother…”

Brother.  Aisha looked back at Grue.  She looked at the screen, showing Breakthrough looking stricken.  People moved out of frame and the cameras didn’t follow them.

“What do you need?” Aisha asked.  “How much time?”

“Time?  Haha.  I don’t know, days?  I can skip sleeping, so data doesn’t bleed away.  There’s a small chance that all incoming data gets stored in a kind of processing center until it can get sent where it’s going, and since he comes in a big, pre-loaded chunk of data, maybe, five percent chance, or three percent chance…”

“Its Capricorn,” Darlene supplied.

“I figured,” Aisha said.  “Lookout, How long do you need to confirm if there’s still a bit of him in his brother?”

“A tether?  Or anything that gives me a starting point?  I don’t know.  Minutes?”

“Go.  Do that.  Darlene, will you help her?”

“I can,” Darlene said.

“Juliette, clear out.  No, stay in the front hall.  Stand watch.  If Tattletale wakes up or if anyone comes back, fill them in, but let’s keep everyone but Tattletale out of here, so there’s elbow room to work.  Chastity?”

“Yes?” Chastity asked.  She and Juliette stood in the side hallway at the other end of the room, leading to the back offices.

“Go to the cafeteria.  Tell them there’s a minor crisis, and they should stay put until we get in touch.”

Chastity nodded.

“What do I do?” Candy asked.

The girl was still shy of Brian, having already slipped away and moved to the far end of the room.  Except shy was the wrong word.

“Parian, can you make the spare bed in the back office?  Candy, you help.  Lookout, once you’re done with the first phase, if there’s nothing you need to do right away, I want you to think about a rest.”

“Mnnph,” Lookout made an unintelligible, distracted sound in the negative.

“Yes.  I know for a fact you didn’t sleep last night, your computers light up like a Christmas tree when you’re tinkering and connecting in remotely.”

“I have too much to do.”  Lookout went back to her computer, with a handful of boards from the cube.  She handed Darlene one board, and then the two girls began moving in near-unison, dismantling the two identical boards with bits plugged into them.

Not so different from another Heartbroken meltdown.  The difference was that Aisha didn’t know this kid.  Not well.

“Who is she?” Brian asked.

“Lookout.  You remember Glory Girl?”

“Sure.  Antares now.”

“Her tinker half-quit her team, joined up with Candy, Darlene, and Aiden.”

He nodded, and she could see his paler eyes searching the scene, taking in the individual components.  Aiden, Candy, Darlene, Lookout, how they stuck by one another.

“I’ve… been to the processing center she talked about, I think,” Brian said, his voice quiet in Aisha’s ear.  “I don’t think there are others… and that processing center turned Titan half an hour ago.”

“Leave it be,” she whispered back.  At the same time, she braced for the impact to come.  She didn’t know enough about Lookout.  How did the girl react when all the chips were down?

How would the others react?  She remembered the incident with Darlene trying to lynch the kid, and Candy’s self-destructive meltdowns.

The work on the boards done, Lookout took one from Darlene, then ran over to the box with the antennae, sliding them in.  She reversed course, going to the computer.  Her arm moved, and Darlene moved her own arm, already moving the mouse and typing in the seconds it took Lookout to get there and take over.

Lookout struck a key with a kind of finality.

In the aftermath of that keystroke, there was stillness.

“Do we know yet?” Parian asked.  She was done setting up the bed, apparently.  Candy peered past her.

“Searching,” Lookout said.

A solid minute passed.  There was no progress bar on the computer, only a constantly shifting mess of triangles, circles, squares and diamonds, like a blueprint searching for something to take shape.

“The kids are so different,” Brian’s voice was quiet.

Aisha looked back over her shoulder at him.

“They’re helping.  They’re staying quiet.”

She nodded.

They were good kids.

Another minute passed.

Moving slowly, Aisha crossed the room, touching Chicken Little’s shoulder.  She pointed him to the corridor near where Juliette was.  He retreated to the doorway.

She did the same with Darlene.

Lookout didn’t even seem to notice.

“Are you there?” Lookout asked, and her voice was plaintive.  “Hellooo?”

The room they were in was a conference room for what was supposed to be a block of offices for one branch of a larger organization.  The central table had been carted out, desks moved in.  The small voice was very empty in the wide space.

“I don’t know what to do.  I’m not sure I can fix this.”  The kid typed constantly.  Lines of code spread across the screen without rhyme or reason, like cracks crawling their way across a broken windshield.

“Look-”

“No,” Lookout interrupted.  “One more minute… please.”

“One more minute,” Aisha said.

They waited.

One more minute.  Lookout periodically typed, her expression shifting between eye-watering stares and frustration.

“It’s not your responsibility,” Brian said.

“If it’s not mine then whose?” Lookout asked.  Her eyes were already large in her head, but they seemed impossibly large now.  Moisture clung to them without becoming tears.  “I just lost my best friend a week ago.  The coolest person I knew.  She’s out of reach forever now, except-”

She stopped there.  Shaking her head as she turned back to the computer screen.  She wiped at one eye with the heel of her hand.

“It’s been a minute.  Do you think maybe you could keep your end of the deal?” Aisha asked.  “Take fifteen minutes, lie down in the bed in the back.  Just-”

She reached for Lookout’s shoulder.  The reaction was so sudden that it made her jump, as Lookout sprang to her feet, the computer chair, wheeled with a wide base, tipping over.  It crashed to the floor.  The kid was all tension.

“I’ve got stuff to do,” Lookout said.  Her voice was entirely out of sync with her rigid posture, like she was a dog ready to bite.  “Sorry.”

“I don’t think there’s anything you can do,” Aisha said.

“What do you know what I can do?” Lookout asked.

“Your team needs you alert and you’re all over the place like this.  I don’t want to play the puppy card, but the puppy?  Less than twelve hours ago?” Aisha asked.

The tension increased, the already small Lookout shrinking down.

“You don’t want to make another mistake like that because you’re not thinking straight, and you’re not thinking straight as long as you’re tired,” Aisha said.

“My team needs me.  I’m indispensable.  T- Tristan needs me.  I’ve got to find the right data, find a way to bring him back…”

“What if you can’t?”

“What if I can?” the little girl asked, smiling like she’d just made a joke or a witty retort.  There was a manic edge to it.

Brian spoke up, “Speaking as someone who died…”

Lookout looked over and up at him.  Even holding her bent-over, half-crouching posture for less than a minute, she looked like the weariness of hours was overcoming her.  Her head hung lower, and she breathed harder, back rising and falling.  “You died.  I read that, yeah.”

“…I wouldn’t want someone to hurt themselves for my sake.  Even if it meant bringing me back.”

“What am I supposed to do with that?” Lookout asked.

“Would Tristan want you to do this?” Brian asked.  “To hurt like this?”

“I’m not sure if I care what he wants,” she said.

“Kenzie,” Candy said.

Lookout looked over.

“You’ve said before that there were times you felt like you needed to do something, but it wasn’t until later that you realized you were doing the wrong thing.”

“How can letting someone die and not doing something about it be the right thing?” Lookout asked.

“Sometimes there is no right thing,” Aisha said.

“Listen,” Candy said.  “Look at this picture.  Close your eyes, look through your cameras.  Start with that.  Can you do that for me?”

Lookout retreated, backing away until she was in a corner, as far from everyone else as possible, Candy and Parian in the doorway to her right, Grue and Aisha by the wall to her left.  She closed her eyes.

“Thank you,” Candy said.  “Look at us.  Look at this scene from a distance.  How many people think you need to take a break?”

“…A lot.”

“Can you count them?”

Lookout moved her head by small fractions, one bit every few seconds.

“No. I can’t keep my thoughts straight.  There’s a lot of noise, tinker inspiration.”

“A lot of people think you need to take a break.  You’re the only one who thinks you need to stay.  Is there a possibility we’re right?”

“You’re not- no.”

“No?”

“No- I…” Lookout stopped, trailing off.  Her eyes roved, studying things that weren’t there.

The tension relaxed.  There was only defeat.

“Darlene and Chicken and I will sit with you.”

The kid nodded.  “I left tech with my team.  They’ll mess it up if they try to pack it up.”

“We’ll handle it.”

“It’s not that simple, it’s like the screwholes.  You guys don’t have any common sense when it comes to tech.”

“You can write it down.  We’ll bring paper and a pen.”

“I can type, if-”

“No tech,” Parian said.  “You should disconnect for a bit.”

“Good idea,” Aisha said.  “I’ll explain to your team.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Nothing is, Peep,” Aisha told the girl.

The girl retreated to the back room.  Candy and Darlene followed.

Chicken Little hung back.

“You okay?” Aisha asked him.

He shook his head.

“Spooky stuff,” she said, her voice soft.

“A bit.  I don’t know what to do.”

“I know.”

“Can I go get the tech?” he asked.

“Tattletale would kill me if she woke up and heard I sent you out.”

“I know how to handle it, kind of.  I knew about the screw holes.  Because we’ve helped build stuff and she made stuff for my birds, once.”

“Kid-”

“I want to help but I always feel like a third wheel when I’m standing by someone’s bed.  I never know what to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything.”

“Please.  It’s not too bad down there.”

“One team dropped a Titan down there, and another might be appearing out of nowhere to stop the teams that are preparing to blow up sections again.”

“I’ve already been down there once.  Kind of.”

“Chicken…” Aisha shook her head.

“Please,” he said.  “I want to help her and do something more.  I feel like I have to, as leader of my team.”

“Tattletale would kill me.”

“I’ll take the blame.”

Aisha sighed.  She looked back at Brian, who didn’t give her any indication one way or the other.

“Let’s see if we can open communications with Breakthrough.  Fill them in, see if there’s any problems first.”

My brain is hoping they give us a bit of an excuse, while my heart is hoping you can do this for your teammate.

Aiden reached past her to hit keys on the keyboard, rotating windows and bringing up what looked like a webcam panel.

This entire thing looked more like magic than technology.  Diagrams, loops, text running in every direction across a three dimensional space.

“Bringing you online,” he said.

“Are you and Darlene connected to her right now?” Aisha asked.

“No,” Aiden said.

Really?” she pressed him, leaning in closer.

“Uh, yeah.”

“Because if you’re actually going there, we can’t have you distracted.”

“I’m not connected.”

The kid was a terrible liar.

A box on the desk scanned them with a blue laser.

“Bringing you online, I think,” Aiden said.

A screen changed to show the Breakthrough group.

“And you’re on.”

“Whassup!” Imp greeted them.

“Hzz pt fffzohh,” Antares’s voice was reduced to gibberish.

It took a few exchanges before the voices clarified.  The image distorted badly, and the Breakthrough group warped a few times, fingers and faces blurring and stretching out.

“Lemme…” Aiden leaned across, typing.  “There.”

“Thanks, kid,” Imp said, giving him a nod.  She faced the camera.  “Oh, I thought you were giving me the finger.”

“What do you need?” Antares asked.

“Lookout is having a lie down…”

Brian was talking with Rachel, Chastity, Juliette, and Roman, crowded into the little coffee break room that they were using as a kitchen while they were parked here.  Aisha, a bit overwhelmed, had retreated to use of her power.

The other kids were elsewhere, Aroa taking a break to phone her ‘cousins’, Darlene and Candy with Lookout.

She observed, studying her brother, and wondered if he seemed more at ease with her gone.

Lower expectations, maybe.

He’d rubbed at one of his cheekbones and wiped away the makeup that covered up the marking that Valkyrie had given him.  He hadn’t realized it, either, and nobody mentioned it.

This was all so hard.

Her entire team, her subdivision of the broader Undersiders team, at least, consisted of capes who couldn’t fight Titans.  The Heartbroken targeted people.  Her own power affected humans, and even if she could move around without a Titan realizing she was there, too many of them were dangerous enough that they could kill her without even recognizing her existence.

Their best mind and their best set of eyes were out of commission for the time being.

Darlene, she realized, was in the computer room, with Kenzie’s partially unpacked workshop.  How long had that been the case?  Just Candy and Peep in the room, now.

She crossed the hallway, taking long strides up until she was near Tattletale’s door.  She walked quietly past Tattletale’s door even though her power was active.  Noise would disturb Tattletale, even if Tattletale didn’t register it or remember it had happened.

She checked in on the two girls.

They lay on a single cot, sharing a pillow, Little Lookout with her back to the wall.

“…tracking eye movements, duration of eye contact,” Lookout said.  “Body temperature, heart rate.  My camera kinda gets it all.”

It made some sense that a tinker would be comforted by talking tinker gibberish.

“I don’t know,” Candy said.  She drew back a bit.

“I do know,” Lookout answered, and her voice was insistent.  “So… I think it’s fine.”

“How about we have this conversation another time?”

“I’d really, really like to finish having it now,” Lookout’s tone was insistent.

“Then no,” Candy said.  She shifted position and sat up, her back to Lookout.

“What?”  Lookout laughed.  Down part of a hallway and halfway into the conference room, Darlene looked over in alarm.  “But-”

“But your cameras know better?”

“Kind of!  I don’t think this is me being crazy.”

“I know what I feel better than your cameras do.”

Candy rose from her seat on the edge of the bed, and took a step back.  It gave Aisha the first good look at the girl’s face.

Aisha used her power, appearing.

Both girls stopped, recognizing Aisha was there.

Again, that tension.  That wild look in Lookout’s eyes.

But in Candy’s eyes, there was alarm, panic.

It had been a while since Aisha had seen that from Candy.  The aftermath of Cradle butchering everyone hadn’t even brought her to this point.

“What are you talking about?” Aisha asked.

“A confession,” Lookout said.  She rose to a sitting position.  “And Candy isn’t being honest.”

“I would like you to take me at my word,” Candy said.  “Please.”

“These things are complicated, Lookout,” Aisha said.  “There’s history… I think it would be good to let things be.  This isn’t the time for distracting things.”

“They’re priority things for me,” Lookout said.

“Even so.”

“Maybe you didn’t understand, Candy,” Lookout said.  She swung her legs over the edge of the bed.  “I like you.”

“I understood.”

“You can feel it.  You can feel my heart pounding.”

“I know.”

“And yours is.  And my cameras… they see you, they can read emotional responses in heart rate, temperature, breathing.  I know you’ve looked at my face and you liked what you saw and that’s great!  It’s a happy thing!”

“Sorry,” Candy said.  “No.”

“Yes!”

“Lookout,” Aisha said.  “Listen, Candy has history, I know you saw some of it… let it be.”

“But…” Lookout said.  She clenched both fists into balls, so tight her hands trembled.

“I don’t like… liking things too much,” Candy said, quiet.  “I don’t like anyone liking me too much.”

Lookout’s head snapped up, staring at her friend.  She took a step forward, and Candy took a step back.

Lookout looked like she’d been stabbed, with the way the hurt crossed her face, the smile faltering.

“Everyone has a reason,” Lookout said.  “It’s always really good reasons, too.”

“Yeah,” Aisha said.

“Did you ever love someone and scare them away?” Lookout asked.  “Because I keep doing that.  They keep dying, or leaving me behind, or I scare them off.”

“My problem was always the opposite.  It’s hard for me to get to the point of liking people.  But I really love them once I do.”

“It’s so unfair,” Lookout said.  “That I can do everything right, I can be a good student and a friend, and  a teammate, and… I still end up alone.  Always.  They die.  My best friend died, and there’s still a sorta-copy of her alive in this world and she hates me.  And Tristan’s gone, and my team’s away, and I can’t contact them… what do I do?”

“I don’t know,” Aisha said.  “One thing at a time.”

Lookout balled up her fists, again they shook violently.  Candy clasped both hands to her heart, taking a step so Aisha was between the two of them.

“I could make you,” Lookout said.

Aisha looked back at Candy.

“How?” Candy asked.

“Blackmail you.  Or your team.  Everyone here.”

Aisha used her power.  Lookout backed away two steps, reached under the pillow, and pulled out the gun.  She didn’t look at Aisha, but she trained the gun on her.

“Reappear!” Lookout ordered her.  “Or I blind Candy and you!”

Aisha stopped, rematerialized.

“Is that really how you want to do this?” Candy asked.  “Forcing us.  Hurting us?”

“I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do!” Lookout raised her voice.

“Not this,” Candy said.

Lookout smiled, tears in her eyes.  “Do you know what the longest stretch of good days I had was?”

“Your foster dads.”

Lookout shook her head.  “Guess again.  The longest stretch of time where I wasn’t anxious, where I was happy about every day, my heart was light and I was hopeful about tomorrow.”

“I don’t know, Kenzie,” Candy said.

“It was when I was blackmailing my parents, after Gold Morning.  It was when I could at least pretend.  So… do I have to pretend here?”

“You’d be ruining everything if you did,” Candy said.

“I don’t-” Lookout shook her head.  “I don’t know!  I don’t know what I’m supposed to do!”

“You need to rest.  You need to stop.”

“I… can’t.”

“You have to.”

“I can’t!”

Darkness flooded into the room, smoke as black as ink.

The darkness dissipated almost as soon as it had appeared.  Juliette stood opposite Lookout.

The two of them promptly froze in place.

“Shit,” Tattletale said.  She pressed the heel of one hand to her forehead.  She held out the other hand for Aisha.

Aisha took what was offered.  Two pills.

“Sleeping pills,” Tattletale said, taking a water bottle from Brian.  “Fast acting, for thinker headaches.”

Aisha placed the pills on Lookout’s tongue, then took the water bottle.

Juliette released the kid, and Aisha squeezed the water bottle, forcing pills and water into the back of Lookout’s mouth.

The kid coughed, staggered, looked in the direction of her tech, and saw only darkness.

There was anger on her manic face, her fists clenched, as she remained there on her hands and knees.  She was frozen again like that, her expression still.  The little mad scientist was mad.

Aisha fished in her mouth, checking the pills were gone.

“Things will be better when you wake up,” Tattletale said.  “All of this is fixable.”

Gradually, frozen as she was, the tension was released.  The girl’s eyes rolled up in the back of her head.

Juliette released her, and Lookout collapsed, unconscious.

“Or else the world will have ended.  Either way,” Tattletale said, with a deep fatigue to her voice.

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Infrared – 19.9

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“Oh my god, you are so annoying!”

“No I’m not.”

“You’re not?  Oh, I’m sorry, I must be mistaken about how I’m ready to strangle you!”

“I’m not doing anything!”

“You’re following me.  I walk into a room and you’re two steps behind me.”

“Where am I supposed to go?”

“Your room?  Anywhere else?”

“Crystal.”

Crystal turned away in a huff.

“Come and talk to us in the kitchen?” Aunt Sarah asked.

Eric retreated into the living room, plunking himself down into a chair, slumping down so his arms were up on the armrest, feet on the floor, and his upper body stretched along the seat, chin against collarbone.

He looked at us without moving his head.

“What’s up?” I asked.

He shrugged.

“How’s she doing?” I asked.

He shrugged, then mumbled, “There were some days she was really scary.  I had no idea what she’d do.  Mostly now she’s… extra teenager-ish, I guess.”

He sighed, dramatic.

“It’s tough being the odd one out, isn’t it?” Amy asked.  She was sitting on the short couch beneath the window, feet curled up beside her, a folded book in her lap.

“Really tough.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” Amy asked.

“Nah.”

“You can reach out to us anytime,” Amy said.

“Okay.  Thanks, I guess.”

He got up and pulled a controller out from under the television.  He flipped the switches to turn the TV and console on, and it “Thwooomed” with the console’s startup sound.

He held out a controller, offering it to Amy and me.

“Reading,” Amy said.  “Thanks though.”

“What game?” I asked.

“Q-bert Qart?” he offered.  “Or Princess Run?”

“Are you offering that to me because I’m a girl?” I asked him.

“Crystal likes it, so I figured?”

“Dean likes it too,” I noted, recognizing the art on the box.  “No thanks.  Not really in the mood.  I’ll watch.”

“I was just being polite anyway,” Eric said.

He loaded up a game and swiped two cards from the stack by the console before sitting down.  The room was soon filled with music.

Amy took a second to pull a throw blanket down from the back of the couch and toss it over her legs and feet, before picking up her book.

I walked around the end of the couch, leaning over the arm, my head parallel to hers as I read over her shoulder.

“You’re distracting me,” she said.  Her head moved, frizzy brown hair mashing into my face as she butted her head lightly into mine.

“Who’s Roaraxia?” I asked.

“Do you want to read this after I’m done?” she asked.  “Emphasis on after?”

“Depends.  Is Roaraxia cool?”

“She’s the bad guy, and yeah, I guess.”

“Is the good guy cool?” I asked.

“No,” Amy said, sighing.  “Almost never, in books.”

“In your books, maybe.”

“It’s the appeal, isn’t it?  Peasants, criminals, orphans, they get a chance and they become cool by the end of the book.”

I snorted, got up, and took my seat at the other end of the short couch.  I stuck my feet out and wormed them beneath Amy’s blanket.

“Your feet are cold,” Amy told me, kicking me in the shin.

“So are yours,” I said, grabbing the corner of the blanket and pulling it away from her foot.  “Now they’re colder.”

What ensued was like thumb wrestling, feet kicking at and pushing against feet in a battle for control.  She wasn’t trying very hard, though, because she had her eyes on the book.  The battle was less about the feet and more about me trying to get her attention as much as she tried to avoid giving it to me.

“You need to shave your legs,” Amy said.  “It’s like sandpaper.”

“Gross,” Eric said, not taking his eyes off the game.

“It gives me the heebie jeebies,” Amy said.  “Like the squeak from markers on a whiteboard, or sneakers on the gym floor.”

“Tiny hairs, sticking in the underside of your feet,” I teased her.  “And when you walk, you’re walking on them and pushing them in deeper…”

She pulled her feet away like I was on fire, and shivered visibly, putting her book down.  My victory.

I kept going, “And when they grow, they’re pointed in the wrong direction, so they grow in…”

Amy made incoherent sounds of protest.

“I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work that way,” Eric said.

“It probably doesn’t,” I said.  I let my head loll back onto the armrest behind me, no longer fighting with Amy.  “We’re supposed to take a science class next semester.”

