Last – 20.10

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The mood was somber.  We stood in the midst of a warzone, with holes in the ceiling, holes in the building exterior, and wind whistling through those holes and down hallways.  Rubble was strewn everywhere, bloodstains marked where people had bled more than twenty percent of their blood volume and likely died, and there were pieces of broken or dismantled tinkertech lying around that were cordoned off with more seriousness than the cracks in the ceiling that still shed chunks of concrete, or the holes in the floor large enough to drop a truck through.

The only fighting was in words, and those words weren’t shouts, not really.  A few loud people, but many more people were remaining quiet out of respect for the dead, though the deaths hadn’t happened yet.  Depending on where they stood on buying into this plan, those dead could be us, a majority of us who wore costumes and masks, or a minority share of those same capes, if the person arguing was an optimist.  Among those who didn’t believe the plan would work at all, the relative hush and the subdued, respectful tones were for the trillions who would die.  For humanity.

The Simurgh was out of action.  Sleeper had her.  She had wanted to enslave humanity, bringing us all into her siren call.  From there, we, ninety-nine point nine percent of us if Chris was to be believed, would have been stuck in roles she had prescribed for us.

I’d already felt the impact of that, just in the span of the raid on this facility.  That had been one decision, and we’d ultimately opted out of it.  She’d chosen her option, and two members of Breakthrough were gone.

I couldn’t imagine that being every decision.  Everything decided according to the whims of a monster that had killed millions and done untold damage on other fronts.

We were free, out from beneath that thumb.  Maybe we were under the Titan Fortuna’s thumb now, because of it.  I couldn’t rule out that the agent had influenced things in that direction before she took power.

I looked back down the stairs, at the scene we were retreating from.  The crowd had gathered at the edge of one of our earlier battlefields.  Capes who we’d just been trying to communicate with were gathered around Defiant, Dragon, and Chevalier.  The Dragon and two knights.  The simple act of Defiant offering me his hand and the fact Chevalier had been on board… it was helping people turn the corner.

I was okay with that.  It was a role capes played.  A handsome costume, a pretty mask, and a person with presence and personal power… it helped cut through the bullshit sometimes.  A double-edged sword, obviously, when people like Scribe had used it for the wrong cause or interests.  But it had also let Legend and Stonewall nudge things further along, faster.

The optimist in me hoped that we shut down the ugliest side of that, like we’d stomped out the worst of the Fallen, like how Empire Eighty-Eight’s back had broken.  Meanwhile, the better causes had forked and thrived.

I really hoped that what we were doing today would have its positive forks, but my thoughts lingered on the worst possibilities.  Fortuna, and what Fortuna was doing.

Our plan now was to get in between the point Fortuna completed her plan, and the point everything blew up.  Valkyrie had brought us Riley, Riley had brought the formula.  Now it was a question of getting people to take it.  To fill that space with dreams and death.

“Where do we even begin?” Rain asked.

We were up near the third floor.  I could see the marks left behind where powers had been used, where lasers had gouged walls, or fixtures had broken, a camouflaged cabinet for a stark white fire extinguisher hanging halfway out of the wall.

“A part of me hoped people would line up,” I admitted.  “We don’t have a lot of time.”

“I’m reminded of an article I read about new parents,” Sveta said.  “The mom gets pregnant, doesn’t realize for a bit, gets the test, tells her best friend, then tells her partner.  He reacts badly, or is in shock.  You have to remember, he hasn’t had the benefit of quietly getting used to it, getting counsel, whatever.  Same when the baby hits.  For the mom, she’s been living with the baby for nine months.  For the dad, he starts living with the baby at birth.”

I made a bit of a face.  “Not sure I like that.  Gives too much of a pass.”

“But we’re living with it, we already wrapped our heads around it,” Sveta said.  “They’re still coming to terms with the idea.”

I held out my arm.  I could feel it on my skin, in my muscle, and in my bones.  A thrum, like the point something vibrated to the touch but no longer made a sound or moved with that vibration.

Semiramis had wound back the clock for parts of my body.  It was localized, incomplete, but it kept me going enough to see this through.  I hoped.  The pain in my collarbone and ribs wasn’t as severe.  Fractures instead of breaks.  Bruising around the bones instead of fractures.  If it weren’t for that, I worried that vibration would have been unbearable, or it would have shaken me to pieces, like an earthquake and a derelict house.

“We don’t have a lot of time,” Rain echoed me.  “We don’t have much opportunity to convince people to get on board.”

“I don’t know if it’s our job.  Unless we’re talking about specific people,” I said.  “The Wardens are on it, I think.”

We reached the fourth floor.  I saw Crystalclear partway down a side hallway and raised my hand in greeting.

“Victoria,” he called out.

I flew closer to him, because flying was better than walking, and even though I was better, walking hurt.

He was with two capes.  I recognized them as Typhlosis, who had been at the broken trigger event before I’d joined Breakthrough, and Ratcatcher.

Crystalclear extended a hand my way.

“I can’t exactly return a handshake right now.  Not without giving you the lowdown.”

“Word’s gotten around,” he said.  Only his mouth betrayed any expression, as crystals jutted from his eye sockets, forehead, and upper face, forming a craggy look atop his head where hair would be.  Some of the crystals were bloody.

“You got the full rundown?” I asked him.  “I don’t want you to go into this… blind.”

Dumb line, when two of the people present didn’t have proper eyes.  Crystalclear had his crystals, and Typhlosis had eyes with concentric rings of glowing irises, each rotating in different directions, periodically, flipping around on some axle or another.  There were no pupils, only small holes through which I could see the inside of her head, illuminated by the soft glow.  Her blindfold hung around her neck.

Typhlosis snorted a bit, at least.  Her reaction might have been different if I hadn’t winced at my own wording.

“We got the rundown.  Last in, first out.  Spread out.  That there’s no guarantee this works, on multiple levels.”

“It won’t work,” Ratcatcher said.  “Thorry.”

“We don’t have time to dwell too much on every single person,” Rain said.

“Just… the Norfair thing was a turning point for me,” I told Rain, before I turned to Crystalclear.  “I respected what you guys were doing.”

“I’m confident this will work out,” Crystalclear said.  He’d dropped his hand, raised it a bit when I looked at him to look into his, er, crystals, while he spoke.

“People thuck thometimeth,” Ratcatcher said.  “You’ll have to fight to get them to lithten.”

“Will you do this with us?” I asked her.

“Bad dreamth, and then I die.”

“Complicated dreams,” I told her.  “Not always bad.  We’re polluting the well, so that maybe we pollute what their idea of ‘bad’ is.  Maximizing connections between us, digging into old relationships, capes we’ve known who passed, so we can pollute them as well.  If nothing else about this works, maybe we change things for the next civilization these aliens run into.”

“How many of the dreamth will be bad?  Thome?  A lot?  Perthenth?”

“More than fifty percent,” I told Ratcatcher.  “Beyond that… I imagine it’ll be like any ordinary dreams you have.”

“Tho… ninety-nine perthent bad.”

Typhlosis blinked, and one of her irises was mid-flip when she did it, so her eyelid bulged around the protrusion.  Her expression was sad.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” I told Ratcatcher.

“I’m allowed to thay no?”

“Yeah,” I said, and I felt sad saying it.

“There’th nobody to look after my ratth if I go,” she said.

“We have contacts, staff,” Crystalclear said.  “We could send someone around to your place.”

“They’ll wonder where I went,” she said, hugging her arms to her chest.  She was wearing a dusty sweatshirt, carrying equipment.  I wondered if she’d been doing search and rescue.

“The plan is that we each… go,” Crystalclear said.  “We spread out, to get better coverage.  We sleep for a bit, and then, um-”

“We croak,” Ratcatcher said.

Crystalclear looked uncomfortable at that.  “Point is, I’m going to go out to the Norfair area.  A bit north of there, it’s where I stayed after arriving in Gimel.  I’ve got family out there in the old tent city.  I don’t know if smells or familiar voices will get through… but… yeah.  We could take you to wherever you’ve got your pets.”

I swallowed.

“No familiar voiceth for me,” Ratcatcher said.  “I have no friendth.  Jutht my rathth.”

“I consider you a friend,” Crystalclear said.

I saw her draw in a deep breath and sigh.

Rain’s arm scraped against the wall as he shifted posture.  Crystalclear half-turned his head.

“You don’t have to stay, Antares.  Just, uh, give me what you have to give me.”

Crystalclear extended his hand, his face not turned quite my direction.  I looked at it.  It didn’t waver.

“Unless you aren’t comfortable,” he told me.

“I have to be.  I’m the one who pushed for this,” I said.

I reached out and gave his hand a squeeze.

“I can thee it,” Ratcatcher said.  “Tiny movementh of tinier hairth, all over your hand, your fathe.”

Crystalclear nodded.

“Come,” Ratcatcher said.  “You can give a girl a kith on the cheek, or hold her hand if you’re thicken.”

She pushed her mask a bit aside.  There was scar tissue on her cheek and chin.  Her hand reached out, and her pet mouse poked its nose out of the sleeve.

“I should warn you, last in, first out, it means… the further down the chain, the faster it takes effect.”

“I know,” Ratcatcher said.  “I’ll thicken out or do thomthing thupid if I don’t hurry it up.”

Crystalclear took her hand in his, leaned over, and gave her a kiss where the mask had previously covered the side of her face.

“Fucking heavy,” Ratcatcher said.  Her hand tremored as she withdrew it.  She turned her rat mask with the crooked nose to look down the length of the hallway behind her, as if she expected to see someone or something there.  An answer or a distraction from this present moment.

Typhlosis reached out with a hand.  Toward Crystalclear.

“I could, if you wanted more time to get where you’re going,” I told her.

She shook her head.  Crystalclear extended a hand toward her, and she laid her hand in his, momentarily.  She withdrew it with as much or more care than she’d set it down.

“Typh is helping keep track of who we’ve gotten to,” Crystalclear said.  “Wardens have resources, the big teams are organizing, Foresight’s got a whole roster of people we’re hoping to get to in the next thirty to sixty minutes.”

“And we’ve got to get where we’re going,” Typhlosis said.  “And make arrangements.  For stuff like Ratcatcher’s pet rats.”

“You want to get moving then,” I said.

“We’d better,” Crystalclear said.  “Is a goodbye appropriate?  Too much?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “But thanks for making this easier.”

“Whatever happens, if this works or doesn’t work, I’m glad I crossed paths with you, Antares.”

“Likewise.”

The parting of ways wasn’t as graceful as I might have hoped it to be.  We were going in the same direction.  We headed back toward the stairs in two barely separate groups, me joining Rain and Sveta, Crystalclear with Racatcher and Typhlosis.  When we reached the stairwell, and they turned to go down, Crystalclear gave me a little wave, like the wave I’d given him earlier.

That was now three more people.

I couldn’t bring myself to move forward, as I processed it all.

Sveta touched my arm, and I flinched at the contact.

I met her eyes.  “Anywhere you need to go?  Anyone you want to see?”

“In a way, I’m glad Weld and I agreed for me to be the scapegoat with the Irregulars.  He’s handling them.”

“I don’t necessarily mean for the plan,” I told her.  “If or when we get everyone, or get mostly everyone… where do you want to be?  Is there anyone you want to be with?”

“I want to find a nice rocky spot down by the water,” she said.

“Do you want company?”

“No,” she said.

“Is this because of the bite?  Because I was on edge, my power was weird, it-”

“No,” Sveta said.

I felt so tense, and the refusal and rejection didn’t help.

“No,” Sveta said, again, “If there was more time, or if I knew I’d wake up and have a chance to move somewhere else, to have another place, I’d have a sit on my own, and I’d spend some time with you.  But I have to choose one, and I think, unless you really want my company, I’d like to have a moment of quiet.”

“I can understand that,” Rain said.

I wasn’t sure I could.

Sveta seemed to read my mind.  She met my eyes.  “I spent so long fighting me.  Then I got a body, the prosthetic one, it felt like a crutch.  The one Bough gave me felt like a cheat, or an illusion.  The Simurgh scared me, but… I feel like I can make peace with this.  I’d like to sit with that peace for a bit.”

“And you like the water,” I told her.

“I do.  Thanks to my time with Breakthrough, I know why, now.”

“You are my best friend, you know.  You’re family.  I don’t want to end this distant.”

“And you’re my best friend,” Sveta said.  “Really.  As infuriating as you can be.”

I wanted to say something more, but the words escaped me.

“What about you, Rain?” Sveta asked.  “Erin?”

“Erin’s with Lachlan,” Rain said.  “I haven’t really been in touch with her.”

“Chastity?” I asked.

“That… feels weird,” he admitted.

“You like her, don’t you?”

“I think.  She’s funny, she’s nice.  A little intense, even if that’s the pot calling the kettle black.  But hanging out together and holding each other before everything goes dark seems… like a lot for a first date.”

Sveta snorted.

“I’m not being weird, right?” he asked, sounding worried.  “It’s…”

He trailed off.  Two normal arms and one mechanical arm raised up a bit, then flopped to his side.

“I don’t know if it matters,” I said.

“I’ll think about it,” he told us.

“Come on.  There’s people to check on,” I said.

The room was filled with monitors, and the monitors glowed red, mapping out the spreading cracks, the glow of the land beneath the cracks.  Different clocks showed different countdowns.

“Heyyyy,” Kenzie said, sounding very lighthearted.  She swiveled in her chair, and her face was hidden by her mask.

“Hey,” I told her, quiet.

“You got dosed?” she asked.

I nodded.

“Dose me?”

“I… that takes a lot more discussion, first,” I told her.

“Okay.  Um, I’m keeping tabs on things.  We’ve got a whole bunch of capes trying to make sure we cover all the bases, contact everyone we need to talk to.”

“Where are we at?” I asked.

“Thirty percent.  Thirty percent of capes, as far as we can tell.”

“That many?”

“The Wardens decided they had to force a few.”

I snapped to attention at that.  “What?  Who?”

“Capes in prison.  The most dangerous ones.  Monokeros was one of them.  They had a dialogue about it, and they decided there was too much danger.”

“That the heroes all die and the villains stay?”

Kenzie nodded with vigor.

“Okay,” I said.  “Just the most dangerous ones, then?  You mean monsters, not villains.”

“Yep.  Um, Rain?  Love Lost and Colt joined up.”

“Makes sense,” Rain said.  “Good.”

“Is there a list of names?” I asked.  I approached the desk, while being careful to stay out of Kenzie’s arm’s reach.  There was an organization of names, floating in three-dimensional space, connected by diagrams that looked almost like Capricorn’s constellations.

I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

“It’s organized by points in space, so…” Kenzie said.

“My sister?”

“Oh!  I got video footage!”

“I don’t need to see-”

But she was already pulling it up.  Already projecting it onto the wall.

I watched, tense, as my mother and father stood on one end of the room.  Marquis and Panacea stood on the other.

“No audio, sorry,” Kenzie told me.

I didn’t need audio.  I could fill in the words very easily.

The protest, the little head shake.

Doubt.  Worry.  It made sense she wouldn’t want to do this, wouldn’t want to make that point of contact.

Ironic.

It was Darnall who entered the room.  He remained at the door, and the camera didn’t show a good view of his face.  But it was clear he was talking.

I could see it.  The shift in stance, the break in protests.  It didn’t take that many words, possibly because he and she had exchanged so many words over the past twenty-four hours.  I hadn’t had nearly enough sessions with the man, but I could imagine his tone, though the exact recipe of words to break through Amy’s stubbornness eluded me.

Unfortunately, Marquis could see the shift in posture and expression as well as any of us could.

I watched the recording as Amy took a step forward, and was blocked by an eruption of a fence of bone.

She touched it, and the wall broke.  Marquis dropped to his knees.

She walked unimpeded to my parents.  It was my dad who brushed hair away from her face, touching her forehead.  I saw Amy’s posture change.

There was an exchange of words, and I was glad I couldn’t hear it.  Then she crossed the room to walk over to Darnall.

The image froze as she disappeared from view.

I released a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.

My parents had the effect.  They’d passed it to her.  That was that.  She couldn’t use her power on herself, unless something dramatic had changed when we’d cracked the crystal.

Speaking of…

“Crystal?” I asked.

“Doing outreach,” Lookout said.

“Aunt Sarah?”

“Protecting Riley Davis.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Okay.  And Chris?”

“They’re going to hunt him down.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.  He was spreading half-truths and they asked Jessica, who asked Riley, who said he was a problem.  They’ll imprison him and take away his stuff if they can.  Jessica said to, I think, as a compromise.”

“Okay,” I said.

She swiveled in my direction, and I quickly took a half-step, half-fly back.

“Right at the beginning, the promise was that you wouldn’t leave me out.  All my life, I’ve been left behind, or ignored, or…”

“Bringing you with isn’t a good thing if we’re taking you to a bad place or an ending,” I said.

“Leaving me behind isn’t a good thing either,” she said.

In so many ways, she was precocious.  She was smart for her age, she had a work ethic that a squadron of thirty-five year olds wouldn’t have.  She was, unfortunately, advanced for her age when it came to relationships, and the kinds of things or dynamics she might get entangled in.

In other ways, she was a child.  Not yet a teenager.  There wasn’t a rational argument I could make that she would accept.  There wasn’t an emotional argument I could make that would budge that heart of hers.

“No,” I told her.  “Sorry.”

“Sorry,” Sveta echoed me.

“Okay!” she said, brightly.  She swiveled, turning to the computer.  “I’ve got important stuff to do anyway.”

“I don’t know if you want to have a conversation-”

“Nope!”

“Make preparations…?” Rain asked.

“I’m preparing now.  Doing stuff.”

“What if we asked you to step away from the tech?  Disengage?  This is all pretty… it’s a lot.”

Kenzie turned back my way.  The eyes etched into her round mask stared at me.

“I don’t want you to regret not talking with us now, years from now,” I told her.  “Because part of the reason we’re doing this is to give you those years.  And people like you, and people without powers.”

She turned back to her work.  “No, it’s fine.  I’m busy.”

“You can’t avert this, there’s no fix, there’s no tweak, it’s not…”

“I know.  That’s fine.  I’m busy,” Kenzie said, firm, her hands at the keyboard.

“You don’t want-”

“I don’t,” she said, with more emotion, her skinny arms tense.

Kenzie stared at the screen, hands at the keyboard, silent.

“Are you okay?” I asked.  “You had a freakout earlier, then you seemed to rally.  Being away from your tech seemed to help.”

“Talking with Grue helped some,” she said.  “But…”

She trailed off.

“But what?” Sveta asked.

“Victoria, do you remember one time, you were complaining you never get the benefit of a doubt, Victoria?  From your parents?  From people when you were trying to warn them about Amy?  With the diary thing and Teacher’s propaganda?”

“I’ve said something like that.  But not to you, I don’t think.”

“I picked it up somewhere.  My point is… I’d really like that benefit of a doubt right now.  I know a lot of what I do is my fault, but… a lot of what I deal with is also because when I tell people stuff, they assume I’m… I dunno.  That I’ve been coached.  That I had intentions.  Or they think about themselves first.”

“I know,” I said.  “It’s always been a juggling act, trying to give you the ability to make decisions and… keep you safe.”

“I’m safe, sitting at my computer.  I need to be sitting at my computer, because the portal tech is still a thing people might need one day and I need it to not blow up, and stuff I can’t tell you, and I’m not going to freak out.  I promise.  If I was going to, it would be because Juliette froze Roman so Chicken Little, Candy, and Darlene could touch him and get the effect.  Well, technically, it was Chicken Little doing it, then Darlene did it because he did, and Candy joined in after…”

“Fuck,” I said.  “Does Tattletale know?”

“Nope!” Kenzie said, brightly.  “She’s going to shit herself, she’ll be so mad.  But I’m calm, see?  I’m okay.  Because it’s Breakthrough’s plan and I trust it’s the best option.  So I’m going to do my thing, then I’m going to see how things go, with as clear a view of it all as anyone could possibly get.”

“Do you want anyone around?” I asked.  “I could get you over there.”

“Nope.  Imp called Charlotte and Forrest.  They’re going to come here to help look after the gang while they sleep.  They can keep me company.  Really, you don’t need to worry about me.”

She’d tapped her screen.  I walked over to look.

Imp, Grue, Parian, and Foil were all in the room.  Imp had an arm around Juliette’s throat, while sitting on a table behind the girl, as a kind of improvised headlock.  Grue had a hand on Roman’s shoulder.  Off to the side, talking, were Parian and Foil.

They were together, in these tense moments, where skin hummed with the promise of what was to come, and where monitors glowed red, showing the creeping cracks, the landscape turning to crystal at the edges of the cracks.

“I’m going to wrap up here, shut everything down, maybe, so it’s safe no matter what happens.  Then I’ll just watch.”

“Kenzie…”

“I’ll give you guys calls on your cellphone.  Between the time the people on the second rung and the people on the first rung start passing out.  Promise.”

“I worry,” I said.  “You’re going to turn around and go to Chicken Little.”

“If I was going to do that I would have done it already.  If I was planning to do it later, I’d use projections and tech and do you really want to spend the time you have remaining chasing me?”

“That’s pretty damning,” Rain said.  “That you’re already thinking that way.”

“I’m always thinking this way.  But if you really want to make me feel better about all of this… I’d like to look after Breakthrough.”

“Look after how?” I asked.

“Ashley’s freaking out.  Byron’s sitting on the roof and hasn’t been dosed.  Um, and Natalie’s driving and it’s a little shaky with the state of the roads, I’m keeping tabs on her car’s dashboard.”

“Damsel is freaking?” I asked.

“They’re having a hard time dealing with her.  Here.  Take this.”

I gave the screen one last look before I hurried off.  32%.

“You’re afraid!” her voice rang through the large hallway.

Wardens stood in a loose formation at either end of the hallway.

“I’m the most terrifying thing in the world to you, and it’s all your own doing!”

“Ashley,” I called out.

Damsel spun on her heels.  She almost lost her balance.

Her bladed hands were extended out in either direction, facing the two groups that had her surrounded.  Holding her arms outstretched seemed to be a task, and she was breathing hard, the hands faltering, raising up again.  When she took a step, it was with a bit of a limp.

“Oh, Antares.  You petty, stupid little thing,” she said.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Oh, I’m on my way up, rest assured.  It’s so convenient when all of your enemies decide to die.  What more could a lady ask for, hm?”  She raised her chin.  “And in the aftermath… who’s left to stop me from ruling?”

“Conveying the presence you need to rule is like being cool in high school,” I said.  “If you talk too much about how cool you are, you’re going to convince people of the opposite.”

“And what would you know about poise or presence?” she asked.  “Look at you.  Haggard, bloody.”

“I’m doing a lot better than I was.  Funny thing, if you make the right contacts, meet the right people, you get healing, you get help.  How’s that foot of yours?”

“Oh, it’s sore.  A small battlefield injury.  But in a matter of days, you’ll be dead after pissing yourself in a nightmare filled sleep,” she told me.  “And I’ll mend, waited on hand and foot, dressed in the finest clothes available.”

“Fucking city in ruins, not much available,” one of the Wardens said.

“I’ll manage.  I’ve always managed.”

“And do what?” I asked her.  “Your team?  Deathchester?  Are they sticking around?”

“They’ll come around.  We did well enough while I led.  They’ll come back.”

Four members of Deathchester had agreed to make contact.  The rest had left, frustrated with Damsel’s ranting.  I hadn’t asked that question without knowing the answer.  A good rule of thumb for a lawyer, taught to me by a lawyer parent.

“Back!” she barked out the word.  Her power lashed out, and she made a quick circle with her claws, shaping it as it rolled out.  it became a circular whorl, spinning about twenty feet down the other end of the hallway before losing momentum and dissipating.  The edges of it had raked floor, ceiling, and walls, damaging a door.

“But what comes next?”  I asked.  “After you rule the ruins?  A bit of petty looting?  Running from the heroes and authorities?  All it takes is one bullet.”

“I’ve been shot before, I’ll live.”

“There’s an alternative.  Tea.  Chats.”  The voice that spoke wasn’t mine.

“Fuck you, child.  There’s a reason you’re so unloved.”

“Hanging out, using tech to work out the coolest costume stuff.  Glowing, smoking eyes, I could do stuff with your claws, giving them cool effects…”

“I’ll keep my response succinct, have they taught you that word in school yet, brat?”

Damsel used her power.  A lash.  I pulled back, dragging one of the more heavily armored capes back and away.  Kenzie remained in the line of fire.

The power licked her, grazed her.

She flickered, and remained where she was.

Kenzie continued, “There’d be no running, not much danger.  Same deal I offered Swansong.”

Damsel used her power again, lunging forward.  A beam from one of the capes clipped her, knocking her off course, but her forward momentum was a lot.

I sent the Fragile One forward.  Low and close to the corner.  Invisible.  Beneath the Fragile One’s fingernails, I had my own blood.  It should transmit the effect, but…

She blasted the projection of Kenzie, and everything near Kenzie.

It did nothing.

“Ashley, come on!” Kenzie said, sounding mildly put out at worst.  “This is not a hard decision!”

Damsel raised a claw, poised like she was going to slash Kenzie.

She stopped.  She looked down at Kenzie.  Kenzie’s projection looked up at her.  For a moment, it looked like an impossible decision, a paralyzing one.

“I miss you more than almost anything,” Kenzie said.

Ashley dropped her hand, the claw clacking against the floor.

“The worst thing about the world ending is I might not get to see more of you,” Kenzie said.

The tone had shifted.  Capes adjusted their footing.  Armor creaked.  I hated every little sound, because I worried it might set things off again, disturbing the moment.

Ashley looked off to one side.  “You shouldn’t admit to weakness.  It’s unbecoming.”

“Right,” Kenzie said.  “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Ashley looked down the hall at me, then back down to Kenzie.

“The harder we try to be strong, the weaker we are.”

“I know.  It’s sort of the same here,” Kenzie replied, nodding.

“It’s kind of at the heart of the plan,” I said, from a distance.  “Accepting that sometimes we have to be weak, step down, let the current take us.”

Ashley nodded.

“I’m still getting used to that,” Kenzie admitted.

“Are they taking care of you?” Ashley asked.

“They’re a little preoccupied.  But mostly.”

“So I’ve heard.  Did you… join them?”

Ashley was tense as she asked it.

“No.  That’s part of where I feel left out.”

“Perhaps I should offer them some assistance?  Lighten the load, provide one less distraction?”

Kenzie shrugged.

“You’d better act fast,” she said, turning to look at the heroes nearest her.  “Before I slip.”

“I’ve got you,” I told her.  The Fragile One reached out and touched her, pressing blood to bare shoulder.

She shivered, full-body.  “You’d better restrain me, so you don’t have any further Damsel problems.”

Some heroes hurried to the task.

Kenzie sighed, heavy.  She looked at me.  “I’ve got to get back to work.  Side projects, recording things so people know what they need to know.”

“Don’t go touching Chicken Little,” I told her.

She stared at me for a little too long.  Her projection didn’t have the helmet on.

“Byron is-”

“On the roof,” I said.  “I know.”

I arrived on the rooftop, feeling very much like a third wheel, even as other capes arrived.  The sky around us distorted, distant places lunging to be in close.  Portals a short distance away had been distorted to be large, providing huge windows for Vista’s space distortions.

“Need anything?” I asked.

“No,” Byron said.

“You’re content?” I asked.

He sat on a shielded ventilation duct with Vista beside him.

“Mostly,” he said.

Vista elbowed him, hard.  Her elbow protector clacked hard against his armor.

“Not anything to do with you,” he told her.  He pointed.

The distance was laced with red, ominous and spreading.  I could see the silhouettes of the largest Titans.

“Yeah,” I said.  “The first people have passed out.  Started dreaming.  Lookout’s got some data suggesting it’s filtering through okay.”

“I know,” Vista said.  “We had some people come by, they had to be carried.  But we got them where they wanted to go.”

I nodded.

“Where do you want to go?” Byron asked.

I had five different places I wanted to go, that were all important to me, but I really had only one destination.

“Old headquarters,” I told them.  “Near Hollow Point.  It’s okay if you ballpark it.  I can fly.”

The sky began to warp.

“Have you two been dosed?” I asked.

“Not yet.  We’re worried we’ll conk out when it matters.  The more points of contact there are, the shorter the amount of time.”

“Riley had a logic to it,” I said.  “We thought we’d need to be able to quickly operate on the most far-flung people, and the people quickest to agree needed to be active for longer, convincing others.”

“So you’ll be one of the last?” Byron asked.

I nodded.  I offered a hand.

He pulled off his gauntlet, and touched my hand.  Then he reached over to Vista, and pressed his hand to hers.

“What’s your plan?” I asked them.

“My folks’,” Byron said.  “Vista’s still deciding.  I’ve told her she’s welcome to come with.”

“It’s a little much,” Vista said.  “I don’t want to go home, though.”

I nodded.  “Rain’s on a similar wavelength.  It’s not an easy thing to decide.”

“Well, you decided.  Old headquarters… is that right?  Did I get the location right?”

“That’s it,” Byron told her.

“Then there’s your door,” Vista said.  “No rush.”

“There it is,” I said, not quite ready to leave the roof.

It was impulse that drove me.  Hesitation.  As if somehow this was what made it final.

Flight through a frozen sky, over a city that seemed frozen and utterly still.  If there were any lights, I’d be more suspicious they were more to do with the Machine Army than any trace of humanity.

Past the Earth N portal, near Kenzie’s place.

Down to the Stratford area, going by landmarks that Vista’s power squished into odd shapes that made them nearly unrecognizable.

I landed on the fire escape.

I let myself in, no key needed.  A space heater thrummed uselessly.  The building was damaged, and cold leeched into the area.  Whiteboards had fallen.  Plans and dreams now fallen by the wayside.

Red from that same crack that had brought down one corner of the building leeched in through walls, floor, and hastily-erected tarp.

Not that I could discount that connections I’d made months ago were helping us get the people on board now.

Natalie was huddled by the space heater, wearing her puffy jacket.

“So,” she said.

“Heya.”

“Any issues?” she asked.

“A few.  A couple of people surprised me.  The people who can’t see how this would work.  The ones who can.  Divided by one question: people.”

“Mmm,” she said.  “I don’t think I could take a side if I tried.  If I could, maybe I’d be less nervous.”

“Are you okay doing this?”

She seemed for a moment like she might say no.  Her forehead creased.

No words passed between us for a minute.

“It’s like secret identities, you know?” I asked.

“I don’t really- no.  No idea what you’re talking about.”

“Why do we keep them?  It’s… we need a fallback.  Capes need some aspect of our lives that we can turn to when it all goes to shit.  So we keep one sliver or one half of our lives intact, and when worst comes to worst, there’s a place we can go for a friendly word, a hug, normalcy.”

“Okay.  You didn’t have that, though.”

“I did, kind of.  Not… not an escape.  But there was love and support at the core of it.  Just took a little figuring out to realize it was there.  And at the end of the day… here in Gimel, I think we kind of forgot we need that sort of thing.  That ability to reach out, fall back.”

“I guess.”

I reached out.

Natalie extended her hand.  Below mine.

I dropped a fob into her hand.

She stared down at it, nodding for a moment, then asked, “Do you want me to leave the space heater on?  It’s battery operated.”

“I can get it, sure.  I’ll stick around.”

The floor creaked as she walked over to the door, and the fire escape banged with her boots.  I could hear her making her way down to her car through the holes in the wall and floor.

I looked out over the water, tinted red, and at the sky, which I imagined glowed redder by the minute.  Sveta was somewhere out there, on another shoreline.

My duty in this was done.  Just a question of waiting.

It was up to them, now.

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Last – 20.a

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“Fortuna.  I’m… I’m hoping it’s the person that hears me.  Not the Titan.”

“Is there a response?”

“I don’t know.  No.”

The voice cut in, female, weary, rough at the edges.  “If you have any fight left, I need it now.  I need you.  You can tell your agent we’ll give them Fume Hood and Dauntless.  They’ll know we’re telling the truth.”

“Did she clear that with Chevalier?”

“No.  But I don’t think he’d say no.”

“Really.”

“We’re running out of cards to play.”

“Our friends-” he started.  He stopped as Antares began talking again.

“I need your help, and the help of the Titans you’re linked to.  Pouffe, Valkyrie. One person to one place.  You should be able to defeat the Simurgh, and all the pieces fall into place just as they want them.”

“So that’s her plan.”

“It’s a reach.  Do we have any indication the person Fortuna can wrestle control from the Titan?”

“Arachne, Axehead, Fume Hood, and Dauntless seem to have some slivers of their old selves still intact.”

“And we’re asking them to give up what they have, using them as currency.”

“Please. Thank you,” Antares said, her voice bearing the telltale distortion as a recording of an ongoing transmission.

“Defiant.”  The word sounded firm, authoritative, but it was followed by silence.

“Dragon?”

“You and Dauntless didn’t get along,” Dragon noted.

“The kindest way of putting it.  I was an ass.”

“Do you think he would agree?  To give up his very being to contribute?

Defiant steered a careful course around the cluster of Titans, mindful of the Simurgh’s plotted course, as she tried to stay away from Dauntless and the attacks the Titan made with the spear of light.  He watched Dauntless, studying the Titan, trying to gauge.  He thought of the recording he’d seen of the Titan turning to look at the boy.  What had his name been?  Addison?

There had been humanity in that moment.

Defiant was plugged into the Marduk.  Its sensors were his eyes, its air intake his lungs, its considerable power source his heart.  Sensors tracked the movement of air along the Marduk’s exterior, and he felt it much as he would feel the wind over his own skin, where his present body still had conventional skin.

It came to him in data, each block of data represented by a three-dimensional arrangement of numbers and letters.  A part of his brain that he had modified with Dragon’s help read that data, processed it.

While he was plugged in, he was the Marduk.  It had been his go-to ship in the months immediately following Gold Morning, and it was his backup ship now, while the Uther was replaced by several of Dragon’s A.I..  The landscapes of then and now were not so different.

Dark, laid bare to the worst vagaries of weather, buildings ruined.  In the weeks after Gold Morning it had been abrupt temperature shifts, the heavy amounts of dust in the atmosphere bringing surprising darkness and periods of cold, before summer came through with an intensity that suggested it was trying to make up for the days it had missed.

Now that wasteland was occupied by monsters.  Some of them were monsters he’d helped bring to this battlefield.  A handful more were friends, or… as close to friends as he ever got.

Sleeper’s storm was creeping forward.  Dragon was, it seemed, splitting her attention between a conversation with Saint and a conversation with him.

The Titans had gathered and stood as a defensive line, spaced apart like each one’s position mattered on some fundamental level.  Four of the Titans had powers that drilled, dug, or carved.  Titan Amenonuhoko, Titan Auger, Titan Drillbit, Titan Ghast.  All four Titans were tearing up the crystal landscape below them, aiming for specific paths and locations.

If there was a point to it that wasn’t making it hard for parahumans to get close, he couldn’t fathom it.