“Chemistry, biology, or physics,” Amy clarified.  “We got the sheet in homeroom.  Also art, music, or drama.”

“Same.  What did you pick for science?”

“Chemistry.  Physics is the advanced kids’ stream and is supposed to be hard, and in biology you might have to dissect frogs.  No thank you,” Amy answered.  “Ick.”

“I thought there would be some parts of it that are useful for health and fitness, first aid.”

“You’re thinking about cape stuff,” Amy said.

“Naturally.”

“And I bet you picked drama.”

“Art,” I told her.  “At least for the one year.  I’m not very good at it, but there’s emblems and icons, color mechanics, costumes, poses and posture…”

Amy snorted.  “Of course.  I picked art too, mostly by process of elimination.  So we might be in the same class.”

“Cool.”

She picked her book up again, and I let her, watching as Eric fought a dragon, poorly.

I watched his second and third attempts before starting to give tips.

“You want to avoid that.”

“I know I want to avoid it, but where am I supposed to go?  The ground is lava.”

“Maybe don’t spend so much time near the part of the boss fight where there’s lava.”

“Oh my god,” he groaned.

“You keep on taking the big hits when you stop to heal.  It takes too long.”

“And if I don’t heal I die.”

“So don’t get hit.”

“Oh my god,” he groaned, again.  “Do you want to try?”

“You’ll have to tell me the controls,” I said.  I got up out of my seat and walked over.  Still on the couch, Amy reclaimed the blanket and tucked it under her feet.  I smirked.

I only barely had the controller in my hand when the door opened.

They were all wearing civilian clothes, but my impression of them was that they were ‘the team’.  No longer just the adults.  They looked serious, instead of looking like family.  Mom, Dad, Uncle Neil, Aunt Sarah, and Crystal.

“Are you near a save point?” Aunt Sarah asked.  “Or pause and turn the television off?  You can get back to it after.”

Yeah.  Serious.

“This isn’t a game with save points, mom,” Eric said, before taking the controller from me and going to the menu to save.

I retreated to the couch, and sat in the same spot as before.  I motioned for Crystal to come sit between Amy and I, and she remained where she was, opposite end of the room, leaning against the doorframe.

“We wanted to have a talk,” Uncle Neil said.

“Crystal is joining the team,” my mother said.  Her arms were folded.

Crystal nodded.

“Was that ever in question?” I asked.

“She could have decided to join the Wards,” Aunt Sarah said.

“People would figure out who I am pretty fast,” Crystal said, looking down and to the side.  Somehow, she didn’t look happy, which was crazy to me.  “And it would hurt the team.”

“We wanted to talk with you because of what happened to Crystal,” Aunt Sarah said.  “Based on what’s happening elsewhere, and how Carol and I both got powers, we wanted each of you to be aware of what might be coming down the road.”

“We’ll get powers,” I said.

“Probably,” my dad said.  “Possibly.  I know you know the answer, but… do you know how?”

“Trigger events,” I said.

Amy spoke up, “This is like having a math whiz in the class, putting her hand up every time a question is asked.”

“I’m not that bad.”

“It’s more serious than math class,” Uncle Neil said.  “Eric, do you understand about Trigger events?”

“That’s the day you get powers?” Eric asked.

“It’s what makes you get powers.  It’s a very important moment.”

“One of the best or worst days of your life,” I said.

“It can be,” my Uncle said.

“If you want it to be a good day,” my mother said, “The best thing you can do is be a good student, a good athlete, and the best person you can be.  Strive for things and then accomplish those things.”

“Great,” Amy said.  “I’m doomed.”

“But,” Aunt Sarah said, and it sounded like a sentence.  She gave my mom a look.  “As far as we can tell, it’s rare.  You should absolutely try to improve your chances, especially Victoria and Eric.  The powers seem to run in the family, and getting a ‘good’ trigger would help reduce the chances that you get a bad one-”

“We don’t know if the chances are as high for you, but it would behoove you to get your grades up, Amy,” my mom said.

“Great,” Amy said, making a face.

“I’ve been urging you for some time to join a club, a team, make your own friends.  You have too contained a life.”

“That’s not what we’re here to talk about,” Aunt Sarah said.  “Again, yes, I think it would be good to focus on success, but we should be prepared for the other cases.  If something happens, if you have a really bad day and you get hurt or scared or angry, then it’s possible you could have a bad trigger event.  And it’s hard.  Right now, Crystal is going through a lot.  Neil, me, Mark, Carol, we all went through it.”

“All bad?” Amy asked.

“Yes, Amy.”

“What happened?” Eric asked.

I braced myself, ready for my mom to shut it down.

“Your mother and I were kidnapped,” my mother said.  “They kept us in a dark basement for a long time.  And then they tried to kill us.”

I blinked, my head swimming as I absorbed that.  Things made sense now.  I had so many more questions.

“Neil had the accident, which you know about” my Aunt Sarah said.  I knew.  They’d met in the physical therapy after.  Her for a riding injury, him for his trigger.  “Mark-”

“I was on a boat when we were attacked,” my dad said.

The point is,” my Aunt Sarah stressed, “we need you to be aware that this is a thing that happens.  Very often, when we get powers, it isn’t always easy, fun, or great.  We need you all to be gentle with Crystal, not to pry, not to pressure, give her space, and let her handle things in her own way.”

I felt frustrated at that, yet I couldn’t say anything.  They were saying this because I’d been asking her questions before.

“As you grow up, and we bring you to more events where capes are present, it’s important to remember that many of them have been through the same,” my mother said.  “It’s a question of courtesy and cape politics.”

I nodded at that.

“It’s not just others.  We need you to be gentle with yourselves,” Uncle Neil said.  “Be prepared and be aware.  When Sarah triggered, she hurt people, badly.  I did the same.”

“And I took a life,” my mother said.

My eyes widened at that.

There was a pause, a break in the flow of conversation.  And it was my mom, wearing a sweater, her hair long, looking much like a mom, with sunlight coming in from the window, and I could see it in her eyes.  The fact that she had come to terms with that.

“…We weren’t going to mention that,” Aunt Sarah said, indicating Eric.

“I almost killed someone too,” Crystal said.

I wasn’t sure how to even imagine that.  I wasn’t sure Crystal could even imagine it, from the look on her face.

All I knew was that some sketchy people had recognized her and followed her off the bus, running after her when she ran.  I only knew that much because my mom had told Amy and me to be extra careful, and had insisted she or dad drive us if we went anywhere.

“They’re mad, now, apparently,” Crystal said, hugging her arms to her body.  “They want to get revenge.”

“Often the case,” my dad said.  “Bad begets bad.”

I could tell that my parents’ approach to things wasn’t really jibing with how Aunt Sarah had wanted to approach it.  A little too serious when Eric was three years younger than me and Amy.

“It might happen to you,” My mother said.  “Chances are the time it happens won’t be a time you’re capable of being your most rational, but that makes it all the more important that you make resolutions and understand things now.  There’s a good chance that when you’re facing the worst day of your life, you might be in a position to do irreparable harm to someone.”

“I don’t think I’m the type.”

“I didn’t think I was the type either, Amy,” my mother said.  “That makes it easier for the moment to catch you off guard.”

“It’s not all fun and games,” my dad said.  He met my eyes as he said it.

Aunt Sarah opened her mouth, like she wanted to say something… but she couldn’t refute the fact.

“If I could go back-” Crystal started.  She stopped, aware that every set of eyes was on her.  Her eyes moving so she wasn’t looking at anyone at all, she went on, “-I wouldn’t do it again.  I wouldn’t want these powers.”

“I’m so sorry, Crystal,” Amy said.

Crystal shrugged.

“That’s crazy,” I said.

“Victoria,” my mother’s voice was stern.  “We were just talking about sensitivity.”

“But she can- you can fly, Crystal.”

“And every time I do, it feels a bit like I’m still running away from those people,” she said.

“That’s a reality for many of us,” my aunt Sarah said.  A woman I’d associated with warm hugs, pumpkin cookies, and all of the cool ‘my relative is a superhero’ stuff without the ‘also my parent’ crap, except now she was talking from a place of darkness and hurting people.

“I hope I never get powers,” my sister said.  I saw Crystal nod.

I still wanted them.  I needed them.  Still, for the first time, I felt trepidation.  Because my mom, the toughest person I knew, looked scared for me.

The rooftop was covered in chairs and glass tables with umbrellas sticking out of them.  They were intended for sun more than for rain, but they did catch the rain from above, turning it into trickles that ran off the low points.

Dean was at one edge of the roof, in his shining armor, lights tracing the edges and making him seem bright even in the darkest shadow.  He let the rain fall on him without protest or trying to cover up, and turned as he followed my descent.

I chose an open area, just to be safe, and came to a full stop a full foot above the ground, so I wouldn’t mess up and break the roof.  I landed on the very far side of the rooftop.  I could see Vista leaning against the railing, and the rain that came down above her was parted, leaving her utterly dry, even without an umbrella or shelter.  Some people on the street took pictures and waved, and she waved back.

She didn’t wave at me.

“Vista,” I said.  “It’s nice to meet you.”

“We’ve seen each other around,” she said.  “Events.”

“I know.  But we haven’t met.”

“Yeah,” she said.  “Are you going to surprise us and turn out to be a bad guy?”

I made a face like I was considering it, then said, “Never a possibility.”

“Welcome to the side of the good guys then,” she said, without sounding very happy about it.  No smile.

I guessed it wasn’t terribly fun to stand around in the rain, however dry she was, because Gallant and I were meeting.

“Thank you,” I told her.  “You’re my senior, technically.”

“Barely.”

“You’ve still been at this longer than me.  Already going out on patrols.”

“It’s a babysitter patrol.  Gallant’s babysitting me, and Challenger is babysitting the both of us.  She’s down in the bar below.  The owner let us up onto the roof so you could… do whatever.”

I hoped Challenger wouldn’t interrupt.  I felt antsy.

“Why didn’t you go straight to him?” Vista asked.

“Nervous,” I admitted.  “I haven’t told my sister or my parents that I’m this nervous or freaked out.”

“If they have powers, they get it.”

“My sister doesn’t.”

“Wasn’t… laser girl?”

“Cousin.”

“Oh.”

“I thought I’d come say hi to you first.  Respect to a fellow hero.  Because if Dean and I get to talking, or if you get orders to leave, I might not get the chance after… and I don’t want to be rude.”

I saw her nod slowly.  Down on the street, someone’s camera flashed.

The railing warped, going from a flat line to a circle, framing Vista.  She grabbed the sides and leaned out.

“Careful!” Dean raised his voice.

“He thinks I’m helpless or something,” Vista said.  She smiled, and I could see that one of her teeth was missing.  Then she jumped off the roof.

Dean made an incoherent sound, and started running over.  Vista, meanwhile, had a very short distance to drop, as she’d warped the space between her and the ground, by raising the ground up in a kind of pedestal.  On landing, she sat, her feet dangling just a bit over people’s heads, as they ringed around her.

Dean reached the rooftop’s edge, my side.  He relaxed as he saw her safe and sound.  She adjusted her feet, sitting cross legged on top, and began answering questions.

I watched him turn his helmet my way.  He gave me a long, serious look, before his gauntlet reached up and over, between my hood and my hair.  Touching my head.

“I like her,” I said, aware there was a possibility she could hear me.  “I spend a lot of time trying to get you to crack and show me the real you that’s behind the mask, and it looks like she’s already got it nailed.”

“I can’t see what you’re feeling,” he said.

“I thought maybe,” I said, a fragmented, incomplete sentence.  I felt like we were on our first date all over again.  “You should move your hand.  People might see us.  The, um, whole thing about me dating Dean Stansfield, it could complicate things if you’re- we should figure out what we’re doing about our relationship.”

He dropped his hand.

“Right now I want to know if you’re okay.  I was watching when it happened.  I blacked out, I didn’t see what happened, then I had my shift, you weren’t answering your calls… I thought I’d go on patrol, they said it was okay if I needed to leave any time.”

“Thus the Challenger-Gallant double babysitter for Vista.”

“I hope she doesn’t come barging up here,” he said, looking to the door, then down at Vista.

“We went straight from the gym to the hospital.  My mom wanted to make sure I was okay.  My phone’s still in my locker.”

“You didn’t answer me before.  Are you okay?”

I wanted to answer him, but I didn’t want to lie and I didn’t want to give him the real answer.

“Come here,” he said.  “I’m not getting any bad vibes from the crowd.  Vista’s safe.”

He pulled me a few feet away.  Until we weren’t in sight of the people on the street.  I wasn’t a huge fan of being pulled, but…

But he was wrapping his arms around me in a hug.

I hugged his armored body and wished he wasn’t wearing that armor.

“I think I got what Crystal meant,” I said.

“What are you talking about?”

“She said… it was like every time she flew, she felt like she was running away from the people who chased her, the day she triggered.  You don’t repeat that, by the way.”

Stupid of me to say it, but the day had been a lot, and I was feeling like more than one set of feelings were runaway trains.

“Cross my heart,” he said.  Metal fingertip traced an ‘x’ on metal breastplate.  “Are you feeling like running away?”

I shook my head.

I wasn’t even sure how to articulate it.

“What?” he asked.  His metal fingertip touched my face, cool to the touch, brushing at a droplet.

“I realized how far away my parents were.  How far away you were.  It’s like something inside of me broke.”

“Don’t break because of me,” he said, like it hadn’t already happened.

“And when I took off, flying above the city for the first time… it’s like a rollercoaster ride, and my stomach just went… whooosh.  Like I left it behind.”

“Yeah,” he said, his voice a breath.

“And at the same time, this other feeling hit me with just as much intensity, when I realized how small they were, and that they couldn’t fly.”

I shivered.

“You’re cold.”

“I’m overwhelmed.”

I waited for him to speak up, because I’d just shared vulnerability, told him just why I’d triggered, as much as I’d figured it out and put words to it.  I wanted it, badly, because he was the person I wanted to share this sort of thing with, and I wanted to share in his.  It was the last big barrier between us.

He didn’t.

But he undid a catch, lifted up his full-face visor, and showed me his face, lit up around the perimeter with the small lights that made the gaps of his armor shimmer and glow.  He had to turn his head more than usual to kiss me so he didn’t hit me with the visor.

A substitute for the answer I’d been reaching and hoping for, but… I’d really wanted this too.  I told myself he could tell me later, in a more private time and place.

“Are you okay?” Chicken Little asked me.

The question was loaded, and it was one I’d heard again and again.  Jessica’s first words on seeing me whole had been ‘you’re okay’.  Gilpatrick had asked me, my mom had asked me, my dad had asked me, Crystal had asked me.  Every single one of my teammates had asked me.

Again and again, the answer had been no.  No.  Fuck no.  Are you crazy?  No.  Or variations on that theme, like wanting to cry when I heard it.  Again and again, I’d dodged the question, avoided it, or I gave the best nonverbal cues I was equipped to give.

I reached down to the side of the crater.  The scene of my mom showing actual vulnerability after giving us the ‘talk’ at my aunt’s house changed to her sitting with me at the hospital.  My uncle at the same time and place in his house, desperately trying to ensure we wouldn’t become our own worst enemies when we faced the worst days of  our lives, one hand on his son’s shoulder.  The image changed to him showing a younger me how to swing a bat.

Dean, on the rooftop.  The image dropped away.  It became Dean and me at school, him and me stealing away to a corner of the library.  Anyone seeing might have thought we were doing it to sneak a kiss or makeout session.  He’d shown me his latest war wound, a cut at his shoulder.  I showed him my back, a giant bruise after a bad landing midway through a fight.  He couldn’t show weakness to his parents, because they didn’t brook weakness.  When it came to his teammates and the PRT staff, he could read their emotions and he could sense the degree to which they cared and didn’t care.  Through some combination of that and his unwillingness to show weakness that might see him getting less shifts, responsibilities and power, he didn’t tell them when he was hurt, hurting, or scared.

I couldn’t tell my family, for much the same reason.  But in that spot in the library, I could put my head against his shoulder, his cheek against my forehead, and we could share our weaknesses and somehow make the us stronger.

I wanted to curl up into a fetal position, lie down here, and soak in every single one of these memories and ideas.  Affirmations where I’d been left thinking there was only emptiness.  I couldn’t, when there were other things to do and an anxious kid at the crater’s edge, but I wanted to.

The only thing that would tie these people together would be if they were the sources of my powers.  And as much as my family had tried to prepare me for the fact that the powers came from a dark place…

Mine didn’t.  At least, not like this.

“A little spooked,” Chicken Little said.

“Can’t have that,” I said.  I tore myself away from the images, and floated over his way.  “Sorry.”

“You’re okay?”

“I am better than I think I’ve ever been, Chicken Little.”

“Oh?” he asked.  He looked a bit confused.  “Okay.”

I looked up at the crack that loomed high above us.

It felt like it was only now that the magnitude of what we were fighting was clear in front of me.  It felt like it was only now that the scale of what I’d been struggling with was becoming clear.

I took in a deep breath, and… it wasn’t because I was bracing myself, or preparing to shout or give an order.  It was just to breathe, and I felt like I’d been taking half-breaths so I could keep the other half of my lungs reserved for something else, without even realizing I was doing it.  I felt almost dizzy in the present now.

I blinked a few times, to get the moisture out of my eyes.

To extrapolate from there, thinking about Kenzie, who Aiden was here to help… Sveta, Byron, Rain, and literally everyone and every fucking thing else…

Fuck, fuck, shit, damn.

But it wasn’t a feeling like it was attacking me, or pressing in on me.  I didn’t feel like a pre-existing wedge was being hammered or a weak spot tested.

Those wedges were still there, the weak spots were still there.

Just… they were only there, in their spots.

All the other stuff.  Fucking all of the other stuff, were in the spots they belonged.

“What the shit are we going to do?” I asked.

“Go back to the others?” Aiden asked.  “I need to pick up Kenzie’s things.”

“Small steps first, huh?” I asked.

“Or big steps?  Flying instead of stepping?” he asked.  “I want to get back to Kenzie.  She was acting really weird the last time I saw her.”

“If that’s your instinct, I think we should follow it,” I said.  “We’re done here.  Thank you for showing this to me.”

I took hold of him.  I felt him tense.

“How urgent, do you think?  The higher we fly, the faster we can get back to her.”

“I don’t like heights,” he told me.  “But… I want to get back as fast as possible.”

Kid was a bit gallant, wasn’t he?  I could see why they liked him.

“Keep your eyes closed,” I told him.  “Trust me.”

“I can still sense the distances with my birds,” he said.

But he closed his eyes.

He was as stiff as a board as I flew up high enough that I could move at faster-than-running speeds.

“Was it worth the delay?” he asked, as we flew, his voice tight.  I could feel his heartbeat drumming against my side.

I hesitated to answer.  It was worth it to me, but… I still needed to figure out if it helped in the big picture, or if the fact it helped me would let me help more in the big picture.

“I think it might have.  We’ll have to see.  I think I understand what Tattletale meant when she said we’d find answers, but not necessarily what we’re looking for.  Why she sent you on Imp’s behalf.”

“Yeah?”

“This?  This entire landscape?  It’s not about them, not really.  It’s about us.”

“What do we do about them, then?” he asked.

“I don’t know, Chicken Little,” I told him.  His birds had taken to the air, and his huge-as-fuck eagle was unnerving me with how close it was flying.  I wasn’t sure if it was an anxiety thing.  He might have hoped it could catch him and slow his descent if he fell.

I secured my grip.

“All I know,” I said, “is what we were doing before wasn’t working.”

What the hell had we even been doing, before?

No, that was a stupid question.  I knew what we’d been doing, and why.  Fighting, because we had to.

But this was a problem with a lot of moving pieces, and some of those pieces were so big they were hard to wrap my head around.

I thought back to lessons with Uncle Neil.  Lessons I’d learned in handling my mom.  I thought of Dean.

Tattletale had mentioned a thing, when I’d described scenes I’d seen, throwing out the word ‘submission’, and it had rankled, felt wrong.  Imp had laughed.

That wasn’t the word.  That wasn’t the idea.  It was bigger than that.

“I think… I might have an idea,” I told him.

“What is oh we’re dropping okay,” he said, all in one breath.

The eagle flapped its wings to control its descent.

“We’re safe.  I’ve got you,” I told him.

With a free hand, I grabbed the rope that Byron had used to make his way down the canyon side.  A just-in case, that Aiden could see.  My feet skidded along the wall, not so much to slow my descent as they kept me and Aiden steady.

I looked at my team and I could see how weary they were.  When they looked at me, there was a deer-in-the-headlights look to the quality of it.  I was left to wonder if it had been there for a while, and they were on the cusp of breaking.  Had I looked like that?

I approached them, and I saw the image on the wall.

The Simurgh.  She had taken off earlier in the evening, after perching on Titan Fortuna for a while.  Now she wasn’t on Titan Fortuna.

The Titan was wounded, a crack dividing her upper body.  The wolf-heads that had been a wreath around her shoulders were separated by the cracks, and they were twisted, the black color bleeding away to silver.

The Simurgh perched in the crack, her wings around her.  And the ragged edges of the Titan were becoming wings, gold and black became white and silver.

Every other Titan had gone still.  The ones that weren’t were moving toward the group.  I saw Titans I hadn’t seen before, but I could recognize some by the design of them.

One, shadowy and wrapped in what looked like a cloak of black and jade, had a winged helmet with only shadows beneath the helmet’s ‘face’.

She was bent, hands out and cupped.

Within those cupped hands was Eidolon.  One of the strongest capes in the world.  He had once dwarfed Valkyrie in power.  There was no reason to think he didn’t have that power now.  The colors of him had been changed around.  A black hood with a reflective emerald face beneath, glowing with a white light.  Black sleeves.  A body suit of emerald, muscular.

A great, long-fingered hand of silver with bone-white nails reached out.  The shadow of Eidolon stepped down onto the fingertip.

Titans appeared from clouds of darkness, arranging themselves in a formation around their new center and commander.

Other things stepped out of clouds of darkness.

Not Titans, but scary enough in their own way.  Especially considering what all of this meant.

Endbringers.  One tall and narrow, of a size to rival any Titan.  One small, a knot of formlessness, with faces periodically flashing out.  One with a great chrome orb for a midsection, a black, whiskered head, arms, and feet mounted at different positions around that orb.  There were other shapes that stood in the dark clouds, but they didn’t emerge or seem consistent.  Still taking shape.

Almost twenty titans, and on shoulders, on heads, on ground, on rubble, on clouds, or just floating in the air, shades like Eidolon appeared, suspended in the air.  I couldn’t count them – the scene on the wall changed too much.

“Oh,” I said.

The others were wordless.

The Simurgh folded her wings around herself, forming a ball shape, or treating her entire body as a closed fist.

The wings swept out, unfurling and extending longer than they had been.  All across the city, it seemed, snow and wind were pushed out and away from a center point.

A hundred thousand images flickered into existence, across every part of the chasm around us.  What had been largely red and black was almost blindingly bright, comparatively, crisp and clear.

Capes, people, animals, all cringing in pain.  Where able, hands went to heads.  Knees buckled, and those fighting stopped.  Everywhere.

“We lost,” I breathed the words.

“We’re about to lose,” Rain said.  “It’s a vision of what’s about to happen.  We figured out we could ask about the future.  This is-”

“Soon,” Sveta said.

“It might be her, Fortuna, trying to communicate with us,” Byron said.

“Then we need Kenzie,” I said.  “So we can actually communicate.  That box.”

“We don’t have Kenzie,” Chicken Little said, his voice small behind me.

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Infrared – 19.8

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Why had we let him stay?   Leaving him in a fight without all of his teammates at his side.

He’d had to stay.  If he’d been dragged with us and something had happened to his old teammates, he would have been devastated.  The end result might have been the same.

Fuck.

“Byron,” my voice cracked a bit, emotion getting to it more than I’d meant it to.  Lessons from mom, age thirteen.  No crisis was improved by getting emotional.  A shitty thing to hear as a hormonal teen, and a mess of doubt and second guessing now that I was older and not so sure of the lessons that had been imparted on me.

I was still hugging Sveta, and hugged her tighter, as a compromise to myself in the face of that line of thought.  It helped.

“I want to be here,” he said.  “Tristan would want me to keep fighting, and do what I can to protect good people.”

I wanted to ask if he was okay, which he clearly wouldn’t be, or if there was anything I could do, which I couldn’t.

“Do you want to refocus, then?  On…”  I swept my arm out to show the walls. “…this?”

“I think I’d appreciate the distraction,” he said.  “I’ll warn you, I might hit a point later where I freak out a lot.  I haven’t even begun to think of how I’m going to break this to my dad, or, fuck, my mom, I-”

“Distraction?” Rain prompted him.

“Please,” he said.  He pulled off his helmet, apparently to improve his field of view, and I could see the emotion in his eyes.  “This is Contessa?”

Kenzie shifted position, striding over to Byron.  He jumped as she grabbed his wrist, the eyehook breaking alignment with her arm, the projection fuzzing out and showing artifacts around the point it stuck through.  She tugged, with zero strength behind the tug.

“Scared me,” Byron said.  “I thought it was actually you.”

“Come,” she said.  “Over here.  I want to try stuff.  Test, so I can make sure.”

“Kenzie…” Byron said.  I saw his expression change twice, while he looked down at her masked face.  “I’m pretty sure.  My power even changed, again.  Even when Tristan… his power has always taken a while to change.”

“Come on!” she exclaimed, sounding eerily amused.  Her voice echoed off the walls of this crevice, which extended thirty feet up.  “Let me try.”

He obliged, walking over while she failed to exert any strength at all.

“Did you get healing?” I asked.

The scenes on the walls changed to people drinking vials.  Some were in hospital rooms.  Others looked ill.

Sveta broke the hug.  I watched her wipe at the corner of one eye with a fingernail.  The tears were clear.

In a way, small as it was, I felt worlds better, noting that tiny detail.  No tears of ichor, running down her face like bad mascara.  I was already doubting myself, but that, at least, was a small victory.  This was one unadulterated win, for someone important to me.

Sad to see her cry, but… the fact I could see her cry like she wanted to…

“From Chris,” he said. “It’s not total, but… I fucked up, because I was too slow, I couldn’t risk doing that again.  I- I’ll get into it later.”

“Okay,” I said, glancing back at Chris, who was studying images of Contessa walking down hospital hallways.  He looked at me through the corner of his eye, without moving his head, then returned his attention to the walls.

“Stay there, try not to move much,” Kenzie said.  “I need to change settings.”

Byron looked down at her with sad eyes.  He took a breath, and I thought he was about to break some hard news on her.  Then he looked up to ask us, “Is there a weak point?  Weakness?”

The images shifted.  Contessa, holding down someone who was mutating, Contessa’s hand at their throat.  She batted aside reaching hands and claws.  Kenzie was changing settings on the box she’d been using to get sound, so we mercifully didn’t have to hear the screaming from the person on the table.

On another wall, I could see Contessa on the beach, wearing civilian clothes, a loose fitting top and knee-length skirt, her hair tied at a point nearer her shoulderblades than her head, swinging in the wind, her feet in the water.

“When we talk about a subject, it resonates,” I noted.  “When Rain, Kenzie and I were traveling, the kinds of things stored in one area were related to that area.  Here, the data relates to Contessa.  If we figured something out as a starting point, we could branch out from there, get more information elsewhere.  But… this is responsive, a bit different.  In some ways, it’s like Tattletale’s part of the dreamscape.”

Sveta reached out, and her arm was slow to extend, unfurling.  She placed a hand against an outcropping of crystal at the edge of the island.  “A scared little boy named Dimitri, who fell.”

Existing scenes dropped away.  There was only darkness in the walls, swirling like some kind of faint smoke moved within.

“Strike one,” Chris said, from his seat.

“A little girl named Nadia.  My sister.”

Again, darkness.

“Strike two.”

“…Patient six-two-four-five-six-B,” she said.

The scene shifted.  Contessa, and a very early Sveta, distressed, lashing out with tendrils, far shorter than they’d ended up growing to be.  A door opened up in space, and Sveta was placed in confinement.

“Patient six-two-four-five-six-B, earlier,” Sveta said, facing the wall.

“How did you know your number?” Rain asked.

“Micro-dots, hidden in the tattoos,” Sveta said, touching her cheekbone, where the tattoo stood out.  “One of the Irregulars had it discovered while they were in the PRT, trying to figure out if the tattoos were applied in a specific way.”

It was the scene I’d seen as she’d walked across this little island, but at a different point in the timeline.  Contessa laying an injured child of ambiguous gender on a table.  The child’s tunic was folded down, exposing a mess of lines that extended from waist to shoulder, all inflamed and festering.  Flesh had come away in ribbons, and that flesh had died, curled up or sticking out dry and stiff.

“Some cases changed over time,” Five clarified.  “Mantellum was one.  Cauldron found it useful to have a way of tracking subjects.”

Sveta brushed a hand along the child’s face, and I could see the resemblance.  A younger her.  Especially around the eyes.

“Patient six-two-four-five-six-B, location discovered,” she said.

The image shifted, showing a computer screen in a large office.  A map.

Number Five spoke up, “Part of the process of collecting people included seeing if any people from particular earths or cultures were more receptive.  We couldn’t use Contessa to figure it out.  That map there on the wall would be Earth Tau-He.”

“What’s that rooted in?” Chris asked.  “The receptiveness?”

“There was a correlation between mental state, mental fitness, and the results the vials got,” Number Five said.  “The theory was that there might be cultures that are better at focusing, or have particular mental traits that lend themselves to better outcomes.”

“And?” Chris asked.

“Not in a statistically significant way.  Cauldron kept it up even after the numbers came in.  It drew less notice to take five people from a thousand worlds than to take them all from one world.  If we’re talking about Contessa… it reduced the labor for her.  She needed food, rest, sleep, showers, or she’d have to lean on her power for more minute details, and doing that made it harder to run background processes, and long simulations.”

“It’s not instant?” Sveta asked.  “We studied her and we were sure it was instant.”

“It’s instant but it’s harder,” Five told her.  “If she didn’t take care of herself and became weaker, then the power would break things down into a series of derivative steps.”

“Hypothetically, if she was fighting someone like Alexandria,” I said, “And she had the flu, hadn’t slept… she’d drop a few percentage points in execution, but she’d have a fifty step process instead of a fifteen step process?”

“She wouldn’t drop by any percentage points,” Sveta said.  “If she’s fighting, she’s at one hundred percent.  She would beat Alexandria.”

“But there would be fifty steps, or a hundred,” Five said.  “To be more precise about foot placement, breathing, and every other detail that contributed to a specific end result.  More so with simulations.”

“Explain that,” Chris said.

“If she doesn’t or can’t know something, then she can ask herself what the best path is, assuming known variables.  Factor in a need to account for new information, adjust and re-run the simulation regularly, and the small steps become necessary elements of the set.”

“If things get hard, what happens?” Sveta asked.

“She gets more run down.”

“That’s circular,” I said.

“The principal element is still there,” Five said.  “The person.”

Around us, the scenes changed, from Contessa in various confrontations to the image, again, of her standing in a doorway, looking at Doctor Mother as the woman slept.

“What’s the worst case scenario?  Why is this a weak point?” I asked.

“That she asks the wrong questions, or hears the wrong things,” Five said.

“Define wrong,” Sveta said.

“Something that takes her off of the course she was on.  Relative wrong, not moral wrong,” Five said, looking at her.  “Sending one of my brothers to contact Citrine and the Number Man, not anticipating that her friend might be killed as a consequence, when there would have been other ways to distract Teacher.”

Sveta nodded.

“She has to ask questions to guard against strangers, masters, thinkers, and attacks against all corners.  If she gets worn down, there is also a risk she forgets, or she gets ill.”

“Did that happen?” Sveta asked.

“Early on.”

She nodded.

“Do these weaknesses apply now?” Chris asked.

“Probably not,” Five said.

“The human component is gone,” Byron said.

“Buried,” I noted.  “Fume Hood still has something in there.  Rain…”

Rain looked over at me.  Most of his attention was on Byron and Kenzie.

I’d trailed off, waiting to get his attention before I continued.  Now I watched, looked at Kenzie being very still.

Byron reached down to put a hand out, like he was going to place it on her head.  His hand passed through, and the image of her fritzed as the camera was pushed out of position.

She’d been checking, testing… and now she wasn’t there to pilot the camera or manage the eyehook.  I could connect the dots.

“Take care of her, Chicken Tenders,” I said.  My voice bounced off the walls.

This was too heavy for an eleven year old.  Tristan and everything else.

“You were saying?” Rain asked, glancing at Byron before facing me.  “Fume Hood and me?”

Keeping us on topic, keeping Byron’s focus off of Tristan.

“You got a message through to her.  To… the person, not the power.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.

“But she doesn’t get tired, she doesn’t get weak, not anymore.  She’s not in control,” Chris said.

“You’re right,” Five said.

“Wrong track then,” Chris said.

“Not necessarily,” Sveta said.  “People beat Scion by using his personality against him.”

“Do you think that Titan won’t anticipate it?” Chris asked.  “Where do you think we are?  What do you think we’re doing?  She sees the future, she sees us!  Wake up!”

“Chill the fuck out, Chris,” I said, more snappish than I intended.

“If it worked like that, she would already be five steps ahead of us.  Right?” Chris asked, turning to Number Five.

“The probability is high,” Number Five said.

“She may be five steps ahead of us no matter what,” I said.  “Do you have suggestions on another route?”

“I had a few ideas about other routes,” he said.  “Leaving Earth behind.  Transcending humanity.  Tapping into the same spaces the Titans come from, for similar effects.  Then your side fucked it all up, with your old buddy Fume Hood cracking.  You’ve got your sister locked up and getting therapy for her crazy when we need crazy.”

I tensed, ready to get angry.

“This isn’t helping anything,” Rain said, leaving Byron behind and standing between Chris and I.  “Do you have ideas, Victoria?”

“I was asking him for ideas because he’s shooting us down whenever we try anything, and he’s not suggesting anything.”

“Because you’re being idiots.  The problem we’re facing is centered around someone who’s always five steps ahead of us.”

“Stop,” Rain took a step to the side, to block me from being able to see Chris and vice-versa.  “We need to stay focused.  What’s your instinct, Victoria?”

I folded my arms, looking around us.

I did have ideas, half-formed in my head, but I couldn’t figure out any neat and tidy ways to fit them together.

“Just so it’s not me putting you on the spot,” Rain said.  “Are there ways to change the dynamic?  When Gilpatrick came to the dream room, he and the others got connected up.  I detached them, they all got powers.  Except for the two infiltrators.”

I winced, hearing that.

“What if we rigged the system?  We’re fighting with a thousand, two thousand capes in decent fighting shape, able to stand against these monsters on the battlefield, rotating in and out?  Is there a way to give every unpowered person out there powers?”

“That’d be a hell of a thing,” Byron said, quiet.

“I’m spitballing,” Rain said.  “Kenz?”

Kenzie’s hologram was still.  There was no response.

“A-F-K,” Chris said.

“I don’t know what that means,” Rain responded.  “Would it make a difference?”

“It might make things worse,” I said.  I glanced at Byron.

“How?” Chris prodded.

“I don’t- it’d be tricky to get into it.”

“Don’t hold back on my account,” Byron said.  “Imagining Rain’s plan in action got my heart pounding.  It’d be… really messed up, for a lot of reasons, but it would be firepower and reinforcements.”

“And it plays into the dynamic we’ve been leaning into pretty heavily,” I said.  “We’re to the Titans as civilians are to us.  Bringing civilians in… it would possibly shift the balance.  We should be able to enforce rules of conduct.  But it means adapting and we’re several steps behind.  But it’s too risky.”

“Why?” Rain asked, again.

“Because every time one of us breaks down… they get one more Titan, and we move another step, leap, or bound toward the agents winning.  Adding millions of new, vulnerable capes to the pool is asking for a huge increase to the number of Titans.”

Some people nodded at that.

“Now who’s shutting down ideas?” Chris asked.

“What about trying everyone into a cluster?” Rain asked.  He had the second idea already at hand.  “We’ve dealt with a few clusters now.  Goddess, my cluster.  We’ve seen how power gets redistributed, how bonds are established.  Bleedthrough, kiss, kill.  And bonds are what keep us from becoming Titan.”

“Tristan had bonds,” Byron said, staring down at the ground.  “I don’t think that’s it.”

“Either way,” I said.  “It’s a workable idea.  I have no idea what the long term ramifications would be, but… it’s worth keeping in mind.”

“Great idea,” Chris said, his tone sarcastic.  “When the entire army of parahumans goes off the deep end and starts trying to eat each other in the midst of a thousand-person orgy, the Titans will be so freaked out they’ll stop what they’re doing and start planning the fastest route off this planet.”

“It wouldn’t come to that,” Rain said.  “Bleedthrough and kiss-kill are overstated.  It wouldn’t happen in five minutes.”

“It’s more intense in large clusters,” Chris said.

“What?”

“I studied up on some things when I was on the team,” Chris said, his voice low and quiet.  He looked away, scanning the walls, where only a few images flickered.  “But you’re welcome to try.  Just don’t include me while you’re at it.  It wouldn’t be five minutes, but it wouldn’t be five years, either.”

“Hell,” Rain muttered.  “Really glad I disconnected Gilpatrick and the rest of that group from the dream room.”

“I like the directions you’re thinking, Rain,” I said.  “I’m not sure how doable it is, but… I like it.”

“I’m drawing on experience, mostly.  Thinking about the Fallen, and what my cluster did.”

“It’s good,” I said, again.  “I don’t have any broad strategies in mind.  I’m thinking about other things.  Big picture- not the cape, the dynamic.  I feel like there’s a way to topple them, or make them stop and pay attention to us.”

“Blowing up the shardstuff did something to get their attention,” Sveta said.  “But it hurt us.”

She rubbed at her arm.

I nodded.  “It’s something I’m keeping pinned up on the bulletin board in my mind.  Stepping back, though… way, way back… what if we don’t look at the person that is Contessa?”

“The Titan?” Sveta asked.

“I’m talking about the past,” I said.

The images on the wall changed to Contessa, wearing clothes from another Earth.

“Is there any insight about this?” I asked, and I lifted a foot, stomping on the black crystal.  The echo was loud and eerie, reverberating off the walls.  “Why is this crystal black and not red?”

The scene on the wall changed.

It was something I’d heard about but hadn’t seen.  Not seen and remembered.  People had made attempts at illustrating it, but it did nothing to convey the effect of actually seeing it.

A creature that moved like Cradle’s agent had, slithering in and out of space, parts of it distorting and seeming to exist apart from the broader entity, until it slithered further in our world.  Like a great snake crossed with a whale, crossed with an optical illusion, writ in black crystal, and shedding a constant trail of dust behind it.  It was only visible as it passed by a sun, and the edges of it caught the light of that sun.

“Hi there,” I said, my heart pounding.  “You weren’t in the pictures people drew.”

“There’s more?” Chris asked, rising from his seat.  “What the shit?”

“Can we go back?” I asked.  I made it declarative.  “Go back.  Uh… earlier in this thing’s history.”

“It’s a life cycle,” Five said.

“Previous life in the cycle,” I said.

The image changed.

What I saw was chaos.  A dense world, where everything was moving and alive.  There were things that resembled spiders, there were things that looked like slugs.  Some were small, some were as big as buildings.

And they were using what looked like built in spears to puncture one another, fluids pouring out.

“I’ve seen some of that before,” Number Five said.

“What the hell kind of messed up case fifty-three porn are you watching?  At your age?” Chris asked.

Sveta unfurled her arm, reaching toward Chris with tendrils.  Alarmed, he backed away several steps, until he was at the edge of the island.

“Was it a case fifty-three?” Sveta asked, quiet.

“No.  A cape,” Number Five said.  “Traumatic insemination.  Traumatic egg-laying.  It looks like natural trait across this species.”

“They’re different species,” Chris said.  “A planet where every species can breed with every species.  It looks like a good number are intelligent.”

“In what way does it look that way?” Rain asked.  “Christ.”

“They’re communicating,” Chris said, with quiet confidence.

“What is the species of this life cycle fighting, near the end?  Ten rotations around their sun prior to the world ending,” I asked.

It was a similar scene.

But they were fighting something that looked like a conch shell, with holes running through it.  Tentacles flowed out and through the massed ‘warriors’, that I would have likened to animal predators on our earth.  Spider-like, wolf-like, cat-like, but streamlined down, sleek, without the key traits I would point to in a spider, wolf, or cat.  Incredibly varied, from one to the next.

“Endbringer equivalent or Titan equivalent?” Byron asked.

“Looks like,” I said.  “Show us the end.  Last significant fight of that particular life cycle.”

The scene changed, and it was chaos.  The world was cracked open, and the cracks glowed.  The massed things were interconnected, webbed together, so that one mob of creatures fighting were extensions of one another.  Some or all had powers.

“Previous cycle,” I said.  “Tenth-to-last rotation of their planet around their sun, a fight.”

The world was shrouded in constant downpour, and the things that moved through it were low to the ground, with skin coverings or something that hung off of them like drenched cloaks or ponchos, masking all features.  I saw glows here and there as they drew on powers.

A great beast lurched through the rain, pursuing those glows.  In the process, it scattered what I’d thought was uneven ground, and was actually a horde of the slithering life, piled atop one another.

They swarmed up the great thing.

“It’s entirely different from what we’re doing,” Sveta said.  “We all fight one another.  They’re ganging up against… Endbringers?”

“I don’t see how we can use this,” Chris said.

“This cycle, final fight,” I said.

Again, they were interconnected, tied into one another, the slithering things more like a net than a pile of poncho-wearing snakes that were barely visible in the rain.

“Is that their equivalent of clusters?” Rain asked.  “Is the idea supposed to be that we all form a cluster, and we can’t pull ourselves free?”

The question elicited an image of Contessa, dealing with a case seventy case fifty-three, two young men, both existing as a tangle of cords, knotty branches, or bones, it was hard to tell in the lighting, all bound up together.

I saw Byron look away, his expression changing.  Sveta did much the same.

“I would be wary about drawing correlations,” Number Five said.

“Show us the point in time this thing…” I stomped on the black crystal, “…encountered the thing that destroyed much of the world back in June of two thousand and thirteen.”

We watched as two creatures, similar to the slithering black thing, things that had been depicted in the portraits and paintings that people had tried to draw from memory, slithered through space.  They were larger than some moons and planets.

The ‘view’ followed the black thing, and the background of stars pulsed with images, abstract and vast.

“There, did you see?” Number Five asked.

“I didn’t,” I said, not taking my eyes off of things.

“One of those pulses- it was the Andromeda Galaxy.  You can look at the stars and see which way the third one is on.”

“Maybe you can,” Chris said.

“He’s going to the Andromeda galaxy.  Passing through.  I wonder why.  A rendezvous with others of his kind?” Number Five asked.

“You’re asking us like we know,” Chris said, frowning.

“If you’re scared it will come back, you don’t need to be.  That thing’s not coming back for a long, long time, at its current course.”

“I’m not scared,” Chris said.  “I’m wary.  Scared is the result of stupidity.  Wary is the result of knowing the situation.”

“You can certainly put that wariness to rest,” the Number Boy said.

“Nothing is certain,” Chris said.

“I am.”

Chris frowned at the boy, who pushed his glasses up his nose, smiling slightly.

The pair continued to flow in and out of reality, swimming through space like a fish slipping in and out of air at the water’s surface.  They met with the black thing, which mashed itself into one of the two.

For lack of a better way of putting it, I would have said they limped away from the interaction, black bleeding into red and vice-versa.

“That wasn’t far from Earth, relatively speaking” Number Five said.

“Keep going,” I told the scene, worried it would end.

The ‘view’ stayed with the red one that had absorbed some of the black.