Both he and Dragon were keeping an eye on ongoing events, in part because the Simurgh had shut down most communication networks.  Stonewall was back at the Wardens’ base.  He was recovering from a hit he’d taken from a parahuman ability during the raid on Teacher’s base, and he had enough authority to be the person making calls- both in the sense he was using the phone and he was having to make decisions.

They’d reached out to people overseas.  The European settlement had seen the first cracks cross their territory, extending across the ocean to where they were.  They were offering their assistance, but they lacked the ability.  Too many of their capes had died in Gold Morning.  Too many others were spread out across other Earths.  Getting them from there to here would require hours.

They had minutes.

“Are you getting lost in thought, Defiant?”

“I’m- no.  Yes.  What was the question?”

“Do you think we can rely on him?”

“I can remember seeing his son during events.  He was there when Tattletale’s group raided a fundraiser my team was hosting.  He was invited to attend, but I sent Dauntless out on patrol that same night.  When he heard his first thought was whether his son was alright.  His second thought was about keeping the Undersiders from getting away.”

“So yes?

“I think so, but I’m really hoping it doesn’t come to that.”

“Defiant, sweetie.  It’s coming to that.”

“There are options.”

“You’re tunnel-visioning in, Defiant.  We’re not doing well.  Look for yourself.”

It took effort to remind himself he had a body, that he was more than a heavily armed vehicle flying through hostile airspace.

He turned his focus to the other calls.  To Stonewall’s computer, where Stonewall was reaching out to more groups, trying to find the combination of moving pieces and powers that would bring much-needed reinforcements to this battlefield in the timeframe they needed.

He watched through cameras as Antares had a conversation with her team.  Little Lookout was at the computer, and was using the computer to manage a line of communication he didn’t have the resources to tap fully into.  They were still waiting for a proper reply.

Sleeper was at the horizon, south of the Simurgh and Titan Fortuna’s small army of Titans.  Thirty-five titans now, and the number was growing, the accumulation speeding up, not slowing down.

The Machine Army was loose.  They hadn’t breached the perimeter because there was no perimeter anymore.  Dragon was running a program using some of the Marduk’s resources, among a wealth of other resources, simply trying to use the data they had to find every place a tinker had been, using months-old data to try and work out where there might be workshops, damaged or discarded tinkertech.

Every single piece the Machine Army could scrounge up was something that would pass through the entire network.  In minutes, hours, days, weeks, or months, the Machine Army would take what it gleaned from one broken piece of technology and every single drone, installation, and tool across the network would see upgrades.

They were a threat on an existential level and they weren’t even in the top two most immediate threats.

Saint was on that task.  Petty and stupid as the man was, Saint had nonetheless dedicated years of his life to studying and arming himself against artificial intelligence.  He knew names, he knew methods.  Dragon was providing the man access to his home computer, and he was looking up articles on electromagnetic pulses, distortion tech, and other means of disrupting signals.

Years ago, Saint had preyed on Dragon, shutting off her ability to connect to her satellite network, using several of these same mechanisms to slow down and hamper whatever mech or device she was inhabiting.  He would kill her, block any final uploads, and leave her to self-revive from an hours-old backup with no knowledge of what he’d done or how he’d beat her.

Then he would dismantle the mech she had been using, repurpose it, and outfit his team in power armor rooted in the same technology.

Now he worked to do something similar to the Machine Army, which was effectively in service to the wounded Simurgh.

As that thought crossed Defiant’s mind, he saw the Simurgh change direction.

In service to the wounded Simurgh… because she spent long enough in their proximity.

He hated that he noticed her, because it felt like manipulation, like she was leading him to his next natural thought: she had spent far too long roosting on Dauntless.

Dauntless fought the Simurgh, striking out, over and over again, every time she pulled out of cover.  The Titan was relentless, and stopped only when Fortuna’s group made its move.

She was already healing.  Missing wings were growing back, and her lower body existed as a series of feathers, touching end to end, or end to middle.  Like she was the thinnest of lace, formed of feathers harder than steel.  It gave her legs, and suggested she was hollow, where Behemoth had had a skeleton and a core.

“I guess that’s it,” Antares’ voice was more distorted.  Range concerns, and a tinker with Stonewall was using more of their Haywire Band to try and get messages through.  She was done her back-and-forth with her team.  “I just need a sign, a signal.

The feed crackled, the response garbled, a flood of code he didn’t have the equipment to interpret.

“What was that?” he asked.

“A yes,” Dragon said.

He set his jaw.

He didn’t like it.  He didn’t trust Antares to be the one doing it.  They had given her some slack and she’d abused it.  She’d used her power against a civilian Warden staffer.  She wasn’t level headed.

Now they were putting thousands of lives on the line.

“She’s moving.”

“I noticed.”

The Machine Army lurched out of chasms.  They’d traveled across the crystal landscape, and now they rose up, flooding out onto the ruined cityscape around them.  As they got their footing, they oriented, then opened fire.  His Marduk’s sensors tracked the lasers, even though they were invisible to the naked eye.  His naked eye, singular, could see the damage each of those lasers was doing.

The Simurgh used the opportunity to soar, rising up above the buildings she had been perched behind.

Defiant brought the Marduk around, aimed, and switched the channels on the power core.  For this weapon, he could only hover while the weapon primed.  There was a countdown.

Dragon moved in sync with him.  Her crafts protected him, there were forcefields erected to keep him from being knocked off course.

The Marduk wasn’t as effective as the Uther when it came to conflict, especially conflicts where he had to adapt to new threats, or where those threats could adapt to him.  It was a very simple, straightforward weapon.

In a way, it was why he liked it.  The irony of his power was that it gave him control over details, nuance, the little aspects of a piece of technology that could work alongside another piece of technology.  At the same time, he was someone who liked things to be straightforward, even going so far as to discard anything his instincts considered extraneous.

“What do you think?”  Dragon’s tone was almost conversational.

“I think you’re experiencing a rare moment of insecurity, Mrs. Wallis.  Which is entirely allowed, considering the circumstances.”  He kept his sights trained on the Simurgh.  The countdown hit the tens.  Ten seconds, nine, eight-

“You’re deflecting.”

“I hate it,” he said.

As if to punctuate the statement, the Marduk was hit from the side.  An attack that bypassed the forcefields.  It knocked his shot off course- brought his nose around toward Dragon’s craft.

He steered hard, compensating.  He’d anticipated this.

The benefit of using this weapon was that it didn’t require exceptionally good aim.

An area of the city a fifth of a mile wide and a mile long was pulverized.  Buildings were driven into ground, and broke into chunks no larger than a human head.  The wavelength of the beam let those chunks lift up for a fraction of a second before the next wave of the beam thrust them down again with the same force as before.

The Simurgh was almost, almost out of the path of the beam.  He clipped her, and she reoriented, pulling out of the way even as she was hurled back and down.

Much of the lower body she had been building broke away from the force of the impact.  A wing shattered.  The remainder was lost in the plume of smoke that rose from the tract of land he had blasted.

Dauntless, too, was in the path of the beam.  He had his shield, and he was rooted into the ground in a way that resisted being thrust away with the kind of power that could push a moon out of orbit, but the grazing hit still demolished one of his arms, tore out a chunk of the Titan’s side.

For long moments, Dauntless didn’t move.  Defiant fought to reorient, switching systems around so he wasn’t so vulnerable, and so Dragon could do what he needed.

Was that what she put in your head?  Defiant thought.  When the Simurgh roosted on you, was she thinking of this moment, reminding you of the times I exerted authority to take away your time with your son?

Are you aware enough to realize I didn’t mean to do that to you?  Or is resentment building?  Are you reaching a point where you serve her instead?

Defiant’s thoughts were interrupted as he was struck again.  The Machine Army this time.  The first blow had come from Fortuna’s group.  There was no logic with these opponents they were fighting.  Each acted according to self-interests.  The Machine Army had decided it wanted what he had, half of the machines that had reached this particular battlefield scuttling over to the tract of devastated land, pausing as if staring at it.

Gathering data.

G-driver charging.  1:59:03

Borrowed tech.  Dragon had taken it and revived the project.  He had integrated it into this model of the Marduk.  He’d fired it five times today alone, primarily in waging war against Titans.  Then Titan Fortuna had started countering him, had used opportunities to absorb Oberon into her network.

What are you doing?  What’s your move?

He wasn’t even sure who ‘you’ was.  He was buying time, fighting the most imminent threat so they could dive headlong into the embrace of the next threat.

The Machine Army was entering the trench, scurrying into the trench, into the dust, where his sensors struggled to read things with the ten kinds of background radiation and-

And strange signals not unlike those he had picked up from Chevalier, when Chevalier had waded into battle.

“They’re going after the pieces of the Simurgh!  She gave them pieces of herself!”

Dragon changed tasks, shifting to a full-on offensive, unloading every weapon she had into the dust cloud.

This was the danger, the fact the Simurgh could use to manipulate them.  That they were forced again and again to make sacrifices today, to save tomorrow.

He’d worked so hard, training, sacrificing opportunities to meet people, make friends, meet women he could date.  He’d given his all to fight crime in Brockton Bay, sometimes for selfish or ambitious reasons, but he’d tried.  He’d tried to train his team to brave what was inevitably a losing battle against greater numbers and enemies who didn’t play by the rules.

And in the end, tomorrow came and tomorrow stood on the brink of ruin, paying no mind to their efforts.  He’d lost his team well before he’d received the paperwork telling him he was being moved to a new city.  Then, as if to drive the point home, sheer chance and out of control situations had killed his Wards, taken Battery’s life, killed Velocity.  He’d faced the last end of the world lonely and scared out of his mind because he’d finally found something to hold onto, after a lifetime of avoiding any such thing.

He wasn’t as scared now, and the changes he’d made to his body might have accounted for some of that.  But he felt lonelier.

All of this, the decision he was being asked to face, if they could even manage the Simurgh, it felt like a referendum on himself as a person.

“I hate it,” he spoke aloud, repeating his earlier statement.  “I know I’m supposed to be better, more open to others’ ideas.  I’m supposed to trust, and this is an exercise in trust more than anything.  But I don’t want to die.  I don’t want you to die.  That’s what it takes, isn’t it?”

“I think of the children who we got to know in Dracheheim.  The boy brave enough to wave at you whenever he saw you.  We do this for them.

“I haven’t had enough time with you.  I’m supposed to be a better man, but in this… I feel greed, hunger, a… need for more time.”

“I love you, Colin.”

She didn’t refute him, she didn’t argue or disagree.

“I love you too,” he said.

He took evasive action as more of the Machine Army’s lasers sought to cut him to pieces.  Where he could, he flew back, kept his distance, even though it made his effective responses worse.  When he fired his own energy weapons, the sheer distance between himself and the robots added a time lag.  The lasers didn’t really face the same lag.

But he had to stay out of the Simurgh’s range.  She was weakened, he was relatively clear of her scream, and that weakened her predictive power.  It meant his shots landed, and she was forced to choose between destruction and a grazing hit, instead of destruction and a miss.

He was watching the dust cloud, and he was ready when the Simurgh emerged.  Lasers raked him, and systems failed, but he was ready and able to open fire.

Dragon focused on keeping the machines from collecting the Simurgh’s parts.  He focused on the Simurgh, watching the countdown.

Simple math told him that the numbers didn’t add up.  The Simurgh was making her move.  Seeking Fortuna.  He could do the math.  It took her thirty seconds to get to Fortuna.  He needed forty to shoot again.

One of the monitors on his console flickered, then showed a pair of hearts, a curved line between and below them, a smiley face.

He smashed his hand into the top of the console, shattering the glass of the monitor, the crack running through one of the heart-eyes.  “No!”

He kicked every thruster into action.  Spearing down toward Fortuna.

His trajectory carried him past Dauntless.  Dauntless, who had endured the Simurgh’s company for as long as just about any person who hadn’t lived in Lausanne, the unwitting audience for her very first appearance.

Dauntless, who had every reason to hate and resent him.

He could only trust.  That Dauntless was a better man.  Trust that the Dauntless who they’d discovered had spent years trapped in time with only his own thoughts could somehow hold out against the Simurgh’s influence.  She had two vectors of attack, with one being prediction, the other being the ways she could grind down a man’s sanity.

The prediction would be weak right now.  As for the other part… Defiant trusted that his old teammate had held onto that sanity.

No choice but to trust.

“Defiant!” Lookout’s voice came through the console.

“Not the time!”

“It has to be!  Dauntless-”

“I know!” he roared.

“Tell him we have plans-”

He hit the console again.  He disconnected the breaker.  He didn’t need to be told.  He’d followed that conversation, read the transcript as they discussed.  A part of his brain had recorded it without him needing to.  That part had come directly from Dragon.

The Marduk roared, the velocity causing hull to peel away, where the lasers had caught it.  He swept past Dauntless, bracing himself for a shield to come between himself and his destination, or a spear to strike the side of his Marduk.

The impact to the side of his Marduk drove him off course.

He corrected.

It was telekinesis.  A chunk of building.

He descended, placing himself between the two most dangerous things in existence, at least as far as humanity was concerned.  A ship a little larger than a house placed between an Endbringer and the queen of the Titans.

The Simurgh crashed into him.  Damaged parts of her body were like the teeth of a saw, her feathers sheared through parts of the Marduk like blades longer than he was tall, passing into the very chamber he sat within.

He turned his eyes to his left, where he should have been able to see terminals.  There was only a wall of electrical ruin, blinding a cyborg eye that was supposed to be able to see in any combat scenario.

I didn’t deserve this, he thought.

If the entire situation was a referendum on where he had come as a person, then this moment would be a test of his past actions.

The damning thing about it all was that the past dogged at everyone’s heels.  There was no escaping it, and as much as they had heralded second chances, they were defined by what had come before, weighed down by it, destroyed by it.

So why?

The electrical ruin to the left of the Pendragon was Dauntless’s shield, raised between the Marduk and the Simurgh.  But for that shield, the Simurgh would have crashed right through him on her course to Titan Fortuna.

Dauntless had saved him, and it felt like the man shouldn’t have.

The Marduk couldn’t fly.  Defiant did what he could to disengage from his chair, and ran up a sloped deck that was partially obstructed by feathers.  He grabbed a spear and an old halberd he’d kept for posterity.

Fire, he thought.  He couldn’t see the countdown, but he knew it should be time.

The signal was distorted.  He could hear the scream, and in that three dimensional sprawl of data, that part of his brain that he’d replaced with technology was parsing the data as corrupted.  Out of his reach.

He reversed course, his feet shifting, the treads in his boots relaxing, letting him slide down the sloped deck toward the console.  His combat program helped his movements to coordinate.

“Dauntless!” he called out, at the top of his lungs.

He reached the space next to his chair, the wall of that crackling shield illuminating everything, until his surroundings looked like ninety-nine percent white, one percent almost-white.  The trajectory and his program-coordinated movement saw his hand meet the button.

G-driver, second shot.

He could see it in his readouts from the console.  Disruption in the power supply.  The signal wasn’t getting through from button to weapon.

He checked.  Reading transcripts.

“They’re saying they’ll help you!” he bellowed.  “After!  But we need you to do like we discussed before!”

Dauntless moved, the spear sweeping to one side, striking the Simurgh.

Defiant, at the very front of his ship, nose pointed almost at the ground, almost everything illuminated by brilliant white light, could see the Simurgh’s upper body, and part of her face.

“Connect to Fortuna!” Defiant called out.  “She knows what to do!”

The Titan Dauntless moved again, the spear sweeping up.

The data readouts warped.  The electricity was its own distortion, its own interruption.

Defiant hit the button for the manual instruction to fire, but the timing was wrong.

Titan Skadi was there too, her blade-hand at the Simurgh’s back.  Digital readouts read that the Custodian Titan was active in the area.

All dogpiling the Simurgh, who struggled to make contact with Titan Fortuna.

Dauntless’s spear moved again, and this time, Defiant simply held the button down.  When the spear’s disruption overrode the Simurgh’s signal, the signal got through.

Simurgh, Titan Skadi, Custodian, and Dauntless were all flung back.  The Marduk ripped in half from the strain of firing-

And Defiant leaped, ninety feet between himself and the rubble below.

It was his old halberd that he used to catch himself.  His old halberd that fired out a grappling hook, catching Titan Fortuna by the side.

Skadi had been there.

He lowered himself to the ground by stages.  When he landed, dust was kicked up by his boots scuffing the ground.

The Simurgh lay prone within the storm that was the Sleeper.  Unmoving.  That hadn’t been him.  That had been Dauntless, acting with the benefit of Titan Fortuna’s sight, guiding the direction of the blast.

The storm crackled, boiled, popped, the colors taking on a rainbow sheen that somehow felt it shouldn’t make sense with the way the colors unfolded.

That would be enough to take her out of the picture.

The Titans had gone absolutely still.

He could see Titan Eve.  Titan Kronos.  Titan Skadi.  Titan Arachne.

The titans who had been drilling had stopped.  Whoever or whatever they’d been digging at, they were done.

The cracks in reality that separated their world from this one began to glow, the near-black red crystal taking on a deep red light.  There was no light in the sky above.  The only illumination came from below.

He looked.

He saw Titan Pouffe.  The Titan who transported people and Titans en-masse, across vast distances.  She was here, not where Antares had wanted her to be.

He counted heads, backing away by what felt like milimeters, given the scale of what was happening.  It was as though he were an ant, taking a single step in a world at human scale.

A vehicle landed.  It was the Uther.  It was damaged, wrecked, half the weapons non-operational, the hull strained to the point it looked like it could crack apart if it made too sharp a turn.

His boots met the deck, metal on metal.  It normally felt satisfying.  Now it felt like a knell.  A door closing.  An executioner’s axe.

What have we done?

“They sent Titan Valkyrie?” he asked.

“They did,” Dragon said.

He looked up.  Dragon was there, in his ship, waiting for him.

She wrapped her arms around him.  Metal on metal, in a way that felt more satisfying than anything.  She held him as she told the bay doors to close, as she told the ship to rise up.

“You spooked me,” she told him.

“You’ve done that to me often enough.  Where do we stand?”

She broke the hug, and she turned, the head of the body they’d designed and put together together looking out the front of the Uther.

The landscape was being overtaken by red.  At the edges, where the light was brightest, the earth became crystal.

He fixed his eyes on the silhouette of Dauntless, now utterly still.  On Titan Eve, who he hadn’t known.  He had fought so damn hard to keep his place on his team.  He had wronged Dauntless.

Dauntless had made the decision, knowing what was at stake.

“Where do we stand with who?” Dragon asked.  “There’s a lot.”

“With the Machine Army?”

“Up to Saint, now.”

“Alternative measures?  Plans that aren’t…”

“Antares sent out a message to the European and offworld capes.”

“And?”

“And they’re deploying.  Valkyrie is using powers to bring them here.”

“Will they be able to stop this, or are we bringing them here to die?”

If Dragon’s silence didn’t already speak volumes, the red light that swelled below and around the Uther was answer enough.

The area was filled with noise, clamor.

She hadn’t had to send that message out to the offworld capes.

In a way, it had made things so much harder.  It gave people hope, and that was the worst possible thing when hope wasn’t deserved, when it was too late.  This was the last in a line of plans.

People were upset.  They were arguing.  Some felt the Simurgh winning would be better.

Defiant had fought the Endbringer too many times to agree.

Their arrival in the lobby drew attention.  Chevalier was there too, but he was wounded from his fight with the Simurgh, and people were upset, anxious.

People got out of Defiant’s way as he approached.  His sensors could track things, could hear.

Antares hummed.  It was faint, like a tuning fork.  Her teammates did the same.

Chevalier had balked.  Maybe that was why people had hesitated, why they still thought there were other ways.

He used his size and presence to make a path, trusting people to get out of his way.  He extended a hand.

Antares hesitated, seeing him reach out.

“I know,” he said.

“I’ve been trying to explain, there’s more to it.”

“No,” he said.  “This is it.”

She looked him in the eye.

She took him by the hand.

With one gauntlet, he moved her arm up to a part of his forearm where skin was still skin.  He felt the hum shiver through flesh, making subtle changes.

A death sentence, like the one she and her team already carried.

He turned to Dragon, just to his right.  She bent down, kissing the spot on his arm.  It was purely ceremonial.  She began to shut down systems, making preparations.  Facilities across Earth Gimel and Earth Bet prepared to wipe everything clean.

The protests had died down, with this.  Defiant offered his hand to Chevalier.

Chevalier pulled off his gauntlet, and clasped Defiant’s wrist, while Defiant clasped his.  Defiant could feel and his sensors could hear the signal thrum through Chevalier’s body.

Chevalier’s voice was low, quiet, and heard by everyone present, “Here we go, old friend.  To think this isn’t even the hard part.”

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Last – 20.9

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The technology in my right eye winked out.  It was still highlighting random things, showing text, and countdowns I could no longer ascertain the meaning or relevance of, and it went dark, turning my eye into an ordinary eye.  If there was a light there, and I had no idea if there had been… there was nothing.

For a long, spine-chilling moment, I didn’t move a muscle or take a breath as I came to terms with the fact that that might be the world ending.

Medical monitors beeped, machines hissed, and at least one person was out of it and either didn’t care or didn’t know how much noise they were making.  Screams, grunts, and inarticulate cries.  People looked stressed and they had a thousand times a thousand reasons to look that way.

The area, at least, was well lit, although the brightness of the lights and the fact everything was white made my eyes hurt.  My head was pounding, even if my short sit-down with Jessica had let me recuperate enough I didn’t feel like even flying would make me pass out.

A crew of nurses made their way through the throng of people who were sitting in the waiting area.  Ten minutes had passed from my arrival, and I’d spent most of those ten minutes dwelling on the problem at hand.  The Wardens would be telling Dauntless and Fume Hood not to engage.  That gave us a short, short clock when it came to the Simurgh’s plan to end the world.

Around the time those ten minutes had passed, I’d stopped thinking about plans and counter-plans entirely.  I’d started watching the nurse that looked like he was going to get to me first, my full focus turned toward him, the checklist of questions he was asking, and the answers I’d give.  Could I make small talk?  What would I say?

If the world was really ending, could I make the interaction as pleasant as possible?

It was stupid, so minor, it didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.  But it kept my mind off of the raspy burr to each of my breaths, the pain, and more than any of that, the fact I didn’t really have any hope for the future.

If my estimation was right, then literally any moment now, the Simurgh would be merging with Fortuna.  If she’d miscalculated, then it could be a few minutes more.  If I’d lost track of time to a sufficient degree, then it could be already happening, the scream imminent.

And I was waiting in line, so to speak.  Sitting in a chair with a plasticky-white cover on the padding, elbow to elbow with the people to my left and right in matching chairs.

“Alright, miss?”

I turned my head- too quickly.  I winced as neck muscles pulled at my collarbone.

A female nurse, not the one I’d been anticipating.  The guy was stuck talking to someone elderly.  A refugee or a cape’s family.

“Antares, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I said.  My voice had that same just-been-sick burr to it.

“What do you need?”

My hand was holding the washcloth-sized pad of cotton to my collarbone.  The cotton was stuck to blood, and pulled at my skin, which pulled at the bone.  I felt it grate and click, my expression changing to something like I was screaming, even though the air was locked in my throat.

A dribble of blood ran down from the pad’s edge to the heel of my hand, down to my sleeve.  It wasn’t like I didn’t already have a ton there.

“Okay.  Don’t remove that.  Come with me.”

“I think other people arrived before I did.  I don’t want special treatment.”

“It’s on a requirement basis.  That’s a clear break and serious blood loss.  Do you need help?  A chair?”

“I can fly.”

Technically, I knew that they were giving us triage.  I knew it wouldn’t be a first-come, first-serve basis.  At the same time, I was aware I didn’t have any friends.  The Wardens didn’t trust me after my altercations with Eric, non-Wardens had reasons to distrust me because they’d heard Chris’ filtered version of my plan.  Too many civilians were anti-parahumans.

On a level, I just wanted to minimize stress on as many fronts as possible.

I floated after the woman, who had ear decorations that threaded through holes in each ear- something that might have come from one of the cultures we ran into with all the interdimensional stuff.  She kept looking back to check on me, her eyes flicking down to my feet, as if to confirm to herself that I really was flying.  I didn’t run into that a lot.

The hallway had a u-curve, with sections separated by walls, privacy provided by curtains that slid out in front to form a fourth barrier.  People in Patrol uniforms stood guard here and there, keeping the peace.  Two of them were helping to carry a stretcher with a cape in heavy armor on it.

It all felt so surreal.

I’m sorry.  I really hope the Wardens have something.

My thoughts were jarred as I saw Marquis.  He glanced at me, saying nothing, before pushing a curtain aside just enough to step into the enclosure.

Was she here?

If there was a small peace to be found in the small kindnesses and smaller distractions, that possibility erased it, destroyed it.

“Doctor Close?” the nurse asked.  The doctor was in the center area, surrounded by nurses and papers that had been written on, not printed.

“Antares,” he said.  “I’ve seen you on television.”

“Oh no,” I said, deadpan in part because I was trying very hard not to provoke my injuries.

“I don’t take sides,” he said.  “That is a lot of blood right there.”

“There’s more,” I said.  “Hard to see with the black top on.”

He shined a light in my eyes, then at my mouth.  I opened it.

“Close,” he said.  I did.  He took my hands and looked at the fingertips.  Well, the ones he could see with the bandages.

“Lip color is okay.  Fingernails don’t suggest circulation problems.  Any confusion?”

“Thoughts are a bit rambly.”

“Dizziness?”

“Yep.”

“Sweating?”

“I just fought the Simurgh.  If I wasn’t drenched in cold sweat, that’d be the problem.”

“That’s a yes?”

“Yes.”

“Breathe deep?”

“I’d rather not.  My ribs are…”  Fractured?  Broken?  “Fucked.  Pretty fucked.  My collarbone’s really fucked.  Broken.  I’m not sure about the ribs.”

So much for that thinking I’d done earlier about talking to that nurse and being really concise, making everything easier.  It wasn’t just my thoughts that were rambling.

“Could be a fracture,” he said.

I peeled the pad of bandage away, as much as I could.  It helped I’d just done it a minute and a half ago.

Minute and a half.  The world is ending.  The Simurgh is winning.

“Oh,” he said, with enough surprise in his voice to bring me to the present.  I almost jumped, and the only reason I didn’t might have been that I was way too fucking tired.

“Oh?” I asked.

“Broken,” he said.

“That’s what I said,” I answered, my voice a whisper.

I wasn’t sure he heard, because he was preoccupied saying something to the nurse.  He looked back to me.  “Abdominal pain?  Chest pain?”

“My ribs are pretty fucked,” I reminded him, my tone tense.  I felt bad enough sitting in a hospital cubicle while the world was fucking ending, without him wasting time.

“Just running through ,” he said.  “I’d like to get this costume top off you, so we can get a better look at that.  Nurse?  If you could help miss- help Antares here with her costume.”

“I got it,” I said.

The nurse hesitated.

My forcefield peeled away from me, moving me as little as possible.  Forcefield hands brushed my hair off to the side, over my good shoulder, tugging it where blood made it stick to cloth or skin.  I began pulling it off in increments.

“I’ll give you a moment of privacy while I check things,” Doctor Close told me.  “Help her if she needs it, Leah.”

“Yes, doctor.”

Did I scare him?  I wondered.

I didn’t need it.  I debated tearing at the cloth, but, for one thing, I didn’t want to scare them, and for another, I wasn’t sure it was actually easier.  It was sticking to my body from armpit to waist.

Besides, I liked my costume, even if it was soaked in blood.

I let her hold my arms, gently raising and bracing them, holding them with a strength that didn’t let them waver or shake.  Handprints stood out against my skin.

“Do you have water?” I asked.  “And a cloth or paper towel?”

“We have bottled water.  Why?” nurse Leah asked.

“Please,” I said, my voice tense and my words curt because breathing was hard in this position, the breaks and fractures making every sound an effort.

She left, and I worked on extricating myself from my costume.  Forcefield hands removed the breastplate, setting it aside.

She returned with the water and a bit more of the cotton pad bandage.

With forcefield hands, I wet the cloth and used it to soak the parts of me where sweat didn’t reach but blood had.  It had clotted, and clung to tiny, translucent body hairs all down my back, until skin, costume, and clotted blood were inextricable.  The water helped.

Once I got past the small of my back and my stomach, it was easier.

My costume and the long-sleeved shirt I’d been wearing were inexorably bound together.  I put them to one side, folding them.

Nurse Leah touched the forcefield, and I stopped.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said.  She reached out tentatively, touching it again, a hand on a shoulder.

The Fragile One slipped out of her grip, moving up to the bed, sitting just behind and around me.  It was like I was the Wretch again, but only a part of me that was still shaped like ordinary two-arms, two-legs, one-headed Victoria was there.  The rest was invisible, invincible, and fragile.

“She’s out of your way now.”

“She?”

“Secret,” I said.  The Fragile One lifted the wet, scrunched-together cotton cloth to my lips, the fold in roughly the dimensions and length of a finger.

Not that secrets matter anymore.

“Bra off too.  I have a paper gown for you.”

The athletic bra hugged my upper body, and more blood had settled into it, adhering it to my body.  I was not looking forward to removing it.  It was one of my favorites, too, though two days of exertion had probably halved its lifetime.

I tore it off, the Fragile One applying gentle pressure to my body to approximate the light constriction of it before digging into it with fingernails, tearing the cloth.  Skin pulled and wet bandage helped with the tricky spots when it came to the stickiest bits of bloody cloth.

I had more that would be a nightmare.  I couldn’t really see with my current posture and my inability to turn my head without feeling like my collarbone was being broken all over again, but I was very aware that blood had run down my body to adhere costume bottoms to underwear and underwear to skin.

The nurse held the paper gown up against my front, and I had the Fragile One hold it there.  I didn’t put my arms through the sleeve and the nurse didn’t ask me to.  It was a pointless movement of my arms when every movement of my arms hurt and I’d need to take it off anyway.

“Antares?” the doctor asked.

“Yes.  You can come in.”

“I was just thinking, would you rather use your real name?  You don’t wear a mask.”

“Victoria, Ms. Dallon, Antares, whatever you want to call me,” I said.

He nodded.  He had a pad, and was writing things down.  He put it down, then bent down, investigating my ribs.

“Tell me if it hurts.”

“It hurts every damn time my heart beats, Doctor.”

He poked and prodded for a bit, then lifted his stethoscope.  “This’ll be cold.”

“Everything’s cold, Doctor.”

“That’s a concern when our most immediate concern is blood loss and-or internal bleeding,” he said.

“I mean, it’s winter, I’m not wearing a top, this building facility has holes in it you could fly an Endbringer or Dragon mech through…”

“I didn’t know about the holes,” he said.  He pressed the stethoscope to my chest.  It was cold.  He touched my wrist, then my hand.  “Your body temperature’s a bit low, even with all of that.”

If nothing else, I appreciated being in this hospital room because it was distracting me.  I could focus on the little things, like keeping the rest of my blood in, not passing out, how to articulate the damage to my ribs, and how to gently remove articles of clothing using alien engines of chaos and conflict.

Fuck.  I’d choose to feel like this for the rest of my life, broken collarbone, every breath sparking a thought-disturbing bit of pain, cold and sticky, if only it meant I didn’t have to feel the heartbreak.

I would have forgone any fixes at all, let these wounds stay open, if only someone from somewhere else in the facility would walk in and say there was a plan.

“Do you happen to know your blood type off the top of your head?” Doctor Close asked me, as he jotted some things down.

“B negative.”

“We’re going to get you some,” he said, without looking up.

“Disrupts powers, doesn’t it?” I asked him.  “Temporarily.”

“I was about to mention that.  No guarantees, but there’s a small chance you won’t be able to do that trick with the… what’s that?  Telekinesis?”

“Basically,” I said.  “I’d like to keep my powers available, just in case.”

Just in case.

“You won’t have anything if you go into hypovolemic shock.  Can I get you to lie down?  The nurse can assist.”

“I fly.  I can.”

I made the transition to lie flat on my back.  The Fragile One held the paper gown up against my front.

“Leah, a blanket, if you please.  I think they just brought more in.”

“On it, doctor.”

It was harder to breathe while lying down.  I let the doctor putter around, preparing the space for things to come.  My flight kept me from pressing down too hard on the bed.

A distant screech built up in volume.  Horror gripped me, lingering even as I processed it as hospital equipment or someone’s power.  Not the Simurgh’s scream.

I winced, because the sound had induced a bit of panic, and the panic came with heavier, faster breathing.  My hand gripped the edge of the bed.

“We’ll need you to sign a consent form,” he told me.  In the wake of the noise, it hit me harder.  I shivered.

The blood transfusion- if I said yes to it, I was effectively surrendering.  Saying there was nothing more.  My fight was done, no powers, no nothing.

“Knock knock.”

Ugh, fuck.  Was this a bad thing?  A good thing?

“Can I come in?”

The doctor looked at me.  “A friend?”

I didn’t know how to answer that.

“I’m topless, except for a bit of paper, I don’t know if you care about that,” I said, raising my voice.

“I was a warlord, I’ve cut throats, had my throat cut, I’ve shot people,” Tattletale said, as she let herself in.  “I really don’t care about your boobs.”

I rolled my eyes.  I wanted to move my head too, but that wasn’t an option.

“Are you here for a particular reason, Tattletale?” I asked.

“Chastity.  She got a good knock to the noggin.  Cassie’s fretting and Rachel needed to be told it’d be better if she stepped away instead of getting cranky about it.  I saw Marquis and a certain someone take their leave, realized you were here.”

“Mm.  My neck and side hurt like fuck, did you think I need a pointed pain in my ass instead?  You don’t have to.”

“Nah, hon.  Just checking in.  You did your ‘brute destroy, grr argh’ thing, you apparently forgot you’re supposed to be invincible, now your job is done.  Mine is ongoing.”

“Gathering info.”

“I just told you I was a warlord.  I’m still managing, administrating, moving key pieces around.”

“Rah rah,” I said.

“So I’ll get right to it,” she told me.  “A lot of the pieces are running around very upset and concerned about something that apparently started with you.”

“Uh huh.  That.”

“I want to play a little game, Vicky.  If I say black, you say…”

“White?” I ventured.

“Yeah,” she said, like it was the most profound thing ever.

“Can I kick her out?” I asked nurse Leah, who had just made her way inside, navigated around Tattletale, and who was now draping a weighted, warm blanket over my legs.

“You could.”

“Listen,” Tattletale said.  “That’s the way it’s supposed to be.  I say black, you say white, I say let’s literally nail Teacher’s ass to a wall, and you’re supposed to say that’s wrong, I’m a bad person for using cruel and unusual punishment.”

“Do you want her to leave?” the nurse asked me.

“I’m really tempted.”

“Except you went and came up with a punishment way worse than putting a tire around someone’s neck and setting it on fire.”

“You never did that.”

“Exactly my point!  You’re making me look too good, with your indefinite, jury-less detention, and now I hear you were apparently planning on mass murder?”

The nurse gave me a look, and it wasn’t her checking if I wanted Tattletale to leave.  One line from Tattletale, and the nurse was wary, not entirely on my side anymore.

“Can you give us a minute?” I asked.

The doctor and nurse made their exit.

In the background, I heard someone grunting and screaming.  There was a clatter.

“It’s more than just that,” I told Tattletale.  “Cryptid gave a pretty trite, one-line explanation.  There were contingencies, plans, post-plans.”

“Oh I know,” Tattletale said.  “Which is part of the reason I’m here, checking.  You had teammates going along with it, including a goody-two-shoes like Sveta and a kid who’s got a lot to redeem himself over.  The Wardens were entertaining it, despite the fact you’re not in their good books.”

“I’m okay in their good books, I think.”

“You’re not in their best books.”

“Conceded,” I grunted.

“So there’s more to it,” Tattletale said.

“It was a last-ditch effort.  Riley, Bonesaw, thought it would work.  So did Cryptid.  We send capes to fight Endbringers knowing that a good proportion will die.  We have to send a certain number or they win and we lose something fundamental.”

“Sure,” Tattletale said.

“Now we’ve got forces worse and stronger than a single Endbringer lined up.  It requires us to commit more, with a higher proportion of death.”

“One hundred percent.”

“Maybe,” I said.  I used flight to get to a sitting position, holding the paper dress in front of me and the bandage to my shoulder.  “Does it matter?  We don’t have what we need.  The Simurgh got out ahead of us.”

“It matters to me,” Tattletale said.  “I’ve tolerated a lot, spending time with you, helping out your teammate…”

I laughed, one note, then winced with pain.

“…But I have to draw the line here,” Tattletale said.  “I lost someone important to me because she wanted to make a stupid, grand gesture at the end.  She made the gesture without communicating with anyone… except your sister.  Then she carried it out.  You, I hate to break it to you, aren’t important to me.”

“Good.  I’m glad.”

“But I have no tolerance for this shit.  Zero.”

“The Wardens knew.  My teammates knew.  Lookout excepted.  The plan was to ask every single cape out there if they’d oblige us.  Maybe we’d force the problem elements.  The ones we’d sign off on executing anyway, I mean.”

“The monsters.”

“And… whatever.  Yeah.  The effect would be passed from cape to cape by contact.  But it required that handshake.  I think Cryptid thought it wasn’t worth it.  That we’d get halfway and fail because people wouldn’t take the risk, wouldn’t make the sacrifice.”

“I have teammates who would have taken your offer.  I don’t think I can be okay with that.”

“I am fucking open to better ideas, anything,” I told her.  “But I’m worried the Wardens’ contingency plans won’t work-”

“They aren’t.”

“They…”

“Sleeper has been baited in.  No luck.  Saint had a trick up his sleeve when it came to dealing with A.I., in case his big red button for dealing with Dragon didn’t work.  He’s trying it on the machine army.”

“And?”

“And nothing.  There’s talk of Dragon cooperating with him.”

I shivered.  I wanted to wrap myself in the blanket and I was pretty sure my bones couldn’t bear the weight of it.  My arms were limp to my side.  Forcefield fingers were running through my hair, combing it, and I didn’t remember doing that.  They were sharp, scraping my scalp without cutting it.

Tattetale took a seat on a side table, her arms folded.  “The Wardens aren’t a force for change, Victoria.  The PRT, aside from its initial revolution and moves, back in Bet, it wasn’t a force for change.  They’re all about the status quo.  The bigger they get, the more they have to hold back.  They’re too used to holding back.  They don’t have that frame of mind to make the big leaps.  At most they prolong the inevitable.”

“That’s a little uncharitable.”

“I’ll give them their due.  They’re doing their damndest.”

“We’re out of time, Tattletale,” I said, quiet.  “What they’re doing isn’t working, and you’re here, trying to vet my plan.”

“Trying to fathom it, when it’s the one action you could take that’s furthest from my ability to understanding.  It’s reckless.”

“It is, a bit.”

“There’s nothing noble about putting lives on the line, Victoria.  It’s even less noble when thousands do it.”

“You say that even when… you knew Khepri?” I asked her.

“No comment.”

“Do you have anyone you care about?” I asked her.  “That you’d make a sacrifice for?”

“Most of the people I care about to that degree are people with powers, and they’d be getting the touch of death.”

“It would be a dreaming death,” I said.  “Slow but inevitable.  Gotta pollute the cycle.  It’s critical that it take a little while.  Makes the rest of it easier.”

“Uh huh.”

“You said ‘most’, when you said most were capes.  Are there any that aren’t?”

“One person who doesn’t have powers, who’s far, far away right now,” she said.  “You haven’t really convinced me.”

“I haven’t exactly been trying.  I’m a little dizzy, I’m supposed to get blood, even though it might muck with my powers and screw up my newfound relationship with this girl here…”

I touched the side of the Fragile One’s face.

Tattletale leaned to one side, peering past the gap in the curtain.

“I dunno,” I said.  “I’ve been outlining it.  That’s all.  There’s more to it.  Steps, stages.”

“What would you say, if you wanted to convince me?”

“Is there a point, Tattletale?  If that’s where you draw your personal line in the sand, given your past experiences, I’m not going to fight you on that.  The feelings are valid and I think we’d only fuck up our fragile truce here if I tried.”

“Not my past experiences.  Current experience,” she said, meeting my eyes.  “As a person left behind.”

“Sure,” I said.  I shivered again.

“There’s a way,” she said.

I stared at her.  The goosebumps that crawled up my arms had nothing to do with the chill.

“Tell me,” I told her.

“No.”

Tell me,” I told her, again, rising to an upright position, my toes a half-inch off the floor.  I used my aura, pushing at her.  Big.

All throughout the hospital complex, conversations stopped.  Everything went quiet.

Tattletale stood strong.  “You haven’t convinced me.  You’d take Rachel from me?  Grue?  Again?  Imp?  Chicken fucking Little?  The Heartbroken kids?”

“Potentially.  People will die no matter what happens, Tattletale.  It’s a question of whether it’s one hundred percent or sixty or twenty five percent.  If we do nothing it’s one hundred percent.”

“If we do nothing the Simurgh might win.  We live.”

“We won’t be us and you fucking know it, Tattletale,” I told her.

She was silent.  There wasn’t a hint of a grin on her face.

“You’d rather die,” I said.  “Than see people you love die.”

“My life is defined by regrets,” she said.  “And I don’t know if I’m that different from Cryptid.  I don’t trust the people who are pushing for status quo, and when people are taken from you… it’s not noble or good or pretty.  There’s no heroism to fighting cancer or hurling yourself against an Endbringer and hoping it goes away.”

I thought of Dean.  Of thoughts I’d had not long after losing him.

“It’s just an ending,” Tattletale said.

“You could go, in place of Imp, or in place of Chicken Little.”

“What number are we trying to reach, then?” Tattletale asked me.  “You didn’t sound sure about how many would need to die.”

“I’m absolutely not.”

Someone moved on the other side of the curtain.  Tattletale flicked at the curtain itself, reached out with a hand, as if to tell someone to stop.  People reacting to the aura.

She clenched the outstretched hand, then brought it down to her side, balled into a fist.  “Then how many, Victoria?  How many people do we need to convince in a painfully short period of time?  What’s the point I can say we’ve met the threshold, I can trick Imp into staying home?  Or trick Chicken Little?”

She looked so sad, like she was about to cry.  I hadn’t seen Tattletale like that, but it felt more like her than any other conversation I’d ever had with her.

“Enough,” I said.

“Insufficient.”

“It’s the way it’s always been.  Against Endbringers.  Against Scion.  The more the better, and if we don’t get enough, then everyone loses.”

“Vista doesn’t get her knight in shining armor, and Capricorn doesn’t get to blow off years of pent up steam with Vista.”

“It’s not about that.  He’s not about that.”

“If you go, then you’ll break Capricorn’s parents hearts again.  How about that?  You’re leaving Lookout alone or you’re asking that poor kid to die alone despite the fact that it’s her worst fear.  You’re asking Precipice to end his journey unfinished.  Sveta never gets to be a human for a prolonged period, doesn’t get normal dorky dates with a creative boyfriend.”

“You’re using your power to get details.  That’s low.”

“Of course I fucking am, Antares.  I’ve been working my ass off to save those people.  I’ve gone without sleep, I’ve had migraines every third fucking day.  So if you want to convince me, you’ve got to tell me it’s somehow worth it to end every single one of those people’s stories where they currently are.  Miserably unfinished.”

I raised my good arm, then let it fall.  “That’s… not an argument.”

“It’s an argument you don’t like.”

“It’s… if it comes to that?  Any one of those people?  Those bad endings?  I think we’re willing to do it for their own reasons.”

“We are,” Sveta said, from beyond the curtain.

She slipped through.  Her tendrils were writhing.  I saw a glimpse of Rain on the other side.  Grue, too, his back to the curtain.

“A story half-finished is better than no story at all,” Sveta said.  “If we die, there’s nothing.  No legacy, nobody to remember or carry on sentiments.  There’s no point to it all.”

“There are so many other people out there with their own lives,” I told Tattletale.  “Civilians.  Jerks.  Capes who ran from these battlefields.  It’s basic fucking empathy to not want to end their stories either.  The world doesn’t start and finish with the people you know.”

I heard a sound, a deep voice.  Brian, murmuring words that sounded agreeable, though I couldn’t make them out.

“This world isn’t worth keeping if they’re not in it,” Tattletale said.

“That’s a big if and you know it,” I said.  “I don’t know if you’re disagreeing on principle, given your past-”

“A horrible, slow nightmare filled death for thousands?  That may be pointless?  That’s not principles,” Tattletale said.

“I think we let people choose,” I told Tattletale.  “I think we give them the information, we let them choose.  If we don’t end up getting enough… they’re just getting a head start.  I think you know that we should, and that’s why you’re standing here arguing with me, wanting me to say words that make this easier or simpler.  Or wanting me to force you to tell me, so you’re absolved.”

I knew, telling her, that there was a chance she’d realize and walk away, or hit a wall, or anything.  When using my aura to evoke an emotion, I knew there was a chance that a certain person’s lens for viewing the world would alter the response.  I could give a man fear and get anger in response.

Words were the same.

I watched as Tattletale took in that information through her particular lens.

I watched her turn, pushing aside the curtain with more force than was necessary, giving people a view of me wounded and unarmored, before Sveta closed the curtain.

“You have a call,” Tattletale’s voice came from the other side of the curtain.  “That communication with Fortuna you were planning.  Lookout’s handling the technical side.  You know where she is.  You’ll want Precipice with, since he’s the one that got through to her in the first place.  It might help.”

That wasn’t an answer, that wasn’t-

“If you need to get Riley or her stuff to a place you can use her, there are non-cape ways.  Several.”

I picked up my blood-crusty costume top with the Fragile One, pulling it on, the rush of realization providing a dizzying rush that threatened to make me pass out at the same time it dulled the edge of the pain.

Sveta followed, with Rain jogging along.

Semiramis was out there, with Tattletale.  As Tattletale gestured in my direction, I felt my collarbone pop.  My costume shed crusty blood.

My first thought was that it was a trap, that she was rewinding my memories as well, in a final action of regret.  But I didn’t feel anything slipping away.  I felt better, as the worst of my wounds were targeted.  Undoing what had been done.  Giving me just a bit more strength, a bit more of what I needed.

Which fit.  Outreach, possibly final, from Tattletale.  It served as a push forward, and recognition that she understood, even though she’d never be able to use words to voice it.

“Fortuna.  I’m… I’m hoping it’s the person that hears me.  Not the Titan.”

“If you have any fight left, I need it now.  I need you.  You can tell your agent we’ll give them Fume Hood and Dauntless.  They’ll know we’re telling the truth.”

“I need your help, and the help of the Titans you’re linked to.  Pouffe, Valkyrie.  One person to one place.  You should be able to defeat the Simurgh, and all the pieces fall into place just as they want them.”

“Please.    Thank you.”

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Last – 20.8

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Chris, Cryptid, Lab Rat, stood opposite the three of us, slouched forward, guarded, the glare on his monstrous, rat-like face a constant. With the lights partially off, likely because of damage to the facility, he was mostly lit from behind.

The source of that lighting was a dozen or so monitors, spread around a lab that twenty or so individuals might use.  Eight of those twelve monitors were showing images of Riley Davis, Bonesaw, most from a head-on angle, most shot from cameras small enough that the images had a fishbowl effect.  She leaned toward the cameras while trying to make out details, which put her eyes at a level where the fishbowl effect magnified them wildly in comparison to the rest of her face.  The rest of the screens I could make out showed what I imagined were regular laboratory readouts.  Graphs, tables, molecular chains.

I felt cold in this stark, dimly-lit space.  My mind stumbled, trying to parse what he’d just said.

I was too tired, and so soon after the engagement with the Simurgh I simply didn’t trust my own judgment or senses.  A part of me wanted to deny this reality, refocus, and move forward anyway.  I needed medical care, so did Rain, and Sveta needed to get calm.  Whatever happened, we’d be doing that, so… it made sense to turn, go to the first aid kit, and get started.

I couldn’t bring myself to budge.  I stared at Chris, as emotions belatedly crept in.  Instincts, or an awareness I would have called instincts before they’d turned out to be as faulty as they were proving to be now… they told me he was too guarded, too intense.

And the reality was, as logic joined my emotions in arriving late to this party… we didn’t have time to fuck around.  We were about to hand Fortuna everything she needed to win.

“Cryptid,” I said, my voice low, my tone quiet.  “Tell me that you haven’t made it yet.  That you’re almost done.”

Cryptid shook his head slowly.  His fur was gradually changing from brown to black.

“Riley,” I said.  “You there?”

“I’m here,” the voice came through.  “I didn’t hear his response, and the camera isn’t giving me a good view of him.”

“He just shook his head.  Was there not time?”

“There was time, I talked him through the steps.  It’s set, or it should be set.  Why?  What happened?”

“That’s exactly what I’m wanting to know,” I said.  I met Chris’s eyes.  The orbs remained unchanged and the narrow pupils focused on me even as the flesh around the eyes changed and rippled, becoming thicker, with more creases and lines.  Flesh turned from light brown to stark white with dark mottling around the lines, folds, and creases, like the pigmentation had all leaked in there.  It made the contrast of the dark fur – dark feathers more stark.

“Did you have another idea?” Rain asked.

“This isn’t the time to be cagey,” Sveta said.

“No cage or caginess,” Chris said.  “You had the project idea.  Riley Davis knew the steps to take and talked me through them.  I decided to do something else instead.”

“What was that something?” I asked.

“Insurance.”

“For?” I asked, my voice tense, quiet.  My collarbone was radiating pain with every heartbeat, and my heartbeat was so heavy I felt like it was rocking my entire body.  For us?  For Humanity?

“For me.  You’re looking at it.”

The fur was becoming feathers.  The way it changed color suggested it was more than normal hair or feathers.  Alive from root to tip.

“Why the fuck why did you drop it?” I asked.  “Did you not fathom what we’re trying to do?”

“I fathom,” he said.  His tone of voice had changed a fraction with his ongoing transformation.

“I’m not sure I fathom the big plan,” Rain said.  “But Victoria thinks it might work, the Warden leadership thinks it’s doable as a last ditch resort.  I trust them.  If you think it won’t work, I’d love to hear why.  You’re pretty smart when it comes to stuff like this.”

“I think it might work,” Chris said.

“Then why?” I asked, with all the intensity I could muster with my collarbone as fucked up as it was.

“Because it might not,” Chris told me.  “Because it requires you to have faith in everyone out there…”

He extended a knobby finger, tipped by a black nail.

“…And I don’t.”

“What do you think is going to happen, Cryptid?” I asked.  “How is what you’re doing better?”

“What happened with the Simurgh?” he asked.

“Answer my questions first.”

“The scream tapered off.  I don’t think she died.  She left.  From the state of you and your focus on this, you did enough damage to her that you’re fairly confident she’s not about to pull off her endgame.”

“Answer the questions, Chris,” Sveta said.

“I don’t trust the people out there.  I do trust the Simurgh’s malice.  That world she wants to create?  Where everyone’s screaming?  I can deal.  I can keep my mind intact.  A world with nobody to bother me, I can read books, comics, and catch up on old games for as long as I want.”

“Chris, there are so many things wrong with that that I don’t even know where to begin,” Sveta said.  “That you think anyone could be happy or sane with zero human contact for that long…”

“Like the people you sent off to a prison world?” he asked.  “No, I can manage, trust me.  I know myself.  And if I want company, I can pick someone and inoculate them.”

“The power dynamics would be so fucked up, doing that,” Sveta said.

“Not if I picked the right people.  A tinker like Riley Davis here…”

“No,” Riley said, through the computers.  “I don’t want it.  Not the inoculation, not that life… not with you.  If I could keep myself from coming after you for letting the world fall into the Endbringer’s clutches, I’d eventually lose it and come after you at some other points.”

Chris glanced back over his shoulder.  He shrugged, slow, languid, and deliberately.  “Keeps things interesting.”

“I wouldn’t make it interesting, Lab Rat,” Riley said, her tone light.  “I’d make it final.  No chance, no deliberation, no conversation or warning beforehand.  I’ve spent too long trying to find the me in between the normal and the monsters.”

“Fine,” Chris said.  For a second or two, his eyes weren’t looking at anything in particular, as if he was visualizing something, or reconciling something.  “I really don’t care that much.”

“The Simurgh is hurt, Chris,” I said.  “She doesn’t win this one.”

“She’s hurt and she’s not stupid.”

“Stupid is the wrong word,” I told him.  “She’s a force of nature.”

“You forget, I have the memories of someone who spent years in the Birdcage.  Talking to some of the biggest monsters out there, talking about big things.  The closest person I had to a friend was an expert in big.  I get how these things work, how they move, what pushes them.  I got the Birdcage, more than anyone else.  I got Dragon and what she was.  I was ready to bargain with solutions and weapons against Endbringers the moment the people beyond the Birdcage hit their limit and realized they had to ask us for help.  I used some of it against Scion.  Infinite flesh, when combined with the right powers.”

“You got caught, you got out by luck, and then you died,” Sveta said.  “Chris… you’re not that clever or good.”

“I made the Giants.  Titan counterweapons that are still out there fighting.  Not that it matters.  What’s going to happen out there is all the capes that have been keeping the Machine Army and other Titans under control are going to go after the Simurgh.  They’re going to hurt her.  Whatever other measures you came up with, you’re going to try using them.  You’re going to spend resources and you’re going to run out of time.  She’ll recover, because she’s far stronger and far more powerful than we pretend she is.”

“She’s too hurt,” I said, shaking my head more than was necessary for a simple negation.  “And we just sent the order for Dauntless and Fume Hood to link up with Fortuna.  Past that point, Fortuna has to win.”

“You’ll rescind it.  You’ll stall once you realize you don’t have a plan for Endgame.  While you’re doing that, the Simurgh will come out on top.”

“You really believe that,” Rain said.  “Cooped up in this lab, not even following.  You didn’t see how we cut her in half.”

“I’ve put all my chips on it,” Chris said.

“She fucking got to you,” I said, my eyes widening.

“No, she didn’t.  I knew I’d be doing this before we arrived at this facility.  I’m the only one here who isn’t underestimating her, and I’ll be the only one here who can string together two coherent thoughts, in the end.”

“Chris,” Sveta said, quiet.  “I should warn you that I’m not in complete control of my body right now.   I don’t want to kill you, but you’re making it very hard to restrain this body’s natural impulses.”

“And you’ll murder someone you hate, again, just… what is it?  Eight floors up and three hundred feet away from where you murdered the woman who made you what you are?”

“Fuck you, Chris,” she said.

“For what it’s worth,” he said.  “I expected you to be upset.  Part of what I did with my time was plan countermeasures.  This is yours, Sveta.”

He picked up a syringe from a table, big and plastic, holding it in one talon-hand.  Ninety percent of him was covered in feathers now.

She reached for it, and he reacted, fast, pulling his hand back.  Sveta caught it on the second attempt, gripping it, while he did the same.  Neither budged, and the syringe was held by both of them.

“Let me dash it to pieces against the wall.”

“It’s a fix,” Chris said.  “You get a body.  Ten fingers, ten toes, belly button, heartbeat, spleen.  You’d lose the tattoo, that’d be purged, your skin would be like anyone’s skin.”

“I don’t fucking believe you, Chris.”  She pulled her tendril back.  Her arm writhed as a morass for long seconds before returning to something resembling an actual arm in shape.

“It’s not happily ever after,” he said.  “You still lose your mind, whatever form that takes, though I have my suspicions on how she’ll tackle this.  I don’t think it’ll be that bad at first.  She’ll have to spend at least a decade repairing the damage, getting things lined up, coordinating everyone and everything.  You’ll be a little cuckoo, she’ll be nudging you here and there to put you in a convenient little box where you’re doing what she needs you to do.  Nobody will quite be able to bring themselves to put up a fight.  She’ll close up the cracks-”

“Chris,” I interrupted.  “Are you stalling?”

“No.  I’m honestly not,” he said.  He looked so at ease, when he’d just fucked us on every conceivable level.

I could go back, report to the Warden leadership, and tell them that it was all falling through.

But doing that… it meant conceding the issue.  It meant doing just what he’d said, holding back the Titans, holding back from the end.  It brought us back to square one against an enemy who was a hundred steps ahead.  The Simurgh might actually win that way.

This whole plan, the idea was to give them exactly what they wanted.  The Simurgh wanted a fight, wanted conflict, everyone on the planet pushing themselves to the limit, testing a system she’d set in motion.

Well, she’d got that.  Contained to this one facility.  With her as our primary enemy, more than each other.

Now Fortuna wanted to end the world.  We needed to help her do that.  If we balked, if we stopped… we lost.  Hesitation when parrying an incoming strike was death.  My early sparring with Manpower had taught me that much.  It was especially true when your opponent was a hundred times stronger than you, if not stronger.

No, I couldn’t reach out to the Wardens.  I had to hope that whoever was managing the cameras on Riley’s side wasn’t listening and making a phone call here.

I had to figure this out, figure out a way.

“It’s a trick.  You don’t make permanent changes,” Sveta told him.

“Oh, it’s real,” he said.  “I can make permanent changes.  There were people who went to the same hospitals you did that had permanent alterations, left over after the big changes the original Lab Rat put them through.”

“I remember.  As monstrous as anything I saw at the Asylum,” Sveta said.  “Not them.  What was done to them.”

“Not full changes, though,” I said.

“It was always possible.  I just didn’t, because I hadn’t decided on one.  I needed to decide on a new baseline body, and the original Lab Rat never could decide.  In that, at least, I’m different from him.  This is me now.  Forever.  Out of her reach.”

He was tall, crooked, his joints knobby, and his limbs and neck thin.  He was covered in black feathers, all of those feathers long, curling at the ends, especially long at the back and the undersides of each arm, draping down.

“No, if it was that easy, you’d have decided long ago,” I said.  “This is a bluff.”

“If you really think I’m bluffing, you’re giving yourself way too much credit.  At this point, the only reasons you matter to me is that she’s eventually going to win and drive each of you insane, and I don’t want that insanity pointed at me.  So Sveta can lose her powers, Rain can never sleep again, the two of you can at least be happy that you won’t be as good at murdering people as you would be with powers at full strength.  As for you, Victoria… I don’t know.  I don’t understand you.”

“Fucking likewise,” I said.

“So I decided the best recourse was to kill you, when and if you ever came after me.  I give myself… ninety five percent odds.  Even with the new forcefield tricks.”

I clenched my fists.  The clench of my left fist made the skinned portion and the missing fingernail hurt.  I could feel the wound from the bullet hole to the bicep, the damage to the collarbone, and the damage to my ribs.  The pain helped to clarify my thinking.

My vision shook because my head shook, and my head shook because I was so rigid, so ready to do something, to take his head off.  To freak out.  Every breath came with pain.

I’d fought the Simurgh in part because I’d wanted to buy time.  Time for Chris to build this fucking thing.  And he hadn’t.

“Riley,” I said.  “If I went and got another tinker, not necessarily a bio-tinker, do you think you could walk her through it?”

Chris scoffed, a hollow, eerie sound through a mouth that incorporated some beak.

“If she’s not a bio tinker, then no.   We could try, but… I wouldn’t get your hopes up.  Time’s short.”

“Could you do it?  We could work out a way of reaching you.”

“And manage distribution at the same time?” Riley asked.  “I don’t know.  I could.”

“Can you start?  And stay in touch?”

“On it.”

“Portals are down,” Chris said.  “Little Kenzie’s portal box that she made with help from Dragon is offline.  I checked a minute before you came in.  Around that time, the Wardens started asking about capes who could manage mass-transportation.  No replies, in part because communication is down on multiple fronts.  You can check yourself.”

“I will,” Rain said.  He looked at Chris.  “No offense, but I don’t trust you right now.”

“Finally getting some sense.  Never trust.”

Sveta’s voice was low, “Seriously, Chris.  I will murder you.  If that has uncomfortable parallels with Doctor Mother, then I’ll wrestle with those parallels another day.”

He shook his head.  “You might have won this battle, but you lost this war.  It’s the way it always is when it comes to her.  When the fights go fast, we think she didn’t have time to get things moving in the right ways.  When they go slow we convince ourselves we threw enough wrenches in her way to finally derail her plot.  You say I have it wrong when I say she wants to keep me alive, but you’re the ones who are misunderstanding all of this.”

I saw Sveta’s arm lose its coherence, and my arm started, before I realized it was my bad arm, I was slow- and I needed to use my forcefield anyway.

It didn’t matter.  She held herself back.  Just barely.  I could see it in her eyes.

“I don’t want to betray another so-called teammate,” Sveta said, quiet.

“Then why don’t you go?” I asked.  “Can you reach out for help?  Um, we need a biotinker-”

“You won’t find any,” Chris said.

“Or… fuck it.  My sis-”

I paused, mid-sentence.

She’d been there in the fighting, hadn’t she?  It felt like a fleeting thought, or something that could have been a false memory.  Was that before or after the Mathers Giant thing resolved?

I couldn’t remember what had happened to her, and the fact I couldn’t remember came with a heaping of dissonance.  It was like having a body that didn’t line up, my self-image as a pretty high schooler at stark odds with a wretched, sprawling mess of flesh and tangled limbs, enough to take up every bit of space on a couch, with some hanging over armrests and spilling out to rest awkwardly on the floor.

“You won’t find her.  She won’t cooperate,” Chris said.  “You don’t get it.  This is the Simurgh winning.”

Horror swept over me, belated, a smooth transition from the dissonant horror that was so tied into those two years of memory.

“Victoria,” Sveta said.  Bringing me back to reality, just a bit.  She was at the doorway.

“Bio-tinker.  Or my sister.  Or the means of getting Riley and her project to the epicenter of everything.”

Sveta nodded once, then made her exit from the room, rushing.  The door slid closed, banging on impact.

A momentary silence followed.

“It won’t be that bad,” Chris said.  “Not for a few generations.  That’ll be because she’s lulling us into a false sense of security, but eh.  We’ll be dead after that.”

“I don’t think you have any conception of what it’s going to be like,” Rain said.

“Being mind controlled, in a fucked up society driven by even more fucked up systems?  I’ve endured that ever since waking up on the eve of Gold Morning.  Implanted instincts, until I reached the lab where I was forced to fill my head with the original Lab Rat’s memories and experiments.  Two years, pretty much.  All while this city pretended to be functional.”

“I can tell you that you’re way off because I’ve lived it my entire life, until a month ago,” Rain said.  “Your two years is easy, compared to that.”

“No, it’s not easy at all,” Chris said.  “But it’s better than oblivion, and that’s what Victoria’s plan amounts to.  You chose living over oblivion when you decided to wake up and keep going, every day you lived with the Fallen.  You made the same damn decision I’m making right now.”

“There was hope, then.  There’s not hope in the Simurgh’s world.”

“I can recall the very therapy session when you said it felt hopeless, Rain,” Chris growled.  “But you kept going.  If I respected you for anything, it was for that.  Survival first.”

I joined in, “Yeah, fuck that, Chris.  Poor fucking you.  If that’s the bar you’re setting, then there isn’t one member of Breakthrough, living or dead, who hasn’t had to deal with intrusive thoughts, identity issues, and living situations that amounted to a kind of hell.”

“You might not be related by blood, but you’re definitely related by something,” Chris said, his voice low.  “You and your sister.  You just can’t get over your own shit.”

“You’re actually a monster,” I said.

“I said it a long time ago, I’ll say it again.  You’re more of a monster than I am, Victoria,” Chris said.  “You and your sister deserve each other.”

It was fleeting, like the impulse I’d use to twitch a finger.  A thought, but this thought was tied to triggers and levers.

Forcefield on, forcefield opened up.  I didn’t move a muscle, but my hair stirred as the forcefield lunged forward, invisible, to cross the thirty feet between me and the end of the lab where Chris stood framed by monitors.

He moved, quicker than I would have expected.  Taloned claws reached out as the forcefield bowled over tables, knocked syringes and papers to the floor, and closed the distance to Chris.

A taloned hand stabbed at the forcefield, catching it before it could catch him.  Precise, strong, and sharp enough to pop it.  Gone like a soap bubble.  His long feathers blew in the resulting breeze that followed the sudden termination of those super-strength movements of forcefield hands through air.

He plans to wear this body indefinitely.  He picked a strong one.

He can see you.  I looked at those black eyes with flecks of red and gold in them.  The pupils were like a goat’s, rectangular.

He lunged, so quickly after his flat-footed pre-emptive strike that I almost didn’t register it.  I flew back to buy myself time, and my forcefield came back up a second before he reached me.  She grabbed a table, tore it from the wall, and slung it his way.

He vaulted over it, one leg going out long to rake the forcefield and break her again, before he landed.  Even landing was a twisting, multi-layered movement, as he turned, grabbing Rain as Rain produced a silver blade and swung it.  Rain was thrown halfway across the room.  Rain’s landing saw him put both hands out to catch himself.  One of those hands was already broken.  His reaction immediately after his fall made that clear enough.  Almost incapacitated.

I used my aura, taking hold of desperate feelings, in the hopes of driving home the caring, the need.  The fact that billions of lives were on the line.  Chris didn’t even bat an eyelash.

“Decentralized everything.  Detached everything,” Chris told me.  “Do you want to try this again?  I’m still confident I’ll win.  If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have been here when you finished with the Simurgh.”

“What do you want, Chris?  What can I offer you?”

“Nothing.”

“I refuse to believe that!  If it’s about your faith in everyone else following through on this, give me a test.  Let’s prove it can work on the small scale.”

“I’m not interested.”

I clenched my fist, and then I lunged for him again.  This time, it was the Wretch and me together, pulling apart, attacking him from two different directions.  The Wretch fragile but strong, me… broken but resilient.

“What are you-” he started.  He stopped speaking for a moment while protecting himself.  The Wretch avoided giving him any clear strikes, while taking up as much of his concentration as possible.  Tables, chunks of the lab’s counter, and pieces of computer equipment were leveraged as weapons.  I used every technique I’d learned sparring with my mother.  Faster than me, more lethal- but there were always stumbles.  He wore a body he wasn’t used to, and there had to be a weak spot.

He clawed at me, caught my breastplate, clawed at  me again, caught hair and a bit of my cheek.  His elbow hit me in the sternum in a deliberate, measured way, and the pain of broken and fractured bones connected to that point threatened to knock me out.  I threw myself at him, all of my strength dedicated to keeping aware and keeping my senses together as I wrapped in a bear hug despite the breaks and fractures I was suffering from.

The result wasn’t what I’d pictured in my head.  I’d thought it would be fierce.  Instead, I slumped, leaning hard into him with one side of my body, relying on flight to press me into him, his back against a damaged counter.

The Fragile One held one of the syringes I’d had her knock to the floor in the first move.  Sveta’s, the one that was supposed to give her a body, left deliberately behind.

Poised, ready to stab Chris, and to take away his new, Simurgh-immune body.

“You think I’m scared?” he asked.  “Do you think I’m surprised?”

He reached out, grabbed the syringe, and pulled it toward himself.  The needle punctured his body.

I thought it was a bluff.  We were already playing a game of chicken, me putting off telling the Wardens what was happening and getting them to back off on sending the message to Dauntless and Fume Hood.  Meanwhile, he was standing on the tracks, his own train incoming.  The Simurgh pursuing him.  We were both at this standoff-

-But he pressed the plunger.

The shedding of his monstrous form was as fast as the adoption of it had been.  Feathers began to fall away.  Pressed against him, I could feel him shrinking.

“I’ll get the immunity I need before she gets to me,” he said.  “I’m not worried.”

“Do you know why I can do that?” I asked, quiet, a murmur in his ear.  “The new tricks?  The control?”

“I’m sure you’ll tell me.”

“I came to terms with the power, and where it comes from.  The connections.  That I’m worth love, even now, even from myself.”

“That is some Saturday Morning cartoon bullshit,” he said.

“It’s reality, Chris.  You’ve been struggling, you’ve been inconsistent, fighting yourself every step of the way.  Fighting the past version of you, the you of now.  When you’re acting young you hate it because you’re not young.  Not really.  When you’re acting older, you hate it because it makes you like him.  But every time you have the chance to make a move or blame someone, or make some sense of it… you turn on others, blame them, and throw up walls.”

“And you don’t?” he asked.

“Boundaries are great, Chris.  They’re essential.  This world can be fucked up.  So… yeah, use whatever defense mechanisms you’ve got at your disposal.  Some are better than others, but anything’s better than having none…”

I paused.  For a second, I wondered if I was going to pass out.  How much blood had I lost today?  The pain I was experiencing with every heartbeat and every breath was incredible.

He didn’t butt in, didn’t retort.

I told him, my words as intense as I could make them,  “…Except, once you’ve thrown up those boundaries, built four walls, impenetrable, so high nobody can surmount them… you’ve still got to be okay with yourself.  I don’t think you are.  I think you’re the furthest thing from being okay with yourself.”

“Get off me.”

I got off him.  Flying back.  The shift of pressures against my ribs made the darkness creep in around the edges for a moment.

“I think this Simurgh driven future might not be so bad for the rest of us, but it’s going to be a kind of hell for you,” Rain said.  “Worse than any fire and brimstone hell the Fallen preached at me about.  Shitty thing is, even though you betrayed us twice now, I don’t want that for you.  I’m having trouble letting go of you as a friend.”

“I let go of you as a friend a long time ago,” Chris said.  “I’m walking out of this room.  If you try to stop me, for any reason, I’ll make you regret it.”

“I won’t rescind the plan,” I told him.  If we’re playing chicken, with an end of the world rushing at each of us… I’ll take oblivion over us losing our humanity.

“If you don’t, the Wardens will,” he said.