Followed it to Earth, and it was obvious from the motion of planets that the scene was being sped up.

We watched as it tumbled into a rough crash landing on a barren version of our Earth.  Everything went black.

“She’s not a part of the rest of us?” I asked.

“There were a few like that, that stood out,” Number Five said.  “None were viable.”

“Is it something we can use?” Sveta asked.

I shook my head.

It was something, but I wasn’t sure if it was the fatal flaw or weakness we were hoping for.

“Are there any life cycles that nearly failed?” Sveta asked.

Images came up.

A clearer, sudden movement to my right drew my attention.  I looked to the projection.

A distorted, unclear Imp appeared next to Byron.  Her voice fuzzed.

“Can you use a phone?” I asked.

“Whwhzzeeet?”

Use a phone,” I repeated myself.

“Huzzhzt, btzzt, bzzzwah?  Hz kkykkt hzzzy zyhoo.”

I picked up and held a phone.  I watched as the camera swerved unsteadily, trying to move closer to me and bumping into Byron instead.

“I know the Undersiders don’t have a tinker,” I said, “But you really shouldn’t touch a tinker’s stuff.  They’ll get irritated every time, even nice ones like Kenzie.”

“I can second that,” Chris added.

I walked up, grabbed the camera to steady it.  I held the phone up in front of the camera, keeping the camera pointed at it.

Imp nodded a few times, horned head bobbing, before it disintegrated into a blur of distortion, eye yawning open until it bled into her torso.

“Thzzhanks, kid,” Imp said, her voice clarifying, looking to one side.  She looked back to me.  “Oh, I thought you were giving me the finger.”

“What do you need?” I asked.

“Lookout is having a lie down,” Imp said.  “Decadent and Syndicate are looking after her.  She apparently hasn’t slept in a while.”

“Thank you.”

“She was asking about the tech she left with you guys.”

“We can handle it,” I said.

“Actually, Chicken Little said he’d make sure it was handled.  Being a little man.  I was thinking we might try to kill two birds with one stone…”

I heard Aiden’s voice in the background.

“…and if you happened to be able to confirm it was safe, I could send Chicken your way, to pick up the gear.  He’ll get instructions on how to handle it.  And while he’s there, he can test something for Tattletale and I.”

I thought about asking, but then I thought back to how I owed Tattletale one.

“How is he getting here?”

“Company of mercenaries and minor capes,” Imp said.  “We’ll requisition a portal.  If it’s for Peep’s tech, and she’s the one who has a say when it comes to the portal tech…”

“Peep?” I asked.

“Lookout.  Oops.  That was my inside voice becoming my outside voice.  I think she should go by Peep if she’s on a team called the Chicken Tenders.”

I shook my head.  “Where do I meet him?”

“He’ll find you.  That’s ezhhzyer.”

I made a face, shaking my head.  The place was so vast, and I could fly, but…

I didn’t want this to interrupt the ongoing investigation.

“Okay.  Have him keep an ear out.  If I can’t find him, I’ll make some noise.”

“Gzzzt hzzt,” Imp said, saluting.  Her hand bled into her head.

The image disappeared.

“I guarantee you, whatever she was fiddling with, thinking she was doing an okay job, is going to take six hours to get working right again,” Chris said.

“Probably,” Rain said.  “My arms aren’t even great, and seeing people try to use them is like watching someone using workshop tools without the proper equipment.  I wince every few seconds.”

I leaped over to the wall, grabbing an outcropping of crystal.  My bandaged hand didn’t give me a good grip, and I slipped.  I used my feet to propel myself back.

On a second try, I managed to get a grip.  I could use flight to make it easier, but climbing was better than the inch-by-inch flying that I could manage down here.

The higher I got, the easier it became.

I floated up, above the crack, and onto the plain.  Once I was high enough, I put both feet on the ground, and jumped, to give myself momentum, while my flight kept me going.

Out of the invisible tar that slowed me down, and up to a height where I could just barely see any people, but I could maximize how much of the environment I could see.  It didn’t help that things were dark.

I flew for minutes, in expanding circles.  I had a false call, when I spotted blobs of something solid on the crystal, descended, and found only rubble from high above.

A crow cawed, and I found it in the gloom.

It flapped noisily, then turned around, then flew in a specific direction.

I chased it, traveling around a cliff, until I saw the people.  Six mercenaries, one cape, and a boy wearing a white and red costume and white mask.  A massive bird was keeping him company.

He waved as I approached.

My boots skidded on ice and grit as I landed.

“Thank you for coming,” Chicken Little said, deferential, and almost meek.

“How is she?”

“She’s… not responding much,” Chicken Little said.  He touched his mask, like he was trying to see right through the eyeholes.  “She wants me to get her tech.  It didn’t sound like you heard everything Imp said.”

“Most of the middle stuff, not the start or very end,” I said.  “Where did you come through the portal?”

He pointed up at the crack in reality above.

“You came down?”

He nodded.  “Over there, actually.  It was kind of crazy, but I wanted to help Lookout.  Then was chasing some connections Imp told me to look after.”

I thought about Chicken Little’s place in the Undersiders, and felt a bit of trepidation.  “And?”

“I couldn’t find Imp,” he said.  “Tattletale and Imp are worried that if Imp gets killed or badly injured, everyone will forget her, and won’t be able to help her.  If we could find where her power comes from, maybe we could set up a reminder or something?”

Okay.

That was a hell of a lot better than my other suspicion.

“And?”

“And that’s it,” he said, quiet.  “It’d be nice to make Tattletale’s headaches go away.  That was my idea.  I told Imp and she told me to go for it if I could.”

“Nothing else?  No one else?”

“No,” he said.

I was pretty sure he was sincere.  Whoever he hung around, I didn’t get the impression he was a liar.

“It’s why we came this way, which slowed us down.  And then we got distracted, which slowed us down more.  I’m glad my crow found you,” he said.

I nodded.

Looking for answers, even to the little things, wasn’t a bad thing.  It was why I didn’t begrudge Sveta searching.  Even the fact that she was looking into her past gave us clues, like the level of detail we could dig for.

“What areas did you see or pass through?” I asked him.

“I… don’t really know,” he said.  “It didn’t make a lot of sense.  Was I supposed to be looking for some sign or something?”

“This place has a logic.  We’re looking for things that might be important.”

“Oh,” he said.  “I found something, I guess.”

He pointed.

“Can I pick you up?” I asked.  “Fly you over?”

He nodded.  “Don’t fly too high.”

I grabbed him around the ribs.  Then I flew.

We flew for a minute before he moved, pointing.

I set him down.

All around us, images took shape.  I saw a lot of faces I didn’t recognize.  Groups, crowds…

And then a dip, almost a crater, but diamond-shaped.

As Chicken Little approached it, I could see the scene unfold.

Chicken Little, much smaller and younger, sitting in a tiny kitchen in a narrow house.

And with him was a girl with a tumble of black hair, wearing a tank top and pyjama bottoms.  Round spectacles.

I recognized her from videos.  The cafeteria.  Announcements on behalf of the Protectorate.

Little Aiden sat on a stool, and Taylor Hebert, Skitter, Khepri, gave him a mug of what might have been hot chocolate, before sitting beside him, rubbing his back.

Seeing her spooked me… but I wasn’t getting the impression this was any sort of key to bringing her back.  This wasn’t what the Undersiders were gunning for.

No, just… important, but important to Aiden for other reasons.

He walked through the other side, looking at reflections, and left the crater empty as he climbed over the lip.

I approached the crater, and let my feet slide on the steep edge.

It was my mother, holding a swaddled baby.  Her eyes full of warmth and exhaustion.

It was my uncle Neil, playing with an infant me.  He sat cross legged, pushing me over, knocking me off balance, and messing with me.  Sparring, on the most basic level.

And Dean.  Beautiful, sweet Dean, walking beside me.

I watched the scenes change, rotating.

Is this you?

There was only one thing connecting those people to me.

Fragile one?

Only one sentiment.

I blinked rapidly, and then wiped away tears.

One place, that all of these feelings and connections had come from, at least at these points in time.

Something ‘clicked’.

I was so stupid, fighting it all this time, being so guarded.  It had saved me, but I’d still kept walls up.  Thinking that was where it started and stopped.

I unfurled my forcefield.

It stopped at my skin.

I pushed it out further, then pulled it in again.

I love you too, I thought.

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Infrared – 19.7

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Kenzie laughed, and the laugh echoed across a vast, dark plain.

“Jesus,” Rain swore.  “You scared me, doing that.”

“Decadent is putting Chicken Little’s birds on my head and shoulders while I work.  Some of the chicks are so cute!  I laughed because she ran out of places to put them, but then she stuck one of my head-cameras onto my helmet.  Wait, let me fiddle.”

I floated, looking down, my eyes scanning the red crystal.

The cold air from above was seeping into this void, which was more temperature-neutral.  Where the cold air from our world met the neutral air of this world, it formed vapor, that hung over the plain like a fog, and settled onto the crystal as a frost or beads of moisture.

Barely any light from the crack above us.  Most of the illumination came from the crystal itself, like it was all lit by light from a light turned to the lowest possible setting on a dimmer switch, tinted red.  It colored the fog, moisture, and frost.

“Ta da!”

Kenzie had altered her projection, now showing the birds that were perched on her.  The spherical helmet she wore with the large eyed, smiling face etched onto it now had attachments for the hair-buns, which periodically parted like clamshells, to show mechanical eyes that stared out or look around.  More birds perched on those, flapping their wings every time they opened up.  A few took to the air as she swept her arms out and spun in a circle, glitching as they got more than three feet from her.

As she settled down, the birds roosted on her again.

“Very cool,” I said.  “Are you guys getting along okay?”

“Okay,” she said, shrugging.  Birds took off with the motion, and one flew through me, fritzing out as it passed through my forcefield, which I was keeping up for the small impact on warmth and body heat, and in hopes it would find an equilibrium again.

I could feel the forcefield moving, despite my wishes.  Reaching out, heads moving, mouths opening.  The periodic arm was swung, hard enough to audibly cut through the air.

Not as restless as it had been, but this was almost worse.

I tried to ignore it, and scanned the ground, looking at the faint images that popped up.  It felt like we were out in far left field.  I could draw some mental maps between the areas, because the sentiments and ideas that defined one place connected loosely to the neighboring tracts and regions.

From grief to revulsion to losing track of one’s senses in the throes of strong emotion.  Then rage neighbored that.  From rage, we got to anger.  From anger, we made our way to… I wasn’t sure.  The mildest form of anger?  Peevishness?

Even within ‘peevishness’, there were scales and degrees.  People and faces, sure.  Some people bothered me.  Rain’s were cast out in slices like a fistful of knife blades, each ‘blade’ long, thin, and casting a different face.  Connective tissue running back the way we’d come, to anger and loss of control.  The images around Kenzie were fuzzier, because she wasn’t really here, and they shifted at times.  A lot of the faces looked Heartbroken.  One looked like Roman, but much older and grizzled.  Heartbreaker, sneering a little.

I shivered, uncomfortable.

It kind of unnerved me, as I thought on it.  Because she was – or she and the Heartbroken were-  here only in the capacity of observer, not a brain or corona pollentia.

It meant that she was looking, and this alien machine we were crossing was looking back, responding in kind.

It didn’t feel like were anywhere important to the greater system, because we were in a whole section where it wasn’t people.  It was things.  Some I only knew intuitively, as random as they might have looked.

The landscape rumbled.  Images cut out, fading out, returning, and stuttering.  I could see light flash across the terrain, illuminating both the ground and the light fog from the temperature differential.  To my right, an image of jean shorts with pockets extending below the leg of the shorts went dark, and didn’t return.

In the distance, a landmass tilted.  An island surrounded by chasms, leaning over until it came to rest against another, larger tract of ground.

“So,” Kenzie said.  “While I’m talking about stuff in my workshop, I just heard Tattletale explain how the people on the surface are shifting tactics.  Does that count as spying, if I overhear, and if I might be included in the briefing?  I want to stick to the rules.”

“I think it’s fine,” I said.  “What’s the shift?”

“Moving back.  Defending Titans who aren’t part of the Fortuna network.  Apparently Tristan and Sveta are taking a short rest while waiting for portals, because they’re bungling it up and messing up my tech, Dragon’s too busy to un-mess it, which is crazy when she’s a computer, and so it’s overheating while draining power from Dragon’s power cell.  Those things last years!”

“Is Tattletale still there?”

“Yeah, but she has a headache.  Should I bug her?”

“Please,” I told her.  “We had a trail, but it feels like it’s gone cold.  We could use any hints she can offer.”

“Be right back.”

I floated down, because my flying was poor in this place, and was almost slower than walking, letting me keep pace only because Rain slowed down when walking up slopes or taking it easy while scaling down the far sides.  I harbored some hopes that if I let my power ‘rest’, it might have a bit more oomph when I needed it.

I left behind scattered images of racist graffiti, a piss-stain on a wall, an egg in a sandwich, and a blurry image of a guy taking up three bus seats.

We walked into a region where the images were a blinking, obtrusive sign, a square image that lunged up at our feet, with flashing text.  A graphic image of Jesus on a cross near Rain’s feet.  The images overlapped, blurring into one another.  Like the other images, these were clear only if we were looking directly at them, but they had a way of shifting and moving that latched onto my attention whenever I gave it any.

I could see the array of images around Kenzie shift, taking on a different cast.  I was put in mind of a crescent moon.  The ‘crescent’ part of it was blinking lights, indicators, slices of light cutting through darkness and sun peeking through blinds, very bright.  There were square images, maybe screens, showing dramatic changes.

Contained within the crescent and bleeding out into the surrounding area was a storm.  Closing doors, people in a crowd, thrown plates, faces turning, hand movements, cars, signs, store displays, papers moving in the wind from a window…

Five or ten images in the time that the ‘crescent’ showed one, sometimes hard to make out because of the fuzziness and vague edges of it.  Were we still in the data storage for ‘obnoxious things’, respective to each of us?

“Who are you talking to?” I asked Kenzie.  I blinked to bring up the image at my right eye, flicking through to Kenzie perspective, but it wasn’t showing me much.  A bird sitting in front of a keyboard, and the camera’s point of view on a screen.

“She’s talking to someone?” Rain asked.

“One sec,” Kenzie said.

I waited.

“Okay!” she said, sounding pleased.  “Finished filling them in.  Bringing them in, for convenience.  Tattletale says the more information she can pick up, the better the info she can provide.”

There was a pause, and then Tattletale and Imp appeared beside Kenzie.

“Oh wow, motion sickness,” Imp muttered.  Tattletale just looked around.

“Those are settings I can fiddle with,” Kenzie said.

“Don’t bother.  Let’s just have this conversation and then I can take this thing off my head.”

“What do you want?” Tattletale asked, irritated.

Kenzie moved her hand to her mouth, like she was going to whisper, but spoke at normal speaking volume, “Headache.”

“Ignore her.  I’ve got ten people demanding my attention, I need a fifteen minute nap to get this headache to calm down, and I chose to focus on you first.  You’re not getting the full benefit of my power, this is a token effort to pacify a bunch of kids who are going to whine incessantly unless I help you out.”

“I told her she’s one of the smartest people I know,” Kenzie said, “So even if she’s not using her power, she might be able to help.”

“I told her to say that,” Imp said.

“The phrasing had nothing to do with anything,” Tattletale said, hands going to her temples.  “What do you want?”

“Fly with me?” I asked.  I looked at Kenzie.  “You can do that?”

“Sure!”

I reached into Kenzie’s hologram, touched the floating camera, and carried it skyward.  The image broke up as I flew.

The flying was so glacially slow, down here.  I felt a little self-conscious as I floated up, slower than even the camera.  It got a bit easier as I got high enough up to see the landscape stretching around us.

“Blaargh,” Imp said.  “Vertical movement does not help.”

“I can change the settings!”

“Bluurgh.  No.  I’ll manage.  I’ve seen that thing you put in people’s eyes.  I don’t want to know what your fiddling does.”

“You’re worse than anyone when it comes to my stuff, y’know.”

“Tattletale,” I said.  “Each area seems to turn up images of a certain kind.  We got flashes in a certain direction when thinking about Contessa, which implies a link.”

“Might be a bit of cheating on the Shard’s part,” Tattletale said.  “Pre-loading data so they’re faster and more ready when it comes to whatever threats or forces are paying attention to them.”

“I think it’s just the way connections are established down here.  A lot of powers reference certain data.  I get more connections when my aura’s on, even if it’s weak down here.”

“Like an accountant needing to check the columns add up.  Checking the most obvious and available data on a given person in your range.”

“Right,” I said.  I pointed to indicate as I talked, “So, just for this area… over there where we dropped in, it’s fear.  We sidelined into… I don’t know.  It was like, authority figures, me and my mom, Rain and the Fallen, Rain and Christine Mathers, but it was like… Kenzie and Ashley, and me and Gallant, me and, ahem, another cape.  Those last two were… not for Kenzie’s eyes.”

“So that’s what the kids were getting goofy about,” Imp said.  “You and wannabe ninja guy.  Hero boy in black leather pants.”

“Can I ask why she’s tuned in?” I asked. “Tattletale?”

Tattletale answered, “Because I won’t be when I end this conversation, and she’ll be watching the kids.  She wants to know what’s going on if she’s making any calls.”

I frowned.

“Well, I guess he wasn’t wearing the leather pants in that scene,” Imp said.

“Ahem,” Kenzie said.  “Just so you know, we covered our eyes and turned the camera away, once we realized what it was.”

“Let’s change the subject,” I said, deeply uncomfortable.  I’d honestly forgotten Kenzie was tuned in.  “I only mentioned that because I was trying to give Tattletale good information.  That region was weirdly proximate to fear, despite things seeming to have a pattern.  It was also our last clear signal where we got a good view of where the connections were going when we tried looking for or scanning for Contessa.  Trying to get to her data banks or… whatever we can get on her, so we can communicate.”

I could hear Tattletale sigh.  “Was it just those two locations?  Where are you now?”

I pointed the way.  “There were others.  We zig-zagged.  From fear to grief.  Grief to something else, I don’t know what.  Moldy sandwiches for me and Kenzie, a certain magazine for Precipice, uh-”

“Move on,” Tattletale said.  “Next?”

I pointed.  “Revulsion or loathing, pretty sure.  Then… losing control emotionally, or being overwhelmed, maybe that was two sections and we didn’t notice a clear divide.  Then anger, then irritation.  We just left… I think it was obnoxious things.  I feel like we’re out in the sticks, so to speak, we’re getting less and less relevant stuff, and no responses when we try to spark a connection to Contessa.”

Tattletale sighed.  “You’re going to make me use my power, aren’t you?

“What’s your instinct, no powers?”

“My instinct is to think back to the second entity.  Scion’s partner.  Alternately called Gaea or Eden, depending on who you ask.  We raided the Cauldron base during Gold Morning, hoping to do something very similar to what you’re doing now, hoping to get answers, and trying to deal with some ongoing obstacles.  For us, it was the person controlling the portals who was out of action.  Anyway, before we got to Gaea-Eden, there was an area with a ton of Cauldron’s vials.  The chemicals they were handing out to give people powers and establish a power base that wasn’t connected to Scion.”

“Right,” I said.  “And what does that have to do with this?”

“Each vial was numbered, I was watching through cameras, I got some glimpses, and my power told me then that the numbers on each individual canister corresponded to coordinates.  Coordinates like the ones you’d find on a map.”

“And… that lines up with what we’ve got here?  You could use your power to draw up a map?”

“I have no fricking idea, Dallon.  My power isn’t that strong, and I strongly doubt what I saw there correlates to what you saw here.  I’m just thinking out loud, and drawing connections.”

I looked around.  In the distance, a caravan of trucks were driving, headlights on, across a crystal plain.  They kicked up moisture and dust that had fallen when reality had cracked.

“Which direction was she?” Tattletale asked.  “Your best guess?”

I extended my arm, pointing.

“Your second best guess?”

“My best guess was my only guess.  It’s just that I don’t want to go too far, and I don’t know if it curves.  It’s easy to get lost down here.”

“Your second best guess, Antares.  Come on.  Assume you just got confirmation you were wrong-”

“Was I?”

“Fricking hell.  No.  But pretend you got it wrong, then point at the place you think it might have pointed.  I need more info to work with.”

I pointed.

“This landscape added up once upon a time,” she said.  “Everything interconnected, it fed more easily.  Now it’s… a hundred hard drives crammed into one computer’s housing.  Each agent lays some claim to real estate, builds their houses.  But when information isn’t flowing freely, and some houses get built on broken or missing ground…”

“Broken triggers,” I said.

“And Titans, when there’s enough support from the system to keep them propped up.  Okay.  I can fill in the gaps.  The first place you didn’t know what it was?  You and your parent, Precipice and Mathers?”

“Yeah?”

Imp butted in, “Let’s not forget the Antares-Anelace thing.”

“Let’s,” I said, my temper getting shorter.

“Submission,” Tattletale said.

“Ha haaaaaaaaa!” Imp crowed.

“Not like that,” Tattletale said.

“Haaaaa!” Imp stopped hooting and started cackling.  “Oh my god.”

“Cut it out, Imp,” I said.  “Tattletale just said it wasn’t like that.”

“It’s just I so didn’t expect that-” she sounded amused, even as she explained herself.

I shook the camera.

The laughing stopped.

“Blugh!  Please don’t do that again!”

“Listen to your teammate, listen to me, and don’t mock someone for having a healthy fling,” I growled.  “You found a button to press, whatever, fine.  But I’ve been dealing with Cryptid and I’m all out of patience.  Don’t press this button.

“I’m not- no.  Lemme explain-”

“You were laughing about me and Swansong,” Kenzie said, quiet.

“Oh, kid,” Imp said, and I could hear her sobering up.  “No, I really wasn’t.  really.”

“But you are, and I don’t get why it’s funny.  I don’t know why that would fit.”

“Tattletale, babe, help me out, use your power, figure out what I’m thinking and why that’s so funny, and bail me out.”