He started walking toward the door.  I floated up, ready to follow, to press the argument, but the simple shift in orientation made my head swim, the darkness creeping in again, my consciousness slipping so very easily, followed by what felt like a desperate two-steps forward, one-step back uphill struggle to recover.

And I wasn’t sure what I’d even say.  Chris, still shedding feathers, becoming a child again, walked past me.

The door slid closed.

He was gone.

“So that’s it?” Rain asked.  “The Simurgh wins?”

“The Simurgh set all the pieces down.  Everything went where she wanted it,” I said.  “I don’t know if she wins, though.  For that to happen, we need to tell Dauntless and Fume Hood to back off, tell Legend to leave her alone.”

My voice felt far away.

“We’re not going to do that?” Rain asked.

“No.”

“Okay, good.  I think.”

I would have nodded, but I wasn’t sure my consciousness could take that particular beating.  Not with my collarbone being like it was.

“No objection.”

The voice was Riley’s, from the back of the room.

“How’s the project coming?” I asked.

“Not very well,” Riley admitted.  “I don’t have a lot of the things I’d like to have.  It’s like… if I were explaining it to Mannequin, back with the Slaughterhouse Nine, I’d describe it as trying to make an oxygen recycler out of a toilet and a microwave.  I don’t have the pieces I need.  Then I don’t have the means of getting the end product where it needs to be, and…”

“It’s not going very well,” I echoed her.

“No.  But I’ll keep at it.”

“Thank you.”

“It was a good idea, I think.  Maybe.”

“I-” I started, my words interrupted by the thought, she said it in the past tense.  “Thanks.  I think.”

“I have to say it, or they’d revoke my medical tinker license, but you need medical attention.”

“Okay,” I said.  “I’ll get right on that.”

“Who or what do you need?” Rain asked.

“Sveta,” I said.  “Let’s… let’s get out of this shitty lab.  Maybe she found someone.  We’ll meet her halfway, and if we can’t, we’ll find someone to patch me together.”

“Sounds like a plan,” he said.

“Can I lean on you?” I asked.  “I might pass out, it’d be great if you could catch me.  I shouldn’t fly more than necessary.”

“Got it,” he said.

“Gently,” I said.  “Ribs- okay.  Great.”

We made our way out of the labs, into the partially lit hallway.  Lights flickered here and there.

From the hallway, we made our way to the stairs, moving relatively slowly.

People were running up and down the stairs.  Civilians were out of hiding, the ones who hadn’t lost their minds, at least.  Some had construction equipment, ladders, and toolboxes.

Good people.  Good stuff.

I sure hoped that however the world ended, we wouldn’t be coming back to this fucking place ever again.

Please Sveta.  Tell me you found someone.  A tinker hiding where the Simurgh couldn’t see her.  Even my sister… I’ll endure her for another conversation if it means that humanity gets to live and stay humanity.

I wobbled as we ascended the stairs, not because of any funny movement, but because of air pressure changes, or another bit of blood loss.  I gave Rain’s shoulder a squeeze, stopped, then took a seat on the stairs with his help.

All out of gas.

“I’ll see if I can grab someone,” he said.

“Cool,” I replied.

Rain made his exit.

I watched the people come and go as they headed up and down.  One woman stopped by me to give me a bandage to press to my shoulder, even though I already had the coagulant there.  It would have been nice to see some familiar faces.  Crystal in particular.  Finale, Withdrawal and Caryatid.  Even Tattletale, damn it.

“Victoria.”

I couldn’t bring myself to twist around to look up the stairs, but I leaned over to one side, using flight to stay steady, a grimace crossing my face as my ribs strained.

Sveta and Jessica came into view, sparing me the need to lean to one side to try and see them.  I grunted for breath.

“Hey,” Sveta said.

“Hey.”

“Um.  So your sister’s injured.  She’s not up to helping us.”

“Falling rubble?” I asked.

“Um.  Yes, but not like you’re thinking,” Sveta told me.  “There were eyewitnesses.  They saw you looking down from above and staring, they knew the prior relationship- the rubble fell after you left.”

She said it with such sincerity.  Like she knew exactly what conclusions I’d draw.

I wasn’t sure I believed her.

It didn’t matter.

“You’re pretty beaten up,” Jessica said.  “Can I sit?”

“Please,” I said, fighting not to let too much emotion into my voice.  “Chris is leaving the building, I think.  I don’t suppose you have any insights to share?  Any tricks?  Any ways to unravel the riddle that is… him?”

I felt a little lightheaded, rambly.

“I think he’s less of a riddle than… just about every other member of your team,” Jessica said.

“Oh.  No magic words to convince him to change his mind, help us out?”

“I can’t imagine there are.”

“But you thought he was a decent person?”

“I thought he had a great opportunity to be one.  When the therapy group formed a hero team, I thought two or more of them would go down the wrong track.  It’s a small miracle that it was only one.”

We were ignoring that another two had died.

“So it couldn’t be helped?” I asked.

“It could have.  But you’re not a therapist, Victoria.  And I… as unwilling as I was to admit it, I wasn’t prepared to be one either.  Not in those circumstances, with those pressures.  I should have pushed back harder against the team idea.”

“We did some good.”

“Absolutely.  Some essential good, from what I hear.  Battles won and mysteries solved that wouldn’t have been uncovered without your hard work.  I’d never deny that.”

“Cool.  Then what went wrong?”

“Battlefields make for terrible therapy couches,” Jessica said.  “That’s all.  That’s always been the case.”

“Oh.”

“I’m going to keep looking for people,” Sveta said.

“Okay.  Rain went upstairs,” I said.  “Looking for you.  And for doctors.”

“I’ll go up then.”

There was a silence after she made her exit.  I didn’t know what to say, and Jessica didn’t volunteer anything.

I wanted to apologize to her so badly, and I suspected she wanted to do the same to me.  We both left it unsaid.

“Are you still conscious?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Good,” she told me.  “I- Hello.”

A cape was making his way up the stairs.  A cape I’d seen with Gundeck, I forgot the name.  He stopped when he saw me.

“Is it true?” he asked.

“Is what true?”

“Your contingency plan that you gave to the Wardens.  Murder?”

“Oh,” I said.  “That was a last-ditch thing.  It fell through.”

“Good,” he said.

“Who did you hear that from?”

“Another cape.  Your teammate told them.”

“Cryptid,” I said.

“Yeah.”

And that was that.

That was the card he had up his sleeve, the threat he’d held in reserve if we tried to stop him.  Now he was using it to force the Wardens’ hand.  People would react, the Wardens would reassure, people would take measures to get out ahead of it.

“Contingency plan?” Jessica asked.

“Kill all the capes,” I said.  “Contagious, bio-altering sound, I think.  It didn’t matter how, just that it got enough of us.”

“How- I don’t think that would work.”

“There are two things that the Entities have always been bad at handling, when it comes to us.  Dreams… Rain’s thing drove that home, but capes like Miss Militia and Swansong, they had screwy retention and processing of data through their dreams.”

“Swansong remembering things that Damsel did after dreaming, and vice versa.  I don’t know about Miss Militia’s.”

“She remembered her trigger every night when she dreamed.  Doesn’t matter.  Dreams, and death.  We had enough come back from the dead.  Mix the two… the idea was we’d put down every cape we could.  Make the death slow, and riddled with heavy dreams.  Pollute the system, so they can’t use the data.  Let Fortuna get her end of the world… and find that there’s nothing to send out there.  Force her to abort.  Riley thought it would work.  So did Cryptid.”

“That’s a heavy decision to make on behalf of tens of thousands.”

“It’s a heavy decision to make on behalf of billions, maybe trillions, to make the decision to not do it,” I replied while gently leaning my head and shoulder into the wall, despite the pain it produced, “as Chris and the Simurgh just managed.”

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Last – 20.7

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My first instinct on seeing every cape present make their moves was that I’d played a pivotal role in the Simurgh’s master stroke.  It was too much, all together, with too many people in the line of fire.  All on my signal.

Solarstare’s power gushed into the open lattice and filled the hollow of the Simurgh’s body, right on target, until Chevalier’s second shot hit and jolted her, sending her flying back a good fifteen feet.  Excess liquid splashed dangerously close to where Tattletale and the capes she’d gathered around herself were hunkered down.

Three tinkers were using their tech together in what I could only assume was a ‘cross the beams’ maneuver, but they missed in the initial moments, raking the already damaged ceiling – ceiling I’d damaged in earlier fighting, and brought chunks down near the primary group of Wardens.

Damsel was moving unpredictably, using recoil to fling herself around, and Narwhal’s forcefield spikes were traveling in the same airspace.

But this battlefield wasn’t just about those capes.  Vista warped the residual ‘splash’ of molten gold and the cascade of falling rock.  Hookline and Disjoint were at the ready, Hookline grabbing Damsel and pulling her out of the way of the spikes, while Disjoint reached out with dismembered limbs and shoved capes out of the way.

There were others.  Advance Guard had a few members nearby, with Signal Fire hurling out a homing fireball that embedded itself in the Simurgh’s stomach and proceeded to suck in other airborne projectiles, concentrating them in one area.  Resound had a sonic blast that she channeled into that same spot.

Solarstare’s power erupted into superhot flame.  Much of it was within the Simurgh herself, and there were spots, especially where she was wounded, where the glow of heat within her made her silver body glow orange and yellow.

Byron’s motes detonated into mist, sweeping over the Simurgh.  Vista controlled the mist’s path, concentrating it.  Dust and smoke particles froze into frost-like lattices, and her exterior was super-chilled, at the same time she burned from within.

She folded wings around her, and they snapped and cracked with the movement as they drew around her body, frozen on the outside, with her body glowing red-hot from within.  A single crack at the lattice at one shoulder widened, inching down toward one nipple-less breast.  Just from the stresses.

There was no scream in my head.  For the moment, for this final batch of attacks, she wasn’t fighting, she was barely trying to defend herself, and she was taking a lot of punishment.  To see it, I could imagine the Simurgh had vacated the shell of her body, and this was a Simurgh-shaped statue we were so focused on taking down.

Solarstare’s flames began to glow brighter, shedding motes of light not too different from Byron’s.  The motes began to glow brighter, brighter-

Until Grue covered them up, shrouding the Simurgh in darkness.

She chose that moment to move, throwing herself back and away, closer to Sveta, Dinah and I.  Closer to the hole.

Dragon, still poised partially in the part of the hole that extended to upper floors, lunged down, driving the full weight of a quadruped mech the size of a house into the Simurgh.  The motes of light spilled out, almost rolling as they danced along the floor into the darkness.

I shielded my eyes, twisting my head away, and hooked my good arm around Dinah’s head to shield her as well, just in case.

Grue’s darkness did away with the worst of it, but it was still bright, and the brightness lasted.  Even though Dinah and I weren’t touching ground, I could feel the rumble through the air as a whole section of the facility gave way.

I chanced a look, using just one eye, and I saw that the hole in the floor had widened, the fight between Dragon and the Simurgh continuing below.

“Sveta,” I said.  “What can I do?”

“Nothing,” she told me.  “Except maybe don’t use the aura like that again.  I almost hurt someone.”

“Okay,” I said, quiet.

“Go fight.  I’ll manage,” she said, as she struggled to pull herself together, in what looked like one step forward, one step back, her body pulling itself apart into spaghetti tangles within a second or two of her getting a body part into roughly the right shape.  “I’ve managed for a long time.”

I placed Dinah on the ground, then flew.

“No!” Chevalier called out.

The call wasn’t just for me.  There were others who were rushing forward, ready to descend for the next stage of the fight.  Damsel was one.

I paused, looking back.

“Hold!” he called out, his voice deep, commanding.  “Five seconds!”

I remained where I was.  My heartbeat pounded, and I felt like it was enough that people would be able to see my pulse at my neck, my vision threatening to go dark like I’d stood up too fast.

Damsel, in her own way, was struggling too.  In this, at least, we were somewhat alike.  She didn’t want to stop.

She looked at me, and I saw recognition on her face.  Too soft to be Damsel recognizing the pain in the ass heroine Antares.  That fleeting look was replaced by a look of disgust, then rage, then something even deeper than rage.  She brought a hand to her head, and belatedly seemed to remember she had giant, multi-jointed knives for fingers, and couldn’t actually run her fingers through her hair or hold her head.  They remained poised there.

The floor below us erupted into a tide of blue light.  I stepped back from the hole in the floor, shielding my face.

Self destruct?

The light dissipated, then came again, this time with a different kind of flow.  Instead of a single mass of what could have been plasma or liquid flame, it was a hundred streams that bent at angles and wove into and through one another like a great angular braid.

As they fired, the beams transitioned to become less blue and more red.

The light dissipated.

“Go!” Chevalier called out.

I went, giving Damsel a wide berth.  Good thing too, because she used her power to slash out with a wide, fan-like blast that might have maybe grazed me if I’d followed my initial course.  I gave her that extra second to get where she was going.  Wasn’t worth the risk to follow too soon after.

It ended up making something of a difference.  The ground cracked all around us, and segments of floor began coming down in chunks.  More holes, more damage.  A whole pillar was pulled beneath.

As everything began to cascade down, the Simurgh rose back up, no longer grappling with Dragon.  Legend, too, chose a moment to come flying in.

Two of the big three Wardens were present.  I wasn’t sure if Narwhal qualified as a stand-in for Valkyrie, but… it was good to see.

The collapse was being rectified, cracks shrunk, holes diminished, and supports raised by way of forcefield and giant stone hands.  Byron shifted gears, drawing on the floor with motes, before solidifying them.  He’d done the same with ice, back when we’d been fighting the massed Titans, but now he paved a floor of rock with sweeping, shallow conch-like spirals.

She used her telekinesis, and more cracks began to creep out all around us.

“She doesn’t have her hooks in you, but she-”  Tattletale’s voice was cut off as she got clear of a cascade of bits of ceiling, high above us.

The environment.

Tattletale had been telling us that yes, we were free of the Simurgh’s influence, but that didn’t extend to the facility.

She supposedly screamed to gather data, and she used the data to inform her precognition.  We momentarily had the edge because everything about our movements flowed from Dinah and Dinah being a blind spot.  But the environment… she’d already worked out those calculations, already gathered the data and knew the ins and outs of cause and effect here.

The entire facility around her was putty in her hands.

I checked on Damsel, who was on the floor below, using a continuous, shallow blast around herself to ward off falling debris.

She gave me a hard look.  I looked away.

I could see the weapons that were being brought to bear against the Simurgh, here.  Legend’s lasers, Dragon’s tech, Solarstare’s beam.

A single punch from me didn’t matter.  Not here.

“Damsel!” I called out.

Her lips moved, her expression twisting even further.

“Torso!” I called down to her.

Again, she replied.  The roar of her power and the sounds around us drowned her out.  Too far away, and I wasn’t getting any closer while she was in a mood.  Too dangerous.

I took flight, looking for Torso.

If I couldn’t do the necessary damage, maybe I could at least enable the people who could.  Torso was the heaviest hitter I could think of off the top of my head.

I found Deathchester, peeking out through the hallway the Undersiders had been in.  Gibbet was creating half-circles of debris around and behind the Simurgh, not that it helped a ton, when she could use telekinesis or wade through them, breaking them in the process.   When one was picked up to be thrown, Gibbet reduced the scale of that chunk of floor or pillar, letting it shrink to nothingness before it could be used to bludgeon anyone.  Trophy Wife was assisting the wounded.  Sidepiece- I spotted her with some of the attacking forces.

The room went from dark to bright as Legend used another laser.  Hitting harder than I’d seen him do, especially in confined quarters.

The screaming was finding its way back into my head.  Small, slow, steady, but it was creeping in, building up, and it was doing it faster than it had initially done.

Our window is closing.

“Antares!” I heard the voice.  Win.

I turned to look at him, but I didn’t have the capacity to shout back.

“Your gun!”

I gave him a hand signal, somewhere between a point to go and a thumbs up, with a belated nod to confirm.

I had to hope the damage we were doing was enough.  That we could put her down or keep her down for long enough she wouldn’t be up for a fight with Titan Fortuna.

I would have called out, but it was hard to shout when the left side of my ribcage felt like it was hanging on by luck more than anything.  Instead, I landed beside Trophy Wife.  “Where’s Torso?”

She pointed.

I flew through the crowd, so I didn’t have to jog.

Torso had fallen into a crack in the floor and gotten wedged inside.  Two capes were struggling to get him out.

Chevalier fired another cannonblade shot.  The ringing in my ears that followed joined in with the scream.  I watched as the blade was raised high, then brought down, cleaving into the Simurgh’s already damaged shoulder.

With my forcefield, I did what I could to help lift Torso up, crushing the jutting portions of poured concrete floor to allow him to slide freely up.  It was mostly a brute from Foresight that did the lifting part.

“Torso,” I said.

He turned his eyes toward me, mismatched, painted on the surface of his oversized head.

“Can I try flying you?” I asked.

He gave me a thumbs-up.

Okay.  Here was the trick, then.  I disengaged from my forcefield, visualizing and forming the cocoon shape, the ribcage splayed open so I could fly out.  Then I turned it toward Torso.  Forcefield arms reached out, grabbing him under the armpits, where his arms stuck out of the heavy armor that covered head and upper body only.  I lifted him into the opening in the forcefield-

His head lolled back, smashing into the forcefield.  I felt it go, dashed to smithereens.

For what felt like three, four, maybe even five seconds, my forcefield didn’t come back online.  A problem that had only ever occurred with Scion-level hits and Ashley’s blasts.

“Don’t move your head,” I told him.

He turned that stupid fucking face my way, an uneven, shakily-drawn smile on the lower face, dull and oblivious.

“Please,” I told him.  “This is important.”

Again, I repeated the exercise.  Lifting him, hands reaching inside to brace his head.

The area shook.  He flinched, his head moved to tear free of the bracing grip, and he bashed my forcefield into oblivion with a small tap of the back of his head against the ‘shoulder’ of it.

I clenched my fists.

“Losing battle, Antares,” Disjoint called out.  “Torso’s a professional fuckup.  Whatever clever plan you’ve got for him, he’ll fuck it up.”

Torso awkwardly rubbed the back of his head, like he was slightly embarrassed or abashed by this.

“Fuck it,” I said.  I used my forcefield, disengaging from it, but this time, instead of giving him a ride, I used six hands to pick him up.  Two at the armpits, two at the wrists, two at the thighs.  I held him like I would a battering ram.

“Don’t move, let me try this, I’ll do my best to keep you safe,” I told him.  The guy felt more awkward to hold than my twelve tons of gun, and I couldn’t even get to grips with how or why.  It wasn’t that he was heavier.  It was that the weight was weird.

“Won’t work,” Disjoint told me.

“It’s worth a shot,” I told him.

“Godspeed,” Disjoint said.  “But it won’t work.”

Flying with Torso felt like an extension of being Torso.  Keeping my grip was tough, because the weight seemed to shift every few seconds, to the point he nearly tore out of my grip twice in the time it took me to get ten feet higher in the air, matching the Simurgh’s height.  Flying forward posed the same problems, only worse, because it complicated up and down and somehow made it impossible to keep from curving left or right.

The screaming in my head was worse, now, compounded by the stress of the moment.  I tried to maintain my course in flying toward the Simurgh, and she veered one direction, not even as an apparent consequence of my approach, but because of the way the fight was going.

A pillar  shattered, the rebar exposed as the exterior came away in jagged splinters.  To keep my forcefield going, I used Torso as something of a human shield, drawing the limbs in.  Chunks of concrete struck his giant head and upper body and bounced off, with no harm done.  When I tried to reorient, he nearly tore free of my grip again.  By the time I had my bearings and was flying straight, the Simurgh was relocating, taking some evasive action and crashing through Narwhal’s forcefields as Legend opened fire.

Off to the side, Damsel was back out of the hole.  She used her power to run up the side of a pillar, then raked it with a lick of her power to create a handhold, claw fingers gripping the edge.  Waiting for the Simurgh to draw in closer.

Which, I thought, might be my best bet.  Flying was too hard like this.

The entire area glowed as Solarstare used her power again.

“Come on,” I murmured.  The screaming was getting worse.  I saw the Simurgh block Crystalclear’s thrown crystal with a bit of debris.  She wasn’t even facing him, though I wasn’t sure how much that mattered.  Had he been here when I’d used my power?  Or was she getting to the point where she was one step ahead again?

Other Foresight members were joining in.  Anelace was holding two tinker blades I knew he hadn’t made himself, each one looking more like cut-outs in reality, showing only a startling white nothingness that stood at stark contrast to the black of Grue’s power, wherever it lingered.

A lot of capes were choosing safe ground, waiting for their opportunities to step in.  The exact opposite of the initial problem we’d had, where we all attacked at once and almost screwed each other up.  The danger now was that we’d all wait, and the opportunities wouldn’t line up.

Had to make them.

I flew up higher, still holding Torso, and watched as the Simurgh either floated or was driven one way or the other.  Solarstare’s liquid beam ignited to fire, and the Simurgh floated back from it.

Damsel leaped from her perch, blasting to move more laterally than vertically.

A chunk of debris flew at her, and she shot it out of the air.  It put her off course, and she had to blast again to break her fall.  She landed on rubble, and tumbled to the ground.

I descended, holding my parahuman battering ram.  It was akin to flying into a heavy headwind with the Wretch at its least aerodynamic, veering, tugging-

Torso flexed, arm extending forward, like he was going to fucking punch the Simurgh, and the movement combined with the weirdness of Torso’s fluctuating center of balance tore him from my grip.  He sailed downward, a top-heavy missile with the exact opposite trajectory of Damsel and her blasts- more down than forward.

The Simurgh floated a matter of feet to the right.  Torso slammed face-first into the ground, where it had been reinforced by Byron’s power.

“Fuck!” I swore, immediately regretting the volume of the swear word as my chest erupted in pain.

Torso got to his feet, and began a shaky attempt at chasing the Simurgh, even though she flew well above where he could reach.

Okay, not Torso.  Other opportunities- Damsel?

I floated down to her.

“You do not want to be near me right now,” Damsel growled.  She tried to stand and failed.

“Want a ride?” I asked.

“I want nothing from you.”

“There’s a truce,” I told her.  “The whole idea is we work together.  Let me help you kick ass.”

“What’s the point of stopping her if it costs me everything?” she asked.  She found her feet.  With her claw-tips on the ground, she propped herself up, so she didn’t have to put her weight on her leg.  It looked like her knee that was messed up, her dress in tatters where her power had ripped into it at the sides.

“Saving the world?” I asked.

She gave me a ‘get real’ look.

“Leaving a legacy?”

“I’ll leave a legacy on my terms.  I won’t give her an inch.”

Her.

She wasn’t talking about the Simurgh.  She was talking about Ashley.  Our Ashley.  Breakthrough’s.

“That’s the vector the Simurgh chose to attack you through?” I asked.  “Swansong?”

“None of your business.”

“And from your attitude, it’s working?” I asked.  My voice was a little thinner than I wanted, as I found myself catching my breath with the pain of saying more than a few words at a time.

She pointed her claws at me.

I met her eyes with my own.  They were entirely white, rimmed with black eyeliner and mascara that one of her teammates had put on her, smudged at one corner, one eye had blood that had settled into the hollow of the socket, like a tear cast in blood and frozen in time.

“Doing this?  Not giving an inch?  It makes you weaker, not stronger.  It’s fragile, being inflexible.”

“Fuck you,” she said.  Uncharacteristically vulgar, blunt, with a minimum of pride or herself in the line.

I didn’t really have a response to it, either.

“You just want me to cave, so she comes out.”

“She went out peacefully, proudly, in a damn cool way-” I started.

Legend’s beam rocked the room.  There was a squeal that followed, even though the laser was silent.  My head rang, and I pressed a hand to my temple.

“-and I have little interest in disturbing her.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Will you let me help you?  Please?”

She scowled, and shook her head.

I took off.  Leaving her behind.  Flying toward the Endbringer, who was getting her bearings, smashing Relay from Foresight.

I could understand it.  The terror.  The panic.  The fear of losing herself.  She was a personality that flowed from a singular source, and when she and Ashley had been alive, they’d shared memories and dreams.  The information they’d provided had helped the Wardens get an inkling of how the dream space worked, the crystal landscape, and the agents’ place in all of it.

It was just so fucking tragic that she stood at that crossroads and took this road.

I flew past Sveta, who had pulled herself back and was pulling herself back together, and reached the edge of the Wardens’ defensive line.

The impossible whirlwind of telekinetically flung objects was starting up again.  She was blocking more of what we were putting out.  Her chest gaped open, the laser had flensed away flesh, revealing more of the feather-lattice across her arm and upper body, half of her face was damaged, revealing bone like dark, tarnished silver, and her wings were, by contrast, mostly intact.

Byron created a crag of stone, shoring up a pillar.  The mist expanded out, flowing in a cross-ways direction, and the Simurgh moved some of the mist, partially shaping it.  It caught a laser.

“Hit the wing!” Narwhal called out.  “You know the weak points!”

“Where do you need me?” I asked.

Chevalier turned his helmet toward me.  He had shrunk his blade, and was sliding ammunition into the chambers.

“Which one of you?” he asked.

“You see her?” I asked.

He nodded.  “Like you, but made of light, smiling as much as you’re not.”

“Either one of us is available,” I said.

“Protect us for now.  She keeps-”

Debris was hurled our way.  Narwhal raised a forcefield, and I floated up and out, to shield the crowd.

“Just like that,” he said.  He turned to others, and began barking orders.  “Vista, get us on target!  The rest of you, if you can go on the offense, we need it now!  Let the roof fall, if you have to!”

Byron obeyed.  Following the order, changing where he was putting the constellations.

With that reaction, I knew, he wasn’t coming back to Breakthrough.  Already, he was a part of the Wardens’ apparatus.

Good.

There were more capes coming up the stairs.  The Major Malfunctions.  Finale hung back, but Withdrawal vaulted over the pile of debris we were using for cover, while Caryatid got directions from Golem and found a position beside me, arms out and raised.

Some of the braver capes were getting in close, and Withdrawal joined them, venturing into that telekinetic storm.  Every movement he made was matched by a sound from Finale, wincing in anticipation of collisions, squeaking in alarm.  Those sounds joined the battery of other shots she was voicing.

One of the three tinkers from the ‘cross the beams’ crew at one of the ‘cubicles’ that Teacher’s old propaganda teams had worked from was struck by a bit of rebar, speared to the pillar behind him.  A moment later, the tinkertech they’d been working on was lifted free, held up in the air.

The weapon fired, a beam aimed at us, forking, and I blocked the bulk of it, flying forward so I could catch more of it before it forked out and around me.

Withdrawal moved close to the tinkertech, reaching, but failed to grab it, not that it looked like he was really trying.  He landed, hugging his syringe, and rolled with the landing, before crouching, both hands at a terminal on the syringe’s side.

The problem was, he had extremities that weren’t covered by the manton limit.  She got a grip on the extended limbs with telekinesis, and pinned him.

“Vista!” Byron called out, his voice overlapping with my inarticulate cry.

His constellation erupted into existence, a spike of blue, spiraling rock, like fossil or some seashell.  Vista’s power twisted it in the air, and it blocked the section of ceiling that would have taken Withdrawal’s head off.

Withdrawal disengaged from his tinkertech frame, and he held his hands over his head, pointing up at Byron’s stone.  It looked like he was holding a remote control.

The Simurgh was blocking three out of four of our moves now.  We had enough big guns that she was still taking a beating, but it didn’t feel like enough.  I could believe she was one or two steps ahead of us, but it didn’t feel like we were fighting a sea of toppling dominoes, wondering where they went or what the end result would look like.

Not yet.

Withdrawal went back to his syringe, slipped something into a chamber, oblivious to his surroundings as more debris fell around him.

The chemical in his syringe turned yellow.  Veins crawled across his costume, yellow, and the fabric turned yellow where it had been pink.  The lenses shifted color too, to orange.

He couldn’t lift his own syringe on his own, but he stood it on end, then stepped on a jutting bit at the side.

The spray rained down over himself and his frame.

A larger chunk of ceiling fell.  I flew forward, ready to intercept, when more came down above the Wardens.

I caught smaller chunks, and hit the bigger ones, slamming into them at full force, to drive them away.  Below me, capes were forming barriers overhead.  Narwhal’s forcefield, Golem’s stone hands.

Withdrawal was back in his frame, now, covered in yellow that looked like he’d sloshed a bucket of paint over himself.  As a chunk of broken concrete platform floated near him, he sprayed it with a gush from the syringe.

The platform hit ground.

I could see as he did more, spraying more things, hitting the tinkertech the Simurgh was using, and causing it to fall.  Everything he sprayed came free of her telekinetic grip, and none of it was getting picked up again.

The screaming in my head increased in intensity by the second, until I couldn’t see straight.  I closed my eyes, shaking my head, and almost missed a hail of metal spikes.  Caryatid caught it, instead.

I would have replied, but someone touched my leg, pushing me aside.  I obliged, floating over.

Win, with a reduced-down version of my gun mounted on his power armor.  He opened fire.

“Stay focused,” Narwhal said.  “We need a few more good hits before I feel good about this.”

I wasn’t sure we were going to get them.

Withdrawal’s trick with the paint was great, but it was defensive.  For our offensive tricks, our heavy hitters were out.  Dragon’s mech was in pieces.  Chevalier appeared to be out of ammunition.  Damsel was injured and uncooperative.  Torso was running around like an idiot.

The Undersiders- not enough straight combat powers.  Deathchester, they didn’t have much that did the kind of damage we needed to do.

Rain was over there, I saw.  Awake, coherent, trying to help out.  But Rain’s power was at its weakest right now.  He could create the blades, but he couldn’t throw them.

I raised my voice, hating myself for it.  “I’m going!  I see a way!  Back in a minute!”

Not that we had a minute.

Chevalier was venturing out of the barricade, and glanced back at me.  From behind his visor, he met my eyes, then he looked at the Fragile One.  He nodded.

Giving me permission.

I flew over.  To the Undersiders, to the back line of Deathchester, and to Rain.  Gibbet was cloning the painted bits of wall and floor that Withdrawal had covered with the stuff that made the rubble too slick for telekinesis to grab, walling off sections and piles so the Simurgh couldn’t grab as much.  The Simurgh, for her part, was gradually rising higher.  She blocked the majority of what we put out there.  Legends’ beams.  Win’s gun.  Gundeck’s barrage.  Miss Militia’s turret fire.

I could feel it.  She was poised to escape.

“Rain!” I called out.

“I just got my sight back,” he said.  “Mostly.  I don’t know why I just lied.  I’m half blind.”

“Will you trust me?”

“Will it fuck her up?” he asked.

“I hope so.”

He nodded.

Same thing I’d tried with Torso.  My forcefield opened up.  I picked up Rain.  I pulled him inside the shell of the Fragile One.

When she took off, I flew with.  Rain held within, the weight of him pressing against the inside of her.

I was vulnerable, my front pressed against her back, but in fairness, so was he, leaning on me, on us, to this degree.

The Simurgh rose up, toward the hole in the ceiling.  I flew us to meet her.  The golden beam lanced out beside me, carving out a line in the Simurgh’s leg.

“Blade!” I called out to Rain.  I positioned an open mouth at his wrist, letting his hand out, teeth grazing his skin.

He created the blade.

The Simurgh twisted in the air, staring at us with eyes that had nothing to them.  One silver eye, and one perfect silver orb in a badly tarnished silver skull framed by wisps of hair.

The ceiling, the wall, and pieces of everything around us pulled away, reoriented so the most ragged, pointed parts were poised toward us.

“Sorry, Rain,” I whispered.

“No,” he said, but his tone was serious, not protesting.

“Can’t back down, can’t retreat.”

“Wouldn’t want to.  Fuck her,” Rain said.  Beside me, his gaze was focused on her, unflinching.

She’s not a her.  She’s not a person, she doesn’t have feelings, and she isn’t fuckable.  Not in the way where I can say ‘fuck you’ and find a bit of strength in it.

The Simurgh lunged, but not for the hole in the ceiling.  For the floor.

I dove, with enough force that I thought my collarbone would tear free, or that lightheadedness I was feeling might cause me to black out.

The telekinetically poised debris collapsed in on us, barred the way.

I didn’t flinch, didn’t waver.

Someone shot one chunk.  Others warped, veering out of the way.

A pillar of black-blue Capricorn stone speared out below us, more a barrier than the chunks it shoved out of the way, then dissipated into motes of light a second later.

We closed the distance, and the blade met the Simurgh’s silver flesh, carving out a shimmering silver line, so close in color that it looked like there was no line at all.  From shoulder to back, to hip.

There was a dull rumble as more of our surroundings tore away, ready to smash us, and I decided to make the call.  To break away, to say this is enough.

I couldn’t drop Rain, or risk losing him, which meant I had to use me.  I kicked out, hard, my foot meeting the silver line.  It flared, bright, and the Simurgh’s wings spread out around us, until they were ninety percent of what I could see.  The pain of the jolt reaching my ribs and collarbone made my vision split.  I couldn’t see straight.

I stopped descending.  I could feel the forcefield break, as rubble hit it, and groped out for Rain.

“It’s okay,” Rain said.

I blinked, struggling to get my focus back, as darkness creeped in around the edges.

There was a crash far below us.

I managed to focus my vision on a distant point, feeling like a baby trying to focus her eyes for the first time.

Below us, more than half of the Simurgh’s body, including one arm, some smaller wings, and both legs, lay on the basement level of the facility.  The accumulated damage from the Wardens, Rain, the beams, and the temperature shifts had added up enough for it to break away entirely.  It lay there, limp and still.

The rest of her had slipped away.

Couldn’t pursue.  Rain was using his power to remain suspended in the air.  I let the Fragile One return, and got a firm grip on him, before floating up.

That was it.  That was the damage we could do.

I floated up, slow and unsteady, wanting to be ready to let Rain catch me if I passed out and lost my flight and forcefield.

Capes were standing at the edge, looking down.  Avoiding certain sections- not because the cracked ground was unsteady, but because Sveta was still there at one edge of the hole, back by the wall.

“Is that going to be enough?” Legend asked.

“No,” Narwhal said.

Legend flew down one floor, then out the hole in the exterior wall.

“It may have to be good enough,” ReSound said.

“It’s not,” Narwhal said.  She looked haggard, ground down.

The screaming in our heads was fading, now.  This time, I was pretty sure, it was because she was leaving.  Escaping.

“There’s an option,” I said.  “Tilt the balance.”

“Committing wholesale to your idea?” Chevalier asked.

“If your enemy steps forward to throw a punch, pull them further forward.  If they retreat, drive them back,” I said.  “Give them what they want.  Too much of it.”

“I think this is just giving them what they want,” Chevalier said.  Narwhal nodded.

“What is this giving them?” ReSound asked.

“Fume Hood and Dauntless,” I said.  “We ask them to join the Fortuna network.”

“Putting us precariously close to the Titans completing their network,” Chevalier said.  “Which makes it critical that one of our contingency plans works.”

“But it gives Fortuna a chance of fighting the Simurgh off,” I said.  I swayed a little, even though I was flying.

“We’ll look into it,” Chevalier said.  “Legend’s chasing.  If he can do enough damage-”

Narwhal was already shaking her head.  She didn’t seem to think he could.

It wasn’t my place to make this call.  I couldn’t wrap this up.  Not in the condition I was in.

I left them to it.  I dropped down to the ground, and released Rain.

I saw him hold his wrist.

“You okay?” I asked.

“Broken, I think,” he said.  “I don’t think that’s a trick we can use too often.”

He’d had his hand stuck through the biggest opening I could provide while still protecting him, and I’d either let the teeth crush bone or something had hit his hand, and the forcefield hadn’t given him leeway.

I felt a pang of guilt, and tried to push it away.  There were protocols, for Simurgh fights.  We weren’t supposed to dwell on guilt.

But the fight was done.  She’d escaped.

Sveta was leaning against the wall, struggling to hold herself together.

“Keep your distance,” she said.  “Don’t-”

The tendril lashed out.  I caught it with the Fragile One’s forcefield hand.

She jumped, startled at that, and immediately reacted with more lashing out, more grabs.  I caught them, deflected them, let others grab me.  I moved a fistful of caught tendrils into one hand and held them, making my steady approach.

“We did it,” I told her.  “If we get through tonight, this is fixable.”

“I’m dangerous.”

“Not to me,” I told her.  “Remember?  We hung out all the time.  You can’t hurt me.”

Her tendrils weren’t so much for striking as they were for grabbing and squeezing.  My forcefield broke if struck, but held up to grabs and squeezes with little difficulty.

“Can I?” I asked, as I got in close enough to have her in arm’s reach.  “Hug you?”

“Can you?” she asked.

I nodded, reaching out- before wincing, my fucking collarbone.

“Yeah,” she said, sounding more like Sveta and less like panic distilled.  “Yeah, I thought so.  You idiot.”

“We did okay,” I said.  “Rain did well.  You got Dinah.  Now we have more to do.”

“You need medical care,” she said.  “So does Rain, looking at him.”

More like herself by the second, stern, mom-ish.  Like a good mom who cared.  As the agitation dwindled, so did the shifts in her tendrils.  It still wasn’t great, but… yeah.

“We can get that downstairs,” I said.  “Do you want to, uh, ride in the Fragile One?”

“The Fragile One.”

“My forcefield.  Or are you confident?”

“If Rain keeps his distance, I think we’re okay.  Maybe keep an eye out for me?”

I nodded.

As a group, we made our departure.  On to the next phase of the plan.  We passed by the heroes who were recovering, getting first aid, or taking a minute to light up cigarettes or get their grounding in whatever ways they needed to do.  Talking, being alone.

Tonight’s fight still wasn’t done.

On impulse, I looked back at Damsel.

It didn’t look like she was getting her bearings.  She was alone, but she wasn’t finding or gathering up a strength in it.

We passed through the bulk of the Wardens, and I kept an eye on Sveta’s tendrils.  Mostly, she seemed to have settled, though her body barely held a human shape.  There was no lashing out.  Her focus, at least for the moment, was on taking care of us.

“Good showing, Precipice, Breakthrough,” Golem said.

“Thanks,” Rain said.

I wished it was better.  I wished I had confidence for this next phase, or that Fortuna would beat the Simurgh.  Hopefully some combination of Legend, Dauntless, and Fume Hood working with Fortuna would stall her or scare her off.

Byron sat on a stone hand with Vista, his helmet off, his hair plastered to his head.

“Coming?” Rain asked.

Byron shook his head.  “A mite too tired.  Worn out.  Can you get on without me?”

“Absolutely,” I said.  I looked at Vista.  “Look after each other, okay?”

Vista nodded, her hands resting on Byron’s helmet, which sat in her lap.

Out through the doors, down the stairs.  One floor down, to the labs.  To Chris and medical care, which I was all too happy to get.  I wondered if they had a means of giving quick blood transfusions, because I was pretty sure my lightheadedness was due to a lack of the precious red stuff.

The door slid open.  Cryptid, leaning over the workshop bench, strewn with beakers, flasks, and haphazard machines, turned to look at us.  He was half-rat.

A syringe clicked, and plunged into his neck.

“Do we have an audience?” I heard Riley’s voice, cheery.  “Show them, show them.”

Chris- Cryptid stared at us.

“Show them!”

His posture, defensive.  A glare on his face.

“We’ve been working on all this time, I walked him through it.  I do think it’s a particular bit of genius, even if we’re cutting it close,” Riley announced.

The bad feeling in my gut solidified into something ugly.

“Where is it, Cryptid?” I asked.

“Didn’t make it,” he told us.

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Last – 20.6

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I had no idea what was real, anymore.  I couldn’t trust anything.

Red and gold lines spiderwebbing across my vision made me think something in my mind had broken, even more than those fundamental parts of me had been lost or irrevocably damaged.

I dove in, prepared to make myself more of an immediate threat.  Part of the reason she seemed to have stalled was that she had accumulated a fair bit of damage.  That damage was my target.

I couldn’t be sure of anything, but I was reasonably confident that she did need to recover if she was hurt.  No way would the Endbringers have operated like they had for as long as they had if they didn’t.  No way would the Endbringers slowed their aggression against Scion in the middle phases of the fighting, falling back to change up how they came at him, if they didn’t need rests, in a sense.

This was how I had to interpret the situation and the fight.  Grounding every thought.  Anticipate, be flexible, find the weaknesses.

She barely seemed to notice me as I flew in, driving my forcefield into the criss-cross patchwork at her shoulder, where her body was revealed to be hollow, a criss-cross latticework of feathers  forming the shape of a thin, sculpted shoulder.  Some of that lattice was broken, and I dug in, tearing it open wider.

I felt telekinesis roll over me, grabbing at parts of my sleeve that stuck out, a prong at my shoulder where the decorations attached, my hood.

With flight, a wrenching of my body, and my forcefield gripping the floor and hauling me to one side, I tore myself free of that faint grip, getting some distance from the Simurgh.  She folded wings around herself, a shield, while rubble circled around her, making the approach complicated.

I wasn’t the only one she’d gripped.  She’d reached out across the room, targeting everyone present who wasn’t one of the compromised individuals she’d drawn in.

Chevalier was here, and put his sword out like a wall, some of his squadron gripping the channel that bifurcated the two great blades.

The screaming in my ears reached a new pitch, the Simurgh unfurled her wings and raised one long, thin arm, and the blade twitched, the blade turning so it was no longer perpendicular to the ground.  The material of his costume and the blade seemed resistant to her efforts… good thing, because if it hadn’t been, she might have turned his weapon so the blade was poised to catch anyone and everyone she threw.

Rubble moved, metal pipes lifted themselves free from piles of debris and pointed, poised to catch the people she was about to fling.  The lens I wore highlighted it where I couldn’t see it with my own eyes in the gloom.  Where things moved, the lines were more unsure, while fixtures like pillars and doorways were marked out, firm.

I flew, ready to intercept, or to be in a position to intercept.  I still had the flash gun, and I clipped it to my belt, where it swung and banged against my leg as I turned in the air.  It was another weak point, a thing she could grab.  But there wasn’t a great way to handle carrying the thing.

She’d done this before.  I’d watched videos and simulations of prior Simurgh encounters, before they were taken down.  I’d seen these mass-telekinetic-flings before, modeled in three dimensional programs, each individual stripped down to being a dull gray render of a human being, without costume, colors, gender, or personality.

Always toward the end of fights, if she did it at all, always only after she’d sang long enough.  After she had her hooks in.

This is real, I thought to myself.  The thoughts couldn’t have sounded further from being the proud, confident heroine I’d dreamed of being, once.  Tremulous, wavering, and a half-step away from a downward spiral.  What had I done that I hadn’t realized I was doing?  I couldn’t clearly remember if I’d dropped that piece of rubble on my sister.  I’d forgotten stuff, or… not forgotten.  I’d failed to think of things.  Like my gun.  I’d left it behind.  Could have really used it now.

Someone screamed, as she fought to get free and couldn’t.  She wore a costume in yellow and black, almost flipped from my own, a swooping bird icon on the chest with fins at the exterior, all flowing from the lines and patterns of the costume itself.  She reached out for a teammate’s hand, her fingertips grazing his, as the two of them were held immobile.

I wasn’t sure what she hoped to do if she did get a hold of her teammate, but I couldn’t go fly to her rescue.  That was a trap.  Everything was a trap.

This, too, is real.  This is what she does.  This is why if you’re even thinking of participating in any fights against the Simurgh at any point in time, they’d give you the rundown.  They’d prepare us well in advance.

“What do I do!?” Sveta called out.

“Grab-” I started, my voice drowned out by other people shouting, yelling.

My sentence interrupted as the Simurgh flung them.  Not forward, not back, but in various directions.  I took flight, trying to catch the man the woman in the bird costume had been reaching for.

They tell you in the prep materials that you will always feel one step behind

I got a firm grip on his hand.  I felt the jolt as he jerked, and he roared in pain, the noise joining the cacophony around us.

Sveta was doing more, catching rubble, people… I’d meant to tell her to grab the bits that stuck out.  If the Manton effect extended just past her tendrils to any clothing she wore, there was a chance she could impart just a bit of it to spikes, fins, capes, and other matter.  The Simurgh, as far as I knew, didn’t grab flesh.

I was trying to track the dangers and see what she was doing in the midst of this chaos when I saw a wobbly golden outline.  Unlike so many of the others, it wasn’t moving.  A pipe that stuck out of a pile of rubble.

I flew, hard, moving lower to the ground and letting go of the guy I’d grabbed.  I had been flying hard enough that he rolled on landing.  Rolled on that dislocated arm.

They warn you that you’ll do things that seem callous or inhuman.  That she’ll make you do those things as one of her one hundred ways of getting to you…

I rationalized it, telling myself the air resistance was too much, that short length of pipe too threatening.

It twitched, and I thought for a moment it was about to come for me.  Then it pulled free, lunging left-

Lunging right.  A feint.

Reach!  I communicated, prayed, pled.

The Fragile One reached out, using the form with the widest breadth, the me from a period that was trying to move a ruined mess of a body, one that could occupy a whole couch. The forcefield slammed into my back and the back of my head, hard, and the hand caught the pipe out of the air.

It was only after that I looked at the target.  Dinah Alcott.

The boom of Chevalier’s cannon drowned out all sounds that weren’t the scream in my head.  The Simurgh blocked the shot with almost casual ease, moving a chunk of pillar into the way.

Another chunk of rubble hit Dinah.  Something I couldn’t have anticipated, catching her in what looked like the solar plexus.  She fell, hand to her stomach.  It hadn’t been moving as fast as other chunks, but it was still something.

The preparation material said we’d fail, we’d be whittled down, and it would perpetually feel like we could do more, if only we were at our best, while she guaranteed that we wouldn’t be at our best…

“Hey!  Kid Cassandra!” Tattletale called out.

“Don’t call me that!”

MoveRun!  You’re a sitting duck!”

“And she really wants duck for last meal before she ends the world!” Imp crowed.

“Run where?”

“Run laps!  I’m not even joking!  Don’t fall in the hole in the floor!”

“What are you- I’m not an idiot!”

“No, but you’re about to be blind!  Grue!”

Grue created a wave of darkness, hitting the curved wall of the open space.  It banked, rolling out and expanding.

“I don’t suppose you could steal her powers, or-”

“No,” Grue said.

I saw another chunk of rubble move, and put myself in its way, kicking it with my forcefield to drive it into the ground.  It still rolled a bit from residual momentum…

Again, I looked for the target.  There wasn’t one, or if there was, it was subtle.

I’m losing my mind.

The Mathers Giant had gone dormant, backing up and falling into a crouch, knees to her chest.  Thin, with near-white hair, gaunt features, and only a bit of loose attire that had been fabricated for her by Shin, in the glorious textures and patterns that Shin seemed to be so good at making.  She had a few wounds from the earlier fighting.

No indication she was messing with us again.  This was just us and the Simurgh.

“…the hell not!?” Tattletale called out.

“I’d need Valkyrie to undo the tweaks she did, and she’s gone,” he told us.

“What fucking tweaks?”

“It’s complicated.  Needed- Christ!” Grue narrowly avoided getting smashed as a section of pillar high off the ground fell to hit the floor.  “To try something.  To try and shake the memories those new powers were attached to.  Didn’t work.”

“Well that’s really fucking inconvenient,” Tattletale said.

“Really fucking sorry to inconvenience you, Tats,” he retorted.

I would rather have been in a tornado without my forcefield than in the midst of this.  When things weren’t flying right toward my face, they were flying in from the side, the ceiling was crumbling, or stuff was happening below me.  It was impossible to watch every avenue of attack, and ten seconds of this was enough to drive just about anyone to the edge of panic… let alone anyone who had a scream in their head and a shared hallucination fresh in their memory.

Most were taking cover.  Only a few of us were insane enough to be out here, trying to catch people or stop her.  The rubble that had been marked out earlier was flying through the air at speeds that severed body parts they hit.  Sveta recoiled, dropping someone, as something hit her arm.  In her case, at least, the tendrils were flexible enough to absorb the worst of the impact, but she retracted the strands and her arm hung limp at her side, red and wounded.

This feels hopeless.

The study materials they gave out said it would feel hopeless.  More than any other fight against Endbringers.

But it really feels hopeless.

And all we could do was to keep fighting, keep giving our all, up until the last drops of blood had been shed.

I saw blue motes, and I had to look for Capricorn.

He was coming up the stairs with Vista, Narwhal, and others.

She’d know they were coming, which meant she was already doing something to fuck with them.

Chevalier lined up his cannonblade, then fired again, then a third time.  Each shot did appreciable damage to the Simurgh.  The kind of damage we needed to be doing.

“Please,” the whisper oozed out of the hiss of the gun.

“Tattletale,” I called out.  I took a position between Byron’s group and the Undersiders, one eye on the dark cloud Dinah hid within.

“You did good with the syringe, kiddo.  Let’s just hope the heroes have this.”

Narwhal opened with a volley of twelve forcefield spikes.  They plunged into the Simurgh’s wing and stuck there.

Chevalier was recovering, reloading shots, while crouching by a pillar.  He was talking to an injured guy- the injured guy with spider legs, who was wearing a hero’s costume.  Who didn’t look out of his mind.

I’m losing my mind.  I don’t have enough things to hold ontoSome things are working and some aren’t.  The handbooks…

…The handbooks assumed if we were stuck in the fights for this long after everything had gone to shit, we were goners already.

“Talk to me.  To us.  What’s- why is she running laps?”

“Metaphor!”  Tattletale called out.

“Metaphor?  She’s running laps for a metaphor!?”

“No!  There’s a metaphor for this!”

I flew down as rubble that was leaning against the wall shifted, threatening to fall on Byron’s group.  It put me out of earshot of Tattletale.  This was not a time for fucking metaphors.

Vista shrank the rubble.  I flew down and caught the rubble before it could collapse on the group.  It shrunk with every passing second.

“Thanks, big V.”

I huffed for breath.  I met her eyes, and… I saw a deep sadness there.  I met Byron’s, and I saw that he looked shaken.

I couldn’t imagine how I looked.  I was pretty sure the cut on my head was bleeding again, and I couldn’t take the time to get the coagulant out.  Or had I given that to Dinah?

I was losing my grip on reality.  This entire battlefield had ceased to feel like a place where A flowed to B flowed to C.  It was chaos and madness.

I took a breath, and my broken collarbone pulled apart, which came with a feeling like the attached bits of muscle that led from my neck down were tearing.  I gasped.

“Vic?” Byron asked.

“Hey.  You guys managing?” I asked, trying to not gasp and finding myself sounding too casual in the process.  I could barely get my thoughts in order. “How’s Cryptid?”

“He’s doing the stuff.  And no,” Byron said.  He dropped his voice in volume, so he could be heard by Vista and me alone.  “I might have a phobia about being crushed by giant rocks.  After…”

After Tristan had ended his own life by way of giant rock.

“It’s fine if you need to go,” I told him.

“I couldn’t live with myself.  Just… don’t blame me if I’m not at my peak.”

“That’s in the protocols,” I assured him.  “Pamphlets, videos, and prep material they’d give us while getting our heads checked out to see if we were fit to fight the Simurgh.”

“Oh, I got those,” he said.  “We got those.  Tristan and me.  I kind of didn’t pay attention.  I thought this was the one Endbringer I’d never willingly fight.”

“Rule is, don’t blame yourself, don’t get down on yourself.  Do what you can.  If you have to run before you’re a danger to others, do that.  We get through this, then we move on.  If you let it weigh on you, it’ll destroy you.”

“Gotta love protocols,” he murmured, between breaths so heavy it was like he already had a lot weighing on him.  “Nice and simple.  Don’t ever have to think.”

He was breathing hard.  He lifted his helmet to fix his hair where it had fallen across his face and been stuck there, and flinched as a small stone dinged off of the metal at the side of his head.

“Hey,” Vista said.  “If you’re wanting to keep going-”

“I am,” Byron said, so fast it felt forced.

“Giant constellation.  Work with me.”

He nodded.

I left them behind.  There were other bases to cover.  Tattletale and her fucking metaphor, for one.  She’d acted like she knew what she was doing when she’d ordered Dinah to run around like a headless chicken, and as far as I was concerned, we really fucking needed someone who knew what they were doing.

Or someone who was convincing enough at pretending to know that they could keep us all centered and organized.

I caught one chunk of rubble and blocked another with my forcefield, to spare the Undersiders who’d hunkered down beside some cover.  I was momentarily without my forcefield, and something hit me square in the back.  I dropped to my knees, grunting.

One of Rachel’s dogs collapsed to the ground, just to my left.  Not fallen, but lying down near where I was, to use its body to protect me.

Ow.  Fuck me, ow.  My legs still seemed to work, and it was more in the ribs than anything, but fucked up ribs on the left side of my body in conjunction with a fucked up collarbone made me feel like the left side of my torso was going to break free of the rest of me.

“Thanks, dog,” I managed.  “Good dog.”

It only kept one eye closed, head turned away from the storm of flying materials.

It wasn’t like a whirlwind where things flew in what seemed to be a fairly steady circle.  There were things flying crosswise.  Pieces of costume, pieces of pillar, computer stuff, wires, wood, concrete, tile, papers.  They smacked into one another, into us.  I saw someone get hit by something on his left side, stumble, and get hit on his right.

Golem was on Chevalier’s team, and was trying to create concrete hands to wall off the constant assault, so the bulk of the Wardens at one end of the facility only needed to protect themselves from the front.

“Tattletale,” I grunted.  Fuck, I couldn’t raise my voice anymore.

Tattletale was on the other side of the cover I leaned against, while the dog lay at my feet, taking its beating.  I heard her voice.  “Metaphor.  We’re playing chess.  Each and every one of us, we’ve got a board and we’re sitting on the other side of the table from the all-knowing angel.  She can think ahead to endgame, and we don’t know how to play.”

“Dinah knows?” I asked.

“Our Kid Cassandra is flailing in the dark, compared to our lady in silver.  Sorry.”

“We have more pieces on the board.”

“Oh hon, I’m not so sure we do,” Tattletale said.  “Too many of us are compromised, she’s had a good enough look at enough of us to know what moves we make or could make until the very end.”

“Then what?” I asked.

“She can’t see the kid.  Not easily.  Not while she’s juggling everything else.  She’s refining her plan against Contessa while she’s juggling a thousand of us.  The Kid Cassandra makes that harder, and casts a shadow over everything she interacts with.”

Too hard.

Too hard.  Those two words were like a whisper, a product of the environment, except no rasp of rubble on concrete or metal on metal had helped to form the sounds that coincidentally became words.

No, it was the chaotic noise in my head, the half-formed thoughts.  Dangerously close to me being unable to distinguish my own thoughts from the words she was putting in my head.

It took effort to think past the screaming in my head.  To put together what Tattletale was saying.  The screaming was incessant, my every nerve was on edge, the past was regret, the present was stress well beyond what I’d ever thought I could tolerate, and the future was almost certain doom.

She can’t see Dinah.  She can’t see us if we interact with Dinah.

The Simurgh shattered Narwhal’s forcefields in the air.  Shards struck people who were trying to close the distance, in that twentieth of a second that it took Narwhal to cancel the forcefields and make the shards disappear.

“That’s why I could get the syringe to the giant,” I said.  “She didn’t see me to stop me?”

Tattletale nodded.  “Think so.”

“If it was that easy, we would have beat her with regularity a long time ago.”

Fuck, my ribs hurt.  My collarbone hurt.  I shifted position and was left breathless when the bone of one part of my fractured collarbone grated against the other part, making itself felt through my entire upper body and neck.

“It’s not that easy.  She knows she’ll be blind, here and there.  She collects and stacks the pieces.  At a certain point, she’s got so many factors on her side she can make blind moves and still win.  That’s where she’s at now.  There’s no king for us to take, no weak point to capitalize on, no silver bullet or special trick,” Tattletale said.

“Tattletale, queen of pep talks,” Imp proclaimed.

“You gotta get out there, Vicky,” Tattletale said.  “I sent Rachel to protect the kid, but there’s only so much she can do.  Tell the Wardens to hold off until-”

“Got it,” I interrupted.

Even the act of going from a resting position lying against rubble to a resting position floating in the air was a little too much movement for me.  I didn’t have the buzz of adrenaline and I needed it at this point.  My entire body felt heavy, even though I was actively floating.

I flew, gritting my teeth as I shifted position.

“Byron, Chev,” I spoke, getting about as much volume as I could manage with my body refusing to cooperate.  “Tattletale says to hold off, wait for the signal.”

“We can’t afford to!” Chevalier bellowed.

“You can’t do anything, Chevalier,” I told him.  “You’ll do more harm than good.”

“My people are out there fighting!” he raised his voice.  There was an emotion in it that was my first hint that he wasn’t doing so hot.

The frontline capes were out there.  Strikes, brutes, breakers, changers.  They were waging war against the Simurgh’s renegade capes.  The broken, the lost, the delirious.  I’d seen two of them, and I was pretty sure at least one had been completely off her rocker.  I wasn’t sure I trusted my take on things with the one I’d executed.  Dinah had been there, at least, she hadn’t complained…

The two thoughts connected.  Was that another domino?  Another piece the Simurgh had set up early, to put into play now?

“Wait for the signal!” I raised my voice as much as I was able, curling knees to chest and wincing at the effort that shout had taken.

I prayed he’d listen.

Dinah.  I could only guess where she was, and I had no idea if she’d backtracked or taken a funny route to make herself harder to anticipate.  I could assume Tattletale had given the ‘kid Cassandra’ a bit of a heads up about the blindness.

The darkness was hard to fly in.  Harder, when the forcefield reached out and touched a wall faster than I’d anticipated, arresting my movement too.  Every jarring movement hurt.

Where was she?

If the chaotic worse-than-a-tornado storm of flying debris had been bad before, I was navigating it blind now.  I forged my way through, feeling this way and that.

A hand grabbed my forcefield.  I flinched.

Then I felt the pull.  I relented, flying down to meet the source.  I hugged Sveta as I met her, at the edge of the darkness.

“Careful,” she said.

I pulled back.

“I’m losing control, as this fight goes on.”

The tendrils did look agitated.

“I’ll end up like my old self at this rate.”

The words were frightening to hear.  I knew how much she’d needed the body she’d gained.

“Nah,” I said, “You’ve been through this journey.  You know that a fix is possible.”

“It was a million to one odds it would work.”

“It was better odds than that.”

“Even twenty-five percent odds… it doesn’t matter,” she said.

It mattered to her.

“I need to find Rachel and Dinah,” I told her.

“I can fish.”

“Please.  Be careful.  I think some of the renegade capes disappeared into this darkness.”

I watched as the fight went on.  Rain was helping guard the injured.  Chastity was unconscious or dead, and her body was being dragged by Cassie.

I had memories in my head from what the Mathers giant had showed me that felt more real than what I was looking at right now.

“Fuck!” Sveta swore, pulling back.  She withdrew tendrils, and her arm went from being a hundred individual strands, each no longer than my finger, to being arm-shaped again, each strand fitting into a configuration that had far too many holes in it.  Some of the holes welled with blood, the blood running down her arm to her fingers.  “Something’s in there.”

“It’s Bloodplay,” I said.  That was the domino.  One of many, tipped well before the Simurgh couldn’t see what she was doing.  Because she’d seen the blind spot coming, and she’d set herself up to have the maximal number of answers to throw into that spot.

I knew I was mixing metaphors.  Chess and dominoes.  I knew I was thinking of her as a ‘she’ when the Endbringer was more of a natural disaster.

“That collarbone of yours looks really fucking bad, Vic,” Sveta said, eyeing my chest.

“She’s in there, winging her lasers around, probably going to hit Dinah by chance.  I just told the Wardens to hold off until they got the signal, but if Dinah’s gone or out then they won’t get that signal.”

“She’s not there,” Sveta told me.

“How sure are you?”

“I’m not.  Eighty percent?  Seventy five percent?  Sixty?  But if I keep reaching out and getting those reaching pieces of me sliced off or smashed… I think I’m going to break, and I’ll be more of a danger to anyone here than Bloodplay is.”

I looked around.

Above us, moving through the darkness, Dragon’s craft came down through one of the holes in the ceiling.  The Simurgh was ready for her, and pillars that held up the ceiling broke.  Like spears being used against horses in the medieval age, the pillars interrupted Dragon’s descent.  The Dragon-craft’s mouth opened, and unloaded a hail of what might have been grenades.

Each one detonated into a brilliant white explosion with a smoky black exterior to the explosions, like smoke contained strictly to the explosion’s surface.

Too much of it was blocked, stopped by an intervening power from the swarm of renegade capes around the Simurgh.

Where the fuck was Dinah?

The Simurgh was pushing back, taking out a cape every five to ten seconds, starting with the stragglers.

The reality we saw.  She connected to Fortuna and she screamed, and the world screamed with her.  We were entirely at her mercy.

She’s not a person.  She’s not a person.

She’s a force of nature, of fate, one that will destroy us.  One that can’t be beat.

Not my voice, that last one.

She was taking us to pieces, but she wasn’t utterly destroying us, because she wanted a future where we were her playthings.

You’re humanizing her again, Victoria.

We needed to do more damage.  To do that we needed Dinah.  To get Dinah, we needed into the darkness… and Grue wasn’t there to dismiss it.  Rachel was supposedly in there.  Where the fuck was Rachel?

This screaming in my head.  Fuck, fuck, fuckity fuck fuck fuck.

We were running out of time.

Sveta laid a hand against my shoulder.  I jumped.  I felt the surface of her hand shifting.  Tendrils sliding over tendrils.

Rachel was with Dinah.  Rachel would have her dogs with.  One was still with Tattletale and the others, shielding them.  She hadn’t called it.  She had others.

“Rachel and Rachel’s dog were with her,” I said.

“No way,” Sveta said.

Off to our left, Bloodplay flew out of the darkness.  She set her eyes on her.  When Sveta reached out, Bloodplay ducked back into the darkness.

The darkness covered the back half of the room.  Had Dinah fallen into the hole after all?  A bloody smear, lying next to my sister, who had a chunk of rubble on top of her?

Or had she jumped?

I flew into the darkness.  Sveta followed, one hand still touching my arm.  On my left side.  It tugged momentarily on the shoulder, which was attached in turn to my aching ribs and my collarbone.  I could feel hot blood down my front, soaking into and beneath my belt-line.  Whatever fights followed from this, I wasn’t sure I had it in me to participate.

Which was insane when put together with the fact I was planning on executing a massive number of people, many of them faces I knew, many more were people who wouldn’t accept it without complaint.

No, they’d fight and I’d have to stand my ground.

But that was after.

I found the hole, grazing the floor with the fingers at the end of my good arm.  I went beneath, hooked around the hole, and skimmed the ceiling.

Until I was in a hallway, a floor beneath the massive room, Teacher’s panopticon of propaganda.

Not here.

I took another route, moving between floors, my search made harder by the fact the darkness on the floor above us was pouring down into the hole, so I couldn’t even stand in one hallway and look past to see the hallway on the other side.

But it forced the Simurgh to make her plays blind too.

I kept searching, aware every second counted.

Every minute, the thought crossed my mind.  I wasn’t sure who it belonged to.  Running out of time.  She’s about to leave, and we haven’t done damage.

“Let me,” Sveta said.

“If you can.”

She unfurled, her entire body breaking down into tendrils.  Clothes were shed, as was armor.

As a mass, she flung herself into the center of the darkness.  I saw a hand reach out, another, another.

Reaching blindly as she fell.

Long seconds passed.  The screaming in my head was thin, faint.

Sister.

My sister was at the bottom of the hole.  Maybe.  All I had to do was look.

Would I be more at peace if I could verify her as dead or if I could verify I wasn’t a killer?

It made it so tempting.  But it also meant risking having to set eyes on her, which meant facing dark thoughts, which meant-

Something grabbed me, and my first thought was Panacea.  I grabbed it back, hard, with forcefield.

The moment I realized it was Sveta, I let go, guilt washing over me.

I followed the hand.

Down two floors, to a side room, partially lit.  Dinah and Rachel sat beside a badly injured mutant dog.  From the blood, it looked like Bloodplay had sliced it.

The descent into the hole might have been a tactical decision, or a bit of a post-injury mishap.

“We need you,” I told Dinah.

“I don’t have much.  My head feels like it’s going to split open.”

“One more,” I told her.  “One move, we make it count.”

I saw the doubt on her face.

She nodded, her mouth set into a grim line.

“Want a ride?” I asked Rachel.

She shook her head.

I scooped up Dinah, glanced at Sveta-

Saw Sveta’s hurt, as she held one arm to a bicep, where tendrils were especially active.

“Sorry,” I told her.

“It’s fine,” she said, in a tone that suggested it wasn’t, with a faint look of betrayal on her face.

The procedures for these missions suggest we’re supposed to avoid holding grudges, avoid blame, for ourselves and for others.  Mistakes happen when you’re pushed to your limit by a psychic scream.

But that felt like shallow justification.

I took flight, carrying Dinah up.  Sveta’s hands, blind, reached up and grazed me, but she didn’t hold onto me.  Maybe she didn’t trust me to do it.

Up, into the darkness, through it, and into a battlefield I hated more than I’d hated any other, and I’d seen a good few.  Against an enemy I despised more than anything.  Someone who hurt my friends with the ease I breathed.

With more ease than I breathed, if I considered the damage to my collarbone and ribs.

“Now,” I whispered, as we emerged.  “Use your power now.”

Sveta emerged from the darkness, but she did it as violence personified.  I could see tendrils thrashing, lashing, throwing other tendrils that had been severed.

She caught Bloodplay and dashed Bloodplay into the ground.

“What question?” Dinah asked.

I couldn’t bring myself to speak, seeing Sveta lose all control.

The Simurgh was dismantling the Dragon craft, pulling tech together.  The Wardens were fighting a losing battle.  The area was thick with blue motes.  Damsel’s group was present, Damsel trying to get in close.

What question!?

“Kick her ass, or kick her ass more?” I asked, quiet.

There was a pause.

“Just kicking her ass will suffice.”

I used my aura, putting every iota of violent, righteous, angry sentiment I was feeling and transmitting it to every cape present.  Dinah directed, it gave us what we needed to make a final set of moves without her seeing them coming.

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Last – 20.5

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The one thing that made it possible to even think about defeating the Simurgh was that it took her time to get her hooks in.  She was subtle.

Now she had her hands on an empowered, giant-size Christine Mathers.  Manufactured for us by my fucking sister and fucking Cryptid.  Fucking fuck fuck fuck.

“Master-stranger protocols!” I shouted, before turning away, to limit exposure.  I took flight, fleeing the scene.  I needed Dinah, Dinah could theoretically get past the Simurgh, give me a shot at the Mathers Giant, and let me inject her with the new command protocols.  Which might not even work, if the Simurgh could do whatever she’d done to make the Mathers giant docile.  To make the Mathers giant hers.

Dinah was down one of the two hallways- I chose the closer one.  A coin flip, to get a shot at victory that wasn’t guaranteed.  To-

I felt her grab me.  There were twenty capes present, subdued by the Mathers Giant, and not a hair on them moved.

There were another twenty-five of us here.  Twenty of them jerked, shifting posture, jumping, looking startled as they felt what I was feeling.  All looked to be capes who hadn’t been part of the fighting, though many might have been like Juliette and Chastity, capable of keeping their shit together and doing something to subdue the ‘reds’- the capes and civilians who had been pushed over the edge by the Simurgh.

I could feel her grip, taking hold of my hood, the ends of the spikes at my shoulder, the ends of my coat.  Parts of my outfit that weren’t close enough to my skin to be considered an extension of me.  I tried to fly and I couldn’t.  I could use my strength and try to tear free of my costume, but I couldn’t get my hands to where I could grab it.  My forcefield-

-couldn’t.  As she expanded around me, she started at my costume.  Her own body blocked her ability to claw off my costume.

Open!  I told her.  Cocoon!  Reach in-

Too late.  The Simurgh flung me.  Us.  Everything.  Directly away from her.

Flight let me reduce how fast I was flung, if only a bit.  My forcefield reached out, fingernails scraping against the floor, hands reaching out for the wall.  Hands reached into the open mouth, to cradle my head and neck, grab me.

It still felt like I imagined being in a car wreck would feel.

It was hard to shake the feelings of responsibility.  Like there’d been something I could do.  I felt like the driver of that car that had wrecked, and with no scream from the Simurgh and no sounds from the people around me as they were flung, there was just a series of hard-wet noises as bodies crunched into the wall, some at angles so violent that I couldn’t make sense of the shape of them post-impact.

I shook as I placed my feet on the ground, one leg wrapped from toe to knee to keep the tattered costume in place and to keep me sufficiently warm outdoors.  I ached in more places than I could count, and the cushioning of the forcefield hands might have kept me from snapping my neck or getting whiplash, but I knew I’d have some awful bruises if I lived to see tomorrow.

I stumbled with the first two steps, because of sprains and the injured parts that would soon sprout bruises.  There were pillars all around us, stabbing up from what had used to be Teacher’s propaganda units.  The area still had piles of debris, all bulldozered into neat sections so the floor would be clean.  It hadn’t seen any use except as an extensive conference room for the thinkers.

I focused on keeping the pillar between myself and Mama Mathers while I got my bearings.  Syringe- I still had it, capped and stuck between my breastplate and my chest.

Breathing hard, wincing, I pulled off the decorations at my shoulders.  My coat.  Fuck.  I shrugged it off, knowing I’d pay for it later.

There were five capes who hadn’t been flung.  Five capes who’d done the sensible thing and worn bodysuits instead of armor, to get the most bang for their buck when it came to the Manton effect.  One provided a circle-shaped shield of water to try and provide some cover for the rest.  A bit of pipe from one of the piles of debris speared at him, and stopped partway inside the shield, the jagged end a short distance from his face.  The water was pressurized or moving at high speeds, and the spear bobbed, bounced, and vibrated as it held position.