“You dug your own grave.  If you tick off Lookout that’s going to bode ill for you while you’re babysitting tonight.”

I folded my arms.

“Kid,” I could hear Tattletale, and it didn’t sound like she was facing the microphone.  “Did you ever do a project for her, where she was paying you as a boss?”

“No.  Oh.  That counts?  I said I’d be Swansong’s underling if Breakthrough didn’t work out.  That was what kind of got her to start being my friend, and got her interested in the team.”

I hadn’t really known that.

“So many things I want to add to that,” Imp said.  “Paying someone for service counts, apparently… but I’m being good.”

“You’re really not,” Kenzie said.  I could hear the distant voices of the other Chicken Tenders, chiming in.

“Victoria,” Tattletale said.  “Ignore Imp.  The second spot you couldn’t figure out, I can’t put English words to it.  You could call it a specific flavor of mixed feelings.  Like, ‘I want that and I can’t have it, and ‘I have that and ‘I don’t want it’, at the same time.  The light of the connection to Contessa went there when you pinged her?”

“Yeah.  We could have kept going, but we were hoping there might be clues or something there, so we visited it.  Couldn’t make sense of it.”

“In that case, you’ll want to look for landmarks.  Right now, Precipice went a bit forward, can you make out those images?”

I looked down at Rain.

I could see the images flickering around him, depicted by the crystals.  Ruins.  A treehouse.  A forge.  A girl’s torso, looking through the sleeve to the side of her chest.

“Ha!” Imp barked out the sound.

Rain didn’t seem to hear or notice.

“Can you stop?” Kenzie asked.  “Stop laughing at people when they’re doing nothing wrong.”

“I’m not laughing at.  I’m celebrating the weirdness of humanity.”

Rain just stood there, waiting, hands in his pockets, about two-thirds of his attention paid to that last image.  As he paced a bit, the image shifted.

I reached over for the camera and turned it away.

“He’s going in the right direction,” Tattletale said.

“I’ll say!”

Rain seemed to hear Imp.  He looked up, saw us looking, and looked away, pushing his hood back to run his hand through wet hair that was damp with perspiration.

Tattletale told me, “You want to go from there to… I think you’ll find a cluster of specific images.  Trust your instincts, you probably want to climb the mountain.  If it starts throwing up grief, sadness, weapons, anything like that, try other directions.  Weapons especially, you probably want to right-turn.  Think… images, scans, eyes, things like Lookout focuses on.  It’ll be kind of like paying attention, looking at things, glaring, hostile attention.  Ties into Contessa’s power watching everything.  I can’t speak for the mystery segments, parts that can’t be explained neatly in English or categorized by human minds.  But you should be able to find your way.”

“Thank you.  It’s more of a path than we had.”

“Once you’re there, you’ll see a standalone pillar or island.  Smaller than most.  That’s her.  She’s adjacent to clusters and functions tying into attention and focus.  You’re not far.  I’m… ninety percent sure that’s where you want to be.”

“Thank you, Tattletale.”

“Share any info you get.  This is interesting, it’s just that the timing is…”

She trailed off.

“Terrible?” I volunteered.

“No.  It’s probably a good thing, what you’re doing.  But my gut says you’re not going to get the big answer you want.  She wouldn’t leave a weakness exposed and undefended.”

“I figured she was still recuperating, we had a bit of time-”

“She’s recuperated.  She’s active again.”

The breath I’d been holding back to form words with escaped my lips.

“Be careful.  She’s not the Simurgh, she doesn’t weaponize information quite the same way, but…”

“Yeah.”

“Like I said, I’m ninety percent sure I’ve pointed you in the right direction.  If it turns out I’m wrong, I’m going to give you rare permission to wake me up, and I’ll see if I can get you where you want to be.  Even if I don’t think you can find a key to beating her, I think this is the right sort of space to be digging in.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Thank you.  I don’t know if I should promise you a favor, dangerous as that seems, or offer to buy you a drink out of professional courtesy… if we can get past all of this…”

I heard a sniff from Tattletale.  “That would be unbearably awkward.  This is unbearably awkward.  The world’s ending, this is my equivalent of putting five chips on you.  That’s all it is.”

“It’s appreciated,” I said.

“I know.”

“We were planning on doing a thing with Vista, inviting Rachel, catching up with people from Brockton Bay, celebrate her turning eighteen.”

“Don’t jinx it,” Imp cut in.

“Shush!” Kenzie chimed in.

“If we get that far, then I’ll be there.  You can buy me a drink, we’ll be even.  How’s that?”

“Alright.”

“If I don’t hear from you, I’ll assume I was right.  Hanging up now.”

“Bye,” I said.

I backed away from the camera, pulling my forcefield around me.  A part of me was hoping that any resolution, any peace, anything at all might get me back the control that would let me do things, or even to carry that gun, when we went back to the surface.

No such luck.

“C’mon, Lookout,” I said.  “And the rest of you, I assume you’re looking over her shoulder.”

“Sometimes,” Kenzie said.

I landed, the fog and dust parting a bit as I met the ground with both feet.

The fact my foot didn’t hurt reminded me of what happened to my leg.  I felt my stomach do a flip flop, and for a moment, I could sympathize a bit with Imp and her reaction to looking through whatever viewing implement Kenzie had offered.

More than anything, I felt wrong down to my bones.  I was supposedly better, Chris had supposedly healed me, but I felt like I was crammed into my body, nothing in the right order, but the signals to tell me things were off had all been tampered with.

Like looking at myself in a video, seeing my reflection flipped around compared to what I normally saw in the mirror, but being unable to point at anything specific.

From skin to meat to the bone.  I hated it.  Hated it.  Hate.

I sighed.  Then, experimental, I pushed out with my aura, while focusing on my mental image of Contessa.  Seeing if there was a pulse, a clue.  Anything even from my fragile, wretched companion.

I looked at Rain.  He had his mask off and his hood down, and was pale enough in this gloom that old notches and scars on his face stood out.  Other kids his age had circular scars from pimples, and Rain did have a couple of those, but mostly they were lines of pink, or marks in the skin.

More than anything, his eyes were wider.

I wanted to ask, and I didn’t want to ask.  The Scholar strangled the Monster, one fighting the other.

You need to know, Victoria.

“Sorry,” I told Rain.  Noncommittal.  Hoping he’d clarify if my aura was different.

“I’ve dealt with worse,” he said.

I hesitated, and then I asked, “Is it awe, fear, or something else?”

“It’s always been fear.  I’ve never felt your awe, exactly,” he said.  “So maybe it’s the awe?  I don’t know.”

I frowned.  “If you had to give it any label at all, what would you call it?”

“Interest?  Attraction.  Like when I noticed Erin for the first time.”

Of fucking course.  I couldn’t help but grimace.

I nodded.  “Thanks for the clarification.”

“Photos taken,” Kenzie reported from above.

“Come on, then.  Let’s go,” I told Rain.

Our journey took us out of the ’emotion’ spectrum of these crystalline plains, into images and holograms, false faces and representations.  My trading cards, the masks I’d tried on, posters of me, seeing myself on television.

I supposed that worked for ‘images’.

There was more ambiguous territory, where the scenes were more alien, but I couldn’t tell if they were actual aliens and alien memory, images stored for some particular kind of power’s execution, or if they were dreams and nightmares.  Too inconsistent to pin down.

There was another puzzling stretch, and the three of us split up.  The images were too dark, more incomplete than anything, and we were left to make our best guesses for two areas in a row.

Ten minutes had to have passed.  Rain persevered, despite the fact he was the one hiking all of this.  I could default to floating, and Kenzie was here by camera alone.

We almost missed it.  If it weren’t for Tattletale’s directions, we might have skipped past it entirely.

We were deep beneath the cracks, and cracks separated this landscape too.  It was only the fact that Kenzie was floating around, capturing images, that she saw it, and drew our attention to it with a flash in our eye-cameras.

Past a crack, down, there was a landmass, closer to black crystal than to the usual red crystal.  A black island in a blacker abyss, with only the periodic glimmer of a flash of lightning, darting down into the darkness, then leaping up the nearby walls of the chasm, to race off elsewhere.

I floated down, and the further down I got, the worse my flight was.

My boots hit the crystal, and it was like I’d landed on a drum.  The walls of the chasm on either side of me caught the sound and bounced it back, echoing.

There was another boom, as Rain went from a standstill, five feet above the ground, to a landing.

Getting up was going to be a pain, but…

But I could look into the crystal, and I could see scenes with myself and Contessa.  In Teacher’s base.  Making the decision.

Rain saw the same.

“When I-” Rain started, and the echo of his voice was intense enough that it made him pause.  He dropped his volume, “When I sent her the message, I thought to myself, what she did back there, it didn’t make sense.”

Back at Teacher’s base.  Rain’s finger tapped the crystal that jutted out.

“She showed doubt.  She made us make the call.  If she was a… perfect future-telling machine, then she’d just make the call.”

The scenes around us changed, reflected on the canyon walls.

A girl, Rain’s age or younger, wearing a suit, standing in a doorway.

A woman, that must have been Doctor Mother, asleep.

The girl standing in the doorway for a while, before turning and walking away.

Not saying whatever she wanted to say.

“Doubt,” I said.

The scenes showed something similar.  The girl in the suit, now older, walking between standalone cells, not connected to one another.  Each with three walls and a roof.  The front was left open, only paint on the ground.

There were people within.

“Responsive, aren’t you?”  I asked.

The scenes changed.  Her, suit jacket off and slung over the back of a chair, picking up the phone, to make a silent phone call.  I wasn’t sure why, but it felt… momentous, somehow.  Something in her expression.

Kenzie made her approach, extending a hand.  Metal clinked against crystal.

“I want to try hacking in,” Kenzie said.

“If we could do any damage, she wouldn’t let us be here,” I said.

“I know.  But I want to try.  If that’s okay?”

“It’s perfectly okay,” I said.

She knelt down, and the same motion coincided with a sound far sharper and louder than Rain or myself making our landings.

When she stepped away, the box she’d used to communicate with the Capricorn brothers was lying on the ground, camera and three of the camera ‘engines’ attached to it.

“That’s a load off,” she said.  “You might have to carry me back.  I burned a lot of power.”

“No problem,” Rain said.

She wasn’t fiddling, but the machine booted up.  It buzzed, and scenes around us buzzed in kind.  It got louder, the distortion around the scenes increased.

The scenes around us showed us a girl Kenzie’s age, black haired, with light brown skin, wearing clothes I didn’t recognize, with loose cloth and a girdle-style belt that went from under where her breasts would be to her pelvis, wrapped around her trunk.  Her sandals had shin-guards built into them, and her forearms had guards near the wrists.

The machine buzzed, and the buzzes corresponded loosely with where I felt words might start and stop.

Kenzie adjusted settings.  The voices became clearer, unintelligible, but wholly natural.

A child, scared and confused, with none of the cold confidence I associated with Contessa.

“Our enemy?” I asked.  My voice boomed through the canyon.

“Or ally,” Rain said.  His voice did the same.  He raised his head, looking upward.

Boots slammed into the crystal.  Not as hard a landing as mine or Rain’s.

I turned to look, and I saw Sveta.

“Oh, everyone’s here,” Kenzie said, sounding pleased.  “Tristan, Byron, Chris!  Come on down!  You too, number boy!”

But that enthusiasm and joy felt out of place.

Sveta’s expression was so dark… and my first thought was that it was this.  That she was seeing the inner core of the person who had done this to her.  She rubbed one arm, and I saw that, whether it was because we were here, where powers were dampened, or because she’d found a way to assert some control, her tendrils were no longer trying to braid themselves.

She crossed the small island, and as she passed, images changed.  To her right, along the canyon wall, I could see a mechanical Case Fifty-Three, carrying two children.  Again, Kenzie’s age.  I looked back and saw the young Contessa, forlorn, the foreign tongue she spoke overlapping as an adult Contessa, depicted on the canyon wall, reached for one of the children.

“I’ll take it from here.  Return to your cells,” the Contessa in the crystal said.

Sveta didn’t even bat an eyelash as that unfolded around her.

She wrapped her arms around me in a hug, face buried against my shoulder.  I hugged her back, and felt my heart break.  I looked over at Rain, who was wide-eyed once again.

The Number Boy hopped down.  His landing was softer than even Sveta’s.  He carried one end of a cable, which seemed to have been looped around jutting crystals and corners.

Chris made his way down, using a transformed body.  Byron took the longest, relying heavily on the cable that had been threaded for handholds.

When he finally had his boots on solid ground, he pulled off his helmet.  His expression said it all.

I had to ask.

“Tristan?”

Byron shook his head.

“Ah, man,” Rain said, with more emotion than I’d heard from him in a long while, now.

I looked back at Kenzie, who had frozen, and felt Sveta squeeze me tighter.  Hopefully Kenzie had her people, on her end of the camera.

All around us, scenes played.  Contessa and Hero.  Contessa and Alexandria.  Contessa and Doctor Mother’s body.  There were capes I didn’t recognize.  Words and voices overlapped.

Rain pressed a button.  The box shut off.

It didn’t put the images away, but the lack of sound made it easier to let them pass by without notice.  I ignored the Number Boy, who felt out of place, and Chris who felt even more ‘wrong’, being here, much as my body had felt wrong.

Rain hugged Byron, clumsy, and Byron just looked shell shocked.

All around us, images played, reflecting what we were experiencing.  Death, endings, grief, pain, and regret.

A trove of information about our most dangerous enemy’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities, as we felt and bore our own.

And we were in no place to use it.

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Infrared – 19.e

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The Titan Skadi loomed before them.

All around them, the civilians were scrambling, and any and all attempts to communicate, tell them to stay put, or man the weapons they’d brought down were lost in the chaos.  Humans fleeing across a landscape of red crystal, the periodic image flickering beneath them.

The Titan wasn’t even doing anything except standing there, not fighting for the first time that Moonsong had seen or heard about, and everything they were trying to accomplish down here was falling to pieces.

“Get through the portal!” Moonsong hollered, at a volume that hurt to produce.  “Or stay put, we can shield you!”

It didn’t matter.  Because at the end of the day, she had a strong gravity-warping power, but she didn’t have anything that made her more physically able than the people who were screaming in fear or shouting to family members, friends, and strangers.  Her voice wasn’t any different from their voices.

The unpowered scattered, leaving the work only half done.

The Titan remained where it was, standing in a sea of flickering and shifting images.  Slowly and surely, those images got more and more bloody.  Like a portent of what was about to happen.

Tribute stood to her left.  Capricorn stood to her right.  Riveting had her bag out, and was sealing pieces of tech together.  Furcate, as usual, was operating under the assumption she’d be more free to act the further she was from the rest of her team, steadily away from the group, her attention on the Titan.

“Don’t stray too far from the portal!” Moonsong called out to Furcate.  The portal near the center of the work site was their lifeline, feeding them their powers, in this place where powers were dampened or gone.

There was no indication she was being heard.  Furcate continued moving away.

Scribe and Armiger were helping the wounded, even though it would have been better for Scribe to be using her power.

“Scribe!  Arm yourself!” Moonsong called out.

“Scribe!” Tristan called out, his voice louder, because he’d always been loud.

Scribe looked at him.

Tristan pointed at the largest chunk of crystal the unpowered people’s excavation had managed to turn up.  Scribe ran over.

Skadi would be the worst opponent for us to face, she thought.  We’re a set-em-up, knock-em-down team.  Heavy hitting shakers, flankers, and support for the shakers and flankers.

Having control over the battlefield didn’t matter a bit when the enemy could just teleport across it.

Sveta called out, “Antares told us that the Nemean Titan was distracted by the images!  I think Skadi is too!”

As if to answer, the Titan disappeared.

Appearing right above them.

Armiger created his shield.  The two strikes collided with it, once, twice.

Three, four times.

The shield warped, glowing brighter.

Tristan stood beside her, staring up at the Titan, red lights tracing trails in the air.  Past the helmet, his expression was grim.

The Harbinger kid with glasses was pointing, talking to Riveting.  Moonsong wanted to believe that was a chance to hope, that they’d figure out a way to do a critical blow.

But they didn’t look confident.  If they had, she might even have thought less of them.

Her dad was in the crowd, and as she looked back, her hand moving to give him a wordless instruction, he stopped running, grabbing the sleeves of two others, before saying something she couldn’t hear.

It would be nice, she thought, her inner voice speaking with a calm she didn’t feel, if at least one of us made it through this, so mom doesn’t end up alone.

“Song!”  Tristan called out.  “Can you juggle me!?”

“No!” she was almost drowned out as trucks that had been used to bring equipment here, loaded up with people clinging to the sides, roared to life.

He looked at her, “What!?”

She slashed her hand down at a diagonal, in a firm negation, shaking her head, before turning away.

He squared his jaw, renewing his focus on the red lights.

The Titan slammed its axe-hand down, and the shield exploded into a wave of emotion.  She could only guess what it was by the emotions that leaped into her chest and took over her body, and her guess was that it was a backwash of fear.

The Titan didn’t flinch in the wave of emotion, and there was no forcefield between it and them, now.

Tribute was waiting for her when she caught up with the rest of the group, putting her phone away.  The call had been made, and they had permission, with a couple of caveats.

“Portal incoming in a few minutes!” she called out.  The one caveat.

Furcate waved a hand, acknowledging her.

They were gathered, her core team of Shepherds she worked well with and more or less trusted to a situation like this, Sveta, Tristan, the boy from Mortari.  All recuperating from the fight with the Nemean Titan, drinking water, talking.  Finding their centers.

Her focus wasn’t on them, but on her teammate.

Losing Victor had been a scare.  The idea that they’d almost lost Tribute earlier in the day was far scarier.

Tribute was wearing a costume that had been through three big design phases now, much like hers had.  Reach’s striking style with bold colors that stopped short of being garish, contrasted with blacks or deep darks.  Then they’d joined the Attendant, with a cleaner cut look, the contrasts less intimidating, a few style choices like cuffs and collars that echoed regular clothing, while still staying costume.  Hers had involved a folded collar on her dress, pleating on the skirt, cuffs at the end of her sleeves and tops of her boots.  Tribute had the head-to-toe bodysuit with the stylized helmet, and most of the focus had been on the shape of the armor panels he strapped onto key areas, and the shape of his cape, which had still flowed over one shoulder.  For anyone bringing a costume with them as they joined the Attendant, body armor had been cut down, pouches reduced, and if they needed stuff, they went to the vehicles that took them to wherever they were working.  All with the intent of looking more like cops than a tactical strike team.

With their final move to the Shepherds, the cuffs and collars were dropped, colors made to fit a gentler aesthetic, more emphasis on emblems, and more flowing cloth and straps.  Darker costumes, brighter emblems.  For her, it had meant a longer skirt, which she didn’t mind, and because the weather had been getting so cold so quickly, a jacket with a crescent moon mounted across the shoulder blades.  For Tribute, as he stood before her, the cloth of the cape that extended over one shoulder had been extended forward, into a toga-like cut over his armor.  It could have looked dumb, but it didn’t.

But right now, she could see the blood that had settled into the folds.  Probably not what the Shepherds had intended.  She could see how his head hung, like he was fatigued.  He didn’t move or react like he’d seen her.

Lost in your own head again, Tribute?

She waved a hand, trying to get his attention, but he wore a full-face helmet with visors for the eyes.  Either his eyes were closed, or the helmet impacted his field of view enough that he didn’t see the motion.

She used a gravity well, her dress picking up just a bit more than the rest of her did as she flew in close, stopping as her knee stuck forward to bump lightly against his chest.  Her hand settled on Tribute’s shoulder, where the cape didn’t cover him.  It took concentration to hold the effect while floating forward, but she was gentle.

All to bring herself to her teammate’s eye level.

“Huh?” he asked.

“Do I send you home?”

“I contributed.”

“Absolutely,” Moonsong told him.  “But you had a scare earlier.”

“I’m okay.  Good to go forward.”

Her hand gripped the back of his neck.  “You’re sure?”

“When we lost Victor, I came close to going down that same road, but I think that was because I was giving too many other people things I needed.”

She gripped him tighter, giving her arm a short shake.  “Be careful.”

“Yeah,” he said.

She wanted to say more, but she wasn’t sure what.

The Attendant had been all about holding onto what was important, and here she was, wanting to say five different things to Tribute, but all five were made complicated.  She wanted to tell him he was one of those things from the past that were important to her, but the gender difference between them complicated that, and made it sound like a romantic overture.  Not that there had ever been a glimmer of anything there, but that lack of a glimmer had been because they were both conscious of that awkward territory and were careful to avoid it.

She wanted to say she knew what he was dealing with, but that risked making him more depressed, pulling him deeper into that space where he might be susceptible to the cracking that had taken Victor.

“The team being together like this, it makes me feel like we’re the only two left,” she said.

“Depending on how you look at it,” Tribute said.

We’re still here, no matter how you look at it.  They’re…”

“Different?” Tribute asked.

“They went far away,” she said.

“I think we did too, Brianna.  The cities and towns we protected are on another world entirely, dark, cold, and empty.”

“Is that what you were dwelling on just now?” she asked.

“Some.”

“We might be far from home, but we’re still us.  Back there, you saw my dad is still him, my mom… I don’t think we changed,” she said.  She saw him move his head, anticipated the protest, and added, “We grew up a bit, that’s all.”

“Yeah.”

“How are you getting along with Capricorn?”

“How do you think?” Tribute asked.   He shrugged.  “I said some dumb petty shit to him.  Calmed down when I was out of range and started getting back my ability to hold back.  Still needed a breather.”

“Speaking of,” Moonsong said.  “Back when Capricorn turned up again, I did this thing I do sometimes, got petty.”

“Oh?” Tribute asked, a bit sarcastic, “You never do that.”

“Ha ha,” she said, without mirth.  More seriously, quieter, she continued,  “Really, I threw out some stuff to bait him, hurt him, see if I couldn’t put him off balance.  The kind of petty shit you say in a private chat that would hurt me if it went public.  I don’t want to do that, especially now that I’m field leader.  I’m trying to be better… especially as I’m field leader now.”