One of the twenty capes around the Simurgh and Mathers Giant reached out, flinging a dart below the shield.  It landed between the shield cape’s feet.

The dart whipped around, thin and flexible, one end still rooted in the ground.  The cape producing the shield reacted, stepping back, and his leg separated at the ankle, again a few inches up at the calf.  He stumbled, and his other foot came off mid-calf.  Only the fact that someone caught him kept him from slipping on the blood that gushed out, and kept him upright, so he could maintain the shield.

Fuck.  They needed help, and I needed backup if I was going to stop the Mathers Giant.

I disengaged from my forcefield, sending it out.

The Simurgh turned, and I had to assume she was moving away from the Mathers Giant.  Her wings shifted.

I looked.  Behind them, chunks of rubble were moving.

“Behind you!  Duck!” I called out.  The Fragile One reached out.

The cape supporting the footless water-shield user turned, but didn’t duck.  A chunk of concrete no bigger than my fist flew past the Fragile One, dropping mid-air to avoid the reaching hand, and caught the supporting cape in the cheek.  They collapsed, and the water shield cape fell, his chin meeting the pipe that was transfixed in the shield.  It speared through, only stopping, presumably, when it met the top of his skull.

I was hyperaware of every last detail around me.  I sent my forcefield in, low to the ground, nigh-invisible, with the aim of breaking legs and disabling the renegade capes and drawing attention away from the remaining capes.

Someone hit the Fragile One, and she disappeared.  The interval before she appeared around me felt a fraction longer, but I wasn’t sure I was processing that right.

“Come on,” I murmured, as I sent her out again.  I needed a distraction, something that would let me slip by.

You’ll melt.

The voice was a whisper, hard to make out from the ambient noise, the screams and groans of those who had hit the wall but not died, and the ones who hadn’t been thrown but who were being executed one by one now.

The scraping sound that followed was like a chainsaw against stone, without the sound of the chainsaw’s engine itself.  A skittering, screeching noise that grew in volume.

Metal centipedes appeared on either side of me, each curving to travel around the pillar, straight for me.  I brought my forcefield back-

It was broken before I could.

I flew straight up, mindful of the ceiling, and mindful of the fact that my senses couldn’t be trusted.

Sorry, Mukade.  I think.

As my forcefield came back, I had forcefield fingernails drag into the pillar I was flying beside.  Multiple hands.  Below me, the centipedes were moving in a double-helix pattern up the pillar, chasing.

Change shape, I thought.  Reshaping my forcefield.  Think of the physio.  Of moving that monstrous, wretched body, trying to learn how it moved.  Reaching out a limb… reaching… straining

I palmed what my forcefield had grabbed off the pillar.

With enhanced strength, two arms helped me hurl myself around and away from the pillar.  A third arm, as long as I could make it, drawing on memory, hurled the handful of concrete bits.

Mukade, already with several holes in his side and back for the centipedes to come out of, got a few more holes in his body.  He sat down heavily, head turning slightly, then flopped back, more like a child’s doll than a person.  Gone.

“You’ll melt!”

My skin burned, the bandages I still wore on one hand felt unbearably tight.

Blood welled at my neck where I’d just stopped the bleeding, and then it foamed.  What had been a slash of a non-cauterizing laser or pressurized blood or whatever else was opening up, parting.  A dribble touched my armpit and ran down my side, and it stung like a sunburn.

I had to ignore it.  I needed cover from Mathers.  I disengaged from my forcefield, and sent her along the ceiling, raking it.

Plumes of dust came down.  I used them as a shield.

You’ll die!

The whisper again coincided with another attack from the defending parahumans.  A man, tall, with about two hundred spidery legs, each of which was at least ten feet long.  He was fast, moving fluidly, his body twitching and jerking with the force and speed of the legs, almost a victim of how they relied on other legs for leverage while his body was at the fulcrum point.

He howled.

Little question how he ended up fucked up enough for the Simurgh to get her hooks in.

His legs speared toward me, some extending, narrowing.

Right behind him was a cape in silver, ducking through the veil of dust the Fragile One was bringing down from overhead.  Slicksilver was a hero from the Wardens.  One of Chevalier’s crew.  Though he’d been a good guy, dust covered him and dulled the colors, and he had way too much blood on him.

Slick threw a dart.  Metallic.  I gave the thing a wide berth.

He threw more.

Getting out of the way forced me to get close to Spiderlegs.  I swooped low, scraping the ground, and put a hand out to stop myself from smacking face-first into the ground, with how steep the swoop was.

Melt, Antares!  Die!”

At my collarbone, where I’d been lasered, the bone snapped.  I screamed.  Foaming blood dropped onto the concrete, sizzling on the concrete.

I flew before more darts could be thrown my way.  Toward the exit.

Antares!

I fought past the reaching spider-legs, and the act of trying to move my arm nearly left me insensate.

“Antareeees!”

It was every part of fighting some of the worst enemies I’d come up against in recent memory.  My sanity at stake, black limbs reaching for me, my flesh melting.

I could only tell myself it was a trick.  All of this was a master-stranger thing, and I couldn’t trust the reality.  I had every excuse to dismiss any part of this as head games, as scary as that was.

“Antares!  Please!”

The whispers continued.

I used my aura to try to slow down the attackers.  Good old fear.  I twisted, fighting to get a bit of an upper hand, grabbing spider legs and swatting aside a dart by picking up a piece of rubble five feet to my left and swinging it.

Slick generated two globs of liquid metal, and let them droop down to the floor.  Two lashes.  He lifted one, and it reshaped itself, to curve and poise itself above him like a scorpion’s tail.  The other lash did the same to the left, parallel to the ground.

I crushed the concrete I’d used to bat aside the dart, then threw it.  The lashes formed a shield.  All I accomplished was shredding a few of the spider legs.

More legs stabbed out at me.  I grabbed a few, tearing them out of the sockets.

The man shrieked in a childlike voice, thrashing in pain as he held hands to the parts where legs had torn out at the roots.  The screaming was interrupted by him vomiting, presumably from the pain.

I braced myself for the next onslaught.  Another attacker, a warning that another attacker was coming, a whisper of my name.  When it didn’t come, I kept my guard up.  The beat of warning, attack, warning, attack… it could be misleading me.

The debris had cleared, and there was too much of the Giant visible.  The sighting coincided with a pain creeping over my body.  Bruises spread.

It wasn’t a feint, a missed step to throw me.  Why?

I reached the doorway, saw the spider legs approaching…

Then changed direction.  Flying back in.  I scooped up more grit for a ‘coin toss’, and changed my orientation, to keep Mathers out of sight.

The whispering of my voice…

I fought more of the spider legs.  Tore out more.  He had two hunded legs, but I had ten arms, and I was stronger.  He could only come at me with so many at a time.

An explosion shook the chamber.  The residual debris and dust that was dribbling down from the damaged ceiling was cleared away by the resulting shockwave.

The Simurgh was still there, silent and waiting.

The Mathers Giant wasn’t where I thought she was.  I almost looked directly at her, in the moment I realized it.

The attacker was Chevalier, backed up by some of his squad.  He wore the black and silver armor that he’d worn for Gold Morning, made of pieces of Behemoth and the Simurgh, who had a hole in one wing.

I saw the Simurgh raise a narrow hand, and dust, debris, and rocks picked up.  She didn’t get a hold on Chevalier, either.

He swung, and a piece of broken pillar leaped into the way of the blade.  It barely slowed it down, but she was able to avoid it.  He fired, and she avoided it.

I could have used the distraction to go after the giant, but I had only one shot.  I couldn’t attack her without looking at her, and I couldn’t go in blind while the Simurgh was present and fifteen or so of her pawns were standing around, because I would fail.  Too much exposure would make any future attacks twice as hard.  A hundred times as hard.

Dinah first.  My team would be with her.

I searched, avoiding looking at the giant, who wasn’t moving.  The pain in my shoulder was getting worse, and that sunburn feeling was becoming a constant burn.  My back, my side, my arm.

If this was the extent of what the Mathers Giant was doing, I could deal.  Fake pain, fake burns.

If this wasn’t what the Mathers Giant was doing, I lost nothing by continuing to fight through the pain.

Chevalier was pinning down the Simurgh.  I was left to continue searching.  As much as I’d wanted, I couldn’t use my aura.  Only flight, only the forcefield.

I found what I was looking for.

Two people, lying in a heap.  One was Roman, bloodied, his mask lost.

He’d been the one calling my name.  The whispers had stopped when I’d used my aura, because I’d cowed the person speaking.

He needed help.  Gingerly, I lifted him.

“She broke my fall,” he whispered.  He sounded more like a little boy than a kid in his mid-teens.  “Please save her.”

I moved him, using my forcefield.

Imp lay on the ground, against the wall, with debris beneath her.

I reached behind her head, to find a way to take off her mask, so she could communicate.  I recoiled.

Blood, and a fragment of… it looked like a fragment of mask, but it wasn’t.  Too white, and it had skin and long hair attached to it.  The hair was caught under something, and the fragment slipped off my finger as the hair pulled taut.

The blood was already cooling.

“Can only bring you,” I told him.

“Take her?  I can tough it out,” he said, in a tone and with a complete lack of strength that suggested he couldn’t.  “Imp and… Chastity and Cassie are on the other side of the room.  They got flung.”

“They might be distractions.  We need to do something concrete.  Dinah first.”

I lifted him.

He used his power on me for just a second, inflicting rage.  The effect was dampened, half-strength, but I still dropped him, and he writhed on landing.

We stood, huffing at each other, glaring.

I reached for him again.  Again, he used rage, and my grip on his collar was fierce.

I used my aura, in response, exerting will.  Dominance.

“You fucking think that works on me?” he asked.  I could hear the outrage in his tone.  “After how I was raised?  Who I grew up with!?  My dad used powers on me every day.”

I stopped.

I grabbed him.  “We help them faster if you come with.”

He glared, his face twisting.

But he didn’t fight me as I dragged him.

I’d fought this hard to get to this hallway.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that the fact it had been Roman calling my voice was the Simurgh’s plan.  A delay, the one person who I cared about enough to take the time to rescue… but not as important as one of my teammates might have been.

The lights flickered, flicked on, flicked off.  The hallway was only ever half-lit at one time, splattered with blood.

There was commotion at the end of the hallway.

Tattletale, Grue, Sveta, and Rain.  Rain was sitting against the wall, curled up.

Then a few more renegade capes, one of them jabbering, and Dinah.

Hostage.  A box-cutting knife held to her throat.  The jabbering guy was moving his hand now and then, and moving his hand constantly.  There were already four shallow cuts at the side of Dinah’s neck because he kept accidentally cutting her.

“Don’t,” I murmured.

“Huh?” Roman asked.

“Whatever you’re thinking about… don’t.”

I couldn’t help but feel like I had Roman next to me because the Simurgh wanted him.  And if he used his power, it wouldn’t work for us.

“Victoria,” Sveta said.  “Where’s Byron?”

“Downstairs, with Cryptid.  The Mathers Giant flipped.”

“That’s… yeah,” Sveta said.  “She got Rain.”

I looked down at Rain.

“Rain?” I asked.

He didn’t respond.  Two seconds later, he twitched.

“Blind and deaf,” Tattletale said.  “He sees only what she wants him to see.”

“Which is what the Simurgh wants him to see?” I asked.

“The world’s going to end!” the jabbering cape screamed.  His hand moved, and the point caught on .  She twisted her head to follow the knife, then the point dragged through skin sideways, returning to her throat.

I turned my attention away from Rain.

“Hey, Zugzwang,” Tattletale said.

“Fuck you!  I know you’re the Undersiders’ head fucker!  Open your mouth and I’ll open her throat!”

He cut Dinah, along the jawline.  As Grue started forward, Zugzwang returned the knife to her throat.

“You’re being awfully stupid for a mastermind,” Sveta said.

“I know what you do too, Sveta Karelia,” Zugzwang said.  “I bet my hand’s faster than yours.  I also know you all need her.”

Tattletale looked back at me.

“Hey, Dinah,” I said.

“No games!” Zugzwang raised his voice.

“Things are bad,” Dinah said.  “They hurt my parents.”

“Any guidance?  Any predictions?”

“I’m burned out.  Asked too many questions.  The giant makes it harder.  I think that’s why the Simurgh grabbed her.”

I frowned.  “If we-”

“Stop!” Zugzwang raised his voice.

“If we tried defeating the giant, do you think you could do it?”

“I don’t know.  But if you don’t defeat it then there’s no chance I can do it.”

Couldn’t get Dinah’s help without defeating the giant.  Couldn’t be sure I’d defeat the giant without Dinah’s help.

“No other input?” I asked her.  “Questions you asked before you got shut down?”

“No, not really.  I’m sorry.”

Rain made small sounds.

“Rain,” I said, crouching down.  “Rain, hey.  Look, I’m going to use my aura.  You don’t need this.”

I used my aura, calming him.  I let the range extend to Zugzwang.

“Hey!” Zugzwang called out.  “Hey!  Listen!”

“What?” I asked, toning it down slightly.

The group of people who’d gathered a distance away from Zugzwang parted, so I could see him while crouching down, and he could see me.

Lights flicked off.  When they flicked on, I saw Dinah’s throat slashed.

It wasn’t.  My eyes adjusted, and I saw that blood had run down from one cut, then stretched across a crease in her neck when she’d bent down.

“Zugzwang, there’s a way for us both to get exactly what we want.”

“You don’t even know what I want!”

The lights went out.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was going to slash her throat for real, and I wasn’t sure if that was because of the earlier prompts, of whisper, attack, whisper, attack.

I couldn’t be sure of anything.

The lights came on, and I saw Dinah’s eyes widen.

My forcefield lunged.  Zugzwang cut Dunah’s throat, and the Fragile One grabbed him by the throat and took his head off.  There were three more, and the Fragile One broke all six of their legs.

Tattletale wasted no time in drawing her gun and shooting one.

“Fuck!” Tattletale swore, once the ringing in our ears had died down.

I flew forward, reaching for the container of coagulant Chris had given me.  The neck wound wasn’t pumping like it was something arterial… I had to hope it was enough.

She pulled away once I’d applied some.

“Antares made me leave Imp behind,” Roman said.  “There was still a chance.”

Grue looked stricken.

“Go get her?  Please?” Roman asked.

“No,” I said.  I’d felt the cold.

“Fuck you!” Roman burst out.  Again, he used his power.  Again, I pushed back.  Some of my teammates pushed back.

“Listen!” I raised my voice.

“Victoria,” Sveta said.

“Listen!” I told her, with just as much fierceness.  “We need to refocus.  We need to keep to the mission.  Deal with achievable objectives.  Getting too emotional doesn’t help any crisis!”

“What do you want to do?” Grue asked.  “And is Imp in that direction?”

“I need…” I said, pulling my hand away.  It was slick with goop and blood, and I had no idea of where to wipe it.  “The giant.  I can’t get in there.  Chris thinks we can reset her.  If I can see her, smell her, touch her, she’ll do more than make me feel like I’m melting alive from a glimpse of her.  My collarbone- I think she’s making me feel like it’s broken.”

“That looks like it’s actually broken,” Sveta said.  “And actually burned or something.”

“Can you help?” I asked Grue and Tattletale, ignoring her.  “Imp was- is there.”

“I can get you in there,” Grue said.

I straightened.

“Victoria,” Sveta said, her voice hard.  “We’re friends.  I’ve backed you up a lot.  Can I get thirty seconds of your time?”

I turned to her.

“I don’t want to keep silent when I should speak up.  Not again.”

“I’m listening.”

” First off, you’re bleeding again,” Sveta said.

I slapped the coagulant mud onto my own wound.  The burning had receded.  “Better?”

“No, Victoria.  You’re too on edge.  Where are you?”

“I’m hurting.  I’m spooked.  I want to handle this.  We’ve got the slimmest of shots and…”

I looked at the door, and I saw that kids were peering through.  Lookout, Candy, Darlene, and Chicken Little.  Candy was lowest to the ground, and had to be lying on her stomach.

“…It’s slipping through our fingers,” I said.

“The Irregulars said something like that.  That they only had a bit of time to get the answers they needed.”

“I’m not an Irregular.”

“I know.  But you’re not yourself either.”

“Can I cheat?” Lookout asked.  “I can help.”

“It’s better if you sit this one out entirely,” Grue said.

“It’ll take three seconds.”

“Three?”

She disappeared, somehow taking that as permission.

She reappeared in four seconds.  She reached through the door, holding something out.

The flash gun.

“Turn the setting down all the way.  Flash Rain.  It’ll override the visual centers.”

“How long?”

“Five minutes.”

“Everything might be over in five minutes,” Tattletale said.

“Oh.”

I took the gun anyway.  I grabbed Rain’s chin, and he thrashed.

I lifted his chin, aimed the gun, and twisted my head around, shielding my eyes as I fired into his face.

“Good luck, Rain.”

“It won’t help his ears,” Tattletale said.  “Or skin.  The giant’s strong.  You just need to see her and she gets all five of your senses.  We’ll need to be careful.”

I looked at Grue, and he nodded.  I looked at Sveta, and saw her concern.

“Come,” I told her.  “Master-stranger protocols very much in effect.  I trust you.”

Sveta followed.  Tattletale did as well.

Back to the fighting.  To the Giant, and to the Simurgh.

The room had taken a beating when we’d made it a staging ground in the raid on Teacher’s base.  Now… there was a hole in the floor that a house could have been dropped through.  Chevalier still fought.

He struck the Simurgh.  She caught a power out of the air with telekinesis, a crescent that shimmered.  She threw it to one side, and gore splashed up against the wall.

“How do we do this?” I asked.

“I’ll darken the way.  You fly.  If you’re close, I’ll give you your shot.”

“I’ll be helpless.”

“We’re helpless anyway,” Tattletale said, behind me.  “Grue will be affected by Mathers if he sees her.  Be careful, I’ll do what I can to guide.”

“What do I do?” Sveta asked.

“Back me up!” I called out, flying forward with more speed, breaking away from the group.  “If they get me, get the syringe!”

I tapped my chest to indicate where it was.

He pumped out darkness.

And I threw myself into the most dangerous battlefield I’d ever been on, utterly blind, unable to orient myself in the air, and unable to hear a thing.

Just me, and the aches and pains I felt.

I used my best judgment to estimate where she might be, and to get closer.

In an ideal world, the darkness would dissipate.  I could inject, and the Simurgh would lose control.  Dinah would gain some leverage, we’d get some more people back into the fight, and we could fight.

The world was not so ideal.  Something hit me, hard.

Forcefield down, and I was spiked down into the ground, hitting concrete and sliding on a thin layer of grit and gravel for what felt like forever in the oily dark.

Until I was no longer in the dark.

I twisted my face away, searching for a place and a perspective that didn’t risk me seeing Mathers.  I looked to the side-

Chastity and Cassie, slumped against the wall, holding hands, eyes open.

I looked down.  I was by the massive hole in the floor.

In the gloom of flickering lights, amid dust, amid debris, there was only one thing that was white and clean.

Seven floors down, below the hole, my sister was standing back while people tended to wounded.  It looked like someone had been plunged through the floor by telekinesis or some massive attack.  She did nothing.

There was a piece of rubble to my left.

I feel strong.  I feel okay.  I have control.  Only one thing holds me back, poisons me.

If she’d joined, we might have been able to win this.

I leaned on the rubble to get to a standing position, knowing what I was doing.

The rubble fell.  I looked just long enough to make sure it was on course, and then I flew.  Back into the darkness.

Something hit me, hard.

Forcefield down, and I was spiked down into the ground, hitting concrete and sliding on a thin layer of grit and gravel for what felt like forever in the oily dark.

Until I was no longer in the dark.

I twisted my face away, searching for a place and a perspective that didn’t risk me seeing Mathers.  I looked to the side-

Chastity and Cassie, slumped against the wall, holding hands, eyes open.

I looked down.  I was by the massive hole in the floor.

In the gloom of flickering lights, amid dust, amid debris, there was only one thing that was white and clean.

Seven floors down, below the hole, my sister was standing back while people tended to wounded.  It looked like someone had been plunged through the floor by telekinesis or some massive attack.  She did nothing.

There was a piece of rubble to my left.

I feel strong.  I feel okay.  I have control.  Only one thing holds me back, poisons me.

If she’d joined, we might have been able to win this.

I left it behind, left her behind.  I flew, back into the darkness.

The shadows swam around me.  It was vertigo-inducing.  Slimy.

The darkness faded.  A slice of light, reflected off the ceiling, down into a column of space which had no darkness at all.

My cue.  I flew hard that way.

The darkness faded, and I was face to face with Christine Mathers, staring into her eyes.

I stabbed her eye with the needle.  The plunger jolted, and it fired like a gun, the fluids spurting in.

Images all around us faded.  Scenes peeled away.  Things the Simurgh had lifted.  Dust clouds.

So much of it had been fakery.

We hadn’t heard the screaming for how long, now?

Mama Mathers had the ability to screw up our senses if we saw her.  It had to extend to more than sight, because she was amped up.

The Simurgh wasn’t here.  Hadn’t been here even when I’d entered the room.  Many of the victims weren’t even present.

I noted Imp.  Still gone.  Chastity.  Cassie.

I spat.

People were patching up wounds.  Sveta approached me, to hold a bandage to my shoulder.

“Is she already…”

“She skipped ahead.  We thought we had a bit longer,” Tattletale said.  “She jumped to going after Fortuna ten minutes early.  We didn’t do enough for your plan.”

“No.”

I looked.

Dinah had spoken.  Now she pointed, one hand held to her head, grimacing.

I looked, and I saw the syringe, empty.

I grabbed it.

There was only one valid target.

The thin Mathers Giant turned to look at me, eyes wide and vacant.

I went blind.  Deaf.  My skin sloughed off, multiplied, liquefied again.  I was an ocean.

As an ocean, I flew.

This time I hit the plunger.

The veil fell yet again.  This time for real.

The screaming picked up, faint at first, and then a roar.  It was all an illusion.  All a mind-fuck.

She was here, perched.  Fucking with us all the while.

Still on schedule.

Last chance.

Go!

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Last – 20.4

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The lights shut off throughout the facility, in the same moment Dragon booted up our eye implants.  The implants rushed to process what they were seeing, throwing text at me with notifications, updates, tracking for key people and the Simurgh’s estimated location, scribbled out in gold, digital script.  I was notified in bold text that hung at the periphery of my vision that there was no ongoing communication.  This was just her booting us up and giving us tech as good as we could hope for.  Lines spiderwebbed out to outline the hallway, doorways, and provide some limited night vision.

The lights came back on, bright, with a fluorescent whine that became a scream, one sound in a chorus.  Human screams came from upstairs, and my eyes strained to adjust and see what might be causing the screaming.  Was it someone on our side?  Someone hurt?  Someone who’d snapped and become hostile?

The Simurgh wasn’t necessarily flipping people to ‘red’ with a new, unprecedented speed.  This was part of any fight against the Endbringer.  In a given population, there were bound to be people who were on the edge, vulnerable, needing only the right prompt.  As she kept screaming, she kept gathering data, and she used that data to find better prompts for more people who were on a ledge, on the cusp of losing their minds.

The very second my vision was clear and focused enough to see the details in the bright white hallway, half the lights went out again.

The danger we were facing, the hazards of this particular battlefield, were those people who had been on the cusp of breaking down and who were now putty in the Simurgh’s hands.

But again, I was anthropomorphizing.  Yes, she had hands, but I was ascribing manipulation, will, and motives to the Simurgh by thinking of it that way.

“Anyone have updated numbers?  Above a seven?  Below a five?” I asked my team.

“Nothing changed except I feel demoralized after that fight,” Rain said.

“We almost had her,” Sveta said.

“And she wants us to feel demoralized,” I said.  I moved my gun right, left, right again, as shadows moved in the dark, unlit patches, the golden scribbles and labels struggling to keep up as the lighting changed.

“If anything’s making me feel like I’m going crazy,” Sveta remarked, “It’s you, Victoria.”

I looked down at her.

“Where are you at?” she asked.  “One to ten.”

“Eight?” I asked.

“That’s worrying,” Byron said.

“Eight is good.  I feel okay.  Better than okay.”

“Didn’t you say six, earlier?” he asked.

The lights went out, then came back on.  In the time they’d been out, a person had moved into the center of the hallway.  They wore a costume that was in the post-Gold Morning style, clothing mixed with costume, mostly red.  The red was mottled with blood, to the extent I couldn’t tell what was pattern and what was costume.

Open up, I thought.  Hatch me out

I floated to the side, placing the gun on the stairs before crouching on the underside of the gun.

The woman looked at us with eyes that were red from corner to corner.  Thousand yard stare.

I didn’t recognize her.

As she met my eyes, the scream in my head seemed to escalate, until everything I was seeing seemed to vibrate.  I glanced away, to break the effect, and she bolted into motion.

I remained where I was, but the Fragile One was ready, jumping forward to grab the woman by the wrists.  The woman jerked, partway into a pounce down the extended set of stairs that acted as the backbone of the facility, her arms stuck behind her.

She screamed, raw and full of rage.  The scream joined the screaming in my head, and a noise that would have been bad enough to make me wince before became a hundred times worse because of the context.

“Calm down,” Cryptid growled.

“Is that you?” Sveta asked, looking at me.  “Holding her?”

The lights went out.  The outlines that were drawn out in gold momentarily traced the Fragile One, naked and many-armed, with a chest splayed open.  Then, like the cameras in our eyes remembered that they weren’t supposed to be capable of seeing the Fragile One, they stopped tracing her.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I dunno if you saw her in the night vision lens, but…”

“I saw her,” Sveta said.

The woman screamed again.

“Anyone have something to tie her up?” Rain asked.

“I can,” Byron said.  He began drawing a constellation with dark blue motes around the woman.  “Just have to be careful not to cut off circulation by making it too tight.  Keep going up the stairs if you can?  I’ll follow behind.”

The woman screamed, struggled against strength that could lift a cement mixer, and then she disappeared.

No, not disappeared.  The camera, struggling to keep up with the changes in lighting and other screwy signals, started tracing her in golden lines that lagged behind her as she dramatically changed shape and size.

She’d shrunk, from human-sized to barely two inches tall, slipping from the Fragile One’s grip.  I felt her bump into the Fragile One, unable to detect where the forcefield started or stopped, then she closed in on our group.

“Heads up!” I alerted the group.

The woman was flying, two inches tall, and as she got close enough to Byron, she unveiled a red laser.  The range wasn’t much- one foot, but when she shot Byron, she cut through the armor at his forearm and penetrated flesh.

“Augh!”

Cryptid lunged, jumping down the stairs in the dark, one foot on the railing, and punched her.  I tried to follow up, bidding the Fragile One to lash out with three arms, but the woman was small, nimble in the air, and slipped between the arms by chance.

I saw two more flashes of the red lasers in the dark, but I couldn’t have the Fragile One act on them, because I wasn’t one hundred percent sure where the lasers began and where they ended.  Punching blindly at either terminus point made for a fifty-fifty chance I’d put a hole in Cryptid, instead.

“Brace yourselves, aura!” I raised my voice.

I pushed out with my aura.  It was a shot in the dark, in more ways than the obvious one, that I couldn’t see the murder pixie I was trying to slow down, but because I was reaching for feelings I’d never used before.  Fear and awe was a dichotomy I’d come to understand early on.  I’d hit my parents with it in sparring, and I’d seen the varied reactions in reality.

I could choose what emotions I put out there, now, but it wasn’t as simple as choosing from a tidy little list.  Just the opposite.  I dug into memories and the rawest, deepest feelings I had.  A moment of clarity midway through therapy at the hospital.  Moments, my thoughts wandering at night, where I’d jolted awake with a realization.  The feeling after I’d smeared my mother against a wall, and realized it was my fault.  Each of those memories was like an exposed nerve, and the screaming in my head was salt on those nerves.

I’d wanted ‘wake up’ but the feelings I dug into as I broadcasted weren’t quite that.

It did give her pause, but she was a tiny figure in the dark, in an unfamiliar environment, so it was hard for us to take advantage of her being delayed.

Sveta reached out, then drew back just as fast as the woman reacted, screaming with surprising volume despite her small size, the laser flashing out in the dark to cut tendrils.

Flying toward me, going by the scale of the laser.

I took flight, putting myself between the screaming laser pixie and the rest of my team.  I couldn’t risk that the laser would knock out my forcefield, so I waited, letting the Fragile One disappear, held in reserve.

A flash of red, a flash of pain, and I was the terminus of one end of the laser.  I brought my forcefield back, twisted, and reached out, grabbing her around the upper body, her wrists held between two fingers.  I twisted her body to one side, pointing her hands off to the side.

She grew to full size, and I adjusted the forcefield to match.  She screamed in my face.  The laser was weaker, if anything, while she was larger.

“You’re bleeding,” Rain said.

I looked.  Byron was holding one hand at his wrist, and blood was pouring out.

Sveta reached out, and bound the wound closed with her tendrils.  Blood welled out from the gaps, and she tightened her grip.

The woman kept screaming, and as she did, the lighting flickered, matching the scream.  I was pretty sure it wasn’t her, nor was it the lasers she fired intermittently.

I walked her further up the stairs, and then used my aura, keeping the range contained to a matter of feet, the effect the closest thing I could approximate to calm.

“Using my aura, keep your distance for a sec,” I said.

“Your powers changed, again,” Sveta said, behind me.  “Your forcefield held your gun with you nowhere near it.  You just did something else.  Your aura…”

“Flavors of ‘rah rah’ and ‘fuck off’ in the fight earlier,” Rain interpreted.  “Then just now it was a big slap in the face of ‘holy shit’.”

“Courage, righteousness, and just now it was a feeling of realization.  I hoped it would wake her up.”

The woman screamed, thrashing.  The screaming played off of the other screams I heard, including some in the background.

I could feel wetness at my neck, along with pain that throbbed with my heartbeat.  I kept my grip on the woman with my forcefield and brought my hand to my neck.

I’d been cut, and flesh had parted, from collarbone to where my shoulder met my neck.  The laser didn’t cauterize what it hit.

“Does it matter?” I asked.  “It’s a long explanation.  Byron and I need medical care.  Come on.”

“You said you’re at an eight,” Cryptid growled the words, his tone wary.

“An eight is good.”

“I asked for the reality check earlier,” Rain said.  “And I asked if anyone was above a seven or below a three, because feeling too good is a concern.”

“Fuck me, that’s being used against me?”

“Master-stranger protocols,” Rain said.  “At least until we get a good explanation.”

I grit my teeth.  I had no idea how bad the bleeding was, I didn’t like any part of this, and it just felt like the Simurgh was scoring a win.

But the protocols overrode any sentiment or logic.  That was how they worked.

Byron leaned hard into the railing by the set of stairs.  There was more commotion upstairs, and we were only at the third floor.

“Byron needs help,” I said.  “And I don’t know how bad this wound at my neck is.  I don’t think us getting moving hurts anything.  And I think if anything, we should stick to the orders.  Dinah.”

“Come,” Sveta said.  “Let’s go.  Bring her, Victoria?  Or should I?”

“I can.”

“Come.  And stay where we can keep an eye out?”

I was okay letting her take the lead for now.

The forcefield grabbed the woman by the waist, still holding her arms.  I lifted her.  She shrank to tiny size, and I shifted my grip, still holding her.  She grew again, and I didn’t lose my grip.

Her screaming became a kind of screaming-sobbing.

Who was she, and how had she been this close to the edge, that she was this badly off now?

I held one hand to the wound, while the Fragile One dragged the woman.

“The labs will have first aid,” Cryptid said.

“But a detour-” Sveta said.

“The bleeding is bad,” Rain said.  “I vote for medical care.”

We made our way up the stairs to the next stage, where hallways branched off to the left and right.  I saw Juliette and Chastity with Mapwright from Advance Guard.  They were dragging two people behind them.

“Hey Rain, hey Breakthrough.  You’ve got one too?” Chastity asked.

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “We got one.”

“Some no-name cape,” I said.

“That’s Bloodplay,” Chastity said.  “She’s a villain slash rogue.   You can guess what she does from the name.”

“I absolutely cannot,” Rain said.

“You’re cute,” Chastity said.

“Or your sense of what’s easy to guess is messed up,” Juliette said.

“Maybe,” Chastity said, frowning.  “But Rain’s still cute.”

“Eh,” Juliette said.

“Not that I mind, but… our guys are hurt.”

“Shit, yeah,” Chastity said, looking at us.  At Byron.  “I’m not focusing, with this screaming.  Um-”

Mapwright reached out, touching Byron’s hand, then Sveta’s…

Chastity looked over at me.  “-we’re taking them to the Mathers Giant.  She’s incapacitating them and shutting off all incoming signals.”

“Is she behaving?” Cryptid asked.  He scowled with his ratty, crooked-toothed face as Mapwright touched him.

“Is there a chance she doesn’t behave?” Rain asked, with a note of alarm.

“The Simurgh,” Cryptid replied, with a note of derision.  “Nobody’s behaving.”

Mapwright reached for my hand and touched the forcefield instead.

I opened up the chest, then reached out with the hand that wasn’t currently holding my neck.  “Again.”

She touched my hand.  Her eyes flashed pink.

My vision flashed.  My awareness of the facility expanded out, like I could see every wall, every floor, the damaged sections, the lighting, but when it came to what was actually in that space, it was something like a symbol, a sign with an arcane symbol on it that shouldn’t have meant or implied something, but told me a fuller story than an exclamation point or word might.

Mathers Giant was parked up on the seventh floor, behind and beneath the stairs.  The offices just beyond the area that had once had the booths of Teacher’s misinformation teams.

“You made it sound like she in particular might be a problem,” Rain said.

Anything in particular might be a problem,” Chris retorted.

“Enough, stop,” I said, rubbing my eyelids against the orbs of my eyes.  A bit of information overload.  “We’re getting slowed down.  We need to go.”

“Can you take her?”  Sveta asked the Heartbroken girls, almost talking over me, asserting the leadership.   “We have to hunt down medical care and track someone down for Dragon.”

“It’s hard enough dragging two grown people,” Juliette said.

“We can,” Chastity said.

“Give me a second, I’ll see if I can make this easier,” I told them.  I pulled away from the group, and began saturating the captive villainess Bloodplay with emotions.  I pulled on scenes I’d seen recently.

Obeying my mom, curling up against Dean.  Tattletale had called it submission.  It wasn’t.

You can infuse someone with raw fear, and depending on the person, they might quiver and quake, or they can lash out in violence.  I can give Bloodplay acceptance…

She bent her head down, twisting and pulling against the hands that restrained her.

…and if it works, she’ll be willing to work with us.

She raised her head, eyes as wide as they would go, kicked her legs, and screamed with renewed rage.

Then she shrank again, trying to make use of the second or two I didn’t have a firm grip.  But I was anticipating it.  Other hands were waiting.  I grabbed her tiny body and held firm.  “Chastity!”

Chastity took a step forward, almost tripping over the stair that connected the hallway to the broader stairwell.  Her eyes went wide.  “How do I hit her without taking her head off?”

The woman used her lasers, and this time, she was able to hit my forcefield.

“Now!”

Chastity reached out, hesitated, then flicked a finger, catching the two-inch-high Bloodplay across the cheek, knocking her out.

It might have knocked her out if Chastity hadn’t had her power to K.O. anyone with a slap.

I hurried to catch Bloodplay as my forcefield fell, then handed her over.  My one hand was slick from fingertip to wrist with blood.

“Is that her or you?” Chastity asked.  Then her eyes fixed on my neck.  “You need to get that looked at.  I didn’t even see, since the black hides it.”

“I know.  Just… I’m managing.”

“Split up,” Sveta said.  “Cryptid, Antares, Byron, floor six labs.  Find a lab that works.  Precipice, you’re with me.  Map, Chastity, Juliette, come with us.  Seventh floor, the hallway where they stuck the thinkers.”

“Be careful going there,” Chastity told Sveta.  “Half these guys we caught were heading there like they were given orders.  We’ve been holding them off but…”

Sveta met my eyes.

“Dinah,” I said.

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  “Probably.”

“I’ll come,” I told her.

“You will fucking go get medical care, Victoria.  You’re bleeding like shit,” Sveta said, with uncharacteristic harshness.

“I-”

The entire building shuddered.

The screaming, at the very least, didn’t feel that bad.  Was the Simurgh further from the building?  That wasn’t necessarily a good thing, as relieving as it felt right this minute.  It meant she might be getting away.

In this, at least, we had to trust the Wardens to keep her pinned down.  And we needed to get Dinah.

I pressed my hand to my wound, checked Byron, and then started flying up the stairs, taking point.

There was someone in costume sitting on the stairs in the dark, hands over his ears, rocking a little.  I landed next to him while I waited for others, checking him over, but he barely seemed to recognize I was there.  The hallways- I checked both, and both were lit.  There was one dead body in the hallway, either a ‘red’ by Defiant’s system or a victim of a red, but no apparent threats.

I used my aura, reaching out for calm and relief and pushing it out there.

In a way, I was glad that I could.  The process of connecting to the Fragile One and her origins, realizing she wasn’t the enemy and letting her connect to me… it had opened doors both for the shaping of my forcefield and for my emotion control.  It felt right that the emotion control was letting me help and soothe, now.

The cape stopped rocking and looked up at me.

“Is there-” I started.  He removed the hands from his ears.  “Is there a place you can go?”

“My team’s fighting.”

“The fighting seems to be worse near the front of the building.  If you head that way…” I indicated past the stairs.  “You can go find a spot to wait or help others.  Or… the screaming shouldn’t be as bad.”

He got to his feet, and I gave him a hand.  Then he jogged off, hand resting on the back of his neck, like he wanted to keep it close to his ears, to try and fail to shut off the screaming.

He dies,” the noise of the environment rasped.

The thought that crossed my mind was of Dean.  Of him next to me at an event I couldn’t remember the particulars of, whispering so it was just him and me.

Even though the sounds I’d just heard were nothing like Dean’s voice, my memory of the two words now felt like it had sounded like him, and they felt irrevocably tied to that memory of Dean.

A chill ran up my back, the sensations reminding me that some of the bleeding extended down my back.

I turned, watching over the group as they made their approach.  Sveta let go of Byron’s arm, and her grip had been firm enough that the gouge that extended from one corner of his wrist to his elbow didn’t open up again in the time it took me to assert my grip with four different forcefield hands.

“I might be a few points lower than I was just saying,” I said.  “Put me down as a six, maybe a five.”

“You can’t just change it to get better treatment,” Cryptid growled.  “You just said you were a nine, minutes ago.  Now you’re downgrading it because we’re being careful around you.  You can’t be that happy around the fucking Simurgh without it being for bad reasons.”

I glanced at Sveta, and Sveta nodded once.

“That’s not what I’m doing.  I’m rating myself high as far as… I had a breakthrough and that feels good.  But she is getting to me.”

“Good feelings are bad, and so is her getting to you,” Cryptid told me.

“Just… nevermind,” I said.

“Worst of both worlds.”

“Shut up, Chris,” Sveta said.  Her body was agitated in how it moved, a lattice of ribbons with many gaps at her arms, some gaps at her neck.  “Be safe.  We’ll get Dinah and come back your way, or you come find us.”

I nodded.

“Tattletale and the kids are up there near her.  It’s where they stowed the thinkers,” Chastity said.

“Go,” I said.

“Byron’s in charge,” she said.

Byron looked unsteady on his feet.

But I nodded.

Sveta went, without any further statements or questions.  A small part of me felt betrayed, like I’d felt in the hospital room, abandoned by family.  Which hadn’t been the reality, I tried to tell myself rationally.

I ended up pulling Byron more than was polite, as a consequence of that firm grip and my sense of urgency in getting him some medical attention.

My family had come to the hospital.  They could have come for a visit every day and I still would have felt abandoned.  Sure, they could have handled it better, but it was a me thing as much as it was a them thing.

With Mapwright’s power informing me of room layouts, I found a lab, checked it was empty, and then opened the door, bringing Byron in behind me.

Cryptid practically squeezed past Byron in his eagerness to get to the nearest computer chair, hurling an oversized rat-man body into the seat, pulling himself over, and booting up.

“Do you have anything?” Byron asked Cryptid.  “Injections for fast healing?”

“No.  I might need them.”

Byron seemed like he was going to say something, then fell silent.

“How are you managing?” I asked him.

“Uh.  Managing?” he asked, like it was a tricky question.

“Dizzy?  Delirious?  Feeling the blood loss?”

“I know what blood loss feels like.  I’m… no blood loss.”

I disengaged from my forcefield, leaving it behind while I went to cabinets, pulling out the canvas bags with the ‘first aid’ icons on them.  Red on white.

Images of tattoos danced through my head.  Of costume.  All of New Wave had claimed their own colors.  I was gold and white, my dad green icons on white, my mom orange on white.  Aunt Sarah was purple on white, Crystal magenta on white, and Shielder blue on white.

My sister had been red on white.

She’s out there.  You know she’s on edge.

It was like a whisper, formed out of environment, paralleling my thoughts, except there was no environment to it.  An idea running through my head like I’d formed the thought, but like a teleporter arriving at a location, the process of getting from A to B wasn’t apparent, only inferred.  My thoughts felt like that.  The fact that the journey could be made made sense.  It was just too fast, too disconnected to feel natural.

The screaming was still there, fading in and out.

I pulled the stuff out of the cabinet.

“I’m not squeezing you too tight?” I asked Byron, as I handed the first aid stuff to the Fragile One.

“No.”

Blood sucked at my fingers as I pulled my hand away from the wound at my shoulder.  I kept one eye out to try and keep coordinated as I had the Fragile One unpack the first aid kit.  I floated over to check the severity of the wound by sight.

Fuck, it was not a pretty one.

“No sign that it’s bleeding too badly internally.  The pressure seems to have stopped it,” I observed.  “If you have any input, any details you need us to know, let me know.”

Byron shook his head.

“I could pull that open to see if there’s anything arterial, but I feel like it’d be leaking out or there’d be discoloration, bruising, or fluid buildup.  Better to keep it closed, let it keep clotting.”

“Sure,” Byron murmured, like he didn’t even care.

“Hello!”

The cheery, young voice was jarring, as a contrast to Byron’s.

Riley’s voice came across the computer.  “Woww.  Look at you.  Case Fifty-three?  And… dinner?”

“No.  Transformation cocktail.  Two injured.  They’re getting patched up.”

“Lemme see.  Put them in front of the camera.”

I helped Byron stand, and brought him closer to the computer.

“I wish I’d seen you before you started bleeding.  I’d be able to judge better.  I think you’ll be okay, but don’t go running too fast or getting too excited.  You might pass out.”

“Any arterial bleeding?” I asked.  “Anything internal?  Muscle damage?  Nerve damage?”

“Nerve damage, maybe.  Worst case scenario… second worst case scenario, his right hand is only as good as his left, some therapy needed.  Worst case scenario is we all die before that’s even a question.”

“I just need bandages, then?” Byron asked.

“Medical attention if you want to avoid the nerve damage.”

“That takes time.  Bandages?”

“Yep, if you’re willing to take the risk.  Twenty-five percent chance your hand doesn’t fully recover.”

“That’s fine,” Byron said.

I moved my hand away from the wound that ran parallel to my bra strap, collarbone up to the shoulder.

“You’re bleeding more than you think you are.  I love the edges on those cuts.  What was the weapon they used?”

“Laser with no heat, I think,” I said.

“I want the readouts on that!” Riley said, in the same voice a kid proclaimed their desire for a puppy that was for sale.

“Focus,” Cryptid growled.

“You’ll need to cauterize.  One and a half inches above the collarbone.”

“Fuck me,” Cryptid’s growl became more growly.  He rose from his seat, grabbing part of his kit, and… if his feet weren’t stretched-out rat feet, then he would have been stomping my way.  As it was, it was a stalk, quick and lunge-y.  He reached for me and I flew back.  No forcefield, while it was holding Byron’s arm.

“I have stuff.”

“Ask first.”

“Fucking-” he growled.  “You want to stop bleeding?  I have stuff.  For your forehead too.”

“Will it knock me out?  Slow me down?”

No.  It stops bleeding.”

“Because the doctors at Shin-”

He threw it down on the floor, then stalked his way back to his chair.

“You talk about the importance of being wary, Cryptid, but the moment we’re wary around you for good reason, you get pissy.”

“It’s there if you want it, smear it on,” he said, before slumping down in front of the computer, his body too big for the station or the monitor’s height.  He spoke to the screen, “Can we get to work?  What are we doing?”

“We’re using some inspiration from Rattenfänger, a villain I had a run in, back in the day.  Sound as a vector for biological response.  It transmits quickly, it’ll get the coverage we need…”

I turned my full attention to Byron, who was applying bandage.  I had my forcefield gradually release its hold on his arm while he wrapped it.  He knew what he was doing.

The discussion continued in the background.  I applied the cream to the part of the wound Riley had indicated, then to my forehead and scalp, before doing what I could to staunch the flow.  Blood trickled down my chest to my stomach, down my side, and down my arm.  The hand that had been keeping pressure on the wound had blood running down the length of it to my elbow, making the sleeve stick to the joint.

“Talk to me,” I told Byron.

“I feel like a two right now,” he said.

“Okay,” I said, staying calm despite the alarm.  “What can I do?  I’ve got emotions on tap, I can listen.  Give you perspective, restrain you…”

“This,” he said, pausing in the bandaging process to indicate his arm.  “Makes me think of Tristan.”

“A lot of tricky thoughts right now.  Some of it’s her.”

“I know,” he said.  “I know what you meant earlier, when you said you felt like a nine or ten for other reasons, but when it came to her, you felt like a four.  I just… I don’t feel like a nine or a ten.”

“Yeah,” I said, quiet.

“And that’s nothing to do with her.  The lighting, the spots in my vision, it makes me think it’s his power, every time, like he’s back, and my hopes get up, every time.  It feels like every single little detail that’s around us is something she’s manipulating and it’s pushing me toward…”

“Yeah,” I said, again.  “Me too.  I think every single one of us feels like we’re getting special attention.”

He swore under his breath in Spanish.

Cryptid’s swearing, though, was far louder.  He rose from his seat.

“Woah nelly,” Riley’s voice was almost playful.  “What is it?”

“Not a moment’s peace!” Cryptid growled.  “It has to be the Simurgh.  She’s throwing roadblocks my way.  I can’t think for two seconds without something-”

“What happened?” I asked.

“My giant.  She’s nonresponsive.  I plugged stuff into her so I could track it.  She’s gone dark.”

“She’s dead?” I asked.  “The very important Mathers Giant that was pacifying the capes the others were rounding up?”

“She’s dark.  Now I have to stop what I’m doing, I have to-”

“You need to do this,” I told him.

“I don’t have to do a fucking thing-”

I pulsed out with my aura.  A moment of feral panic, the kind that made someone freeze, instead of flying.  His expression twisted.

“Cryptid.  Chris, I’m going to be blunt.  Do this.  There’s zero other choice.  I’ll go to the giant.”

“I’m not going to-” he started, but he stopped himself this time, without needing intervention.

“It’ll be fun!” Riley said, through the computer.

“And… if you’ve got any way of canceling out the Simurgh, like you canceled out the other stuff, now’s the time to use it,” I told him.  “Chill out, focus.”

He withdrew a syringe from his pocket, and stared down at it.

“You said you had it for emergencies.  Unless you’d rather I stab your giant…”

“No,” he said.

He pressed it to his neck, and injected it.  With his other paw, he grabbed another syringe, and threw it to me.  “Inject her.  It should reboot things.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Look after Byron?”

He nodded, silent.  Already, the black feathers were growing in.

“Trusting you,” I told him.

“Yeah,” he said, his voice reedy, thin.

I left the room, grabbing bandages to press to my neck, along with the coagulant cream, or whatever it was.

I flew, Mapwright’s power directing me to my destination.

To the space behind the stairs, where Teacher had kept his propaganda teams.

Where the Mathers Giant was, and all of the capes that had been taken out of action and kept that way by her power.

The Simurgh was there, silent, not screaming, wings and arms wrapped around the giant.

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Last – 20.3

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This facility has been raided twice, I thought.  Now we need to defend it.

A woman lunged out of a hallway, catching Hookline off guard.  She got in two quick cuts with her knife.

“Fucking-!”  Hookline drew his chain around himself, forming overlapping ‘x’s of shifting chain that blocked two more swings.  He grabbed the hook that was attached to the end of the chain, ready to swing.

Byron kicked her with a metal boot instead, which got her away.  Clockblocker bent down and touched her.

“Fucking hell,” Hookline muttered.  Blood ran down from his lacerated arm to his elbow.

Win hurried to catch up.  “There was a group in a side hallway.  I would have warned you.”

“It’s okay,” Clockblocker said.

“Real fucking okay,” Hookline swore, pulling a bloody hand away from the knife wound,  “Fucking…”

“I’ve got bandages,” Gibbet said.

I took a second to make sure we weren’t inadvertently letting ourselves get split up, while she got the bandages out.  She began walking with him while wrapping his hand.

“Shit,” Clockblocker muttered.  “She’s holding on too tight.”

He was trying to pull the knife out of the woman’s hand.

“Heads up, coming down,” I told him, before floating down, being careful with the gun I was hauling.  In real life, there was no slapstick when a twelve-ton weapon was swung around haphazardly, only tragic brain damage.  I took hold of the woman’s knife and snapped it off at the handle.

“That works, except, uh, hm.  I don’t even want to know how your forcefield works now,” Clockblocker said.

“She works very well right now.  I’m hoping she stays that way,” I said.  I pushed the blade into the wall to the point there was nothing sticking out that could be pulled free and used against us.

I was fully aware that there had been a few slips in my forcefield’s performance, and it seemed to be tied to my mental state, and right now, my ‘mental state’ was me enduring a lot of nerve-jangling screaming.

Speakers at the end of each hallway weren’t helping, as they joined the screaming in my head to form a kind of chorus of emitted screeches and screams.  Here and there, one person or another got access to a microphone and tried to transmit to a location.

“Someone’s at the door, we-”  A bang could be heard over the speakers, several people gasping our shouting in response.  “-at hospital, area-”

The sound cut out, replaced by an electronic screech.

Another voice came in, from a more distorted microphone, whispering, “It gets easier if you listen between the words.”

I looked around, then saw metal trim on a doorframe.  I pulled it out, used a forcefield hand to strip away the extra bits of door, and then used it to tie up the time-frozen woman.  Wrists and ankles.

Sveta reached out, slid tendrils between the edges of the speaker and the wall, and then tore it out, throwing it to the ground.  The resulting feedback squeal exactly mimicked the faint rise and fall of the screaming in my head, that I hadn’t even realized was still there.

The speaker sputtered, and the voice resumed, “…easier if you listen between the words.  It gets easier…”

Rain backhanded the speaker with a silver blade and then kicked it.

“Thank you,” Byron said.  “Fuck me, this is unbearable, even without the accompanying soundtrack.”

“Just endure,” I told him.  “We gotta do as much damage as we can, stop her or weaken her.”

“I know, just…”

“Keep moving,” I told him.  “Let us know if you need to bail.”

“I don’t.  I’m not.”

I nodded.

Byron kept going.

“Wait,” Cryptid called out.

Byron stopped.

We all remained where we were.

“Not the time-” I started.

“Shh.”

He held one long, knobby finger to his rat-like muzzle, head bowed.

He remained where he was, finger still to his muzzle, as he motioned for Byron to continue on.

Byron took two steps, and Cryptid lunged, diving into one of the dark rooms.

It sounded like he had thrown himself into a shelf of metal parts and tools.

Rain jumped in, and I flew to get better lined up- but the nature of the hallway and the surrounding people made it hard to get my gun aimed right.

Cryptid was wrestling with something that looked like a mechanical dog.

I dropped the gun, ready to dive in, but Rain was already stabbing the thing with a silver blade.  It provided the weak point that Cryptid could use to tear the thing in half.

Metal with a core of flesh.

“Tell me that’s not Machine Army,” Rain said.

“No,” Cryptid growled, climbing to his feet, dropping the two halves.  He sounded derisive.  He pulled a piece off its head and pulled a computer chip out of a bloody socket.  He stuck the chip into a slot on his belt, then pulled it out.  “A tinker named Gusto made it.  It’s set to receive radio waves, she distorted an incoming signal to give it an attack command.”

“Is Gusto friendly?” I asked.

Was,” Cryptid growled, before pushing past me.

“Fuck,” Rain muttered.  “Jesus, fuck.”

“Stay calm, stay level,” I said.

The other teams had gone down the hallways.  The Malfunctions had split up, with Caryatid hanging back with the slower group, Finale in our group, toward the middle, and Withdrawal up at the head of the pack with the faster people like Damsel and Trophy Wife.  Sidepiece had some surprising stamina, all considered, and was keeping up with Trophy Wife.

The end result was that we didn’t really split up that much.  The forward group went down one hall, changed their minds, and then took another, or they split up to check the branching paths and made wordless agreements because two routes were dead ends.  We reached another set of hallways, and they reconvened to exchange words before making the decisions.

I stuck with the main group, holding my impractically large gun overhead.

The various groups had split up, and it was convenient to stay with the people we’d flown in with.  There was too much danger of people coming at us from the rear or flanks, or something happening that complicated the fights ahead of us.  Splitting up meant we could cover the major concerns, threats, and groups that might be lurking in the lower floors, without losing too much time.

“It gets easier-“

The whispered broadcast cut out, someone else jumping in to try and broadcast something, but it was a third of a word, incoherent and shouted.

“-between the words,” the original broadcast reasserted itself.

Lights began to go out throughout the facility.  Our hallway went dark.

Win cranked something at his chest.  Tinkertech armor lit up, illuminating the area around him.  Byron began to fill the hallway with motes, each casting maybe a tenth of the light a lamp might shed.

I felt my eyes adjust to the gloom, which was normal-ish.  Then they adjusted more.

“There,” Trophy Wife said.

“Do I want to know where those eyes came from?” Withdrawal asked.

“No, nope, don’t tell me,” Finale added.

“Woman couldn’t pay her debt on time, I gave her the choice-”

“No, no, nope, nonono,” Finale raised her voice, drowning out Trophy Wife.  “Stop, stop.”

“-gave me her cat.”

“Nooo.”

My skin crawled.  I stopped paying attention to the gun, and it scraped glass that was protecting what might have been a breaker panel.  The sounds produced, along with the sputter of a buzz from the broken speaker behind us, formed a word.  “Cats.”

The thought was involuntary: I’m made of strays and escaped pets and rodents and bugs.

My skin crawled more.

Chris was looking at me, his eyes glowing in the dark.

“Hate to complain, but I could really do without the nonconsensual mutations,” I said.

“Then stay more than fifty feet away from me,” Trophy Wife said.

I felt an urge to say something back, then decided against it.  I decided to keep the night vision, while I was at it.

“Get-between the words,” the voice whispered from speakers.

Damsel annihilated the speaker at the end of the hallway.

“Don’t make that much noise,” Clockblocker said.  “You’ll get some unwanted-”

“She did,” Win said.  He looked back at us with metal eyes that had holes in the surface, each hole rimmed with glowing circuit patterns in gold.  “Tac radar says we’ve got people coming from both directions.  Group of five ahead, they’re finding hiding spots, and weirdly heavy footsteps coming from behind.”

He pulled a gun out.  It changed configuration, locking into position over his hand.

I was closer to the rear than the front.  It took a bit of flying acrobatics to get the gun turned around, but I pointed it the way we’d come.  Win crouched below me, pointing the same way.

“Weirdly heavy means brute?” I asked.

“No idea.”

I changed the setting on my gun, narrowing the beam from the last setting I’d had it on.  Below me, Caryatid had caught up, and crouched a bit, taking on her breaker form.  She was a good person to have in the way of any stampeding heavy hiter.

It gets between the worlds,” the voice on the speaker said.  There was a feedback squeal.

Behind me, Damsel used her power, tearing into a wall, before hurling herself through the hole.  I heard the follow-up shots.

“Pew, pew, pew,” Finale said, her voice quiet.  “Pew.”

The fight in the other hallway unfolded in the same moment the figure in our hallway made his appearance.  I almost pulled the trigger on seeing the monstrous face, then pulled back.  “No!”

Win had already pulled the trigger.  A sphere of glowing blue energy soared down the hallway, catching the figure in the lower body.  The gun reconfigured, loading for another shot, taking on a red glow in the gloom.

“Shit,” I said.

“We know it?”

“We know him,” I said.  I flew back a short bit to look down the other hallway, and saw the fighting was ongoing.  Nothing I could address with my gun.

“All five are down,” Win said.  “Four unconscious, one off radar, maybe dead… and then this guy.”

Caryatid dropped her form immediately, going to Finale’s side.  I set my gun down and down the hall to our fallen straggler.  Torso lay on the floor of the hallway, hands cupping his groin.

“It’s Torso.  One of Deathchester’s people.  What did you shoot him with?” I asked.

“Concussive forceball.  I figured it’d either put him on the floor or slow him down long enough for something more serious…  I’m sorry, man.”

Torso lifted his head off the floor, then thunked it back down.

“He’ll be alright!” Gibbet crowed, her voice muffled by the hangman’s hood she wore.  She was catching up behind Win.  “Come on, Torso.  Took you long enough to show up, you loser.”

Torso thunked his head against the floor again.

Sidepiece spoke from the end of the hallway, “You’re so inconvenient.  You’d better headbutt that fucking Endbringer that’s screaming at us right now and make it worth it to bring you along.”

“Why couldn’t he come with us?” I asked.

“Because if he fell on the damn Dragon-plane, which he would, we’d all be goners,” Gibbet said.

An L-shaped bit of metal appeared below his neck, tried to lift him, and bent.  More appeared, straining to force him to a standing position.  Hookline provided his hook, which bent in mid-air, caught Torso around the neck, and lifted.

Torso finally let go of his groin with one hand, grabbed the metal ‘L’, and found something approximating balance.  In the gloom, his mannequin head with the mismatched cartoon eyes looked especially horrifying, especially where the paint had smeared or scuffed, making it look like he was crying.

I watched as they goaded him forward, Gibbet giving him a shove on one shoulder that would have been helpful if he weren’t so prone to falling over.

He passed me, and I could see that someone had written ‘MORON’ on the back of his head in what looked to be permanent marker.  I saw him stumble.

“Don’t fall on my gun!” I called out to them.  Torso had to turn roughly two-hundred and seventy degrees to look back in my direction, which increased the chance he’d fall on my gun, as he swayed badly.

At the very least, he didn’t fall on my gun.  I bent down to retrieve it, looked back, and saw Win staring at it.

I sighed, picked it up, and followed the others.

Deathchester was all together, minus Mockument, who hadn’t showed.

“Sorry again,” Win told Torso, as he caught up with Clockblocker.

The people who’d attacked were wearing refugee clothing.  One wore a mask, and was partially burned as he lay on the floor.

Listen to worlds,” a voice on a distant speaker whispered to us.

“We need to move fast,” I said.  “Formation before was working.  Try to keep us informed, Win.”

“I know this area,” Sveta said.  “The main concourse is this way.”

The speakers continued to play.  Even sounds that weren’t from the speakers were becoming more and more like whispers and vocal sounds from all sides.  As though every unoccupied office we passed through was filled with a half-formed memory.

Sorry.

Wash.

Umm.

Like my dad’s voice, trying to get into the habit of talking to me again after going a while without visits.  Sorry, he said.

The nurses at the hospital.  Before a chore I had dearly wished was unnecessary and, self-contradicting myself, constant at the same time.

Something Sveta had said, during one of her visits, after a lingering moment of eye contact, when even she had taken in the full reality of what I’d been and found herself momentarily lost for words.

“Fuck you, Simurgh.”

The statement was marked by others looking at me.

Oh, I’d said that out loud.

“Do we need to worry?” Clockblocker asked.

“Addendum to that thought,” I said.  “Fuck her, and no, it’s not working like she wants it to.  She’s poking at obvious weak spots I’ve been dealing with for years.  I can take it.”

“K- Lookout,” Rain said.  “I remember she talked once about a thing she had on her fridge once.  You got home from work or school and you put a smiley face up on the fridge.  Or a frowny face.  Or a stormy face.”

“That is the lamest fucking thing,” Sidepiece said.  “You know what I got when I got home from school?”

“I think this is a trick question, and you’re going to pull something out of your middle,” Finale said.

“I got a boot to the ass.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“Fuck off with your apologies.”

“Your point, Precipice?” I asked, my voice tenser and my tone terser than I’d meant it to be.  “Sorry, just… before they derail us.”

We were passing beneath a set of massive industrial tubes that churned with fluids passing through them.  Water for the facility, I imagined.

“Reality check,” Rain said.  “Scale of one to ten, who’s above a seven or below a three?”

“Below a five,” Byron said.  “Below a five is a slippery slope.”

“Sure,” Rain said.  “No judgment.”

“I’m fine,” Damsel said, annoyed.

“Is it even possible to be above a seven?”

“I-” I started.  “I’m fucking annoyed with this.  I’m spooked about what comes next, and if we can even beat her.  But I don’t feel like she’s getting to me.  It’s distracting and there’s probably a point to it.  Put me down as a seven.”

“I’m freaking,” Caryatid said, from the very rear of the group.  “I keep hearing the screeches and squeals, and I think of the needle woman who almost got me, the last time I was here.  I dunno… four?”

“Six?” Finale sounded unsure.  “I really don’t know.”

“Below a five or above a seven,” Trophy Wife said, sounding annoyed that Finale was contributing unnecessary information.

“I’ll admit I’m thinking of my brother a lot,” Byron said.  “Four.”

“I’m an eight or a nine,” Cryptid said.  He gave his sash a pat.  “I have vials, including one for dealing with mind control.  Doesn’t scare me.”

“The bird one.  You could have used it already,” I noted.

“Maybe someone else will need it,” Cryptid said, narrowing his eyes at me.  He looked away.  “Works better if I have a mission in mind.”

“Nice to have in the back pocket,” I told him.

“It is,” he replied, before his ear twitched and he looked away.

“Anyone else?” Rain asked, hopeful.

Torso put out both hands, all fingers extended.

“Ten,” Hookline said, unnecessarily.

“Good for you!” Finale said.

“Even with the crotch shot?” Win asked.

Torso pulled his hands back.  He swayed for a second, then put them out again, pinky finger and thumb on one black-gloved hand tucked in.  Eight.

“His skull is too thick for her to get to him,” Gibbet said, giving Torso a knock on the head.  Torso, in turn, gave her a thumbs up.

“Others are ahead,” Cryptid said, before joining the advance group, closer to Damsel and Trophy Wife.

‘Ahead’ was an open area containing rows of pumps.  It was only partially lit, with the lights flickering, but there was a set of stairs leading up over one of the pumps, to a higher level.  Some of the other groups that had come in on the same planes as us were up there.  I saw Parian and Rachel with one of the dogs, some of Semiramis’ group, and two Wardens.  Vista was among the Wardens, looking down our way.  Keeping tabs on Byron.

Sveta reached up to grab the railing and haul herself up.  “This way!”

“Anyone injured, needing a lift?” I asked.

“Weak.”

It took me half a second to realize the voice hadn’t come from the group, another half-second to realize that Caryatid was approaching me.

“I’m not injured, but…”

“Sure,” I said.

The gun was heavy and very close to my tolerance levels, but an added hundred and twenty or whatever pounds wasn’t enough to make flying impossible.  The stairs that led over the massive pump were the equivalent of three stories.  I grabbed her with forcefield hands, then lifted.

“Me too, when you’re done?” Byron asked.

“I got you,” Sveta called down.  She’d just been talking to Vista.  Maybe telling Vista that Byron was at a four, here.  She hopped down onto the pump, grabbed something, and then unfurled to reach down to Byron, on the ground.

Metal squeaked, and the squeak paralleled the shifting pitch of the screaming in my head.

Others took the stairs.

It’s not just that she drives you around the bend, I thought.  It’s that she’s constantly gathering information.  Constantly refining that ability to drive you crazy, and refining her precognition, so you’re less and less effective against her in a fight.

“Dungeons are below us,” Sveta was saying, to a group of capes who looked like they were one of Foresight’s peripheral groups.  “On the next floor will be the first main floor, including the lobby, which you’ve probably seen.  If you go beneath the stairs, you’ll find the arboretum.”

“Arboretum?” I asked.

“Lounge area,” Sveta said.  “They were using it as a backup cafe.  Vista says we’re set up on the ground floor, but floors two and three have a few dangerous parahumans, so we’ve been delayed.”

“Some people snapped and they’re dangerous,” Vista told me.  “We’re sorting through people by stress level, using the front doors by the lobby to evacuate people who can’t stick it out, but we can’t evacuate anyone upstairs until we clear the middle floors, and we can’t easily lure the compromised to one of the containment zones until we can get past them.”

“Containment zones?”

Vista nodded.  “Right now we’re apparently using the dungeon, but most of that was built to work with the Custodian in charge, and she’s a Titan now.”

“She wouldn’t cooperate even if she wasn’t a Titan,” Sveta said.  She winced.  “I could really do with this screaming stopping.”

“If you can hear the scream, at least she’s still working on you,” Clockblocker said.

People were up the stairs.  Everyone accounted for.

I used the gun to ram my way through the double doors.

I could hear distant screaming, and sped up my approach, flying while bringing the gun around to point.

The heroes were gathered on the ground level.  Heroes were storming the stairs, which went straight to the upper floors, hallways stabbing out to the right and left.

“All teams, go!” Defiant called out, a wire between his teeth..  He had his spear in hand, and was directing the groups.  “I want a strong defensive team at our back line here!  Around me!”

I moved out of the way, flying up and back, so the rest of our group could file in.

I saw Gilpatrick, wearing a full Patrol uniform.  When he looked at me, his forehead lined with worry, posture tense.

I flew to him, pointing my gun in the general direction of upstairs.

“Good to see you,” he said, with genuine feeling.

“Is it?” I asked, without thinking.  “I mean… I’m glad, if that’s true.”

“Gave up leading the team.  Put Jester in charge, which is helping make this feel really fucking surreal,” Gilpatrick said, with some added weariness.

“I didn’t mean to put you in that position, having you go with Rain.”

“You didn’t ask.  I chose.”

I looked at him, remembered how he’d backed me up, as best as he was able.  Giving me a place to stay after the barbecue.

“My team was just trying to ballpark how we’re doing,” I told him.  “Rating from one to ten.  Ten being fantastic.  One being that we’re a danger to others.  Where are you at, Gilpatrick?”

“I’m not a danger,” he said.  “I’ve got some training from my PRT days.  I’ll last longer than most, don’t worry.”

“And your power?”

“Thinker.  Best I can figure out… I see the lies people tell themselves.”

“The lies…?”

“As physical things, twisting features.  It takes concentration to turn off.  Took me a second, I thought it was a broken power, until I talked to my kids.”

“The Patrol block?”

“Didn’t go into that conversation thinking I was going to quit and leave them.  But I know some of them well enough to match it to what I was seeing.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m not,” he said.  He smiled, but it was tight, a bit forced.  “Maybe I won’t be teaching hundreds of kids and helping them all a little, but I can be here, screen for unwitting traitors.  I can… let’s get through this.  I’ll help a few dozen, I think, who might not have ever gotten help if it weren’t for me.”

“We’ll get through it,” I told him.  Or die trying.

He smiled, and it wasn’t as forced.

Defiant was shouting orders.

“Need a team to go to the sixth floor!  We-” Defiant called out, stopping as Torso tripped and landed on his face.  “We need any capes who aren’t feeling confident to escort civilian groups out, be aware she’s above us, she may break free of the facility to attack and demoralize!”

My team was sorted.

“I should go,” I said.

“Victoria,” he said.

I met his eyes.  I almost winced at the weariness there, that I’d never seen even when he’d been dealing with the troublesome kids like Cami or Tom B.

“It really is good to see you.  I don’t mean that in an inappropriate way.  It’s… every way I can think of phrasing it makes me sound like an old man.”

“You’re not that old, Gilpatrick.”

“Too old and weary for you, Victoria.  All I mean is, and I don’t want to put too much weight on this, but you’re a sight for sore eyes, and my eyes feel very sore, tonight.”

“Thank you,” I told him.

“Be safe.”

“You too,” I told him.

I felt a measure of guilt.  I remembered how Gilpatrick had emphasized holding back.  He’d argued for avoiding violence and lethal measures wherever possible.  ‘Five pounds of gun’.

Five pounds of gun.  Twenty pounds of armor and costume.  However many pounds of additional gear, medical stuff, supplies…  metaphors for the amounts of attention we should pay toward violence, protecting others, supplies…

I hefted my twelve tons of gun, doing my best to avoid bludgeoning anyone as I returned to my team.

The gun wasn’t even the fucking irony, here.  Twelve tons of gun was nothing compared to the weight of the countless lives I was preparing to take.  I looked over at Chris.

“Defiant!” I called over.  “Are the labs clear?”

“Only if you help to clear them!  Sixth floor, feel free!” he barked.  He looked like he was going to say something else, then stopped.

He turned, raising his head to look up.

The ceiling caved in.  A plume of dust, concrete-

Simurgh.

I thought at first that it was just a psychological tactic.  Telekinetically controlled dust, to scare us, remind us we weren’t safe anywhere here.

Then it screamed.

The sound in my head redoubled, rattled, became words.  The words were accompanied by mental images.

“I never had a trigger event,” Dean’s voice.

I had to abandon you for my own health.”  Jessica’s.