“I remember that conversation.  I don’t think most people would care.”

“Just… stop me before I get there?  Or I’ll probably do it again.”

“You want my power?” Tribute asked.

“Nah.  Having you act up is just as much of a problem.  Just… be a friend?”

“Yep.  No problem,” Tribute said.  “I don’t think we could stop anyone from being their worst self to him if he wanted to be shitty.”

“We’ll try our best, and we’ll hope he doesn’t go full Tristan.”  She clapped her hand on his armor, then pushed herself away, canceling her gravity spike at the same time.  She dropped to the ground, switching mental gears to thinking about the broader strategy and situation.

Tribute, it seemed, wasn’t switching those gears.  “I wish it wasn’t them.”

She turned, looking at him.

“If a genie had come up to me and said I could have two of my old teammates back… Furcate and Tristan wouldn’t have been my choices.  Furcate’s nice, don’t get me wrong, but…”

“I know,” Moonsong told him.

“Even Steamwheel, and that girl did not have a lick of sense when it came to being a cape, Moon.”

She smiled.  “She had a good head for the business and marketing side of it, and she made armor that little kids could ooh and aww over.”

“But she never scored a win.  Assists, maybe.  She’d be utterly useless here, and I’d still rather have her than either of them.  Of course, if I had a choice, it’d be-”

“Coif and Figurehead,” she said, her voice overlapping with his as he said, “Figurehead and Coif.”

“Yeah,” he said, after a moment.  “Missing them.”

“Let’s do them proud.  Come on.”

She walked.  Tribute walked alongside.  The group was gathered at a ledge, overlooking the hole in reality.

Before they were in earshot, Moonsong told Tribute, “I’m probably going to kick myself for saying this if I end up doing something regrettable, but I’m glad it’s them.”

“Cap and Furcate?”

“Tristan and Furcate, yeah.  Not my favorite people, but… I think that’s why it’s important.  I don’t feel like a proper leader right now.  It’s why I turned down the official leadership and I’m just in charge when we’re on the battlefield.  I feel like I have to get past this.”

“I don’t think it’s a mark against you if you say Furcate is offputting in a way that doesn’t have anything to do with what’s going on there.  Being distant, does the ‘walk my own path’ thing, not so into teamwork, that rubbed everyone the wrong way, as nice as some tried to be.  And it’s definitely not a mark against you if you’re not okay with a guy trying to murder his brother, after months of acting like he shits rainbows and knows what’s best for the team.”

“His battle sense is solid, he knew P.R., he knows how to market himself and how to make others look good.  It’s part of why he got away with what he did for as long as he did.”

“Moon,” Tribute said, putting a hand on her shoulder.  They stopped walking, still out of earshot.  “You don’t have to pretend their weirdness or the fratricide thing are your hurdle to get over.  It’s not about you, it’s about them, it’s not crossing a line to say that.”

She was in the midst of formulating a response when she saw Capricorn amble over.  When he had been on Reach, his armor had been painted properly, with a wash of darker red to get in the crevices and make the decorative elements of his armor pop, the highlights painted in red.  Now, it looked like he’d given up the effort of keeping the paint intact, and had stripped most of the color off.  Pressure washer or sandblaster.  The color he’d applied was more universal, paler, a red tint instead of a coating, and he hadn’t had the benefit of a team of people that could buff out the scrapes, scuffs, and gouges, which stood out in unpainted steel or, especially toward his feet, had accumulated dirt and grime, turning into dark slashes and pockmarks.

“What’s the word?” Capricorn asked.

She’d asked for Tribute’s help before, because she didn’t trust herself to keep from being a petty bitch, using anything to hurt him.  She didn’t feel safe doing that here.

Here, using all of her recent practice, she put the feelings aside.

Stay professional, stay calm.

“We’ll be deploying into the crack, playing defense as the civilians mobilize and prepare for another blast.  We could expect Titan Skadi, if the last case is anything to go by.  The Wardens are conserving the battery for the portal system.”

“Ah, yeah.  It’ll scare the living daylights out of us when it pops up, to warn you,” he said, smiling behind his helmet.

“Maybe,” Moonsong said.

The silence hung in the air.

“I’ll leave you guys be,” Tristan said.  “Sorry.”

Tristan’s power produced a tower of building material, rising up to meet the axe-hand that was coming down.  The blade sheared through concrete and wood and some metal.  Chunks went flying.  With how many people were still in the area, Moonsong worried a few people had been clipped or brained.

The second lunge of Tristan’s power followed from the first.

Juggling, Moonsong thought.  She’d refused Tristan’s offer for the strategy.  An old trick they’d practiced while in Reach, during training when they’d been invited to come up with just-in-case plans against Endbringers.  Before Byron had ‘died’.

It made sense he’d want to use it here.  It made sense that Tristan would think of something that obscure.  She hadn’t been lying when she’d told Tribute that Tristan had some of the hallmarks of a capable field leader.

Now she tried her best to utilize it.  A short spike of gravity, as debris fell.  So the chunks of shattered building would hit the spike and fly upward.  A well set above the Titan’s head, so the chunks would be sent flying down.

Trying to capture the bulk of it, so she’d have a constantly rebounding cascade of debris.

She lost most of it, lost more as her focus slipped, the Titan sliding forward, arm raised- and she took a step back, losing concentration.  The gravity wells came apart, spike deflated.

Scribe stepped in to fill the gap.  A chunk of red crystal struck the Titan and stuck there, metal bolts extending to attach forearm to upper arm, trapping it in a bent position.

Slowly, surely, the Titan began to pull its arm apart, the armor tearing, flesh being ripped away by her own efforts and strength.

Moonsong raised her hands, creating as many spikes of reverse gravity as she could in the area.  Picking up every chunk of debris, every bit of crystal, and even smaller pieces of the Titan that had broken away.

They dug gouges into the Titan’s flesh, bounced off- forcing her to ‘catch’ them with more gravity wells.

Tristan produced another burst of his new power, the shattered building lunging into existence- and it only hit the red crystal with the attachment ‘rivets’ sticking out like the spines from a sea urchin.  The Titan was gone.

Where!?

She wheeled around, and saw it.  Attacking civilians.  Furcate was over there, directing people, pointing the way to the portal.  Sveta swooped in to scoop people up, saving them from the plunging attack of the Titan.

Who disappeared again.

Appearing closer to their other flank.  Another Furcate was helping people.  The boy from Mortari was there as well, acting like all was normal as he reached out and shoved a young man, before stepping back.  The axe bit into crystal between him and the man.  She swept her axe-hand sideways, scraping it against the crystal, and the boy scampered up the side of it, before finding a grip on her wrist.

The Titan disappeared- still trying to find a weakness, making it as hard as possible for them to pin her down or make anything stick.  A mad dog, biting at anything and everything that she could.

This reappearance didn’t target them, though.  It didn’t target the vital mining or explosives equipment, and it didn’t target the civilians.

The portal.  Their lifeline.  The Titan appeared beside it, and Scribe rammed it with a spike of crystal.  Tristan improvised a rushed attack, which only glanced off the Titan.

The portal was in the Titan’s arm’s reach.  Through it, she could see the silhouettes and shadows of their reinforcements.

Even beyond that… without that portal, they didn’t have enough access to their powers.  Not down here, in this alien landscape.

She made a decision in the spur of the moment.  A massive well of low gravity high above them.

And then a series of lesser spikes of anti-gravity.  Aimed at civilian clusters, at her teammates.  At Sveta and the boy from Mortari.  At Tristan.

To fling them -the forty or so people she’d been able to reach- up.  Into a waiting cushion of low gravity, closer to the clouds than to the ground.

The crack in reality was far below them, surrounded by toppled buildings coated in snow.

People screamed.  Moonsong didn’t.  The entirety of her focus was on the Titan below them, making sure she was keeping people aloft, and keeping her focus.

Because her focus was the only thing that kept them from plummeting to their deaths.

She did what she could to equalize them, so they were all roughly level with one another as they ‘fell’, dropping an inch a second, the wind whipping around them.

The fissure was beneath them, the hole in reality.  So long as they were up here, they had powers.  But there were vulnerable people down there, and the moment her concentration broke-

“Tribute!” Riveting called out.

“What do you need!?” he called back.

“Mental speed!  I have an idea!”

“Do it!” Moonsong called out.

Snow whipped all around them, and the white of snow turned dark as a shadow fell over them.

“Tribute!  Rivet!  Harbinger!” Moonsong called out, barely pausing between the names, as she saw who the Titan was poised to strike, falling in the low gravity, twisting to bring the axe around.  Moonsong considered using her power to drop them, to create a pocket of higher gravity, to fling them down, or fling them up, but she didn’t trust her concentration.  Not when forty lives hung in the balance.

Furcate’s clones reached for one another, the soles of one Furcate’s feet pressing against the soles of another.  They both kicked, separating violently from one another.  One aimed right for the cluster of three individuals.  Sveta, too, reached out, but without something to anchor herself in the air, she couldn’t really pull, so much as she and the two people she was pulling -Riveting and the Harbinger- were brought to a middle point between them.

Armiger’s shield appeared between the Titan and the group.  The Titan hooked one axe-hand over the top edge of it, and swung her entire mass over.

Scribe, of all of them, was the most able to do something.  Her staff flew out, and it caught the three people, driving them back and away.

“Fuck!” Tristan called out.  His red lights were already drawn out.  “Pull them back!”

Scribe tried, but pulling was another maneuver entirely from pushing, and she lacked grace, especially after the recent alteration to powers.

It wasn’t enough.

Moonsong could see how and where that constellation was drawn.  With her teammates in the way.

“Tell By to change!”  Tristan shouted.

Tristan released his power.  The building manifested in the air.  Tristan blurred.

“Change back!” Moonsong screamed, Sveta’s voice joining hers.

Byron looked at her, bewildered.

The head injury.  Slower reflexes, slower on the uptake.  The building had become mist, and the mist billowed out by the second.  The mist expanded out to touch Tribute’s arm, and a touch was all it needed.  His arm froze, when he was already twisting, trying to quickly maneuver in the air, gripping Scribe’s staff.

The frozen arm broke off at the shoulder, collarbone and lung exposed.  Blood sprayed.

She howled.  Tribute was silent, wide-eyed.

She saw the look in Byron’s eyes, haunted, as he realized what he’d been supposed to do.  Byron retreated, becoming Tristan again, the look not leaving his face until he was no longer Byron.

The Titan swiped at Riveting, who the Harbinger maneuvered out of the way, in a similar way to how Furcate had hurled herself through the gravity-less cloud.  The strike severed Sveta’s tendrils.

The follow-up strike backhanded Riveting with the same hand, catching Furcate.  Both died.

It was the kind of sight that would provoke a scream or howl, or a cry of rage, had she had the ability, but she was already screaming.

Instead, the sound froze in her throat.

With Tristan’s appearance, the mist had become a fresh outcropping of building, and Moonsong could see what Capricorn had been trying to do.  A faster change would have created a thin jet of mist that bypassed the group.

As it was, it created the solid mass of building that hung in the air, for as long as it worked at emerging.  Had it formed before, it would have been a shield.

Tribute died.

Capricorn looked up at her, lost and bewildered.  The same as he’d appeared in the moments before he had released Byron from pseudo-death.

“I’ll leave you guys be,” Tristan said.  “Sorry.”

“No,” Moonsong said.  “I think we were done?”

She made it a question, and Tribute answered the question with a nod.

She’d wanted to reply to Tribute, answering what he’d said about Furcate and Tristan, but that train of thought had been dashed to pieces.

“Impatient?” Tribute asked.  He was more alert, his tone of voice more guarded than before.

“Wrong word.  Restless, is all.  I want to do something.”

“That’s…”  Moonsong fished for a civil answer, and in that fishing, stumbled over memories and scenes that made emotions kick up.  Holding Byron as he screamed, the sense of betrayal, the horrible sense of victory when she’d finally beat him, uncovering his lies.  That last one a feeling she never wanted to experience again.  “That’s… very you, Tristan.”

Tristan snorted air through his nose.  “You’re not wrong.  Listen, I wanted to say thanks for being cool.”

“By said he forgave you, and I- but you were privy to that conversation.”

“Yeah.”

Again, that awkward pause.

Sveta and Furcate were chatting.  A kid she recognized as one of Citrine’s hanger-ons was sitting on a bit of debris nearby, talking to Scribe.

Furcate, Moonsong noticed, had reduced back down to the one body.  It was one of the ones from the rooftop, that had been set up as suicide bombers, that Sveta had rescued.  The girl wore a decorated chainmail coif over a silk hood with two pointed ‘ears’ reinforced by wire from the coif, her mask that of a cat, mouth open, pushed back to the top of her head, so her face was exposed, light brown skin a touch red from the cold.  Her costume didn’t really hold dirt or show much wear and tear, but the dark color scheme helped there.  She looked too untouched by all of this, which made it harder to relate to her.

“…like how it’s two steps forward, one step back,” Sveta said, holding out one arm.  It was broken down into strips, and the strips were trying to form braids and other complex arrangements, instead of lying flat.  “I had a body like I wanted at the same time the rest of my life was falling apart.  But it was one great, nearly perfect thing and now it’s not perfect anymore.”

“I was a ten-ten-ten once,” Furcate said.  “The only way to stay that way would be to not use my power.  Same idea.”

“I don’t know exactly what ten-ten-ten means,” Sveta said.  “I can sort of guess.”

“Ask Capricorn later,” Furcate said.

“You don’t mind?” Tristan asked, his voice too loud because he was speaking across the gathered group to the pair at the far end, and he wasn’t willing to walk closer for some reason.

“It’s who I am.  It’s my power, me.”

“I just figured… maybe you’d get as close to ten-ten-ten as possible, then consider it done, leave the old, less perfect you behind, along with the stress and pain.”

“I’m not perfect when I’m ten-ten-ten, Capricorn,” Furcate said, smiling.  “I wouldn’t ever leave the journey behind.  It’s part of who I am.”

“I…” Tristan started speaking, stopped, and hesitated.  “…don’t get it.  I guess I like my personal demons slain and done with, as much as that’s not possible sometimes.  I thought maybe it was possible for you, and you wouldn’t have that unhappiness… poisoning you, I guess?”

He looked at Moonsong as he said that last bit.

“For what it’s worth,” Sveta said.  “I didn’t stop considering myself a case fifty-three when I had a body the way I wanted it.  I didn’t ditch the tattoo.”

Tristan nodded.

“Getting it a bit?” Furcate asked.

“A bit, yeah,” he said.

Moonsong pulled out her phone, checking the time.  They’d told her three to five minutes.  It had been nine.

She really hoped nothing had happened.  The command center was vulnerable to threats like Skadi, and the latest reports were that the Titan Fortuna was getting more focused, after a spell of stillness.  If she was anything like the Simurgh, then anyone or anything could become a guided missile, capable of striking right at the heart at the command center.

“What about you?” Riveting asked Scribe.

“Hm?  Nothing about me,” Scribe said.

“Your prior affiliations?  Identity?”

“Let’s not push,” Moonsong said.

“Shouldn’t we?” Riveting asked.

Scribe grabbed her staff and pointed it at Riveting.  “She’s doing her brain thing again.”

“Brain thing?” Sveta asked.

“My power makes it hard to let go of ideas when they take hold,” Riveting said.  “It’s not that.”

“Feels like it,” Scribe said.  “Let it be.”

“Let it be,” Moonsong said.

Moonsong was aware of the stares from other members of the group.  Furcate, Sveta, Capricorn… a very different set of eyes and expectations.  Like she shouldn’t let it be.

“If you refuse to face it or own up to it, then people are going to fill in the blanks,” Riveting said.

Riveting,” Moonsong said.  She’d never felt less sure when taking charge like this.  Defending someone who wouldn’t admit to being wrong, while Capricorn of all people looked on.  “Stop.”

“Stopping,” Riveting said, “…and I’m going to distract myself with some tinkering.  Delay or destroy, do you think?”

“Delay,” Moonsong said.  “Destroy doesn’t work.”

“Got it,” Riveting said.  “Attacher grenade it is.”

The silence was awkward, after.  To Moonsong, it felt like a condemnation and a failure, and a bit of a relief.

We can fix this after, she told herself.  Put it off.  Get through today and we can work on Scribe.

“Furcate,” Sveta said, “I wanted to pick your brain about something.”

Furcate tilted her head, looking over.

“My teammate Swansong died, before, and she came back… nine times, I think, in total.  Each version of herself that survived remembered, and I was wondering if you-”

“No,” Furcate interrupted.

“No…”

“I’m going for a walk,” Furcate said.

“Stay in earshot,” Moonsong called out.

Furcate raised a gauntleted hand, claws glinting in the dim light.

“Touchy subject, I guess,” Sveta said, quiet.  “Sorry.”

“She’s always like that,” Tribute said.  “Don’t worry.”

“I worry,” Sveta said.

Again, that telling pause.

Moonsong could see how impatient Tristan was, as he stared at the ground.

She looked over to Armiger, who was napping, arm thrown over his face, at the retreating Furcate, and then the crack in reality.

“I’m going to make a phone call.  Watch things, Tribute?”

“Yeah.”

She walked away, pulling out her phone.  She hit the icon to contact the Wardens, and waited as it tried to parcel together a connection through the shattered city infrastructure and satellite signals.

“Wardens here, Moonsong, what do you need?”

“ETA on that portal?”

“We had some demands.  Tinkers are connecting other power sources.  Hopefully the portal will provide some supply to your powers in the crevice, so you can defend the group down there.”

“ETA, please,” Moonsong repeated.

“Two minutes, according to the queue.”

“Thank you, that’s all I needed.  Good luck.”

Two minutes.

She sighed, her breath fogging in the air.

“Moonsong.”

She turned around.

Capricorn, with battle-scarred armor, and eyes that scared her.

“Going to get on my case for protecting the ex-Nazi?” she asked.

“No.”

She didn’t venture another guess.

Distant, Tribute had twisted around on the seat he’d taken, watching from a distance, as if she needed protection, or a possible boost.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever said I’m sorry,” Tristan said.

“If you don’t know, does that mean you didn’t care when you said it?” she asked.

“I-” he started.  He stopped.

“You said sorry when the PRT Tribunal was convened, on the attempted murder charge.”

“But I’ve never looked you in the eye and said I was sorry.”

“No.”

“I’m sorry, Moonsong.  I’m sorry you had to go through losing Byron.  I’m sorry I fucked up our team.  I’m sorry you had to go through fighting one of your own.  Me.  I’m sorry you and Byron aren’t together anymore.”

She drew in a deep breath.

For this, at least, she didn’t want to put her feelings aside.  She looked aside, and saw Scribe.  She could imagine that conversation being a prompt for Tristan now.

Did it have to be now?

“It’s on me,” he said.  “That’s obvious, but I need to say it.”

She brought her hands to her mouth, and she saw Tristan jump a little.

Like he’d expected her to reach out and use her power on him, or something.

Instead, she blew on her hands, warming them.

“I don’t have a lot going on,” he said.  “Byron’s living his life-”

“Girlfriend,” she cut in.  “I know.”

“…Yeah.  He’s got family, he had plans before all this went to shit.  He’s made friends.  I have the team and the hero stuff.”

“Victor was similar,” she said.  “I think it played a part in what happened to him.”

“Oh,” Tristan said.

That look in his eyes was worse.

“Do you need an out, Tristan?” she asked.

“What?”

“If you’re there, if you want permission from someone in charge, I can give it.  I won’t hold it against you.”

“No, that’s- shit.  No, now I feel like I’m using the Victor thing for points, I’m really not.  I’m not trying to bail either.”

“Okay.”

He clenched his fist, and his gauntlet squeaked.  “An apology is supposed to come in a few parts.  Admitting what you did wrong, pledging to avoid it in the future- I hope you believe me when I say I wouldn’t do that to Byron again.  I actually like him now.  I’m supportive of him and…”

She made a face, as jealousy and bitterness boiled up.  Lucky Vista.

Tristan trailed off, nodding.

“I don’t know what you want from me,” she said.  “If you want me to say it’s okay, I’m not sure I can.  If you want to leave, ok.”

“Part of apologizing is taking actions to make it up to someone.  Right now, I’m not sure what I’m good for, except the cape stuff.  So just… if you’ll have me, I’ll help wherever I can.”

She nodded.

There was a tension between them, and as the portal roared to life, close to the main group, the two of them jumped.

Tristan snorted.

She remained still, looking back at the portal.

“Was that a yeah, just now?” he asked.

“Okay,” she said.  “If you won’t turn Titan.”

“I’m… I can’t, so long as I owe people.”

The bitterness from the earlier comment was still like a taste in the back of her mouth.  In a world where this man didn’t exist, she’d have been so much happier.

“Good, any help is appreciated,” she said.  “Help me protect my dad, keep my team alive.”

“For sure,” he said.

Furcate was jogging over.  The rest of them were standing, with Armiger rising from his rest.

“Come on,” she said.

His boots were heavy in the snow as he followed.

Her emotions were a storm, and she had to put it aside.

“I want my demons slain too,” she said.

“Hmm?” he asked.

“What you were saying earlier.  I agree.  Sveta and Furcate can embrace theirs or make them a part of them, but… I’m on your side on that.  It’d be nice to live in a world where we can get over stuff and forget it ever happened.”

It was what she’d wanted to tell Tribute.

That she was glad it was Tristan and Kay that were back, precisely because they were challenging.  Because it felt like she hadn’t grown up all the way, and she couldn’t be a true leader, on the field or otherwise, until she had done that growing up.

Until she’d conquered her judgmental nature, that petty bitchiness that she defaulted to when most challenged, ever since private school.  Her demon to kill, and put behind her as an embarrassing artifact of who she’d been.

She looked back at Tristan, hoping to see some glimmer of something there.  Instead, he looked distant, one hand on the ram’s horn that swept back from his helmet.

The wind whipped through the portal.

There were a hundred thousand things she and Tristan could say to one another.

After.