I’m sorry.  I was selfish.  It wasn’t your fault.

Each was a fragment, a thing that had never been said, as much as they should have.  A slice of a world that would have made more sense, gone to better places.  Seductive.

Floating in the air, I curled up, knees to chest.

Fuck that.  I straightened, tall, eyes wide.

I used my aura.  The briefest of pulses.  A push, taking that ‘fuck you’ and broadcasting it for the extra emphasis.

She was there, crouching, her wings around her.  The aura didn’t touch her.  I couldn’t even be sure she registered it happened.

But for everyone else, it was a nudge, a slap in the face, a bit of fuck you to shake them from anything they might be thinking or feeling that was similar to what I was experiencing.

I aimed and fired in the next moment.  Fragments of roof cascaded down in a stream, absorbing a good seventy percent of what I was firing.  I shifted position, flying to one side, and a cape took off, flying in my way.  Only reflex kept me from shooting them in the back.

Sveta lunged in, reaching for someone in range of falling rubble.

That same person slapped falling rubble aside.  It struck Sveta’s reaching arm.

For what had to be fifteen seconds, the Simurgh crouched in the midst of the lobby, where our side had been regrouping.  She didn’t move a wing-tip.  Nobody fought on her defense or intentionally threw a forcefield up to protect her.

For those fifteen seconds, we didn’t touch her.  Capes advanced, then second-guessed themselves as more debris came down.  They were blinded by the dust and then someone bumped into them, disturbing their aim, and they didn’t feel confident to make the shot.

My own aim suffered, because my vision warped, distorting.  Trophy Wife had moved to a place where I wasn’t in her range anymore.  She granted herself mutations based off of the trophies she’d taken, and she granted lesser effects to people around her.  Problem was, that involved a faint transition period, which was fucking with me at a critical moment.  The see-in-the-dark mutation was dropping away from my eyes now that I wasn’t in her range.

She shifted from the crouch, rising twenty feet into the air.  With her telekinesis, she pulled chunks away from the ceiling.

Each chunk flew down with terminal velocity.  No lead-in, no warning, each moving in a clear straight line with no prevarication or misleading.  Each chunk took a life.

The cascade of chunks of ceiling began to pick up, became more aimless.  I couldn’t shake that each stumble to avoid the stuff was someone moving as she’d wanted.

I took aim, and I fired.  Chunks that were falling stopped, disintegrating beneath the beam, giving me a tantalizing second or two of contact before the next chunk blocked the continued beam.

I heard people shriek.  Withdrawal had a crumpled leg, struck by a stone.  Finale was shouting for him.  There were a good dozen people like him.  People who were close enough to get hurt.

Every instinct I had told me to get in there, to dive in and save him.

Logic told me that this was one of our last shots.  We had to hurt her, take her down a peg so she couldn’t win that tug of war against Titan Fortuna and take over the entire system.

The screaming was a roar in my ears, like the adrenaline in my ears when I’d been trapped.  The endless loop of trying to logic my way through emotional issues and emotion my way through logic, when neither would serve.  Being caught by Ophion.

She’s fucking with us.

Putting us in a lose-lose, demoralizing, psychologically assaulting us.

Because it served her goal.

Because she needed to, I told myself.  If we could push through this, it’d inconvenience her.

Fuck you!  I willed.  I pushed again.  Tried to feed courage and outrage out to the crowd on a level that would serve the people who needed it.

I’m not who I was when Ophion got me.

I’m changed.

The words rambled through my brain, pushing through a fog of noise and screaming.  Change.  Metamorphosis.  Cocoon.

Cocoon.

The scream latched onto the memory.  Me, wrapped in a cocoon of stray dogs, cats, bugs.  The cocoon had become a coffin, encapsulating me, after Crawler had eaten into me with acid.

But that coffin had opened.  Ribs with flesh strung between them had parted, revealing me within.

I held onto that image, pushing out, trying to capture it.

Holding it firm in my mind, I dove for Withdrawal.  I snatched him up.  I had a fleeting glance of Finale.

Rather than carry him to safety, I used momentum and flung him across the floor, relying on the metal rig and its propensity to skid.

He stopped himself against the wall, using the springs, then twisted around, aiming his pill popper.

I saved others, grabbing them.

The Fragile One fired the gun, placing the shots only when I was willing it, only when I was keeping an eye on things, to make sure nobody flew into the way.

Pressing the attack.

Staying low to the ground, watching the environment, I saved three people.

Others jumped in.  Helping.  When I saw people losing courage, I gave pulses of courage.  When I saw them succumbing to the fear and head-fuckery, I gave them a taste of righteous ‘fuck you’.

“I need you to get me in there!” Sveta called out to me.

“Okay, but- I don’t have my forcefield.”

She gave me a confused look.  Then a golden beam stabbed out, striking the shield the Simurgh was using to protect herself, until Byron pierced it with a spike of stone.  She connected the dots, looking back over her shoulder.

The Fragile One was there, visible in the shadows of dust.  Chest open, ribs splayed, a hole big enough for me to move through.  Her arms were extended, gripping the gun Dragon had given me, aiming it.

“Come!” I called out, with a pulse of my aura.  I reached out a hand.

“But-”

But she reached out.  Because I was in harm’s way, and any seconds spent protesting were seconds I was in danger’s way.

She grabbed my hand, and I braced myself, flying hard the other way.

Sveta grabbed the rubble the Simurgh was using to shield herself.  Then she hurled herself at the Simurgh.

Falling rubble stabbed directly down at Sveta.  She unfolded, creating a hole in her midsection for it to stab through, unfolded her arm, and grabbed the Simurgh with a dozen tendrils.

Reaching back, she extended a limb toward the crowd, grabbing Clockblocker’s hand.

She was frozen, locked in place, with ten tendrils around the Simurgh’s head and two around one smaller wing.  The Simurgh was positioned low to the ground.

I took evasive action, flying back and away, while the gun took the opportunity to shoot.

The Simurgh was still alive while grabbed, and was still using her telekinesis.  Every chunk of rubble saw purpose.  A larger chunk stalled Defiant.  Another formed a wall as the Fragile One opened fire.

Byron drew motes around her, trying to seal her inside a stone growth, then encasing it in ice for good measure.

Torso began running, sprinting across the floor, wobbling, hopping precariously over rubble.

A single stone slid in front of him, and he tripped.

Dust and rubble moved in a loose, slow cyclone around her, picking up in intensity, as a frozen Sveta held her.

Hookline’s weapon navigated its route through the Simurgh’s storm, rubble bouncing off of the chain instead of bending it.

Clockblocker hurried to Hookline’s side.  A non-living weapon that would serve the same purpose-

The effect as they made contact wasn’t the same purpose.  Clockblocker winced, hand pulling away, and the chain went completely limp.

Power conflict.

I looked past the cloud to the vague image of the Simurgh’s face, still wrapped by tendrils.

The beam cut through some of it, tracing a burning glowing line through her, while I crouched on the ground.

In the same moment Clockblocker’s power broke, the cyclone stopped, every fragment finding a target. One fragment grazed me across the forehead, wrenching my head to one side with a force that made my neck twang.

I canceled my forcefield and renewed it, shielding as many people as I could.  My gun fell to the ground behind me.

Simurgh flew skyward, into the hole she’d come through.  She was barely through it when one of the Dragon craft, upstairs, rammed into her, throwing her into the side of the hole.

I caught and blocked as much rubble as I could, as we all shifted focus to backing away from the fallout of the battle above.

“Keep moving if you can!” Defiant called out.  “She’s on the back foot!  Noncombat capes, get the injured clear!”

Gilpatrick was one of the ‘capes’ to do that.

“Dragon’s back on line!” Defiant called out.  “Crystalclear, I need you to get this device to Narwhal.  Antares?”

“Yes!” I called out, one hand at my forehead.

“Dinah Alcott is on the seventh floor.  Dragon thinks she’s a target.  You can take Lab Rat to the labs on the sixth floor as you go.  Go!”

I looked around to confirm my team was more or less in fighting shape, nodded, and then led the way.

As it began, younger me, so it continues.  A cut on the head, a weird feeling of pride, and a bit of twisted hope.

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Last – 20.2

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No portals meant we had to take the long way back.  This, I had to imagine,  was part of the Simurgh’s plan.  Draw us out, tie us down, and then go after the biggest target.

It felt bad.  I was aware of the running clock.  The countdown Dragon had provided had shut off when she’d gone dark, but that was for Simurgh exposure.  We had another countdown- the time before she merged with Titan Fortuna and enacted her plan.

The back of the Uther was smaller than I’d imagined it being, equivalent to my old bedroom in Brockton Bay, or Crystal’s living room, and there were a lot of us left to find our seats or places to stand.  Defiant was up front, piloting a flight of Dragon’s ships to land near other groups, to carry other people who had fought the Simurgh.

As we’d climbed in, there had been a few weird voids that formed, spaces people had been reluctant to fill.  Benches had been quickly claimed, then ceded to the injured.  The center aisle down the back of the craft was harder to fill, but Defiant deployed drop-down handholds from the ceiling.  There had still been a void, however, around Defiant.  Like nobody wanted to bother him or seem too familiar.

I braved it, stepping into those five feet or so of empty space.  There was a passenger seat, and I stood with my back to it and to Defiant.  Sveta found a position just to my left.

Byron sat down hard on the seat, metal against metal, and put his head back, eyes closed.

Couldn’t be easy, even with the general help Chris had provided.  And there was no Vista backing him up here.  She had her own people and team to look after.  Presumably in the Dragon ship with a single curved horn that I could see outside.

“ETA: ten minutes,” Defiant said.  “Whatever she’s doing back at the Wardens’ headquarters, it’s her final move before she goes after Titan Fortuna.”

The hatch at the back closed.  The last few people crowded in.  Chris took a seat with his back to the hatch, which most avoided leaning against or standing near.  As if it might open mid-flight and see them tip out.  I could imagine Chris growing emergency wings or a means of surviving the landing if he had to.

“Waiting for the other ships to board,” Defiant announced, without glancing back at us.  His spear telescoped and he placed it in a socket in the wall.  “I know you want to get there as soon as possible, but I’ll be flying every ship we have myself, and I wouldn’t want to be responsible for a ship I can’t see in the event of an ambush, especially with signal latency and reliability right now.”

“Did we make the wrong call, engaging her here?” I asked Defiant.

“There are no right calls when dealing with her,” Defiant said.  “Have a look for yourself.”

A projected map of the city appeared between the two seats.  I turned and looked.

The buildings were drawn out in grey-blue, with whole stretches of the city flattened or eaten up by the cracks.  The good guys were icons in green, floating over scattered dots.  Titans stood out in bold red, with slight color variation for Fortuna’s cluster, crimson, against Dauntless’s, pink.  Arachne and the other independents were orange.

“Draw a circle with your finger to pick up.”

I experimented.  Damsel of Distress was in the back of the craft, and moved closer.  Withdrawal also drew closer, looking.

Keep everyone close to the Wardens’ headquarters.

“How do I play it out?”

“Hm.  You’ll need something for that.  Didn’t cross my mind,” he said, voice low, attention on his screens, which had nothing to do with the simulation.

“You’re that far gone, Defiant?” Clockblocker called out, from the far end of the other bench.  “Forgot about us mere mortals needing keyboards and mice and voice commands to operate tech?”

Defiant grunted, in what might have been annoyance, assent, or negation.

“I remember liking the interfacing he made for tech he helped me with,” Kid Win said.  Was it Kid Win?

“Give me a moment,” Defiant said.

“Hey, Kid Win,” I said, addressing him from the opposite corner of the Uther’s rear bay.  “Did you end up changing your name?  You went by your civilian name when we crossed paths.”

“I had ideas.  Clockblocker is trying to convince me of Winman.”

“No,” I said.

“It works,” Clockblocker’s humor was audible in his tone.  “Like a wingman, but without the ‘g’.”

“That makes no sense,” Damsel of Distress told him.

“We’re part of the cursed generation,” Clockblocker said, his bench leaning forward from the weight of two other members of the Flock and some of Deathchester sitting on it.  He lifted a bandaged ankle up to his knee.  “A lot of the good names were taken, we were young and inexperienced as things started ramping up… most of the people my age were totally unprepared for the world ending.  We only got ‘lucky’ because our city went to shit.”

“Lucky,” Christopher said, almost inaudible.

“I like my name,” Finale said.  “Finale.  It really works.”

I was ninety-five percent sure it was taken.  I decided not to break her heart by saying so.  Caryatid too, for that matter.

The chatter continued.  Defiant’s voice was deep and distinctive enough to cut through it.

“Antares.  Slash your hand through it to execute.  Same movement in reverse to stop.”

“Good word, execute,” Damsel observed, leaning into the top of his seat.  One of her hands hung limp at her side, claws dragging across the floor.

I executed, karate-chopping the simulation.  Everyone close to the Wardens’ base, assuming the Simurgh would arrive there.

She didn’t.  She moved to the largest encampment of refugees.  I adjusted, moving some people around.

“Taking off!” Defiant raised his voice.  “Take your seats or grab a handhold!”

I used a grip on the passenger seat to keep myself upright until I had a sense of where the craft was going, then used flight to help keep up.  I adjusted the response teams for the crisis, then karate-chopped the projection again.

Red dots began to surround the Simurgh.  Civilians, I assumed, who were being weaponized and turned into threats.  Heroes mobilized, used portals…

And the Machine Army escaped its perimeter.

I stopped, sent forces over, drawing a circle around a group of teams, then directing them to the Machine Army.

Something wiped out half of the forces on the heroes’ side.

“What?” I asked.

“You can go back,” Defiant said.  “The simulations assume some worst case scenarios.  Bombs, betrayals, all-out losses, outside intervention, groups you’ve split off being turned into her pawns.”

“I don’t think I want to play this game,” I said.  I adjusted my flight as Defiant turned the Uther a bit.

“I am always playing this game,” Defiant said.  “I play through it on fast forward, adjusting on the fly, working out who is where, what the enemy is doing.  On the battlefield, I simulate what my opponents will do.”

“Almost like a precog.”

“No,” he said.  “I am very good at assessing battlefields.  That’s all it is.  Right now, we’re in a state where we have next moves we can make.  Stay focused, don’t lose heart.”

And prepare for that bomb, all-out loss, intervention, or whole groups being taken as her pawns, I thought.

“Can I?” Withdrawal asked.

“Go right ahead,” I told him.

He was in an awkward position, his limb-extension frame making him too tall for the Uther, but he found a crouching position, had his frame grab a handhold above, and detached from it so he could reach forward and experiment with the simulation.

“Damsel,” Rain said.

“That’s Damsel of Distress to you.  Use my full name, you cretin.”

Behave,” Defiant called out.

“Your arm,” Rain said, indicating the arm that hung limp at her side.

“There are things about a lady you don’t remark on if you care about your well being.  Age, weight, and war wounds.”

“Words to live by,” Sidepiece said, reclining back on the bench, so her ripped-up stomach stretched, strings of flesh snapping where they extended too far from upper to lower body.  There were little sparks and puffs of smoke where the spatter hit the floor and Caryatid’s dress.

Rain leaned forward, pulling off his mask, squinting.  “That doesn’t look like battle damage.  Your muscles further up your arm are twitching, which reads to me like a connection issue.”

“There are four things about a lady you don’t remark on, you drooling malcontent.”

“Do you want me to fix it?  I’m not at my best today, but that’s easy stuff.”

“The arm works, I’m choosing not to use it.”

“Because it hurts when you do.  Let me fix it.”

“Who are you to tell me what to do?”

“Oh my god,” Sveta whispered.

“Damsel of Distress,” I said.  She snapped her head around to glare at me.  “It means you’re more focused, and you can annihilate more chunks of Endbringers and Titans.  I saw you out there.  We all want you out there as long as possible.”

“You want me weak,” she told us.  “So your dear Swansong can sneak in, blur the boundaries between me and her, take over, and then you’ll have her back.”

I shook my head.  “If that’s really a thing that happens, you being in constant pain is going to make you weaker than deigning to have a tinker service your arm.”

“I know what you do, Antares,” she told me.  “I know how you brainwashed Swansong.  You pick your words.  ‘Deign’.  ‘Service me’.”

I folded my arms.  “So?  That’s the game, Damsel of Distress.  The back and forth.  Villain preys on civilian, hero fights villain, civilian supports hero, or they’re supposed to.  The hero-villain interplay continues until something so big and bad happens that we get stuck on the same battlefields.  When that happens, we put aside the old rivalries and snark at each other, picking words carefully, cutting each other down with words while cooperating in general.”

“Or you could not cut each other down,” Finale said.

“Can’t help it,” Damsel said.  “I have blades for fingers.  I could pat you on the cheek, child, but I might slash your throat.”

“I’m eighteen.”

Chris snorted.  “Weren’t you sixteen two years ago, Ash?  You were brought out of the cloning vats at the same age you were when you were at your peak, back in Boston.  You’re the same age as that ‘child’.”

“Look how conveniently positioned you are.  I could obliterate you and the mess would get sucked straight out the back of this ship.”

“You could not obliterate him!” Defiant raised his voice.  “You are a guest on my ship, we are operating under a truce!”

“Killjoy,” Sidepiece snorted.

“Let’s not bait the A-tier cape,” Disjoint murmured to her.

“Wait, when’s your birthday?” Chris asked, baiting both Damsel and the A-tier cape.  “I’m curious if you’re younger.”

Chris,” Sveta said, beating me to it by a hair, her voice sharp.

Rain started to get up, hesitated, and then navigated his way through the people in his way, mainly Caryatid, a flock member, and Withdrawal’s frame.  Damsel of Distress looked like she was going to say something, but he dropped to his knees.

“Give me your arm?” he asked.  He put a hand out, reaching into a pocket of his costume for tools.

“I have more tools if you need them, Precipice,” Defiant said.

“Great,” Rain said.  “I don’t think I will, this should take a minute or two.  If she’s willing.”

Damsel made a head movement that might have been her rolling her eyes, except she didn’t have irises or pupils, so the effect was somewhat lost.  She laid her hand in his, blades facing up and resting along his side.  He sliced open her wrist, accessing the mechanical parts of the hands that the blade-fingers were mounted on.

“Anyone else need first aid?” Clockblocker asked.  “I remember stuff.”

“Ooh, could you patch me up?” Sidepiece asked.  “My stomach has a small hole in it.”

“Urgh,” Finale said.

“I don’t think I could manage that,” Clockblocker said.

“Too bad.  I could use the extra ammo.”

“Uhh, what about you?” Clockblocker asked Trophy Wife.  “Your arm?”

She had some fingers that were pretty badly mangled, bending the wrong ways, broken in multiple places.  One of her ears was missing.

“I don’t need anything.  I regenerate slowly.”  She indicated the trophy rack that was mounted on her back, there were bits of meat, gristle, one eyeball that wasn’t human, and two fingers attached to it.  She touched a dead, dried, tailless lizard.  “It’s not much, but I’m granting some benefits to everyone in this craft.”

“Wait, those things are real?” Finale asked.  “Even those fingers?”

“A neurosurgeon’s fingers.”

“Urgggh, no, that’s so wrong, and gross, and creepy.”

“Those are fresh,” Christopher said.  “You actually chopped off a neurosurgeon’s fingers in the last twenty-four hours?”

“He supplied me other fingers before.”

Finale put her hands over her ears.

“That’ll be enough, please,” Caryatid said.

“What’s going on with that guy?” Sidepiece asked.

“A drug addiction he picked up writing his own scrip before Gold Morning and a terrible debt he got after.  I asked him if he wanted to give me a pinky finger or a hundred thousand New Dollars.  He gave me the pinky.  When people were packing up their things and evacuating the city, he knocked on my door.  He wanted to ensure he didn’t go without, offered me everything he owned.  I took two more fingers instead.”

“Barbaric,” I noted.

“He’s contributing more to stop the end of the world than the rest of them,” Trophy Wife said.  “Quicker fingers and better hand-eye coordination for me and everyone around me.”

“A good share of them are down in the crystal landscape, preparing to bomb it again,” I told her.  “I wouldn’t be so sure they’re not making an impact.”

The woman shrugged, fur collar rising and falling.

“This is depressing,” Withdrawal said, before abandoning the projected simulation.  He retreated back to where Finale was.

Christopher approached, but he didn’t engage with the simulation.  I watched his metallic eyes surveying the technology around him.

“It’s good to have you on board, Win,” Defiant said.  Less authoritarian and stern than I’d heard him since we’d gotten on board.

“It’s not a complete me, but… sure.  I feel like I’ve been away for a very long time, I returned to my hometown, and everything’s changed.  Me included.”

“I have tools if you want to while away the remaining minutes.”

“Nah,” Christopher said.  “Unless you’re trying to get rid of me.”

“No.”

The projection disappeared, and appeared in the passenger seat.  Arms crossed, I looked over the headrest as it started shifting, showing movements.  It looked like the Simurgh was at the Wardens’ new Headquarters for this exercise.  The image divided, zooming into the headquarters to show the people within as dots.  A lot of dots.

“Planning?” I asked.

“No,” Defiant said.

I watched as dots began to turn yellow and orange around the Simurgh.  In the other half of the simulation, watching the city as a whole, there were violet dots spreading out from one of the portals.  The main perimeter of the Machine Army.

Damsel was craning her head to one side to watch, while Rain worked on her wrist.

This wasn’t a plan.  It was what was happening right this moment.

Kenzie, the Heartbroken, Tattletale.

My sister.

All in the hands of the Simurgh, as she exerted her influence.  Her last big play before taking over Fortuna.

I saw Christopher’s mouth press into a line as he eyed the simulation.  A few were turning red already.  It might have been my imagination, but I felt like the red dots were moving in a different way.  Against the current, or with more energy.

“Is Dragon okay?” I asked Defiant, trying to take my mind off of the Simurgh and the sea of dots.  I looked out the front window of the Uther instead, which was cracked from an earlier battle.  Some buildings glowed, powered by generators, but it was mostly dark and empty.

“She’s doing diagnostics.  The Machine Army making contact with her is a nightmare scenario.  She wants to be careful.”

“How dangerous is it?” Christopher asked.  “What if they got my tech?”

Defiant answered, “Then they would study it and incorporate it.  People fighting them weeks from now would have a harder time.”

“It seemed like they were pulling out new tricks a lot faster than that in the last fight,” I told Defiant.

“I know.  The Simurgh may have planned that.  It may be a psychological ploy to unnerve us.  At least for now, it might be better to think of ways to deal with her and put the Machine Army out of mind.  Other capes are working to try and slow the perimeter breach .”

Working to try, I thought, noting the wording.  Not succeeding.  Not stopping the breach.

“Okay.  Dealing with the Simurgh.  Cryptid,” I said, turning back.  I was interrupting ongoing conversations.  “Is the Mathers Giant in the facility?”

“It is.”

“Can she help?  Does that work as a countermeasure against the Simurgh?”

“That’s the idea,” he said.  No more hard ‘t’ sound to his voice.  He was mostly old Chris now.

I looked over to Defiant, “Does that factor into the calculations?  Does it change the end result?”

He turned to look at me, gaze moving between me and the dark, snow-dusted ruins of the city that was visible beyond the front window.  “If the answer was one you didn’t like, would you want me to tell you, or would you want your mind unfettered by distractions?”

“That’s a really ominous question to be asking right now, Defiant,” Sveta said, beside me.

Defiant was silent.

I was aware that conversations in the back had died down some.  Withdrawal was still engaging with Finale.

“Honesty is probably better,” I said.

“I already took it into account,” he said.  He reached out to touch a terminal, where he had been operating the craft without hands on controls earlier.

In the corner of my eye, I saw the projection change.

Our ships at the facility.  The Simurgh still there.

And there wasn’t a single person there who didn’t have some light exposure.  The facility was flooded yellow, with fifteen to twenty red dots and a mess of orange.  Light exposure, moderate exposure, and long-term dangers.

“We land in three minutes,” he told us.  “The phone call with Riley Davis, formerly known as Bonesaw, will be around the time of landing, given the expedition team’s current trajectory.  Who’s handling it?”

“I will,” I said.  “And the call to Contessa?”

“We’ll see when Dragon is back in touch.  For now, everything on that front is stalled.  If you happened to be out of contact, we could wait for you, but-”

“But you know what we need to ask her.  Just get back to me with the info?”

“Of course.”

I adjusted my flight as the crafts dipped, falling into a single-file line.  A part of me wanted to be out there, flying alongside, instead of cooped up in here with a bunch of villains and scared kids.

“I’m sorry, by the way,” I told Defiant.  “About disregarding your instructions, using the technology to access Precipice’s dream space.”

“I know.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that.  I tried, “I’ll assume you had simulations for that course of action.”

“No.  Not how it works.  I need data to draw on.  That was… far afield.  It could be that we needed that kind of thinking for this, but my feelings around that are still complicated.  It could have precipitated the end of the world, but we ended up needing it.”

“Complicated feelings are human,” I told him.

“Not limited to humans, I’m sure Dragon will tell you,” he replied.  “Going into this particular battlefield, we’ll need to keep a handle on our feelings.”

The Simurgh.  Mass madness.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I really hope we don’t need to use your plan,” he told me.  “But I accept that we need a contingency for the worst case scenario.”

“Amen,” Christopher murmured, under his breath.  He turned metallic eyes toward me.

I nodded.

It was my plan, but I couldn’t disagree.

“And with that said, as much as I welcome the conversation while my usual conversation partner is out of contact, I should focus on the next part of the flight.”

“Of course,” I said.

Christopher, ‘Kid Win’, flock member, just left without another word or comment.  Defiant seemed not to mind.

The flight that Defiant wanted to focus on was taking us through a portal between worlds.  The reason for his needing to focus became apparent when I saw how narrow the aperture was.  Most of the portals were centered around stations, or had been opened up to a particular size.  This portal was open around a station, the facility set up to serve as a gate for vehicles to pass through, forming a loose triangle shape.  Defiant piloted us toward the peak of the triangle high above the ground.

I could only eyeball it and remember the ship’s general shape, and I was pretty sure the sides would be scraping the portal’s edges and the belly would be scraping the uppermost part of the gate.

Beside me, Sveta touched Byron’s shoulder, gently shaking him awake.  His eyes opened.

I could see his expression change as he took in his surroundings, then reality caught back up with him.  From a faintly annoyed seventeen year old to a very confused teenager… the slight hint of pain or tension as he moved and felt injuries or soreness from overexertion.

Then a leap to an expression better suited to a world-weary twenty-seven year old than a teenager, trying to be stoic despite the accumulated anxieties, pain, and stresses of decades.

We passed through the portal, and the turbulence was violent.  The ship shuddered, and something broke outside.

“Um,” Caryatid said.

I wondered if being on a moving vehicle made it hard for her breaker state invulnerability to count.

“That was inconsequential battle damage from fighting Titans,” Defiant announced for everyone present.  “I chose the Uther because I’m most comfortable flying it, don’t worry.”

He was not very good at being reassuring.

Less reassuring was the sight of the old Cauldron facility.  The exterior of it was illuminated, and it was a white tombstone the size of a mountain, with details that only stood out if I looked for them.  Balconies, roads running from one balcony to the next.  There were humps further down, encasing pumps, filters, disposal.

Sveta sighed.  “Hate this place.”

“You’re about to hate it more,” Clockblocker said.  He held onto one of the hanging loops of metal that served as handholds.  “Simurgh’s in there?”

“She is,” Defiant answered.

“You good to fight?” Clockblocker asked Byron.

“Sure,” Byron said, a bit wary.

“Vista’s boyfriend,” Clockblocker said.  He looked over at his teammate.  “I feel like I should be stepping in or saying something, because I still imagine her as twelve.”

“A bit,” Christopher said.

“She’s said a lot about you two,” Byron said.  “The city you were heroes in, ups and downs.”

“You should share them sometime,” Clockblocker said.  “Winman and I, we’ve got gaps.”

“Sure,” Byron said.

“Please don’t use Winman,” I told Christopher.

Clockblocker just snorted.  He turned his attention back to Byron.  “You’ve gotta live for Vista, you know.  You can’t go breaking her heart.”

“I know.”

“Winman and I, we already failed her there.”

“I don’t know if it helps or it matters, but that’s not one of the things she mentions when she’s talking about you,” Byron said.

“She wouldn’t.  She didn’t when it was Aegis,” Clockblocker said, meeting my eyes.  “Or Gallant.”

“I don’t think you can look at it that way,” Byron said.  “It’s not failure.”

“It’s not exactly a success,” Christopher answered.

“Guys,” Sveta said, quiet.  “Capricorn lost his brother earlier tonight.  Let’s not debate it.”

If the two boys were going to say anything in response to that, and it looked like Christopher might from the frown that crossed his face, and his hand swept over his altered, golden hair, they didn’t, because the ship violently changed orientation as we came down for a landing.  People pulled hard on the handholds and gripped the bars by the benches.

The landing was rougher than the sudden post-dive pitch.  I could feel the grind as the landing gear scraped against our makeshift runway.

The Uther came to a complete stop.  The back hatch hissed before hydraulics eased it down.  Chris vaulted over before it was even halfway open.

Clockblocker gave Byron a helping hand in standing from the bench.  Everyone filed out, Deathchester at the rear.  Onto the ramp that extended around the base of the building’s first, second, and third floors, lit by lights inset in the wall and ramp’s edge, everything else around us dark.  Though it was white snow on white material, I could see footprints where the indents allowed for shadow.

Other ships had landed.  People were getting out.  Only a few of the Undersiders were in another ship – Rachel and Foil.  Tattletale and Imp were inside the facility.  Yellow dots turning orange or red as we got our bearings here.

There were the Shepherds, Advance Guard, Foresight.  I saw Crystalclear in Foresight’s midst.  Vista, rather than stand by Narwhal, joined Byron, taking his hand in hers.

Narwhal joined Defiant out in front of the half-circle of capes.

“Mission briefing, heads up!” Narwhal called out.  “No chatter!”

If there was any chatter, I hadn’t heard or seen it happening.  It seemed to stop, because she went straight to the rundown.

“We don’t have long, she’s projected to attack Fortuna in twenty minutes!  Our job is to do as much damage as possible to her, hem her in, and slow her down.  If you can’t do that or if you can’t get to her, then focus on targeting anyone that’s been compromised, so the greater population of capes and powers can engage with her or resume their ordinary duties.  I’ve already talked to sub-teams with their missions, which will involve limiting her access to the facility-wide communications and letting certain tinkertech out of the box.”

“Do not get bogged down,” Defiant told us.  “Do not get too deep into the facility.  If you have questions or need directions, make a phone call, I will be on the other end, provided distortion isn’t too heavy.”

“That’s it!  No time for anything prettier or more detailed!  If you’re here it’s because we trust you!” Narwhal shouted.  “The doors are there.  Go!”

Ships were taking off behind us, and the force of their takeoff produced wind and pulses of gravity from behind us.  Like a push to get us going.

My team got moving.  I flew behind them, wishing doors were taller so I could fly over people’s heads.

Defiant met my eyes, and brought his hand to the side of his head in the universal signal for phone.

Riley.  Or Contessa, but I wasn’t holding my breath for that call just yet.

I’d definitely be holding my breath for the call in general, though.  A word from Dragon.

“I’ll catch up,” I told my team.

“Good luck,” Precipice told me.

I nodded.

We need it.

Chris hung back as well.  He was transforming.  Everyone else was disappearing into the facility.

“Are you coming?” Byron called back.  “Cryptid?”

“I’ll catch up,” Cryptid said.

Phone at my ear, I listened.  There was a lot of rustling.  Voices.

“How is the flock, if Valkyrie is…?” Riley’s voice.

I heard my Aunt Sarah, “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?”

Worrying, if Riley is armed, I thought.

“Booting up,” a man said, before an under-his-breath, “I hope.  Get this working.”

“Any guesses?” Riley asked.

Aunt Sarah said, “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,” Riley told her.

“A lesson I had to learn on my own,” Aunt Sarah said.

Benefits of a doubt, dubiousness.  I wondered if she blamed herself for what Amy had become.

“You’re on,” another man said.

I resisted the urge to clear my throat, and got straight to business.  “Hello?  Riley Davis?”

“I’m here.”

I saw Chris’s newly grown fur-tufted ear twitch.  He was listening in.  Maybe he’d have insights.

“Good.  Thank you for taking the call.  Things are pretty dire here.”

“So I figured,” I heard her say.  “I got a basic rundown.  I was just gardening here, and the world’s ending all the way over there.”

“I’m…” I started.  I thought of what I’d seen of Jessica and Riley.  The strangling.  “I’m sorry it came to that.  Self-exile.”

“Nah,” she answered.  “I kind of don’t mind being on my own.  Spent my life with Jack and the rest.  It’s good for me.”

I wasn’t sure it was, but an argument threatened to use precious time.

“You should tell me what you want from me,” she said.  “Your sister is incapacitated, you need a good biology manipulator.  If we’re talking about serious work, it might take some serious tinkering.”

“It might,” I told her.

“Meaning I should get started now if it’s going to matter in… how long?”

Twenty minutes until the Simurgh made her play for Fortuna.

But Riley wasn’t required for that.  There was nothing she could theoretically do.

But after?

“No more than an hour, but it might be less than that,” I told her.  “Could be half that.”

“It would need to be deployed.  I’d have to get it from here to there,” she said.  “What is it?”

“It’s… genocide,” I answered her.

Chris was staring into my eyes.

“Oh.  Of?”

Us.”  No use dressing it up.

It wasn’t even easy to say.

“That’s a big ask.”

“I know, but we have resources-”

“For me, I mean.  As a person.  I don’t do that kind of thing.  I’m… I find outlets like squeaky toads and earpods, clones that aren’t clones.  I experiment with lifeforms that could seed other planets with life, and think about bio-rockets that might be able to get them there.  I make real life versions of cartoon characters and movie characters I used to like.  I don’t want to hurt people.”

“Even if it means saving everyone else?” I asked.

“I think I get why your sister wasn’t up to the task, now,” Riley said.  “Give me the details.”

I did, outlining the parameters, the distinctions, the scale we were talking.

“How long does it take for me to get from where I am to where you are?” Riley asked.

I heard Aunt Sarah’s response, even if I couldn’t make out every word.

“That’s too long, then.”

“I can do it.”

I looked over at Chris, who was twenty feet away.  Taking on a bestial form.  He was going for his old namesake, it seemed.  Black furred, rodent-like, lanky, with an arched back.  He’d just spoken despite a mouthful of crooked teeth.

“Can you give instructions to my old teammate?” I asked.  “He’ll access a lab to work, I’m assuming, put it together.”

“It would have to be a tinker,” Riley told me.  “Specialty in anything relating to biology, blood, cloning, genetics, parasites, or anything like that.”

“He is.”

“Then that works.  Good!  Perfect!  Cool.”

“We’ll be in touch,” I told her.

There was no time for niceties or farewells.

Chris and I ran through the doors, hurrying to catch up with the team.

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