They stepped through the portal.  Almost, she walked through and over the edge of a cliff.

The crack extended before them, and far below, she could see the crowd of people getting prepared with the excavation.

She used her power, a well of reduced gravity.

Leaping over the edge, she dropped slowly through the well.  Her team leaped after her.

They fell, capes, dresses, hair and hoods flapping behind them.

They fell, bloodied and battered, fewer than they’d been.

Sveta and Scribe dropped to either sides of the crack beneath them.  They set to collecting the falling people.

Capes far below had emerged from a fresh portal, and were battling Skadi.

Scribe provided her floating staff to Moonsong, dragging her to one side of the chasm.  Moonsong watched as Sveta caught Tribute out of the air, then caught Capricorn.

She wanted to say something, to be a leader, and she didn’t have it in her.

Tribute was gone.

She could hear the dull cracking in the distance.

“Send me over,” Moonsong said.

“Saving people,” Scribe said.  She was sending her staff this way and that, catching people who were floating down through the massive well of reduced gravity.  She caught Furcate, who grabbed someone else’s hand to speed things along.

Moonsong wanted to ask Scribe to send her over anyway.  But she couldn’t say not to catch people out of the air.  If they kept falling straight down, they’d land in the crater.  The wind wasn’t enough to push them off course.

She watched as Sveta talked to Tristan.  A back and forth.

The dull cracking became sharper, louder.

The gap was fifty feet across.  She couldn’t initiate a good gravity well while airborne and moving.  Not since the civilian squads had detonated the crystal and screwed up the powers.  It was why she hadn’t been able to juggle Tristan’s rocks.  Her wells were stronger, but slower to manifest, less flexible if she was moving around.

She backed up, created her well, and then she took the leap, over the chasm, the fighting going on below.

Civilians had died.  Her father had been through the portal, but he was also the kind of person to come back through and try to usher people through.

The wind whipped past her hair and her jacket.  In the moment, she could only wince at the air resistance that her jacket and knee-length dress were providing.

All she could do was remain focused on the maintenance of the well.  Going too high up would be just as disastrous as not high enough, and she wasn’t experienced with this new power and its metrics.

The arc of her jump started to carry her down, and she wasn’t halfway.

“Sveta!”

Sveta looked away from her conversation with Tristan, as Tristan looked down at the wounded civilians and ongoing fighting.

The cracking roared through the air, and she saw it slice through the sky.

Sveta reached out, and Moonsong gripped the tendril.

She was hauled to the far side of the chasm.  She landed on hands and knees, huffing.

Looking up, the first thing she saw was that Tribute was dead.

The second thing, was Tristan.

“I’m a demon after all,” he said.

“What?” she asked.

“You called me a demon,” he said.  He huffed out a laugh.  “Fuck.  I murdered Tribute.”

The words brought the reality home for her.  She looked down at Tribute’s body.

“Not you,” she said.

“Nah,” he said, “It’s me.  That’s on me.”

“Tristan,” Sveta said.  “Refocus.  Use your power.  Because that cracking-”

Tristan backed away from the ledge.

Cracks that were forming in the air turned, homing in toward him.

“Use your power!” Sveta called out.  “Like the research Victoria mentioned!”

He did, creating red lights.

“I didn’t call you a demon,” Moonsong said.

“You implied- you said you wanted your demons dead and behind you, and- fuck, you might actually get that.  Fuck.”

As the cracks drew close, Tristan used his power.  A manifestation of buildings and concrete, thrown up there like he thought it would be a wall against the cracking.

It seemed to work, surprising her.

“I didn’t mean that,” she said.  “I was talking about something else.  My shittiness.”

“Nah,” he said.

“This is not the time to be stubborn!” she raised her voice.

“Listen to her,” Sveta said.  “Tristan.  Listen.

“I thought I had at least one thing going for me, I was a good cape.  Did okay against Goddess, I’ve stood toe to toe with monsters.  But then I go and fucking kill the people I’m trying to make fucking restitution to?”

“Keep making constellations, Tristan,” Sveta said.  “Moonsong, if there’s anything-”

“I don’t-” Moonsong started.  “I don’t blame you, Tristan.  Believe me, if I had the slightest excuse, I would.  I have no reason to be nice.”

“You don’t want me to turn into one of those monsters.  That’s all.”

Tristan,” Moonsong said.  “Byron was the one who made the mistake.  He was too slow.”

“I should have kept track of that.  I shouldn’t have put that on him.  He doesn’t need that on his shoulders.  Fuck…” Tristan looked around.  He created another constellation, to ward off another crack.  A second drew close, and he backed away.  “What happens to him if this gets me?  I don’t want to be responsible for him becoming one of those things.”

“Tristan,” Sveta said.  “You have me.  We’re buddies.  You have Rain.  You have Kenzie.  How she going to react?”

More and more, it looked like there were no spaces for him to retreat through.

“Tristan,” Moonsong said.  “In what world would I openly blame Byron and not you?  Think, you stubborn asshole!”

He backed off from the cracks.  More constellations were drawn up around himself in every direction, to ward off six different fractures.

He spoke, and the sound of the cracking drowned him out.  He looked at Sveta.

“If you want forgiveness, for what you put me and Reach through,” Moonsong said.  “You’ve got it.  If you want forgiveness for Tribute, you don’t need it, you’re not responsible.  That was a bad situation.  I forgive you.

She watched as Tristan seemed to relax.

But the cracking didn’t stop.

He said something and was drowned out.

She saw the constellation around him change.

She could follow the direction of it.

“Tristan!”

He met her eyes, standing taller than she’d seen him stand all day.

The constellation came to life.  Ruin and destruction, filling the mess of cracks, disrupting them.  His body was thrown aside by the violent crash of concrete on concrete.

The cracking around them stopped.

“Sveta,” Byron groaned.

Moonsong ran over, joining Sveta.

“I can’t switch to Tristan,” he said.

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Infrared – 19.d

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“Bee, I need you to unpack that box, we have one of the better space heaters somewhere in there.  Let’s get it turned on.”

“Okay.”

All around them, people were getting sorted.  The dirt ground had melted from the passage of vehicles and feet, turning into muddy dreck.  Cars were parked haphazardly around the clusters of tents.  Her experience in the tent cities told her that tents were classified by label and number.  These were ‘fives’, with tents made to be connected to other tents, forming a star shape when all of those other tents were fives.  A mass-heater went in the middle, funneling heat to all of the connected tents.

The control freak in her wanted to get upset at the people who were ignoring what the labels, instruction manuals, and organizers were telling them to do.  The spot to the left of each of the tent’s entrances was for vehicles.  There were ‘air lock’ flaps for keeping the heat in when bringing in boxes.  But people parked in the way, obstructing incoming traffic, and they left their front flaps open for convenience, which chilled every connected tent.

She dug in the box.  Toaster, pressure cooker, microwave… the heater was the biggest, in the bottom corner.

“Little Bee,” her father said.  “Could you hand me the box knife?”

She looked up from her efforts to empty the box.  Her father was by the entrance, in the air lock, and the box knife was in his arm’s reach.  He was wearing a suit, but the jacket had been taken off, the sleeves rolled up.  No wonder he’d wanted the space heater.  He was Japan-born, with very broad shoulders and a broad jaw, a thin mustache and a goatee like an arrow that pointed down from his lower lip to his chin, his hair slicked back with two parts hair stuff, one part sweat.

She looked over at her mother, who gave her a pleading look, both hands pressed together.

She could imagine how that exchange would go, if her dad wasn’t in earshot, or if she stepped away to have a conversation with her dad.  ‘Don’t agitate him, this is all hard enough.’

She got up from where she was kneeling, adjusted her coat, and walked over to her dad, picking up the box cutter and holding it out with what felt like a whole lot of irony.

“Can you hold this?” he asked, taking the box knife, and then handing her screws.

“I don’t have long.”

“Thirty seconds,” he said.

She held the screws, drawing in a deep breath and sighing.

It took more than thirty seconds.

“Have you gotten the space heater out yet?” he asked, as he took the screws.

“No, dad.”

“We need that done.  Can you help me lift this, and then get right to it?”

She glanced again at her mother.

“Ren,” her mother said.  “Our daughter is supposed to be taking a break right now.  She was just fighting, she’ll be fighting again tonight.”

“I’m not asking for much.  If you’d just-” he said.

She squared her feet, drew in a deep breath, and then tinted her vision, tapping into that other set of senses that let her see the world through her power.

Mass was an indent in the world, however slight, and that indent saw things drawn toward the mass, even if by insignificant fractions.  The world itself, the big magnificent globe they all lived in, produced an indent so steep that they were all pulled directly into it.

With her power, she adjusted tolerances and tensions.  Made indents less, made them more.

An increased tension in the fabric at the front and center of the tent served to make everything lighter.  Her father stood easily, and picked up a heavy box with just as much ease.

It was easier to expand the ‘donut’ of increased tension than to cancel it and start it again.  Moving from where she stood or being interrupted saw everything snap back to normal.  A snap back to normal could be disastrous, if her father was holding something fragile.

The casualty was that she was affecting people outside.  She wasn’t sure she had the energy to care at this point.  Her dad’s career was already fucked, and as far as her secret identity went, she wasn’t sure what she was fighting to maintain anymore.

“There,” her father said, “How about that space heater?”

Ren,” her mother said.  The fierceness of it surprised Brianna.  Her mother tended to be meek.  “Let our daughter rest.”

“I’ll be happier if I know you guys are okay,” Brianna said.  Then she wondered why she’d said it.  Why she’d countered her mother when her mother was showing off more spine than usual.

Tired, she decided.

“Thank you, Bee.  Alright,” her father said.  He clapped his hands together, rubbing them, looking around.

Brianna took the opportunity to mouth an apology to her mom.  All she got was an ambiguous smile in return.

“Can you help me with this stuff?” Brianna asked.  “It’s buried.”

“Okay!” her father said, and it struck her that he wasn’t being bullish, driven, and high-energy for no reason.  He was trying to be strong for the family.

He knelt by the box with the small appliances, picking up the radio and toaster, balancing them on the box’s edge with one hand.  She did what she could to move the wires aside.

She used her power, surrounding the box, turning downward-pointing indents into peaks, and then lifted appliances by the wires.

A touch at the side of her head drew her attention.  A floating toaster oven and waffle iron bumped into her dad’s arm, the wires threatening to get entangled as he reached over to her.

His hand touched her hair, then the side of her face.

“We worry,” he said.

“I’m not field leader for nothing,” she said, looking down.  “I know what I’m doing.”

“I remember when you were small.  The one year you were in public school, you had trouble fitting in, you intimidated the other children.”

“I was a stuck up rich bitch,” Brianna said.

“Never apologize for being better.”

“It’s not being better.  It’s acting better.  I was dumb, I paid for it when they gave me a hard time.  That’s a lesson we all need to learn.”

He nodded, as if just now accepting that idea, ten years after the fact.  “Do you remember that day I skipped work, and took you on the ferry?”

“Yes.  It’s one of my cherished memories,” Brianna said.

“Do you remember how that day started?”

Brianna shook her head.  Her long ponytail swept against the back of her neck and shoulders.

“It started in tears.  You begged me not to make you go to school.  You were so terrified you were making yourself sick, because the other girls teased you.  I think it might have been your first time experiencing enemies.  We talked about that.”

Brianna nodded.  “Yeah.”

He reached over to push the things that had tangled around his arm away, before pulling back his hand.

His expression broke, calm confidence giving way to… she likened it to how he’d acted on camera, when their state had been hit by the flooding.  She’d watched from a distance, because she’d been with Reach, then.  Seeing her dad on camera, expressing his sadness over the dozens of deaths.

Except this was real.

She didn’t know what to say, or how to handle it.

“You’re here, eighteen and- you’ve grown so much.  If I tried to say how proud I am of you, all of this would be over before I was out of things to say.  I’m so, so proud of you.”

She opened her mouth to speak, but he held up a hand.

“Let me speak.  I’m… crushed with guilt.  I put you here.”

“I put myself here,” she replied, around the lump in her throat.

“No, I… I played my role in shaping you.  Telling you to be brave, to aspire to big things, how to talk to people.  We’ve never talked about it, but that day you got your powers…”

“That wasn’t you.”

“Wasn’t it?” he asked, quiet.  “When the government reached out to tell me what happened, I was proud.  Scared but proud.  They say you get powers if you achieve true greatness, true successes.  You were managing clubs that seniors didn’t, singing in choir, you were popular, loved by your teachers, loved.  You stood above all of them.  Of course, I thought, and my heart swelled.  I didn’t know how it would change your life and that terrified me, but it made sense that it would be you.”

Brianna nodded, her eyes moist.

“I opened the door to that room, and the window in the door showed me your reflection.  I heard you crying.  Not so different from that small girl who told me she didn’t want to go to school.”

“I didn’t know you were there.”

Why didn’t you come in?

“I watched from there, as you pulled yourself together.  My busy Bee, putting on makeup and a brave face.  Until I could open the door, see you smile, composed, like you hadn’t shed a tear in a long time.  I made you this way.”

“I made the decisions.  I was old enough to be my own person.”

“I’ve thought about that day over and over.  It wasn’t that the powers were new and scary.”

Brianna shook her head.

“The moment you got your powers, it wasn’t success.”

“The damn expectations of that place.  Of everyone,” she said.

He winced.  “I tried to convince myself that wasn’t it, ever since hearing you and seeing you at the door.  I never really succeeded.  I sent you there.”

“Dad… you can’t do that.”

“I can.”

“Was it our expectations as well?” he asked.

She shook her head, but when she moved her mouth, the words didn’t come out.  “Yes.”

He looked over at her mother, his eyes damp.  Brianna turned to look.  Her mother sat on the corner of the bed, a meek little woman of Italian descent, the only one with dry eyes.  She wondered if it was because those tears had already been shed and exhausted.

The sound of the box crumpling and appliances shifting made her turn back toward her dad.  He leaned over the box, and used large hands to smooth down the hair at the top and sides of her head.

“Bee,” he said.  “Brianna.  I was saying, I was trying to say, you’re grown, you’re an adult now, and you are inspiring.  But if you chose this moment to be that girl again, asking for rescue and reprieve, I would take you wherever you wanted to go.  No judgment, there are no expectations today, I would not- we would not think any less of you.”

She swallowed around the lump in her throat.

“We would be grateful,” he said.

She removed her father’s hands from her head, holding them in her own, and then she used her power.  It took doing to maintain the focus and tensions when floating, which meant her mind wasn’t on what her father had just said, or the fact she was seeing him cry for the first time in her life.

Weightless, she leaned over the box to kiss him on top of his head before hugging him around his shoulders.

“No?” he asked.

“I have to.”

I put that scared little girl away that day, when you saw me putting on the makeup and composing myself.  Even after Byron’s ‘murder’, even holding Furcate when she died, I held myself together.

A ‘spike’ of low gravity lifted up her upper body, while her lower body was lowered to the ground, letting her stand.  With one hand, she straightened her coat, then fixed her hair at the side, where a strand brushed against her temple.  Once done, she walked over to her mother, to hug her.

“Take care of each other,” Brianna murmured.

“I’ve been taking care of him since three years before you were born,” her mother answered.  “I’ve gotten pretty good at it.  You focus on what you need to focus on.  We’ll manage.”

Her father sorted through the box with some commotion.  It was enough commotion she might have thought he was angry, except he wasn’t.

Turning on the spot, she approached the box and used her power again.  This time she let it fill the tent.  Again, she lifted things out and let them float up, and batted at them lightly to send them floating weightless in the right directions, before a gentle downward spike of gravity pinned them to the ground.

Finally, they pulled out the space heater.

They unpacked the appliances and found a place for each.  They unloaded more of the truck, pausing to help an elderly couple, and then began sorting through those things too.  Her parents had been thoughtful enough to use different colors of tape for different essentials.  A lesson learned from when they had left home.

No more words were said.  Her father stopped layering chore after chore, instruction after instruction on her.

It was nice, in its own way.

Until her mother said, “Dave.”

‘Dave’ was tall, black, and wore a beanie hat over what Brianna knew was a shaved head.  By default, he kept his face at ‘sad and thoughtful’, but he smiled in a genuine way as he replied, “Gia.  It’s nice to see you again.  It’s been a long time.  Congressman, sir.”

“You can call me by my name, Dave,” Brianna’s father said.  “And I’m not a Congressman, nor am I a Councillor.”

“That would feel weird,” Dave said, chuckling lightly.

Dave wasn’t alone.  The people he was with weren’t people Brianna had expected to see.  Tammi and Kay.

For one thing, Tammi, Scribe, hadn’t really gone out of her way to reach out to certain other members of the group.  It had been noticed and commented on, that the girl with the neo-nazi past wouldn’t hang out with the two outspoken atheist members who’d also come over from the Attendant, that she didn’t hang out with Dave, who was black, or even go out of her way to spend time with Brianna, who was half Asian.  She had kept to her own sub-group, alongside Victor.

Which might, Brianna had to be fair, be mostly due to Victor.  Brianna hadn’t liked their group dynamic, and she’d split him and Tammi up into separate sub-teams.  It had been just long enough to see that Victor had followed orders to pair up with Tribute, a person he had incredible power synergy with, and then continued to avoid associating with Tribute unless ordered, but not enough to shine a light on Scribe.

And here she was, with a black man and a trans girl.

Dave and Kay being here together was almost more weird, but not because of any huge opinions or labels or anything.  Just… in all their time in Reach, it hadn’t happened, so there was a lot of precedent.  Dave, who went by Tribute in costume, had never clicked with Kay.  They were teammates without being friends, and if they were put in the same place together, they remained silent instead of striking up conversation.  Part of that was Dave’s character.  Part of it was Kay being weird.

Kay’s other weirdness gave Brianna a moment’s pause.  Her parents…

“Scribe and I came hunting for you, and we ran into Kay,” Tribute said.  “She tagged along.”

“I do that,” Kay said.  Her eyes were almost too bright in the dark, her hair short and styled to be strategically messy.  Her upper lip had red lipstick on it, the bottom had pink-a line of red-pink.

It pushed memories to the front of Brianna’s mind.  On the beach, holding Kay while Kay wheezed her way to a slow death, blood on her lips.  The crimson lipstick unsettled.  Brianna had cried then.

“Am I in the way?” Kay asked.  Standing at the very fringe of the group, weight resting on one foot with the other lifted off the ground, like she was halfway to taking a step back and walking away already.

“No,” Brianna said, though she felt nervous.  She crossed the distance and reached out, taking Kay’s gloved hand, squeezing it before letting go.  Will Kay bother my parents, or vice-versa?  “No, you’re fine.”

She’d wanted this to be peaceful and easy.  It was why she hadn’t taken issue with the orders and requests from her dad, earlier.

“Your phone was off.  I was worried for a bit,” Dave said.

“I told the Wardens I needed an hour with my parents, and to handle any calls.  If you’d let the call go through, they would have picked up.”

“Ah ha,” Tribute said, frowning.  “Shit.  Sorry we interrupted, then.”

“Only have…” she checked her phone.  “Six minutes left on the clock.  It’s fine.  Is it important?”

“We were getting people together, pre-planning.”

“Since you’re here!”  her father exclaimed, loud, authoritative, his hands clapping together, before he rubbed them.  “Do you know how to lift heavy boxes, Dave?”

“Ren,” Brianna’s mother said.  “Don’t tire them out.  They need every bit of energy and strength they can spare.”

“It’s fine,” Dave said.  “I can help.”

“I’ll help too,” Tammi said.

“Once you’re inside, can you fetch the radio?  It’s in the box with green tape in the middle of the room.  Plug it into the heater, turn it on?”

“Can do,” Dave said, lifting a box.  “Brianna, if you’re tired, let me know.”

“I know,” she said.  “Thanks.”

Dave was Tribute and Tribute could grant people mental and physical traits, at a cost to his own.  Keeping Tribute on the back bench for busier weeks had meant he’d been able to lend others a few hours of double the recovery time and natural healing, as well as mental recuperation and equilibrium.  It impacted his own recovery, of course, but if he wasn’t tired, the effect on him was negligible.

But she wasn’t tired enough to need it.

Still, Brianna winced, seeing her teammates being recruited for busy work.

She did what she could, jumping up to stand on the tire and lift the boxes over the side of the pickup.  While waiting for people to get through the little double-flap ‘airlock’ she used her power to lighten their loads a bit.

“How are you managing?” she asked Tammi, as they waited.  Tammi was up in the truck bed with the rest of the boxes, sitting on a box.

“One of the only people I kept in touch with from the old days turned into a mindless monster,” Tammi said.  “How do you think, boss?”

“Sorry, didn’t mean to touch a sore spot.  I’m here if you want to talk, that’s all.  We could walk away for a minute, chat.  Or do it later.”

“I’m good to keep fighting, boss,” Tammi said, less like a person and more like a robot saying her scripted lines.

“I’m trying to be more than just your boss.”

“The sad, shitty thing about this is, not getting down on you or being bitchy, but you’re actually one of the people I know most, now, and I barely know you,” Scribe said.  “Along with Armiger and Vessel, but I’m not allowed to hang with them anymore, huh?”

“We’ll see what happens.  Things are bad enough I think we can relax rules for the duration.  If you need support and they can provide it…”

“I don’t really care that much.  Armiger wasn’t very rich in the personality department, and half the fun of being around Vessel was seeing how she practically creamed herself every time Victor made eye contact.”

Brianna sighed, checking her parents weren’t in earshot.

“What’s the other half?” Kay asked.

“Huh?”

“Half the fun is her creaming herself-” Kay said.

“Let’s uh, not talk about teammates that way,” Brianna butted in.

“-what’s the other half?”

Sullen, Tammi shrugged.  “I guess she was nice.”

“That’s a good thing to pay attention to,” Kay said.

“I guess.  Only ‘nice’ people I knew before were the brainwashed Nazi murder couple.”

“So that’s a thing,” Kay said, her eyes widening.  She looked off into the distance.  “And the world suddenly seems a little bit darker.”

“The world wasn’t already at peak dark already?” Tammi asked.  “What kind of fucking rose colored glasses are you wearing?”

“I did die once,” Kay said.  She wrinkled her nose.  “It was pretty horrible.  Painful.  I think I get to wear whatever color glasses I want.”

“…Fair,” Scribe said, looking even more sullen as she made the concession.  She considered for a moment.  “Respect.”

Kay shrugged, like she didn’t care.

“Okay,” Brianna said, as her mom emerged from the tent, giving her a worried look.  “Let’s just- not talk about depressing things.  If you need to talk about real shit, fine, but… making fun of teammates and talking about… very dark things, it’s making this ‘break’ of ours feel less like a break.”

“It’s how I deal, boss,” Tammi said.  “Stuff gets bad, I become an asshole.”

“Language,” Brianna’s mother said, giving Tammi a light swat on the head.

Tammi looked around, bewildered.

“Yeah, watch the language around my family, please,” Brianna said.

“You need to decide if you want to be my boss or if you want to be my friend, because being my friend means accepting I get vulgar sometimes.”

“Being my friend means accepting that you’re supposed to be polite around my family, and if it comes down to it, I’m your boss until you decide you want to leave the team, but I’d like to be both your boss and your friend.  That’s your call.”

Tammi regarded her with half-lidded eyes, then said, “Can I use my powers?”

“If you’re reasonably discreet.”

“Good,” Tammi said.  As Dave emerged from the tent, Tammi hopped down from the back of the truck.  The remainder of the boxes floated off the back and in through the flap, as Tammi held it open.  She walked inside.

“I was looking up the others,” Kay said.

Brianna looked at Kay.

“Boundless died before Gold Morning, Steamwheel went Rogue-”

“Good for her,” Brianna said.

“Figurehead retired.  We lost Coiffure.”

“Yeah,” Brianna said, worrying about what this was leading up to.

“If we could round up Capricorn, we could have the team together again.”

“I don’t know,” Brianna said.  “Byron’s… complicated.”

“Lovely boy,” Brianna’s mother said.  Such a horrible situation.”

Brianna gave her mom an annoyed look.  Her mom threw up two hands, retreating.

“Complicated, horrible situation,” Brianna conceded.  It made her heart heavy.

“Are you aware of how he’s doing?” Kay asked.

“The injury?”

Kay nodded. “You know.  Good.”

Had she wanted to notify Brianna?  If so, why did it look like she had more to say?  Kay was just… always so tense, and it was hard to know if it was because they were pretty opposite in personality, or if it was because of the situation.

“Are you still in touch?” Kay asked.

“We broke up.”  Brianna looked back to check her mom wasn’t listening in.  She was in the truck now, sorting through things.  Probably still listening in.

Kay nodded, silent.

“…I was willing to try, he didn’t think he could be my boyfriend, and then you add Tristan to the mix… they come as a package deal.”

“Yes,” Kay said.  She looked off to the side, before rummaging in her pockets.  She made a face when they turned up empty.

“You’re being cagey,” Brianna accused Kay.  “What aren’t you saying?”

“You should know, he might not be alone next time you see him.”

“That’s even more cagey,” Brianna accused Kay.

Kay shrugged.  Metal stuff in her bag jangled with the motion.

A bad feeling in her gut, Brianna asked, “He’s with someone already?”

Kay nodded.

“Who?”

“Vista.  I thought you should know.”

The thought rocked Brianna.  That wasn’t even minor competition, it wasn’t a trashy rebound, or…

Fuck, she was still thinking in terms of status, of pecking orders and being on top.  Of not being on top in this particular pecking order.

She could very much see it.  Knowing Byron, having some peripheral knowledge and having had a handful of conversations with Vista.

“Well, that… really sucks,” Brianna said.

Her mom was in the front of the truck, trying to look busy.  Tammi and Dave were sorting out stuff, while her father’s commanding voice was giving instructions.

She felt like she sometimes did if she lost focus while trying to maneuver with her gravity well doing more than one thing at once.  Like there wasn’t even ground or equilibrium in easy reach.

“Do you want a hug?” Kay asked.

Brianna didn’t really have an answer to that.  The last proper non-parent hug she’d had was Byron, which was a gut punch on its own.

Kay gave her the hug.

It was uncomfortable, with a lot of self-consciousness, and wondering if her mom was looking, knowing what Kay was about, and judging.

Which sucked, because she’d been making a renewed, concerted effort to let her judgments go since she’d found out about the three ex-nazis joining, seen some of their behaviors and attitudes, especially Eagleflight, who hadn’t been anything close to subtle, and who had been kicked out in short order.  She’d connected her own reactions to how Byron must have seen her.  Except now that brought everything back full circle to thinking about Byron, provoking more than a little frustration, and a feeling like she wanted to spite him by being a bit shitty here.  Which made her think of her private school, and the way everyone had been there, herself included, and…

Kay squeezed her tighter, and for a second, those thoughts dropped away, but they bounced back, uncomfortable, working at getting back up to speed, circular.

“Thanks,” she said, more curt than she wanted, breaking the hug.

“Anytime,” Kay said.

“How did you hear?” she asked.  “Do I want to know?”

“Solarstare.  Vista’s friend.  The girl has no filter.  She portrayed the whole thing as a funny story…”

“Do I really want to know?” Brianna asked.  “I can’t imagine any story being very-”

“Guys!” Dave called out.

“-funny,” Brianna finished.

Dave fought with the tent seal for a second before pulling it open.  “Hey.  Radio.”

They made their way into the tent.

A voice, young and female, was speaking.  Good presence, good pacing, a little too much pausing for dramatic effect.  Brianna’s dad had the same problem.

“…taking the fight to the heart of the Titans, while others fight to keep them pinned down.  For this we’re requesting your help.  Able and ready volunteers who can follow instructions, handle themselves in a crisis, especially those who have experience in combat.  If you heard that and you thought you could be one of those volunteers, we need you.”

Another pause for effect.

It had an effect, Brianna realized.  She could see her dad standing a little straighter.

“I’ll go,” her dad said.

“No,” she said, quiet.  “You need to look after mom.”

“I have to,” he said.

That’s not fair.

Her composure almost cracked at that.  It was only the other faces in the room, people she trusted, people she loved, people who needed her, and people she owed something to, that kept her secure.  Her team, her family, at least, had her back.

“They’re getting more aggressive!” Furcate called out.

“I know!” Moonsong’s voice was devoid of emotion.  Accepting the facts.  Emotion didn’t come into it.

The Titans had been dazed ever since the cracking.  They’d kept the Nemean Titan at bay so far.  But now the Titans were attacking more, and they were succeeding.

A cascade of flying debris stood out to her gravity-vision, the indents clearly visible.

Feet placed squarely beneath her shoulders, her body as steady as she could get, she reached out, blindly, until she found the mass flying through the air, most of it traveling an arc that was too high to hit the Titan, especially as the Titan took evasive action.

The Nemean Titan.  Victor.  He’d been a teammate, even if he hadn’t been someone she’d liked.

She tracked the mass, used her best judgment about the Titan’s location, and then altered the gravity in the air.  Not a big well of gravity, but a concentrated one.  Getting five stones with this much intensity was better than getting ten with less intensity.

They changed course as if they’d hit a wall and immediately started dropping at terminal velocity.

One chunk crashed through the Titan’s shoulder, tearing away flesh, while causing blood to gout out.  The thing’s reaction speed was enough that it moved before the others could make firm contact.  They grazed it, instead.

“You’re such a taint-hole!” Scribe screamed the words.  “Get a grip on yourself!  Other Titans were able to!”

“You’re clear, hon!” Riveting called out.  She backed away swiftly from the metal beams that Scribe stood on.

Scribe hopped up, holding her staff to slow her drop to the ground.  The yellow-painted steel girders flew in the Titan’s direction.

They flew through the air, not especially fast, pale shapes disappearing into the darkness.

Two explosions shook the area in front of the Titan.  He fell.

“Good!  Again!” Moonsong called out.

“On it!” Riveting answered, hefting her bag full of explosives tech.  Scribe pointed to their next set of projectiles.

Tribute shifted to using his power on Moonsong.  She felt her focus increase, her concentration narrowing, until it felt like her thoughts had been coated in rust and clouds before, and were shining steel now.

She was already maintaining twenty different gravity wells, one of which was being used to hold the ground steady beneath her team.  Her mind pulled in twenty-one different directions, if she counted her own mental focus on the situation and her team.   Tribute’s help did a lot to lighten her mental load.

Low to the ground, concentrated… her eye was focused on the piece of ground she could see between buildings and rubble, between the Titan’s feet.  A burst of reversed gravity and…

It was like a bomb had gone off.  Dust, snow, and particulate ‘fell’ upward, forming a cloud around the Titan.

It escaped, jumping free, and she immediately slapped the dust cloud flat to the ground, pressing it there.

Off to her left, she could see the red lights and lines, and it dawned on her that the attack she had assisted earlier was Tristan’s.  A new shape, at the same time Byron was reportedly injured.

Always, their powers changed when something horrible had happened, or when horrible things were about to be revealed.

It left her with a bad feeling.  But it was impossible to spend three months around an attempted murderer, trusting your life to his hands, without feeling more than a little betrayed.  It had been so supremely fucked up, and then the consequences had come home after.  The team shaken, Byron struggling with daily tasks, the hounding from the news, not because they knew, but because they knew something was up.  The fears that someone would leak the answer, and turn their lives upside down.  Fear for Byron.

She hated him.  She hated hating him, but it was one of the only feelings she couldn’t put aside.

The Nemean Titan pulled one of the ruined girders free of its chest.  It reared back, and then threw it.

Armiger created his massive winged shield, above the group.  It flashed as the chunk of metal slammed into it.

“Grabbing it!  Recoup!” Moonsong called out.

“Don’t tax yourself!” Tribute told her.

“I’m fine!”  I have to be fine.

She produced a spike, stabbing up at the chunk of metal.  As the forcefield shield disappeared, the metal tumbled, then fell, lazily, toward the ground.

Armiger took the time to let his shield recover.  If he let it get too intense, it would shift to another power entirely, the emotion-affecting shield.

“Come on, Victor,” she murmured.  “Recognize who you’re fighting, then either man up or find a bit of humanity in you.  But don’t do this.”

The Titan hurled two more things.  A piece of signage, a truck cab.  Same procedure.  Forcefield shield raised.  Her gravity power handled the fallout, giving people ample time to get out of the way.

Tristan, standing a block away, created another volley of concrete.

It got the Titan’s attention.  The Titan began running toward them.

His teammate, Sveta, landed next to him, and they talked.  He glanced toward Moonsong’s Shepherds.

Immediately, he began drawing out more lights and lines.  Moonsong could unfocus her eyes and see the outcome, with a bit of guesswork now that the power was different.

“Damn it…” she muttered.  He’d draw the Titan straight to himself.

She needed to-

She had to save Tristan.  If only to save Byron.  But… no, she was lying to herself again.

The emotional turmoil…

“Tribute,” she said, watching as the Titan stampeded toward them.

Tristan’s power produced its first attack.  A pillar of building materials, stabbing up at a diagonal, straight for the Titan.  The Nemean Titan stumbled as it slammed into his shoulder, then fell as the second creation followed up.  The third hit only air.

She put a gravity well on top of it to slow its ability to get to its feet.  A lot of mental effort for minimal effect, but everything they did had minimal effect.

“What do you need, Moon?” Tribute asked.

“I need… control over my own emotions.  Courage.”

She felt it start to take hold.  The calm, the awareness of what she was feeling.  A bit of strength.

The Titan was on its feet again.  She felt even more removed from that reality than before.

“Capricorn!” she called out, top of her lungs.  Her focus on her existing projects, like the one that pinned down the Titan, was getting shaky.  Even turning and shouting threatened to spoil her control.

Capricorn looked her way.

“Focus,” she said.

It sounded like it was an instruction, but it was a need.

Tribute gave her focus.

She waved, beckoning for Capricorn to come.

“Aw, fuck no,” Tribute snarled the words.

“Yes,” she said.

Because the Titan was coming straight for Tristan.  She had to use that.

Tristan was creating another constellation, halfway between the Titan and her group.  Trying to protect them.  He jogged over, faster than one would imagine with that heavy armor.  Byron had always complained about the weight of it, but his was a little over half the weight of Tristan’s.

“Furcate!” Moonsong called out.  “Status!?”

“In place.”

Infuriating, because times of stress tended to see Furcate using about half as many words as would be convenient, or staying silent.  ‘In place’ didn’t convey a lot.

“Who’s in place?” Tristan asked, before Moonsong could ask.

“My others.  They have the bombs.”

Furcate raised a gauntlet with claws fixed to it, pointing at two rooftops of buildings that were still standing.  Between those buildings, they could see the Titan, who had stopped as it saw the red lights of Tristan’s power.  Staying clear of the range.

“They’re ready to die?” Moonsong asked.

Furcate nodded, her expression grim.

“What?” Sveta asked.  “No.  I could grab them.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Furcate said.

“It does,” Tristan said.  “Can you?”

“There’s no time!” Moonsong said.

“It’s important,” Tristan said.

Moonsong looked between him and Furcate, then shifted stances.  “Scribe!  Shoot, then delay and obstruct!  Try to keep it on target!  Armiger, try to hem it in, but don’t exceed capacity!”

“Go,” Tristan told Sveta.  “Fast.”

Scribe and Riveting launched another two telekinetic projectiles.  Still slow, but it was more about getting Riveting’s bombs close.

Armiger ran ahead.

Sveta grabbed nearby rubble, then slingshotted herself forward.

“Stay clear of Nemean’s power!” Moonsong called out to the case fifty-three.

She almost lost her grip on the gravity wells near the Titan.

The Titan was on its feet again.  It hit Armiger’s shield.  Tristan hit it, starting to form another constellation.

“You too,” Moonsong said.  She looked Tristan in the eye, saw hints of Byron, but saw more of a person she hated.  He looked much like he had in the later days, before she’d brought him into custody.  Emotionally raw, a bit spooked by everything in reality.

It scared her more than anything, and she was emotionally secured by Tribute.

“Get back to safety,” she told him.  “No more constellations.”

“I’m actually here to help.”

“Everything’s in place.  Help by not getting in the way.”

“Explain,” he said.

So bullish, driven, so stubborn.  Fuck. 

“Fucking go, murderer,” Tribute snarled, before she could give her abbreviated explanation.

“I didn’t actually murder him, but-”

“But we don’t care about the distinction,” Tribute’s voice was low, angry.

“Boys,” Moonsong cut in.  “Seriously.  You’re professional heroes.  Get it together.”

But Tribute was giving her the very thing he needed to stay calm, and Tristan was Tristan.

“What next!?” Riveting called out to her.  Pulling her attention away from the issue.

Tristan butted in.  “Moonsong, you know these guys can’t be stopped with bombs or anything like that.”

“Tristan,” she spoke through grit teeth.  “Trust me, for once.  Back down, chill out, for fucking once.”

“…Okay.”

He let the constellation go.

She called out orders, “Riveting!  Contact Fishtank, pull him back!  You retreat!  You’re done!”  Looking back, she could see the boys still where they’d been standing.  “You boys, you go!  I mean it!  I’m trusting you on this, Tribute!  You both make sure my team is safe!  Be good!  Armiger, get in position!”

Looking back, she could see the doubt in Tristan’s eyes as she sent Armiger even further toward the Titan.  But he went.  He ran with Tribute beside him.

Like the old days.

She blamed him for a whole hell of a lot, but she didn’t blame him for that bit of doubt.  If she fucked this up, if this went wrong… Armiger would be among the dead.

The Nemean Titan dropped to all fours.  It had been too long since it had people to feed on.

Every time a foot came down, striking the ground, rubble shifted, and she felt the punch of it through ground and air both.

She stood her ground, staring at this boy she’d failed to save.  Victor.

As Tribute retreated, she felt that emotional security slip away.

With her power, once again, she created her plume of dust, making everything that was light and free of the earth fall up.  A screen.

She could see Sveta, with the two Furcates.  She raised one hand.

As the Titan pushed through the smoke, between two buildings, the bombs went off.  One near the Titan’s head, the other partway down.  One of the buildings tilted.

Not a topple, sadly.  She’d hoped it would fall on the Titan.

Not the end of the world, she thought.

The emotion control continued to slip away as she saw the Titan stumble forward.

Armiger off in the flanks, perilously close to the Titan’s range.  If the Titan hopped to one side, Armiger would be rendered invalid.

But there was no reason to hop to one side.  It was just the Titan and her.

I hope you’re doing okay, Dad, she thought.

The Titan shook its head, mane of gold flipping left, then right.  It drew closer.  Rubble crunched beneath its feet.

This next move was all on her.

It lunged.

She released the gravity wells she’d been holding.  Where rubble filled cracks, suspended weightless over a hole in reality, it now dropped away with a rolling sound of cracks, scrapes and crunches.

The Titan found no ground beneath it.  It reached for the nearest handhold, and Armiger was ready.  The forcefield shield blocked the claw.

Momentum carried the Titan further than she had expected.  It slammed into a ‘v’ of cracked reality, which caught it around the middle.  Claws scraped at rubble and road, pushing rubble back to try to get purchase on more road.

The relief of no longer having to maintain the gravity well was dizzying, but short lived.

It was climbing out.  It hadn’t fallen cleanly through.

She hit it with more gravity, a spike as big as she could make in short order, pressing it down.  She couldn’t get a grip on the Titan itself, but it was caked in other things.  The ground it tried to dig its claws into compressed and fell away more easily, dropping into the chasm.

Slowly, surely, it began to win out.

Then she saw the red lights.

Red lights and lines, with a course she could imagine.

It meant she had to shift the gravity well, stop it- letting the Titan rise up a bit more, so she could position it far enough back.  If she didn’t, then Tristan’s power would just shoot straight into the ground, not even touching the Titan.

She extended Tristan a bit of trust, in this, and she hated doing it.

Lights and lines became a building, thrusting itself up and forward, and falling to pieces in the process.  A battering ram, to the Titan’s chest, followed by another.  It slipped.

The third strike caught it in the face.  The Titan fell back, and his claws went out sideways, one to his left, one to his right, gripping the edges there.

Building became mist.  Brianna turned to see Tristan becoming Byron.

The mist became ice.  The ice-coated Titan’s claws slipped on the fresh ice.

Without much of a noise, it fell into the void.  A long drop, and there were no places Moonsong was aware of that the place below the cracks was close enough to a handhold he could use to climb up.

“Last I heard from Tristan, there are still people down there,” Byron said, walking up to her side, looking at where the Titan had gone.  “Capes.  My team.”

“Are they close?” she asked.

He shook his head.

“It has to be better, taking him out of the picture.”

Byron nodded.

“I didn’t do this recklessly.  We got permission.  My dad’s one of the people down there, I think.”

“I liked him,” Byron said.  “Coolest adult I knew that didn’t turn out to be an asshole.”

He was talking about the people in charge of Reach.  The therapist.

“I hope he’s okay.”

Sveta caught up, the two Furcates and Armiger with her.  Byron pointed in the direction the others had gone.

Sveta nodded, before she, Armiger and the Furcates ran off.  Moonsong gave the departing group a thumbs up as they ran by.

Leaving her alone with Byron once more.

“I didn’t make any choices about other people’s loved ones that I wasn’t willing to make about my own,” she told him.

“You don’t have to justify it,” Byron said.  He looked so weary, and he hadn’t even been fighting, by the looks of him.  “I trust you.”

“Have they communicated the next part of the plan?” she asked.

There were still so many titans.  They’d baited the Nemean Titan out to the flanks.  There was still the Custodian, Cinereal, Ophion…

“Some, I think.  Playing defense?” he asked.

She nodded.

They couldn’t win this fight.  The Titans were too strong and too concentrated here.

Their task was supposed to be to retreat to safe ground, get in contact with the Wardens’ command, and get their assignments.  To pick a Titan and protect it from the others, prevent any and all connection.  Teams down in the crevice were preparing to bomb any evident connections in progress, if things got too far.

Given how the last bombing had gone, it would be messy, and it’d hurt parahumans almost as much as it hurt the Titans.

“Come with?” she asked.

“I’m not very able,” he said.  “It’d be Tristan.”

“Okay,” she said.  “Alright.”

“Be safe,” he told her.  “Don’t stand alone on battlefields against monsters like this.  You’re needed.  You’re important.  We’ll catch up on things once we get through this.”

“The only reason I’d be anyone decent or important,” she told Byron, “is that you helped me get there.”

But he was already Tristan.

“He can’t hear while he’s inside.  The head injury messed up the reciprocity there,” Tristan said.  “I don’t think he caught that.”

“It was dumb anyway,” she said, really feeling like she could use a hit of Tribute’s emotional stability right now.  She wasn’t prepared to look at Tristan.

“Wasn’t dumb,” Tristan said.  “I’d like to think he helped me too.  But I still have a way to go.”

“Me too,” Moonsong answered.

The distant fighting was getting uglier.  Dragon and Legend were fighting in concert.  The dull ‘booms’ of Chevalier’s gunblade were audible.

Mostly Wardens, holding the line.  The other teams were retreating.

“We should go,” she said.

We, she’d said.  The word was heavy, standing in the face of a whole lot of history.

“Okay.”

“I’m going to try and ask if we- if we can support the people in the crevices.  My dad, others.  Get a reprieve from Titans.”

“Okay,” he said.  “If it’s okay, I’d like to come support you.  Next to Breakthrough, you’re the people I know best.  How you fight, everything.”

He looked confident, as he said it.  Actually sincere.

“You’re not going to be a problem?” she asked.

“No, just the opposite.  Really, I’ve got your back.”

And with those words, somehow, that confidence and sincerity seemed to slip.  Again, that look in his eyes, that didn’t seem like it should match the situation.  Sad and a little wild.  It made her think of the Tristan who’d hired mercenaries, the Tristan who had tried to get away with murder.

She weighed her trust for Byron in his brother, against her distrust for Byron’s brother.

For Byron, she pushed those feelings aside, and nodded.

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